Tuesday, 22 October 2019


After a nice visit in Khiva, we said goodbye to nine fellow travellers and our guide, Aktilek, and seven of us set off into the unknown, Turkmenistan. Our new guide, Arslan, explained to us that all we needed to know about the country is that it is a good country and that the President, Gerbanguly Berdimuhamedow, is a good President. No more questions! While the country is open to visitors, it’s not easy to travel there. You need to be with a recognized tour group at all times and a visa costs $67 US. Turkmenistan will welcome 20,000 visitors in 2019. To put that number into perspective, Charlottetown welcomes 10,000 passengers and crew on a day when three cruise ships call at the city.

Our first night in the country, we stayed at the luxurious Dashoguz Hotel, clad in white marble on the outside and just as fancy on the inside. There was internet but, since many sites are blocked by the government, it was of little use. Whatever! It’s what we expected.
Next morning, we were met by a convoy of three late-model Toyota 4x4s. All bore government license plates and were driven by what looked like ex-military men. The drive to Kunya Urgench took about an hour. While there, we visited ruins of the ancient capital of the Khorezmian Empire, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Kunya Urgench is an important pilgrimage site for the people of Turkmenistan. The minaret in the photo is the tallest in Central Asia at 62 metres.
After a delicious lunch, we headed south on the main road between Dashoguz and Ashgabat. We drove on the road, on the shoulder, and in the ditch; sometimes it seemed like all three at once! The condition of the road defied description. Finally, after about 100 kilometres of bouncing around, we hit a stretch of better pavement, still nothing more than a base coat of asphalt though. One of our vehicles died but was soon replaced by another. Our drivers hit speeds of 120 kph as we hung on for dear life. The objective seemed to be to get us to the gas crater at Darvasa at sunset. The last part of the drive was off-road over sand dunes. We made it just in time!

The crater, known as “The Gates of Hell”, is one of the most unusual sites we’ve ever seen. The Soviets drilled for oil here in 1971 but hit only natural gas. The gas had formed a pocket and, upon being released, the pocket collapsed into itself, creating the large crater. Since it’s normal to burn off a pocket of gas, they set fire to it believing it would flame out in a couple of weeks. To everyone’s surprise, it’s still burning 48 years later with no end in sight.
The yurt camp that housed us for the night was clearly the most luxurious of the four we stayed in. it even had a bar. Unlike the first three, we had a yurt all to ourselves! But again, we damn near froze! 
Although the Karakum Desert is warm during the day, the temperature drops to 5 degrees C or so at night. Next morning, our three-vehicle convoy drove south through the desert until we reached the capital of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat, surely one of the strangest cities in the world. After over 3,000 kilometers on some of the worst roads ever, we were glad to see the driving part of our adventure come to an end. Our lodging for the next two nights was the Wedding Palace. The photo says it all! Everything here is over the top.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree…

I was reminded of the opening words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem (remembered from high school) as I tried to absorb the marvels of Ashgabat. Block after block of brilliant white marble buildings, all erected since the country gained its independence. Enormous monuments adorn the centers of every roundabout. The broad boulevards and spacious monuments are cleaned every day and the parks are immaculately groomed. We drove past the Olympic Village, complete with 55,000 seat stadium, monorail, athletes’ village, and all the venues needed to hold major sporting events. Each of them spotless but apparently empty. I dared not ask how many international sporting events have been held here since they opened.

I can say this about Turkmenistan. It is a land of stark contrasts; from the desert that covers 80% of its land area to the fertile irrigated plains; from the poverty in rural areas to the conspicuous wealth displayed in Ashgabat’s high-end shopping center; from the controls imposed on travel and internet access to the government’s stated intention to increase visitation and private investment. And I could go on. The photos below show the high-end hotel just up the hill from ours, a small copy of Dubai's Burj Al-Arab, and an empty boulevard that would be ideal for a Formula 1 Grand Prix. We had coffee on the eighteenth floor of the fancy hotel and looked down on a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, also empty.
Winston Churchill, speaking of Russia in 1939, called it a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. A description that fits Turkmenistan to a tee. Still, we’re glad we experienced this unusual country. It’s one that should be on every intrepid traveller’s list.
We said goodbye to Arslan and to our travel companions and spent a few days in another former Soviet Republic, Azerbaijan. The capital city, Baku, has a population of 2.5 million, about one-quarter of the country’s total. We arrived at our hotel at 4:30 am, dead tired, after taking the red-eye from Ashgabat. The night manager, Shahin, must have pulled a few strings to get us an early check-in; a much-appreciated gesture. The Boutique 19 Hotel is located right in the center of the old city and within walking distance of the waterfront. It’s the nicest hotel we’ve stayed in since we left home four weeks ago.

