The silk road conjures images in the mind of exotic faraway lands, eschewed by the crowds, with a blend of Asian and European cultures combining under the backdrop of bustling bazaars, spice markets and beautifully tiled mosques, well, it’s kind of like that. In truth, in Uzbekistan at least, there are crowds, hordes of older bus tours roll around these plains, and bazaars that may have once traded in exotic goods now sell post cards and cheaply made souvenirs, the spice markets still exists, although it’s unclear exactly where the spices end up, because it certainly isn’t in the local food. As we moved through from Uzbekistan to Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, the crowds dissipated, the true wonders of this part of the world revealed themselves; friendly locals, dramatic and diverse landscapes, and a place untouched by mass tourism. While modernity has long since touched down in Central Asia, local culture and customs still endure, there is still plenty to discover.
As we crossed from Turkmenistan into the Uzbek town of Nukus, there certainly were no crowds, in fact it was a town bursting with post soviet cheer, crumbling USSR era motifs and pot-holed roads clearly eluding the investment of the municipalities, Mark particularly enjoys kind of places and was excited about what was to come. Hopping into a Lada (what better way to get around in the former Soviet Union) with our new Georgian and Brazilian friends, we set off to Khiva. Together with Bukhara and Samarkand, the three cities form Uzbekistan’s golden triangle, and the “Silk Road Adventure” has been well sold to Europeans, and East Asians alike. You can expect to be huddled in the tourist sites with gaggles of people, which we did not expect, it in no way detracts from the sites themselves which have been lovingly restored to former grandeur, and the (somewhat authoritarian) governments have done an outstanding job of making the country easy and accessible in ways the other “Stans” can’t, in so far as the topography has allowed for fast trains between all the major sites. The sites -as alluded to earlier- are immaculate, but having just been in Iran, they didn’t quite grab us as they might have, although the light show beamed onto the 3 Medrasses in Samarkand’s Registan square was fairly captivating.
Leaving Uzbekistan from Samarkand, we crossed into Tajikistan. After the warm farewell and subsequent welcome, the landscape changed from vast flat expanses into the arid mountain ranges that exemplify Tajikistan, the 2nd most mountainous country in the world. In Panjikent it was also day and night, there were no tourists and we were back in a more Soviet style setting, being stopped and welcomed by locals, even being forcibly given free ice cream on multiple occasions. Panjikent is the base of operations to explore the Fann mountains. We planned on doing a nice overnight hike, but lacked various requisite items, notably sleeping bags and a tent. Luckily a lovely Dutch cyclist let us borrow hers, so off we trekked. The views were spectacular from start to finish, rivers, lakes and stunning Autumn colours decorated our trek. Our camping spot on the shores of a deserted lake, with huge snowy peaks framing our view from the tent, as we ate our snickers/banana split, created over the camp fire by chef Martina.
As we moved to the capital Dushanbe, the mountain passes did not fail to impress, which gave us high hopes for the main reason we were in the country, the famed Pamir Highway. The Pamir was a route once traced by the great explorer Marco Polo, nowadays the Pamir, on the banks of the Panj River, is a life line for the people that live here, and is one vital connection linking Europe and China. Despite some hiccups finding travel buddies, whereby we had a couple locked in who unfortunately couldn’t get their visa in time, to having no-one, to having 8 people in the space of a few hours. We settled on a crew ably directed by our driver Nurali, an Italian couple and ‘Britalian’ Bruno, whom we had told we couldn’t go with a few weeks before, only for him to get included at the last minute.
The route takes you around the Southern frontier of Tajikistan, and for 4 days, along the border with Afghanistan, and lastly into Kyrgyzstan before finishing in Osh. Neither of us can think of a drive anywhere else we have done with scenery, that not only constantly changed, from arid and rocky to pasture lands to lakes past fortresses and snow capped mountains over 7000m high, and kept us ceaselessly captivated for 8 days. The areas along the Afghan border left you at times just 20m away, and you could look into the villages and swap waves and whistles (we even took the opportunity to throw rocks into Afghanistan, hey, they’ve put up with worse) while watching life go on in another country.
