I am now so inured to taxi drivers the fact that this one (the only one on this trip who has not at least tried to rip me off) needs to check in with every member of his extended family in order to verify the route from the airport comes as no surprise. And when it also becomes clear he has taken three passes round Tehran to find the hotel it seems not only reasonable but also actually a relief (the third time round had made Tehran seem impossibly huge). Impossibly huge it may not be but it is impossibly chaotic and congested and thanks to the Farsi script almost completely incomprehensible. It is lucky then that 99% of the population have committed themselves to ensuring we feel welcome and supported. In fact we have to develop defensive avoidance strategies, so difficult is it to set foot outside the hotel without being invited to coffee, lunch or even just a protracted chat.

Feeding cats in Tehran. This particular Harvard grad (’68) wanted to take me to lunch just because I asked him whether I could take his picture.



‘Yomadic’ promises us an off-the-beaten-track tour of Iran (one of their other enduringly popular alternative destinations is Chernobyl) and starts it off with a bang at the nest of spies AKA the former American Embassy now repurposed as a museum by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard in their latest iteration as hipsters. We make our way gingerly down an allée of this year’s winners of the ‘Anti-American poster of the year’ competition (for budding high school artists only) and into the embassy itself so our creepily chipper IRG guide can gleefully point out the sights – the Faraday cage to isolate encrypted signals the US helicoptered in when everyone was out of Tehran for the New Year holiday; the dreadful mustard shag pile carpet squares in the Enigma room; the fading photographs of hostages miserably pretending to enjoy Christmas dinner). Sadly he is conveniently is called away before we can muster any probing questions leaving us with our reflections. The two bona-fide Americans in our group of 10 remark cattily that unless the Russians are derelict in their espionage duty their embassy must surely look the same, while the Australian majority look a bit smug that their government has managed to keep its nose relatively clean at least in this respect. The lone English representative looks thankful that UK imperialism has been upstaged on this one occasion, while the outliers (one Irish milenial who is a real sport to come on vacation with essentially her parental demographic, and the as yet inscrutable Icelander, try to look sympathetic). To cheer us up Vahid (our own trusty guide) shows us that the ‘Death to Americans’ wall of shame down the road has been re-translated to suit our PC era.  Thankfully, if somewhat surprisingly, the Tehranis loitering outside the museum and in front of the wall continue to profess undying admiration of Americans as well as unlimited invitations to coffee.

And this year’s winners are:



The nest of spies, always better with a diorama


Death to America now made PC. Actual American looking a bit anxious. Thanks to Dave for those pictures, I am too traumatized to take any.


The Goleestan Palace: Just another day on the Peacock Throne. Shah at this stage optional


Just another day in one of the many anterooms, no longer occupied.


Determined to upstage the plaster Shah


In fact why use one decorative theme when six do just as well?


The smallest teashop in the world, Tehran bazaar version: location, location, location.


Another take on take out at the famous Moslem Restaurant. Orders are passed down through the ceiling.


And now for something completely different: Fabulous modernist architecture at the Asari tower.


Impossible to take a bad photo


We visit a shrine for practice. Spot the tourists. Clue – the curtain fabric chador.


Then a quick hop up into the mountains out of the congestion for tea. Where it is snowing.



 Not surprisingly Qom, where the revolution was conceived, is one of the most religious cities in Iran. No surprise also that despite us ladies assuming full slipcover chador, and notwithstanding the rumored fatwa to the contrary (apparently fatwa merely means decree, just like jihad merely means community endeavor) none of us is allowed to actually set foot in the revered shrine. Instead we are assigned our own mullah to show us round and answer the most probing of questions, a commendable goal seriously stymied by his meager English vocabulary. Not that there is a lack of mullahs. There they go, strutting to and fro, sporting that 1000 yard stare perfected by irrelevant bureaucrats everywhere. And the faithful from everywhere are certainly here, perkily advertising their origins with headscarves and flags – Indonesians, Lebanese, Azerbaijanis (not taking it too seriously) even a few bona fide Sunni Arabs trying rather unsuccessfully to blend in since they seem to be remarkably tall. Qom has invested a lot into getting the faithful here efficiently: from the 22nd century elevated monorail from who knows where right to the doorstep, to the piles of 21st century aircon tourist buses, this is serious religion taken seriously. We wander around taking it in and no-one pays any attention at all unless we catch their eye at which they offer words of welcome and demand a photo (except for the mullahs who appear not to be selfie addicts).

Just another day out at the shrine. Chador not optional


Only our millenial Deborah can rock the curtain chador successfully.


Hard to quiz the mullah when you’re dressed like a slipcovered sofa.


Mullahs galore


The faithful contributed 22kg of gold to make this possible.


We aren’t allowed in the good bits. This isn’t even the anteroom




The way in is unfortunately obscured by the ‘Happy Birthday Ayatollah sign’.


Trying unsuccesfully to blend in


And now for something completely different – just down the road.




