Turkey 7 Cities/Sites in 11 days on Plan B, Part 1: (July 22 – 24)

As you will recall if you read my Khiva and Out Blog, I spent my last two days in Uzbekistan going thru a stressful 48 hours working my way thru not only an emergency plan B but then a plan C and Plan D before barely catching my 2 am flight out of Tashkent bound for Istanbul.

tired spongebob squarepants GIFI arrived in Istanbul at 6 am bleary-eyed, cranky and ready for a nap.  I made it thru passport control, baggage claim and customs quickly and without a hitch.  My first setback came when I exited the secure area and the person assigned to meet me at the airport was nowhere to be seen.  I spent the next 15 minutes wandering around looking for some idiot holding a sign with my name on it.  I found him sitting in a coffee shop enjoying a cup of Turkish coffee on my time!   I would have left him and just grabbed a taxi but I had no idea what hotel the tour agency had booked for me.

My travel arrangements are normally a lot more buttoned-up than this but as this blog’s title hinted – this was Turkey Plan B.  you see – on July 5th barely over two weeks before I was to arrive in Istanbul, the Agency that I had paid $2,400 in March to make my in-country arrangements informed me that they could not honor their contract and would refund my money at some point in the future.  So, I had two weeks to cobble together a schedule that would allow me to visit all the sites in Istanbul, ancient Troy, the battlefield of Gallipoli, Pergamon, Pamukkale, Ephesus, the last home of Mother Mary, Konya and the museum/mausoleum of the Sufi Mystic and Poet Rumi, and Cappadocia.

At the last minute, I secured the Turkey Travel Tips Agency to help me with the logistics of transportation, hotels and local guides.  The trip became a hodge-podge of transport with a bus of Aussies to the Gallipoli Site, a mini bus to Pamukkale and Ephesus, and then private vehicle transport and air transport across the rest of the tour.  Group tours in Gallipoli, Pamukkale, Ephesus, Cappadocia, and Istanbul and private tours of Troy and Pergaman and on my own in Konya.  And despite the rocky start, the agency did an incredible job on very short notice and my time spent in Turkey was one of the highlights of my first four months of travel.  Now back to my rough start.

I soon found this was just my first delay.  It seems this guy was just the greeter for about 20 people coming in on different flights over the next several hours and someone else would be along to collect me. So, I waited another 30 minutes for a guy with the list that my name was not on.  After going back and forth with the guy I finally lost my patience and took the list out of his hands to look for myself and guess what?  My name was on the list the idiot just couldn’t read!

I made it to my hotel finally around 9 am and was told I could not check in until 2 pm.  To which I responded “Fine, I’ll take a nap right here in the lobby on that couch over there – but I should warn you I snore quite loudly”.  And just like that, he found me a room!  He even gave me a voucher for breakfast at the rooftop café to help me wind down and relax before my nap.  ( Photos of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia  attached were taken from the café that first morning).

angry episode 1 GIF by Archie ComicsAfter breakfast, shower and a short power nap, I walked across the street to the Tour Agency to collect my itinerary, travel vouchers, hotel vouchers, and site tickets.  There I was informed the person handling my account had a long night, was still asleep and would not be into the office until around 2 pm.  Okay, so I reverted to the old pre-Tibetan Buddhist Rockie and went a little Medieval on the poor office staff – which accomplished absolutely nothing lol.  After my very best imitation of an Ugly American, I went to grab some lunch and wander around the neighborhood until sleeping beauty showed up to work.

Eventually, my narcoleptic tour facilitator roused himself out of bed and by the time I returned had everything on my schedule in order and extremely well organized and from that point on the entire Turkey tour went off without a hitch.

My formal tour was not scheduled to begin until the next day so I took the rest of my free day to visit several sites, not on the walking tour then attend a Whirling Dervish Religious Ceremony/Tourist Show.  I had wanted to sit in on a ceremony on my 2015 visit to Turkey but I was traveling with my son and he vetoed it.  After sitting thru this one, Ryan proved to be far wiser than his father.  The show was fine for the first 15 minutes but you can only watch grown men in dresses twirl around in a circle for so long before your eyes begin to blur and your ass becomes numb.

I had been to Istanbul before and consider it one of my favorite cities and was looking forward to visiting the major sites again (Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Hippordrome, Obelisk of Theodosius, Serpent Column, German Fountain, Topkapi Palace, the Basilica Cistern, Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar, Taksim Square, enjoy a Turkish Bath, and join a Bosporus Dinner Cruise) and in between all the historical sites simply sit in the street cafes and soak up the city’s ambiance.

Istanbul is like no other city.  Thru the centuries, the city has been the seat of three major empires: Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman and blends the cultures of east and west like no other city.  Currently, 11 million of the city’s population live on the Asian side of the Bosporus and 5 million live in the European part of the city west of the Strait.  And though at one time Istanbul or Constantinople as it was once known as the heart of the Eastern Catholic Church after 500 years of Ottoman rule the city and country are primarily Muslim (90%) – though the country is fairly secular.  In Istanbul alone, there are over 3,000 active mosques

An interesting bit of trivia is that the Turks are not native to Turkey.  The Turks were 10th century refugees fleeing Central Asia and the devastation and slaughter of hundreds of thousand by Genghis Kahn and his Mongol Light Calvary.  Over the next 3 centuries, these displaced central Asian tribes became the dominate political and social power in the country and by the 13th century, the Ottoman Empire was born in the Anatolian town of Sogut.  In time the Ottoman Empire would extend from northern Africa, thru the middle east, and into southern Europe only crumbling after picking the wrong side in World War I.

My walking tour of Istanbul began with a visit to the remains of the Roman Hippodrome.  Built in the 3rd century by Emperor Severus and given a grandiose makeover in the 4th century by Constantine I – the facility was designed for chariot racing.  Though it was also used for parades, executions and humiliating anyone Constantine was pissed at.  The racetrack was 1300 feet long, 650 feet wide with ovals at each end.  Spaced along the centerline of the track were 7 obelisks most which were looted from Egypt and Greece.

Today only three of the obelisks remain because the 12th century Crusaders sacked the city and looted everything they could carry off including 4 of the 7 obelisks.  What remains are the Egyptian obelisk that was looted originally by the Romans from Karnack, the bronze serpent column looted from the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, and a crappy looking one the Roman’s built themselves minus the many embedded jewels which the crusaders did manage to pry loose and loot. 

It takes a little bit of imagination but if you close your eyes and listen you can still hear 30 to 60 thousand rabid fans cheering on the chariots circling the track 7 times at break neck speeds.

Next, we visited the Blue Mosque just a very short walk from the Hippodrome.  And the short walk would make sense since the Mosque was built on the foundation of the Roman Emperor’s old palace (Constantine had his own private underground passage from the palace to the Hippodrome).

The Blue Mosque was built in the 14th century by Sultan Ahmed Camil to accommodate 8,000 worshipers per service.  The mosque has 6 very tall minarets, a central dome, and what looks to be dozens of smaller to mid-size domes.  And like many mosques of its time, the Blue Mosque is really part of larger complex that also includes a mausoleum of its founder and a madrassah.  The Mosque was dubbed the Blue Mosque because of the beautiful blue tiles covering the walls and columns inside the building.

Unfortunately, the mosque like most of Istanbul’s significant historical architectural treasures (Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and Basilica Cistern) is undergoing a major cleaning and restoration so you can’t truly appreciate its beauty behind the scaffolding and plastic wrap.  I am so gland that Ryan and I saw these historic gems in all their glory in 2015 sans scaffolding and plastic wrap.

A couple of points about visiting an active mosque like this – shoes must be removed before entering the mosque, women must cover their hair with a scarf, and if you are wearing a tank top and/or shorts you must cover your shoulders and legs before entering.  And once inside conversations should be limited and whispered.  Photos are allowed but without a flash and it is rude to photograph worshipers.  Remember these places are holy houses of worship and you are a guest.  Act appropriately!

Directly across a very large and nice park from the Blue Mosque sits the Hagia Sophia.  Originally built as a Christian Cathedral in the 5th century on the remains of two former churches the Hagia Sophia was the world’s largest building and an engineering marvel of its time.    The church remained a Christian house of worship for 900 years until the Ottomans repurposed it into a mosque.

The Ottomans destroyed the church bells and mosaics depicting Jesus, Mother Mary, Christian Saints, and angels were all either destroyed or plastered over.  A mihrab (nitch for indicating the direction of Mecca for prayer) minbar (pulpit) and 4 minarets were all added to complete the Islamic conversion.  The Hagia Sophia remained a mosque from the 1400s until 1931 when it was closed and then reopened in 1935 as a museum.  This beautiful Byzantine Building is also undergoing a major interior restoration and its beauty is partially obscured by scaffolding and plastic coverings but still is worth visiting and appreciating.

Less than a 5-minute walk from the Hagia Sophia is the Basilica Cistern which was one of my favorite sites from my 2015 visit.  The massive cistern is 453 feet by 213 feet in area and over 30 feet from floor to ceiling.  The ceiling is held up by 336 huge marble columns arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns with no column being more than 16 feet from another one.  The various columns sport capitals in the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian styles.  The water to fill the cistern was routed via a 12-mile long aqueduct from the Belgrade Forest built by Emperor Justinian

In the northwest corner of the cistern sits two huge carved heads of Medusa which were featured in the Dan Brown book and movie adaptation “Inferno”.  I am a huge fan of Brown’s books and visited the cistern right after finishing the book which climaxes in a heart-pumping conclusion in the cistern in a race against time to save the world from a biological time bomb that had been placed beneath the cistern’s waterline. 

There was still about 5 feet of water in the cistern in 2015, but the water has all been drained and like the other major landmarks the site is under restoration with parts blocked off by plastic sheeting and scaffolding.  But still worth a visit.

After re-exploring the cistern, I headed over to the Grand Bazaar to lose myself in the warren of alleys and tiny lanes.  The Grand Bazaar has over 4,000 stores under its massive roof with 26 gates for entry to its 66 streets.  It is said that for women 26 gates to heaven for men their hell.  It is claimed by some that this Bazaar was the first indoor mall begun in 1455.  Today you can buy anything and everything imaginable under this ancient roof.

Istanbul’s second great bazaar is the Spice or Egyptian Bazaar.  The Spice Bazaar was built in the 16th century and began as an outlet for spices.  Today there are 85 shops selling spices, Turkish Delight, jewelry, souvenirs, dried fruits and nuts.

Topkapi Palace and Archaeological Museum are both undergoing major facelifts and are not worth visiting at this point.  Seventy percent of the Palace is closed due to restoration work and most of the exhibits in the museum are shuttered until further notice.  Again, I am glad I had the opportunity to explore both the museum and the palace before the work began in 2015.   

Gallipoli, Turkey

Next morning I was off to Gallipoli for a five-hour bus ride with a bunch of Aussies.  Everything I knew about the battle of Gallipoli was from the 1981 Mel Gibson movie “Gallipoli”.  And it turns out the movie was a very fictionalized version of events that in no way represented the misery and human toll that actually occurred on this site.  During the bus ride over I wondered why the site was so important to the Aussies.  I soon found out that for Australians and New Zealand Kiwis Gallipoli is as important as Normandy or Okinawa to Americans.

During our day tour we visited Brighton BeachBeach Cemetery, ANZAC Cove, Ari Burnu (First ANZAC landing place) Lone Pine Cemetery, Johnson’s Jolly – where we walked the trenches, Viewed Shrapnel Valley, Turkish Memorial, The Nek and Walker’s Ridge, and Chunuk Bair (the main New Zealand memorial).

View of the Golden Horn from hilltop

Gallipoli landing site

1st objective

Lone Pine Cemetery

Trenches of war

The Turkish hero of Gallipoli and father of modern Turkey

A couple of points about the battle for the Dardanelles – in places the opposing trenches were no further apart than the width of a two-lane road.  Twenty thousand Aussie and Kiwi soldiers were facing the Turks on their home soil.  The British were eventually forced to withdraw without reaching their objectives, not because of a lack of courage or skill of the ANZAC troops but rather the incompetence of their British leaders. 

The invasion was doomed from the beginning by excessive optimism (the British high command believed they would take the entirety of the Dardanelles in 24 hours with light casualties), a lack of clarity of the mission (they landed on the wrong beach) and timid leadership that left the troops sitting on a deserted beach for months waiting for reinforcements against an a lightly populated opposing force miles away.

This combination of hubris and inept leadership allowed the Turks to marshal their troops along the ridges and high ground making future ANZAC gains either impossible or excessively costly.  Had the Allied forces moved inland immediately and pushed toward their objective before the Turks could mobilize the campaign most probably would have been a success.

Leadership on the Turk side of the battle was both bold and decisive.  One Turkish Colonel when he received word of the British Landing mounted his horse and rode 10 kilometers alone to the landing site to observe the enemy’s strength for himself.  Then while the British general in charge was sitting comfortably on a Greek island offshore on an estate in comfort this Turkish Colonel was everywhere marshaling his troops demanding reinforcements pressing volunteers into service to protect their homeland and securing the high ground for the battles to come.

That one Turkish Colonel thwarted the Great British Empire’s ambitious plan to open the Black Sea to the British Fleet and relieve a beleaguered Russia.  That Colonel was Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who would later become a Turkish Field Marshal and the founder and first president of the modern day secular Turkey.

And honestly, I enjoyed this day much more than I thought I would.  I learned a lot of history.  Had an opportunity to be reminded that the bravery of ordinary men win battles and wars and the hubris, incompetence and personal cowardness of their generals can just as easily lose both battles and lives.

