Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A dent in the universe

Posted by Hippobean at 11:00 PM 0 comments
"you wanna sell sugar water or come with me and change the world?" he once asked the MBA CEO. And I always remember this line. "Jobs died" was the first thing Greg said when he boarded the bus. We were in Samarkand. The day was hot and beautiful and I couldnt believe the man who created Apple was gone. Later in Almaty, we walked by an iStore and saw the Jobs memorial with notes and apples. I was still at Apple when he came back to Apple. Not did he "changed the world" at Apple, he "changed the world" by creating the iProducts. He was not an easy man to work with. His vision was far beyond our limited comprehension. He could be ruthless and relentless. But he was great. He made a dent in the universe and the universe will never be the same without him.

jobs n apple

Friday, October 14, 2011

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Five Stans - she's done it!

Posted by Hippobean at 11:49 PM 0 comments
It was unusual and very nice of the Ak Keme hotel to provide us breakfast at 4am. But I still could only have bread and tea. This tummy bug just wont leave me alone. Jonathan was there to see us off. He's the best tour leader I've had. Although Janko from Patagonia was excellent too. At the Manas airport, a guard with a riffle stood in front of the terminal entrance and checked every one before allowing them to enter. One more time going through metal detector and x-raying our luggage. At the passport control again another round of metal detector and x-ray. Then one more time before entering the gate. The Hippo must be emitting radiation by now. The monitors at the waiting area didnt display any info. There was no gate number on the gate. In fact it seemed there was only 1 gate. Then someone got up from his seat and approached the counter and suddenly everyone jammed the gate and boarding commenced. Back at SVO, we had 4 hours layover. Memories came back as we've all been there before. I walked the entire terminal F and D to kill time and to see it since I didnt spent much time there during the first time. Others were pretty sick of it because they've spent 10 hours there on their way to start the trip. We all ate the TGIF, the only American joint and the only place that accepted US dollars. When I ordered french fries, the perrrky Russian girl asked me in perfect English what sauce I wanted. Huh? It took a few seconds for me to realize what she meant. Ketchup of course. Everything tasted very authentic TGIF! The 10 hrs to JFK was this time without rowdy babies. I had the same seat as on the flight coming over. A couple sat between me and Mike on the front row. Sylvia was on the right and Judy and Karel on the left. So this time I had people to chat with. I even saw X-Men First Class again. The food again wasnt bad and I was finally able to nibble something. JFK was rainy and we had to wait at the tarmak for half an hour for an available gate. I only had a little over an hour to go through passport control and get my luggage and then custom and race to the Delta terminal. My luggage turned up and I was pleased that through all the flights it didnt get lost. It was raining when I stepped out of terminal 2 and ran to the Delta terminal. By the time I reached my gate, it was already boarding. I was totally knackered being up for over 24 hours now. The final flight home was totally uncomfortable. Couldnt read, couldnt sleep. So very freaking tired of flying by now. Should have stayed overnight at NYC and have dinner with the Goose or something. Finally during the last 10 minutes of the flight, I played the onboard trivia and noticed this person on seat 22F who kept winning. Not matter how fast I entered my answer, he got it correctly first. I've looked around but could not see 22F. Ah well. Then familiar lights appeared below, the San Mateo bridge, cars on 101. And this meant home!


It took many months of planning, many weeks worrying, hassle to get all the visas, a long tiresome journey to get there, long layovers, through roomie problems, tour leader switching, long waits at the border crossings, too many internal flights, hotel room fixtures that didnt work, tummy aches, but at the end, all was worth it, for the sights I've been seen wow'd me beyond my expectations, and travel companions that had character and energy, some annoyed me to the point of laughter, others so sweet it made me believe there's still hope in humanity. The border crossings, the soviet style hotels, an educational experience.

Each Stan has its own peculiar character, history, and speciality and yet the culture is not that much different, having similar costumes, food and music. Uzbek had the most Silk Road cities. Turmen had the most beautiful traditonal costumes and hats. Tajis people are the most beautiful looking. Kazak had stunning mountains. And Kyrgyz had the most serene lake resort. What appeared at first to be strange because of their geographical boundaries, it had a reason. Stalin drew the lines for his own reasons. Wanted to punish the Tajis, he gave Bukhara and Samarkand to the Uzbek causing a whole bunch of Tajis to trap in a different country. Thus the result was, like says:

Border Bemusement: Turn your brain into scrambled eggs by pondering this...

In the Fergana Valley, the borders of Central Asian nations are the most confusing in the world.

