A Date with a Modern Day Fisherman and Ancient Hunters of Norway

Fishing boats in the port on Lofoten at night

Listening to the rain lashing the windows on Lofoten a thought occured to us. Wasn’t it somewhere here that our youngest daughter lost our GoPro camera one winter when she was swimming with the orcas?

A quick message exchange gave us the precise location, it was a day’s drive further North to the island of Andoya. Four years ago she was swimming with orcas and in her excitement totally forgot about the GoPro strapped to her wrist. When she came back up to the boat it was gone, lost in the depth of the freezing sea.

One day many months later an email popped up in her inbox. Was it she that lost a GoPro? It said that a fisherman hauled it up with his daily catch. The housing was ruined under the pressure of 500m, but the memory card was extracted. The fisherman -detective analyzed the contents on his computer and saw that the first images were from our diving in the Andaman sea and the last from a boat in Norway. He went to talk to the agency organizing trips and asked, “Do you know of anyone who lost a Go Pro on one of your expeditions? Sure enough they found Naya’a records. The memory card was sent back and a local reporter even interviewed all parties and wrote a nice article.

I remember reading the barticle and thinking, “One day I would love to meet this fisherman.” Now, unexpectedly, our chance was here.

“Do you have his email?” was the next message to our daughter. She did and we quickly shot him a message. Would he be willing to meet with us for dinner in the next few days? A resounding yes came back quickly. His wife was going to join us too and he made a reservation in the only decent restaurant in town.

Good night and goodbye, Lofoten!

There was a little break, still windy and grey, in the perpetual rain on the day we said goodbye to Lofoten and headed to Andoya. We had no luck finding a single open food establishment. Until 4 pm when we hit Bleik Beach, just short off Andenesič where we were meeting for dinner at 6.

Bleik Beach

In a plain little hut we joined four other patrons heaping their plates with a smorgasbord served in heated metal containers. I sent a message to our fisherman that we made it and apologized for stuffing ourselves early at Sylvia’s. Just as we were telling the story of the fisherman that found our GoPro to the owner two people entered. “You have new guests,” I pointed out.

They headed straight to our table with big and smiles on their faces.

“It’s them,” exclaimed the owner. “They are my friends!”

“We live in the village on this beach,” they explained.

“Well, listen, we still want to take you for a nice dinner, as promised. How about we also try to invite the reporter who wrote the story. Do you have his phone number?”

“No, but I can find it!”

We stepped out and for the first time that day the sun broke through the grey skies for a few minutes and a beautiful rainbow greeted us.

How symbolic: strangers connected across continents by serendipity.

Having gotten hold of the reporter who promised to join us at the restaurant we were invited to Bernt-Jonny Lund’s fishing boat.

Fishing Boat named Troll Peak

It is a simple boat with little shelter from the elements. Hard to imagine the tough life of a fisherman for soft city rats like us.

With Bernt-Jonny

We had a great evening chatting with our new friends and the reporter

With the newspaper man

who took some notes for part 2 of the GoPro Saga.

In the local news

No surprise that our guests did not order fish for dinner but next day Bernt-Jonny brought as a bag of dried cod to try. Let us just say despite its nutritional value and transporting capability it is an acquired taste.

There wasn’t supposed to be the next day as we were planing to take the ferry to neighboring island of Senja. But a big storm the night after our dinner with huge swells prevented fishermen and ferries from going out to sea. So we made another night’s reservation at the old army barracks now a simple hotel and spent the day with our friends taking them to touristy places in their backyard they have never been to. (We have never been to Alcatraz either, despite living in the San Francisco Bay Area for the last 30 years).

Polar Museum
Fun at Spaceship Aurora Museum

For all our troubles we were rewarded with one spectacular sun kissed day on Senja, starting with a panoramic ferry ride.

With no plans for climbing mountain peaks,

Senjahopen village with the view of the peaks including the signature Segla and Hesten

a day was enough to crisscross the whole island. Senja is much smaller and less visited than Lofoten but it certainly punches above its weight.

Jumping above our age at Bergsbotn Uttiktsplattform
Leaving Senja on the last ferry ride

Sunshine held in Tromso, so we could walk around town amongst throngs of local people with their gleefully uptunred faces parked on benches and grassy park patches. Real summer has finally come to Norway now that we were nearly done?

We met famous explorers

and more trolls

A beautiful contemporary Arctic Cathedral represents well the mountains and northern lights of Tromso and the whole county of Troms og Finnmark.

Always looking for the LONG way around we drove through Lyngen Alps along and across Ramsfjord.

Stunning views from yet another ferry

We never heard of these places yet we found them more spectacular (and more peaceful) than their famous brethren in the south. We even took notice of some disparaging remarks about these far reaches of the country from Norwegians who obviously could never have been up here and experienced this dazzling beauty.

As a matter of fact one of our two guidebooks didn’t even cover this part of Norway. We will never forget it especially since we had a unique encounter with a pod of mama orcas playfully swimming along the bay with their babies as we drove by.

Too gobsmacked to take a photo of the orcas. Sometimes you just have to surrender to the random moment of awe!

Yet we did know of the place that was our end goal in our amended travel plan – Alta. It also has a contemporary cathedral: the Northern Lights Cathedral, Nordlyskatedralen in Norwegian.

The most unusual crosseless Christ figure in sparkling interior

But it was something much older yet illuminating that we came to see. A deservedly UNESCO World Herirage site. (Sometimes we wonder about these designations…)

It is in fact not that easy to see so we hired a private guide to show us around.

Poitning out and explaining the faint rock carvings

He works at the truly well designed Alta Museum. Alta has Northern Europe’s largest concentration of rock art made by hunter-gatherers. 6000 figures have been discovered up to date and many are encompassed in the museum’s outdoor area. The oldest date from 5000 BC.

To better see them the shallow carvings have been painted red, though this method is frowned upon and discontinued nowadays.

As great lovers of rock art this was a unique peak experience for us not only in Norway but worldwide. We have sought out rock art in many places like France, Namibia, Australia, and Malaysia, but such a large amount of panels and figures as here is quite unprecedented.

The figures portrayed are people, reindeer, elks (US “moose”), bears, dogs/wolves, foxes, hares, geese, ducks, swans, cormorants, halibut, salmon, whales, boats, implements and other artefacts, and various geometric patterns and shapes.

It is the human figures and their activities that speak to us and offer a unique window into the everyday life, beliefs, and rituals of our ancestors.

Fishing on the boat above and NOT hunting the elk, but performing a ritual.

Travel for us is about discovery, adventure, nature, beauty, creativity, but foremost connection to other humans around the world. Sometimes, when we are lucky we get to even feel the connection to the humans of the distant past.

As always we left a piece of our heart behind. While at the same time our heart and mind expanded and our life was enriched.

Lofoten Bound

Oh, are we glad we changed our plans midway our Norway road trip and pressed North! With the weather not affording leisurely camping by blue lakes and fjords and a car being a safe (=dry) mode of exploration, we continued towards the Land of the Midnight Sun. Well, we were just a bit too late in the season for that and on the other hand a bit too early for Aurora Borealis. Dang!

Troll with our granddaughter’s doll Mila that came on the trip with us. We sent her pictures all along the way.

We said goodbye to the better-known fjords by driving the famed Trollstigen (=Troll’s path). The approach looked quite dismal.

The road begins where the clouds are the thickest

But miraculously for a few minutes the clouds lifted enough so we could see and drive the switchbacks with full force of waterfalls cascading all around us.

Impossible to show on a little photo the magnitude of Nature! See how huge the waterfall is and how tiny the cars?

We were hoping to take a small Rauma tourist train as we missed out on the famous Flam train ride due to rain. But the train was canceled, but luckily a nice girl in a sports shop told us we can see exactly the same from the car. Thank goodness for her advice. It is surprisingly difficult to get good information in Norway, web sites are not updated or only in Norwegian and tourist offices in many places closed.

On the way back through the Romsdalen Valley we stopped to admire yet another cool tourist architecture (a restaurant and souvenir shop)

and even more so the mirror reflection of the sheer Trollveggen (= Troll wall), the tallest vertical rock face in Europe. Naturally, such superlatives attract extreme sports fanatics like rock climbers and base jumpers and sadly many have been killed here.

In Molde, we had an ad hoc coffee with Laila, the mother of a tour guide we had in Bergen. She shared a lot about the Norwegian way of life and their values and attitudes. She worked at a refugee agency, so we had an interesting discussion about that, too.

She then put us in touch with her other daughter in Trondheim, who really helped us out a few days later by letting us do a load of laundry and dry out our tent in her garage. On top of it she gave us a tour of her city and over lunch enlightened us about the younger Norwegian generation, University system, etc. So it proved true what we heard that the further North we would go, the friendlier people became.

Old colorful quays of Trondheim

Trondheim is an interesting city for it is brimming with students, which means better coffee shops. It is also the end of a popular pilgrimage road, a Nordic version of the Spanish Camino. The St. Olav’s Ways is a 5000 km long network of pilgrim pathways meandering through Nordic countries.

Pilgrim’s passport with stamps collected on the way in front of accommodation set up for pilgrims.

We talked to a friendly Swedish couple who were just finishing their walking pilgrimage, heading towards the Nidaros cathedral. We offered them a ride as the rain clouds threatened again, but they refused.

