2010 Central Asia
Expedition to Central Asia
In 2010 I decided to go for an expedition different than so far. I purposely chose the region of Asia, which is a “black hole” on the tourist map of the world. I suspect that in the next years Central Asia, maybe apart from Turkmenistan, will become more and more popular and open to adventure tourism. However in 2010, I had to organize transport by myself and reach places where there was nothing apart from the mountains, lakes and empty horizon. When traveling through Central Asia I understood what it meant to be “detached from the world”, even though I had already felt that way, when I traveled around Tibet. In 2010 I was in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – so in countries inhabited by Muslims of Turkish origin. Russian language was very useful to me.
Introduction to the expedition around Central Asia 2010
Before I set out on the road I had to prepare for a long time because Central Asia is a region where tourism is still developing. I read quite a few of articles about how to travel and I realised that it would be hard, especially that in many parts of my route there was not transport or guest houses and I’m talking about the lack of organised transport on a distance from 100km to more than 600km. To many travellers and even more so to ordinary people Central Asia was therefore a black hole on the map of the world somewhere between Russia, China and Afghanistan; and at the same time a challenge for those who like the real adventure. This is however fully understandable because these countries are very young and were formed again in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Each on of them quickly installed its own dictatorship and did what it could to be quiet in the international arena. Central Asia was once again reborn to the world in 2010 when the ethnic war broke out between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The English press published articles about it and the British Ministry of Foreign Affairs started to haunt people with horror stories as usual. To me however it only meant that Central Asia was the ideal direction and I felt that I couldn’t wait any longer.
Besides, in 2010 there was still known so little about that region of Asia and that’s why I wanted to go and then share my memories and advice on the Internet.
My plan was to explore four of the post-Soviet republics and navigate through the ancient Silk Road and then conquer the Pamir Highway and the Wakhan Valley whilst driving along Afghanistan. Comparing to Southeast Asia where tourism is very well developed Central Asia is a kind of “heavy landing” where nothing waits for tourists and what’s more, tourists must put an effort to see and experience what they want. After travelling through the steppe in Kazakhstan, mountainous serpentine of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as well as through the Kyzylkum desert in Uzbekistan we finally reach the wonderful, 1000 year old sights and picturesque landscapes that reward our hard expedition. I’m talking about turquoise lakes in inaccessible parts of the mountains, about waterfalls, yurts and herds of animals grazing on green pastures, about expeditions on horseback, about ancient cities on the Silk Road, about the endless empty steppes and all the happy people. In such a remote, even lonely parts of the world tourists would not meet a lot of people and those locals who see us would definitely have a reason for a long conversation. When going to Central Asia it is necessary to take a tent and a light luggage and on the road between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan bicycles are also very popular. Apart from that you should also “take” a lot of patience which you would need for hitchhiking or buses and shared taxis which leave only when they are full. It is also necessary to speak Russian because almost nobody would understand English. On the other hand, do not panic because tourism in Central Asia is growing rapidly and especially in Kyrgyzstan. In every village there is a ministry of tourism which offers tours and accommodation with local people. Also remember that nobody goes to Central Asia to see the cities because they are uninteresting, communist lumps with holey pavements. We go there to experience the remote adventure, the beautiful nature and the sights at the end of the world, and it is only up to us and the strength of our character whether we get there or not.
The people of Central Asia are Muslim of Turkish origin but from what I’ve noticed their version of Islam is very mild. It is associated more with the culture of the country and not with extremism. Women do not cover their heads and in many major cities they dress in a European way, what is for example seen in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. It is important to understand that Islam is not a unitary religion, what means that the version of Islam in a particular country is determined by its culture and not by the Koran. In other words Islam in Kazakhstan is very different from Islam in Pakistan.
After travelling around Central Asia for some time we would surely have enough of shashlyk and plov, which are the specialties of the region. In Central Asia however meat does not come out of a laboratory as it is the case in Western Europe but from its green hilly pastures, what means that it is tasty and healthy. When the time comes the master of the house kills a ram, he cuts the meat into pieces and then the whole village and the Polish tourists eat the skewers. Goats in Central Asia are extremely important because very often they are the basis of the farmer’s assets and the way of paying for weddings in the family. It is also mandatory to try a drink called kymyz, which is a mare’s fermented milk. It is very sour and nasty, but I think it works great for a hangover because it immediately puts a person on his feet. A better version of this drink is a camel milk called shubat and I think this is a drink which can be treated as the entry level for kymyz. Another good drink is a bread kvass.
A good gift from Central Asia is a carpet and each country and each region has its own pattern. I bought shyrdak which is a specialty of Kyrgyzstan and which I strongly recommend.
It is also worth noting that Central Asia is infamous for its extraordinary bureaucracy, what means that the journey through this region begins before buying a plane ticket. Kyrgyzstan is by far the easiest because we can get a visa at the airport but when I was there in 2010 I had to buy one at the embassy. When it comes to Kazakhstan it was also relatively easy but I had to write a detailed plan of all the places that I wanted to visit. Visa to Tajikistan consisted of two stickers in the passport because I needed a separate permit for the autonomous region of Gorno-Badakhshan. By far the worst bureaucracy was in Uzbekistan where first I had to pay for an invitation from an Uzbek tourist agency located in Uzbekistan and and whilst in the country I had an obligation of registration in a hotel every single day. As for Turkmenistan I just want to mention shortly that travelling through that country requires paying an expensive tribute for each day and filling a lot of tiring papers; and even then we would be followed by a shadow that would never leave us. It is not without a reason that Turkmenistan is called the “the North Korea of Central Asia.” Apart from that Central Asia is very low on the list of press freedom (hello England) and very high on the corruption list (hello England). By the way, in order to give good advice I want to say that if a tourist gets into trouble in Central Asia he should never go to the police because they only create problems (political correctness in England) but only to your own embassy or to the one which is related to your country. Police in Central Asia is well known for money extortion.
I started my journey through Central Asia from landing in Almaty, Kazakhstan. For a long time the capital of the south which was also my favourite city was my base, because from there I went on trips to the scenic mountains, lakes and valleys. I always left my excess baggage in Almaty when travelling to remote regions of the country and I always came back there to wash away my dirt, take some sleep and then go to the next trip around the country. I lived in a dorm for only £4 per night. Almaty is the former capital of Kazakhstan, the largest city in the country and its economic centre. It is also one of the greatest achievements of the former Russian Empire. also in terms of the location of the city itself. Almaty lies at the foot of the Tien Shan what means that from many of its parts we can see the snow-capped peaks. After a few days over there I realised that Almaty is a very lively city, well stocked and full of beautiful women. Although I was in Central Asia I often felt over there like in Europe.
In the very beginning I would like to recommend my press publication titled: “From the steppe to the glass skyscrapers”.
In Almaty I saw a lot of interesting objects and concrete squares with rather not so spectacular monuments but there are places in Almaty which are must see. It is for instance the Panfilov Park with its Zenkov Cathedral, an interesting church designed in 1904 and which in fact remembers the Tsarists times. Zenkov Cathedral is yellow and it is built entirely of wood though it does not look like it. The Panfilov Park is a nice place to take a rest, have some ice cream and roller skate which is very popular over there. Whilst walking around Almaty I realised that especially in that part of Kazakhstan I felt like in Russia. Everybody spoke Russian and there were a lot of ethnic Russians living there. Apart from that the names of the streets and squares were also Russian, such as: Pushkin, Gorky, and unfortunately also Lenin. In this part of the world I felt very comfortably because no one paid attention at me due to the huge number of Russians. After a short time I got to the Arasan Baths which was another interesting experience. There were showers, a swimming pool with ice water and a very expensive massage. Everything would have been fine if the massage had been cheaper, that’s why I had to postpone it to next year in South-East Asia. In Arasan Baths I truly relaxed, I took a hot shower under great pressure and at the end I jumped into the icy water. In order to improve circulation whipping oneself with blades of leaves is very popular.
Another place and also one of my favourite ones was the Green Bazaar where people buy everything from fruit and vegetables to toothpaste and cheap kebabs. Unfortunately in Kazakhstan they fill doner kebabs with chips to give less meat. Anyway this is the best place for cheap shopping and eating that’s why I always went here. Nearby there is also the Central Mosque which is the largest in Kazakhstan and built of white marble. I’m not the biggest fan of mosques so I wasn’t there long but it was quite funny when local children were stocking me and repeating “American” all the time while pointing their fingers at me. There is one place in Almaty which I want to tell about. It is a popular promenade near the Green Bazaar where there is an exhibition of paintings, the cheapest Internet in town and the big department store Tsum. I advise to visit that place not only for shopping but especially for the experience. As soon as I walked in, on the ground floor I saw the largest collection of mobile phones and other electronics in the world but there something more to that. Behind the counters there were sitting cute, slitty-eyed “kittens” with long claws who pretended that they knew something about electronics. Above we can by national souvenirs, furry hats and talk to more kittens. Anyway, the ground floor was the best experience and I recommend it.
Immediately behind the Palace of the Republic there was the Kök – Töbe cable car. It took me the top where I had a nice view of the city of Almaty and the surrounding mountains. At the top were many stalls with national souvenirs, several carousels and a shooting range as well as a place to have a good shashlik. People spend their time over there in peace and quiet, sitting on benches and looking at the mountains. Another pleasant place was the Gorky Park which is the largest recreation area in the city where among other things there was a zoo and a pond with boats to rent.
I spent a whole month in Kazakhstan travelling around that great country all the time and I managed to see a lot of places. I travelled by train without a ticket because in the summer there are simply no tickets and other times I moved around by hitchhiking and shared taxis. I met a lot of unforgettable people, many sober, many drunk, funny and prone to taking bribes. I assure that travelling around Kazakhstan is not easy but I explored that country and I would like to present the most interesting places. I also want to point out that all the places which I went I had a lot of adventures in transport and I met a lot of drunk people with mouths full of golden teeth; and once again having vodka just like in England they add milk to tea. Sometimes I saw wild camels on my way and sometimes I was alone on the road for so long that I had to pitch my tent in the steppe.
My first trip from Almaty was an excursion to the Big Almaty Lake which a turquoise, icy pond surrounded by mountains and trees and set at a height of 2500m above the sea level which amazed me with its beauty. When I got here it was already evening and it was cold and windy. Unfortunately, I still had to climb. A distance of about 7km I walk up in 5 hours and it was one of the most tiring experiences of my life, especially that I made a mistake and chose a steep path along the pipeline instead of the beaten path. Even climbing thousands of stairs to the top of Sri Pada in Sri Lanka was easier. I pitched my tent and began to prepare for another night in the open in the mountains. Unfortunately I froze so much that I woke up at 5 in the morning because I could not sleep from the cold. I would like to advise the future travellers that the Big Almaty Lake is the starting point of many mountain expeditions, including a walk to the Issyk-Kül lake in Kyrgyzstan. However, when I was there it was still off limits due to the tense situation in Kyrgyzstan.
On the way from the lake towards Almaty I stopped at the Sunkar birds of prey farm. The owner keeps eagles, hawks and falcons over there and shows are carried out in certain times. I advise future travellers to come back from the Almaty lake in the right time for the show as it is a beautiful experience. Besides, keeping birds of prey is closely associated with the culture of Kazakhstan.
