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Across Uzbekistan with MIR

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Mar 14th, 2017, 07:57 AM
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Across Uzbekistan with MIR

Last year I finally made it to Central Asia, which had been on my must-see list for nearly two decades. True, I only visited Uzbekistan, but I rated seeing Samarkand and Bukhara and Khiva higher than the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (tough call, though). And although I am usually an independent traveler, I went with a small group tour, run by MIR, which has 30 years experience in the area.

http://www.mircorp.com/trip/silk-rou...ss-uzbekistan/

After the tour finished I went on to South Korea and Japan, and while I was too busy to write a trip report, I did put up a summary of pros and cons for the country and the tour:

http://www.fodors.com/community/asia...-samarkand.cfm

I got back right before Thanksgiving, and since then I have been dealing with health problems that have left me very low on energy. However, I'm now doing a bit better, and have started writing up the Uzbekistan trip. This is likely to proceed rather slowly, though. As usual, you can find the same text, but with photos, on my blog:

https://mytimetotravel.wordpress.com...tashkent-solo/

September 8-9, 2016: Tackling Tashkent: Solo

Despite my preference for traveling on the ground, I have been through a fair number of airports in the last 16 years. Until I flew into Tashkent the clear winner of “worst airport ever” was Kathmandu, although Newark got a strong dishonorable mention. But there was no question that Tashkent was much, much worse. Fortunately, I had looked Tashkent up on sleepinginairports.net, and was forewarned. I also had the (intentional) advantage of arriving in daylight, with no other international flights providing competition. (My Uzbekistan Airlines flight was just fine. I seemed to be the only non-Asian, but my seat mate was friendly and the food was edible.) Still, the scrum of determined, shopping-bag-laden women fighting for position ahead of passport control was not my idea of fun, and nor was a long wait in the heat.

Duly admitted to Uzbekistan I now needed to claim my bag. After spending too long watching other people’s luggage emerge onto the carousel, it dawned on me that my one small bag was probably in the pile on the far side of the belt. Taking advantage of a temporary stoppage I climbed across the belt and was able to disinter my bag and head for customs. They found me uninteresting, although I still needed to put my checked and carry-on bags through an X-ray machine before escaping the building. It had taken me an hour, apparently three hours is not unusual. The head of MIR’s Tashkent office, plus the guide for my tour, Abdu, had come to meet me, although it didn’t look like they had expected me to emerge so quickly, as they were a couple of rows back in the crowd opposite the terminal. Being driven into town, instead of sorting out public transport, was a pleasant change, and I also appreciated that Abdu handled currency exchange for me (I was carrying an assortment of crisp USD, although since I don’t shop I really only needed the hundreds. My bank had had its usual difficulty in finding enough brand new bills.)

While Tashkent was probably founded in the first or second century BCE, and acquired its current name in the 11th century CE, it was effectively wiped out (like the other Central Asian oasis towns) by Chinggis Khan in the 13th century. After a long recovery it fell to the Russians in 1865, and remained part of the USSR under the Communists. But another disaster occurred in 1966 when much of the town was leveled by an earthquake, leaving 300,000 people homeless. While the broad avenues (plenty of rooms for tanks) and ranked apartment buildings had a definite Soviet feel, the effect was softened, as in all Uzbekistan towns, by plenty of trees.

The tour hotel, the Shodlik Palace (eventually renamed by the group the Shoddy Palace), turned out to be in a food desert. Abdu volunteered to go out to dinner with me, but the first place we tried was empty as it was really a lunch place. A couple of streets further on he dropped me off at Bar Sylva, while he went next door for plov. I’m sorry if my rejection of plov seems unadventurous, but the fact that plov was Central Asia’s signature dish was, for me, one of the downsides of visiting. For those who don’t know, plov is basically white rice, cooked originally in mutton fat, although these days sometimes in oil, with mutton. White rice was on the list of “bad” carbs I was avoiding, and the mutton kebabs I had eaten in neighboring Xinjiang had ranged from barely acceptable to flat out inedible. I was sure I would wind up eating plov at some point, but meanwhile I was happy to dine on chicken and mushrooms.

The first group meeting was at lunchtime the next day, so I had the morning to myself. I set out, map in hand, in search of the History Museum of the People of Uzbekistan. I crossed a nice canal, passed a serried rank of fountains, and than spotted a Romanov-style building I thought might be my target. Not so, originally the home of the exiled Grand Duke N. K. Romanov, it was now in the hands of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The security guard pointed out instead a Soviet era construction with plenty of steps and a stern facade. Sadly, I did not feel that the exhibits lived up to the description in Lonely Planet, aside from some nice 4-5th century BCE pieces, although this was partly due to the fact that the top floor was closed while the exhibition on the recently deceased President was revamped.

