Sunday, October 31, 2010

Ashgabad - to- Almaty

Hello from Alma Ata/Almaty. We flew out of Ashgabad, over the "White City" or "City of Love" last evening. In the evening glow,the white Italian Marble facings on all of the Presidential Palaces, Ministeris, and new highrises almost blinded us. Amazing what money and a determined dictatorship can achieve! We know that many people have been displaced to rebuild the city, but we were also very aware that the hotel rooms are  "bugged" and the internet monitored. (I had to give my passport to use the internet at the Turkish Department store). So, we have been very cautious in our comments. We were warned about the many crazy rules and especially about taking photos of any offical buildings. We thought that the warnings were over the top until we met an Aussie girl at our hotel who couldn't resist taking  photo in front of the golden domes of one of the Presidential palaces. She spent 2 hours in a police station deleting her photos and faced several threats.

All that aside, on every street, there were police or military every 50 Meters. We felt quite safe walking the streets of Ashgabad. On the last evening we found a Beethoven/Brahams piano concert at a music conservatory not too far from our hotel. It was a fine way to close our stay in Turkmenistan. Our best memories are of the archeological sites, meeting the archeologists, and watching them at work. One woman was patiently piecing together the skeleton of a 2 month infant, from 2,500 years ago. I was able to name the boney prominances of the face, arms, legs and spine, and she seemed to appreciate my interest as she put the tiny fragile bones together like a puzzle. I felt very sad thinking watching her piece together the skull of the ancient baby who lived so shortly in the Margush area. I wondered what caused this little one to die. There were many bones and pottery fragmens scattered over the archaeogical sites and even though these were from antiquity, I found the experience walking among the ruins to be quite emotional.

I just remembered something that I forgot to tell all new parents about. Traditionally in Uzbekistan babies are placed into a special crib with a hole in the floor of the crib. For little boys and girls there are special wooden "pipes" that are put over the urethera to channel the urine into the hole. I did not see any pampers in use or dispose anywhere and found this solution very economical and practical. Well, give this idea some thought; no diaper rash, no environmenal waste, no additonal cost. I took a couple of photos of these little wooden tools and maybe we can experiment on one of the babies.

After a marathon of passport checks and x-rays of our bags, we got onto the right flight and arrived in Almaty at about 11 pm. Despite having to drag bags over no-mans-land, maybe it is still easier to cross Central Asian borders overland. We are staying in a lovely suite of rooms in the hotel Kazzhol but alas, fly out at 10 pm tonight. We have walked around this city of 1.3 Million people and most especially enjoyed Panfilov Park where we met local people enjoying this fall day. Stefan is getting pretty good at reading Russian signs and we have had coffee and cake in at the Coffeedeia and pasta for lunch at Mamma Mia. In the park we have met quite a few people who speak English and several people know Canadians working here. The people here are beautiful and look very Eurasian; Chinese Russians is how they are desribed. The women dress in the latest European fashions and have mastered the art of running in spike heels and tight skirts. We found that we miss the modest, long but tight dresses and hats/scarves; the national dress of the other Central Asian people. Like Ashgabad, Almaty is very modern but not palatial. We've been spoiled by double ply toilet tissue and will probably have another adjustment to make in China

Off to Urumchi tonight. Love to all. Corine and Stefan

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Farewell Ashgabad

Hello friends, today is October 18 and the last time that we will communicate from Central Asia. Did I tell you that we had to have our temperatures taken by a physician in a white lab coat, at the border? I had quite a head cold and was worried that I might have a fever or start coughing. It seems that foreigners need to have a temperature check before getting into Turkemenistan. In spite of the dictatorship and all of the strange rules, we will be sort of sad to leave Ashgabad. Ashagabad, with a population of about 650,000, full of grandiose fountains; spectacular monuments; parks filled with roses and flowers of every description; trees, shrubs and lots of weeping willows, sucking up the water and blowing gently in the breeze; and of course really stunning architecture, many with gold domes. While we watch the water running into pools and fountains, it is often hard to remember that only a few kilometers away, the desert encroaches upon the city-the villages are without clean, running water or reliable electricity, and a few kilometers the Murgab delta and of course, in Uzbekistan the Aral Sea shrinks into the desert. At first Stefan didn't much like this pretentious city and he called it a "monument to bureaucracy", but now the city has grown on him and he said that of all of the Central Asian cities, living in Ashgabad would require the least adjustment for North Americans (even though there isn't all that much to do here and the mountains are a bit of a drive). We have found a couple of very good restaurants and had dinner for the second time in a park, under the trees and hey, complete with a live jazz band. It was a nice change from hearing Whitney Houston belting out the over-familiar "I love YOU". (Sadly, nothing more current than Unchained Melody. Lady GAGA has not reached Turkmenistan).

We got up early yesterday so that we could visit the Tolkuchka Bazaar. This bazaar is about a 20 minute drive from the city center, near the airport. The farmers don't have to enter the city so they don't have wash down their trucks or cars. The bazaar site is huge and quite well organized. Like all markets, parking is a problem and cars are helter skelter everywhere, then you notice a real parking lot. The lot is filled with used cars for sale. Each vehicle is polished and clean with hoods and trunks open. A few 4x4's still had the logo of the NGO clearly visible. Many deals were being made. Then further out, is the animal market with chickens, ducks, geese, cows, horses, and of course, goats and sheep of every description. I watched one guy put 4 big sheep into the trunk of a BMW. Then, over in another section are men in big shaggy sheepskin hats bargaining for noisy, braying camels. Honestly, I now know how to load camels into a truck. First, they hobble the animal, make it sit down on all four legs. Then they tie a rope over the back and over the back legs and put a sling under their front and hind quarters. A crane then lifts slings and the animal high over the truck and into the box. I think that they must squish the testicles because, the camel really protests. He opens his mouth, sticks out his 1/2 meter tongue and brays loudly! Each camel costs about $1,000USD and I can only tell you that there must be quite a few very wealthy farmers in the area. They use the camel for transportation, wool, milk, meat and maybe even for exotica. They are pretty amusing animals to watch sailing across the desert. Maybe we've been spoiled by visiting too many markets or maybe we're getting tired. The noise, chaos, mountains of vegetables and fruits piled artfully, the carpets, the jewellery, even the women in colorful, long dresses and the
men in long coats and big hats seemed to pale compared with the markets in Kyrgyzstan. I haven't quite thought this through, but for some reason, we didn't enjoy this bazaar as much.

