I know you’re used to reading about my summer adventures every year. I met my husband almost 13 years ago and we’ve traveled together all summer every summer since then. I always write about our travels, but this year it will be something different.
We’re off to Poland to help Ukranian refugees. We’ve been in touch with several organizations already and we know exactly where to go when we arrive. We also know what’s needed. What do they need most? Luggage and hemostatic bandages. Refugees have no bags for their belongings and donations in Poland are running dry. Fill your old bags and suitcases with bandages and ship them to me! I’ll get them in the right hands.
I’ve set up a GoFundMe and I’m asking you to donate. I promise any dollar you give will go to help. We’ll use it to buy gas, to pay for transport, to buy supplies, to help in any way we can, and I also promise when we leave I will give every unspent dollar to a shelter.
We’re a little less than two weeks into the 2021-2022 academic year and I’m already full of stories but it’s been an exhausting day and I just want to share my favorite two.
Last year, the pandemic year, there were a couple students I taught all year but never actually met face to face. I truly bonded with one of them. On the first day of school, after school, he came to my classroom just to meet me in person. He told me it was really important to him. He told me I was the first teacher he had had ever met that truly cared about him and that he learned more from my class than he had ever learned in all his other classes in school in all his life put together. Well, um, that made me feel pretty good. I don’t really know where to go from there. It was the first day of school. I mean, how do I top that? He has continued to visit me every day after school. He wants to talk about nothing but current events in Afghanistan, what my opinions are, and what I think is going to happen next. I love knowing that I have inspired such immense curiosity in a 16 yo kid.
I teach high school juniors AP world history, high school sophomores world history, and 7th graders cultural studies (social studies). This afternoon one of my 12 year old students walked into my classroom, approached my desk, and very gingerly said “Mrs. Givens, I have something to say” I looked at him and was like, um, okay, and he said “I have Hitler in my bag” and I was sure I must have misheard him so I said excuse me? And he repeated “I have Hitler in my bag”. I had no fucking clue what this kid was talking about and I am sure that was all over my face. I said I don’t know what you’re talking about. He pointed to the wall and I said OH!!!!!!!!!!! So, I have a display of World War II leaders on my wall and Hitler was missing. I hadn’t even noticed. The kid said someone must have been playing a joke on him. He swore to me he did not do it. He got home on Friday afternoon, opened his bag, and found Hitler in it, and had been worried all weekend he was going to be in trouble. Poor kid. I think it’s funny. But I did have to lecture the class. It’s not funny to make him worry all weekend but it was funny for a kid to show up at my desk and tell me he had Hitler in his bag. Kids are funny.
Sorry I haven’t written in several days. The post travel blues have hit and they’ve hit hard this time. We ended our trip ten days early and that sucked. I mean, I was 50% of the decision making power in that and I did say let’s go home, but actually arriving back home sucked.
We drove 11.5 hours straight to get here, the last couple hours were in the dark and the rain. Raise your hand if you like driving on rural roads in the dark when it’s raining. Then, when we got here there was no toilet paper. We paid someone to live in our apartment all summer to take care of our pets and we left money for things like soap, toilet paper, pet food, and such, the least they could have done was to have bought some toilet paper for us. So at 10PM we had to ask the neighbors if they had a roll of toilet paper we could have. There was also no food in the house. Now, I guess that one’s on me. I didn’t think to ask them to have any food for us, but we were tired and grumpy and the no food int eh house thing didn’t help matters. Then, our animals are all severely overweight. We’ve only been gone 6 weeks!! We feed them a high quality food and keep them on a strict diet. WTF? We left money to buy more if it ran out, but I’m sure I had purchased enough for the summer. Oh. I see. They ran out then bought the cheap, cheap, cheap stuff from the grocery store. So, they had basically been feeding our pets potato chips. I repeat: WTF? We left money!!! But wait! There’s more! Our long hair cat that we left specific instructions to brush daily… yeah… she wasn’t brushed. She’s covered in mats. All this hit us in the first five minutes of our return. And we had had a pretty shitty 5 days already. That’s why we had decided to end our trip early and return home.
I did a thing. Everywhere we live I get a food related tattoo. I have a hamburger tattoo for the US. I have I big plate of dumplings on my back for China. I have a chicken riding a bicycle for Benin (poulet bicyclette-extra points if you get that). I’ve never gotten a tattoo for a country I only visited. Oh my goodness, if I were going to do that, I’d be up to nearly 50 of them by now, but I loved Uzbekistan so much I wanted one. I contacted a tattoo artist I’m fond of and he told me his only free appointment for the next 30 days was tomorrow at 11AM and I said then I guess we’re meeting tomorrow at 11AM. And voila! I have a new tattoo. If you’re in Almaty then I went to Dark Horse Tattoo. I’ve had work done in 4 countries, by 8-9 different artists and this guy is definitely in the top 3 for most gentle. I love having tattoos but normally hate getting tattoos. This one really wasn’t so bad. Kinda made me ready to go back again. The shop is sterile, and everyone is vaccinated. Oh! They have a barbershop inside too.
Pomegranates are the symbol of Uzbekistan. They’re in the art everywhere. You see them in paintings, in tapestries, on ceramics, sculptures, I mean, everywhere! I even got this new table cloth. But you know what? I never actually saw a real pomegranate anywhere. I know they grow them there, they must export them all. Anyway, I will carry a pomegranate with me for the rest of my life.
After my tattoo I was craving some comfort food. Even when I say the guy was gentle, I still had a needle in me for over two hours. I needed some comfort food. To me that’s always burger or pizza. I know, I know… how stereotypical… you can take the girl outta America but you can’t take America always take America outta the girl. So, I’m a member of this FB expats group which I have a love/hate relationship with. Other than posting these blogs I’ve been on a hiatus from FB for many months anyway, but about 8 months back someone posted a question “Who has the best burger in Almaty?” I took this question to heart. I wrote down every restaurant named and I methodically went to every one of them and tried their burger. Some of them were repulsive. Gross. Do these people even know what a hamburger is? How did it wind up on a best of list? Anyway. According to that list, I found the best burger in Almaty. It’s Craft’s double cheese jalapeno burger. I know not everyone like’s jalapenos. So leave them off. I’ll forgive you. It’s still not the best burger ever, come on, we’re in Kazakhstan, but it’s a good burger. Even if I were in the US I’d call it a good burger.
I’ve been shopping almost everyday since we returned. And I hate shopping. The kid’s birthday is Monday and quarantine measures are tight here. Everything is closed on the weekends so I have to get completely prepared by Friday, tomorrow. Oh! Monday is also my first day of work. Ugh. Not really ugh. I love my job. I do. I’ve never loved a job more in my life. It’s just three days of professional development, or as Americans call it: in-service. That’s what I’m ugh-ing about.
She’s turning 15. I’m so proud of her. We adopted her when she was 5.5 and was at the total development stage of a toddler. She could barely speak, was only recently out of diapers, and we were told by the State to not have high expectations for her. In fact, they were pretty damn negative about her altogether. It has been one HELL OF A LOT OF WORK, let me repeat that, A FUCKING LOT OF WORK but at this point she’s only a year behind her peers in school. It’s hard for her, school is really, really hard for her but she’s doing it. She’s in the regular ed program and going into her freshman year of high school and I’m over the moon excited for her. According to all the statistics she should be a pregnant, junkie, drop out by now and instead she’s a hard-working, world traveling, international school student, hopefully on her way to university. You should adopt a kid. You should encourage everyone you know to adopt a kid. Ask me about it. There are a bunch of rumors out there about adoption that just aren’t true, like it costs thousands of dollars. That’s only through the fancy private agencies. We went through the State and so can you. There’s a kid out there that needs you. Call your Department of Family and Children’s Services Today. It’s fuckin’ hard to be a mom/dad/parent but imagine what it must be like to grow up in the State foster care system. Do you think you can do better than that? Then why not do it? Help someone. Shout out to EK Huckaby for the art on the wall. I should send him an email and say what’s up.
In Aralsk, the husband and I had a heart to heart talk. Kazakhstan has been one bust after another and our next destination was 24 hours away by car. To date, in the past 11 years, we have traveled extensively via road through: the US, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, small parts of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Czechia, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Austria, Croatia, San Marino, Belgium, Netherlands, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Benin, Uzbekistan, China, and now a pretty good portion of Kazakhstan. Uzbekistan was the best holiday I can remember having in years, Kazakhstan has just been getting worse and worse by the day. I was feeling a bit bummed about everything ending going home until today one final thing happened that just made me say fuck the rest of this trip. The rest of my travel in this country will be by air, directly there and directly back. At least, that’s what I say now. Let’s see what I say next June.
You have to pay to use toilets here. I have no problem with that. Toilet paper and maintenance costs money. No big deal, but the sign said 50 tenge. The kid paid with 500 tenge and the lady didn’t give her any change. Now… in the big picture… should I really be angry she swindled us out of a dollar? No, I shouldn’t be mad… but it’s the principle of it. It’s “just a dollar” to me, but to her? she stole 450 freakin’ tenge from us and thought she was going to get away with it. Nope. Husband went storming over and demanded our change. It just sums up how everything seems to be going for us these past 72 hours. I’m ready to go home.
So, from Arlask 2 days ago, instead of continuing our journey west, we turned the car east and started heading home. I’m writing you now from back in Turkistan. But this time we chose a fancy hotel. We’re staying in our first, and only, 5 star hotel of the trip. it’s still affordable, $80 a night. Most of the hotels we’ve been staying in the whole time have been really nice places and have been $15-20 a night. We’ve scoffed when we’ve had to pay any more than $30, but I know for most of you the idea of staying in a 5 star hotel for $80 a night is unheard of, and if really is a 5 star hotel. It’s a nice place.
In the US when you look in the bedside table at a hotel, you get a Gideon Bible. Here, at the Rixos, you’re told which direction Mecca is.
And they have a very strange idea of what an Irish pub is. The name of the bar here in the hotel is Irish Pub but it’s the most opposite of an Irish pub as I can imagine.
Oh! remember a few days ago when I complained we tried to find an old fortress called Sauran and wound up in a rural village? We found it!!!! And we found out why we couldn’t find it before. There is a rural village called Sauran and there is also an old fort called Sauran. Someone has put pictures of the old fortress AND LABLED the village as the fortress in Google Maps. I’m sure it’s an innocent mistake, but once again, Google will not accept my edit because they tell me: cannot verify. In addition, the only access to the fortress from the highway is from the eastbound road, so we couldn’t have gotten there the other day even if we had known where the correct location was. It was super cool! We were really happy to have found it and also really happy to have Donkey because we did some off roading to get out to see some of the walls.
We’ve spend almost a full 48 hours just chillin’ in the hotel. We drove 11.5 hours straight to get here and we’ll drive 12 hours to get home tomorrow. We did take one field trip today. We drove an hour away to see another archeological site. This one is called Otrartobe. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and they’re in the process of rebuilding it. There were workers on site and it was neat to see them. We also saw what appeared to be broken ancient pots lined up on a wall. I’m guessing they had dug them up while working.
While we were driving out there we saw the biggest dust devil I’ve ever seen in my life. It was scary. I lived in New Mexico through most of my twenties, I know desert, this dust devil was scary. I even looked up some stats. People have died from dirt devils, roofs have been ripped off, and more. It’s not common, but it happens. This one scared me. So, of course I told the husband to pull over so I could take a picture. It doesn’t look quite so scary in the photo, but believe me, it was moving fast and it was big. For size perspective, that small animal in the photo is a camel.
Our past two days could pretty much be described as one big fart noise. First, we were pulled over AGAIN. Oh my god! Cops in Kazakhstan are so corrupt. We’ve driven actually in Kazakhstan, on this trip, for less than a week and been pulled over three times. Each time it was complete bullshit and they were just wanting a bribe. I wrote a specific post about being pulled over in Kazakhstan here.
This is what our entire drive looked like.
We left our crappy hotel in Turkistan for Baikonur. It was going to be about an 8.5 hour drive. We took one detour that made a trip longer than a straight drive would have been because we wanted to see some ancient ruins. The pictures looked really cool. We drove 2.5 hours, the last half hour was on a pretty rough dirt road to get there. We ended up in a remote rural village and when Google dinged and said “You have arrived” this is what we were looking at:
They were supposed to be ancient ruins from the 3rd-5th century. The thing that really, really pisses me off but these experiences is when I try to make the corrections on Google Maps and my edits are denied. I get a message from Google saying my edit cannot be verified. I know I’ve complained about this before but, once again, who the fuck else is going to verify these things???
Then, Brandon and I love the website Atlas Obscura. We have guided our trips through close to 25 countries using their site but holy fuck! They really led us astray yesterday. We were really excited about going here. It says we can see the grove where a cosmonaut plants a tree before he goes into space, take a tour of their space center, and there are a couple museums we really wanted to see. So, we left Turkistan, drove 8.5 hours arrived in the city and what did we find? Armed soldiers guarding the border of the city checking permits of each driver before they could enter. Yeah. Um. Atlas Obscura didn’t say anything about needing a special permit to enter the city.
The soldier had us pull over. We spoke with him via Google Translate and were informed the entire city is a high security site and only those with permits are allowed in. We can apply for a permit but processing takes five days. Also, I showed him a picture of the Cosmonaut Grove and he said no way! That place is top security. No one is allowed there. He’s never been there, he doesn’t even know anyone that’s ever been there. He said there’s no way we would ever be allowed to see it.
So…. as tired as we were, we didn’t have permission to enter the city and we were in the middle of the desert so we had no choice but to move on. Our next destination was another 2.5 hours ahead. Aralsk, Kazkhstan. Remember when we went to the Aral Sea (desert) in Uzbekistan and saw the stranded ships? The museum was closed, our visa was running out, and we didn’t have time to stay another day to try to find someone to open it for us. Now, we’re waaaaaaayyyyyyyyy on the other side of the Aral Sea, where there are other stranded ships and supposedly another museum.
The hotel here has a poster in the front with tourist sites to see. There’s a beautiful geothermal pool, a large area of the lake pelicans gather, and some other cool looking stuff. We looked for the placed on Google Maps, but they’re not there. We asked the receptionist to show us where they were on the map and he wouldn’t. Then we asked if we could get a tour guide for the day to take us there and he said yes. Wanna know how much they wanted to charge us? $300!!!!! $300!!!!! I countered with $100 and he was rude to me. He gave me a nasty look, he said no one works for that little here, and he walked away. Okay. Whatever, mister. No one in Kazakhstan works for $100 a day? Just ten days ago we paid a guy in Uzbekistan $30 to be our tour guide for a full 8 hours in 47°C/117°F temps. I’m sorry, I’m not paying someone $300 to drive me out to look at a hot spring and some birds. We decided to spend our day at the local museum then relaxing at the hotel.
Yeah. There’s no museum. They are clearly building a museum. We asked a guy when he thought the museum will be open: a year from now? Two years? His answer? 9 years!!!!!! That’s 2030!!!! So if you’re planning to come to Aralsk for the museum, I’d make sure to call first. There is a sign that says museum, but that’s it.
All was not lost. We did walk around on the dried up seabed and we cuddled with a cute kitty that walked by. Then, that guy mentioned the other museum. Other museum? What other museum? Google didn’t even say there was another musem. He walked us a few blocks away to a natural history museum.
Now, it wasn’t the best museum ever but I enjoyed it. The employees were eager to see us and tried their best to communicate with us even though we didn’t have a common language. Plus, they had this amazing light and they played music for us on an actual gramophone. I don’t think there’s another museum on earth that would play music from a gramophone for me.
After finding a real musem we went back to the hotel and took a nap. I’ve never been much of a napper but wow! It’s hot and I’m finding it really easy to sleep half the afternoon these days. When we woke up we walked down the street to find a minimarket and bought some ice cream. There’s really nothing to do here. Nothing. It’s just a tiny rural town. Mostly we’re sitting on the bed watching the news. We’ll be leaving in the morning. We’re ready to get outta here. I miss Uzbekistan.
Everything is a game here. I was driving a long minding my own business when a cop turned his lights on behind me. He told me I didn’t stop. Didn’t stop where? There was no light, there was no intersection, no nuthin’. He was just making shit up. They see our yellow license plates with the 02 on it which signifies we’re from Almaty and they think it means a big payout for them. The yellow license plate means we don’t legally own our car, the company owns the car. It’s a weird way the laws work here in Kazakhstan. We bought the car with our money but the legal documentation is in our employer’s name and the license plate is yellow instead of white like privately owned vehicle plates are. So we stand out to the cops.
Anyway, back to my story, I was just driving along and bam! flashing lights behind me. It works differently here, you get out of your car and you go sit in the passenger seat of the police car. He was very friendly to me. He made eye contact, he smiled, he repeated that I didn’t stop. I didn’t argue with him, I knew it didn’t matter, it was all bullshit anyway. I said “Okay, give me the ticket so I can be on my way.” He said we don’t give tickets here, you pay a fine. I said okay, what’s the fine? He said 15,000 tenge. I laughed. I said I’ve traveled in over 40 countries. I know how this works. Tell me your bottom number so I can leave. He said 10,000 tenge. I laughed. I said I have lived in Kasakhstan for a year now. I know it’s 5,000. I will pay you 5,000 and then I’m leaving with my family. He looked hurt. He actually looked like I was hurting his feelings. He pulled me over for no reason! He was was scamming me and making me pay him a bribe and when I refused to pay him what he wanted he gave me hurt puppy dog eyes??? I told him I didn’t have any money on me, I’d have to go back to the car. I went back to the car, got 5,000 tenge, returned to the police car, at in the passenger seat, closed the door, he wouldn’t take the money from my hands, I had to open the glovebox and put the money in there. And then he said thank you and I got out and walked away. Then! Two days later it happened again! But this time Brandon was driving. We’re on this road. We’re not crazy drivers and we’ve been having issues with Donkey, our car, anyway so we hardly ever drive over 90 kilometers per hour. That’s 50 MPH. At this time we were going 83 KPH. That’s what the cops had us clocked at. Cars are flying past us at well over 120 KPH. Who got pulled over a few minutes ago? We did. Why? The officer claimed we were driving through a village and the speed limit was 60 KPH. 60???? That’s insane! That’s like 30 miles per hour on this highway in the middle of nowhere in the desert.
