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August 27, 2013

Uzbekistan: One day in Khiva

October 23, 2012

No one really knows when Khiva was founded, but the local legend is that it happened over 2,500 years ago when Shem, the son of Noah, found himself wandering through the desert after the great floodwaters receded. He stumbled upon a well, exclaiming “Khi-wa!” (sweet water) and this ancient oasis has been hydrating travelers since.

Legends aside, Khiva has existed since at least the 10th, and possibly 6th century. In 1619 it became the capital of the Khanate of Khiva and eventually grew into the largest slave trading center on the Silk Road. The slave bazaar held thousands of Russians, Persians, and Kurds who were unfortunate enough to be dragged from their homes or fields by Turkoman raiding parties and then sold to the highest bidder in the open air markets of Khiva.

The slave markets are now long gone, and today the inner city of Khiva, the Itchan Kala, is preserved as an open-air museum and UNESCO World Heritage site. The inner city is very compact, and after that grueling 9.5 hour bus drive the previous day, it felt wonderful to spend an entire day roaming this lovely area of Khiva. Some travelers complain that Khiva is “too tidy” and that the Soviets swept away all the dirt and grime that defined this city for so many centuries. Yes, walking around at times, the inner city was eerily quiet, but at other times it was lively, filled with wedding parties or groups of little kids following you asking for “bon bons” (candy) or pencils (unfortunately, I had neither on me).



Tombs on the walls of the inner city


Kalta-minor Minaret, the most recognizable feature of Khiva. It was left uncompleted after the death of Muhammad Amin Khan, although local legend states that construction was abandoned after it was discovered that the muezzin could see into the Khan’s harem from atop the minaret.


SIR! Please do not feed your baby to the camel!



Wood carving – from small cutting boards to giant doors.


Suzani


Weddings everywhere!


Inside the Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum. Mahmud is considered the patron saint of Khiva.



Check out that dress!



Night descends upon Khiva. The inner city quickly empties, leaving just a few lost tourists and the families who still live there.

August 22, 2013

Uzbekistan: Through the Kyzyl Kum to Khiva

October 22, 2012

The journey along the A-380 highway from Bukhara to Khiva was one of the longest stretches of driving we did on this trip. The distance between the two cities is only 285 miles, but the journey took us a grueling 9.5 hours due to the state of the highway, which wasn’t quite a highway at the time, but rather a packed sand and gravel road through the Kyzyl Kum desert. The highway was undergoing a major reconstruction project at the time (and probably still is, since the vast majority of workers spent their time waving at all the passing vehicles!) and so was in a particularly sorry state. A German company had won the contract to rebuild the road, and the portions of the road they had completed allowed us to quickly pass through the desert. Once we reached the under construction part, however, it was a slow, bumpy ride for hour upon hour. Despite the air-conditioned bus and tinted windows, the heat from the midday sun seeped through. The landscape was similar to the desert I had grown up in, with the exception that civilization in the Kyzyl Kum seemed non-existent, with the exception of the occasional construction crews and stray dogs that lazed in the shade of concrete barriers.

Aside from the desert landscape, signs of the New Great Game abounded along this highway through the desert. We passed dozens of large Willi Betz tractor trailers driven by Eastern Europeans, transporting supplies for over 3,000 miles from Riga, Latvia to the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Supposedly these trucks only transport “non-lethal” supplies to Afghanistan, so I wondered what they were bringing to my military friends serving there. Bars of soap? Boxes of Frosted Flakes? Cases of Red Bull?

In other areas we passed huge fields of new pipeline that, once installed, will transport Turkmen and Uzbek natural gas to Europeans. While to many this is merely steel pipe, it was of great interest to me. I wrote my graduate school dissertation on these “New Great Game” pipelines and briefly worked in the oil and gas industry afterward, so to see this in action, outside the confines of boring technical journal articles, was fascinating.


Where the good road ends and the bad begins.


Lunch stop


Over the Amu Darya River



Cemetery with tombs above the ground due to the high water table of this river valley

We arrived in Khiva in the early evening, with enough time for a quick walk before dinner.


One of the city gates of Khiva’s “Itchan Kala”, the walled inner town.



Cutting boards for sale


As the sun began to set we climbed up to a viewpoint for a panorama of the city. It was beautiful.







This little kid asked me to take a photo, so I obliged.


Just goofing around


Goodnight, Khiva. See you in the morning.

