Reflections on Central Asia


Lucy

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We entered the ‘Stans with high hopes to see beautiful mosques, rugs, architecture and eat interesting foods. We had been studying the Silk Road so we knew about the history. I was hoping to see some camels laden with goods trekking across the desert. I would have loved to see it in its former glory with merchants bargaining in the markets and buying jade, silk, turquoise and carpets. It’s called the Silk Road because that was the thing mostly traded with China. We saw some caravanasis where they stayed at night and yurts the official houses of the travelling nomads. 

Mummy bought some blue tiles, just like they had on the buildings. They were very pretty, I liked bargaining like a real merchant. 

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We went to a tea shop where they served nuts, raisins, sweets and tea. I loved the solid crystals of sugar they crunched with a sweet delicious flavour in my mouth.

To leave Central Asia we had to cross the sea, I was sad to leave but I always knew we would have new adventures in the next place. 

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Alisha 

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From mountains in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to mausoleums in Uzbekistan and deserts in Kazakstan. Central Asia is a riot of culture and traditions that are mixed into their modern lives you see herders with cell phones, yurts with satellite dishes and ancient mosques with security cameras. 

I enjoyed Kyrgyzstan because it was a nice cool place with mountains and difficult roads and just the sort of place strange people like us like to hang out. Tajikistan was much the same, it was funny being a stone’s throw from Afghanistan (well a daddy’s stone throw I didn’t quite make it). If I had to think of one word to describe Uzbekistan it would be HOT in the truck once it hit 54 degrees. If you want to feel 54 degrees then go into the hottest sauna ever and times the heat by a 100. If you haven’t got a sauna then book a flight to Uzbekistan. Kazakstan wasn’t so hot which was a relief but it was boring, landscape-wise, at least the bit we traveled through if you show me a picture of a bit we traveled through and a bit we didn’t I wouldn’t of been able to tell the difference. 

In Uzbekistan I saw a few too many mosques, they where all blue-tiled and had a dome if you seen ten you’ve seen them all there is absolutely no need to see five million more. 

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Gilly

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Melons are everywhere in Central Asia. Delicious and refreshing and piled up high on every street corner. Flat light bread still warm from the tandoor oven and mutton kebabs, served with salads made for delicious meals, with melon, of course, for desert. The ‘Stans’ shared Russian heritage made Steve and I nostalgic for our time in Moscow. While I will never enjoy dill liberally sprinkled on every single meal, we did search out some of our old favourite foods. Steve and Alisha embarked on a multinational search for authentic pelmeni (steamed meat dumplings), a mutual passion after sharing many a bowlful when Alisha was little. 

Although there is a lot to choose from, I thing for me the highlight was the Pamirs and the Wakhan Valley. Dramatic scenery; snow capped peaks; uninhabited wilderness; right next to a fascinating rogue state (which sadly I am never likely to visit); swollen rivers of snowmelt; and challenging roads made it an unforgettable part of the adventure. 

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Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan: Samarkand; Bukhara and Khiva all enthralled us with their historical significance and amazing architecture. Whilst I couldn’t get enough of turquoise domes and blue tiled arched entrance ways, I could have done without the 45°C heatwave we had whilst we were there. 

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An unexpected perk of the need to register in a hotel for most of your nights in Uzbekistan (something that was never checked when we left) was meeting other travellers. Since trekking in Nepal, we have met very few other travellers and no other overlanders. Central Asia in the summer is quite popular with independent travellers, motorcyclists and especially long distance cyclists. It was also great to hangout with another overlanding family, our first since Africa, in Samarkand. It was also fun to pair up across the desert with Cate and Michael. At least with the catalogue of minor mechanical problems both the truck and Cate’s bike had were easily fixed with many hands. 

Steve

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There was a lot of diversity in Central Asia; from the mountains to the desert, from the cold to the heat, from the unusual to the familiar. After living in Russia many things seemed comfortingly familiar and yet there were also some striking differences. The people were warm and friendly and yet we managed to enjoy lots of time in solitude in beautiful settings.

Kyrgyzstan was so green after the starkness of Xinjiang in China. Everywhere we went there was green meadows with running rivers and often the nomads with their yurts and horses camped for the summer. Tajikistan was more stark and rugged but the Pamir Highway and Wakhan corridor were barrenly beautiful with a raging river and pockets of green between it and Afghanistan. Uzbekistan was all about the ancient Silk Road cities. Whilst these have now been spruced up for tourism and at times felt a little soulless there is no denying the eye catching timeless beauty of the monuments. Even in the baking heat we just had to go out and see them again and again.