This morning we visited the Museum of Fine Arts. The multi-columned building with domes and big gold doors was lovely and the exhibits were beautifully desplayed. I am in love with the finds from preBronze age period and spent quite a bit of time looking at the archelogical finds from the Merv and Gonur Depe area. The anthropomorphic figures have captured my imagination and suspended me in that timeframe. The second highlight in the museum was a scupture by S. Artykmannedow from 1937. Picasso might have been inspired by the preBronze age figures and by this artist too.

If anyone has been trying to leave a comment or ask questions on the blog, you will have noticed by now, that we are not able to see the blog, nor are we able to respond to any questions. So, this is one-way  communication and we hope that you are finding it a little interesting. Thanks again to Mark for his help to paste our messages onto the blog. Love to all, Corine and Stefan

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Uzbekistan to Turkmenistan

Sat. 02 October

Hello everyone, we left Samarkand a little disappointed with the pristine restorations but still in love with the mystery of unrenovated sections of Bibi Khanym Mosque in our imaginations. Our driver, Safir tore up the highway that was in relatively good shape to the ruins of Timurlane in Shakhriabz. Timur was born on April 9, 1336 in a village near here. Shakhrizabz was called Kesh and was the center of his family's power. The monuments and tombs have been restored and are big and impressive. The drive across the Kyzylkum desert was very pretty. Sands change color and support all kinds of little shrubs and trees. I appreciated the waves in the sands and the little dunes, evidence of the winds. Life and death is in these sands for the goats, sheep and people who hover in small, poor villages along the road. Water is so precious and lies in life-giving canals.

Then onto Bukhara, population of about 255,000. This ancient desert town spanning thousands of years of history is focused around a central ground water pools, called hauz. Our hotel, the Kabir, was just opposite the Lyabi-Hauz, a plaza built around a pool in 1620. The plaza must have been an oasis for camels and caravans, and now has a sort of carnival atmosphere with colored lights, tourist shops and Uzbek music at top volume. I must say that there were more than a few interesting carpets and bags laid out to trap me. I was dragged away, kicking and screaming. We visited the many mosques, bazaars, medressas, minarets and of course the Ark, a royal town within a town. The Ark is Bukhara oldest structure, occupied from the 5th century right up to 1920, when it was bombed by the Red Army. Outside in front of the fortress is medieval Bukhara's main square, the Registan, a favorite venue for executions, including those of the British officers Stoddart and Connoly on June 24, 1842. Their dark, tiny jail cells were positioned under the animal pens. The cells are still very spooky and the thoughts of bugs and other vermin and animal droppings gave us the creeps. They might actually have been relieved to be ordered to dig their own graves and then get beheaded. According to the Lonely Planet, there was public outrage back in England, but the British government chose to let the matter drop. You can read more about the Great Game played out between Russia and Britain and the spy work of journalists and explorers. The highlight for us in Bukhara was discovering the Ismail Samani Mausoleum, completed in 905 AD. This is the town's oldest Muslim monument and probably, the sturdiest. What impressed us was the intricate brickwork. Every bricklayer in the world could take inspiration from the 18 different patterns in this baked terracotta brickwork. Honestly, it is awe-inspiring. The patterns change character with the sun's shadows and looks different at each glance. As we had 4 days in Bukhara, we visited the Samani Mausoleum at 3 different times of the day, just to catch the magical play of light. We got quite friendly with the lady selling tickets and guarding the museum and in the end, I guess that she considered us pilgrims and didn't charge us entry. The Kabir hotel was very centrally located but we were the only guests. We had lots of time to buy watermelon and borrowed knives from the kitchen. By now, we were "shashlik-saturated". These kabobs are made mostly with mutton (not lamb) and are cooked to death over open flames. Only the chicken shashlik are left very raw in the middle (ugh). So you can imagine how excited we were to find a terrific little restaurant called Minzifa. After several visits, we made friends with the waiters, the cook, and the guys working there.

We walked around the Jewish section of Bukhara, visiting the two surviving synagogues and the cemetery. One Rabbi told us that Bukhara's Jewish community used to be about 10% of Bukhara's population but now, these are only about 200 Jews remaining in Bukhara. At cemetery, we met a guy from Queens, NYC. He told us that most of the Bukharan Jews have emigrated to Israel or to NYC. He has a few relatives still in Bukhara and was home to visit his father's grave. You might want to read about Bukhara's Jews. There have been Jews in Bukhara since the 12th Century and there evolved a unique culture with its own language, Bukhori, which is related to Persian but uses the Hebrew alphabet. Bukhara's Jews still speak this language as do about 10,000 Bukharan Jews living around the world.