We strolled through the narrow streets in the walled section, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, made our way down to the waterfront boulevard, and visited the beautiful national Carpet Museum, a real masterpiece. Watching women make the carpets was dizzying. The process is extremely complex, kind of like watching someone calculate using an abacus: impossible to follow. We ended our day with a hamburger and fries at the Hard Rock Café, a welcome return to a familiar meal after four weeks of local food. (By the way, the third photo is not a painting, it's a carpet.)

It’s evident as soon as you step onto the sidewalk that Baku is a European city. The prices are definitely European as well! The Ural Mountains run north-south from the Arctic Ocean to Kazakhstan, dividing Europe from Asia. So Azerbaijan is geographically part of Europe, certainly more European than Asian; perhaps more accurately a crossroads between the two.

Azerbaijan is a rich country, far better off economically that any of the five Stans, mainly because of its significant reserves of oil and natural gas. Agriculture and tourism are also big here. Average per capita income is about twice that of Kazakhstan (richest of the Stans) and about half that of Canada.

The more we saw of Baku, the more we liked it. It’s a very walkable city and very clean. We climbed the Maiden’s Tower and visited the Shirvanshah Palace. Elva did some shopping and we played tourist for a few days. We climbed the hill to see the Flame Towers up close and took the metro to visit the magnificent Heydar Aliyev Center, a signature landmark of modern Baku. Close by, I found a barber shop and ducked in for a trim. The guy was an artist. For the first time in my life, I had an ear waxing! I considered a Brazilian but thought I’d had enough trauma for one day.

On our last day in Azerbaijan, we joined a Viatour group for a visit to a few of the top tourist attractions outside the city: the Gobustan petroglyphs, the mud volcanoes, and the fire temple. It was a nice way to end our short visit to this fascinating country. A word of advice to people who are looking for a stopover alternative in this part of the world. Dubai may have all the superlatives (tallest this and biggest that), but don’t overlook Baku!

Central Asia is huge, even by Canadian standards. The total land area of the five Stans is equal to that of Québec, Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta combined. Our experience exceeded our expectations. This little-known corner of the world is a treasure to be discovered and experienced. We didn’t feel crowded by tourists everywhere, but their presence is being felt in the region, particularly in the historic cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva. It’s clear that the government of Uzbekistan recognizes its tourism potential; city centers of Bukhara and Khiva are busy construction zones. Go now before these places are overrun.

Having seen enough mosques and madrassas, Paul, yours truly, and Jeff sat down one day to work on the world's problems.
We can’t say enough good things about the people in these countries. They are friendly, polite, industrious, and curious. They seem genuinely proud of what each of their countries has achieved since independence and are hopeful for the future. We saw no graffiti, no idleness, and few signs of homelessness. Not once were we approached by someone asking for money. The countryside may be poor but there is little garbage lying around and the cities display a level of cleanliness that would be the envy of many first-world countries.

Tourism infrastructure and service levels are in need of improvement; no question. Few of us on the tour escaped at least a mild case of la touristique. The food varied from quite good to just passable and accommodation standards were all over the map. Every day, I gave thanks for a firm stool! Elva wasn’t always so lucky… Eventually, our intestinal microbiota adjusted and their variety is, I’m sure, vastly improved!

As for their systems of government, twenty-eight years of independence is not a long time. Each of the five has developed its own system, some more repressive than others. However, one thing we’ve learned in our travels is that democracy is not always the best form of government and dictatorship not always the worst. The people of the Stans see their present situation as much better than what they experienced under the USSR — the Bolsheviks as they call the Russians — and more secular than would be the case in an Islamic republic like Iran or Afghanistan. In every country except Turkmenistan, where we were not allowed to ask probing questions, the people displayed a hopeful attitude. They’re not looking for radical change, just slow and steady progress.

As for G Adventures, this was not our first experience with the company. Eight years ago, we did Machu Picchu, the Amazon jungle and the Galapagos Islands with them. Our CEOs, as well as local guides with Panjakent Intour and Owadan Travel, were eager to please and did their best to make our visit enjoyable and informative. We would not hesitate to recommend this tour, the Five Stans of the Silk Road.