Another of my trips was to the Kapchagay lake which is located 70km from Almaty. The lake was just all right. I swam, I had shashlyks on the beach and I relaxed. However, the Kapchagay town itself was a concrete post-Soviet rat hole with a strongly exaggerated reference of “the Kazakh Las Vegas” because there are a few casinos over there. In the evening I went to the Kapchagay town. It was a decent place with a bazaar and a bar with shahlyks. I ordered one with chicken and onions and girls in short skirts and pleasant tops served drinks whilst listening to the Russian music. It was a song of a kind: I’m from Russia, I’m very drunk and I’m going to beat your face in a minute. The shahlyk and the setting of the whole took my breath away. It was my kind of place.
I also have good memories form the Charyn canyon but also getting there. On my way back from the Kolsay Saty I stood on the empty road and it was almost certain that I would have a rough night. It was getting dark and I couldn’t find any hitch but finally a Jeep appeared on the road. After about 1.5 hours of driving they left me on the steppe where there was only one thing. It was a road sign with the inscription “Charyn Canyon 10km.” The Russian man showed me that I should go only straight and I started walking into the steppe. 10km is not a lot but when walking through the wilderness every kilometre works on imagination and I was never sure whether I was going in the right direction. After about half an hour of walking I was dark and I had to pitch a tent in the desert. I got up in the morning after my first warm night but the stones on my back I felt for another few hours. My awakening was not very impressive but with a tiny bit of water that I had left I managed to refresh my eyes, I packed my belongings and headed for the road. My night in the steppe was very rainy and windy that’s why from time to time I had to get up at night to improve my tent so it would not rain on my head. After about hour of walking I saw the Charyn Canyon what meant that I finally got there!!!
My next destination was the town of Shymkent where there was no special attractions or beautiful nature but I had good time over there anyway. I rented a room at the train station for a few pennies as it was the only one I could afford. Even at night I heard a squeal of iron wheels and the announcements of the trains but the price of the room was really low. Another week and would know the schedule of all trains towards Mongolia. I visited a few parks with rusty carousels, I saw a mosque, people with children and I went to a museum with its part dedicated to the glory of the Soviet Union. By the way, it is a tradition in Kazakhstan that in every museum there must be a post-Soviet sentiment which must be loved.
Apart from that Shymkent is a good jumping off point for a number of interesting places. One of the trips that I organised was to the town of Sayram which lies 10km from Shymkent. It was a small village inhabited entirely by Uzbeks and one of the oldest human settlements in Kazakhstan. Sayram is about 3,000 years old and was one of the commercial centres on the Silk Road before Shimkent began to exist. That is why the area has many interesting sights, one of which was built in the tenth century.
I also went to the Aksu-Dzhabagly nature reserve where I spent two nights in a tent and where I went on a horse riding day trip in the mountains. Aksu-Dzabagly is one of the most beautiful and scenic places in Kazakhstan. It covers an of 1319m2, it is situated on the border with Uzbekistan and pride itself with mountains and wide valleys. As soon as I got on the horse we moved toward the reserve. In front of me there was a field and mountains in the background. First we passed nearby houses and a yurt and then we walked across the river and we walked up the hill. We passed extensive valleys separated by streams and we had beautiful views of the snow-capped peaks and glaciers often covered in fog. It is also worth noting that in the Dzabagly village there are many scammers and those who want big money for entry tickets, that’s why first we must always go to the park office ( “zapoviednik“), especially that all agents go through this office anyway. As for a place to sleep you should ask the local home owners or pitch a tent nearby grazing sheep and shower in the river. Then, through Shimkent I got to Turkistan which is one of the most popular places of religious pilgrimage in Central Asia but also a town of tourist interest. Among many things there is a great mausoleum from the fourteenth century built by Timur. In those days Turkistan was compared with the splendours of Samarkand (Uzbekistan) and today in terms of ancient architecture is unmatched. You can admire the great mausoleum with its magnificent artwork of tiles and the dome and minarets decorated in the same style. First however I had to find a cheap hotel because after the last two rough nights on the sheep pastures and after a long day in the saddle I felt that first I had get a grip on myself. First I slept for two hours and then I bathed. Besides, as soon as I walked into the hotel the manageress look at me and automatically pointed the shower what meant that I probably looked and smelled pretty bad. The hotel was the cheapest and the worst of all but I had a bed, a shower, a restroom (a damn hole in the floor) and a great location close to the mausolea.
As soon as I came back to my glorious self in a local hotel I set off for my journey. Unfortunately during summer there are no rail tickets in Kazakhstan what meant that I had to travel without paying or eventually pay bribes to train managers. That was the case when I was on my way to Aralsk, a far away desert town where even birds do not want to fly anymore. Whilst on the train a skinny cleaner with black teeth said that if I pay him 4000 he will get me to Aralsk, but when I showed him the middle finger he changed his version to 2000. I told his manageress about it and he responded to it with a stupid smile and the presentation of his black teeth. I gave him just 1000 tenge but he had to give 500 tenge to his manageress and I was so rude that I asked for another 500 but the skinny one had no longer the money because he lost on little pleasures. When they opened the door to the station somewhere in the desert just I didn’t want to get out. I stopped forcibly between the cars about 0.5 h until they changed their attitude. The manageress invited me to her room for green tea and a piece of watermelon whilst the black tooth kept on scrubbing the wagon. We had a conversation about life in Kazakhstan and about earnings and prices in Europe. In the evening she showed me my bunk and gave me the sheets and 6 am she slapped my butt to tell me that will get there at 7am. I thanked her but she said that she didn’t want me to thank her but to pay her. It turned out that the skinny one with black teeth who was licking his manageress’ ass all the way had to give her for me 1000 tenge and I gave her another 1000. In the end I got to the station called “the Aral Sea”, even though the sea had not been there for a long time.
When I entered the station in Aralsk first I saw a mosaic depicting Lenin greeting the fishermen, then a boat on the pedestal, a statue of a fisherman holding a fish, a fence in the shape of anchors, then rusty fishing boats on sand and the ruins of fish processing factories…….but unfortunately there was no sea. Aralsk once supplied fish to the entire Soviet Union and even exported a lot while today this once bustling city turned into a desert haunted by disease and sadness. Right on the start I want to point out that the catastrophe of the Aral Sea was caused deliberately by the Russians and many years before that the Soviets knew that the Aral Sea could disappear. The Soviets were so greedy that when the plan was created environmentalists were threatened by the Soviet Communist Party and forced to inform that the Aral Sea was only the nature’s mistake and it was not needed. Aral Sea in the 60’s was the fourth largest lake in the world with a total area of 68,000 km² and a maximum depth of 61 meters and 1% salinity. Survival of this huge lake was possible thanks to Amu Darya river from the south and Syr Darya river from the north-east, but also because of waters from the mountains of Tien Shan and Pamir. In the 60’s the Soviet regime decided that the rivers of Syr Darya and Abu Darya will be diverted. They began to build irrigation canals, in order to flood the deserts, to irrigate rice, melons, cereals and cotton plantations (“white gold”). Unfortunately irrigation canals were built so badly that most of the water was wasted because it dried out in the desert. It is true however that today Uzbekistan is a global exporter of cotton, but only 12% of their canals are waterproof, what means that 88% of water does not get to the fields. Finally in 1986 the Soviets gave up on building the canals, but it was too late because now there is only about 10% of the original area of the Aral Sea left, with huge salinity and a maximum depth of only about 42 meters. The great Aral Sea split into the northern part (Kazakhstan), and the southern part (Uzbekistan). South-eastern part of the lake disappeared and the western part fled into its narrow corner. Almost all wildlife around the Aral Sea has been eradicated, because all ecosystems are contaminated with salt and toxic waste. Today about 200,000 tonnes of salt and sand are flown by winds as far as 300km each day. Salt kills the areas that would be suitable for cultivation or pastures for animals, making the area which once flourished with life look like a landscape after a nuclear bomb blast. For this reason winters are colder and summers are hotter. Although people still raise sheep, camels and horses, those who buy meat and milk know that people of the Aral region are desperate to make money and therefore they are used to the limits as thee unemployment rate in the Aralsk region stands at 50%. However, what is very interesting they wanted to rent me a room in Aralsk “with a sea view”.
I recommend my extensive article titled “The Aral Sea Ecological Disaster” in which I accurately described the whole case. I came back to the subject of the Aral Sea catastrophe whilst travelling in Uzbekistan, when I was in the village of Moynaq.
My next destination was Lepsy and Lake Balhash. Unfortunately Lepsy did not impress me. That small, deserted looking rat hole greeted me with complete depopulation and a train station as if had been hit by a plague. To the right of the station there was also a terrible toilet. People looked out of the departing train and shouted to me: “What do you want to do in such a wilderness?”; And then they looked at me and said” crazy.” They didn’t know that I loved such types of places. I walked along the steppe on the holey road and after passing 2km someone finally stopped. At last I reached the fourth largest lake in Asia, the Balhash lake. The place is a popular recreation spot even though the water is very cold and on that particular day the wind was extreme. Every person brings a tent, sausages, pickles and vodka and in the evening they return to their homes. Unfortunately I couldn’t be there alone because the people were very nice, they treated me with food and they also wanted to find out what was happening in the distant world. After asking me all the standard questions they were all amazed that I was not afraid to travel alone around their country and also that I was interested in Kazakhstan. Earlier, when I had travelled by train for some reason people were also surprised that I was hitchhiking and I was not afraid. We of course talked about money and about how much they earned and the girls listened to us and they prepared the table, at the same time nicely swaying their hips whilst giving me the sheep soup. It was a service with a smile. In the meantime we talked about money, business and my travels. The girls really wanted to take a picture with me. I thought that they would only stand next to me and smile but they did the “mating” position and they put their breasts on my back. After a few drinks one guy asked me if I liked Rita (good ass, tits not bad). I responded that I did very much and he said that he could send her to me to England. I said that I already had a full-time woman although was astronomically expensive to keep, to which he replied that Rita would cost me 10 times less and fulfill all my wishes. My stay at the Balhash lake Balham was therefore unforgettable, even though the water was cold and the wind tore my tent apart. I met very nice people who even gave me a lift to a dull town called Taldyqorghan where I took a bus to Ust-Kamenogorsk. On the way I saw abandoned military bases and also a fight on the bus because they drunk so much that in the end they had to solve their problems. It was a long and a hard night that’s why I put a sleeping bag in the isle of the bus. People in the Balhash perhaps did not even realize how much they helped me. Apart from feeding me they gave me a lift and assisted when buying a ticket. At that time I honestly liked the Russians.
Ust – Kamenogorsk is a depressing post-Soviet town where life centres around the Kirov Park. Among other things I saw a monument commemorating the Russian – Afghan war (1979-1989) and then I got to Strelki, a huge monument with graves of Soviet soldiers killed during World War II (1941-1945). (Red Army, Lenin and even Stalin are portrayed in Kazakhstan in an extremely good light. This tells me that Russia still firmly holds the “post”-Soviet republics in its hand.) According to me the most interesting place was the Regional Museum with its huge deer. As usual in every museum in Kazakhstan there was also a room dedicated to the eternal president Nazarbeyev.
I didn’t plan to visit Ust-Kamenogorsk but it was there where I managed to buy one of the last bus tickets and I could not wait at the station a whole night. At least I was going in the right direction.