October 6, 2010 Khiva, population 50,000. Khiva was most famous for their slave caravans, barbaric cruelty and terrible journeys across deserts and steppes surrounded by wild tribesmen. The drive from Bukhara through cotton fields and fruit orchards was quite tame by comparison. The historic heart of Khiva is preserved and retored in its entirety. The old city enclosed in crumbling clay brick walls is like a living museum. It sort of reminded me (not Stefan) a bit of other old cities - centers preserved but without many real people living in the center, maybe a bit like Venice or Salzberg. At night, colored lights spotlight each of the buildings and gives the whole city a weird spooky feeling. I was glad to have had my headlight with me. Until Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva we hadn't met many tourists and few tour groups. However once in those major sites, we met groups from Europe and Australia and many of the restaurants catered only to the groups. At one place, called the Khiva Restaurant, we talked the waiters into letting us eat dinner there and the 3 course meals were great. The densely packed mosques, tombs, palaces, caravanseris, alleyways and at least 16 medressas are beautifully restored and each houses women ticket takers, cum entrepreneurs selling every sort of hand knitted socks, scarves, and other kitch. (Rest-assured, we didn't buy a single thing and none of you will be burdened by these kinds of souveniers). We climbed the Juma Minaret for a nice view. We found daily life in Khiva just on the other side of the walls. There were markets and bazaars  buzzing with the mystique, bustle and squalor that we savoured. We discovered a somsa-maker and went 3 times to feast on her oven-baked, meat-filled dumplings. The ovens are big rounded, white clay "boobs" with a fire burning from the bottom. Just where you would expect a nipple, is a big hole and the woman has to quickly paste the raw buns (or bread dough) onto the hot oven walls. After a few minutes at very high heat from the flames below, she peals the perfectly cooked somsas off the oven wall and into our plastic bag. We walked around the markets with grease dripping off our chins. It all looked pretty clean and we didn't get sick. On our last day, we climbed walls at the West Gate late in the afternoon. We had a splendid view in the dying sun, over the fortress and residence first built in the 12 Century. After 3 days in Khiva, staying with a family at their guest home, the Shakhrezada, we drove to Nukus.

October 9 Nukus,population 230,000 and capital of Karakalpakstan, in the deltal of the Amu Darya river. The Karakalpaks are often the butt of "slow" jokes, much like the way Canadians refer to Newfies. This is a quiet, provincial town and we walked all along the tree-lined boulevards. We stayed at a hotel called the Zhibek Zholy, but in reality is spelled with "j's" so don't look for it on any city map. The hotel was very conveniently located, only 5 minutes walk to the Savitsky Karakalpakstan Art Museum. This elaborate, marble-fronted museum houses one of the most remarkable art collections in the former Soviet Union. It owns some 90,000 pieces that are rotated often. About half of the works were brought here in Soviet times by renegade artist and ethnoghapher Igor Savitsky. According to the Lonely Planet, many of the early 20th Century paintings, that did not conform to Soviet Realism were banned by Moscow, but found protection in these isolated backwater town. I found 2 Grigoriev paintings and almost wept. I doubly appreciated the works of art knowing that most of the artists were imprisoned, rehabilitated, or murdered simply for their artistic expressions.

From Nukus, we drove to the border with Turkenistan, letter of invitation and 150 USD in hand. The border crossing was easier than we expected and easier than the border between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Right from the border we found Turkmenistan to be more modern. Even though the completely ignored X-Ray machines blinked all colors, the facilities were more modern and the distance to drag the bags across "no-mans-land" was only about 300 M and the road was sort of paved. From Stan Tours, David's friend and colleague, Oleg met us and drove us to Konya Urgench.

Konye-Urgench population 15,000 is rural backwater town with empty plazas and the usual wandering livestock and bad roads that end in agricultural fields. However, the ancient state of Khorezm, located right along the Silk Road was the ancient state of Khorezm, an important oasis of civilization in the deserts for thousands of years.  We visited Nejameddin Kubra (1145-1221) Mausoleum and Sultan Ali Mausoleum. Kubra was a famous Muslim teacher and poet, who founded the Sufic Kubra order with followers throughout the Muslim world. He was killed by the Mongols and his head separated from his body. My what violent times those were!! We felt lucky to visit these ruins, parts still so beautifully decorated with painted tiles.

After a long afternoon, we drove south into the Karakum desert for a night in the desert at the burning crater. There are lots of stories about this crater. Some say that the Russians were drilling for gas in the desert and hit a big reserve that some how started to burn. Right now, this a big deep hole in the sand and it is burning deep and all around. It is huge and as you get close to the edges, it is hotter than hell. There is no smell, no sound, just the sight of leaping flames. It was Quite the sight at night in the dark! From a little hill behind which we camped, the flames roared away and presented a vision of hell. Gotta say it impressed us as a "journey to the center of the earth". At the crater, we met a couple from Toronto, also camping with Stan Tours. We have met lots of local people and tourists from Europe, Belarussia, Siberia, and parts of Russia and the former USSR that I had never heard of. It was nice to chat briefly with "people from home".

Since then we have been spoiling ourselves in the mecca of all cities, Ashgabad. You simply cannot imagine the grandeur of this city. Destroyed in 1948 by an earthquake, this city has been entirely rebuilt by mostly French architects and the reconstruction continues every day and I'm sure that the city map changes drastically every year. At first, after visiting very poor villages in the desert, this city is a real shock. When driving into the city, every driver is required to wipe down his vehicle so as not to dirty the city. (We met some Aussies travelling in a Dragoman Bus, and they had to get out of the bus and wash it down completely). There are more white palaces with columns and gold tipped domes that you can imagine! The streets are perfectly paved, there is no garbage or graphitti anywhere. The streets are tree-lined and even though this city is in the middle of a desert, there are fountains and parks on every avenue. Maybe they have used Dubai as their role model city!

After all of the highly restored ancient sites we fell in love with Merv, "Queen of the World". Merv stood alongside Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo as one of the great centers of Islam. Before Genghis Khan laid waste to the great city and slaughtered its population, Merv had been a melting pot of religious faiths and ethnic groups. Merv was known as Margiana or Margush in the time of Alexzander the Grat. It reached its greatest heights druing the 11 Century. There were 3 big cities build in the area and we enjoyed wandering through the dusty, archeological sites. The oldest of the 5 Merv cities is Erk Kala, an Achaemenid city dating from the 6th Century BC. We sat on the highest point of this very old cite and thought of the Zoroastrians, Nestorian Christians, Jews and Buddhists who lived and worked together harmoniously afrom 250 BC to 226 AD.