Parts of Tajikistan are north, south, east and west of Kyrgyzstan
Parts of Tajikistan are north, south, east and west of Uzbekistan
Parts of Uzbekistan are north, south, east and west of Tajikistan
Parts of Uzbekistan are north, south, east and west of Kyrgyzstan
Parts of Kyrgyzstan are north, south, east and west of Uzbekistan
Parts of Kyrgyzstan are north, south, east and west of Tajikistan

If you go, don't forget your multiple-entry visas and a good compass -- or better yet, Ferganaboutit!

This was probably one of the best trips I've ever taken. The Persian Islamic architecture was a wonder I didnt expect. The camaradies of the group was great. There was energy in the group and we got along and bonded quite well. We had a few characters in the group which actually made the trip interesting, unforgetable and fun. I remember each one of them well. The variety of sites was superb. Refreshing historic Islamic architecture mingled with new soviet block apartments, gorgeous ceramics with competing designs, and then sublime mountains. The food was good, the soups I just couldnt get enough of.

So the travel bug is still on and next the Caucasus, to finish the last leg of the Silk Road!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Last day in the Stans

Posted by Hippobean at 10:04 PM 0 comments
Woke up extra early this morning to explore the resort. I walked down to the beach and being low season there was no crowds on the shore. The beach was clean and the pier had built-in picnic tables on both sides. I thought it was designed very well and imagined how people can enjoy them during summer. The water was tranquil, transparent and clean. I looked back at the Tien Shan serving as a backdrop to the numerous wooden cabins in the resort. The day was fine, sky blue, not a cloud but a bit cold. What a wonderful relaxing place, without the maddening summer crowds. I wandered around the resort complex, saw cabins of different sizes, designs and color, a giant swimming pool, community halls and dinning rooms, and almost got lost in the immensity. Quite impressive with this resort. I wouldnt mind spending summer here, swim in the lake and relax in this quiet setting.

On our way back to Bishkek, we stopped at the Shamsy Valley to see the Burana Tower and the nearby Bal-bals, small statues for the dead. They're scattered in a wide area sorta like the Moais in Easter Island but much much smaller in size and not impressive. I've climbed up to the tower, not so much for the view, but because this was the last tower of the trip and my last climb. I've missed climbing the pylon at Ak Saray because after climbing the Islam Khodja minaret in Khiva, my poor legs hurt for 2 days straight, specially the right one with the bad knee. Greg, of course, climbed every minaret we've seen, including the one of the Ulugbek Madrasa at the Registan. If I've known we could do that, I would have climbed it too.

We happened upon a kyrgyz polo match the local called Kok Bearu. Instead of hitting th e ball, the riders dragged a goat carcass. Most of us went to see it and take photos. I didnt much care to see a bunch of people on horses dragging around a dead animal.

Back at the capital, our local guide took us to shop at the Russian Zum department store. Every time I stepped into one of these, it reminded me of the old department stores in Hong Kong. The first floor sold nothing but electronics and it was buzzing with people. The top floor only sold souvenirs and they didnt barter. As a result I only got 1 tshirt for the lucky fellow at home.

Back to the same hotel Ak Keme for the last day of the trip. I was given the same room and memories of that bad night surfaced and I almost asked for another room.

We dined at the Captain Nemo restaurant and had perch wrapped and cooked in foil. Not too bad. Jonathan surprised Fran by giving her a bathday card signed by all of us, and a local hand embroidered bag and the carpet he was lugging around all through the trip. We now know who he bought it for. Fran wasnt totally surprised but looked quite happy tho.

Tomorrow wake-up time is 3:30am with a 4:30 departure. Not looking forward to the longggggggg flight home. Trip was over. But what a trip it was! My eyes were very content to have feasted on so much magnificent sights!

burana tower

Burana Tower photos

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Pristine waters, marvelous mountains, Lake Issyk Kul

Posted by Hippobean at 11:57 PM 0 comments
Morning drive to Lake Issyk Kul. We've stopped at the town of TokMok to a supermarket to gather material for a picnic lunch. I spotted colored toilet paper and bought a pack of green and orange ones. Greg made fun of my toilet paper faddish. What, he and his 1 hat a city thing, so what if mine was toilet paper? The entire group thought I was strange, and well, the Hippo is. About mid-way to our destination, we stopped on top of the mountains pass for our picnic lunch. The scenery was barren rocks and the wind simply howled, so I remained in the bus to eat my miserable lunch of bread and juice. My stomach still wasnt feeling too well after last night fiasco. This morning having my tea and bread for breakfast, Bryde came over to my table and told me they did bring out last night's cake but he didnt see any with my initials on it. After a long drive through pretty spectacular mountain roads and canyons and brownish/beige rocks, we finally make it to the highest lake in Central Asia. The scenery was spectacularly serene and except for a few developments by the shore, it was almost completely unspoiled and pristine. Although some of the group didnt like it (what, you expect Lake Tahoe?), I liked it for it was still pretty true to nature, no glass high rises with neon lights that lined up the shores. Much like lake Prespa in Macedonia. The bit more crowded shores were almost like Ohrid.

