A Travellerspoint blog

Ashgabat - A City to Love?


View Central Asia 2019 on Bob Brink's travel map.

May 24

I went to my tent quite early last night, looked at my sweatshirt substituting for a pillow and thought I was in trouble, that I was going to be awake and probably coughing all night. Then I put my head down and was asleep in moments. I slept all night, the best sleep of my entire trip.

Since I had gone to sleep early, that meant that I was awake early. The sun was just coming up. And I needed to use the toilet facilities, the ones that did not exist. As per my last post, there are zero facilities here. But there is a lot of desert. I walked up the hill where I had lots of privacy and enjoyed the early morning desert sky.

And it was a great desert sky.
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We had a nice camp breakfast, although for those of you who grew up camping in North America, there was no pleasant smell of bacon frying. There are certain things you do not get in Central Asia. We did get some good coffee since Begaim had been reunited with her coffee press.

After breakfast, Slava suggested that we walk down to the crater while the drivers packed everything into the vehicles. I had seen a tent and a motorcycle near the crater. The tent was now packed, but the owner was still there. I expected some big guy, but instead I met this lovely lady. She is driving solo through Central Asia. She and the bicycle rider in Bukhara are reminders of how cushy my travels are.
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I took a few more shots of the crater, although I once again was more interested in the desert sky.
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The sides were unstable so the crater could expand at any time. There was a barrier around the crater to keep people away from the edge, but that did not stop everyone. I was ready to capture the moment when the bank gave way and he plunged into the fire. Luckily that did not happen. He just picked up his beer bottles and walked away. It was much better that way.
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The vehicles arrived and we took off. We drove just a short way before pulling over. There was another crater formed by the oil and gas exploration guys. There was not much fire, but the mud was bubbling. It reminded me of a visit many years ago to Rotorua, New Zealand which has thermal springs and bubbling mud. Not surprisingly Rotorua has a place called Hell’s Gate. Both are great places to visit, but maybe just one time.

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There was still another crater. Those Russian guys were busy. This one was full of water.
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We left the gas exploration area and drove on through the desert. About 40 minutes later we turned off the road into Erbent, the largest settlement between Dasoguz and Ashgabat. It is a town of shepherds. No one seemed to be walking. Young and old were riding motorcycles, which is what they use for herding their animals. Unlike every place else on our tour, there were no friendly greetings. We were simply ignored.

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I had another great time on our ride through the desert. There were two separate tracks of paved road, but no markings, and the drivers weaved back and forth between them. Unlike in Uzbekistan, these drivers just turned on the air-con, so I was quite comfortable. I was not sure about the others. I would not have enjoyed the ride as much if we had the windows open and warm air (and dust) coming in.

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We stopped at a gas station. There was a camel strolling down the road.
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As we got closer to Ashgabat the road was finally divided into a proper two-way highway. There were many check points. I guessed that this was to control the movement of the people. The driver had several traffic radar detectors which were constantly buzzing. Because of that we were no longer racing.

We did see several more camels.
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Just before Ashgabat we stopped so that the drivers could wash the vehicles. Apparently, a dirty car gets you a hefty fine in Ashgabat.
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A few minutes later we arrived in the Emerald City and began our search for the Wizard of Oz. (How many of you know that one?) It seemed like that, but since we had missed the yellow brick road and had taken the modern divided highway, we instead had arrived in Ashgabat, the White Marble City. But the transition was just as jarring. From the desert with its camels and shepherds we were driving past giant marble cladded buildings, monuments and sculptures.

Slava told us that the president likes marble so much that was made it a requirement for all buildings. Even the old Russian buildings get covered in a faux marble. The marble is all imported from Turkey and cut at a factory on the edge of town. Ashgabat is in the Guinness Book of Records as having the highest concentration of white marble buildings.
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We passed the airport with its falcon. We would get a closer look at it tomorrow night when we leave Central Asia.
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We began our ascent to the Yyldyz Hotel which is certainly the most amazing place that I have ever stayed. It is 116 metres tall and shaped like a teardrop. My king-sized bed was lost in the vastness of the room.
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Now was time for the big test. I had not installed the VPN software. Would I be able to use WhatsApp and Facebook and access my emails? I signed into the Wi-Fi and immediately loaded up Facebook. My emails arrived. WhatsApp came up with some texts and photos from Po, but it was too early to check if I could talk to her. So far it looked like everything was available. I have no doubt that these things were blocked in the past as Sasha had told us, but they were definitely working now. But will they be listening? Will it be safe for me to tell Po that I find the place more than a bit strange?

This is the photo that came through when I connected. It is iceberg season back home in Pouch Cove.
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Slava warned us about the prices in the hotel. Previous clients of his had run up a huge bill getting their laundry done. There is a machine to make expresso. A note says that they cost $5 US.

We had lunch in the 18th floor restaurant with a view of the golf course. It looked like a great course but the only living people we could see on it were the maintenance crew. We never saw anyone actually playing golf.

The food was good, typical international hotel catered meal standard with the staff serving everything, filling our water glasses, etc. Any thought of alcoholic beverages ran into the exchange rate issue. At the official exchange rate, the drinks were ridiculously expensive. We did not want to get involved with black market exchange, so everyone just decided to stay dry.

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Kalpak planned its 5 Stan tour to have us start our tour in the ultra-modern and somewhat strange city of Astana (Nur-Sultan). Astana was something to be seen (maybe once in your life) but was hard to love. We were now ending the tour in the ultra-modern and even stranger city of Ashgabat. Ashgabat can be translated as literally the “City of Love”, so I will see if I find love for it while I am here.