But long before Merv raised the first tower, Bronze Age villages were assembling along the Murgab River with the greatest of these ancient settlements with Gonur Depe being excavated in 1972 by Viktor Sarianidi. He considers Gonur to be one of the great civilizations of the ancient world. The first settlements were agricultural and evidence dates these to 7000 BC with current excavations dating to 3000BC!! The sites were slowly abandoned when the Murgab river changed course.  The Turkmenistan government has a very different approach to ancient ruins. Turkmen prefer to excavate and preserve rather than Uzbekistan that is really into restoration and sterilization. We met the famous Greek Russian archeologist, Viktor Sarianidi, who discovered these ruins in the 70's. He is now over 80 and still out there on the site, of course with an equally famous, but much younger female Russian archeologist. It was a very special honor to meet him. I will treasure the moment as much as I still remember meeting Mary Leaky in Kenya. Making this visit even more magical, there were dozens of camels strolling and chewing their ways around the Gonur Depe ruins and the site was simply extraordinary. Our flight to Almaty was cancelled so we have an extra couple of days here in Turkmenistan.

Right now, we are in brand new Turkish department store called Yimpas. Excalators and glass elevators are a novelty. The internet cafe is in the middle of a bowling alley and we are surrounded by excited families using Skype. Everyone wants to get a word in so, screaming is coming from all directions, including the bowling alley.

We will spend a few days here, fly to Almaty for a day and then onto Urumchi, Xinzhang China. With love to all, Corine & Stefan

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Smack dab in the middle of the Silk Road

October 1. We had a last minute hotel change in Samarkand. Rather than staying in the very pretty Malika Prime Hotel that our friends the Pairaudeaus enjoyed so much, we were booked into the Orient Star, a modern place lacking ambiance but compensated with good plumbing. The location of the Orient Star allowed us to walk fairly easily all around Samarkand, into the old Jewish sector, out to the Silk Carpet factory, over into the Russian sector, and of course along the Registan (Medressas (religious universities), Mosques, fort and residence of the Emirs). It has been about 35-40 degrees during the day time, so walking is best done slowly. We have been using the hottest part of the day to try to use an internet cafe. Most of them are very dimmly lit, the connections are variable, the power comes and goes, and the keyboards don't have any visible letters. I've been thinking of Mrs. Wilson, my grade 7 typing teacher. Thank you Mrs. Wilson for making us memorize the keyboard on those old Underwood typewriters. I still able to type quite fast, but as you know, with quite a few errors.

I think that I mentioned that the President has had many of the old archelogical sights cleaned up, some of the near by streets paved, restorations of varying quality and a few public toilets installed. The parks are beautiful and in time, the trees will provide much sought after shade. We enjoyed visiting the sites but I was still looking for the magic found in 19th century photos that had captivated me for decades. Well, late in the day, on Oct. 1 we revisited Bibi Khanym Mosque. This is an enormous congregational mosque (14th century). Once one of the Islamic world's biggest mosques (main gate higher than 35 M) but it slowly crumbled and mostly  collapsed in an earthquake in 1897. Legend says that Bibi-Khanym, Timur's Chinese wife ordered this mosque build while he was on campaign, but the architect fell in love with her, kissed her and the kiss left a lasting mark. Thereafter, the myth goes that Timur ordered women to cover their faces in order not to tempt men. Well myth or not, we found an unrestored section of the mosque and in the late afternoon light, filtered through the dark and dusty mosque, with the cracks and cobwebs and pigeons, we felt the immense magic of this empire.

Genghis Khan and his hoards sweeping across the steppes in the 13th century uniting an empire bigger than anything we can imagine pretty much destroyed most buildings, but the ruins left behind lots for the imagination.

October 2. We drove via Shakhrisabz (pop 75,000)toward Bukhara. Shakhrisabz was Timur's hometown and once upon a time it probably put Samarkand in the shade. Timur was born on 9 April 1336 in this ancient town then called Kesh. He rose to power and build a tomb for himself and his grandson Ulugbek. We visited the Ak-Saray Palace, a crumbling relic in the midst of everyday contemporary living and climbed to the top for a view of the area. There is a huge statue of Amir Timur in a park and we saw about 8 weddings taking place simultaneous. The brides here prefer very big puffy. white dresses and veils with lots of sparkle. The wedding attendants are beautifully dressed in traditional national dress and the men seem stuck on the shiny Italian suits with very pointy shoes.

We stopped for lunch enroute to Bukhara and then the driver drove like a bat out of hell across the Kyzylkum desert toward Bukhara. The desert is alive with poisonous snakes, gazelles and maybe a couple of foxes, and has been planted with a few purple shrubs planted in vain to try to stop erosion. We drove up one last pass at about 3000M and had a last look at the Hissar Range and into the snowcapped Zerafshan Mountains and remembered our trek and experiences in the beautiful Fan Mountains. The asphalt is pretty good but there are only occasional white lines. Where two lanes are intended, often there are 6 vehicles racing across the roads beeping horns to indicate passing. The speeding traffic weaves around wandering cows and the occasional donkey cart loaded with dried corn stalks. Driving seems to be some sort of crazy sport here in Central Asia and is just plain scary, but so far, we have arrived at our destinations only a little shaken.

