Archive | September, 2013
September 14, 2013

Off to Iran

I had hoped to finish writing about my Central Asia trip before heading off to the airport today, but my to do list was a bit too long. Anyways, I’m headed to Iran now and will be back in three weeks!

September 13, 2013

Turkmenistan: Konye-Urgench to Ashgabat

October 30, 2012

Cemetery in Khojayli, near the Uzbek-Turkmen border

This morning we bid a farewell to Uzbekistan and crossed the border into Turkmenistan, where we were met by Kalashnikov toting soldiers wearing peaked caps that were about five sizes too large for their heads. The border crossing took a few hours since luggage must be x-rayed or opened on both the Uzbek and Turkmen sides and passports and visas checked and then checked again, and then checked yet again. So it goes.

Our first stop in Turkmenistan was the ancient city of Konye-Urgench, which has its origins in the 5th or 6th centuries AD. Urgench was a major trading center on the Silk Road from the 10th – 14th centuries and the second most populous and well-known city in Central Asia after Bukhara. And, like many other cities in Central Asia, it was razed to the ground by Genghis Khan in 1221. The citizens of Urgench fought valiantly against Genghis Khan, but were ultimately drowned when he ordered his army to divert the Amu-Darya River and flood Urgench. Urgench was rebuilt, only to be destroyed again by Tamerlane in the late 14th century. The destruction of the city, and the change in course of the Amu Darya River led to the city’s complete abandonment.

Mausoleum of Turabeg Khanum, the daughter of Uzbek Khan who converted the area to Islam.

The 11th-century Gutluk-Temir Minaret. At a height of 197 feet, this used to be the tallest brick minaret until the construction of the Minaret of Jam in Afghanistan.

Circling the minaret, touching the minaret, then putting their hands to their face. Not really sure why.

Sultan Tekeş Mausoleum

We drove another two hours to Dashoguz. A city of 210,000, Dashoguz is very Soviet in character, with the typical communist block apartments, monuments, and wide boulevards. We were here only because Dashoguz has an airport, from which we had a late evening flight to Ashgabat. We had some time to kill before our flight left, so we visited the local market.

It was in Dashoguz that we first encountered one of the many Saparmurat Niyazov aka Turkmenbashi monuments that have been erected throughout the country. Niyazov was the first president of Turkmenistan, a position he held from 1990 until his death in 2006. Statues of Niyazov replaced those of former Communist heroes of Marx and Lenin. Towns, airports, schools, and even calendar months were renamed after Turkmenbashi (“Leader of Turkmen”). His autobiography, Ruhnama, became required reading for all students, and job applicants could expect that their knowledge of the Ruhnama would be tested.

When we finally boarded our plane to Ashgabat, we were greeted by portraits of Niyazov and current president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow (say that three times very quickly!) hung over the entrance to the cockpit.

When we landed in Ashgabat, I could hardly believe how “Las Vegas-ish” the city looked; gleaming white marble buildings lit with multicolored flashing lights and billboards. Quite a change from Bukhara and Khiva! Someone pointed to a giant colored orb sitting atop a hill and asked our guide what its purpose was.

“That, ladies and gentlemen, is your hotel,” he replied.

Wow, seriously? Yes, seriously. This is where we stayed, the Wedding Palace “Bagt Koshgi” (Palace of Happiness).

September 10, 2013

Muynak, Uzbekistan: Where cotton killed the Aral Sea

October 29, 2012

On our last full day in Uzbekistan we boarded an Uzbekistan Airways flight back to Nukus. Our flying companions were mainly composed of oil and gas engineers searching for black gold in the area around Nukus.

Once we arrived in Nukus we began the long drive to Muynak, a former port on the Aral Sea. I say “former” because the Aral Sea has retreated some 100 miles from Muynak, leaving a vast desert in place of the sea once plied by the pride of the Soviet fishing fleet. As the sea receded, Muynak’s once prosperous industrial fishing and canning industry collapsed and thousands of residents fled the city in search of better lives. The remaining residents suffer from a multitude of illnesses brought about by the toxic laden dust carried by powerful windstorms sweeping across the dried up seabed.

