Washington State's Own Stone Town Rocks with a Relaxed, Rural Vibe


The stone carvers of Tenino 

Zanzibar it's not, but Washington State's very own Stone Town rocks with a relaxed vibe sure to appeal to Seattleites tired of the   summer tourist crowds. No need to fly to Africa. Just head south on Interstate-5, past Olympia to find Tenino, a tiny town in rural Thurston County, once the sandstone capital of the West.

Pictures of John Wayne decorate the walls of the Sandstone Cafe where waiters serve $10 breakfast entrees and bottomless cups of coffee. Sip bacon whiskey at the Sandstone Distillery. Visit a group of stone carvers chiseling with hand tools in an old grain storage shed. Grab a free bike, and take a spin around town to spot historic stone buildings. 

Built up after sandstone deposits were discovered in the late 1800s, Tenino thrived as builders across the country looked for stronger construction materials following fires in Seattle and San Francisco. 
  
With bike trails, farms, parks and wineries nearby, this slice of small- town Western Washington makes for easy-on-the-wallet weekend getaway. Here's the plan:


The Sandstone Cafe 

9 a.m. 
Breakfast on a budget 

Get out of town early (even though it's the weekend, traffic can be heavy either direction on I-5), and join the locals for breakfast at the Sandstone Cafe. Go healthy with a breakfast salad (mushrooms, green peppers, onion and wilted spinach topped with feta and eggs) or splurge on the "Chunky Monkey," a waffle with bananas drizzled with peanut butter, maple sauce, whipped cream and bacon crumbles. 


Master carver Keith Phillips instructs Colby Russell

10 a.m. 
Visit the stone carvers 

Pick up a Tenino Sandstone Walking tour brochure at the Chamber of Commerce desk across from the cafe, and find The Shed, a workshop where master stone carver Keith Phillips, 71, and his protégés create one-of-a-kind works from sandstone mined from the last remaining local quarry (Of three, one is now a swimming pool and the other is gone). The carvers wear hats, ties and long aprons, just as they did long ago, and use hand tools to fashion decorative stone pieces.




The walking tour map points out various sculptures around town created by Phillips, a carver for 34 years, including a sandstone book in front of the library, a bag of groceries at the supermarket and a mortar and pestle in front of the pharmacy. 


Sipping vinegars
10:30 a.m.
To market 

A bountiful Thurston County agricultural area surrounds Tenino. Shop for local produce and crafts at the Tenino Farmers Market, Saturdays through September from 10 a.m.- 3 p.m. Find wooden toys, walking sticks and kitchen utensils made by Josh Wagner and his grandfather, Hap Newman, and sipping vinegars (shrubs) in flavors such as Blueberry Thyme and Pear Cardamon Rosemary crafted by Jenni Bourdon whose family owns the Sandstone Distillery.




11 a.m.  
Go for a bike ride

Antique and second-hand shops line Sussex Avenue. Stop by Joyce Worrell's Iron Works Boutique for vintage fashions, antiques and garden kitsch along with keys to free yellow bikes. Tenino was way ahead of big-city bike share programs when a community group started the Yellow Bike project in 2001. All you need is valid ID to borrow a bike for a few hours to tour the town, or ride part of the paved Yelm-Tenino rail trail.


Tenino's wooden scrip

Noon: 
All aboard

Visit the Tenino Depot Museum, a sandstone building that looks much the same as it did in 1914 when it was the Northern Pacific railway depot, and trains ran between Seattle and Portland. While the quarries, railroad and logging drove the economy of Tenino in the early 1900s, once concrete came along, the town's town’s fortunes waned. The Great Depression put Tenino on the map when the chamber of commerce began issuing wooden money printed on thin slices of spruce and cedar following a bank failure in 1931. 

The museum runs the same printing press used in the 1930s to print souvenir $1 wooden bills. Buy a few, and try using the scrip  around town. Many local businesses still accept it for purchases.




1 p.m.
Walk on the wildside

Time to head out of town into the rural backroads. Plan at least an hour, maybe more, to explore the peaceful Monarch Contemporary Art and Sculpture Park, a non-profit project begun in the 1990s by local artist Myrna Orsini and Doris Coonrod, a retired federal judge. The site reopened recently as a five-acre park free to the public.