I retraced my steps, taking time to photograph the fountains and a statue of some attractive long-necked birds crowning the entrance to a formal walkway. I would meet the birds again in the afternoon, with the group, and learn that they were pelicans, an important symbol of good luck, decorating the entrance to Independence Square.
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Mar 14th, 2017, 11:32 AM
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Looking forward to your report, as I have intention of going there!
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Mar 14th, 2017, 12:04 PM
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I have no intention of going there, but am still looking forward...lol...

Glad you are feeling better!
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Mar 14th, 2017, 12:05 PM
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Sorry to hear that you've been unwell, Thursdaysd, but glad to hear that you are on the mend. Central Asia, particularly Uzbekistan, is on my list of places for its Islamic architecture. I too will be following along with interest.
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Mar 14th, 2017, 01:13 PM
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Thanks, all!

Kathie - didn't know it was on your list. Good to hear that.

I have a very good chiropractor (who works a 30 minute drive away) and a very good PT (who works a 5 minute drive away) and they have fixed the initial problems. Now I have more, sigh.
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Mar 14th, 2017, 05:38 PM
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This is a fascinating report beginning. I'm so sorry you have been under the weather. Hopefully, you will spring back soon. Where are you headed next?

Your comment about the aggressive women with their shopping bags made me laugh. In 2008, my son and I visited Turkey, and we took several THY (which someone said, stands for "they hate you") flights. The older ladies with headscarfs and shopping bags scared me--there was no getting in their way as they got on and off the plane. My son said he had never seen a plane load up so fast. What's in those shopping bags, anyway? Bowling balls?

Central Asia is high on my wish list, before it changes too much. I am not as tolerant as you for tours, and the idea of waiting shared taxis make me nervous.
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Mar 14th, 2017, 06:09 PM
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LOL on the shopping bags. I did not have that experience in Turkey, but did going to and from Sri Lanka. It wasn't shopping bags but large cardboard boxes though.
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Mar 14th, 2017, 06:30 PM
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Thanks CaliforniaLady. I was hoping to make it to England in May, but I don't think that will happen. Possibly June.

My tolerance for tours is not very high (no doubt leading to some of the cons on the linked thread), but sometimes it seems the best solution. I have done the shared taxi thing, and it can be a pain.

Don't remember cardboard boxes, tripplanner001, but I do remember a lot of checked plastic outer bags protecting inner bags. I once considered buying one myself.
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Mar 15th, 2017, 01:55 PM
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September 9th, 2016: Tackling Tashkent: Group One

One reason I chose the MIR tour of Uzbekistan was the small group size. On my tour there were just eleven of us: two trios (couples with a woman friend), two duos (one couple, one pair of sisters), and me. Everyone was well-traveled, some had lived abroad, and several had used MIR before – one of the trios had met on a MIR tour of Iran the year before. Even better, everyone was friendly, and everyone was hyper-punctual. Only eight of us met up for introductions and lunch on the first day, as one trio was flying in from Seoul that afternoon, having chosen to avoid Istanbul.

Although there were only eight of us, lunch, as with most meals, was at a tour-group-friendly restaurant (Taroma, in this case). Another group was already there, and an online check indicated that music and dance accompanied dinner. But I certainly couldn’t complain that we were underfed. The meal started with Indian-style samosas, followed by cream of potato soup, stuffed cabbage and peppers and dessert. And bread, Central Asia’s other staple food, alongside plov. Not only is it a staple, it is treated with great reverence, and left over bread is never just thrown away. Cooked in a tandoor style oven, it comes in rounds, with a thick raised rim, the size and style varying with location. However, it was always made from white flour, one of the bad carbs I was avoiding.

Sightseeing started after lunch, with a drive to the Chorsu bazaar. Chorsu means “four ways” or “crossroads”, and this area served traders even under the Soviets, who built the two-story dome that sheltered the main section, where meat, vegetables and spices were sold in clean and orderly surroundings. Less-favored vendors sat on the ground outside, and after giving us time for photos Abdu led us round the corner to a clothes section, offering both everyday gear and wedding finery.