August 19, 2013

Uzbekistan: Two days in Bukhara

October 20 & 21, 2012

Arrive in Bukhara today and you will be warmly welcomed. This wasn’t always the case, however. Consider the fate of Charles Stoddart and Arthur Conolly, two British officers who traveled to Bukhara in 1838 and 1841, respectively. Stoddart’s mission was to convince the Emir of Bukhara to sign a friendship treaty with Britain and release the Russian slaves held in Bukhara. Stoddart committed a major faux pas, however. Upon entering Bukhara, he did not dismount his horse, as custom required. Worst of all, he didn’t bring any presents for the Emir, and we know how much brutal dictators enjoy being showered with gifts! The Emir responded by throwing Stoddart in the “bug pit”, which is pretty much what you would expect – a fetid pit filled with various bugs (and rats, of course). Sounds pretty awful, doesn’t it? Next comes Conolly, who had arrived in Bukhara intending to free Stoddart, now imprisoned for three years and counting. (Conolly, by the way, was the man who coined the phrase “The Great Game” to describe the struggle between Britain and Russia for domination over Central Asia). Unfortunately for Conolly, the Emir ordered him to be thrown into the bug pit with Stoddart. On June 17, 1842, both men were beheaded on the square in front of Bukhara’s Ark.

But don’t worry, Mom, it’s not like that anymore. These days, the most uncomfortable situation a traveler will experience is to be repeatedly pestered by silk and pottery saleswomen.

We spent two days in Bukhara. This city was where I actually felt like I was on the Silk Road of yesterday. Don’t get me wrong, the Registan and Shah-i-Zinde of Samarkand were incredible. Bukhara doesn’t have anything imposing like the Registan, but here, in the center of the city, the vestiges of the Soviet era were kept at bay and the simple mud houses and traffic free dirt roads have remained unchanged for centuries.


Bukhara’s only remaining synagogue, which dates back to the 16th century. Bukhara once had a sizable Jewish minority population, but it has dwindled to about 300 now.


Jewish cemetery


Sasha & Son, the charming bed & breakfast we stayed at, was a former Jewish merchant’s home.


Some locals hanging out.


Nadir Divan-begi Madrasah, built in the early 1600s.


Statue of Nasreddin, Muslim folk hero


Nadir Divan-begi Khanaka


Lyab-i Hauz (Persian” “by the pond”). Ponds such as this used to exist throughout Bukhara as the city’s principal sources of drinking water, but the majority were filled in by the Soviets to prevent the transmission of water-borne illnesses.


Traditional clothing and veil worn by Uzbek women in in the presence of unrelated men, prior to the eradication of this custom by the Soviets.


Of all the beautiful carpets in Bukhara, this was the one I wanted. Unfortunately, way too pricey (to the tune of $1,200).


Master knife maker


Shopping for tonight’s dinner



The Po-i-Kalyan Ensemble:







Inside the Kalyan Mosque, completed in 1514.




This couple asked to take their picture with me, so I obliged them, and they allowed me to take a photo of them. I felt like a celebrity in Central Asia because so many locals asked to take their photo with me. But why? I have no idea. Maybe I looked like an alien from outer space.



The Kalyan minaret, built in 1127. This is one of the few structures that Genghis Khan ordered his men to spare as they ransacked and destroyed the city. It also served as an execution tool; criminals were flung to their deaths from the top of the minaret. This practice continued until the early 20th century.




The massive walls of Bukhara’s Ark fortress.



Mausoleum of Ismail Samani, built 892-943!



Demonstration on how to make plov, follwed by eating plov! :) It was incredible; I had four servings! (If you can’t tell already, I love plov).



Chor-Minor (“Four Minarets”) formerly part of a large Madrasah (long since demolished)

And on our last day in Bukhara, we drove outside the city to this palace, formerly the summer home of the Bukharan Emirs.



The next morning, after being rudely awakened by the call of a rooster (seriously, does he realize it is still pitch black outside?!) I packed my bags again, had a quick breakfast, and headed down the long, bumpy road to Khiva.

August 6, 2013

Travel Wishlist: Canada

OK, so technically I have been to Canada already. Living in Seattle it is quite easy to get to British Columbia and so in the past two years we’ve visited Victoria, Vancouver, and Whistler. But that is only one small part of the second largest country in the world, and there are plenty more areas of Canada to explore. Someday I would like to take a long road trip across the Trans-Canada highway and visit the various corners of this country.

I’m a huge fan of the outdoors, so I would love to visit the province of Alberta which is home to Banff and Jasper National Parks and thousands of kilometers of trails that wind through the Canadian Rocky Mountains. I’m not really a skier or snowboarder, but I’m sure there are plenty of options to snowshoe throughout the area. I wouldn’t mind seeing the northern lights, either, or returning in the summer for the famed Calgary stampede.

