Saturday, September 10, 2016

Tales from Tajikistan

Tajikistan - you were a surprise! Although you were trying at times, in the end the beauty of your nature stole our hearts.  I could have stayed weeks taking in those beautiful mountains and crystal clear lakes.  Here is what we discovered in our time there.

Khujand

A relatively uninteresting city, but a nice place to stop if you don't want a whole day of traveling ahead of you when you leave Uzbekistan.  We enjoyed mountain views and walks along to the river and the luxury of the ''Khujand Deluxe Hotel''. In this part of the world the city really comes to life after the sun goes down, so we enjoyed walking in the parks, admiring the lit-up fountains which appeared to be choreographed to the music playing.  Some children who heard us speaking English even came up and talked to me. Well, they tried their best at least.  We only got as far as ''My name is'' and ''I am __ years old'' before the language barrier set in.  They were beaming with pride nonetheless.

Mountain view in Khujand
City view across the river

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Beautiful sunset
Panjakant

Home to the worst guest house we experienced while on our trip, but also our gateway to the most amazing trip into the mountains.  The 7 lakes region of Tajikistan is one of the most famous places in the country to go hiking, although getting up into and staying in the mountains is quite difficult if you haven't got a tent and your own set of wheels. Local tour providers know this, of course, and charge outrageous prices to arrange a mountain trip. But thanks to the friendly Tajik girl working at the guest house, we managed to get up into the mountains a bit more ''local style''.  She called around to some people she knows who regularly drive up into the mountains. Basically, they operate as a shared taxi, mostly bring people from the various mountain villages into the city to buy supplies.  On the way up the mountain there were 6 of us in the 5-seat car as well as a trunk full of everything from potatoes to panes of glass for windows and tied to the roof was a variety of lumber and door frames.  That was a light load compared to the 12 people who were inside that same car on the way back down the mountain. A little more than halfway to our destination we got a flat, but the driver assured us that this happened quite often (his 5th one in 2 months) and it was replaced in no time.  The driver took us to our home of teh family where we would be staying and we agreed on a time for him to pick us up and bring us back down to the city.  Honestly though, I could have stayed up in those beautiful mountains forever.



The very loaded car

Just a routine flat tire

Breathtaking!! 

Dushanbe and Lake Iskanderkul

We finished up our time in Tajikistan by visiting the capital city Dushanbe. One our way there we again took the shared taxi because again, no mini-buses. They of course wanted to give us the ''foreigners price'', but we sneakily asked the others how much they were paying for the journey and insisted that we pay the same price as everyone else.  It worked! Dushanbe is home to one of the world's tallest flagpoles.  The flag itself is 60 meters long!! Dushanbe was also our starting point for a day trip to the famous Lake Iskanderkul.  To get there we had to once again cross through what I came to call ''the tunnel of death''.  This mountain tunnel is nearly 1 kilometer long and has no lights or ventilation. Because most of the cars do not have filters on their exhaust pipes, it is so foggy from vehicle fumes that you can hardly see where you are going, yet people drive like mad, blindly and recklessly passing one another.  Although Lake Iskanderkul is one of Tajikistan's most famous natural wonders, the roads to get there are atrocious and the only transportation option is shared taxi. There is extremely basic Soviet-era accommodation at the lake, but a giant sign near the main roads proclaims plans to build a luxury hotel and resort.  We'll see if that happens or not.  At first glance there doesn't even seem to be a restaurant or cafe anywhere near the lake, but upon asking around we were directed over to a topchan and a little makeshift kitchen from which plov and tea magically appeared. Our game plan to get back to the main road and thus back to Dushanbe was to just stop a car heading away from the lake and ask to ride along.  It didn't take long before a jolly crew of three Tajik men offered to let us squeeze into the back of their small SUV. We quickly realized that this short journey would turn into one of the highlights of the entire trip.  They immediately popped open a beer and handed it to Mario and told him that he was a ''молодец'' for planning this trip around Central Asia. They also seemed to know/be related to the people in almost every car which we passed along the road, although one car load warranted a special stop.  Everyone got out of the car and meat, bread, and vodka magically appeared. Now, this may seem like your typical former Soviet scene, except that these friends/relatives that we met had long beards and traditional Muslim dress, yet they downed their teacup full of vodka nonetheless.  ''It's different here in Tajikistan,'' our new friends explained.  The men asked Mario if he would ''allow'' me to drink the vodka, but I told them I don't drink hard liqueur and luckily being a woman is a good enough excuse for that in Tajikistan. The bottle was emptied in record time and, a little bit wobbly, we were back on the road, only to be stopped by the police about 5 minutes later.  Being stopped by the police is quite a different ball game in Tajikistan to say the least and in this case the police didn't even talk to the driver, rather to the front passenger who seemed to be friends with the officer and just exchanged a few laughs and handshakes before sending us merrily on our way.  As we bid farewell to our new friends at the main road, I was once again reminded why we travel like we do, without the organized tours and fancy guides.  It's to meet completely average people like these men in the truck and to share, if even just for a short time, in a genuine piece of Tajik life. As we did yet again when our shared taxi back to Dushanbe stopped for a quick car wash from a simple family-run roadside car wash stand where they offered us tea and the littlest daughter just learning to walk entertained us all.