The day was hot and getting hotter, but we pressed on to the Abu Bakr Mohammed Kaffal Shoshi mausoleum, which held the sarcophagus of a tenth century doctor, philosopher and poet, although most of the building dated only to the 16th century, followed by the Moyie Mubarek Library Museum which sheltered the 7th century Osman Quran, said to be the world’s oldest. The library held a number of other interesting Qurans, but unfortunately no photographs were allowed. More beautiful tiled buildings flanked the large Khast Imom square, including the residence of Uzbekistan’s grand mufti (think archbishop).

After this visit to old Tashkent (although a number of the buildings were new) we returned to the present day at the Crying Mother Monument. Built in 1999, it honored and memorialized the 400,000 Uzbek soldiers who died in WWII. Their names were recorded along the corridors leading to the weeping mother and the eternal flame. This was clearly not a memorial to heroism or glory, and I find it interesting that war memorials are becoming less grandiose. I was reminded of the memorial to the Russian dead from the Afghan war I had seen in Ekaterinburg, centered on a tired soldier leaning on his rifle. I found this memorial particularly moving.

We finished the day walking through Independence Square, where we chatted with some English-speaking kids, and were introduced to the storks I had noticed in the morning. A guard warned me off photographing one of the buildings, although I think I had already done so earlier. Then Abdu went off to the airport to meet the final three group members, one trio went off to the ballet, and the others returned to the hotel for food and sleep. I chose to go back to Bar Sylva. Since I passed on the home made wine this time (too sweet), the bill, with tip, was only 36,000 som (about 12 USD at the then current exchange rate, about 10 USD today).
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Mar 15th, 2017, 04:30 PM
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How did find the multiday group tour work for your travel tastes? Like you I like to travel independently; I feel that I would not enjoy being in a group for an extended period of time, even if it is a smaller group. The only times I go on group tours - and almost always only of the small group variety - are day trips.
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Mar 15th, 2017, 05:05 PM
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tripplanner - if you follow the second link at the top of the thread you'll see my summary of the good and bad points. I have done other tours at various times, mostly with Intrepid and Rick Steves, and in general I have found the groups quite compatible. I did pay the single supplement for this tour, which I haven't done in the past. If I do a tour it's usually towards the middle of an extended solo trip, and then I usually enjoy having company for a change - but I'm always ready to go back to solo travel when the tour ends!
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Mar 15th, 2017, 05:27 PM
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You take the most awesome journeys, thursdaysd! Thanks for sharing your experiences with us.
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Mar 16th, 2017, 05:19 AM
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Reading along with interest. This sounds fascinating. We usually travel independently, too, but do sometimes opt for a tour. We are going (4 of us) to Yunnan Province in June with a tour primarily because we felt it was the best way to see a lot in a short time. There will only be the 4 of us, though, so it is private, and we purposely scheduled several free days to be on our own. My husband knew what he wanted to see, so the travel agent customized the trip based on what we want to see and do.

Thursdaysd and Kja, I admire the both of you for traveling solo. You both take such exciting and adventurous trips. I think the most adventurous and exotic destination for me was Xinjiang Province. Central Asia sounds so different and unique, but not sure if I will make it there, so I will be an armchair traveler for this trip.

Glad to hear you are feeling better, and thank you so much for taking the time to write your trip report.
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Mar 16th, 2017, 11:41 AM
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Thank you Thursdaysd.
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Mar 16th, 2017, 04:53 PM
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@ KarenWoo: Speaking strictly for myself, I'm just grateful for each trip I've managed to take. From my perspective, traveling solo is a true self-indulgence. thursdaysd is much more widely traveled than I, and I feel fortunate to follow in her footsteps every so once in a while. And FWIW, I must admit that Xinjiang Province seems an adventurous and exotic destination to me!
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Mar 16th, 2017, 05:18 PM
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Definitely on the exotic end of the spectrum! I traveled in Xinjiang and on to Pakistan back in 2001, and there are echoes of that trip in Uzbekistan. If you tackled Xinjiang you can handle Central Asia. Hope you enjoy Yunnan.
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Mar 17th, 2017, 12:57 PM
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September 10, 2016: Forward to Fergana

Sitting on the chest of drawers in my bedroom is a reproduction of the Han dynasty “Flying Horse of Gansu”. The original statue is old (likely second century CE), but the horse’s pedigree is older still, as it was descended from the blood-sweating heavenly horses of Central Asia’s Fergana Valley, first brought to China at the end of the second century BCE. The desire for those horses, wanted for the fight against the pesky nomadic Xiongnu, was what drove the Chinese to first open trade routes to the west.

