On the road to Samarkand: Camels, yurts and a village homestay

The Uzbek cities of Tashkent, Bukhara, Khiva and Samarkand are famous for their ancient Islamic architecture. Most of the rest of the country is desert and mountains. We took two days out to explore a bit of rural Uzbekistan on a tour with a company called Responsible Travel, aimed at promoting eco tourism in rural areas. The company arranged a driver for two days, lunch in a family home, an overnight stay in a yurt camp, a camel ride through the sand dunes and a second night in a family guesthouse in a mountain village.

Nomads used collapsible yurts covered with camel hair, blankets and carpets to keep warm, cool and dry as they moved around the desert.  Our yurts were covered in camel hair, but also strong canvas, and furnished with real beds. Not exactly glamming, but better than camping, given some wet and windy weather. 

Like most yurt camps in Uzbekistan, the Golden Safari yurt camp is a commercial operating in the Kyzyl Kim desert, 165 miles from Bukhara. Twenty yurts were arranged in a circle, each designed to sleep four to six. We were lucky in that groups sometime book the whole camp, bringing in 100 or more for corporate events. The camp had 17 guests the night before we arrived, but the next night it was just us and three women from Singapore, so we all had a yurt to ourselves. What neither we nor the yurt owners counted on was the cold, wet weather. They had just removed the wood-burning heaters for the season, so we had to wait until they could reinstall them along with vent pipes to let the smoke out.

This lovely man from a nearby village provided entertainment after dinner around a bon fire while we debated if we really wanted to climb to the shower room at the top of the hill. We skipped the showers, and crawled into bed under two layers of comforters. Tom kept the fire going most of the night, Needless to say, we were happy when sunrise came and the weather changed. It turned out to be a beautiful day for a ride through the dunes on some very fury camels which the owners raise for milk and wool. 

Our next stop was Sentyab village set in a valley carved out by a river in the Nuratau mountains. Caravans traveling between Bukhara and Tashkent once passed through here, but once newer, direct routes were established, the villages became isolated. Our driver, Sher, deftly navigated rocky, dirt roads, dodging cows, waiting for sheep to cross, and sometimes going no faster than 15-20 miles per hour. The villagers are Tajik, even though they live in Uzbekistan. Their ancestors took refuge here when Alexander the Great’s army marched through Tajikistan. Most are subsistence farmers, meaning they grow most of what they eat, and earn money by selling the sheep and cows they raise. There are few cars. Most people get around by walking, riding a donkey or hitching a ride on the back of a motorbike.

Our hosts were one of three families in the village who operate guesthouses for travelers as part of an ecotourism program started in 2007. “Rakhima’s” house, named for the woman who runs it, was a compound of several stone buildings built above a river that flows through the village. We were expecting more of a one-on-one experience, but that was not to be. A German tour group showed up shortly after we arrived. We were surprised to find out the family had enough rooms to sleep 20 people! I think most of the Germans doubled up, but we had our own room with a a double bed and an electric light. There was a flush toilet and shower next door, and a sink outside the room. 

We ate our meals at this little stone table. Dinner was an array of Uzbek salads made with various mixtures of mushrooms, carrots, cabbage, tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, cheese etc., followed by a dish of tiny dumplings filled with meat. Breakfast was the most interesting meal. We awoke to find our table set with a dozen little dishes including a fried egg, sausage link, bread, homemade preserves, several kinds of cookies, peanuts, walnuts, apricot seeds, candied peanuts, cheese and miniature chocolate bars. 

No business geared towards travelers could survive in Uzbekistan without tour groups. There are not enough independent travelers to keep a yurt camp, homestay or a nice restaurant in business. So while both of these experiences felt more commercial than I had hoped, I  realized that without the tour groups, they probably wouldn’t exist.

Well-maintained walking paths marked by stone walls wend through pastures and forest land. We spent the afternoon taking walks, and meeting people. As usual, we ran into lots of kids anxious to practice their English and have their pictures taken. School children either  wear uniforms or dress up, skirts and leggings for the girls, suits for the boys. They walk to school, either by themselves or with friends, with no concerns about any danger. The forest and pastures are their playgrounds; sticks and water buckets their toys. 