Like some other cities we have visited in Central Asia, Ashgabat began as a Russian fortification although it is located close to an ancient city which flourished on the Silk Road and then was destroyed by the Mongols. The city became the capital of Turkmen SSR in 1924. A major earthquake in 1948 destroyed the city and killed well over 100,000 people, two-thirds of the population.

We had our Ashgabat tour in the afternoon. We walked out of the hotel and found our very large tour bus. I think it could have held at least 60 people, so the 8 of us had lots of room. Thomas always went to the back of every van. He did the same on this bus. We could hardly see him. We rode in our giant bus back down the hill into the main part of the city.
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Our first visit was National Museum of History. We were not allowed to take photographs inside so were left with a couple from the outside.
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The no photos meant no cameras. We had to leave them at the entrance. There were several staff and few visitors, us and another small group of tourists. Our guide had a heavy Russian accent and spoke really fast. At every exhibit she would start with, “Dear guests,” and then rush through her story before quickly moving on. I could not understand, let alone absorb, anything that she was saying.

It may have been the desire to get away from the museum tour more than actual necessity, but I whispered to Begaim that I needed to use the toilet. I assumed that I would just sneak away to the stairway where we had passed some facilities. Instead, Begaim spoke to a lady standing next to the railing who called down below. From all that I understood that I should just go to the same stairway, but I found the door to that toilet locked.

A couple of cleaning ladies came by. One gestured for me to come with her in the elevator and took me downstairs where the door was not locked. This had been an excessive number of ladies helping me on my quest to take a pee, and everything had seemed to take place in slow motion. It was a good thing that I was not desperate.

I was now on the ground floor. My group was someplace upstairs, and I did not really want to find them. Just then a lovely young woman came up and asked if I spoke English. She then asked if I would be willing to be interviewed. I have to admit that I would have done almost anything she asked as long as it sounded somewhat ethical and would not cause me to be thrown into a Turkmenistan prison. And I might not have set high standards. I readily agreed to the interview, not having any idea what it was about, although logically it had to be about tourism.

My new friend brought me over to a cameraman and hooked a microphone to my collar. The equipment seemed a bit dated, like something from the 90’s. I had only been in the country a day, so I was not prepared to answer many questions. I knew that I could not say what was really on my mind, that I found the place a bit strange. Instead I said that everyone was really friendly, even though I had hardly met any local people. The key question was about Turkmen carpets, since unbeknownst to me, National Carpet Day was coming up. I knew nothing about the carpets and was too slow to make something up. I doubt that I gave them much useful footage.

My group appeared just as my interview ended. The guide then explained about the carpets and pointed out a giant one on the wall which might be in the Guinness Book of World Records for largest hand-woven carpet. Anyway, it was big. Now I knew about the carpets, but it was too late. They were filming us during her talk, so that might give them something more than my scintillating interview to show on their newscast.

Begaim later told me that she had been keeping an eye on me but thought that I was doing fine, so did not interrupt.

My friend and the cameraman walked out with us. I really regretted that I did not ask for her photo once we had reclaimed our cameras at the reception. I will never know if I made the local news. But I really enjoyed my little time with the local media. It was a funny highlight of my trip, certainly of Turkmenistan.

From there we visited the Independence Monument. I thought the tower at Kunya Urgench was tall at 60 metres high. The column here is 118 metres high. The bottom part is in the shape of a yurt. There are 27 large statues of Turkmen leaders in the area around the monument. The statues were huge. The scale of everything was quite overwhelming. They build big things in Ashgabat.

Other than maintenance staff, there were no people around. We asked Slava about that. He assured us that they were people, but that they were all working and would be out later.
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We did not have time to visit everything, so all I could do was snap a quick shot of Ashgabat’s Ferris wheel. It furthers their quest to dominate the Guinness Book of World Records as it was deemed the world’s tallest Ferris wheel in an enclosed space. Yes, things are big here.
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We got out of the bus at the Neutrality Monument. It is dedicated to Turkmenistan’s recognition as a neutral country by the UN. That is the ex-President Niyazov on top. The ex-president used to be on top of a Neutrality Arch in the middle of the city and his golden statue rotated to face the sun. The current president had the arch dismantled and moved his predecessor to the suburbs where he is stuck looking in one direction.

We saw a group of schoolboys. Maybe people do live in this city.
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Our last stop was at the Wedding Palace which was built in 2011. There is a place to do the legal paperwork as well as many rooms to hold the ceremony. The building is dominated by its big disco ball. Slava said that he once had a tour group invited into a wedding, but that was not happening today since it was Ramadan, and there were no weddings. We only took photos from the outside.

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This is the view of Ashgabat from the wedding palace. Note the number of new trees. I was very impressed with the reforestation efforts in the city.
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We went back to the room where I reviewed my photos and updated Facebook. I made a call to Po which confirmed that WhatsApp worked fine. I hope anyone listening found it interesting. I apologise for calling the country a bit strange. I kept thinking that I should go for a walk but was so cool and comfortable in my luxury room that I never made it outside until it was time for dinner.

We climbed back into our giant bus for the ride down into town. We arrived at another funky building, the Altyn Asyr Shopping Centre, which has a terrace restaurant at the top. We now saw that some people do live here. A few (not many) were sitting outside on blankets, although it seemed like there should be better places to sit than next to the parking lot of a mall when there was a big park nearby.