Our hotel, the Kabir, is located right on the main square and we walked around for the rest of the day. There were tour buses in Samarkand and again here in Bukhara we are seeing other tourists, mostly in large groups from all over Europe. Yesterday we had a guided tour of Medressas, Mosques, Minarets, Towers and key sights of Bukhara. On June 24, 1842 Col Stoddard and Captain Connelly were marched out from a dungeon before a huge crowd in front of the Ark (fort and citadel), made to dig their own graves and, to the sound of drums and reed pipes, they were beheaded. The Guide described the event as though it happened yesterday and as we looked into their lice and vermin infested cells, felt that they must have been relieved to die. The Guide described these members of the British military as spies who deserved execution. Well, truth is always a distortion. Today, we retraced our steps and at our own pace absorbed each of the ruins by ourselves. At our own pace, we have privacy and it is so special to be here. We have seen all of the major sites, the Medressas, the Mosques, the Caravansaris. Most have been restored during Soviet times and now house souvenir shops selling everything that you can imagine: carpets, hand woven silk, ceramics, "antique jewelery" etc. Stefan reminds me constantly that we are already overweight and threatens to make me drag my own bag across the Turmenistan border.

I love Bukhara. My favorite archeological site is the Imail Samani Mausoleum completed in 905, Bukhara's oldest Muslim monument and certainly the sturdiest. It was built for Samani, the Samanid dynasty's founder,  his father and grandson. It is an intricately constructed baked terracotta brickwork so amazingly designed that with each shift in light, the structure takes on different characteristics. The walls are about 2 M thick and there are ruins of a spiked dome. We haven't drunk from the well of Job, but it is nearby.

We have visited the last remaining Jewish Synagogue here in Bukhara. There remain only about 300 Bukhori Jews living here. After Independence, we have been told that most have moved to Israel or the USA. According to the Lonely Planet, Bukhori, which is related to Persian but uses the Hebrew alphabet. Bukhori is still a spoken language, but it seems that it is probably spoken more in Israel.

The hotel staff and many of the guys serving us in restaurants speak Tajik, Uzbek, Russian and English. We seem to be the only guests in the hotel and the guys like to talk to us. They tell us that many Uzbeks work in Russia to earn more money and that they would like to go to Russia to work. Funny isn't it! When the Russians first came to Central Asia, workers were king and praised in statues and murals and money and the rich were evil. The mosques and medressas were closed and for 40 years, no one had a religion. Now it is all changed; the mosques are reopened and money makes the "heart beat faster and the head swim". Young men (and a few women) are leaving their families to go to Russia to earn more and to send money home. We have been told that the policy of the government is to teach Uzbek and Tajik with not much focus on Russian. It seems that few of the younger kids are learning Russian and later, I suppose that if they go to Russia they will only be able to find menial labor. It will be a time of much social change.

But speaking of social change, we can see antiquated farm equipment, fragile and mostly non existent infrastructures, and many closed factories. Near  Tashkent, I actually saw a woman driving a vehicle and close to Bukhara, I saw a woman riding a bicycle, but everyone, I mean everyone has a cell phone. I think that the internet is monitored, but young people know all of the computer programs. Despite many colleges and universities, we learn that unemployment is a major problem and the young people want to emigrate. It has been fascinating to try to watch TV. Certainly with Aljazzeera and Asian Channels we are getting different
perspectives of news. Tomorrow we will explore more the back lanes around Bukhara and then on Wednesday, we'll get back into the car with our Kamikaze Driver, Safir, and drive to Khiva.

Thank you Mark for sticking with us and trying to post these blogs. This is almost the 50th day of our travel and you'll all be happy to know that we are still speaking to each other. XX00 Love to all, Corine and Stefan

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Alive & well in Samarkand

Hello friends, here we are, alive and well in Samarkand. Davi Rumel linked me to a contact, Abdulldubois, an infectious disease physician in Tashkent and we met him and his wife for dinner. They told us all about the good and bad about life in Uzbekistan. Corruption is their major concern and they are hoping to emigrate to Canada. Luckily they told us about the train from Tashkent; had we not known that this train continued to Bukara, we would have forgotten to get off. Anyway, the train was slow but good and I enjoyed people-watching on the train. I saw small gestures of human kindness and it was so nice. One lady pulled the curtain so that the sun wouldn't shine on her seat-mate's face; everyone shared the food that they had brought along for the trip with their seat-mate. Always nice to watch people being nice to each other.

Samarkand: "We travel not for trafficking alone, By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned. For lust of knowing what should not be known We take the Golden Road to Samarkand (final lines of James Elroy Flecker's 1913 poem The Golden Journey to Samarkand). Also referred to as "Marakanda in Greek liturature". This has been the romantic city of my dreams. We checked into our hotel and started walking around the town. The population of about 500,000 is mostly Tajik speaking people. We have entered the Registan (3 medressas)from the back streets and tried to recapture the ambiance that the traders of the middle ages must have found.The site is an ensemble of majestic, tilting facades and towers covered in lovely patterned tiles. While there are among the world's oldest preserved medressas, alas, it's better to look at old photos and try to imagine the scene. The 14th century ruins have been spruced up and the whole area has been sanitized and dressed up for tour groups. Any buildings older were pulverized by Ghenis Khan. A couple of earthquakes have shaken many of the buildings and the gold and jewels that adorned the work have long ago been stripped and probably have found their way into many of the world's crown jewels.  The original inlaid tile works (majolica) are of course still very beautiful and the turquoise blue domes captivate your attention.

We have been walking the streets and have visited 14-15th century mosques and mausoleums and have enjoyed the Russian neighborhoods, wide streets and beautiful parks. Yesterday we attended a "spectacle" at the Drama Center.