It was clearly a speed trap. Brandon was driving this time so it was him that went to sit in the police car. It was the same ol’ routine. He told the officer to give him the ticket. The officer said we don’t issue tickets here, you just pay a fine. Okay, what’s the fine? 30,000 tenge. Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Naw, come on, this is nothing but a speed trap, I’ll take my chances with the judge, give me my ticket and I’ll come back for my court date. Then he pulled out his phone and marked the location of Google Maps. He said when he did that the officer looked nervous. Suddenly he became really friendly and said since we were guests he was going to let us go with only a warning. He said any time we’re driving through a village the speed limit is 60. The thing is it’s all just barren desert with just one random house off in the distance every five or ten minutes or so. How the hell are we supposed to know when we’re in a “village’? It was nothing but a speed trap.
Then, there’s the first time we were pulled over on this trip, a little over a month ago, on our way to Uzbekistan. I’ll re-tell the story here So, we were on our way! We drove about three hours and got pulled over by the police. Now, had this been me of 15 years ago I would have been terrified. Heck, had this been me of 7 years ago I would have been terrified, but me today? Naw. You want to know what we did? Or what my husband did? He laughed at them. Literally. Here’s how it went down,
The kid and I sat in the car; the cops told the husband to come back to the car with him. They tried to get him to pay a $300 USD bribe. He LOL’d at them. He told me one of them laughed when he laughed at the cop. So my husband laughed directly in a cop’s face and then the other cop laughed at that. So, they went back and forth and back and forth the cop trying to get a bribe out of him and my husband kept insisting just give me the ticket. That’s not what they want. They don’t want to give you the ticket. They want you to pay a bribe. In the end, we paid a bribe. $10 USD. Yes, you read that right. $10. The cops originally tried to get $300 out of us.
We’ve lived in China and Benin. These Kazakh cops aren’t going to get shit outta us.
The point is If you’re pulled over in Kazakhstan, it’s just a shake down. Remain calm. Wait them out. Insist on your ticket. If they refuse to give you a ticket, which they will, pay them 5,000 tenge and be on your merry way. They’ll try to tell you there’s some huge fee. They’re lying. Just laugh at them. If you’re not as weathered as I am and you can’t laugh at a police officer, just remember to remain calm. They’re not gonna haul you off to jail or anything. They just see you as a pay check and they’re trying to see how much money they can get out of you. Stay firm. It’s 5,000. Don’t give them a penny more. Just keep insisting on the ticket. Say “Write me the ticket. I’ll go to court.” They’ll never write you a ticket. All they want is for you to pay a bribe. And you do get in the car with them. One cop will get out of the car and hang out outside while you sit in the passenger’s seat. Don’t be nervous, everything’s okay. It’s just how they do it here. They might not want to take the money directly from your hands. Set it down somewhere, or open the glovebox and put it in there. Even though they’re shaking you down, they’re strangely friendly about it. Oh, and they might not even care to see your documents. So far, we’ve been pulled over three times. One time they tried to get 150,000 tenge ($300) from us, one time they tried to get 30,000 ($60) tenge from us, and one time they tried to get 15,000 ($30) tenge from us. Each time we paid 5,000 ($10) and drove away.
We left our hotel and drove toward Turkistan, not to be confused with Turkmenistan. Turkistan is a city in Kazakhstan. Turkmenistan is a country. Driving down the road in western Kazakhstan you have to watch out for camels in the road.
We stopped at a mausoleum along the way. Am I terrible person that I can’t even remember who the dead person was? Some Muslim saint. Sorry, we’ve been to so many mausoleums by now. I was really excited by them at first… and now… well… they’re still cool to look at and I still like dead people but unless it’s a really famous dead person I just don’t pay that much attention to exactly which dead person it is. Does that make me a bad person?
Anyway, we went to the mausoleum of some Muslim saint and it was a bit annoying. Cool and all but annoying. Before leaving for our trip, I did SO MUCH research on Uzbekistan. I learned it was WAY more conservative than Kazakhstan. Plus, everyone in Almaty told me that. Everyone told me I’d be really uncomfortable there. They all told me everyone there was really conservative and I’d need to cover up. I was told I’d be told to cover my shoulders and over my hair and be careful and well… ya know… dress like a grandma all the time. Okay. That’s cool. Even though I’m a super progressive, way lefty, feminist woman, I can respect others’ cultures. My rule is when it’s simply this is how we do things here I’m okay with it. When it’s this is how we do things here or else we kill you… then naw… I’m not going to your country.
Why did I bother to say all that? I said it all because I never had anyone, EVER, say ANYTHING to me about my dress in Uzbekistan. I cover my shoulders. I cover my knees. I don’t dress like I’m going to the club. I mean… come on… look at my dress… And then, the very first place we stopped in Kazakhstan they freaked out and made the kid and I cover our hair hair. They also made some guy wrap a sari around his legs because he was wearing shorts. And everyone here in Kazakhstan had told me it was Uzbekistan that was the conservative place!!!!
There was a tourist police officer there that was overjoyed to meet an American family and really wanted a photo with us. I didn’t really care but just to make him happy I got a picture with him with my phone too.
We drove three and a half hours to find the ancient ruins of a village destroyed by Genghis Khan. Google Maps led us astray. Sometime Google Maps REALLY pisses me off because they won’t let me edit the map. When things like this happen to us and I try to edit the map and say the location is incorrect they always deny my edit. They send me a message saying “cannot be verified”. Oh yeah, Google? Who the fuck is gonna verify it? I’m sitting here in the middle of goddamned nowhere Kazakhstan telling you your map is wrong and you don’t believe me???? Ugh. I’ve written them about it.
So, we arrived in Turkistan and it’s a bit of a disappointment. If you were to believe Kazakh locals you’d think it’s the MUST SEE city of Kazakhstan. I guess it’s all in the what you want in a city. If Gatlingurg, or Dollywood, or Branson are what you want when you travel then hell yeah! Turkistan is your place! This is where you want to come to buy your Kazakhstan souvenirs, your balloons, get your caricature drawn, your spray-painted t-shirt, you can even pay to ride a gondola through the canal right through the center of a shopping center. They even have an Imax theater tyoe thing and a Medieval Times type show with horses. That just ain’t our thing. Not at all. Wanna know something funny? The whole time we were walking around they had these signs posted telling us no pictures allowed. Isn’t that funny? The whole place is clearly made for tourists and yet they have no pictures allowed signs posted. I guess I don’t follow rules very well.
Eventually we found the historic stuff. There’s not much. Everything We saw a Mausoleum where once again I was yelled at to cover up, by a woman, none the less. She reminded me of all the Trump supporting women in the US. It’s the women keeping us down. Then we went to see an underground mosque. I was excited about it, but my allergies didn’t like it so I had to leave almost as soon as I walked in. Then, way off in the distance we saw this other thing. What was that? Did we really want to walk over there? It was 41°C/106°F out and it was a good twenty/thirty-minute walk away. Alright. Fine. Let’s go.
Walking over there was totally worth it. I’m not so sure the kid thought so but Brandon and I sure did. It’s the ancient Turkistan city fortress and you could get right down in it and walk around inside the walls. It’s depressing. It’s clear hardly anyone ever goes out there. We couldn’t even use the stairs! They were covered with prickly bushes and we had to climb up the hill to gain access.
The hotel here sucks. It’s a bottom-line Hilton. Hampton to be exact but I feel like I’m back in China: look but don’t touch. Last night Brandon ordered a Shiraz and was served a sweet white wine, our bathroom door won’t open/close more than halfway, and earlier while I was trying to open the curtains, the entire curtain rod came crashing down from the wall. It’s actually so bad I’m going to complain to Expedia. May as well. We booked through them. I know they’ll give us a discount on our next place or maybe even a free next place. This place sucks. Everything looks pretty, but that’s it. The food sucks too.
Overall, my rating of Turkistan: 4/10.
There was one cool thing about the city. Their traffic lights had LEDs all the way up and down the polls that corresponded with the color of the light. This should be a thing everywhere.
We have attempted to see three different Museums of Victims of Political Repression and failed all three times. The first was only open on weekends even though nothing about that was posted anywhere, the second was closed for renovations, and today, the third was closed because public buildings are all put on lockdown for covid quarantine for two weeks. That’s good. I respect the safety measures but you’d think the receptionist at the hotel would have told us the museums are all closed when we told them we were going out to see the museums today. We only found out because one of the doors was open. all the lights were out but the door was open, wo we walked in anyway and yelled helllloooo!!!!! Someone that spoke English came out and spoke to us. He explained all public buildings are closed for two weeks. And so, we spend the day exploring the public parks.
We went to Abay park. Abay was a famous Kazakh poet, composer, and philosopher and you see his name all over the country. I guess it’s kind of like MLK Jr avenue. I’m not comparing Abai to MLK Jr, that’s not what I mean, I’m only saying you know how seemingly every city in the US has an MLK street or an MLK memorial park? Well every city in Kazakhstan has an Abai street and/or an Abay/Abai street or memorial park. They’re everywhere.
The one in Shymkent is used as a memorial park. World War One, World War Two, the Afghan War, they have a memorial to firefighters and other rescue workers, they have a memorial to an ancient medicine man. The Afghan War memorial really hit me. I guess it was because of what’s happening there right now. As an American and knowing it was us that armed the Taliban, I’m just so embarrassed. We created them. We gave them their weapons and we trained them to help them fight against the Russians in the war this memorial I’m looking at is to commemorate and now what? We created a monster.
We also walked through this park on a university campus with student art displayed and a large tulip water fountain at the end.
Then we found a giant Lenin.
The three of us had Samarkand style plov and Coca-Cola for lunch and the total was $4 USD. The plov was better than the plov we had at the fancy, high end place in Tashkent two nights ago. I’m still disappointed in that place.
I’m back at the hotel now and planning to go to sleep early. We’ll wake up and drive to Turkistan in the morning. Not Turkmenistan, the country, but Turkistan, the city in Kazakhstan.
As you know, we’ve been having car troubles with Donkey, our car, since day one and he’s needed to see a quality vet. We found one we trusted in Samarkand, he ran thorough diagnostics, told us Donkey would be okay for the trip, but the repairs we needed could not be done in Uzbekistan. This is because 90% of the cars in Uzbekistan are Chevrolets and Donkey is a UAZ Patriot. He told us to be careful but we’d be okay. He said as soon as you return to Kazakhstan stop and get your car repaired. So! Here we are in Shymkent getting our car repaired.
Yesterday was a full comedy of errors. I knew it was going to be hell and I know how much stuff like that stresses my husband out, so I took a hit for the team and volunteered to handle it myself. I told the hotel I wanted to take Donkey to a UAZ specialist, but do they listen to me? Of course not. We just went to some shade tree mechanic that claimed to know what he was doing. And they wouldn’t listen to anything I said because, you know, I’m a woman. I had to raise my voice and act like a crazy woman more than once. It was reminiscent of my days in China. A woman knowing anything about cars here is likened to a monkey knowing about cars. You only think it’s bad in the US. Here, even the fact that I know what the battery is is a mind-blowing fact to the mechanic. So, trying to get them to listen to me is quite a feat and sometimes I have to resort to acting like a crazy lady. Suddenly, when they have a foot stomping, arm waiving, American, white lady yelling at them they just do whatever it is I’m telling them to do just to make me calm down.
Eventually, after four hours of complete incompetence and running around from one place to another and getting constantly getting the run around we FINALLY went to the UAZ center. The place I had requested to be taken in the first place. Just for added fun, it’s 37°C/99°F outside and there ain’t no A/C anywhere here. So I was dealing with my sick Donkey, the hotel people wouldn’t just take me straight to the UAZ repair people like I asked, none of the mechanics would listen to me because I’m a woman, and omfg, it was hot, and it took four hours to find someone that would listen.
Finally! When we found a UAZ guy I literally pushed the guy from the hotel out of the way, used my phone with Google Translate and talked to the mechanic myself. I told him “I don’t care what this guy has told you. I don’t care what he says. This is MY CAR and it’s MY MONEY. If you are a UAZ mechanic and this is a UAZ center then YOU are the person I want to repair my car. Run all the diagnostics you want, run all the tests you want, check everything, please fix my car!” He laughed and the guy from the hotel shifted his weight but I did not care by that point. I was beyond annoyed.
We got Donkey back today mostly repaired. The mechanic says he fixed everything he could fix in one day. There is one more thing that is a more major repair. He said we’ll be okay to continue our trip, it’s not an emergency, but we should get it repaired when we return to Almaty. This brings me back to it all should have been found by our mechanic in Almaty before we left for our trip. He knew we were leaving for a MAJOR road trip. I told him to check the car and make sure it was prepared for it. We broke down on our very first day and we’ve been dealing with issues stemming from the problem throughout our entire trip. Every mechanic we see asks us in not exactly these words but : Who the fuck is your mechanic? He’s a fucking idiot. He’s the mechanic that was recommended to us when we arrived in Almaty. He won’t be touching our car again.
That’s what we get for taking people’s advice. We had a similar issue with a French teacher in Benin. He was terrible, but he was the one recommended by someone at the school so why would we not trust he’d be good?
First, I forgot to mention a couple places we went in Tashkent, the Geology Museum and Ming Urik archeological site we went to the other day. They were both great. I’m not really into rocks and wasn’t too excited about the geology museum but they ended up having an awesome collection of fossils collected in Uzbekistan and I love fossils. Then, upstairs they had an incredibly impressive collection of stones from Uzbekistan. We weren’t allowed to take pictures in that room. I’m tellin’ ya’ I’m not into rocks but I enjoyed this museum. If you’re in Tashkent you should go.
Then, oh my goodness we’ve seen a lot of ruins on this trip, so many we may be… dare I say… burned out on them… but what I liked about Ming Urik was that they’re right in the city. While standing among the ruins you can look right our on modern day apartment buildings. That’s neat.
Last night, since it was our last night in Uzbekistan, we decided to eat at a fancy Uzbek restaurant for dinner. We’ve enjoyed the local food we’ve had but we’ve mostly eaten at side of the road joints and way off the beaten path places or even in people’s homes. We thought we’d try a high class place. Sadly, I was disappointed. The tomatoes were bland and I’ve been shocked for the past month by how Uzbekistan has the best tomatoes in the world. We didn’t order lamb chops, but we were served lamb chops, and they were prepared well done, or in other words: ruined. The laghman (noodles) and norin (different noodles) were both good but the plov was dry. This was supposed to be one of the best Uzbek restaurants in the country. I beg to differ. I’ve had far better Uzbek food during this trip.
Now to begin our last day. Sad face. I’ve really enjoyed our month in Uzbekistan. So, we woke up and I found us a place for breakfast using Google Maps. Black Bear Kofi. The coffee was terrible but the food and the service made up for it. I don’t think they get many English speaking tourists at their coffee shop because we clearly made the sever very nervous. It was cute. Even though the coffee was so bad I’d still go back if I lived there. I’d just have tea and food.
After breakfast we went back to our hotel, packed up, and left for the dreaded border. And…. it wasn’t so bad!!!! Only two hours this time!!! Still a bit absurd. The whole time we were there we only saw two other cars. That was it. Why did it take us two hours to get through customs? Go here and show them your passport, now go over there and show them your passport, now go over there and show them your passport, now go back to the first desk and show them your passport again, oh! we forgot to check your visa! Come back! Where’s this document? Where’s that document? Let me see your passport again. Now go over to that desk so they can check your passport, now go to that desk so they can check your passport. Now take every last thing out of your car and run it through the machine. Everything. Oh! Now you’re entering a new building you have to run your purse through the machine for this buidling, we don’t care that we just watched you do it outside on their machine, now you have to do it inside for our machine. Now let me see your passport. And through it all I don’t think anyone ever even looked at our PCR test results. That’s a bit worrisome. I guess that’s why Kazakhstan is on the CDC’s level 4 warning list. Yay us.
We drove to Shymkent where we have stopped for the evening. We found a nice hotel called Megapolis. They have a great restaurant. I wasn’t expecting much, but Brandon had Chicken Kiev and I had a delicious salmon pasta. Trinidad had a burger. I didn’t take a picture of it. It was just a burger.
And here I am sitting in the lobby writing finishing this post up feeling bummed about being back in Kazakhstan. I will admit it feels like home though. I do like it here. I lived in China for three years and it never felt like home. Every time I left when I returned “home” all I felt was dread and anxiety. I liked Benin and I like Kazakhstan. It feels like home here. When we crossed the border Trinidad said “It feels good to be home” and it made me smile to hear my 14 year old American kid say that about Kazakhstan. But is she really American? In any way other than paperwork? We left the US when she was seven. She knows little more about American culture than many of you know about Kazakh culture. She’s grown up a citizen of the world and as we crossed the border into Kazakhstan she said “It feels good to be home” can I really call her my American kid? I guess that’s a conversation for another time. I’m ready to go relax in the room now.
Our time in Uzbekistan has come to a close. Today is our last full day here. We loved it here. Our initial plan was only to stay two weeks but we’ve ended up staying a whole month and we would have stayed longer if our visa allowed us to. We rushed to get back here to Tashkent to see several places we had skipped on our way into the country and now we wish we hadn’t because everything’s closed!
