Travelling West to East Through Uzbek History

I’ll be honest, when I saw Registan Square in Kuala Lumpur’s Islamic Museum, I wasn’t just amazed at the architecture. I was actually really excited that Samarkand was a real place. I knew nothing about Uzbekistan, nor could I name a single city there – but years ago, I read a novel by Jonathan Stroud titled The Amulet of Samarkand. I’d just assumed it was one of those fantasy items, like something from a computer game called ‘the Sword of Glorious Wonders,’ or the ‘the Gauntlet of Zabadoodoo.’ I’d never even thought to look up the name ‘Samarkand’ to see if it was real. So when I read that it was, in fact, an actual city, I suddenly became a lot more interested in Uzbekistan. It was a bit like how I had to go to Shiraz, because it’s where the wine comes from, and Esfahan because of the jazz standard. I had to visit Samarkand one day.

Travelling through Uzbekistan is like travelling between different time periods. Each major city and region is different to the next, each being prominent in history in its own right. It’s like getting history lessons in snapshots, a few hundred kilometres apart.

When travelling eastbound, I think the escalation of the art and architecture really added to our trip. Our first stop was Khiva, a city of bricks. What stands today is actually fairly recent history wise, but because Khivans stuck to their older traditions in architecture and art, the city looked deceptively old – or perhaps I was just ignorant enough about Uzbekistan to believe it! Though there are still the classic blues used throughout the city, and some very impressive tile work, the city is definitely more of a sandy yellow colour compared with its neighbours.

Khiva is more like a town than a city, a quiet little end of Uzbekistan where kids run around in the streets and play on bikes, while a baby goat had the time of its life jumping up and down the old city walls opposite. Despite the heat, it was nice to wander around the place. This was the seat of the Khiva khanate, and it’s easy to imagine that life has not changed significantly for centuries. My initial judgement was in fact wrong, as most of the city was rebuilt in the 1800-1900s, but it has the kind of mud-brick city feel to it, as if the locals decided the way it was done in the first millennium was the best way for it stay.


Khiva was also our first introduction to the Uzbek traditions of hospitality. In a restaurant in the old city after sundown, our Uzbek feast was laid out with flatbread, fresh salads, the staple Uzbek soup, and the main dishes of shashliks, green herb pasta, or Uzbek dumplings. Each of us were given our own teacups, roughly the size of a Asian rice bowl. Here, it is rude to completely fill a tea cup to the top. It’s considered respectful to leave about a quarter of the bowl/cup, wether pouring for yourself or serving others. Another interesting etiquette is to not turn your bread upside down. The ‘correct’ side up is the side with a pattern stamped into it, usually in the centre. And the last of our lessons was that Uzbeks do not have a word for ‘thankyou’ in their language, and it’s considered weak to thank people!


Our next stop along the silk road was one of Uzbekistan’s two most famous cities. Bukhara is a mix of everything. It has one of the most impressive collections of historical buildings and monuments. I think that was what was so amazing about the city, the surprising mix of cultures and histories, from ancient to modern. I was expecting only Islam, but there was a little Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrinism, and some Mongols thrown in too.

Bukhara hosts some of the best examples of architecture from the pre-Mongol era, as well as the 16th and 17th centuries. There are also some hints of Uzbekistan’s Zoroastrian heritage, found in some of the symbols carved into it’s buildings. It was nice to recognise some of these from my time in Iran – proof I’ve learnt something! I also hadn’t heard of the “miracle of Job,” where the prophet Job supposedly placed his staff into the ground and created a spring. There is now a shrine where believers can pay respects and collect some of the water. There’s a Jewish quarter too, home to Bukharan Jews (later well-known to have emigrated in the Soviet era, who have made substantial communities in the US and Israel).


The ‘Jewel of Bukhara,’ a crypt for the 9th century Samanid Dynasty. Interestingly, construction on the site of burial was against Islamic law at the time, and is therefore one of the earilest surviving examples of Islamic mausoleums. It’s decorated with famous Bukharan brick work, and covered with Zoroastrian symbols.

Bukhara was famed for it’s decorative brickwork, something that sets it apart from all other cities. Impressively, it’s minaret built in the 11th century withstood the Mongol invasion, during which most other buildings were razed. Locals took it as a sign from God, and it’s one of the city’s icons.


Samarkand is the crowning jewel of the country, home to Registan Square. This is the country as it’s best, it’s most impressive. The scale of buildings, the detail of the art, all made to awe. It is the city of Tamarlane (or Timur, Temur and Timur the Lame), who made it his capital, and from there conquered so much of the world. It’s also one of the oldest cities of the Silk Road, though most of it’s buildings are from the 13th -16th century.

The best thing I enjoyed about Registan Square was just sitting in the courtyards of the mosques. I listened a while to our guide, trying to absorb as much information as I could at first, but then I just took the time to sit on a bench and enjoy the quiet. I love this kind of geometric Islamic art, and there are always more tiny little details to discover the longer you look. After having put Samarkand on my bucket list a few years ago, it definitely lived up to its name.

 

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It’s difficult to fit all the significant monuments of Samarkand and Bukhara in just a few days, particularly in the stifling heat. At one point, I think our whole group’s eyes glazed over, and we all couldn’t remember the name of the building we were in, let alone retain any sentence about it’s significance. Thankfully, because of government policy, we had to stay in registered hotels in Uzbekistan – and one even had a pool! The only time I’d been more grateful to jump into a pool was probably while we were sweating on the Caspian Sea.

Tashkent represents the country’s Soviet history. There are few buildings several hundred years old, and those that are mostly connected with the Russian conquerors who came through and included it in their empire in the 18th century. The Subway is great to explore, each station having it’s own theme. Some celebrate certain writers, one celebrated the Uzbek Cosmonauts who were involved in the space race. The best thing is that there’s no advertising, so the art has stayed the same, with no marketing blocking the view.


Tashkent’s main park, where we were re-routed due to the Prime Minister (now President) being nearby.

On the other hand, getting in and out of the subway stations involved security checks, and at one particular station there was even a huge dog. Ironically, there didn’t really seem to be enough people around to warrant said security measures, though perhaps we were just there on a quiet day. We were actually told when walking through the main park that we couldn’t walk in a certain area because the Prime Minister was nearby, and not so subtly followed around the rest of the time we were in the park. It felt so different to all other places we’d been to.

