Stage 7: Uzbekistan - Kazakhstan - Russia


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Asia » Uzbekistan
June 14th 2009
Published: August 6th 2009
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Uzbekistan

So after 5000 odd kilometers I reach one of my very reasons for beginning this journey; the silk road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. Every since seeing pictures and hearing stories about these places it has been my obsession to one day lay my eyes upon these marvels. And I will say one thing they did not disappoint, they were everything I dreamt them to be. So here goes...

Quick Facts
* Former Soviet Country
* Double Landlocked i.e. a country completely surrounded by landlocked countries
* 45%!o(MISSING)f population live on less than $1.25 USD per day
* Liberal Muslim Country
* Included on list: "The Worst of the Worst: The World's Most Repressive Societies."

After a fairly eye opening experience in Tajikistan I cross the border with surprising ease and catch my $2 taxi into my first destination of Samarkand. Samarkand is smack bang in the middle of the silk road and is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. The city was at its peak in the 1300's when the great leader Timur imported thousands of artisans into the city to create one of the worlds greatest wonders.

As I step from my taxi I happen to glance over my shoulder and am struck with awe with what is presented in-front of me. The glorious Registan complex has literally taken my breath from me and I have to shudder to regain my composure. In my daze I wonder towards it and am almost run over by a speeding mashrudka (shared taxi van).

The Registan was the heart of the ancient Samarkand, Uzbekistan. The name Registan means "Sandy place" in Persian. It is said, the sand was strewn on the ground to soak up the blood from the public executions that were held there until early in the 20th century. The Registan is where Timur stuck his victims’ heads on spikes, and is where people gathered to hear royal proclamations. The three massive medrassas are adorned with amazing gilding and tilework and symetry is breathtaking. What really stuns me is the sheer size of the structures and how on earth they built them in the 1400's.

I rip my gaze away from the Registan and make my way to my lodging for the night. In Uzbekistan the preferred places to stay are Bed and Breakfasts situated in centuries old buildings. I check in and am sitting on a tea bed in no time adorning the 1000+ year old establishment eating dried apricots. All this for a whopping $12 a night incl air con and of course breakfast.

The next day I begin my journey through this world heritage site with a visit to the Bibi-Khanym Mosque. This gigantic Mosque is truly mind boggling and the size of it again blows your mind. I cannot get any sort of realistic picture to demonstrate the size of the structure as it just wouldnt fit into my view finder! People look like little lemmings when standing next to it. Further down the street is Shah-i-Zinda or what is dubbed "Avenue of Mausoleums". Here there is just amazing Mausoleum after amazing mausoleum where some of the most influential men of the worlds past are buried. What gets me is the magical blue colour of the buildings and domes which make the temples stand out in your imagination.

Further up the road is a side trip to the Tomb of the old testament prophet Daniel. The tomb was stolen from Iran by Timur for good luck. Here the Sarcophagus of Daniel is 18m long as the body grows 1/2 inch per year. This intended piece of good luck was condoned by Timurs wisemen and ultimately after the body was stolen his empire went into decline. Lastly I visit the final resting place of the great man himself, the Mausoleum of Gur-e Amir. Arguably this is one of Samarkands most beautiful landmarks and befits the great master who built a place that I thought was only possible in ones imagination.

After the absolutely mind blowing experience of Samarkand I head to the next major silk road city of Bukhara. Bukhara has been inhabited since 3000BC and is acknowledged as one of the founding intellectual capitals of the world. This world heritage site is noted for its substantial old city area and I am not disappointed by this. It seems like the city has not changed in the last 1000 years, the sellers, the clay and sights and sounds of a silk road center. The city has a central pond called Labi Hauz in which I spend my days sitting reading and drinking cheap beer. The sights not quite on par with the extraordinary Samarkand definitely please the mind. On one particular afternoon I climb a massive soviet water tower for a eagles eye view of this sprawling ancient city. The water tower tests my nerves as dodgy soviet structures are DEFINITELY not to be trusted.

From Bukhara onwards we hit the desert, and I mean the REAL desert. I cram into a shared taxi with no air con and plough through the desert with temperatures topping the high 40's. After an unbearable 5 hours we reach my next destination the former slave trade capital of the world Khiva. Khiva is like a city frozen in time in the desert. It is unlike any other place I have been too and I don't think I will see anything like it again. The city is surrounded by gigantic walls that enclosed a wealth of mosques, medressas, minerets and ancient alleys filled with life. As I arrive in Khiva I head straight for my Bed and Breakfast. I measure the temperature on the way and it is topping 52 degrees!!! Exhausted I crash out with the air con turned as far as the dial will allow.

