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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The only woman we saw in a real hijab was this stunning fishmonger.
Lucky for us she had no problem posing for pictures.
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.
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.
In case you were curious kalpaks are made with a traditional material – felt, made from wool, plentiful around sheep.
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
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.
We might say goodbye to Kyrgyzstan, but we will always remember the wonderful people we met.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
There was a lot of action.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Under close supervision of his wife the Eagle man unceremoniously drags the bird out of the car and…
… 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.
The eagle gets a short glimpse of the surroundings with his cap removed
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:
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!
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.
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,
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.
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.
The shores ringed by wild apple trees in full bloom made us
jump with joy
over so much beauty, as flowers of all kinds and colors winked at us from fresh green grass..
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.
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
But on the other side things deteriorated quickly.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
We like to ride public transportation on our travels (well, one of us really does…)
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.
The majority of people were dressed in Western styles, certainly all men. Women showed more diversity, but we saw no covered faces.
Or just looking for lunch options?
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.
Some stations were very contemporary.
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.
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
Intricate wood carvings
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Most of the market was cheap Chinese mass-produced clothes.
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.
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.
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.
Who was I kidding! We were treated as VIP dignitaries, starting with a big bouquet of fresh flowers.
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.
The fast and comfortable Afrosiyob train brought us from Bukhara to Samarkand in the evening.
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
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.
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.
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).
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).
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
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.
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,
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.
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 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!
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.
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.
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.
To enclose the square in pleasing harmony, Yalangtush had a third madrasah built on the ruins of a mosque constructed by Bibi Khanum.
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.
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.
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.
When our long longed for Patagonia trip had to be cancelled for the third time, not many easy replacement presented themselves in wintry February Europe. At the end it was a choice between Oman and Madeira. Madeira won because I remembered our dentist telling me once that he dreamed of moving to Madeira and opening a dental clinic there. Did I mention we really like our dentist?
While it is easy to fly to Madeira’s one and only Cristiano Ronaldo Madeira International Airport directly from Prague it most certainly isn’t easy to land. While our landing was a bit cramped with one wing dipping into the sea and the other scraping the nearby hills, we only realized how lucky we were when we talked to other travelers. We arrived on Monday afternoon but all flights on Sunday and Tuesday were returned or rerouted because of high winds.
And high winds there were. We did look at the weather report before we flew out and were so taken aback by basically 7 days of predicted rain that we paid no attention to the wind. Luckily the high winds also scattered the clouds some, so the first few days it rained just at night and we had great skies for photography.
While Madeira is well known for its subtropical climate and warm sunny weather it was a foggy forest up North that I was most interested in. After a great big breakfast in our cosy B&B we drove up to the hills of Fanal first thing in the morning.
Just a quick stop at the viewpoint of
and hard break for some out-of-nowhere itinerant cows
Bundle up, it is foggy and windy, indeed.
I have seen superb photos of these gnarled Madeira trees in a magazine once and they didn’t disappoint in real life. Clutching my iPhone with frozen fingers I was more than excited for wonderful iconic images of our own. Every day for the rest of the week I debated whether we should go back, but the first impression was so special and strong I didn’t want to disappoint myself.
On the way down the sun started to break through and we soon went from this:
Certainly, the sea is not warm enough for swimming in the winter, but still great to admire.
As you can imagine getting up to these viewpoints isn’t easy no matter what but especially in a car with a MANUAL transmission. The roads are not only narrow but so steep that I had to fight the thought of failing breaks numerous times a day while driving down and close my eyes when the trucks or buses were hurtling towards us on the uphill. Due to Mirek’s many years of driving in crazy places around the world, we escaped unscathed.
It would only take about 4 hours to drive all around the island. The island of Madeira is a temporary dormant volcano about three times the size of the U.S. island of Nantucket, twice the area of the British Isle of Wight, and slightly larger than Singapore island.
It has a fantastic network of roads and unbelievable multitudes of new tunnels that make travel easy. But it also has many deep canyons and ridge roads and portions of old coastal roads that one can still drive. This means fun old narrow one-way tunnels and sometimes a free car wash when you drive under a waterfall.
Now, if you are not lazy old farts like us you have another network to explore. There are more than 1,350 miles (2,170 km) of levadas that you can walk and many people come to Madeira for exactly this purpose. Levadas are irrigation channels used to bring water to the fields in olden times and many do so till today. But they also offer great exercise and views and some people return each year to walk different ones. There are books and apps and guided levada tours.