In the next blog I will begin my day at the site of ancient Troy…

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A Bottle of Vodka, a Few Beers, Juicy Lamb Kababs then off to Khiva and finding my way out of Uzbekistan (July 19 – 21)

While in Bukhara, Shira talked me into visiting a Carpet Merchant friend of hers.  I went into the demonstration sure I had no interest in purchasing anything.  I was shown both wool and silk carpets made in the old way by women of a nearby village.  Each large 10 by 12 carpet requires a master carpet maker working fulltime 8 months to complete.  And despite my pre-demonstration pronouncement, they showed me a carpet perfect for the new pine floor in my Colorado Condo.

We haggled a little but eventually came to an agreed price including shipping to Colorado.  I left the Trading Dome pretty satisfied with the color, quality, and price of my purchase.  We had not walked more than an hour before Shira received a call from her friend asking if he could treat me to dinner at a restaurant that specialized in lamb kababs frequented by locals that tourists didn’t know about that he was sure I would love. 

Grilled lamb – how could I say no!  So that evening he swung by my hotel and picked us up and drove us to the outskirts of Bukhara to a nondescript restaurant in a strip center.  We were expected and ushered upstairs to a dining room separate from the locals.  The carpet man ordered for the three of us then asked if I would like a beer to drink with dinner.   To which I should have replied – does a panda fragrantly sh-t in the woods?  But since neither he or Shira had read my Chengdu blog I just said hell yes!

So, he spoke some rapid-fire words in Tajiki to a young assistant and gave him the keys to his Caddy and a wad of Soms (Uzbek currency) and off the young man went.  When he returned, he brought back multiple beers and a bottle of Vodka.  Not wanting to be rude I accepted the beers graciously and asked Shira what the Vodka was for.  Her reply – for toasts!  Then the best grilled lamb I have ever tasted was served in a big heaping pile.  This lamb was so juicy – the incredibly succulent liquid squirted out with every bite filling my mouth and overpowering my taste buds. 

Determined to do my best to eat my weight in lamb I was having a fine time and between the meal, the beer, and an interesting conversation about the carpet business and his trips to Santa Fa to an Arts Show I was having a wonderful time.  I asked him who is the primary market was and he said tourists.  I asked him why he didn’t swing through all the high-end ski towns in the West and approach the decorators and furniture stores about selling his carpets on consignment. 

His answer boiled down to the fact that he doesn’t speak English and he wouldn’t know who to talk to.  That was about the time we cracked open the Vodka and began toasting with shots.  And by the time the bottle was empty I had bought a second 10 by 12 carpet for the Tallahassee House, an additional small carpet for Colorado, and offered to talk to the interior decorator and high end furniture store that I use in Colorado about his carpets and show them some samples to gage potential interest in quality hand-made carpets.

You might think by the next morning after the Vodka and lamb juice war off I would have suffered a bit of buyer’s remorse.  But not in the least.  I bought quality carpets at a third of what they would have cost in the States and had a wonderful evening with my new friend the carpet guy and Shira. (Photos of the carpets and dinner attached)

Day 2

And with that we were off to Khiva.  And Khiva is another long four -hour drive across a poorly maintained road thru the Gobi Desert. We arrived at my Khiva hotel around noon unloaded the car and headed to the old walled city.  (photos attached)

The old walled city (Complex of Ichan Kala) is the inner town protected behind 30+ foot brick walls.  The oasis town of Khiva was a rest stop for caravans before crossing the desert.  The old town has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and provides plenty of examples of historical Muslim architecture and cultural practices.

The highlights of the Khiva Old Town Tour included the 19th century Friday Juma Mosque, Mausoleums of Pahlavon Mahmoud, Sayid Allavuddin and Shergozikhon, 19th Century Muhammad Aminkhan Maddrssha, 19th century Muhammand Rakimkhan Maddrassah, the 19th century Kalta Minor (Short Minaret), 19th century Tosh Hovli, 19th century Karavansaray of Ollukulikhan, the 19th century Ollukulikhan Maddrassah, 17th century Kunya Ark, old Citadel, Minorai Islom Khodja and Madrassha.

I think it is interesting that this living open-air museum is also home to over 300 families that still live within these walls as families have for centuries practicing and honing their skills in the arts and crafts of carpet making, woodcarving, pottery making, jewelry making, and smithing. 

I watched carpet weavers and woodcarvers as they practiced their ancient arts in the Complex of Pahlavon Mahmu after visiting the mausoleum.  The intricate wood carvings of things like Book Stands that could be turned in different configurations to hold more or fewer books and jewelry boxes with secret compartments and pressure locks were amazing feats of art and engineering. 

And the patience, nimble fingers and incredible eyesight that is required of the women weaving carpets to tie knot after knot of neatly compacted knots into patterns of different colors and designs hour after hour, day after day, year after year and for decades is simply superhuman.  These beautiful carpets are nothing less than works of art and are all hand-tied and the patterns are created by the women themselves. 

One of the most interesting buildings in the old town is the Juma Mosque.  Unlike most Mosque that sport huge beautifully tiled entrance arches and domes, this one-story mosque simply sits unassuming on a street with a normal door.  Well not quite normal the ancient door is beautifully carved and hints at what you are about to see once you enter the portal.

Inside this huge square one story building are over 200 intricately carved wooden pillars holding up the roof.  The pillars are all carved in different patterns and represent the styles of Khiva wood carvers from the 10th century thru the 19th century.  Though most of the trees for most of these pillars were cut, wood seasoned, trimmed and carved for this mosque some were scavenged from other buildings then repurposed, and some were pillaged as trophies of war from other vanquished towns.

The builders of the mosque left three huge openings in the roof for the sun to shine thru which creates a beautiful affect as the sunlight plays across the shadows of the vastness of the dim hall. 

While I was visiting, there was a delegation of high ranking government officials from Turkey being honored with a private prayer service on the other side of the mosque.  Seemed fitting since the peoples of modern Turkey are originally from Central Asia and their ancestors possibly worshiped in this or the previous mosque that sat upon this spot.

While I was visiting, there was a delegation of high ranking government officials from Turkey being honored with a private prayer service on the other side of the mosque.  Seemed fitting since the peoples of modern Turkey are originally from Central Asia and their ancestors possibly worshiped in this or the previous mosque that sat upon this spot.

Khiva is the home to Uzbekistan’s tallest Minaret, and in my opinion the most beautiful.  The Minorai Islom-Khodja rises 44 meters above the dusty street to dominate the Old City skyline.  Whether viewed from street level or atop the city’s 30-foot walls by day or a rooftop café at dark the Minaret is the city’s centerpiece.  The contrasting sandy colored bricks and alternating bands of blue and white geometric designs on tile combine with the tower’s height to create a beautiful effect by day but even more dramatic effect by night when lights are used to spotlight the incredible tile work.

Khiva has a second interesting Minaret that is much shorter and looks like a bright blue barrel.  Originally, in 1855 the minaret was being erected with plans to be 110 meters tall with a base diameter of 15 meters.  Khiva’s ruler was killed and work stopped at a height of just 29 meters and has been named the Kalta-minor Minaret or “short minaret”.  In addition to being stunted by the ruler’s death, the Kalta-minor is interesting because it is totally covered in beautiful glazed tiles of various shades of blue, white, green and tan tiles arranged to create different geometric design bands.

One final complex I would like to point out is the 19th century Tosh Hovli Palace.  I have included photos of the palace’s sleeping quarters for the ruler’s wives and concubines, the courtyard for receiving dignitaries complete with a platform for erecting a ceremonial yurt, and the ruler’s bedchamber. 

The large U shaped building that housed the sleeping quarters for his wives and concubines was designed in such a way to keep the wives and sex slaves apart.  The structure was designed with a secret hallway on the second floor behind the concubines’ quarters to allow the ruler privacy as he satisfied his carnal needs and to protect him from the wrath of jealous wives.  Sneaky but Effective!!!

oh no facepalm GIFAnd now I will share my latest Uzbeki-Tajiki border fiasco.  When Hussain acquired my Tajiki Visa he was only allowed to get a one entry Visa.  The problem was I needed to enter Tajikistan twice –once by air on the 8th then again on the 21st via the Sammerkand-Panjakent Road border crossing.  Hussain said not to worry.  Once I crossed into Uzbekistan on the 15th I could reapply for a new Visa and no problems getting the E-Visa by the 21st.

Once again, Hussain’s optimism was not well-founded.  I received my visa approval on July 25 three days after arriving in Istanbul.  So once again I found myself stranded on one side of the border with my prepaid hotel, my large bag containing most of my possessions, and my exit plane ticket to Istanbul from Dushanbe all on the other side of the border.

The only solution was to return from Khiva thru Bukhara to Sammarkand.  Have Bobo retrieve my big bag from the hotel in Dushanbe, drive 5 hours to deliver it to the border where I would be waiting on the Uzbeki side to meet him.  Once I retrieved my bag I would then catch a train to Tashkent and fly out for Istanbul on a 2 am flight after paying for a second plane ticket.

So, to sum up, Plan B was going to cost me a second hotel room for the night of the 20th, a train ticket from Sammarkand to Tashkent, and a $600 plane ticket from Tashkent to Istanbul, and a long night with no sleep.  Turns out I needed a plan C.  When they went to collect my bag from the hotel the thief owner demanded $200 ransom to release the bag to someone other than me!  So, they left without the bag.

loud dexters laboratory GIFI received word of this new complication just as I reached Bukhara and was sitting down to lunch with Carpet man’s family.  He had again invited me to dine with him but this time at his hotel and he cooked the lamb himself.  Unfortunately, I was the world’s worst guest because I spent the entire lunch booking a Samarkand hotel room, my flight from Tashkent to Istanbul, and yelling at Hussain and the Hotel over the phone about my bag. 

But the Hotel owner was not budging – he insisted that I pay a second time for the three-night’s hotel bill even though I prepaid in early March and both he and I had copies of the receipt.  He knew he had the bag, I had very little time to retrieve it, and I could not personally come to Dushanbe and kick his ass and burn down the God Damn Hotel!  He had me over a barrel.

So, plan C was for Hussain to front the $200 from the tour fee I had given him in US dollars on arrival and I would reimburse him when I collected the bag in Samarkand. Everything seemed to be worked out by the end of lunch and Shira suggested I take the train back to Samarkand and save my body the pounding crossing the desert by car.  And it was a great idea.  The train took about a third of the time, was a much smoother ride with better air conditioning.

Her driver met me at the train station in Samarkand and took me to dinner and then my hotel.  He also offered to go to the border and retrieve my bag by himself so I could sleep in since I would be up all the next night.  I went to bed thinking everything was handled and that I would have my bag back by 9 am catch the afternoon train to Tashkent and be on my way to Istanbul by 3 am the next morning.

Inside Out Reaction GIF by Disney PixarWell, it wasn’t that easy. I received a call from Hussain at three in the morning telling me the jack ass owner of the Dior Hotel still wouldn’t release my bag to the driver and to not come to the border because no one would be there.  Hussain fought with the hotel owner throughout the morning and day and finally drove to Dushanbe himself and personally went in and retrieved my bag.

Plan D was that he would leave Dushanbe at 5 pm and arrive by car at the Tashkent Airport by 11 pm or midnight to reunite me with my stuff.  And while all this drama was going on – Shira and her driver were still finding ways to distract me from my problems with more sites.  The coolest was a trip to the one remaining mulberry paper making business in Samarkand.

Water driven Oil making press

At one time, there were hundreds of small mulberry paper-making establishments but with modern paper so cheap most had gone out of business.  My Latvian friend, Nelda, had told me if I ever got the chance I should take a tour of a mulberry parchment making process and I’m glad Shira arraigned it and I went.  The process was fascinating. 

They take one inch to half-inch diameter and two-foot-long green mulberry sticks and strip them by hand with a sharp knife into long thin strips.   The thin strips are then soaked in water until they become soft and pliable.  Then the wet pulpy softwood fibers are placed in a stone caldron in the floor and the mass is pounded for days with a large wooden dowel into mush.  This mush becomes like a paste that is then applied to a screen.  The paste covered screen is next covered and smashed tight with a heavy press and a giant rock is placed on it to smash the fibers together as they dry.

Stripping mulberry sticks

Soaking the mulberry strips

Turning to mush

Attaching the mulberry pulp to the screen

Once the parchment dries the press is removed, the wet mass of compressed mulberry pulp is peeled from the screen and hung on a rack for final drying.  Once dry the parchment is laid flat on a table and polished with a flat rock.  And after all that you have a beautiful piece of mulberry parchment ready for either printing upon or used as a canvas for painting.  Parchment made from Mulberry in this way will last 1000 years.  Today’s mass-produced paper from pulp wood last 100 years at the most.  

While we were there they took me over to another building that used a small water mill to run a water press that they fed various plants to create oils.   Photos of the paper making process as well as the water-fed oil press are included.

Pressing the pulp into a sheet

Hanging and drying the parchment

Polishing

The one final drama took place at the Tashkent Airport.  I received a call from Hussain around 8 pm informing me he was in route and would be there shortly after 11 pm.  He informed me that we would not be able to communicate by phone from that point forward because his cell phone did not work in Uzbekistan.  We agreed that I would wait for him outside the security gate at the parking lot since only ticketed passengers could proceed past that point. 

tired cat GIF by Looney TunesSo, there I stood at the edge of the parking lot from 11 pm until just before 1 is and no sign of Hussain.  I was just about to give up and go check-in for my flight when Hussain made his dramatic entrance running across the parking lot dragging my bag and waving his arm frantically.  I gave him $200 he gave me my bag and I sprinted to check-in before the flight was closed out.  I made it thru check-in, passport control, and security then walked straight on the plane as one of the last to board with only minutes to spare.

A perfect example of: Men make plans and the Gods Laugh!  And with that in mind, I flew to Istanbul and my next Plan B.  But that is a story for my next blog.

