The Not-All-Golden Road to Samarkand

Old Sep 28th, 2016, 05:04 AM
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The Not-All-Golden Road to Samarkand

I just finished a two week tour of Uzbekistan. I'll be posting place-by-place reports on the trip on this thread after I finish my UK TR on the Europe board, which still has me in Wales, but I wanted to post an overview before I got too caught up in the rest of the trip (I'm currently in South Korea).

September 9 - 23, 2016: MIR's "Silk Route Odyssey: Caravan Across Uzbekistan"

(Link to the tour for 2017 - the overview looks the same: http://www.mircorp.com/trip/silk-rou...ss-uzbekistan/ )

I have wanted to travel the Silk Road since I first heard it was possible on a Smithsonian tour of China in 1997. I traveled the eastern end, Xi'an to Islamabad, in 2001, and some of the western branches in the Caucasus and the Middle East in 2009, but somehow I never made it to Central Asia. This year I decided to stop trying to visit the whole area at once, and pick the most important sight. Samarkand just beat out the mountains of Tajikstan and Kyrgyzstan, helped by my lack of energy early in the year. The same lack of energy, plus the fact that it was my first visit to the area, led me to take a tour instead of traveling on my own. Since I wanted a small group tour that included the Fergana Valley, three nights in Samarkand, and Khiva, and left in the fall, choices were limited. MIR's itinerary wasn't ideal, but included my priorities, and they did have 30 year's experience in the area.

This is my summary of the highs and lows, for the country and for the tour.

The Good

Samarkand's Registan by day: exceeded my high expectations. Behind the facades you see in all the photos, there is a lot more, equally beautiful.

Samarkand's Registan by night, illuminated. Even better: mesmerizing and magical. Unfortunately, only four of the eleven of us saw it.

Bukhara: most Uzbek cities seem to have plenty of trees and green space, but Bukhara also has an ancient pool in the middle of the historic city, not to mention plenty of attractive old buildings.

Khiva: the quintessential ancient oasis town. Well worth the very long drive.

The mountains on the way to the Fergana Valley.

The tour guide: very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the sights and about modern-day Uzbekistan (and the late president). Flexible.

The other tour members: this was a very compatible group, all very well traveled and including some who had lived abroad, and all extremely punctual.

The food: one reason I booked a tour was that, as I have borderline hypoglycemia, I was worried about getting enough to eat. Aside from the packed lunch on one long drive, if anything I got too much to eat.

Uzbekistan Airlines: MIR seemed to prefer Turkish Airlines, but if I wanted to arrive at a reasonable time of day it needed to be Uzbekistan Airlines (having spent a month in the UK and two nights in Istanbul on the way, I didn't expect jet lag). I seemed to be the only non-Central Asian on the flight, but I had a pleasant seat mate, and the food was very much better than on my Turkish Airlines flight from London to Istanbul. I did check that it was not on the EU's too dangerous to fly list.

The Bad

Shakhrisabze: this was a place I had wanted to see, but there really wasn't much there, and until the new trees grow there is no shade. Worse, there is a new regulation that prohibits passenger vehicles with more than four occupants from using the mountain passes, so our mini-bus had to go round. This meant a total of seven hours driving. The regulation makes no sense, as heavier commercial vehicles are not prohibited. Going to and from the Fergana Valley we were put in cars (which cooked the front seat passenger going east), and it would have been nice to go at least one way by car for this day.

Scheduling, Part One: the tour was too early in the year. I had wondered about that when I booked, but MIR's brochure seemed to indicate temperatures in the 80s. Wrong. Highs were in the 90s the whole time. Maybe an early September departure made sense 30 years ago, but not today. Samarkand reached 100 in mid-September a couple of years back. My bad for insufficient research, but that's what I was paying MIR for.

Scheduling, Part Two: the Eid al-Adha holiday fell towards the beginning of the tour. The silk factory we visited in the Fergana Valley was deserted except for one guy who gave a brief explanation of the process. The Applied Arts Museum, one of my top sights for Tashkent, was also closed, although Abdu took those of us spending extra time in Tashkent there after the tour officially ended. Eid is a moveable feast, but it's not THAT moveable. It was entirely predictable that it would occur around that weekend. (Next year's tour won't have the same problem.)

Scheduling, Part Three: the sightseeing schedule, especially given the heat, was crazy. Instead of using a siesta system, we were expected to tour right through the hottest part of the day and then go back to the hotel when it started cooling off. Or just keep touring all day. The first day in Bukhara we started at 8:30 am, and didn't finish until 7:30 pm, aside from lunch, and an hour's coffee break which was the result of pleas by the caffeine-deprived and seemed not part of the usual schedule. No one has an attention span that long.

