Lisbon and Belém
03.05.2016 - 04.05.2016
Kim's adventures 2016
This blog is published chronologically. Go straight to the most recent post.
Lisbon and Belém
03.05.2016 - 04.05.2016
Istanbul and Edirne
05.05.2016 - 09.05.2016
Ashgabat, Yangikala, Darvaza, Konye-Urgench
10.05.2016 - 15.05.2016
Within Turkmenistan I was lucky to visit the west of the country, near the Caspian Sea: a breathtaking vista of pink canyons, known as Yangikala. The pink and white layered canyons just loomed out of the desert as we drove up and there's one dirt road leading to the peak of the canyon. Even though it had been cloudy in the morning, the sun fortunately decided to come out by the time we reached the top, making the pink rocks shine. Some early rain did manage to ensure enough mud that our 4WD got stuck at the most isolated spot - phone reception, what's that?! - but our driver walked off and was very lucky to find a local family with a sturdy Soviet era vehicle to pull the 4WD out.
The next day, driving to equally isolated Dekhistan ruins in the south-east of the country was more straightforward, other than nearly getting lost when we ran out of actual road. The ruins, and their desert setting, were fantastically evocative, and there were also grasses and small plants that added vibrant, unexpected colours, green, yellow and purple, to the desert landscape.
We drove back to Ashgabat that night. The next morning another traveller Jason joined me, and with Nadya and our driver Aslan, we drove northwards to the Darvaza gas crater where a massive gas crater is permanently alight after a misjudged 'burn-off' set it going. Soviet geologists believed that setting the collapsed gas field alight would burn off the gases, and the fire would die off after a few weeks - it's now been burning for four decades. We camped there, which was great as it was spectacularly bright and eerie at night time. You can walk right up to the edge (no safety handrails here) and when the wind blows the hot air towards you, the heat washes over you - nearly an alternative to shaving!
The next day we visited ruins in the north of the country, Konye-Urgench, which is also a site popular and special to Turkmen people, a pilgrimage site in fact for some. Local Turkmen were at their most animated as well, particularly when they noticed Westerners to have their photo taken with, constantly asking Jason and/or me for group photos. I've never been so popular!
Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent, Fergana, Kokand
16.05.2016 - 04.06.2016
Many locals continue to live inside the walled city, although I imagine the remaining residential areas will eventually be squeezed out for hotels, B&Bs and restaurants. Not only was I struck by the amazing architecture and turquoise tiles, it was interesting to see it was also quite popular with package holiday tourists - there were a few buses each day of (mainly) European tourists visiting and staying there. Khiva is one of the three main dazzling Silk Road cities, along with Bukhara and Samarkand. My second day in Khiva involved a day tour in the countryside where dozens of ancient mud forts remain, the main one consisting of two forts side by side, one higher than the next, and famous (for at least the excited local driver) for being the location of a Schwarzenegger movie. I still don't know which movie - Conan?! One of my favourite sights was seeing a cute little owl peeking out at me from a crevice at one of the forts.
The following day I continued on to Bukhara, and shared the ride with two lovely German women with whom I was lucky enough to join for dinners in Bukhara and even later in Samarkand. The three of us even survived a live, easy listening version of My Heart Will Go On played at full volume during one dinner.
Bukhara has fantastic Timurid and Islamic architecture, particularly the stunning Kalon minaret. It is a more sprawling/mixed cityscape than Khiva, but on the flipside this meant it felt a little more 'integrated' rather than just being a living museum. Bukhara was one of the liveliest cities in Uzbekistan I experienced, with whole families out in the evening enjoying drinks, kebabs and music. With many men in shorts and flip flops, drinking beer, it wasn't too different from my own Queensland, Australia!
Like much of the region, much of the food was 'shashlyk' (meat on skewers), along with noodles or dumplings, or plov (rice) but despite little variety, it was extremely affordable. I did enjoy some more exciting food in Samarkand, as there was a fantastic jazz cafe with great burgers etc, as well as restaurants that even ventured into salads! I spent a few days in Samarkand, being most impressed with Shah-i-zinda. This is a walkway that heads up a hillside with large incredibly tiled tombs. An ocean of beautiful blue and green tiles. Some tombs have lasted so well naturally that little restoration has been required, so it was nice to have a few sights that were original, as many other Uzbek sites have been either 'touched up', or completely overhauled by Soviet or Uzbek restoration. Like Khiva, both Bukhara and Samarkand were extremely easy cities just to walk and explore by yourself, although plenty of guides are available as well.
