Sunday, July 31, 2011

Tashkent to Seoul

One final note about Uzbekistan: If you are leaving the country by plane (as i was) and you have some s'om left over (as i did) and you plan to spent it at the airport on snacks and souvenirs (ditto), don't do it. Take the last of your s'om and spend it or give it away before going inside the airport, because once you're in there, they won't take it nor will they exchange it. It's Euros only at the Tashkent airport. Now what am i going to do with the 24,000 s'om burning a hole in my pocket?
$200 US and its equivalent in s'om
I arrived in Seoul at about 7am on Saturday and took the Arex train to Seoul Station. (A word of advice, if you are doing this, take the commuter train, not the high-speed train. The high-speed train is about 4x the price and is only 7 minute faster than the commuter train.)

Once downtown, i was hit with the brutal humidity of Seoul. It was not nearly at hot as Uzbekistan, but was so humid that it felt a million times worse. I had rivers of sweat running down my face into my eyes and into my kimchi. Hideous.

Anyway, i visited the grand Gyeonbokgung Palace - an enormous complex of pagoda-roofed buildings separated by a network of courtyards and with a large, lily pad covered pool. It was originally built in the 14thC, but has been destroyed many times over the centuries, so it has been entirely restored. With the misty mountains in the background, it was all quire serene and lovely. There were masses of tourists there, but the place was large enough that i could look around without feeling overwhelmed by people. As i haven't been to far east Asia, it was quite unlike anything i have seen before and i really enjoyed myself.

After that, i went to the very touristy Insadong neighborhood. I had walked through there on my previous visit to Seoul, but as it had been so early, everything had been closed. This time, however, it was teeming with people. It is lined with lovely tea shops and souvenir stores and curious restaurants. I finally found a restaurant that had a vegetarian bibimbap on the menu, so i ate that, which was very good (especially after 2 weeks of Uzbek vegetarian cuisine).

I then walked many blocks, stopping to sample food from street vendors or poke around in shops, before returning to the Namdaemun Market, where i spent an hour or two walking and browsing and making a few purchases.

Back to the airport 2 hours before my flight home. It was a delightful day. It is amazing how much looking around one can cram into a 12 hours layover.

I am home now and am resting and trying to get over the illness that has been recurring since Samarkand.

As soon as i can make some sense of the hundreds of photos i took, i will post some here.

Thank you for keeping up with my Uzbek adventure.

Dale R. North

Friday, July 29, 2011

Miscellaneous Uzbek Trivia

I thought i would post a few random observations that have previously been absent from my posts - Just a few things i found interesting:

Gold Teeth: Many women and men (but mostly women) of abut middle age or older here have a few or all gold teeth. I have been told that it is fashionable. It is quite strange the first few times a women smiles (not at me - they seldom smile at me) and you see her gilded smile. I guess it isn't any stranger than people in North America getting their perfectly healthy teeth capped. I tried to explain to one guy in Bukhara that in certain sub-cultures in North America, gold teeth are popular (i.e. rap culture), which he seemed to think was very funny.

Car Theft: Apparently care theft used to be a big problem in Uzbekistan (mainly in Tashkent), so the government changed the law so that now, the first time one gets caught stealing a car he gets 15 years in prison. The second time one gets caught stealing a car one gets either life in prison or death by firing squad. (One Uzbek told me life in prison and another told me execution, so i don't know which is true.) Now car theft is virtually obsolete.

Questions: Every Uzbek with whom i speak asks very soon upon meeting how old i am, whether i am married and how many children i have. They cannot understand that i am single and childless and thing it is even funnier when i say that i want neither marriage or children. Everyone here seems to have many children very early in the twenties. Kids are everywhere, like rats.

Cigars: If you are coming to Uzbekistan and are a cigar smoker, bring enough for your trip, because they seem to be nonexistent in the country. My cigars have attracted a lot of attention (in Bukhara they even became the subject of rumor); had i brought more i could have given them away to the curious smoker.

Vegetarians: Like most countries, Uzbekistan is not a great place for vegetarians. Breakfasts are usually ok and then it is pretty much bread and cheese and fruit for the rest of the day. There are lots of yummy looking bready/samosa-y looking things for sale on the street, but they all contain meat. On the plus side, the bread and fruit are really very good. And the tea is excellent.

Tattoos: I have been told that if you want to see people in Uzbekistan with tattoos, you must visit the jails. Muslims, of course, are not supposed to get tattoos and that rule (unlike the drinking rule) seems to be well-respected. I have worn long sleeves on this trip, but sometimes a tattoo peeks out from my sleeve and it always gets questions. Many people have asked me what they are and asked to take pictures of them. One guy said, "You are like pop star" because i had so many tattoos. I have nopt gotten any negative reactions, just curiosity.

