Search This Blog

Saturday, June 27, 2015


The drive from Khiva to Nukus was estimated at about eight hours.  We all noted to our relief that our new minibus was both slightly larger and had better air conditioning.  Our new driver quickly distinguished himself by doing two things:

1.  He abruptly made a u-turn in the middle of the road to circle back to show us something he had seen on the side of the road.  It turned out that it was a man riding a donkey in the midday heat.  As we looked to the ground, we could see that he had harnessed the largest lizard I have ever seen in the wild.  He had a rope around the lizard's hind legs, and the lizard was snapping its wide mouth open and shut.  I did not photograph this scene because I knew if I had been outside trapping lizards on a hot day, I would have been really irritated to have a bunch of tourists photograph me from the comfort of an air conditioned minibus.  Also, I felt sorry for the lizard--I like lizards pretty well anyway, and this one was truly magnificent.

I asked our guide why the man had trapped a lizard.  She asked our driver and then translated back to me that the man wanted to graze his cows in the field, and that these lizards stole the cows' milk.  I had never heard of lizards drinking cows' milk before, but as one of our friends on the trip later pointed out, nobody goes out in the midday heat to trap lizards for fun.

2.  When we stopped for lunch somewhere in the middle of our drive, he revealed to us (through our guide) that he had a rather large supply of different kinds of alcohol on hand, and advised everyone to drink after lunch to break up the grease in our food.  He had mostly hard liquor, but I think one bottle of wine, also.  I'm not much of a drinker anyway, and in the heat, nothing sounded worse to me, so I decided to take my chances with the greasy food.  Some of my friends on the trip enjoyed our little minibar, though, so he didn't have to feel like his thoughtful gesture was in vain.

Our "minibar"

It was interesting watching the scenery become gradually greener until we finally reached Bukhara.  When we arrived, it was close to evening.  We went out to dinner and saved the bulk of our sightseeing for the next day.

After a breakfast in our hotel that included large platters of fresh apricots and cherries, we visited the summer palace of the last emir of Bukhara.  It was quite a compound, and included a mix of more traditional and European design elements.  There were also a number of beautiful--but very screechy--peacocks wandering around.  We were told that they were descended from the emir's peacocks.

After lunch, we spent the rest of the day exploring Bukhara on foot.  Here were some of the highlights:

The Ismail Samani mausoleum, which was completed in the tenth century:

Seeing an old mosque still being used for prayers:

A mix of old and new in the city:

Kalan mosque (I think!  Maybe I should have written down what I was photographing, rather than relying on my faulty memory):

The Chor Minor ("four minarets") madrasah.  Each of the four minarets represents a different faith (Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism):

Bukhara's synagogue.  The rabbi's son spoke with us and said that Bukhara has about 150 Jewish families today, some of whom are foreign.

This didn't really lend itself to photographs, but Bukhara had so many fruit trees, especially mulberry and apricot.  I love fruit, so I was enchanted.

After spending one full day and two nights in Bukhara, we were scheduled to go to Samarkand, via Tamerlane's birthplace!

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Nukus and Khiva

Our next day in Uzbekistan, we had an early morning flight to Nukus.  The flight was blessedly uneventful, although the plane shook pretty violently before take-off.  Our purpose of traveling to Nukus was to visit a very interesting art museum that was the subject of the documentary "The Desert of Forbidden Art".  A brief history of this museum is that Stalin outlawed modern art, and as a result, a large number of works by artists of that time were not publicly displayed.  A man named Igor Savitsky saved thousands of these works by persuading the artists' families to entrust them to him.  He then opened a museum in Nukus to house them.  The cost for taking photos there was quite high, so I don't have any pictures from there, but it was a very interesting experience to visit it.

After visiting Nukus, we piled into a minibus to go to Khiva, one of the Silk Road cities with well-preserved/restored architecture.  Driving through the desert, we saw a number of camels.  I still get a kick out of seeing them, even though I saw quite a few when I lived in the Middle East.

We stayed inside the old city walls.  The place where we stayed was run by a family who lived in part of the building.

We decided to wait to have lunch until we reached Khiva, so our first order of business was to eat (and drink lots of water--it was really hot there!).  After a leisurely lunch, we had some time to explore.  It gradually got cooler outside as it got later in the afternoon.