Our last day in Tajikistan we spent hanging out with a French guy from our hostel who was heading back home after a month in Afghanistan.  In fact, we met many travelers on our trip who had been traveling in Afghanistan and they all had amazing stories to tell.  We ended up all sharing a taxi to the airport together at 2 o'clock in the morning.  And of course it wouldn't be a trip in the former Soviet Union without a little bit of bribing, as the security officer wasn't going to let Mario bring our power bank on the flight otherwise.  We also met a very interesting Tajik-Australian at the airport who seemed more than happy to be headed back to Sydney after a few weeks of Tajik craziness.

Lake Iskanderkul


Topchan chillin

Lunch at the lake

The pride of Dushanbe


Kvas - Mario's favorite!

Tajikistan is a place where most people would never dream of going on vacation, but having been there, I would go back in a heartbeat.  Maybe once that Iskanderkul resort is finished, I'll head back ;)

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Tales from Uzbekistan

I'm happy to report that we are safe and sound and completely happy back in Munich! It was the trip of a lifetime, but goodness do I love living in Germany! I hope to fit in sharing tales of our journey here on the blog amidst the busy-ness of beginning my brand new exciting job on Monday.  So without further ado...Uzbekistan!

Once again the taxi drivers had the special foreigner price for us at the train station, but having been told by our train neighbors what the real price for the ride to Khiva from Urgench is, Mario struck a deal with his favorite line ''Двадцать тысяч или до свидания!'' When we arrived at our guesthouse in Khiva the wife showed us to our room and explained a bit about the city and how we could best get to Samarkand the next day.  She spoke in such a soft and delicate voice, but with nearly perfect English, as baby Zuleyha rested on her hip and stared at the newest arrivals with her big brown eyes. The guesthouse has two locations and we were staying at the one a bit outside the city.  Therefore, the guesthouse owners drive guests into the city and then guests can simply stop by the more central branch when they're ready to go home and catch a ride back out.  Our first impressions of Khiva - seeing those ancient colorful buildings under the golden light of the setting sun - really stunned us! Add to that a delicious dinner in a lovely restaurant and we had the perfect evening in Khiva.



Local bread

Just look at those colors!
The next morning we were up early to buy our tickets to Samarkand.  It took a little bit of elbowing (do you seriously think shoving your passports through the ticket window while she's already looking for tickets for us is going to accomplish anything?!) but we got our tickets.  The roads between Khiva and Samarkand are atrocious, leaving train the only viable option.  Unfortunately the train schedule is rather stupid inconvenient and has passengers leaving at 4 PM and arriving at 5 AM.  The train ride itself, however, was one of the best we had.  As usual we were the only foreigners in a train full of locals and had to answer all of the standard questions about who we are and what we are up to.  We sat by a woman who turned out to be an English teacher and her two young sons. The woman and I did word searches together from the book I had brought along for a little bit before Mario and I escaped to the restaurant wagon.  There we made friends with the restaurant workers who introduced us to Uzbek wine, gave us a discount because we are guests in the country, and offered to let us sleep in the restaurant wagon if our spots in platskart were too uncomfortable for us.  In the end we decided to return our beds since all of our stuff was there and, in the end, what could have been a miserable train trip turned into something quite enjoyable afterall.

Samarkand boasts somewhat similar ancient architecture to Khiva, but instead of being all within the ancient city walls, it is spread out a little bit more around the city.


