A Travellerspoint blog

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Wonders of the Silk Road

Samarkand and Bukhara are both very much the epitome of the Silk Road. Less famous, but impressive as well is Shahrisabz, the birthplace of Tamerlane, tugged in between its well-known neighbors.

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All but destroyed by Genghis Khan in 1220 nothing in Central Asia from before the Mongol’s rampage remained standing. A shame since places like Bukhara had long been beautiful centres of Islamic leaning and science.
On 9 April 1336 another of the World’s big conqueror was born in Shahrisabz: Amir Timur (aka. Tamerlane). He chose Samarkand as his empire’s capital, but never forgot this birth town or the proud history of Bukhara. By 1395 Central Asia, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, the Caucasus, and northern India where within Tamerlane rule, while Egypt, Eastern China and parts of Russia paid heavy tributes to avoid obviation. A ruthless conqueror hundreds of thousands – if not millions – where slaughtered in the process, but a religious patron of art and architecture his homeland was plastered with impressive, blue-domed mosques, mausoleums and khanakas (travellers’ and pilgrims’ hospices).
Below are some of the most impressive 'left-overs' from the Timurid rule. See all the Uzbek pictures here.

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In today's Uzbekistan is Tamerlane seen as a national hero - if not the nation’s founder (historically incorrect). Thus he is only seen as the great states man, who left the country with countless blue-domed monuments. Even the national museum conveniently forgets the scull-stacking campaigns of conquer; let alone the government who have erected countless statues of him around the country. Here in his birth town, in front of his most ambitious project, the huge Ak-Saray Palace. What is left stands 40m high, was 24 years in the making and build by foreign artisans 'imported' during his campaigns.

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The other grand left-over is the grand Kok-Gumbaz Mosque. Slowly being renovated to its former glory. Towering over Shahrisabz main street it's impossible not to notice - and maybe that's the whole point. Just behind it lays the crypt where Tamerlane was supposed to be buried. He never made it here, but lies in a mausoleum in Samarkand (see below). The crypt (pictures in the link above) is normally locked, but is just one of the locked doors in Uzbekistan you can get opened if you tip the key-bearer. Finding the person holding the key is often a much bigger challenge. In this case it was the local imam...

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Talking about it, let’s jump to Tamerlanes actual grave site in Samarkand: Named Gur-e-Amir (Grave of Amir) Tamerlane is buried under the black marble stone in the middle. In the Islamic world the crypt are just markers - like Christian grave stone - while the actual bodies are in chambers below. Around the black stone of Tamerlane lies some of his sons and teachers.

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Gur-e-Amir seen from the outside: The blue domes are very typical for this architecture, but the tilted stone work is really amazing! The entry portal is decorated with suns and it's worth noticing the perfect spirals running up and down the minarets!
A Soviet anthropologist opened the crypt and removed the bodies in 1941, ignoring the warning on the crypt saying: Whoever opens this will be defeated by an enemy greater than I'. The next day, 22 June, Hitler attacked the Soviet Union.

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The most famous of all Uzbekistan's (and the Silk Road's) monuments is The Registan: Three madrassas build around the main square. Registan means 'Sandy Place' and while the place without a doubt must have been fantastic at Tamerlane's time when a bazaar filled the square I kind of find it overrated now. Of course it's an overload of beauty, but more impressive Timurid buildings are found elsewhere, combined with a big road running just behind the photographer (that would be me).

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Most impressive is The Registan at sunrise. Unfortunately I did need to bribe your way in. That did cost me seven dollars, opening the whole place up to my alone. It included access to the upper levels and even a trip up to the top of the 35m minarets. Unfortunately is only one of the madrassas bathed in morning sun. The Ulugbek Madrassa named and builds by Tamerlane's grandson; it's the most impressive of the three.

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While Samarkand might be a tad to modern and touristic, with the monument spread out throughout the city Bukhara's new and old towns have been kept apart. This treats the visitor to an experience where no matter what small, car-free street you step down at there will be some amazing, not fully restored marvel to behold. This effectively giving off an impressing of stepping back in time, to a point not too long after the last rules of the Timurid era passed away. Above is the old town's skyline.

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Full of pools and channels used for washing and bathing (and to carry the plague) Bukhara is a tranquil and pleasant place to visit. Here is the Nadir Divanbegi Khanaka (traveller’s hospice) at the central square/pool of Lyabi-Hauz (Tajik for 'around the pool'). Sipping tea while playing backgammon or chess with the old white-bearded Uzbeks are something I'll never grow tired at - if I was a better loser that is...

