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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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!

Organising Visas for Central Asia and the Middle East

I’ll be sharing my experiences of getting some of the visas for my trip, and updating this post as I go. Please bare in mind that the process may be different according to your nationality and passport. Best piece of advice is always ring the embassy!

China:

They get so many people applying for visas to enter China on a daily basis the embassies and consulates aren’t even involved, it’s a separate visa processing authority. It’s fairly straightforward, and everything is very clearly explained on the processing centre’s website. You will need to organise a Letter of Invitation for many visa types, so if you don’t have a local contact, or aren’t on a tour, you’ll need to research how to arrange one. They usually come within a week.

The only thing not mentioned on the website is that you need flights in and out of China. This means you need a booking confirmation of held flights on the dates you wish to enter and exit in order to be able to apply. All other documents are as specified.

Get to the centre early, easpecially if going to one of the bigger centre’s such as Sydney., and try to make an appointment online. Making an appointment means you’ll wait about 15-20mins to apply, without one you could be waiting over an hour. Visa pick ups are a little quicker, but I still waited for about 35 mins.

They’re very reliable at processing visas on time, standard processing is 3 days, express can be done in 24 hours.


Dubai
Although this may be easy enough to google, I did find it odd. Everywhere I read said a ‘visa on arrival’ had be organised at the airport. However, when I did get there, it was merely the usual entry stamp, the customs officer didn’t even want my documents proving entry and exit. I think I was in the queue for about five minutes, stamped into the UAE hassle free after ten.

Oman:

There’s a little trick with this one if you’re entering and exiting from Dubai and Qatar, but ONLY if you do that. Visas will be free if you do this. This is so tourists from Dubai can go check out Musandam really easily, and it encourages more tourists to the area. For me, although I was entering from Dubai, I was travelling onwards to Iran, so I went with the visa on arrival. It’s incredibly cheap at only 5 rial! That works out to be about $20AUD ($17 USD or so) for 10 days. Longer stays of up to 30 days were about 15 rial I think, though I don’t remember clearly. Up to date information is on the Oman Air website, and there’s a few links found on the Muscat airport webpage.

Muscat isn’t a huge airport, so I got off the plane, and straight into the visa queue like most other passengers. You can actually exchange money at the same time as paying for your visa,so I exchanged the bit of cash I had and the visa payment was deducted from that amount. You get a receipt with a stamp to prove you’ve paid for your visa, then line up for the immigration officers to check your passport. I had to queue for a little while, but it was still a very straightforward process. It’s not a physical visa, just your standard entry stamp, so don’t stress about having extra pages in your passport!


Uzbekistan:

I chose to get my Uzbek visa in Dubai because I’d read you could get it on the same day. This was a stressful decision for me,because if this didn’t go as planned, I would ruin my whole trip! I got off my flight into Dubai, dropped my bags off at a hotel, and went straight to the consulate with my filled out documents.

Letters of Invitation for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are both embassy/consulate specific. This means that the LOI is only valid at the embassy or consulate which you initially specify when filling out the paperwork. So if you get an LOI to be used in Abu Dhabi, and you turn up in Beijing, it might not be accepted. I suspect you could probably get away with it in many cases though! I think my Uzbek LOI specified the pick up location, but the Turkmen and Chinese LOIs didn’t. But do bare it in mind when applying and organising where to file the paperwork.

Although the people working there did speak a little English, everything was being communicated in Russian and I presume Uzbek as well. I had no idea what was going on. I sat down because everyone else seemed to be waiting. Then people just sort of wandered up to the window, handed in some papers, a few people were called over to change something on their papers….I eventually stood behind someone else, and a queue starting forming. I then got to the front, to be told I had to line up in front of the other window – and then was told the same when I got to the front of that line. The person in charge of the visa window didn’t turn up for at least an hour. Then they took my application, LOI and passport, and just shut the window again, so I was left confused about how long this would take, if I was supposed to wait for them to give it back to me or come back in two days, and he didn’t even tell me how much it was, as I wanted to check if Australian passports had the same charge as most other nationalities. A long while later and it was all done, much to my relief! I paid is USD, because their English website quoted in dollars, but they were a little put out I wasn’t using dirhams. It was 350 dirhams, or 85USD. Take exact change! In the end I suppose it was quite easy, I was just jet lagged, hungry, and very much out of the loop with the inner workings of this consulate.


Iran:

If you’re going to Iran, this is something you’ll definitely need to read up on, because different nationalities have vastly different visa charges and British and US citizens have a very different process from the rest of us (or so I gather). I could have organised this visa from the embassy in Canberra, but chose to arrange it on arrival instead. Again, getting it arrival was quite easy, and very well organised. There are a few things to remember though!

For those applying beforehand, you need a photo to apply. For women, this means a passport style photo, but with a headscarf. Interestingly, you don’t need that when applying on arrival, so mine didnt have any photos printed onto it – and it meant I got extra passport photos for nothing!