After 7pm I resume my travels as the temperature is a mild 40 degrees. The city is absolutely mind boggling. I have run out of superlatives to describe these cities as they invoke visions into the worlds past and how civilisation was formed. This city for me is one of the most astounding as all the buildings are crammed into a enclosed space. Khiva is the former slave trade capital of the world and walking through the alleys you get a sense of what the slaves went through. Attrition of the slaves was huge as the grinding heat bought them to their knees. However the city prospered on the silk road and through its location is in great condition. After exploring this treasure I sit at one of the tea houses finishing off a beer in awe of what I have discovered thinking that I am in a very privileged group to have had this experience.

From Khiva I head even further north into the desert to the former fishing city of Moynaq. I travel by shared taxi with my French friends Bless and Justine whom I met in Kyrygzstan. Before we set off we prepare for the worst and stock up on food supplies as this is ground zero for the Aral sea disaster. The aral sea is the worlds worst manmade environmental disaster. In the 1960s the Aral was the 4th largest inland sea on the planet with an area of 68000km2, in 2007 it had lost a staggering 90% of that area. The amount of water it has lost is the equivalent of completely draining Lakes Erie and Ontario. In a nutshell the reason for the loss is because in the soviet era they redirected its main source rivers to feed their cotton plants. Whats worse is that the soviet engineers knew that the sea would dry up eventually but still continued with their plans.

As we head into the town of Moynaq, we are blown away by the sheer size of the town. It is large with a main road that keeps going pierced by scores of deserted houses. In the 1960s the town was right on the shore of the aral sea, now the sea is hundreds of kilometers away. During that time the towns population numbered 64,000 now there are just 8,000 people, it is a true ghost town in every sense of the word. I am in awe by the scale of misfortune, everywhere throughout town are reminders of the past. At the entrance to the town you pass the former docks with a welcome to Moynaq sign with a fish on it. The remaining residents all suffer from increased disease and lower life expectency. Now the water has gone the former seabed is exposing the dangerous pesticides that the cotton industry used into the air. The wind picks up the particles and makes them airborne for you to breathe in. I can say without a doubt that as soon as I stepped into the town and breathed that air I felt sick, it was truly a disgusting feeling that stayed with me the entire time until I left town. Ontop of this the climate is now greatly changed, previously the summers and winters were mild as the sea had a cooling effect. Now the temperatures are topping the high 50s.

In the afternoon I head out onto the former seabed which is now a desert of sand. Here I find the former fishing boats stranded on top of mounds of sand. Here the tragedy really comes to life and I see in an instant what this disaster has meant, the livelihoods of these people stranded hundreds of kilometers from the sea. I wonder back to the hotel and talk to some of the locals, the look on their faces is heart breaking. Also lucky we brought food as yep you guessed it another issue... no food. The night is spent at a former hotel that used to be on the shores of the sea with a million dollar view, now it is just sand. Sleep is impossible here as the temperatures top 40 degrees at night and with no electricity there is no air con. On top of that because of the disaster there are now huge swarms of bugs in the air at night, therefore we cannot open our windows. It is hell and one of the most heart breaking places I have been too. I cant wait to leave the next morning grateful for the experience but somehow wishing I was taking these hard working people with me. Because in the end it is not their fault their livelihoods have disappeared, the end product of the pasts misguided mistakes.

After that sombering experience I say goodbye to Justine and Bless and I head to the capital Tashkent for some well earned rest. My VISA to Turkmenistan has been rejected 3 times due to the outbreak of Swine flu so now I must head directly to Kazakhstan. I am not too happy about going there as travelers reports on the place have been less than favorable. I therefore try to kill as much time in Tashkent as my VISA will allow before they kick me out of the country. I spend my days drinking coffee and working out in the local gym "Club Arnie". Wow what a place, there is only weight machines no cardio equipment (unless you count 1 skipping rope). Everyone there are just Russian upside down road cones wearing no shoes and no shirts. It is just an excess male testostorone filled place and god it was fun!

Kazakhstan

The black hole of this planet.