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The most famous of Bukhara's sights is the Kalon Mosque and Minaret. Build in 1127, before the Mongol raid, Genghis Khan was so impressed by the 47m high minaret that he ordered it spared. The was, however, destroyed, which explaining the lack of Tamerlane’s favourite blue colour on the minaret. It was the only locked door I didn't manage to buy my way into and I - like everybody else - only had the outside view of it.

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Probably the oldest monument in Bukhara, I randomly walked into the Turki Jandi Mausoleum while exploring some back alleys. Legends, or so told the chatty gatekeeper me, has it that this place was the most holy of burials and that corpses have been stacked 30 meters deep under the mausoleum. Thus making this one of the world’s biggest voluntarily made mass graves.

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Olimjon Khanaka was another amazing sight that I just stumbled upon. Still in use as both living-quarters and workshops I met both a kid decorating silver plates by hand and an old dutar maker (a dutar is a three string traditional guitar), and pictures of both can be found in the initial link.

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Lastly a picture detailing the Islamic art used in the Timurid ear architecture: Here from Bibi-Khanym Mosque in Samarkand.

Posted by askgudmundsen 07:29 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged pictures bukhara samarkand amir_timur timerlane shahrisabz Comments (0)

Skol’ka? or How Much is it?

Central Asia isn’t only full of Silk Road history. Many of the traditions have stuck and in the home of history’s greatest trading network are most prices negotiable. This rarely is to the foreigner’s advantage…

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The main parts of the Silk Road ran through what is now Uzbekistan, and even today are the bazaars of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan full of Uzbek traders.
Traditions are important in Central Asia, not only in trade, but in life, and especially one tradition, dating to the days of Silk Road trade have stuck, much to my and other traveller’s frustration:

Silk Road traders

Silk Road traders

In the days of the Silk Road, nobody actually travelled the whole way between China and Constantinople/Levant. Instead the caravans would travel between cities or regions and the merchants would sell eastern goods (like silk or paper) and buy western goods (like fur or coloured glass) in the west and vice versa in the east.
Around most cities in route bazaaris (people at the bazaar) would act as middlemen, handling the transaction. Business depended on the foreign merchant not knowing local prices in order to make a profit. Thus was it – and still is – considered ‘bad luck’ if a local had to pay or charge a foreigner the same as the other locals.
Today we travellers know this concept as ‘tourist prices’ and we figure that locals are trying to pump ridiculous amounts of money from us just because they think we’re stinking rich tourist. It is a very egocentric explanation, but I wouldn’t hold back if I was a trader and some European offered close-to-western prices for local products.
The truth is probably somewhere in between the exotic tradition and the paranoid accusation, but one thing is sure: You need to be extraordinary sharp not to get hustled!

Remember: It's a buyer's market

Remember: It's a buyer's market

Taxi-drivers are notorious all over the world and in bazaars and markets are even the locals negotiating. But here in Central Asia do they take it to a whole new level: Entry fees to sites and museums, bottled water even bus tickets. Basically everything not sold in a westernised shopping centre or specialised store has a negotiable price. And Uzbekistan is the most extreme of the bunch.
There’s countless of advice on how to shop at bazaars and other places where prices can be pushed down. Instead I’ll concentrate my energy on the shared taxis and minibuses in charge of intercity transportation. The normal advice is to negotiate a price before getting in the car, but I couldn’t disagree more!

A happy, well payed, driver

A happy, well payed, driver

That is unless you know the exact fare. Then don’t even begin to negotiate. Just tell the driver the right price – firmly and with loads of confidence. Or even better: write your destination down in the local script (i.e. Cyrillic for Central Asia) and the price. Since no one expects you to write local, he’ll think some already told the real price. This is usually much amusing for the other drivers hanging about, as their colleague fails to score extra. However this only works if you actually know the right price.
If not, both shared taxis and marshutkas (minibuses) have other – local – passengers who know the right prices. Negotiate before getting into the car you’ll be stuck on that price long before you have a change to chat with the other people in the car. And trust me, have you first agreed on a price, the driver will make sure the other passengers pay him out of your sight so you don’t have a change to see just how much more you are paying. Instead I just get in!

