Friday, September 30, 2011

Friday, September 30, 2011

Border crossing to Turkmenistan

Posted by Hippobean at 9:45 PM 0 comments
The morning was cool and the sky was clear. I was reluctant to leave Khiva. I wished we could spend more time in the walled city. As we dragged our luggage through the ancient streets once more, I looked at the monuments one last time. One last look at the city walls from outside the city and Khiva disappeared from the view.

Border crossing took the whole morning in the sun and heat. Last night we had to count our money and fill out the custom form again. For departure we needed to fill out only 1 form. We needed to make sure we declared less money than we did when we've entered the country. Leaving Uzbek passport control averaged about 10 min per person. That's fast for their record. Relatively hassle free. Then crossed over to no-man's land we had to wait and wait and wait for the Turkmen agent to put the visa on our passports. Soviet style of course. And today the embassy even waived our visa fee. So after 3 hours of waiting, we didnt have to pay the $69 to get in to Turkmenistan, and we got our Turkmen visa glued to our passport page and it was well worth the wait because the visa looked like a turkmen carpet!

After an hour of drive we arrived at the Kunya Urgench, capital of the once powerful Khorezm Kingdom in the 6th century, and explored the archaeological site. The monuments were scattered in a wide area and not impressive. The fading sunlight did not add color to the brown edifices. We dined at the UZBoy hotel and had vegetable soup that was thick and tasted like lentil. I much prefer the light broth with thin noodles. But the lentil soup was nevertheless quite good. just not what I would call veggie soup.

Later that evening, we boarded the Turkmenistan airlines and flew to Ashgabat. A short flight but I got the window seat and this rather big Turkmen who was stuck in the middle seat, took off his shoe and crossed his left leg and pointed his foot in my direction. Any minute I would tell him to put his shoe on back on except I was sure he didnt understand english.

The Grand Turkmen hotel (Four Seasons) was rather nice with a good souvenir shop, a business center that was locked and internet wasnt free, and a casino. But the bed was like a rock and the pillow flat as a sheet of paper. However, the room balcony offered a fine view of the city that had neon lights at night.

the kunya urgench

Kunya Urgench photos

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Khiva - most beautiful Silk road city

Posted by Hippobean at 11:59 PM 0 comments
When I woke up this morning, i pulled open the curtains in my hotel room window, and saw the tallest minerat in Khiva. A single lonely girl walked on the square right in front of my window in the morning twilight, adjusting her headscarf. It's a picture perfect for the national geographic magazine or in the discovery channel. This was my moment of introduction to Khiva. When I remember to take my camera out for a picture, she had already gone into one of the alleys. No other soul was present and I just didnt know the hotel was right there on the square, as we came in very late last night. Later, my eyes feasted on all the monuments of this most beautiful ancient silk road city. I've never imagined they could be so beautiful. Every tile painted in a different color and design, no inch left empty.

The walled city was filled with cobblestoned streets, narrow and ancient. Merchants with their stalls set up lined every street, a souvenir shopping heaven. Colorful silk scarves, fur hats, carved wooden goods, hand paintings, and beautifully painted ceramics, designs I've havent seen before, more beautiful than the greek ones. But I've abstained from buying since I still had 3 more weeks of travel.

For lunch we had the local soup again at a tea house courtyard just steps from our hotel. It was a clear broth with 2 small meatballs that were outrageously tasty, veggies and thin noodles. Although it was just lukewarm, it was very good.

Later in the day, I've walked outside of the walls for a while and noticed they werent too high but very thick. The view from the outside was just as impressive as from the inside. I've climbed the tallest minaret but was disappointed at the view from the top. i thought i was able to see the entire city enclave but the walls did not enclosed the entire city. Next I climbed to the roof of the Akshi Bobo Bastion inside the Kunya Ark citadel around 5pm when the French group had just left. there was my second moment at Khiva. The sun was setting and it was peaceful and I was there alone, admiring the full view of the entire city. That was the best way to see Khiva. I could see all major monuments from this vantage point and I'm loving this town. khiva was one of the most beautiful cities I've visited. sort of like walking the old town in Jerusalem. I lack words to describe the beauty of this place. So just see my pictures.