Then I went to Semey (Semipalatinsk) on an old Soviet bus and I flew to the ceiling because of holes in the road. In the meantime we were stopped by the police so they could charge the driver for having a car. Semipalatinsk is renowned for its museums which gave it a nickname “the city of poets.” At the time of his exile a Russian intellectual Fyodor Dostoyevsky used to live there what helped to quickly develop art and culture among young Kazakhs. Another important name in this city is Abay Kunanbaev, the national poet after whom many streets in Kazakhstan are named in his honour. Unfortunately, Semey is not only art and culture. On the steppe west of the city in the years 1949-1989 the Soviet Union detonated 460 nuclear bombs. Locals always knew when that happened because as they said: “the earth was shaking.” This is obviously related to the tragic history of radiation that was inflicted tragically on the local population. I was in the Museum of Local History and Science where I saw pictures of burned people after radiation and pictures of children with birth defects. Some of the photographs were a real horror and the more terrible one that it really happened. For some reason another exhibition, which was quite ironic was dedicated to the “glorious” Red Army and Lenin. When I asked at the museum what was the point for that circus if there were so many victims after all the nuclear explosions, they said nothing. The most interesting however was a monument called “Stronger than death” which depicts a mother covering her child, and above them there is a 30m nuclear mushroom carved in black stone. In the end I went to a park with displayed statues of Marx and Lenin to do some jokes from the communist idiots.
I was obviously in museums devoted to art and poetry but in Semipalatinsk there is also another, darker part of the Soviet monster that people are forced to love despite nuclear blasts. There is a tank on a pedestal, red star with big CCCP on top, and on the other hand the Union’s crimes displayed in the same city. I wonder if people would ever have the same sentiments about the European Union which in my opinion is an exact copy of the Soviet Union. Communism is not dead – it has only moved from east to west.
As a curiosity I want to add that the world boxing champions the Klitschko brothers were born in Semipalatinsk.
Let’s also remember that we cannot blame Russians for communism, because they didn’t invent it. As the distinguished Russian intellectual Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said: “not every Jew is a Bolshevik but on the other hand without Jews there wouldn’t be Bolshevism.” Jews led by Trotsky mastered Communism as the basis of Zionism, because it was designed to destroy other nations by robbing them, denationalizing them, organizing artificial revolutions and wars, and brainwashing dumb masses with a Judeo – centric propaganda.
After Semey I went on a long bus trip to Astana – the new capital of Kazakhstan. I have admit that it a city where the centre makes a real impression because Astana is a modern monument of money and the ambitious realization of the eternal president. There are tall houses made of glass, well-kept parks and modern architecture that exceeds those in other parts of the world. Astana is also another proof that for money people can even build Las Vegas in a desert or a big aquarium and a ski slope, as it is in Dubai. A very original 150m high structure in a shape of a tent and a pin on top is Khan Shatyr which was built of heat-absorbing material what means that even if it is -30°C, it will be always warm inside. In the focal point inside there is a big catapult which quickly and safely explodes people up and down. The president’s dream street is Nurzhol Bulvar which is an exhibition of modern architecture. Among the many impressive buildings I’m going to tell about the Bayterek tower which is the most popular building in Kazakhstan and which is also immortalized on one of the local banknotes. It is a transparent structure with a glass theme of bird’s nest on the top. Bayterek has its message in the Kazakh legend. It symbolizes the mythical tale about a bird named Samruk which layed a golden egg containing the secrets of human desires and happiness at the top of a tree, beyond human reach. Today however we can get to the top, inside the golden egg, we can put our hand inside the cast of President Nazarbayev’s hand and we can fulfill our wishes. At the end of the street there the Presidential Palace.
Kyrgyzstan is a country of great natural beauty, and travelling around it gives an opportunity of discovering breathtaking and wonderful landscapes. In Kyrgyzstan we can understand that nature creates art in a full meaning of this word. In a country where 94% of its area is covered by mountains, alpine expeditions on every level are highly popular. Kyrgyzstan is the kingdom of Tien-Shan, turquoise lakes, glaciers and hidden treasures in the mountains. Peak Pobedy (7439m above sea level) is the highest summit, which is also a natural border with China. Getting there is not only for the ambitious ones but also for the rich, because preparation, equipment and guide are needed. I think that to get to know the natural beauty of Kyrgyzstan I recommend the following places: a trip to Altyn Arashan and from there a horse expedition to the turquoise lake of Ala-Köl, expedition to the alpine lake of Issyk-Köl which is a national pride of Kyrgyzstan, walnut forests and waterfalls around Arslanbob, visiting birds of prey breeders, Karakol Valley and many other horse trips into the mountains. There are many possibilities because Kyrgyzstan is such a beautiful country, that even driving a car and looking out of the window guarantees natural beauty. I want to make it clear however, that we can`t expect luxury on any of those trips, by which I mean for example good transportation or any transportation at all.
Sometimes I had to walk many kilometres, looking at the mountains and sheep grazing on green pastures, but these are the tourist attractions of Kyrgyzstan. There are also hot springs in Kyrgyzstan, and it is mandatory to swim in an icy river afterwords. I also recommend a visit by Song-Köl lake, where festivals of Kyrgyz culture are sometimes held, and which mean horse racing and wrestling on horses. When you`re close to Karakol I also recommend a visit in Jeti-Öghüz where we can see red sand stones in a shape of broken heart. In towns of Naryn and Kochkor I recommend buying a shyrdak, which is a national carpet made of goat`s wool. Also, drinking kumys (fermented milk from mares) and eating shashlyks with onion only adds flavour to our Kyrgyz adventure. Travelling around Kyrgyzstan is a hard work, but it gives great satisfaction to the stubborn, strong and persistent. I’ve done all the above things and many more, and I think that Kyrgyzstan is a country of beautiful landscapes and a wonderful adventure. Kyrgyz people themselves are attached to their warrior culture, which today is reflected among other things in the national games of Kyrgyzstan, although football is increasingly popular. Everyone who comes to Kyrgyzstan will be fighting with charms of natural beauty, and although it is not always easy I highly recommend this country.
My journey through Kyrgyzstan started from Bishkek, the nation’s capital. I walked around the Ala-Too square, I had lamb skewers and I saw a monument to Lenin, although to put it mildly I was not impressed by that man. As it is usually in post-Soviet countries the Ala-Too square was until 1991 called the Lenin square. The monument of that “comrade” was once at the centre of the square but in 2003 it “lost its popularity” and that’s why it was transferred to a further place. Ala-Too Square is a great mass of concrete shining with cheap marble. In addition, in the central point there is a great monument called Erkindik, a woman symbolising freedom, in one hand holding a top of a yurt in front of a sun. I was also at the National History Museum or quite recently the Lenin Museum. It is a huge post-Soviet piece with solid walls so thick that it could be suitable for anti nuclear shelter. I expected to see something about the history of Kyrgyzstan, as the name suggests, but it was mainly a “temple in the honour of Lenin” with propaganda so hard to digest and naive at the same time that I was left speechless. I found statues of Lenin in different positions but especially the one when he spoke to Soviet people of all social classes who were staring at him as if they saw Jesus Christ. There are also a lot of paintings on the walls, such as for example: the Nazi Germany was depicted as a menacing black bear and the American president wore a skull and stood near a bomb. I immediately kmew which side of the story that museum was telling, especially that Russia was depicted as a beautiful woman holding a white dove of peace. Nonsense, nonsense, but nicely presented. apart from that I was also in a couple of parks, fairground and traditional Kyrgyz restaurants to eat shashlyks, and another time also plov – the culinary pride of Central Asia. So far this was my second capital of Central Asia (after Astana in Kazakhstan) and I understood that it was not worth to visit Central Asia for dripping with intrusive communism cities but for the magnificent nature. People were fine.
The first trips outside Bishkek was to Ala Archa and Tyoplye Kluchi. Both of them lie in beautiful canyons and over a rushing river. There were grazing horses and goats and scenic mountain views. Unfortunately it was not easy because we had to walk with backpacks many kilometres but from time to time we stopped to spread pate on a Kyrgyz bread and sit by the river. We walked around the mountains whole day and in the evening I pitched my tent and we spent a cold night under the open sky. Coming back was also nice because I had my morning bath in the river and then we had a nap in the wilderness. Contact with nature is something what I desperately need in my expeditions. Tyoplye Kluchi translating into English means hot springs. 40km for Bishkek, on the opposite side of the Ala-Archa canyon there is Alamedin gorge. That beautiful mountain region is not a part of the national park but it’s worth going there because of its wonderful views. There are of course mountains on each side but also yurts and grazing animals. It is therefore a traditional Kyrgyz landscape.
There are several lakes in Kyrgyzstan but the pride of Kyrgyz people and also a part of the Kyrgyz national identity is Issyk-Köl lake. In a country like Finland Issyk-Köl wouldn’t be anything special but Kyrgyzstan where there are thousands of kilometres to the sea, an attitude like that to a lake is perfectly understandable. If Kyrgyz people have a day off they either go to the mountains or to Issyk-Köl where well-developed tourism awaits for them, especially there every householder who has a spare room and his wife knows how to cook also opens his house to tourists. Lake Issyk-Köl is the national pride of Kyrgyzstan and also the second largest mountain lake in the world (after lake Titicaca on the border of Peru and Bolivia). It is clean as a tear, it never freezes and it is continuously fed by about 50 water sources from the glaciers around it. In other words Issyk-Köl is a huge hole in the ground which receives many rivers but none of them flows out and it has a diameter of about 170km x 70km. Locals say that the water is warm but probably because they’ve never been for example to Sri Lanka. In my opinion Issyk-Köl is always cold because water which flows into it comes straight from the glaciers. Either way, it is worth, for the nature and for the experience.
The most popular town around Issyk-Köl is Cholpon-Ata which was our first stop. I swam several times in cold, although supposedly warm lake, there was someone selling dumplings on the beach and there was also an option to take a picture with a dressed up camel. We spent pleasant moments by a clean turquoise lake in Cholpon-Ata but we also went to the Museum of Issyk-Köl which was about the lake but also about archeology and ethnography of the region. At the entrance there was a map of the lake and grave stones, jewellery and shyrdaks (Kyrgyz national carpets). However, the most interesting thing about that region were the petroglyphs located more than 2km north from the town. We accidentally had two local boys as our guides who showed not only the way but also a beautiful view from the top on Issyk-Köl. Petroglyphs are rocks with engraved paintings on them. One of them had a deer engraved on it and another one had an irbis. Most of them came from the XIII century BC up to about I century A.D. In addition, there were also carved grave stones with people’s faces.
Karakol is one of the major cities of Kyrgyzstan, what means that it essentially consists only of a few streets. There is a interesting architecture from the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century, though no doubt the city is mostly popular as the starting point for expeditions into the mountains. The town of Karakol is the administrative centre of Issyk-Köl province. We stayed there in the old part of the town in Neofit hotel, where there were buildings from the time of Pushkin and one of them used to serve as the KGB office. In Karakol there are many colonial buildings which more than a century ago belonged mostly to Russian intellectuals. they served as the local museum, office, a radio and TV station and pedagogical school. Unfortunately, even though not all of them are in good condition I think that many streets still reflect the style and character of those times. Mu favourite was the wooden Holy Trinity Cathedral, which has an unpleasant history concerning the Bolsheviks. Although the restoration works on this very romantic place were carried out several times, the church is still in need of major investments. This cathedral was one of my favourite buildings in Karakol. Besides I recommend the Pushkin Park and the Chinese Mosque which looks more like a Buddhist temple and which was also closed by the Bolsheviks. When in a restaurant be sure to try a kazan kebab.