Wild, Wild Kyrgistan

Oh how those Silk Road traders on their way between China and the softer, gentler south must have hated Kyrgistan! The awful mountains, that awful climate, those awful nomad protection racketeers squeezing them for every penny with the awful specter of disembowelment always at the end of their swords. No wonder they put their heads down and scuttled through post haste leaving nothing behind. So Kyrgistan is a tougher nut to crack than Uzbekistan: not only are there no sumptuous remains to admire and no public transport to speak of, there is also no southern-style hospitality culture. Ah yes, those fierce nomads are still here alright, unhappily housebound, their hearts still up there on horseback in the wild, wild hills.

An unwelcome sight on the Silk Road memorialized here: nomad extortionists promising safe passage for a fee.


And so, Urmat (or as he likes to refer to himself in emails Urmat!!!), who will hopefully reveal this impenetrable country to me, but who currently defines a new low in even my lax standards for research. Discovered indirectly in the bowels of the LP forum archives via an Australian lady (of about my age) who reported in 2014 that he had taken her on a nice trip, he has no verifiable internet presence. Nonetheless, we are soon planning our own 5 day adventure to include age-appropriate hiking and a visit to the last caravanserai standing, up in the Tien Shan mountains at the Chinese border.

The Tien Shan mountains, our final destination


Still, during the protracted wait for my baggage at Bishkek airport (I have elected to pass up the opportunity of a 17 hour shared taxi ride over the mountains from Osh for a mere 40 minute flight on Manas Air  – the only Kyrgiz airline the British Government approves for its employees, and then only in absolute emergency) I have plenty of time to reflect on the many different ways spending 5 days in a car with someone I’ve never met could be a very poor idea.

Manas Air: It was probably most concerning when they started taking cell phone pictures of the inside of the engine.


I needn’t worry, despite his unprepossessing exterior Urmat has all the attributes necessary to make the trip a blast: He is an adept driver (even though the steering wheel on his 4 wheel drive Nissan is on the right side (as is driving in Kyrgistan) a double whammy which he confesses makes him “very frightened indeed”); an adept conversationalist (especially when bolstered by GT); a convivial joker (the first funny story he tells me, on the way from the airport, is of his 6 year old son pleading for “Minecraft” for his computer, except Urmat hears ‘Mein Kampf’. “I was very, very worried” he tells me shaking his head. Critically he is also a foodie.  No wonder he has effectively cornered the market with solo ladies of a certain age.

Urmat is proof that you can’t judge a book by its cover.


Bishkek to Cholpon Ata

 We take off from Bishkek on the Chui route of the Great Silk Road, first stop the 9th C. Burana tower, the last remaining artefact from Balagasun, capital of the vanished Sogdian empire, and later capital of the Kara-Khanids, which I have been determined to see. Unfortunately it seems that when the top half fell off in an earthquake in the 15th century the locals carted away the bricks, so the Soviets couldn’t ‘restore’ its full glory.  As a result it is totally underwhelming and despite a smattering of old graves and petroglyphs (any actual treasures having been hauled off long ago to St Petersburg) there is absolutely no palpable evidence of its historical importance, whatever the internet would have us believe. They don’t even charge admission. U. has clearly heard these complaints before and tactfully raises the contribution of Photoshop.

The Burana tower is most disappointing. The lure of Photoshop is obvious given the benches out front and the steps up the side.


Underwhelming gravestones


A 5th century BCE petroglyph, but why on that rock particularly?


As a consolation we drive through Tokmok, where the notorious Tsarnaev brothers were raised. It is still home to about 1000 Chechens (none of whom are out and about). After seeing the village, it is easy to imagine the anger after failing at the American Dream.

Lake Issy Kul. No beach resort looks its best off season


We are soon circumnavigating Lake Issy Kul. Enormous and slightly saline, Issy Kul never freezes and in summer its north shore is heaving with Russians and Kazakhs all simulating a full-on beach vacation, karaoke included. This time the internet is not wrong, and its epicenter, Cholpon Ata, is indeed hideous.

Because no Soviet era beach paradise is complete without its statue of Lenin


This will be wall-to-wall sunblock in July and August


But it is out of season and everywhere for the next 200km except the optimistically named ‘Sunny Paradise’ is closed, so we are forced to check in. The unlikely rate of $6 per room is a reduction from last year when it was 10. U. hypothesizes she is being squeezed by new hotels (however the fact they are closed makes this theory less persuasive).

My $6 ‘suite’ at ‘Sunny Paradise’ wasn’t too bad apart from the all-night poker game next door.


Fortunately the local fish restaurant is open and fortunately too someone has caught some fish (not the Kyrgiz, fishing is not in nomad culture).

Superb lake fish especially with a beer. Not shown, the first of many liters of Kazakh Coca Cola, U. will polish off since he doesn’t drink alcohol at all.