We only did a short little levada walk on the last full day of our stay but it was so pretty and full of colorful flowers I was sorry we hadn’t considered doing more.
We probably would have if we didn’t have a few days of pouring rain in the middle of our stay. So we did some inside activities like the Whale and Wine museum, not both under the same roof.
We did skip the native son Cristiano Ronaldo’s Museum. The closest we came to this soccer idol was parking in the garage of his CR7 hotel. I did make a fool of myself asking what CR7 stands for. That’s how much I know about soccer: zilch, zero. (Just in case you, too, are on my team, it is his initials and his jersey number.)
That meant we had to go to the marina of Funchal, the capital. To our surprise, we found there a perfect replica of Cristopher Columbus’ Santa Maria ship.
Turns out Columbus spent a little time on Madeira, more precisely on Porto Santo, the small island next to it. Long enough to get married and sire his only son. And learn about navigation from the charts of his father-in-law.
45% of a quarter million of inhabitants of Madeira live in the capital, so you can imagine it is pretty dense. Not to mention that pre-Covid nearly a million tourists came in and most stayed in Funchal or close by on the Southern sunnier beaches.
We didn’t spend enough time in the old town to give you a proper report, but it does have the historical charm.
The sad part was that we encountered a small group of Ukrainians protesting the start of the war.
At that point, none of us knew how truly horrendous it will become.
It certainly made the rest of our trip soberer and we felt guilty enjoying the simple luxuries of free life.
Speaking of old, not much of old is left on Madeira outside the historical center. Even the further-flung villages mostly have fancy new houses, some built by Madeirans working hard in other EU countries
or owned by foreigners and foreign retirees. life is very affordable for those, but that, unfortunately means the service industry salaries are kept very low. We had quite a lot of conversations with the young people who all dream of leaving for England or the World.
As a traveler, I have always loved the Portuguese the best. but Madeirans are even a notch above in their friendly, kind, and welcoming ways. From free drinks to free room upgrades they couldn’t do enough to make us feel at home. Our B&B ladies were absolutely darling, our day trip jeep driver was willing to answer any and all personal questions, our car rental attendant made sure we got the best car on the lot.
One evening we were driving “home” when we noticed a beautiful new quinta vacation compound. We stopped to ask for availability. Turned out they were just getting ready for the grand opening the next day but of course, we had to come and try some of their homemade Madeira wine. We ended up staying for an hour talking and laughing with the family and of course, they invited us to the grand opening, too.
We would be amiss not to mention the yummy food. Again, we were plied with huge amounts of side dishes and or extra seafod in our Portuguese version of paella “because we like you”. When we returned for our last meal to the same local restaurant, where they pointed out the local policeman having his dinner and beer, they must have doubled the seafood again.
Madeira is often called The Flower Island and rightly so. Even though the high season and the Flower Festival are held in April or May, already in February flowers were blooming everywhere. From tiny roadside flowers to grand tropical birds of paradise
and clivias there are swaths of color brightening the lush green of the island. The land is at a premium so terraced vegetable gardens are clambering impossibly high and banana plantations are squeezing around the homes.
Many public and private gardens be on for a tour. We managed only one, the Monte Palace Tropical garden, but it was a great relaxing morning excursion before our flight out. At times Madeira reminded us of California or Hawaii, and this garden visit surprisingly brought us back to Japan and the Japanese gardens that we love so much.
They say when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. We say when travel life gives you maddening Corona restrictions make Madeira. It will welcome you with open arms, this Little Island that Could.
What I miss most at this isolating time of Covid is hugging people. Can’t say that it is quite the same emotional high, but hugging a tree
can indeed be very calming and grounding. Even if I don’t often feel compelled to hug a tree,
I like shaking hands with a tree – touching it’s skin. Every tree has a different bark, some are wrinkled and calloused as a hand of an old wise grandmother,
and some smooth as a trembling young bride’s hand waiting for the wedding ring to be slipped on her finger.
Bamboo has the smoothest skin of all.
Wait, bamboo is not a tree at all, but a grass. Though it grows in bamboo forests.
I can’t prove that trees have souls, but they definitely have faces and they keep looking at me!
Planting a tree is the ultimate sense of hope for the future. You hope your grandchildren will sit in it’s shade when you are long gone.
If you need shelter from a sudden storm, a tree can help.
It is the big trees that take our breath away. Some are so tall
that you look up and up and not see the top.
Some are incredibly wide and it is hard to know where roots end and branches begin
Look closely at these roots! They form a living tree bridge
Tree roots can build, but also destroy
Trees make a home for birds and… monkeys
No matter what season, trees are always beautiful.