However the water in this desert oasis was so salty the soap didnt lather. We needed to use bottle water to blush our teeth. And the climate was so dry no amount of moisturizer could keep our skins from drying up. I didnt expect it to be so dry.

Our hotel Malika is located right in the center of the old town, right in front of the Islam Khodja Minaret. It's a small quaint hotel with only a handful of rooms, but the location couldnt be better. The rooms were good size with good furniture, the beds were comfy, the duvet thick and the pillows nice and plump. Everything in the bathroom worked except the toilets didnt flush well. The breakfast though could be better.

We had our evening meal at the outdoor restaurant of our hotel surrounded by ancient monuments. The night was cool and the ambience was fantastic. Felt like we were back in time on the Silk road. The soup again is out of this world, just like Mom makes it. We had a pasta dish with tomato sauce that was so tasty, I've stolen Karel's portion since she wasnt eating. Then we had watermelon and melons for dessert. The Uzbek melons were the sweetest I've ever had. Andrey told me about them before I left "make sure to sample the melons". Bazil surprised us with musicians playing local music. None of us really cared for it and we even found it comical, as they werent exactly singing but more like acting, talking and gesturing. I'm sure Uzbek music was a lot better than that.

After dinner, Greg went out to catch Khiva at night. I didnt know why I didnt remember to do that. Later I envied his photos of Khiva at night with all the monuments lite up.


Khiva photos

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Posted by Hippobean at 11:59 PM 0 comments
This morning breakfast was wonderful. Omelettes on order accompanied by the smooth melody of an harp.

The old town of Tashkent was my first sight of Moslem architecture, mausoleums, mosques, madrasas and square. Blue tile at every corner. blue domes every time you look up at the sky. sky reaching minarets. And the Hippo was awed. "These are new. Wait till you see the real old ones." the more seasoned travelers in the group told me. And so I couldnt wait to get to Bukhara and Samarkand. But the oldest koran, brought by Timur, was on display in the mosque museum here. Photos were not allowed, but all the same to me, since I prefer Hebrew writing than Arabic.

The big bazar inside a spacecraft shaped building was a small treat. the aroma of the spices just hits you when you walk in. dried fruit, loads and loads of spices, produce of every kind, but not really my kind of thing. One cant take spices and produce home as souvenirs. but asian bazars are fun to browse through. they remind me of my childhood in southeast asia. We had a late lunch/early dinner at the Caravan restaurant, raved by the group who stayed in another hotel (their hotel was far from town center, and since they arrived 2 days early, they've explored town and discovered the wondeful Caravan restaurant, which was just around the corner from their hotel). Pumpkin, potato and minced meat dumplings, dill soup. Their rice which contained meat, some nuts and raisins, much resembled the moorish chicken rice, was simply out of this world. never had food so simple and so delicious.

The evening flight to Urgench was a nightmare. Although the airport was brand new, just opened 3 days ago, and every inch in western style and clean, the uzbek airline was jet assisted propellers (huh?), and it took over 2 hours to cover a little over 1000Km. One propeller plane after another, all lined up on the tarmak, and busload of people kept arriving and dropping passengers, and propeller planes take off one after another, in perfect order, just like in a perfectly drilled soviet army. About half way through the flight, the heat came on and we were heated alive. I was sitting next to the right wing and the propellers were very very loud, but the flight was not rocky.

The flight was 1 hour late and we're arrived Urgench in the dark. One member of the group lost her luggage. Arriving at Khiva, I've noticed the ancient Silk Road oasis mud walls. Imposing. A bit haunting in the dark of the night. Since no cars were allowed inside the city walls, we had to carry our luggage on cobblestone roads to our hotel Malika, situated in the middle of town, surrounded by ancient historical monuments. The hotel was quaint, small and pretty. Too tired to check out the hotel, I crashed, leaving the adventure for the next day.