So what did we see? We went to the Muyi Moborak Madrassa where they have one of the oldest Qurans still in existence. It was written on deer skin and completed in the year 651, only 19 years after the death of Muhammed. Even for an infidel like myself it’s neat to see such a piece of history. For many people it was a real religious experience to be there. We even saw one woman brought to tears. I wasn’t brought to tears but I do like history.
There’s a story about this particular Quran. This was the first book version of the Quran to exist. Before the verses were only jotted down on bones and rocks. The guy that wrote this book did it for posterity. He was murdered by a riotous mob as he was reading the Quran and his blood was spilled on it. To this day you can see the blood stains on the book.
They also had a large collection of other Qurans. I especially like the cute pocket Qurans.
And!!! Locked away in a special place they have two hairs of Muhammed’s! Yes! that Muhammed! The Prophet! It was a pain for us to figure out where it was. I read about it in a fifteen year old BBC article. When we got there we saw the Quran, it’s prominently displayed, but no hair. We asked the security guard, and he said no. Then we went back out and asked the ticket guy and he said yes it was in there. Then we went back inside and asked the security guard again and he said no. Then we went back out to the ticket guy again and he said the tour guide would come soon. When the tour guide showed up he explained the situation to us.
They do have the hairs but they are under tight, tight security. He said he had worked there for ten years before he was allowed to see them. He said they used to have them on display but people tried to touch them and kiss them and it became too much of a problem so now they keep them locked away. So, I guess, maybe, I stood a few feet away from two of Muhammed’s hairs.
We went to a really nice World World II memorial park and museum. The memorial park was my favorite part. They had amazing art outside. The museum was interesting. It was high class. Clearly, they spent a LOT of money on it, and I mean a LOT of money, and yet their English placards were almost comical the translations were so bad. Now, you may think I’m being arrogant complaining about such a thing since I’m in Uzbekistan but this place is only a year old and they must have put millions of dollars into it. In the year 2020 they could have found a fluent English speaker to translate their placards better. Brandon and I are both history teachers with a strong knowledge base from this time period and even we struggled to understand what the sign was supposed to say most of the time. I still loved the museum and encourage you to go if you’re ever in Tashkent.
We tried to find a wax museum but, big surprise, it was closed. It turned out to be a huge labyrinth of mostly closed businesses. I thought I was going to have an anxiety attack walking around in there. Then, when we finally gave up and were walking away, we walked into a place with a sign that said restaurant, the people working there just looked at each other, and they refused to serve us! It was a really shitty 45 minutes.
We went to the Tashkent Polytechnic Museum. It was neat. We learned about the history of automobiles in Uzbekistan. I’ve mentioned a few times that 90% of cars here in Uzbekistan are white Chevrolets. It’s pretty weird. Apparently the Uzbek government has a deal with GM. Here’s an example of what it looks like to drive down the street here:
And just for you, Rie-Rie, we had dinner at a Korean Restaurant. It was good. Authentic. Koreans are the largest ethnic minority in Uzbekistan. Stalin forcibly relocated them here. This place felt like there was a Korean grandma cooking for us in the back. It was cute, to the server, probably the owner, we just looked like American tourists, so he was worried about us and the hot sauce. He came running over and insisted on pouring it for us. He was very worried we would use too much. Little did he know we’re world travelers, we’ve lived in western China and western Africa two places where they like extremely spicy food, and we know what we’re doing. We placated him then just waited for him to walk away before adding five times as much as he had given us.
We took our PCR tests this morning because we leave Uzbekistan in the morning. We have to cross the dreaded border. Ugh. We know even though we’ll be the only car there it will still take us 4-5 hours to get across. Are they fucking with us or are they incompetent? My answer to that depends on my mood. There are always some things we don’t like about travel and crossing that border tomorrow is something my husband and I are really not looking forward to. I keep blocking it out of my mind.
I’m a bit behind on writing. Sorry about that. Three days ago all we did was drive. We drove almost 500 km in a day. That won’t mean much to a lot of you so I’ll translate: 310 miles. I know that doesn’t sound like much but the roads aren’t great, think rural state highways in Tennessee, and the speed limit is 80 km per hour/50 MPH most of the way. So, imagine driving 300 miles on crappy roads at 50 miles per hour. We were tired.
We were trying to make it to Aydar lake in one day but with two hours to go we gave up. The thing that was the real deciding factor for us was we weren’t 100% positive there was even a place to stay for us when we got there. I had seen one obscure reference to a hotel on someone else’s blog once during my research for our trip and my husband had found a pin on Google Maps that claimed there was a hotel at the very end of a road but there was no name and no contact info. We were going on faith in Google Maps and faith in other people. Oh! And we hadn’t eaten all day. So we quit.
Finding a hotel ended up being more of a hassle than it should have been. We pulled into a place with a big sign saying HOTEL, but they wouldn’t take us because we were foreigners…it was reminicient of China. We drove on for another 30 minutes and found a place right by an airport with okay reviews, by now the hunger and exhaustion had really sunk in and all we wanted to do was get some food and sleep and the parking lot was blocked off by bricks! There was nowhere for us to park!!! It was as if the place was only for walk up customers from the airport, drive up customers were not allowed.
We were too fucking exhausted to even deal with pulling over, going in, and asking where to park. We drove on.
We finally found a place to stay and it sucked. It looked beautiful! It really did! The A/C in our room didn’t work. It blew air, but not hot air. We had it set on 17° C/63° F all night long and yet it never even got cool enough to pull a sheet over ourselves. We were miserable. The bed was uncomfortable, plus I got food poisoning from the restaurant. It’s my first time to have food poisoning, I think, in over 3 years. That might not be true but I can’t remember having it. It’s been 3 days since and my stomach is still not back to normal.
The next day we woke up early and drove the remaining hour and a half to the the lake. Did I mention we were going on faith in Google Maps? Cos we were in the middle of the desert. At on point we turned off the main road and were driving down a dirt road and all we could see anywhere around us was desert. It was kinda hard to believe there was going to be anything there, but we were going to try.
We found it! And someone that worked there spoke French! We speak French! It was awesome! An Uzbek and an American do business in French! It was such a relief to be able to communicate in a language we have a much stronger grasp of than Russian. I mean, our French isn’t perfect, far from fluent, but it’s basic conversational and our Russian is barely beyond where is this/yes/no/please/thank you/fill it up please.
The room was very basic. I can’t imagine many, if any, of my American friends wanting to stay there. They were simple dorm style rooms: tiny with nothing in the room but two twin size beds and an air conditioner that worked. The toilets were shared, outside, a good five minutes’ walk down the sidewalk from the room. The food was simple but delicious.
After the French speaking man left communication became more difficult but the staff tried hard and we’re easy going. They were very excited to have Americans at their place and a little confused because they thought we were French, understandable.
When the sun started going down a bit we hit the lake. It was amazing. It was incredibly shallow forever. We went out about 300 meters before the water was to our shoulders. We just kept walking, and walking, and walking until the hotel was far in the distance and the water was still at our knees! The temperature was perfect and everything about it was relaxing until the dust storm rolled in. At that point we had no choice but to go inside. They served us dinner, we ate, we slept, we woke up in the morning, we packed up, and we drove to Tashkent.
Yesterday was a tough one. First off, we hadn’t slept very well the night before. We shad stayed in a guest house that seemed okay at first look but the longer we were there the worse it got. The bed was rock hard, the air conditioner didn’t work, the water pressure was terrible, I could go on but those are the major issues. Oh wait! There were also dogs barking outside our window all night long.
So, we’re experienced travelers and one night in a crappy place isn’t the worst thing ever. I had to tell you all that to set up our day.
While there we met a guy traveling guy that was going in the same direction as us and asked if he could bum a ride in the morning so he didn’t have to wait for the bus. We said okay.
It was a 3-hour ride to our first stop of the morning: Mizdakhan fortress and necropolis. There are two major sites to see here. There’s an ancient fortress which we drove right up on, please don’t reach through the screen and kill me if you’re an archeologist reading this… I know what we did is wrong. And second was the Tomb of the First Man. Don’t worry, the gods punished me because I had my first asthma attack in four years!!! Four years! I take a good maintenance medication that keeps my asthma under control daily and I never have any issues. Then, suddenly, yesterday, while walking around on this ancient fortress, bam! I felt my bronchial tubes closing in on me. Luckily, even though I haven’t had an asthma attack in four years, I keep an inhaler with me at all times. But it was in the car and I had to get there. That was a stressful few minutes for me. Of course I’m here typing this which means I made it! I would have liked to have explored the fortress some more, but I wasn’t feeling up to it anymore so we moved on. Off to the necropolis!
In the local Zoroastrian tradition, they said the First Man was buried here and then when the Muslims moved in they just adapted the myth to say Adam, yes, *that* Adam was buried here. So I’ve seen the actual burial site of Adam!! There are several other myths about this necropolis. One of the mausoleums is supposed to be the World Clock. The story goes seven bricks fall off the building each year and when the last brick falls, the world will end. People take seven of the fallen bricks and build a small wall, make a wish, and that wish is supopsed to come true, but only if the bricks come from the World Clock. we couldn’t figure out which building the World Clock was. The thing is, I don’t think anyone else knows either because we found these little brick walls seven bricks high all over the top of the hill. Anywhere we found a brick mausoleum, we found little brick walls seven bricks high.
There was a nice old man working there as a guide to show us the Tomb of the First Man/Adam. He didn’t speak any English but he sure tried to communicate with us. We think he told us that the the Saudies sent recordings of Muslim prayers into space. I know that sounds strange but I’m pretty sure that’s what he was saying.
Then, as we were walking away, we had our second medical crisis of the day! Our daughter had a seizure! Crazy! I had my first asthma attack in four years and she has a seizure within an hour of each other???? Now, her seizure isn’t really that surprising. It’s about time. We don’t know why but she has one every six months. Almost exactly every six months she’ll have one, they started four years ago. Oh! Another four! My husband and I have been joking maybe this was her last because she had her very first seizure when we were at a museum/holy place and yesterday we were at a holy place so please, oh please, let it be her last. That time we were terrified, on holiday in a rural village in Benin on the west coast of Africa and got a trip to Paris out of it. This time we handled it like pros. We just let her lie there on the ground for a few minutes then helped her into the car when she was ready.
Our traveling companiion was not so chill. I understand. He had never seen anyone have a seizure before and he probably thought we were terrible parents because we weren’t freaking out. I mean… my heart was racing. She’s my baby girl. It’s terrifying to see her lying there all pale with blue lips… she looks dead… it scares the fuck outta me… but I know what’s happening and I know it’s best to stay calm or to stay as calm as I can. In the car he kept insisting it was the heat and it was pissing me off. Brandon and I both kept telling him no, she has epilepsy, it was a seizure, she has one every six months and it’s time. Not only had he never seen anyone have a seizure, he had never even heard of epilepsy, so we’ve taught him. a new thing, and maybe you too.
After getting her in the car we drove straight to our hotel. I said hotel but really we stayed in another guest house. This one was much better than the last. We left her sleeping and Brandon and I went to the Nukus Museum of Art also known as the Savitsky Museum. We’ve been excited about it because it’s supposed to have the largest collection of Soviet banned art in the world. That’s art that the Soviet Union banned. Getting in was a hassle. They didn’t speak English and I understood they were telling me I could leave my bag at the bag check but I was saying no thanks, it’s okay, I’ll carry it, but they wouldn’t let us upstairs, eventually someone that spoke a little English came out and explained it wasn’t I *could* leave my bag it was I *must* leave my bag. Ah ha! That’s a big difference. No problem. I checked my bag and we went upstairs to see the art.
It was okay. Not much really caught my eye. There were a couple pieces I liked a lot like these. I have some artist friends that are probably reading this. Don’t be mad at me.
There were these little signs everywhere telling me I could get more information but I didn’t know how. All the other museums all across Uzbekistan had offered us English speaking tour guides and had also have this app called NazzAr that’s really cool. You scan a QR code and it tells you a bit about what you’re looking at, but there was no code here. The staff was following us around like they thought we were criminals. It was obnoxious. Every step we took someone took a step and followed us. It made me feel really unwelcome. Anyway, I asked one of them in Russian “Do you speak English?” She replied “No.” I pointed to the placard and she said “Audio-guide”. Audio-guide?????? What audio-guide??? No one had offered us an audio-guide.
It wasn’t worth it to me to go downstairs and ask. I was done with them. It was hot in museum. They had been very unwelcoming at the front door. They were following us around as if they thought we were criminals. We’re art fans, or I’m an art fan, I think Brandon was just there to placate me, and history teachers from America that drove all the way to Nukus to see their museum and they treated us like that? I will never recommend anyone I know waste their time going there. We never even found out which specific pieces of art were the banned ones. What a bust! I only suggest going there if you speak Russian or if you know exactly what you’re looking for. All I had to go on was what I’ve read on Wikipedia and a couple other websites but… ya know… you’d think the museum staff would be happy to help me…you’d think….
The Nukus Musuem of Art is the only museum we encountered in all our research on Uzbekistan that calls itself a world class museum. We’ve traveled all over Uzbekistan, we’ve gone in two-bit run down museums, we’ve gone in awful museums, we’ve gone in wonderful museums, we’ve gone in museums of all types, but almost every one of of them in this country before has made us feel welcomed, and wanted, and they’ve gone above and beyond to at least try to communicate with us even if they couldn’t. This one was a total disappointment.
When we got back to the guest house something exciting happened. I receieved a message request on Instagram from someone that’s traveling through Uzbekistan right now and has been following me on Google Maps and had a question about something. jYou can’t contact people on Google Maps. That was neat. I like to know I’m helping. I spend an awful lot of time writing those reviews.
It was a long, long day, I fell asleep at 6PM and didn’t wake up until the next morning!
This one’s going to be kind of short. I’m really tired. We’ve been driving all day. We woke up early, ate breakfast, and drove eight hours west from Khiva to get to Muynak to see the ships stranded in what we’re calling the Aral Desert.
If you’re reading this and planning the drive for yourself, it really should be a six-hour drive, we had some issues, but made it okay in the end.
The Aral Sea used to be a HUGE salt lake in the far west of Uzbekistan on the Kazakh border. It was so huge in fact that they called it a sea. It was gigantic.
Back in the 1960’s the Soviet’s decided to divert the two fresh water rivers that fed into it to farms. This was bad news for the lake. Between no new water coming in from the rivers and climate change the lake started to dry up. By the 1990’s the lake was left almost nothing compared to what it had once been. Entire villages that had made their livings from the lake were left nothing but ghost towns. Fisheries were abandoned.
Today the Aral Sea is little more than a few lakes broken up with dry land in-between and each gets smaller and smaller year by year.
And why are we here? To see these ships and to see the musem. These ships were once in the lake. Now it’s nothing but desert for as far as the eye can see. In fact, the closest water to here is 140 km away, a three hour drive. This city used to be on the lake. The museum was closed so we didn’t get to see it. It’s supposed to have lots of pictures and information about what the city was like in its glory days.
The ships stranded in the desert are a testament to what poor planning and climate change can lead to. I hope you’re paying attention.
Today started as each day did and that’s with breakfast. It’s our first morning here and wow! Breakfast is killer. I know, I know it must be getting annoying how often I mention how much this place reminds me of New Mexico but they even served us empinadas with breakfast. This wasn’t even the full spread. Every time I took a picture they brought more food. Eventually I gave up and just started eating.
After breakfast we headed out for a big day of site seeing. We wanted to hit all the sites in town today. First we saw the Kalta Minor Minaret. It’s the widest and overall largest minaret in all of Uzbekistan. When it was begun, in 1851, it was planned to be the tallest minaret in all Central Asia. It was commissioned by Mohammed Amin Khan but then, he was, oops, killed on the battlefield in 1855. With no more money coming in the work ceased and no there’s just this odd short stubby minaret that reminds one of a decorative nuclear cooling tower in the heart of Khiva. Is ay that in jest. In all our Uzbek travels it is by far the most beautiful minaret we have seen. That’s the true story about the minaret. There are lots of legends about its building like the khan got angry with the man that was building it and buried his body inside the minaret. There are others.
As we walked away form the Kalta Minor we saw a sign over a door that said Mennonite Museum. Huh? Mennonites? In Uzbekistan? Yep. They were here. They had come here all on their own in the late 1800’s. At first, all went okay, they were allowed to stay, as long as they paid their taxes of course, they did all their Mennonite things like make furniture, sell veggies in the market, and speak German. Then when the USSR came in they refused to obey and they were deported!
Next, we saw this mosque, this minaret, this mausoleum, and this madrassa. I know I’m going in a hurry but we’ve kinda seen a million of them by now. I will say we’ve seen loads of mosques of this multi-column style by now and this was my favorite. I love the way the light pours in.
By now it was 41°C/106°F outside and we had been walking for several hours so it was time for a break. We spotted a teahouse and went in for a bit. I wasn’t hungry, only thirsty, but Brandon and Trinidad wanted a little bite. We ordered two small bowls of soup with bread, three bottles of water, and two coffees. That was it. When we asked for the check we were shocked! They charged us as much money as we had paid for a full dinner for all three of us for dinner last night! And????? The restroom didn’t even have toilet paper!!! That would NEVER have happened to us anywhere between the Fergana Valley and Samarkand. We saw a touch of it in Bukhara, but wait for my next story.
After our little break we headed outside the city wall. First we wanted to see the Afghan War memorial.