The trip to Altyn Arashan is one of the most popular from Karakol. A definite advantage of Arashan is its beautiful mountain scenery but there are also hot springs which are kind of reward after a hard climb. Altyn Arashan lies at an altitude of 3000m above the sea level with Peak Palatka (4260m above sea-level) visible in good weather. Besides, there is clean air, clean and rapid river and a flock of sheep grazing on green pastures. Apparently Arashan which is covered by a nature reserve is also home to 20 snow leopards. Most tourists only get to the hut in Altyn Arashan and then back to Karakol. However, we did a big step forward because we went to Ala-Köl lake (a viewing peak at an altitude of 3860m above the sea level). Altyn Arashan can be reached by any sober driver but we walked 16km from Ak Suu. It was really nice along the way because there was pretty nature and grazing animals but unfortunately about 8km uphill it started raining what ruined our day. We finally to Altyn Arashan in the evening and lived in Valentin’s a shelter. We were drying our clothes whole night to be ready for the next day.
The next day, when I found a sober guide we went on a horse-riding expedition to the alpine lake of Ala-Köl (3530m asl). During our trip we had beautiful views of the mountains, green pastures, the river and overall it was a great adventure. In some places we also stayed for a meal with our cheerful company. We ate local bread (lepioshka), sausages and cucumbers. Unfortunately after a few hours our butts started to hurt as we were tired because our trip was supposed to take us only four hours and took six. That’s because the nature was so beautiful and we needed more time to enjoy it. We finally got to the point where it was too steep for the horses to climb and then we had to. We were going up to the top with a height of about 200m and often had to climb on all fours because it was so steep and slippery. One lot was covered with gravel, which was easy to roll on whilst another one was covered with eternal snow. After about 30 minute climb we got to the top, even though Monika was the first. The view from the top was obviously wonderful. On one side I saw mountains and a wide valley intersected by the river and on the other side I had glaciers and the crystal blue lake of Ala-Köl. The way back was harder than I thought because it took 3h at night, the horses were stubborn and we were tired. The woman however was tired the most and that’s why I received from her a passionately worded bunch of abuse, but then it was better. An important part of this expedition was when we went to hot springs at two in the morning, despite our fatigue. It was a fantastic experience without which in my opinion we should have never left Altyn Arashan. It was warm, pleasant and we could relax. Then we warm enough so we went down to the river slipping on the mud. I covered myself in mud because then I felt so warm that I didn’t feel any cold. We all went back through the valley at about four o’clock in the morning having only light from the phone. The next day we went back on foot to Karakol where we dried our clothes and slept like small children.The trip to Altyn Arashan and then to the Ala-Köl lake, next to Mount Everest in Tibet and Sri Pada in Sri Lanka was one of my most successful mountain expeditions.
The next day we hitchhiked to Jeti-Oghüz which in my opinion is a must see for those who happen to be in Karakol. Skipping that place is a very serious loss of unique memories. Jeti-Oghüz have huge red cliffs. One of them is called Broken Heart and another set of rocks is called Seven Bulls and each of them has of course its legend. The views were wonderful and also completely different than the ones that I had seen before. Among green pastures with grazing goats and small farms were growing up unique red cliffs shaped as described above. Most tourists only take photos from the bottom but I climbed the top to touch the bulls. Monika was too lazy to climb, that’s why I released the dogs on her and she was so afraid that she had no other choice but to up. In addition, in Jeti-Oghuz there was a swift river, grazing horses and sheep, as well as peace of mind.
According to me Tamga was the most beautiful stop on the southern shore of Issyk-Köl and at the same time a great place to relax before quite demanding Central Kyrgyzstan. We stayed in a decent place surrounded by a fruit orchard owned by a Russian family, and it was so good that we wanted to stay just one night but we stayed three. We lay on the beach, we threw stones into water and we picked apricots from the trees. It was great. Once again, I felt a close contact with nature, even more so that there were grazing cows on the beach. Tamga was a nice, lazy and a peaceful place after the hardships of the mountain climb and much quieter than Cholpon-Ata. Next we kept on moving on by hitchhiking and as usual we spent some time on an empty road. Another cheerful driver dropped us off in Sarymbulak, which is a place that I have decided to point out on the map of the world. Sarymbulak is one of those places where there is a bar on wheels, holes in the road and donkeys as traffic. We met an American man over there who was also dropped off in Sarymbulak and since then we travelled together. In the local bar they gave us a thick menu but on that day they only had a mutton stew, eggs and tea. There was also a toilet – a hole in the floor behind the wall. In the end we left on a board of a 40-year-old Moskvich which broke down on the road but then we were taken by a good car with a 4 wheel drive, and that way we got to the Song-Köl lake which is one of the most charming places in Central Kyrgyzstan. There are open, green pastures and magnificent landscape. In the season there are a lot of yurts over there and tourists what helps the local families. They also organise festivals for tourists where it is possible to see the local culture and take part in the national games of Kyrgyzstan. We spent that night in a yurt with a local family and the next day we went to the Kyrgyz festival which was a unique experience of my Kyrgyz adventure. Among many things they showed us how to set up a yurt and how to load a dismantled yurt on a camel. In addition, Song-Köl lake was the place where I really learned to gallop on a horseback and even jump over small streams. It fell biting rain and it was cold but that was not important to me.
There was also a sad moment in Arslanbob, even though those people did not take it that way. I was invited for tea by a 92-year-old grandfather from Uzbekistan because he wanted to talk to me. I accepted the invitation because I knew that it meant a lot for him to talk to someone from distant Poland. The grandpa showed me his medals with Lenin and with written: the Soviet Union. He also had a military ID card with the same inscription which proudly held in his hands. It was a poor old man who was cheated, left only with memories of something what also enslaved his country. How sad ………….
Then I went to Jalal-Abad which the British media described as a horror scene. Yes, there were blown up houses and they were still shooting from time to time but according to my standards it was not so bad. (The British – the great exaggerators). The best place in the Jalal-Abad was the sanatorium in the park at the top where I had a hot stone massage and a hot shower. There was a spa, healing water for drinking and beds on platforms in the forest where I enjoyed tea. Then I went to a very low budget restaurant where I was served “a chicken tube” and it was so good that I think it should be the specialty of the place. It is however a great pity that during the war they didn’t blow up all the monuments to Lenin. That communist beast was haunting me wherever I went. What happened to all the nationalists heroes?
My first moments after entering Osh were shocking. Jalal-Abad was destroyed but Osh looked like after bombing. Many long street was completely destroyed and the rubble were swept evenly to the sides. Behind the rubble there were only skeletons of burned houses. When I entered through the main roundabout I saw that one place was blocked by the armed police. The driver told me that it was because Uzbeks lived there. I felt on that day it was rather a bad idea to move around the town but I had to anyway because I had to arrange the transportation. First I went to a local for breakfast from where I had a very good view on the famous Solomon’s Throne. It is a tall rock with many other objects and a museums on the top which can be seen from many parts of Osh and which is the most interesting tourist attraction. To me however, Osh was the beginning of the Pamir Highway where I organised a 4 WD jeep and I made my way.
The Pamir Highway, which is a part between Osh (Kyrgyzstan) and Khorog (Tajikistan) has a length of 728 km. This road also exists under the name of M41 and it was built by Soviet military engineers in the years 1931-1934 in order to facilitate the transport of troops and weapons in that very remote corner of the Russian Empire. Unfortunately today it is also one of the main drug routes and the traffic is very low. Usually a few Chinese trucks go that way to transport goods to and from Kashgar. The Pamir was also one of the many ways of transport on the Silk Road. The Pamir Highway is also very attractive to tourists as the road passes through picturesque mountain scenery on more than four thousand meters above sea level. The views are great because all around there are only deserts, mountains, lakes, hot springs, glaciers and views resembling the Tibetan plateau and small Pamir villages with their hospitable inhabitants. The road itself is very incomplete because of earthquakes, erosion, collapse of land and avalanches. Asphalt in some places no longer exists or it is torn along the surface of the earth, what gives of course additional travel impressions. In the lower sections of the route (the section from Jelandy to Khorog) the elevation decreases and that’s why the nature also changes and it is still beautiful. One can see a rapid river, huge rocks on the sides, interesting vegetation and more villages and people. In this area there are also two seven thousand peaks with a rather tragic names, such as the Peak Lenin (7134m asl) and Peak Kommunizma (7495m asl). The Pamir Highway is still a great challenge for travellers but an equally great adventure which brave people must be well prepared for. After a few hours of driving, after buying fruit and out of date Snickers on the way I passed Taldyk elevation (3615m above sea-level) and I finally got to Sary Tash.
Sary Tash is a very popular meeting place for truck drivers because of the very convenient location of that town. It is located at the intersection of two main directions. One is the road from Osh (Kyrgyzstan) to Murgab (Tajikistan) which are the parts of the Pamir Highway (M41) and the second part runs from Kashgar (China – Xinjiang Uighur province) through the border crossing of Irkeshtam straight to Dushanbe (Tajikistan). That’s why there are several guest houses in Sary Tash and even the local cattle herders invite tourists to their houses for a small fee. In my opinion Sary Tash is a small and a boring hole surrounded by uninteresting mountains where there is little to do, apart from just walking around them. There are only two streets where I more often saw cows than cars, houses are in terrible condition and people are very poor. In the evening it was getting so dark and so cold that I could only go to sleep. Luckily, the owner guaranteed electricity, bread, tea and yak butter. Whilst there I realised that I was in the land of nowhere, in the last human settlement within a radius of about 100km.
The next I stood on an empty road and waited for transportation to the border with Tajikistan but it didn’t arrive so I walked. After some time I saw a 40-year-old Volgaon the horizon but unfortunately it was driving in the opposite direction. When the car stopped I saw a drunk driver and even a more drunken passenger with a few teeth and at the back there were their cold and dirty kids. They suggested that they could give me a lift to the border for 500 som and though I tried to bargain nothing came out of it. I must admit that the road to the border was very merry. The radio played love hits from the 80s’ and everyone danced whilst sitting down. The atmosphere built my spirit a little bit, gave me energy to continue my trip and all of that for only 500 som. The border in Bor Döbo was one of the highest and one of the most beautifully located borders of the world as it gives scenic views of the Pamir. After a few questions I got my stamp and went to Tajikistan where awaited for me another adventure in the great nowhereland.
Tajikistan is a country of natural beauty, where 93% is covered by mountains. More than a half of this smallest country of Central Asia les 3000 metres above the sea level. I think that the main attraction here is travelling the Gorno Badakhshan autonomous region, where I recommend crossing and Pamir Highway and the Wakhan Valley and admiring its stunning views. Gorno Badakhshan was beautiful, very remote and highly adventurous, although places like Murgab or Khorog were tragically poor settlements in total wilderness. Whilst travelling the Pamir plateau I was enjoying the mountains and glaciers, I visited small villages cut off from the rest of the world, I went to hot springs, I spent time with Pamiri families and ate Pamiri yak butter, and all these things were great, unforgettable tourist attractions.