Our lakeside resort the Raduga was simply a paradise as compared to the lousy hotels we had so far. It was right in front of the shore, with the mountains as backdrop. The individual rooms were tiny but there were 2 separate temp controls, one for the room floor and another for the bathroom floor. Everything was spanky clean and new, including the very white and fluffy towels. I simply loved staying in the room because it was so warm. The only thing that didnt work was the bedside table lamp with power chord that had square prongs but the wall outlet had round holes! Go figure this one out!

Neither the petroglyphs nor the local museum were very impressive. But the boat ride on the lake was a marvelous way to end the day. It was cold but nevertheless I've enjoyed it tremendously. Jonathan played bartender and poured us vodka, brandy, coke and juice and even brought us cookies. We had the entire boat for ourselves. The sun was setting and simultaneously on the opposite end of the lake the full moon rose. The Tien Shan in between and the lake water transparent and quite clean. And I've realized this was the last day of the trip, and what a magnificent way to end a trip. I sat on the boat admiring the setting sun and the rising moon, listening to the sound of water lapping against the boat, and the glorious mountains, and reminiscing all the sites I've seen on this trip, and I was a happy camper.

lake issyk kul

Lake Issyk kul photos

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, no orgasm

Posted by Hippobean at 11:23 PM 0 comments
One last border crossing this morning. The fastest ever. No hassle whatsoever. It only took us 35 minutes. A record time. Locals still cut in our line but our Kyrgyz guide gathered all our passports and it only took 15 minutes and the entire group crossed over. On our way to the border we spotted Bactrian camels. An entire caravan of them! I've seen many camels in my travels but never one with 2 humps. What a treat! They lined up in front of the Tien Shan mountains as if to pose for us. Jonathan took a picture of us lined up to take pictures of the Bactrians all lined up for us to photograph. It was funny! And what a glorious sight!

Bishkek is a nice city but after all the impressive Islamic architecture of Uzbek, nothing here can wow me. We did see the last remaining statue of Lenin in Central Asia. And the mountains were still glorious as in Almaty.

Our hotel Ak Keme was old and wasnt clean and the souvenir shop tiny with nothing worth buying, but the internet was free. However, my room had a balcony with a sublime view of the Tien Shan. We dined at the hotel because Jonathan said they had a cake here last time that was orgasmic, and it was there too at breakfast the following morning. We had chicken that was very tasty and so was the mushroom soup. However, the cake they brought us wasnt the one that made everyone in the last group euphoric. I said 'no orgasm this time' and Jonathan said 'maybe it has a headache' and that caused us to laugh, rolling on the floor. I edged my initials on the 'frigid' cake that they gave us, to see if I could see it in tomorrow's breakfast. Later that night the chicken and mushroom soup all came out, and I had a terrible night being sick. Now the bacteria was in full bloom and from now on I abstained from eating properly.


Bishkek photos

Monday, October 10, 2011

Monday, October 10, 2011

Kazakhstan, sublime mountains

Posted by Hippobean at 9:16 PM 0 comments
Woke up this morning with no remnants of the cramps. Even though, I had just a lite breakfast of tea and bread. We walked across the street from our hotel to start our sightseeing. The Zhenkov's Cathedral rival St Basil's, but if you ask me, I found neither beautiful. Colorful and lego-like, but not impressive to me. A little further down was the War Memorial with a very ugly very soviet black monument of the soldiers bursting out of a USSR map. It's one of the ugliest monuments I've seen. I looked and looked but still couldnt tell it's the map of the USSR. Then we went up to the famous ice skating rink at the Medeo Canyon mountain and I hiked up all the stairs (once you scaled the first visible stairs, there were 2 more flights of stairs) only to found nothing worth seeing on top. We drove to the top of the Green mountain, the highest in Almaty, in order to take the Kök-Töbe cable car back down. Then the rest of the day was free. After the Islamic architecture and historic Silk Road cities of Uzbek and Turmen, sightseeing did seem to go downhill. Either I was already tired of traveling, or the sights deteriorated, I pretty much lost interest in sightseeing in Almaty. Even Jonathan confessed it was hard to find something interesting to see or do in Almaty. Almaty is a big modern city, with lots of up-scale designer stores. But we were hungry of souvenirs. The hotel told us to go to the pedestrian only shopping street and the Russian Zum department store which top floor sold only souvenirs. We couldnt find the pedestrian only shopping street. We did find the pedestrian only street but there were only a few cafes and no souvenir stores. The Zum sold only cheap trash. We were very disappointed with Almaty shopping. In the end I bought some good stuff at the souvenir shop at the hotel. The only other consolation was our hotel room had a fantastic view of the snow covered Tien Shan mountains, and at dusk while the top of the mountains turned pink and orange, a full moon rose. Kazakhstan is the biggest and richest of all the 5 stans, having natural gas and oil. And it offers great mountains and beautiful wild lives and scenery. However, Almaty offered nothing compared to the other Stans cities we've been.