These two cute little tykes instinctively put their arms around each other when I asked to take their picture. It’s a pose most everyone seems to strikes. Moving on to Samarkand, the most visited tourist destination in Central Asia, we didn’t find the people all that much different than those whom we met in the village. Friendliness just seems to come naturally to Uzbeks. Samarkand is filled with amazing Islamic mosques and monuments. We spent two and a half days exploring, but meeting and talking with people here, as it was everywhere, was the highlight of our visit.

Next stop: Baku in Azerbaijan 

Bukhara: Old and new treasures along an ancient Asian trade route

Sunday afternoon in Bukhara: An Uzbek band plays on the steps of a blue-tiled mosque where Sufi dervishes once slept. In the park next door, a young boy walks on a tightrope strung between two trees, while his father performs a strongman act, picking up iron cannon balls in his teeth. When I ask these Uzbek women if I can take their picture in their colorful outfits, they insist on taking mine. Bukhara has many treasures, but none as precious as its people.

Once a major stop on the Silk Road trade route between China and Europe, Bukhara draws bus loads of tourists from around the world who come to see its wealth of well-preserved mosques, madrassas (Islamic schools), covered bazaars and caravanserais (hotels), dating from the 9th to the 17th centuries. But for some reason, apart from the souvenir sellers, Bukhara feels more like a place where local Uzbeks come to enjoy themselves, rather than a town built for tourists. 

We arrived after a three-hour ride on one of the new highs-speed trains linking Bukhara with the capital of Tashkent. In a country where many hotels still serve Nescafé, it was a surprise to find the train offering lattes - not in paper cups but in tall glasses - for $2! Bukhara, like all of Uzbekistan, is a great value. Our hotel, the Minzifa Boutique Hotel ($60 with breakfast), is a beautiful inn with spacious rooms, decorated with wood carvings, traditional artwork and textiles; new bathrooms; and excellent Wi-Fi. We generally enjoy eating the local food, but when we were ready for a break from pilaf and kabobs, we found Bella Italia, an Italian restaurant with an Uzbek twist. The waiter showed us to a table on the terrace under a tent-like canopy. The bill for two salads, two chicken entrees, vegetables, wine, bread and a steaming pot of cardamom tea came to $15. 

The town is filled with hundreds of restored mosques, covered markets, former and present-day madrassas and other libraries, many of which now house craft workshops, shops and museums. Minarets of all sizes sprout everywhere along with monuments topped with turquoise - tiled domes. The tallest is the Kalyan Minar or Great Minaret, a tapering, mud-brick tower built in12th century. Legend has it that Genghis Kahn saw it from miles away as he road towards Bukhara, and was so impressed, he spared it while destroying  almost everything else.

Uzbek women of all ages are always put-together. Head coverings are optional, but most older women wear them turban-style, usually in bright colors that match or contrast with long or mid-calf skirts and pants printed in traditional designs. Younger women wear updated versions of the same outfit, with our without a head scarf. If they do decide to cover their hair, there are lots of creative options.

The clothing has a practical side. Desert surrounds Bukhara. Few streets are paved. Cars and construction crews working on road and hotel construction constantly kick up dust. Head coverings help. 

Uzbeks have long been known for their embroidery (suzani), weaving (ikat), woodcarving and metal-smithing, crafts which the Soviets suppressed, and Bukhara artisans revived after independence.  

Most women wear traditional designs printed onto cotton or synthetic materials instead of more expensive silk. I’ve seen ikat weavings in Southeast Asia, but the weavings from Uzbekistan blend many different colors, using a resist dye process.Vertical threads are bound and dyed by hand before being woven with horizontal threads. The scarves above were likely machine-made. They sell for around $4.

Blacksmith master Sayfullo Ikramov, above, runs a small shop in one of the covered markets. He makes all sorts of knives and scissors shaped Iike birds, female and male. He  keeps a wood fire burning in his shop to heat up his steel. 

We had an extra day to build into our trip due to an onward flight to Baku that leaves only on Mondays and Thursdays. We decided to spend it here, giving us more time to poke around the backstreets with no particular destination in mind. This man motioned to us while we were walking through his neighborhood. We followed a sign that said “House Museum,” apparently his house, a ramshackle but authentic old house built in the 1800s. He greeted us with a sprig of mint from his garden, then showed us around, pointing out traditional carved wooden ceilings and arched wall niches similar to the ones in our hotel displaying little pots and figurines. 