Cholpon Ata to Karakol

 Fortunately U. loves to drive. He especially loves to drive off piste and is never happier than when chugging up (or down) some impossible gorge at 2mph. First order of the day is therefore to circumnavigate two: Grigoryevskoe and Semyonovka – up one and down the next. There is however a small matter of the 6000+ foot pass at the top. From tire marks the one person who has been up this year also had to return – but yesterday or a month ago? Happily the shepherds hurtling towards us in a Soviet era UAZ (extreme off-road jeep) give the thumbs up: (They have been putting together their yurt camp for summer grazing; in a couple of weeks they will move their flocks up into the mountains until the fall).

The Grigoryevskoe gorge. This is the road, not beside the road.


The pass at just over 6000 feet is just round the corner and relatively free of snow


Indeed the top of the pass does have little snow, but as we start to descend it becomes clear why they were so skeptical of our tires: the road is solid mud from the snow melt, and at exactly the worst pitch. U. tells me to get out. Apparently my first hike will be to meet him at the bottom of the 4km. steep bit. He takes off, sliding from side to side, and I try not to look. Later, he explains laconically “If I drive off the mountain with you it is two problems; I always prefer to simplify”.

Fortunately the car is still on the road when I reconvene with Urmat at the flatter bit.


Unlike the Grigoryevskoe side which was jagged, stony and narrow, Semyonovka is a stupendous bowl, Wyoming on steroids.

The Semyonovka basin. One photo can’t do it justice but I haven’t figured out the pano mode. Note the summer yurt in preparation.


It will be a site of the biannual Nomad Games this fall. Surprisingly an American team competes in the goat-head polo event; less surprisingly they aren’t very good. Is it difficult to practice hitting a goats’ head around in the USA U. wonders?

The road out of the Semyonovka basin.


I have been alerted to the can’t miss experience of the rock pools beside the lake that advertise themselves as a hot spring, so I am prepared with a swimsuit, but not unfortunately with the fur coat necessary to reach them from the changing room unfrozen, nor as it turns out, with an adequate towel. Nonetheless, while U. retires to the car for a nap, I spend a pleasant hour and a half in the toasty water chatting with a Spanish/Romanian couple circumnavigating the world in a tiny camper. They are desperate to unload their horror stories of sleeping in Russia in March (-15°, ice on the inside) and to wax lyrical about Iran. Their 12 year old daughter seems decidedly less enamored of the whole enterprise

With a population of 60,000+ Karakol, tonight’s destination, is Kyrgistan’s 4th largest ‘urban’ center, and, with a 9 month season geared to both skiing and summer trekking much more prosperous than Cholpon Ata, which sees tourists only in July and August.

The wooden church in Karakol from back in the day when it was 50% Russian


The guesthouse, run by U.’s Dutch friend and his Kyrgiz wife, is a cut above. For $8 the bed and the breakfast (home – made bread and honey with the eggs) are a dream. A map in the living room confirms the major visitor demographic as Russian, Kazakh and European. Just one pin from New Jersey a few from Michigan, and mine, the first from Boston.

The view from my window at the perfectly lovely Dutch/Kyrgiz B & B.


Sadly though, no beer to go with the traditional lagman noodles at the hole in the wall dinner. Even more sadly there will be no more beer for the rest of the trip.

The best lagman noodles in Central Asia. They look like pasta but are much more chewy. Unfortunately any meat that looks like beef is usually horse.


Karakol to Kochkor

 It turns out that Karakol is also the Alamanov ancestral seat, and so we make a quick detour into the wilderness to the family graveyard and U. adds another wreath of artificial flowers to his mom’s grave.

The view from the Alamanov family cemetery.


Next to a bank to transfer money to a friend whose father has just died, so he can buy a horse. When I inquire as to the ‘so’ I learn that the death requires the family sacrifice a horse for the mourners to boil and eat. On further inquiry I also learn (with a quick demonstration) that every Kyrgiz knows how to kill a horse for sacrifice. Horses being expensive U. has planned ahead – his father’s horse-to-be is already getting fat (but also old and presumably tough) in the backyard.

Funeral horses en route somewhere unpleasant


Today is to be a major hiking day, and since U. doesn’t hike and I prefer to hike alone, we should both be happy except I have failed to factor in his abiding paranoia about my well-being. Fortunately the NYM hitchhiker we have picked up and he has coerced into taking me by hand to the top of the mountain and I manage to foil that bogus plan; as soon as we are out of sight I shoo him off. Upward he scampers and luckily enough goes further than me so he can rejoin me on the descent in the nick of time; and so we emerge innocently together into U.’s line of sight (albeit not hand in hand).

Some age-appropriate hiking after I ditch the millenial



On the descent the millenial forces a photo just as it is starting to snow. I am wearing 7 layers, unfortunately the 8th, waterproof, one is 3000 feet below where Urmat said I wouldn’t need it.


The second hike of the day couldn’t have been more different even apart from the weather: the south side of Issy Kul.


Urmat allows me to do it without an escort but forces me to take my mac.