The drama theater was very attractive; the production was in Uzbek but was pretty much a comedy-a woman wanting to be younger; flirting to get a husband. We were surprised by the flirtation between the actresses and
actors. The audience was mostly wom en and they found it all very hilarious. Lots of knee slapping and elbow jabs indicated that the women felt very superior in the situation to the suitor on stage. The singing and dancing was pretty but too loud. We are enjoying walking around this city and this afternoon walked a couple of kilometers to visit a silk carpet factory. Of course I found many beautiful carpets that I would love to fly away home. These carpets are about a thousand dollars each and well worth the price. Interesting designs, natural dyes and so beautifully made. However, we are already overweight with our bags and we just can't drag them around with us. The factory offered to send them to us, but we've been cautioned that the carpets may not arrive....c'est la vie.

We are enjoying new adventures everyday; albeit that we are a bit preoccupied with staying well. The roads in Samarkand are paved, but the sidewalks are in very bad shape and as is typical across Central Asia, pedestrians are fair game for any and all vehicles. Donkey carts compete with cars, but so far, we haven't seen any cows or goats on the streets; there are more bicycles in use here than we have seen anywhere else. We've found all kinds of good things to eat in the markets and both of were feeling well. Today, I encountered something that is upsetting my stomach and will hesitate before eating dinner. We have been very lucky with the weather. Still gets to about 30 degress at mid-day and cool evenings.

The internet connections are often interrupted; I've been booted out twice in the last hour.  Love to all, Corine and Stefan

Monday, October 4, 2010

Closer to the 21st Century

Hello everyone, the internet systems in Tashkent are very very slow so I will try to update from where I left off in Ferghana.

Bazaars: we have made a point of visiting bazaars and markets in almost every city and have enjoyed seeing the wide varieties of fruits, vegetables, spices, meats etc. The Ferghana valley is a wide valley that seems to go forever. From Penjikent to Khujand, Tajikistan and then into Uzbekistan and Ferghana City, we could see that the crops were being harvested and that the bounty would be great. We have munched on pink, purple and yellow Pomegranants. Each sweet and delicate flavors. Reminded me of the harvests in Iran. The meat sections of the bazaars are quite clean and well organized by animal. Every part of the animal is used and you can buy feet, heads, livers, kidneys, tongues; whole hind quarters hang like human bums but complete with the tail to ensure animal distinction. Taking a photo, I narrowly missed tripping backwards over a black cow's head, complete with horns. None of the animal or vegetables are cryo-packed and if you are squimish, shopping would be a big problem.

Etiquette: we had such a good time in the Khujand Market. I wanted to take a photo of women selling cotton oil and a very busty young woman threw her arm over my shoulder and insisted that we be photgraphed together. I commented on her ample busom and she patted my butt. The whole row of women, including me, erupted in laughter. Soon a young man came along and kissed my hand. After that, we had more photos and outrageous laughter. If the Ferghana valley is known as being a hot bed of tension and potential religious strife, we didn't see anything, but good, hard-working people and "girls who just want to have fun". Everytime that people greet us, the men quickly put their right hand over their heart before shaking hands and the women, openly smile and shake hands. Of course, everyone wants to know where I come from and whether or not Stefan is my husband, or just a friend. Many women who have been able to speak English tell me that they can't believe that we have been married for almost 30 years. Then they launch into stories about how they love but often hate their husbands. In the end, we agree that it's the same story all over the world and we end by laughing and laughing. (Stefan, just grins and bears it all).

Fashion: for the most part in Tajikistan the women wear a style of bright and often sparkly, Shalwar Kameze. In the cities, the girls dress in the latest European fashion. Here in Tashkent, the capital with about 2.1 million people, the street scene is pretty European. We have passed Escada, Mexx, Mango and all of the other fashion shops. The girs totter along on very high spike heels wearing tight, short skirs. The guys prefer tight pants and pointy shoes. The school boys always wear a white shirt, dark trousers, and a tie. The girls mostly wear black skirts and white blouses. During harvest time, most of the universities and colleges in the rural cities are closed and everyone is expected to help with the cotton harvest. I have to say that I feel like a real frump in my Mountain Co-Op clothes and my Gortex shoes. I sorely miss my high heels and tight skirts. However, the sensible clothes and shoes have been really practical and again, will be very useful when we have to pull our bags across the next 1Km, no-man's-land between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The best way to cross borders here must be by air.

Countryside to Markets: in Tajikistan, the only equipment that we could see was old and decrepid; even the hand plough being pulled behind a donkey was wooden. In Uzbekistan the equipement is modern and the fields are full of men and women bent over and harvesting tomatoes, cucumbers, ground nuts, walnuts, potatoes, carrots, squash, melons, cotton etc. Acorns, walnuts, almonds and dozens of different kinds of apricots are being harvested. All of the fruits and vegetables are arranged artfully and piled beautifully in the markets. Each of the markets are a little different, but everyone seems to be in a jovial mood and offer us all kinds of samples to taste. The Chorsu M arket here in Tashkent has the atmosphere of the Calgary Stampede. The country side is gradully developing infrastructure, but a constant source of electricity and water is variable.  I must say that over the last 5 days our hotels in Penjikent, Khujand and now here in Tashkent have given us a chance to wash a few things and to have really hot showers. We are both feeling as though we have finally recovered from the demanding conditions of travel in Tajikistan.

Tashkent: We drove from Ferghana City to Kokand and visited the Khan's Palace, a 19th century palace and then up and over the Kamchik Pass 2267M. As we drove through this section of the Pamirs we could see snow capped Tien Shen mountains in the background. We paused at a roadside market in the mountains and tasted many different kinds of apples and honey. What a luxery to see so much produce. Lovely asphalt highways out of Tajikistan and into Uzbekistan we began to feel as though we are sliding back in the 21st Century. Sure there aren't any white lines on the road and Maurat, our driver pulled "G's" all along the steeply curving road, but we could see that the farm equipment in the fields were of this century and that there was actually road maintence equipment in action. On the Tajik side, a shovel, pick, and adze are the only standard issue; so many more resources on this side of the border. Each of the cities that we have visited are blessed with towering trees, lots of green spack and parks. While the rural villages look medieval with the brown clay brick, the cities are quite lovely and we are enjoying Tashkent. The Metro has been easy to use and we have had a good impression of this busy city.