The most famous spring trees in the world are blossoming Sakuras (cherry trees) in Japan. We made a sakura pilgrimage and chased the blossoms south from freezing Hokkaido.
As spring turns into summer, the trees give us the sweetest gift – their fruits. The joy of our childhoods are inextricably linked with picking cherries. I can’t help but wonder with a sad stab in my heart, will our grandchildren still have a chance to experience this delight?
Autumn with its glowing palette of colors and falling leaves is my favorite season.
We came full circle experiencing the autumn vibes in Japan. There is no place more magical than a Japanese garden with the many different kids of Japanese maples changing colors.
With snow comes the quiet reflection of winter (and joyous shrieks of kids).
One of the most famous woods poems written was Robert Frost’s Stoping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. Watching the woods fill up with snow while your horse gives his harness bells a shake is fun, I am sure
but so is driving through the woods on a snowy road, with snowlfakes falling and miles to go before we sleep.
Trees welcome the sun in the morning
and rock it to sleep in the evening
Whatever the season or time of day go ahead and hug a tree and you can also tell it your deepest secrets.
But mostly when it comes to trees or anything else in life… Stay curious!
The first Icelandic Vikings live on in the Íslendingar (Icelanders) of today. Well, their good parts do: their self reliance, yet close knit community values, hard work, sportsmanship, intelligence, and love of written language. Unfortunately the image of Iceland and Icelandic population has been molded over the years by a variety of very popular TV series showing the original settlers of Iceland as a bunch of ruthless killers
filling all the other peoples with horror whenever they showed up on the horizon in their fast moving open boats. After binge watching Vikings and The Last Kingdom we then laughed through the lighthearted “Norsemen” series. The Viking women and men are portrayed as beautiful and strong, wielding axes and/or swords ferociously while their long blond mane is streaking behind them.
After half an hour glued to our iPad in the darkness of our bedroom, we feel like we have to get up and wash our sheets soaked in blood, before starting another episode. If it were not for the entertainment industry we would have come to Iceland completely uninitiated. There were only a few rare Iceland related flashbacks from the past in my memory:
-in 1972 American wonder child/weirdo Bobby Fisher getting his Chess World title by
beating Russian Boris Spassky in Reykjavík (appropriately so, when not plundering or ravaging the Vikings spent long winter evenings playing chess in lighthearted friendly competition),
-in 1986 President Reagan beating the Russians and beginning the end of the Cold War with Perestroyka man General Secretary Gorbachev during the Reykjavík summit (a peace-loving nation without a standing army providing a peaceful milieu for two Nuclear Superpowers?)
-in 2010 Eyjafjallajökull (Icelandic names are difficult to write and impossible to say)
volcano eruption beating and all together stopping the air traffic over North Atlantic and in Europe for days with 10 million tourists stranded. A devastating mayhem airport precursor to the COVID-19 impact in March 2020.
When we finally land in Keflavík International the first impressions upon arrival are rather confusing as no blood could be traced anywhere while walking from the gate to immigration. Smiling Icelanders guide us through the airport not to the bloodthirsty executioners as we might expect but to young attractive nurses taking us one by one into a private room and….no swords nor knives. Instead they stick long cotton swabs up our nostrils and down our throats to collect samples of our bodily fluids with pleasant smiles on their lips!
All of that in still gentle manner before we are allowed to pickup our Hertz rental and drive to our pre-booked Hilton
to wait there in the luxury otherwise unheard of in the Icelandic history of simple housing. There we are nervously awaiting the ruling on our fate. Positive or negative? Luckily, over the generous breakfast served by lovely Icelanfic waitresses the merciful verdict is handed over in the form of an anxiously anticipated text message:
Thank you, it’s very kind of you, runs through my mind as we embark on our ten day drive, hoping to figure out, amongst other things what kind of transformation converted this bloodthirsty Norsemen tribe to pleasant peace loving cultural society.
We did read that Norwegian Vikings were actually not the first to land here. A few lonely Celtic priests found their way there in 7th – 8th Century AD, but they left terribly disappointed by absolute lack of women on this empty island. About two centuries later in AD874 the history of Viking settlement started when the Norwegian chieftain Ingólfr Arnarson
became the first permanent Norseman settler. He landed with his wife and brother on the southern coast. After surviving the first winter he founded Icelandic capital Reykjavík (translated as Bay of Smokes) and the rest is history. Other Norwegians and to some extent other Scandinavians followed, bringing with them slaves, mostly women of Gaelic origin. After about one third of Icelanders very cooperatively signed up for DNA analysis the results prove that indeed their roots are a healthy mix between Nordic Y chromosomes and X chromosomes from the British Isles. Some speculate that some British women might not even have been taken as slaves. They actually followed Norsemen voluntarily! Why? There is an interesting theory that women enjoyed enormously watching those raiders and traders bathing regularly and combing their shiny long hair, thus making themselves attractively clean, nicely smelling creatures, after using a practice unknown to their own men of that time!