Park nearby, then walk in or bike in via the Chehalis Western trail. Take a leisurely stroll past more than 100 modern sculptures made from granite, wood, steel and other materials. Some works, such as a giant croquet set with brightly colored balls the size of boulders, are immediately visible, while others are hidden among the trees.


Distiller John Bourdon

2:30 p.m.
Bacon whiskey 

Circling back towards Tenino, find the Sandstone Distillery and tasting room.  Distiller John Bourdon and his son, Justin, use Washington-grown grains to make spirits including a Stone Carver black gin, infused with star anise; a bacon whiskey flavored with help of pigs fed Sandstone’s spent grain; and an apple whiskey made with a neighbor's apples. Tours and tastings are $5. Expected to be up-and-running soon is a huge copper and oak still purchased from a Chehalis mint factory. 



Mill Lane's Deana Ferris

4 p.m.
Fruit of the vine 

Scatter Creek Winery and Brewing on Sussex Avenue offers a cozy place to sip and socialize in the afternoon and evenings. Drop in for a glass of Sandstone White, aged with Elderberry flowers, or a pint of Screamin' Rails IPA .

Tucked into a residential neighborhood three miles out of town is the Mill Lane Winery with a shady patio and tasting room decorated with twinkling lights.

Bring your sweet tooth. Proprietors Dan and Deana Ferris specialize in wines made with Washington state fruit. Deana comes up with the ideas and Dan makes the wine. There's blackberry truffle blended with dark chocolate and vanilla; pear wine made with fruit grown in Chehalis and a sparkling rose made from French grapes enhanced with strawberries and lime. 


If you go:

Getting there: Tenino is 75 miles south of Seattle via Interstate 5. Count on about 1.5 hours of driving time. Click here for visitor information.

This story was published in The Seattle Times on August 16, 2018

Suburban surprises await bikers in Vancouver's scenic countryside


Observation tower at Grant Narrows Provincial Park

I love Vancouver's city vibe, but on a recent visit to British Columbia, my husband and I decided to bypass the urban adventures for a weekend in the Canadian countryside. 

We didn't have to go far. Thirty miles east of Vancouver in the North Fraser River Valley are the suburbs of Pitt Meadows and Maple Ridge, at first glance a mish-mash of housing developments and strip malls, but for those in the know, a hidden corner of tranquility in metro Vancouver.

Nestled between the Pitt, Alouette and Fraser Rivers in the foothills of the Golden Ears mountains, are dairy farms, nurseries, cranberry and blueberry fields set on a giant floodplain protected by  dikes - long stretches of raised earthen mounds- surrounded by farmland. 

Built by Dutch settlers in the 1950s as a method of flood control, the dikes form an interconnected system of walking and bicycling trails. Making an overnight stay worthwhile are well-kept provincial and regional parks with river and canyon trails leading to waterfalls and wildlife habitats.

Airbnb in Maple Ridge

We used Airbnb to score a garden suite with a kitchen and private bath attached to a century-old Maple Ridge home once used by a Vancouver family as a summer retreat. it was a bargain at $65 a night, mainly because the U.S. dollar goes far in Canada, but also because it wasn't in downtown Vancouver.

With the better parts of two days to explore, it made sense to bookend a long bike ride around the dikes with hikes in nearby regional parks along with pit stops at a historic pub, a local cheesemaker and Peruvian and Taiwanese bistros. 

Grant Narrows Provincial Park 

The hike: This is a dog-friendly wilderness area and wildlife habitat on the banks of the Pitt River, with views of snow-capped  Golden Ears peaks and a dike system surrounded by wetland bog and marsh areas.

With a few hours of afternoon light left before sunset, we opted for a four-mile walk around the trail called the Katzie Marsh Loop, a hike that took us first along the Pitt River dike trail, a flat, wide trail of packed gravel, flanked on one side by the Pitt River, and the other by a marsh filled with watershields, rooted plants that float on the surface similar to water lilies, but smaller. Climbing a wooden observation tower, we looked for some of the 200-plus species of birds sighted in the park, and saw herons, ducks, geese and osprey.

A right turn led us to the Swan dike trail, a grassy path with water on both sides, and onto the Nature trail, a narrow, wooded path dotted with cattails, pond weeds and blackberry bushes. We were told that someone had spotted a bear here earlier, but we saw only a few lone kayakers. 