Almaty photos

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Sunday, October 09, 2011

3 Stans in 1 day

Posted by Hippobean at 11:42 PM 0 comments
Someone said the Lenin's statue was still here in Khujand. Most other ex-soviet cities had taken down Lenin's statues since they'd acquired independence. So we drove to see the monument. To our surprise, the statue wasnt of Lenin. Huh, where did it go and whose statue was it? Finally our young local guide told us they moved Lenin's statue to the museum and put up this one of Timur-Malik. The murals at the monument had very beautiful mosaic. I didnt want to leave Tajikistan yet. I havent seen much of the country. Have to come back some other time. We did our 1 hour drive on smooth roads again to the border of Uzbek. Getting out of Tajis was of course again no hassle. But this time we had to fill out 3 Uzbek custom forms. Two to enter the country. Must be identical. And 1 to exit and must declare less money than the first two. And this was it. This was the last time we'd have to fill out those blasted bloody forms! We had to wait at the Uzbek passport control for the agent was having a coffee break. When he came back on duty, the computer broke down and they had to bring in another terminal. Meanwhile, the locals were cutting in like mad. So we formed a human wall to block them out. Once back in Uzbek, we drove to Tashkent for a bit more sightseeing. Ottabek took us to take a 1 station ride on the metro because someone mentioned their metro stations were nicely decorated like the ones in Moscow. I didnt find the station terribly attractive. Then we walked by the Romanov's summer residence. Didnt know they had a residence here. Then we went to the airport to have our dinner. Who would know the food at the airport restaurant was so good. However, soon after I finished eating, my tummy started to cramp and the runs started. Early on the trip, one by one of us got struck down by a mysterious tummy bacteria. Every morning someone announced they're sick. It could be the local bad salty water, but I was careful not eat anything uncooked and we even used bottle water to brush our teeth. I took 2 imodiums but I was miserable on the short flight to Kazakhstan. I even timed the cramps. It comes in every 10 minutes or so, in 3 waves. I doubled over every time they came. I've never experienced anything like it. They were sharp and painful. But at least this time we flew on a jet plane, our flight being international. Once in Almaty, the weather got a lot colder. Our very pretty blonde slavic looking local guide was there to meet us. So in 1 day we went to Tajis to Uzbek to Kazak. 3 stans in 1 day! As soon as we arrived at the hotel Otrar, I went to the bathroom in my room and spent a good half hour at the toilet. The bathroom was very small but it had a heated rack, and it made the room warm and cozy. Jonathan brought me some electrolyte pills. Like he said, after the Silk Road cities, everything was downhill from now on.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Tajikistan - glorious mountains and beautiful people

Posted by Hippobean at 11:59 PM 0 comments
The border to Tajikistan at Penjikent was closed. So we drove the 4 hours from Samarkand to Khujand, Tajikistan's second largest city instead. I was disappointed because I really did want to go to Penjikent, so I could catch a glimpse of the Pamirs and the Fann mountains. That's the reason why I chose this tour which it covered the 5 Stans. Most other tours did not cover Tajikistan. Besides, Penjikent had more interesting archaeological sites, once a fortified city with a palace, temples, markets and houses decorated with paintings with clay statues of ancient gods, and itself a Silk Road city. But Khujand offered a different experience. It's the entrance to the Fergana Valley, which went also into Uzbekistan. The Uzbek roads were very bumpy. Again we did the custom forms formality and at the border tons of locals cut in line, and we were simply sick of it and this time we've told them loudly to not cut in our line, even though they of course didnt understand a word we said. But once crossed the no-man's land into Tajis border, our local guy, a very young and good looking kid was waiting for us and we got our stamp with no fuzz at all. I had wanted a visa, like the one we got from Turkmen but there was no visa on our passports, even though we paid $100 each ahead of time for our group visa.