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A Night in the Gobi then Bukhara, Uzbekistan (July 16 – 19)

You have two options to reach Bukhara from Samarkand.  You can drive 4 to 5 hours on an awful road.  Or, you can take a modern high-speed train that makes the trip in comfort in an hour and a half.  We made the road trip to stop at Nurata to visit the Chashma Springs and Mosque and spend the night at a Yurt camp in the Gobi Desert.

The new President of Uzbekistan is making tourism a priority and is working hard to build the infrastructure to support it.  About a third of the drive is on a new comfortable four-lane highway but the rest remains barely more than a gravel track thru the desert.  The good news is that the government is working to complete the entire stretch of road between the two ancient cities and it shouldn’t be too long until the time required for the road trip is cut in half and a car can breeze along at 100k per hour without jarring the passengers’ fillings loose.

I took the train back from Bukhara to Samarkand and Uzbeki trains are as comfortable as most trains in Europe and much cheaper.  I think my business class fare was less than $20.  So, you can take the train and save a lot of time but you will miss a couple of pretty cool experiences between the two cities.

Our first stop was in Nurata to visit the Chashma Springs, a 16th-century mosque and 9th-century mausoleum.  There are competing legends as to the origins of the springs.  The devout followers of Islam believe that the Prophet Mohammed’s son-in-law Hazrat Ali drove his staff into the ground and the springs of healing waters rose-up.  The competing legend is that a meteorite radiating light fell from the sky and crashed into the ground on this spot and a spring of healing water spurted upon impact.

Regardless of which legend you believe, the fact is, the springs are quite remarkable.  The year-round 19 degree waters are infused with health generating minerals and the locals bring their jugs and bottles daily to fill for drinking.  The springs are also teeming with hundreds of holy fish (taboo to eat) that thrive on the minerals brought up from the depths of the earth.  Photos of the springs and fish are attached.

The mosque complex was also interesting but the springs and fish are the major attraction here for the non-Muslim.  Also above the springs perched high atop a hill are the remains of Alexander the Great’s Nur Fortress.  The fortress is one of the oldest archaeological sites in Central Asia and in its day, was said to be impenetrable.  Little remains of the adobe construction after 2500 years of some of the harshest weather on the planet. 

From the Springs, we drove on to our overnight destination – a Yurt Camp.  The idea of sleeping in a yurt under a full moon might seem romantic – and maybe if the temperature wasn’t hovering around 40 centigrade it might have been.  But sleeping in a felt and camel hair tent with one small door with no screen, no windows, and no circulation will sweat the romance right out of you as the mosquitoes and flies suck the blood out.  In fact, I think I was the only one to actually sleep in the Yurt.

I woke up early to climb the hill behind the camp to get some photos of the sunrise over the Gobi – and found that everyone else had drug their blankets and even beds out into the open air to sleep.  Still the experience pretty cool.  Upon arriving Shira suggested we drive over to a huge lake and swim to cool off.  And though the water was warm it still felt nice and I spent an hour just relaxing in the world’s biggest bathtub.

After drying off and returning to the Yurt Camp I took the opportunity to take a little spin around the camp on a camel.  It wasn’t my first camel ride, but it was my first since I had eaten one of his cousin’s hooves for dinner in China.  I took the “don’t ask don’t tell” approach to eating camel toe and didn’t mention it to him.  

moon GIFDinner was grilled lamb, rice, potatoes, a salad of diced tomatoes and cucumbers, and flatbread all washed down with a nice cold beer.  Dessert was freshly harvested watermelon and an assortment of nuts.  After dinner, we were serenaded under the full moon by a local shepherd singing traditional Tajiki folk songs.  Shira informed me that I had a second chance at making a wish.

Apparently making a wish upon a full moon is also a lucky charm.  My wish hasn’t come true yet but who knows maybe it wasn’t considered time-sensitive by the man in the moon.  So, maybe he will get around to granting my wish in February or March.

Day 2

Next morning after I snapped my sunrise photos and had a quick breakfast we were off to Bukhara.  On the way, Shira shared more local traditions, legends and historical facts with me.  The Silk Road and the caravans that traversed the 10,000 kilometers from Bejing to the seaports of Turkey and Lebanon have always fascinated me and I love learning about life on the road. 

I had always assumed a caravan would only consist of a couple dozen or so camels, a few horses and donkeys and one or two merchants with their goods.  In fact, according to Shira, these caravans were 3 kilometers long and with thousands of merchants, camel wranglers, and camels.  Another misconception I had was they traveled during the day.  Nope, they traveled at night to conserve energy and the need for water by traveling once the sun went down and things cooled off.

Shira says a Central Asian camel can drink up to 40 liters of water and can then walk for up to 24 days without a fill-up!  A camel can also smell water from 2 kilometers away. 

Another interesting factoid concerns the headgear that many Central Asian men wore in the day.  In movies, Central Asians always wore turbans.  In reality, they wore a scull cap with a white cotton or linen cloth called a kafan wound around the head.  This cloth was a size prescribed in the Quran and was worn as a precaution. 

According to the dictates of the Quran a deceased person must be buried within a prescribed time after death and he/she must be buried in a white burial shroud of a specific set of dimensions.  Central Asia was a dangerous place and death could occur at any time.  So, to be prepared the men wore their burial shroud wound around their head to always be ready to meet their maker.

The Bukhara Old Town is like nothing I have seen in all my travels.  The buildings and vibe seem to spring from the pages of a fairy tale.  I couldn’t help but think that many of the exotic desert cities and settlement scenes in Star Wars and other fantasy movies have been modeled after this unbelievable Shangri-la. 

Beautiful sand-colored buildings and minarets trimmed with shimmering geometric patterns of blue tiles are topped by domes of all sizes and designs.  Graceful eastern arches, intricately patterned carpets, silk textiles, and pottery are on display throughout every trading dome.  And many of the older people still dress in the traditional way with beautifully embroidered dresses, tunics and robes, and richly colored silk scarves and headdresses.

Our first stop after checking into my hotel was to visit the Lyabi Haus Complex.  The complex was built around a central pool surrounded by large trees and statues.  The impressive structures include the 16th-century Madrassah Kukeldash, 17th-century Madrassah Nadir Divan-Begi, and the 12th and 16th-century Magoki Attorrri Mosque – the oldest mosque in central Asia.

As you can see from the accompanying photos the architecture of ancient Bukhara is beautiful and I will let the photos speak for themselves but I will tell you the photos do not do the craftsmanship and beauty of the intricate tile work on the buildings justice.  You really need to see them in person to fully appreciate the beauty and artistry.

A quick word about the statue of Hodji riding his donkeyHodji was a figure created in stories during the 12th century to comment on cultural, social and political matters of the time.  Free speech and social commentary was a quick way to get imprisoned or worse in those days so some inventive social wag wrote critical but humorous stories critiquing the rulers, the elites and the many social injustices and thru this comical figure the commentary was allowed.  Over the centuries his stories have become beloved throughout not only Central Asia but the middle east as well.

In addition to the beautiful madrassahs, mosques, and minarets – you will also see photos of a structure unique to Bakharatrading domes.  These four domes were created for the sole purpose of providing merchants a covered place to sell their wares.  At the same time merchants and customers were either freezing, soaking, or sweating in the snow, rain, wind or blazing sun throughout the middle ages in Europe and the rest of Asia the rulers of Bukhara had come up with the idea of the world’s first Mall.  They built these huge domed structures with stalls for various merchants to sell their silks, carpets, leather, jewelry, food, and money changing.

And to think, we in America thought we invented the indoor mall in the 1970s as a place for teenagers to hang out and old people to walk.  The rulers of Bakhara beat us by over 500 years.

Trading domes:

The 16th century Toki Sarrafon Trading Dome is the smallest and most beautifully decorated.  It was originally the dome of the money changers during the era of the Silk Road but today it is lined with souvenir sellers.  The photo with the giant modern wall ad for “Silk and Spice Fashion Days” shows off this Dome’s blue-domed entrance arch.

The 16th century Toki Tepak-Furushon Dome was perfectly situated at a city crossroads with 5 separate important roads leading to it.  The dome sold primarily fur hats and turbans. Today this massive hexagonal structure houses merchants selling knives, books, musical instruments, souvenirs, and jewelry.

The 16th century Dome of Abdullakhan was built along a street and specialized in silks, carpets, and other fabrics.  You can still buy fine Bukhara carpets, silk clothing and other Bukhara clothes from the stalls of this Dome.

Toki Zargaron Dome is the largest of all the domes. And was also known as the Dome of Jewelers. Today you can still buy Bukhara jewelry here as well as handkerchiefs, door handles, bells, good luck charms, and other household items.  I met a seller of music instruments while shopping in this dome and purchased one of his own DVDs of traditional music.

After touring the various trading domes and purchasing a few things that I just could not live without but will probably never look at again I next visited the 15th century Madrassah Ulugbek, the Kalyan Minaret and the 17th century Madrassah Abdulazizkhan before calling it a day.

My second day in Bukhara began at the Complex of Poi Kalon and included visits to the Kalyan Minaret, Kalyan Mosque, and the Mir-i-Arab Madrassah

The Kalyan Minaret built in 1127 stands a massive 46.5 meters tall (152 feet), 9 meters across at the base and 6 meters at the top, with a foundation over 30 feet deep.  There is an interior spiral staircase that was used to march convicted criminals to the top then throw them down to the courtyard below (guess they didn’t have a liberal supreme court whining about cruel and unusual punishment for scumbags).  The minaret could be seen across the desert for miles and Silk Road Caravans used it for navigation thru the centuries.  Genghis Kahn was so taken by the engineering feat that he left it standing when he destroyed the rest of the city as he swept across the Central Asian desert.

The Kalyan Mosque next to the minaret was built in the 16th century and is the largest congregational mosque in Central Asia. The Mir-i-Arab Madrassah completes the Poi Kalan complex.  Built in 1536 as both an educational institution and mausoleum for Ubaydulla-khan still serves as an educational institution today hosting lectures on Islamic religion.

Next, we visited the Ark Fortress and CItadel built in the 1st century ad.  The Ark served as a residence for the rulers of Bukhara thru the ages.  The fortress actually contained a small city within its massive walls.  In addition to lodgings for the emir, his wives, relatives, and advisors the fortress contained stores for clothes, carpets, armory, jewelers, smiths, leather workers and other workshops, mosques, stables, jail, and food storage rooms. 

After touring the Ark we visited the 18th century Bolo Haus Mosque.   The mosque construction was actually initiated under emir Shahmurad late in the 17th century but completed in the next century.  The emir wanted to show his people he was no different than they so he built a public mosque that he himself would visit with the masses for Friday prayers.

Directly in front of the Mosque is a pool of water that in older times was used by the people of Bakhara for drinking water.  There were pools like the Bolo Haus pond situated throughout Bakhara and they were the sole source for the city’s water.  The Boko Haus as well as the other 16 ponds were used for drinking water up until the Soviets dried up most of the ponds in the early 20th century to prevent epidemics from stagnant water.

The public mosque has an elegant and pleasing design fit for an emir which makes sense since the public mosque would be hosting the emir every Friday.  There are 20 wooden carved pillars that hold up the ceiling.  The locals also call the Boko Haus mosque the 40 pillar mosque because when you look at the mosque from across the pond you see not 20 pillars but 40 with the ones reflecting from the pool.

The 300 year old mosque is still used every day for prayers.

We next visited the Mausoleum of Samanids built in the late 9th and early 10th centuries to house the burial tomb of Ismoil Samoniy.  This is the oldest brick building in all Central Asia and was constructed using baked clay bricks with a compound of egg-yokes and camel milk as mortar. 

You might remember from my Tajiki blog that Samoniy was the father of a unified Tajikistan and may wonder why his mausoleum is in southern Uzbekistan.  The answer is simple – all southern Uzbekistan was part of Samoniy’s domain.  In fact, as many Tajiks live in southern Uzbekistan as live in all Tajikistan.  The Russians split the Tajik people into different countries to better control them from Moscow.

This Mausoleum survived destruction at the hands of the Mongol invaders because Samoniy was so beloved as a ruler the locals covered the entire mausoleum in the sand to hide it from the Mongols.  An interesting fact is that Samoniy’s rule was so popular with the people that he continued to rule for 40 years after his death.  His advisors continued to rule in his name after he died and just didn’t tell the people.

Next stop was the 14th century Chashmai Ayub Mausoleum which contains the well of Job.  Yep, you guessed it! The same Job from the Bible.  The legend is that during an extreme drought the people prayed for water.  God sent the prophet Job who struck the ground with his staff and water appeared.  I’m not sure I buy the legend but the water still flows from the well today and people from all around come to drink the water and make a wish.  And while we were there dozens of people were crowding around filling bottles and jugs of all shapes and sizes between praying and kissing the tomb.

And finally, we also visited the Summer Palace of emir Sitorai Mokhi Khossa of the early 20th century, the 16th century Complex of Bhautdin Nakshband, and the 19th century Monument Chor Minor.  Photos are attached.  I have one more item to share about my purchase of two silk carpets after a few beers, a bottle of vodka, and some incredible grilled lamb but will save that for my next blog.

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Samarkand, Uzbekistan – The Rematch! (July 15 – 16, 2019)

If you have read my previous blog about my 2017 aborted visit to Uzbekistan after a brief one day tour of Tashkent – you are aware that I was unable to reenter the country after a short side trip to Khujand.  As a result, I missed the best that Uzbekistan offers – Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva.  All three cities are rich in history, culture and Central Asian tradition.  And I was determined to see what I missed on this trip. 

BoBo, my driver, and I left Panjakent before 8 am for the short drive to the Uzbeki border.  Our plan was to be first in line and zip right through the border crossing.  Hussain (my guide and Central Asian trip facilitator) had told me we would be thru the process in less than half an hour and my Uzbeki guide would be waiting on her side of the border fence.  As it turned out – Hussain had never crossed the border in a car and BoBo and never been outside of Tajikistan.