Pit stop Grab a stool on the front porch or a high-back upholstered chair near the wood stove at the Billy Miner Alehouse Café on the Fraser River, and step back to a time when train heists were common along the railroad tracks running past the front door.   
 Once a bank and shelter for war vets, the pub is named for gentleman bandit Billy Miner, a Robin Hood figure who targeted companies such as the Canadian Pacific Railway. 
Today, it's commuters riding the express trains from Vancouver who stop here after work. We paired pints of Three Bears Breakfast Stout brewed by Trading Post Brewing in Langley, B.C. with a wood-fired pizza piled with pulled pork, roasted sweet potatoes, mango chutney and pineapple.

Ridge Meadows Circle

The ride: With about 40 miles of interconnected trails, the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows dike system offers bikers many choices for rides along flat, mostly hard-packed gravel paths. 
Let's go Biking, a website dedicated to easy rides around metro Vancouver, outlines a variety of rides of varying lengths with access points, directions and sights marked on printable maps.  With most of the day to explore, we followed the Ridge Meadows Circle route for a 20-mile ride along all three rivers, mostly on dikes and and a few roads with dedicated bike lanes.  


Biking along the dikes in Pitt Meadows


Starting at Osprey Village, a planned community in Pitt Meadows across from a shoreline park, we peddled first along the   banks of the Fraser, then along a narrow path in the forested Pitt River Greenway. The trail widened again as left the woods, and road past a small airport, a cedar mill, blueberry farms, and cranberry bogs along the Fraser and Pitt Rivers. If I had time to do only part of this trail, it would be the last leg along the south side of the Alouette, the most peaceful of the three rivers, with views of Golden Ears in the late afternoon light. 

Pit stops:  Begin or end a dikes ride at Peruvian-owned Stomping Grounds cafe or Jia Plus, a Taiwanese cafe in Osprey Village. 



Stomping Grounds cafe

Stomping Grounds offers brunch on weekends. Other times, stop in for a breakfast sandwich, or a panini for a picnic lunch. Owner Anahi English's speciality is budin de pan, a Peruvian bread pudding made with raisins, cream, cranberries and eggs and drizzled with caramel.

Jia Plus offers cold Taiwanese milk teas, smoothies and non-dairy drinks plus a small menu of hot dishes such as wonton soup and ginger pork in a cozy cafe decorated with local art.

Kanaka Creek Regional Park

The hikes: Easy walks through a costal rainforest, waterfalls and sandstone cliffs await visitors to this wilderness park flanking the Kanaka Creek, just five miles from downtown Maple Ridge. 

With just a few hours left the morning we were headed back to Seattle, we decided to save larger Golden Ears Provincial Park for another time, and explore two short trails in this scenic regional park.

Interpretive signs along a 1.8 riverfront nature trail explain  how logs were once moved off rail cars and onto booms (rafts) for transport down the Fraser to local sawmills.  A wooden foot bridge crosses Kanaka Creek where the trail leads to picnic areas with peaceful water views.


Foot bridge across Kanaka Creek

An upper canyon trail in the Cliff Falls area follows sandstone canyons with wooden foot bridges crossing the creek with views of waterfalls. Wide paths and wooden steps in steeper areas make this a family-friendly trail popular with dog-walkers and mothers packing babies in front pouches.    


Homemade cheese and more at Cheesecrafters 



Pit stopStop by Golden Ears Cheescrafters to watch cheeses, curds and butter being made using milk from the dairy next door run by two Maple Ridge sisters.
"Everything you see in this case was made right here," a woman behind the counter told me, offering samples of smoked Gouda and Jersey blue. 

We came before our hike for coffee and a breakfast flatbread - eggs, cheese, tomatoes, bacon with a drizzle of balsamic - then returned later for cheese and a raspberry-apple pie.

If you go:

Where: Pitt Meadows and Maple Ridge lie 30 miles east of Vancouver in the North Fraser Valley. From Vancouver, head east on Highway 1 (the Trans Canada Highway) to Highway 7, which becomes the Lougheed Highway. From Seattle, plan on about 2.5 hours of driving, not including border wait times, for the 130-mile trip via Interstate 5, BC-15 North and Golden Ears Way.