We did not see a lot of Kazakhstan, mainly desert, but got to to camp there with new friends which was wonderful and saw some amazing sunsets. It was slightly surreal arriving at the Caspian Sea, an oil town and beach resort all rolled into one but one which allowed us a welcome break before the ferry crossing across the Caspian Sea.

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Central Asia is a beautiful area of the world rich in diversity. We have met many more overlanders and long term travellers here than in other parts of Asia but it is still largely untouched by mass tourism and you really can get away from it all into areas of natural beauty.

Green and Pleasant Land

The roar of the river as the white water crashed down the mountainside almost kept us awake, we had to shut the windows on one side of the truck to keep the noise to a manageable level. As we looked out of those windows though we could see green meadows covering the hills and further up snow still lay on the mountain tops.

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This description could cover a number of our camping spots here in Kyrgyzstan over the last week. Wild camping is easy and each night we found a beautiful spot to set up camp. It’s been good to get back into camping wild and cooking outside again.


We needed to head back to Bishkek however, to pick up our Uzbekistan visas. Mind you this didn’t mean we had to stay in Bishkek. Just south of the city and only 30kms from the Uzbek Embassy, was a National Park preserving a lovely valley leading up into the mountains. This meant we could camp up in the hills and head down into the city to pick up our visas and get some other jobs done.

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Once in Bishkek after collecting the visas we thought it would be remiss not to see the sights of the city. Not that there really are that many sights. Kyrgyzstan is much more about its natural beauty than the beauty of its towns and cities. Still the Lonely Planet described the main square as being architecturally “neo-brutalist in style”. Intrigued as to what this meant we headed there. In reality, I would describe it as more classical Soviet. Apart from the square and the obligatory statue of Lenin, now tucked away in a back park, there was not a lot to see but it was a pleasant enough city to while away a few hours.




As we enjoyed dinner of shashlik (kebabs) and pelmeni in the gardens of a tea house, Gilly and I were reminiscing just how familiar everything felt in a comforting way and how so much reminded us of our time living in Moscow. Bishkek was very different to Moscow and in fact reminded me more of Almaty but the language, customs and food were familiar. Unfortunately the GAI (traffic police) were also just as familiar, sitting extorting bribes from the passing traffic in lieu of issuing tickets but other than this we were really enjoying our time in Kyrgyzstan.


After dinner we headed back out to the hills. It was amazing how quickly the big city melted away to be replaced by small villages and then the mountains. The next morning we thought we would get a bit closer to the mountains so hiked up the valley to a waterfall. It was a pleasant walk with lovely views along the way. Being much lower than the Tibetan plateau we were amazed at just how green everything was.



We have still had to drive some fair distances. When looking at a map it may not seem far between places but because of all the mountain ranges the road skirts round it ends up been a fair old drive. Heading out of Bishkek we headed back up into the mountains. As we climbed we could see more and more of the nomadic people with their yurts and horses near the side of the road. There was lush green pasture along the road to feed the horses and the people were busy selling fermented mares milk and other such things to the passing traffic.

As we reached the top of one mountain range the road entered a tunnel. It was the darkest, murkiest tunnel we have been in and has seen people asphyxiated in the past. It was a relief to come out of the gloom to more stunning views.
That night we made camp on a hilltop overlooking a reservoir. As usual we had the place to ourselves and could enjoy the view in peace.


Leaving the reservoir we travelled along a spectacular gorge. All along the way we could see great places to camp by the water but we decided to push on. As we did the topography changed and we had entered the flat arable land close to the Uzbek border. The people here were closer to the Uzbeks and it had a much more Central Asian feel. It had also got hot now we were in the lowlands.  


We turned off the main road and headed up a valley. All along the road people were selling fruit and vegetables. We again found a lovely spot by a rushing river to camp. It was a wide grassy spot that had been cut out of the mountainside by the water that came from the mountains and made a great spot to camp. The only disturbance was the odd lorry picking up stones from the river bed.

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The next morning we headed into Arslanbob. The village is famous for supposedly having the worlds largest walnut grove. It’s a traditional Kirghiz village in a lovely setting with the mountains towering behind it. It is supposedly a tourist hotspot but we didn’t see another tourist all day. Mind you there were lots of locals around heading to the nearby waterfalls which had the atmosphere of a local fair. They were packed. Whilst we too ended up at the small waterfalls, which were not that special, we had instead enjoyed a much more pleasant walk around the village and down the country lanes. Excited children wanted to say hello and have us take their photos.



