Bukhara part 1

Our Silk Road bliss and challenges continue! The train trip from Samarkand to Bukhara was comfy and uneventful. Looking out the window of an air conditioned carriage, from the comfort of a wide recliner seat, I felt far removed from the long ago traders who plied this route with their caravans of heavily loaded camels.

We were really excited about our accommodation here in Bukhara as it is a 500 year old caravanserai. We booked it months ago and it was to be our star accommodation on this trip. They even sent a driver with Pat’s name held above the heads of the clamouring taxi touts. Lucky lucky we!

We were suitably impressed when we walked through the ancient stone archway into the inner courtyard of the caravanserai. We sat at a table, there were some other travellers sitting at another table. We waited. 

“May we see your reservation please?”

Pat showed the young woman our reservation. She looked at it blankly. The other travellers were having similar issues. A young man arrived. He explained we had no reservation. We explained that we did and that a vehicle had been sent to pick us up. 

We were finally shown a room with two beds and two tiny cots and no en-suite bathroom. The shared bathroom was across the outside courtyard. We were to be paying quite a bit more than our usual fee to stay in this nice place…. we asked to see another room. Two children’s bunk beds were in there and still no bathroom. The cheeky young man then took us to another hotel a few blocks away. It is fine, but not what we had in mind. We negotiated a lower price. There was a lot of consternation over this but we held firm. booking.com has been advised!

Our visit to Bukhara is split in two because of odd and even days of train travel to and from Khiva. We are off to Khiva this morning. When we return to Bukhara, we will be staying at a newly built quite upscale hotel in the centre of the mosque and monuments area and a short hop from a woman’s hammam. 

Bukhara is piled with beautiful and exotic restored ancient bazaar’s, mosques, madrasahs, an enormous fort, museums….. narrow twisty lanes, wide pedestrian avenues and restaurants. A cornucopia of Silk Road era sights! The hotel where we are staying is across the road from one of the city’s most well known sights. We managed to visit before the bus loads of tourists arrived. Once again we are reminded that we are now on a popular tourist route. Uzbekistan has rolled out the carpet to welcome us foreigners.

Voting while away

Having left home in the middle of August and not being due home until the end of November, we are missing all the election excitement. What to do about voting?

Did you know that there are Special Ballot Kits?

Here’s how this works:

After the election was called we applied for our Special Ballot Kits through Elections Canada. We did this while we were in Bishkek Kyrgyzstan. 

Consulates are supposed to receive the kits on behalf of Canadians and we were supposed to be able to go to one and pick up our kits. We checked with the Consulate in Tashkent and they said no they would not accept our kits and suggested we go to Moscow to pick them up instead. Check out a map to see how unhelpful and illogical that suggestion was.

We contacted Elections Canada again and gave them our hostel address here in Samarkand.

They responded that our kits would be sent here.

Sure enough, yesterday DHL arrived at our hostel and Pat and I each signed for a package from Elections Canada. We all hope Helen’s package will arrive soon.

Inside was a ballot and several envelopes. We each completed our ballot, put it in the inner envelope, then the outer envelope which we signed and then the lot went 2671F31B-2F4C-459A-9F0D-90BED5F5A98BE874A771-A55A-4ED9-88B5-8072A1C34157A3FC9A72-FB2E-4EB9-AE3C-D387829F9DE371F6EAF5-8FDB-4E23-9AD0-C275C8C2E297into a mailing envelope.

Today we walked over to the DHL office to mail back our ballots. They wanted 5 million som or US $60.00. In case you are interested, 5 million som is worth about US $500. That was all too weird and expensive for us so we walked to a post office where we each mailed our ballots for the equivalent of 35 cents. Much better.

So at least two votes in Canada’s upcoming federal election have been cast from Samarkand Uzbekistan. How cool is that?

Pictures of Tashkent

One of the odd things about Tashkent was that a couple of the city fountains were actually working. Most other cities we’ve visited have had sad, derelict dry fountains with rusted pipes and broken concrete. Coming hard on the heels of our visit to Turkistan, and the dreadful train ride – Tashkent was an oasis! I added a pick of me counting my million!

 

Tashkent, Samarkand, Money Matters and a Hammam

 Our arrival in Tashkent provided the surprise of a clean city with serviceable roads, maintained buildings and a lack of thick dust. Our taxi driver found our hostel with no drama. The hostel was where and as advertised. A simple place around a courtyard, we had the VIP suite. That sounds a bit more luxurious than reality but our room was large, clean, with locking door, an en-suite bathroom, three comfortable beds and a table. Bliss.