There was only 2 very small 14 persons van to take us on the hour drive to the other side of the mountains where Khujand was situated. Good thing we only brought an overnight bag. There was no room for our big luggage. The Tajis road were new, smooth, fast, and not bumpy at all. Our vans raced each other on the road. The view of the mountains, though not tall and not the Pamirs, were very soothing and after 2 weeks in the desert towns, I welcomed the view of the mountains. The local guide spoke good English. I was told 90% of the Tajis population was under 20. But the country is the poorest in the Stans, and had just gotten over a very terrible civil war. Tourism is flourishing but they're still learning it and need more time to get it together.

However our hotel the Grand Khujand was brand new, the rooms were ginormous, the bathroom had color toilet paper and camay bar soap and rain showers. For the first time I saw Al Jazeera on TV. It had the best and most covered news. I spent all evening watching it. I wish we could get it at home.

We visited the regional museum which was in a building built like a fortress, just across from our hotel. The basement had fake artifacts of Persepolis, even with a fake lamasu! Not much else was in this tiny museum. The best part of Khujand was their bazaar. The building had a very nicely decorated portal like an Islamic mosque or madrasa It's big and very authentic. The bottom floor had all food and produce. The upstairs which circled the place, had all kinds of shops, clothing, articles for every day use, shoes, jewelry. We went mad there and again the stores reminded me of the ones at my hometown. The façade of the bazaar had nicely decorated persian islamic tiles. It's located on one end of the central square and although it was late in the afternoon, it was buzzing with people and activity. On the other end of the square, was the city mosque, and next to it, the Sheik Muslihiddin's Masoleum. We werent allowed to go inside the mosque, so we just hanged out by the entrance and peeked in to see how it was decorated. Not as grand as the other we've seen but nicely done. Tajis were very friendly and beautiful looking. They kept coming to talk to and take pictures with us. The mountains here although not very tall, were gorgeous. Khujand is a beautiful town with beautiful people.

For dinner we ate at a local place that offered us their version of steak - a hamburger paddy again. The store next to the hotel had color toilet paper and I wanted to buy some to take home for Mom but they didnt take dollars and we didnt have any somonis since we're only there for less than a day.

I've spent the evening watching Al Jazeera on the flat screen TV in my hotel room. I simply loved their news coverage. I wish we could spend more time there because the city was interesting, the people beautiful and the hotel was very nice. And oh finally mountains all around, except they're not the Pamirs.

khujand mosque

Khujand photos

Friday, October 07, 2011

Friday, October 07, 2011

"My Strength is in Justice"

Posted by Hippobean at 11:30 PM 0 comments
Should have checked the shower yesterday because just as I've expected they didnt fix it. They simply put the showerhead back on and of course when I turned the water on, the showerhead shot right out. Finally had to drag the maintenance guy up to my room. He first took the showerhead off from another room and replaced my shower with it. Everything finally was working properly, and I just wondered which poor soul ended up with the room with my broken showerhead.

Everything in Samarkand was about Timur. "My Strength is in Justice" were his Words.

Today we visitied the mausoleum of Timur, the Gur-Emir with the beautiful azure dome sitting on an octahedral building, simple and beautiful to the naked eye. In the crypt, there's his tomb, covered with a block of greenish-blac stone, nephrite or jade, and the tombs of some of his sons and grandson the famous Mirzo Ulugbek. Honoring his teacher Sayyid Baraka, there's also a tomb for him, a much bigger one in a lighter stone color. The tour ended at the Bibi-khanym mosque at the end of the shopping avenue. Since I've already did the shopping the day before and didnt care much for bazar, I've joined Peter to see the Jewish quarter. Following his Lonely Planet guide, we found the set of nondescript white doors on an alley off the shopping Avenue. I've expected a Star of David or something on the door but nothing. Once crossed the threshold, it was a completely different world. Very narrow cobblestoned streets going in every direction. Very old houses on both sides but the doors were new and nicely adorned. Not many cars or people, and it was very quiet. None of the hassle and bussle of the tourists like from outside the white doors. We found a rundown mosque. At one alley, a man washing a car told us to leave by crossing his arms into an X. A little girl told us to turn left. We followed her direction, not knowing what she meant. We came upon the synagogue. A big star of David and a menorah above the old wooden doors. Inside a man (a rabbi?) proudly gave us a tour of the place showing us ancient Torahs and books with Ifrit (hebrew) on one side and russi (russian) on the other. Finally he put his hands on our heads and gave us a blessing and then pointed to the glass with money inside and said 'dollars'.