We took some photos of the area, including a nice sculpture. As I was walking back, a car pulled up and four young guys jumped out and shook my hand. What will I do when I get home and the most you get is a nod from strangers?

The restaurant was on the seventh floor. We went straight for the outdoor patio where we took many photos of the fabulous view, especially of Independence Park where we had visited in the afternoon. I was a bit disappointed that Slava got us a table inside, since the ones outside looked so nice. We ate a great salad and an even better Turkmen noodle soup. The main course was supposed to be Chinese and was not as good, but the pastry at the end was nice. Russian pop music was blaring away the whole time. We jumped up during the meal to get some sunset photos and after supper the night skyline of Ashgabat was really amazing.

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As we left the hotel there was a little boy and girl showing off on their scooters on the edge of the parking lot. Their family was sitting on the grass just above them. It was fun until they almost got run over by a car. Slava got them back to their parents in one piece. As I noted earlier, that spot next to the parking lot seemed like a strange place to sit when there was a massive park next door.

We returned to the hotel through the bright lights of the City of Love. I had not exactly found love for the place (although I had a crush on the nice reporter). But it had been another marvelous day in Turkmenistan.

Now I just hoped that I could sleep as well in my fancy hotel room as I did in my little tent in the desert. This will be my last real sleep in Central Asia since I have a late flight tomorrow night and any sleep will be on Turkish Airlines.

Posted by Bob Brink 17:56 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged turkmenistan ashgabat central_asia kalpak_travel Comments (7)

Off to Turkmenistan, Stan Number 5

With a Visit to the Gate to Hell


View Central Asia 2019 on Bob Brink's travel map.

May 23

It's four Stans down, one to go, as today we were leaving for Stan No. 5, Turkmenistan, on what is day 19 of our 22-day tour. Once again, I dutifully set my alarm and then woke up with a coughing spell long before it was set to go off. I wonder what will happen tonight when we are all camping next to each other in our little tents. Maybe everyone will get to wake up early.

I also swear that my thoughts are coming out in a Russian accent, thanks to listening to Sasha for six days. He has tried hard to teach us the history of Uzbekistan, gathering us together and always beginning with, “Yes, my friends.” I am not sure how much I have learned, but I think that I will remember his voice for a long time.

I finished my packing and headed down for an early breakfast. I had taken Sasha’s advice and put my prescription meds into one bag so that they will be easy to find if the Turkmenistan customs officials want to see them. He keeps telling us how wonderful Turkmenistan is, all the while warning us about the authorities.

We boarded a big bus for the relatively quick one hour ride to the border. Sasha rode with us to the edge of town to say farewell. He then left us to catch his flight to Tashkent where he will meet his next tour group. I thought we were old, but the youngest members of the new group are the same ages as Michael and me, the elders on this tour.

We went fast on the bumpy road. We were in a race to be the first tour group to get there and present ourselves to immigration and customs. If it was going to take us an hour to get through, we did not want to be waiting an extra hour for our turn. And we won! We barely beat a Korean tour group. No prizes were awarded, but we will save that time.

We passed quickly through the Uzbekistan side and looked for the taxi that would take us the kilometre or so to the Turkmenistan side. It took a couple of minutes before one pulled up and discharged a group going the other way. It was an old Russian vehicle, not too comfortable, but faster than walking. And we needed to get in so that the Koreans could not. It was only big enough for us. The Koreans had to wait.

Now we were at the dreaded Turkmenistan border. We hustled inside the first room and tried to fill in the immigration forms. They were all in Russian and like others we have seen in Central Asia, in small print. While we were standing there a man came out and checked our temperatures with one of those thermometers that shine a light on your forehead. It was a good thing that I did not have a fever with my cold. It reminded me of the SARS scare in Toronto back in 2003 when everyone was checked as they walked off the international flights. That was a horrible time in Toronto. We were not worried about getting sick, but we were international pariahs. We did get a Rolling Stones concert out of it. You can Google it if you want to know how SARS turned into a Stones concert.

Begaim was helped with the forms by a friendly official. Those forms along with our passports were handed over to another official in the next room. We lined up and were joined by two local men. One of our group waved them to the front, but the official promptly sent them back. We were then told to go on the customs area. Apparently Begaim was going to handle the many forms and the payment of fees. We would settle up afterwards.

Michael was ahead of me in the line for customs. He was asked to show his prescription medication. It was soon my turn. There were two nice young female officials. One asked me, “Any alcohol?” “No.” Any cigarettes?” “No.” Any medicines?” “Oh, yeah. I am an old guy.” They smiled. “What do you take them for?” I listed them off (no need to write them here, let me have a little privacy). They smiled again and waved me through.

That was it. No searches of me or my bag, no looking at my meds, just smiles. So much for all my worries. We then waited outside for Begaim.

A Turkman standing in the line coming from the other direction looked over and said hello. He asked us where we were from. He was chased away by a guard before we could answer.

Begaim came out after about 15 or 20 minutes. She had paid about three different fees for each of us. She asked us to guess which country’s visa was the most expensive. We said the US, but that was wrong. We all paid the same $40 US fee. With her Kyrgyzstan passport, one of the fellow Stans, she was charged $100 US.

We found our latest guide, Slava, waiting for us on the outside of the fence. Slava is also an ethic Russian or as we had learned, his official documents would show that his nationality was Russian.

