The Long Drive to Aydar Lake

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.

Did We Anger the Gods?

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!

The Aral Desert: Muynak. A Testament to Poor Planning and Climate Change

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.  

The Ancient Fortresses Around Khiva, the Uzbeks Win a Gold, and Dinner with New Friends

Our second day in Khiva was for the stuff outside the city.  

First off, I want to put a plug in for the amazing hotel we stayed in in Khiva. If you’ve been following my blog then you know it’s the owned by the same family that owns my favorite hotel of our whole trip so far and that was the one in Bukhara. That one was called Malika Bukhara Hotel and the one in Khiva was called Hotel Arkanchi. I promise they didn’t pay me anything to say this. They don’t even know I’m putting them in my blog. Their hotels are nice, their staff is nice, and we just happened to be staying there at the exact same time as the owners so we met them. They are a wonderful family. They invited us to dinner one night and it was wonderful, but to be honest I’d be writing this even if they hadn’t. We loved our stay there. They’ll be opening a place in Samarkand soon too.  

The second day was for seeing the ancient fortresses scattered around the area. We have our own car and Google Maps but I suggested we hire a driver and, wow, was it a good idea! For $35 we hired a private driver for eight hours to take us to all the fortresses around Khiva. The car was comfortable, air conditioned, and he knew exactly where he was going. It was awesome because it turned out there were several road closures and then lots of back ways to get up close to the fortresses we never would have been able to figure out on our own.  

The fortresses are amazing. They range between 2000-5000 years old and they are in varying stages of repair. Some are 100% original and the Uzbek government has renovated others quite a bit. I hope they leave them at least partially original. As a history teacher, I don’t want to see them looking new. I come for the history. If you’re reading this, Uzbek Department of Tourism, please don’t completely renovate the ancient fortresses. Please. Please leave them partially original. Maybe half old and half renovated? Or 75/25?  

He also took us to a local place to eat by this big salt lake and we wouldn’t have known about it. We had packed a small box of crackers and thought we’d just snack on it and go hungry during the day then have a big dinner at night. For lunch? We had fried fish right out of the lake, tomatoes, watermelon, honeydew melon, and Coca-Cola. Anyone seeing a picture of our table could easily mistake it for a table anywhere in the South (USA). 

When we got back to the hotel the owner’s son that’s in his mid-twenties was in the lobby and I sat down to chat with him. I’ll always sit down to have a chat with anyone. Something exciting happened while we were there. An Uzbek won the gold medal in the Olympics in Tae Kwon Do! The hotel receptionist was very excited. He turned the TV on to watch the ceremony. He hummed along when they played the Uzbek national anthem. I’m sorry I don’t know it or else I would have hummed along as well. It was an exciting time to be sitting there.  

Do you remember wayyyyyyyyyyy back three weeks ago when we were in Fergana and we went on a walk with a Palestinian guy? He was in Khiva!!!! So we invited him to join us for dinner at our hotel! . I was certain the hotel owner’s son and our friend, well, they were both our friends by now, would get along so I wanted them to meet. I was correct. We’re all friends now. We had a great time discussing…wait for it…. wait for it…. yep. …  you guessed it…. world politics. That and mostly how much I loved living in China.  

After dinner it was bed time because we knew we were going to have a long drive the next day.  

Khiva’s out to git ya!

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.

Our Drive from Bukhara to Khiva

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.

One Final Day in Bukhara

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.  

Site seeing in Bukhara, or as I like to call it Uzbek Santa Fe

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:

Almaty: rice, raisins, carrots, horse

Tashkent: rice, raisins, garbanzo beans, carrots, horse

Samarkand: sorry-forgot to try

Bukhara: Rice, carrots, horse

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.

Am I in Santa Fe? Nope, it’s Bukhara.

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.

Dinner.

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.

A Day and a half in Kitab, Uzbekistan

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.