It was at that point that I realised we had probably been followed for most of our trip, and noticed just how careful our guide was having to be. There was a lot of suspicion, something I’d not noticed in any other place. I knew there were restrictions in the country, but I’d not realised just how tight the government’s control was. I guess that was the result, or perhaps the cause, of protests against the government in the heavily religious Ferghana valley (which I’ll go into more detail about later).

Interestingly, when we were there, there were concerns about the President, whose health was rumoured to be bad. They weren’t really allowed to talk about it. About 2 months after we left, said President died. It made the news as a small ticket tape on CNN and BBC world news, but I’ve heard little else about it. The Prime Minister became the interim President, and was voted into office just last month. It would be interesting to see if anything changes! But as is the way with our media, and probably also the censoring in Uzbekistan, I doubt there will be very much in English language news regarding any possible changes in a country the West knows so little about.

Getting to the Fergana valley was an adventure! We had to travel by an envoy, rather than our beloved tuck, due to the strict licensing and high security on the pass to get in. This is one of the so-called ‘trouble’ areas, where they have been protests against the government in the past. It was also some of the most terrifying and amusing driving I’ve ever seen.

Along the high way there are concrete barriers, as is normal on mountain highways round the world. Only, in Uzbekistan, the have gaps in between them. Sometimes for a few metered, sometimes ten. These were not just on the edge of the road, but between each lane of the 3-4 lane highway. So, when trying to overtake other vehicles, people were speeding up, switching lanes, and then having to get back into the correct one in between these barriers. Add to that some terrible hyped up electro rave music booming from the car stereo, and you’ve got some MarioKart-esque moves. I wish I could have filmed some of the insane moves we saw, and the crazy drivers attempting the impossible, but sadly no photos or videos are allowed on the pass for security reasons.

 Fergana itself is a gorgeous area, with mountains and green valleys. This is the foodbowl of the country, a complete contrast to the dusty and sandy desert cities over in the east. We drove through one area, quite close to the border, where each house seemed to have it’s own grape-vine trellis. It looked a little more like a town from the Azeri mountains, or the Georgian wine region, compared to cities like Khiva! The Khan’s palace is certainly reminiscent of Sheki’s equivalent on the inside(read about Azerbaijan Here), though very much Uzbek on the outside.

The area is meant to be contentious – it’s is listed by the Australian government as ‘reconsider your need to travel,’ some are even that you shouldn’t travel there at all. But we didn’t notice anything to suggest anything unsafe (though after Tashkent, I wouldn’t be surprised if we were followed a few times). The main difference in the people we saw was that more women here wore headscarves. That was it. At one point, in a kind of round about way only mentioned in between locals walking in and out of earshot, our guide guide explained the issues surrounding the Muslim population. Bearing in mind, that the country has a proud Islamic history, and was once one of the greatest Islamic empires, and the builders of all those madrasa, mosques and minarets we’d just seen (one of which we were sitting in as he mentioned all this). The government had issues with the religious leaders, as they had influence where they did not. I’m still unclear if this was before the initial clashes with the government, or if the targeting happened after the protest outbursts, and it has been somewhat difficult to find objective English media.


Above: The Khan’s palace in Ferghana.

Nonetheless, Muslims and the Uzbek government have not been getting on in recent years, particularly in Ferghana, where the government faced a lot of opposition and had clashes with locals. These local groups happen to be Muslim, though promoting their religious values was not their only agenda. So, the government came up with very strict laws about practicing Islam or any other religion, not least of all making it difficult to attend a mosque regularly without the authorities having security files on you. One move that caused an outcry was the closure of the Kyrgyz border, which crippled the local economy, and resulted in hundreds of protesters being killed by troops. On the other hand, Uzbekistan has had relatively few outbreaks of violent protest against the regime in recent years, giving the nation stability.

But it felt so strange, because other than the high level of security on the Ferghana pass, (partly due to the important dam and what looked like electrical power stations) the atmosphere of the valley itself was the complete opposite to all of this political background. Friendly people were just going about their lives, as they would any summer. But then of course, there would be things under the surface we’d never know about from just passing through.


Many of the monuments we visited had couples taking wedding photos outside. Brides are not allowed to smile during this tradition, ir order to show the ‘seriousness’ of the occassion.

So that was it, a little glimpse of Uzbekistan’s timeline, from Zoroastrianism and Persians, to khanates and cities competing for power, to Mongols, to Timur’s conquering, to Soviet empires, and finishing up with very recent history in Ferghana. A quick little snapshot of centuries of culture, to prove Uzbekistan’s cities aren’t just the stuff of fantasy novels

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The Other Side of the Border: Not Quite Tibet, Not Quite ‘Chinese’

Somewhere in the plains of southwestern China lies an arbitrary state border that supposedly marks out Tibetan territory. Far on the other side of the Tibetan plateau, the ‘Chinese’ side, lies one of the largest Tibetan monastery complexes. Labrang monastery is actually expanding, and already hosts around 5000 monks and scholars.

This was one of the most fascinating stops of my entire four months of travelling the Silk Road. A big call, I know! No other place I’ve ever visited has had such a riotous clash of ideas and contradictions. There’s competition between old traditions and modern necessities, political correctness and lack of cultural understanding, tourism bolstering the economy while simultaneously eroding and improving local lifestyles; and threaded through it all is the monastery at the centre of town, without which the town would not exist.

They say a picture says a thousands, and that’s the way I feel about this photo. On the surface, there is a cute toddler, playing hide a seek around the temple. She had a very cute smile, and giggled as she tottered around ‘hiding’ from her Dad, who was taking photos. Her parents laughed and smiled at their beautiful girl.

Meanwhile, behind the doors of that very hall, hundreds of monks had just been called to meditate moments earlier, and her parents had seen the procession of monks file inside. The girls giggles no doubt interrupted their daily session somewhat – but the girl’s game was not interrupted, and her Han parents spared no thoughts for how this might be inconsiderate.


Above: Some of the yak butter sculptures on display. There’s a competition and exhibition of these, and the room they’re displayed is certainly has a strong smell!