In the initial period called The Settlement, Icelandic population ballooned in less than 60 years to above 30,000! Good reproduction activities combined with immigration can produce miracles. And even as Iceland population jumped more than twelve times, now standing at 364,000+ the country is still more or less empty. With total area of about 40,000 square miles it has barely 9 Icelanders per square miles. And with its shore line almost 3,100 miles long and Iceland maintaining a 200 nautical-miles exclusive economic area there can be plenty of space for enthusiastic fishermen and fisherwomen. Less than 120 Iceland residents can enjoying exquisite fishing per each mile of their precious coast.
It did not mean necessarily that the Norsemen would be happy sitting at home fishing and farming. “Go West, Young Man!” was a rallying “Call of the Wild” for them. The North Atlantic some thousand years ago was a much warmer place (the first Global Warming without Greenhouse Gases?) and they happily visited and even settled in a place they called Greenland.
They ventured even further to another dry piece of land they named Vinland which by sheer coincidence was re-discovered by Mr. Columbus some five hundred years later and renamed America.
Unfortunately when arriving in Vinland, some locals were already claiming the living space there. As Norsemen preferred to be Masters of their own Universe nasty conflicts evolved. After killing some, but not enough to change the equation, Norsemen packed, turned around and left for Iceland just content to be killing each other back home! Life in “Splendid Isolation” was hard enough through harsh winters without having to constantly look over your shoulder anticipating the next raid from your neighbors. Living conditions were poor and much energy went into keeping the simple dwellings warm. The dwellings of modern day Icelanders are still quite simple,
but the innovation in clean geothermal energy for heating provides for significant improvement and enjoyment of indoor spaces. The typical housing in the time of Leif Eiríksson,
a super-Star of Iceland history, the first known European discoverer of Americas, can be seen at the historical site called Eiríksstaðír.
It is a former homestead of Erik the Red, a person of almost mythical standing for Icelanders, and father of Leif Eirícksson. When not sailing the vast waters of North Atlantic, contemplating the future of their nation, and occasionally spilling blood, they spent their days and long winter nights in this rather poor housing. This is supposed to be a place for a nobleman, something we would call high end of the real estate market of that time! A longhouse of about 550 sq.ft. area with turf walls five foot thick set on base of rocks. In spite of the walls’ thickness its thermal insulation was so poor, that a permanent fire had to be kept in the long central fire place
filling the interior and lungs of residents with well conserving 24/7 smoke. The original Icelandic forests paid the final price for such poor heating management. Those forests are long gone, and the by-product of their disappearance are enough pastures for those idyllically beautiful sheep and Icelandic horses! If you think the longhouse interior could be a little bit more attractive and comfy you better think thrice. Guiding us through this excellent specimen of architecture was extremely knowledgeable local woman, seen on the photo above in the background. She provided us with interesting details from the life of rich and famous of Norsemen High Society, insight to the treatment of slaves (always very cruel and bloody), the facts of sharing the very private elements of life with the whole family (not always cruel, but not very romantic either,
considering limited square footage available for the number of people and animals during the long winter nights close to the Arctic Circle!), and the ways of solving issues between neighbors (even more blood all over the place). Erik the Red, the original owner of this homestead, was a gentleman with temper running on a very short fuse, always embroiled in disputes. After yet another conflict with the neighbor who killed all his thralls (understand “slaves”) he slaughtered the neighbor in revenge, and was expelled from Iceland. He left for Orkney where he killed two more guys, and on and on and on. Good job, Erik, good job!