Khast Iman

Tashkent photos

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Central Asia

Posted by Hippobean at 11:59 PM 0 comments
As it turned out, that bloody family with the 2 noise kids and the uzbek dressed woman and the 2 young men were also in the same flight to Tashkent. They probably stayed at SVO for 10 hrs while I was out enjoying the russian capital with C. The airbus to Tashkent was old, dirty with stinky toilets. And they showed this horrible soviet movie with Uzbeks wearing the traditional costumes singing. but the food was good. I couldnt wait to get out of that plane, have my visa stamped, and get my luggage and get to that hotel bed. I was at the verge of collapsing of fatigue. but the line through passport control was long, without order and things moved at snail pace. people just kept cutting in the line. i was praying for my luggage to show up and when a small red suitcase with a green handle drag itself out on the carousel, alleluia! now I have clothes to change and my own soap and shampoo. nobody told us we needed to fill out custom forms. everyone was scrambling to find a form. and we needed to fill out 2. so he guy at the custom counter sent me back to fill out another form. uzbek people are very kind. even not knowing our language, they've tried to help us with the forms because there werent any forms in english. my pickup was there, then finally we made it to the hotel and i just crashed. by then it was already 6:30am!

The hotel room was small as well as the single bed. The bathroom, european style, tiny and it of course flooded after I showered. Breakfast was very good though. Plenty of fruit, eggs and crepe like pancake with meat. Good coffee. Tried to go for a walk after breakfast and a shower, but there was nothing interesting close to the hotel. At noon, everyone checked out and sat out in the lobby to wait for the transfer to the Dedeman hotel. We've waited for 2 hours and were ready to mutiny when Bazil, our tour leader, finally arrived, apologetically. Something about being stuck in Istanbul, arriving late, blah blah blah . First sign of many more disorganization and caos to come. The room at the Dedeman was nice with a wonderful bathroom. Some of us ventured out to see the square with Timur's statue and the nearby bazar. Fruit and produce, some spices and lots of dried fruit and bread. Their bread is round, ginormous and very very tasty. The bazar not entirely too interesting. Late in the day, perhaps the merchants not too keen on selling. Dinner at a nearby Russian restaurant that had well, not too Russian food, but the food was excellent. Good clear noodle soup, meat dumplings, lamb and chicken and plenty of salad. The Dedeman hotel was much better. The rooms were small but the bed was big and comfy, the duvet thick and the pillows adequate. The bathroom was the best part. Clean and big and everything worked and it didnt flood. The hotel offered free internet to guests. Except for the hickup waiting for the hotel transfer, not a bad start. Cant wait to see what else Uzbek has to offer.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Monday, September 26, 2011

Soviet Style Airport and Capital

Posted by Hippobean at 9:43 PM 0 comments
The 9 hrs flight was stuck between 2 noisy rowdy kids, their parents and 1 uzbek dressed woman. Even though i had the front row with plenty of leg room, they were on either side of me and not a moment of peace and quiet. First time with Aeroflot and it actually wasnt too bad. The female flight attendant uniforms were elegant and the food and service were good. And no problem at passport control. Out in the arrival area, I've started to walk and heard 'Hippo' and C was there as promised. We took the electric train and then the metro to Red Square. Moscow metro stations were very deep. The walls and ceilings were decorated nicely. Too many metro lines going in every direction. We had to ask many times to find the one we needed to go on to. I was right that I couldnt have managed it on my own. The Russian capital didnt impressed me too much. Red Square wasnt as big as I've imagined. St Basil wasnt as colorful as I've seen in pictures. But nonetheless I got an exhilirating moment when I've realized I was finally in Russia! The sentimental Romanovs, the romantic Dr Zhivago, the heart tugging Tchaikovsky's melodies! It was very cold. There was no time to take any tours in the Kremlin. I've wandered alone in Red Square while C went to a sushi place in the GUM State Department mall for internet access. She needed to find a place to spend the night. The mall was modern and the shops all upscale. There were many Asian tourists but nobody was buying anything. We both fell asleep on the train on our way back to SVO. It's been a long day for both of us. Old soviet style Terminal F was confusing. No indication on where to go in to board the planes. One needed to go through 3 checkpoints: 1 to get in to the airport, one to get in to check-in, and 1 final time to get to the gate. Once I found my gate, there was no place to sit, and for the first time, I saw central asians. When boarding was announced, there was no order, no line, everyone just rushed in. Welcome to soviet style ...