Later we were told that many Han Chinese have never ever been in a temple, and that’s one reason so many visit Xiahe. I wasn’t sure if the monk meant a Tibetan temple, or just any temple in general (which seemed less likely), but it did make me think about the impact of the Cultural revolution, and how hard that must’ve been for monasteries such as Labrang to survive. It’s strange, for a country so shaped by Buddhism throughout it’s history, that so many of the day’s visitors could be so oblivious to some of the courtesies of temple life. Taking photos when they should not, more or less ignoring any passing monk that was not their guide for the day, and letting their kids play noisily in front of a hall full of meditating monks, it is easy to see that for some Han Chinese, there has never been much cultural awareness about Tibetan Buddhism. It probably explains so much about their relations between the Chinese government and the state of Tibet too!


This is Xiahe’s token ram! This guy hangs outside the monastery, and sleeps out the front of one the shops on the main street. He was there every day we were in town.

One of the most entertaining parts of our short tour around the grounds was the sassy guide we were given. He was the only monk who spoke English, and was proud of having learnt it – but hated that it meant he was now the designated tour guide, and it sounded like he was not likely to get away from that role. You see, all the monks need to do something to contribute to the temple. ‘Temple work,’ if you will. Novices study, and generally do menial tasks. The higher monks get as they study more and elevate through the ranks of the monastery, they are assigned different tasks. The most respected task is often being a Lama, or a teacher. This poor monk was obviously frustrated that no other monk had learnt English, so despite his pride in having taught himself the language, was possibly not about to be promoted. No one else could take us ignorant toursists around, and he was unlikely to get away from frustrating questions such as “What do you mean the future Buddha? How can you have a past, present and future Buddha?” right after he had explained said concept. The physical deflation of this monk, and the ‘how-many-more-times-do-I-have-to-do-this’ look clearly written over his face after a French man in our White Devil group asked this question, said it all. The same Frenchman later caused further offence by suggesting that maths and physics were of greater importance than the traditional Tibetan monastery subjects such as astronomy and traditional healing. The rest of us were biting our tongues so as to not occur this monk’s wrath after that.


Above:Our sassy monk guide

On the one hand Mr Sassy was a great insight into daily life of the temple. We heard his enthusiasm for the monastic life, and he really did light up when he got to speaking about certain things, and he obviously loved sharing his ideas and thoughts about Buddhism. If a few of us weren’t so afraid to offend him as our French neighbour had not learnt to, I could’ve sat for hours talking about the importance of philosophy and education and belief and health and sharing and openness…instead, I just smiled at the way he obviously loved sharing his beliefs about being good and living well.

On the other hand, it was clear that there was a lot of resentment towards tourists from the monks. It sounded like there were just a few too many visitors who did not really appreciate their traditions, or leave them be, or didn’t have enough understanding about their culture, lifestyle and religion to fully respect them. Unfortunately though, us tourists bring in a lot of money for the temple, allowing it to support the thousands of monks who come there to study and live. It’s also necessary for the economy of the local town, which definitely survives due the number of visitors who visit. A necessary evil if you will.


The Kora is a pilgrimage that people make, touching the hundred of prayer wheels that line the outside of Labrang. Because the monastery is constantly explanding, more of these wheels are being added. Already a few kms long, the sunrise devotion trail is about to get longer!

Labrang is a monastery that is still under construction. Several sites around the place had work vehicles and a few trades men. I was quite impressed at the scale of the complex, and how much new work was taking place. This not only reflects on the investment that tourism brings in, but the devotion of Tibetan locals who donate to the temples, and most interestingly, the huge donation the Chinese government has made to the monastery. The government pledge about 2 million (I wasn’t sure if that was USD or CNY, but either way it’s a substantial sum – one is just a lot more substantial haha) to go towards the construction at Labrang. Given the constant media narrative we are given of ‘Tibet vs Government,’ I found it extremely interesting they would donate to this temple belonging to an ethnic minority. I wondered if it signalled a change in their approach to some of their minorities, or if it was to placate the locals on another issue, or if it was also in part due to the boost it would give the domestic tourism market given that they own most of the train and airline companies. These are all the kinds of questions Xiahe throws up, without giving too many answers.


Above: A TIbetan girl looks out at the grasslands, about an hour’s drive outside of Xiahe

We were lucky enough to go out on a Tibetan grasslands tour, a definite highlight of the trip. We took the truck out the back roads of the Tibetan plateau, off roading until we reached a local family who had arranged to meet us. This drive reminded us all of Kyrgyzstan, open plains with herds of sheep and goats, and we were interrupted by some yaks crossing the roads (though in Kyrgyz it would have been horses). It was as if we had never been in any big cities like Kashgar, Turpan or driven days along the uber-modern highways.

Although not yurts, Tibetans traditional live in semi-permanent tents, which they can move as they need to. They predominantly herd yaks, sheep or goats. Yaks give Tibetans meat, butter, milk, and their local yak tea. It is increasingly harder for them to move to the best pasture available, according to the seasons. Out there, the most obvious forms of modernisation were the fences, and they’ve had a substantial impact on locals, severely restricting their nomadic lifestyle. Some Tibetans think it’s a way for the Chinese government to restrict their movement, or reduce the amount of land the ethnic minority has access to. In a country with an expanding population, and new housing being built in nearly every major city we passed through, it’s certainly going to be difficult to keep such grazing areas untouched in the decades to come. I guess that’s the drawback for this community – they’re on the wrong side of the Tibetan border.

And then there was my favourite, ironic picture: the nomadic family, looking out over the yaks, chatting as they do every day in the sun, being shaded by a RedBull tent. I wondered if the grandma and grandpa had ever even tasted RedBull, yet here was this piece of marketing in the most unlikely of places!


There is a confluence of the modern and traditions here. While talking about the life of the nomads today, it came up that there was no education system for Tibetans. Traditionally, to be educated, you would study at the monastery. There is of course no imperative to stay at the monastery forever, and so it is a viable free education system. But, as the Frenchman had earlier pointed out, the education subjects traditionally taught in the monastery are not always those that are valued by modern society. Thus, there’s a conflict. If Tibetans ever did want to establish themselves in the broader Chinese business culture, it becomes quite difficult. They have to more or less give up their nomadic ways, teach themselves Mandarin, and accept some of the Han Chinese’s influence. Or, the children are sometimes sent into town, to stay with a relatives or friends while they go to school – which in turn means they are less likely to return to their lands and nomadic lifestyles because they grow up away from that. Of course, the nomadic lifestyle is very hard, as they must survive off their yaks and herds, and trade what they can for vegetables and other goods. So, realistically, they are living in poverty – and the only way for them to get out of that cycle is to give up their traditions and get an education.