Tashkent has an efficient metro so we used it – cost about fourteen cents to get into the heart of town. We spent two days exploring an enormous historic market, an applied arts museum and parks. We also spent lots of time locating cash. Banks not as helpful as ATMs in fancy hotels.

Uzbekistan’s currency takes some getting used to. 1000 som = about ten US cents. Even though prices are very reasonable, we need to carry stacks of money. Millions! I’m completely lost in all the zeros. Is that train ticket 40,000 som or 400,000 som? The most common bank notes 10,000 som. At one ATM we found that worked – and that’s another story – it just spat out 10,000 som notes and we were each withdrawing over a million som. We seem to spend an inordinate amount of time seeking ATMs that accept foreign bank cards and then as much time sitting in our room counting money. This pile for train tickets another pile for accommodations, another pile for……

Our train from Tashkent to Samarkand was another pleasant surprise. Modern, clean, fast, specious seats, a complimentary breakfast! 

Samarkand is everything I’ve been hoping for in a Silk Road city.

Here, history reveals itself. There are glorious ancient buildings, mausoleums, a fabulous market, nicely maintained avenues and pedestrian streets. There are also lots of other tourists but we seem to be welcomed. Local folk generally greet us with “welcome to Uzbekistan.” We’ve met many friendly people. More English is spoken here than in Kazakhstan. We’d not expected this, but it does make life easier. I’ve sent some Samarkand pictures in the previous blog. 

Back to our ever prevailing money matters.

It’s so hard to locate serviceable ATMs that we’ve been trying to figure out all our financial requirements for our entire time in Uzbekistan….. too many zeros involved!

Yesterday we found no ATMs that accepted our cards and we walked far and wide. Finally another customer at the third unhelpful bank took us under his wing. An hour later Pat and I each had a bit of US money….. we still don’t know why US and not som. Helen was still without any funds so she went to one of the fancy hotels (where she was successful) while Pat and I went to a hammam.

The hammam is just down the lane from our hostel. It is old. After changing we showered, then lay on hot – really hot – white marble benches on our wet hammam towels. Then a lovely, slightly corpulent attendant – about our age – in her voluptuous bloomers and bra arrived. After Pat and I had sweat for a while, she scrubbed us and washed us and our hair, then massaged us then coated us in ginger powder, then rinsed us off, then hugged us! All this under ancient brick domes and on marble benches that have seen centuries of women and men enjoy the rituals of communal bathing. We, however, had the entire place to ourselves.

Today we visited the site of an observatory built by scientist – Ulugbek – in 1428. He was one of the world’s most learned astronomers who calculated planetary orbits, stars positions and the length of earth’s year with nearly as much accuracy as modern astronomers have been able to do. The museum there offered us a reminder of how much Islamic scientists have contributed to our modern understanding of the natural world. This is something I think some of us who have been educated in Western-centric schools don’t fully appreciate.

Tomorrow we’ll enjoy our last day in this well restored Silk Road city before continuing to Bukhara then Khiva.

In comparing Samarkand (Uzbekistan) with Shymkent (Kazakhstan) – which was founded in the 12th century as a caravanserai for the important Silk Road city of nearby Sayram, I wonder why neither Shymkent nor Sayram seem to have any remaining signs of their early Silk Road history. Shymkent was an important trade centre for nomadic and urbanized people, but Genghis Khan and other attacking nomadic armies destroyed it more than once. The Soviets weren’t easy on ancient monuments and buildings either. Samarkand however seems to have faired better. In Kazakhstan, there is only just now a move to fix up the remaining monuments in Turkistan in an effort to encourage tourism. This has already happened here in Uzbekistan. 

 

Train trip Turkistan Kazakhstan to Tashkent Uzbekistan

28 September 

Before we left home, as we planned this trip, we researched quite a bit about train travel. Trains are generally good but we decided we’d not travel less than 2nd class. We read enough and looked at enough horror-show pictures to know less than second class might not suit our refined tastes.

So, when we bought our tickets from Turkistan to Tashkent, the ticket selling lady told us we’d all be in separate 2nd class cupes. Well, we wanted to sit together so we bought tickets for a different wagon with no cupes. It was a short six hour day-trip. We’d just be sitting in seats. No problem.