By now you would think: “Oh my, is there anything in those times indicating that Norsemen had started mellowing just a little bit?” Well, there were some hopeful signs. If you are browsing throughout the official history of human mankind you would get a strange impression that the other half of humans (with few sweet exceptions like Cleopatra, Mary Stuart, Jean d’Arc, etc ; you know how they ended, right?) were delegated to light physical disciplines such as working fields, collecting firewood and water, weaving warm blankets,
washing dishes, bearing children, treating injuries of their strongmen and after a full day’s of back breaking labor in the last resort of desperation whispering gently in their husband‘s ear:“Anything else I can do for you, honey?” Icelandic women were, I visualize, different. Actually physically quite strong, and remarkably independent they could own property (to the contrary in the rest of Europe women were the husband’s property; oh wow!) and could ask for divorce. To this day Icelandic women continue to build on those strong fundamentals and are considered to be in the position of the most equality in the world. Quite by coincidence we came across the statue of this remarkable strong woman explorer who undertook eight sea journeys!
Her name was Guðríður Þorbjarnadóttir, born AD980 and outlived three husbands. Read on how her special position in the history of Iceland and America is secured forever! Around the year AD1000 at twenty years old, already widowed twice, Gudrid organized an expedition with her third husband Þorfinnur to that piece of North America oothey called Vinland. They intended to settle there and she was the first white woman to bear a child, a son, the first born American of European descend! His name was Snorri, born in Vinland, and we all know the law: “Born in America, American for life automatically!” On the photo above, Snorri is carried on the shoulder of his mom in the memorial raised close to town of her birth on the southern shore of Snæfellsnes Peninsula.
Guðríður’s life is a fascinating story intertwined with important figures of history of Iceland. Her second husband was the younger son of our hot headed friend Erik the Red. Gudrid was mentioned in historical sagas
Saga of Eric the Red and Saga of the Greenlanders. Guðríður converted from paganism of early Norsemen settlers to Christianity, and some of her descendants were either Bishops (males) or spouses of Bishops (females) in Iceland. Her son Snorri built a church at their farm in Glambaer.
Later in her life after the death of her third husband, she traveled to Rome to meet the pope – what an accomplishment for a woman, a single woman. There were not many like her, I remember just Eléonore of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II and mother of Richard the Lionhearted. She made it to the Holy Land, a little bit further than Guðríður, but more than a century later. And Eléonore to her advantage was definitely a lady of higher means!
I, as a person with lack of religious belief, do have strong doubts that Christian religious fervor could have seriously contributed to the mellowing of the hard core Norsemen society. The human history teaches otherwise. Probably more effective must have been establishment of Alþingi (“Althing” in English transcript), the oldest surviving Parliament in the world, in the year AD930. Yes, long before Magna Carta, my friends! This body did not have just legislative arm. It functioned as the highest judicial arm of Icelandic self-government; wow! ALL free men could attend Althing, the longest running parliament in the world. Those sessions were usually the main social event of the year and they drew large crowds of farmers and their families, parties involved in legal (remember judicial function?) disputes, traders, craftsmen, storytellers and travelers. It managed to end the blood feuds and corporal punishments.
The center of the gathering was the Law Rock, a rocky outcrop on which the elected Lögsögumaður guy (Lawspeaker) took his seat as the presiding official of the assembly. For a country with such an early start in democracy and state institutions it is strange to know that it got independence from Denmark only in 1944, when Denmark was too busy being occupied by Germans. It probably helped that at the beginning of WWII British, Canadian and then US forces arrived in Iceland in large numbers. An interesting repeat of history then happened as recounted by our Erikstadir guide. Icelandic women very really really impressed with the spick and span clean shaven soldiers in lieu of their fish smelling compatriots. And you bet that didn’t go down well with the local guys. If you want to see Althing, it is quite close to Reykjavík on the shore of large Lake Þingvellir (Thingvellir) lying on the impressive seismic fault line between
North American and Scandinavian tectonic plates. It was here that Althing was forced by Norwegian king Olaf to accept Christianity as the State religion early on in AD1000. There is a small historical church in this location which
is consistent with simplicity of all religious as well as secular buildings you can find in this country. Of course, with slight exception of Reykjavík and a nice contemporary chain of Foss Hotels we had the opportunity to enjoy a few times during our trip. Move a half millennia forward to see how far the standard of living improved. The progress is quite visible in its front view.
The reduction of turf usage helps visually quite a bit, and where it was still heavily used, the window openings make
its interior space surprisingly lighter as well as the usage of stoves for heating much healthier. The complex has its own church and cemetery around it
always as simple as possible. We found a varied palette of colors for churches, like this beautiful sample in a rather innovative black in combination with white trimming:
Truly a daring design in pure shapes and simple lines on the backdrop of distant, snow sprinkled mountains with a sensitive complement of the sheep family arranged in front of the compound’s front gate every morning and evening by the staff of a nearby luxury hotel for photographic needs of the hotel guests.