Because of the heat and our late, large lunch, nobody was in a rush to have a huge restaurant dinner.  Scott and one of our friends went out in search of take-out shashlyk (like shish kebabs), so that people could have something to eat, but not commit to a large plate full of food.  We ate our late meal on the roof of our hotel.  At that point, it was dark outside and considerably cooler.

We got up fairly early the next day, both to take advantage of the relative cool of the morning and because we had a long drive to Bukhara ahead of us.  One nice thing we saw was a lot of local families touring Khiva.  There were lots of very cute little girls in frilly dresses and seemingly incongruous shaved heads.  I asked our friend who had spent a lot of time in Uzbekistan about that.  He told me that a lot of families shave their daughters' heads when they're little with the idea that their hair will grow back thicker later on.

After a morning in Khiva, we piled into another (somewhat larger and better air conditioned) minibus to head to Bukhara.  This was also our first encounter with the driver we had for most of the rest of our trip, who I came to like and appreciate tremendously, though I could barely communicate with him...

Saturday, June 13, 2015


We started our Uzbekistan trip in Tashkent.  After a night of sleep, we had a day to see the sights.  The following morning, we were scheduled for an early flight to Nukus and a drive to Khiva.

The first order of business was exchanging money.  There appeared to be very few ATM's in Uzbekistan, and credit cards seemed to be accepted only rarely (in some carpet shops, for instance).  Even the tour agency we booked through wanted their final payment in cash upon arrival.  This was sort of a new situation for me, needing to anticipate how much cash I was going to need for the entire trip, keeping in mind how uncomfortable I am carrying around large amounts of cash.  In addition to these considerations, there was a rather large difference between the official dollars-som exchange rate, and the "unofficial" one.  I was a little uncomfortable going the unofficial route, but fortunately, it all turned out okay.  Interestingly, I noticed that souvenir merchants were using an exchange rate in the ballpark of the unofficial one when giving prices in both dollars and som.

We exchanged $200 initially, and it yielded quite a stack of bills.  If any prospective Uzbekistan travelers are reading this, I highly recommend bringing some sort of bag to carry it all in.  You won't be able to fit much into a standard size wallet.

Our fat stacks
After a hotel breakfast, our guide picked us up to take us around the city.  Tashkent was beautiful.  It reminded me a lot of Almaty, with its tree-lined streets and mix of old and new.  Some people were clearly doing quite well, as evidenced by some of the very new buildings and western stores.  Unfortunately, this was not the case for everyone.  I saw quite a few children begging over the course of the day, which always makes me sad.

Our first stop was the Khazrati Imam complex.  There was a lot to see, and lots of merchants selling souvenirs.  My details about a lot of the sites will be pretty incomplete, since my mind is like Teflon with information while I'm looking around and taking pictures.

The next step on our itinerary was Chorsu Bazaar.  It was large, with multiple sections for both food and stuff of all varieties.  We bought cherries and cashews to snack on.

Molds for wonderful Uzbek bread!

Looking down on the meat section
We also saw the Kukeldash Madrasah from the outside.

We had lunch at a restaurant famous for its plov.  You could get it with various types of meat in it, and with chicken and quail hard boiled eggs.  Much to my delight, the plov contained chickpeas.  We also got a wonderful tomato and cucumber salad on the side.  After spending the winter avoiding the crunchy tomatoes available in Astana, it was wonderful to eat good tomatoes again.  I sat next to our driver during lunch, and he brought out his cellphone and showed me pictures of his wife and daughters, which I thought was great.

After lunch, we walked around some more and then took a short metro ride in order to see Tashkent's famous metro stations.  Unfortunately, photography in the metro stations is forbidden, and there were plenty of police in every station we passed through.  Their designs were beautiful, though, and as a fan of mass transit, I was happy to see them.

It was an extremely hot day, so we took a rest in the hotel after that.  For dinner, an Uzbek friend of the friend who organized the trip had a lovely suggestion for a restaurant on the water.  We ate sitting on cushions around a low table.