Our half-hour express crossing turned into over a four-hour wait in the hot Central Asian sun.  Uzbekistan, it turns out takes protecting their border from drugs, terrorists, and dumb ass American tourists very seriously.  And I can’t blame them – the country to the south of Tajikistan is Afghanistan.  And even the most casual of news watchers know that the Afghanistan is a hotbed of both heroin production and terrorists.

Looking Peppa Pig GIF by Nick JrAs a result, every automobile, truck or bus entering Uzbekistan is  searched by both bomb and drug dogs then completely taken apart and manually searched.  They take the seats out of the car, everything including the spare out of the trunk, go through the engine compartment and under the car with mirrors and remove all four tires to check the wheel wells. 

And they only have the man and dog power to do one car at a time.  As we sat in line on the Tajiki side of the fence I watched a half dozen cars routed around us and given preference.  So, after 2 hours, I asked BoBo why they were getting special treatment.  He had no idea since he had never crossed a border.  I asked him to go find out!  Turns out the autos passing us up in line were given special treatment because they contained western tourists.

My exact words were, BoBo where the hell do you think I’m from?  Go tell someone that President Trump’s more handsome brother is in your SUV and wants to jump the line.  And that at least got us thru the Tajiki checkpoint and 100 yards closer to the Uzbeki car search.

But we still had to wait for all the autos that crossed ahead of us to complete the search process.  I was instructed to take my small bag and day pack to the building all the pedestrian crossers were entering for inspection and a review of my passport and visa.  Which turned out to be sort of fun.  These border guards were much nicer than the guys I dealt with in 2017.

There were four of them and they all spoke some English and were smiling and courteous.  At one point one of the guards asked me if I was carrying more than $2000.  I try to be as honest as practical in these situations so I said yes.  How much?  Somewhere between 6 and 8 thousand.  And that is when one of the lady guards asked if I needed a wife – which the other three thought was pretty funny.  I told her with a wink and smile that I would be spending the next two nights in Samarkand if she would like to try out for the job.  We all enjoyed her crimson faced shock.  (I was just joking of course!)

After they had me fill out a declaration about the money I wandered back outside to watch them search the cars from a distance.  After another hour, a soldier in a clean pressed uniform complete with a sidearm in holster came out holding a paper with my name written in block letters.  I thought – now what!  He pointed to the paper then to me then back at the paper and nodded.  I nodded back that he had found me.  He then turned and motioned to someone inside the building and pointed to me.

Out of the building came a beautiful woman with long black hair, dark eyes and skin coloring, and features straight out of central casting for a Persian princess.   She walked up to me stuck out her hand and announced she was – Mubashira Bakhshillaeva but I could call her Shira and she was my guide. 

hot mickey mouse GIFAs we sat at the curb watching poor BoBo’s SUV be taken apart she asked me why in the world we tried to bring a car across the border and how exactly was BoBo going to find his way around Southern UzbekistanShira who lives in Bukhara had taken an hour and a half train to get to Samarkand then a 45-minute taxi ride to the border to be on-site at 8:30. She had been standing out in the hot sun for the entire morning since there was not a single structure or tree for shade on the Uzbeki side to seek refuge from the sun.

She told me that had I just walked across the border with my bags and taken a taxi to Samarkand the crossing would have taken 15 minutes max.  That is when we decided together to send BoBo back to Tajikistan and she would hire an Uzbeki car and driver for the next week.  As the days passed and I saw how complicated the streets in the cities were and the conditions of the roads between cities the decision was definitely the correct option. 

The car was finally released and we drove to Samarkand for lunch and to begin a tour of a very beautiful city.  First stop was the 15th-century Mausoleum of Amir TimurTimur (also sometimes referred to as Tamerlane) was part Mongol and conquered all Central Asia, India, Persia, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria during his long life.  He died at the age of 72 of pneumonia while on a campaign to conquer China

The tomb complex has been restored and includes a beautiful blue dome, the remains of the madrasah, khanaka, entrance portal, and minarets.  Inside the blue-domed Mausoleum are the tombs of Timur, his sons, grandsons and Timur’s beloved teacher Sayyid Baraka.  I have included photos of the entrance portal, exterior, interior including the tombs, a painting of Timur and a map of the lands he conquered. 

Next, we visited Samarkand’s Registan Square.  The word Registan means sand place in Uzbeki and in the long ago past this square was covered in sand.  Even before the three great madrassahs were constructed this square was used as a gathering place for the Khan’s announcements, public executions, gathering of armies, and impromptu outdoor markets.

The first madrassah was built by Timur’s heir Ulughbek in 1417.  In addition to being the ruler, Ulughbek was also a renowned mathematician and astronomer.  The madrassah could hold up to 100 students and they were taught philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, and theology.

The other two madrassahs were built in the 1600s by Yalangtush Bahadur.  Over the centuries. the buildings and square have survived earthquakes and a decline in Samarkand’s fortunes that at one point had its population down to 1000 people and the madrassahs used to shelter animals.  Fortunately, the Soviet state saw its historic value and invested years and rubles to restore the Registan to its former glory.  Photos of the buildings by day and night are attached.

Our next stop was to visit the Bibi-Khanym Mosque.  As Shira told me, the mosque was built by Timur’s favorite wife (a Mongol Princess) who he would leave to rule the empire while he conquered new lands.  Apparently, Timur was a lot like President Trump in that he loved erecting big ass fancy buildings glorifying his name.  To please him while he was off in India conquering new lands Bibi ordered the biggest and best Mosque complex be built by the time the Khan returned. 

None of the established architects would touch the project in the timeframe she demanded.  One young and new architect was willing to take on the project but he demanded a kiss from the queen as payment.  After much back and forth and counter offers of slave women the queen reluctantly agreed to his condition.  He built the project on time and on budget and demanded his kiss.  The queen tried her best to talk him out of it but finally agreed to the kiss.

The young impudent architect’s lust for the queen was so hot that his kiss burned a red imprint upon her cheek.  When she rode out to meet the Khan on his return he admired the beautiful shiny blue dome from miles away and asked her what it was.  As she was telling him what she had built in his honor Timur noticed the red on her cheek and she confessed to the terms of the construction. 

The king sent his soldiers after the architect but no one ever saw him again.  But from that day forward Timur ordered that all women in his domain were to be veiled in public.  Shira shared that she thought the young architect probably got much more than a kiss and I certainly hope so! 

Photos of the mosque complex are attached.  And, again, this is an example of the Soviets stepping up and restoring an important historical site.  Notice the large huge pedestal in a couple of the photos.  This is a king-sized Quran stand.  Notice the woman crawling under the stand thru a hole.  It is believed that if a woman is having difficulty getting pregnant if she walks around the stand three times then crawls thru she will have her child.  Notice that one of the holes is a little more worn smooth.  That is the hole the woman crawls through if she wants a boy.

shaun the sheep movie ok GIFOne of the things that made Shira such a fantastic guide is that she is not only an expert on Uzbeki history thru the ages – but she is also a virtual fountain of knowledge about her culture, traditions and legends.  And when you combine all of that with her inherited gift for storytelling. (I think oral storytelling is ingrained in all Central Asians) and her incredible gift for languages (she speaks English like a native, Russian, Italian, Uzbeki, and Tajiki)- Shira makes an incredible guide that can make the places and long dead people come alive.  It is a truly special gift.  And I highly recommend her for anyone headed to Uzbekistan.

Next morning our first stop was a visit to the Shakhi Zinda Necropolis.  The complex of eleven beautifully designed and tiled mausoleums built along both sides of a narrow street in the 14th and 15th centuries is also sometimes referred to as the Street Cemetery. To reach the street of eleven twinkling blue domed tombs you must walk up 36 magical steps.  I say magical because Shira says that if you make a wish then count 36 stairs as you climb up to the street and then count the same number of steps on your way back down each time counting 36- your wish will come true.  Unfortunately, I miss counted so I’m still overweight and losing my hair.

Each mausoleum houses the tomb of one of Tamerlane’s relatives – wives, sons, daughters, and favored generals.  I have included photos of the street, some of the mausoleums as well as several magnificent pieces of tomb art in tile.

Our next stop was by far the most surprising and interesting for me.  The remains of the Observatory of Mirzo Ulugbek was one of those eye-opening experiences I have come to most enjoy in travel.  A moment when my entire perception of a culture or people is changed in the blink of an eye by replacing my ignorance with a kernel of knowledge.  I have mentioned Ulugbek before as the builder of the first madrassa in Registan Square during his rule in the 1400s.  But in addition to ruling this vast land, he was a mathematician and astronomer centuries ahead of his times.

He constructed a beautifully tiled three-story round observatory where he erected a huge sextant precisely placed on a line or axis from north to south.  Using a small window from the top of the building Ulugbek measured with incredible exactness the seasons, months, weeks, days hours, minutes and seconds in the year.  Modern calculations indicate that his recorded length of a star year was off by mere seconds.

Ulugbek and his associates created charts showing the locations of over 1,000 stars without the aid of telescopes.  He studied and charted the planets’ movements and preserved all his findings in a book for future stargazers.

Ulugbek’s reign and interest in science was not popular with the Muslim clerics of his day and they talked his own son into murdering him and taking his throne.  Once the great Khan and astronomer was gone they destroyed his observatory and burned much of his library and research and then the corrupt mullahs created a bullshit story about the hill being the grave of “Forty Virgins” and built a mausoleum to hide the observatory remnants.

I had no idea that Central Asia at one time was a cradle of scientific advancement.  Shira shared with me that we have an Uzbeki to thank for the mathematical constructs of algebra, algorithms, our current number system, and the concept of zero.  Our entire modern scientific world was spawned from the 10th-century mind of the amazing Uzbeki mathematical genius Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi.

And who knew the father of modern medicine was a 10th-century physician from BukharaAbu Ali ibn-Sina (Avicenna) wrote a five-volume book on medicine (The cannon of medical science) that was translated into Latin in the 15th century and became the basis for all future medical texts.

My obvious question was “what happened” how was this bright flame of knowledge and enlightenment in such a small corner of the world during the Dark Age extinguished?  Shira’s one word response – Genghis!  The Mongol leader and his armies marched across central Asia burning, murdering and razing entire cities.  This one man was responsible for the destruction of an entire civilization’s advancements.  Such a pity for the people of Central Asia and the world.

Photos of the remains of the great sextant, models of the observatory, and statue of the great Ulugbek attached.

Next blog will be on Bukhara

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2019 Tajikistan (July 8 – 14)

As I began preparing my 9-month tour of Asia and the Middle East, I decided to work in a second visit to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to see the cities I missed in 2017 along the Old Silk Road.  Since Hussain had been so much help to me during my border problems in 2017, I contacted him and asked if he could put together a schedule including Dushanbe, Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva. 

This blog will cover the Tajikistan portion of this year’s trip.  We began our tour with a fantastic cultural experience and dinner after my arrival on the 8th.  The dinner of grilled lamb kababs, rice, and grilled vegetables was fantastic and the show of traditional dances was entertaining.  Even more entertaining though was the other diners dancing to the traditional music – each in their own style.  Even Hussain joined the crowd for a few spins around the dance floor.  (photos attached)

Day 2 in Dushanbe

Next morning, we began a day long tour of the city of Dushanbe.  The tour included the Tajik National Antiquities Museum, a Statue of the Sleeping Buddha, Monument to Ismoili Somoni the 9th century ruler and father of a consolidated Tajikistan, Park and statue of Abu Abd Allah Ja’far Rudaki the 9th century father of classical Persian/Tajiki poetry, the Tajiki White House, Tajik Parliament, Navrous Palace, Central Mosque, and the Mehrgon Market. 

Unfortunately, Dushanbe was neither a Silk Road City or even an old city.  Up until 1924, modern-day Dushanbe was a small village of about 500 people that held their village market on Mondays.  In fact, the word Dushanbe is Tajiki for Monday.  And that was how the city was named – after its Monday Market.  Once the city became the capital for the new Country and later Soviet Republic it began to grow rapidly until today the city has 1.3 million residents.

So, all the sites in the city are less than 100 years old and many are younger than me!  I found the architecture boring and the statues of Somoni – the Father of Tajikistan and Rudaki – the famous Persian/Tajiki poet were just quick fillers. Hussain was proud to point out that the giant flag pole was the tallest in the world in 2010 (165 meters) until neighboring Uzbekistan built one taller.  I’m not sure why having the tallest pole is so important to these countries of small men.  First the pole size contest between North and South Korea and now Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – I just don’t see the point!

My favorite part of the day was the visit to the Mehrgon Market.  I have yet to visit a city market that I have not enjoyed.  The combination of sites, smells, sounds, and tastes create such an overload of the senses.  Piles of spices, row after row of fresh fruits and vegetables, freshly butchered sheep, goats, cows and horses hanging from hooks in the fronts of stalls, stainless steel milk containers filled to the lip with fresh mountain honey, screens of sticky honeycombs, table after table of fresh wheels of bread, baskets of seeds and nuts of every variety, cheese balls and yogurt – in fact, anything you could possibly think you might want to put in your mouth you will find in these markets.

Interesting Custom 1: As we were passing tables stacked high with 18 inches across bread wheels, Hussain explained that when a boy’s family wanted to make a marriage proposal to a girl’s family they would send an ambassador with 20 wheels of bread and 5 kilos of chocolate to the prospective bride’s family.  If they accepted the bread and chocolate the wedding was on.  If they sent the bread and chocolate back no wedding.