The first thing is that it is definitely important to get a letter of invitation or a visa activation code. There are people who didn’t have either at the airport, and I’ve read other blogs where people claim you don’t need one either. However, a pre-arranged visa activation code or LOI will guarantee that you get your visa. It will also significantly speed up the process. If you don’t arrange either of those, they must do all the same checks as they would have done had you organised it earlier, and there is a chance you can be turned away at the airport (in Iran, or before you leave your home country) and forced to buy a new flight. The same is true of any country of course, which is why it’s always important to organise visas! I arrived after, and left with my visa before some of the other people who didnt seem to have the right papers. I would guess that the need for the activation code and LOI is probably determined by your nationality – I wouldn’t like to risk it coming from Australia! I noticed the Bahraini student group didn’t seem to have so many papers, for example.  

The other thing they will ask when you arrive is if you have insurance for Iran. Without it, they will ask you to pay about $18 USD for local insurance. The lady in front of me had travel insurance, which stated it was worldwide cover, however,as it didn’t explicitly say it covered Iran, was asked to take out local insurance. Without a stamp from the insurance window, the staff at the visa window will not accept your passport. I had insurance which stated it covered the Middle East, and though I got a bit of a talking to, it was accepted and stamped. I suspect a smile and polite greeting to the staff behind the counter goes a long way too.

The visa payment is in euros, and they most certainly prefer them! I paid in dollars, and I think I may have been charged extra for it, though I didn’t know the USD to euro exchange rate off the top of my head to check. For Australian passports, I was asked to pay 145 euros. Many other nationalities got cheaper rates. The embassy in Australia said the visa would be $160AUD on arrival, and the same if you pre-organised. I paid $163USD, and a Kiwi friend of mine paid about $170USDthe same day. We think Euros is the flat rate, while USD might be adjusted with exchange rate, though can’t be sure of course!

The whole process only took about half an hour. Get a stamp on your insurance or take out the local one, go over and hand in our documents and get given the price of your visa, go the window next door to make the payment in cash, then sit and wait for you passport to come back with the visa inside. Although the paperwork was a little different to get my activation code, it was far simpler than trying to get my Uzbek visa in Dubai! The airport staff were really helpful too, and everything clearly signposted.


Turkmenistan:

This was another LOI situation. Again, I had to chose between embassies and consulates to visit overseas. I had the choice of Abu Dhabi, Singapore, Korea, Japan or Armenia which would have interested me, but I went with Armenia because I wanted to spend a fair bit of time there. Initially, I contacted all of these embassies to check that I would be able to apply for the visa at their offices. Within three hours, the Seoul and Yerevan embassies replied confirming that it would take a few days to process. However, when later trying to contact the Armenians again to check the exact amount of days and their opening hours, I have had no response at all, which made me a little apprehensive! I left myself with a total of 10 days in Armenia, so that at least calmed my nerves a little.

Please see the above entry on Uzbek visas regarding validity of LOIs.

I went to the embassy first thing on Monday morning, and the embassy is down a residential street off a main road. A taxi from my hostel near Republic square only cost 600 drams, and took about 10 minutes. There was a guard outside, and someone washing a car in the drive way. Nothing but the guy in uniform really said ’embassy!’ The guard noticed I looked like a lost tourist, and the taxi driver seemed confused as well, so he came up to the taxi and led me over to the door. I rang the doorbell, said I was there for a visa, and was directed up the stairs and into a small room.As far as I could tell, I was the only person there, so it felt a little like an interview. The lady was abrupt but very efficient, asked for all of my documents, and gave me the correct form to fill out. The one listed on the Caravanistan page (also the only one I could find anywhere on the net) is not the correct one. Very similar questions though, just laid out a little differently. She made sure I filled it out correctly, and was helpful when I needed some clarification about the translation of a few words.

The service charge is $35USD, which you can pay upfront or when collecting the visa. She did say that she needed to ‘put it in the computer,’ and that there may be extra charge, which I took to mean different nationalities have different visa costs. I chose to pay later as a result. They ONLY accept payment in USD, not local currency. I was told to return to pick up my passport 3 days later – the express option didn’t seem to be on the table anymore, but I didn’t ask since I had an extra day to potentially reapply if something went wrong.

I returned first thing on Thursday morning as directed, was asked to pay the fee, and then a man came down with my application, asked for clarification on two points on my form and then handed over my passport with visa attached. After hearing so many reports of visa rejections, I was relieved! It’s also one of the cheaper visas of my whole trip. 

NB: I applied for tourist visas in all above cases. For Turkmenistan, recent reports indicate that transit visas may be a little more difficult, and I met several people who had been rejected when I was in Armenia, both with and without invitation letters. As I was part of a tour, I could apply for a tourist visa. Tourist visas are only for those on tours, so many people opt for the transit visa option, but there is high risk of being rejected that way. 


Armenia

This was an easy visa on arrival situation. Arriving bleary eyed, late at night meant the process was a bit more confusing than it should have been, but all I really had to do was fill out the form, get Armenian drams out of the ATM, and pay for the visa. The drams was inconvenient, as there was no exchange place near the immigration counter, so I had to guess the rough exchange rate and how much cash I would actually need for the next few days. But other than that, a very straightforward and painless procedure.

 

Vietnam 

For the first time, I’ll be applied for my Vietnamese visa overseas. The process was very straight forward, I just had to turn up at the embassy in Beijing, fill out the form and pay the fee. No proof of entry or exit was required, and I could get the express visa 3 days later.