Despite living on the east coast for over ten years, I unfortunately never made it to our neighbor to the north. I would have liked to visit Niagara Falls and take the “Maid of the Mist” boat tour, and afterward relax at one of the many bed and breakfasts or hotels in Niagara Falls.

Nova Scotia is another province that I regret not making it to. I had been very close while visiting Maine but never made it over to Canada since my boyfriend forgot his passport. I loved the ruggedness of Maine and plentiful seafood, so I am sure I would enjoy Novia Scotia as well.

Montreal is also on my list and I’m on a mission to find the best poutine in Quebec after falling in love with the dish while on a trip to Victoria. If you’ve never had poutine, you are missing out. French fries covered in cheese curds and gravy, all washed down with a pint of beer.

The area of Canada that intrigues me the most, however, is the Yukon Territory. The Yukon Territory is north of British Columbia and is home to some of the mos pristine nature in the country. Its features are very similar to Alaska, and Canada’s highest mountain, Mount Logan at 19,551 feet, is located here. The Yukon Territory seems like a nature lover’s dream, with plenty of activities ranging from hiking to kayaking to dog sledding to snowmobiling. The Northern Lights can also be seen here, as well as plenty of wildlife including the fierce grizzly bear.

August 6, 2013

Uzbekistan: The bazaars and caravanserais along the Silk Road to Bukhara

October 19, 2012

Another five hours of driving today. Visiting all these Silk Road cities necessitates a lot of driving, but I’m not one to complain about a road trip; I’m perfectly content to put my headphones on, choose a playlist, and let the scenery roll by. And an air-conditioned bus certainly beats the camels that previous Silk Road travelers relied upon.

As usual, the long drive was broken up by a few stops along the way. We visited a huge outdoor market located in Mirbozor. I think the locals were quite surprised and amused to see a group of 17 Americans and Canadians pile off a large tour bus. Not your typical everyday occurrence, I’m guessing.

The bizarre itself was an incredible mishmash of Safeway, Home Depot, Walmart, and a food court. Here was nearly every product you might need, all laid out on tarps to protect from the desert dust. Need a bottle of Fanta? An axe? Perhaps some homemade sour cream? The market was vast, and I could have spent hours here, but our visit was a quick half hour. Much like the market in Khujand, we were asked “Otkuda, otkuda?” “Ya iz Ameriki” “Ah, Amerika”.


Tasty Uzbek carrot salad. This stuff is great!














And then back on the bus for some more driving, with a quick stop at the Rabati Malik Caravanserai in the Navoi Province. Built in the 11th century, this caravanserai provided protection and shelter to Silk Road travelers. It was composed of walled-in courtyard lined with merchant stalls. Here, travelers could purchase supplies, feed and water their animals, and relax safely within the confines of the caravanserai, without fear of being attacked by bandits.





All that remains of the interior




Water reservoir that supplied cool drinking water to the caravanserai.

Before arriving in Bukhara that evening, we visited the studio of the Narzullayev family, who specialize in the Gijduvan school of ceramics. There are various schools of ceramics throughout Uzbekistan (i.e. Rishtan, Tashkent Gijduvan) each with their own preferred colors and designs. The art of ceramics is passed down from family member to family member, and the Narzullayev family is currently headed by its sixth generation of master craftsmen and women.









Not only potters, also musicians!


Uzbek suzani embroidered by hand

We made it to Bukhara by early evening and would be spending the next two days there.

August 5, 2013

POTD: Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine

One question that I often get from people who want to travel to Chernobyl is where to stay in Kiev. Well, like any destination, it depends on your budget and tastes. In Kiev, accommodation ranges widely from bunk bed filled hostels on the outskirts of town to five star hotels in the city center. When my friends and I visited Kiev, we opted for neither of those options and instead rented an apartment. Yes, you can rent an apartment for just a few days, often at rates far below that of a decent hotel (especially if there are several of you, and you can split the cost). Plus, the apartments have kitchens, so you can purchase groceries and cook your own meals instead of eating out all the time (of course, we opted to eat at restaurants because none of us really enjoy cooking that much). The property manager of the apartment also picked us op and dropped us off at the airport for an additional small fee, which definitely saved us the hassle of trying to explain the location to an airport cab driver.

Another perk of renting Kiev apartments is the location. The apartment we rented was located very close to Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti), the central square of Kiev. The above photo shows the monument to Berehynia in the middle of the square. In Slavic mythology, Berehynia is a female spirit who serves as the “hearth mother, protectoress of the home”. This square has also been the site of many political demonstrations throughout Ukrainian history, most notably when Orange Revolution protesters pitched their tents on this square.