Tourism information: See the Maple Ride & Pitt Meadows Community and Business Resource website. Also Destination British Columbia 

Trail maps: Let's Go Biking has suggested routes along the dike trails, along with maps and trail descriptions.  See also http://www.alltrails.com 

See Metro Vancouver's website for Parks information

Lodging:

Chain hotels along the Lougheed Highway (Highway 7). Airbnb offers the best option for bed and breakfast- style accommodations in private homes.

Golden Ears Provincial Park has three campgrounds. 

This story was published in the Seattle Times on June 17, 2018

Pure Bliss: Norwegian's newest ship begins Seattle/Alaska sailing season


The Norwegian Bliss docks in Victoria B.C.

The first ever cruise line to homeport in Seattle 18 years ago is now sailing the biggest ship to call in the Northwest. The popular week-long Seattle/ Alaska round trips, with port calls in British Columbia, has transformed the city into the largest cruise port on the West Coast. Norwegian Cruise Lines christened the Norwegian Bliss last week with travel writers,  travel agents and clients aboard for a three-day preview cruise between Seattle and Victoria, B.C.



Seattle's Pier 66: The Bliss' summer homeport

The Port of Seattle expects more than one million cruise passengers to pass through the city this year on 218 vessels, pumping more than $500 million into the local economy. Like many in Seattle, I have mixed feelings about this. While I don't like seeing my favorite downtown restaurants and the Pike Place Market crowded to capacity every weekend, I do appreciate that many businesses couldn't sustain the winter months without tourism. And who wouldn't want to visit this beautiful city? Just look at the view above of Pier 66, the Bell Street Cruise Terminal on the Seattle waterfront. This is where the Bliss will homeport this summer, bringing in more than 4,000 passengers and 1,800 crew members per week from now through September when it repositions for the Caribbean.   


Free-fall waterslides

So...what's it like to be on a mega-ship with 20 decks, 2,043 staterooms and more than 4,000 passengers? I can't tell you because there were only around 1,500 people and few children on our preview sailing, not counting many more on board just for the day of the christening on May 30. Once the day-trippers left, we easily found seating around the pools, in the observation lounge, and along the "waterfront," a open-air deck lined with comfortable couches and restaurants with outdoor tables. 


The "waterfront" deck

Bars, restaurants, nightclubs and a go-kart track on the top deck felt more crowded, even with fewer people on board, indicating passengers on regular sailings will be wise to reserve ahead for restaurants and popular activities. 

My husband and I tried to experience as much as we could in three nights. Here's an overview of some of our favorite finds:


Observation Lounge

Favorite public space: The huge wrap-around Observation Lounge on Deck 15 near the front of the ship. With floor-to-ceiling windows, comfortable chairs, tables and couches, a full-service bar and a  tasty and healthy complimentary breakfast buffet, the lounge was designed to maximize views of Alaska's mountain scenery. I loved this space for a quiet morning coffee and the New York Times downloaded onto my iPad. Kudos to Norwegian for limiting the noise level by banning music, lectures etc. and reserving such a large space for reading and relaxing. The downside is that the room's capacity is just 487, and even at half-full, it could feel like a much different experience. 


Observation Lounge bar

Favorite bars: I treasured my afternoon lattes from the Observation Lounge bar, and liked the Northwest touches in the Maltings Whiskey bar, with cocktails on tap designed by Seattle mixologist and chef Kathy Casey. I'm not a bourbon drinker, but I could have overindulged on her blackberry bourbon smash.


Kathy Casey

Other favorites were the District Brewhouse with 24 beers on tap including a Red Hook IPA and a Seattle Dry Cider, and the Sugarcane Mojito bar, mostly because of the bartender, below, Clarense Bennet from Honduras. Another advantage of being on an uncrowded ship was the relaxed crew. We met and talked with people from Philippines as many other parts of the world. Crew members work 7-day shifts for the most part while onboard, and were anxious to learn about inexpensive places to shop in Seattle near Pier 66 for whenever they can disembark for a few hours. 

