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.

 

p1010559

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

Advertisements

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.

img_0982
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.

img_0996
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.

img_1023

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.

img_1028

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.

img_0850
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!

image

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.

Crossing the Caspian Sea, From One End of Sanity to Another

It’s the journey, not the destination.” And that, despite the enticing sounds of this slogan branded on our truck Archie II, was a lesson we certainly learned during our Caspian Sea crossing.

We had of course been told this is notoriously changeable. There’s no official timetable for the ferry, it leaves when it’s full. We had to call the ticket office a couple of times to double check what was happening and the likelihood of us needing to have our bags packed and ready to go within an hour. But we knew what we were in for, our guides were used to the haphazard organisational nature of this ferry from Baku to Turkmenbashi, and we actually managed to get to the port and through customs in relatively good time, a whole day earlier than we thought. We were ahead of schedule.

The first night on the ferry was one of our group’s birthdays. Well stocked up with Georgian wine to celebrate, we had a great time settling in! We weren’t so worried that this crossing could take longer than the 16-17 hour sail time, depending on the minds of the officials at the port on the Turkmen side of the border. We’d sleep in, laze around, and surely be in Turkmenbashi by that afternoon, if not the next morning. On the afternoon of the second day, the boredom started to sink in, as we were all furiously reading the books we hadn’t already finished to distract us from the heat. Little did we know we should’ve taken our time, and made those precious leisure activities last for as long as possible. Instead of the overnight sail, and a potential one or two days waiting outside of port for Turkmen customs to clear us for docking, we had a total of more than 120 hours from port to port including customs.


The people on board were an interesting mix. Most were truck drivers, but they came from all over. The main nationalities were Turkish and Ukrainian, but there were Azeri and probably Turkmen as well. There was our group of ten, the truckies and two general passengers on board, as well as the crew. One of these passengers was a quiet Azeri lady, who slept in our cabin. Sadly, as we neither spoke Azeri, Turkmen or Russian, and she no English, we couldn’t get to know her well. She was extremely kind though, and when we explained we were celebrating a birthday (which involved me singing the ‘Happy Birthday’ song), she later quietly offered a gift to the birthday girl. After some very stilted conversation, we found out she lived in Baku and was visiting her mother. She and two others on board were observing Ramadan. The poor woman therefore only had one meal per day, and didn’t appear to have brought anything to do with her, so slept most of the time. As we finally prepared to dock and get off the boat on the fifth day, she sprayed me with her perfume. It was a wonderfully kind gesture, which may have also been a back handed compliment about the smell of everyone’s clothes five days in.

Up on the top deck, where the crew were quartered, there was an empty pool. The first two or three days, this stayed empty. But on the third and fourth day, the crew pumped seawater into it, and enjoyed themselves. At a lucky invitation, myself and a few others were invited to join the crew up on deck. The captain was wearing some very brightly coloured Hawaiian board shorts, pouring shots of vodka and eating watermelon, a complete contrast to his more usual surly demeanour on the control bridge we’d glimpsed through windows. The pool was probably only 2 square meters, but it was deep enough to jump in, feel refreshed, and come up with a big childish grin on my face. The moment my feet hit the water, any trace of cabin fever I might’ve been developing vanished – at least for a while.

A few men on the boat took the forced leisure time as an opportunity to do a little fishing. They took out some lines, tied whatever they had lying around on the end and threw them overboard. They sat around talking and waiting patiently for something to bite, then try to quickly lift up their catch. No rods, just a piece of fishing wire. They caught a few, and then salted and dried them, hanging them up on some spare rope nearby. It was nice to chat and watch them, even if our conversation was extremely limited by several language barriers, but it was a good reminder we could relax and enjoy the amazing inefficiency of the Turkmenbashi port and its customs officers.

Our other stroke of luck was the shower. I think that was a saving grace, and helped a few people keep their wits about them a little longer. The heat was everywhere, every day, especially when we got no breeze when the ferry anchored. Most of us had one set of clothes, enough for the overnight journey and an extra day, and maybe an extra shirt. So when we were all sweating buckets no realised we weren’t likely to be moving for a while, a shower was definitely welcome! Sometimes this ferry has showers, sometimes it doesn’t, and once the door to the shower was locked on a previous journey – think God we had access to it!

The food, we were told, was actually pretty good given stories we’d heard from previous travellers. There was fresh bread every day (though we sometimes had to beat the Ukrainian and Turkish truckers to it), and we usually had soup and pasta for lunch, and rice or pasta with meat for dinner. But by the third day of having a huge pile of plain greasy pasta with the equivalent of half a handful of meat, we were noticing the carb load diet. Perhaps our favourite meal was the breakfast where we were served nothing but stale biscuits and jam, with tea. Strangely, the next two breakfasts were far more hearty, and we still can’t quite work out where that morning’s rations went.