The last of my time in Uzbekistan was in the capital, Tashkent, and two cities in the east - Fergana City and Kokand. Tashkent is a much newer city, and where I was able to recharge with good coffee and food, including some rather excellent gelati. The impressive architecture was now Soviet Brutalist style. The tile work in the metro system is one of the most amazing work I've seen, although unfortunately there are strictly no photos allowed - in fact, bags are searched every time, and even passports inspected sometimes, when you enter the metro.
Fergana City was much smaller and quieter, except for the bustling bazaar, and I also included a day trip out to Margilan, which is famous for its silk market, with rows and rows of beautiful silk design. Kokand was my final Uzbek city, and despite the odd wind storm (I hid under apricot trees for one, as impossible to walk back to hotel with sand in eyes!) it actually was quite green too, and had an impressive palace from its former glory days in the centre.
Khujand, Istaravshan, Fan mountains, Dushanbe
05.06.2016 - 15.06.2016
The border itself was q u i e t - I literally was the only person crossing. Think tumbleweed. But both sides were friendly, no nonsense with paperwork, and no 'unexpected fees' levied. The Tajik immigration officer even set up my taxi to the nearest city, Khujand - whether I paid too much, I don't know! But I wasn't about to haggle with the man literally holding the entry stamp, and actually the price he suggested was fine. Once I had the entry stamp and was in the taxi speeding to Khujand, it already felt just a small success that I made it to the elusive Tajikistan. And the ride was great to Khujand - we passed a massive reservoir which is popular on weekends for Tajiks heading to the 'beach'. I guess lakeside perhaps means 'beach' in landlocked countries, after all.
Khujand is set on a beautiful green river, with a backdrop of craggy cliffs. And it was hot! Because most of the country is mountainous, I didn't expect the cities to be so hot, so that was a surprise. I explored Khujand, and also visited a city to the south, Istaravshan, which had an amazing old wooden minaret and a lovely lake created by a dam. The dam wall itself was topped with an enormous Lenin head, a gift during Soviet times. Back in Khujand I met the three Swiss people I would hike with, and we coordinated food etc. for the trip ahead.
The Swiss guy, Jeremias, actually lived in Khujand as part of a water project, so it was handy having someone who could speak a little Tajik, and it was also handy as he (and his partner Hanna, and sister Johanna) were experienced in mountains. They also had a fantastic state of the art water filter which was awesome. We first drove to a small town, Artuch, which was a small village set on a beautiful stream. We stayed with a lovely local family that night, as the tour company used local Tajik families to encourage community-based tourism.
The next day was a big hike up to a truly breathtaking mountain area of interconnected waterways, a series of gorgeous lakes, with streams running between them. The area is known as Kulikalon. Three local Tajik people lived there, and there was one shepherd who visited, but otherwise empty, just a calm and tranquil setting. Ethereal even. We set up our tents right next to a stream and lake. Sunset and sunrise over the lake was incredible, one of the most beautiful settings I've ever seen.
We rose early and began the second big day of hiking, up and over Alaudin pass to Alaudin lake. The climb was hard work. The first half was more manageable, but as we got closer to the pass itself, it became colder, the path became more scrambling on rocks rather than a clear path, and there were even times we had to dash across ice. It was actually harder going than any of us four hikers anticipated and our guide (we were suppose to have two, but only got one) raced ahead with the donkeys and our belongings, so my raincoat was well out of my reach when it started raining. At the peak, the views, despite the bad weather, were amazing, although we literally couldn't see the path down the other side - it seriously looked like a cliff drop. At this point even the more experienced Swiss trio balked and said they weren't continuing without a path. That statement finally got the guide's attention. It turns out there was a path, Jeremias following the guide to double-check. It was beyond my comfort zone, and I was very fortunate to have Jeremias stick with me to help me down parts of the path. But we made it, and the weather cleared, revealing the stunning turquoise Alaudin lake below. The colour of the water, even from a distance, was such a beautiful blue. It helped make the hiking and scrambling all worthwhile. [To add for fairness, the office back in Khujand was also upset when they found out the local guide had changed the staffing/route arrangement, and even reimbursed us partially, which was appreciated.]
We camped at the lake, and had time to explore and photograph. The following day was a short hike down from that lake to our transport, which took us to see the well-known Iskanderkul Lake and we stayed with a local family near there for the last two nights. They were so friendly, and also made a wicked bowl of noodles. We didn't have a proper shower there - but we did have a spa! We then continued on to the capital of Tajikistan, Dushanbe, including driving through a famous near-pitch-black smoggy tunnel, uphill, in a car that was overheating and prone to stopping, with massive trucks zooming around us. An adventure just on the road!!
I only had two days in Dushanbe, but this was enough time to walk and see the main sights. Despite - or perhaps because of? - the challenges of Tajikistan, it was a magical experience, rewarding, and the natural beauty is some of the greatest on this planet.