If the driver starts asking: “Skol’ka?” meaning ‘How much?’ I usually shrug my shoulders, point to the other seats in the car or start to talk about something different. I never actually start to negotiate.
Instead I stall and wait for the car to fill up. At some point, when the driver is away (getting petrol, finding passengers or buying cigarettes) I’ll get the change to ask my fellow passengers how much they are paying.
Then comes the tricky part: After the drive everybody in the car will know I’m a foreigner and a tourist – trust me, it comes up as a conversation starter rather quickly. Only thing to do is to hand over the same amount of money as the others have told you they are paying with extreme confidence when the ride is over.

Fellow passengers roadside shopping

Fellow passengers roadside shopping

Make sure your luggage is out of the trunk before handing over the money and begin telling everybody goodbye so you can leave without looking like running away. This has actually only worked fully for me once. As soon as the driver realizes you’re paying the normal fare, spraying bad luck on him in your wake he’ll call you back, and he’ll probably be upset.
First, and best, tactic is then to play the ‘stupid tourist’ card. I usually put on my best, what’s-the-problem face and I-just-paid-the-same-as-everybody-else attitude. This usually works best if there are some third-party locals around, like hotel staff or other drivers who can tell the diver he can’t win every time.

If the ‘stupid tourist’ doesn’t work ‘the getting-laud-and-angry-about-being-overpriced’ usually does the trick in bringing bystanders attention to the scene. This will, however, lose me much sympathy amongst the bystanders who then becomes more interested in sorting out the argument between me and the driver. Most of the second scenarios ends in me paying something extra, but still considerably less if I had started a negotiation where I had been blindsided from the beginning.
I obviously don’t manage to win every time, but paying the local fare for just half of my riders are much better than what I hear from most other travellers I meet here…

*This blog might be based slightly more on tales and legends than on historical facts.

Posted by askgudmundsen 11:16 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged taxi transportation cost negotiation central_asia Comments (0)

Aral Sea Visit

From trespassing adventures to heartbreakingly reality.

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Abandon Factory Building

Abandon Factory Building

After I had been looking for an entry to the old factory buildings for almost an hour, I finally found a small window frame without too much broken glass around it. Less than half a meter across and about two meters above the ground it wasn’t the easiest entry I’ve ever done. But then again people aren’t really supposed to enter the factory which got abandoned and bolted shut more than 30 years ago.

Old Truck Rusting Away

Old Truck Rusting Away

The fish factory was shut down in the late 80’s after the Soviet Union had reversed the rivers flowing into the Aral Sea in an ill-advised farming-scheme. The consequences for the sea and the people living and working at its shores were a catastrophe. The Aral Sea has all but disappeared into two small lakes; the North Aral Sea (which might be saved) and the South Aral Sea (totally doomed).
All 60.000 people working at the shore and on the sea, except a few handfuls, have left to find jobs elsewhere, thus transformed the mayor ports of Aralsk in Kazakhstan and Moynaq in Uzbekistan virtually to ghost towns. Leaving a couple of big factories falling apart with most of their machinery just rusting away in the process.
Buildings like that are found all over the former Soviet Union and most are accessible to go peek around in – but this particular fish canning factory had been barricaded good, with its doors locked and the windows blocked. All but this small window two meters above the ground.

Fish Cans & Uniform

Fish Cans & Uniform

Actually getting in was a blast. Everything from machinery, over old cans and medical supplies to working clothes – including a few piles of hundreds and hundreds of white uniform buttons – had been left behind under a thick layer of dust.

Ships Left to Rust

Ships Left to Rust

Shamelessly it was so much fun poking around that the stark reality of this place drowned in the excitement of this trespassing adventure. And I had, for a few hours, no recollection of lost jobs, destroyed economies or human misery. Luckily, for my karma and consciousness, this all changed dramatically at Moynaq’s other ‘tourist attracting’. Eleven rusting boats lined up on what used to be the seabed beneath a monument.

Ship Graveyard Sunrise

Ship Graveyard Sunrise

As if to emphasise the catastrophe, the monument had been on a high cliff from where the view stretched for kilometre after kilometre. But no longer over the Aral Sea – all the way to the horizon is now nothing but desert. Lifeless sandy, salty gravel and some hardy bushes is all what is left of what not only used to be a natural phenomenon, but also tens of thousands of people’s homes, jobs and lives disappeared, all on the account of a stupid farming scheme to crow cotton…

Posted by askgudmundsen 04:53 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged ships abandoned aral_sea ship_graveyard moynaq trespassing Comments (0)

Border Troubles pt. I

What do you do when one of the world’s worst police states issues you a visa with the wrong entry- and exit points and the wrong dates? I go forward full throttle hoping for the best!