Look at the Fergana Valley today on a satellite view, and you will see a fertile area some 190 miles long and 100 miles wide, wider at the east than the west, ringed by mountains, and watered by the Syr Darya, formerly the Jaxartes: a coherent whole. But look at a political map and you will see a jigsaw, with the valley split between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the irregular boundaries drawn by Stalin in a textbook example of “divide and rule”. Should you wish to follow one of the main branches of the Silk Road east from Dzizak in Uzbekistan, you would cross into Tajikistan to visit Khujand, founded as Alexandria the Furthest by Alexander the Great, go back into Uzbekistan for Kokand, Fergana and Margilan before entering Kyrgyzstan near Osh for the final leg to the Chinese border. You would, of course, have obtained the necessary visas beforehand… But even worse than the political jigsaw, or the forced end to the nomadic lifestyle, or the suppression of religion, was the Soviet insistence that the valley produce cotton. Although the valley was naturally fertile, cotton consumed far more water than had been needed before, and the resulting irrigation starved Kazakhstan’s Aral Sea to the point of ecological disaster.

Besides cotton, the area is known for crafts, and I was looking forward to visits to an important pottery and a silk factory. While I had visited silk factories before, I was interested in the ikat weaving that was a local specialty. I would love to visit the other parts of the valley, but for this trip I would just be in Uzbekistan. We set off from Tashkent the morning of day two of the tour, by car. Apparently, coaches were not allowed to cross the mountain passes. Normally I would have preferred the car, but since I was in the front seat, we were heading directly into the sun, and the AC was off most of the time, I felt I was being broiled. I was very happy to change seats when we stopped part way. At one point we had a good view of the new rail line from Tashkent that had just been finished – perhaps future tours will travel by train, now the line does not go through Tajikistan?

The mountains did not reach the snow-capped heights of those that flank the valley further east, but were nonetheless quite scenic. Still, I was glad to arrive in Kokand for some afternoon sightseeing (we had lunched on the way), although it was really too hot to fully appreciate the buildings and by common consent the last stop turned into a drive by. Rather than keep mentioning the heat in future posts, I will say now that afternoon temperatures were consistently in the mid to high 90s, and we frequently spent the early rather than the late afternoon sightseeing. When I provided feedback on the tour I suggested that it should run a bit later in the year – what made sense 30 years ago has been overtaken by global warming.

I did not take good notes that afternoon, but I did take photos, and I have the itinerary (plus books and the internet). Since one of the photos is of a sign saying “Kokand Regional Studies Museum” I know we visited Khudaya Khan’s Palace, as that is its current incarnation. Only 19 of the original 113 rooms were intact, a sad remnant of the time Kokand was the center of a powerful khanate. Admittedly the khanate was often at war with its neighbors, and the royal family was given to internecine strife, but it was the Russians who finally put an end to it in 1868, even before the palace was finished. Russian control did not lead to peace, as the valley was the source of numerous revolts against both the tsars and the Soviets. After independence the rise of Islamic extremism was met by a crackdown by then President Karimov, culminating in the 2005 Andijon Massacre (the casualty count, of unarmed protestors, ranges from the official 187 up to 1,500). The valley may look peaceful, but its history says otherwise.

But the standout for me was not the palace, but the Jummi (or Jami, or Juma) mosque. Once Kokand boasted 600 mosques and 15 madrassas, but few remain. This, in English the Friday mosque, dates only from the beginning of the 19th century, but the beautiful carving of the 30 foot open arcade on one side of the courtyard seemed timeless. The honeycomb carving at the top of the 98 supporting columns echoed some I had seen at the Abakh Hoja tomb in Kashgar, on the western edge of China. A reminder that it was not only merchandise that traveled the Silk Road, but ideas as well.

Then we traveled, by coach, another 55 miles to Fergana, where we would spend two nights in the Asia Fergana hotel. Another tour group hotel, this was part of a local chain we would encounter again further west.
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Mar 17th, 2017, 03:50 PM
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Very interesting altogether. Your description of the Friday Mosque has me thinking Persian-style architecture; don't know if it is accurate though.
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Mar 17th, 2017, 05:17 PM
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I'm following along with interest.
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Mar 17th, 2017, 05:41 PM
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tripplanner - I would say Islamic rather than Persian, since you can find versions of it from Spain to India.

For a photo of the capital I mentioned, either visit the blog, or go here:

https://mytimetotravel.files.wordpre...3/dsc02186.jpg
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