Clarense Bennet

Favorite dining spots: Norwegian is known for its casual, "free-style" dining, meaning no formal dress code or assigned dining. Included in the cost of the cruise are meals in the Garden Cafe, a large buffet with tables positioned along the windows and outside; three main dining rooms and the Local Bar and Grill, open 24/7. There's a fee for dining in other restaurants, including a steak house, Italian restaurant, Japanese restaurant and Texas smokehouse (always filled on our cruise), which might make purchasing a dining package worthwhile. I'll leave the details on that to the experts. Here's a link to a good overview on EatSleepCruise.com. We tried two of the fee restaurants, La Cucina and Cagney's Steakhouse, both with outdoor seating. Both were good, but noisy. I preferred the Manhattan main dining room (nice views of the sunset and mountains from the aft deck), both for ambience and food. We also found the Garden Cafe buffet relaxing for a light meal with lots of fresh and healthy choices. 


A lighted staircase and chandelier change colors


Favorite staterooms: The best values seem to be the balcony suites with couches and spacious bathrooms. Priciest is the Haven, a luxury "ship within a ship," within a ship on Decks 17, 18 and 19? Here there are penthouses, private family villas and connecting suites; a private restaurant; observation lounge; bar; pool; sauna; spa; and concierge desk. Oceanview and inside rooms cost less, of course, but considering that upgrades sometimes include a few free amenities (more dining options, free Wi-Fi, drinks etc.), passengers should look at all the options before booking. I was impressed by the studios designed and priced for solo travelers. There are 82 compact rooms furnished with full-sized beds and separate sinks and showers. 

Favorite activities: Entertainment in an 800-seat theater includes an excellent performance of the Broadway hit Jersey Boys about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. 

Two heated pools, several hot tubs, an inner tube slide and a high-speed double loop waterside provide plenty of water fun for adults and kids, but I predict the longest lines will be at the two-level race track on the top deck. Up to 10 drivers (no age limit but minimum and maximum height limits) race around the track in electric cars ($7 a ride). Kids shorter than four feet can go with a parent in a two-seater. Also on the top deck is an open-air laser tag course.

Costs: Don't be fooled by ads touting seemingly cheap prices for cruises aboard the Bliss.  Inside rooms on its Alaska Highlights cruise start at $1,049 per person for the last seven-day sailing in September, but go as high as $1,500 in July and August. Balcony rooms range from $1,600 in September to $2,300 in July. Staterooms in the Haven go from  $3,500 in September to $7,500 in late June. Add to these prices a daily service fee of $14.50 per person, extra charges for alcoholic drinks, laser tag, go-karts, fee restaurants and drinks plus an 18 percent gratuity on all bar purchase and services in the spa and salon. 

If you really want a bargain on the Bliss, consider the six-night Pacific Coastal Cruise from Vancouver to Los Angeles Sept. 30-Oct. 5, as the ship repositions for the winter. Prices range from $599 for an inside room to $2,399 in the Haven.


The transformation of oil-rich Baku: Azerbaijan's gateway to the Caucasus


Baku's Flame Towers are visible from many parts of the city. 

Anthony Bourdain traveled the world for his television show “Parts Unknown,” so it’s a shame he never made it to Baku, the oil-rich capital of Azerbaijan, boarded by Iran, Russia and Armenia in the South Caucuses.

From land-locked Uzbekistan, we flew across the Caspian Sea to experience one of the ex-Soviet Union’s most prosperous cities situated along the old Silk Road trade route linking China to Europe. Baku’s old city, hidden behind iron gates and medieval walls, evokes a colorful past. Representing a modern society of creative young designers are one-of-a-kind new office towers, museums, fountains and parks. 


Fountains Square

The government banned Bourdain from coming here because he spent time and filmed a TV show in the break-away state of Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory Azerbaijan claims as its own, but has been controlled by Armenia since 1988 (a situation similar to the Russian take-over of Crimea in the Ukraine). After the Soviet Union collapsed, war broke out. Thousands of Azeris and Armenians were killed and displaced. 

Despite a cease-fire, the countries are still technically at war, and the Azerbaijan government prohibits anyone who visits Nagono-Karabakh from entering the country. It’s the first question the government asks on its visa application. Lie and they find out, you’ll be denied entry, even if your visa was approved.

Although we have never been to Nagorno-Karabakh, we were in Armenia during a previous trip to the region. We would have liked to visit Baku then, but couldn’t because the land borders between the two countries are sealed. Getting here this time was easier because we flew from Central Asia. 





