A stay at the relatively new TWA Hotel at JFK airport, an extended layover in Istanbul, and a 2 week small group tour through the highlights of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
The countries of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan slipped into my radar a while ago because I closely follow the sport of figure skating whose top level athletes have included several from those countries including Denis Ten, Tatiana Malinina, and Misha Ge among others. Although aware of the region, I can't say I felt a huge desire to actually visit there. But as my travel horizons continued to expand, I started to become more and more interested in spending some time visiting a bunch of the 'Stans.
I often grapple between the competing desires of traveling to as many countries as possible and spending some in-depth time exploring a single country. Usually the destination ends up making that decision for me. For example, New Zealand was a country where the challenge was limiting the places that piqued my interest to those I could manage to cover during a 2 week visit (the maximum amount of time I can take off from work). But Central Asia was more culturally and geographically unknown to me so I thought it might be more suitable to try to sample a variety of places so I could learn more about the area. I researched a tour company that a social media friend had used to travel to the region and their tour visiting 5 'Stans (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan) was wonderfully intriguing in the variety of experiences it offered. The itinerary was certainly consistent with my unofficial 2019 goal of aggressively expanding my travel horizons. I was still dealing with too much depression and anxiety to organize a trip myself, so that was another reason it made sense for me to sign up for another group tour.
Working with the travel company was wonderful. They took care of all the paperwork required for Visas or Letters of Invitation required to enter some of the countries, and their email communication was excellent. As the departure time grew nearer, I found out that my group would be super small- just 5 travelers (they max out at 12). I think this means that we won't get a dedicated tour guide traveling with us, but all the same activities and transfers would be included.
When researching airfare, the best deal seemed to be using Turkish Air. Having never visited Turkey, I scheduled an extended layover in Istanbul (which fortunately I could fit in without taking off any additional days from work). I booked a private tour that boasts great reviews on TripAdvisor because I had a stellar experience taking a similar tour (from a totally different company) on my previous year's layover in Casablanca. As of this writing, rain unfortunately appears to be in the forecast for Istanbul on the day of my visit. I'll just have to make the best of whatever happens, with the knowledge that I can visit again in the future. Everyone tells me one day is not enough for Istanbul, anyway.
I've done little, if any, research into the areas I am traveling beyond the literature from the tour company so I'm looking forward to approaching my adventure with minimal preconceived expectations. Glancing through pictures on the tour company's website, I've been very intrigued by both exotic architecture and bucolic landscapes. We are scheduled to spend one night camping by a burning crater which will not only be exciting but it should also be a good test of whether I can handle trips that include multiple nights in such basic accommodations. (I figure I can handle just about anything for one night- and I've definitely wanted to try camping close to nature) It's going to be a very fast paced trip- obviously, since there are so many countries to cover in just a couple of weeks- and I look forward to all the stories that will unfold.
After trying to figure out the logistics of getting to JFK airport in time for my Saturday flight which was scheduled to depart at 12:30pm, I came to the conclusion that if I had to rely on public transit, I'd have to get up stupid early and feel rushed to make connections. I knew I'd be much more comfortable if I could get into the area on Friday night. I'd considered staying at the relatively new TWA hotel which had piqued my interest ever since it had been announced, but by the time I was ready to make plans it was sold out. As is typical for me when I want something, I persisted in checking periodically… and 2 days before my anticipated arrival, I managed to book a room! I was unable to book a runway view which I would have preferred, but I was super excited to be able to check out the hotel. It seemed like a fun and convenient way to start my adventure.
After I wrapped up work for the day, I ordered a ride through Lyft since I had a coupon to use. This was my first time using a ride service from home and I was a little nervous about getting a pick up in my suburban location. The app said that a vehicle was 10 minutes away- great! But then the estimated time failed to decrease… and the map showed the car taking some odd turns, such as getting on a highway when it was already in the neighborhood.
In all, it took about 30 minutes for my ride to arrive. I figured it would save a bit of money to head to Trenton station instead of my usual Hamilton, and I arrived there just in the nick of time to make it onto a pleasantly uncrowded express train to Penn Station, NYC. This leg of the journey was totally in my comfort zone since I'm used to taking the same route when I see Broadway shows.