We had been told that we would be riding in jeeps. I had visualized three old Russian jeeps, but instead we will be riding in three late model Japanese SUV’s.
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I got into the same vehicle as Slava. We were all nervous about taking photographs here. He told us that we did not have to worry, that the only rule was to not take photos of government buildings in Ashgabat and even then, we could take them from the vehicles. This was another relief. Maybe this dreaded Turkmenistan place was not going to be all that bad?

It was a short drive to the city of Dasoguz, the provincial capital. We knew that the capital Ashgabat was full of marble buildings but now saw that several buildings in Dasoguz were also covered in marble.

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On our way to lunch we saw some young women wearing beautiful long dresses, the first ones in red and a few minutes later some in green. Slava told us that they were wearing their school uniforms which were based on traditional dresses.

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We stopped at a simple restaurant for our lunch and were served dumplings which were quite good. Ice cream was mentioned as an option for dessert. When everyone opted in, they brought out a variety of packaged ice cream bars. Coffees were offered and I had the very best latte of the tour. This Turkmenistan was looking better every minute.

The Korean group arrived as we were eating. The guide told Slava that he had never before lost the dash to the border. Hurray for us.

We were going to be camping in the evening and stopped at a shopping mall for personal supplies. There was some discussion about exchanging money. There is a huge difference between the official and the black-market rates, which has not been an issue in any of the other Stans. Slava mentioned that he might be able to help so he paid for our purchases at the store. We would settle up later. I bought one thing, a large box of tissues. There would be no hotel tissues available tonight. I will not go into any unpleasant details, but even though I was feeling quite a bit better, I still needed many tissues.

We drove for about 90 minutes to Kunya Urgench, which is a World Heritage Site. The town was once the capital of the Khorezm region and was a major cultural centre during the Middle Ages. It was destroyed by Genghis Khan (where have we heard that before?), then rebuilt and by 1366 it was perhaps the most important city of the Turks. Then Timur came along, had some disagreements with the rulers of the area, and had it destroyed again. The area seems to have avoided an earthquake, the other plague that devasted the cities of Central Asia. That kind of sums up our history lessons for all our stops.

All that remains of the old city are several monuments from the 11th to 16th centuries. These monuments are not as restored as the ones that we had seen in Uzbekistan. The area was abandoned for centuries and then used only as a graveyard, so the original character is still present. I really enjoyed seeing these structures that were in a more “natural” state since there was enough remaining to show their original magnificence. The buildings in Uzbekistan were beautiful, but there have been questions about the authenticity of some of the restorations. I was glad to have seen both.

We first went to Najmeddin Kubra Mausoleum. Najmeddin Kubra was a 12th-13th century teacher and poet who founded the Sufic Kubra order. The portal has a definite lean. That is not the distortion that I have had to deal with on my many photographs of buildings.

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Right across from it is the Sultan Ali Mausoleum from the 14-16th century.
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These monuments are places of pilgrimage. We saw people walking around the mausoleums, touching the walls. At other places they left offerings and wrapped cloth around branches of the few trees in the area.
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The Timur Qutlugh Minaret was built in 1011. It is 60 meters high. It seems like a really long way up when you stand at the bottom.
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The Mausoleum of Tyurabek-Khanym comes with a sad story. It was built for a Mongolian princess and the favorite daughter of the governor of Uzbek-Khan. She promised to marry the architect if he built the finest building on earth for her. He came pretty close to the finest, but she married someone else. In despair the architect threw himself from the top of the beautiful mausoleum.

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Il Arslan is the Mausoleum of Kho-Rezmshah II Arslan, who ruled from 1156 to 1172. The mausoleum, dating to the 12th century, is the oldest standing monument in Gurgench.
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We now headed into the Karakum Desert. The road was rough and dusty. The drivers took off like we were in a race, with the three drivers weaving side to side looking for the smoothest patch, although smooth is kind of a relative term. It seemed like they were just having a good time.
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I had mentioned before the two great rivers of the area which are used for irrigation and now do not replenish the almost dry Aral Sea. We were near the Amu Darya River. We saw many irrigation canals and pipes. Wheat, cotton, and rice are grown in the area. You could readily see the difference between the irrigated areas and the natural desert.
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The road got much better, although there were no lane markings. The drivers seemed to use both sides of the road as they raced each other across the desert. I was having a marvelous time, enjoying the desert landscape and just that feeling of wonder that I was flying (we were going really fast) through the desert in Turkmenistan. It was a magical moment as I was thinking how lucky I was to be there, on the other side of the world, riding along the path of the great caravans.

Almost on cue we stopped to photograph some camels. Slava said that they were domestic, but they were free to graze.
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I asked about the square patterns of grass. I was told that they are put there to hold the sand dunes in place.
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We turned off the main road raced down a series of dirt tracks.

We had arrived at our destination for the evening, Darvaza Crater. This is one of the more bizarre tourist destinations in the world. Maybe all you need to know is that the locals refer to the place by such inviting names as the “Gate to Hell” or the "Door to Hell".

It all began back in 1971 when Soviet geologists were searching for oil fields. They started an exploratory well. Within a few days the rig began to sink. The site collapsed along with the equipment (no people). There was now a big crater with escaping gas, posing a risk to people and animals in the area. The solution seemed to be to light it on fire, believing that it would burn off in a few days. That was almost 50 years ago. The president of Turkmenistan visited the site in 2010 and ordered that it be filled in. That is easier said than done.

Instead it is a tourist attraction offering a great big fire but no tourist facilities. We would be camping but with zero options for bathing and the bushes for other needs.