And yes, the parents still select future husbands and wives for their children in Central Asia.  And matrimonial unions are based upon wealth, status, public image for the family.  I was surprised when Hussain told me that if it turned out that the prospective bride was no longer a virgin the groom’s family had the right to call off the wedding and send the poor girl back to her family in shame.  Apparently, there are women in Central Asia that make quite a good living just checking prospective brides’ virginity on the eve of their weddings.

When I asked Hussain if he was a virgin before he married last November he laughed and said of course not!  Men are expected to be experienced before marriage.  I asked him how that worked since in the West it takes two to tango and if he ever worried that he was potentially destroying a poor girl’s life.  He told me that the Tajiki men only messed with divorced women or disco girls (whatever the hell they are).

I asked Hussain how he knew if a woman had been married and he explained that you look at the eyebrows.  A married woman is allowed to pluck and style her eyebrows into a thin line.  Unmarried girls must not touch their eye bush.  So, to the Tajiki man, any woman with a manicured eyebrow is fair game. 

Interesting Custom 2: Another interesting couple of customs from the way back past before the Arab invasion forced Islam on the local population at the point of a sword relates to the Zoroastrian religion.  The Zoroastrians worshiped the four elements of fire(sun), air, water, and earth.  And even though everyone converted to Islam rather than be put to death they still follow the old customs like during the wedding ceremony the bride and groom walk around a fire three times.  And for 40 days after a wedding, birth or death the family leaves the lights on in the house throughout the night.

Interesting Custom 3: One final custom that I enjoyed involved the serving of tea.  The host will pour the first cup of tea then pour it back into the teapot.  He repeats this procedure three times before he pours tea for first the guests then himself.  And it is considered impolite to pour more than half a cup of tea for the guest. The half-cup is a show of respect.  In fact, a full cup of tea is the host’s polite way of saying you have worn out your welcome and it is time to go home!  You might want to keep that in mind the next time your host is serving tea.

Day 3: 16th Century Fortress and Citadel of Hissar Complex

Next day we ventured a little out of town to tour the 16th Century Fortress and Citadel of Hissar Complex.  The Complex includes the reconstructed fortress and ark, Registran that once served as the Silk Road Open Air Market, Caravanserai (the Motel 8 of its time where they left the light on for caravan traders passing thru), Men’s Madrassah, Women’s Madrassah, Mosque, and Mausoleum of Mahdumi Abzam.

The Men’s Madrassa has been turned into a history museum containing 3200 exhibits.  I have attached photographs of all the structures as well as many of the exhibits that chronicled Madrassah life for the boys in the 16th thru 18th century.  The madrassah is a Muslim religious school that teaches both spiritual and secular subjects.  The classrooms are small and accommodate 5 students and a teacher.  And boys and girls are always educated in separate Madrassahs.

Our lunch this day was Plav – a traditional Tajiki meal of rice, carrots, onions, lamb, spices raisins, chickpeas cooked by frying, then boiling, then steaming.  All washed down by beer.  One good thing the Soviets did during the 70plus years of atheist rule was crush all vestiges of the Muslim religion out of these Central Asian Countries.  The Central Asian Muslim population are culturally Muslim but are not hardcore believers.  These people like to drink vodka and beer, love to dance, most of the younger ones dress in western clothes and the older folks dress is more culturally inspired clothing than outfits based upon religion.

Day 4: Lake Iskandar (Tajik for Alexander)

Next day I checked out of my hotel early to drive to Lake Iskandar (Tajik for Alexander).  I left my large bag in storage at the hotel expecting to return for one final night after my week in Uzbekistan and then fly to Istanbul from Dushanbe. (Big Mistake)!

The half-day drive to the lake took us thru first the Hissir Mountains then the Fan Mountains.  On the way, we stopped at the smoking mountain that Marco Polo spoke about in his travelogue “The Travels of Marco Polo” as told to Rustichello da Pisa while imprisoned together in Genoa.  (photo attached)

The last hour of our drive we covered only 24 kilometers (15 miles) on a washed-out track up the mountain to the hanging lake.  But when we reached the lake the drive was definitely worth every bump in the road.  Lake Iskandar is 6k long, 3k wide, 80 meters deep and sits at 2,200 meters elevation.  The lake is fed by 5 springs that jet out of the mountain rock all with in 20 feet of each other.

Just above Lake Iskander is a Snake Lake that can be reached by a short steep hike and a little further down the trail is a dramatic waterfall.  We spent a great dinner and evening at the lake’s edge before heading for Istaravshan the next morning.

Day 5 in Istaravshan

In route to Istaravshan, we stopped for visits the local open-air market, the Madrasa Kuk-Gumbaz, the blue-domed Mosque of Shohi Zinda, and the abomination of a fantasy version of Mugh Fortress.  The market was interesting and fun.  I had the opportunity to watch blacksmiths, silversmiths, and bakers hard at work producing their products for sale right on site as well as the usual sights and sounds of a busy market day.  The 16th-century mosque and madrassa, and markets were interesting but the Mugh Fortress was absolutely the most atrocious and criminally inspired disaster I have seen in all my years of travel across 5 continents

Panjakent traditional market

Blue-domed Mosque of Shohi Zinda

The original Mugh Fortress stood for over 2500 years and withstood the ravages of earthquakes and sieges by Alexander the Great, the Persians, the Arabs, and the Mongols.  But the magnificent ancient walls could not withstand the greed and corruption of greedy developers and crooked politicians and bureaucrats. 

Some sleazy developer talked the local antiquities officials into bulldozing the entire fortress and razing it to the ground destroying the structure and all its relics to build a fantasy version of a fortress.  The replacement bore absolutely no resemblance to the original structure.  The idiot architect added a Roman-style amphitheater (Romans never came within 2000 kilometers or 500 years of the Central Asian Fortress) and European styles that would not be seen for a thousand years after the fortress was originally constructed.

To add insult to the fatal injury the workmanship was so shoddy that the damn thing is already falling apart before your eyes.  The roof is leaking and falling in at multiple places, the walls have huge structural cracks throughout the replica, huge sections of plaster, tile, and bricks are crumbling and falling in heaps from both interior and exterior walls, entire walls are covered in black mold and the floor tiles and paving stones are cracked and crumbling.

Someone was obviously paid off to approve the destruction of the original historic structure and replace it with this imposter.  The Tajiki government funds and any international aid funds were clearly siphoned from the construction budget for bribes, payoffs, and profits at the expense of historical accuracy, quality materials, and craftsmanship.

In a perfect world – everyone involved in this project should be hanged by their necks from the fortress walls in pig carcasses for 40 days as a message to future greedy builders, politicians, and bureaucrats. 

And on that happy note – on to old PanjakentPanjakent (five villages in Tajiki) was founded by the Sughdian people in the 5th century.  They were Zoroastrians worshiping the four elements.  As the Islamic Crusaders rampaged thru Central Asia they came across this city of 5000 and burned it to the ground because the old religion was an affront to Islam.

As the Arabs attacked, burned, raped and murdered thousands some escaped into the surrounding mountains.  Today there is still one village of 500 Sughdians living in the ancient ways, speaking the old language, and still worshiping of the sun and fire on top of a remote mountain near Panjakent. Photos of the old Sughdian ruins are attached.

Mugh Fortress is falling apart

On the way into the new city, we stumbled on a wedding procession.  And that is when I learned, my guide Hussain, has a wedding fetish.  He insisted we crash a pre-wedding ritual and then hang around to crash the wedding reception and dance.  I felt kind of out of place in cargo shorts and sandals but nothing seemed to faze Hussain and the wedding party was very gracious and welcoming.

A Tajiki wedding is quite entertaining.  It begins with a musical group consisting of a drummer, bongo type drummer, a guy playing a clarinet type thing and four guys playing six-foot-long horns called Krnays playing this weird music inviting everyone to come to the wedding activities.  The men all meet for a stag banquet without the bride and then later the real banquet with mostly women, children and close friends of the groom in attendance(and of course wedding crashers in cargo pants and sandals).  I have included several photos and videos of the band, happy couple and banquet scenes. 

My next visit was to see the ancient ruins of Sarazm – a 5,500-year-old Bronze era settlement discovered in 1970 by a shepherd stumbling upon a bronze axe head.  Quite a bit of the sun-worshiping Mitra community has been unearthed and it is believed that 10,000 people lived in the city.  The excavations have uncovered Mitra alters, ovens for baking bread, grain storage areas, homes and most interesting the grave and skeleton of a young woman found in a fetal position surrounded by semi-precious stones. (Photos attached)

For our final excursion, Hussain and Bobo took me up into the mountains to a chain of seven Marguzor Lakes.  These lakes were formed when a powerful earthquake created massive mudslides back in the 19th century blocking the Shing river in seven places.  Our original plan was to hike from the 5th lake to the 7th passing thru some very old traditional villages that are still living in the 17th century.

But plans are made to be screwed up.  In this instance, it was the warm weather that fouled us up.  It has been so warm that the snow and glacier ice melt has raised the water level in the lakes to the point that the road is 6 feet underwater at lake number 4.  So, our lake adventure ended there and we returned back to lake number 3 for a nice picnic lunch and ice-cold beer. Followed by a long slow drive back out of the mountains to Panjakent.

One interesting moment as we passed thru one of the villages was when our SUV was passing a woman in traditional clothing.  As the car approached her and as soon as she saw me thru the car window she immediately turned her back to me so that I could not see her face.  Hussain said that the many older women in the mountains still practice the old ways of Islam and believe that it is forbidden for a man other than her husband to look upon her face.  I managed to get a photo as she was halfway thru her turn away from me and it along with other village life photos are attached.

The next morning, we were on our way to the Uzbeki border but that is an ordeal I will cover in my next blog.

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5 Stan/Caucus tour: Uzbekistan, October 11, 2017 & Tajikistan, October 12, 2017, October 13 – 14, 2017

Part 1: Uzbekistan, October 11, 2017

The group tour left Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan by plane on the morning of October 11 and was met by our Uzbeki tour guide at the Tashkent airport. The first thing I always do as soon as I am thru passport control and customs is to find an ATM and obtain some local currency.  And was I surprised when I asked for the Uzbek Som equivalent of $500 U.S.  The machine spit out over 4.5million som.  I had just become a Uzbeki millionaire

Our first stop in Tashkent (capital of Uzbekistan) was for lunch.  The guide took us to a local hot spot where they cook everything in the huge pots that looked like what cannibals would cook missionaries in (photos attached).  I immediately decided I didn’t care for the guide when he insisted we all eat the same crap that he liked which was smothered in green and red peppers which I don’t eat and he ignored my request for a diet drink (I am diabetic) and ordered me a sugar bomb of a drink.  Always quick to explode I said f#*k it and walked out to find a meal on my own. 

And pretty much took the approach that I would do the opposite of whatever he suggested for the rest of the day.  Can I be a pain in the ass – You bet!  Can I hold a grudge – Yep forever!  After lunch, the guide took us to see the pride of Tashkent a couple of mosques.  They looked brand new so I asked him how old they were.  When he said they were younger than me I exploded!  “What the hell are you wasting our time with this crap?  This is supposed to be a Silk Road Tour not the glory of Muhamad tour.” 

He tried to explain that Tashkent had been totally destroyed by a massive earthquake in the 1950s and everything was destroyed including the ancient mosques and these were the replacements.  But once I start down the path of total asshole there is no turning back.  So, when we next went to tour the Tashkent market and he did his best to herd our group of 12 like sheep I ditched the group.

I had never been on a group tour before and had always traveled on my own setting my own schedule and pace.  I have since learned that the guide was only doing his job in the only way a group that size can get thru the day and all I did was make his life impossible and create chaos.  And if you believe in Karma I got my dose of Karmic justice the next day.  As one person on the tour put it later – I got exactly what I deserved.

Day 2 at Khujand, Tajikistan

The plan the next day was to take a quick day trip across the border from Tashkent, Uzbekistan to Khujand, Tajikistan then drive back to Tashkent in time for a late dinner.  The day progressed as planned as we crossed the border into Tajikistan we were met by our Tajiki guide Huseyn Ismatulloey.  We had a great day touring Khujand (one of the oldest cities in Central Asia). 

The great 5th century BC city of Khujand was founded by Alexander the Great.  And what was once just a small local city with a built-up mud embankment for a city wall and fortification was turned into one of the most impregnable fortress/citadels of its time.  Alexander’s great fortress and the city stood unconquered for 1700 years until the 12th century when Genghis Kahn’s Mongolian Army laid siege to the city for two years before razing both the Citadel and city to the ground.

The city and fortress have been rebuilt several times thru the years and the city continued to flourish as a key hub of the famed Silk Road.  The sites we visited during our day included the rebuilt modern fortress, Museum of Archaeology and Fortification, Khujand Historical Museum, Panjshanbe Market, Mosque and Mausoleum of Sheikh Muslihiddin, Statue of the great Tajik-Persian Poet Rudaki, Statue of Commander Temumalik – led the resistance to the Mongol Invaders, and a statue of Ismoili Somoni the father of the Tajikistan nation.

The museums were interesting and the market was incredible but the Citadel was a major disappointment in that it is a fairly recent reproduction and you can only view it from the outside (fortress is currently used as a base by the military).  And the mosque and statues were just sorts of fillers.  But it was an interesting day and had the day ended as planned fairly satisfying.

But the day ended in a major cluster f#*k for me!  I left Tajikistan and my Tajiki visa.  Walked across the 150 yards of no man’s land between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and presented my passport and Visa to the Uzbeki authorities only to find out that the multiple entry Visa I had paid the Visa company to obtain turned out to be a one entry Visa that I had already used to enter Tashkent

protect wes anderson GIF by Fox Searchlight

Uzbek border guards were adamant that I was not going to enter Uzbekistan and told me to go back to Tajikistan.  And once I got back to the Tajiki border guards they told me I wasn’t welcome there either.  So, there I stood on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere between two countries neither of which was going to let me in (Bitten in the ass by Karma).