st basil's

Moscow pictures

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The 5 Stans hurdles

Posted by Hippobean at 9:42 PM 0 comments
I dont remember exactly when I've decided to do the 5 Stans. And the hurdles were many. First the 3 visas I've found out after booking the tour that I needed to get on my own. The 3 countries no longer accepted tour agencies to get the visas, I was told, and I was pissed. Luckily L's friend suggested a visa agency that had a nice website. I've downloaded the online forms, created all the entry fields in Acrobat, and filled them out on my Mac. And so began the month long wait and worry. Both Uzbek and Kyrgys took extra days but Kazak only took 2 days. And the visa was the cheapest. The next hurdle was the Aeroflot flight with 10 hrs layover in Moscow. Stay at the soviet style airport or venture alone out to see Moscow? I didnt think I could manage seeing the city on my own since my Cyrillic was so non-existing. Massive online research didnt yield a better or cheaper flight schedule. It proved to be difficult to travel to the Stans on a smooth painless timetable. First C said she could travel with me to Moscow. Then they wanted her to be in St Petersburg instead. Finally she said she could overnight train to Moscow and meet me at SVO. Then there were the logistics of how to get to town from the airport. Online reviews didnt recommend driving since the Moscow traffic was legendary. But with C's fluent Russian, we could take the train and then metro to the center of town. Next hurdle was to get the Russian transit visa. It cost the same as the regular one, but a transit visa didnt need a letter of invitation (what's with these soviet places that needed a letter of invitation to their country?), only a short letter specifying the purpose of the visit. To my amazement, their SF embassy website had detailed and clear instructions on how to fill out the visa application. I did a dummy one and then printed it out for a test. what the heck is a patronymic name? Next I drove to their beautiful embassy up on Russian Hill on Green st. There was no clear line for the counter. One needed to find out who's last and wait for that person to finish. I've learned this thanks to the visa agent who was there to get visas for his clients. Asian looking but spoke Russian. Most likely from one of the Stans! My turn came and the Russian agent took some time to read my letter, and then made a phone call. I've heard him said 'niet, niet' and I began to worry. Then he told me to wait as he needed to wait for a return call. Then finally he took my papers and gave me a receipt for my money order. On my way back, my car overheated and broke down. But exactly 7 days later, I've returned and got my transit visa. No need to wait in line if you've come for pickup. This I've also learned at the Russian embassy. I was impressed with their procedure. Painless, smooth and easy. With visa hurdles overcome, the next ones were regarding luggage. 1 transatlantic with 10 hrs layover and 4 internal flights, will my luggage get lost? Will Moscow let me in with the transit visa? Will C be there to meet me? Will my airport-hotel transfer at Tashkent be there at 3AM to pick me up?

And so, I was ready for the adventure ...

At JFK, Sep 25 - tavelling solo could be lonesome. I used to excel in solo travel, darting from 1 place to the next, figuring out all the paths and navigating through obstacles. Flashes of loneliness sneaked in as I sat at JFK terminal 1 eating my overpriced airport prosciutto sandwich. But then again there were always moments of contentment like reading a good book on the plane. the afternoon was cloudy, forecast 60% rain but no rain fell today. just dark clouds. 78 degrees F. at sfo, we had to change planes and gate due to a malfunction on the delta plane. and I worried my luggage would not make it to the new plane. a big bunch of hasidic jews on the flight. interesting fellows. they spoke with pure american accents and speech but their curly hair, beards and clothing were totally alien. they were travelling onwards to Kiev. all wailing at the gate. so like at the wailing wall. they were rude, most traveling for the first time, unfamiliar with aircraft boarding procedures. rowdy. and so the adventure begins.

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