Sunday, 13 October 2019


The Silk Road was a trade network that connected China and Europe, and all points in between, from the second century BC to the eighteenth century AD. Though silk was the main trade item exported from China, many other goods and ideas were exchanged including religions, philosophies, sciences, and technologies. The Han Dynasty, Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Turkic Tribes, Genghis Khan, Marco Polo; all of these powerful leaders and great empires used the Silk Road to advance their interests. Many of the best-preserved relics of the Silk Road are found in Uzbekistan. We visited four of these legendary cities on our G Adventures tour: Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva.

Uzbekistan has a population of some 33 million, slightly less than Canada’s and about half the total population of the five Central Asian countries. Average monthly income is about $400 CDN, less than Kazakhstan but more than Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The political regime ranks as being quite repressive when measured by various indices: personal freedom, economic freedom, press freedom, and democracy. Still, the people are friendly and do their best to make you feel welcome and the country does not feel poor. Nothing like Central America, for example. One gets the sense that this country is on the move economically.

Our hotel in the capital city of Tashkent, the Hotel Uzbekistan, is a brutalist-style structure built during the Soviet era. It was more than a bit outdated: we had no hot water and no air conditioning, and the TV didn’t work. Still, it was better than a yurt or our homestay in Sarytag. The food wasn’t bad, the coffee tasted fine, and we had pretty good wifi.

Tashkent is a city of some 4.5 million and the center resembles that of a European capital. On our first afternoon, we strolled through Amir Temur Square and to Independence Square. Next day was a free day and we used the subway to get around. Although it’s not easy to figure out the Cyrillic names, we managed without getting lost. Three one-way rides for the two of us cost $1.25 CDN! A good evening meal for two in a nice restaurant cost about $20 CDN. As for the local currency, the Uzbekistani Som, $1,000 CDN would just about fill a bucket. A bulging pocketful of 10,000 Som notes is about enough to buy dinner for two.

We visited the Kukaldosh Madrassa (Islamic school), the Juma Mosque, and the huge Chorsu Bazaar in the morning of our free day and spent part of the afternoon at the biggest mall in the city, the Samarkand Darvosa. There was quite a contrast between the bazaar and the mall. The former is where ordinary Tashkenters shop; the latter is for the better-off. We like to experience both wherever we go. In the evening, we welcomed two new travellers, one from Germany and one from Chicago.

Next morning, we drove by coach to Samarkand, Uzbekistan’s second-largest city. Along the way, we passed by fields that would make Island farmers drool: rich soil as flat as a pancake and stretching as far as the eye can see. There is a downside though. During the Soviet era, Moscow decided that this part of the USSR would grow cotton. And to grow cotton, you need a lot of water. And so, water from the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya (rivers) was diverted to the plains of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. Instead of supplying the Aral Sea, these mighty rivers were reduced to a trickle. Google “Aral Sea” and you’ll see from satellite imagery just how dramatically the sea has shrunk. I can’t help but compare this environmental disaster with the impact the potato industry is having on my Island.

Samarkand is a city rich in history. It is one of the oldest continuously-inhabited cities in Central Asia, founded between the seventh and eighth centuries BC. In the fourteenth century AD, it became the capital of the empire of Amir Timur (also known as Tamerlane). Buildings constructed during the period of his rule have been well preserved and are the reason the city was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

While there, we visited a necropolis known as the Shahi Zinda Ensemble, the tomb of Amir Timur, the tomb of his favourite wife, Bibi Khanum, and the magnificent Registan Complex which consists of three madrassas (Islamic schools) and a mosque. All of these structures date from the period between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries. Despite being damaged by earthquakes, they have been restored and are major tourist attractions. The visual effect of lights on the Registan is magical. Along with many hundreds of tourists, most of them European, we watched a sound and light show there that would rival anything you’d see at Disney.