And therein lies the problem, and the crux of the arguments from both the Tibetans and the Chinese government: to keep their traditions they need lands to roam free and to accept their own forms of lifestyle and education, but to be a part of the multi ethnic and pro-development China they need to leave some of those freedoms behind. Of course, many don’t want to be a part of China at all. But in towns like Xiahe, who didn’t quite make the cut-off for the Tibetan territory, that is not a likely option. But with the boom in domestic tourism, hopefully it will foster more cultural awareness on both sides, and allow them to develop and live along side each other a little easier.

Xiahe is a town in Gansu Provence of mainland China. Let me know your opinion of Labrang, Tibet and China by commenting below!  I visited there earlier in the year while travelling with Dragoman as part of their Bishkek-XiAn trip.

No Photos Past This Point: Experiencing the Hammam

Whilst in Azerbaijan, there was talk of going to one of the hammams on ‘ladies day’ – these are the female only days, and men get their own days as well. I chickened out, I’d never had one and wasn’t sure I wanted to walk around with no clothes on around strangers.

The closest I’d ever come to one of these traditional bath house experiences was in a hostel in Korea. Unknowingly, I booked a hostel with a shared shower section. This meant that all the showers were like a swimming pool change room -and I was the only one who seemed to be embarrassed to flash my boobs and nether regions in front of all the Korean girls shamelessly shampooing their hair. I couldn’t do it, and went in with swimmers on, slightly jealous they were so comfortable with the whole thing. 

So after passing it up in Baku, we were given another opportunity in Samarkand. Perhaps it was the heat that had got me, after so many days of over 40 degree temperatures. Maybe it was the peer pressure, that 2 other girls said they’d go. Maybe it was just that we had some spare time, and it was a new experience to try in a foreign country. And maybe it was also because I felt like I hadn’t been properly clean for a long time, constantly alternating between sweaty and dusty for the past 2-3 wks, sometimes with the added factor of having no showers while camping. 

So off the three of us went, actually getting nervous and wondering what on earth we were doing. This particular day was another scorcher, and I think I seriously considered turning around, especially when the first hammam we went to turned out not be female only that day, but mixed – which we were most definitely not brave enough for! After wandering around, trying to Google map it, and asking for directions, we eventually found the correct backstreet. By this stage, it had taken us more than 20minutes of sweating in the afternoon sun, so there was no backing out now!


Above: Samarkand’s famous minaret from the 1100s – the hammam we visited was in one of the narrow streets behind it.

We found the place, and sort of huddled together in the doorway. Meanwhile, a few women were waltzing around in their undies, drying themselves off in the locker rooms. After a little bit of language-barriered conversation, a lady gives us slippers, towels and a locker. We were shown a wooden shed out the back for the toilet, then told to change. We were relieved when we were allowed our towels around us while we walked to the bathing rooms – only to be told to take them off 5 meters later.

So there we sat, in the sauna, while a mother washed her daughter, and another older lady doused herself in water. We were given one towel between the three of us to sit on, which we were squished together and all deliberately kept our eyes front. If we thought it was hot outside, it was near stifling in the sauna.We had no idea what was happening, just that we’d been told to sit on that towel, all three of us, and that we were laughing about suddenly being a little too well acquainted with each other.

Eventually, someone came to collect us, and this lady was also naked save for the undies. After a while, we understood why – it’s just too hot in the bathhouse! So all three of us were washed, scrubbed, rinsed, and then told to lie on the stone floor while some sort of body scrub was spread over our backs. The details of this hour will remain with each of us for a while, but are not to be shared! What happens in the hammam, stays in the hammam.

Even though I could really have appreciated not feeling quite so hot in there, I came out feeling so wonderfully clean. All the travelling dust had been scrubbed away. I was a little sceptical about how good my skin would feel afterwards, thinking it was like one of those beauty treatments that probably don’t work. But it certainly did!

The longer we were there, the less we cared about each other seeing anything. I suppose once you’ve seen it once, and you accept you’ll be seeing it again in the next hour, it is just a part of the process. Still a little awkward, but the kind you can get over. So, three relative strangers who had only met a few weeks beforehand suddenly bonded. After our hammam experience, there were very little barriers left that we couldn’t laugh about!

A Gas Crater, Desert, Ruins, and Probably the World’s Strangest Country

‘Where?!?’ ‘You mean Turkey?’ ‘Is that even a real country?’ These questions are, well, not entirely unjustified. Turkmenistan is one of the world’s least visited countries, being number 7 on that list. To put that in perspective, North Korea and Afghanistan both get more tourists.

Above: A park in Ashagabat, with the world’s largest indoor ferris wheel in the background.

Several times throughout my trip in Turkmenistan I had to ask myself the latter question, because at times I wasn’t sure. For those of you who don’t know much about Turkmenistan (well, who does?), this should get you up to speed. The country borders Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and the Caspian Sea, and is made up of several tribes who previously roamed the Karakum Desert. While the Silk road was still a major trade route, several of its cities were some of the most important in the world, such as Kunye Urgench and Merv. Passed between several khanates, invaded by Mongols, and conquered by Tamarland, it was finally captured by Russia. Now, it has an eccentric dictator Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow – don’t worry, only Turkmens can pronounce it. He rose to power after being the personal dentist of his predecessor Niyazov, an equally eccentric man who loved his mother so much that he renamed bread and April after her. Yup, that’s right, Google it. And that’s probably the most important thing for you to understand about Turkmenistan – logic isn’t always obvious!

My first experience of Turkmenistan was being stuck out at sea, which somewhat marred my initial impressions of the place. (Read about my experience here.) After that, I will admit I was probably still tinged with cabin fever and exhaustion, and couldn’t fully appreciate the strangeness that is Ashgabat.


Ashgabat is apparently the city of love. One look at the place, not knowing anything about it, and you wonder if they named it ironically. These days, it should be named ‘White Marble City,’ since every building is made of marble – or white plastic when they ran out of money. Several times, myself and fellow travellers have struggled to describe it, because it’s so unique in such an eerie and bizarre way that it’s hard to convey just what it is like to someone who hasn’t visited.