However, we have to remember that in order to enjoy the beautiful views and become a part of the true adventure, travellers have to put a lot of strength and preparations to overcome these remote, isolated areas. Travelling around Tajikistan should be taken as an adventure with a thrill, and its 1300km border with Afghanistan along the Pyanj river raises a question whether to cross the river or not. I know very well one man who did it (me) but just in case I do not recommend it. In the lower parts of the Pamir Highway I also recommend Gunt Valley, where colours come to life and where we can see local villages built entirely of rocks, which change their colours depending on season. Another attraction are the Fan Mountains where I went to the high altitude turquoise Lake Iskander-Kul and the Seven Lakes, where I got to from the town of Penjikent. In the Fan mountains there are also beautiful views and local villages, where I was able to ride a donkey and have a cup of tea with the locals. In addition I experienced driving a car because the views were so beautiful every single time. Apart from the mountain views, steep abysses and turquoise lakes I also recommend the town of Istaravshan, where we can see interesting architecture and eat delicious and inexpensive mutton skewers. Not far away from Istaravshan I found a sanatorium where I had a good massage for little money. Actually only the very presence in Tajikistan is already a great adventure.
There are regions in Tajikistan where we can forget about the whole world, about bills to pay, taxes, traffic and demons of everyday life. All we need are some supplies and a tent which we can set up in a remote area, like for example around Karakul lake close to the Pamir Highway or somewhere in the Wakhan Valley with a view of Afghan villages. Even with very close proximity to Afghanistan and the fact that Tajikistan is a major drug trafficking hub, it is still very safe and enjoyable.
My journey through Tajikistan I started from the Pamir Highway, from the autonomous region of Gorno Badakhshan (GBAO), which is the poorest, the least populated and also
perhaps the most attractive in terms of natural beauty. In the Gorno Badakshan there is also a beautiful Wakhan Valley and Gunt Valley which I will talk about later. In Badakhshan it is hard to talk about cities. These are rather human settlements of different sizes located in a total wilderness, although Khorog is small and very pleasant town. The Tajik border on the Pamir Highway is one of the highest in the world as it is located near Kyzyl-Art Pass (4282m asl). Just before the border I saw a rusty column with “Tajikistan” and a map of the country and a statue of Marco Polo sheep. This was precisely the moment in which to looked back to admire the beautiful panorama of the Pamir. Immediately after crossing the border appeared another welcome sign: “The people of Upper Badakhshan welcome you“. Next to it there was also an iron, rusty yurt. All around me there was an absolute nothingness, wilderness, ponds, mountains and open, empty spaces at an altitude of 3500m above sea level.
My first stop in Tajikistan was the village of Karakul (4100m above sea-level), located 63km south of the border of Kyrgyzstan and which is the only conspicuous settlement. It is also a very tragic collision with the Tajik reality in the Pamir region. The village of Karakul is a row of several clay and brick houses in the middle of nowhere. Also, not all of them had roofs so not all of them were inhabited. When I arrived I was immediately welcomed by people who sad hello and one girl invited all of us home. We sat in the kitchen on the platform floor, which is typical for Pamiri houses and the woman of the house gave us bread, jam, yak butter and green tea. These people were mostly Kyrgyz but there was also a number of Tajiks. After a while I also saw the children who took chocolate bars out of my hand, that I bought especially for that occasion. It was very nice, the food was definitely very fresh but the extreme poverty looking at me from all the corners and the eyes and the people made me sad. There was also a rusty playground though it seemed to me that the local children didn’t want to play there because it was so spooky. Immediately behind the village there was a picturesquely situated Kara-Kul lake. Formed about 10 million years ago by a hitting meteor the lake Kara-Kul (3914m asl) is a deep and blue, although the local Kyrgyz people call it the “Great Black Lake” because that what it looks like after sunsets. It is the highest lake in the world except those in Tibet and it is located even higher than Lake Titicaca (3811m asl) on the border of Peru and Bolivia. However, it is also important to not to confuse this lake with another Karakul Lake (3600m asl) in western China, on Karakoram Highway. The whole place also gives good opportunity to find worthless but very original souvenirs. From the wet ground I several times picked up goat skulls and great ram horns. Lake Kara-Kul was another beautiful experience and no matter which way I went around the Pamir it offered beautiful views.
During my trip I enjoyed the views and took a lot of photos. We drove through a beautiful desert surrounded by mountains. For many kilometres on the left we had a view of a long Chinese border, which was a fence “decorated” with a barbed wire. I noticed that even though the mountains were high they didn’t look as high as I thought because we were travelling at an altitude of almost 4000m above the sea level; and one of the peaks, Mt Urtabuz was 5047m asl. Therefore from the Pamir Highway which is already high up, the peaks looked as if they were low. I saw rocks of different colours. Frequently beige and red, some covered with snow and as the eye could see, vast deserts. Then I passed through the highest point of our route which was the Ak-Baital Pass (4655m above sea-level), at the same time just before taking a view of the top of Muzkol peak (6128m above sea-level). In addition, the Pamir Highway was full of many other attractions and one of them was the road itself. It is very incomplete and uneven due to earthquakes, erosion, collapse of land and avalanches. In some places asphalt does no longer exist and in certain sections of the road it is torn together with the surface of the earth, what gives of course additional travel impressions. In some places what was left of the asphalt road were very narrow paths, and for example the moment when we passed through a section with a gap on both sides and a swift river nearby raised blood pressure. After the first day in Tajikistan and the many attractions related to this country, late in the evening we reached Murgab.
The road to Murgab was very enjoyable because it was rich in magnificent views of the Pamir. I was driving a small Chinese car on an uneven, holey road with the cheerful company and we talked about life in Europe and in Tajikistan. The views were beautiful because as usual we were surrounded by mountains and vast deserts. Sometimes rocks were made of red sandstone and on the way to the Naizatahz hill (4137m above sea level) and its picturesque, red valley we were stopped by donkeys which didn’t want to move out of the way. After a few hours we stopped in a small village near the road called Alichur (4080m asl). Alichur is a small, gray and a very poor village which forced me to think how lucky I was that I was born in Poland. As before, in a gray desert there were a lot of clay houses separated by a road made of compacted, holey earth. I also saw animal enclosures which were often stacked with their shit in a form of pancakes but there were several antlers of the indigenous sheep species. There were also poor children posing to photos by truck wrecks in their tragic environment. Places like that reminded me a bit of Tibet ……. my wretched Tibet. Shortly afterwards we were on the road again and passed through two lakes, such as Sassyk-Kul and smaller one, Tuz-Kul. They beautifully covered a vast valley surrounded by red and beige mountains. Just before reaching Jelandy there was the next high pass called Koi-Tezek (4272m above sea-level). In that section the road was in a terrible state and it was almost vertical. We had a problem because at some point along the way a part of the road we fell into an abyss and on the opposite side there was driving a car. My driver however coped well and we happily reached Jelandy. Jelandy (3800m asl) is a well known sanatorium on the Pamir Highway because there are hot springs there, and some of them are enclosed. I had a nice room and I at least took some rest over there. Although the electricity jumped out of the window in the whole sanatorium and the food was very limited, that was not important. Important were the hot springs where I pleasantly took a rest.
In my opinion Gunt Valley is a completely different section of the Pamir Highway. It is an area from Jelandy to Khorog where because of the lower altitude there is a different environment. Over there, despite the surrounding beige mountains it seemed to be happier because it was warmer and there was a lot of greenery. Also the wild, turquoise river and green ponds at the background of mountains and trees add to that part of the Pamir a lot of charm. On the road there are also huge, multi-coloured rocks, standing by the river. Gunt Valley in contrast to the above description of the Pamir Highway is much more densely populated what gave me a lot of good experiences from that place. The whole area is full of typical houses and farms made of chopped rocks and set in a beautiful natural scenery although a great assets there are very warm, welcoming and also very curious people. A few days later I went on a bike trip through the Gunt Valley but unfortunately a local cop tried to persuade me that I did not have the relevant permit in the passport to go on that road and that’s why he wanted $10. I had to explain to him in a broken Russian that I was not an idiot and that the Tajik embassy in London said otherwise. He then gave me my passport back and said goodbye. The rest of my trip was a pleasure. I rode though a beautiful valley, near the river and I had great mountain views. Sometimes rocks were very interesting, they had original shapes and they were beautifully integrated into the environment. I went through a couple of wooden suspension bridges and talked to people. Many of them were very curious. They invited for a tea to ask me questions about everything but it was never intrusive. Many people also helped me to get to certain places and they offered me fruit. I met a donkey owner carrying fire wood and people picking fruit in their orchards and each time it was really nice. One of the objects which I was able to reach that day were the ruins of a Kafir-Qala fortress, and though the object was located in the village of Bogèv, only 15km from Khorog, getting there was not easy.
It is also important to mention that I liked the rock architecture in Tajikistan. Everything in Tajikistan is built of rocks, from houses and fences to bridges and playgrounds for children. This means that in Nagorno Badakshan everything is built of nature and that’s why houses or fences change their colours depending on the season. During the summer months they are covered with green moss, in the autumn buildings become orange and in winter they are covered with snow. In Gorno Badakshan buildings are a part of the mountains and they change the same as mountains.
The Wakhan Valley is one of the most beautiful, remote and adventurous corners of Tajikistan, which I warmly recommend to visit. It is shared with Afghanistan and as a curiosity I would like to add that Marco Polo travelled through there in 1274. To travel through this valley it is necessary to obtain the GBAO permit with Ishkashim on it, what even an accidentally encountered policeman would be willing to check hoping for easy money. The Wakhan Valley consists not only of the whole natural beauty but also certain villages, people, ruins of fortresses, hot springs, donkeys, sources of natural carbonated water and the continuous panorama of Afghanistan. In the beginning I went to the Garam Chashma hot springs, which were 46km from Khorog. The road there led through picturesque and uneven but a fascinating journey, especially that on the other side of the river I saw Afghanistan. There was a turquoise swimming pool with natural warm water surrounded by white, soft rocks, which can be scraped off, soaked in water and massaged into skin. All of that was possible thanks to the medicinal properties flowing from the rocks. Then I waited in Anderob village where I was waiting 6h for a hitch. Of course I was introduced to the entire village, ate a modest lunch and then on a board of a 30-year-old Uaz I went along the Afghan border to the village of Ishkashim. On the way we stopped to take a natural carbonated water from the source in the mountains and at the top I saw Koh-i-Lal rubies mine.
After reaching Ishkashim I spent a night with a local family, with my driver. I lived in a traditional Pamiri house which was built on certain principles. The description of it is quite a long story but I will say that in general that the construction of Pamiri houses is based on philosophical and religious principles dating back more than 2500 years ago. The traditional elements are pillars and the roof which has its religious significance and philosophical message. There is a hole in the roof made on the basis of superposed squares. Another important element is a platform that runs around the room and which is made for sleeping and eating. Underneath there are lockers and sometimes a stove. By the way, an oven for baking bread is usually outside the house and every family has it. The next day I took some apricots from the garden and went for a walk to see people working in the field, rock houses and car wrecks nicely integrated into the surroundings. Ishkashim is the largest village in the Wakhan Valley and at the same time the regional centre that you can be seen in half an hour. The economic situation there is very bad. I had a conversation with my driver’s mother a few times that there was no money and she was saying that with a great envy in her eyes. Her two sons worked in a local bank. One of them earned $50 and another $100 a month. They laughed that they worked for free and unfortunately the money subject of money was discussed many times. Their mother was the worst because she asked me to pay three times for the same thing and then she said that I had not paid.