I'd considered hanging out a bit in the NYC station for dinner but ultimately decided to try one of the restaurant hotels. Once on the train, I was able to estimate my arrival time and I snagged a reservation that I felt would allow for a very comfortable buffer in case of minor delays. So once I arrived in the city, I made my way through the station to take a Long Island Railroad (LIRR) train to Jamaica, Queens. I'd already downloaded the app to use to purchase tickets; it's amazing how much more convenient travel is with the internet and smart phones than it was when I first started going on solo trips.
I was only on the LIRR for a very short time so I didn't feel too guilty about taking up an extra seat with my roller bag. Once I arrived at Jamaica station, I started to feel my adventure kicking into a higher gear since I'd never been there before. Exploring unknown transit particularly appeals to my inner geek. At any rate, it was very easy to follow the signs to the JFK AirTrain where I reloaded my Metrocard with enough value to cover a round trip journey. At this point, I couldn't wait to reach my destination- I was super excited and it felt like the trip was taking forever. But I was glad to be making the journey when not pressed to arrive at a specific time.
To get to the TWA hotel, you take the AirTrain to Terminal 5, and then follow the signs to the JetBlue terminal and then head to the bag claim area. The sight of an elevator in the corner with the TWA logo on the door brought a smile to my face… one that grew even brighter as I embarked and hit the button for "1960s TWA Hotel" (the other option, which I came from, was labeled "Present Day JetBlue") From there, directions on a window instruct you to walk through a tube and then veer left to the Arrivals Hall. With its bright red carpet and stark white curved walls, the corridor sets the perfect mood for being transported to an era when airplane transit was at its height of glamour. I felt like a little kid who was about to get the best present ever, and that joyful mood continued throughout my stay at the hotel. In researching this entry I've discovered that there is a more direct way to reach the hotel from the AirTrain by walking outside and bypassing the terminal… but that method was not publicized at the time, and it's surely not as fun.
The front desk looks exactly like the check-in area in an airport terminal. There's even a conveyer belt in the back which apparently is used for luggage storage/delivery. Each station has a self serve touch screen area that you can use to check in and activate your key. I later noticed some staff at the far end of the counters who I assume could help, but taking care of this task myself suited me. As I went through the process, a screen prompted me with the question of whether I wanted to upgrade to a runway view for an additional $30. HELL YES I did! My trip was definitely off to a magical start. I grabbed one of everything that wasn't nailed down- including a branded red sharpie and a card with a rough map of the hotel's common areas- and headed to my room… trying not to get too distracted by the amazingness of the decor; I had to remind myself that it would be much easier to marvel at everything when not encumbered with my bags… and when I could have my DSLR around my neck.
One of the most intriguing features of the hotel is how it gracefully combines nostalgia with modern technology. That motif was strong in a room with a sleek decor that contained such modern conveniences as a wireless phone charger (which I'd never previously seen in a hotel room) juxtaposed with old-fashioned items like a rotary phone. I loved all the TWA branded touches including vintage posters, drinking glasses, and a terry bathrobe you can use during your stay. But perhaps the best feature is that the rooms have modern sound-proof windows that extend from floor to ceiling; not a noise from outside disturbed my stay despite being just across from an airport runway.
Some critiques of the room have mentioned a lack of drawers and closet space but had I not read those reviews, I wouldn't have noticed. Let's be real here- most people staying at an airport hotel are only there for a night (or less; day rates are available). I don't think I ever use hotel drawers for a stay of less than a week. If you need to unpack for a 1 night stay, I think you may be doing it wrong. The room is not the largest, but again I don't need a spacious environment for such a brief visit- even if I am not solo. It's very comfortable and tastefully decorated. If it was up to me, I'd probably add some more whimsical touches… but my sense of style runs far from the current trend of clean and simple lines. (that's a nice way of saying that I am fond of decor that many would consider loud or tacky)
Freed from my bags, I had about an hour until my dinner reservation and used that time to explore as much of the public areas as possible. There was so much to take in- a true feast for the senses! A soundtrack of classic instrumental tunes such as "New York, New York", helped create a mood that you'd stepped into a different era. That feeling was accentuated by the clicking of letters changing on 2 large old fashioned faux arrival/departure boards. These did not display any accurate airport information (although any times were current to the clock), but both their visual and aural qualities were essential in unconsciously reminding the visitor that they had entered a world of the past. Plus, they created a pulse.. a sense of constant energy, even at times when there were few guests milling around.