The outside is not that special

What a wondrous surprise the cathedral was for us. After all the sweet, if at times also dramatic little churches the giant stone cathedral built over the grave of King Olav II, patron saint of Norway, was indeed impressive. After all it is the biggest cathedral in Northern Europe (it can sit 1,850 people) and the northernmost medieval cathedral in the world.

But the inside… wow, just wow!

I can totally imagine being a pagan from a small countryside settlement and stepping into this awe-inspiring place and converting on the spot. In truth of course Viking conversion to Christianity was a slow process in Norway and whole of Scandinavia. Sadly in the process, women were the biggest losers. Where they had great powers in their pagan religion and a certain level of equality with men in their society all that was gradually stripped away.

We had another great opportunity to learn about the Vikings at the Lófótr Viking Museum, where real live “Vikings” practice crafts and answer questions.

The Lady of the Longhouse
The weaver drinking from a replica of a Viking cup found at the longhouse
The replica of the longest Viking House ever found
One can even go for a ride in a Viking ship

Ah, Lofoten. For travelers and photographers, it is one of those whispered mystical words of a magical place that haunt you in your sleep and while awake. Only Svalbard perhaps holds more sway. We left frozen Svalbard for another time but took the six hours long ferry to Røst on the edge of islands in the chain.

Luckily it was a calm day on the open sea that kept going and going with a prolonged light of the lingering night beyond the Arctic Circle. Arriving way past midnight we slept a few hours in the car and witnessed the first sunrise on the Lynx’s Foot islands, as the Vikings named Lofoten.

Lazy photography: Sunrise reflected in our car bonnet through the front windshield.

We spent a week on Lofoten, in seven days four were dumping rain relentlesly, but the remaining three were enough to drive every single road on the islands, some more than once, returning to favorite picturesque spots.

Dramatic: tall mountains rising straight from the sea
Same but ever changing: Golden light of the Golden Hour
Dragon’s Eye
Beached Whale

You can let your imagination go wild down bellow or you plant your feet firmly on the upward path and climb to a different perspective.

The one and only trek that convinced us we should leave such adventures to the young and nimble. The wind nearly blew us off the mountain and into Kvalvika Beach.

Best to just go beach combing on surprisingly many attractive beaches.

When the weather is not cooperating there are many museums and galleries to enjoy and learn. Besides the Viking Museum one can not help but encounter the many museums and the still working establishments of the cod processing industry.

Since time immemorial skrei, the wandering cod from the Bering Sea has been caught and dried on Lofoten in the millions.

Drying racks waiting for the winter catch

It was the base of the Hanseatic league trade (and wealth) in Bergen and the means of sustaining Norway economically before the oil boom changed everything.

Dried cod gets exported primarily to Italy, Portugal, and Spain where the bacalao dish reigns supreme
The dried heads all go to Nigeria for spicy soup

Personally, we much prefer Lofoten salmon.

Salmon and shrimp sandwich with non-alcoholic beer and a view

We bid goodbye to Lofoten and continued North for we had a special mission to accomplish.

Lofoten panorama with typical red fishing village (now mostly turned into tourist accommodations).

To be revealed in the next instalment.

Norwegian Rainy Summer: Fjord-land

Far beyond the Artic Circle

Indeed, in the summer for a time the sun never sets in Norway’s North but that doesn’t mean it is sunny all the time.

This year in particular it hasn’t been. While the rest of Europe was baking in record-setting heat, we were told Norway was experiencing the coldest and wettest summer in 100+ years.

And this was the summer we decided to finally go to Norway on a road trip. It has always been too far and too expensive. Still is, but we are starting to really feel we are running out of time and European countries to visit. Panicking, as we checked the accommodations (booked up, or ludicrously expensive: room with bunk beds and shared bathroom for $285 anyone?) we threw a borrowed tent and some sleeping bags in the car. Bought two inflatable mattresed and a gas cooker for tea and instant soup.

We haven’t camped in like over twenty years, but hey, the idea brought back fond memories of a vigorous youth. We downloaded a camping app and read that wild camping was legal and practiced everywhere so our stress level went down immediately.

One night of wild camping

Until the first big rains…

Not rain proof tent

And temperature dropping precipitously…

Our summer sleeping bags proved woefully inadequate but we managed to buy a feather filled comforter at Ikea.

After we were seriously flooded twice we decided to camp only in good weather. Luckily the second part of our trip was after the end of high season so we were able to find a combination of simple campground huts, hotel rooms and Airbnbs.

We spent a week in this beautiful Airbnb on Lofoten

Still we were proud of giving camping a fair chance and glad to meet a lot of nice fellow travelers in camps’ common kitchens. With local restaurants and coffee shops closed altogether or closed early in the day our little cooker came in handy. (More on the logistics in a later post)

When one thinks of Norway it is the image of fjords that comes up in our mind first and foremost.

Mountains reflected in beautiful blue-green waters.

Well, with the ratio 1 sunny day to 3 rainy ones, we had a whole lot more of cloudy and rainy fjords. Reflections, thank goodness, were still there.

Moody, broody, but very satisfying to photograph.

There are three ways to see the fjords. From the banks

Night shot from our camping spot at Breim’s Lake.

from the top and from the water.

If you are a hiker, there are many hikes that will reward you with fabulous views. Our hiking days are well behind us so we needed to resort to driving windy roads to come to lookout points.

18 specially designated National Tourist Roads have elegantly designed pullouts and viewing platforms.

It is even better when one can take a gondola and feel like really being on top of the world.

Mt. Hoven lookout at the top of Loen Skylift
Fjords and lakes as far as the eye can see
Geiranger Fjord, likely the most famous and most touristy fjord of all. Can you spot the cruise ship?

Getting on the water means renting a kayak (which we didn’t do) or hopping on a car ferry. Some are just your everyday short connections between different sides or arms of a fjord but others can be running the length of the whole fjord and are a scenic tourist attraction.

On the Lysefjord ferry to Lysebotn

One can get close and personal with waterfalls, this summer reinforced by plenty of rain.

Seven Sisters Waterfall in Gerainger Fjord

So yeah, fjords are spectacular and very attractive, but Norway is so much more. For once we didn’t have a detailed travel plan and were not limited with a return ticket date so we had a chance to be flexible and explore more. To some degree we tried following the weather predictions on a Norwegian weather app, but when it rains everywhere you can’t quite drive away from it.

Bergen’s Bryggen – a short break between storms

Hence we got holed up in a hotel in Bergen for three days, drying out our tent and planing our route further North than initially invisioned.

Making lemonade out of rainy lemons we looked for indoor activities and discovered places and experiences we would likely have missed in sunny weather.

Monumental medieval Haakon’s Hall
Classical piano concert of Edward Grieg’s music in his home

The design and quality of their museums was a delight and the stave church on the outskirts dramatic.

Now for the stavekirken… We got quite obsessed with them and after our first encounter went out of the way to visit. There is something very attractive about them – a combination of Viking mysticism and Early Christian spirituality. Researchers believe that there have been just under 2 000 stave churches in Norway. 28 of these are preserved. Such medieval wooden churches were scattered all over Europe but are now only found in Norway. Incidentally we saw similar hand hewn techniques of church building (without any nails!) still used in a remote corner of Romania. We easily fell under their spell as well.

Warm, inviting wooden inside

Many of the Norwegian still standing stave churches are total reconstructions as these churches are prone to fires. In order to protect the churches they are tarred on the outside, thus the (rather sinister) black appearance.

Borgund Stavekirke and bell tower

They were built at the time when Vikings started accepting Christianity en masse around 11th-12th century and on.

The oldest intricately carved portal of Urnes stavekirke from 11th century

Finding Viking sites was another mainstay of our meandering around the country. With the Viking ship Museum in Oslo closed for renovations for the next five years (!) we were ecstatic to find the newest and largest Viking ship on display at the spectacularly intelligently and beautifully designed Sagastad Museum in the tiny fjord where it first sailed.

The walls open so the seaworthy replica can be rolled into the fjord for a row about.

We came on a Sunday morning expecting a crowd and upon seeing an absolutely empty parking lot suspected the museum was closed. It wasn’t. It was singlehandedly manned by a teenage girl who couldn’t be more than sixteen. That’s Norway to you, people are expected to behave well, doors are not locked, streets are safe to walk in the middle of the night.

As the Myklebust ship was a burial ship it was burned to a crisp and covered by a big earthen mound. Nevertheless archaeologists could still determine so many details that an exact replica could be built.

Row, row, row your boat! All the way to America.

The Museum has mirrored walls and ceiling with black background so you have a feeling you are in the charred mound.

Hail to Chief Mirek!

The awesome part about Norwegian museums is that they are so interactive. You are not only allowed but encouraged to walk on the ship and become a Viking.

Compared to these intricate highly skilled works of art and craft the majority of buildings we came across were rather simple and slap dash in their construction. The countryside is dotted with simple red huts. Red must be the favorite color in Norway.

Cottages are a national obsession and it seems like every family has one somewhere. They are surprisingly simple, many lacking inside bathrooms. Norwegians for all the cold and rain love to spend their time outside, hiking and fishing. From an early age babies and kids of all ages are out and about clad in waterproof clothing and boots. Sturdy Viking stock, indeed!

A bit more elaborate are farms that mostly seems to follow an attractive pattern of white main house and red barns.

Some farms can be confoundingly grand

In the cities too, housing is simple and utilitarian. And often red.

The last picture illustrates how we feel about Norwegians. There is no problem communicating as pretty much everyone speaks perfect English, but man, they are hard to break a barrier with. That’s why for once you will not see any people pictures in our blog.