You know where this is going already don’t you?

OMG!

The Uzbekistan train pulled into the station and we knew from the outside that we were in for a treat. Upon boarding we were met with a scene of chaos. The car was overflowing with bedding, signet-shirted men were either snoring or filling the narrow isle. Some were eating, the smell wasn’t pleasant. Even the isle had a row of bunk beds. We clambered along to our designated seats. Pat and I sat on a hard bench – no bedding on it although there was a made-up bed above. Helen’s seat had a bunch of used bedding across it. She folded it in half and sat down on the isle side, facing Pat and me. Pat was also sitting on an isle side seat. The window side had two tires stacked up between the seats so I was sitting with my knees jammed to my chin with my feet on the tires. Six hours of this was going to be pretty bad.

Then along came a fellow who had been sleeping on Helen’s seat. He indicated she should move, so she hopped up and shoved his bedding to the isle side. We both indicated he need to move the tires. This he did. Then we got him to move his suitcase that was protruding from under the seat. Helen then settled into the window seat opposite me. 

Pandemonium broke out. She was supposed to climb into the bunk above the guy. It was after 10am. “No,” we indicated, “It’s daytime.” More discussion amongst the men. Lots of gestures  to indicate Helen must climb up. We shook our heads. Then the car supervisor arrived brandishing our tickets and pointing to Helen to get up top.

Pat exploded, “She’s 70 years old. She’s not climbing up there.” The men all stopped talking. stared at Pat, shrugged at the guy who had been kicked out of his bed, and went to their own seats and beds. I don’t think anyone understood Pat’s words but they sure got the “Mum” tone.

Not long afterwards the guy climbed into Helen’s bunk and had a snooze. When he came down and we exchanged family photo moments. He had been working in Moscow for the past five months in construction.

By the time,we were crossing the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the men were our champions. “They are scary ladies from Canada.” They warned the border guards. “Best not mess with their luggage.” I don’t think that’s exactly what was said, but during the two stops – one on either side of the border, each for about two hours, the other passengers had their baggage torn apart and searched. Ours was barely touched.

With the exception of the first few moments involved with claiming territory – even though all of it was not rightfully ours to claim, our self-imposed dehydration – because there was no way we were going to brave the disgusting toilet, and the train’s late arrival in Tashkent – by an hour, we enjoyed the journey. 

The scenery outside the window was the same brown, flat, dusty, poor looking countryside we’d seen for the past week, but the action within the car was constantly interesting. We nearly cooked during the long border stops. Soldiers, dogs – 5 of them, customs police, broiling sun, many unwashed bodies – it was no picnic – but it makes for a wonderful story….

Don’t you think?

Turkistan

ignore the strike through. I’ve no idea where that came from or why…The  train trip from Shymkent north to the new regional capital – Turkistan – is uneventful. The scenery is the same yellow, dry, flat, dusty land. We pass through a few tiny dusty dilapidated villages. It all seems a bit grim. We are excited about seeing Turkistan as it is promised to have many glorious sights for tourists. The train arrives an hour late into a dusty crumbling depressed looking town. We negotiate for a taxi. There’s the usual yelling men jumping in our faces “Taxi. TAXI.” Pat hates these guys and gives them the stink eye. They back off. We eventually pick a fellow we can communicate with – in German – he can’t read a map but we assure him we can give him directions. We booked our accommodation through booking.com. We direct our driver to the address given. OMG it’s a dreadful looking slummy part of town. We can’t find the address. The driver talks to various passers by – shoulders are shrugged. Our negotiated fare climbs. Finally we are practically shouting at him to just let us out at an Internet cafe. He stops and asks again and almost by magic a fellow in a shop produces the business card of our accommodation. We recognize the place from its picture on the card. We are on the wrong side of town.

The driver drives us back past the train station to a location as far from the address given by booking.com as one could get and still be in Turkistan. One of the most alarming things about this whole business is that we have now driven around town quite a bit and it is ….. simply awful. A dusty, run down town of small shops and dilapidated dusty streets of dilapidated dusty badly maintained homes.

Our hostel tops the scale of dilapidated.