Love the colorful tapchan



To be honest we had a bit more time in Samarkand than we needed, so we took a day trip up through the mountains over to Shakhrizabz. The claim to fame in Shakhrizabz is that it is the hometown of Timur, founder of the Timurid Empire and Uzbekistan's favorite hero. To be honest I found the whole thing a bit strange.  The ruins, mosques, and ancient buildings are impressive and worth seeing, but the entire area around it has been constructed into a meticulously landscaped park which is nearly completed abandoned save for the gardeners and a few foreign tourists.  The outer boundary of the area is lined with storefronts, which remain largely empty except for a few women selling cold drinks and ice cream.  Honestly it all felt just a bit too fake.  Apparently it wasn't always like this, according to our ''guide', but I'm not sure how long ago the government completed this massive project.  Speaking of our 'guide''.  In fact, he wasn't a guide at all, but rather just a random old man who happened upon us and decided that he would impart all of his knowledge about Timur and Shakhrisabz upon us.  He didn't always understand us and couldn't always get his point across in Russian, but we had a wonderful time together nonetheless.  It honestly made our day. He wrote down his address and asked us to send him copies of the photos we took together, but he was convinced that the KGB would call him in for questioning when he received mail from Germany. He assured us it would be fine though.  He would just tell them that he had had us in Uzbekistan as his guests to show off the beautiful country.  And as any good host, he made sure that we got safely back on the road to Samarkand.  I'm pretty sure that the price he had us pay for the minibus wasn't enough, but he told the driver that we're guests and it's rude to try to make money off of guests. The same was when he told off the people at the public toilets who asked for money only after we had used them, although they were in a public park and had no signage that indicated that they weren't for free.  In any case, he was a jolly little old man and I can't imagine our trip to Shakhrisabz without him.

Can't get enough of those mountains

In Shakhrisabz 

Our new friend

Having fun in the mnibus

Our taxi driver suggested this shot in the mountains

Back in Samarkand, we had one final night before heading off to Tashkent on a morning express train.  Tashkent is very Russified, but as they say ''столицу надо посмотреть'' (you have to see the capital).  And the hostel had a pool, so that was awesome.

Tashkent plov - the very best we had on the trip!

Hotel Uzbekistan.  All of the former Soviet capitals have such a hotel.  Once where all important guests stayed, most of these hotels are now falling into disrepair.

Hostel pool!

Sunset in Tashkent

Fountains, fountains everywhere!

In the morning we needed to go to Tajikistan, which meant a taxi to the border, border crossing by foot, and then another taxi to Khujand, our destination in Tajikistan.  The reason that there aren't any minibuses driving this route or a direct taxi to Khujand is that any Tajik vehicles entering Uzbekistan, as well as the other way around, are subject to absurd taxation.  If you didn't already guess, relationships between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan aren't the greatest.  Anyway, this taxi ride was the ultimate end to our Uzbekistan experience, as our driver quickly declared us his friends and guests in his country and stopped along the way to let us try homemade juice and special Uzbek ayran, as well as to take photos by the Tashmore.

Special ayran with salt and red pepper


Tashmore


When you enter and leave Uzbekistan you must fill out a lengthy and detailed customs forms and one of the stipulations is that you aren't allowed to take any currency out of the country which you didn't bring into the country.  Well, considering that the border crossing is in the middle of nowhere and we definitely needed Tajik Sumoni to pay for a taxi to Khujand, we had exchanged some euros for Sumoni with some other guests in our hostel in Tashkent.  We decided to put the Sumoni on my customs declaration and when the officer asked with a scowl where the money had come from, I put on my cutest smile and rattled off a sweet little story about the ohsokind new friends we made who just couldn't accept that we would enter Tajikistan without any local currency at all and insisted that we take it with us as a gift.  Seeing as it was only about $15 worth of Sumoni, they bought my story and sent us on our way.  As we were leaving the border post, some other western tourists (they turned out to be Canadians) we coming from Tajikistan and the border guard insisted that we get to know each other, ''since they're foreigners too, afterall'' ;)

Uzbekistan is a place that I have been dreaming of visiting ever since high school and I now know that it is somewhere I'd like to return to someday.  

