Heading Out

To state the obvious, it’s been a long time since I updated this blog. I didn’t even finish Uzbekistan, never mind covering South Korea and Japan, which is a pity because we visited Khiva after Bukhara and it was magical. Instead of thinking about travel I spent the last year or so dealing with medical issues, and made the depressing discovery that chronic pain leaves you with very little energy.

The good news is that I finally got a definite diagnosis (alas, a variant of rheumatoid arthritis) late last year and after some false starts am now on medication (Xeljanz) that has my symptoms under control. Yes! The bad news is that it works by suppressing my immune system, which makes me reluctant to travel.

But I am typing this while waiting to board a flight to London at the start of a six week trip. I’m planning to visit friends and family, and also take a look some new places, notably the Channel Islands. I am carrying a lot of antiseptic wipes, and a couple of small bottles of Purell. I’ve read that the most germ-ridden things you encounter when flying are the check-in screens and the TSA bins. Thanks to a friendly agent I avoided the first, and thanks to TSA Pre-check I avoided the latter. I have TSA Pre-check because I have Global Entry. It took a painful trip to DC last year for the ten minute interview, but I think it will be worth it.

For the DC trip, when I was taking OTC pills that didn’t help much, I had wheelchair assistance at both airports – the first time. This trip I can handle my departure airport, but I have asked for a wheel chair at Heathrow because it is usually such a long trek from the gate, not to memtion standing in line for immigration. I am also splurging for a car and driver to my first stop, as it is also a route march to the central bus station. I’ll be staying with my ekder sister for a few nights before taking the train to London for Open House.


Entrance to Khiva

Busy in Bukhara

I see that it has been over a year since the end of my tour in Uzbekistan, and three months since I posted here. Ever since I got back from Japan in November I have been dealing with health problems, but it seems we may finally be closing in on a diagnosis, and a combination of cortisone shot and prescription medication this week has worked a lot better than the OTC stuff I have been taking. It’s still not clear when (or if) I’ll be able to travel again, but besides the end of the Uzbekistan tour I still have South Korea and Japan to cover.
September 16-20, 2016: Like Samarkand, Bukhara was an ancient oasis city, and it was certainly a welcome oasis to the tour group after our night in the desert and the long bus ride. Our hotel, the Amelia, was also an oasis, easily the best of the tour, with elaborately decorated rooms and a roof terrace. The location was good, too, just a short walk from the pool in the center of the old town. Fringed by trees and cafes backed by historic buildings, with arcaded markets close by, the pool was a magnet. Finding a cafe nearby that made proper espressos was a welcome bonus.

Since we had two full days in Bukhara I was not best pleased to have most of the organized sightseeing crammed into one. We started at 8:30 and didn’t finish until the group dinner at 7:30, aside from lunch, and a break for coffee which I suspect was not on the usual schedule. Although Bukhara did not benefit from the attention Timur lavished on Samarkand, it has a full complement of interesting buildings and a number of craftsmen’s shops. After the Timurid dynasty was defeated in 1512 (sending Babur, the founder of the Moghul empire in India, into exile) Bukhara once again became the Uzbek capital.

Bukhara is infamous in Silk Road history as the city where the Emir Nasrullah (the “Butcher”) consigned the British Captains Stoddart and Conolly to a “bug pit” dug behind the fortress known as the Ark before executing them. The Ark in one form or another dates to the founding of the city, although first documented in the seventh century. The sixteenth century version suffered badly in a fire in 1920 during a Bolshevik attack, but a fair amount remains. We started our sightseeing there, although my notes describe the museums housed in the old buildings as “boring”. I found the Ismael Samani Mausoleum, with its intricate brickwork, more interesting. Nearby, the Kalon Mosque, the second-largest in Central Asia and Bukhara’s Friday mosque, was overshadowed by its impressive minaret. At 120 feet high it even managed to impress Chenggis Khan, who decreed that it should be spared the general destruction.

Lunch was at yet another “house” restaurant, featuring a thick local soup which also showed up at dinner, and the traditional plov. I was able to get a better photograph of this plov. In the afternoon we visited the Summer Palace, where I found the museum much more interesting – but then it featured plenty of costumes and textiles, specifically the heavily embroidered silk or cotton Suzani style for which the area is noted. The palace itself was built to impress (and keep the emir out of the way) after the Russians took over and was a gaudy mish-mash of styles.

We then went for a walk through the back streets, admiring some elaborate doors, before finishing a long day with some craft demonstrations, aka shopping ops, which I’ll save for the next post. Dinner featured a music and dance performance, this time with an adult dancer.

September 16-17, 2016: Reading the itinerary for the MIR tour, I figured the two days involving the Kyzyl Kum desert, a night in a yurt and a camel ride were the price I would pay for three days in Samarkand and Bukhara and for Khiva and the Ferghana Valley. I did make sure that the camel ride was optional, which was not clear from the detailed itinerary. I didn’t expect to enjoy those two days, and my expectations were met. So, what did I have against what MIR obviously thought should be highlights?