The best I could come up with is that it reminded me of the Truman Show. Everything looks the same. The super market looks the same as a public toilet building; everything is white, and might have gold painted eaves for decoration at most. There are perfectly manicured parks, statues and monuments every few blocks, and wide (but empty) roads. And the weirdest thing is that there are no people. No one walked the streets. The only people outside were the gardeners and street cleaners, and the military guards posted at statues and monuments. It just doesn’t feel like a real city.

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We visited the market in Ashgabat, and actually discovered some people. This used to be the local livestock market, but now has been rebuilt into a massive complex of aircraft hangars filled with stalls. There was everything from fruit, rugs and camels, to generic plastic junk from China. It was impressive in its size, but it is no longer the traditional-style market it had been just a few years earlier. Looking back, although it was the first fat-bottomed sheep I got to see, I think it was possibly more amazing we found some local Turkmen people not behind white marbled doors!

We were given a quick bus tour of the city, and shown most of Ashgabat’s main buildings. We weren’t allowed to stop at those buildings, only take photos from inside the bus. The sites we could get out at was a statue No. 34 of current Mr Unpronounceable, and the that mosque Niyazov the Bread Renamer built in his own honour.

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This mosque is unique. It is the world’s only mosque which has non-Arabic script used for decoration. Our guide was quite proud to point out that this inflamed several ‘more conservative clerics,’ and I would have to admit it did sound like a brave and perhaps more modern thing to do. However, former President Niyazov has actually covered the mosque with quotes, not from the Quran, but from his own book. Both inside at out, nationalistic phrases about Turkmenistan and its former leader replace those that might otherwise have been about Allah. I don’t think it was the language that offended.

Turkmenistan essentially has one east to west road that stretches across the country. This has been very poorly maintained – but don’t worry, they’re building a brand new one right next to it. Of course, in Turkmen style, instead of doing the logical thing of working at this project in continuous sections, bit by bit, they’ve got brand new road dotted throughout the country. There would be about 5 km of new road, and then it would abruptly stop (which we knew, because they’d put a mound of dirt there), then it would be back to the old road for about twenty more kilometres, before coming across another 5km of new road. We’d have to drive off the road, through dust and ditches, to switch lanes all the time.

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One hilarious point had two bridges. The old one was broken, and our guide proudly proclaimed the newer more modern one ‘a beautiful Turkmen bridge.’ Only problem was, the road (well both of them) led to the old one, and no one had thought to solve that problem. So we had a bridge, but no road. The truck clambered off the road, down the ditch, and lined up to what was essentially some sort of Moto GP or dirt biking ramp. Some serious driving skills were needed, and if we didn’t already know it from the occasional deep pot-holes, vehicle suspension was now appreciated even more.

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The definite highlight of the country is the Darvaza (also Darwaza) gas crater. The crater is in the middle of the desert, and we got to camp near by. In the 40s, the Russians were building a gas pipeline, and accidentally hit a seam of gas while building it. Thinking it would burn out in about 2 days, they decided to throw a match in, and then continue building when it had burns itself out. Instead, it’s still burning about 70 years on, and it’s a fearsome sight. It’s best appreciated at night, when the flames stand out more. You feel the heat before you see anything, and the closer you get the size of it impresses more.

While writing about this Silk Road trip, I find myself constantly using the phrase ‘it wasn’t what I expected.’ So, I’ll use it here again. The kamakazi locusts were not what I expected. At times, they made appreciating the impressive flames of the crater hard to enjoy, because there were thousands of the things flying everywhere, crawling over our feet, landing on shoulders, and flying straight into the crater. It was such a bizarre thing to see! These locusts would fly towards the light, get caught in the hot air above, and most would drop dead before they even realised they were in danger. Some managed to turn around and land near the edge of the crater – before realising they couldn’t climb out. Very few seemed to survive at all. I wondered what effects this phenomenon had on the local ecosystem, and if this was some freak occurrence that day or a year round event.

Our last stop before heading into Uzbekistan was Kunye Urgench. This city used to be in Kwarezm, a khanate that included parts of modern day Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Due to the surrounding deserts and more hostile climates, it was an important stop along the Silk Road, which is how it acquired its wealth. The city rivalled Bukhara in its heyday, but was devastated in the 13th century when the Mongols came through and massacred many living there. The city rebuilt, but when Timur captured it, they rebelled several times against the Uzbek conquerer. This resulted it the city being raized, leaving the few remnants at the site today. The buildings have not had much attention to them paid, and were one of the best examples I saw of original, untouched and unrestored history. It gave me an appreciation of how much work must go into restoration, and what an important thing it is to look after sites such as these.

Sadly, I didn’t get to see much of Kunye Urgench, because I managed to get heat stroke (and throw up in a rose bush near the entrance). I did get to see the first building, which was one of the few with art still remaining on its walls. Regardless, it’s inspired me to look into the history of Kwarezm to find out more about what I missed seeing.

Turkmenistan is not my favourite country. I will admit that I didn’t enjoy it as much as most other tavellers in our group, who had a slightly more relaxing week. (Due to the 5 days at sea, the long drive into Ashgabat to catch up to schedule, being quite tired from our 2.30am arrival and not having a lot of energy to site-see Ashgabat, summer temperatures of 40 degrees and above – I did of course choose to come here in summer, my fault there! – some bumpy roads which I  blamed for my nausea, managing to give myself heatstroke  – turns out the roads weren’t actually that bad! – and finally, being too sick to appreciate Kunye Urgench.) But, it was certainly an eye opener! And that’s why I chose to travel the Silk Road, to learn from the countries I had no clue about. The country’s oddities have stuck with me, and I find myself talking about this place more than any other country I visited. Turkmenistan seems to have an entirely different way of doing things, from roads to politics, and I could never believe a place like it existed unless I’d visited.

So no, it’s not Turkey. And yes, somehow, it is a real place.

I travelled with Dragoman, one of the few companies who take travellers through the 7th least visited nation in the world. You can visit Turkmenistan on the Tbilisi-Ashgabat legs, or the Ashgabat-Tashkent leg. Due to current issues with visas, it’s best to travel on a tour such as this, as it is the easiest way to get a visa there nowadays!