A few thousand kms into the journey over the dusty gravel road you head up to 4655m and somewhere around there you’ll find the border post to leave Tajikistan. From there we start snaking our way down the muddy icy road along the longest no man’s land we’ve come across. About halfway we were waved down, some locals were having some trouble. With the little Lada 4X4 backed up and a yak thrashing about wildly behind, they needed us to help slide the hapless creature into the back, if you’ve ever tried getting an adolescent yak into the trunk of a car, you’ll know it’s not an easy task! But we managed to get the square peg in the round hole, and had a lonely yak staring at us as it bumped its way down the road.
Kyrgyzstan is beautiful! No better illustrated than by our first sunrise in the shadow of the 7128m Lenin Peak, with rolling hills and alpine lakes in one direction and the mammoth peak in the other, it was a incredible welcome, to go with the actual vocalised welcomes from the people we met along the way. From there we said goodbye to our Italian friends and driver Nurali and made our way, via Osh, to the world’s largest walnut grove, in Arslanbob, with Bruno in tow, partly due to his love of walnuts, partly perhaps due to separation anxiety. A fairly charming little village, especially the autumnal colours that abounded on our walk around the grove. It was the perfect way to stretch the legs following being captive in a car for 8 days. After fashioning grabbing and slapping sticks, we wandered around to try and get the last of the walnuts off the trees, we shan’t have bothered as locals gave them to us for free, one little tike even trying to give us about 3kgs, we politely declined, perhaps feeling they taste better earned….They don’t, well, not when they’ve probably not fallen for a reason or have had worms eating them on the ground for a month, in retrospect we probably should have taken the little lad up on the offer.
Moving North we bounced through the capital Bishkek, where Martina took the opportunity to learn a little extra Russian, which had served us pretty well in its current form already, so it was a nice reward, if learning your languages is your thing, Mark just looked for a cinema that played “The Joker” in English, he failed, so you be the judge of who used their time more fruitfully. We then bid Bruno farewell as we left him battling a nasty case of food poisoning on account of a dodgy shashlik (a type of kebab).
Next was onto Almaty, Kazakhstan. The country made famous by Borat, mocked as backwards and awkward as well as having the world’s best potassium, couldn’t have been more opposite (although it may actually have the worlds best potassium, we can’t confirm or deny this). Almaty is as cosmopolitan as anywhere with fast food chains, trendy cafes and fancy restaurants, right up to designer fashion stores, with prices to match. A city flanked by mountains that when viewed from the hills above could be described as….picturesque, particularly at this time of the year. Almaty is actually famous for hiking and the outdoors, but without the equipment and with a pending flight out of Tashkent looming we’ve had to cut both Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan shorter than they deserve, but we will certainly be back. We made for Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, stopping over in Shymkent, where the girl checking us in made a joke about The Hobbit when looking at Mark’s New Zealand passport, he managed to hold his tongue and not make mention of the one movie that made Kazakhstan famous.
So, we’d come full circle and back in Uzbekistan. After a night in the capital we wanted to see what gave the Silk Road its name. The Fergana Valley is where it all comes from, silk gets cultivated, spun, dyed, weaved, turned into scarves, clothes and carpets before being shipped the world over. So, to make this simple journey we headed to the bus station as directed, only for that to not be the place. We worked out a price and we were on our way, or so we thought, we got shipped to a more manic taxi station, got shuffled around cars and then had to sit and wait another 2 hours before we could finally set off. But, we finally got there, and the trip around the factory was brilliant. From seeing how they get the strands from the cocoons to how the dye, make patterns and thread the carpets, some of which can take up to 8 months to complete, which when you think about it, makes the price tag of around $1200USD pretty reasonable.
Back to Tashkent, we took the chance to get the last errands out of the way before the next adventure on the trip. We are off to Pakistan and couldn’t be more excited! So be sure to join us for the next installment, back on the sub-continent!
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