Andrey told me to not miss Registan at night because it's lite. So I've asked Ottabek to take us there after dinner. Jonathan said they had very cheesy Sound and Light shows at night. We first went to see Timur's Mausoleum at night. It was gorgeously lite up. Then we went to the Registan. The cheese show was going on and it was in Japanese! If you think the Sound and Light shows at Giza and Karnak were cheesy, this one topped them all! The place was poorly lite and flat out comical to be in Uzbekistan to see the Sound and Light show at the Registan in Japanese!

gur emir mausoleum

Samarkand photos

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Magnificent Samarkand

Posted by Hippobean at 10:00 PM 0 comments
The bathroom at the Regal Palace hotel was spacious and the fixtures looked almost new. but dont let that deceive you because the shower door didnt go all the way down to the shower floor and the water shot out from under the door and flooded the bathroom soaking the footmat. I was standing in ankle deep water shampooing my hair when the shower head fell off. soapy and dripping, I ran to announce my misfortune to the reception. they let me finish my shower in another guest room. I've made sure to tell them to fix the shower. so much for brand new hotels.

Today we first visited the Historical museum. There were so many ancient ceramics on display and I took a picture of each piece. Glorious ceramic heaven. So many wonderful ancient artifacts, a museum wonder. It's one of the best museums I've visited.

The day was gorgeous, the sky blue and the morning cool when we visited Ulugbek's Observatory. All that remained of the observatory was the stone rail that curved upwards where the telescope rolled, and stairs going down to the chamber. Didnt know Timur's grandson was an astronomer/philosopher/mathematician.

The site in Samarkand that blew me away was the Shahi-Zida necropolis. What a magnificent place in a magnificent location on the slope of the Afrasiab hill. You entered through the southern portal and up the staircase into a narrow passage where the Timur mausoleums with uniquely painted portals one after another flanked both sides of the passage. Then the passage opened up to a wider area where the Central Group of mausoleums appeared and it ended in the Northern Group, and upon the hill a modern cemetery, with highly decorated and well maintained tombs. Some members of the group said it was more beautiful than Ricoleta. Mmm. Couldnt really agree.

Next finally we reached the Registan. Judy said that was the 'wow' factor for her. But I wasnt totally impressed. 3 madrasas formed the square (registan = sandy place) and there were rows of benches in front of the square for spectators as the square itself was roped off and one needed to pay to get in. While the rest of the group went to a restaurant across from the square for lunch, some of us went ahead to admire the place. It's really not as big as I've imagined. Maybe because by now I had quite enough of the Persian Islamic architecture, with the same colors on the same arches, over and over throughout the trip, the Registan, probably the highlight of the entire trip, wasnt too impressive to me. I've enjoyed smaller scaled Khiva and Bukhara so much more. Nonetheless sitting there on a bench with a full view of the entire ensemble was quite a nice way to take it all in. After visiting the Registan's Madrasas, we were finally given free time to shop. The pedestrian only shopping avenue was just a block from the Registran. Modern shops lined both sides of the modern wide avenue. Every shop was the same, offered the same souvenirs. Only the prices were different because it depended on how much you could barter. Soon all of us were carrying plastic bags filled with tshirts, scarves and other goodies. The avenue ended at the Bibi-Khanym Mosque and behind it the bazar. For the rest of our free time, we sat on the benches and compared shopping notes in the presence of the 3 imposing monuments of the infamous silk road city, the world renowned Samarkand.

Dinner was at a local house on the edge of town, whose owner opened up his house to feed the tourists. We had the famous Plov which wasnt too good. Rice with 2 big pieces of meat and carrots, and how could that be their famous dish? The salads were exquisite but the house wine was poor. The dinning hall is an open room with a canopy, and the night was cold and we were freezing. and therefore couldnt really enjoy the meal.

the registan

Samarkand photos

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Shahrisabz, the birthplace of Tamerlane

Posted by Hippobean at 10:30 PM 0 comments
We departed early for Shahrisabz, the birthplace of Tamerlane. Just outside the Bukhara old town, we made an inpromptus stop to see Chor Minor, a tiny mosque with 4 minarets (chor = 4 minor = minaret). very unique. "dont tell the other group" said Jonathan. I really didnt understand why they're trying to keep the 2 groups apart. we're always running into the other group anyway. at the hotels, at the restaurants, at sightseeing, at the airports, at border crossing. what was the point of keeping us separate. we've already made friends with some of the other group.

Shahrisabz was vibrant with lots of weddings going on in front of the Ak-Saray, Timur's winter palace. The brides' gowns were ostentatious, bizzare, outrageously flamboyant, almost comical. The palace ruins still showed decorated walls and the 2 remaining pylons were very tall and impressive. The portal which once stood had inscriptions that could be read clearly kilometers away. Later we visited Timur's crypt with his stamp in arabic on the wall, but he wasnt buried there. He was buried in Gur-Emir in Samarkand instead. We will visit his burial when we get to Samarkand. He built the mausoleums at Dorus-Siadat for his family and the Kok-Gumbaz Mosque and Mausoleums complex had the most beautiful dome. The setting was among green trees and very beautiful and serene. I've enjoyed this mosque very much.