The food was great, too.  The only fly in the ointment was actually the flies.  They were attracted to the light above our table and kept dropping into our food.  I looked at the ground beside our table and saw an amazing avocado green slug.  I'm not usually a fan of creepy crawlies, but I actually think slugs are pretty cool, and I liked the size and color of this one.

Then it was back to the hotel for a little sleep before our early morning flight to Nukus!  We didn't have a lot of time to spend in Tashkent, but we liked it very much.  Scott and I were talking, and it turned out we had both been envisioning a place like Tashkent when we decided to move to Astana--a city with many modern features, but a lot of elements of traditional culture.  This may have been naive thinking considering just how new Astana is, but it was nice to see a city able to modernize but still keep many of its charming older attributes.

Saturday, June 6, 2015


Scott and I returned from a week long trip to Uzbekistan with some of our friends in the wee hours of the morning.  Aside from unfortunately breaking my twelve year non-vomit streak in Samarkand, we had a wonderful time!  More stories and pictures are forthcoming once we get ourselves settled for the summer.

Getting there required a lot of advanced preparation, much of which was undertaken by one of our wonderful colleagues and friends here.  Getting a visa to Uzbekistan can be problematic, at least for US citizens.  You need a letter of invitation to apply for a visa, and probably the easiest way to get this for most tourists is to go through a tour company, who will also create an itinerary for you.

Once our tour company had letters of invitation for us, we needed to actually apply for visas.  There were two clear obstacles here.  One is that we all live in Astana, but the Uzbek embassy is in Almaty, which is either an overnight train ride or a short flight away.  The other obstacle was that they wanted cash payment--in US dollars--for visas.  Fortunately, our friend who organized the trip needed to go to Almaty for a conference, and he kindly offered to take all of our passports and great wads of cash to the embassy for us.  Amazingly, this all worked out.  The official he dealt with asked if he had our trust, and once he assured him that he did, he processed the visas.  In terms of dollars, the local bank we deal with here allows us to withdraw dollars from the ATM, but seems to only have $100 bills.  The visas for me and Scott came to $330 total.  Luckily, our friend had collected some smaller bills, so we were able to work out the amounts.

We flew out of Astana on a Friday evening, which turned out to be a dreadfully crowded time at the airport.  We had checked in online earlier in the day, but the system would not let us print out boarding passes, so we had to stand in line.  This wouldn't have been so bad, except that the prevailing system seems to be to reward people who get to the airport late by allowing them to cut  in front of everyone else.  To be clear, I'm fine with helping people with tight connections at airports, but the Astana airport has few if any connecting flights, and I think that people who don't plan their time are in a different category.  The same thing happened at passport control, and I started to despair ever being able to leave.

But leave we did.  At some point during the flight, flight attendants started handing out customs forms for Uzbekistan.  For reasons best known to themselves, they handed me and Scott one form each, although we were going to need two.  Naturally, we didn't know this until we got off the plane.

We reconvened with our group when we landed, and it turned out that some people were given two forms to fill out.  Nobody was particularly clear whether they needed to complete the second form, or if it was just provided in case they made mistakes on the first form.  As members of our group individually went through the line in customs, it became apparent that the standard practice is for the customs officials to keep one copy of the form, and to stamp the other copy to give back to us.  We would then need to hold on to our copy for the duration of the trip.  I rushed around the customs area, looking for additional customs forms in English for me and Scott to fill out.  Some members of our group were allowed through with only one form completed, so Scott went through with only one copy completed, while I hastily scribbled on my copy.  The customs official decided to lay down the law with Scott, and took the one completed copy and only gave Scott one stamp on the copy he had, rather than the two stamps everyone else got.  So when I got through the line, I found Scott hastily completing his form so he could get the precious stamp.  However, nobody was willing to give it the second stamp!  One of our Russian-speaking friends intervened and asked several officials very nicely.  They each kept sending us to someone else, and finally someone (I think the original official) relented.

Crisis averted.  I felt quite uneasy, both because we had to keep track of extremely flimsy customs forms for the duration of our trip and because we'd had such difficulty getting our paperwork in order prior to leaving the airport.  With that, we headed off to our hotel in Tashkent.  I'm happy to say our Uzbekistan experience improved markedly after leaving the airport.