We were let out and told that we would be camping behind a hill. We walked down to the crater. It was big; it was very hot. We walked around for several minutes. I saw that some of our group had climbed a small hill, so I walked up to join them. So now we had a great view of the big hole with a giant fire in the middle. I had read that the place was really impressive at night. It was really strange during the afternoon. But I continued to be enthralled with the view of the Karakum Desert. The desert and sky were amazing.

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I walked up to our campsite and chose my tent. There was a nice comfortable looking mat. I was not worried about the sleeping bag. Even though we were too far to get heat from the crater, the evening temperature was going to be above 20 at night (about 70 for you Americans). There was no pillow. I thought that sleep would be impossible and wondered if I would start coughing. There was no way to sit up as I had been for the past many nights. I thought I was in for a long night.

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I decided to walk up the ridge to get a shot of the sunset. I looked back and saw that there were others from my group with the same idea. Lynley took a photo of me.
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The drivers cooked our supper, wonderful lamb cooked over the fire. No, they did not cook it over the crater. The group photo was taken by Silvio.
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After finishing our meal, we visited the crater. In the dark it was spectacular. We walked all the way around.
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At one point we all did our poses. This is again curtesy of Lynley.
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I have posted this video to show the crater but also to remind myself of one of our group who I ultimately concluded that I would really miss, especially his way with the English language. Warning, contains (mildly) graphic language.

I crawled into my tent, wadded up my sweatshirt for a pillow and got ready to spend a sleepless night.

But I was quite happy. My first day in the mysterious country of Turkmenistan had been wonderful. After all my concerns, I was quite pleased that I had taken a tour with this least visited Stan included. I thought back to my phone call with Luca from Kalpak before I booked. After he told me that getting a visa to Turkmenistan could be problematic and that I needed to wait to buy my flights since Ashgabat was the end of the trip, I suggested that I could just skip the place. Luca called me out (in a nice way) and pointed out that I had just said that I liked to visit places that my friends and family had never heard of. That was part of a strange attraction. Now that I had a chance to visit Turkmenistan, I was going to skip it?

I did not skip it, and here I was in a small tent next to the Gate to Hell after having had a fantastic day. What more could you ask for? I could think of one thing - a good night's sleep.

Posted by Bob Brink 07:08 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged turkmenistan central_asia kalpak_travel Comments (5)

Khiva


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May 22

My plan for this morning was to get up early and take some photographs before things got busy. The getting up early part turned out to be a given since after going to sleep okay, I woke up coughing at 4:30. With the time difference I knew that I could phone Po. We tried a couple of times, but the connection was not great. I tried to get back to sleep but finally gave up.

It was a beautiful morning. I confirmed that the camels did indeed spend the night in the square.
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There were a few souvenir people setting up their goods and the street cleaners were out. There was one jogger, but I saw no other tourists.
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I wanted to get on top of the wall. I thought I was following the directions that Sasha had given me the night before but could not see a way to walk up. I asked a man sitting in a van, but he did not speak English. However, he did give me an enthusiastic handshake. It feels great to be welcomed. Later I found out that I was at the wrong gate.

Here are some of the photos that I took on my little outing.
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Khiva is thought to be about 2,500 years old. The core of the city, Icahn-Lala, was always within the fortification walls. Like most of anything else in Central Asia, the walls of Khiva were destroyed by Mongol invaders and then were rebuilt. The current walls are from the late 18th century. There are four monumental gates facing in the four directions.

Khiva was a major stop on the Silk Road. Travellers were safe inside the walls, but the city also served as a place for trade. The travellers on the Silk Road did not go the entire route. Instead it was the goods that kept moving as they changed hands between the traders at the various points.

Khiva was known for a more ominous business than silk and spices. It was a major slave trading centre. The dreaded Turkmen were famous nomadic horsemen known for their cruelty. They would capture entire caravans and herd their captives to Khiva. Anyone too weak to walk would be left in the desert to die. Entire Russian families would be captured from Orenburg, a town in southern Russia. Because the local Khan took a cut of the business, he allowed the Turkmen to bring their human goods inside the city. The trade continued up to the beginning of the 20th century. The last slaves were only set free after the revolution in the 1920’s.

When I returned to the hotel for breakfast I found that even though there was only Nescafe, Begaim was not making coffee with her press. That's when I found out the terrible news that she had left the bag that had the coffee and press in one of the vans. The bag had been recovered, but she will not get it back for a few days. That meant making do with the instant coffee. Oh my, the trails and tribulations of a traveller! This morning I replaced the crepes with French toast and honey.

After breakfast we joined Sasha for our tour of Khiva. We walked outside the walls where we found some scary looking warriors. Were they Mongols?

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Sasha said that the walls were originally built to protect against the Turkmen. There were two moats.The graves in the wall were fake, done to fool the Mongols who avoided gravesites. Genghis Khan captured the city by poisoning the wells.

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We stopped at the hat store where I tried on a traditional Uzbek hat. It is supposed to be both cool in summer and warm in winter. I am sure it would be big hit back in Newfoundland.
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We next visited the fabulous Kunya Ark Citadel, the old fortress that was the Khiva rulers’ residence and was constructed in the 17th century.
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We made a quick visit to a carpet factory.
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We passed a woman baking the flat bread that we have had at just about every meal in Central Asia.
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We had lunch at this pleasant café. I loved the appetisers.
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Sasha has been giving us information about Turkmenistan. At lunch he advised us to install something called Secure VPN on our electronic devices so we can try to get around the blocking of websites and email.