First, camels. I have ridden camels three times, and failed to enjoy the experience at least twice. The first time, over the (silent) “singing sands” outside Dunhuang in western China, the poles holding the ropes for the stirrups dug painfully into my thighs. The second, on the edge of the Sahara in Morocco, was somewhat more comfortable, but the third in Wadi Rum in Jordan lasted longer and I was soon eager for it to be over. That time it appeared that the camel was no keener on me than I was on him. You “board” a camel as it kneels on the ground, and then it gets to its feet in two stages. This camel got halfway up and then fell sideways, apparently hoping to fall on top of me. Fortunately I realized what was happening and threw myself off, and on the second attempt we made it all the way up. Since it turned out that the camel ride in Uzbekistan only involved fifteen minutes or so walking round the yurt camp I was happy to opt out.

I have also slept in yurts three times: at Heavenly Lake and Karakol in China, and in Mongolia. In each case the yurt failed to retain heat, and we were so cold at Karakol we skipped the second night by the lake in favor of warmth and hot water in Tashkurgan. MIR’s yurts were a superior version, if unlike those I had seen elsewhere. Instead of sleeping on benches round the perimeter, we slept on pads on the floor, and no heat escaped through a central hole in the roof. The facilities, however, were still primitive. I wouldn’t have minded so much except that we didn’t reach our next hotel, and hot water, until five in the afternoon.

Then, I have to confess I am not a fan of deserts, and the part of Kyzyl Kum we saw was mostly flat with low, scrub growth. The first time I crossed a desert, the formidable Taklamaklan in China, I was excited, but after a couple of hours boredom set in. True, if it is the right kind of desert sand dunes can offer some interest with changing light, but only for so long.
So, we had a long drive across not very interesting country to reach the yurt camp, where those who chose could take a brief ride on a camel. Those of us who chose not to ride passed the time watching a heroic dung beetle at work… The next morning we visited Lake Aidarkul, which was nice enough, but none of us wanted to swim and there was little shade. We had to stay until lunchtime as the yurt camp was providing food for a picnic. The we had another long drive before finally arriving at a wonderful B&B in Bukhara.

September 13-15, 2016: After the Registan, the Gur Emir, the Shah-i-Zinde and Shakhrisabze, you might think that we would have the rest of our three days in Samarkand free to wander around at our leisure. But no, MIR found still more for us to do. Admittedly, the afternoon they scheduled the Bibi Khanum Mosque and the bazaar I decided it was just too hot for sightseeing and retired to our air-conditioned hotel, but I went back out to see them after it cooled off a bit.
The Bibi Khanum Mosque was intended by Timur to be the largest mosque in the Islamic world, and was built to honor his favorite wife. Elephants brought marble from India, and architects came from India and Persia. It is far from the largest today, and started to decay soon after it was completed, but the decoration is still worth seeing, although some is recent restoration/reconstruction. Walking distance from our hotel, it was also conveniently close to the bazaar.

Timur’s grandson, Ulug Beg, was not responsible only for the initial buildings of the Registan. Interested as much in astrology as governing, he built an observatory, of which part of a meridian arc still remains. I must confess to finding the associated museum, which contains copies of Ulug Beg’s careful calculations, more interesting.

Aside from the bazaar, we also made a couple of other modern stops. One was at a shop of musical instruments, several of which the proprietor played for us. The second was a paper making operation, which combined a demonstration with a shopping op. Since I am tone deaf, and since I have seen paper made by hand several times – one of my few souvenirs is a beautiful dragon on hand-made paper from Bhutan – I found these stops less than compelling.

Unfortunately, I was also disappointed by the “cultural program of music and dance” we attended one evening. I was expecting a demonstration by adults, and instead the dances were performed by young children. I suspect I was the only one disappointed, as there was a great dealing of oohing and aahing about how cute the kids were. Well, they were cute, but as a demonstration it fell short. Only two boys, shorter than the girls, participated, there was no information on the history or location of the dances, and several, notably one similar to a paso doble, were too sophisticated for the children. Since this was the same day as the paper factory visit, and dinner was in a big restaurant filled with other tour groups, I finished the day wishing I was traveling independently. Still, overall Samarkand was a wonderful destination.
(I apologize for the quality of the photos, conditions were not ideal.)


September 15, 2016: One reason I had chosen the MIR tour was because it included a day trip to Shakhrisabze, Timur’s birthplace. It was a decision I was to regret, for several reasons. Shakhrisabze was just 50 miles from Samarkand, provided one drove the straight route through the mountains. But, as we had found on the way to the Fergana Valley, coaches were no longer allowed to drive those roads. Instead of using cars this time, we detoured around the mountains. Three and a half hours to get there: three and a half hours to return. Not only was this a long day on the coach, through not exactly awe inspiring country, it meant we arrived in the middle of the day. The light was terrible for photographs, and the temperatures were in the high 90s.