Tonight we must stay part way into the high mountains. Unsurprisingly Kochkor village, pop. about 100, has no guesthouses. Fortunately U. has a favorite homestay with a grandma who unusually for a nomad will be both cheerful and friendly. But no! disaster has struck! Number 1 son, an erstwhile policeman has been arrested for corruption and fled to Russia. In order to pay the massive bribe that will allow him to return unmolested Grandma has had to sell all their worldly goods, and in spite has also turned off the heat and canceled the internet, much to her grand-daughter’s distress (with reason: her ambition is to earn a Presidential scholarship so she can study at the American University for free then escape to the States, neither of which can be accomplished without web access).

Mean grandma cut off the heating and the internet


The living room, like the rest of the house, was absolutely freezing, I was too cold to take a picture of my bedroom.


The saga continues at the only restaurant where we must eat dinner. I am struggling to cut up my chicken breast with a spoon (knives are not a restaurant feature, presumably for obvious reasons) when the waitress rushes over and cuts it up for me so energetically that the macaroni and cheese I hadn’t ordered (I had actually asked for black rice) shoots off the plate and onto the plastic tablecloth. No worries! She scoops it back immediately. U. is outraged and berates the hapless staff about how they will need to up their service game if they want to attract tourists or even other customers (apart from us the restaurant is empty). The staff are puzzled by both concepts and later as they all sit down to polish off the massive amount of food that hasn’t sold today, we see why.

At night I pile my bed with every blanket I can find, but it is still too cold to sleep well. I give granny $10 to pay for the internet as well as my room but U. wields GT for the Russian equivalent of ‘good luck with that’ (he speaks Russian much better than Kyrgi). The American University has 20 free places a year, a success rate of 0.0001%.

The American University in Bishkek. Tuition is $6000 per semester so only the very rich can afford it.


Kochkor to Tash Rabat.

 On our final day we will drive quite far up into the Tien Shan mountains almost to the Chinese border. But what a surprise! We pull out of Kochkor and the China tributary to the Ferganian route of the Great Silk Road has been well and truly one belted. Seriously, this road into the bowels of China is the very best I have seen in all Central Asia and the trucks plying it assiduously show the 21st century Silk Road is alive and well.

One belt one road



Predictably U. hates it and determines to approach our target Caravanserai the back way, no doubt up horrible craggy gorges, over heart-stopping river passages and through snow enrobed passes. Fortunately or not today’s complement of jailoo shepherds, already beginning to move their flocks upwards, firmly nix the idea; the pass is still too full of snow.

Of course Urmat  finds us a suitably hair-raising alternative


The jailoo shepherds are having none of it and turn us back.


U. sadly turns the car round and once back on the dream road to China suggests hopefully that I surely must want to drive for a change.

On the dream road to China through the Tien Shan valley


But the caravanserai, about 15 km up a side road, lives up to expectations. U., a Game of Thrones fanatic, insists I send a picture captioned Westhill Castle or something to Jim (I proudly treasure being the only person in America who has never watched Game of Thrones, so I willfully forget the name and don’t, to his bitter disapproval).

En route to the caravanserai



The photo I refused to send to Jim. What’s the name of that castle again?


Probably a better view


Originally an early Christian church it morphed to a travelers’ stopover and then to a winter sheep barn where over the years the shit hit shoulder height. It has been cleaned up now, but not attracting visitors today.

The caravanserai was originally an ancient church


The accommodations rival last night’s effort in Kolchor


There’s always a prison


Note the stone that rolls on top with the neat little hole for food and drink


U. permits me to walk back through the gorge alone provided I take my hiking pole in the unlikely eventuality there will be dogs. “It would make me feel better” he wheedles plaintively.


Of course there aren’t any dogs but I do meet a frantic shepherd on horseback who has lost his yaks. Fortunately I have spotted them further up and therefore save his job, or more probably his life.

The shepherd brings his kid for a photo-op and meanwhile loses his yaks.


Fortunately a herd of yaks are hard to actually lose.


In Naryn our destination for the night, U. (no doubt feeling guilty about last night’s accommodations) insists we spring an extra $2 for a real hotel with en suite bathrooms and shower curtains (no heat, however they do supply space heaters which is clearly a false economy since they are quite full).

A celebratory goat dinner for a job well done. The guys in the back room are drinking vodka.


It was delicious. Note the knife (but still no beer for me).


Naryn to the Kazakh border

Our last day en route to the Kazakh border passes uneventfully except for that second speeding ticket (130km/hr in a 90km/hr zone). Unlike the first one, which could be palmed off with the standard 100 som (10c) ‘consideration’ this time U. comes back with an official form that promises he will be arrested if he doesn’t pay a more substantial fine within a week. Evidently in each 5 hour shift the police work 4 ½ hours ‘for themselves’ and only ½ hour for the government, so it all comes down to bad timing.  “You asked me how corruption can be stopped” he says philosophically “This is how. If I break the law, make me pay the government”. He shrugs. We have been round this issue of deep-seated corruption many times. Tellingly the problem is compounded because Kyrgistan is a functioning democracy. A strong man ‘reformer’ like those who did the trick in Kazakhstan and now in Uzbekistan is not in the cards.