Our first stop after lunch was the Jumma Mosque which translates as Friday mosque. Sasha had taught us about the different sizes of mosques. There are neighbourhood mosques for daily prayers, Friday mosques to hold more worshipers for the big weekly prayers and really huge mosques for special annual events. The Jumma mosque has 213 columns, some of which are over 1,000 years old. They use felt within the columns which helps them withstand earthquakes. The mosque has a capacity of 6,000.

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The Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum is another beautiful spot. Pahlavon Mahmud was a poet and philosopher. But he was also a legendary wrestler. He is considered Khiva’s patron saint. This tomb was constructed in 1326 and was then rebuilt in the 19th century.
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The Minaret of the Madrasah of Islam-Khodja was built in 1908-1910 and is Khiva's highest minaret (57 metres including foundation). It is possible to climb it, but after my experience on the truncated Burana Tower in Kyrgyzstan, I was not tempted.

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The Tash-Khovli Palace is from the 19th century. The palace housed a harem guarded by eunuchs until the 1920’s. For some reason I found it more fun to be walking around a place that was once full of beautiful women rather than madrassas that were full of Islamic scholars. I am not sure why that would be. Maybe I am tired of mausoleums and madrassas. After a while they all start to look alike.

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Sasha then let us to where we could climb up on the ramparts. It was no where near where I had been in the morning. Several of us climbed up. I went the opposite direction to the others and enjoyed taking photographs on my own.

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Although the area inside the walls is primarily for tourists, there are a few thousand residents. It was to fun to walk through that area on my way back towards the hotel.

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A man came running up to me and gave me an Uzbek coin. With the 9000 to 1 exchange rate to US dollars, it would have been worthless. But then he asked for a Canadian coin in exchange, which I did not have. He immediately took back his coin. I later found out that he did the same to Michael.

I went for a latte at the same café where we had eaten our lunch. My plans were to then go to the Ark Citadel and climb up to the watch tower. In our itinerary this was listed as our first event for the day, but for some reason Sasha only showed us where to buy tickets and how to find the entrance so we could do it on our own. My cold was still zapping my energy so decided to skip it and just go to the hotel and relax before dinner.

For supper we had a table in the back of a restaurant. Sasha once again discussed our Turkmenistan trip and told us to be prepared for a delay at the border. He had earlier warned us about no Facebook or Gmail. He compared the place to North Korea. Then we will be camping at a place with zero facilities. I was starting to think that I should have skipped this part of the tour.

We were joined by a family of traditional singers and dancers. They did a few numbers and then got Silvio involved. He was a star. Here is a video of spinning dancers that you definitely should watch.

At the end of the show we were all asked to get up and dance. I got up assuming that everyone would join in. Silvio and Lynley did, but the others refused, which left the three of us making fools of ourselves. I assumed that someone took a video of me in action but have never seen the evidence.

When we returned to the hotel I glanced at a postcard and saw the photo that I would have taken if I had gone up the watchtower. It was a beautiful shot of the curved walls. I would have loved to get that, but it was now too late since we are leaving early for Turkmenistan, I felt quite disappointed and spent a long time trying to forget about it, knowing that is was just one or two photographs among several hundred great ones. But my mind kept returning to that view.

I did my packing, talked to Po, and did my nightly attempt to sleep without too much coughing.

Tomorrow morning we will find out if the border with Turkmenistan is as bad as advertised.

Posted by Bob Brink 19:01 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged uzbekistan central_asia kalpak_travel Comments (1)

Through the Desert to Khiva


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May 21

I opened my door at 7 am and found a huge line of tourists going down the hall. I walked past them to the dining room and sat down. Even though they were all stopping at every item, and I was just going to grab my crepes and some coffee, I waited. They were like army ants on the march. Eventually they worked their way through. They did not eat everything, although most of the strawberries were gone.

After checking out we gathered in the lobby to wait for our eight-hour ride to Khiva. Everyone used their phones for their last internet connection, at least everyone except for Thomas. He was calmly drinking his breakfast beer.

We headed down the “highway” through Kyzylkum Desert. It was quite rough at the beginning.
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We discussed a bit of politics, specifically Putin. Sasha said that he treats them (Uzbekistan) well. We agreed that he is smart, much smarter than a certain president, an orange guy.

I was hot. We were not even using the fan. I could not seem to get the concept across of using just the fan to get some air moving. It seemed to be air conditioning or nothing. That meant open windows and dust.

Eventually we passed through the bad section of road. We came to our lunch stop, a few buildings in the middle of nowhere. All the tourists stop here. There is no other choice.

There was a dirty looking grill against a wall and several tables set up under a shade netting. Sasha directed us to our table and brought out some tomatoes and cucumbers. Michael and Silvio volunteered to chop. The flies were terrible, covering everything within seconds. When my kebab came out undercooked, I decided to pass on lunch. I made do with my potato chips and some of the local brandy that was on our menu.

I have a video of the flies. I decided to spare everyone by not posting it.

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After we finished, I took a walk to the back of the complex. There was a lot of junk including an old Russian bus. There was also a big garbage dump. It was no wonder that there were flies.

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We left our little oasis and headed back down the highway. We finally had some air conditioning. But that meant there were complaints about it being too cold. It was eventually turned down so that everyone was equally unhappy. I managed to get some air by fiddling with the vents. Count air conditioning conflict as a negative for group tours.