And then we walked to Nurullaboy Saroyi Palace. Oh. My. God. If you are reading this and you are planning a visit to Khiva do not go there. I guarantee you it is a rip off. We refused to pay the entrance fee. They wanted 50,000 som! 50,000 som per person!!!!!!!! That’s insane!!!! For that amount of money I would expect not only an English speaking guide but also someone following me around with a fan, a private tea ceremony after, and probably even dinner. I know 50,000 som doesn’t mean anything to many of you reading this. It’s $5 USD. Now, I know that sounds cheap, and, really, it’s very little money, but we’ve traveled this whole country and entrance fee to most museums is about $1 and an expensive ticket is $2.50. The most expensive museum we’ve seen, with a highly knowledgable fluent in English speaking private tour guide just for us was about $12 and this place wanted $15 just for us to walk in the door. We said no, turned around, and walked away. You should have seen her face.
You know. It’s not about the money. It’s not like we’re broke. We can afford $15. It’s about principle. We walked down the street and gave four times that much to an artist I liked and I felt good about myself.
Here are some random photos from Khiva. The entire old city is a construction site right now. I’m not sure who’s paying for it. I’ve looked online but I can’t find details. I found a link about a meeting with UNESCO, the European Union, and the Uzbekistan Tourism Division talking about renovating Khiva to try to attract tourists. I guess the meeting worked. But who’s paying for it? We had one cool thing happened. I’m pretty sure we walked right through an archeological dig site. We looked in a hole and there were ancient bricks from a wall.
We woke up earlier than normal this morning to have breakfast and get on the road. We knew it was going to be a six hour drive to Khiva and it’s we wanted to arrive before the dark.
The trip was mostly uneventful. I had done my research and heard the road was terrible between Bukhara and Khiva, more specifically I had heard it was bad outside Bukhara, then really good for a long time, then bad again outside Khiva. It was true. But we’ve found the idea of good road/bad road is relative. If you’re a 20 something backpacker that’s on a soul seeking trip and has never left Western Europe then sure, these roads are terrible, but if you’ve lived in West Africa, or even Tennessee, they’re not really that bad.
We’ve been impressed by the number of greenhouses we’ve seen all over the country. Uzbekistan is really preparing themselves for climate change. It’s amazing to us how much the rest of the world is preparing while the US is…well….not. The US thinks they’re already the best at everything. Like Ming Dynasty China. We all know how that went. Uzbekistan has these impressive multistory greenhouses lining the freeway all throughout the nation.
We drove through some tiny rural villages and I was once again struck by the similarities to New Mexico. The houses were made of adobe and everything. I was driving so didn’t get pics but if I had you’d never believe me that I hadn’t taken them in Chimayo.
We did have one adventure. At one point while I was driving down a gravel road in a small village we came to a gate and we weren’t sure what to do. A guy came out and showed me a ticket for 8,000 som ($0.80). We paid it and he opened the gate. I drove forward slowly and onto a makeshift bridge over a river made of several pontoon boats tied together with wooden planks nailed together across them to be driven over. Yippie!
We arrived at the hotel tired and hungry. Someone called Brandon! That’s my husband’s name. Huh? Who knows us? It was the owner! We had met him yesterday morning at our last hotel in Bukhara and he had told us about his hotel here in Khiva but he had not told us he was coming here. We had no idea he’d be here.
I checked Google Maps for a recommended restaurant in the area and it said there was a good one just 300 meters away. Then I asked the owner for a recommendation and he suggested the same place. So off we went! It did not disappoint.
We are truly right in the heart of old town Khiva. There is major renovation work going on. Khiva is a UNESCO World Heritage Site so I’m assuming they have to do with the funding but I don’t know that for sure. I’ll ask around tomorrow. There’s construction everywhere. I’m not talking new, modern buildings, I’m talking renovating the ancient buildings. This is what we see as we walk out the door of the hotel.
That’s all I can write for today. I’m exhausted. Going to sleep now. Tomorrow will be a big site seeing day. The hotel is beautiful. I think we might be the only guests here.
Last night before bed I went for a walk back to the famous minaret I’m so interested in because they also used it to execute people so I could see it at night. I had seen pictures of it lit up and wanted to see it for myself. It’s beautiful at night.
We woke up this morning and had breakfast here at the hotel. Here’s the spread the hotel has out for us each morning. This is just for us. It’s our table. They will also make us omelets and specialty coffees if we want.
Today was our day to see all the final places on our list for Bukhara, all the out-of-town things we needed a taxi for. We asked the front desk if they could arrange a ride for us and they were happy to accommodate us. They found us a nice car, well, a white Chevrolet, with air conditioning. The guy spoke English and that was a huge bonus. There’s extraordinarily little English in Uzbekistan.
The one major complaint we had about him was he made us feel rushed all day. We paid him a perfectly decent amount of money to take us everywhere we wanted to go. But, as soon as we would arrive somewhere he was like okay you’ve seen it now let’s go on to the next place. But we’re history teachers! We actually want to *see* these places. We want to walk around, look at everything, walk the halls, and get a real feel for the place. We didn’t come all the way to Bukhara to buy some trinkets and drink some tea. We came to see history. I was getting pretty annoyed with him at first and then I just had to let it go.
That’s another one of those major differences in Bukhara and everywhere else in Uzbekistan. Oh. My. God. We have not met even one other person in this whole country that seemed to understand what the word rush even means. No one is in a hurry for anything. Everyone is chill. Everyone is relaxed. No one is ever in a rush for anything. But this guy? He just wanted us in and out of every place in. A hurry so he could get his money and get on with his life.
He had a great sense of humor, and he took us to an awesome place for lunch. Overall, we enjoyed talking with him. It was a big relief to not be struggling trying to fumble through our poor Russian all day. I just wish we had not have felt so pressured to hurry so much. These places were important to us, and he clearly did not understand that or respect it even after we told him.
First, we went to the shrine of Bahaudin Naqshband. This place was mentioned to me by two differernt people. One was a friend of a friend on Facebook. A friend shared one of my blog posts and one of his friends that’s interested in Uzbekistan commented on it, I happened to see the comment, and he said it’s too bad they’re not going to Bukhara so they could go to the bahaudin Naqshband Shrine, and I said oh, my friend, we are going to Bukhara! Then, the hotel owner here told us it’s the number one place he recommends we must go. He said it’s a very spiritual place and we would feel moved.
Yeah. Well. We didn’t feel moved. I think we’re a bit too cynical for that bullshit but it was pretty. It it definitely an active religious pilgrimage site. I don’t think there were any other tourists there. We stood out. Everyone was there to show their respect and pray at his tomb. Who was Bahaudin Naqshband? A very famous Sufi.
Next we went to the Sitori-I-Mokhi Khosa Palace. The last palace of the amir if Bukhara. It was amazing! There’s an old legend about how he would have his 40 concubines all bathe in a pool of milk, he would throw an apple into the group, they would fight for it, and whoever got the apple won the honor of spending the night with the amir. Something tells me the story is not true.
Next we went to eat.
Then we went to Chor Bakr. A descendent of Muhammed is buried here. During the soviet time it was forbidden to be used as a religious site but since the fall of the USSR it has gained more and more importance in Uzbekistan and now, for Uzbek Muslims, the consider it one of the places they must pass by on their way to Mecca for the Hajj. There are also a lot of pigeons.
After Chor Bakr we went to Chor Minor, which means four minarets. The name is actually mistaken because they are not four minarets, they are four towers. They’ve always been four towers. Some historians say the art around the top of the towers represents four major world religions from time of the building of the tower, 1807, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Christianity.
Next we went to the preserved house of a rich merchant of ancient Bukhara. There were several young couples dressed in traditional garb having their engagement photos taken. It was cute. I asked this couple’s friends if they thought they’d mind if I took their photo and one girl said of course not. They had a small room in the house dedicated to those lost in Stalin’s Great Purge. There’s a museum dedicated to the purge in Tashkent Brandon and I look forward to seeing on our way back to Kazakhstan next week.
That’s it for Bukhara! We had ice cream and a latte then I sat down to write this. I’ve been writing for an hour, I still have to do some editing then add all my photos. We’ve reserved the hot tub for 8PM to relax our weary muscles, we’ll eat dinner after that, sleep, wake up, then drive to Khiva in the morning.
We woke up this morning and had breakfast in our hotel. The owner of the place and his wife introduced themselves to us and asked where we were going next. We said Khiva, they asked where we were staying in Khiva, we said we don’t have a place booked yet, they said we have a place there, so it’s all settled! We’ll stay in their hotel there. That’s good.
I know some people are going to hate reading this from me but Bukhara has been my least favorite Uzbek town. It’s the one with the most tourist infrastructure, I can’t stop mentioning how much it reminds me of Santa Fe, everything is more expensive here, and the vendors are much more aggressive. Plus, we had a negative experience with a black taxi driver this morning. For those of you that don’t know, I don’t mean the color of his skin when I say black taxi, a black taxi is a taxi that’s not an official taxi working for a taxi company, he’s just a guy driving people around for money in his own personal car. This guy was following us on the street and wouldn’t leave us alone. At one point we thought we were going to have to go to the police to make him stop harassing us. We’ve been in Uzbekistan 3 weeks now and traveled in more than 6 cities and it was our first really bad experience so I’m not so upset about it. I’m only pointing it out because Bukhara is different.
There was also a time when Brandon and I were standing a bit away from each other on the sidewalk and I saw him speaking with some guy. As the guy passed me on the sidewalk he muttered under his breath in a really rude tone of voice “yeah man, it’s the desert, of course it’s hot”. I walked over to Brandon and asked were you speaking with that guy? He said yeah he asked how are you and I said it’s hot. I was just making small talk. That’s what you do with strangers.
Santa Fe has a love/hate relationship with tourists. The love tourists because they are the major, or only, source of income for New Mexico, but they hate them because they’re so obnoxious. Maybe that guy is a Bukhara local that feels the same way about tourists. I’m sure my husband’s damn straw hat and Hawaiian shirt and my kid’s I love Samarkand shirt didn’t help, but WTF we are so freakin’ white, we have chosen to embrace the tourist look. There is no escaping it. Anyone in this country could see us from a block away no matter what we were wearing.
I want to be clear after saying all that that the overwhelming majority of Uzbeks are still incredibly kind. If I had to give a percentage I’d say 99% of the people we met in Fergana we nice, 98% of the people in Samarkand we met were nice, and 90% of the people we’ve met here in Bukhara have been nice. So, um, that’s still a huge amount of nice people. It’s really hard to rate a favorite place when they’re all so good, but everyone wants to know where I like best and least so I’m trying to give an honest review. And even when I say prices are higher here, which they are, they’re still dirt cheap compared to western prices. Let’s say a bottle of water in the US would cost me $2, in Samarkand it would have cost me $0.20, and in Bukhara it costs $0.60. A handmade piece of art that would cost over $300 in the US would cost $20 in Samarkand and $50 in Bukhara.
Now, on to site seeing. The first thing we did today was look for an ATM. It was more trouble than we thought. The hotel has one but they disconnect it during the low tourist season because it costs them a lot of money to operate. We walked down the street to find one and that’s when the black taxi guy was harassing us. Eventually we hopped in a traditional yellow taxi just to get away from him. He took us to an ATM then to the old fortress wall around the ancient city of Bukhara.
Then we went to the Ark of Bukhara. We have learned to pay the extra amount for the guided tour while in Uzbekistan. It’s worth it and oh my goodness it was really worth it this time! I’m so mad at myself for not getting a picture of our tour guide. I wish I could put it here for you because he was very knowledgeable. This guy has a degree in Central Asian history. The culture here is so different from my own. In the US, when you go to a museum, the tour guide is not not going to be someone with a degree in history. It’s just going to be someone with a memorized script and if you ask them questions off script they’re not going to know the answer. But this guy! Wow! As soon as I told him we were history teachers his eyes brightened and his tour got really interesting. He was eager to answer all our questions and he could give us all the details we wanted. He knew everything.
Brandon was most interested in seeing the Bug Pit. So, we walked over there next.
Next we went to the Samanid Mausoleum that’s most famous for it’s fancy brickwork but I especially liked for the ferris wheel in the background and depressing zoo mere steps away.
Next we went to the Mausoleum of Muhammed al-Bukhari whom, according to Sunni Muslims, wrote the most authentic haddith collections.
Then we went to see the Bolio Hovuz Mosque but we couldn’t get in. It’s still officially Eid so lots of places, especially places of worship, are closed. I got some pics from the outside.
Then we saw the Mir-i-Arab Madrassa, the Kalon Minaret, and the Ulughbeg Madrassa. They’re all right next to each other. The minaret has a neat story to it! Apparently it was so impressive that when Ghengis Khan came through here and completely destroyed the city he ordered it be left untouched. Also, it used to be known as the the topwer of death because until as recently as 100 years ago prisoners were executed by being thrown from it. This concludes your history lesson from Mrs. Givens for today.
After all that we were done! Oh my god it is hot today! 40°C/104°F and we were out walking around in it for hours. Crazy. I know. That’s us. We’ve had about four liters of water each already today, maybe more, I’m not sure. Anyway, we stopped for lunch. We’ve been told to try plov in each city and we forgot in Samarkand. We have to admit Bukhara has been our least favorite. The difference:
Of course there’s other stuff, like oil, salt…that’s the same everywhere but those are the main ingredients and the main differences.
It was time to finish our day with going back to a couple places we promised to return to yesterday. We bought a couple really nice handmade kitchen knives from a blacksmith and then just some cute little scissors from him. He makes the handles from deer antlers and abalone shells and he’s the 6th generation blacksmith in his family. I’ll keep these knives forever and hopefully even pass them on to my kid one day. They’re nice.
Then I bought some art I had seen yesterday and liked. I like to only buy art directly from the artist. I don’t like mass produced crap and I’m at a point in my life where I want to start collecting a little here and there when I travel. As long as the pieces are small enough and I know I can pack them in a bag when we move then I’m happy.
Now we’re back at the hotel and it’s only 6PM. We called it quits early today! It was simply too hot to go any more. We decided to stay here one more day. We still have about 6 more things we want to see but they’re all a little outside town and each far away from each other. We’ll have to take a taxi to each one of them so we can do them all in one day, come back, get a good rest, then leave for Khiva in the morning. It’s a 6 hour drive to Khiva. We hear the road is okay for the first 75% of the drive and then it gets bad, real bad. We’re not sure of what to think about that since it’s all so relative. We did live in West Africa after all.
We arrived in Bukhara, Uzbekistan last night and I swear it looks just like Santa Fe, New Mexico. I must have said it 50 times to Brandon. The first thing we had to do was find our hotel. We booked at Malika Bukhara right in the old city center. If you read my blog regularly you know I don’t often post links, or even names of the hotels we stay in. I’m not making any money off this. They didn’t ask me to advertise for them or anything. I really like the place, the location is convenient, and it’s affordable. I know sometimes it seems like we travel in luxury but we really do travel on a budget and we usually look for one of the cheapest places in town. This place is the cheapest hotel in the center of town on Expedia and we were surprised by how nice it is.
You may have noticed by now that we meet people everywhere we go. When we were in Samarkand we met a nice Russian couple that was on their way to Bukhara. I suggested we meet for dinner here one evening while we were both in town. They were leaving today so we had to meet last night. We didn’t arrive from our adventures in Kitab until after 8PM. It’s nearly a five hour drive from Kitab to here.
So, two days ago we drank hard all afternoon, yesterday we ate a surprise meal by a river for several hours, then drove five hours straight to Bukhara, found our hotel, literally did nothing but drop our bags in the room, then turn around, walk out the door, and walk 400 meters to the cafe the Russians were already at waiting for us. We arrived about 9PM.
We didn’t know anything about them. We hadn’t even gotten their names in Samarkand! I had only gotten a WhatsApp number. We exchanged pleasantries and now we know he is a project manager for Huawei and she is a model! We had a great time chatting with them.
Over the course of this trip we’ve learned the Russian propaganda machine is very big on pushing that everything that’s wrong with America is the fact that black people are lazy. We’ve heard it over and over again when we meet people from the Russo-sphere who have had limited interaction with westerners. I can’t blame this guy for what he says and I don’t think he’s a racist. He’s only repeating what the news tells him. I mean…. come on… how much do you know about Russia and Russian politics? Probably not much more than whatever news source you watch tells you. Are you sure they’re telling you the truth?
He will be in Almaty for business the last week of August so we invited him to stay with us! And now his girlfriend is going to come too! How awesome is that??? We traveled to Bukhara to make new friends from Russia that we’ll mostly hang out with in Kazakhstan.
At 11PM I gave up. I told everyone I was too tired to stay awake any longer and I simply must go to sleep. Everyone agreed it was time for bed. We had a kid that looked like a walking zombie, I thought I was about to fall asleep at the restaurant table, and they had a flight to Moscow to catch in the morning.
When we woke up it was time to hit the touristing hard. But wait! It’s Eid. Eid al-Adha begins today, the streets are empty, and almost everything is closed. Just leave it to us Givens to want to be tourists on the #1 biggest holiday of the year for Muslims. Some of the shops were open and we bought some stuff, but none of the historical places like museums we wanted to see were open. In Islam there are two major holidays, both called Eid, that can be a little confusing for non-Muslims. Here’s the lowdown. Leave it to the atheist to explain religious holidays to you:
Eid al Fitr: (little Eid) Celebrates the end of Ramadan. The end of the month long fasting. It’s a big celebration.
Eid al-Adha: (big Eid) Celebrates the end of the Hajj, you know, the pilgrimage to Mecca all Muslims are supposed to do at least once in their lives, please tell me you know what Hajj is, and it’s also remembrance of Abraham’s (Ibrahim) obedience to God when he almost murdered his own kid. God was all like hey, Abraham, I want you to murder your kid, and Abraham was like okay, God I’ll totally murder my kid cos that’s an okay thing to do. And then at the last minute God was like j/k you can just kill this goat instead. Cos, you know, he’s a totally loving God. Anyway. It’s the holiday celebrating the fact that Abraham was so dedicated to his God that he was willing to murder his own kid because God told him to. All three of the Abrahamic religions think this is one of the coolest stories they have, but in Islam it’s HUGE.
