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23 November 2008

Did you know: Special Edition – It is my Mom’s (Jacques’ Mom) birthday today (age to remain a secret for now…). BAIE GELUK MET MA SE VERJAARSDAG!! Have a wonderful day; we wish we could’ve been there with you to celebrate this special day.

The drive from the border to Samarkand was nothing spectacular. We decided to take some of the minor roads instead of sticking to the main roads and went through a lot of villages. Life here seems to be pretty much the same as in the other Central Asian countries. The only exception maybe is that there isn’t that much livestock around as say Tajikistan. There does seem to be a lot of agriculture though, the main product being cotton. This is somewhat of a hangover from the Stalin period when the former USSR tried to destroy the Uzbek identity and force upon them what they think was good for the country at the time. Uzbekistan was not singled out for this special treatment by Stalin though, the same applied to the other Central Asian countries as well, with Stalin trying his best to destroy their identities and cultures and ‘Russifying’ them. Somehow though, it seems that the Russians took a liking to the Registan and it managed to stand the test of time, surviving a number of earthquakes throughout the years as well.

We spent a couple of nights in Samarkand in a very nice B&B type accommodation. We also managed secure parking for the car for the 2 nights in the courtyard of the homestay. It was however a very tight fit to get through the alley, and we had to let the tyres down to fit the car in. We were due to go and see a silk carpet factory the following day, but had to cancel that because the Malaysian president was visiting. Paranoia took over again with the local police and most of the streets were closed down for the day. We luckily managed to get out through some back streets and with the help of the homestay owners. We decided to head to Tashkent and Fergana valley and visit the carpet factory on the way back, because we need to go through Samarkand again.

That’s it for now, just a short update for today. Until next time.

24 November 2008

Did you know – Samarkand is one of Central Asia’s oldest cities being founded around the 5th century BC. It was a major Silk Road city being close to what we now today as China, India and Iran. In it’s heyday, the city’s population was almost double of what it is today (around 400,000 today). Samarkand was the declared the capital of Uzbekistan SSR in 1924, but lost it to Tashkent 6 years later.

Tashkent is a fairly big city with a population of around 2 million people. Saying that, it’s not a particular busy city. We got to Tashkent fairly early in the morning and decided to check out what’s on at the theatre and ballet theatre as well. We went to a ballet in Almaty when we were there and thought we would do the same here. You can’t really go wrong with tickets costing about $5. You can however see that it’s not the same quality as the Bolshoy theatre of Moscow (not that we’ve been there…yet) but nevertheless, still good. We saw Romeo and Juliet here in Tashkent - it was very enjoyable indeed. As luck would have it, we bumped into another traveler for the 3rd time here in Central Asia. It just so happened that he also decided to see the same ballet, and ended up in the row in front of us. This is the same guy (David an American Taiwanese) we met for the first time in Almaty and then for a second time in Dushanbe.

We left Tashkent after a couple of days and hit the road to the Fergana Valley. It is a valley, but not one you will be able to see. The valley is absolutely huge, and is more of an area between mountain ranges than anything else. There is also a really interesting silk factory called Yodgorlik in Margilon, about 10km from Fergana itself. They still use traditional methods at the factory, as well as using machinery for producing silk. Part of the country goes silkworm crazy from April to June. Local people get paid by the government to raise the silk worms and to then sell it to the textile manufacturers. This is not a part time job for them either. The worms grow from almost nothing to about 5 or so cm long. The farmers need to clear out vast amounts of room in their houses to have enough space. The farmers would sell the cocoons to a middleman (current price for 1kg of cocoons is about US $3-4). The middleman then sells to the factory for about US $5-6 per kg. One cocoon will yield about 1200 meters of filament. It takes about 35 of these filaments to produce one useable thread of raw silk. The cocoons need to be boiled to ‘unravel’ the filament and to separate the glue in the cocoon, killing the silk worm. They do however keep some for the next season. The shape of a good quality cocoon should be like an hourglass or a figure 8. Cocoons shaped like an egg does not give the same quality and length of filament. According to Uzbek tradition, only woman are allowed to wear pure silk. Men are allowed to wear silk, but is must be mixed with another type of fabric for example cotton.

You really feel like the first tourist to ever come to the Uzbek countryside sometimes. It is amazing how people can stare. I’m not sure if they stare more at the car or us, but boy it gets annoying at times. This is a good place to experience what it would be like to be a celebrity, without being one. I feel really sorry for them, being stared and pointed at the whole time…I wouldn’t mind a bit of their money though…we are now trying the same thing, which is to stare back at them, and really make it obvious. So far, it hasn’t worked, but we will keep at it. One good thing though, they all seem to be very friendly.

03 December 2008

Did you know – the Aral Sea was once the world’s 4th largest lake, but it is now considered one of the world’s worst man-made ecological disasters. This is mainly due to the poor planning (or a don’t care attitude) by the Russian planners when they decided to divert most of the river-flow from the Aral Sea for use in the new cotton fields. The Aral Sea lost about ѕ of its area and about 80% of its water between 1960s and 2003. Most of the fish species disappeared in the Aral Sea due to the high salt content. Moynaq, a previously thriving fishing village on the south side of the sea (in Uzbekistan) is now more than 150km away from the shoreline. Here you can see some of the rusting fishing trawlers stranded in the now arid landscape.