Finally blue sky, but on the way to the border


The trip comes to an end. Over the last 5 days we have talked about: Nomad culture ( a lot); Kyrgi politics and corruption (a lot); sheep husbandry (a lot but we do have a mutual interest); socialism and the end of capitalism; Syria; the Rohinga; #Me Too; Black Lives matter; child rearing; our families; religion in the 21st century; the geopolitical alignments of Central Asia; and many movie-related topics including whether Eddy Redmayne is the legitimate successor to Daniel Day Lewis.  I have taught Urmat several useful words like ‘hangry’ and ‘high maintenance’. He has taught me some poetic Russian phrases like ‘so many winters, so many summers’ (said when meeting an old friend after some time) that I may find less useful. When we have got fed up talking we have listened to his music that besides Kyrgiz pop (which isn’t bad) includes Motown, Sinatra, Irish step dance and once, surprisingly, ‘Hava Nagila’. We have agreed much more than disagreed except we have failed to find common ground on the subtle yet important difference between ‘horrible’ and terrible’. Without Urmat, Kyrgistan would have made no sense at all. At the border we promise to keep in touch and I refuse to promise to watch Game of Thrones. Then we part with a handshake, but although he grasps my hand with both of his there is no bear hug; honorable Kyrgi men will never touch a woman other than their wives.

On to Iran

A hop, skip and a jump and I am back in Almaty. In my absence the Iranian embassy has undergone an upgrade. The doors are locked tight and I am ogled by several cameras before being pinged in. The ugly plastic-covered furniture has been changed out for ugly non-plastic covered furniture and instead of a 1950s slide show the TV is playing the English version of ‘This Old House’ dubbed in Farsi. The only other person waiting is a Kazakh government lawyer, who presses his business card on me while fervently hoping I won’t need it. But Dr. Jekyll has run out of options and he knows it. “Have a nice trip” he intones reading from his “How to appear human” training booklet (according to the Iranians from Samarkand this actually exists) as he passes back my passport, knowing there is nothing he can do to stop it.


The kindness of strangers and other stories

Tourists usually ‘do’ the Fergana valley as a hectic day trip from Tashkent; even the Belgians from Samarkand who have sieved gold from the most unlikely places echo LP: “There’s nothing there”. I can be forgiven then, in anticipating the couple of days needed to move through Fergana to the border with Kyrgistan at Osh will be uneventful….

Revisiting Jahongir B&B in Tashkent en route felt like coming home. Upgraded to a softer mattress and favorite pancakes for breakfast. Then Feruza takes me down the road for a $6 haircut (not shown).


Adina off to college. The Turkish-style hyper-hijab is all the rage this spring (with or without inappropriately short uniform skirt).


Part 1 Kokand

It was never going to end well. The daily evening train from Tashkent to Kokand leaves at neither of the two different advertised times for departure (on the official website or the ticket) but rather 43 minutes early. This feint, as I have come to realize, is an enduring feature of Uzbek rail, and has been anticipated by all passengers, who have arrived an hour and a half in advance and are now milling around anxiously since there are no notice boards – the platform it will depart from is spread by word of mouth. So it is somewhat disappointing when we slow down to walking pace for several hours (more effective research might have revealed that this newly established route which avoids the otherwise inevitable detour through Tajikistan takes us through a 20 kilometer mountain tunnel, but not that a man on foot with a lantern appears to be guiding us much of the way). The upshot is it is pushing midnight when I arrive at the Hotel Istiqol (another only show in town option). Its resemblance to a state penitentiary making it  unlikely that the last Trip Advisor review (in 2015) contained even a smattering of truth. Even the taxi driver looks apologetic.

Cast of characters: a disheveled receptionist awakened from her lobby nap and (apparently) cursing the state of her mascara in Russian. Me.

Me: Is this a non-smoking room? I booked a non-smoking room. Why is there an ashtray?

The Guard: Why is there an ashtray? Does it smell? (of course right now it smells of odious room deodorant, it will be a different story later).

Me: OK then. It needs a top sheet.

Her: It needs a top sheet. What needs a top sheet?

Me: OK then, I need a top sheet.

Her: (Brings top sheet). Go to sleep.


Her (still):  What you want to eat, toast?

Me: What do you usually serve for breakfast?

Her: Toast.

Me: OK then, toast.

From close inspection of the plate of sausage (the solitary component of the ‘buffet’) the last time anyone ate breakfast here was indeed around 2015.

The cell in question, from my bed. Note the cunning TV placement.


The sausage in question. The photo angle doesn’t do its curliness justice.


Kokand wasn’t totally a bust. The Shah’s palace was over the top as usual.


Lots of exquisite decorative touches.






This does look atmospheric. On closer inspection he was surfing the web.