Best regards to all. Corine and Stefan

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Sliding In & Out of the 21st Century

Hello everyone, today is Sept. 26 and we are happy to report that we are
in the Ferghana valley in Uzbekistan.
The last blog post was from Dushanbe and we were about to leave on a trip
into the Fan Mountains and so I'll try to give you some highlights:
Sept. 17. Having recovered from the dreadful roads but spectacular views
along the road into the Wahkan valley and to Murgab, we spent a couple of
days in Dushanbe. Note, if you really want to avoid the car-swallowing,
bone jarring, pit-holes on the really bad roads, there is a flight from
Dushanbe to Khorog, but it only flys if the conditions are perfect. You
can wait for days and days to get a flight and in the end, most people
risk the roads. It is reported that during Soviet times, the pilots
received "danger pay" for this flight along the Pamirs. The mountains
create dangerous up-drafts but there was apparently only 1 crash in the
last few years, and that was supposedly when the plane was shot down by
Afghanistan. During our final days in the Wahkan valley, we heard that the
drug trade was alive and well. Apparently the trade follows along the
lines of the NGO's and as the saying goes, "follow the money". We enjoyed
each of the home stays and meeting the local people. You simply have to
stand back and applaud their courage and determination. Since the Soviets
left and the communal farms and factories closed, the people have learned
to plant and harvest their crops by hand, to manage their own animals and
somehow to cope with the concept of privitization. The lives, especially
for women, are harder than hard. About 1.5 million Tajiks are in Russia on
temporary work visas. Women of all ages and old men seem to be working the
fields and tending the animals and constantly washing clothes in any
standing water. Still whenever possible, we stopped to meet people and to
talk to them. They always made time for us, greeted us with smiles and I
learned about the land and about what they are doing. I noticed that
before the girls headed out to the fields, they took time to curle their
eyelashes and to apply make-up! The women most usually wore the 2 piece
salwar-kameeze, and brightly colored head scarves. The men worn a
smish-smash of suit jackets and trousers. The Pamiri people almost starved
to death in the 1990's and had it not been for the Aga Khan foundation,
there would have been a full scale disaster. I must say that I have new
perspectives on subsistance farming, survival and on the drug trade.

We arrived back in Dushanbe feeling as though we had a mild concussions
from the ravages of the road. After recovering for a couple of days we got
back into the Prado and drove north from Dushanbe, along the Varzob river,
on beautiful asphalt road. The beautiful black top lasted long enough to
get past the President's villa on the Varzob river, and then it fell
apart. There is a tunnel to end all tunnels. It is 5 Km long, only 5 years
old and constructed as a gift from Iran. It flood regularly, there are NO
lights, there is NO center line, there is NO ventillation, there is NO
pull over lane, and there are pot holes and contstantly broken asphalt.
Last year during the winter, several people died in the tunnel from
exhaust pollution. Who thought that a road could be so dangerous. The
Chinese are now working on the road and with luck and a few years, it may
improve. After a few hours of being shaken around, we turned up a valley
in the Hissar Mountain range and drove up to Iskander Kul, as famous in
this part of the world as Moraine Lake is in Canada. And in fact, it sort
of looks like Moraine Lake. Big, glacier covered mountains, a lovely
turquoise lake falling away into a water fall. During Soviet times, there
was a very large resort on the lake. Remaining are 30, 3 bedroom cabins, a
disintegrating, lakeside restaurant, and a sort of cafe. Of the 30 cabins,
about 10 are still good enough to offer bedrooms. The showers looked as
though they would issue toxic gasses, if they worked and the toilets,
well, they were bad! I laced the soup and tea liberally with idodine and
tried to stay focused on the beautiful mountains and think of some sort of
paradise when I had to use the toilet.

Sept. 19 Fansky Gory - The Fan Mountains. Now, why is it that I have never
heard of these before? This is an amazing mountain range, just beautiful
with more than 13 peaks over 5,000M. Over the years, a favorite climbing
place for the Russians. We left our car at Alautin lake, met our donkey
driver, Siad Marat and the two donkeys that would carry our tent, the
stove, and our food. We camped and began our trek up over Alautin Pass at
about 3700M. The guide, Stefan and I carried our own packs with sleeping
bag, mattress and personal clothes. The packs felt heavy, the trail was
wet with fresh snow and slimy from the droppings of thousands of grazing
animals. Both Stefan and I had quezzy stomachs, but at least we didn't
have the full out runs. The climb was a slog, I was glad to get to the
pass. Windy as it was, it was very nice to look around at the big peaks.
Along the climb, we met a group of 5 French tourists, and a couple of
Czech trekkers. All were surprised that we had been in Krygestan. Seems
that the BBC has been scaring people away from that beautiful country. We
had the views up the mountain pretty much to ourselves and we took in as
much as we could.