Icelanding churches might be small and simple, but they do come in a variety of colors.
Icelandic builders must have faced lack of wood as the forests, mentioned before, were mercilessly decimated for heating. Driving around we came to a small village of Hólar, which was the Episcopal See for Northern Iceland. Hólar’s current church was built in the middle of the 18th century at the site of five other, older ones!
Wars, religious transformations, or fires do not treat wooden structures kindly, so parishioners decided: “Enough is enough! Let us use something more durable!” and erected the church front from the nearby mountain‘s red rock.
You can see in these two pictures taken a few minutes apart, how changeable the weather in Iceland can be. This can not be said of Icelanders, they are steadfastly pleasant and friendly. Here we were welcomed by another knowledgeable guide who knew practically everything about his church and answered kindly all the questions we bothered him with during our long visit. We could not believe our eyes seeing fantastic workmanship and art.
The special surprise were two very old bibles, one in the church itself
and one, a rare copy of Old Testament in Hebrew displayed in the replica of the bishop’s house from 14th century.
All those wonderfully simple and aesthetically pleasing churches of Iceland reminded me of the cultural shock I experienced during my teenage years when I first traveled to the Baltic Coast. After heavy dosage of Central European dark, overly dramatic, heavily gilded baroque churches I could hardly believe that church interior could be almost
unbearably light, pure, and simple, almost gay in its expression. What a feast for the eyes! Everything warmed up by the kindly guide/priest’s presence. His big fluffy dog was a pleasant addition.
We were taken by surprise at how few dogs we encountered in Iceland. Yes, there were some hard working Icelandic sheep dogs out in the pastures, descendants of dogs brought by Viking settlers, but few pets. It seems that Iceland is more of a cat country. It didn’t come by total surprise then to find a bizarre total ban of dogs in the capital. The dog ban was issued in 1924 at a time when the population was overwhelmingly rural (just opposite of today) and Reykjavík was still small, but rapidly growing and overcrowded fishing town. The ban was only lifted in 1984.
Talking about bans, a few years after the dog ban was lifted, in 1989 exactly the Beer Ban was lifted as well, and after 74 years of only drinking wine and spirits the Icelanders could say Skál again with beer. It would not be fair to leave unattended the progress of regular Icelandic housing in the last 50-100 years. Driving around the country you cannot help observe local preferences not to overspend on major ticket items with focus instead on cost effective functionality and comfort. Indeed Icelanders did stop using turf as a cost-effective material and built the simple light comfortable houses (the initial idea for Tiny Houses?) which serve them and us, tourists, very well.
The money saved on the house is then invested in a swimming pool or at least a hot tub. Icelanders are crazy about their hot water baths, another relic of the Viking times.
You can hardly see many Ferraris on the mostly two lane local highways with uniform speed limit which is barely 55 miles per hour and frequent signs banning overtaking on long stretches of straight roads. Only a complete idiot would not figure out that Ferrari is for Icelandic traffic seriously over designed and a complete waste of money! But with no public buses plying the countryside (ok, we did see ONE in our ten days) people do buy lots of cars and there is probably no country in the world where there is such a mix of cars. Icelanders are a brave and hardy stock, and they are used to driving under driving rain and on sleek ice. (And camping on ice, too, brrr). They also love crossing deep rivers and driving on glaciers and not all are smart enough to use big monster trucks so Search and Rescue teams are assured life long secure employment. We did also notice a certain modesty when it came to sculptures and public art.
This one was one of the more grandiose memorials which at first looked more like a decorative pile of rocks.
The Bárður Snæfellsás statue was created by local artist Ragnar Kjartansson. Who was that Bárður guy? He was a half-man, half-troll who lived here after fleeing Norway. Another violent individual involved in a severe family argument, he exiled himself to the Snæfellsnes Glacier. This hot headed guy fortunately did not kill anybody, at least not that I am aware of! For centuries, the locals believed he was their protector and called him the Guardian Spirit of Snæfell.
On the way to this memorial I was slightly misled by my co-traveler (it happens rarely and mostly not intentionally, but still it does and she knows how to get my attention!). I was convinced there was to be a memorial to my favorite writer Jules Verne who located one of his many fictional adventure novel to a volcano
crater here in Snæfellsnes Penninsula. We drove in circles around the Google maps dot proclaiming Jules Verne memorial, but could not find it.
Only partially disappointed by finding this other (for me) impressive piece of art l was happy to admire it for simple use of readily available material. As a matter of fact there is so much good quality rock lying all over Iceland that it would be quite easy to make a killing exporting their rocks all over the world.