More Than Just Eurovision 

I’ll admit it: the main reason I wanted to go Azerbaijan was to see Baku, the place I never knew existed until I watched Eurovision. Azerbaijan was mostly one of those countries I knew would enter a ballad with a singer using a wind machine, maybe a comical grandma act with some traditional dancing thrown in, but I certainly couldn’t have placed it on a map. When I saw it was part of some of the Silk Road routes, I couldn’t resist. Secretly, every time I read the name on the trip itinerary, a Eurovision presenter was announcing Azerbaijan’s vote in my head.

I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know if it would be like Georgia, or have more Islamic influence like its neighbours Iran and Turkmenistan. I knew that Baku had a stadium with flashing lights, maps told me the country bordered the Caspian Sea, and a few weeks earlier I’d seen carvings of the Azeris paying tribute to ancient Persia in Persepolis. That was it.

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We drove out of the Georgian forest and onto the border. After a short interrogation about where and why I’d been in Armenia, we were let into the country,and on our way to our first caravanserai. Sheki was once the seat of a Khan, and has a small but beautifully decorated palace. Iran had taught me that the kinds of art here are typical of 18-20th century, and I couldn’t help but notice the similarities and difference between the neighbouring countries. The lead-light windows on the first floor made absolute gorgeous patterns of light inside the palace.

It was here that we came across the first of many of the Azeri ‘flames,’ the national symbol. The paisley pattern that was so typical of 70s shirts is actually based on these, and is named after one of the main towns to produce these textile designs in Scotland. Who knew? There’s a slight dispute over whether or not the boteh (also buta) was Persian or Azeri first, but that hasn’t stopped the Azeri’s from making it their own. They are in the art everywhere, and have inspired Baku’s flame towers. Interestingly, though the country was once Zoroastrian, it was never really confirmed or denied that the flame might symbolise that religion. Perhaps they prefer to think of it as tradition rather than a link to their pre-Islamic past, or perhaps the significance of fire in their lives was one reason Zoroastrianism was easily adopted at the time. It was surprisingly difficult to find an answer, and I left the country still wondering.


In Sheki we actually stayed overnight in the caravanserai (see above), which has been converted into a hotel. Where once this place housed traders and their camels, it now houses travellers of a different kind. The hotel had a beautiful courtyard, with stone archways leading off into the rooms. It was a very quiet little town, and most shops were closed by the time we got there. Interestingly, there seemed to be a lot of dentists given the town’s size. Perhaps it was explained by the numbers of traditional sweet shops. The Baklava and Azeri deserts were absolutely delicious! Incredibly sweet, often very sticky with honey or sugar syrup, and you could pretend they were healthy because most had fruits or nuts in them.

Our next stop was up in the mountains, to a village famed for its copper work. It’s somewhat of a tourist destination for locals, but still quiet enough to have horses and cars drive down the same cobble-stone street. Hand carved copper goods lined most shop windows, with a few being open workshops.


By far the most memorable experience about Lahic was actually getting there, not so much the village itself. The drive up was rocky, along sheer drops down into the valley. Our truck Archie meandered up, rocking and bouncing past the incredible scenery. The rock formations here ranged from vertical spikes poking through trees to tree-covered slopes. On the return journey, I got my first taste of Archie’s roof seats. Sitting on top of the truck, we could appreciate the 360 view and enjoy the wind on our faces. Locals stopped to wave and check out the unusual sight. It’s experiences like these that make over landing so special – you can’t get that on an average tour bus or taxi!

Not long after getting down the windy gravel mountain path, the road straightened out into desert. Where we’d been a little cold and wet the evening before, we suddenly hit temperature of over 35 degrees, and no shade in sight but our truck. It was on this day that we had the great little stop at the mud volcanoes. These were wonderfully gooey little mounds with bubbling grey sludge spluttering out of the small craters and holes in the earth. The mud oozed slowly down the sides, and started drying quickly in the midday sun. The bubbling happens due to the amount of gas and shallow deposits of shale near the surface. Some dared to put the arms inside a few of the holes, in order to try to get a free beauty treatment – and even if it didn’t work, and it was a wonderfully messy bit of joy for the afternoon.


That was the first glimpse we had of the country’s oil. The site actually has an oil plant nearby, and we drove past pools of oil, black and shiny, right there at ground surface level. This was where the money was. Azerbaijan was producing more than half the world’s oil in 1901, and you can see why. It wouldn’t have been that difficult to find it! Oil has been abundant at the surface since before Marco Polo’s travels. Strangely, Lahic was only a day’s drive away, as if in a different world. Where Lahic and Sheki were the kind of Silk Road towns I’d expected, this part of the country was empty save for a rich city in the desert.

Nothing summed that up more than the mosque just outside of Baku, overlooking the oil rig once used in James Bond. The mosque was beautiful, but it was something I now recognised as modern Islamic architecture, and probably not unique to Azerbaijan. As we were there during Ramadan, the call to prayer played around us, a nice kind of background for our first up close glimpses of the city. The high way traffic drove past, and the oil rig and port carried on. You could literally smell the petrol in the air, something that we later discovered was common throughout Baku in certain weather. A modern city, religion, and oil. That’s Baku in a nutshell.

We came into Baku a few days after the Formula One, and the track, barriers and stands were all still set up. We had great fun driving along the track, especially since our truck Archie stood out against the regular traffic, even if it meant it took us a little longer to get to the old town. I’m not into car racing, but I can say I’ve driven on an official track! Our circuit run took us past all sorts of designer shops, and the wealth of the place really hit home.


Above: Baku’s  streets, and the Maiden Tower (end)

The city has done a lot to restore and preserve a lot of its medieval history. The old city wall fences in a lot of it, while just outside it are the designer shops, the corniche popular for night strolls, and plazas with KFC and McDonald’s. One of the oldest sites is the Maiden Tower, built and restored over several centuries, which historians are still unsure of it’s use. Legend says that the king’s daughter was to be married off to a man she didn’t love, so she asked that he first build a tower in her honour. When the tower was completed, she jumped off it’s top to her death. Historians also believe it was earlier used as an observatory, and probably a Zoroastrian temple. Nearby are a few caravanserais, one of the cities oldest mosques, and several restaurants and bars to enjoy. We spent a day walking around the city, with a great audio guide. You can pick these audio guides up at several booths, and most sites have corresponding track numbers on their signs. It was very comprehensive, detailing medieval, Soviet and recent history and culture, and gave us a few ideas of which museums to go check out the next day as well. They even included the house of a famous local jazz musician!