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Flag to Turkmenistan

Flag to Turkmenistan

What do you do when one of the world’s worst police states issues you a visa with the wrong entry- and exit points and the wrong dates?
Ask for a new visa? Not when the last train for the next 48 hours leave in 50 minutes, the process takes two weeks and the visa to the country you’re currently in expires in four days.
Others might just accept and adapt, but not yours (stubborn) truly. So I took a quick decision, jumped on the train and continued full throttle forward while hoping for the best!

Turkmenistan is rated second to last on the Free Press Index – only better than North Korea. Of 60+ countries I’ve visited it’s also the one with the toughest visa rules, the biggest police presence and the most rigid photo rules (basically no photos anywhere not a World Heritage Site). So what could possibly go wrong, when I completely ignore all their visa restrictions…

Turkmennistan's Ministry of Fairness

Turkmennistan's Ministry of Fairness

But to start from the beginning: A Turkmen transit visa states the entry- and exit point I must use, and as any good bureaucrat the consul in Uzbekistan had given me the shortest path between Uzbekistan and Iran. I, as a good traveller, on the other hand wanted to go the long way to see the most.
A whole other problem was that my transit visa expires two days before my Iranian visa begins. But I’ll worry about that in part two of this blog…

The plan of attack for getting in to the country at the wrong border post was this:

Turkmen Border Post

Turkmen Border Post

Step one: Team up with, and stay right behind, a girl from Singapore who got the correct entry point and hope the Uzbek border police only scrutinize her visa before giving us our exit-stamps.
Step two: With the exit-stamp and no double- or multi entry visa to Uzbekistan I’m trapped in no man’s land, which will then force the Turkmen border police to either let me through or arrest and deport me.
Step three: Hope that the Turkmen border police don’t arrest and deport me!

Step one and two worked like a charm. Staying right behind Shanaz, my newest travel companion, the Uzbek border guards check her Turkmen visa and did nothing more than glance at mine. Eventually they were a lot more interested in our registration slips (which are a whole other story).

Shanaz waiting for the bus

Shanaz waiting for the bus

Step three took a couple of hours. It started with a long lesson in how the system works and why it must be followed. I played the usual stupid tourist (a role I have had a lot of practice in) and was both very surprised about having a wrong entry point, and sorry for all the troubles I was causing. Shanaz played her part just a beautifully, though her concern about the whole thing was a bit more real than mine. Towards the end my biggest problem was hiding my grin and not enjoying the entire thing too obviously.
Surprisingly it ended with an apology for all the Turkmen rules and control, and the border officer was very relieved when we told him that we understood he was just doing his job. Even more surprisingly I didn’t have to pay neither a fine nor a bribe to be let in!
All we had to do was to promise that we would go straight back towards our assigned route and not anywhere else, for example to Konye-Urgench (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Something we told him we couldn’t dream of after all this trouble. Of cause, the first thing we actually did (right after lunch) was to take a bus to Konye-Urgench…

Haven gotten into Turkmenistan I just need to figure out how to get out, since my Turkmen exit date and Iranian entry date are two days apart. Turkmen transit visa dates are absolutely final and no amount of acting or bribing could change that. So I’m currently down to three alternatives:

Towards the Unknown

Towards the Unknown

1) Stash up on food, exit Turkmenistan and be prepared to stay in no man’s land to two days. Maybe the Iranians can arrest me and provide a bed or I can hope they will have pity on me and let me in two days early.
2) Overstay my Turkmen visa for two days. Which should result in a 400$ (2x200$) fine and a ban from entering the country for the next five years (now that would be a cool stamp in my passport) and hope they let me out instead of an official arrest and deportation (back to Denmark on my own expense).
3) Try to exit at a wrong border post, leaving not for Iran but for Afghanistan’s Herat region hoping not to be kidnapped or blown up.
I’ll let you know how it goes…

Posted by askgudmundsen 09:00 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged visa border problem entry points exit troubles turmenistan Comments (0)

The Gate to Hell and rest of Turkmenistan!

A burning gas crater, a capital built in marble and gold and a couple of ancient Silk Road cities make ‘the North Korea of Central Asia’ a surprisingly interesting stop.

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What kind of weird bunny is this little known country then?