The best in our view are the basalt columns (formed when magma cools slowly and cracks into columns) found in many places. On Reynisfjara’s Black Beach
are the most striking hexagonal basalt columns of the Halsanefshellir cave.
They are supposedly the inspiration behind the Hallgrímskirkja Church in Reykjavík.
We saved this one for our last afternoon. Just as any other Icelandic place of worship we found it blessedly empty, confirming the population’s laidback attitude towards any religion. They prefer to worship the sun in the plentiful outdoor coffee shops.
Hallgrímskirkja Church belongs to (Lutheran) Church of Iceland, the largest denomination in the country. It was not planned for it to be the tallest religious building in Iceland but….the church leaders wanted its spire to be taller just to outshine Landakot’s Church, the cathedral of the Catholic Church of Iceland standing a few blocks away. And their ego beat the State architect’s Gudjon Samuelsson’s design! The church, which is quite recent, from the second half of the 20th century, did not impress on arrival. But it does grow on you, the longer you look at it.
After the stark exterior the interior is a wonderful surprise of luminous light.
Back outside the kids were happily playing around the statue of Leif Eriksson.
No wonder, their parents come up close to the top in worldwide happiness surveys.
They have lost their zeal for shedding blood, and live in harmony and equality.
With so many places closed and few people about due to COVID we had, to our chagrin, less opportunities to meet the locals. But those that we did, were just wonderful.
Here again is my horse guide Helga.
We had such an immediate warm connection that she offered me a summer job on the farm and I was sorely tempted.
Ad here is an artist in Reykjavik, who dropped what he was doing and told us all about his family of sculptors and potters and Icelanders’ affinity for skulls.
I promised in the last blog to tell you about the Shark Sign. We were desperately looking for a morning cup of coffee all over the Snaeffelsness peninsula and came to a farm that was also a big shark museum. Normally we would be really interested in shark exhibits but that afternoon the coffee craving took over. While the museum was opened, its coffee shop was closed. But when the owner Gudjón
saw our need, he opened it just for us and personally made us two cappuccinos and then recounted his family’s history of hard work. And then wouldn’t let us pay for the coffee!
It is fascinating to know that most Icelanders can trace their family roots all the way back to the .first settlers and that despite the fact that they don’t even have family names, but use a patronymic system. Their names are set up from their father’s (occasionally mother’s) name plus ending of son or dóttir. So Stefán Gunnarsson (son of Gunnar) would have a son named Y Stefánsson and a daughter called X Stéfansdóttir. Add to this the fact that you can only pick first names from a list of preapproved names by Icelandic Naming Committe and I don’t know how many people then end up having the exact same names.
Even the nameless brief encounters with fellow Icelandic travellers were lovely. As in willing cooperation of this young lady to model for our photoshoot her hand-made Icelandic sweater at the famous Kirkjufell waterfall.
The sweaters were attractive, but only appropriate for the hardy Icelandic stock of Viking descent, because the wool was way too itchy for us.
We were told that the best way to meet Icelanders is to jump into one of the many hot pots. With the sharp wind always rearing its cold head we were not tempted until the very last day. We spent a few hours awaiting our returning flight’s midnight departure at the man-made Blue Lagoon
disposing of the runoff water from the nearby Svartsengi geothermal power plant, conveniently located some 10 miles from Keflavík International Airport. At this COVID time the normally overcrowded ”spa” was nearly empty and we did not have a chance to encounter many locals, but in the best of Icelandic traditions we submerged in the pleasant water with a free drink in hand. Your choice: non-alcoholic or alcoholic. Guess which for us? No need to guess twice.
P.S. This is our 3rd and last post on Iceland. We are now home in California, enjoying the adventures with our newborn granddaughter.
We still have some posts in the works and would also be happy to hear your suggestions or questions. And yes, our Bucket List continues to grow longer!
Iceland, we have done you wrong! Please forgive us, we will sing your praises, in repentance, forevermore.
Iceland was never high on our Bucket list.
And there were good reasons for that. Firstly, it was, like other Scandinavian destinations, always exceedingly expensive. Secondly, it became excessively crowded, peaking at 2,3 million visitors in a country of only 360,000 people.
Well, not anymore. In this crazy 2020 year of travel, Iceland was empty,
like every other country around the globe. Except that Iceland was incredibly successful in fighting COVID-19 and hence poised to open up to tourists first.
And your intrepid crazyparents were on the first flight from Prague to Keflavík international airport on June 17th.