Poverty: There are definitely many poor people here, but i have seen no one sleeping on the street and very few people begging for money.

Animals: Aside from birds and working animals like donkeys, horses, goats and cows, i have seen very few. I saw four cats in Bukhara and i have seen a total of three dogs.  I don't know where they all are.

Safety: Other than my little run in with the police, i have felt perfectly safe the whole time i have been here, even at night and walking alone. I feel the need to mention this because i know many people have other ideas about the country.

Reading: If you are visiting Uzbekistan, bring your own reading material and do not count on finding more. I brought one book (the hilarious and appropriate "Absurdistan", which i recommend) and then was fortunate enough to trade it for another english book with the girl i met on the train to Bukhara. I read that and then read the one english book a my Bukhara hotel. Now i am without reading material and cannot find more. Because most travelers here are not native english speakers, it is difficult to find books to pick up along the way. I am even down to my final NY Times crossword. It may be a long flight home.

Uzbekistan: The Final Day

As it turns out, my crumby day yesterday did not last even one full day.

After my post, i returned to my hotel, the Gulnara Guesthouse. It is on the edge of the old town near the bustling Chorsu market. I cannot comment on the rooms, because, as i mentioned, my reservation was screwed up and the only room they had for me wasn't really a room, just a cot and electric fan, but i must say that i am quite happy with the accomdations. The owners are friendly and the rooms are all located around a pleasant courtyard with a huge apple tree and laundry strung up everywhere. It is definitely a backpackers' place, with everyone there being young and traveling with large backpacks or by bicycle. Almost everyone there seems to be French, although the Japanese girl i met in Samarkand (and saw again in Bukhara) is staying there as well.

Anyway, after my post, i went to my room and spent about 4 hours napping and listening to repeats of Bill Maher and Ricky Gervais podcasts on my ipod, which cheered me up immensely. After that, i went for an evening walk and had tea and a cigar on a busy corner, where i was joined by some Uzbek construction worker with some basic English skills. He said he had only seen cigars "in films". He asked to buy one from me but i had only one left, so i didn't sell.

All in all, it was a pleasant end to what started out as a crumby day.

This morning, after breakfast, i walked up to the Khast Imom, which is the holiest part of Tashkent. It is a collections of newish mosques and mausoleums and a small museum that houses a massive and old copy of the Koran. Surrounding the buildings were some very well manicured park areas, which were also home to many large stork-like birds (like storks, but bigger and with more intimidating beaks).

I then walked past many large and largely unattractive apartment blocks to Navoi Park, which is a big park containing some odd Soviet structures and a man made lake with beach areas, little paddle boats and small fair area with rides. i wandered there for a while and had some ice-cream-like frozen substance. I have on this trip mastered the pronunciation of the Russian word for ice cream, which had previously eluded me.

Now i am just sort of pleasantly killing time. My flight is at 9:00pm, but i plan to get there nice and early, as i could not check in on-line. I plan to stroll through the market again, see if i can spend my remaining Sum and then i will probably just hang around in the courtyard of my hotel and smoke my final cigar.

I may post again either from Tashkent or Seoul, internet access permitting.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Night Train to Tashkent

My last day in Bukhara was pretty relaing. I just went for walks and read a book and went out for lunch at an Italian restaurant. I know, Italian food in Uzbekistan sounds like a bad idea, and i'm not sure that it was all that authentic, but the vegetarian pizza that i nibbled at (usually i would have gobbled it down, but i am still feeling ill), was actually ok. They best part though was sitting at a proper indoor restaurant and smoking a cigar; it's just so civilized.

They evening came and i caught the 7:40 night train to Tashkent. It taskes about 12 hours, so i had booked a bed in a sleeper car, each of which holds four. Unfortunately i shared my car with four men. There wasn't anything wrong with them, but sleeping in close quarters with 4 men who don't speak english doesn't thrill me.
The beds were comfy and it was nice to lie down, but the air conditioning that was allegedly flowing failed to cool me down at all. I spent the whole time lying in a pool of my own sweat and praying that some sort of a breeze would come, but my bunk mates kept the door to the car and the window closed, so no breezes were to come. Needless to say, i got very little sleep.