I must admit that I was lucky again because I wanted to get to Liangar and my driver had to go there to pick up his neighbour’s parents. As it turned out it was of the best adventures of my life because I saw a lot more than I wanted. First, we stopped at the village Namagdut to see the ruins of Khakha Fortress, dating from the third century BC and built on a rock. After another 30km we passed near Darshai village which is the beginning of the trail to the Shokh Dara Valley. Then we drove through various rough surfaces and our Uaz bravely fought the Wakhan Valley. Once for example we got stuck in the sand on the road and it took us half an hour before Uaz moved. Fortunately it happened in a beautiful scenery which was an ideal place for taking photos. We stood in the middle of nowhere among the Tajik mountains, rivers and Afghan glaciers. Then we drove through the rocky village of Ptup where we drank green tea with interesting locals and I answered a series of questions. After that we turned left but unfortunately our Uaz fell into a ditch and could not get out, that’s why in the company of local children and their donkey I reached the next big attraction which was the twelfth century Yamchun fort, so far the most impressive but because of the difficult terrain getting there without a climbing equipment was impossible. Then I rode a donkey for about 1 km and I got to the Bibi Fatima hot springs which in my opinion were the best in the region and also were the most beautifully situated. Every step forward from Yamchun Fort to Bibi Fatima was a caleidoscope of amazing landscapes. It was only 1km in a life full of wonderful trips but on the other hand that 1km gave me so much pleasure. In the hot springs I sat with other men in a room filled with natural hot water. The beauty of that place was very special because we were inside the rocks and the walls dripped with water. When I came out I could hardly believe that they managed to fix our Uaz again. We got in and without wasting petrol we drove 7km downhill to the main road. Then we stopped in Yamg village and then in Vrang where we climbed to the Buddhist stupas built in the fourth century. The same evening we arrived at Liangar (120km from Ishkashim). Liangar is a small village with quite a strategic position because over there meet Pamir and Wakhan rivers, forming the Pianj river, at the same time marking the beginning of the Upper Wakhan of Afghanistan. Liangar is also a very good place for a number of guided tours. One of them is climbing to frescoes on the rocks (petroglyphs). There are also three hot springs but nothing as wonderful as Bibi Fatima and within a few kilometers there are two forts: Ratm and Abrashim Qala. My stay in Liangar took nearly two days and went very calmly. I climbed up the main road between the houses which was built of rocks, I talked to people and took some photos. I borrowed a donkey and accompanied by local children went to the river. I was also in the other hot spring where the water was not as warm, that’s why I recommend the first one (located above). The next morning we went for about an hour to climb to the ruins of the Abrashim Qala fort, also known as the “Silk Fortress” of Zong. Then we returned to Ishkashim stopping for green tea in different villages where yet again I answered questions of infinitely curious people and in the evening I got to Ishkashim and the next day back to Khorog.
I would like to add that those who do not want to suffer in transport or those who are not in a hurry can spend a night in the middle of the way, in Kalaikum and from there go to Tajik village of Yoged, also near Afghanistan.
In the capital of Tajikistan – Dushanbe, I spent a couple of days and it was also my base for trips outside the city. I slept in the garden on a wooden platform with the friends’ driver and in the morning I was always woken up by a goat. Among many places I saw, I went to the Liberty Square to see a rather interesting monument from X century of the ancient ruler Ismoili Somoni. Whilst there I was stopped by a policemen who tried to extort some money from me. Next to it there was Rudaki Park which I have to admit was a really pleasant place. Before the entrance there was a nice gate and in the middle of a lot of greenery, including exotic flowers. The most noteworthy was the monument of Rudaki who was the greatest Persian-Tajik poet and who lived at the turn of the ninth and the tenth centuries. I also saw the Presidential Palace and the 1500 year old 13m Buddha. I also found the National Museum of Bekhzod to be very interesting. There were a lot of displays of ethnography, art, archeology and natural history, which I think of as a small death museum of innocent animals. The best in my point of view were the paintings depicting Rudaki and those of yaks crossing the Pamir. As in any museum in Central Asia the part that could not be missed was the big picture of the President of Tajikistan and the pro-Soviet propaganda relying primarily on defeating the Nazis. The lesson about the art and culture of Tajikistan was a pleasant experience but on the other hand I felt that my eyes were aching after the extensive article written by comrade Stalin. Another interesting image painted on tiles presented Tajik women dancing among Soviet soldiers and holding a poster of Lenin. It was a vulgar communist propaganda wrapped up in Tajik culture. Then I had a cake and tea although later my stay was destroyed by scammers claiming to be the KGB in order to extort money from tourists. Dushanbe (Stalinabad) is an interesting city for 2 days but it is also a city of dirty cops and crooks extorting money.
From Dushanbe I went on a trip to Hissar. The main attraction there is the gate built in the eighteenth century called Darvaza-i-Ark. It used to be the entrance to the magnificent fortress but unfortunately the red army destroyed it. The gate is so popular in Tajikistan that it was depicted on the 20 Somani note. In addition there are pretty ancient madressahs and caravanserai, cotton fields and a bazaar where above all I recommend grapes. Hissar is situated only 30km from Dushanbe and I think it should be definitely visited.
The road M34 to the north, towards the Tajik Fergana Valley is an unforgettable experience and one of the most impressive trip around Tajikistan. Shared taxi is the only possible means of transport and only a 4WD because only such type of car is able to break through the high mountains. Once we stayed in a mountain bar built of rocks I got mutton skewer with onion and admit that the Tajik mutton is so great that it should be also on a banknote. Our route led through the turquoise river, mountains and grazing goats but we also drove through the tunnels which were funded by the Iranian government. The two highest points of my trip were Anzob Pass (3372m above sea-level) and Shakhristan Pass (3378m asl). After leaving the mountains, of course the police stopped us but soon after I once again realised that Tajik people had a very nice attitude towards tourists. A man selling apples gave me a few by force. Soon we reached Istaravshan. M34 is one of the greatest “road experiences” of Tajikistan.
Istaravshan is a small historic town in the north of Tajikistan. I spent three nights there and didn’t regret it, even though the guidebook recommends only one day. That way I had a lot of time for everything. First I went to the main square where as soon as the noticed the only White they wanted to sell dollars. Then I visited the bazaar dedicated exclusively to onions, I took photos of people and I had a great time. The bazaar where they were selling fruit, meat and pants were also very pleasant. In fact, I recommend the bazaar first due to outstanding faces and contact with people. Then, I walked through the stalls of melons and watermelons and I headed towards the historical part of the city called Shahr-e-Kuhna. I walked around small, narrow, winding streets, between gray houses coated with clay and sawdust. First I went Kök-Gumbaz which was the fifteenth century mosque with a big, blue mosaic dome. Inside, there was a square with a small garden and several chambers that required repair. Then I saw the nineteenth century Hauz-i-Sangin mosque. I think I liked that one the most because it was nothing like a typical mosque but rather a resembled small Buddhist temple with carved pillars and nicely painted ceilings. I saw the tomb where there was buried Shah Fuzail ibn-Abbas and nearby there was also a mosque and a mausoleum of Hazrat-i-Shah, but I didn’t find them interesting. On the other side of town, at the top of the mountain stood Mug Tepe which made quite a big impression because of its gate, built in the shape of a mosque and with a blue dome. There used to be fortress there many centuries ago but today there were only its remains because Alexander the Great attacked the whole city in 329BC. The great gate was in excellent condition because it was built in 2002 on the 2500′ anniversary of Istaravshan. In that small town there was a lot to see although important to me was contact with people, lamb skewers and my visit to a professional barber where I was shaved for free. He did not want the money because I was a guest in his country. At first glance Istaravshan can evoke mixed feelings but after a closer look, getting to know its sights, streets and the locals it turned out that it was one of the best towns of Tajikistan. Skewers do not have to be advertised? The sad part of my stay was my conversation with a policeman who told me about the difficult economic situation.
I also want to add that not far from Istaravshan there is a sanatorium which offers full body massages. I was tired after constant moving around that’s why I needed a good massage. I know from experience that women usually like stroking me like a cat that’s why that time I chose a middleweight boxer who had so much power in his hands that he quickly put me back on his feet. On the way to and from the sanatorium I collected a few apples and pears.
Kojand is the capital of northern Tajikistan and the second largest city in the country. The city is also one of the oldest, founded by Alexander the Great on the banks of the river Syr-Darya. In 1986 Kojand (then Leninabad) celebrated the 2500 anniversary of its existence. The city is not frequently visited by tourists despite the monuments and museums worth seeing. Kojand also ranks well in economic terms of Tajikistan. The main attraction of Kojand is the X century fortified citadel with several museums within the walls. I advise to pay attention to the symbolic monument of Rome a a female wolf breastfeeding Romus and Romulus. This monument is located a short distance from the main gate to the citadel. Then going through the stalls of corals and street cobblers I got to the big square. On the left side I had a good view of the complex of buildings. It was a white marble mosque with nicely carved pillars, mausoleum of Sheikh Massal ad-Din built in 1394 and an impressive 21-meter minaret from 1895. The whole thing was very impressive, especially that I felt its weight of time. Opposite, there was Pashanbe Bazaar which is best stocked market in Central Asia. The entrance to the bazaar is decorated with a large, neoclassical gate and a ceiling painted in pink and yellow, so the two colours which I hate. I, with my camera quickly became a highlight of the day and I established contacts with meat and bread vendors. Outside, there was a huge bazaar devoted exclusively to onions and the other one only to grapes. These two are certainly a lot of in Tajikistan. Pashanbe Bazaar is a great attraction and a visit to Kojand without going there is a lost visit. On the way back I stopped several times to enjoy a milkshake and I slowly got on a shared bus going to Istaravshan. I visited Kojand as a day trip from Istaravshan.!!! Unfortunately in Kojand there is also a weird part of town because there is the largest monument to Lenin in Central Asia. In my opinion, Lenin looked as if didn’t make it on time to the toilet.
My next adventure was the transport to Fan Mountains, to the turquoise lake of Iskander Kul. I started from Istaravshan on M34 and I was yet again destined to hitch the worst wreck on the road. We drove very slowly and we were stopped by police several times. Then barely climbed the Shakhristan Pass (3378m above sea-level) and I had to push it a few times. Then, after reaching Ayni again I had a chance to look at the X century minaret and just behind Ayni there was a turn for the lake. Whilst on a road, waiting for another transport I learned the art of patience. In the end, stopped someone who lived near Iskander Kul and gave me a ride over there but first we went to someone’s garden for a few hours to collect tomatoes. In one village everyone went to the field and were picking tomatoes so I was picking them too to make it faster. In the end my driver bought 3 buckets of tomatoes, 20 jars of pickles, other vegetables and fruits and a half of a skinned ram. Then he filled his car with 3 cans of petrol and we finally hit the road. At last, I thought. The route led through the picturesque mountain scenery along the river and high Fan mountains. After several spectacular serpentines and after a very bumpy road we finally arrived at Iskander-Kul lake.
Fan Mountains is an extraordinarily beautiful and a very popular trekking region in northern Tajikistan. They are located quite close to Dushanbe and Samarkand. There are a lot of scenic trails of varying difficulty which involve different costs depending on taking a guide and transport. I saw the two pearls the Fan Mountains. The Iskander-Kul lake and the seven lakes (the Marguzor lakes). Lake Iskander-Kul (2195m asl) is an exceptionally beautiful gift of nature. It is located 24km from the main road M34 and it is accessible without the need for extreme climbing; what does not mean that it is easy to get there. Iskander-Kul lake has a wonderful, turquoise colour and it is surrounded by mountains. Iskander-Kul was exceptionally charming and the peace and quiet of that place gave me a chance to rest. In addition to the main lake I went on a walk among the rocks and along the river to the waterfall.