A young boy admits us and shows us up rickety, loose, wobbly stairs to our room. Our room is really just an open space at the top of the stairs. No door and one wall open to the stair well. We ask to see other rooms. They are disgustingly filthy tiny closets jammed with the most rickety tiny bunk beds I’ve ever seen. It is appalling. We check out the one shower toilet room. It is clean. The boy manages to assure us that no one else is coming. We take the open space at the top of the stairs. Of course it’s not true, others do arrive. They cram into the gross closet rooms. The boy disappears. There is no front door key. There is no room door or key. Pat and I leave Helen on guard and go out to find a grocery store. There are very slim pickings but we manage to bring back water, beer, Lays potato chips, stale bread, barely passibe cheese and yogurt for dinner. 

At about 8:30pm a young man arrives. “Make yourself at home. My home is your home.” Blah blah. He’s an optimist. However in the morning he will drive us out see the atmospheric ruins of Sauron about an hour out of town. We hunger for some indications of the Silk Road history so accept his offer.

The beds – cots really – are atrocious. Metal framed, with rusty worn springs. Helen’s is like a hammock. Pat and I have random boards stuck under ours so we only sag between the rock hard bits. Surprisingly, we sleep well.

Our young man drives us out to the ruins first thing in the morning. The cool air is pleasant as we tramp around and admire the crumbled remnants of ancient walls. The space within the walls is vast – and largely un-excavated. No interest? No money? Kazakhstan is a rich nation due to vast oil fields. Our guide exudes delight in the burgeoning tourist industry that is going to bring thousands of tourists here. We don’t really share his optimism.

Back in town he wants to continue his guide role to show us around an enormous mosque and mausoleums complex. We assure him we’d rather explore on our own.

First we go to an Internet cafe because our accommodation has such limited internet it could only cope with one of us being online. That problem was blamed on our devises. Of course we were able to get online with no trouble at the cafe.

The complex grounds are getting a major facelift. Three pilgrimages here are said to equate to one pilgrimage to Mecca. In an attempt to create a pleasant visiting experience the weedy wastelands between all the mausoleums is now being park-scaped. The result is mausoleums sitting in a dust bowl with metal fences, machinery and sweating labourers surrounding them. We pick our way through the dust, which in places is several inches thick, to see mausoleums, an underground mosque, and an ancient hammam. Without the dust and construction it would all be lovely. At 2 we hear the call to prayer. Men come streaming from all directions into the mosque. We see no women going there so just watch from the shelter of a latticed porch by the hammam. So it has likely been for hundreds of years.

We stop for a meal along the Main Street then walk the several kms back to our hostel, buying a few snacks along the way for our dinner.

We have been underwhelmed by Turkistan. Tourism here is really pilgrimage. Expectations are clearly not the same. However the expectations for receiving thousands and thousands of pilgrims will not be met without improvements to all forms of infrastructure. Roads, accommodations, grocery stores, restaurants……

The next morning we happily get a drive to the train station. Our visit to Kazakhstan started out in Astana – now called Nur-Sultan. We were impressed. We found Almaty a bit rundown but still a vibrant interesting city. Shymkent and Turkistan have been completely different experiences. It’s all part of travel, the glorious with the mundane but we’re glad to be moving on from Kazakhstan.

Shymkent

Our night bus ride from Bishkek to Shymkent is without excitement although not overly comfortable. The border crossing is quick. A young soldier helps us with the paperwork as we can’t read the Cyrillic scrip.

We arrive in Shymkent at 5am. This seems a bit early to be waking up our hostel hostess so we hangout in the bus station for a while then a young woman at a coffee shop phones for a taxi and negotiates the price for us. The hostel is on the edge of town, maybe not in the best location. About a 1 km walk to the nearest feasible restaurant.

Once at our hostel – shortly after 6am, we snooze for a while, then set off in 30 degree heat to the train station to book onward tickets. That done, we check out coffee shops and a large rose garden park. The park seems to commemorate 20 years since independence from the Soviet Union. We think.

As we leave the park we see a Big Red Bus and decide we will ride it the next day. We wander – find a restaurant for lunch – wander – find a grocery store and buy dinner snacks and beer and return to our hostel. It has a somewhat rundown but pretty garden with table and couches so we settle in for a picnic and then an early night.

We spent some of our wandering time looking for an elusive tourist info place without success.

The next morning our hostess tells us the only tourist info in town is at the Hotel Shymkent, right across the road from where the Big Red Bus departs. Perfect.