On arriving in Tashkent, i caught the metro to my new hotel. Unfortunately, as i waited for my car to arrive, a police man or solider (I can't tell which are which) took me off the platform and to a small room with a table, two chairs and another uniformed officer waiting. Neither of them spoke english and i refused to speak any russian. They inspected my passport, visa, registration papers, my money and searched my bag.  Of the questions they asked that i understood were "why are you in uzbekistan?", "Do you have family here or in Russia?", "What is your job?", "How long are you here?", "Are you married?" and "Do you have any children". I think they wanted a bribe, but they didn't ask and i didn't offer.  Finally, after about a half an hour of questions in russian (no matter how many times i said i only spoke english, they kept speaking to me in russian), they let me go.

I now know that it wasn't a big deal, but in the moment, i found it unnerving and upsetting. Being interrogated for no reason by two men in a language you don't understand is not a good feeling. I felt like i was in a Kafka novel.

Then, i finally arrived at my hotel, where frankly, all i wanted was a shower, a nap, and an hour or so of watching the BBC, but i found out that they had lost my reservation and were fully booked. The only room i could get was a tiny room with a cot and a fan. No AC and a shared bathroom. I really wanted something better, but couldn't bear the thought of trudging around town popping into hotels, so i took it. It is a cozy little place and my room, such as it is, is only about $6 or $7 dollars a night.

Tomorrow night i fly to Seoul.
On every trip i have one day where i feel tired and fed up. Today is that day. Tomorrow will be better.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Yurt Sweet Yurt

After my last post, on my last night in Bukhara before going to the desert, i spent the evening until past midnight drinking tea and smoking peach shisha with the british girl i had met on the train coming here, as well as a couple from Switzerland.  The evenings here are really perfect, weatherwise. Whoever suggested that i bring a jacket or sweater for the cool evenings was mistaken.

The next morning after breakfast, i was picked up my my driver who was to drive me to the Kyzilkum Desert (Kyzilkum means "red sands", i believe). Normally they arrange these desert excursions for groups, but i was just one. I had hoped that others might have decided to go on the same night as me, but alas, i was alone.

So my driver, who did not any English, drove me for 3.5 hours into the desert. The drive was great. I was able to watch as the city of Bukhara and its outlying areas melted away, leaving only rural areas, then just occasional tiny towns, then just desert. As we drove, the cars began to be outnumbered by donkeys and carts. The desert was totally sandy in spots, and in others is was dotted with dry sage colored shrubberies.  Often i would see a tribe of goats roaming without supervision, or a few lazy cows.

We stopped along the way at a couple of holy sights, but mostly we just drove in silence (silence except for the driver's mix of 1990s dance and techno hits, that is).

Finally we arrived at the yurt camp. Twelves yurts arranged in a circle around a fire pit, plus a large dining yurt and a sort of a house (though 'house' seems like the wrong word - more of a ramshackle shack) where the family who runs the camp live. There were some outhouses and a couple of sinks that didn't produce any water. It was all quite in the middle of nowhere. Shortly after arriving, i went on a walk and climbed to the top of the highest sand dune and do you know what i saw? An endless vista of sand dunes marked by the odd, solitary camel.
yurt camp

my yurt
My yurt was delightful! Large and cozy with rugs on the floor and a little mattress (like a small, soft futon), a pillow and blanket. It was decorated with multi-colored textiles and decorative objects made of yarn hanging from the ceiling, like large mobiles. It stayed relatively cool in the yurt - cool compared with the 40 degrees outside. I had no difficulty napping or sleeping in it.

After resting for a while and enjoying a cigar, My drive took me about a half an hour away to a massive lake! What a surprise that was. The lake was huge and seemed to have a tide. The sand was beautifully soft and i waded out quite a ways into the water. We sat in a couple of old chairs left by the water and i dozed off for a while. After awaking, we stalked a tribe of goats who were at the lake to drink. Every time i got close to them though they ran off irritably.

After the lake we returned to the yurt camp, where my camel was waiting. I went off into the desert for about 2 hours just before sunset. It was lovely. I saw many long-tailed, hopping desert rats and a few rabbits. I also saw this one mud shack in the middle of nowhere with an old women outside. It was pretty god. My camel was very docile and i found him reasonably comfortable (no more or less so than a horse).

After the camel there was dinner of vegetable stew, fresh vegetables, melons, and tea.  After dinner i had another cigar and watched the stars come out. With no city lights or electricity to get in the way, the stars were magnificent. It was like being at a planetarium. I sat there until i remembered that i am afraid of the dark and then i went to bed.

I slept soundly and awoke when the sun started to slice through the gaps in my yurt's roof.

After breakfast the next day, there was supposed to be more camel riding, but the camels had apparently disappeared during the night. I should point out that my driver, nor the host family spoke any English, so i didn't do much talking during this overnight excursion. All i got regarding the lack of camels was "Nyet Kamel". So we drove back to Bukhara.