The Tajik man, who cooked plov at Iskander-Kul and who escaped over there from his wife for two weeks had four-wheel drive. For the promotional price he packed me, two Russians and a couple of Swedes in it and then we drove quickly along the edges of the Fan Mountains making driving a pleasure. Sometimes it was a bit dangerous but we had a very good driver with experience in this area. Everywhere I went, as usual, the views were beautiful: mountains, turquoise wild river, sharp turns and unfortunately the police stopping us from time to time. The cops said they were searching for the escapees from the prison but in my opinion they simply stopped every car to squeeze some cash out from drivers. After a short time we got to the town of Penjikient which is a pleasant Tajik town by Zaravshan river. There is an interesting mosque there, a small museum of the poet Rudaki and the ruins of the old Penjikient city. In addition there is also a lively fruit bazaar and several open-air restaurants where prices are more than promotional. Penjikient is also the base for Uzbekistan from the side of Samarkand.
Then I got on a local bus in Penjikient and drove 22km to the border with Uzbekistan. The road was not the best but I finally got there and it was very cheap. As usual, at the border I had to deal with immigration officers who wanted to extort money. I had smooth but everyone who does not speak Russian should put $5 into the passport and pray so it doesn’t get $50. I will always remember Tajikistan as a land of beautiful mountains and scenic lakes.
Uzbekistan is a pearl of the Silk Road as evidenced by splendour of the three most magnificent ancient cities. These are of course: Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. We can admire all the wonderfully restored buildings mostly from the times of Timur, who was one of the greatest rulers of the territory and which today we know as Uzbekistan. Numerous mausolea, minarets and madressas (Muslim schools) which are richly decorated from outside and inside give a breathtaking effect. Presence in each of the ancient cities also give great haggling opportunities over beautiful carpets, silk, ceramics, paintings, hand-crafted caskets and many other interesting souvenirs. I spent many days on careful exploration of the old cities, on sightseeing, having green tea and eating samsa which are the local dumplings. Exchanging dollars into worthless Uzbek som was also a great experience because for one $100 note I had half of a bag of local currency. However, Uzbekistan is not only about the historic old cities but also about adventure whilst crossing Kyzyl-Kum desert on the way to Khiva. I also recommend the village of Moynaq in the far away Karakalpakstan where we can see the rusty fishing boats on sand and learn about the Aral Sea ecological disaster. The Uzbek Fergana Valley is also a nice experience, where we can enjoy lower mountains of Central Asia, lakes, herds of sheep grazing on their pastures and then also shashlyks (skewers) made of sheep. Very Interesting and worth our time is also the capital of Uzbekistan – Tashkent, as well as trip out of the city to Chimgan. Besides, people in Uzbekistan have good attitude towards tourists and low prices make our travelling more enjoyable. From time to time it is also good to take a break from sightseeing and enjoy a mutton shashlyk or plov, the culinary pride of Uzbekistan. The only thing that I didn’t like about Uzbekistan was the insane bureaucracy towards tourists and that one thing should be definitely changed. On the other hand Uzbeks hate their bureaucracy even more than tourists.
Samarkand is one of the oldest cities in the world, which for centuries was getting rich due to its strategic location. It was located on the trade route between China and Europe, known as the Silk Road and thus Samarkand has been one of the greatest cities of Central Asia. Unfortunately all the buildings before the Mongol invasions did not survive but in the fourteenth century ruler named Timur established in Samarkand the capital of his empire. It was in that period and after Timur where the most spectacular buildings were built and that today we can admire, and the famous throughout the world Registan was the centre of ancient Samarkand. Today, the city is mostly populated by Tajiks and Uzbeks are the native minority there. In 2001 UNESCO recognised Samarkand as the World Heritage Site. I began exploring from Registan which is a signature landmark of the city and one of the most impressive examples of the ancient architecture. There are vast, majestic buildings, mosaic tiles on madrassah, minarets and domes and very well balanced spaces combined into one great object. Registan ( “sandy place” in Tajik) is the most remarkable complex of monuments throughout Central Asia.
When I reached the main part I saw a big square in front of me and three great madrassahs (in Arabic madrassah is a Muslim theological school) such as: Ulugbek Madrassah, Sher Dor Madrassah and Tilla-Kari Madrassah. Ulugbek Madrassah is the first built there and was completed in 1420 when Ulugbek was still alive and who reportedly taught there mathematics, astronomy, philosophy and theology. Sher Dor Madrassah also called the Lion Madrassah stands in front of Ulugbek Madrassah and was completed in 1636. It is very characteristic because at the top in the corners there are large mosaics depicting two lions that look more tigers. This is quite contrary to the laws of Islam which is against placing images of live animals. The last object in the main square of Registan is the Tilla-Kari Madrassah which is covered with gold. From the outside it doesn’t look more attractive than the other two but from the inside, I must admit that it is the most beautiful one. It was completed in 1660, it has a very pleasant market and the biggest attraction there is a richly decorated mosque which in some places is covered with gold. This is to symbolize the wealth of Samarkand during the time when that madrassah was built. Today’s architectural jewel, Registan only serves as a tourist attraction. When 600 years ago slept and learned students today there are souvenir shops. In the squares are held mock traditional Uzbek weddings and kurash which is a demonstration Uzbek wrestling. Registan is also nice after dark as lighting and sound shows are held there and which can be watch for free from the benches outside the main square.Outside of Registan in Samarkand there are many other spectacular mosques and madrassahs and they are all built in the same style: the great gates, minarets, blue mosaics and subtly decorated domes. Somewhat different is the mosque of Hazrat-Hyzr from the eighth century which stands across the road from the bazaar on a hill. It was unfortunately demolished by Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century and then rebuilt in 1854. In the 90s of the twentieth century it was nicely restored and it still retains its splendour. The whole property is nicely painted and it has a short minaret and carved pillars which are part of the characteristic of this mosque. I advise to draw attention to the ceiling and on the image from the nineteenth century depicting the object at the time. I also liked its extremely convenient location. From the terrace there is a very good view of the Bibi-Khanym mosque and on the other side we can see Shah-i-Zinda and Afrosiab, after entering the minaret. Next to the mosque there is a cemetery. Overall it was really worth it !!! In addition Samarkand lives with tourism. People sell their baked breads, fruit from their orchards and a lot of souvenirs.
!!! In my opinion Samarkand should be the priority when it comes to getting to know the ancient architecture of Central Asia on the Silk Road.
Bukhara is one more historically and architecturally rich city on the former Silk Road. The old town is full of sacred and secular buildings which are a thousand years old and not much has changed for about 200 years. The Uzbek government has invested a lot of money in restoration of Bukhara what gives a sense of “charming beauty of the historic burden” (my own expression by the way). Bukhara is linked to a very rich history, starting from the ninth and tenth centuries when Bukhara was the capital of the Samanid dynasty. Great contribution to the developing of the city was of course the position of trade along the Silk Road but also the famous Persian poets, scientists and philosophers. Then the time came for Genghis Khan and the Bolsheviks. Today Bukhara is an architectural spectacle and one of the most interesting tourist and cultural attraction. Tourism there is very well developed as evidenced by all the cheap but very good B & B hostels. I had nice room with shower, Uzbek and Turkmen television and a good breakfast and I paid only $10.
Then I went towards the well-stocked bazaars Taqi-Saraffon and Taqi-Telpak Furushon. But these are not just any markets because they are located under buildings built even in the ninth century. They have shapes of small mosques and shops are filled with Uzbek art, small treasure boxes, silk carpets, decorated tableware and many other eye-catching things. The whole of Bukhara is a great bazaar embedded among the mosques, mausoleums and madrassah. A few of them that are worth mentioning are Ulugbek Medrasah built in 1417, Abdul Aziz Khan Madrasah built in the sixteenth century, Mir-i-Arab-Medressah and Kalon Mosque from the sixteenth century which can accommodate 10,000 people. Next to it there is also Kalon Minaret built in 1127. When it was built it was the tallest building in Central Asia. To this day it is a very impressive building because it is 47m high and 10m in diameter at the base including technology against earthquakes. Tourists can admire this minaret from the outside and they can get to the top on 105 internal stairs. The minaret is also one of the few buildings that survived the Mongol invasions because Genghis Khan ordered to not to tear it down. Among the many other wonderful, ancient buildings I really liked it Charminar built in 1807 and which lies away from the bustle of the city. I got there on foot, walking through the narrow streets full of houses lined with straw and clay. Charminar is a small and a very photogenic object that in Tajik means “four minarets”, even though there are only four decorative towers with blue domes. It is also important to the Ark which is the oldest building in Bukhara. The Ark was built in the fifth century and was once the favourite place for executions. Today however it provides good views of the ancient city.
In my opinion Bukhara is a city of less splendour than Samarkand but it is also very interesting and has been one of the most important commercial cities on the Silk Road. Transport from Samarkand to Bukhara is very easy and as long as the bus doesn’t break down it should take around 4h.
The 485km road to Khiva I survived on a rusty bus and drove through the nothingness what had its ups and downs. This road was different than what I had seen so far. We drove through the Kyzyl-Kum desert and that’s why on both sides of the road I was watching flat horizon. We had to slow down several times because after sand storm our holey road was partially buried. We drove for a while near the border with Turkmenistan and along Amu-Daria river. Transport was very long and tiring because the road was in terrible condition. After about 11h we reached a very uninteresting, post-soviet town of Urgench which is a transport hub for Khiva and also the capital of Khorezm province. I got there by the slowest trolleybus in the world because 35km I did in 1.5 hours. Finally, after dusk, tired and bored with that day I finally got to Khiva. It is not exactly known when Khiva was founded but it was one of the major slave trade centres which already existed in the eighth century. Today it is a great tourist attraction on the Silk Road, filled with medressahs, mosques and minarets from many centuries back. Khiva is also a great place to enjoy local art and to buy great hats, carpets and socks made of goat wool.
The entire ancient city of Khiva is behind a fortified clay wall and I think that if in the twenty-first century it is such a huge phenomenon, then thirteenth centuries ago a city in the wilderness built of the desert itself must have been an enormous experience. The main entrance gate is called Ichon-Qala and is also the most impressive of all. Immediately to the left there is the Ark of Khun built in the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries. In the time of glory it served as harem, arsenal, mosque, prison and Khan’s barracks. All the objects inside are very interestingly decorated, because as before there is a cleverly constructed tile work and carved pillars. For example the old prison Zindon displays chains, weapons and images of people thrown out from the minarets. Just behind the main gate there is Kalta Minor Minaret, started in 1851, very thickly decorated with tiles but never finished because Khan who ordered the construction died four years later. Noteworthy is also the Mohammed Rakhim Khan Madressah from the nineteenth century which today is an empty square and which used to be the favourite place for executions.