Except for this gentleman, we found picking a bucketfull of crab from his cages with his wife.

I turned on my most charming self but it was tough going to sustain a conversation. They told me they were having a Sunday party for friends. I half jokingly asked at what time? They seriously answered, “At 5.” Having just come from our trip in Central Asia, the difference was stark. There we would have been invited for a crab feast at the first hello. With no English spoken. 😉

Maybe further North we will be luckier. Norwegian North coming up next!

Of Birth and Death and Life in Kyrgyzstan

The view from our homestay’s dining room

As we walked up the steps to our homestay in the village of Arslanbob, we heard a baby cry.

A black clad grandma was holding a baby swaddled in layers of pink. Her face showed concern and frustration. “May I?” I asked with a smile. To my surprise, she handed me the baby and I put her on my shoulder and started the baby dance that I have practiced to perfection with many babies, my own and others. (Long time ago for many years I worked with new mothers, helping them breastfeed and master other mothering skills).

Soon the little bundle burped and instantly calmed down. The baby’s mother walked out of the house, startled to find her daughter in the arms of a stranger. Her mother-in-law said something to her, presumably about the baby calming down in my arms and the mother looked at me with friendlier eyes. Our guide came up and translated. “It is our first grandchild,” explained the granny. “It is a miracle. We have waited for her for 15 years!”

As we stowed our bags in our guest room, I noticed that the women were getting ready to leave. “Where are they going?” I asked our guide. “To the baqshï – traditional healer. The baby doesn’t eat well and cries too much.”

“Would it be acceptable if I tagged along?”

The women had no objections and we all piled into a beat-up car with a cracked windshield. I sat in the back with grandma, holding the baby, while the mother was in the front. It seemed to me that the baby didn’t quite belong to the mother, but to the family as a whole. Soon the narrow road through the village came to an end.

We had to cross a stream by foot on a rickety footbridge

and then walk up to a house. We were welcomed and ushered into a spacious room with floor seating. Immediately an assortment of food was piled up in front of us. The mother passed the baby to the healer.

I gestured to my phone and was so pleased when I got permission to take photos. You see, if I could do my life over I would have wanted to be an anthropologist. I just love learning about people’s traditions, beliefs, and cultures.

Truth be told it is a bit hard to learn about a culture when you don’t understand the language. Not that many words were spoken during the ritual that was part medical examination. After a quick Muslim prayer

I watched intently the healer’s strong, steady, skilled hands probing the baby (checking fontanel for dehydration, tummy for obstructions) and then bringing out various powders and ointments to put on the baby.

Blessing with an ancient turtle shell – certainly a pre-Islamic shamanic tradition

But it was her face that mesmerized me. She had an open face with the kindest smile. I would have gladly put my body and soul into her hands.

But then she asked the mother for a sterile razor blade and while pinching the skin started making tiny little cuts on the baby’s back. That was not something I was quite ready to see, though different ways of “letting blood” to take out impurities is a method used in many cultures.

Luckily the baby barely whimpered and quickly calmed down when put to her mother’s breast where she fell asleep.

There was no payment from our side but in the end we all received a different scarf as a parting gift from the lovely baqshï.

With my new scarf carefully tied by the grandma

I really wished I could have asked her some questions or offer some breastfeeding advice and if I had had a woman guide I would have been able to. Still, I was very grateful to have had been afforded a thrilling glimpse through the small window into the local culture.

On the other side of life’s journey we had many opportunities to encounter not funerals per se, but burial traditions. Again one could see some remnants of pre Islamic traditions. In the near total absence of historical architectural monuments and only very simple village architecture we were fascinated by attractive graveyards scattered throughout the countryside.

They always had a nice view but were rarely connected to a human settlement. But then Kyrgyzis were true nomads for much longer than sedentary people.

In the olden, nomadic times people were buried on the way, wherever death overtook them. Some more important people would perhaps get a tomb, possibly in the shape of a yurt, that would in time become holy shrines – mazars.

These days skeletal ironwork yurt graves offer rest to family members in their favorite traditional dwelling.

Many tombs were adorned by a crescent moon. The crescent is not only Islamic but also a symbol from earlier times, of light at night.

Sunrise at a village gravesite

Some others displayed the five-pointed star, a distinctly Soviet symbol.

As most were constructed from adobe (mud and straw) bricks

they were in all stages of deterioration, looking like sand castles eroded by Mother Nature and Father Time.

Some had handcrafted pictures and names, but the newest ones followed an uncanny Russian tradition of exact likeness etched in polished marble.

The exact likeness could not be attributed to the traditional bal bals, anthropomorphic sculptures made from limestone and granite.

Bal bal looking towards Burana Tower

From 6-12th century they were probably carved memorials to the honoured dead. Their production and reverence ceased with prevalence of Islam which prohibits figural depiction of people.

The majority of population in Kyrgyzstan declares itself Muslim, but except for the South close to Uzbekistan border we felt the country was more secular than its neighbors. There were no grand mosques and we heard no muezzin calls.

A small mosque in Kyzyl-Oy

The only woman we saw in a real hijab was this stunning fishmonger.

Dry lake fish

Lucky for us she had no problem posing for pictures.

The other item for sale: kurut –dried yogurt balls

Speak about stunning. This beautiful girl Zarina was the niece of our guide and she gave us a private concert on komuz, a traditional string instrument, while her mom cooked us a delicious lunch.

Visiting Begaly’s family was such a treat. Mom and dad were lovely as well.

Dad in traditional hat – kalpak

And we even got invited to his sister-in-law’s birthday party.

While many women wore loosely tied scarves, some men wore traditional kalpaks. As it used to be with all traditional clothing clothes or hats were not just for protection from elements but also immediately explained someone’s status in society: noble or serf, married or unmarried, etc.

For example in the past when a Kyrgyz boy was 12 years old he would wear a kalpak with green embroidery, this would change to a blue kalpak at the age of 24, a brown one at 36, beige at 48 and black at 60. If a young man was looking to get married he would wear a kalpak with red decorations.

Our guide Begaly with his kalpak on a throne in Skazka (Fairytale) canyon

In case you were curious kalpaks are made with a traditional material – felt, made from wool, plentiful around sheep.

A visit to a felt making home workshop

Even we recognized this man we met in the village of Arslanbob as an Uzbeki because of his square hat.

Not sure this gentleman has any symbolism in his clothes. He was impeccably dressed, eating lunch alone in a roadside restaurant and before he left I asked him for a portrait. I wish I had a chance to ask him some questions, but he seemed in a hurry.

This cool guy was one of a team of four salt miners, we met on a quick detour to an old salt mine. He insisted on gifting me this piece of salt rock.

Sometimes the encounters are fleeting

A gorgeous girl holding a platter of freshly baked goodies.

Sometimes we get a chance to have real conversations as with this Dungan lady, the owner of the best coffee shop and a little hotel we stayed at in Karakol. Dungan are Muslim people of Hui origin that left China. They are especially known for their delicious cuisine. Because of her fluent English we had over the course of a few days some lovely conversations about food, traditions, family, and life in general.

It is a bonus when one can have a free flow of ideas that enrich an encounter.

But sometimes words are not needed, generosity and kindness speak directly from one heart to another.

Great grandma and her great granddaughter at our first homestay. Sweet memories!

We might say goodbye to Kyrgyzstan, but we will always remember the wonderful people we met.

In Awe of Kyrgyzstan’s Nature

Indeed, and with a renewed hope for the planet. Following the news one is apt to believe the Earth is on the brink of collapse. The glaciers are melting, the oceans are choked with plastic, rivers dead and forests infected. No wonder young people are depresed and without hope for the future.

They should come for a week to Kyrgyzstan, trek in the pristine nature of the mountains, wade through mountain streams and eat fresh fish from the lakes. Yes, there is an occasional eye sore of plastic refuse on high mountain passes left by the many truck drivers and there are traffic jams in the capital but all in all this country is Nature’s Paradise.

Worshiping at Jeti Oguz

And people live in harmony with nature and animals. Seems like the nomadic blood of their ancestors still flows through their veins unabated and calls them to the summer jailoos in the mountains.

While grazing sheep and cows are the main contributors to the economy it is the horses that are the love and pride of every Kyrgyz male. It is true that horses occasionally complement the menu of this carnivore nation at the family table or restaurants. This is a habit more common here than in the West but it is still relatively rare among the line after line of beef and lamb culinary marvels you can usually select from the menu.

Horses are everywhere and everyone has them. And rides them. It is a hobby. It is a right of passage. They naturally learn riding like crawling and walking.

Born in the saddle

It is something they are born with in their DNA. They ride them as they manage their sheep, goats and cows. Those people are for me like Central Asian version of American cowboys. Watching them makes me feel like being back in the American Wild West. How could it not with a backdrop like this?

One afternoon we followed the river to a small village to our homestay. We stopped by a footbridge that leads over the fast flowing river.

It is late afternoon, time to bring herds home.

My Kyrgyz cowboys are doing their job with grace. They do what I see my wife doing whenever she is around horses. Touching them gently on their heads above their nostrils, hoping to mount them and ride them away into the wild. Is it not funny to think about your wife in those terms?

Cowboy Volod: “See you at the local joint later tonight?”

My wife: “Or maybe at the animal market in the morning?”