Welcome to Turkmenistan

Welcome to Turkmenistan

Beginning with all the negatives: Turkmenistan is a police state above anything else with each public building is guarded by at least three strict officers. Second to last on the Press Freedom Index, anyone working in media, human rights or political organisations will be flatly denied a visa and everybody else must be accompanied by a state approved guide for the entire stay.
This being unacceptable for the responsible independent traveller most opts for a five day transit visa and so did I and fellow traveller, Shenaz. This brought with it a tour de force of fascinating and weird sights alike. Turkmenistan is truly a bizarre, bizarre destination!

Calendar Dome of Turabeg Khanym

Calendar Dome of Turabeg Khanym

The first day was spent at the former Silk Road stop Konye-Urgench. All but destroyed by both the Mongols (who drowned the last defenders by diverting a nearby river) and Tamerlane little are left standing. Most impressive is the Turabeg Khanym, its dome mosaic divided into 365 sections for the days of the year; 24 arches underneath for the hours of the day; 12 bigger arches for the months of the year; and four large windows representing the seasons. All from the 12th century before Europe knew anything about…well… anything.

Further south, in the Karakum Desert, is the most impressive, if bizarre sight in the whole of Central Asia: The burning Darvaza Gas Crater. It surely is unique!

The Gate to Hell

The Gate to Hell

When Soviet engineers put the crater on fire in 1971 – in an effort to get to the oil underneath – they expected it to burn out in a matter of days. Here 42 years later is it still burning and does not show any signs of demise. At with a debt well beyond 25m and a diameter of 70m this place as earned its nickname well: The Gate to Hell.

Sunrise over the Gate to Hell

Sunrise over the Gate to Hell

The only way to the crater is in a 4-wheel drive, but as the crater is best perceived at night the car doubles well for what little sleeping we did on that night. Fascinated this impressive monster of this burning hole there wasn’t much sleep to be had, especially not when the desert sunrise added romance to the fire.

It doesn’t get less bizarre in Turkmenistan’s capital, Ashgabat, some 300km away. The city has been entirely rebuilt in marble palaces with gold domes. Everything including hotels and ministries – even bus stops and a puppet theatre – have had a marble remake though the gold is reserved to

Marble Bus Stop

Marble Bus Stop

government buildings only… Also of marble is the 93m high ‘Arch of Neutrality’ topped by a 12m gold statue of the former president. Back when he was still alive the statue would rotate so he always faced the sun!
These buildings are – together with some huge boulevards – off limit to anybody not working there and even the universities (and the puppet theatre) are watched over by both police and military that make sure that by passers don’t walk the wrong way around a statue, take pictures or linger more than a few seconds in front of any building.

The Arch of Neutrality

The Arch of Neutrality

Honestly we stood still in front of a marble palace for a few seconds to consult a map and were angrily waved on by both a policeman and a soldier. In contradicting directions resulting in a rather hilarious scene where the policeman waved us towards the soldier who then waved us back towards the policeman.

Marble Palaces: Ministry of Fairness

Marble Palaces: Ministry of Fairness

The both finally waved us down an otherwise clearly off limit road, and for 1 km we had a six lane, car free boulevard and about 15 marble palaces for ourselves.
Fuel and any kind of transportation is heavily subsidised by the regime. A cross country flight will set you back no more than 30$ while the seven hour night train we took was only 4$ – and we splurged big time, riding first class!
Last stop was the ancient city of Marv, another Heritage Silk Road sight. Covering more than 25 square km the Soviets laid paved roads through the site, a rather dire move by archaeological standards, but useful for the visitors.

What's left of Merv

What's left of Merv

Already a major settlement when Alexander the Great conquered it in the 6th century BC, Marv rivalled Damascus, Bagdad and Cairo in the first millennia AD and is thought to be the inspiration for the legendary 1001 Nights. By 1218 Genghis Khan demanded a substantial grain tax from the city along with a pick of the most beautiful young women. The unwise rules responded by killing the tax collectors bringing the Khan’s anger down upon the city. His army showed up in 1221, accepted a peaceful surrender from the terrified citizens before slaughtering every last one of them – an estimated 300.000.

Yet Another Niyazov Statue

Yet Another Niyazov Statue

Turkmenistan is an awesome weird and fascination destination – and I haven’t even begun to tell you about the insane personality cult of both the current and former dictators, how the names of the months and the days have been changed numerous times, the 20$ fine you get for a dirty car, the artificial rivers, lakes and resorts, the dinosaur footprints, the funny-looking horses or all the other insane stuff going on here!

Next up is part two of my border troubles…

Posted by askgudmundsen 03:01 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged marble turkmenistan konye-urgench merv ashgabat darvaza gate_to_hell gas_crater Comments (0)

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