An important building is the Islom-Hoja Madressah and its minaret. These are the latest objects in Khiva and the minaret is the highest in Uzbekistan because it reaches 57m. It is a tiled, turquoise building in which one can enter for a fee. The medressah is located next to the best museum in Khiva devoted to local products from the Khorezm region. There is jewellery, Uzbek and Turkmen carpets and many other things. Nearby there is also the Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum built in 1326 and rebuilt in the nineteenth century. It is a nice, quiet place with a blue dome at the top. Mausoleum was built in honour of the poet, philosopher and wrestler who was the saint patron of Khiva. Not far from that place there is also Isfandiyar Palace and many other objects which I described in my full travel report.
Khiva gave me an impression as if time stopped within walls at least 1300 years ago. Khiva is a very impressive old city built of the desert and blue tiles where I recommend its art, fur hats and above all, the very presence in this very special place. From the highly located observation points we can see minarets, mosques and arched gates. Ironically, the majority of Muslims in the world have never seen as much Muslim art and culture left after their ancestors as I have – a non-Muslim.
From Khiva I went by shared taxi to Nukus (196 km) through Kyzyl Kum, desert near the border with Turkmenistan.
Nukus is the capital of Karakalpakstan, the autonomous region within Uzbekistan which lies far beyond the sands of the Uzbek civilization. Nukus is quiet, filled with post-Soviet architecture and trees city, and it is worth going there primarily because of the best museum in the whole of Central Asia. It is the Savitsky Museum where most of the exhibits were brought by the artist and ethnographer Igor Savitsky. This museum was opened in 2002 and has the largest number of art exhibits from the times of the former Soviet Union. There are also a lot of images that didn’t meet the standards of socialist realism and that’s why they couldn’t be officially shown. Fortunately they found a refuge “far away from everywhere” and can be seen there today. The museum has a huge ethnographic exhibition which primarily displays materials, carpets, pots and jewellery of Karakalpakstan and on the second floor there were also a lot of Soviet motives and very interesting sculptures, even erotic ones. In this museum the exhibits are changed so often that I could go there many times to see a different exhibition each time.
Then I walked around the town. Just behind the museum there was an amusement park which was very tragic in its form. Old, stripped of paint carousels placed on a concrete square made the children to rather cry. Then, walking through the almost empty streets I got to even a more tragic place. It was a big concrete square where in the centre stood a broken fountain with torn lumps of marble. Apart from that I felt broken glass under my shoes because young people drunk heavily. To the kids I was a sensation of the day because it doesn’t happen very often to see a tourist in such a far away nowhere. We took a few pictures at the background of tall blocks made of concrete slabs. However, I really liked the local bazaar. It was well-stocked and I had good time with local people. They liked to be photographed and they were curious where I was from and why I was there. Besides, Nukus is the base for the Aral Sea.
After Nukus I travelled through the desert towards the Aral Sea. I took a break in a small and dusty Kungrad village where I saw a vegetable bazaar, donkeys pulling watermelons and a drunk but a cheerful man. From there I went to Moynaq which is an equivalent of the Kazakh town of Aralsk because both those town are united in Aral Sea ecological disaster (described above). When we arrived to Moynaq it was clear that I couldn’t expect many attractions. Moynaq a sparsely populated village with a few streets in the Kyzyl-Kum desert, in the far away Karakalpakstan. Wind lifted clouds of dust and a man with a cigarette and black teeth showed me the way to the cemetery of the rusty boats. Nevertheless, Moynaq is one of those places which I look for in my expeditions. The Aral Sea ecological disaster was so enormous that once Moynaq was one of the main fishing ports and today this village is 150km from the shore. In the 80s they attempted to fix the damage by opening channels to the former shore but they failed. Today, at the entrance to Moynaq there are small lakes as the evidence of these attempts. Also, at the entrance to the village there is a signboard with “Moynaq” on it and a photo of a fish, which is also tragic because the sea is long gone. I stood in the place where I could see the rusty fishing boats on sand and where I walked down with my Japanese travel companion. They were of course good objects to photos but the view itself gave me deep thoughts. In the desert, by the fishing boats, at the bottom of the former Aral Sea I spent about three hours watching wrecks and looking at the horizon. On the other hand there was nothing there, but to me this desert and history related to it was a very special place.
Especially to Moynaq I took my tent because I thought that I would sleep in the desert but about 10 minutes walk from there there was a very cheap hotel. For one bed in a terrible room, without electricity and water supply I paid $4. There was a shop next door that served as a popular meeting place because there was a light bulb that actually worked. I advise every traveller to make an effort and go to Moynaq because it is different Uzbekistan than the one known from the ancient cities on the Silk Road.
Then I went by train to Tashkent – the capital of Uzbekistan. I bought a “hard sleeper” ticket because it was the cheapest but on the other hand I had a good insight on how Uzbek nation was travelling their country. It was certainly fun because people were talking to me and we were sharing food. Next to me I had an elderly couple from Russia which was going by train from Russia to Tashkent and it took them 63h one way. They said that they had a daughter who settled in Tashkent and they visited her once in a while. Before it was one great Soviet Union and now even they needed a visa, even though they were born there. After some time I realized once again that people from different republics of Central Asia prefer the times of the Soviet Union and they say that many things were much better than after the collapse. Well, now we have the European Union and after its collapse there will be also those who would miss it.
In Tashkent I lived in the cheapest hotel in the capital where after completion of registration formalities they showed me my terrible room. I stayed at the Hadra hotel which my guidebook described as “the blackest hole of Central Asia and a low-class brothel”. Just as I thought the staff was very rude and did a great favour that it talked to me but it was very very cheap. I even had a colour TV with only one programme. It was a show from Turkmenistan on how to harvest cotton, what was so interesting that it put me to sleep. In the end it didn’t take me by surprise because Uzbekistan is the “cotton empire” so programmes like that are very popular over there.
Within few days which I spent in Tashkent saw all the places of interest. There were obviously some ancient schools and classical gates with courtyards such as in Samarkand and Bukhara. First I saw Kulkedash madressah from the fifteenth century, which I liked the most and which was once a popular place of executions of unfaithful wives. I also spent nice moments in Chorsu bazaar where people were selling clothes, milk shakes, trashy kebabs and where they traded currencies in darker places. I ate a greasy plov over there which proved to be quite cleansing for my stomach. I saw Tashkent on foot because all the places of interest are close to each other. I reached for example the area around Halqlar Dustligi underground station where there was an ocean of concrete and a large concrete block, what clearly told me that I was in a very post-Soviet part of the city. Over there I saw the People’s Friendship Palace which my guidebook described as a landing station on the moon from films shot in the 50’s. It was a massive piece with 4200 seats inside and it was extremely unattractive. That was however nothing comparing to the Wedding Palace, a huge, square block of concrete which I think would be great as an anti nuclear shelter, if it was underground. Behind it (as I expected) were almost breathtaking fountains. To sum up, in that part of Tashkent I saw how much the Soviet Union and Soviet architects hurt Uzbekistan. After that it got a lot nicer. On the right I saw Oliy Majlis, a big white house with a dome and a golden pin on the top. As I suspected, that heavily guarded by police building was the home of the Uzbek Parliament. Just before it, in my opinion there was the most beautiful building in the area, small Abulkasim madressah. Today however it is transformed into artists’ studios and one of the best places to buy souvenirs. Very popular there are hand-painted caskets, paintings, magnets and hand-decorated ceramics. Then I went to the Navoi Park which is a popular meeting place for families, young ladies looking for husbands and young couples. Among many things there is an artificial lake whit boats for hire, amusement park and plenty of bars. I think the focal point and at the same time the symbol of the park located on a hill and under a dome is a monument to Alisher Navoi – the newly elected cultural hero of Uzbekistan.
After a few days in the capital of Uzbekistan I wanted to get out of the city because I missed nature. After problems with rude hotel staff and in a bar where they again served me fried eggs even though I asked for boiled ones, I went to Chimgan. The Ugam-Chatkal National Park commonly called Chimgan is a beautiful mountainous region about an hour from Tashkent. It is a popular place for walks in the mountains, rafting, fishing and horseback riding. On the other hand one can sit in the nature and enjoy a mutton shashlik in hand, sipping green tea. Those are not mountains that I could compare with Tien-Shan on the border of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan but it was also very pleasant. The central peak with the chairlift was at 3309m above the sea level and apart from that about 16km outside Chimgan vilage there is Chorvoq reservoir where people hire boats, do fishing or just have a good time. I stayed there in an abandoned Soviet-block with a proud name “Chimgan hotel”, which was actually more suitable for shooting a horror film.
After traveling around Central Asia for almost three months my expectations with regard to good conditions dramatically decreased, but that didn’t matter to me at all. All that beautiful day I spent in the nature. First I went to the top of the mountain on the chairlift, then I hitchhiked to the lake and I finished the day with a mutton shashlik. The next morning I lived only on apples, which I managed to pick from the nearby trees. The breakfast I could not afford anymore because I ran out of money. Around six in the morning I went for a walk in the mountains, I exercised and I enjoyed clean air. I also saw a sheep torn apart by wolves what means that it was not as safe as it seemed.
Uzbekistan is a wonderful experience and compared to the other countries of Central Asia traveling around it is not hard. The undisputed attraction of Uzbekistan are ancient cities, the three wonderful shows of Timur’s architecture such as Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. It also an adventure to travel through the Kyzyl-Kum desert to Nukus and Moynaq where one can experience the Aral Sea ecological disaster and see rusty fishing boats in the desert. The capital city – Tashkent is also interesting, although my travel objective is about reaching small, isolated from the world “rat holes” which Uzbekistan has no shortage of.
Why I didn’t go to Turkmenistan
On the other hand I approach the immigration policy of Turkmenistan with understanding as the world is full of terrible people. First foreigners come as tourists and they are kind, then they want to stay forever, then they enforce their rights, then they accuse of racism, they murder and rape, they live on welfare, they bring millions of other hostile aliens and with the help of local traitors they change a country and its aboriginal nation beyond recognition. Well, maybe Turkmenistan learns from the mistakes of England?
On a side note, I suspect that if suddenly Turkmenistan, Bhutan or North Korea got opened, the number of tourists each year would exceed the native population 10 times. I also suspect that countries which would certainly experience tourism boom would be the post-war countries and those of bad reputation, such as: Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Chad and Palestine – if it was independent. In my opinion closed and post-war countries will become prime tourists destinations in the upcoming decades.
Summary of Central Asia
My advice on Central Asia is to go one way and to not to plan a return because plans like that do not make sense. A traveler will feel himself when he’s completed the objective of his expedition or when he’s had enough. Speaking Russian is very necessary. I hope that my article and all parts of the Central Asia topic on my website would become an inspiration to travel around that region and help to plan trips. This is because everyone has been to Thailand, everybody had a massage and everybody rode an elephant, but few have gone through the Wakhan Valley along Afghanistan, partly by an Uaz started with a crank and partly on a donkey. I would like travelers to not to be afraid to grab such adventures.
I have 3550 photos from this expedition but I’ll have to choose just over a thousand to the site’s gallery, to show the best image of the region.
- Altyn Arashan
- ancient cities on the Silk Road
- Aral Sea Aralsk
- Aral Sea Moynaq
- Borovoe lake
- Charyn canyon
- expedition to Central Asia
- Fan Mountains
- Fergana Valley
- food in Central Asia
- Gorno Badakhshan
- Iskander Kul lake
- Issyk Kul lake
- kymyz mare's milk
- Kyzylkum desert
- Piandj river Afghanistan
- Song Kul lake
- steppes of Kazakhstan
- war of Kyrgyzstan with Uzbekistan