“If I die with any money in the bank, it was one trip I forgot to take.”
Living up to the realization of this mantra, I embarked on an exotic adventure to the ancient “Silk Road,” now the “Five Stans” —- the independent republics of Kazakhstan, Krygyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and then into the southern Caucasus countries of Georgia, and Armenia, all countries that had been part of the USSR, until the former dissolved in 1991.
Jeff Garrett, of JMG Tibet Tours, not only planned and executed the two tours, but also accompanied both.
When friends heard of my plans, the unanimous response, was, “Why?” Everyone tried to impart skepticism, fear, and uncertainty into my consciousness about risky travel into rarely traversed territory for American travelers. Americans are unique in Central Asia. I saw nary a one for seven weeks as our group of 16 adventurers traversed through the five Stans and the southern Caucasus.
This, it was with trepidation, I awoke in Astana, Kazakhstan, amid screaming colored lights at night, architecturally diverse modern structures — a seeming hodgepodge capital, created as a showplace city for the rest of the world.
Welcome to Central Asia.
In need of a cocktail, I ventured to a local store alone, where I tried to communicate “vodka and orange juice” to everyone in the market.
Several workers gathered round and traveled with me around the store. NO ONE spoke a word of English, nor comprehended. (Try demonstrating an “orange”.)
I finally left the food store with a close resemblance to the ingredients of a screwdriver. Everyone was smiling.
Serendipitously, we discovered a welcoming synagogue in Astana and were enveloped into the warm embrace of two rabbinate students doing outreach in Kazakhstan, who translated the Passover service into English, complete with colorful, comprehensive Haggadah prayer books. With very little common language, friends were made, bread was broken, and the evening was magical.
The regionally distinctive, colorful patterns of dress and hats were breathtaking. To combat the monotony of the desert sands, the fabrics are brilliantly colored with cacophonous stripes, and mismatched patterns that light up the monochromatic surroundings.
The rugged natural landscape was diverse. We needed ski jackets at the Shymbulak Ski Resort in Kazakhstan and T-tops for the heat of Uzbekistan, way before the summer skyrocketing temps began.
The ever-changing landscape unfolded through temperate grassy steppes, undulating valleys. and unrelenting windy, blazing deserts, dotted with freely-roaming Uzbek camels and their hook-carrying shepherds. Each day was a blank template, filled with unknown, unexpected adventures.
In Kaokal, Kyrgyzstan, our adorable youthful guide, Ramil, was amused as a gaggle of giggling Kyrgyzstani women were staring, pointing, whispering, and eventually gesturing, “Are you an American?”
When you shake your head to the affirmative and say, “I’m from the United States”, their faces break into a gold-toothed wide smile, and their thumbs point upwards with emphasis. Often, never-ending bear hugs accompanied the grins.
Although the pervading feeling is one of militaristic control in capital city Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, the people were warm, friendly, curious, and open with their unabashed enthusiasm, welcoming people they normally do not see — Americans.
We hiked up to the top of Sulaiman Too, Sacred Mountain, of Osh, Kyrgyzstan, through lush, flaming red poppy fields, and interacting with the smiling, welcoming pilgrims on their sacred pilgrimage, touched my heartstrings.
Crossing the tiny Uzbekistan border, again on foot, I was fearful that some of us wouldn’t pass the intrusive examination of our belongings. Seeking “mind-altering” drugs, including sleeping pills, the guards were thorough.
When the non-English speaking guard held up my Passover souvenir box of matzohs from Kazakhstan, she curiously queried, “What is this?” in hesitant English. My mind racing through everything I had been warned — the Uzbek’s do not want religious items imported — I rapidly explained what these “crackers” were: they increased body strength and vitamins! Without hesitation, the guard removed the giant matzoh from the box, smiled, peered at it, and then broke off a huge hunk and ate it!
Needless to say, I threw away the remainder after crossing the border successfully.
In Istaravshan, a city in Sughd Province, Tajikistan, a group of well-behaved school children were out on a “clean the sacred area around the walled city” field trip. As usual, our group was an oddity. We were surrounded, with everyone wanting us to take his or her picture, while hugging, high-fiving us, and totally involved in the merriment. The genuinely excited youngsters didn’t want us to leave.
Wherever we traveled, college-age youths would follow us, displaying a friendly openness, curiosity and persistence about wanting to “interview” or talk to us. They would stare, giggle, point, and then push each other forward. They wanted us to have photos of them, on our cameras. They also were desperate to practice their English. That’s all they wanted. It was sheer, unadulterated joy.
The rebirth of the culture and skills that have been suppressed under the Soviet Union are evident with their colorful IKAT dyeing techniques, carpets, metal arts, and many other crafts. It was amazing to see different religious customs, now allowed to exist, side by side in these countries, since independence.