Horse area at the Karakol market

When planing our trip to Kyrgyzstan we had hoped to be in Karakol on a Sunday to be able to experience their weekly animal market. And wouldn’t you know it, we arrived to this pleasant town on the shores of Issyk Kul on a weekend.

We love markets anywhere in the world. People are busy doing what they do at a market – buying, selling, meeting their friends and don’t pay much attention to foreign visitors soaking it all in.

Sheep corner

It is essential to get to the market early and we had a good warning from a traveller we met who missed most of the action. So we got up at the crack of dawn and found that the market was indeed already in full swing when we arrived. Many people have brought their animals from afar and some spent the night at the site.

It was a cold morning after a rainy night. The surrounding mountains were sprinkled with fresh snow. What a setting! With two crazy travelers gleefully lost in the see of animals and people.

Tradition and modernity – smartphones are common

There was a lot of action.

Frisky stallions
Nursing colts
When in Rome… Mirek checking the fat content of the “tail”

It was, by and large, a men’s affair

but occasionally women were involved as well.

There was a considerable quantity of animals gathered, but surprisingly we saw very few sold.

Fast money counting skill we did not manage to acquire

We would have stayed till the last animal was loaded up again, but our stomachs reminded us we didn’t have breakfast so as a bonus for getting up so early we loaded up with freshly baked bread on the way back to our hotel.

It was to be expected that spring weather in Kyrgyz mountains will be changeable and rain possible. We were actually pretty lucky with the weather and never got wet or hindered in our activities.

The one day we decided to go on a hike to Atlyn Arashin valley it was sunny, but weather didn’t prove to be the issue.

There are certain bitter elements in our travels which had been and still are an integral part of our life together. We never traveled in groups, relying mostly on each other, if I disregard traveling with our kids when they were growing up. Our children now travel on their own to the mutual relief of both generations involved.

For many years, we have managed to find a a good balance between our interests and abilities in physically demanding disciplines. I preferred mountain trekking and scuba diving and my wife horse back riding. Rafting was fun for the whole family. As the years went by the balance was exposed to the test of time. After my back surgery which led inevitably to my retirement I suddenly had to face the fact that my lovely wife could still be jumping like a foal around me over the mountain streams and easily dealing with rough rides in the 4×4 vehicles, some of them old enough to match my age.

It all came crashing down around my ears as we boarded one of those former Red Army vehicles to get us on the unpaved valley road above the tree line for a hike amongst the peaks. The road reminded me more of a training site for old T-72 tanks than a road.

Terrain full of boulders, with remnants of last winter’s avalanches, and potholes the size of our house’s living room.

Avalanche blocking the road

My best intentions got a forceful reminder that my dreams may have survived those 50 years since I first tried to come here, but my back and surgically stiffened spine are way too fragile for this adventure and think otherwise.

It was a bitter moment of recognition that my time of hiking with sixty pounds heavy backpack (half filled with essential bottles of beer) is long gone and finally over and I had to let it go.

We sent the driver back with half his fee and started walking slowly

by the fast-flowing mountain river enjoying flowers and green meadows and chirping birds.

We walked over a bridge to the first human dwelling,

while our guide flew his drone.

On the other side the verdant spring has reached the high summer pastures where a few cows were contentedly nibbling on fresh grass.

The majestic peaks with snow still plentiful on their steep slopes were watching quietly over the herders taking care of their animals and summer gardens.

To my big disappointment, I realized I could get no closer to the mountains. I could not make it any further and we had to turn around and walk back down to the first village to call a taxi for the rescue.

Next time up only in a chopper, oh my!

Golden Eagle Hunt

In our cozy yurt by the shore of Lake Issyk Kul, we slept soundly through the pelting rain to wake up in hopes of a dry morning. It was vital that the weather cooperated as we were to have an important meeting in the village of Bokanbaevo. With a man, my wife has dreamed of for a long time.

In this small village on the south shore of lake Issyk-Kul there are thirteen men practicing the ancient custom of hunting with Golden Eagles. They will do a demonstration for a small fee for the curious in the nearby fields. Easily arranged, thinks our guide. But then my wife drops a bomb. She has no interest in a tourist show. She wants to ride with the hunters into the mountains on a real hunt.

“The Impossible we do immediately, Miracles take a little longer, maximum till the next day, “ is the oft-proven motto of our Begaly.

Rainbow after the storm

As we poked our heads out of the yurt his beaming face meet ours. The rain has stopped and we are to meet one of those Magnificent Thirteen.

It feels like we are in a movie. Our meeting is set at a dilapidated gas station where we wait for a few minutes. We don’t know what our man looks like. We lean against our car and eye every vehicle driving by with raised hopes. Then a beaten up Mini Daewoo with broken windshield, back seats sold for spare parts and car doors impossible to close stops by the side of the road. A lean man, dressed to the nines like a model from a gentlemen’s fashion magazine AND in riding boots steps out, shakes our hands, and beckons us to follow him. We drive through the narrow unpaved streets of the village and stop at a modest unassuming family house where the gentleman keeps, feeds (fresh chicken only), and trains his darlings, three Golden Eagles.

As he goes to fetch his horse we notice something brown in the back of his car.

Patiently waiting

Under close supervision of his wife the Eagle man unceremoniously drags the bird out of the car and…

We get the first inkling of the size of the eagle

… ties him to the car

then perches him on the wall, head covered by a leather cap

where he waits for the hunting team to assemble:

The hunter with the leather glove for the heavy “weapon” on his arm, the assistant with sharp eyesight to identify the victim in this crime; and my wife with an alternative harmless gun – her trusty iPhone.

All accomplished riders, they mount their horses at once

and disappear down the village road and into surrounding by fields towards the mountains in the background.

We, less than accomplished horse riders (may we dare call ourselves media supporting team?) are left behind but in no way do we give up our participation in this quest. We will be, at least discreetly, following in our LandCruiser, observing from behind and offering any (un)necessary help, if God forbid, the hunters ask for it. Meanwhile, our guide assembles a small drone with a camera.

We drive behind the hunting party about half a mile ahead of us on the country roads but

even with a 4W drive, we can not follow them up the first rocky hills as they press onward on their horses.

Yet we can still observe their dramatic adventure at least on the drone display.

At the top, they dismount and leaving the horses to graze, continue on foot.

There is no common language to communicate in anyways so the group proceeds in silence to the steep edge for the unobstructed view of the immense blue lake. But all attention and awe is reserved for the giant bird, one of the largest, fastest, and nimblest raptors in the sky. In olden days these faithful birds would bring the prey to the hunter to help feed his family, especially during the lean winter days.

Close Encounters of the 1st Natural Kind

The eagle gets a short glimpse of the surroundings with his cap removed

It is touching to see the close relationship and gentle caresses from the hunter
Stretching his wings

After he had a chance to stretch his wings the cap goes back on and everyone scrambles over the uneven floor looking for potential movement in the sparse vegetation. The assistant stops every now and then throwing a rock down the hill or calling out immitating an animal.

As the hunting party crosses a steep terrain on the other side of the mountain range the hunter’s assistant catches a glimpse of a jackal on the slopes below covered by boulders and brushes. Not more than one, maybe two hundred yards away from him. After a quick exchange among the party members, the hunter clears our Golden Eagle’s vision by removing its cap and releases it. My wife, an accomplished iPhone camera-woman, without missing even a blink of her eyes, starts recording the whole action so this hunt can be saved, if not for generations to come, then at least for us! And here it is:

This short version of the hunt’s video is not National Geographic quality, but for Iphone it is pretty good.

The released Golden Eagle majestically descends down the mountain slope mercilessly eyeing the jackal, who is now running for his life….but to no avail! The Eagle moves silently to the jackal from behind, his sharp claws chopping into his furry neck. Then, in the critical moment, the jackal luckily slips from Eagle’s sharp talons. while our Eagle continues on its flight path, the jackal somersaults multiple times completely out of control, before his body gets out of our sight.

While the Eagle circles above the search party scrambles down through the scree and bushes looking for the injured jackal. In the end, unfortunately, the recovery search for jackal’s body is not successful, yet the hunters are strangely elated. We find out only later that this is the first ever real hunt of the young eagle after three months of training with a stuffed fox.

The excitement is even bigger when they realize the whole hunt is de facto recorded and can not only be studied carefully for future training but shared (and bragged about) on Facebook!

Golden Eagle back on his master’s arm, the hunting expedition returns to the horses.

Adrenaline still runs high as they mount their horses and descend

down to the rim of the deep ravine where the LandCruiser is waiting.

A congratulatory bottle of beer is what all actors of this drama, our young Golden Eagle, all hunters, poor jackal, all of them deserve!

The love and pride on the master hunter’s face…

Last photos are taken

and we leave deeply grateful that we could come face to face with such a magnificent creature and experience firsthand this age-old tradition, part of the life of local people for thousands of years.

What is more, we are now invited to return any time in the future and STAY with the family, as this mutual experience of the Golden Eagle’s virgin hunt forged important and powerful bonds.

See Kyrgyzstan and Die

Some 60 years ago I tried to get on any hilltop in the neighborhood and later, with my college buddies, further on beyond my neighborhood into the world. Our beyond was limited by the thin wallets of student years and the impenetrable Iron Curtain era of Big Brother governments. This lethal combination pushed many of my hilltop climbing dreams into the memory files marked NTH (Never To Happen). Such was the unfortunate fate of my dream to trek the Tien Shan Mountains of Central Asia, as the very un-friendly administrators of the now-defunct U.S.S.R. didn’t give us the necessary permits.