A few hours later we pulled into a parking lot next to some stores. Sasha directed us to the other side of the road where we found several camels and horses. They are part of a future tourist attraction.

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Who's a pretty camel?

We crossed the Amu Darya River. There were many irrigated fields, all part of the great diversion of water that has destroyed the Aral Sea.
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We could soon see the walls of the Ichan Qala citadel in Khiva. Our hotel for the next two nights is called the Orient Star and inside the citadel, a former Mukhamed Aminkhan madrassa which dates from 1851. At check in we did the now routine handing in of passports and waiting to get our assigned rooms. I was the last to get my key. Others were sent down the hall or around the corner to some stairs. I was sent up a different set of stairs. It was quite narrow and dark. The handrail was broken. When I got to the top, I saw lots of number signs, but nothing referenced my room. I wandered up and down before finally finding my door down the middle of a corridor.

I would describe the room as quite interesting. It is reasonably comfortable but has the feeling of a basement apartment. My only window is a tiny recessed portal to the courtyard. It is more than an arm’s length to the outside. Little light gets through.

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I was actually given a small suite. There is a second bedroom which I decided would be good for hanging my laundry.
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The plumbing appears to date from the student days at the madrassa. Water from both the basin and shower shoot out sideways, soaking the room.
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After doing my laundry duties I went out to check out the town. I looked to see if there was a better way to get downstairs and ended up taking the stairs that led to the other side of the reception. Although equally as steep, there was a light and a functional handrail. There was even a sign pointing to my room. I had no idea why the desk clerk sent me to the other stairs.

In my early posts I mentioned my decision to do carry on bag only for this trip. All of the tour group members except one are using somewhat large to absolutely huge backpacks. None would qualify as carry on luggage. At one point, someone noted that almost everyone was using a backpack and that showed what experienced travellers they were. I think that my little bag shows what a good traveller I am. There are been many times that I was happy to have such a small bag, such as today when I had to carry it up the steep stairs.
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Once outside I took a few photos of the walls and our hotel. It is an impressive place.
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I passed a couple of camels. You can take their photo but there is a price to stand next to them or sit on top.
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The citadel is full of tourists and people selling to tourists. The walls are lined with vendors.
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I wanted to find a café with Wi-Fi. I had no luck on the Wi-Fi part so went back to the hotel where it seemed that the Wi-Fi was limited to the courtyard. I went to the bar and asked about coffee, but they only had Americano. I messaged Po. WhatsApp seemed to be working so we had a quick talk. I sent her a photo of the courtyard.
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Dinner was a short walk away. We were on a roof again.
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Sasha had promised us a green pasta, a Uighur dish. Then they served everyone a plate of dumplings. We knew that was not right, so no one touched their food. Begaim ran to get Sasha who was off having a smoke and talking on his phone. Sasha summoned a waiter and the dumplings were quickly whisked away and replaced by our pasta, which I found quite bland. I had noticed that Thomas was shaking what I thought was pepper on all his meals. I tried it and found out that it was red pepper. It really helped.
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Just like last night, we got some sunset photos from the rooftop.
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Everyone was headed their separate ways. I was quite sleepy so decided to just go back to the hotel. I noticed that the camel was still in the same place. It seems that he spends the night in the courtyard. I took a couple of sunset shots from in front of the hotel.
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Back in my room, I found out that I could get Wi-Fi as long as I sat on my bed and stayed close to the wall, right under the window. That gave me a chance to talk to Po before having my nightly coughing spell.

There will be no buses tomorrow morning for our tour. Everything is within the walls. I plan to go out on my own before breakfast and get some photos before things get crowded.

Posted by Bob Brink 05:01 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged uzbekistan khiva central_asia kalpak_travel Comments (3)

Bukhara Tour


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May 20

For the first time in many days I had a good night’s sleep. Thank you, Lynley. I was just a few doors down from the breakfast room. It was full of tourists from the big tour groups. I could hear both Italian and French. Was there some Spanish as well? I went straight for my daily serving of crepes. They had a nice strawberry jam to put on top.

This is the day for our tour of the historic city of Bukhara. We drove to our first stop. Throughout the tour we have been able to leave our packs on the buses at the various stops. I thought I could do that today. Luckily the others noticed what I was doing. Only then did I understand that the bus was only taking us to the start of our walk. This was the last that we would see it. That was close. I could have blissfully walked away and only found out an hour later that our bus was not around. At the very least Sasha would have had to chase it down. The worst would have been never seeing my bag again.

The centre of Bukhara is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with many historic mosques and madrassas. Bukhara was a key part of the Silk Road. Back in Tajikistan we learned about the great kingdom of the Persian Samanis, which flourished in the 10th century. We also learned that the centre of the kingdom was the capital, Bukhara, and that Bukhara was now part of Uzbekistan. That happened when the People’s Commissariat of Nationalities, which was headed by a man named Joseph Stalin, made the decision in 1924 that Bukhara and Samarkand, even though they were majority Tajik cities, would not be given to the newly formed Tajik when the five republics, the ultimate Five Stans, were created.

We were now in that city of Bukhara and visiting the Ismail Somoni Mausoleum. Somoni was also part of our history lessons in Tajikistan. Remember that the Tajiks think so much of him that their money is the Somoni.