The Old City

After prospering as a Silk Road stopover for traders carrying carpets and silk to the west, Baku’s fortunes rose again during an oil boom in the late 1800s. Wealthy merchants from Europe, Russia and the Middle East created a multi-cultural society where Muslims, Christians and Jews mixed an even inter-married. The country enjoyed just two precious years of independence between 1918 and 1920 after the fall of the Russian empire and before the rise of the Soviet Union. During that time, Azerbaijan established a parliament, and became the first majority-Muslim nation to grant women equal political rights with men. 

Preserved behind fortress walls is the old city, while just outside the walls are European-styled buildings from the 19th and 20th centuries and futuristic skyscrapers from the 21st. Arriving in the rain, we took refuge in a cafe while we figured out how to navigate the cobbled streets of the old town with rolling suitcases. Had streets not been blocked off in preparation for the Formula 1 Grand Prix later in the week (No, we didn’t know about it when we booked), it might have been easier to find the Seven Rooms Boutique Hotel in a century-old building a few minutes walk from the the Caspian Sea. Grand Prix planners constructed temporary concrete barriers and fencing to prevent racers from crashing into onlookers lining the route. The barriers blocked entrances to many businesses including a string of designer shops on the waterfront and the Four Seasons Hotel. 




Dinner at Dolma

Baku is surprisingly affordable for being an oil-rich city that attracts international business. Public transport was a bargain. Our hotel with all the mod-cons and a heated bathroom floor in a rennovated historlcial building was $100 a night. A half-hour ride on the new airport Express Bus to town was $1.60. A subway ride cost 15 cents. Dinner for two - olives, bread fresh from the clay oven, soup, salad, a platter of grilled vegetables, roasted chicken and wine -averaged around $17. Many restaurants and cafes are underground, entered down a flight of steps from the street. Our favorite was Dolma on Fountains Square, a lively pedestrian area just outside the walls. Diners relax underground in cozy nooks, eating from platters of grilled vegetables, chicken or lamb warmed over hot coals.

Icherisheher subway station 

Some call Baku the Dubai of the Caucasus, but I think it’s a far more interesting city, given its history and combination of Soviet-style, European and modern architecture. We took an excellent two-hour free walking tour with a volunteer from Baku Explorer. The majority of  people are Muslim, but most practice a version our guide called “Islam Lite.” Almost no one wears a head scarf, and cafes and restaurants serve alcohol. 

Above is the Icherisheher station in the old city. Underground, the station preserves the original Soviet architectural style, similar to what we saw in Tashkent in Uzbekistan, although customers use reloadable plastic cards instead of plastic tokens to pay for fares. Above ground, the design in more in sync with modern times.


Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center





The carpet museum 


Museums showcase Azerbaijan’s history as a center for literature, art and textiles. There’s a national museum of literature, named for it’s most famous poet, Nizami Ganjavi; a Museum of Miniature Books filled with 3,000 titles displayed in glass cases; and my favorites, the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum, shaped like a rolled-up carpet; and the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center, an art museum and exhibition center, known for its flowing, white curves, and excellent permanent exhibit on the history of art, music and crafts in Azerbaijan.


The "cocoon" area inside Baku's airport



Sleeping pods for quiet time 

Forward-thinking design also influenced amenities at Baku’s Heydar Aleyev airport. The airport commissioned an Istanbul-based studio to design wood-clad “cocoons” throughout the upper level of the international terminal. The 16 little huts house cafes, a champagne and caviar bar, a kid’s play area, spa and a bookstore. There also are several sleeping pods with pull-down lids for privacy. The designers compared the airport to “a huge playground” for a human-centered approach to hospitality design. Wouldn’t it be nice if U.S. airport designers thought the same way? 


Tea by the Caspian Sea

Anthony Bourdain got around, but it's a shame he never had the chance to visit a museum in a rolled up carpet, enjoy coffee in a cocoon, or sip tea by the Caspian Sea. 

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

Morning camel ride

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.

Yurt with wood stove

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.


Sunrise in the desert




Village musician and his kids

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.


Village men in the morning


Our homestay

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. 


Homestay breakfast


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.


Walking paths with stone walls

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. 


After-school play






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.


Samarkand's Registan or public square



Gur Emir Mausoleum






Uzbek tourists in Samarkand

Next stop: Baku in Azerbaijan