And I spent the next seven-plus hours (5 pm – 1 am) on that dirt road in 55 to 65 degree temps wearing only a pair of shorts and a short sleeve shirt.  And since I had planned to be back at my Tashkent hotel by dinner time – all my clothes, Medicine, laptop, and money were in my hotel room.  Stranded on the dirt road I had a day pack with one bottle of water, a bag of dried apricots I had bought at the market, a couple of candy bars, an iPhone, iPad, and credit cards.

battery stay strong GIF

As I used up my battery life calling and texting the embassies in both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, my tour operator, and Hussain the sun was dropping and so was the temperature.  Just as it was beginning to look like I was going to spend the entire long dark night on the dirt road – the Tajiki foreign minister got involved. 

He called the border guards and ordered them to let me in on the condition that I will be out of the country in 24 hours.  The border guards like bureaucrats everywhere refused the verbal order and demanded the order in writing to cover their collective ass! 

the avengers victory GIFThankfully the foreign minister left his dinner party and went back to the office to fax the written order.  Still, the border guards resisted.  Finally, after some serious conversation, the foreign minister’s orders were followed and I reentered Tajikistan around one in the morning (1 AM).  My guide Hussain had a nice hot plate of Plav and a pot of tea waiting for me at a little café just inside the Tajiki border.

After devouring my Plav (rice, raisons, carrots, onions, herbs, and lamb) and warming on hot tea we drove back to Khujand to find a hotel room.  I found the last hotel room in the city with the promise I would be out by noon as it was already rented for the next night.

frustrated fuck my life GIFAfter a few hours of sleep, I found a store, bought a charger for my electronics and went to work finding a way out of Tajikistan.  My options were extremely limited.  I couldn’t get into Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, China, or Russia without a Visa.  My only alternatives were Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.  Unfortunately, there were no flights leaving Khujand for either country.

I finally found and booked a flight back to Almaty out of Dushanbe for early the following morning.  The only problem was Dushanbe was 190 miles on the other side of the Zarafshan Range of the Pamir-Alay mountains.  And I soon found out there is no train or bus service between the cities.  Hussain provided the answer to my problem when he picked me up for lunch.

It seems that there is an unofficial shared taxi/bus service between the two cities.  He took me to a parking lot in the center of the city where dozens of cars, vans, and SUVs were lined up with drivers hustling hundreds of people like me needing to get from Khujand to DushanbeHussain found me a ride in a small SUV and negotiated a price for the front passenger seat.  I assumed I would be the only passenger until a family of seven began piling in with all their worldly possessions. 

season 6 packed car GIF by The GoldbergsSo, for the next four hours, I was trapped in a small SUV designed for 5 people stuffed full with 9 and luggage.  And no one spoke a word of English nor I Tajiki.  We drove up and over the mountains with my day pack between my legs and a 5-year-old boy squirming in my lap. 

But, it wasn’t all bad.  The mountain scenery was dramatic and eye-popping and the family was very nice to me sharing their boiled potatoes and water.  We finally made it into Dushanbe just after dark and I spent my last night in luxury at the Sheraton Hotel.

And next morning I flew back to Almaty to buy new clothes, figure out how I was going to get my luggage, laptop, money, and medicine out of Uzbekistan and wait until my tour group finished the Uzbeki part of the tour so I could meet them in Turkmenistan when that Visa became effective.

Which brings me to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan 2019 the subjects of my next two blogs…

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5 Stan/Caucus tour: Almaty, Kazakhstan & Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in 2017 & 2019

Part 1: Almaty, Kazakhstan (October 4 -9 & October 14-18 of 2017; July 4-8 of 2019 )

Mountains above Almaty

I have visited Almaty twice by plan and once by necessity.  My first visit to Almaty was for a few days rest after six weeks of continuous travel thru Sweden, Latvia, Russia, Mongolia, and China and to begin an eight-country tour of Central Asia and the Caucuses along the famed Silk Road.  On my first visit, I spent the first 4 days exploring the city on my own and the final day on the first day of my planned group tour.  And quite frankly, if ancient history and culture is your interest you probably ought to skip this city.

The only pre-Soviet building I came across in all of Almaty was the Zenkov Cathedral built-in 1904.  

The Cathedral is still a functioning Russian Orthodox Church.  Unfortunately, the building was undergoing a major facelift during my visit and the scaffolding and plastic coverings seriously detracted from the wooden Cathedral’s obvious charm and beauty.  But the interior and frescos were still worth the visit.

The Zenkov is situated on the edge of the very pretty Panfiov Park and just across from the city’s spectacular Green Market.  The park has lots of large old shade trees and the stroll amongst them is very peaceful and relaxing.  There is a large Soviet-era bronze statue of Communist propaganda featuring a wall of bigger than life angry World War II Soviet soldiers charging out of the statue’s base prepared to bayonet women and children.  It seems out of place in such a quiet and peaceful park.

Almaty’s Green Market was the highlight of my planned and scheduled Almaty stop in 2017.  Vendors from all over Central Asia bring fruits, vegetables, meats, nuts, spices cheeses, honey, clothes and household goods to sell. The produce, meats, and dairy is all fresh from the farm and the prices are very fair.  The place is alive with aggressive sales pitches and eager but haggling customers. 

Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments

There is a small museum on the edge of Panfiov Park near the entrance of the Market worth a visit for an hour or so.  The Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments was the highlight of my second and unscheduled visit to Almaty.  The museum has amassed an interesting collection of Central Asian Musical Instruments.  The collection runs the gamut from strange to exotic with a few rare traditional instruments.

Arasan Baths in Almaty

One very cool thing I did all three times I visited Almaty planned or unplanned is spend one afternoon during each trip visiting the Arasan Baths.  These baths are the largest in all Central Asia for sure and maybe all of Asia.  Built during the Soviet Era this enormous marble structure takes up an entire city block.  The baths have everything a man or woman might need or want for an afternoon of relaxing, sweating, soaking, flogging yourself with birch branches, being scrubbed, massaged and polished before enjoying a nice glass of wine or beer.

There are separate facilities for men and women and the only place the sexes intersect is in the coffee shop/bar after their sessions.  As you walk in the imposing marble building you can stop and buy a traditional felt sauna hat and birch limbs complete with dried leaves for flogging your back, chest, buttocks, and legs while in the sauna.  Once inside a cashier will rent you towels, locker, rubber clogs, and charge your wrist band with all the services you wish to indulge in.  From there you enter the large locker room and change to begin your treatments. 

The Arasan has Turkish Steam Baths, Russian Banyas, and Swedish Saunas to choose from.  I, of course, chose all three just to be able to evaluate the differences.  Without question, the Russian Banya is the hottest temperature-wise and this seems to be where all the self-floggers hang out.  One interesting and shocking custom they have – is that after you can not possibly stand one more minute in the bath/sauna/banya there are a bunch of large wooden buckets suspended from the ceiling outside the hot rooms with ropes hanging down from the handles.

As you come out of the lobster pot you grab the rope and give it a yank.  You are then immediately dunked with 5 or 10 gallons of ice-cold water which sucks the air from your lungs, the strength from your legs and heat form your skin all within a nanosecond.  And then you are ready to go back for more boiling in the lobster pot. There are also several pools available for swimming or just soaking but I passed on those options, and grabbed a quick shower and presented myself to the massage room for a body scrub and deep tissue massage. 

The massage facilities and personal are unlike any I have come across before or since.  First of all, all massages are conducted in one large long tile room.  Every surface in the room is tile including what passes for massage tables.  The massage tables are simply large slabs of concrete covered in 4-inch tiles and you lie naked directly on the hard tiles for both scrubs and massages.  There are 8 or 10 slabs all in a row with no dividers for privacy – everything is out in the open in one large communal room. 

The second thing that is different is the people providing the massages.  They are young men that look to range between 18 and 30 wearing only very small tight swimming trunks from the 1950s or 60s.  All the boys just hang around toward the front of the tile room until their number is called and they go to work on some old fat guy like me.  I confess the first time felt a little awkward but in time I got used to it and the guys really do give a great deep tissue massage.

Once your massage is complete then it is back to the showers, street clothes, cashier, and bar for a nice cold beverage.  A great way to spend an afternoon before changing for the local pub for dinner and a night out.  And, in fact, this brings me to the best reason to visit Almaty.  The nightlife!  Even though this is a predominantly Muslim nation these people are secular and know how to party.  And Almaty has some great English style pubs that serve great food, offer a variety of good cold beers on draft, and live music on the weekends.  Whether you choose the Guinness’, Shakespeare’s, Mad Murphy’s or any of the other many fine pubs in Almaty you will have a good time. 

Pubs in Almaty

My introduction to the Pub scene was on my first night in town in 2017.  I was finishing dinner on the restaurant side as the band started up on the bar side.  Deciding what the hell, I don’t have to be up early to catch a flight or train I entered a packed pub with a decent band and a crowded dance floor.  I managed to find a spot at the bar and ordered a local beer and began watching the crowd cut loose on a Saturday night.  After a while, I hear a deep woman’s voice say “Why you so boring” I turned around to see a somewhat small-framed younger woman with the deep voice and asked, “You talking to me?”  She repeated, “Yes, why you so boring” Incredulous, I asked, “Why would you think I am boring?”

Which she answered by crossing her arms while making an exaggerated and comical frown with her face.  “You just sit here all night like this – you say nothing to nobody.”  And in my defense, I replied, “What the hell am I supposed to do I don’t speak Kazaki and no one here speaks English.”  That’s when she reminded me we were speaking in English.  And the big Russian guy sitting next to me at the bar nudged me and said in a booming voice “I f__king speak English.” Then the three-cute young local girls sitting on my other side started giggling and said in unison“ we speak English!” Then a guy from somewhere behind us with an Aussie accent said, “Hey mate I Speak English” and finally someone else pipes in “hell I am English.”

Bottom line – I had been sitting in a pub for two hours drinking beer, enjoying just watching the crowd and enjoying the show without saying a word to anyone afraid to start a conversation that would end in pantomime only to find out everyone in this city speaks some English.  The rest of the night was a blur because suddenly I had become part of the pub family and everyone wanted to buy me a beer or vodka.

Needless to say, I checked out other pubs during the remainder of my first stay in Almaty and when I ran into trouble between the Tajik and Uzbeki border (I will explain this cluster f__k in my next blog) and had to seek refuge back in Almaty for a week – back to the pubs I came.  I won’t bore you with all the details but will share one funny and bizarre experience.  When I flew back into Almaty from Tajikistan with only the clothes on my back and a day pack (all my clothes and most of my money was trapped in a hotel room in Tashkent, Uzbekistan) – the first thing I did was go shopping for some fresh clothes (had been in the same clothes for 3 days), the second place I went was the Guinness Pub.  And after way too many beers my friend Gulmira (You so boring) took me to a disco at 3 am where I could easily have been every person there’s grandfather!

As you might expect after too many beers at some point nature calls.  As I stood at a trough like urinal and began to lighten my load my eyes focused on the mirror in front of me and realized I wasn’t seeing my face in the mirror.  I blinked a couple of times, shook my head and tried to figure out what the hell I was seeing.  Slowly my mind cleared and I realized I was watching women in the lounge part of the ladies’ room fixing themselves up looking into the backside of the mirror I was looking at them thru.  The large mirror above the sinks in the ladies’ lounge was two way.  Men using the urinal to relieve themselves either had to watch women applying their lipstick, combing their hair, adjusting their bras ect… or close their eyes and risk missing the urinal and pissing down their pant leg.  A serious dilemma.  That’s when I decided it was time to go back to my hotel and act my age. Lol

Why I don't recommend Medeu Ice Rink & Kok-Tobe Hill?

One last point about Almaty before I tell you about Kyrgyzstan – the local tourist board will encourage you to visit the Medeu Ice Rink and the top of Kok-Tobe Hill.  Do not waste your time on either place.  The Medeu Ice Rink is billed as the highest ice skating rink in the world and maybe during the few months of winter it is – but the rest of the year it is drained and basically just a big concrete pit.  Definitely not worth the long drive out of the city to see what Jethro Bodeine (Beverly Hillbillies for you young folks) would call an empty cement pond. 

The Kok-Tobe Hill is billed as a major tourist spot but again is a major disappointment and 1960s style Florida cheesy tourist trap.  There is a cable car that can take you to the top for a panoramic view of the city but it only works some of the time.  I had to take a bus to the top.  The view is nice but not worth the ride and the only other things up there are souvenir shops, broken down kids’ carnival-type rides, photo booths, overpriced café’s and an oddly out of place bronze statue of the Beatles.

But to be honest the real charm of Almaty will not be found in historical sites, museums, or organized cultural tours.  To find the city’s real charm meet the people where they live, work and play – the Green Market, Parks, the Aarsan Spa, and any of the many Pubs scattered throughout the town.  In any of these places, you will run into a strange but friendly assortment of native Kazakis, Russians that never went back to mother Russia after the fall, expat Brits and Aussies all just out for a good time, good beer and good music.  If the old TV show “Cheers” were to take place in a city instead of a bar – it would take place in Almaty!

Part 2: Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (October 9-10, 2017)

Bishkek is the capital of Kyrgyzstan and was the second Stan on my 5 Stan/Caucus tour. Kyrgyzstan is a mountainous landlocked country settled by nomadic tribes from Siberia in the 13th century.  Before their arrival, the land was controlled by the Karakhanids.  This sparsely populated country has been the center of Asian conquest, trade and empires.  Traders from China, Europe, Persia, India, and Russia all passed thru the ancient cities, traded in the Silk Road Open Air Markets and stayed in the ancient stone caravanserai of Osh and Balasagun

Eventually, by 1867 the land now called Kyrgyzstan became part of Tsarist Russia and was lumped in with the other central Asian Stans to form Turkestan.  After the formation of the Soviet Union Kyrgyzstan became the Krighiz Soviet Socialist Republic.  In 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet State the Republic of Kyrgyzstan became an independent country.