Next morning, we drove east toward our next destination, a yurt camp. Along the way, we stopped in Nurota to visit the remains of one of Alexander the Great’s fortresses and the artificial lake called Aydarkul. The landscape on the drive to the lake reminded us of the Australian Outback, and not surprisingly, since 80% of Uzbekistan is desert. The land is dry, sandy, and featureless except for the occasional farmstead and herds of sheep and goats. As for the lake, knowing it’s artificial and partly responsible for the disappearance of the Aral Sea kind of ruined it for me.
Our yurt camp was already overrun with French tourists when we arrived. We’d barely settled in when they started singing in the dining hall, so loudly, we had to tell them to shut up. The highlight of the camp was definitely a ride on the two-humped dromedaries (also called Bactrian camels). They are gentle and beautiful animals. Elva loves riding a camel. She just doesn't like the getting up and getting down part. Our travelling companion, John, is on the camel in front of her. No pictures of me.
The drive to Bukhara took us about seven hours. Our hotel was located in the historic center of the city, itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Next morning, we strolled through the streets on a guided tour and experienced the historic ambience. The city is a major destination, welcoming 1.5 million tourists per year. The center of Bukhara is very walkable and there are many things to see in addition to mosques and madrassas. Particularly interesting are the craftspeople: hat makers, carpet makers, embroiderers, knife makers, spice merchants, blacksmiths, etc. Some of the families have plied their trade in the same market stall for many generations. Bukhara is our favourite place so far on this tour.
A word about toilets in Central Asia. I’ve divided them into four categories: European-style, privy (bécosse), squat, and long drop. The European is found mostly in hotels and the better restaurants and feels quite comfortable, if you know what I mean. The bécosse is quite familiar to those of us who grew up in the 1960s (there are even some to this day at Le Barachois!). The squat is like a toilet with no seat; you squat and do your business, and it usually has a flush. And then there’s the long drop! Imagine a too-small triangular hole in the floor positioned above a deep pit full of you-know-what. I don’t care how good your aim is, there will be an occasional miss. Not a place to go barefoot. And the smell! Holy Jesus! At one of them, our six-foot-four Swedish Viking came running our, one hand pinching his nose and the other pulling up his pants, shouting: “Get me out of here! Now!”

It took us eight hours to drive 450 kilometers from Bukhara to Khiva, a city of 90,000. The roads ranged from four-lane divided highway to barely passable broken asphalt. While there are signs that Uzbekistan is on the move, much needs to be done to upgrade its road network. Khiva contains one of the best-preserved walled cities in the region and includes 50 ancient monumental structures and 250 residences. We enjoyed an evening stroll through the streets and had dinner in one of the many restaurants.
After another full day of exploring Khiva, we had one last dinner with our group and said goodbye to nine fellow travellers. Seven of us will then cross the border into Turkmenistan. Not sure what to expect in this mysterious country. Should be interesting!

We’re really going to miss our guide, Aktilek, who’s done excellent work keeping us informed and on schedule. He’s getting married later this month and we’re sure his fiancée will be pleased to have him at her side as they prepare for the big day. AK is a bright, open-minded, and engaging young man, a credit to his home country, Kyrgyzstan. He told us that he dreams of owning a guest house one day. Whatever his chosen career, we know he will be successful.

Sunday, 6 October 2019


There comes a time in each of these adventures when you ask yourself: “What the hell am I doing here?” We drove two and a half hours from Karakol to the Kazakhstan border in the pouring rain, the last half over a very rough gravel road. We crossed the middle-of-nowhere border on foot, dripping wet, and boarded the buses again. First impressions of Kazakhstan were not that great: a ten-kilometer jounce through the ditch beside an unfinished road. Fortunately, things got a bit better as we neared our destination for the night, a guest house in Saty village.

The highlight of the day was an off-road drive into Kolsay Lakes National Park followed by a hike to Kaindy Lake, known as the sunken forest. The lake was formed when a 1911 earthquake triggered a massive limestone landslide that formed a natural dam. We climbed into a Soviet-era four-wheel-drive, parked our butts on benches, and hung on for dear life on the roughest ride I can remember. One hour later, we ground to a halt in a parking lot and hiked the rest of the way to the lake. As these views show, the drive was worth it. Back down in the village, we feasted on a home-cooked meal and settled in for the night.

So far on this trip, we’ve stayed in three types of accommodations: hotels, yurt camps, and guest houses. Yet to come are a home stay and a night in a tent. Guest houses are like B&Bs. In Saty, we stayed with a three-generation family that has been welcoming guests for ten years. Sixteen of us shared one bathroom but there was wifi! What struck me about this scenario was the spirit of entrepreneurship displayed by the family. They realize that improvements are required, so they’re expanding with rooms that will have full baths. Think about how far they’ve come. Not even seventy years of Soviet oppression could kill their desire to work hard and make a better future for themselves.