Sept. 20 Kulikalon Lake. After the pass we walked downhill, through
Juniper forests and among thousands of grazing animals to Kulikalon lakes.
A bit tricky walking. There was a trail but it was rocky, wet and dung
covered. This was a pretty lake, but I insisted upon treating the water
because of all of the animals. The guide was sort of surprised, but went
along with the Pristine treatment. We had a campsite on the lake and a
fire in the evening. Having survived the pass, we both started to relax
and enjoy the scenery. We started off in the morning after a coffee and
more settled stomachs, walking to Chukurak Lakes. These are formed by
valley streams and settle into a natural amphitheatre. We were stunned to
see the pee-green color of these shrinking lakes. I tried hard to think
that maybe the mineral deposits must have colored these lakes, but just
couldn't get past the animal smells and dung-covered slopes. I hit "the
wall" at the Chukurak Lake. When we set up our tent, we found the fecal
evidence and garbage left behind by many other campers. In this part of
the world, there is no park policy about latrines and it is a free-for
all. The results would simply astonish most of you and you would soon
gladly pay those park fees and 50% taxes just to have garbage and sewage
organized. I hated to see that we would be leaving behind tin cans and
juice boxes and I tried to clean things up around the campsite. It is a
losing battle, but at least, I hid the garbage bag and didn't leave any
fecal deposits! The evening was lit by a full moon and filled with the
echos of shepherds calling to their animals. My sorry mood dissipated at
about 6 am when to my great joy, a shepherd started to wake up this herd
and began a song that lasted for about 15 minutes. His voice rang clear
and strong, singing a mournful song in Tajik, and the echo following him
around the mountainous amphitheater. It was magical and I was sorry that
Stefan slept through it. In the morning I asked Siad Marat about the song,
he said that it was just a Tajik song "about life". Luckily we had good
hiking weather in the Fan Mountains. Cold frosty nights, blue skies in the
morning. The donkeys were good company making their strangled, plaintive
braying at the strangest times. Siad Marat slept outdoors and walked
around in the night. We felt well protected by him and the donkeys. The
guide, Vlad, was knowledgeable about the mountains and told us with matter
of factness, that if we had an accident there is simply no rescue service.

We looked down at the well known Artuch Alpinist Camp and then started the
trek out to Guitan Village via Guitan Pass at 2650M. We hiked down through
beautiful valleys, among more herds of goats and sheep, cows, donkeys and
through the poorest villages that you can imagine. Each village is walled,
and is composed of mud brick huts that house animals and people, mostly
women and kids. The sweet smell of dung fires filled the air. The running
water is from the stream running down the side of the hill or from time to
time, where really lucky, from a spring. Many of the villages do not have
access to a vehicle road and must walk considerable distances. This area
must be much like most of the area that we could see along the Pyanj river
in Afghanistan. I asked about medical services and maternal health. The
women have access to clinics offered by a medical worker and must travel
quite a distance if they want to have their baby in a hospital. The
country has poor maternal and infant mortality data and as I recall
Tajikistan has one of the highest infant mortality rate.

Sept. 22, we were very relieved to hike into Guitan Village and to find
Hatam, the driver and the Prado at our guesthouse. The animal track up to
this village almost defies all vehicular traffic. There were very few men
in the village and the man of this household had a very bad hip and limp.
This guesthouse had a sort of raised toilet with a broken toilet seat. It
was heartwarming to see the efforts that they were making. We had a
comfortable bed on top of quilts on the floor and warm water in a bucket
to wash off the dirt of the trail. After soup and watermelon, we felt
refreshed. After breakfast we piled back into the Prado and the man of the
house decided to accompany us to Penjikent. We stopped to visit Rudaki's
mausoleum enroute and to think about the famous 10 century poets who took
time to think about life and to write beautiful words that have withstood

Sept. 23 Penjikent. Lovely tree-lined streets; enjoyed visiting the Sarazm
ruins 3000 BC, the remains of the Sogdian village 800 AD and of course,
the museum with a French guide who showed us all of the 5th century BC
ruins and pottery, followed by the Soviet propaganda.

Sept. 24 Khujand. After driving over more bone-crunching roads and over
the Shahkristan Pass 3378M, and through more terrifying road construction,
we somehow arrived in Khujand. Such a beautiful city on the Syr Darya
river. This was the site of Alexander the Great's eastern empire and one
could easily imagine his reasons for settling here. The climate supports a
wide variety of crops from cotton and fruits to vegetables and grains. We
wandered through the bazaar and enjoyed a last evening dinner with our
guide and driver in a ChaiHana (tea house) across from a theatre with a
Grecian frieze.

In the morning we drove from Khujand to Ferghana City. Sounds easy, but
the border transfer was something else. We left the driver and guide and
started to the the Taijik side of the border pulling our big bags. We
could see that Vlad and Hatam were watching our backs and probably hoping
that we wouldn't be running back for help. After several passport checks,
we were directed toward Uzbekistan customs and checks. After pulling out
bags across 1/2 km of "nomansland" in 35 degree heat, many passport
checks, writing down in duplicate our declarations, record of currencies,
watches, cameras etc. we we admitted into Tajikistan and found our new
driver Marat, waiting patiently for 3 hours for us. We managed to avoid
the latest military incidents in the south, to trek without incident,
survive highly polluted water, and even avoid getting polio. After just
one day in Ferghana City, we feel as though we are in another world.

Sept. 25. Uzbekistan feels considerably more stable. The streets in
Ferghana City are in relatively good repair, the food is tasty and the
levels of sanitation seem to be light years ahead of Tajikistan. Clearly
the economy is very much better in Uzbekistan. We visited the silk factory
in Margilon and have learned the process from mulberry leaf to silk work
to cocoon, into a hot bath, unfurling of over a km of silk strand,
spinning into silk thread, washing, dying and weaving into beautiful silk
products. Simply amazing! We see no evidence of religious tensions or
radical extremism. We've met happy, friendly people in the bazaars and
markets and we've found a good internet cafe. We had lunch at Cafe Bravo
under the mulberry trees, enjoyed eating "angry chicken" while listening
to Norah Jones.

Thanks again to Mark for posting our blog. Thinking of each of you.
Birthday and Anniversary wishes to those of you celebrating special days.
Thanks also to John and Sue Pairaudeau for suggesting Stan Tours to us.
There have been a few glitches, but overall, David Berghof seems to have
organized our trip very well. Travel in Central Asia, especially in
Tajikistan is not for the faint of heart. Love to all, Corine and Stefan