Scheduling, Part Four: shopping on tour time. It has been well over a decade since I traveled with a US tour company, other than Rick Steves, whose tours do not include shopping ops. If you want to shop on his tours, you do it in your free time, which is scheduled in reasonably large blocks. Some days on this tour seemed nothing but shopping ops. Saying, as Abdu did, that he was giving free time for shopping was disingenuous, as it was 15 minutes before moving on to the next sight, useless for anything else. This was understandable in the Fergana Valley, but not in other places. It leads me to wonder whether the guide is actually paid a salary (see Rick Steves again), or is "paid" by tips and commissions on shopping. We were certainly told to tip - $8-15/day.

Hotels and restaurants: when I pay for a small group tour, listed, moreover, as "explorer series", I do not expect to find myself staying in the same hotels, or eating in the same restaurants, as big bus groups. If I had wanted to do that I could have traveled in greater comfort on a big bus. We ran into one couple traveling by car and driver on a trip arranged by MIR, and they were staying at the same hotels and eating at the same restaurants we were, which would be even more annoying.

The yurt camp: I figured this was the price of three nights in Samarkand, but it was a high price, requiring two long days driving through boring country, a night with inadequate facilities, and hours hanging around a not very interesting lake. A high point of the two days was watching a determined dung beetle at work. Need I say more?

Tashkent airport: it is total chaos. I made it out in an hour, having researched the situation and being willing to fight for my space in the mob at passport control, and despite having to climb over the temporarily stopped conveyor belt to disinter my bag from a pile in a corner. Some people took three.

Summary

Am I glad I finally made it to Uzbekistan? Absolutely! Would I travel with MIR again? Well, I suppose I might, although I would scrutinize the itinerary more carefully. I might ask for a quote for an independent trip, but the mark up on the group tours is already shocking.

Of course, the road to Samarkand was never golden, outside of the poet's imagination, unless he was referring to the sands it traversed, or the goods it carried. It was always long, arduous, and sometimes dangerous, whether for the merchants traveling back and forth between the oases, or for the Russian and British adventurers engaged in the "Great Game" for control of the approaches to India. I certainly found this tour a bit arduous, although nothing in comparison the caravans, of course. However, travel in Uzbekistan is about to get much smoother, when the high speed rail line from Tashkent to Khiva opens, and when Uzbekistan's section of the new road from Istanbul to Beijing is finished. (Consider the geopolitical implications of that.) I heard 2018 for the rail line, but check. If you are thinking of flying into Tashkent, wait for the new international airport to open. Flying out was bad, but not as bad.
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Old Sep 28th, 2016, 05:39 AM
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Greatly looking forward to your full report Thursdaysd. In the meantime hope your return to Korea is enjoyable. I'm also looking forward to that report.
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Old Sep 28th, 2016, 05:43 AM
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Thanks, MaryW! Was a bit under par in Seoul, but loved the National Museum I missed last time, and am now in Andong.
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Old Sep 28th, 2016, 08:02 AM
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Thanks for sharing, Thursdaysd, and for whetting my appetite before the full report and photographs. Uzbekistan is on my list of places to visit as well, along with Iran. Did you notice additional security personnel as you toured the country in the aftermath of its first leadership transition?

Not sure if Jeju is on your itinerary, but if you have time, it may be worth a few days. It was the highlight of our visit to Korea.
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Old Sep 28th, 2016, 08:09 AM
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Cool. Looking f/w to more and your impresssion od So. Korea too.
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Old Sep 28th, 2016, 08:17 AM
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I know this is an area you have always wanted to see. I've done a bit of research on the area, but it hasn't yet lured me to a trip. But I will be very interested in the details of what you saw/did/experienced that made it all worthwhile!
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Old Sep 28th, 2016, 08:51 AM
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I am reading with interest and looking forward to more. Uzbekastan was at one time on my bucket list, but due to the time and effort it takes to get there, it is no longer on my list. As I get older, I'm more selective of the countries I chose to visit. I admire your energy and stamina while you are traveling..
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Old Sep 28th, 2016, 04:02 PM
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The museum is a favourite that I try to get to each trip. Don't miss having grilled mackerel in or around Andong.

I assume you are heading south around the coast. If you go to Pohang a little further down, its worth going out of the city around to the ocean edge where there are a couple of large hand sculptures (one in the sea and another facing on the land) - nice big open square and a pleasant place to rest and have coffee. There is a nice coffee shop on the right overlooking the bay. Pohang itself specialize in raw fish restaurants if you like that (sadly I'm not a fan)

Hope all goes well and you are feeling better.
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Old Sep 28th, 2016, 08:07 PM
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Fascinating overview, thursdaysd -- thanks for sharing your observations!
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Old Sep 29th, 2016, 04:26 AM
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Thanks everyone!