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Above: miniature book collection, with some of the world’s smallest books, less than 1cm2 are on display here. They had Shakespeare, Quran’s, Bibles, Tolstoy, fairy tales and everything in between. 

The most iconic site in Baku is probably the Flame Towers. These stand out in the city’s landscape, being a lot higher than other buildings. By day, they’re interesting, something a little bit different architecturally. By night, they are lit up with different projections. There were three while we were there: red flames, a man waving the Azeri flag, and something to do golf – we guessed there’d just been a golf tournament, or one coming soon, though we saw no other signs of it. Along the coast, as you walk along the corniche, several of the other buildings are lit up nicely, making a picturesque cityscape and pleasant stroll.


And that was when I saw it. Crystal Hall, the Eurovision stadium. It was far off in the distance, on the other side of the bay, but it did not disappoint. And as the sparkling lights twinkled in and out (a lighting effect I think they used back then as well), the big fat smile on my face told me I’d made a good decision coming here.

I travelled with Dragoman, who specialise in over landing journeys. Destinations like Lahic and the mud volcanoes are not on the typical tourist trail, which is what makes their trips so special! This was part of the Tbilisi-Ashgabat section.

Wine is Culture

First thoughts on Georgia: the roads are better, the driving worse. I’d chosen to go for a shared taxi, known as marshrutka, to get from the Armenian capital of Yerevan up to Tbilisi in one afternoon, rather than the more expensive and lengthier train. What I didn’t realise, is that although the scenery through the window is much the same, the train driver isn’t trying to give Tokyo Drift a run for its money on hairpin bends. The noticeable difference between the unmaintained Armenian roads and the far smoother ones immediately across the border was, at first, appreciated. I thought perhaps our Georgian driver was in fact just a little crazy, probably not representative. But within 48 hours I’d learnt that it’s just the way the country drives.

Frighteningly, several of the taxis had cracked windscreens and paint scratches of varying degrees. It got to the point where it was almost entertaining to compare the speed at which they cut in front of other drivers to the severity of the car damage – almost. One taxi I walked past even looked like the windscreen had been shot at! I couldn’t quite understand why no one seemed to fix these kinds of scrapes, but looking back, it was probably more of an attitude of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The kind of laissez-faire outlook that made the country such a wonderful place to visit.


Above: Tbilisi’s old town

Georgia is a very relaxed place. Everyone is so busy being hospitable, talking laughing and eating their way through life, that it seems impossible that there’s ever a need to be rushed in this country. The Armenians often said that their northern neighbours are the only ones they could joke with (since they have such bad relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey, and though on cordial terms with their southern neighbours, the Revolution in Iran made things a little more difficult for the Christian Armenians still living there). It’s easy to see why they never lost their friendship with Georgia!

We did of course, do the obligatory wine tasting day. When you visit the nation famed for being the first to have made wine in the world, you can’t neglect to! And though other in the group had already had their first taste (literally) of Georgian hospitality, and knew what they were in for, I was yet to be included in that club. We weren’t given sips or two of each wine to taste, at the second winery we were given glasses. And then we went to the next winery – and were treated to a huge feast with several jugs of wine. Considering we’d had our first drop at about 10 or 11 am, we’d been pacing ourselves a little.


And then a friend of our local guide turned up, incidentally accompanied by a significant Georgian archaeologist on his way to check out a site nearby. So despite being on the point of food comas, more food was brought for the table, more jugs appeared, and then the dangerous old chacha came out. Chacha is a spirit made from the skin of grapes, and it is certainly strong! It’s generally considered more potent than vodka, and though my other friends wisely refused after learning from experience, I decided it would be best to try the local brew while I had the chance. Thankfully I didn’t take the full shot, considering the wine already tolling on me! It certainly has a bite to it. We started our tour at about 9.30 in the morning, we made it back to our home stays sometime after 4pm, and were then expected to sit down to a dinner none of us needed soon after, or risk insulting our hosts. There was of course wine that appeared on the dinner table – and for the first time none of us touched it, despite it probably being the only alcoholic drink on our trip that didn’t cost extra. Yes, that’s right, nothing extra. At any big meal, it’s just expected that there will be jugs of wine! And they are often jugs, not bottles. So it was entirely normal for our hosts to automatically bring them out without asking. Even restaurants in Tbilisi often had three options for wine: glass, bottle,or jug. That’s how ingrained their wine culture of over 6000 years is.

Toastmaster is a significant role here. It’s someone, often a host, at a party in charge of making all the toasts, and seeing to it that enough alcohol is consumed – a dangerous business! And no toastmaster would be fit for the role without a traditional Georgian drinking horn. They’ve even got a statue dedicated to the Toastmaster in Tbilisi!

Above: Toastmaster statue, with his drinking horn

Georgia’s capital of Tbilisi is nestled on the the banks on either side of the Kura River, with steep hills and narrow winding lanes containing the south-eastern section of the city. Tbilisi is a great mix of everything: medieval and modern, traditional and soviet, and Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities that have lived here for centuries together. Overlooking the city from the ridge above, the Narikala fort includes a church, the botanic gardens a little further around the valley, while the other end of the wall now hosts the statue of the Mother of Georgia. The statue symbolises Georgian hospitality with her food bowl and the national pride with her sword. Then there’s the statue of St George in the typically Soviet Freedom Square. Churches, historical figures, modern architects, mosques, synagogues, hamams…I learnt so much about the history of Georgia in just two short days of wandering around and looking at architecture, without having read much about the place.

Walking around the city was definitely more challenging than it sounded. In high summer, Tbilisi can get quite humid, and going up and down the steep hills proved to be better exercise than any aerobics class. What should have been a five minute stroll from my hostel on one side of the river to the next place I was staying on the other, took me almost 20 with my backpack. There are plenty of quiet backstreets to discover, with some really nice eating areas of the city as well. In one such place, there were even a few live jazz bands playing! On a Sunday, I stumbled across a church service which has spilled out onto any available space around it. Obviously this church was more popular than the others I’d already walked past, but it was a nice thing to see. Most of the people outside couldn’t hear what was going on inside, yet they still hung round all the same, chatting with other families instead.