Everybody’s ready to slaughter a goat for their evening meal. They’re tied up all over. I was thinking for dinner we might just walk down the street. People might invite us into their homes. That would be neat. Sure, I think actually believing religious superstition is dumb but religion itself is one of my favorite things to study. I’d love to get invited into a random stranger’s home on Eid for dinner in Bukhara. What a story that would be! It’s too bad we don’t have any fancy clothes with us. This is the day everyone busts out their finest wear.
We walked into a small shop that said museum, it wasn’t a museum, it was a shop, but I’m so happy we did because the artist has been to Santa Fe! He participated in the Santa Fe Folk Art Exhibition of 2011 and when he saw me looking at the certificate he told me Santa Fe looks just like Bukhara! I laughed out loud and looked over at my husband! I told the artist I used to live in Santa Fe and I’ve been telling my husband the two cities look alike ever since we arrived. We had a short conversation about how similar the two cities are. Now that I think about it I want to go back and buy something from him. I feel bad for not getting anything before. I’ll do that later.
We were stopped on the street by a man that offered to bring us to his home for lunch. I knew it was some kind of a scam. I’ve been around the block, but what the hell, let’s go to the guy’s house for lunch. The thing is… everything here is so affordable that even when it is expensive it’s still not expensive. Does that make sense?
So we went to his house, he introduced us to his family, his wife really did prepare us a homemade meal, and out comes the sales pitch. His daughter makes handmade pillow covers, table cloths, table runners, rugs, and duvet covers. Oh my god! They were beautiful! Beautiful! Let me say that again: Beautiful! We bought one. That was going to be our one big ticket item here anyway. We have been looking for one really nice carpet to hang on the wall so why not buy it from this guy’s daughter? Bukhara will be our last chance because we won’t be in any more tourist trap cities after this. It’s only remote historical and natural places for us after this.
After lunch we came back to the hotel so I could write. I’ve been at it for about four hours now. Brandon and Trinidad are sleeping. Tomorrow we’ll try to see museums and things. Honestly, I was happy to just have a day to catch up on my writing. I feel better now.
When we were in Fergana a week ago staying at the Asia hotel, which I do not recommend by the way, we happened to meet the mayor of Kitab, Uzbekistan. We had gone down to have breakfast in the restaurant and there was nowhere to sit. A man offered to let us join him at his table and we had a small conversation with him. He told us there was a grape growers convention going on at the hotel and that’s what he was there for. He said we must visit him in his city if we were passing through. It turned out we were going to be driving right through his town. We had not planned to stop there, but now we had a reason to!
We left Samarkand to drive to Kitab. But our first stop of the day was a small paper factory outside town. They still make paper the traditional way and they show you each step of the way. The factory guarantees their paper for 2000 years. We were perfect little tourists and we bought some in the gift shop. They also have a ceramics shop where you can see the whole process from a glob of clay, to the spinning wheel, to the kiln, to the glaze. My daughter was interested.
As we drove away from the factory there was a funeral procession walking by! You know my interest in death. I didn’t want to be too rude and snap photos as we drove by, so here’s a bad one I got through our dirty windshield. Pardon the mess, we have driven all the way from Almaty.
We drove to Kitab. First, we went to an old palace of Amir Timur. Kitab was his birthplace so his legacy is very special to the local people. Then, we gave our friend a call. Sadly, he was very sick and could not meet us, but he sent some other people to show us around. They came and picked us up at the park where the palace was and took us to a restaurant where they treated us to an amazing meal and filled us with much vodka. Too much vodka.
Because we drank too much vodka there was no site seeing after; it was straight to the hotel for us.
The next morning we packed up our bags, checked out of the hotel, and were driving away to head off to Bukhara when they called us on the phone to invite us for a day of site seeing! They had been so kind to us and were such nice guys, we thought we couldn’t say no, so we said yes. We turned our car around and returned to the hotel to wait for them.
When they arrived they explained to us that they had been awake all night long. There is a severe drought happening in this region of Uzbekistan now and the farmers are breaking into the water system and stealing water for their crops. They were up all night going around the district, closing off the taps, and locking them, with the help of the police. It’s a very depressing situation all around. How do you explain climate change to uneducated, impoverished farmers and how we can’t just let the water flow freely now because if we do there will be no water later? They explained to us that there was no rain and no snow last season at all. But all the farmers see is their crops drying up now. My daughter learned about climate change in science class this past year so I was really happy for her to hear this real world situation. I don’t know if happy is the right word for it, it’s a depressing situation, but I was happy for her to see something she learned about in a book in a real life situation.
At one point we stopped in the car and they got out to have a meeting with the head of the reservoir and they had a big talk. He agreed to release more water for the farmers. In the end, everyone is happy.
The guys took us to a beautiful spot by a river for swimming and barbecue. I didn’t swim. I think I disappointed them but I HATE cold water and oh my god that was cold water. It was a fresh mountain river and I understand some people find that refreshing but, for me, no matter how hot I am, I cannot get in freezing cold water. There is nothing refreshing about that to me. It’s pure misery. I just watched. They pressured me to get in but I just stood there and said no way.
During our time with them they asked us several times about opening a business, bringing in business, business, business, business. We don’t have that kind of money. We can’t open a language school and we don’t have any connections with Ocean Spray to open a pomegranate juice bottling plant, but if you do, you should contact me, I’ll put you in touch with these guys because they’re eager to bring development into Uzbekistan. Even when they realized we weren’t millionaire Americans with tons of money to open businesses, they still treated us like family and made us feel welcomed. We’ve traveled in many developing nations and had people be really friendly to us when they thought we were rich just because we were Americans and as soon as they found out we weren’t rich they dropped us, but these guys didn’t. They stayed just as friendly from the first minute to the last. But, it was clear to us they are looking to bring investment and development in, so really, if you’re reading this, you’ve got the money, and you’re interested, I can put you in touch. I’m not looking for a business deal here. They didn’t ask me to say this. They were just really nice guys and I’d love to see them succeed in everything they want.
We ate a delicious lamb, potato, and tomato dish and then were on our way.
Now, if we had had more time we could have stayed a week in Kitab! There’s all kinds of stuff to do there. There’s an observatory you can visit, they’re even building a guest house. There are mountains to hike in, with some religious pilgrimage sites. There are museums. Even the grave of one of the grandson’s of the Prophet Muhammed is in Kitab. We would have happily stayed and done all these neat off the beaten path tours if we had had the time. But, we had to keep moving. I can’t find any information about this stuff online but I picked up a tourism booklet. If you’re interested you can send me an email and I’ll take pics of the booklet for you and send it to you. It really is neat.
The guys welcomed us and made us feel like family. Uzbekistan has truly grown to have a large part of our hearts.
This morning started out as all mornings do: with breakfast. After that our hotel owner told us he had found a mechanic that could work on our car issue for us. Yeah, we’re still having a car issue. But!!! Even though I’ve said this before, I think I really mean it this time, we’ve found the problem! And it goes all the way back to my very first post about our road trip. It really is something electrical like our mechanic back at home says, it’s something simple he should have been able to figure out, it’s simple to fix, but????? The piece is not available anywhere at all in the entire country of Uzbekistan because this is the land of the white Chevrolet. So, we can’t fix it until we get back to Kazakhstan.
He told us it’s not an emergency. We’ll be okay. We need to keep a close eye on the temperature guage and if it starts to overheat we need to stop and let the car relax for a bit. Other than that we’ll be okay. Thanks a lot, mechanic back home, Mister I-checked-your-car-and-prepared-you-completely-for-your-road-trip-then-as-soon-as-you-broke-down-told-you-you-had-an-electrical-problem. I. HATE. YOU.
And yet, we had a great time with the mechanic! He was really friendly, he talked to me like I was one of the guys, which is not normal for a mechanic anywhere in the world, he took us our for lunch with his crew, and, get this, he refused to accept any money from us! We kept insisting but he wouldn’t take any money at all! He said we were guests in his country and he wouldn’t accept our money. He paid for lunch too!
After all that it was two o’clock in the afternoon! We were getting an incredibly late start to our tourist activities for the day. I had to see the world famous mausoleums of Samarkand. First on the list was the Shah-i-Zinda Ensemble of Mausoleums. I’ve never seen anything like like it. They were so beautiful.
Next we went to the Sadriddin Ayni House Museum. I’ll be honest, I’ve never heard of the guy and I only did some very brief Googling of his name. He’s considered the most famous writer in Tajik history. For those of you that don’t know, even though Samarkand is in Uzbekistan, the majority of the people are Tajik. The real reason we went to the museum was the Google reviews. Some of them are terrible. “True dog Bolshevik!”, “Traitor!!!” With reviews like that how could we not go to the museum? There wasn’t much there and no one spoke English but the ticket was cheap and I have a story to tell.
After the Sadriddin Ayni House Museum we walked to the Museum of Political Repression so we could repress people. Not really. It was a museum honoring all the people that were repressed by the Soviets in the past. We were really excited about seeing it, but when we got there it was closed. Sad. A nice university aged guy stopped to tell us it isn’t open on the weekends. Had we known that we would have gone yesterday. It was pretty high on our must see list and we’re leaving tomorrow. Oh well, we have an entire nation to see. We’re bound to not see it all.
Next was the likely the most impressive mausoleum on earth: the mausoleum of Amir Timur. Amir Timur is known as one of the greatest military leaders from all history. He began the Timurid Empire. I’ve seen hundreds of mausoleums in my life, dare I say thousands? I’ve never seen anything like this.
Next, we walked to the Oq Saroy mausoleum. Apparently no one knows the exact history of this mausoleum. We’ve found lots of beautiful, ornate, huge, old mausoleums like that. It’s amazing to realize how someone was once so rich and powerful to earn such a mausoleum and is now completely forgotten from history. Momento Mori. It was a pain in the butt. As the crow flies, it was literally right behind the Amir Timur mausoleum, but there was a locked gate between the two. Insert curse word here. It wasn’t really that big of a deal all but we had a grumpy teen in tow. It was about a fifteen minute walk around the neighborhood to get there, and then, when we arrived… there was an iron fence around the whole thing with a big locked gate. The internet says the doors are open for tourists. The internet lies.
After our bust at the mausoleum we walked to the Science Museum at the Uzbekistan State University. It wasn’t the best museum ever but I did learn that the Uzbekistan State University is the successor of the Ulugh Beg madrassa and that was really cool.
We were finished! We have one more thing we want to do and that’s the paper factory. That was the plan for today, but we ended up spending all morning and half the afternoon with the mechanic so, instead it will be tomorrow morning. We wanted some coffee. I typed coffee shop into Google Maps and found El Merosi. The place was beautiful and they made a good coffee.
We just wanted to relax after a long three days and we weren’t in any kind of a hurry so we just chilled. Right when we thought we were about to leave a guy started speaking to us in English. It turned out he was the owner of the cafe. Not only was he the owner of the cafe but the owner of the entire building, a multi-national businessman, and member of the Samarkand city council! So, we stayed. He gave us a tour of his place. He has a theater in the back where the give full theatrical performances, and he’s even opened a restaurant recently. All the the design work on the walls and all the furniture in the entire place were hand designed. We had homemade cheesecake and then he convinced us to also try their homemade 100% natural ice cream. At least we knew we didn’t have to worry about dinner later!
It was time to head home for the evening! We got back to the hotel and I pulled my computer out to start typing this entry up. Uh oh. The wifi wasn’t working in our room. I took my laptop down to the lobby where my husband had stayed to chat with the hotel owner. The owner wasn’t there but I found my husband talking with someone else. I sat down behind them and he didn’t even know I was there. I started typing but then got sucked into their conversation. I heard the man say he was a classical musician. Classical musician!!!!! What??? Then he mentioned an Uzbek classical music museum! This is where I spoke up.
My husband jumped because I had been sitting behind them and he didn’t even know I was there. It was funny. It turned out there had been an Uzbek classical music museum just 5 meters from our hotel the entire time we had been here and we hadn’t known! I asked the guy to take us there and he did! It was late but he opened up for us, turned all the lights on, gave us a private tour, and even played us some music! Here’s a of him playing for us.
So, if you’ve been reading my blog then you know one of the things I’ve loved so much about Uzbekistan is the calmness of the people and especially the calmness of the bazaars. I’m no twenty-something Western backpacker looking for the thrill of a wild outdoor market. I’ve traveled the world, I’ve been to bazaars from Latin America to Africa and I’ve grown to mostly hate them. The yelling, the pushing, the shoving, the haggling over prices, the trying to take advantage of the naive foreigner. These big open air markets just don’t give me the same thrill they did fifteen years years ago. When I find myself in one now it’s for a purpose. Either there’s historical value, or I actually need to buy something.
But! Here in Uzbekistan it’s been different! We’ve been in bazaars in Tashkent, Kokand, and Ferghana and all three were calm. No yelling, no one hassling me, no pushing, no shoving, no one grabbing my arm trying to pull me into their stall, no one demanding I buy something form them. It’s been a pleasure shopping here.
That was all until yesterday. Here. In Samarkand. The vendors here are much more aggressive. As we waked through the Siab Bazaar people were shouting us “Hey meester! Hey meester!” If I stopped for just one split second it was “Madame! Madame! Madame!” Look! Look! Look!” They are much, much more aggressive here. Inside the Bibi-Khanym Mausoleum I truly thought I was going to have to shout ‘Back off!!!” at a souvenir vendor to make her leave me alone.
I’m trying to decide what to attribute the difference to and I think it must be tourism. Samarkand sees way more foreign tourists than any town in the Ferghana Valley does. The vendors have have been conditioned and learned to be aggressive sales people to make the deal.
Societies change over time and I’m seeing it in realtime over a cross country road trip.
It’s still not anywhere near as bad here as it is in East Asia or Latin America. Sure, some people shouted “Meester and Madame” at us and one lady wouldn’t stop pestering me but you’d have to multiply that by 10,000 to even get close to walking through the main market in Xi’an.
We started our day at the Ulugh Beg Observatory in Samarkand. This is an ancient observatory of an old prince that was far more interested in the stars and science than he was conquering foreign lands. His observatory, built in the 1420s, calculated the length of a year with his accuracy only being off by less than 30 seconds. After Ulugh Beg was put to death by his own son his observatory was razed to the ground and forgotten about. Only the underground part was rediscovered centuries later. That’s what you’re looking at here. We paid the 30,000 som for the English tour and it was well worth the money. First off, it’s only $3 and second, he was highly knowledgeable and we learned a lot. I recommend it.
Next, we went to the “Tomb of the Prophet Daniel.” I put that in quotes because #1 you have to believe such a person actually existed in the first place and #2 a simple Google search will come up with at least nine different tombs all claiming to be the tomb of the Prophet Daniel, and yes, all the same one. It’s the same thing as when we went to see the burial place of Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus, in Ireland. I’m sure what I’ve typed here is heresy and someone’s gonna put a fatwa out on me but I still like to see this history. Was Daniel a giant? Why is his tomb so long? The teacher in me is forcing me to tell you to look it up. Not really. It’s just late at night, I’m tired, and I’m too lazy to type it up and it’s a simple google search away. Teach yourself something funny. Go!
Next, we went to the Afrasiab Museum at the Afrasiab archeological site. It was amazing! If you’re into history, you really must go! The site dates back to the 2nd century CE and was discovered in 1965. Their pride and joy piece is a large four wall mural. This museum was one of the best, if not the best, we have seen so far in Uzbekistan, no, I’m going to say the best. But remember you’re reading a world history teacher’s blog here. There’s my kid looking ever so excited to be brought to yet another museum.
Next it was time to eat. We wanted to see the the Siab Bazaar just because it’s been fully operational since the middle ages, so we walked over and found a restaurant to eat at near there. We found a place that was obviously a tourist trap but we were hungry so we stopped anyway. They had a simple straight forward menu: shashlik (barbeque), laghman(noodles), salad, bread, tea. Yeah. We were right. It was more expensive than it should have been, but whatever, it was clean, it was good, we’re on holiday, and the server was friendly. We felt better after getting some food in us too. The name of the place was Kyzyl Chaixona.
Now we were ready to move again. We went to the 15th c. Bibi-Khanym Mosque. It is in various states of restoration and we loved it. One of the buildings is in a terrible state of disrepair, one you can see has had some work done to it, and one is almost completely restored to its original glory. We also bought some art from a this guy. It takes him six days to complete one piece and he sells them for $20 USD.
While were there we we ran into a large group of local teens and their English teacher. I’m not exactly sure what they were doing there but they were eager to talk with us! They asked us lots of questions about American culture and were often surprised by our answers. They kept talking about how big the salaries are in the US but we kept mentioning how expensive the cost of living is. For example, a 20oz bottle of Coca-Cola only costs fifty cents here, an ice cream costs twenty five cents, a taxi ride across town is less an a dollar. Sure! Their salary may be less, but so is their cost of living.
It also blew the teacher’s mind when we told him ivy league schools are only about making connections. You don’t really get a better education at Harvard than you do at, say Kennesaw State University. The difference is at Harvard you might be going to school with Bill Gates’ kid or niece and you win all the connections that will help you later in life. The guy was blown away! He was like no way!! I thought things like that only happened here!!! We said nope. They happen in the US too.
We also had a small world experience while we were there. We met a professor of journalism at a university in Almaty! He speaks fluent English, we exchanged numbers, and said we’ll all hang out when we get back to town.