On the way back, more desert scenery  and silence and 1990s music. When Ice Ice Baby came on the driver and I both "sang" along - i did the verses and he the chorus. Vanilla Ice, bridger of cultural divides.

Yesterday afternoon after i scrubbed the sand and camel off of my skin (my clothes may just have to be burned when i return - i have basically been wearing the same outfit for 2 weeks in 40 degree weather), i spent the rest of the day smoking shisha and reading.

Today i have no plans. I am taking the 7:50pm overnight train back to Tashkent, which is supposed to take 11 hours, but i expect will take longer.

Bukhara has been amazing. It is definitely one of those places that is very easy to just hang around in. The yurt/camel thing was really good. I loved how desolate and quiet it was, but, not being a 'camper' by nature, one night was sufficient.

Tomorrow: back to Tashkent and the beginning of the long journey home.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Playboy mansion, Uzbek style

Last night, after i posted to the blog, i went for a walk around the neighborhood. It would seem that things only get busier in the evening. All around Lyabi-Hauz people and families - almost exclusively locals - were walking and sitting, eating sunflower seeds and ice cream, having dinner, and kids were running around playing in unsupervised packs.  It was a delightful scene and made me wish we had more squares for congregation in Vancouver. I had a cigar and people watched until bed time.

I must also mention that i had the best dinner last night - something other than the bread and cucumber/tomato salads i have been surviving on. I had this delicious salad of warm, crispy eggplant and tomatos followed by a rice, bean and vegetable dish. It seems that they don't hate vegetarians here after all!

Today i awoke with nothing planned for the day. I had basically seen all sights on my list, so the day was a mystery. The mystery was solved as over breakfast i was chatting with another guest at the hotel: a man from Istanbul who had arranged for a driver and guide to take him to some of the sights outside of the city. He invited me to tag along, and i agreed.

We first visited the Bakhautdin Naqshband Mausoleum, one of Sufism's more important shrines. It was beautiful and very peaceful, surrounded by roses and filled by visiting Uzbeks. I filled my water bottle from one of the legendary wells from which pilgrims believe springs water that brings good luck and well-being. (I must say, i was sceptical of the use of the water bottle i brought - one of these ones that has a filter built in, so you can fill it from anywhere - but it has proved to be a great asset. I can fill the bottle from any random hose or tap and drink without getting sick. Plus, i have now drank water from 3 holy springs, so i am pretty much blessed with good health and luck for the rest of the year.)

We then went to the Emir's palace, where he and his family, slaves and harem (abour 40 women at any given time) would spend their summers. As far as palaces go, it was modest in size, but its decoration was stunning: elaborate decoration and design often inlayed with mirrors for a sparkling effect. One room, all in white absolutely glittered. There was also a pool in the the back where the harem would frolic while the Emir sat in a shaded area atop a platform to watch. The Playboy mansion, Uzbek style.

We visited another site before returning to Bukhara where i and my Turkish friend went on the hunt for a new memory card for my camera (because you can't have too many pictures of blue-tiled mosques). A bit of lunch and then i retired for a short nap, which turned into a four hour sleep.

Now it is 9:30, but the whole town again seems to be out, enjoying the perfect evening air. Not being at all tired now, i will do something before returning to the hotel.

Tomorrow morning i leave for my two day desert safari adventure. As i understand it, we will be driving for about 3 hours, stopping at some sights of interest along the way, then transferring to camel, and heading into the desert, where i will be camping out in a yurt, then doing it all in reverse the next day.

I am very excited for this experience. I don't usually like camping, but this is a special experience and a yurt isn't exactly a two-man tent from Canadian Tire.

If all goes according to plan, you should hear from me in about 48 hours. Thanks for following along with me.
Good night.


Saturday, July 23, 2011

Assalomu Alaykum from Bukhara

Here is am in Bukhara. I arrived yesterday afternoon after a pleasant train ride (first class really is the way to go on Uzbek trains). The AC was working, i had two seats to myself, we were only 1.5 hours behind schedule, and i spent the ride chatting with a British girl also traveling around Uzbekistan.