Burana Tower/museum/gravestones

During my brief visit in 2017, I began my tour at the Burana Tower/museum/gravestonesBurana Tower is all that is left of the great 9th Century Silk Road city of Balasagun.  From the top of the tower, you can see for miles across the plains to the Tian Shan Mountains, a few remnants of the old city defensive walls, a small hill of 33 feet believed to hide a temple or palace complex, and some very curious gravestones with interesting markings.  The tower is actually all that is left of an ancient minaret that originally stood 132 feet tall.  After an earthquake in the 15th century only 83 feet were left standing. The tower is decorated with geometric designs in the brickwork and its pattern has been copied throughout Central Asia

You can climb up a very small claustrophobic spiral staircase for a great view of the area from the top of the tower.  The small museum associated with the tower contains a collection of relics and artifacts found around the complex.  Looking down from the top of the tower the most interesting site is a field of gravestones called bal-bals.

These bal-bals were originally used by the local nomads of the 6th century to represent enemies killed in battle.  But over time became memorials to their own departed love ones.  Some are simply pictographs on rounded rocks, others are carved slabs with faces and hands.  I have attached photos of the tower, the view from the top of the tower across grasslands where once stood temples, palaces, caravanserai, workshops, and homes in what was once one of the greatest cities of its time, and the graveyard of bal-bals.

Bishkek’s Open Air Market

Next up after our visit to the Tower was Bishkek’s Open Air Market.  And Bishkek’s Market was just as busy and wide-ranging in products as the markets from Irkutsk to Kashgar to Baku.  Spices, fresh fruits, dried fruits, nuts, vegetables, cheese, diary, meats, clothes, hardware or whatever you can imagine you can find in one of these markets.  

As we drifted from one end of the market to the next our guide challenged the group to taste a glass of Kumis (fermented mares milk).  The rest of the group was less than impressed and the few that tried it turned a little green.  But after drinking way too much Airag (what the Mongolians call their fermented mares milk) at a Mountainside Buddhist festival in Mongolia – I had developed a taste (or at least tolerance) for the tart and foamy alcoholic beverage.

Traditional Kyrgyz dinner

And finally, we sat down to a traditional Kyrgyz dinner in a large yurt.  In my never-ending effort to try every culture’s food and drink, I ordered an appetizer tray of grilled donkey and a horse meat T-Bone Steak.  And no neither tasted like chicken!  The donkey was sort of sweet but tasty and the horse T-Bone Steak was much leaner and stronger than a cow steak but pretty good. 

In fact, the only thing I ate throughout 5 months of travel thru Eastern Europe and Asia in 2017 that I absolutely did not care for was Camel Toe.  Now that was downright nasty!

Camel Toe is the part of the Camel’ hoof inside the hard shell and pad.  It has a consistency of jello if you mixed it with sand and it is served cold with a huge side of whipped cream.  I have been told since that the camel’s hump is very tasty and I look forward to trying that.  But I will never eat camel toe again.  And on that disgusting tidbit of culinary advice, I will conclude this blog and photos are attached from both countries.

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Last stop of China: Xi’an (July 3 -4)

I finished the China portion of my nine-month 36 country adventure in Xi’an because I wanted to try again to see the Terracotta Warriors.  I had also finished the China portion of a Silk Road trip I had taken in the fall of 2017 in Xi’an.  Unfortunately. I chose the wrong week to visit Xi’an in 2017.  Unknown to me at the time – the Chinese celebrate that same week as one of their most important holidays which means no school and no work for 4 bazillion Chinese.  And every Chinese family in all of China chose the day of my visit to see the Terra cotta Warriors.

Xi’an 2017 Wild Goose Pagoda

To say the 2017 visit was chaos and less than worthwhile would be an understatement.  In addition to four bazillions Chinese creating a massive mile long and 15 feet wide scrum spoiling the day – it rained!  So, I was not only shuffling along one six-inch step at a time with 15 person wide rows of shoulder to shoulder (in my case –their shoulders to my waist) people holding umbrellas with the points of the ribs at my eye and ear level.  Additionally, Chinese are used to crowds and no personal space and use their elbows liberally to create a little extra breathing room.

Unfortunately, a 5 foot 2 inch old crone’s elbow reaches the exact wrong spot on a 6 foot 3 inch wide-bodied American.  So, between the umbrella ribs to the face, the elbows to the family jewels and the fact that I never got near the railing of the pits containing the Warriors for a good look and quick photo the day was a major disappointment.

No crowds this time

With the last trip’s disaster in mind, I scheduled my time to be at the site when they opened and on a week day.  The plan worked – we were among the first people there and managed to stay in front of the unwashed masses throughout my tour.  I spent as much time as I wished along the observation railing of all three pits and took as many photos as I wished.

And this trip was very rewarding as I got to see and photograph many of the ranks of warriors in pit one as well as the archeologists reassembling the clay statues.  You probably think as I did that all the warriors were found entirely intact.  And you would be WRONG!

The clay army which includes 8,000 infantrymen – cavalry – archers, 130 horse-drawn chariots, 520 horses and the commanding generals were built by Qin Shi Huang, the 1st Emperor of China in 210-209 BCE to accompany him into the next life.  To ensure no one would disturb his army and leave him defenseless the emperor had everyone associated with the project murdered upon completion to protect his secret.  He must have missed someone because the tomb was discovered, looted and burned.

You might be wondering how clay figures in dirt pits could burn.  They didn’t, the timber roof above them that was then covered in dirt burned.  And as the heavy timbers burned thru the entire roof fell upon the Clay army breaking most into pieces large and small.  Only a very few clay statues were found intact.  In fact, the most famous is known as the kneeling archer and the only reason he survived was because he was kneeling instead of standing.

The archeologists have done an incredible job of piecing thousands of soldiers back together from millions of pieces of clay shards.  The government has also done an incredible job of creating an infrastructure that allows for the orderly viewing of the main pit and two additional smaller buildings containing the best intact figures and relics.

But their work is far from complete.  They still have hundreds of warriors, chariots and horses to reconstruct in the main pit.  Additionally, there are more pits that have not even been opened yet.  And all this massive archeological find laid hidden under a farmer’s field for over one thousand years.  Until his plow unearthed the first small clue as to what was below in 1974 and he carried it to the authorities.  Photos attached.

Xi'an City Wall 2017

But there is more to Xi’an than the Warriors.  The old city is surrounded by an incredibly well preserved great city wall with all its gates intact.  In the center of the old city stands two 13th century towers (the Bell and Drum) that are beautiful pieces of architectural art and a very interesting.  As you might guess the Bell Tower contains a huge bell that was rang at dawn and the Drum Tower contained a huge drum that was beat at dusk. Also in the very center of the old city is the chaotic and crowded Muslim Street Market worth loosing yourself in after dark. 

Xi'an City Wall 2017

Xi'an City Wall 2019

And finally, there is the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda that was built during the reign of Emperor Tang from 649 – 683 and stood 177 feet tall.  The Pagoda originally constructed of mud fell 50 years later and was rebuilt with bricks taller and sturdier but was damaged again by an earthquake in the 13th century.  Today’s pagoda was reconstructed after the earthquake and stands 210 ft tall.

On my 2017 visit, I walked part of the city wall this time I rented a bicycle and rode about half of it on the evening of my arrival.  And yes, I rode atop the city wall.  The wall is easily 10 meters across and provide plenty of room for walkers, cyclists, and even golf cart like little trams for the extremely lazy or unfit.

Murphy Feng, of Wind Horse Tour (https://windhorsetour.com/) selected the perfectly placed hotel for my visit.  The hotel was a short 500-meter walk to the city wall and a short 500 meter walk in the opposite direction to the Bell and Drum Towers and Muslim Street.  The hotel would have been perfect if the damn air conditioning actually worked!

Bell and Drum Towers

Xi'an Muslim Street

Due to some issues accessing the internet in China and a later problem on the Uzbeki border in 2017 I got so far behind on the blogs I just didn’t bother once I got my computer back in Turkmenistan.  I will write one last blog about my 2017 Silk Road adventure from Beijing to Kashgar.  And then as I write my 2019 blogs on Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan I will include things I saw and photos I took in 2017 in these three Stans as well as Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan.

2017 and 2019 photos of Xi’an’s Terracotta Warriors, City Wall, Drum and Bell Towers, and Muslim Street Market are all attached.

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6 Days in Tibet (June 14 – 19)

Tibet and Nepal have been on my bucket list for over 30 years and this year I will finally visit both.  I spent 6 days in Tibet in June and will spend 16 days in Nepal in the Fall.  My tour of Lhasa, Shigatse and the mountains and lakes between was organized by Murphy Feng of Windhorse Tour of Chengdu (https://windhorsetour.com/).  And, again, she provided me with an excellent itinerary, guide and driver.

Topsang, my Tibetan guide promptly presented me with a white silk Kadhak (welcoming scarf) upon our meeting and I found him to be friendly, knowledgeable, and most accommodating.  In fact, he was a little too zealous in trying to protect me from the effects of altitude.  I know that is his job and most of his clients are not accustomed to the rarified air of Lhasa (11,482 feet above sea level) or certainly not the 16,568 feet above sea level of the viewpoint of the Karolha Glacier we hiked up to.

Eventually, Topsang understood that I was familiar with altitude and its effects on the human body.  After all, I spend my winters in my condo at 9,400 feet and the tops of the mountains I ski daily are about the altitude of Lhasa.  And thru the years I’ve climbed a lot of 14 to 20 thousand foot peaks with no issues from altitude.  So, his constant “slowly slowly” was wasted breath on his part. 

But he was a great guide and companion for 6 days and I hope to see him again soon to visit more of TibetTopsang is a University graduate, part-time guide and part-time nomadic shepherd.  His family are nomads raising 300 yaks and 400 sheep in the far eastern province of Tibet.  

Yaks have been critical to the Tibetan culture for thousands of years.  Yaks provide meat, milk, butter, clothing, material for constructing Yurts and is also the primary beast of burden in the mountains.  They are well suited to grazing at high altitudes and traversing mountain trails.  Sheep and goats also do well at altitude and in cold weather and provide an alternative source of protein and clothing.  The remaining staples of the Tibetan diet include barley, potatoes, onions and garlic which are all grown locally.

 To reach Topsang’s home village from Lhasa requires a day train ride then a 5-hour drive.  His nomadic family lives in a regular house part of the year and a black tent (a waterproof/windproof tent made from tightly woven yak hair) during the grazing months in the high pastures.

Day 1

The first surprise I had was that the Lhasa airport is nowhere near Lhasa.  In fact, the airport is in a totally different city and hour’s drive from Lhasa.  Once we reached Lhasa, Topsang gave me a quick tour of the old city, checked me into the Yak Hotel, gave me a couple of tips for dinner, and suggested I take it easy to rest and not drink any alcohol the rest of the day to adjust to the altitude.

After assuring him I would follow his instructions I waited for him to leave the hotel and then headed over to the Dunya Restaurant and bar for lunch and a nice big mug of cold beer.  The Dunya is owned by a guy from Holland and features both a Tibetan and western menu and is right next to the Yak Hotel.  But the nicest feature to the place is its 2nd story veranda overlooking the main street in Lhasa’s Old Town.  Perfect for catching a nice breeze and people watching.

After a tasty Yak burger, fries, and a Lhasa beer, I was off to explore Lhasa on my own for the rest of the afternoon.  All total I walked over 10k in my wandering around while I rested and adjusted to the altitude.  And all the walking and resting worked up an appetite so back to the Dunya I went for a nice big plate of spaghetti with meat sauce, Buttered Nan (a delicious flat bread) and a couple more cold 20oz beers on the veranda. 

Day 2

Next morning Topsang met me as I finished my breakfast and we headed for the Potala Palace about 3k from the hotel.  As we began walking toward the palace, Topsang began briefing me on the history and dimensions of the palace.  About halfway there I think he decided that maybe the walk to the palace and then the climb to the top (650 vertical feet of stairs) would be too taxing for me so he hired us a bike-powered rickshaw to take us the rest of the way.  I didn’t bother to tell him I had already walked there and back on my exploration the afternoon before.

The Potala Palace is divided into two distinct palaces – the Red and the White Palaces.  The White portion of the palace was built in the 7th century by King Songtsen Gambo and the Red portion built in the 17th century by the 5th Dali Lama.  The Red Palace is the portion of Potala that is the domain of religion mainly consists of living quarters, chapels, tombs, stupa chapels, and monk dormitories.  And the White Palace deals with administrative matters, governance, and politics.

The 5th Dali Lama is the most sacred of the line of 14 Dali Lamas and is credited with building the Red Palace and Unifying Tibet.  The red pigment of the palace is from a plant that grows on top of the mountains of Tibet called Bom that creates a red pigment when combined with juniper. 

The 5th Dali Lama’s funerary stupa is the grandest in the palace.  It is solid gold with 10,000 turquoise, red coral and elephant pearl (elephant pearl is from the elephant’s brain and considered by Buddhist as very sacred) inlaid.

At the time of the Chinese Liberation or Invasion of Tibet depending on your politics in 1950 7,000 monks and the Dali Lama lived and worked in Potala Palace.  Today the 14th Dali Lama and most of the monks that managed to escape or were not murdered live in India with only about 300 remaining at the Palace.

After we toured the Palace we walked down to the local park to watch the locals participate in a Circle Dance (Traditional Tibetan Folk Dance).  I have included photos of the Palace, Park, Circle Dancing and various street scenes. 