Part 2 Fergana

It seems unlikely but the best show in Fergana is a $24 hostel located above a pharmacy opposite the hospital. But what a hostel! The private rooms are decorated in authentic minimalist style and have unbelievable luxuries like bedside lights that can be switched on and off from bed and new satellite TV (the owner, Efrazar, proudly shows me BBC news on channel 16). Next day as we consult about options for getting to the border about 100km away (evidently there are two: expensive ($12) involves hiring a taxi [he wrinkles his nose with disapproval at such profligacy] or cheap ($5) involves two sequential buses but with a 500m walk in between) I allow that I am going to splurge since it’s my birthday and dragging my roly bag along a stony road [it will be stony] in 80° sunshine is remarkably unappealing.

What could this be? Some even more exotic mimosa?


All is revealed as I pass by again after dinner.


Fergana prides itself on its Wild West vibe. But these guys are definitely getting scammed.


No takers for the photo-op.


Its famous traditional silk factory




Fergana is the vegetable basket of Uzbekistan. Spring produce at the pleasant, and massive, regional market.


Along with other more unusual merchandise.


Later there is a discreet tap on my door and Efrazar not only presents me with a lovely Ikat scarf as a birthday gift, but also proposes I spend the evening with his cousin and family who would like to practice their English. This delightful family and I eat dinner, stroll in the park and then pile onto the bumper cars at the fairground for a few energetic rounds in celebration of my turning 66.

The perfectly delightful Mamatov family. He is a policeman, she (unusually) an engineer. Their daughters  Ezoza and Shukrona bundles of energy


Ushering in 66 with style


Next day Efrazar drives me to the shared taxi stand, negotiates a bargain ($10) price  then checks in with the driver constantly while we are en-route to the border.

Moving through the Fergana Valley, all the fruit trees are in blossom


Part 3 Osh

If the Kazakstan/Uzbeki border was the end of six lane highways then its Uzbeki/Kyrgistan equivalent sees the end of asphalt itself. Nonetheless it too fails to live up to its Internet hype: the Uzbeks are anxious to expedite my leaving (I have to stop them stamping my Indian visa) while the Krygis simply seem mildly amused I have chosen their country as a vacation destination (I am the only Westerner in sight). At the ‘unofficial’ currency exchange the witches have morphed into prowling gold-toothed wolves and although I only have about $5 worth of Uzbeki sum left I need to change it for the taxi on the other side. This time my unexpected Sir Galahad is one of the notorious Uzbek security services, who forces them to hand over the final 30c they had planned on pocketing, while shooting me a sardonic wink.

Once safely into stony asphalt-free Kyrigstan the inevitable taxi dilemma rears its ugly head: neither the drivers nor I know where my Airbnb is located and since I have no cell phone access until I can buy a local SIM, they will have to phone the host for directions, meaning I have little leverage. We are just squaring off when an NYL and her mom insert themselves between us, insist I share their taxi, tell me it’s a 144 (Uber equivalent) so I can’t help pay, and take me door to door.

The kindness of strangers.


My AirBnB is a spacious apartment with all cons (mod and otherwise) including a complete set of Tolstoy in the bedroom and their own honey in the fridge. Welcome to Kyrgistan!



A hot wind in Bukhara

There is a Heartbreak Hill* in every trip. Last year it was cycling round 25 square miles (or was it 75) of Pagoda ridden Burmese desert on a bike with flat tires in 90° heat. This year it’s the temperature hitting 94° in Bukhara and the relentless desert wind depositing sand into every orifice and developing either a brutal allergy or a brutal cold or most likely both. A year older and wiser, I give up the ghost immediately and retire to the sofa on the shady upper terrace at my B & B with a nice soft toilet roll, a couple of liters of tepid water and a good book. Mine host, Nazira, sends the resident millenial up with tea on an hourly basis and the next day the temperature has dropped 40° and the wind has given up and I am fully restored.

* A notorious feature of the Boston marathon whose name speaks for itself.

A shady terrace oasis when its 94° outside.


Nothing like a restorative tea with meringues to keep the blood sugar up.


Its just as well because in terms of Silk Road romance Bukhara has it all. Of the more than 140 monuments ‘of significance’ only about 20% have been restored so there are plenty to go round. The faithful get their working medressas (I sneak into one by attaching myself to my very own grandma gang. The mullah charges 1000 sum (15 cents) each to sing at us while we assume the praying position with our hands, and then won’t let us go all the way inside after all, eliciting much grumbling. Later Gulnoza (our milenial) says it’s just as well I didn’t tell him he has a lovely voice).

My very own grandma gang is also staying at the B & B. They spirit me off on the abortive medressa adventure, out for dinner – a bowl of lamb bone soup (they thoughtfully skim the fat off mine) and then shopping. The pink lady “Hayat like the hotel chain” is from the Uzbeki restaurant in Brooklyn Olivia and I had lunch at last November.


The less than faithful get de trop gilding as a background for their selfies and the (regrettably many) French and German purists can still stumble across a derelict monument where the janitor will open the padlock for an exorbitant 10,000 sum ($1) so they can commune in solitary and significant satisfaction with the piles of bricks.