Then, the sights just didn’t live up to their billing. No doubt Timur’s White Palace was magnificent in its day, but there was very little of it left – just the admittedly tall twin entrance towers. A lot of landscaping was underway in the vicinity of the towers, but meanwhile the only shade was in the shadows of the towers themselves. After the towers we did visit the Kok-Gumboz mosque, but by that time all I wanted was some relief from the heat.

Based on my photographs, we stopped on the way to visit a carpet weaving operation, aka shopping op. We also ate a heavy lunch before heading home. This was the day four of us saw the Registan illuminated on the way to one of our few independent meals. We all enjoyed the Cafe Labig’or, where we dined on the upper terrace, working our way through the entirety of the brief menu: lamb kebabs, beef kebabs, “fried” chicken, tomato salad and beer. Part way through the meal, a group of locals took over the next table, and one young woman, who had spent time in the US, came over to talk to us. The evening was a major improvement over the day.

September 14, 2016: This was a very full day, but the stand out sight, even competing with the Registan, was the Shah-i-Zinda, a street – or sometimes staircase – of stunning mausoleums. The original site of Samarkand was Afrosiab, northeast of the present city, and Shah-i-Zinda climbs towards it. The oldest burial, according to legend, was that of Kussam-ibn-Abbas, the cousin of the Prophet Mohammed who first brought Islam to the area, and who was murdered by the local Zoroastrians in 676 CE. Any surrounding structures were razed by the Mongols, but Timur and his descendants continued the tradition of burying important relatives close by.

Many of the 14th and 15th century buildings were controversially renovated in 2005, although not all. Plaques in front of each mausoleum give the date of construction and information on the burials, where known. My Odyssey guidebook to Uzbekistan devotes two and a half pages to similar information, but I don’t think it’s really necessary for an appreciation of the site, except perhaps for the Kussam-ibn-Abbas mosque with its room for pilgrimage and the grave chamber holding a 1380 four-tier tombstone.

At the top of the narrow, crowded street was a cemetery with some more modern burials. The contrast between the profusion of color and decoration lavished on the Islamic mausoleums, and the stark Soviet era grave markers, was extreme. Unfortunately, we visited in the late morning, right before lunch, so the light was not the best for photographs.

September 13, 2017: If Samarkand was the “Center of the Universe” under Timur, the Registan was, and is, the center of the center. In Timur’s day it was a commercial center, with a covered bazaar, but his grandson, Ulug Beg, made it a religious and teaching center instead, with a madrassa to the west, a hospice for dervishes to the east, a caravanserai to the north and a mosque to the south. It is said that he taught astronomy in the madrassa, which had quarters for over 100 students.
Ulug Beg’s madrassa was built between 1417-1420, and two hundred years later it was the only one of the four buildings in good repair. The then governor of Samarkand, Yalangrush Bakhadur, removed the ruins and built two new madrassas on the west and north sides, Shir Dor and Tillya-Kori. The complex again fell into disrepair, with the buildings used to store grain, and was revived, surprisingly enough, by the Bolsheviks.

“Registan” means “sandy place”, and at one time it probably was. By the 2000s, however, photographs show a cleaned up square, although there are still bushes growing in front of the buildings. They had been removed by the time we visited, and nothing blocked the view of the facades, gleaming in the sunshine. In fact, there was rather too much sunshine when we visited as a group, and I went back later in the day for the evening light.

One might not guess, from all the photos of the facades, that once you enter the buildings you find interior courtyards ringed by more beautiful decoration. While souvenir sellers are scattered throughout all three buildings, they are not pushy, and don’t detract from the experience. We were fortunate that there were few other tourists sharing the place with us. Abdu said that the road to Samarkand was currently closed, perhaps because deceased President Karimov had recently been buried in town, and delegations were still visiting the tomb.

While I spent hours admiring the three madrassas, I could easily have spent days. I, along with three other people from the tour, did get an unexpected bonus two days later. It was a rare day when we were on our own for dinner. We had returned from a hot, exhausting, and not very satisfactory expedition to Shakhrisabz and Abdu’s suggestions for where to eat started with picking up snacks at a convenience store, moved on to eating in the hotel’s restaurant (which we had done the night before), and finished with calling out for pizza! When pressed he came up with a cafe that was about to close and a restaurant opposite the Registan.

After consulting Lonely Planet, I suggested another, more interesting sounding restaurant also opposite the Registan, and the four of us set off, passing the Registan on foot (the others wound up eating pizza as the hotel’s restaurant was closed). Now, Abdu had mentioned that the Registan was illuminated at night, but when we had passed it in the coach the lighting hadn’t looked very interesting. By sheer luck, we arrived just as the light show started, and it was absolutely magical. The fact the only four of us saw it is, in my mind, a big black mark against MIR. Since I wasn’t expecting to take photos I only had my smart phone with me, but I got a few shots even so. They don’t do it justice, but then the daylight shots don’t either. Like the Taj Mahal, this is a place that repays the effort of visiting in person.