Having extra time meant we could become regulars at a cafe on the main square, the Lyabi Hauz complex, overlooking a reservoir fed by an ancient canal system. The Soviets drained, restored and refilled the pool in the 1960s, getting rid of stagnant water that was a breeding ground for diseases. The square is where everyone goes in the afternoon and evening to drink tea, have an ice cream, and let their kids play on inflatable bouncy toys or drive little electric cars.

Our favorite activity is to find a table in the shade, order ice tea, and people-watch. Before long, we’re swarmed by students trying to practice their English. They usually start by saying “Hello,” and then asking our names and ages and where we are from. Most people come here to get their picture taken next to a wooden camel, but these kids begged to get a picture of us posing with them. 

They took turns getting in the photos, then left and returned a few minutes later with prints. Everyone wanted us to sign their pictures. Suddenly, we were celebrities in Bukhara.

Along the Silk Road: A slice of Uzbek life in the capital city of Tashkent

Conjure up images of the ‘Stans, the five countries along the former Silk Route connecting Europe to China, and turquoise-tiled domes atop mosques and minarets are what most of us visualize. Best known in Uzbekistan for their Islamic architecture are Bukhara and Samarkand, but before moving on to those cities, we decided to spend a few days in the capital city of Tashkent, a 2,000-year-old city known more for its massive Soviet-era buildings and post-1966 earthquake reconstruction. Still, it’s hard even here to look around and not see a blue dome -either on an ancient mosque like the one above, or atop new mosques, museums, shopping bazaars, even the circus arena.

We like starting out a trip in the capital city to get a feel for real life (and prices!) outside the tourist areas. Most tour groups give Tashkent a day at the most, but we spent four nights and three days here in the delightful, family-run Jahongir bed and breakfast in an older residential neighborhood, ten minutes or so by subway from newer parts of the city. The family converted their huge home into a nine-room inn, adding a bathroom in each room. We paid $40 a night, including a breakfast of of sweet and savory pastries, fruit, eggs, cheeses, and a big round of bread, an Uzbek staple.

One of the best parts about staying in the neighborhood was visiting the morning bread bazaar. Dozens of women show up each day with fresh rounds tucked snuggly inside baby carriages covered with blankets. The women “sign” their bread, using a pronged stamp to make perforated designs in the dough. This woman was selling raisin and nut loaves for around 80 cents. 

The bread is cooked in wood-fired clay ovens like this. It’s a unique way of baking that involves sticking the dough to the sides of the oven to cook. 

We’ve had fun learning our away around on the Soviet-built subway system. Artwork and decorative tiles decorate the stations, but taking pictures is forbidden. Uniformed guards with metal-detecting wands patrol each entrance. Attendants in ticket booths sell blue, plastic tokens. On the platforms are more attendants (mostly women) dressed in spiffy blue and gold uniforms, ties, red hats and heels. Their job is to raise and lower a paddle, indicating it’s OK to enter the train. Jobs like these provide near full-employment, although the pay is low, prompting many to leave for Russia, the U.S. and other countries where they can make three or four times the amount for similar jobs, especially in construction.

The Uzbek economy is still transitioning from a Soviet-influenced system even through the country became an independent democracy in 1991. People give the former hard-line president credit for taking Uzbekistan to where it is today, but it’s been only in the past two years, under a new leader, that many rules changed, and entrepreneurship began to flourish. Until recently, the government required every able-bodied Uzbek was to take time out from school or a job to pick cotton for a month. 

Stores aren’t well-stocked, mainly because it takes hard currency (U.S. dollars, euros, Russian rubles etc.) to buy goods made elsewhere, and the Uzbek currency (the Som) is non-convertible, meaning it can’t be spent or exchanged for another currency outside the country. Tourists are a source of valuable hard currency, the reason  hotels demand payment in U.S. dollars or euros, and bank machines spit out U.S. dollars which travelers then have to take to a bank and exchange for soms (The government raised the official rate recently, eliminating the black market). Arriving on a flight from Seoul, South Korea, we encountered a free-for-all at the airport baggage claim. Uzbeks with hard currency make frequent trips, bringing back huge boxes and bags stuffed cheap goods for resale.