On the fourth day, most people had had enough. We seemed to be talking about leaving and the boat moving at every meal, and hallucinating if we’d heard the sounds of an anchor being hoisted up. Had we gotten closer to that ship, or was it just our imagination? The icing on the cake was when, at about 6 am on the fifth morning, and the ferry had most definitely been moving since 4 am, we were all on deck with fat smiles on our faces at the prospect of moving. We’d be there by breakfast time if all went well.

Too soon. Just twenty minutes later, the boat stopped, yet again. So close yet so far! We then waited for another few hours before finally getting permission to dock.

Going through the Turkmenistan customs at the port was an interesting ordeal. Once the ferry was unloaded of all the trucks, we made our way over to the immigration office. The entry forms weren’t in English, but thankfully we had a local guide to meet us there for this reason. The interrogation we received was definitely unexpected! We knew they were tough on medications, so had all packed our supplies in easy to find places, and carefully thrown out any trace of illegal substances such as codeine. But the officers were far more interested in quizzing us on our lives than they were about what we’d brought into the country. I was asked what my job was, what I studied, why I was coming to Turkmenistan, where I’d travelled to, what did the luggage tag on my bag left over from my last flight say, what was the picture on my passport cover Iand then ‘what is a kangaroo?’), if I was sure I was Australian, was my name Turkish (because apparently my last name should have been Turkish)….all harmless questions, borne purely out of curiosity. They made a token effort to look through my medicine supply, opened my saxophone case (I think they just wanted to look at it), and then I was off. One other member of our group got asked if the backgammon game she’d brought was hers, and surprised all the officers that women might play!
All in all, those 5 days were certainly not what anyone expected. We were extremely glad to be back on land, though I do think it marred our impressions of Turkmenistan a little. Hopefully the Darvaza gas crater makes up for it! We most definitely didn’t’ care about our destination of Turkmenbashi by the end of that fifth day, all we could think about was the crazy journey we’d had to get there.If nothing else, we have many stories to tell.

I am travelling with Dragoman, who specialise in overlanding adventures such as this leg from Tbilisi to Ashgabat. They made the best of the worst situation they could have!

Monasteries, Meadows and a beloved Biblical Mountain

Armenia is one of those countries that really should get a bit more attention. It has a substantial history and long-standing culture, and some impressive scenery to boot. And great wine!

My stay in Armenia was mostly just a break in my travels, and a visa stop. I visited a family friend who happened to be staying there at the same time, and just relaxed. Yerevan was the perfect city to do that in, full to the brim with parks and outdoor cafes and restaurants. Perhaps more importantly, there are plenty of new wine bars cropping up, a great place to sample some local Armenian wine. At night, especially on weekends, people are out and about after dark, walking around the many parks, and enjoying the fountains in Republic Square. It’s a great city to stroll around in, and just enjoy the view of Mt Ararat with a cup of coffee made in a jazzve – and yes, I did love the fact that the coffee pots have the word jazz in their name!

 

There’s a kind of mix of Soviet and Western European culture in Armenia, particularly in the capital. Most of the locals are trilingual, speaking Armenian, Russian and English. This was the first country I visited where I realised just how useful learning Russian is, and it only became more useful as I went on! There are streets near the centre which have an almost Parisian fell to them, with window-boxed apartments and wide tree lined streets. Then, just around the corner, there’ll be a Soviet truck that’s come on a delivery run from the country, waiting to off-load goods. The friends I was with, an American-Armenian couple, pointed out to me the signs that had photos of dissenters and current political prisoners, warning the public not to go against the current (and rather unpopular) government. This kind of ferocity in a piazza with their gorgeous Opera House, while kids were playing on bikes and scooters around the propaganda.

What really struck me though, was just how different the capital is from the rest of the country. Just a little way out of Yerevan, and you’re in a different world. The land opens out into fields and mountains, with small villages dotting the landscape. Add to that some of the world’s oldest churches and monasteries, and you’ve got the Armenian countryside.

I never really knew what a meadow was until I went to Armenia. I’d heard the word used in songs, and novels, and knew it was some kind of summery field often filled with flowers, and something that sounded fun to run through. It was something of a fictional word, used to romanticise summer in the countryside. But Armenia taught me just how wonderfully real they were. There were blankets of wild flowers, full of bees buzzing around them. I had to resist the urge to lay down in them, spread eagled, or to run through them singing The Sound of Music. 