My hotel, the Komil Hotel, is perfect. It is in a 18th or 19th C home that is beautifully decorated and adorned with details carvings and design. The courtyard, breakfast room, and my own room are all like small, exotic palaces.
Bukhara is slightly more compact that Samarkand, and while Samarkand may have overall the more breath taking monuments, Bukhara is by far the lovelier city. Bukhara has not been restored and modernized the way much of Samarkand has. Its main streets are still an ancient feeling warren of dusty roads, sandy buildings and covered bazaars. At the centre of the town is Lyabi-Hauz, a plaza built around a pool, surrounded by giant  mulberry trees and with stunning medrassas on either side - all dating back about 500 or 600 years. There is a pleasant poolside restaurant (where i ate last night and fed many hungry cats), and lots of inviting shops selling carpets and scarves and whatnot all around.

The monuments here are less tiled and colorful, and more the color of the desert,  which means that wherever an azure dome appears it is astonishing. My favorite site so far though is the Kalon Minaret. It is 900 years old, about 50 meters tall and covered in rings of varying design. It is so enormous and so precise, that it is truly stunning. (Also, i like that at one point in history they used to put alleged criminals in sacks and thrown them from the top of the minaret to the ground in front of approving crowds. (This is why it is also known as the "Death Minaret".)

So today i wandered, visiting the usual sights (mosques, medrassas, bazaars, and a fortress). I has some wonderful tea and a strange stroll through a very ghetto Uzbek "carnival". It basically consisted of four rickety soviet-era rides, an ice cream stand and the world's most depressing zoo. The zoo was a collection of trailers painted with pictures of men shooting animals, depicted with bloody bullet holes. In side, there were a few fowl and about 4 or 5 canine looking creatures miserably chained to posts or in cages. I didn't go in.

I like it here. It is very relaxing and pleasant. Tomorrow i will hang out (I actually saw most of the sights i wanted to see today).  The day after tomorrow i set out in to the desert for my camel adventure.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Da Svidanya, Samarkand

Today is my last full day in Samarkand. I have already seen the sights i wanted to see, so i am taking it a bit easy today. I walked for miles to find this lone internet cafe and i might head out of town to see this one rather ancient mausloeum, but other than that, i think i'll just lay around.
I did not sleep at all last night, as i was quite ill. I am feeling better today, just weak. All i have been able to eat is tea and melons.

So, tomorrow, Friday, i catch the 12:00 noon train for Bukhara, which is supposed to be about a 3 hour journey.

I will check in when i can, internet access permitting.


The Old Town

One thing that is odd about Samarkand is that because of their vast tourism, apparently, they have really cleaned up the areas around the Registan. It doesn't feel western, but it definitely feel new and tidy and organized. But i had heard that there was an old town worth exploring...if you can find it. What the city bofficials have done is built walls around the old parts of the city where the people actually live, so that tourists can be spared seeing the poverty.

I walked up and down this one street for quite a while, watching. I finally saw kids with modified prams stacked high with non (bread) coming out of a door in the wall. I stepped through and it was a different world.

Unpaved, uneven streets tangled together and lined with broken and haphazard dwellings. Kids walking around with non on their heads or carrying buckets of water. Corner stores guarded by odd looking chickens, broken windows, watermelon rinds and once beautiful mosques that have fallen into disrepair.
It is really wonderful. All of the kids were very friendly and wanted me to take their picture. As i was walking past one house, i was beckoned inside to watch how they make the round, golden non by sticking it to the ceiling of a wood burning oven.

It all felt quite authentic and was preferable to the more sanitized Samarkand that the city has put on display.

A note about the bread. I had last said that i didn't care for it, but i must issue a retraction. There are various versions and, while i didn't like the first one i tried, i have found another which is magnificent. It has the consistency of dinner rolls fresh from the oven, but with a slightly chewier texture. It's very good indeed.
me with bread (non)

And they must bake thousands of them everyday. All day long, kids are schlepping the bread from the old town to the market, by pram, wheel barrow, and bicycle. The entire old city smells of baking bread.
I don't how they can possibly consume them all (although this may help to explain the hearty girth of most of the women here).



Samarkand is amazing. It is a bit like Luxor, in the sense that it is just bursting with impossibly large, old and jaw droppingly beautiful monuments and mausoleums.
Obviously, the first place i had to go was the Registan. This is really the whole reason i am here, to see this collection of mosques and medrassas. It did not disappoint.

The buildings are enormous, and yet ever inch of them is covered with intricate designes in tiny tiles. The blue domes are radiant and astonishing. It is on par with the most impressive buildings i have ever seen.
I explored its nooks and crannies and then went on to visit the many other sites of interest. (I won't list them all, but they are all equally amazing.)
The market here is a good one; similar to but better than the one in Tashkent. I bought fruit and surveyed possible souvenirs.

It is really hot here. It feels much hotter than Tashkent. The landscape is very deserty. On the train ride here, i watched as the land went from green and fertile to dusty and brown, with the odd, irrigated plot of land growing corn or green...something. It is definitely much more rural out here. People riding donkeys and tending to flocks of goats.