At an exchange rate of 8,000 soms to one U.S. dollar, it takes a big wallet or plastic bag to carry around money. Above are 90, 10,000 som bills, the equivalent of $100. Bills in 50,000 som denominations are available, but few people want them because they are hard to cash. The upside is that the som buys a lot. A subway ride is 15 cents; an ice cream cone, 30 cents; a long cab ride, $1.50; dinner for two $6-$20, depending on the restaurant. 

Most Uzbeks speak Russian as well as Uzbek, so it helps to know a few words, but English-speaking Uzbeks like to practice on foreigners. People often stop us for an informal chat and a photo. We met these military men as they were marching through one of the main squares. They shouted out “Hello” and “Hi” as they marched by, then turned around and crowded around us for a selfie.

Uzbek women are walking works of art. They dress in all sorts of ways, from Western-style jeans, skirts etc. to creative takes on traditional Muslim dress, usually a colorful turban paired with a bright, printed long skirt, often decorated with sequins or sparkles. The best people-watching is at the Chorsu Bazaar, a covered shopping and market complex housed in several domed buildings.

Various sections are devoted to different products, such as nuts and spices, fresh vegetables, fruits, spices, meats, bread, baskets, cheeses etc. Vendors hand out samples, to curious visitors who can’t always identify what the products are. Strangest find: counters filled with little white balls the size of jaw breakers. We thought they were candy. Turns out they were cheese. All the bread for sale at the bazaar is baked on site in the clay ovens. The bakers are friendly and invite tourists back to look inside the ovens, and sample the fresh bread. 

Next stop: Bukhara on one of Uzbekistan’s new high-speed trains.

Seoul mates: Korean kindness kick-starts an Asian adventure

Hello from Seoul, South Korea. When you live 30 miles from the border with North Korea, it helps to have a sense of humor. I have no idea why Kim Jong-un’s picture appears next to a stack of cookies and an advertisement for paint brushes, but there’s a reason they call the Koreans the Irish of Asia. It’s silly to stereotype a whole nationality, of course, but one reason I like this country is that people in general are upbeat, friendly, outgoing and always up for a smile or a laugh.

It’s true that not as much English is spoken here as in some other parts of Asia, but it seems there’s always someone around to help. We stand out as rare Western faces among the thousands of Koreans in the subways and on the streets. When we pause to recheck directions on our phone, someone assumes we’re lost, and offers to help. One night, we popped into a neighborhood restaurant, and ordered from a simple menu with English translations. Out came a cold bottle of milky-white rice wine, a platter of lightly breaded zucchini (described as a zucchini pancake) and a “rolled omelette,” an egg dish filled with veggies and cut into two dozen bite-sized pieces. Another night it was bibimbap, a steaming bowl of veggies, pork and egg atop sizzling rice. Plates of kimchi come gratis. If you finish them before the main dishes arrive, they bring more. 

Dessert was a “Korean pancake” made fresh by a street vendor who cooks them them while you wait, and serves them in a paper cup so you can eat them without burning your fingers- delicious on a chilly night!

Seoul isn’t on most travelers’ radar, but it deserves to be. Historic sites aren’t the draw here. What stands out is an energetic population of creative people with great ideas for keeping a big city alive and vibrant. 

Retailers  (and a certain U.S. president) who blame Amazon.com for the decline of U.S. shopping malls could take a lesson from what the owners of the Starfield COEX mall, Asia’s largest underground mall in the trendy Gangnam district. Above is one of three, two-story, floor-to-ceiling wooden bookshelves in a free reading room opened last year to provide shoppers with a place to relax and chill out. Computers and desk clerks are on hand to help search specific titles from among 50,000 books and dozens of current magazines. Tables with reading lamps, comfortable chairs and laptop plug-ins surround the library houses in a spacious atrium leading to shops, restaurants, a hotel, and aquarium and a 17-screen theater complex. 

Other Korean ideas worth copying:

-Bag dispensers at the entrances to stores and restaurants for wet umbrellas.