260+Km would take us about 4 hours to get to Samarkand. Uzbek roads were notoriously bad. bumpy and slow. The desert roads lived up to their fame. dusty, potholes filled and the going was slow. again we've made some stops along the way to pee in the bushes. Diesel was scarce in town,so we've been told, and so our bus stopped at several gas stations to ask for fuel. most were empty. finally at the edge of town we struck black gold. the fuel pumps displays were rotary. so ancient not even the Hippo hadnt seen one before. finally we've entered the city, the third silk road city. big metropolis, sprawling city, much bigger than Bukhara. But the tap water was just as salty and the climate just as dry. our hotel was right next to the airport. fairly new with full resort amenities. We've discovered a huge gym with every kind of exercise machines, hers and his sauna and jacuzzi, and they're building a gihugic indoors swimming pool in a separate building, complete with turkish and thai baths. luckily my room did not face the airport tower but the back garden, with full sight of the gym and swimming pool complex. it was quiet back there except for very rare occasional aircraft noise. The room was big with a long balcony. The lamp on the bedside table didnt have any on/off switch, so to turn it on one needed to plug in the power cable. to turn it off, one had to pull the power chord. Very strange. The bed was huge, duvet thick and wonderful pillows. Not bad for a 3 nights stay. Oh the souvenir shop at the hotel was the best so far.

Dinner was at the only Italian restaurant, the Bella Italia. i didnt like the idea of having Italian in Central Asia. I came here to experience the local cuisine. I've always thought you couldnt go wrong with Italian. My spaghetti bolognese came with hardly any sauce. the pasta was local noodles. the meat was again ground meat. there was no taste at all. perhaps I should have ordered the pizza instead which they said it was reasonably OK. the only other choice was the veggie penne which too came with a minimum of tomato sauce. however, the local red wine was out of this world good. we put some in my spaghetti to give it some sauce and flavor. and also in the chocolate ice cream (it was white). except for the wine, definitely not a place I'd recommend or ever go back to.

At one of the stops this morning, we've discovered fruit flavor cigarrettes. so i bought some in green apple flavor. itonly cost 2 dollars so I couldnt pass it up. so tonight, at my balcony, I've smoked the local ciggie. I was dizzy after a few puffs. it wasnt strong at all. but the artificial flavor made me queasy. so much for smoking!

Kok-Gumbaz mosque

Shahrisabz photos

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Stunning Bukhara and a mighty sandstorm

Posted by Hippobean at 11:00 PM 0 comments
A long drive through the deserts of Turmenistan. The rolling hills and scattered vegetation were quite pretty. We had to make a stop to pee in the bushes. Crossing the pontoon bridge this morning to get to the Uzbek border we had to close the curtains in our bus. We're not supposed to look around or take any pictures. Hmm. There were 4KM we had to walk across with our luggage. I had no problem with that. A minivan was there but only took us half way across. The rest we had to drag our luggage in the sun. Re-entering Uzbek again took some time. Again we had to fill out the Uzbek custom forms declaring how much money we're taking into the country. Same drill. Getting a bit tired of it by now.

In the afternoon, just before sunset we visited the Chor Bakr Necropolis. Very creepy place. We witnessed a group of colorfully dressed Bukhara girls rehearsing their dance. Here in Bukhara, the dresses were considered the most beautiful in the country.

Later we drove to our soviet style hotel inside the old town, surrounded by ancient monuments. Again, we had to haul our luggage because the old town was pedestrian only. Vendors lined the streets with their goods to sell. The soviet hotel was lousy but my room window opened up to the ancient Trading Domes, filled with dust. We had stretchy sandpaper for toilet paper. Reminded me of the cheap toilet paper from some old European towns. When you tore out a piece, it broke into pieces. The duvet smelled like dirty clothes.

I woke up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. The water was shut off. A little later the power went out. But by 6am everything came back.

The Abdullaziz Khan Madrasa around the corner from our hotel was the most colorful. It's so beautiful it blew the Hippo away. Inside, we were able to see some of the cells of the students. They were quaint and cozy with 2 stories. Even the walls were decorated. Vendors everywhere selling souvenirs, hats, scarves and the ceramic was the most beautiful. I had planned to return in the afternoon to shop. The old city of Bukhara lived up to its name. The monuments were ancient and beautiful.