But how did this happen? As part of the Soviet Union’s “Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature”, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers that fed the Aral Sea would be re-purposed for irrigation. Instead of flowing to the Aral Sea, as they had for thousands of years, the majority of the river water would be diverted to the desert to grow cotton, with just a trickle of water making its way to the Aral Sea. The Soviet plan succeeded, much to the detriment of the sea and people of Muynak, and now Uzbekistan is the world’s 6th largest producer of cotton. The Aral Sea was sacrificed for the “white gold” that has become a mainstay of the Uzbek economy.

But they say a picture is worth a thousand words:

Comparison of the Aral Sea, 1989 vs 2008 via NASA satellite

We arrived in Muynak after a four hour drive from Nukus. The city is very run down, as one might expect after the local economy has been obliterated due to the decision of central planners in Moscow. There is a chance that nearby oil & gas exploration will be successful, but it is doubtful that any of the wealth from those projects would benefit the citizens of Muynak.

We visited the ship graveyard, a collection of old fishing boats stranded in the dunes that now make up the former seabed. It was hard to believe that there was once a sea here; the surrounding landscape reminded me of the desert I grew up in.

This monument marks the former shore of the Aral Sea

Small museum with exhibits about Muynak’s heyday as a fishing port

Our visit to Muynak was short, and we reached Nukus by dinnertime after the long drive back. Our dinner was rather sedate until a raucous birthday party erupted in the main room of the restaurant. Curious, a few of us left our table to check it out and soon found ourselves on the dance floor with a group of friendly Uzbeks, dancing our asses off to Lady Gaga and “Gangnam Style”. Compared to my new Uzbek friends, who were decked out in their finest, I felt quite grungy in my hiking pants and sand filled shoes. Still, we were warmly welcomed and it remains one of my fondest memories of the trip. It was the perfect way to say goodbye to Uzbekistan.

September 8, 2013

Uzbekistan: Shakhrisabz to Tashkent

October 28, 2012

Another long 240 mile drive from Shakhrisabz to Tashkent today, with plenty of stops to stretch our legs. Not many words here, just photos.

First, a stop at Sharif Bobo’s house to check out his family’s carpet weaving business. The carpets here are made from sheep and camel wool.

Soviet “Mother Heroine” medal awarded to the family matriarch. she earned this medal by bearing 10 children. Yes, 10!

Small village

Our next stop (and probably one of my favorites) was a visit to this large open air market where vendors lay out wares on their blankets every Sunday morning.


Pomegranate and melon sellers on the roadside near Tashkent:

September 6, 2013

Uzbekistan: Termez to Shakhrisabz

October 27, 2012

Just another long day of driving from Termez to Shakhrisabz with a few stops in between.

Notice the gold teeth. In Uzbekistan gold teeth are considered a status symbol and sign of wealth. Some people will have perfectly good teeth removed and replaced with gold teeth!

Cheese! Yes, really. This is kurt, a dried cheese. How did it taste? Exactly how it looked!


Throughout our travels in Uzbekistan, these Willi Betz trucks were our constant companions on the road. They are hauling supplies from Riga, Latvia to NATO forces in Afghanistan as part of the Northern Distribution Network. In 2014, when NATO forces leave Afghanistan, it is likely that this highway, which is currently being widened and repaved, will be used to transport supplies and equipment from Afghanistan to Europe. It’s an interesting twist of history that the roads and rail lines built for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan are now being used by the U.S. and its allies.

Random train on a hill.

We arrived in Shakhrisabz, a small city primarily known for being the birthplace of Tamerlane. Shakhrisabz has existed for at least 2,700 years.

Yep, you guessed it – that’s Tamerlane.