On my first evening here, i spent it handing out with Furkat at the hotel. We drank tea and ate bread and tomatos and cucumbers. I smoked a cigar. He told me does not smoke or drink, but then, minutes later he offered me cognac from a black bottle with cyrillic writing. "It is from Moldova," he told me with what seemed like pride. We each had a glass of the vile liquor and i went to bed.

I have only met a couple of other travelers here. I met a couple from Colorado who have been on the road for one year. Staying at my hotel are two japanese girls, each traveling solo, with whom I shared breakfast and as many stories as were possible given their limited English and my non-existent Japanese. It is nice to see other, solo female travelers.

It is so hot here that during the late afternoon, i retire to my room to enjoy the AC and have a nap, leaving me free for night time wanderings.


Samarkand Express

Forgive the absence, but internet is very difficult to find in samarkand. I have been here 3 days so far and today was the first day i found an internet cafe - and it took me over an hour to get here.  Anyway, on to updates.

I left Tashkent on the Sharq Express train which left early in the morning. I was running a bit late, so i decided to take a taxi to the train stn. They have a really good system for taxis here; there are the proper, marked taxis that you can call or hail and will cost a small fortune (they wanted the equivalent of $5US to take me to the stn). Then there are the regular guys in regular cars (almost always Ladas). You just stand on the side of the road and they stop and you offer them money to take you where you want to go. It's actually very sensible and they took me to the train stn for about $1.

The train ride was supposed to take 3.5 hours, but due to work being done on the tracks, it took over 6hrs. I was in first class, which is very comfortable and had little tvs at every seat. Unfortunately the little tvs only played on type of movie: Gangster movies in russian where russians with cold blue eyes and black leather car coats shot each other with silenced pistols....Then again, maybe it was the news. A few guys had their tvs cranked way up. The ride would have been fine, except that the slow speed of the train meant that they didn't have enough power to run the AC, so it was very very hot. Despite that, and the odd cockroach, i found the ride very relaxing.

I arrived at the train station in Samarkand and and immediately i could tell that it would be very different from Tashkent.  Gone were the women in western dress; here all the women are wearing long, patterned, shapeless dresses with headscarves. The men wore the traditional square beanie hats. (I don't know what they are called.)

I hired a taxi and headed to my hotel/B&B. Just driving through the city and catching glimpses of the monuments i had traveled so far to see made me giddy with elation, until i finally blurted out, "This is so fucking cool!"

Tea upon Arrival at Hotel Furkat
Hotel Furkat is in one of the Old Town enclaves and from the outside is nothing more than a door in a wall on a dusty, unpaved road. But behind the door there is a beautiful courtyard and an enormous tree around which the 3 story hotel wraps itself. The tree pokes its branches on to each of the balconies, making the whole thing feel like a tree house. When i arrived, i tried to explain that i had a reservation, but the owner, Furkat, said "tea first" and ushered me towards one of the delightful chaikhanas that line the perimeter of the courtyard.

After some tea and apricots, i checked in to my room, which is sort of a tacky collection of odd furniture, shiny wallpaper and jeweled curtains. I then went out to wander.
Impressions of Samarkand to follow.
me in Samarkand

Monday, July 18, 2011

Tashkent: day 2

hello again.
After breakfast i went to the train station and bought my ticket to Samarkand for tomorrow morning. I took the metro (a few times today actually). The subways here are very similar to thosein Moscow. They are quite elaborately decorated (not as much as the nicest of those in Moscow, but lovely nevertheless). I wanted to take photos, but it is forbidden, and there are police everywhere here. They haven't given me any trouble but i have seen them stop random people and look in their bags.

I went to the Chorsu bazaar today. It is mostly food items: produce and bread, spices and nuts, eggs, meats, etc., but there are also stall selling woven items, pottery, musical instruments, at whatnot. The Uzbekistan bread is very sacred to them. They incorporate it into ceremonies and pictures of it seems to be on all of their tourist advertising. Basically, the bread is this round, flat but with high edges, golden brown bread with sesame seeds. Sometimes they have intricate designs on them. The thing is, as i discovered today, it isn't that great. I mean, it would be great with some hummus or a hearty mutton stew, but on its own, it left much to be desired.

Also while walking around the market, i had fruit, pistachios, and various types of honey. I watched a goat (or sheep) get hacked apart with a small axe in the butcher' section. I also help collect fluffy yellow chicks that escaped from a sturcturally challenged cardboard box and were running away. My good deed for the day.