I was lucky that some of those NTH dreams were double filed in another drawer as well, the drawer called NTF (Never To Forget). It had been a long wait… but here I am with my travel buddy/adventure partner/wife re-hashing one of those NTF dreams, one of those never-to-die. You can see us arriving in the early morning hours in a cab from the last Uzbek railway outpost city of Andijan to the only open land crossing border post to Kyrgyzstan.
From Uzbekistan historical paradise with the fingers of its eastern arm tickling the flanks of the mystical Shangri-La of 20,000 plus foot high peaks, difficult to cross passes,

and breathtaking colorful lakes – the land of 40 tribes: Kyrgyzstan we walked into a teeming mass of people jostling for position in front of two grim immigration officers. “You are foreigners, you are our guests, please go before us.”

After another short cab drive, we are in the City of Osh. We have 24 hours before our guide with his Land Cruiser reaches us from the capital Bishkek. Looking at a map and consulting with our hotel staff we decide to hire a taxi for a ride to the nearest village towards the mountainous south.

Exciting first, yet soon disappointing. Because further south there beckon the ranges on Tajikistan and Chinese borders. A short bargaining session ensues over a greasy meal and a pot of tea in a local joint. Our side is full of fast, and extremely enticing US$ arithmetics (all in my rusty high-school Russian, mind you!) and the driver employs Oscar-nominated quality moaning over rising gasoline prices. In the end, we triple his scope of work and double the price. The driver has never been there and does not know the condition of the road, but once a local confirms it is asphalted, he caves in. The deal is made and without further ado we jump in the car and the driver presses the pedal to the metal.

“Go South, young man! Go South!”, and
“Push as close as possible to the border!” so we can see the highest peak in this area.

And after plowing through endless herds of sheep, goats, and the occasional horse going to the summer pastures and getting over the 11,650ft (3,550m) elevation mountain pass,

Beginning of a trend where every mountain pass has to be photographed.

the plains below us finally opened up to the view we came to this country for.

OK, it was me; my wife came here mainly for horses, people, Golden Eagles, and yurt interiors.

The first sight of the second highest* summit in the Tien-Shan (=Heavenly) mountains, the massive Lenin Peak 23,405ft (7,134m) high, from the road leading to the Chinese Uyghur Province (another still impossible-to-get permit and visa required), was indeed– heavenly.

*The highest Tien-Shan mountain, Jengish Chokusu, formerly known since 1946 as Pik Pobedyi (Victory Peak), is 24,406ft (7,439m) high. Located in an inaccessible area of the Kyrgyzstan border with China.

Artistic view of it on a stamp issued in 2000

You may now think: “Mission accomplished!” And on the first day, no less. But there was so much more to be seen and our fabulous guide/driver/fixer/soon-to-become-friend Begaly, who showed up on the dot the next morning, made sure to prove it afresh every day: another mountain range, another mountain lake, another mountain pass, another waterfall, valleys, canyons, rivers, yurts, horses, Golden Eagles. Just you wait!

From now on we were zig-zagging across this country as it was slowly waking up into the beautiful spring after a long cold winter and two-year nightmare of the COVID pandemonium.

The mountain lakes enchanted us with their beautiful colors and clear waters.

Sary Chelek Lake

The shores ringed by wild apple trees in full bloom made us

jump with joy

Wild tulips

over so much beauty, as flowers of all kinds and colors winked at us from fresh green grass..

Flower or Fairy? Flower Fairy!

I could not help but take a (skinny) dip, as it was customary in my younger years, in no matter how freezing any body of water.

With melting snow in the mountains, the waterfalls were gaining strength.

The weather in the higher altitudes could still be cold and not every day dawned with blue skies but pastures and meadows were exploding with colors.

Kara Javadz (= Black Woods)

Poppies mixed in on the edges and popped up at the sides of the roads.

Even where the land was barren on the lake shores, lake colorful water with the help of dramatic cloudy sky and sun delivered.

To make the landscape come alive there were horses to be seen everywhere.

It was Song Kul (Song=Last Kul=Lake), that was the tricky one. It is a high alpine lake situated at an altitude of 3016 meters in central Tien Shen Mountains. Till the last moment we were not sure if the mountain pass will be open and as it was we were only the second car to pass.

The windy steep road over the Thirty-Two Serpentine Pass (another 3,000 plus meters high) still held some sun

Made it over the hump! Thank you Begaly and car!

But on the other side things deteriorated quickly.

The iffy bridge over the fast flowing river

Ominous clouds with rain turning to snow rolled low.

Yet our every positive guide pressed on in hopes of sun breaking through at the lake.

Ksenija photographing the horses

It wasn’t quite sunny but for short moments the clouds lifted enough so we could see the lower layer of the ring of mountains even if the lake stayed steely gray. And the first herd of horses has made it up to their summer pastures, while summer crowds were still far back.

Mares with their foals as I try to approach them – you can see me between horses and the Song-Kul lakeshore

On the way down on a different road we could not miss the opportunity and visited a yailoo (= summer pasture) with two yurts and local shepherd family.

Husband, wife and young daughter were taking care of large herds of 1,200 sheep, 200 cows, four horses and a few dogs. Cordially invited for a cup of tea at five and a tour of
their two yurts, one perfect traditional hand made from felt and the other a now unfortunately common new plastic Chinese import.

The traditional yurt ceiling free of internal supports provides for pleasant and spacious

Comfortably seated we were served many local snacks. Some of them I tried, while my wife bravely partook of all. Our conversation proceeded with help of hands, fingers and other bodily extremities, my rather laughable Russian and my wife’s, as per usual, magically discovered gift for the rudimentary version of the local dialect.

In a friendly atmosphere of mutual understanding, photos of other family members were presented.

In a few moments it was established that on our family side we still had one unmarried daughter. On their family side, the big family guy, clearly a successful herder with remarkable resources, indicated his younger brother was still lookingng for a suitable match for life. We were just a little taken aback when pater familias started without hesitation a serious negotiation on the size of the dowry. What amount was I keen to entertain as the father of a daughter of obvious beauty, fluent in English, with good education, decent cooking experience, and possibly willing to relocate to the groom’s homeland?

I could not convince him while he upped his bidding in numbers of sheep and cows that both my wife and I could not legally represent our sweet child in this contract. It came as a shock for the eager and well-meaning brother of the potential groom that our non-negotiable stance was that personal contact between the bride and the groom was a pre-requisite for further progress in this matter. In spite of his clear disappointment we parted on very friendly terms.

Better luck finding a match for their little one!

We took from this visit a very strong desire to try this traditional accommodation at the first possible opportunity. And it was served to us on a silver platter when we reached the southern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul. Here we discovered a number of yurt camps.

The yurt of our dreams, old farts that we are, had to have one important element: a rarely offered private bathroom. Lo and behold our all-knowing Begaly had heard about a newly opened establishment and there we drove as the sky darkened.

No matter the season hadn’t officially opened yet, no matter we were the only guests, they welcomed us with open arms. We were taken through a grove of apricot trees

and given a tour of a beautiful King size bed yurt villa exquisitely furnished with homemade elements. (Oh, please, no Chinese crap smuggled across the border two mountain ranges away!), with heating, latest 2G level internet,

and grand reveal of en-suite private bathroom with running cold and HOT water AND western FLUSHING toilet!!!

As it started sprinkling, my wife was offered a special blanket made of wolf pelts. A home made dinner was thrown in for good measure.
Not a chance to refuse such an offer!

Dinner and breakfast were served in a large yurt where I was kindly offered (to accommodate my spine’s limited flexibility) as a special favor a straight-backed chair reducing the necessity to criss-cross my legs according to the local custom of sitting at a low table. It was our dream come true scenario to be remembered for the rest of our traveling days!

So perhaps the title should be changed to See Kyrgyzstan and sleep in a yurt!

To be continued…

Uzbekistan’s Silk Road Splendor – Part III Tashkent & Fergana

There’s more to Tashkent than meets the eye, I am sure, but there were only two things on our list during our short stop in the capital: Tashkent Metro and the Museum of Applied Arts.

First was the cheapest private tour we ever undertook. We bought a ticket for like 15 cents and just rode the metro, stepping out at different beautifully decorated stations.

Metro train leaving the station

Someone had done the work for us and posted an extensive blog about all the most interesting stations including a handy map. Thank you, Google and Cynthia!

Credit: https://www.journalofnomads.com/best-metro-tashkent-photo-guide/

A nice passanger seeing us study the map told us that the metro had been extended and suggested we ride all the way to the end. So we did.

Mirek catching the metro back from the last station

We like to ride public transportation on our travels (well, one of us really does…)

The Gafur Gulom metro station named after G’afur G’ulom, a famous Uzbek poet, writer and translator.

That one of us takes special joy and pride in figuring out how to buy a ticket and read the map. The other one likes to observe the people and make up stories about who they are and where they are going.

Grandma, Mom, and daughter leaving Alisher Navoi station going to buy tickets for a performance at Alisher Navoi theater?

The majority of people were dressed in Western styles, certainly all men. Women showed more diversity, but we saw no covered faces.

Texting her friends? First time meeting her pre-arranged husband? Going for a magazine fashion shoot?
Going to mosque for Friday prayers?

Or just looking for lunch options?

KFC or Canadian Chicken Wieners?

We definitely couldn’t miss the Kosmonavtlar metro station built in 1984 in honor of the cosmonauts of the Soviet Union. Luckily one can now take photographs of the station which was prohibited until recently as the station was designated as a nuclear bomb shelter.