-Cute cartoons on bank machine screens

-Subway announcements reminding passengers to give up their seats to pregnant women “at any stage, even if they aren’t showing.”

-No guns

-Few coins

-Water-saving toilets in hotel rooms that flush automatically, with heated seats and buttons for “front and rear cleansing.” 

-Heated floors for sitting or walking on without shoes

-Sweet potato lattes and green tea flatcinnos (like a frapiccino only with less calories) 

Make no mistake, there are plenty of people on their phones (Samsung more than iPhones), but Korea is still a nation of readers. I can’t remember the last time 

I found a newspaper so wide I had to read it with outstretched arms. The English Korea Daily comes inserted into the International New York Times each day, and it’s been interesting to see what qualifies as news. There’s usually an opinion piece or two about the upcoming meetings between North and South and the U.S., but for the most part, life goes on as it always has. Most people hope for better relations with the North, but not necessarily reunification. More on the minds of people here is the dust drifting over from the Yellow Sea in China. We were startled to get an alert on our phones “inviting” everyone over the age of 60 to consider wearing a mask.”

A study out of London reported recently that people who read books are kinder and nicer. This is certainly true of Koreans. When I landed a story on teahouses in Seoul for a travel magazine, I reached out to friends of friends and on Facebook for local contacts. With their help, we were lucky enough to spend time with a local person almost everyday. The delightful woman above is a volunteer Goodwill Guide who signs up with the tourist board to meet foreigners in her spare time. We talked about travel, politics, jobs and family over steamed pumpkin cake and jujube tea at the Cha-Teul teahouse in  Bukchon Hanok Village, a historical area of century-old traditional homes. 

Another afternoon we met Choi Jongsoo, a retiree who volunteers as a Seoul culture and tourism volunteer guide. Choi led us on a walking tour of Cheonggye, an 11 kilometer stream that runs through the center of downtown Seoul. Once a sewer where people threw garbage, it was covered with an elevated highway after the Korean War, then restored in 2003 as a waterway, park and arts venue with 22 bridges. The sculpture above symbolizes a spout where the water starts.

Choi is 68 and keeps in shape by playing ping pong and leading these 2-hour walking tours around various locations in Seoul. Our walk ended with a visit to a local market where vendors were cooking up lunch for Sunday afternoon shoppers.

It’s cherry blossom season, a time when many Koreans use the streets in historical reas as a back drop for pictures of themselves dressed in traditional costumes. Most women own the dresses, called  hanbok, but they are heavy to transport, so shops rent them for the day.

My teahouse research brought us to the Korean Temple Food Center for a tea-tasting lesson  with this Buddhist monk. She is 44 and has been a monk for 19 years. Tea-drinking is as much about meditation as it is about relaxing over a healthy drink, she said, explaining the concept of “three cups of tea.” “Each cup will have a different taste, and if you’re aware, you’ll taste the five tastes - sweet, sour, salty, bitter and spicy.”

Seoul has some excellent coffee houses, but traditional teas popular a century ago are making a comeback as more people seek out ways to relax and stay healthy. Forget banging espresso machines and tapping on laptops.  At the Moonbird Thinks Only of the Moon teahouse in Insadong, we shared tea and conversation with Rosemary Kim, who teaches Korean as a second language and is studying for her doctorate at a local university. Antique chests, old clocks, kimchi jars and gourds decorate every inch this cozy shop. The sounds of a gurgling fountain and soft Beatles music playing in the backround set the mood for relaxing over warming cups of tea made from cinnamon bark and set on wooden saucers. 

Traditional teas go beyond just taste; they help prevent common ailments and relax the mind and body in different ways. Kim Aeran, tea chef and owner of Tteuran Teahouse in a century-old hanok that once housed a noodle shop, divides her menu into healthy medicinal herbal blends, healthy fermented teas, wild leaf teas and flower teas. Guests sip while relaxing on a heated floor overlooking her garden. Kim makes all her desserts in-house, specializing in a thick, red bean porridge in cooler weather and Bingsu, a traditional Korean treat made with shaved milk ice in summer. I guess this means we’ll have to plan a return trip soon.

Next top: Uzbekistan