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Tales from Kazakhstan

After a nearly sleepless night we arrived very early in the morning in Atyrau, Kazakhstan. We decided to walk to our hotel, even though it was over 5 kilometers away. Nothing like a little early morning excercise! After about a week in hostels and thanks to a booking.com special deal, we treated ourselves to the fancy Sweet Home Hotel. Once again coffee, breakfast, and a shower was the recipe to give us enough energy to go out and explore the city for a while. Atyrau is a city spread across both sides of the Ural River, therefore officially dividing the city between the Asian and European continents. The central square and the area along the river are both worth visiting and we even discovered a living compound called "American Village". It seems that employees of the oil companies operating around Atyrau are living there. All that wandering around in the heat really got to us after a while and we decided to have an afternoon rest before dinner and a night time walk in the city. After the sun goes down, the city really comes to life and we enjoyed taking in the festive atmosphere along the river. In Kazakhstan the people speak Russian very well and communication wasn't a problem at all.






The next day we had quite the adventure. We were scheduled to leave Atyrau shortly after 3 PM for Urgench Uzbekistan. In fact, that connection was our whole reason for stopping in Atyrau. So you can imagine pur panic when the woman at the information desk told us that our train had already departed. It turns out that the time of departure was not local time, but Astana time. Why in the world you write departure times that are anything but local time is just plain ridiculous to me. Nonetheless, we had a giant problem on our hands, as this particular train is only going once every 3-4 days. So when a taxi driver offered to speed off with us to catch the train at it's next stop 150 km away we took the risk. Thankfully this story has a happy ending - we caught the train!! That 35€ taxi drive was worth every last cent to get us on that train and keep our plans on track. And we even have another exciting story to tell ;) This train journey was our longest of the trip at 26 hours, so we decided to take 2nd class instead of 3rd and for the last 10 hours of the trip we had our train compartment to ourselves.

We had heard all sorts of horror stories about the Uzbek border crossing. That they look through all of your camera pictures, make you completely unpack your bags and other such nonsense. In our experience the only horror was that both border crossings combined took almost 7 hours from 10 PM to 5 AM and left us completely exhausted. Thankfully we didn't have anything to do the next day except ride the train. As soon as we reached the first real town in Uzbekistan things got crazy in the train. As our neighbour put it - it turned into a bazaar! Food and drinks of every kind, toys, clothes, household items, toilet paper, money exchange - you name it, it was probably available in this train. In Uzbekistan the currency situation is such, that you get over 3x the official rate on the black market and prices are also set according to the black market rate. While changing money on the black market is officially illegal, but on the train it is safe enough and everywhere else we were able to exchange in the guest houses. The bazaar quieted down as we got closer to Urgench and shortly after 6 PM, more than a day after our journey had.begun, we departed the train and the Uzbekistan chapter of the adventure officially began.

When 6700 = 1€

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Tales from Russia

I wrote these words on the train from Atyrau, Kazakhstan to Urgench, Uzbekistan and I am finally taking the time and reliable  internet connection to catch up on some travel tales. We are having the time of our life and are very excited for what the rest of the journey holds.

Voronezh

From Kiev we took an overnight bus to Voronezh. After a late-night border crossing I manages to sleep a very hours, but was still quite tired and disoriented by the time we got to Voronezh. There are not many hostel options in Voronezh, but we stayed at "Podsolnuk", a short walk from the city center. In the end we had a positive experience there with friendly owners and clean facilities, but let me just say that my first impression was a bit of a shock. Just imagine walking into a room of half a dozen 30-something Russian men sitting around in their underwear. Anyhow, the situation improved by evening and since we were only there to shower and sleep, it served our purposes perfectly. And for 6€ per night I'm not going to complain. Our first day in Voronezh was rather exhausting because of an over-eager hostel guest whose offer to "quickly show us the way to the center" turned into dragging us around to all his favorite spots in the city for several hours while talking absolutely non-stop. Now, normally I'm up for an adventure, but having neither eaten nnot drunk and having barely slept,we soon began contemplating how to politely get rid of him. We, thank goodness, eventually did and enjoyed a nice lunch and lots of hydration in the outside seating area of a cafe in the city center. After a few more hours of walking around we found a spot in the shade along the river and dozed for a while before heading bback to the hostel to freshen up and find somewhere to have dinner nearby. I slept like a baby that night on my wobbly dorm-room bunk and woke up the next day refreshed and ready to explore. We had lunch at the Voronezh-famous BARak O'MAMA cafe and found the Gorky Sanatorium just outside the city. I think the sanatorium is a good insider tip for anyone visiting Voronezh. Just to visit the facilities if you're not staying there is free and they have a beach as well as a nice wooded area where one can go walking. While our time in Voronezh was certainly nice, we much more enjoyed our next destination...