The blue ceramic medallions on the walls feature some of the historical figures of space dreams and legends and greatest pioneers of the Soviet space program, such as Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova, the first man and woman in space.

Twin Russian girls in front of Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. Still kicking at 85 and in Russian politics no less.

Some stations were very contemporary.

Beruniy station with crystal chandeliers

And some really harkened back to the communist era with their red stars decor.

We preferred the more folksy decorations with colorful ceramic panels of country life.

Chilonzor metro station

One could spend the whole day riding the metro, but we did want to make it to the State Museum of Applied Arts before closing time. The building itself is interesting as it was originally a palace of a rich late 19th century Russian diplomat Polovstev, adorned in colorful oriental decorative style by his male Russian-Uzbek lover. Ah, if those walls could talk!

Unfortunately, for once no one could be found to talk and guide us through the museum. For a while, we pretended we were part of a British tour bus group, but then decided we will strike it out on our own.

I have already waxed poetically about spectacular suzani embroideries, so let me just mention a few of the other 4000 exhibits on hand.

There are exquisite lacquer boxes

Daniel in Lion’s Den

Detailed miniatures

Intricate wood carvings

Every inch of the door carved

What is fantastic looking at these masterpieces is knowing there are people here and now that still have skills and know how to do this with their own two hands and simple tools.

A good place to find them is Fergana Valley and that is where we headed next. We jumped into the train and immediately made new friends. A lovely group of ladies traveling for days to get to a wedding in Kyrgyzstan.

When we told them we will cross over the border too, they immediately invited us to the festivities. Alas, we were not going to get there on time as we were planning to make a few stops on the way.

We jumped out in Kokand. It is a tiny place and certainly not able to compete with the Big 3 on the Silk Road, but we had it all to ourselves, not counting the guest soccer/football team that stayed in our small hotel, preparing for the weekend tournament.

Kokand was situated on major ancient crossroads of two trade routes and at the end of the 19th century Khudayar Khan built a huge royal residence with 113 rooms set around seven courtyards. The ruler wanted his mother to live in one of the palace’s grand buildings, but she refused and set up her yurt in a courtyard.

Tiled front of the palace

These days only a few rooms remain and only one is in perfect condition.

The Kokand Friday mosque is luckily very nicely restored and inviting with a large green courtyard that has a 300ft (100m) long iwan supported on 98 gorgeous slender columns.

Some of the original carved redwood columns, brought from India are still there.

We knew Fergana valley was famous for silk weaving but we were not prepared for what we found in one of the small one-man workshops in the mosque.

Iridescent shimmering hand woven and tailored silk coat

It took our breath away. Nothing ever anywhere after or before has been so close to perfection. As the proud weaver turned the coat it caught the light and the surface undulated into different patterns. Mesmerizing… Like swimming underwater in a tropical sea. Wow, just wow!

The chain-smoking wood carver on the other hand couldn’t be bothered to even look up from his work.

All in a day’s work

There was a small museum, too, with two other visitors, students from a local University that delighted in being able to practice their English and of course take a picture.

They gladly explained the strange wooden implements found exhibited.

Pipe, flute…?

Weeell, they are part of this ensemble.

It is a cradle-potty chair combo for little babies.

No need for changing diapers in the middle of the night. Scroll back and try to guess which is for boys and which for girls! The thing is, while this is an interesting ethnographic exhibit, many mothers, including our female guides are still using it nightly. (now that is also why I prefer female guides).

We were doing these stops on the alternative, longer way from Kokand to Margillan with the craziest, fastest, and friendliest taxi driver. We called him Oscar(chik) and he called Mirek (E)mirek. He had nowhere else to be, so he was happy to stop on our way and a few hours drive turned into a whole day of fun and exploration. With a break for lunch at the best shashlik place (our treat of course).

He spoke great Russian and about 10 words of English, despite his sister being an English teacher. But he was sharp as a tack and kept doubling his vocabulary every 20 minutes while laughing and gunning his car down country roads. “Oscarchik smart,” he would say tapping his finger on his forehead. “How do you say…”

We had a communication snafu as I kept insisting that he has to take us to Rishtan’s famous ceramic workshop of Master Rustam Usmanov while he kept advocating for a ceramic workshop of a different guy. Turns out he was talking about Usmanov’s son.

Rustam and his son at the gates to their workshop

Both were most welcoming and took time to show us the whole process. I was a bit apprehensive before coming as I was worried about it being too touristy. We were the only people there and every piece they had in their huge production was a masterpiece. When we bemoaned the fact that we traveled with a small carry-on only and couldn’t buy a whole set of dishes they GIFTED us a little pomegranate vase.

Before and after the kiln

It is Margillan that is the center of silk weaving. We asked our Oscarchik to first take us to the local market but only a few stalls with silk could be found.

Friendly silk merchant

Most of the market was cheap Chinese mass-produced clothes.

Interesting take on denim

The visit to the Yodgorlik Silk factory was a disappointment. It is supposed to produce enormous amounts of hand woven silk but most of the looms were abandoned. As elsewhere we found girls jumping to do work only when a tourist poked their head in.

Still, we soon had fun taking portraits of the girls.

Remember the eyebrows? Definitely unmarried girl!
Leftover henna from recent Ramadan

We finally said goodbye to Oscarchik in front of Margillan’s Ikat House Guesthouse.

It was a carpet-studded homey place and immediately we felt like in the good old days of young travel with interesting travelers from all parts of the world hanging out and sharing experiences and tips. Especially cherished was the discussion with a group of young Russian motorcyclists. They left Russia for a long trip anxiously awaiting Putin’s May Victory speech afraid he might conscript young men. Tentatively at first and then more freely, they expressed their opposition to Putin and the war in Ukraine.

Our last stop in Fergana Valley and Uzbekistan was in the city of Andijan.

The city has a famous historical figure to be proud of as it is the birthplace of Babur (=Tiger in Persian). He was the great-great grandson of Timur and ascended to a much diminished throne of Fergana at the age of twelve. Following a series of setbacks, he finally succeeded in laying the basis for the Mughal dynasty and became the first Mughal emperor.

Babur is considered Uzbeki National hero

We had another important reason to visit Andijan. Through the power of the internet and Instagram, I got connected to Gulkhumor, the owner of Inter progress School, teaching children foreign languages.

Of course, I promised we will visit them. I thought we would pop in and say hello to the students.

The littlest students

Who was I kidding! We were treated as VIP dignitaries, starting with a big bouquet of fresh flowers.

With Ghulkhumor (L) and her head teacher

Speeches were delivered and the children in their Sunday best prepared songs, dance, and recitations in English.

Parents were invited to this event of the year.

Countless selfies were taken

And invitations for tea, dinner and overnight stays extended. Alas, we were bound for Kyrgyzstan border the next day. But what a farewell to incredible Uzbeki people!

Saying a final goodbye to Uzbekistan with this fun oldie, but goldie couple. Is it time to change our name to CrazyGrandparentsTravel? Nope, but it is time to cross the border to Kyrgyzstan! See you on the other side.

Uzbekistan’s Silk Road Splendor- Part II Samarkand

The fast and comfortable Afrosiyob train brought us from Bukhara to Samarkand in the evening.

There are all levels of trains and they cover the whole country well. The fancy business class is cool and all, but it is also fun to take a regular train and share a welcome cup of tea with friendly Uzbek travelers.

In vain we searched for the downtown bus and then negotiated a ride with the driver of a beat up taxi to our little hotel close to Registan. Thank goodness for any and all remnants of Mirek’s school Russian! Yes, you can operate with simple English, but fluent Russian is spoken by everyone. After we dropped off our bags and took a look at the lovely green courtyard and colorful furnishings

Traditional Uzbeki hotels have their unique charm

I made Mirek go out again. We walked a few minutes to Registan, the heart of Samarkand, as I couldn’t wait to see it all beautifully lit in a flood of golden light, just like in the many pictures I saw.

I nearly started crying when I beheld the gaudy light show with loud music. To each it’s own, I guess, but I don’t appreciate this kind of “artistic licence” with world heritage.

Cheapening the elegant crowning achievement of Islamic architecture
Even worse close up

The next morning we met with Anora, our guide for the day and I was still traumatised and refused to go back. We took a taxi instead to Bibi Khanum mosque. It is still impressive today, but in the 15th century, it was one of the largest and most magnificent mosques in the Islamic world. We started our guided tour by walking through the Siyob Bazar where my soul was soothed by the lovely colors of first spring fruits; orange apricots, red cherries, unripe green plums

and mounds of luscious strawberries

The blue-green tiles of the domes beckoned

and a goofy boy in a blue shirt with green eyes smiled at me and all was good with the world again.

In the back Mirek and Anora discussing life. Her husband left her when she was pregnant with their first child to become a bus driver in Moscow and never came back, taking all her gold wedding jewellery along.

Walking around the enormous mosque we heard plenty of stories. Guides love legends and tales. We were told the well known story of Bibi and the impudent architect who demanded that she allowed him to kiss her on the cheek in order to finish the mosque in time for her husband Timur’s return from war. The kiss left a permanent stain and the architect lost his head when Timur found out. It is in truth Timur that built the mosque in honor of his wife Sara Mulk aka Bibi Khanum (really just a honorific title of “Lady, Khan’s daughter).