Between Saty and Almaty, we hiked in Charyn Canyon. Although smaller than the Grand Canyon, it has been described as being equally impressive (probably by someone who hasn’t seen the Grand Canyon). Still, we had a nice walk and, best of all, had the place to ourselves.
Kazakhstan is the richest of the five Stans, boasting significant reserves of oil and natural gas, and a wealth of mineral resources. In terms of land area, the country ranks ninth, bigger than Algeria and smaller than Argentina. The average monthly salary is $600 CDN, three times that of Kyrgyzstan. Although we spent only two days in the country, it was enough to show that it’s on the move economically. The largest city, Almaty, looks and feels very European. It features wide boulevards, pedestrian malls, a modern university, a subway system, and a strong café culture. The contrast between urban and rural is huge though. In terms of development, there is a fifty-year gap between the two.
After spending the night in a four-star hotel, we flew from Almaty to Dushanbe, capital of Tajikistan. We said goodbye to five of our fellow travellers and welcomed others from Malta, Alaska, and Toronto, along with our new G Adventures Chief Experience Officer (CEO), Aktilek (AK). The luxurious four-star Atlas Hotel was quite impressive for such a poor country. But, as we were about to find out, Dushanbe looks anything but poor.

The President, Emomali Rahmon, in effect the supreme leader, came to power in 1994, three years after the country declared its independence. Credited with stopping a civil war and preventing the country from becoming an Islamic republic, he seems much loved by the population though it’s hard to tell whether the reverence is genuine. Suffice to say that his likeness is everywhere and his handlers are very accomplished users of Photoshop. Dushanbe is clearly the jewel of the nation and boasts infrastructure and public buildings far more impressive than what we saw in Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan.

We toured the city with our local hosts, Panjakent Intour, led by its owner, Farid. We stopped first at a mosque, then walked around the central square, visited the National Museum of Antiquities, and browsed the impressive city market.

From Dushanbe, we headed north through the magnificent Fann Mountains destined for our home stay in Saritag, near Iskanderkul. Iskanderkul (Lake Iskander) is named for Alexander the Great, the Macedonian conqueror, who passed through the area in the fourth century B.C. The road to the lake is off-road standard, similar to some of the tracks we travelled on in Kyrgyzstan. Just when we thought we couldn’t go any further, the road somehow kept going. Up the face of the mountain we went, bouncing from one pothole to another, around switchbacks and, finally, through the high alpine village of Saritag. Our homestay was higher up the valley still, basically at the end of the road. As we approached it, the two-storey house looked like something out of a fairy tale. The dormitory-style rooms were to be our home for the next two nights.
Our group was the last of the season. Because the homestay had no central heating, we had to bundle up and sleep fully clothed, just as we had in the yurts. Next morning, the sun greeted us as we hiked up the valley, following the route of shepherds and their families who spend their summers in primitive stone houses. It was breathtakingly beautiful.
In the late afternoon, our guides drove us into the village where we had tea at another homestay and learned about Tajik culture and values. As different as these people appear to be from us, their strong system of values bears many similarities. We found ourselves thinking back to the time of our grandparents, realizing that we have much in common. We walked around Saritag in the pouring rain, taking in the sights, sounds and smells of this village of 400, meeting the people as we went. It’s a way of life that’s destined to change, for better or for worse.

After a cold night in the homestay (I wore two sweaters!), we drove back down the valley and headed north toward Khujand, the country’s second-largest city. On the way, we stopped for a panoramic view of Iskanderkul, a landscape equal to anything we’ve seen in the Canadian Rockies, the Alps, or the Pyrenees.
Tajikistan is 90% mountains. The nine million people who live in the country occupy the valleys, most of them quite favourable to agricultural production. On the way to Khujand, we stopped in Istaravshan for a visit to a mosque and a reconstructed fortress. In Khujand, we toured the museum and drove to our lodging for the night, the Firuz Hotel.

Next morning, we drove to the Uzbekistan border after spending time in Khujand’s vast central market. We said goodbye to Farid (on the left in the photo) and our excellent driver, Abdul (center) and walked the kilometer or so across the border to country number 78 on our list.
Two days in Kazakhstan were far too little to give us a taste of that vast country. The five days we spent in Tajikistan were just enough. Half-way through our Central Asian adventure, we’re quite pleased with what we’ve seen so far. Our experiences have been genuine, we’ve met the locals on many occasions, and we’ve gone to places only accessible to those who know how to get there. We’ve found the people friendly and unfailingly polite, and we’ve never felt unsafe or harassed. People here understand the meaning of service and that they will not be able to build a tourism industry without it. But they do have a long way to go; it takes more than effort to make a satisfied customer.

Every morning, we start the day by reminding ourselves how lucky we are to be able to see these wonderful places and enjoy quality time together!