Although the Five Stans countries are predominantly Muslim, there are a number of Central Asians who quietly practice the tenets of the ancient religion Zoroastrianism. Whenever we witnessed this faith’s pre-Islamic religious traditions in the Stans, I was fascinated. For example, we saw them walking around the giant Koran model repeatedly, walking around touching parts of a sacred tree; the belief is that this will bring them fertility and fulfill good luck and good health.
Driving from Samarkand, Uzbekistan, to Bukhara, Uzbekistan, was an all-day trip, over the caravansary route, the precursor of today’s truck stops. A network of these caravanserais were set up along the major trade routes that connected Asia, North Africa, and southeast Europe with the distance of a day’s travel between them.
This reminded me of Franciscan friar, Junipero Serra, who created 21 California missions one day’s horseback ride apart. The caravanserais were created with the same functionality: one day’s journey between each where the camels would be rested and fed, and people would be able to bathe, eat and rest overnight. We were on the same “Silk Road.”
I was able to bake Uzbek bread, kneading the dough, stamping it with Uzbek decorative stamps in the center, and then, with arms covered in elbow-to-fingertip gloves, slap it onto the sides of a flaming, clay beehive oven, without scorching the hair on your arm.
The Silk Road is a journey back in time. The markings on the ground at Khiva, Uzbekistan, are from carts hundreds of years ago. The feelings that pervade your consciousness are overwhelming.
As we moved into Dashoguz, Turkmenistan, crossing yet another border on foot, we were immediately impressed with the sea of “uniformity” of the young people’s clothes. All the adolescent girls wore long green dresses, adorned with varying Turkmen embroidered decals on the front, with waist-long braids draped in front of them. As the girls matriculated into high school, all the costumes changed to red. When they marry, the braids disappear.
The unusually elevated headdresses of the Turkmen women (boosted by a foam form) indicate beauty, status, and wealth. They seem to be in competition for whose headpiece will reach higher.
I completed the first half of my Central Asian experience, in the awe-inspiring, all-white, marble capital city of Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Our mouths open, speechless, we observed starkly amazing, out-of-this-world structures and ministries, each one more unusual than the other. The city was covered in imported white marble, on every surface.
The one catch: there was not a single soul on the streets (except for the ubiquitous street sweepers). The adulation of the past president, Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov, who served as the leader of Turkmenistan from 1985 until his death in 2006, is evident with life-sized photos, which are posted everywhere, as well as his book of spiritual and moral guidance, immortalized in space and in an earthly monument.
As we were waiting at the Ashgabat Airport, for a day’s “hop” to the UNESCO ancient city of Merv, the 12th century’s largest oasis in Central Asia, I heard some joyous singing and celebrating. I ran over to the source and was gob-smacked at the unabashed, genuinely joyous group of Turkmens, singing, dancing, and preparing for a double marriage-to-be.
Two beautiful brides, in traditional wedding costumes, hidden under their discretely hanging headdresses, were not wasting a minute of this bridal week. One of the ladies signaled to me and lifted the veil, so I could take a photo of the shy brides’ faces. A touching gesture was so indicative of these wonderfully welcoming people.
As we were walking out the Sultan Sanjar’s Mausoleum, in ancient city, Merv, a group of Turkmen women walked over to me, looked into my face, and then one of the women grabbed me with such force, and started to hug me. It was so spontaneous and unexpected, while the rest of the shining gold-toothed Turkmen women smiled broadly. I was touched with the solemnity of their pilgrimage, and joyousness of the moment, reaching out to the foreign Americans.
One of our last forays into the ancient past was to the Parthian Fortresses of Nisa, one of the most important cities of the Parthian Empire, a major power from the mid-3rd century B.C. to the 3rd century A.D. This ancient civilization was a barrier to Roman expansion, as well as a thriving commercial city. One ruling dynasty replaced another until the 13th century, when once again, the Mongols arrived and razed the city to the ground.
As we were exploring the recently unearthed, UNESCO Nisa site excavations, we happened upon a major Turkmen singing star photo shoot; the singer was wearing a brilliantly adorned traditional costume. The magnificence of the ancient costume was amazing; it weighed a ton. She graciously posed for us, swirling around, with the Parthian as her backdrop. This was one of those “moments” that make travel so inspiring.
At the farewell dinner, the 16 intrepid travelers, now good friends, dressed in our new traditional dresses, and had a sweet parting at the Ashgabat International Airport.
As I flew away to embark on the next part of my adventure, I dreamed about the southern Caucasus countries of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia. Slightly exhausted, I wondered what twists and turns were waiting for me.
As Mark Twain mused, “Travel makes one modest; you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”
To be continued: Part 2, the Caucasus.