It’s quite popular to have your wedding photos taken in front of a statue of a man who was known for stacking thousands of his slaughtered enemies’ skulls into giant towers.

The remains of Tamerlane’s grandiose Ak-Saray Palace.

Jahongir and Omar Sheikh Mausoleum (both sons of Tamerlane)

Tamerlane’s crypt. He isn’t actually buried here, though. He’s in Samarkand.

Dorut-Tillavat complex, constructed after the death in 1370-1371 of Shamsiddin Kulal, the founder of Sufism and spiritual mentor of Tamerlane.

Sharbat tank.

September 5, 2013

Uzbekistan: The Buddhist stupas and barbed wire of Termez

October 26, 2012

Located in the southernmost part of Uzbekistan, on the Afghan frontier, Termez is a small city with a history dating back at least 2,500 years. Throughout its history, Termez has been conquered by Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and Tamerlane. It was later controlled by Imperial Russia and then the Soviet Union, who used Termez as a staging area for the 100,000 troops who fought in Afghanistan from 1979 – 1989. Termez also plays a role in the current NATO military operations across the border by hosting the German military at the local airbase. Here, transport planes fly Bundeswehr soldiers and military supplies from Germany to Termez and Termez to final destinations in Afghanistan.

As one might imagine, there aren’t many tourists in this part of Uzbekistan. In fact, the only other foreigners we ran into were diplomats on leave from Mazar-i-Sharif, some 60 miles across the border. The lack of tourists is a shame, however, as I believe it is truly one of the most underrated parts of the country. This area has a unique Buddhist heritage; from the 1st to 3rd century AD, Termez was part of the Kushan Empire and hosted thousands of Buddhist monks in its various monasteries. (Remember the Buddha statues in Bamiyan that the Taliban blew up in 2001? They were also built by the Kushan.)

After breakfast we headed outside the city to visit some of these sights. The focus on Buddhism was a welcome relief, as you begin to feel a bit fatigued from visiting mosques and madrassa. After the tenth or so one, they all start to look the same.

Our first stop was at the Zurmala Stupa, thought to be from the 3rd century AD. The main purpose of stupas is the enshrinement of Buddhist holy relics. It’s been a bit worn down over the centuries, so now just appears to be some random mud stump in a cotton field.

From afar

Cotton fields

Our group of 16 foreigners wandering around a cotton field taking photos of a mud stump attracted the attention of some local kids.

View of Afghanistan from across the Amu Darya river.

Next we visited the Al Hakim At-Termizi Mausoleum, the main holy place in Termez. Al Hakim At-Termizi was one of the great early authors of Sufism. This complex dates from the 10-14th centuries.

Hill where you could go look at Afghanistan. But no cameras allowed.

It’s impossible, you see

Next stop, the remains of the Fayaz Tepe Buddhist monastery complex, which dates from the 2-3rd centuries AD.

Inside the dome are the remains of a stupa

Sand dunes in Afghanistan

Security tower

More border security

The archaeological museum in Termez. Incredible collection of artifacts!

Now let’s take a moment to talk a bit about the food in Uzbekistan, because it was in Termez, at dinner upon our arrival the previous evening, that my stomach finally said “No more, Lindsay. No. More. ” A typical meal would consist of salads (which were tasty, but often suspect because you weren’t sure if they used bottled water to clean the veggies), soup and non bread, followed by a main course of fatty beef or lamb with a side of potatoes or veggies. And for dessert, cake! Doesn’t sound too bad, right? It wasn’t, and the food was quite good at times, but I just wasn’t used to eating three large meals per day, and certainly not the same thing over and over. Before I went to Uzbekistan I loved beets, but I haven’t eaten them since returning a year ago. In Termez I began to have visions of salmon tacos and In-N-Out double doubles and carne asada burritos. I would be eating a carrot salad for the fifteenth time, but my taste buds and imagination were working together to conjure up images of the food I so dearly missed. So that day at lunch, when the restaurant staff placed large platters of french fries and small tubs of ice cream on the table, I was the happiest person in the country.