Next we went to Bibi-Khanym’s Mausoleum. I’ve had a thing for the dead since I was a kid. In the US people get really disturbed by it, but in the rest of the world it’s totally acceptable to go on tours like this. We did our whole mummy tour of Italy a couple years ago, there are ossuaries inFrance and ossuaries in Czechia, the mausoleums here are a major tourist attraction. No one here looks at me like I’m a freak when I say I’m heading over to see the mausoleums tomorrow.
The last thing we did today was see Uzbekistan’s first president, Islam Karimov, the authoritarian tyrant’s mausoleum. There are so many pictures and statues of him everywhere I was surprised there weren’t a bunch of flowers being laid by his grave like they do for Mao in Beijing. I did see old women praying to him. I wish I could have snapped a picture but there were no photograph signs clearly posted and the police had their eyes on me. Of course, I snapped some pics when I could but I missed the old ladies praying at Karimov’s tomb.
I lied. The last thing we did today was have ice cream. We had a jam packed day. We were on the move from 9 in the morning to 8 at night. Tomorrow it’s the Samarkand paper factory where they still make paper by hand and it has a 2,000 year guarantee.
We arrived in Samarkand about lunch time today and found our hotel. There’s no good signage and it was a little tough to find, but just like everyone else we’ve encountered in Uzbekistan all the neighbors are friendly and they were happy to show us where to go. It’s in prime real estate right by the Registan. The place seems to be brand new. All the other rooms on our floor are under construction.
I desperately needed a shower and the kid looked as if she was about to fall over dead of exhaustion so we took the afternoon slowly. I took my shower and told her to sleep. When the husband and I were both about to fall asleep ourselves we forced ourselves to get up and face the day. By now it was almost 3PM.
We went to find some food. the place the hotel owner recommended didn’t look too impressive from the outside. It looked like a fast food joint and we were disappointed he had judged us as Americans and assumed that’s what we liked/wanted but we were tired, we’ve been on the road, he suggested it, so we gave in and went in to eat. We’re happy we did. It was actually really good.
It wasn’t a fast food restaurant. It was a family restaurant. The husband had lamb that was cooked perfectly tender with potatoes, I had hamburger meat stuffed with cheese, and the kid had a noodle soup. When we ordered we weren’t all too sure of what we were ordering so it was a surprise.
We looked over and the table next to us had some tasty looking fried chicken wings and we couldn’t resist. There was a bit of an ordering confusion but eventually we got through to our server we wanted some. I tried using google translate and it wasn’t working. That’s when I realized he didn’t speak Russian. He had gotten our order before because we pointed at pictures. This time we speaking and it wasn’t working and we just thought he wasn’t understanding our crap Russian so we typed it out but he still wasn’t understanding us. It’s okay. We eventually made it clear what we wanted and we got our wings. And they were good! They had sesame seeds! They add a nice flavor.
After lunch we began walking toward the Registan, the old public square of Samarkand, the capital of the Timurid Empire from 1370-1405. It consists of three old madrassas which have been converted into a string of souvenir shops. The buildings are stunningly beautiful. The artwork is intricate and this was the place I have been the most excited about seeing in Uzbekistan.
It was a little depressing to see it’s being used for nothing more than souvenir shops but I guess that’s what keeps the money coming in. It felt very similar to walking around the plaza in Santa Fe. The big difference here was the vendors were very respectful, just like everyone else in the country has been. No one harassed us, no one begged us to come in their shop, people offered once, or even said nothing at all, and then let us keep walking by. I appreciated it. I’d like to write a letter to the Uzbek board of tourism. I wonder if such a thing exists.
We stayed a long time because as the sun was moving the lighting was changing and I was getting better and better photos. Eventually I knew my family would give up on me or get angry with me soon if I didn’t say let’s go. We checked Google Maps for a nearby cafe, found it, but it was packed with people, and we’re trying to be conscious of covid, so we decided to no eat there. By then, we were so close to our hotel we decided to just come back and eat some snacks we already had in the car. We had a big lunch anyway.
Tomorrow we’ll see some museums, an old observatory, and some other cool stuff before sleeping one more night here and moving on to our next place.
We woke up this morning, our final morning in Fergana, and our amazing host at our hotel made us breakfast. Oh my god! I love this place and I love the guy that runs it. It’s like he lives just to make his guests happy. He runs the kind of place I would love to run one day. He explained something to us at breakfast that made me want the dog even more. He told us those guys had bought the dog to use it as a fighting dog, but it was too sweet and docile, and wouldn’t fight, so now they’re just trying to get rid of it. I WANT THAT DOG. But how? I spent a good long time talking to my husband about it. We had to leave Fergana today but our friend, Mr. Hotel Guy, has the dog owner’s number and I’m plotting and scheming.
We packed up and left. I must admit I was a little sad to leave. It’s so strange how we can form such strong attachments in such a short period of time but science says when we pack lots of experiences into a short period of time our brains process it as if it was a long period of time. So I had as many experiences in three days as many people have in six months. I feel bonded to Mr. Hotel Guy. I feel bonded to Muhammed, the Palestinian guest, and I only knew him for about 8 hours, but they were an intense 8 hours. Any serious traveler like myself that’s reading this will understand what I mean. The friends you make on the road are often become your deepest and best friends for life.
Our first stop for today was a town called Namargan. We had two destinations marked: a mausoleum and a museum. Both were a bust. C’est la vie! Here comes the story. We arrived at the mausoleum and it turned out it was on the same grounds as a mosque and it was prayer time. Ugh. We wanted to be respectful so we stood outside and waited for prayers to end. It was hot, we were hungry and getting a bit grumpy, so we decided to call a Yandex, the Russian version of Uber, to our second location and then come back. Right when our Yandex was almost there prayers ended and there was a mass exodus from the mosque! All the men were really friendly and excited to see us. One even wanted a selfie with my husband, As the last of them walked past our Yandex pulled up.
We went to the museum and they were excited to see tourists. We bought our tickets and walked upstairs. When we walked in the woman spoke to me and I told her we didn’t speak Russian, only English. She ran said oh English! English! And she ran off. A couple minutes later a young woman came back and very excitedly greeted my husband. My husband. Not me or our daughter. Then she proceeded to give my husband a tour of the museum. She spoke to him and only him. It was as if my daughter and I did not exist. She never even looked at us. I spoke up and asked questions three times and she gave no response. She only cared about the man. I’m guessing only men care about history? Only men know about history? The woman even asked him “Do you have children?” And he said yes I have a daughter. The lady replied where is the? And my husband said right here and he pointed to my daughter that was right damn there they whole time. I swear it was as if we weren’t even there. Eventually I got so angry I left. I took my daughter and we went to sit on the couch in the lobby. I am equally as interested in history as my husband is. I am not going to follow behind him and be ignored. I.WAS.MAD.
When my husband’s private tour was over and they came downstairs the woman suddenly noticed me for the first time and she asked me if I liked their museum. I said no. She asked why not and I said because you ignored me. You only spoke to my husband. You did answer any of my questions. How did she respond? She said oh! Please come back to our museum! No, lady. I will not be coming back to your museum.
If you remember we were hungry and grumpy before the museum so maybe you can imagine how I was feeling now. We checked Google Maps for restaurants nearby and found Super Golden With good reviews. Um. I love Google Maps and I love reading people’s reviews, but people’s ideas of what good food is is always relative and this place sucked. It’s now on my all time top three worst places I’ve eaten list in the past year an a half. I might even for with two years. It was bad.
We were so burned out on this town we decided to skip the mausoleum and hit the road. We even decided to skip the next small town on our list and leave the Fergana Valley all together. Due to our car issues we had stayed in the valley two nights more than we had originally planned anyway so this would get us only one day off track instead of two. We started driving toward Samarkand. It’s an eight hour drive from where we were.
We had only driven a short way out of town when our car started beeping at us that we were out of gas. That didn’t make any sense. We had just filled up in town. What was going on? Were we having car problems again? Conveniently, there was a gas station not too far away, and that really was convenient because they’re hard to find here, and we pulled in. We really were out of gas. Shit! Something happened. We have two working theories:
#1 The gas station in the city cheated us, didn’t really fill our tank but charged us
#2 Someone siphoned our gas from the parking lot while we were having a terrible time in the museum.
I’m happy we had such positive experiences with people all over the Fergana Valley and even people outside the mosque in Namargan so a few bad apples didn’t really ruin much for us. Meh. Some people suck. Overall people are awesome.
When we were in Namargan I noticed something interesting. There’s an unusual amount of very, very short people. I’d say pygmy short. Not little people. These people were different. All their proportions were “normal.” They were just extremely short. We also saw a disproportionate amount of people with just one bowed leg. I wonder if there have been studies on this? It’s got to be a genetic thing in the town/region. I mean, it was obvious to us. We were looking around and were like… whoa… are you see this? There are a LOT of extremely short people here. We haven’t noticed it anywhere else we’ve been so far.
The next time we needed to stop for gas the owner of the staton came out and wanted to meet the people driving this car. They don’t see UAZ Patriots everyday in Uzbekistan. This is the land of Chevrolets. Chevy has a monopoly here and white chevy cars are all you see so people get really excited about us. Then, when they find out we’re American oh boy! It’s even more exciting. He came out we had a conversation about life, work, travel, and family. I think… He was speaking Russian and we were speaking English and well.. I don’t speak much Russian more than where is this, where is that, please, and thank you, and he didn’t speak any English at all, but I picked up on cues. I got that he’s building his own hotel in Chust, Uzbekistan and he has a daughter the same age as mine. When we were about to leave he signaled that he wanted us to wait so we did. My husband was annoyed. He wanted to get on the road, but this is how it goes when you’re traveling, you meet people, they’re not in a hurry, it’s special to them to meet strangers, and they want to welcome you. I knew something nice must be coming. And it was!
A whole plate of garden fresh cucumbers! He told us he grew them out back and they were organic! Slight cultural differences like that are interesting to me. If you were to stop at a random gas station in the middle of nowhere somewhere outside Atlanta, Georgia the gas station owner might give you some of his fresh cucumbers but he’d never brag to you about how they were organic. I love this place. The guy was really great. He gave us his phone number and told us if we had any problems anywhere in the country to call him for help. It’s becoming a theme. We’re collecting numbers from Uzbeks. I think I’ll have contacts from Uzbeks all across the nation east to west and north to south before we return home.
The rest of the day was just driving. Driving. Driving. Driving. Driving.
One interesting thing happened. We stopped the car and sent our kid out to buy Coca-Colas from a small shop on the side of the road. When she got back, they weren’t Coca-Colas. The packaging said Coca-Cola but the liquid itself clearly wasn’t. We could see right through it. Something was off. I opened one just to see. The bottle was sealed, so it was direct from a factory, so I took a sip, it was not Coca-Cola. It was either factory rejects they had gotten ahold of or knock-off packaging. It wasn’t coke. We don’t even drink Coke that often. It’s just that it’s SOOOOO hot here and it was such a long day! That Coca-Cola sounded good.
That’s it. We stopped at a hotel about an hour and a half outside Samarkand. We knew we were at the right place when we saw the hotel cat.
We woke up yesterday to a new guest in our hotel; a well educated Palestinian guy that was a pleasure to talk with. We talked all about education and I explained to him how I teach my world history class to fifteen year old students. He was surprised. He asked world history? How do you teach the history of the whole world? He said he wished I had been his teacher 🙂 I love hearing that from adults. We discussed biases in education and how important I feel it is to give my students a well rounded education with a small amount of knowledge on a large amount of topics from all around the globe. So they can have a very basic understanding of Leopold in the Congo, Bartolomeu Dias from Portugal, the Women’s March on Versailles, the World Wars, major revolutions and more. In the end I’m pretty sure we established I’m the best teacher ever.
Our car was still in the shop and he had some plans with the owner of the hotel and they invited us to join them. We’re always eager to make new friends and have new adventures so we said yes! The plan was to go to a small village about an hour from here, then walk to a valley where we could pick berries right on the Uzbekistan/Kyrgyzstan border with one foot in each country.
We all piled in a taxi and off we went. First, we went to a park to see a 1,000 year old tree. Then, we were off on our walk. After we had been walking, and talking, and getting to know each other for oh, I don’t know, maybe forty-five minutes the hotel owner’s phone rang. When he hung up he said we have to go back! Someone had found the other guy’s phone at the big tree. What???? How did that happen? He said no. My it must be a mistake. My phone is here in my bag. He checked his bag. It wasn’t there. He didn’t even know it was gone! He said he must have dropped it while trying to put it in his pocket after taking a picture back there. A complete stranger had picked it up off the ground, dialed the last called number that just happened to be the hotel owner, and so he got his phone back. Isn’t that some great luck! His last dialed number could have been anyone! He’s a Palestinian guy that lives in the UAE currently traveling in Uzbekistan, who knows whom he could have called last and it happened to have been the very person we were walking with at the time and spoke the local language!
So, we turned around and headed back to the big tree and talked the whole way back. Mostly about, you guessed it, world politics. When we arrived the lady was standing right there patiently waiting for us. I will never stop believing in the kindness of strangers and that people are good. We never made it to pick our berries on the border but I have a great story to tell anyway!
Sometime during all that the mechanic called and said our car was ready. We went straight from there to the mechanic’s shop where he showed us our beaten up old water pump. It was truly in bad shape. I’m surprised it hadn’t completely fallen apart. Now we have a new one and the car didn’t overheat on our drive home! It was only a short 20 minute drive, the real test will be climbing out of this valley the day ofter tomorrow, then the 8 hour drive to Samarkand, but let’s hope the car is fixed. The mechanic says we’re good to dive to the the moon now.
We didn’t get back to the hotel until 3:30 in the afternoon and our Palestinian friend had to rush off to catch his train for his next stop. I hope we run into him again before our visit is up. There were so many good conversations and so many good jokes during the day I wish I could tell you all of them like when my husband said: if you can’t have premarital sex if you don’t plan to ever get married. And the Palestinian said they may have a good laugh at you first but they will still kill you. We were talking about shariah law in the UAE at the the time.
The hotel owner told me he was going to his house to feed his dogs and offered to let me join him. He knows how much I love dogs. It turns out that not only is he a customer service extraordinaire, he’s also a dog rescuer! He has seven rescued street dogs and a littler of puppies he’s caring for! We went to the butcher and bought chicken for them and were on our way. I was excited to hear how they whined and cried for him as soon as we pulled up in the car and they could hear his voice outside the gate. The dogs were beautiful. Some were too timid to let me pet them but others couldn’t get enough love from me.
We came back to the hotel and my husband and daughter weren’t here. They had probably gone out to eat or something. I was hungry, hungry, hungry and I asked the hotel owner if he was hungry. He was. We went to eat together. We went back to Brown Sugar, the same place my family and I ate together the first day we were in this town. I like that place. I’m sure I’d be a regular if we lived here.
After dinner we went for a walk around town, and through the park, then back to the hotel. While we were walking in the park I met the most amazing dog. These two guys were walking a beautiful large dog and I asked if I could pet it. It instantly leaned up against me and I felt a bond between us. I know it sounds hokey but sometimes I really do feel it and I certainly did with this dog. Later, as we were walking back to the hotel we ran into the same guys again and I stopped to pet the dog again. This time they tried to sell us the dog, for practically nothing, and oh!!!!
How I wanted that dog. But how could I? That poor dog would die in my car on this trip. It’s 40°C/104° F here and we leave the car parked for hours at a time while we walk around being tourists during the day. I couldn’t do that to a dog. We got back to the hotel and I fell asleep plotting and scheming about ways of getting that dog back to Almaty with me.
All in all it was a great day! Now I’m sitting here at 6AM waiting for my family to wake up so we can begin the next day and see what adventure awaits us!
We left Kokand this morning and the plan was to go see a ceramics factory in Rishtan, but as we drove by it was clear our destination was nothing but a tourist trap. I’ve been around artists my whole life. I know how to make ceramics. I also lived in Santa Fe. I don’t need to see a ceramics shop. I wanted my daughter to see one, and I’m sure there’s got to be a cool one around here somewhere, but this one wasn’t it. We drove on.
Small town eastern Uzbekistan.
Today was mostly driving and chilling. It’s Sunday and museums were closed.
Since our plans had changed it meant we had to search for a new place to stay for the night. We found a place that looked good on Google Maps, drove straight there, parked, then couldn’t find it. No sign, no nuthin’. I called the number listed on Google, no answer. It was very frustrating.
So, we found another place. A much more expensive place. This one has a pool, and it’s fancy, and the restaurant is great, but still, it’s not where we wanted to go. The other place had a kitty. Google reviews said so. How’s this for how things work out sometimes? Almost immediately after we checked in at fancy place the owner of the original place we wanted to go returned my call and apologized for missing my call! He had an available room and offered it to us! Ugh!!!! I told him we had already checked in somewhere else but he offered to let us come over and meet his cat anyway. We made plans to do that later.
We’ve decided to have the car worked on a bit. I think it needs some new spark plugs and maybe a fuel filter so we asked the hotel to call us a mechanic. One came to grab the car. We asked him to give us a new air filter, a new fuel filter, and new spark plugs. Hopefully it’ll help with the car’s problems and the car will be like new tomorrow. Of course, if that is the problem, it brings us back to our original problem of: Why did my fucking mechanic not do this when I told him to prepare my car for the trip three weeks ago?
We saw a coffee shop right next to the hotel called Brown Sugar and thought we’d check it out. I know. I know, you’re thinking: they’re not eating Uzbek food? Naw. I mean… we’re eating some local foods we’ve never heard of when we see them, but Uzbek food is pretty much the same thing as Kazakh food and we’ve been living in this region for a year already so we’re okay with just eating whatever we want when we see it. I was really impressed with the coffee shop. The food was fine but the impressive part was the decor. It was wildly unexpected. It was American/Euro vintage style.