After the market i walked around the old city, which is enitrely unlike the more modern parts of the city. It is rather decrepit and tangled, but charming. I visited a few mosques and a medrassa, but basically i walked...all day.

It was about 37 degrees today. I don't know if this is the heat i was warned about; the heat that was spposed to crush me and force me inside in the midday with it oppressive hotness. I don't know, but i thoguht it was beautiful out today. Hot and sunny and dry. Perfect.

Late afternoon i stopped for a coffee, smoke, and ice cream at some cafe. I read the menu, perusing the assortment of tongue and organ meats, when i read the last page of the menu, it said: "Payment for dish brakes". And below that was a list of breakable dishes and prices. Aparently, if i had broken a plate it would have cost $5, but if i break a table it would be $75. This raises the obvious question: does this mean that i am allowed to break the table as losg as i pay for it? Or, more importantly, how often does this sort of behavious go on?
Very strange and amusing.

Anway, i walked some more, went to some parks and Independance Sqaure and then to dinner at a Russian restaurant, which was delicous.

I think that's it for today. My train is early in the morning and i wantto be well-rested for the firstday of the focus of my trip: Samarkand.

I'm sure i have more anecdotes, but they escape me at the moment.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Hello, Tashkent!

Let me just being by apologizing for what are sure to be many typos (Cyrilic key board)

I arrived in Uzbekistan last night.  The flight from Seoul was about 7 hrs and was uneventful. We arrived in Tashkent and began the immigration process. I was a bit apprehensive, since everything i had read said that it was a difficult process and could take 3 hours. On the contrary, it was far less of a hassel than entering Canada or the US; there was just a lot of paper work to fill out.
Outside the airport i was hit with a wave of summer evening heat and a mountain of taxi drivers all clamoring for my money. I lit a smoke and told them to wait until i was finished. They stood there staring at me. I told them to back off or they I wouldn't be able to enjoy my cigarillo. They behaved. Then, in Russian, i managed to haggle the price of a taxi from $15 to $5 US. I know it shouldn't cost more then $3, but i am ok with $5.

En route to my hotel, the cabbie asked me (in english now) if i wanted to change some money.
I should explain: Everything i had read told me that the best place to change moey is with illegal, black market money changers. The banks will give you about $1700 Som for every US dollar and will charge hefty fees, but on the black market the rate is much better.
I agreed to the exchange and we made a detour to a poorly lit side street where we met a man in a waiting car. I gave them $100 US and got $210,000 Som, which was presented to me in four bricks of bills.

That done, i was driven to my hotel, the mighty Hotel Uzbekistan. Now, this hotel is a prime example of the hideousness of some mid-century Soviet architecture. It has no charm, but i picked it, because i am only here for 2 nights and it is in the best possible location. Also, it is a known hotel, and i knew i would have to give them my passport for a day to complete the manadatory Visa registration, so i thought it would be best to do that at a hotel with a good reputation. My room is unimpressive, but clean and has a great view.  The hotel sits on the ring of Timur Square (which is really a circle) and is the centre of the city.

After getting settled, it was about 10pm and i decided to go for a walk and a cigar. The air was magnificent. It was beautfully warm and not at all humid and smelled of strange plants and spices. The moon was nearly full and small bats circled everywhere. Timur Square was beautifully lit and filled with people. Actually, there were people everywhere: families and couples and gaggles of teens walking around, sitting on benches, playing games and drinking tea. I even saw a few people on horseback. In another square people had gathered and there were merchants selling art and jewelry. It was such a beautiful night and the moon made all of the enormous soviet buildings look beautiful (even the ugly Hotel Uzbekistan). It was such a grand stroll. This is going to be an awesome trip.

I slept well and awoke to breakfast. This hotel doesn't screw around with breakfast: fruits, vegetables, breads, oastmeal, eggs, meats, curried chickpeas, daal, rice, blintzes...I went back for thirds. Now, quite stuffed, i must figure out how to stash my mountains of Uzbek currency on my body and then head out for the day.  I have some business to tend to (buying train tickets and whatnot) and then i will go for a walk.

My hotel has a computer room, so i will surely blog later today.


Saturday, July 16, 2011

Sunday in Seoul

Hello! I have made it as far as South Korea. I left on Friday and flew to Los Angeles, where i had a tedious 3 hour layover (how can such an important city have such a crummy airport?).  I then flew about 12 and a half hours to Seoul. It was a delightful flight, i barely slept, but it flew by. Arrived in Seoul at about 4:40 am.