Our stomachs full of french fries and ice cream, we paid a visit to the local bazaar.

I don’t know why my mom always worries so much about my travels 😉

Pram used as a shopping cart.

We went further out of town to the Kirk Kiz (“forty girls”) fortress, thought to be a summer estate for royalty dating from as early as the 9th century.

The kids like having their photos taken here.

Nearby was the memorial complex of Sultan Saodat, built during the 11-17th centuries. This complex contains the graves of the Sayyid dynasty of Termez, direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.

More curious kids

Huge bales of cotton

View of Hairatan, Afghanistan. Termez is separated from Afghanistan by the Amu Darya river and connected via the Afghanistan–Uzbekistan Friendship Bridge, which was built in 1985 to supply Soviet troops in Afghanistan. But aside from the increased border security, you wouldn’t know that this war torn country lay less than a kilometer away.

Soviet military forces withdrawing from Afghanistan to Termez in October 1989 (RIA Novosti archive)

September 3, 2013

Uzbekistan: Nukus to Termez via Tashkent

October 25, 2012

This morning we boarded an Uzbekistan Airways flight and flew over the vast desert back to Tashkent. We were actually headed to Termez, a city in southern Uzbekistan on the border of Afghanistan. But with a few exceptions, all internal flights in Uzbekistan are via Tashkent, so we would be stopping there for the day until our late evening flight south.

We would be returning to Nukus in four days, to cross the border to Turkmenistan. But why not cross now? It is a long story, but in short, there were complications with the Turkmen visa that necessitated an extension of our time in Uzbekistan, and so for the next few days we would be flying and driving around the opposite side of the country.

We had eight hours in Tashkent, so did a bit more sightseeing after lunch (my stomach problems cleared and I was finally well enough to eat). We visited the Chorsu Bazaar, the oldest market in Tashkent. Here you could buy everything: meat, produce, spices, Fanta, carpets, and wedding clothes.

Sheep that will be slaughtered for the religious holiday of Eid al-Adha.

Next, we stopped for tea at the Rakhimov Ceramics Studio. This studio had a lovely courtyard filled with pomegranate trees (and, of course, ceramics).

Our flight that evening was delayed, so when the plane finally arrived, the stern flight attendant yelled that we were late, and we were to take any seat. Passengers hurriedly stuffed their bags into the overhead bins and buckled their seatbelts, lest they be lectured again. Our flight was further delayed when the attendant discovered that one of the passengers was considerably drunk, and so she had him removed from the plane with the assistance of several crew members. With everyone seated, and the drunk passenger gone, our aging Ilyushin turboprop began the bumpy flight south to Termez.

We were the only tourists on board, and so the curious Uzbek teenagers seated behind me took the opportunity to use the English they had learned in school and pepper me with questions: “Where are you from? What is your name? Where have you gone in Uzbekistan? Why are you going to Termez?” (“Just to see it” was met with a quizzical look).

As we began our descent into Termez, I was horrified as my seatmate pulled out her cellphone and began to call someone (presumably the person who was picking her up from the airport). Thankfully, we landed without incident and my new Uzbek friends announced “Welcome to Termez!” and wished me a good trip. Stepping off the plane, the first thing I noticed about Termez was how dark it was. The next thing I noticed was the police officer standing at the gate confiscating all the American passports before allowing us to leave the tarmac. Apparently they were to be taken to the police station and kept overnight, but after some negotiation they were returned, much to our relief.

As we drove through the city to our airport we couldn’t help but notice the thousands of blue, white, red and green (colors of the Uzbek flag) lights strung along the light poles and across the streets. Termez was either the most patriotic city in the country, or, as one traveler joked, it was simply to let NATO drones know that they had crossed from the Afghan border into friendly territory.