In addition to Independence Square, Khreshchatyk Street was just a few minutes walk away; this is the main street of Kiev where you can find plenty of restaurants and shopping opportunities (and in our case, the TGI Friday’s where we celebrated American independence day with burgers and beer). If you have very limited time in Kiev, I would highly recommend renting an apartment in this area since so much is within walking distance, including the beautiful St. Sophia Cathedral.

Most apartments will also be equipped with wifi and TV, in case you’d like to catch up on Facebook or see what the Ukrainian version of MTV is like (actually much better than American MTV because they actually play, you know, music). I’ve rented apartments throughout Western and Eastern Europe without any issue and would definitely recommend it to any cost-conscious traveler.

August 2, 2013

Travel Wishlist: Bahamas

bahamas-map

While my travels usually take me to the deserts of Central Asia or the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, I’m always craving a beach vacation (and thankfully will be headed to a beautiful Belizean caye in January to get my fill). One place that has been on my list for a while is the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, located in the Atlantic Ocean north of Cuba.

The Bahamas consist of 700 islands, cays, and islets, which means there is seemingly limitless opportunity to relax on the beaches or enjoy more active pursuits such as snorkeling, scuba diving, windsurfing, water skiing or jet skiing. Though not well known for surfing, with the right swell and location, you can catch some waves there as well. For someone who loves the beach and ocean, this pretty much sounds like heaven to me.

In particular, the Bahamas are well known for its snorkeling and diving. The world’s third largest barrier reef is in the Bahamas, along with sunken Spanish galleons and underwater caves and trenches that plunge thousands of feet. If you’re brave enough, you can even scuba dive with reef sharks (I promise, mom, I won’t do that). Don’t know how to dive? Not a problem. There are plenty of full service diving holidays Bahamas shops and resorts where you can take diving lessons and earn your PADI certification in four days. I’ve considered taking diving lessons here in the cold waters of Seattle, but what better place to learn than the crystal clear waters of the Bahamas?

Another thing I always look forward to when traveling is partaking in the local cuisine. I love seafood, so I’m pretty sure I’d enjoy the fresh fish, lobster, and crab with sides of peas ‘n’ rice and johnnycake. Washed down, of course, with some rum cocktails. No better way to end a beautiful day at the beach.

August 2, 2013

Uzbekistan: Tamerlane’s Samarkand, Day 2

October 18, 2012

Tamerlane was a man of many talents. When he wasn’t conquering foreign lands and stacking the skulls of his enemies into massive pyramids, he was building his beloved Samarkand into an epicenter of architecture and culture. He did this by sparing the lives of artisans, engineers, musicians, poets, and scholars who lived in the cities conquered by his armies and bringing them to Samarkand. And so these men from Iran, Iraq, India, the Caucasus, and Central Asia built Samarkand according to his wishes.

Our first visit of the day was to Bibi-Khanym Mosque. Completed in 1404, several years after his conquest of Delhi, the mosque was built with Indian stone transported overland by captured Indian elephants. The mosque fell into disrepair over the centuries and what we see now is mostly a modern reconstruction. Despite this, it is still impressive.





Stand for the Koran




I wonder how this kid broke his arm?


Well that explains everything.




Schoolchildren, a dude with cattle, the usual.

Then we went to the Registan, which is basically the most famous part of Samarkand. The Registan is to Samarkand as Red Square is to Moscow as the National Mall is to Washington, D.C. You get the idea. The Registan is a public square framed by three madrasahs (Islamic schools) where, centuries ago, the residents of Samarkand would gather to listen to royal proclamations or watch public executions.


(this was actually taken the evening before)



The Sher-Dor (Having Tigers) Madrasah, built 1619–1636



Love this


“As-salamu alaykum.” (Peace be upon you)



So beautiful




Ulugh Beg Madrasah built 1417–1420 during the reign of Tamerlane and named after Tamerlane’s grandson. Ulugh Beg was a well-known astronomer and mathematician.




We had an opportunity to visit with a master musician who also builds Uzbek musical instruments. This was the entrance to his shop.



We then went to Ulugh Beg’s Observatory.


Newlyweds everywhere



Completed in 1429 and later destroyed by religious fanatics in 1449, the observatory was rediscovered in 1908 by an archaeologist. The above is giant sextant.


In the afternoon we visited the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis, which was by far my favorite place in Samarkand. While the Registan was imposing, Shah-i-Zinda felt intimate. “Shah-i-Zinda” translates to “The Living King” in Persian, so called because Kusam ibn Abbas, the cousin of prophet Muhammad is supposedly buried here. The earliest structures here are from the 11-12th centuries, with the rest of the complex dating from the 14-15th centuries.