To answer some of the questions:

This trip I'm just going to Busan and Jeju-do after Andong, then I fly to Japan for five weeks.

As I wrote, travel within Uzbekistan is about to become much easier, at least between Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. We took the new train from Tashkent to Samarkand and they are using the Spanish Talgo rolling stock. We were in business class, same as Spanish Preferente. The ride wasn't as smooth, but it was fast and comfortable.

Travel TO Uzbekistan may be about to improve, at least for those on the US east coast. Uzbekistan Airlines just took delivery of a Dreamliner, and the rumor is that they will use it for a non-stop New York to Tashkent routing. We flew on it from Nukus to Tashkent (the domestic airport is MUCH better than the international one!) and although the seating in economy is 3-3-3, there seemed to be good leg room.

So, after the new international airport opens, do think again about traveling there.
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Old Sep 29th, 2016, 04:39 AM
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Oh, forgot about the security question. No, didn't seem to be anything extra - bag checks on entry to Tashkent metro are standard. The state visits during and after the President's funeral were pretty much over, although there did seem to be quite a lot of people visiting the tomb. Elections for the Presidency and both houses of the legislature are already scheduled, the transition hasn't formally occurred yet. I never felt unsafe.
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Old Sep 29th, 2016, 08:14 AM
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Hello from Fergana. We have just arrived after a 'rugged ' trip through Kyrgyzstan. Read your comments on Uz with interest. Will report back in a couple of weeks. We are here until Oct 12.
Have fun in Korea and Japan!
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Old Sep 29th, 2016, 08:48 AM
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Thanks for answering our questions, Thursdaysd. Hope the rest of your journey through Korea and Japan is safe and rewarding.
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Old Sep 29th, 2016, 09:34 AM
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Fascinating trip. Enjoyed reading your thoughts. Thank you!
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Old Sep 29th, 2016, 09:51 AM
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Sounds like a great time away. For and though we love to go being away about 3-4 weeks is our max.

Still following!
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Old Sep 29th, 2016, 04:36 PM
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Hi gertie! Good to hear from you, welcome back to wifi land!

Glad to hear you made it through Kyrgyzstan, although "rugged" does sound as though I made the better choice - for me - to go with MIR.

Do make sure to see Samarkand's Registan illuminated. It's a big black mark for MIR that most of my group missed it.
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Old Sep 29th, 2016, 05:21 PM
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Thanks for the advice re the Registan illuminated! Will do. Yes, it is amazing to be back in wifi-land. Wonder how long it will last. I think we have a yurt stay here too. I have noted your comment on Shakhrisabze... I think it is an optional add-on for us. So far I am happy with Explore and guess it cost a fair bit less than MIR.
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Old Sep 29th, 2016, 07:13 PM
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How cool, I'm on board !
Interesting to read about Uzbekistan. My brothers wife is Uzbek and has nothing nice to say about the place. She would never return, while I would jump at the chance to go there. @gertie3751, hope you'll tell us all about Krygyzstan too !
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Old Sep 29th, 2016, 10:23 PM
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Thursdays, you never cease to amaze me with your travels. You are quite the sport to be willing to take a tour. I was going to ask you if you are paying for a single supplement, but that would seem silly if you are staying in yurts (kidding).

I too have been anxious to get to central Asia, but I'm too inflexible to take a tour. My older son went to four "stans" on his own a couple of years ago. He had to wait forever for shared taxis to fill up, and on his last day, he had to wait seven hours for one, and almost missed his flight home. He found the sites fascinating, but the lack of infrastructure made for a difficult trip.

Are you on your way to Japan as well? If so, this is a really long trip. Be safe, and happy travels.
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Old Sep 30th, 2016, 12:47 AM
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@satoric - Abdu, our guide, was very pro-Karimov, and Karimov does seem to have kept things stable and shut down any Islamic extremism. Don't know what else he shut down.... Education and health care are free, but it sounds like a private system runs in parallel. There is a good apprentice system. On the bad news side, he said people need to work three or four jobs to make ends meet!

@CaliforniaLady - this certainly wasn't my first tour, and I rather like the company in the middle of a long trip. I really enjoyed my fellow travelers on this one. I paid a partial single supplement - applied everywhere but the yurt. First time I've done that, but the tour was a splurge to start with. As I said, in about three years, assuming things stay stable after the transition, you should be able to travel in UZ in reasonable comfort by rail, at least to the main sites.

Yes, Japan after Korea. I just got to Haeundae beach, my first base in Busan, and of course it's raining. Also supposed to rain tomorrow. But I have a lot of trip stuff I can do, while admiring the empty beach from my 10th floor window.
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