We parked next to what must be Bukhara Disney World since there were Mickey and Minnie.
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The monument was built early in the tenth century and is one of the oldest buildings in Central Asia to have survived without alterations. There are 16 styles of brickwork on its face.
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The place was packed with tourists.
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We then walked to the Chashma Ayub Mausoleum which was built during Timur’s reign during the 14th century . It is named after Job (Ayub) as in the biblical Job. He is said to have visited this site and made a well which gives pure water that is drunk by visitors for its healing properties. The building has a conical dome which is not common in Bukhara.
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There was a museum in the building where Sasha discussed some more recent history. The Aral Sea represents one of the great ecological disasters of all time. Irrigation schemes built to increase the production of cotton has destroyed this great inland sea. Back at the palace in Khujand we had seen photographs of the workers building irrigation canals. Irrigation of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers have reduced the size of the Aral Sea from 68,900 km2 in 1957 to 8,600 km2 in 2017. The Aral Sea was once the forth largest lake in the world.
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We took a quick stroll through the market. There were not that many customers (Ramadan?), but the vendors were friendly.
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We stopped at the beautiful Bolo Haouz Mosque which was built in 1712. It is still a functioning mosque.
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We then moved on the Ark Citadel. Fortresses on this site have defended Bukhara for a couple thousand years. New ones were built on top of old ones. The citadel was made famous in the 19th century. At that time Bukhara was of interest to both the English and the Russians as they engaged in what was referred to as the “Great Game”, vying for control of the Indian subcontinent. Bukhara was then ruled by the emirs of the Manghit dynasty. A British Colonel Stoddart had the unfortunate assignment of meeting with Emir Nasrullah Khan to ask him to join in an alliance with the British East India Company. Stoddart’s manners did not meet the standards of the Emir. He was offensive enough that the Emir had him thrown into the “Bug Pit”, a not so pleasant dungeon under the fortress. He was eventually let out to a more pleasant house arrest after he agreed to convert to Islam. Captain Arthur Conolly then came along to rescue him, but he lacked a message from the Queen that the Emir was expecting, a royal to royal thing. The Emir was not pleased. He had both men beheaded.

We visited the square where the Emir would meet with his subjects. This is where Stoddart committed his first faux pas when the Englishman
rode in on his horse rather than on foot. We could even sit in the Emir’s chair. He was not around to get upset at our lack of decorum, so we were not thrown into the bug bit.
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Sasha then got us rides in the little electric carts to take us to our restaurant. The place was full of tourists. It did have a nice rooftop so that we could take some photos of the town.
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After lunch we walked over to the Poi-Kalyan Complex. The structures here were built in the 12th to 14th centuries. The first stop was the Kalan Mosque and Minaret. The Kalan Minaret is known as the Grand Minaret in Persian but is also called the Tower of Death for all the executions that took place over the centuries with people tossed from the top.
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The Mir-i-Arab Madrassa was full of vendors, similar to other places in Uzbekistan. It does take a bit away from the experience to have these amazing structures set up as glorified souvenir shops. We also saw some buildings that had not yet been restored. We obviously have been seeing the restored versions in Tashkent and Samarkand.
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I had little room in my little suitcase for souvenirs, but I did buy a couple of scarves from this lady.
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The cupulas that looked like something from Star Wars were for craftsmen and were full of shops.
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We visited a puppet maker. Do you think we look alike? My doppelganger hangs out with a couple of ladies.
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We visited a synagogue and heard a talk by the rabbi. He did not speak English, so everything was translated by Sasha. I still found it fascinating. We had heard a lot about Soviet Times, that many people were happy since they had easy jobs and apartments (if they waited long enough). But they did not have the basic freedoms that we take for granted. This could have been a church or a mosque or a union hall, the issue was the same. There are still civil rights issues in Central Asia.
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That was the end of our tour. We were on our own until supper. It also meant that it was time for my special outing with Sasha. We were going to a barber. A few days earlier I had told Sasha that I wanted a haircut. I usually get my very stylish brush cut about every three weeks. I knew I could wait another week, but by then my cowlick would be quite prominent. Plus, I thought that it might be fun to get a haircut in Uzbekistan. Sasha wears his hair (or lack of) like me, very short. He brought me to small barber near the hotel and went into negotiations on my behalf. After a few minutes of back and forth he announced that I was getting my haircut for 20,000 Som (about $2.25 US). Later Sasha told me that he was first quoted 70,000 Som. Sasha only pays 10,000 for his own cuts. But the 20,000 did not include a photograph of my barber.

I ran into this guy on the way back to the hotel. He had biked all the way from England.
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The Hotel Asia may not be luxurious, but from the reflection in the window you can see that is has a great location.
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This ended a great day’s outing. The architecture and history had been incredible. I expected that. But I had also thought that my illness combined with the heat would have me struggling to get through the day. However, we had constant breaks from the direct sun under trees and in buildings. I also felt a bit better (probably thanks to getting some sleep).

Another day in Uzbekistan. Great architecture? Check. Lots of tourists? Check. Great food? Not really. But we had a great architecture with our dinner thanks to the view from our rooftop restaurant. To be fair, we had the usual bread and salads which are always good. Tonight, we were served dumplings, and they were quite okay.

The best part was the view of the Kalan Minaret at sunset.
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After dinner I walked with Begaim, Lynley, and Michael to the Ark. Everything was quite magical with the lights.
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Back at the hotel the lobby was full of tourists. I found a seat and had a Facebook Messenger chat with Po. Tomorrow we have a long drive through the desert to Khiva.

Posted by Bob Brink 07:37 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged uzbekistan bukhara kalpak_travel Comments (2)

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