We returned for a late lunch and stopped at the local cafe. The menu was samsa ( a lamb mince and onion pasty) or ……samsa. So we had samsa with a pot of green tea. A bargain at $3 for all of us. Whilst the village was nice we decided to return to our riverside spot to enjoy the peace and quiet. Or at least so we thought. We were settled in for the night and eating dinner when first a herd of cows were brought down to the pasture followed by 300 sheep. The friendly herders came over for a chat and through our bad Russian we were able to learn that they were taking the animals up to the snow line to feed on the fresh grass. It was nice to meet and talk to some genuine nomads.


The following day was a long days driving. First to Osh to stock up with provisions. As again there was nothing to really see in town we decided it was not worth stopping and so headed out of town and back up into the high mountains. As we left Osh we started to climb into the hills again passing herders herding their sheep to the higher pastures for the summer. When we left Osh it was 38 degrees, by the time we reached our camping spot overlooking the mighty Pamirs it had dropped to 16 degrees. Mind you we were now at 3,300m.



Next we would be heading to Tajikistan and the Pamir Highway.

Welcome to Kyrgyzstan 

Alisha spent the first three years of her life in Russia. Almost every day during that time I was told by some kindly soul to “Make sure that child is properly wrapped up,” irrespective of the actual weather. It is a national obsession, very understandable given the climate, and everyone from Babushkas (grannies) in the park to the scary looking security guards of our apartment had an opinion. Poor child, even if she couldn’t actually move for the number of layers, it was never enough. It felt comfortably familiar then when the first thing I heard in Russian on our entry into Kyrgyzstan, our first country in Central Asia, was “Make sure those children are well wrapped up,” from the huge, warmly camouflage-clad Kyrgyz border guard. I smiled at its familiarity, even after all these years. .

Leaving Kashgar many hours earlier, we knew we would have a hell of a day getting out of China. It was the waiting that was frustrating, even with an almost empty border post and a guide, everything took an age and had to be checked and double checked. It was when we got to the second border post, nearly 100km for the first and learnt that the border guards were on their lunch and nap break. 2 hours later they were still snoozing away, while we slowly went crazy. What are they soldiers or toddlers?! It’s not like the border is open 24 hours, they had only been open a few hours before and for 2 hours after. 

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Coming down from the the pass, the scenery couldn’t have been more different from the dry sandy cliffs on the other side with green, gently undulating, mountains. The Kyrgyz border, although scarily slightly soviet looking, couldn’t have been easier. With no town for many miles and lots of leftover Chinese Yuan, they even let Steve pay the Eco-tax in Yuan. Asking around the office, they let him change a bit more knowing we would need some before Bishkek “…because it is Ramadan and we want to help.” 

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It was getting late when we pulled off the main road a 17km detour up a narrow green valley to Tash Raban. A 15th century caravanasi built strongly of stone in what is now the middle of nowhere but during the Silk Road’s heyday an important stop. It felt wonderful to park up where we wanted to and sleep somewhere without needing permission and registration from the police.


It was a long drive the following day to Bishkek, we enjoying the vistas of snow capped peaks with rolling green hills in front, dotted with yurts. 

“What do you want to eat for tea?” We asked the girls in town. 

“Chips, burgers or pizza.” Was the instant reply. 

We all enjoyed the food in China and by the end even eating our breakfast roasted peanuts individually very easily with chopsticks but they were ready for a change. The multinationals haven’t made it to Bishkek but we found a classy burger cafe, where we all ate royally for a few dollars. The following morning we put our applications in at the Uzbek embassy. As they didn’t need the passports we were then free to do some exploring while they checked out our credentials. 
Lake Issyk-Köl is the second biggest alpine lake in the world, after Lake Titicaca. On the southern side we found an idillic camping spot just metres away from its chilly azure shoreline with snow covered mountains as a background on both sides. It was great to have a few days to stop, relax and sort everything out. There was plenty of time to play outside, cook over a fire and generally get back into the swing of our “normal” overlanding life. China and Tibet were an epic part of our drive around the world but it was pretty full on and very regimented. It was also time to get the girls back into proper school routine again, on the road in China they did a good job trying to work while driving with the odd half an hour desk work when we could but it wasn’t the same. 


After a couple of days we felt like moving on and found another pretty spot further east on a little peninsula. There wasn’t much around just scrubby bush and gravel and beautiful views of the mountains and lake and the peace was sublime. We had an afternoon of exploring the multihued sandy valley away from the lake on the way. The vertical sedimentary rock layers made us think of stegosaurus skeletons.

 
Feeling renewed and refreshed we headed back to Bishkek to find out about our Uzbek visas