Quick Facts
* Worlds ninth largest country
* 6 people per square kilometer
* A "democracy" with a self installed president for life
* Press are censored
* The movie Borat is banned here

So the day of my VISA expiration comes and I must exit town. As per usual nothing in this place is easy and after traveling 2hrs to the border I find out that this exit is no longer open. I then have to proceed another 3hrs in the opposite direction to get to the "new" border crossing. Here I cross into Kazakhstan after a small fight with the border guards. Come on guys just let me in my paper work is fine you just want my MONEY! From here it is a mission to my first Kazakh town taking in numerous rides to get to Symkent extremely late. In bewilderment with limited money and in an foreign place I attempt to find a hotel. Like the other Central asian countries no one speaks english so again I am fighting. I manage to get a taxi driver to take me to a hotel for the night. At the start I thought it was a bit weird that this hotel reception was a bar run by incredibly beautiful ladies, however I check in a view my room. However after taking in the situation, the triple door security, the fridge in the tv cabinet, nice bathroom and excessive mirrors in the rooms I figure out where I am staying... Luckily I was not bothered but trust me when I say it was an eyeopening experience as I dined with them every meal and observed their patrons.

Next destination is the ancient city of Turkistan and its mausoleum built by Timur. After a brief stay here I move onto the northern edge of the Aral sea and its town Aralsk. Again with what I saw in Moynaq it is repeated here although definitely not as sombre. The town still survives as the sea is only 20kms away but it is still extraordinary to see their former harbour. What stands out for me here is the massive container cranes still perching over the former piers overlooking nothing but sand

Kazakhstan is the worlds last great blank. The country is the 9th largest in the world and arguably the most misunderstood. Take the Borat film for example, this movie makes an absolute mockery of the country and as outsiders we buy it completely. The country portrayed in that film is so far from the reality it is beyond a joke. It is like taking pictures of Iceland in winter and trying to pass them off as your holiday snaps from Hawaii. The people are a little unfriendly but being so close to Russia I suppose you can accept that. So by now I am missing contact with foreigners or being able to communicate in anything except for my average russian. It gets quite lonely as I have not had contact with others for a long time. This place truly is a black hole.

From here I take the long train ride into Russia. In all it is 7 days on the train. It is a truly great experience to ride long distances on these big Russian trains. Although I speak no Russian and the other travelers speak no english we get on like great friends. The vodka is flowing thick and fast every night. We spend hours cooking food on board and sipping down great pots of tea. Communication is impossible but you gain an unspoken kinship with those on board for those 7 odd days of travel. So with that mammoth journey behind me I pull into Moscow.

Russia

After all my issues with Central Asian countries I expect Russia to be worse, the crowning glory of problems, issues and unhappy, grumpy, abusive people. However on the contrary Russia turns out to be a walk in the park. The systems and transport are efficient, many people speak english and they have a developed tourist infrastructure.

Moscow turns out to be a great but extremely expensive place. Eight euro for a coffee at Mc Donalds is just not cricket. I check into a hostel which is nicknamed the "dungeon". Underground with no windows close to 40 people are shoved into a enclosed space on bunks and on the floor with just one toilet. However it turns out to be a great experience for someone like me who hasn't seen foreigners for such a long time. During the day I spend it sightseeing the Kremlin, red square and st basils cathedral. At night I spend it with some crazy french people partying the night away at some hip clubs and some global underground parties based in old factories.

After the hangover induced whirlwind tour of Moscow I head to St Petersburg and do it all again. St Petersburg is a delightful town with wonderful buildings. It is said that St Petersburg is Russia but it is not Russian and I can confirm that, it looks more like europe. However the highlight for me is the Hermitage museum. Normally I hate museums but this one has to be seen to be believed. The art and building turn out to be wonderful and far surpass the louvre or any other museum on the planet for that matter.
So with St Petersburg coming to an end so does my time in the Soviet area. What I can say about the soviet countries is that it is one of the hardest places I have ever traveled but also one of the most rewarding. You get in full contact with the soviet people and after their initial hardness they melt to reveal a wonderful personality that is always keen on a few friendly shots of vodka. The sights are amazing and for the most part devoid of the mass tourists which mar other sites. Here in these places you are in enveloped in the russian way of life and need wits and a HUGE amount of patience to get around. Anyway with all the hard work just to get here I have suffered a large dose of fatigue and look forward to simple travel in Europe. And this is what happens as my next destination is Estonia

Well thanks for reading. I am almost at the end of my journey from Vietnam to Norway with only 2000 odd kilometers to go.

Here is the link to my pictures:

Uzbekistan Photos
Kazakhstan Photos
Russia Photos

Thanks
Shaun








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1st October 2009

UZBEQ
Looks like Uzbekistan is the country you visited of all the former Russian Republics. am I correct? Your pics look awesome. Really nice.

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