|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 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.
|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.
|Samarkand's Registan or public square|
|Gur Emir Mausoleum|
|Uzbek tourists in Samarkand|
Next stop: Baku in Azerbaijan