We were debating on whether to do the afternoon sightseeing or just go shopping. We were not given enough free time to shop on this tour, and we were all itching to spend our dollars on local souvenirs which were so beautiful and unique.

We had lunch (fantastic local soup again) by the pool at the Lyabi-Hauz in front of the madrasa. I had planned to return later to check out the ensemble. However, walking back to the hotel, we've noticed a dark cloud in the sky. We thought it meant rain but I smelled dust. Minutes later we barely made it back to the hotel when the sandstorm hit with full force. Later other members of the group came back filled with a fine layer of sand. Every time the hotel doors were open, wind and sand blew in. Through the glass doors we could see the brown dust blowing and the shops were closing and vendors pulling their stuff off the streets. So we simply waited at the hotel lobby and the Hippo asked the classic million dollar unanswerable question "How long will the storm last?". Jonathan simply laughed at me. Peter said he wanted to go to the carpet store next door. It's just right next door to the hotel so I've decided to cover my head and venture out with him. I did find a 3X5 carpet that I liked, but the price was way too high and no amount of bartering would reduce to an amount I could afford. So I ended not buying but went to shop for scarves and ceramic instead in the few stores that were still open. The Abdullaziz Madrasa doors were closed. So there was no chance of going back there to buy the stuff I've seen in the morning. I was covered by sand by the time I came back to the hotel. At least I was able to purchase a few ceramic plates and scarves. I had my room window shut but the storm blew it wide open and my room was covered with fine sand. Ah well, we're in the desert after all.

miri arab mosque

Bukhara photos

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Silk Road Oasis city of Merv

Posted by Hippobean at 10:09 PM 0 comments
This morning we flew to Mary. We landed at the tailwind of a sand storm which completely covered the city in a haze. It was windy and sandy when we visited the Silk Road oasis city of Merv. Here the great Kiz Kala palace architecture was so unique and different with its vertical corrugated columns, I havent seen anything like it before. Everyone agreed this was the best archaeological site in Turkmenistan.

Later we drove to our soviet style hotel just outside of the city of Mary. Everything inside the room looked new and the room was enormous, with a full sitting area with sofas. However, the bed was still hard as a rock although the pillows this time were a little thicker. The bathroom too was enormous but the sink was small and the toilet literally sat on top of a throne. I had to climb up to this thing to shit. I saw a rechargeable flashlight on the desk and wonder if the electricity was unreliable here. I was lucky that everything worked in my room. Others the the group werent so lucky. Greg's room had electricity on one side of the room only, while others didnt have any at all. There's a sign in the room that said "Do not to use a white towel for the shoes we have a special sponge if you clean the white towel you must to pay for shit."

We chose to dine in the yurts at the back of the hotel, only there for tourists of course. The food wasnt any good nor enough and it was rather uncomfortable to sit with our legs crossed. But it was an experience.

the registan

Merv photos

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Ashgabat, city of white and gold

Posted by Hippobean at 11:49 PM 0 comments
Ashgabat was a big city with long wide boulevards and look much more modern than Tashkent. But soviet style again of course. oh and the apartment buildings were no longer the soviet cement blocks. Instead, they're artificial marble, standalone buildings that has 10 or more stories, with about 20 or more units each. Each was different in design but all were marble white with some color trims. Like their old soviet counterparts, they stood in a row, one after another, lined up. But they were gorgeous to look at. Their white superficial beauty blew the Hippo away. The Turkmenbashi's picture and statue were everywhere. An entire wing at the historical museum was dedicated to him. The president riding a horse, the president having a BBQ, the president playing golf, I just about had enough of seeing his face everywhere and I've only been there for 1 day.

I've wanted to know what the designs on the turkmen flag were. At the carpet museum, I've learned they represented the 5 distinct carpet designs from the 5 regions of the country. Here men and women wore their local hats and they were better looking than the ones in Uzbek. So I bought one too. The girl at the carpet museum wore hers with hair covering the sides and put in place with a pin. She was young, very good looking and looked very turkmen wearing that hat and the traditional costume. I found the turkmen girls the prettiest in all the stans. And I rather like their flag design and color and so during lunch time at the Russian bazaar I bought a turkmen flag. We had this gyro sandwich in flat bread that was so good.

The Independence Park had statues of the Turkmen heroes (omg so many of them statues) and the park was so big, again, it blew the Hippo away. Marble apartments were all around the park. This city is ginormous and everything the Turkmenbashi built was built to impress. The Hippo is shallow so I liked this city a lot. Unlike Uzbek, water is plentiful here, having the Kopet-Dag mountains, there were many fountains and golden statues. Ashgabat is indeed a city of white and gold.


Ashgabat photos

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