Sevanavank monastery complex is located in one such flower filled hillside. Overlooking Lake Sevan, it’s location is certainly something that would be affected by seasons. When I visited, there were still a few snow capped mountains in the distance, and the greenery and wild flowers only last a few weeks before drying out in the summer heat. There are two monasteries on this site, built at differing time periods. One of these, Hayravank monastery, has a famous legend. Hayravank translates to ‘human dove,’ owing to the legend of a monk saving hundreds of locals hiding from invaders by turning them into doves. The locals then all flew to safety on their brand new wings, courtesy of God’s blessing and the power of a relic the monastery had. (Interestingly, no mention was made about them turning back to humans.) Sadly, historians say that this is of course not true, and they would have just used the tunnel instead – but still the name for the monastery stuck.


As early as the first century, Armenia converted to Christianity, making it to the first state to do so. They managed to retain this religion throughout the centuries, despite numerous invasions and occupations by predominantly Muslim nations and empires. Echmiadzin became the Holy City of Armenian Apostolic Church, and the centre of the religion in the kingdom. As is my usual luck, Echmiadzin was actually under reconstruction when I visited. The below picture is the main one on site, and is in fact one of the more ornate churches in Armenia. Several times I was told by Armenians that the Pope would be visiting soon, and he would be coming here to speak to the people. I found it very interesting, since Armenians aren’t Catholic, but they all seemed to revere him regardless, and were very proud he would be speaking in their country.

Khachkars are uniquely Armenian, and are mostly used as a kind of headstone. However, they also came to be used for other purposes, and can be seen anywhere from churches to backyards. I visited a graveyard, which is well known for it’s large collection of khachkars, some dating back as early as the 9th century AD, and as late as the 20th century. It was very interesting to note how the decoration styles changed over time, a sort of snapshot into the development of khachkars and Armenian culture. The best part was the random herd of about 20 sheep that meandered in, who all decided that the grass was juiciest right at the base of several khachkars. I’m not sure what the normal policy is regarding that!

The most I learned about though, was the political history of Armenia. Before arriving in Armenia, I knew about the Armenian genocide, or at least knew that it had happened. What I didn’t know, was the extent of the Turkish-Armenian-Azeri-Russian debacle which has plagued much of the nation’s modern history, and is still an issue. At the beginning of the 20th century, when the Soviets were in control of parts of the country, lands that up until that point had been Armenian were gifted to Turkey and Azerbaijan. This is why so much of eastern Turkey had Armenians living there.The old capital of the Armenian kingdom, Ani, is still located in Turkey – but you have to know your Armenian history to even be aware of it, let alone find a way to visit it; it’s certainly not on the well-advertised tourist trail. So too with Armenians’ beloved Mt Ararat, which overlooks Yerevan as it always has, but is now just across the Turkish border. Of course, there are always two sides to every story, and borders have fluctuated throughout history – but the genocide cannot be negated for that reason. The genocide museum is a very harrowing and somber experience, as it should be, but highlights the extents of the atrocities committed in an attempt to prove that Turkey was in fact ethnically Turkish, and that more recently acquired territories could have no question about ownership.

Then comes the much lesser known issue of Nagorno Karabakh, the still disputed territory. In April, not long before I arrived, they had a 4 day war in the area, when the cease-fire agreement was breached. I had no idea that Azerbaijan and Armenia had such a bad relationship, just that the borders weren’t open. I soon learned that if I ventured south and visited the self-governing province, I’d need a stamp in my passport, and I’d never be let into Azerbaijan for the rest of my life! I also quickly edited my trip itinerary when discussing it with locals, not mentioning Azerbaijan if I could avoid it. They didn’t like the Turks, and are very keen to educate foreigners on the genocide, but they can at least cross the border now, and have much less fear about its stability. The Azeris are the current issue, and it’s likely to continue that way. Now, Armenia is one of the only countries to hold good relations with Russia, the US, and their southern neighbours Iran, all of whom they depend upon for the security of their nation.


A lot of the tourists I met had come down for a few days after visiting Georgia, a convenient side trip to add to the itinerary. I seemed to be the only person travelling north! There’s a long train from Yerevan to Tbilisi, or a shorter marshrutka half day trip. I took the cheaper marshrutka as advised by someone at my hostel (and it was quite a lot cheaper), and then spent the afternoon fearing for my life as the Georgian driver took hairpin bends at full speed, whilst overtaking another car. But more about Georgian driving in my next post! Safe to say it was an experience, and some beautiful countryside, but I would’ve paid extra had I known I’d be next to a man with some serious B.O. issues for 5 hours whilst hurtling along.

I hope Armenia gets more tourists visiting soon, because it really is an incredible country. It can be a little trickier to fly to from some destinations (such as Iran), but it was definitely worth my time, and I was very thankful for the time to myself. I’d go back to Yerevan any day!