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Published: October 13th 2019
We started our trip on Friday, September 13 (a bad omen). United Airline's flight from Columbia was 4 hr late and we missed all our connections. With a mad dash for nothing, we were forced to spend the night at ORD airport Hilton, not the most pleasant hotel we have ever stayed. Wasted the whole 2nd day waiting to board Turkish Airline at 9 pm to Istanbul. Luckily Istanbul has a new airport with lots of nice cushions to stretch out and relax. Finally made it to Almaty, Kazakhstan a day late. We joined the day tour anyway to synchronize our body rhythm with local times. Met our tour leader, Max, a 6'8" Swede who we could never miss in a crowd.
Silk Road was a network of trade routes that connected the East and West and were well travelled as early as the 2nd century BC. Three of the 5 Stan's countries - Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan were nomadic while Uzbekistan and Tajikistan were traditional traders. All of the Stans had towns and villages situated along the silk road. Hans, Turks and Mongols were the dominated tribes and fought over territories in this region for centuries. The Soviet Union
took over during the 1920's, occupied them until its own breakup in 1991. After 20 plus years of independence, most of the countries stabilized and tourism started to flourish. Fueled with nature gas and oil money, the Stan's governments were able to provide its citizens with free education, free medical care and even paid maternity leaves. These countries may not be democratic but are definitely progressive and are not third world countries.
Kazakstan - one of the biggest and richest country of the 5Stans, produces oil, gas, coal, aluminum, copper and hosts the only rocket launch site for the international space station. Unfortunately with the limited days we had, we were only able to visit the largest city Almaty. Almaty (means Motherland of Apples) is a populous and cosmopolitan city with lots of monuments, statues and fountains. We visited Panfilov Park, a left over of Soviets WWII memorial which was gigantic, dark and ugly. From the brief discussion with our local guide, there seems no love lost from Kazak people toward Russia. The Central State Museum has a beautiful garden upfront, it contains a comprehensive history of Kazakhstan. The most famous exhibition was the gold room showing treasures collected
from Scythian Era (7 to 3rd centuries BC). The Golden Man, a warrior's armor made from 4000 gold pieces was touring and we saw only his copy. While visiting the Musical Instruments Museum, a lady with full Kazakhstan outfit was standing at the entrance with a plate of its famous apples. Too bad she was waiting for an VIP visit, not tourists like us. Near Almaty is a famous Kazakh falcon facility run by ornithologist Pavel. He showed us how birds of prey like saker falcons and golden eagles hunt. A very interesting lesson given with lots of humor.
We started our Silk Route early in the morning in a big bus heading toward final destination Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, 20 days and 1400 miles away. With only nine travelers in our group, we were able to stretch out comfortably. Unfortunately portions of the roads were twisted and bumpy and we were toss around like inside a washing machine. We were really happy and appreciated the numerous short breaks the bus driver took along the way. Imaging doing this in the 12 century on a camel back!
We drove along the magnificent Tian Shan (Heavenly Mountain), the landscape ranged from
dry desserts to vast fields of wheat, cotton, steppes and high mountains. The weather was sunny and cool (in the 70's) but the air was very dry due to limited annual rainfall. The only way a crop grows here depends totally on irrigation from rivers or canals. We only spent two days touring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The major part of our trip was spent in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
Crossing the boarders were interesting experiences since we had to do it 5 or 6 times on this trip. Most times it was easy without any problem. We just walked up to the customs agent, handed over our passport and documents (warning: don't throw away any papers until the end of the trip and be sure you get your passport stamped) and waited until they returned everything back to us. When we crossed from Uzbekistan into Tajikistan we ran into a military exchange between the two countries. The solders had a long farewell with music and dancing in the boarder zone while everybody waited for over 30 minutes. I wished I could video tape this unusual scene but no photos allowed at the boarder.
Kyrgyzstan is a nomad society and
we saw lots of horses, sheeps, goats and cattle grazing in the steppes. We met a few shepherd herding their livestock home in preparation for the winter stay. Ninety percent of Kyrgyzstan is mountainous and they are gearing up for outdoor hiking, rafting tourism. This country is beautiful and has lots of potential. We stopped at Lake Issyk-Kul for the night. The temperature was close to freezing and other than a sunrise picture, we didn't get much out of this place.
Continued toward Bishkek (capital of Kyrgzystan), stopped at Cholpan-Ata, a glacial stone field where the petroglyphs pictures of ibex, horses, camels, snow leopards and even hunters from the Iron Age are still clearly visible after thousands of years. Another stop at Burana Tower, the only existing watch towers from the 11th century. Its open air museum features a collection of ancient bal-bals, carved stone figures used as monuments.
A short flight took us to Osh, the mouth of the Fergana Valley. The valley spreads across Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Surrounded by Tian Shan Mountain range and watered by Syr Darya River, Fergana Valley is the most fertile part of Central Asia. Osh is the 2nd largest city
in Kyrgyzstan with a medical University attracting students from all over including India. We visited a private school established by Prince Ali Kahn. We were escorted by a 9th grader and visited the 10th grader English class. All students speak fluent English with great mannerism and composure when conversed with us. We were very impressed with this country's future generation. We then ascend the Suleiman-Too Sacred Mountain - it has a museum inside a cave showing the ancient life in Fergana valley. This site is a major Muslim pilgrimage and those who make it to the top will be blessed.
Tajikistan second largest city Khujand was founded by Alexander the Great in 329 BC. Traders from China travelled to this area along the Silk Road in the 1st Century BC already. We finally visited our first bazaar, the pink colored market Panjshanbe is full of vegetables, fruits, spices, clothes and shoes. The watermelon and pomegranate were my favorites, they were not only huge, they also tasted very sweet.
Although I had heard about Silk Road back in the elementary school, most of the stories we learned were related with routes in China. Until this trip, we really didn't
have much knowledge about any of these Central Asia countries. What amazed us were how friendly people were toward Americans and how beautifully they preserved their history and arts.
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