After lunch I called the first place we had wanted to stay and asked if now would be a good time to come over and see Mr. Samson, the kitty. Yes!!! It was only a short walk away. It turned out we had been in the right place the first time, only the sign over the door was very small. We ended up spending several hours there! The owner is a great guy. We mostly discussed world travels and world politics of course, that’s who we are. I was specifically asked to not link to his place here because he doesn’t like the cult of personality around himself. I can understand that. We’d still be sitting there talking to him had we not been called back to get our car. So you’ll never know the name of the place.
We’re back at our hotel having dinner now. We haven’t driven the car. Actually, there aren’t any hills around here anyway so we’ll all have to wait a couple days to find out if the the spark plugs were the solution. Even if they don’t fix the problem, new spark plugs aren’t going to hurt anything.
We might be the only foreign tourists in the country at this time. Museums are empty, hotels are empty, everywhere is empty. It’s surreal. We were incredibly nervous about traveling during the pandemic. Little did we know how easy it would be to avoid crowds!
We woke up in Tashkent this morning, had breakfast, and left for the Fergana Valley. It’s a region in the eastern part of Uzbekistan most many foreign visitors to the country skip. Not this family! We want to see it all! At one point, while we were driving along we looked up and there was a camel in the back of the truck in front of us.
Our poor UAZ Patriot doesn’t handle mountains well. We couldn’t go up the passes much faster than the big semi trucks and at one point we were afraid our engine was going to overheat so we stopped to give it a rest. We had lunch here. Eggs, sausage, bread, and water.
After about a 4.5 hour drive we made it to our destination: The Palace of Khudayar Khan in Kokand. We arrived from the back of the place and parked in a huge empty lot behind the place and it looked completely unimpressive. I was thinking it was going to be a bust. Sometimes when we travel like this some things end up being not worth it, but!!! When we got around front… this place was different! It was great!
It’s been mostly restored and it’s gorgeous, but we’ve seen lots of old palaces before. The thing we liked the most was the museum. There had lots of neat stuff in it. The most interesting to us was the reference to some petroglyphs we have not heard about anywhere else before and we’ve done lots of research on Uzbekistan. Now we have a new place added to our want to see list.
We were pretty tired after that so we checked Google Maps for hotels nearby and found the Silk Road Kokand Palace Hotel with good reviews. We seem to be the only guests here. I mentioned this in a previous post but it’s so surreal traveling at this exact time in history. museums are empty, restaurants are empty, hotels are empty. everything is empty. My husband and I are both vaccinated, but our teen daughter isn’t. We had serious discussions about whether we should travel this summer or not and if we were going to travel where we should go. Our conversations went around and around and in the end we decided on no airplanes, road trip only, avoid large crowds, try to stay outdoors as much as possible. Oh my god! We had no idea avoiding large crowds would be so easy! There’s no one here! No one! It’s just us everywhere we go!
We woke up early and had breakfast, then we were on our way out. Our first stop was the Oqsaroy Palace, the previous home of the tyrant Uzbek leader Islam Karimov. Apparently, they are eventually turning his old palace into a science museum, but when we looked in the windows all we saw were big empty rooms.
After wandering around for a while on the huge grounds we eventually found our way to the exhibition hall where they have two large rooms dedicated to the life of Karimov. One has some very interesting art and the other is full of photographs.
The staff was very friendly. They rushed around to find someone to translate for us. When we were about halfway through with our tour a nice woman who spoke fluent English came in. She told us all about the place and was eager to tell us what an amazing man Karimov was and all about the evils of Stalin. They took lots of pictures of us, they were very excited to have us sign their guest book. She explained to me how Karimov’s widow comes in frequently and reads the comment book and how much it means to her. They even gave us a really well made propaganda book about his life. We’ll keep it.
They were so kind and welcoming to us it reminding me of how people are falling for George Bush’s bullshit these days and thinking he’s just a sweet old man. They’ve all somehow forgotten he’s a war criminal. Awww…. but look at those cute little paintings he does. Isn’t he a cutie pie???
Next we went to get local SIM cards since we’re going to be here three weeks. It was completely painless and only cost us $7 for the month. After signing up we got a text saying we had to register our phones at the post office? So, we went to the post office. We walked in and after asking a few people if they spoke English we found someone that spoke enough he could explain what we needed to do and then guess what! We met someone from the US! It was our second time in two days! He’s been living six months in the US and six months in Uzbekistan since the 1990’s! Then!!!! Someone else walked up that lived in New York for ten years, and then!! She started LOL’ing because an old friend of hers she hadn’t seen in a long time walked up and got in line behind us, the two of them had met in New Jersey!! What a small world! We were all standing in line to register our new phone numbers in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The first guy gave us his number and said if we have any need at all to give him a call. That’s always good.
Then we went to the State Museum of Temurids History. They had some interesting stuff. A lot of their stuff we found the most interesting was about Samarkand but we’re going to be in Samarkand next week so I honestly didn’t look too close. It was a beautiful museum.
After that we went to get our car insurance. We were told we really, really have to get insurance while we’re here. We had been chatting with a guy from an insurance company all day via Telegram and we entered the address to the company to Yandex, the local Uber type company, and off we went. When we arrived the guy that opened the door looked confused and had no idea who we were. It turned out we were at the wrong place.
Same parent company, different type of insurance. This guy sold travel insurance while we were looking for the car insurance guy. This guy didn’t speak any English so we did all our communicating through Google Translate. Do you wanna know what he did? He put us in his own car and drove us to the other insurance office!!! Oh my god, the Uzbeks are nice! We got our car insurance.
We had originally planned to hit one more museum before calling it a day but we decided to stop there. We came back to our hotel, ate dinner, and now I’m sitting in bed typing this. The husband and kid are already fast asleep.
There are more things we want to do here but we’ve decided to press on. There are a couple reasons:
#1 We’re making a loop of the country meaning we’ll be back in Tashkent in 16 days
#2 Tashkent is only a 45 minute flight from Almaty. We can always come back. I seriously doubt we will ever again see any other part of Uzbekistan again for as long as we live, but if we really want to we could easily hop on a plane and come to Tashkent for a weekend.
We specifically came to Poland to help with refugees and the war effort. My husband and I feel passionately that this is a very important time in history and we want to know we did what we could to help.
I’m seeing with my own eyes and I will report what is needed. I hope you’ll donate. I have a GoFundMe set up and/or you can donate to my Venmo @TravelTeachRead. I don’t need your money. I promise every penny will go to help. So far it’s bought some tools and a dolly.
Before we had even been on the ground five hours we were already meeting with a private transport group. This is a seriously dedicated small group of people that’s taking supplies over the border into Ukraine and all the way to the frontlines of the fighting.
What do they need most? Celox! Hemostatics! Powders and bandages. This is it! This is how you can help. Go to Amazon and buy Celox Rapid Ribbon and send it this way. Or if you’re not the Amazon type you can get something almost as good at your neighborhood Walmart. This is what you’re looking for:
We met with the couple for about three hours talking all about what they’ve been doing and how we can help them. They get as many donations as they can from anywhere and everywhere, unpack them from how they were shipped, re-arrange them into new boxes so everything can fit better, cram as many supplies as they can into a truck, and then off the driver goes.
We arranged to meet them at their warehouse in two days to help pack the next load.
The next morning, this morning, we woke up, had a nice breakfast at Gossip Cafe, then thought we’d walk over to a shelter for refugees we had been put in touch with.
When we walked in and didn’t really know what to say or ask but said we wanted to volunteer and OMG they put us to work! We were not dressed for it and hadn’t really planned to stay at that moment, but instead we stayed 6 hours. There is so much to do! My husband built a cabinet. My teen daughter entertained children by calling bingo numbers and I went to the hardware store to buy some tools.
The refugees do have their basic needs met. They have food and a bed to sleep in, but there are many more needs. I could still be there working now. They need a lot.
We noticed they were hauling furniture up four flights of stairs with no dolly and my husband suggested I go buy one. That turned into a bit of a fiasco, it turns out they’re not so easy to find here in Krakow, but I found one at a supply warehouse online and it will be delivered in two days! I got this one. It’s especially made for use on stairs.
Apparently there are five shelters for refugees in Krakow alone. I plan to visit all five of them. I will give updates.
Day four was more of a chill out day for us. We had been going hard for three days in a row. We had already seen everything on our must see list and more and our list had been pretty long from the beginning. We’re history teachers and we’re in Istanbul. We decided to mostly relax for the day. It’s a holiday. We knew most places would be closed. I wanted to explore the empty streets to get photos. The husband had some other stuff he wanted to do. We split up for most of the day.
Today is the Muslim holiday of Eid al Adha and I was trying to ask the guy at the front desk of our hotel about any local traditions for the holiday but his English is poor and my Turkish is nonexistent so he didn’t understand what I was trying to ask. He thought I was trying to ask for suggestions of places to see in Istanbul. He kept saying you should go here and I would respond already been there, then he’d say you should go here, and I’d say already been there, then he’d say oh! you should go here! and I’d say already seen it. Then he asked how long have you been here???? And I said three days.
His eyes got really wide and he said THREE DAYS????? You’ve seen everything!!! You’ve seen more of Istanbul than me! And I’ve lived here ten years. He said most tourists come here, take one picture of the Hagia Sophia, spend the rest of the time shopping and drinking, then leave.
Yeah. That ain’t me.
But today was for chillin’.
The streets were mostly empty. When we were traveling in Uzbekistan at this time last year there were goats tied up outside almost every door just waiting to be slaughtered for the evening celebrations. I didn’t see any of that here. I’m assuming Istanbul must have ordinances against that type of thing. We have to protect the eyes of the precious tourists.
I saw these two buidlings with signs over their doors stating their opeing dates from the 1600’s!
So what’s this holiday all about anyway? I’m glad you asked. I love teaching religion, it is my favorite topic of study after all. This one’s a three-fer! The story is in all three Abrahamic religions but only one considers it a holiday and it’s the most major holiday at that. There are two official holidays in Islam Eid al Adha, this one, and Eid al Fitr. Non-Muslims tend to think the other Eid is the bigger holiday but they’ve got it the wrong way around. Eid al Adha is the HUGE holiday and Eid al Fitr is the smaller one. The reason they think that is because well, first, they can’t be bothered to take the time to ask or look it up and because Eid al Fitr is the celebration to end Ramadan they just assume it’s the biggest holiday of the year because they know close to nothing about Islam only that Ramadan is a thing and there’s a holiday after Ramadan so that must be the biggest holiday, right?
So, let’s move on the the true big holiday of Islam: Eid al Adha. It’s the celebration of the day Abraham almost killed his kid! Because everyone knows that’s totally a reason we should have a family celebration. So in case you don’t remember/never learned the weird ass religious story of Abraham and Isaac here’s your refresher: So the story goes approximately 4,000 years ago there lived a very devout man named Abraham. He had a son named Isaac. One day Abraham’s god told him to kill his son as a sacrifice to him, and instead of what any good father should say which is fuck you! No way! Abraham said totally yeah okay I’ll murder my kid. So he took his kid up to the ceremonial mountain and right before he was about to kill his own child a magical angel stops him and is like LOL! Just kidding!!!! ha ha ha! God was kidding! You don’t really have to kill your kid! It was all a test. He just wanted to see if you’d really do it. But you really do have to kill a goat. Now kill a goat for your god. Kill a goat Abraham. Do it.
So this is supposed to be some kind of motivational story about faith or something. Bizarre. I mean what kind of a dick must this god be? When I look at my daughter and think about anyone suggesting I kill her even as a prank I simply get engraged. There’s no way in hell I’d kill my daughter and for anyone to suggest it is fucked up. And for someone to suggest it as.. what??? A joke? A dare? A prank? A test? I just wanted to see if you’d really do it or not? I wasn’t really gonna make you kill your daughter. That’s fucked up. It’s sick. What kind of god takes pleasure in convincing a man to almost murder his own child?
Yeah. Well. This is a cute motivational scripture story about potential child murder for two of the Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Judaism, that’s supposed to I dunno… I guess…inspire one to love their god more or something…and the Reason for the Season for the third of the religion’s biggest holiday of the year.
I am absolutely fascinated by the study of religion. Truly, I am, but how anyone can still believe this stuff in the modern age is almost beyond my comprehension.
To celebrate Eid al Adha there is much candy eaten, lots of gift giving to children, money given to women, and the slaughtering of many goats. Many, many goats are slaughtered. In some regions if the world it’s tradition to dip your hands in the goat’s blood and then put your handprint on the outside of your house as a symbol of good luck for the following year. Did I mention all the slaughtered goats? There’s a lot of meat eaten on this holiday and Islamic law states the fortunate must share with the needy on Eid al Adha.
Oh! And while we’re on the topic that phrase Eid Mubarrak you hear a lot? It means something like Happy Holidays! Happy Eid! You can say it to your Muslim friends. I bet they tell you Merry Christmas and don’t worry about it. You can try to bend a little for them too. I promise no thunderbolts will strike you down for saying Eid Mubarrak.
While walking around taking pictures of the empty streets I ran into the same guy three times and he kept trying to talk to me. The last time he said “I am not danger.” Here’s a little lesson for those of you less traveled: if someone feels the need to introduce themselves as “not danger” it’s probably best to stay away from them. I know I made a big deal in my last post about how much I despise teaching Stranger Danger! and I encourage my child to talk to strangers but there’s a big difference in talking to random strangers in the coffee shop and talking to the random guy you’re pretty sure is following you on the empty streets of the city. Yeah. Don’t be dumb. Don’t do that. If someone introduces themselves as “I am not danger” walk the other way.
I had a salad in a restaurant that looked nice for lunch.
I ran into a guy for a second time who liked chatting with me about my tattoos. I have lots of them and they’re not very common in Turkiye. He has vicious scarring all over his right hand. If I had to guess I’d say a grease fire, but I ddin’t ask. He told me he plans to get the scarring covered with tattoos. I asked him when he’s going to do it then he told me he plans to try to make it to Italy but if they catch him on the way they’ll send him back to Afghanistan and in Afghanistan they’ll chop his hand off if he has tattoos on it so he has to wait until he’s safely in Italy to do it. I wished him luck and he was on his way. This was one of those cool stories about talking to strangers. Well…maybe not cool… but what a different world I live in. Here I am a woman, in a tank top, covered in tattoos, talking to a man that’s not my family, while on vacation in a foreign country about how he’s about to to illegally migrate to Italy and he can’t get his scars covered because if he does when he’s deported to Afghanistan they’ll chop his hand off. I love traveling.
In the evening we went for a stroll and found a hidden rooftop bar. If they were to bill it as a speakeasy it would probably become really popular since it’s nearly impossible to find, but as it is I’m not sure how well it will survive. The views were nice though and the manager was from Cameroon so he was thrilled to meet a couple who had lived in Benin recently.
Day 5: FOOD POISONING. I woke up feeling nausueous during the night of Day 4. Then the diarrhea and vomitting began. I didn’t get out of bed except to run to the toilet for 24+ hours.
It wasn’t as bad as I’ve had in the past. There was the time in Chiapas, Mexico when I literally slept on the bathroom floor in our hostel for a week. Then, of course, we lived in China for three years where I had to carry charcoal pills with me at all times. I had food poisoning there about every other week.
I’m actually typing this on day 6 and feeling 95% recovered. I’m sure it was the salad. Never eat healthy while on vacation. Lesson learned.
We woke up to the news of Shinzo Abe being shot dead. First the Georgia Guidestones were blown up yesterday then Abe was assassinated with a homemade gun today. The gods are really trying to put a damper on this news junky’s vacation. I refuse to be deterred. I will continue to enjoy Istanbul.
We started the morning as always with breakfast.
Then it was time to hit the road! We went walking along the beach for about an hour looking at ruins and taking photos along the way.
Our first major stop was this big column signifying the defeat of the Goths! This is the oldest known monument from the Roman era still surviving intact.
Then we went to the Aqueduct of Valens. Human engineering never ceases to amaze me! These aqueducts were begun in th early 300’s and completed during the reign of emperor Valens. Valens was the emperor killed at the Battle of Adrianople. He wasn’t a big fan of religious bickering and he wanted the Nicene Christians and all the other types of Christians to just get along. What the heck does that mean?
You probably don’t even know you’re a Nicene Christian. I find many religious people know little about what they claim to believe. Here, let me help you. Are you Christian? Do you believe in the Holy Trinity? All that 3 in 1 stuff? Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in one? Okay well that’s Nicene Christianity and it definitely was not the only type of Chritianity way back then, it just happened to become the popular belief system like how a particular style of music becomes popular or a style of clothing becomes popular and it’s pretty much the only fashionable one today. Very few Christian sects are nontrinitarian today. Back then though, it was just another sect and they would all bicker and fight all the time. Emperor Valen hated it and wanted everyone to get along.
Next we went to the Church of Saint Mary of the Mongols. It’s the only remaining Eastern Orthodox church in Istanbul that has never been converted into a mosque and it’s been a continuous church since the 7th century! It’s not open to the public and it’s got big walls around it so this is the best you get. We knew we weren’t going to get to see it but we wanted to go anyway. Don’t be fooled by the huge brick building in the distance, that’s a university. The only part of the church you can see is the little steeple.
All her life I have encouraged my daughter to talk to strangers. I detest the idea of Stranger Danger! Talking to strangers is how you make the best friends. Once, in London, I struck up a random conversation with a stranger in a coffee shop and it turned out she was a security guard at Tate Modern Art Museum and she offered us free friends and family passes to the special exhibits for the day. I mention this because talking to strangers worked out for us again today.