A miniature painting found nearby. It might not be Bibi and the architect, for the wings and all… Call it poetic license.

Perhaps this is a good time to say a few words about Amir Timur, because Samarkand’s biggest treasures are inextricably connected to this larger than life figure. He was the first ruler of the long and ilustrious Timurid dynasty. He is going down in annals of history as one of the most ruthless conquerors (killing an estimated 17 million people) and at the same time a huge patron of the arts (even if many of his artists and architects were captives brought from afar).

Did you know he had a red beard?

Timur (Iron) or Timurlenk (Timur the Lame) anglicized as Tamerlane was born on the steppes close to modern day Samarkand as a Turkified Mongol. He was quite tall but indeed lame in his leg with a withered arm due to injuries. (Sustained either stealing sheep or in battle – take your pick.) That drawback did not prevent him from conquering the world atop a horse

Amir Temur’s statue in Tashkent

and taking many wives. Many were widows of rulers of conquered lands, killed by Timur. It was customary to take on the harem of the enemy you defeated. Nobody asked the ladies, but I guess they thought it was a pretty good alternative to being raped and slaughtered.

Beautiful Bibi was one such case and she became Timur’s most favored wife. It did help that she was a direct descendant of Genghis Khan which solidified Timur’s leadership legitimacy. So you see there was much more to picking from the harem of defeated enemy than just a conqueror choosing beautiful spoils of war for himself. In general women, married to or taken as concubines by high powered leaders were always of high birth themselves and offered alliances and diplomatic powers to the men. They had wealth of their own and built and endowed mosques, schools, and hospitals.

Ode to Women, Park of Tigers, Samarkand

For anyone interested in this subject I recommend a fascinating book: The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire by Jack Weatherford, about the impact and legacy of Genghis Khan’s daughters and Mongol queens.

For the arial view of Bibi’s mosque,

View of Bibi’s mosque from Hazrat Khizr mosque bellow the mausoleum

we climbed to the mausoleum of the former president Islam Karimov. Here is another of the controversial leaders, ruthless communist authoritarian and the father of Uzbeksitan independent nation. The many devoted visitors there and especially school children on field trips most likely subscribe to the latter notion.

Nearby lays the important Shah-I-Zinda necropolis where many of Timur’s female relatives have been entombed. Normally quite keen on graveyards of all sorts, this one somehow failed to impress. Rather than trying to remember the nieces, wives, and even Timur’s wet nurse, we enjoyed people-watching.

As was a daily occurence we were again besieged by members of a school trip for a group photo.

I quickly took advantage of the situation and asked for some portraits. Every girl was keen to have hers taken and they enjoyed seeing them on my iPhone screen.

Uzbekistan is a riot of colors and patterns. Somehow, magically they work well together.
And can be quite stunning in black and white.

Timur himself is NOT buried there. He wanted to be buried in a simple structure in his nearby home town of Sahrisabz but since he died in winter during his military expedition to China and passes were snowed in they put him to rest in Samarkand. He is interred in a mausoleum that was originally intended to be the tomb of his beloved grandson and heir apparent Muhhamad Shah who died young just two years before Timur. It then became a Timurid dynastic mausoleum.

And what a splendid place it is. The outside is just another one of the pleasing brick-tile combos, but it would eventually inspire the glorious Taj Mahal, built by Timur’s descendants who established the Mughal (the very word a corruption of “Mongol”) dynasty in India.

But, oh, the inside… a breathtaking shimmering blue and gold jewel box

cocooning a collection of different sarcophagi from the male Timurid line. Remember, the ladies had their own individual pretty mausolea at Shah-I-Zinda?

It is one of those places that defies description, one simply has to experience it. Preferably without the crowds and loud guides. If I was in charge I would prohibit all guided tours. Explain anything you want outside and then let people just savor the harmony of the space and the deep sense of history. People come here to pay respects.

and say a prayer.

If there was one thing that I absolutely wanted to see in Samarkand it was Ulugh Beg Observatory. He was the grandson of Timur the Great but loved astronomy and mathematics a bit more than conquering and pillaging.

Sixty astronomers and mathematicians were invited to work at the observatory and the celestial measurements they obtained were extremely accurate. Don’t ask me how, there is of course a perfectly logical explanation, but despite going through the excellent museum on site I can not explain any of it. Still, wow, to do that kind of astronomy in 15th century without powerful telescopes and computers and space probes!

The model of the observatory.
The magic of big brainiacs. And I mean it, because they did dabble much in astrology, too.

The observatory was destroyed by Ulug Beg’s own son soon after he had his father killed on his pilgrimage to Mecca. Very pious, these guys, really!

The rediscovered and restored remnants of the underground part with the stone sextant

Married for the first time at 10, Ulugh Beg became a governor of Samarkand at 16, after his own father’s death. He had 13 wives and lots of enemies. When did the dude find time to build observatories and universities?

The University I am talking about is his madrasah in the Registan complex that was known as one of the best universities of Muslim world. It transformed what was medieval Samarkand’s large and vibrant commercial centre where camels unloaded their precious Silk Road cargo into educational center as well. Ulug Beg himself taught astronomy there.

Ulug Beg’s Madrasah on the left , Sher-Dor on the right and Tillya Kari in the middle

So we have come full circle. After initial evening disappointment I did return to Registan and not only once but thrice: once with the guide, once with Mirek and once by myself. At different times of day with the sun illuminating different parts of the three buildings it revealed many faces and hidden corners.

Upper floor of inner courtyard of Ulug Beg’s madrasah

Opposite Ulug Beg Madrasa an early 17th century governor Yalangtush built its near mirror image – the Sher Dor madrasah. The facade is striking (and memorable) for the two lions/tigers/fantastical cats and human-faced suns chasing two deer that guard the portal, an unexpected return to pre-Islamic Zoroastrian symbolism.

Daring indeed as Islam prohibits depictions of animals or human faces. To get away with it we were told the lions were seen as symbols of students with a hunger for knowledge, the deer as knowledge and the sun as enlightenment. There are also reverse swastikas, which symbolized abundance and fertility in ancient times.

A live grapevine growing inside, another contradiction as Islam prohibition drinking of alcohol

To enclose the square in pleasing harmony, Yalangtush had a third madrasah built on the ruins of a mosque constructed by Bibi Khanum.

The intricate interior of the huge qubba (=cupola), a symbolic representation of the vault of heaven where stars, leaves, and flowers spiral into eternity.

Because of its lavish interior, swathed in golden leaf, very much reminiscent of Timur’s mausoleum, it is called Tillya Kari (“the gilded one”). It was to become the city’s main mosque.

We were glad to have structured our trip starting in charming little Khiva and culminating with the lavish Samarkand instead of the other way around.

With the foreign tourists scarce, the interactions with local families were precious.

Leaders with Confidence, one and all!
In their Sunday best.

Before saying goodbye to Samarkand we should not forget to mention the friendly encounter with some special Servas people. For some of you who have been following us from the beginning of our empty nest adventures you might remember our stays with Servas members in New Zealand and Australia. Servas International is an organization that brings together people from around the world to promote peace and understanding.

After many emails exchanged and 2 year delay in our arrival to Uzbekistan we finally met up with Anatoly and Irina who in turn introduced us to their Servas friend Rafik. It felt like we were a living poster child for the international (and local) peace and understanding as Anatoly was of mixed Armenian and Russian ancestry, his wife was Tatar and Rafik Tajiki.

With Rafik, our generous host

We spent a lovely afternoon at his fruit farm being plied with food at a traditional Uzbekistani or should we rather call it Central Asian feast. The table was overflowing with sumptuous homemade dishes that magically appeared from the kitchen, hidden to our eyes and occupied by the elfin hands of Rafik’s wife and daughter-in-law.

A wonderful send off to the last part of our Uzbekistan travels to Tashkent and Fergana valley.

Uzbekistan’s Silk Road Splendor Part I Khiva & Bukhara

The third time’s the charm… It was certainly true for us when we finally made it to Uzbekistan on the third try and were charmed beyond all expectations.

Turkish Airlines will get you anywhere

What with Covid and Russian war in Ukraine our plans to travel to Central Asia kept getting thwarted. When we finally landed at the little, never-heard-of-before airport of Urgench with a big welcome sign and flowers planted, we knew it was going to be worth it.

It makes much sense to start one’s exploration with a flight into western Uzbekistan, first visiting Khiva,

Islam Khoja Minaret, the highest in Khiva

the smallest of the three Silk Road cities and then move eastward by train to Bukhara and Samarkand, ending up in the capital of Tashkent. It is quite convenient, easy, inexpensive, and comfortable to travel by train and it makes travel independently very doable.

It made even more sense for me to start in Khiva as I found out through the Internet grapevine there will be a big Lazghi Khorezm Music Festival in Khiva so I tried to time our stay to attend. In the end, the start date of the festival got moved at the last moment, but we still got to see the rehearsals and avoid the crowds and the dignitaries.

The dancers, most of them very young, and all beautiful, brought a new dimension and pep to the old Ichan Kala (Inner Fortress).

I took the lessons from my last photographic expedition and boldly approached the dancers for portraits.

One of the striking dancers striking a pose, made more dramatic with a beautiful scarf.

When not chasing beautiful girls I accompanied handsome men

Mirek with our local guide Islom in traditional chugirma fur hats

on the lively streets and up the stairs to rooftop terraces and inside ornate buildings.