We stayed at a guesthouse in Tashkent called B+B Ali Tour for one night – this was the ‘Our pick’ guesthouse in Tashkent by the author of the Central Asia Lonely Planet. I think because the owner/manager is very willing to share his vodka with the guests. This was indeed the case, and the first thing he said when we got there was ‘Do you want a vodka?’. What the author didn’t include in his description of the place were the prostitutes hanging around the place and the owner’s foul language and crude sense of humour. So if you’re into that sort of stuff, then it will be a great place to stay. If not, then stay clear…oh yes…breakfast was included as well. This was made up of tea, one fried egg and bread. Not really good value for money compared to some of the other places. We managed to take a different road back from Tashkent to Samarkand. I’m not sure how we managed to get to this road, but we at least avoided one of our pet hates, that is backtracking our route. Anyway, we got to back to Samarkand in a leisurely 2 days, making sure we got there early in the morning in order for us to do our last bit of sightseeing. We never ended up going to the silk carpet factory in Samarkand, because there a lot of craft stalls and centers, which makes carpets as well. Instead we spent the day looking at some very impressive tombs.

Our next stop was the historic town of Bukhara, approximately 400km west of Samarkand. We were very lucky to have a bit of warmer weather again for a change when we got there. The days are very sunny, but can be cold. Here however, it was a balmy 13 or 14 degrees during the day. It was so nice not to have to walk around like a Michelin man the whole time. We decided to stay in a small hotel again due to the visa registration rules here in Uzbek. Bukhara is reportedly one of Central Asia’s holiest cities, more than a 1000 years old and the old town is still very similar to what it was all those years ago. The old city is full of medressas and a big fortress. The town was very quiet when we were there. There were no more than about 10 tourist in the whole place. It felt like we had it all to ourselves. We also managed to bump into another guy we met a couple of times before, Navin (originally from India but an American). We spent the evening together, having dinner at the place his was staying at, and we decided to give the local wine a run for its money. Safe to say, the Uzbek wine won’t have any gold medals at the next wine awards. One of the bottles was very drinkable though. The other 2 were a bit on the sweet side. We left Bukhara after a couple of nights to head further west to another small historic town called Khiva. The old town is very small with huge walls around it. It’s a very pleasant place with beautiful minarets and mausoleums to wander around for a day or so. We also bought our magnificent hand made silk Suzani here from a lovely Uzbek lady. After a long chat (almost 2 hours) we discovered why it’s so difficult to get money from the banks and why the atms are almost never working. The reason is because nobody in Uzbek puts their money in the bank. They all keep it at home, because it is so difficult to get it from the bank. So that also means that the banks don’t have money to put in the atms. It is really a different way of living, living from day to day. This particular lady managed to save enough for the winter for her family. I think she said she had about 1 million Som for the winter. That is equivalent to about US$ 700, and that is for her whole family. Can you imagine that? It just makes you appreciate things a lot more again and puts a lot of things into perspective. We are so fortunate to experience different cultures and to travel the world. She said there is no way she or her family will be able to travel. It will take 2 or 3 years to save enough for her family to travel for a few weeks. She just cannot justify working for so long to save her money and then it’s gone in a few weeks. I think it’s time for us to count our blessings again…and again!!!!!!

Khiva is the last real tourist attraction in the west of Uzbek, except maybe for the Aral Sea and Maynoq (not really much to see there), the now small town on the southern side of the sea. To be honest, a long way to go if you not really going in that direction. Luckily we were heading that way to get back to Kazak and on to Russian, so we decided to take the detour and to have a look. It is about 1200km from Nukus in Uzbek to Atyray in Kazak, and there is nothing except miles and miles of cold desert and steppes (a few cold nights in the car again at –1 degrees). In between the nothingness you get to the border, which was almost a welcome relief (well, not really).

We got to the border at about 12:30, getting ready for a few problems because of our lack of visa registration because we only stayed in guesthouses for a few nights. We decided to take all our registration slips out of our passport. As it turned out, they did not even ask about any registration. The guy was really friendly; asking the normal questions like where did you come from, where are you going etc. Not one word about any registration. In our honest opinion, we think that it is a load of crap, having to register every night in Uzbek. Probably a good thing to register in the first 3 days after entering, but I won’t loose too much sleep over it after that. The Uzbek side of the border took a little bit longer that expected. I think we were there for about an hour, because we had to wait for some of them to finish lunch. Being a tourist though, it is very easy to get to the front of the line sometimes. The other option is to just walk into the offices, whether there is someone there or not, and just say a few things in English. That normally gets their attention away from the bribes they are getting and they soon try and sort you out. You have to complete 2 declarations again when leaving the country. There was no problem at all with the declarations. The Kazak side of the border took a bit longer though. We sat in a queue for about 3 hours before we got to the guards. It was busy coming from the other side for some reason. Once we got in to the ‘holding area’ though, it was quick. We spent about 10 minutes at the immigration post, and then another 30 minutes or so at the customs, filling in declarations etc. Not a difficult crossing at all, just took us longer than any of our previous crossing. Total time spent was about 5 Ѕ hours. The good thing is that it looks like they are open fairly late. We ended up spending the night just outside the border post on the Kazak side where they had a few cafes.

We will only be in Kazakhstan for 3 or 4 days. We will spend most of this driving to get out of here and back to Russia, where our first city will be Volgograd. We are now on the outskirts of Aturay, the main town for the oil fields. There are supposed to be a few places with free wireless. We’ll test it out tomorrow.

Here are our likes and dislikes for the country

Uzbekistan likes and dislikes.

- We liked the old towns and their architecture. We also liked all the handmade silk Suzanis of which we are now the proud owners.

- We didn’t dislike anything in particular – pleasant place to be in.

- We liked the plov (a type of fried rice, Uzbek style!!), chai (tea), teahouses and all the different types of naan (flatbreads).

- We disliked the mandatory 10% service charge (sometimes 20%) in some places, even though the service is absolutely crap.