In the age of Genghis Khan this minaret was the highest structure in Central Asia. He was so impressed he left it standing for a change. Whoever decided to rebuild the medressas didn’t have a good plumb line.


The oldest monument in Bukhara has Zoroastrian elements from 5 BCE inside. Right now it is  repurposed as a carpet museum ‘sorry no photos’.

The Ark of Bukhara – the Khans’ then Emirs’ fort (the inside looks just like any other Welsh castle).



Negotiating for a camel ride. He never does get his pensioner’s discount.


The infamous Zindon Prison: It is the era of the Great Game. Colonel Stoddard has been sent to reassure the Emir that the British intend to stop their invasion at Afghanistan. Unfortunately he has neglected to bring appropriate gifts. What’s an Emir to do except throw him in the Bug Pit? Three years later and Captain Connolly arrives to plea for mercy. Not hard enough, and down he goes too. Later the Emir beheads them both outside the Ark.


A ghostly shadow down the Bug Pit which appears to have been cleared of the bugs, scorpions and vermin thrown down there to keep them company.


My own unrestored Bukhara. Mister accosts me in the street and demands 1000 sum (15c) to see his ‘house museum’. Who can resist?


The salon.


He is particularly proud of his oven. I give him $1 and he is thrilled, but renovations may take a while at this rate.


No walls or parkland in Bukhara, it has put its energies elsewhere, or to be more accurate it has kept its focus: Let’s not forget that the purpose of the Silk Road was to introduce consumerism to the world, and in that enduring tradition friendly little merchants are perched in every available alcove (and there are many) willing, no determined, to show off their wares and force us to open our purses to their inevitable profit. The Grandma gangs (who vastly outnumber the grandads and are therefore without oversight) sensibly leave the praying for Samarkand in favor of going toe to toe for a bargain. It is only slightly frenetic and a good time is had by all (apart from the French and Germans who are appalled how Bukhara has been despoiled by commerce).


A nice little mosque emerging from the neighborhood; Bukhara doesn’t bother walling things off.

Four rather underpowered minarets, one for some reason sporting a fake nest of storks.


No commercial opportunity shall be passed up.


Madam the master and her apprentice teach me a brilliant new way to do chain stitch.


The original Silk Road trading halls are still in business.


The bona-fide house museum belonged to the guy who conspired with the Bolsheviks to topple the Emir. His glory was short-lived: Once Stalin arrived on the scene he was murdered in a trice.


Another teenage bride arrives for her wedding photos like a lamb to the slaughter.


Bukhara also loves a dance party, and so we launch into 3 full days of merriment in honor of that goof-ball Mullah Nazruddin, who exists to be the butt of all jokes but then inevitably saves the day with the killer bon mot. All the troupes are embraced most enthusiastically no matter how amateur. Mullah wannabes in performance are justifiably met with considerably less enthusiasm. The three flavors of police are an extensive yet stoic presence, but the only guns are wooden and carried by the little boys, none of them are armed with more than a stick.

All Bukhara loves a dance party.


A mullah band with donkey (baseball cap optional)


The stage moms are cropped out.


Stylin’ Tajik girls.


Then there’s always the likely lads.


Its not a party without food (and evidently a donkey). I skip the Uzbeki sushi.


Thanks to ‘One Belt One Road’ Bukhara will soon be forced into the future. Back in the day this whole area was renowned as a fertile plain. Then, in an ill-considered effort to thwart the pre-Soviet and even pre-Great Game Russians, one of the Emirs dammed up the Aru Darya wantonly turning it all into a desert. Releasing the dams years later had little effect; unforeseen silting made the massive river into a delta with an ineffectual dribble of meager tributaries. The Chinese, manifest at my B & B by Lina and Lena, are here for the long haul and taking the irrigation problem firmly in hand. But will this attempt to damp down the mean desert winds come too late? There was very little snow again this year and all the rivers whatever their size are running depressingly low.

Lena and Lina (or Lina and Lena). One Belt One Road comes to Bukhara.


On my way out of town back to Tashkent I am eagerly anticipating luxuriating in my 1st class compartment (seats only 2) for the 7 hour journey.


But here comes Ekaterina, and she has two friends, Svetlana and Evgenia, and they have brought dinner for 4. So the party goes on, and the train, of course, is late.


Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells

How on earth does Samarkand live up to ten centuries of hype? And yet here we all are, lapping it up: friendly gangs of gold-toothed Uzbeki grandmas taking all the opportunities a pilgrimage offers for a few days away from the kitchen; equivalent numbers of severe Uzbeki grandads comporting themselves importantly, prayer hats all firmly set – let it be understood they’re not here to have fun; multigenerational Uzbeki families with shell-shocked teenage brides clutching at their newborns – their talisman against mom-in-law, the usual imperious grandsons and experienced aunts smoothing things over with ice-cream. And every single one of them wants to be photographed either with me or by me.

The grandma gangs are all out for a good time.


Grandads take it all more seriously but can sometimes be persuaded to crack a smile. Uzbekis are always laughing. They rapidly sober up in the presence of a camera lens.