I caught the first train into the city. It took just under an hour and takes one right from the airport to downtown Seoul. For some reason my transit card wouldn't open up the turnstyle gates at the other end, so i couldn't get out. Some man suggested through the universal magic of charades that i jump the turnstyle, which i did. I figure, if a local says i should do it, it must be ok, right? That is the first turnstyle i ever jumped. 

After my act of deliquency, i then went to Namdaemun Market. I figured if i only had a few hours, that would be a god place to start. It is, except that at 7am on sunday morning, there isn't a lot going on. Most of the stalls were closed and some were just settign up, hauling in carts of meat and produce, knock off handbags, and K-Pop souveniers.  I did manage to find a charmingly decrepit restaurant and managed to say in Korean that i did not eat meat. They brought me kimchee and a steaming bowl of rice and odd spicy vegetables. I think it was a bibimbap, but i can't be sure. It was really good.

After that i decided to walk to the Insadong neighborhood. It was a pleasant walk, but the city was pretty quiet. When i reached Insadong, everything was still closed. I am glad i will be back here in 2 weeks so i can actually visit some of these places when they are open.

On my initial glances, Seoul is not very attractive, but it is interesting. On the face of it, everything seems painfully western; i couldn't turn a corner without seeing a collection of Burger King, Pizza Hut, Dunkin Donuts, TGI Fridays, Starbucks, Krispy Kreme... you get the idea. But fom what i could tell, there are a lof of cool looking dirty alleys with interesting eateries and shops that are decidedly not American. I guess it would take more then 6 hours to figure it all out. I kept walking around in disbelief, thinking, "I can't believe i'm in Seoul." It just isn't a place i ever thought i'd be.

Anyway, i enjoyed my walk; it took me back to the market, at which point it was much livelier. I wandered around taking pictures of large pig heads, sitting out in front of eateries. I imaginged they were all Lord of the Flies theme restaurants.

I really wish i had bothered to learn a few phrases in Korean. Almost no one speaks English, and i feel like a jackass opening a conversation in English. I just figured that for the limited time i'd be here, it wouldn't be worth it. But tonight i'll be in Uzbekistan, and my Russian is passable (for a North American).

It is fairly warm, but really humid here. I am only 2 days into my trip and i already look like a dirty bohemian. Soon i will smell like one too.

One other random note: i stupidly checked my cigars, so while i was wandering around today i didn't have any and couldn't find a cigar store. I did however find cigarettes that are supposedly made with cigar tobacco. For a cigarette they aren't bad, but they're a poor replacement for a cigar. I had to have a smoke though (all the other kids were doing it) and now that i am at the airport i can take advantage of their plenitful and civilized smoking lounges.

I am back at the airport now, readying myself for the third and final leg of my journey: Seoul to Tashkent. (How cool does that sound?)


Thursday, July 7, 2011

Where Next?

It has been over a year since my last travel adventure, which was a trip to Ecuador in the spring of last year. I've been to Seattle and Colorado since then, but nowhere exciting. Then it happened, suddenly: that coming together of time and money that makes planning an exotic trip irresistible.

Initially, there was no question, i was going to Mali. It has been #1 on my travel list for a while. Unfortunately, the time i have at my disposal is in July and if there is one month not to visit Mali, it is July, when tropical-scale rains fall nonstop and turn the usually sandy landscape into a mud pit, which made my plans for camping in the desert an impossibility.

Next on the list: Syria. The thing is, things are a little too interesting in Syria right now.
India: Monsoon season.
Europe: I feel like going somewhere more exotic and less expensive.
South America: I can't do two South America trips back to back, plus it's winter in many parts of the continent.

Then it came to me: that mysterious part of the globe locked between the Middle East and Asia. The land of 'stans - Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, etc. But what specifically caught my attention was Uzbekistan. Samarkand and Bukhara, jewels of the silk road, dating back to nearly 1000 years BCE, land of history, camels, and blue-tiled mosques.

The trip planning has begun and if all goes according to my brilliantly devised schedule, i will be leaving on 15 July.  The only possible roadblock is my visa. Canadians need a visa to visit Uzbekistan. In order to apply for a visa we need a letter of invitation from a person or agency in Uzbekistan. Before we can get that letter our information, itinerary, etc must be approved by some government agency in Uzbekistan. Once getting the letter one can apply for the visa at nearest Uzbekistan embassy...which is in New York. So it's an involved process. I think i have enough time to get my visa, but there is a chance that it will all fall apart at the last minute.

I have no plan B, so my next post will either be a bon voyage as i board a plane for Tashkent, or it will be a heartbreaking account of visa denial and crushed travel dreams.

Fingers crossed,