Before I continue my travelogue, I would like to take a minute to talk about Tibetan BuddhismBuddhism was brought to Tibet in the 7th century by King Songsten Gambo. But the native population had practiced the Bon religion for centuries and resisted.  It wasn’t until the end of the 8th century that two Buddhist masters from India Padmasambhava and Shantarakshita built the first monastery in Tibet and combined the teachings of tantric Buddhism with the Bon religion and Tibetan Buddhism was founded.

There are Five separate sects of Tibetan Buddhism with Gelugpa or the Yellow Hat Sect being the most popular.   Master Ztsongkapa was the founder of the Yellow Sect over 1000 years ago. 

One oddity is that only the Syakapa sect allows the lama to have hair and marry.  And they practice tantric sex as part of their religious observances.

Saka Dowa is the most holy and sacred holiday in Tibetan Buddhism.  The holiday which ran the entire month of June celebrates the Buddha Shakyamuni’s birth, enlightenment, and death month.  Pilgrims from all over Tibet flock to monastery after monastery to pray, make offerings of money, yak butter, and Golden Liquid and to perform three Koras – the walking around a temple or monastery’s circumference from right to left chanting a mantra carrying a rosary or Prayer wheel.  My six day visit just happened to be during the climax of Saka Dowa for 2019.

The offerings of Yak butter and the golden liquid are deposited in large candle bowls to both make a physical offering to the gods as they ask for favors and to keep the candles burning to light the way for their dead loved ones to pass thru the darkness to the next life.

Prayer wheels, rosaries, and prayer flags are all central to the Buddhist pilgrim’s routine

The prayer wheel looks like a coffee or tuna can with a stick thru the middle.  The inside of the drum is covered with Buddhist scripture and the pilgrim will rotate the can on the stick as he recites his mantra while performing three Koras around the monastery. The rosary performs the same purpose as the prayer wheel and you see lots of people carrying and fondling the beads as they recite their mantra.  

You will see prayer flags strewn all over mountain passes, stupas, monasteries.  They are comprised of five colors repeated in the same series.  The red flag represents fire, the white the wind and clouds, green represents water, blue the sky and yellow the earth.

After watching the traditional circle dancing in the park and lunch we next visited the Sera Monastery the second largest in Tibet and founded in 1419.  The Monastery has an Assembly Hall, Three Colleges and thirty-three houses – none of which we saw.  Our purpose for visiting Sera was to watch the monks debate.

The debate takes place outside in an open-air shaded courtyard once a week.  And the way the debating works is the young monks will be paired off and debate Buddhist scripture and doctrines.  I admit the entire process confused me and led me to totally misunderstand what was going on.  I’ve attached several photos of groups of young monks in what looks like heated arguments.  You will see one monk standing the other sitting.  The one standing looks quite agitated slapping his hands together vigorously and yelling at the seated monk.  And the seated monk seems to be responding in a very quiet and measured tone.

Turns out that the standing monk is not angry at all, nor is he making a declarative statement.  The standing monk is asking the seated monk about a point of Buddhist doctrine or scripture and he winds up like a baseball pitcher and slaps his hands together as he asks the question for emphasis.  And the seated monk is explaining the doctrine.  This is how they learn the scripture and how to articulate doctrine.

The entire process is totally foreign to anything I have ever seen and if Topsang hadn’t been there to explain things to me I would have left there with a totally erroneous interpretation of what I had witnessed.  According to Topsang, every Monastery devotes one afternoon per week to this kind of Q and A and every monk participates both as a questioner and responder sharpening their rhetorical skills and understanding of Buddhist teachings.

Day 3

Day 3 in Lhasa and we were visiting two more monasteries.  First stop was the Jokhang Monastery in the morning and then the Drepung Monastery in the afternoon.  The Jokhang Monastery predates the Potala by several decades and was built in the early 7th century by King Songstan Gambo in the heart of old Lhasa

The most important statue in the Monastery is the one of Shakyamuni at age 12.  The statue was made in India and given to China as a gift.  When King Songstan Gambo married a Chinese Princess, the statue was brought to Lhasa as part of her dowry.

Inside the monastery is a labyrinth of halls and chapels filled with hundreds if not thousands of statues and images of Buddha.  In the meeting hall sits a large throne covered with a gold silk covering – this is the throne of the 14th Dali Lama currently living in exile in India.

After lunch, we drove about 10k out of town to the Drepung Monastery.  This is one of the largest monasteries of the Gelupa (Yellow Hat) Sect.  It was built in 1416 by Jamyang-Choje-Tashi-Phlden and before the “Great Liberation” over 10,000 monks resided within its massive walls making it one of the largest monasteries in Tibet.

There are six main temples – Garden Palace, Tsochen, Ngakpa, Losaling, Gomang nd Dyeyang.  The most important in these temples are the image of Maitreya, Yamantaka, Mitrukpa, Sutra-Kangyour with golden letters, thangkas silk scrolls, tomes of ancient Buddhist scriptures and countless golden butter lamps.  Unfortunately, photos are not allowed inside the temples so there are only photos of the exterior of the temples themselves but no relics.

After a day of exploring the two monasteries, Topsang left me on my own for dinner and any other trouble I might like to create.  After a quick bite, I walked back down to the Potala Palace to catch the sunset from an elevated perch.  Photos are attached of the sun setting, the Palace from a different angle than the morning before, and a little park and lake at twilight reflecting both man-made architectural art as well as a beautiful skyscape of puffy white clouds on a blue canvas of evening sky.

Day 4

Next morning, we were off for our long drive to Shigatse driving over and stopping at the Gambala Pass, Lake Yarndrok Tso (one of three sacred lakes of Tibet), Gyantse Town, Pekor Chode Buddhist center, the 35meter high Kumbum Stupa containing 100,000 statues and murals of Buddha and a stop to hike up a short ways to view the Karolha Glacier.

During the drive over the pass I saw the Tibetan Mastiff breed of dog for the first time, rode my first Yak, and took tons of photos of mountains, glaciers, lakes, fields of yellow flowers which the Tibetans use for making oil, and villages dotted with ancient stone houses.

After I checked into my hotel and grabbed a quick dinner I came across more circle dancers in a nearby park. I spent several hours enjoying the traditional music and watching the dancers.

Day 5

Next morning, we visited our final monasteryShigatse’s Tashi Lhunpo Monastery.  The Tashi Lhunpa was founded in 1447 by Gedun Drupa the first Dali Lama.  The Tashi Lhunpa is a Yellow Hat Sect monastery.  The most significant treasure is the tallest sitting statue of Maitreya Buddha in the world.  The statue is made of an alloy of copper and gold.  Additional, beautiful items include Banchan Lama’s Stupa, the golden stupa of the 10th Dali Lama, congregation halls, chapels, and too many sacred and cultural relics to list.  This monastery is the seat of the Panchen Lama linage.  Photos attached.

And after a long six hour drive back to Lhasa along the Northern Friendship Highway following the scenic Brahmaputra River I was back for one final night in Lhasa before flying on to my last stop on my Southern China excursion – Xi’an (home of the famed Terra Cotta Warriors).

And yes, the roof of the world was everything I had imagined – beautiful mountains, glaciers, lakes, rivers and grasslands dotted with herds of yaks, sheep, goats, and a few horses and cows at the lower elevations.  The stone buildings of the old cities and villages are like a time capsule preserved for hundreds of years.  And most Tibetans still dress, worship, and live as they have for centuries.  The land is harsh but the people are friendly and reflect the gentle calm of their Buddhist roots.  All in all, an excellent place to spend a week or month refocusing your priorities.

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Chengdu – Home of Pandas, the Blight Marriage Market, and the Changing Faces Opera

Wendy pretending to be old

I wasn’t expecting much from Chengdu.  As far as I was concerned it was just a transfer point from Lijiang to Lhasa.  Boy, was I mistaken!  I really wasn’t that interested in Pandas but the little firecracker of a tour guide (Wendy) would make watching paint dry interesting.  Wendy who I would guess is in her early 20s was bursting with energy and a silly streak a mile wide.  Which makes me wonder why in the world she majored in Petroleum English at University. She is a natural entertainer and communicator and really should find an outlet for her talents. 

But let’s talk about Panda’s now that I’m an instant expert on the lazy bastards.  As we toured the Chengdu Panda Base and walked from one area to the next Wendy offered up the following information about Pandas.  The first thing I learned is that Pandas have been napping daily on the earth for 8 million years.  And there are two types of Pandas the Great (White and Black) Pandas and their smaller cousin the Red Panda (kind of looks like an overgrown raccoon).  And there are only about 2000 Great Pandas left in the world. 

The role of the Panda Base is to help Pandas breed and then raise the offspring to eventually be released back into the wild.  You may wonder why Pandas need help breeding – simple they don’t reproduce often because they are extremely lazy.  In fact, Wendy gleefully told me they make the pandas watch panda porn for two months leading up to the mating season to get them in the mood and to overcome their lazy nature.

Mating season is from March until May but the female may only be in heat for between a few hours and a few days.  The male panda not only has to be virile he has- to be quick!  And if the magic happens in 4 months a brand new shiny panda is born weighing in at only 100grams.  Eventually, the little guy will grow to over 100 kilograms (220 lbs). 

A couple of pieces of panda trivia for your next game of Trivia Pursuit – panda milk is green and a Panda whenever they get up the energy to run can run at 40k per hour.  And a full-grown panda will eat 100bs of bamboo per day.  To which my first thought was the age-old question “Does a bear Sh_t in the Woods?”  The answer for Pandas – hell yes! A lot!  But Wendy says it is no problem because Panda Poo is quite fragrant and the Panda volunteers enjoy picking it all up.  I’ll just take her word on that one.

Up until the 1960s, only the people in the mountains knew pandas even existed.  Then some French guy stumbled onto one, captured it, and tried to smuggle it back to France.  The panda died in route but the French panda smuggler let the panda secret out of the bag.

And now you know as much about lazy pandas as I do.  I’ve attached photos of both the Great and Red Pandas as well as a photo of myself striking the Kung Fu Panda Pose (not very convincing but crazy Wendy insisted).

The next stop after our Panda adventure was a stop at the Wenshu Monastery.  This is the largest and best-preserved Buddhist Temple in Chengdu and was built in the Tang Dynasty.  You can see from the photos that the temple grounds are beautiful.  You will also see photos of both Wendy and I excitedly holding the giant stack of coins under a golden dragon’s claw.  Wendy says that touching the coins will bring you good fortune and by fortune she means riches!  I figured it couldn’t hurt.

Wendy and me trying to get rich quick

After the Monastery visit, we walked over to the People’s Park and observed one of the strangest processes I have ever come across.  It is called the Blight Marriage Market.  Apparently, Chinese parents believe any daughter who is not married by 30 is damaged goods.  So, the mother takes the initiative and tacks her daughter’s matrimonial resume to a tree or fence in the park for would-be husbands to peruse. 

Since I can’t read Chinese I asked Wendy to read a couple to me.  They say things like University educated, owns their own home, healthy, good cook, obedient, etc…  And, there are also ads for men looking for wives – some placed by the man’s mother others placed by men themselves.  One ad tacked to a tree was from a 40 something widower looking for a second wife.  His ad gave his vitals and what he was looking for in his next wife.

I didn’t do a very good job of framing but in a couple of the photos you can see some of the dozens upon dozens of older women sitting patiently waiting for either a man on the hunt for a wife or more likely a man’s mom to read her ad.  If she sees someone reading the ad she is ready to pounce and makes an in-person pitch for her adult child.

Wendy tells me many of the daughters or sons have no idea their mothers are posting these ads.  And when the Chinese version of a helicopter mom finds a match and the other prospective spouse’s parents agree it is a good match – they go thru a charade that they just met in the park or thru friends and thought the couple were ideal for each other.  Seems a little weird to me but I suppose it is no weirder than throwing divining blocks and leaving it to a god to pick your spouse.

Our next stop was another part of the park to watch all the local old people dressed up in their costumes dance.  I asked Wendy how old was older people and she replied you know old – retired over 55.  I had to tell her that her tip was in severe jeopardy as I turn 67 in just over a month and I don’t consider myself OLD!  Quick on her feet she immediately began telling me how I barely look 50 and how handsome I am and charming.  I’ve been in politics all my life and I know bullshit when I’m hearing it but she was so earnest I just let it go by telling she forgot to mention how fragrant I am.

Our final stop of the day was to the Shufengyayun Opera Tea House where we sipped green tea and watched a series of performances by Chinese folk artists before the main event the Sichuan Opera’s Changing Faces.  We saw a traditional Chinese Stage Performance with elaborate costumes and surreal Chinese instruments and singing, A Chinese Puppeteer, a shadow puppet show where a woman behind a screen and light made rabbits and birds with her hands, a Chinese version of the Honeymooners but with a skinny version of Ralph Kramden.

Then came the main event the Sichuan Opera’s Changing Faces.  I have no idea how the actors do it but they will be in one character then snap their fan over their face and in the blink of an eye their mask has totally changed.  And they will change mask four and five times in as many minutes without giving a clue of how they do it.  Wendy told me for centuries only men could perform in this opera.  And only in recent years have women been taught the secret art of face changing.

And as the curtain came down on the Opera so did the curtain come down on my time in Chengdu with my fantastic tour guide Wendy.  But before we parted she clued me in on a couple of facts about the people of ChengduFirst of all, they love spicy food.  Second the women have a reputation of being a little spicy themselves, and third, the rest of China considers people from Chengdu lazy.  I asked Wendy if the reputation was fair and she quickly agreed that they are as lazy as panda’s and proud of it.  And finally, she told me that the goal of most Chinese is to work for the government.  She says it is called catching the Golden Ball because once you have a government job you are guaranteed a lifetime job, good pay and a good pension without too hard of work.  And now I’m off to Tibet.

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