Where would we be without the aunt willing to give mom a break.


The more mobile green grandma comes hurtling across the path and insists I take their photographs, twice (the first one doesn’t pass muster). Unfortunately she doesn’t have an email address I can send it to.



Internationally, uptight Russians muttering bitterly to each other about how things were and could still be; a smattering of supercilious Turks – the women caked in makeup with elaborate couture hijabs; a few officious Pakistani mullahs having the way cleared; invisible Kazakhs, Tajiks, Armenians. Here and there an Italian or two, some Dutch, no English and certainly no Americans.

Samarkand handles us all so sensitively: The magnificent monuments are swathed in manicured parkland that takes care of the logistics of shuffling us from one to the next just beautifully. The odiferous old city has been tactfully walled away, and the modern city, where life is actually lived, is kept at a respectable distance behind the trees. It is all very relaxing but not at all redolent of centuries of romantic Silk Road history. In fact romance is the last thing on Samarkand’s mind, and it becomes clear how the purists’ lament of the blurred line between restoration and renovation is so much more complicated in such a place of active worship.

The three monuments of the Registan, note the scale.


Ulug Beg Medressa


No you weren’t imagining it, this is Uzbekistan’s answer to the leaning tower.


Tila Kari (Gold covered) Medressa


Sher Dor (Lion) Medressa


Shockingly the Sher Dor Medressa has pictures of both animals AND humans


Just a short parkland stroll away, the Bibi Khanym mosque.



And its domed roof seen through the trees.


The Mosque containing Timurlane’s tomb. Mullah for scale.

qCK4WHjyTvSYue+8E+LT+w_thumb_4771.jpgThe way to the Shah-i-Zinda (Avenue of Mausoleums) goes through the cemetery. The faithful aren’t amused by the pictures plastered on the graves, and especially the pompous sculpture up top.


The stunning Shah-i-Zinda (Avenue of Mausoleums) note the ice cream.


The blurred line between restoration and renovation.


Samarkand is also key to Uzbek national pride; established by the local hero Timur Amir (Timurlane) as the original capital when he set the area to rights after the Mongol devastation, it holds a place in their hearts Tashkent, with its Soviet overtones, can only aspire to. The only non-religious monument is his grandson Ulug Beg’s. Ulug Beg, polymath and avid astronomer (the astrolabe he designed was later ripped off by the moguls in Rajahstan) and a star in his own right –  calculated the exact length of a year with such admirable and unique precision his was the go-to text right up to the Age of Enlightenment. Its ruins and the usual incomprehensible museum are packed to the gills with an audience so bursting with pride and yet so flummoxed it is clear that the loss is not simply in translation.

Our local hero Ulug Beg in photocopy. There is some confusion about how a photograph works; many people evidently believing that it itself dates from the 15th century.


This $25 find – Antica B & B – is a particularly convivial caravanserai despite being run by a couple of irascible sisters who truck no nonsense from us mere guests. Its two houses are in the old style – rooms opening out onto a central courtyard. One is set up for us, the other – down the lane – houses the family and serves breakfast.

Spring is springing in our courtyard, from my room.


Dawdling in the courtyard, Portuguese brothers-in-law Luis and Jose –  my age – who traveled everywhere in the 80s, another, Spanish, Luis, who traveled everywhere in the 00s, a couple of Belgians, who are traveling everywhere right now, and two delightful Iranians. Silk Road fanatics with forty years-worth of combined travel horror stories between us and we bond instantly. At the house dinner the others get the short straw (a bottle of the local wine) while me and the Portuguese go for quality over quantity and elect to share the single bottle of beer. The food is famously inedible so the sisters usually have no problem throwing their guests out at 10. No such luck! It is well after midnight and we still cannot agree on the best route to Kashgar.

Courtyard views at the Registan medressas. Students’ cells, none currently occupied by students.



LU5EkHdASj6s9NEGYPs1YQ_thumb_480dSome particularly sumptuous interiors from the Gold Medressa.


The Bibi Khanym mosque is done up differently


But the prize for (unrestored) tile-work goes to the Avenue of Mausoleums.


Scenes from village life firmly walled away from more glamorous Samarkand. Our street, taken 3 minutes apart. Some of us are destined to do the bucket run, while others get dressed up to go to school.


The smell of gas coming from these particular installations (in yellow) was indescribable. Alarmingly I was the only one who could smell it.


All that is left of the Jewish community in Samarkand: The remains of the mezuzah on the shuttered synagogue door.


The bazaar: Nothing is going to make these end of season potatoes look good.


The cheese ladies making sure its really fresh. The lap incubation is key to flavor.


Opinions are being passed on the pomegranates


Really rocking that apron lady!


Comings and goings on the avenue. The stressed teenager on the left is the mom.


More ice cream


Timurlane’s tomb. After a suitably pugnacious life he ended up dying of pneumonia.


And from the outside, a full 100 steps (and through the gate in the wall) from my $25 a night B & B.