We haven’t been able to find a bus schedule so take a taxi – cheap – out to a regional museum at the other side of town. Getting a taxi here is a mysterious process requiring an app. We always have to get someone else to order one for us. Once ordered the person monitors the taxi’s arrival on their phone, they can see where the taxi is. The destination and price seem to be negotiated at the time of ordering – maybe. Taxis seem to be just about anyone driving just about anything. Another taxi takes us back into the town centre to the Hotel Shymkent. We melt into seats and have lunch after discovering that the tourist info desk is no more.

Who needs tourist info? Various people we meet wonder what we’re doing in Shymkent. 

“We’re tourists.”

“Why are you here. There’s nothing here.”

They are right. There is little of touristy interest in this town. Until last year it was the regional centre but that title has been moved to Turkistan. Infrastructure here is a bit on the crumbly side. Many of roads, buildings and parks are showing signs of neglect. Neglected or not, the city’s parks abound with roses. The shrubs crowd together in profusions of bight scented blooms. deep red, orange, yellow, white, pink. The shrubs are strong hand healthy and covered with blooms.

The Big Red Bus only runs in the evening. We bide our time in a convoluted search for a tour company with which to travel a few kms out of town to see some local sights. We could have flown around the world with greater ease. Finally we find an office where the women are willing to help. They call another office and get us a taxi to take us there. At that office we manage to cobble together an excursion to a cave and a couple of mausoleums and a Silk Road important town of Sairam for the next day.

Once on the packed with local families Big Red Bus – where we have assigned seats – we realize we’ve already seen most of the highlights. The commentary is only in Kazak. 

We have four more days here. Yikes. Our vision of seeing ancient historical walls, buildings or even ruins are dashed. 

Our tour day. Hmmm. Despite being assured the drive out to this amazing cave would only be an hour, it was longer. The countryside makes our Canadian prairies look hilly. Flat dusty expanses of sparse brown grass land. Our guide tells us this is where the Soviet cotton fields used to be. The cave is really just a massive underground cavern with a fallen in roof. Trees grow in the huge hole and we climb down some metal steps into the cool space. The hole is enormous. Birds fly around and nest in crevices. We’ve driven a long way to see this. 

Our next stop is the mausoleum of a holly woman who was a healer. Or was it the mother of a poet? I forget. The memorable part of the visit is sitting in the cool of the interior listening to a man with a beautiful voice chant a Muslim prayer. We don’t need to understand the words to feel the peaceful message. 

We are supposed to be having a picnic, but the guide and our horrid-old-man driver get into their fourth argument of the day. He clearly doesn’t like taking directions from a young woman. He wants to stop at a garbage-infested beach along a filthy river in the broiling sun. She says otherwise. So do we. We eventually stop at a seedy restaurant and sit outside on mats at a low table by the river. Garbage floats by while filthy once-pink gauzy draperies keep most of the sun at bay. We enjoy our picnic and just before we leave, half heartedly nibble at undercooked bits of barbecued beef. 

Once back at our hostel, we dismiss the driver with no tip and invite our guide in for a tea. She needs the reassurance after yet more arguments from the front seat. We call the tour manager, extol our guide’s virtues and suggest the driver be fired. 

I’m deliberately not using our guide’s name because she told us some interesting things that likely go against the grain of what a tour company’s representative should have been telling us. 

“Don’t bother with more tours. There is nothing to see.”

She explained that the mausoleums are really places of worship, not tourist stops. She had clearly not been comfortable parading in and out with three poorly scarved tourists in tow. The other places listed as sights of interest are all further than advertised or not as advertised. For instance Sairam – a must see for us due to what we’d read about it’s history – had absolutely nothing to see except a few dusty streets of rundown homes tucked in behind dilapidated fencing.

We do manage to enjoy the rest of our time in Shymkent. We explore a little deeper and meet many friendly people. No one understands why we are visiting. We visit every park in town, thus see thousands of glorious roses such as we’ve never seen anywhere else on any of our travels. As our expectations fall, the sights seem less shabby. We stroll along a pretty – and clean – canal through the centre of town. We visit several shopping malls. I know – hardly our style, but as I said, we were digging for interesting moments. In so doing we discover an art museum with some dreadful and some wonderful paintings. The staff follow us around, seemingly stunned that someone is visiting. 

By the time we leave Shymkent we are glad to see it fade into the distance but feel we’ve had more than a surface view of the place. As for its ancient history? Read about in books. As the locals insist – “there is nothing here.”