Despite much trepidation (will the flight go, or the airlines file for bankruptcy first, will they let us in…?) our one and only plane was met with efficiency and speed. After two quick COVID swabs, yes, unpleasant, but free and totally worth it, we were in.
For once Hertz was there, the only rental company opened at night. The girl at the desk was so excited to see us, her only customers, that she gave us a triple upgrade.
And off we went into the late sunset, or actually early sunrise.
That’s the thing, with June days so very long we could drive to all late hours of the night on totally empty roads.
The few local cars we met, whizzed by, or overtook us immediately, stupid tourists following the limit signs.
Well, not only were we forewarned about the speed traps, more importantly, it was lambing season and the sheep moms with their cute little twin babies often wandered into the road.
Our plan was to drive the main Ring Road or Route 1, the only road that goes around Iceland.
Theoretically one could drive its mere 1,332 km (828 miles) in a few days, but with the awe struck photographer on the passenger seat the stops were exceedingly frequent. How could they not be?
We added two days on the Snaefellsnes peninsula and minimized our Reykjavik stay to one last day. A few extra days would have been good, but then, aren’t they always?
Never have we slept so little on any of our travel explorations because even when we finally got to bed, it was impossible to close our eyes. The show outside of the panoramic windows was ongoing and ever-changing.
Just when you would think that the sun has finally set in a blaze of pinks and purples and oranges, there would be a burst of sun rays from the clouds or fog and the sun would start rising again.
Despite the catastrophic weather prognosis of 10 days of 80% rain, the Norse gods smiled upon us and all together we only had two days of drizzle.
We had plenty of sun and dramatic clouds often chased by cold blustery winds.
One day there was even a record-breaking 24 degrees C (75F) which to us seemed a good time to peel off our puffy jacket layer,
while the tough Viking descendants stripped down to shorts and spaghetti straps. No wonder…
As the country’s name denotes we did expect plenty of ice, but found the presence of glaciers so close to the road astounding. It would have been cool to take a super Jeep and go walking on the glaciers, but even with a short hike one could get really close.
For those of you who haven’t met a glacier up close, there is often a lot of black mixed with white, especially nowadays with global warming and pollution.
The one place that was top on my Iceland list was the Glacier Lagoon (Jökulsárlón)
and especially the unique Diamond Beach at its mouth.
I was looking forward to spending some creative fun time photographing the many pieces of ice on the black sand. Alas, this was our one day of rain, so the stop was very short.
Still, a few fun shapes emerged from the shots taken from under the umbrella.
Snow and ice for sure, but what really surprised us was how green Iceland was. From the large swaths of green pastures
munched on by sheep and horses to moss-covered glacier-fed stream banks, glorious green was jumping at us.
And there were many different colorful flowers. Some were tiny, brave, alpine flowers growing in tough rocky conditions
and some were surprisingly scarce radiant Arctic poppies.
The biggest surprise was seeing the enormous areas of blue and purple lupines by the sides of the roads or creeping up the mountains.
Lupines are a nonnative plant, considered by some an undesirable invasive species. It was introduced in the 1970s to help combat soil erosion. When Vikings came to Iceland from Norway in the late 9th century, they found a land so thick with woods they could only explore it by ways of rivers. Very soon they managed to cut all the trees down to build their homes and keep them warm in the long winters. The few forests of trees now standing were replanted only some 120 years ago.
Weeds or no, lupines are an impressive sight that we enjoyed again and again.
Now, where are the famous Icelandic waterfalls, you might wonder and why have you kept us waiting? Well, I guess the waterfalls are an Icelandic cliche, but honestly, they were indeed exceedingly beautiful and each unique, so we never tired of them, even though we are not real waterfall chasers. There are hundreds of waterfalls, small and big, gushing off of the side of mountains and canyons.
Because of the sunny weather we were treated to rainbow shows in many places.
Some waterfalls show two different faces, front
Some are easy to get to, like Godafoss, where the pagan gods’ statues were thrown into the water, if not oblivion, after the switch to Christianity.
Others demand an early morning hike, like Hengifoss.
We have to share all this wild beauty with just a few other travelers, and it feels like we are back in the golden olden days when travelers were few and everyone actually talked to each other and asked for advice on closed roads and opened coffee shops.
Comparing notes is helpful indeed because sometimes road signs have not been removed after winter.
And the roads have not been repaired either… still, we bravely press on and after a lot of bouncing, we arrive at Detifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe.
I guess that is enough waterfalls for now. Then there are other phenomenal sights like geysers and more.