The other surprise I had while in Tbilisi was the dumplings! A friend and I saw dumplings on the menu and were a little surprised, having had no idea that dumplings were eaten outside of Asia. What came out were not the kinds of dumplings we’ been expecting at all! They were huge, about the size of my hand. Certainly not chopstick size, and not really fork size either! After eating a few, we were told by a couple at the table next to us that you actually ate them with your hand, by turning the dumpling upside down, and using the top of the dumpling as a kind of handle. It felt so strange! Turns out I’d be seeing dumplings all along the Silk Road for the next two and half months, of all shapes and sizes, with all sorts of sauces and fillings.

The Soviet influence on Georgia is still in some of its architecture, but if you go looking for it, there’s a little more to see and learn. Georgia also hosts Goris, the birthplace of Stalin, though he doesn’t seem to be entirely popular with the locals. One of the more interesting places we visited was the Soviet car museum. This is a tiny place, down a dirt track, and you’d have to know about it to find it. Not being a car person myself, I didn’t appreciate it quite as much as some, but it was definitely interesting to see the array of cars, and learn about which types cars were used by the police, diplomats, leaders, or locals. I also loved the bullet proof car – with a gunshot in its windscreen. Those who work there have spent a lot of time and money restoring these old cars to pristine condition, which you can see them doing in the workshops just next to the display room. It was a quick glimpse into daily life during Soviet times, as seen from a mechanics workshop.

Saxophone in the forest! #Georgia #Dragoman #music #practicesesh #backpacking #camping

A post shared by Kat (@kat_and_a_sax) on

Our final stop in Georgia was the Lagodekhi National Park area, where we camped for the night. Not far from both the Russian and Azeri borders, these woods were a nice changed rom everything else I’d seen so far on my travels. Most other scenery I’d seen had been deserts, mountains, open fields, and cities. It felt like we were getting into out into nature, and I’d been looking forward to my first night of camping. After stetting up camp, I snuck off to play saxophone for a while a little. The sound carried beautifully, and I could hear it ringing out through the trees. I enjoyed it so much that I just stopped playing, sat down on my saxophone case, and watched the insects and birds flit around, before standing again to play.

I travelled to Georgia to start my Silk Road trip with Dragoman, who specialise in overland journeys. Local home stays and camping took us off the beaten track, and certainly made the trip more memorable!

Doha Free City Tour

Qatar Airlines have made huge investments in the last decade or so, expanding their routes an upgrading their fleets. It’s a move that has paid off for them, being named last year as the Skytrax number one airline in the world.  

One of their newer initiatives is the free city tour for passengers with longer layovers. This is a move that has become a little more popular with airlines of late, with airlines such as Korean Airlines, Royal Brunei, Singapore Airlines and China Airlines using the venture as way to give passengers ‘a little taste’ of the country they are transiting through, even if they could not take the time to spend a few days stop over.

Above: Kotara Cultural Centre
I had a choice between Qatar Airlines and Emirates, each with 6-8 hours layover, and very similar in price to each other. Having heard about the free city tour that Qatar offered, I decided to try it out, rather than spend more time shopping in Dubai airport – so the marketing certainly worked on me!

To join the tour, you find the tour desk, sign up for one if there are places left, show your boarding pass, fill out a form, and then come back at the designated time. Qatar Airlines have negotiated a special transit visa expressly for these tours, so the usual (if paltry) visa cost is even waived. A representative then escorts you through to immigration, where you are then introduced to your tour guide and taken straight to a waiting bus.

Doha is a city under construction. It has been neatly planned, and is well laid-out, with most of the buildings being less than 20 years old. Because of that, there are some impressive architectural and engineering sights along the drive out to the city. I felt like it was Dubai on a more small-scale, and perhaps with a little more relaxed vibe. There were eerily few people on the streets, though that was no doubt in part due to the scorching temperatures of a Middle Eastern summer, with iftar not yet declared for the evening.


One of the first stops on the tour is beside the ocean, with a great view of the up and coming city skyline. I found the contrast between the local boats, all tethered up right beside our stop in some chaotic manner, and the skyscrapers opposite more interesting than the skyline itself. As were the few land rovers and jeeps with families who came to appreciate the same view – it seems only 4x4s will suffice for an afternoon outing, and not one person left the air conditioned vehicles to step outside and enjoy the view.

Above: Amphitheatre in the Kotara Cultural Centre

Our next stop was the empty and unfinished Cultural Centre. The Kotara Cultural Centre would perhaps be a better stop outside of Ramadan, or at least when there are events being held there. There was a quite impressive amphitheater, in a modern imitation-Greek style, which would no doubt be incredible to hear music played in. The complex is full of “reconstructed traditional” buildings, that are nonetheless some of the only hints of Qatari architecture prior to the days of riches and oil that are left in the city. It would be a lovely place to enjoy a iced drink and stroll around the shoreline, but Ramadan left the place empty other than ourselves.

Above: Doha souk

The souk was the only place where there were any people, and it was mostly tourists appreciating their limited stopovers regardless of the religious festival. However, just as we left the area, the locals were starting to come out, anticipating the Iftar call and the food that would come with it. The area is based around a plaza, full of pigeons, which then opens out into the souk streets behind it. There are little alleys with side streets of unexpected finds, and street vendors with food right next to bigger restaurants. The smell of food cooking started at about 5.30pm, when the thirty minute countdown to Iftar was obviously starting, making everyone’s mouths water. I rounded one corner to find about ten shops selling birds, the mini-piazza they made a riot of noise. Although certainly not as authentic as the souks I visited in Oman, I would have liked to have spent more time wandering around, with a bit more freedom and time to check out some of the shops. There was everything from birds, gold, musical instruments, khan jar knives and traditional clothing, to the typical souvenir kick knacks.


Above: These lampposts to and from the airport are covered in Arabic calligraphy, and light up in blues, greens, pinks and yellows.

From there, we were driven back to the airport, back past the funky lampposts which were now lit up in different colours, and taken to immigration. I got back through immigration in very little time, made my way to the departure gate, and was soon boarding my next flight. Although the tour is definitely a one-time thing, getting out into the city was far better way to while away the hours, than to flit between the airport’s coffee shops!

Qatar Airways offers all passengers with transits of more than 6 hours the chance to take a free city tour. It operates on a first in first served basis. Please check the Hamad International Airport for more information. I travelled with Qatar between Tehran and Yerevan.