The famous BARak OMAMA cafe

View from our hostel balcony


Volgograd

As I mentioned in my previous post, the overnight train to Volgograd definitely exceeded our Russian-train expectations. That's not to say we weren't still rather sleepy when we arrived at our hostel, but a shower and a coffee was the perfect remedy to shake off our sleepiness. Our hostel in Volgograd, Scotch Hostel, is the place to stay in Volgograd. Clean, spacious, plenty of toilets and showers, curtains, a lamp, and an outlet on every bed, helpful staff, nice common areas - really, any backpaxker's dream ;) The "Motherland Calls" statue, taking a speed boat across the Volga to an island where we could swim and sunbath, and a delicious dinner at "Steak House" were the highlights of the trip. Even if they did forget my meal and then bring the compensation desserts, which were with ice cream, when I had barely begun to eat my food. Makes for a good story at least! The rest of Volgograd I think is better shown with pictures.


No Russian city is complete without Lenin Square

Motherland Calls Statue

The Hall of Heros



Stalingrad Battle Museum

Flour Mill destroyed in the battle



Astrakhan

Our journey on from Volgograd took place on an express train. It was a nice change of pace to have seats instead of beds and to travel by day instead of by night. By late evening we were in Astrkhan and made it to our hostel, only to have the owner admit that he had forgotten our booking and therefore accidentally overbooked the hostel. We ended up with a sweet upgrade at a hotel owned by his friend. We woke up early enough to head to the central station and figure out our best route from Astrkhan to Aksarajskaya where our train to Kazahstan would depart from at almost 10 PM that night. After that we checked out the Kremlin in Astrakhan, but honestly it was much to hot and sunny to do anything much else except retreat to our air conditioned hotel. Now, let me tell you, this journey to Atyrau, Kazakhstan was quite the adventure! We were quite early in Aksarajskaya, so we checked out the tiny train station and confirmed the arrival time of our train. Suddenly a young man came towards us and started asking all sorts of questions about where we're from and where we're traveling. His conversation was generally friendly, but then he started saying he was from some federal security service and wanted to see our passports. Honestly, we didn't believe him because he wasn't in uniform and didn't persist when we were sceptical and didn't get our passports out and basically just walked away from him.  Finally we decided to sit down in a roadside cafe across from the station. The owner is an extremely kind hearted man, who offered us watermelon and plums for free and explained with pride how his refrigerator works with the help of a modified air conditioning unit and that his Soviet car from 1952 still runs. His face lit up when he told us that he named the cafe after his daughter. By the time we left and he wished us success,happiness and all the best, it felt like we were saying goodbye to a friend.  Well, what would you know, back at the entrance to the train (where they also did passport control for the Russian side of the border) there was our secret service friend along with the border guards and police. Yep, that's right, this plane-clothed officer who had approached us earlier really was part of some sort of Russian secret service. Actually, as soon as the border guard behind the window saw our passports, she asked the other border guard if this special officer was around. He took our passports to have a look after we had gotten our exit stamps and had a lot of questions about my travels. I think he realized thar we were harmless travellers. Maybe it was a completely random encounter with this officer, but it felt a bit like the Russians are keeping tabs on us. Or maybe I've just got too big of an imagination ;) As we entered the train and found our spots, literally EVERY SINGLE PERSON in that train was staring at us. It was almost only men and all Tajiks and Uzbeks, coming back home from working in Russia. After some initial scepticism from both sides, we ended up having a really nice time chatting and laughing and getting to know one another. They gave us apples and also offered us tea, but I was by that point avoiding liquids in order to avoid the toilet, which Mario confirmed was just as disgusting as I feared. Mario stayed awake later talking with them all, but I could barely keep my eyes open. In fact, I was the only one who stayed in the bed during he Kazakhstan passport control. Thankfully they took pity on this sleepy tourist and didn't make me get out of the bed and stand up. With the border crossings behind us, the train rolled on through the night and the Russia chapter of our journey came to a close.
Astrakhan Kremlin