When I die I’d like to be entombed in something simple like this, OK?



And for our last visit of the day, we stopped by a nearby silk carpet workshop where we learned all about the process of making these beautiful carpets by hand. The dyes used here are all natural, coming from plants and insects. The young women who work here undergo a four month training program after which they can stay on as weavers. Weaving a silk carpet can take several months and it appears to be incredibly tedious work, but many of the weavers had iPods to keep them company.



The tools have not changed much over the years.


Dyed silk





So did I come home with one of these beautiful carpets? Unfortunately, no, as they were a bit outside of my price range. Hmm, to pay off the student loans or purchase a silk carpet? The student loans win…for now.

July 29, 2013

Uzbekistan: 289 kilometers on the Golden Road to Samarkand

October 17, 2012

(Yes, I partly stole that from a poem).


So, anyone up for a trip to Kabul or Tehran?

Another early morning departure, as we had a five hour drive to Samarkand ahead of us. Thankfully we made a few stops along the way to stretch our legs. First, the fish market in Chinoz, where the vendors proudly displayed their catch of the day.









The Syr Darya River





The melon guys didn’t seem to mind the camera at all!

We arrived in Samarkand shortly after 1pm and set out for some light touring after lunch. Our first stop was Gur-e Amir, the mausoleum of Tamerlane, aka Timur the Lame (1336-1405). In the west, Tamerlane isn’t as well known as his hero and role model, Genghis Khan, but his exploits were just as ruthless. From his court in Samarkand, Tamerlane ruled an empire that stretched from Iraq to Western China. In the course of acquiring this empire, Timur’s armies managed to kill some 17 million people (allegedly). He ordered the conquered civilians beheaded and thousands of their skulls stacked in giant pyramids; a classic calling card. And now, throughout post-Soviet Uzbekistan, you’ll find statues dedicated to this “national hero”. Goodbye Lenin, hello Timur. Every nation needs a father (even though Timur was himself a Mongol, not an Uzbek).




Tombs marking the location of Timur and his family members (the actual tombs are in a crypt under the mausoleum)



We made a quick stop at the Registan, which we would return to the following day during further exploration of Tamerlane’s Samarkand.


View from our hotel, the Registan Plaza

July 27, 2013

Goodbye Tajikistan. Hello again, Uzbekistan.

October 16, 2012

Goodbye, Tajikistan. It was far too short of a visit, but I’m sure we’ll meet again someday. The rugged Pamirs are calling my name…

We were headed to Tashkent, where I had overnighted only a few days prior when I first arrived in Central Asia. The road from Khujand to the Uzbek border was new, having recently been built by the Chinese. After the usual jockeying for position at the chaotic passport control “lines”, we had finally managed to make it back into Uzbekistan. The drive through the Uzbek countryside to Tashkent took less than two hours.



Cotton fields



With a population of 2.2 million, Tashkent is the largest city among the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia. Though it still retains the hallmarks of Soviet planning (large blocks of prefab apartment buildings, wide boulevards, and well maintained parks) the city is undergoing a construction boom, with miles of new apartment and office buildings being erected along the main boulevards.

We were leaving for Samarkand the following morning, so only had an afternoon to explore (however we would be returning to Tashkent yet again later in the trip).


Martyrs’ Memorial Complex, erected to honor the victims of Russian and Soviet rule



Tashkent TV tower


Courage Memorial that commemorates the powerful earthquake that struck Tashkent on April 26, 1966, leaving over 300,000 residents homeless. Afterward, construction workers from all areas of the Soviet Union converged on Tashkent to help rebuild the city.

And then we wandered the streets of my favorite part of Tashkent, Old Town. The Old Town felt like we had entered another world; gone were the highrises and traffic clogged streets, now replaced by low mud brick houses and narrow, shaded streets.







From the Old Town we continued to Hast Imam Square, where we saw Caliph Uthman’s Koran, the oldest in the world. Completed in the year 651, its words written on pages of deer skin, it is considered the primary source of Islam. Legend has it that Uthman, a former companion of Muhammad, was reading from this Koran when he was murdered by a group of rioters, staining the pages with his blood.



Barakh-khan Madrasah


The Tellya-Sheikh Mosque



And then on to Independence Square…



Memorial to the 400,000 Uzbek soldiers killed in World War II (The Great Patriotic War)



Names of the soldiers engraved on these large plaques



We saw newlyweds nearly everyday we were in Uzbekistan. It is quite common to have wedding photos taken in front of historical monuments and buildings, so we were constantly encountering them.


A statue of Lenin once stood here. It was replaced with this globe, a monument to Uzbek independence.