A guy on the street asked us where we were from and instead of blowing him off and walking on we stopped to chat. It turned out he he’s American, and a high level priest in the Eastern Orthodox Church! He was recently transferred here from his parish in the States and now has an office job working for the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople! He told us the history of the area and about some other places we might want to see.
We were standing directly in front of the old nunnery. We wouldn’t have known that.
We walked over to the Patriarch to see it next. This is basically the Vatican of the Eastern Orthodox Church. They’d probably get mad at me for saying it like that ya know…schism and all… but I’m trying to speak in laymen’s terms.
Some scenes from the Greek part of town. This is definitely the “cooler” “hipper” part of town. Or at least trying to be. There were far fewer people annoying us on the sidewalk to try to get us to come in their cafe and there were far more people who looked as if they had smoked one too many doobies over the years. I recommend getting a room in this part of town 🙂
Next we walked to the Bulgarian St. Stephen’s Church. It’s famous only because the whole thing is made of steel. Here you can see the screws holding it together.
A funny thing happened inside. The man cleaning the floors stopped me to ask me if my grandfather was Irish. I mean, I don’t speak Turkish but I’m pretty sure that’s what he asked me. It’s what it sounded like. All my life I’ve been reminded of how Irish I look. Random people will just stop me on the street and say “You’re Irish” or ask “Are you Irish?” or when we were actually in Ireland a few years ago people kept asking me directions. My ancestry really is Irish but this is a thing that really, really happens to me a *lot* and some random guy cleaning the floors in the Bulgarian Iron Church of Istanbul was so curious be stopped me to ask me if I was Irish.
Next we went to a famous Eastern Orthodox Monastery with a famous fountain where some famous song was written but honestly I got distracted by this cat. So, this is what you get.
After that monastery we were off to another one! This one was really cool though. The floor was lined with old gravestones. It also had a magical fountain at it. Erected by, get this, Emperor Justinian in the year 559 CE!!!!
The story goes he was out hunting and saw some old ladies standing around a well. He asked hey..whazzup? They said it was miraculous healing water and he ordered a beauticul church to be built on the spot from the left over materials from the Hagia Sophia.
The building I saw is not the original building, several have been destroyed and rebuilt over the years, but the natural spring is still there and there’s still a church and active monastery in the location.
Okay. Now we were off to see the Walls of Constantinople. We sat and had Turkish coffee right by the walls that protected Byzantium from invaders all the way up until 1453.
We tried to go to Mehmed II’s dungeon fortress turned museum but it’s closed for the holiday 🙁 I’ll talk about the holiday tomorrow. So we had another coffee.
Our day was finally closing and we chose to take a taxi home seeing as we had reached nearly 20,000 steps, it was hot, and we were tired. And this hearse was in front of us for some of the way.
And dinner. Tastes just like anyone’s grandma’s stew from anywhere aroudn the world. It’s one of the things I love so much about traveling: seeing how little different we are and how much we’re really the same.
We woke up and had breakfast then went straight to stand in line at the Hagia Sophia. It was a good idea. By the time we had been there 20 minutes the line was crazy long. They open the door to the public at 10AM, I highly recommend you get there by 9AM and wait. It’s worth it. We stood outside for 2.5 hours waiting to get in Auschwitz a few years ago, waiting an hour for the Hagia Sophia was nothing. It’s worth it to be on of the first people in the building and get pictures with fewer people.
Here’s the video I’ll use to embarrass my kid when she’s an adult.
I tried to get as many pictures of crosses as I could. They have the murals of Mary holding the baby Jesus and mural of Joseph covered up with sheets but I at least took pics of that.
There’s a big sign at the front doors talking about the conquering of Constantinople in 1453 and the conversion of the cathedral into a mosque.
I’m no religious person. I wish it was still a museum, there were cats running around inside, and I could have gone upstairs to see the rune graffitti, but as a history teacher it was really cool to see this place!
Next, we went to the Sultan’s Palace. We didn’t realize how big the place was. If you like history plan to spend several hours there. We arrived around 11:30 and didn’t leave until close to 16:00.
They’ve turned the property into several museums. We learned about the history of coffee in Turkiye, we saw the history of weapons in Turkiye, we saw the kitchens, we learned that the kitchen had it’s own not one but two prayer rooms, we saw the harem, we saw that the harem had its own elite group of African eunichs brought in from Central Africa, we saw beautiful gardens, a huge library, beautiful views of the sea, and more.
Oh! And I saw two men very obviously check out my husband. I only mention that since in my last post I mentioned a guy giving me his number.
After that we went to a rooftop Indian restaurant. I was a bit disappointed. We asked for spicy. We even explained we had lived in China for three years, we knew what real spicy food was, and we wanted our food spicy. My food was as sweet as candy. It was tasty. My mom probably would have liked it. I ate it. But… it wasn’t what I wanted. The views were gorgeous though and the restuarant sits overlooking the Stone of Million, the Byzantine zero mile marker.
Next we went to the Istanbul Archaeology Museum and it was really cool! They have an entire section dedicated to sarcophaguses! I have been fascinated with cemeteries all my life and spent many a hour strolling through them, picnicking, and taking photos. I like to read the inscriptions to see what people had to say. One of my favorite cemeteries is one I visited in Las Vegas.
The museum had the tombstones translated. Some of them were adorable and some of them were tragic. One was for a beloved pet dog! I also saw some absolutely gorgeous gold jewelry shaped in teh face of dogs in the museum, proving we humans have loved our dogs for a long, long time.
It was about the time I was looking at ancient Roman coins when a friend in the States sent me a message telling me the Georgia Guidestones had been destroyed. Domestic terrorism is becoming a bigger and bigger threat in the US. I have no doubt whatsoever this was the work of some right wing terrorist nutjob. The Guidestones have always been a topic in conspiracy groups, but as of late they have been making the rounds again and then! Bam! Someone blows them up.
I’m glad my husband and I have always been fans of off the beaten path tourist attractions. The Georgia Guidestones were one of our first day trips together wayyyyy back when we first met.
Funny sidenote, I showed the picture to my teen daughter and she asked who are those people in front of the stones? I said that’s your mom and dad! She has no memory of her dad with longer hair, he shaves it now and has for years, or me without several tattoos. I had to zoom in really close so she coudl see our faces and she said “Oh yeah, you guys look cute”.
After the archaeology museum the kid was dying for a shower and we had just enough time to get back to the hotel for that before needing to be at our next destination. If you know anything about us you know we’re not normally the type of tourists that go for preplanned tours or big shows. We travel all summer every summer and avoid all that canned BS but one particular theater looked appealing. The husband said we should go see their shows so we bough tickets. I’m so glad we did.
We saw Sufi whirling dervishes and a dance show. There were no cameras allowed for the dervishes, also no clapping. They told us it was because this was a religious ceremony and cameras and clapping would be inappropriate. I was wondering the whole time if I was really watching true Sufis or if these were just performers. Either way it was neat.
I’ve read quite a bit about whirling dervishes in the past. I know they get themselves high as fuck with all the spinning they do. I guess maybe if someone started as “just an actor” they’re probably thinking they’re one with god after doing that night after night. It was really cool to watch. I didn’t realize they would spin for so long.
They also had live musicians. They were all good but the two vocalists were amazing. I could listen to them sing all night. My husband and I had a conversation about how easy it is to understand how the Sufis are seen as a cult in Islam. It was all very New Age like one with everything blah blah blah… and one could easily fall into a trancelike state listening to the music. Okay. I’ll stop going on about how cool it was.
Oh wait. When it was all over I saw two of five of the spinning men kiss their robes before putting them back on over their fancy spinning white clothes. I’m going with those two are true believers and the other three are paid actors/dancers. It was cool either way.
After the spinning guys there was a dance performance. My favorite was the Dark Sufi. That’s what I’m calling him. I have no idea what his real name is. oh. my. god. It was amazing. To be honest dance has never been my favorite artform, but I loved this. Besides the fact that the actual dancer humself was super sexy, everything about the choreography was amazing.
I’m sure the juxtapositioning of we had just seen the “pure” Sufis whirl and now we were seeing this guy dressed in all black do it had a great effect on my mind. That’s the whole point, right? But it was more. They way he moved his body. His jerks. Everything about the whirling dervishes was gentle, smooth, and sweet, they made light flowing transitions, while this guy was up there writhing and jolting and spinning with intensity in the stage. His passion screamed to me.
The internet service is so poor in my hotel here in Istanbul this post has taken me a total of 6 hours to make. I keep getting kicked offline and then the pics won’t upload. Anyway, I’m trying. This is 3 days old now.
We arrived late in the afternoon and were tired. We didn’t do much. We took a short walk around town where a candy vendor gave me his number. It’s nice to know I still got it at 44 but kinda weird when I was in the shop with my husband. We had a good laugh about it. Well, I think we did. I did.
Then we ate dinner at the place where the guy didn’t harrass us and beg us to in and sit down. Turkiye is my 48th country to visit. I have two major pet peeves when traveling: taxi drivers harassing me at the airport/train station/bus station and restaurant workers harassing me on the sidewalk. Coming up to me and annoying me while I’m walking by is a sure way to lose my busisness. He was going to let us walk right on by in peace, so we walked in and sat down. It was delicious. I had Iskander.
After, the husband had to buy his yearly straw hat. He had become so attached to last year’s hat I was terrified he was going to bring it with him so before leaving for this trip I dug it out of the closet and threw it in the trash. Those things are not made for two years in a row of the kind fo traveling we do.
That was it. It was bed time.
This morning! I cannot believe I forgot to bring head coverings with me for my daughter and I but I did. I didn’t want to get ripped off by the tourist vendors on the street so we found an LC Waikiki, similar to Ross Dress for Less, and went to the second floor, LCW Modest, the floor for Muslim women (or my grandma) and bought a couple cheap ones there.
We headed to the Hagia Sophia, but as I feared the line was really long. We decided to do what we did for Machu Picchu and line up early tomorrow so we’re some of the only people there. We began the hike up the mountain in Peru about a decade ago at 4:30 in the morning so we could be up there right at the sunrise. There was almost no one there. It was awesome.
We did go see the Blue Mosque. It was beautiful. It’s recently been under construction and a lot of the rafting is still in place which took away a bit from the beauty, but it was still nice. We spent last summer traveling Uzbekistan and this was close in its level of beauty.
One thing that struck me outside was all the proselytizing. There was a lot of it. I felt like I was back in the American South all but instead of covert to Christianity now! Praise Jesus! It was convert to Islam now! Praise the Prophet! In all my worldly travels I’ve haven’t encountered much Islamic proselytizing. It’s here outside the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque.
We saw the Hippodrome of Constantinople!!! First built by Septimius Severus in the 3rd century CE then made bigger and fancier by Constantine I in the next century. It was used for charriot racing. It was also used for such things as public executions. If you know anything about me you know I’m interested in the macabre parts of history so I was happy to stand on the ground. It didn’t go out of fashion until the Fourth Crusade.
Time out- history lesson- the Fourth Crusade is the most embarrassing one for the Roman (Catholic) Christian Church. Let me tell you why. The Muslims were invading Christian, Byzantine, Eastern Roman, land and those Christians asked for help from the Western Roman (Catholic) Christians. The Western pope called for a crusade, he send Western Christians to help Eastern Christians fight off the Muslims. But instead…. What happened was….
In the west people were really poor, rememeber… Fall of the Roman Empire and all that stuff you learned long, long ago? Well they were poor, living in huts, wearing rags, and they got to Constantinople which was rich, rich, rich, and the Western Christians ransacked Eastern Christian churches!!! They also raped and pillaged their way all through Constantinople.
So, Western Christians were sent to help their Eastern Christian brothers and sisters fight off the Muslims but instead they ransacked, raped, and pillaged Contantinople.
There’s far more to it than that, but that’s your middle school version of the Fourth Crusade in case you’ve forgotten it.
Back to my day in Istanbul.
We saw signs for a mosaic museum. I like mosiacs. I said let’s go there and wow am I glad I did! It was 60 lira for entrance to an amazing museum with ancient Roman mosiacs. I could have stayed there for hours but I have a great picture of my teen daughter doing what she does best: looking bored all around the world. I really do hope she grows to appreciate all the places she’s been one day.
After the mosiac museum we had lunch at a sidewalk cafe. Nothing special. I just had a salad.
Next we went to a cistern we had read about that was in the basement of Nakkas Rugs, a carpet shop. We were afraid it would just be a tourist trap but it wasn’t so bad. As we were beginning to walk down to see the cistern my eyes began to water terribly so I had to back out. I have terrible allergies. Not sure what it was but something bothered me. The same thing happened to me at the bug pit in Uzbekistan last year.
While my husband and daughter were seeing the cistern a guy who worked at the shop began talking to me. I told him we were teachers and instantly everything about him changed. He told me all about Ataturk and how he taught the Turkish people there is no more valuable profession than a teacher and all teachers should be respected. When I told him I teach about Ataturk in my classes he got a big smile on his face.
When my husband and daughter returned my husband noticed a small figurine of a rottweiler in a case and pointed it out to me. I love rottweilers. They’re the best breed of dog on Earth. the guy said you like rottweilers! You must come upstairs and see something! Don’t worry, you don’t have to buy it. We went upstairs and what did they have hanging on the wall but an absolutely gorgeous silk rug of a rottweiler. I almost teared up. I’m sure that rug is $3,000 or more. I can’t afford it, but if I could I’d buy it.
Before we left he told us they had a rooftop patio with beautiful views and we were welcome to go up there. He even sent us Turkish coffee. No pressure at all. He didn’t even follow us. We just sat on the patio, enjoyed the view, drank or coffee, relaxed, and took some photos.
Now we took the elevator down and thought we were really leaving when a guy asked us to walk through the jewelry store on our way out. I almost laughed out loud and I said I’m sorry, I know I can’t afford anything in there, we were just leaving. He said it’s okay, you can have a look. Oh what the heck. We went in. And I’m so glad we did!
He asked me about my necklace. Why was I wearing it? What did it mean? Since buying this necklace back in December I have worn it many, many times and not one person has ever asked me about it. My husband, this Turkish jeweler, and myself ended up having a fantastic conversation about world politics! While I do teach about the French revolution in my world history class and wear this necklace when I do, it means far more to me.
We talked all about corruption, and taxes, and fascists, and I think we’d make great friends!
But I was right about the jewelry. One piece I liked was $1300 USD and one was $1600. That’s a bit out of my teacher’s budget. My guillotine necklace cost me less than $20 with shipping.
Next we went to another cistern which was a ripoff. I don’t recommend it. It was more expensive than the mosiac museum with nothing really to see. I very seldom discourage people to see history, only when I feel it’s a tourist trap rip-off. That’s what this is. When you can see others just as cool for less or even free why pay so much? It’s a trap! If you really must see it, then here are my pics. It’s pretty inside but not worth the entrance fee.
Last thing place of the day: Islamic Museum of the History of Science. The most interesting I learned was about the Javanese map. An Islamic map from the 15th century showing the Americas, specifically the Brazillian coast. I have a picture of it but I’ve been waiting forever for it to upload and we’re ready to go out exploring for the day and I give up. If you’re interested in seeing it you can write me and ask.
The museum was mostly reproductions of all the amazing scientific and mathematical advancements from the Islamic world over the ages. They had astrolabes galore and they had two big sections dedicated to Ulugh Beg and we saw his observatory in Samarkand last year!
I know the formatting on this entry is terrible. The internet connetion at our hotel is awful. This is the best I can do for now.
Stop one of our 2022 summer advertures was Aktau, Kazakhstan. We flew Scat Airlines to get here and their name was befitting. There were drunks puking in the bathroom and vaping on the plane. It’s all part of the adventure though right?
We stayed in the Renassaince Hotel in town. It’s the older part of town. All the newer development has moved to a different area but we wouldn’t have known that while booking. The service was so-so but we weren’t expecting much since we cut our summer travels two weeks short two weeks due to how awful customer service was in western Kazakhstan last year, and we weren’t anywhere near this far west.
We were only here two days. Yesterday and today, tomorrow we leave for Istanbul bright and early. I’ll tell you about yesterday last. First, today!
We went on a private tour to see the Valley of Balls. I’ve been dying to see this place since before even moving to Kazakhstan. I was really bummed when we cut our trip short last year, but it was a mutual decision. This year we flew directly here. A 3 hour flight was much more tolerable than a 50+ hour drive with the ever looming fear of running out of gas.
What’s the Valley of Balls? Good question. It’s a valley full of huge ball shaped rocks. No one is sure what caused them. I’ve read several different geology websites about them and no one knows the answer. Here are some of my pictures.
They ranged in all sizes from tiny to gigantic
There are even still shells proving this used to be the bottom of the ocean. They were all over the place up there.
Along the way we stopped to see some other cool things too. We saw an old Mosque complete with a caravanserai for traveling visitors. Apparently it used to be strictly off limits to tourists but some famous imam from some holy place came to visit and inscribed on the wall it was no longer haram for vistitors to come there.
Honestly, the most interesting part to my about this place was one the tradtions our tour guide told us about. He said the Muslims in this region have a tradition where the burn the fat of a goat outside the door of the mosque then before they go in the mosque they “rub the fire” on their bodies and it cleanses their minds.
The tradition predates Islam and you see religious syncreticism from the traditional Tengri religion, maybe even mixed in with some Zoroastrianism which I know was practiced in the region. On an interesitng note, we learned in our travels through Uzbekistan last year no one likes talking about Zoroastrianism. It’s dare I say taboo? We were very interested in its history in the region and tried to engage many people in conversation about it last year but every one clammed up immediately. But, our tour guide had no problem mentioning the connection to Tengri traditions. Here’s a little academic page I found with some extra information.
There was a caravanseria outside the mosque for pilgrims.