Hats off for men, scarves on for women inside holy placess (Juma=Friday Mosque with uniquely carved wooden pillars)

While we traveled independently and made all arrangements by ourselves we were happy to hire guides in each of the three Silk Road cities and their knowledge and even more personal stories and insights really enriched our understanding of history and contemporary life of the Uzbek people. We are always happy to invite our guides to lunch and if at all possible their families to dinner. Thus we spent the very first evening in Uzbekistan in the company of Islom’s lovely wife and son Akbar, the apple of his father’s eye.

Silk Road caravan statues popped up everywhere.

We waited until sundown as it was still Ramadan and while not at all extremist in their religion most people in Uzbekistan fast during the holy month. We were surprised how secular the society seemed otherwise and we didn’t see many head coverings, let alone head to toe wraps.

I did take the opportunity to try on an antique traditional burqa.

The facepiece is woven from horsehair.

Most of the girls nowadays are not keen on hiding their faces or their hair. And what luscious hair they have…

And their faces are exceedingly lovely, too.

Strong eyebrows are de rigeur. Only married girls can clean and shape their eyebrows.

Easily one can be transported back in time to a wedding of a young bride.

This young student of architecture/saleswoman at a small store agreed to model one of the antique bridal outfits.

Khiva is very well preserved, and the old town retains more than 50 historic monuments and 250 old houses, but they are all in a compact space so a day is quite sufficient for meandering at leisure down the old streets, many festooned by stalls with colorful local handicrafts and souvenirs. In the evening the monuments are lit up and children of all ages are out in force playing until late. Invariably we get asked the same questions when embarking on some of our trips to off the beaten path destinations if it is safe.

Yes, it is actually liberating to walk around at night in a city like Khiva and see families out strolling and grandmas and grandpas sitting outside their homes chatting. Offering a polite Salam Alaykum will bring a smile and a return blessing of peace and often an invitation to tea. Which can easily snowball into dinner and an offer to spend the night, such is the warmth and hospitality of people here.

Strolling past Kalta Minor (=Short Minaret), unfinished, with stripes of tile patterns

We decided to take a ride further west into autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan. With Islom at the wheel we took a day to take a peek at some of the ancient desert qalas. There are remnants of about 100 fortresses (used as protection against nomadic raids) and the oldest is 2,500 years old. They were quite effective until Gengis Khan’s swooped in.

Made from mud bricks the crumbling Ayaz-kala resembles a sand castle

We met only two other human visitors but delighted in a chance encounter with a whole herd of camels, who, like Fata Morgana appeared on the road accompanied by a very non traditionally looking young herder.

As they systematically chewed on the spring greenery we discussed the finer points of camels and dromedaries (=single-humped camels).

Double humped camels are called Bactrian (or Mongolian) camels.

Turns out that Islom spent his university years in Nukus, the capital of the republic and worked at the hotel we have incidentally booked. So we had a most warm welcome by the owner and a tour of their family collections. But it was the collections in the Savitsky Museum that was the real reason we came. A private tour of that so called “Louvre of the Steppe” was phenomenal. It holds 90,000 items from archaeological objects and antiquities to cutting-edge contemporary Soviet art collected by one eccentric Igor Savitsky. Many pieces were by communist prosecuted artists and their legacy was saved in these dusty, half-forgotten far reaches of USSR.

Having an insatiable interest in textiles and ethnography I was ecstatic to find that my museum guide also knew everything about the local Karakalpak clothing, jewelry, and traditions. In perfect English, nonetheless. For a fraction of the cost in the West. We feel so fortunate to be able to do this on our far-flung travels, as we certainly can’t afford a private guide at the Louvre or the Met.

Not my guide, just a very life like model in hand stitched traditional clothes!

Talk about textiles. I was in a daze most of the days as colorful textiles were everywhere in Uzbekistan. Two unique Uzbek textiles – suzani and ikat are still produced here just like in the ancient times when caravans carried them on the Silk Road.

The many patterns of hand woven silk (=atlas)

The technical skill and the lively combinations of colors and patterns are overwhelming. Not one to sport psychedelic bright colors I wanted to have all of them, from little hats,

They come in square and round shapes, each with a unique pattern

worn proudly by the locals and all school children,

Just look at the school uniform of these delightful twins! And the pom-poms on their braids!

to time-consuming tablecloths

Suzani demonstration: silk treads are embroidered with a special hook (not needle) either on silk or cotton base.

to giant museum masterpieces that could never fit into our home.

Bewitched I lusted indiscriminately after magnificent hand embroidered double sided ikat coats, (called a chapan or bathrobe), in the past as today representing the social status and wealth of its owner.

In the end I got my chance (and a measure of peace) to wear some chapans for a fun photoshoot at one of the most beautiful hotels we stayed at.

Playing grandma and grandpa at Minzifa Boutique Hotel
Charming courtyard of Minzifa

The Minzifa was in our second Silk Road city – Bukhara and it was just a fairytale setting transporting travellers into the past and traditional palaces of rich merchants. Part of it actually was an old restored building and part a modern hotel decorated in traditional style with local craftsmen carving wood and painting detailed traditional flower scenes on the walls.

We are no luxury craving travel couple, but we surely can appreciate comfort and beauty and even more so when it is so incredibly affordable. Uzbekistan is a fantastic country for independent travelers because of the well developed tourist infrastructure. A plethora of accommodations and eating establishments is surprising and at this post Covid time they were pretty much empty. We are no big foodies and we eat so we can live and travel, not live and travel to eat in trendy restaurants. But it is nice to enjoy a good meal and never get stomach upsets on the road.

The best meat dish was this jiz (ultra tender beef slices). Our every meal was accompanied by a simple Achichuk salad (just tomatoes, onions, and spices)

As expected in Central Asian cuisine there was a lot of meat, mostly beef and some lamb on the menu. The meat was of really great quality, even in sidewalk eateries or by the side of the road. Shashliks and kebabs were everywhere but so were different kinds of soups and steamed dumplings and fried somsas. A bottle of beer is a big bonus!

Even though we were traveling during Ramadan time restaurants were open during the day. They really came to life in the evenings towards the end of the holiday with big family gatherings to brake the fast together and celebrate. Well, often it was guys and gals in separate areas like here:

These dining ladies gracefully allowed for a group photo and even individual portraits. We were told they preferred to sit separately, so they could gossip in peace and not have to listen to tedious business discussions of men.

We have a tendency to hire women guides when possible as we find they are much more able and willing to answer intimate questions about life and social mores. We really lucked out with our Bukhara guide Guljon who explained much about family life in Uzbekistan.

Lovely Guljon always pleasant even on little sleep and no food or water

She was a modern, educated, hard-working, income-generating woman, yet she still had to adhere to tradition by living with (and serving hand and foot) her in-laws including getting up before 4 am every morning to prepare and serve food before the start of fasting. In Uzbekistan bride always moves in with her husband’s parents and has to ask permission of her husband and in his absence her father in law to visit her own family. Her marriage as that of her female friends and family members was arranged by her parents though she was allowed to meet her husband face to face before and agree to the marriage.

Sometimes it is painful to travel with hand luggage only… Would love to bring a bunch of these as gifts!

She understood our interests well and took pains to get us to plenty of craft shops and food markets between must-see monuments.

Lots of free samples!

Going to local food markets (or in the absence of those even to supermarkets) gives a foreigner another insight into local culture. And great opportunities for interesting photography.

We were not big fans of Uzbeki bread as it was quite hard but liked fresh pastries, savory and sweet.

Bukhara is much bigger and much more spread out than Khiva so having someone know the way around from one end to the other to hit the best of the monuments is very helpful. As it was getting unexpectedly quite hot we made an agreement to jump in a taxi instead of walking as much as possible. There is a kind of Uzbeki Uber service called Yandex and with the application, it was easy and cheap to catch a ride.

What is also helpful is that a guide knows where great vantage points are to see something from a different perspective.

Great Kalon Mosque with Minaret from bellow
and whole Poi-I-Kalon complex from above
and inside

And soon on fashion Instagram. 😉

While big blue domed mosques are impressive, like gothic cathedrals they can start getting a bit jumbled up in one’s head. It is the smaller architectural buildings that we cherish from Bukhara.

Perfect cube

This humble brick building – a Samanid Mausoleum was more than impressive as it was build in the 10th century and shows the genius of the early architects able to put a round cupola on a square base. As it was covered by sand and silt it was the only structure besides the Kalon minaret left after Gengis Khan’s siege and sack of Bukhara in early 13th century. A national hero of Mongolia or a fearsome destroyer and murderer?

Grandma and grandson in front of Job’s spring

Close by we came across another small building with interesting (hi)story. Chashma Ayub (=Job’s Spring) mausoleum is where allegedly Prophet Job struck the ground with his staff and healing water sprang up to end the drought. One can still drink the water.

The biggest monument in Bukhara is the Ark Fortress, a military structure also occupied by various royal courts.

View of the fortress from the top of the old
Water Tower

One of frequently waxed lyrical about sights is Lyabi Hauz Square is centred on 17th century artificial reservoir (a hauz in Persian).

We passed it often at all times of day as our hotel was close by and we were totally underwhelmed by it as well as by the chaikana (restaurant) and nearby coffee shop that was supposed to serve the best (and most expensive) coffee.

We did like the whimsical bronze sculpture of the legendary folk hero Khoja Nasreddin Efendi nearby.

And now it is time to jump on the fast train to Samarkand.

All aboard and see you in Uzbekistan Silk Road Splendors Part II.