The TWA hotel is housed in a space that was a fully functional airport terminal from 1962 to 2002. The architecture of this building- full of curves, slants, and open spaces- is incredibly unique and awe inspiring. Just walking around the space was a treat. Oozing with character, it's the antithesis to a typical, boxy, cookie cutter hotel. The centerpiece of the lobby is surely the expansive Sunken Lounge. With plush seats and carpet colored in the standard TWA red, it boldly stands out as a welcoming venue to sit and gaze out windows that extend vertically the entire height of the building. This lounge is home to one of the departure/arrival click boards. Rather than displaying faux flight information, this one alternates through various designs that include TWA, JFK, 1962, "Welcome" in various languages, and a US flag. Drink service was available though I did not have a chance to partake.
While the high level design would be incredible enough, the hotel is enriched by detailed and creative uses of the space that are in line with the overall 1960's feel. The most visually fun might be the Twister room with walls, floor, and ceiling all decorated with colored circles reminiscent of the iconic game- with a giant spinner on the wall. The photo booth room, wallpapered in squares of vintage (or possibly vintage inspired) photos is another great little area. It even features a fully functional old fashioned photo booth which, in a modern twist, will email you the photos you pose for. There was a slot for print-outs but either that was just for decoration or it wasn't working during my stay. Since I'd rather have electronic photos anyway, it wasn't a big deal. In any case, it was free so naturally I tried it out a few times- why not?
Wandering around, I delighted in other fun touches such as hotel phones themed as 10 cent rotary pay phones, snack kiosks themed with 1960's era magazines and newspapers, and a series of shoe shine stands. One corner of the mezzanine features a museum-like display of various TWA flight attendant uniforms, many by famous designers. A favorite corridor of mine was lined with vintage TWA posters which enticed the viewer to marvel what it might have been like to travel to the depicted destinations in simpler times.
The Food Hall, which is lined with quick serve kiosks that were mostly closed during my visit, is decorated with large black and white vintage cutouts alongside colorful old fashioned luggage and cargo uniforms. There are even TWA carts and a powder blue Chrysler sedan. This area was formerly used as a departures hall, and the stands maintain the design of a series of gateside check in desks.
Perhaps the most intriguing use of space is the Connie, a 1958 Lockheed Constellation airplane that has been converted into a cocktail lounge. To reach it, you have to walk outside and around the hotel, passing a luggage vehicle which adds just the right visual touch to make it feel like you are approaching a passenger jet that will soon be off to its next destination. I was a little nervous about boarding since I'd come to realize that there was a large event at the hotel and I wasn't sure if perhaps the lounge had been reserved for them. Nonetheless, I climbed a stairwell bearing the phrase "Up Up and Away With TWA" to take a peek around. I didn't have enough time to sit and enjoy a drink, which is definitely something I'd like to do in the future. But I was glad just to be able to walk up and down the interior aisle marveling at the mixture of vintage seats and more plush side facing sofa banks. You can also check out a genuine looking cockpit area. The Connie is truly unique and well worth even a quick look.
At some point when I was walking around with my camera and enjoying the sights, someone asked me if I'd be taking pictures the next day. Well, of course I would! Just not for whatever event they were associated with. I always chuckle at the respect I get for walking around with a big camera… despite the fact that I am such an amateur.
Finally it was about time for my dinner reservation and I was starved! The Paris Cafe is located on one of the mezzanine areas and like every other area, it was a visual delight. I decided to start my journey off with a toast but was disappointed that the Lychee Raspberry Bellini was not available; the server offered me a Strawberry Bellini as an alternative. I enjoyed my drink but I couldn't help but wonder what the lychee raspberry version might have tasted like.
The menu was decidedly modern. Although I quite enjoyed the unique taste of my Black Truffle Pizza with egg on it, I tend to agree with the reviews mentioning a wish the restaurant served more of a 1960's menu. But then again, the current offerings are consistent with the hotel's fusion of modern touches with a classic background.
My food took about 30 minutes to be served, during which time I was drooling at the scent of fries at an adjacent table populated by a group who'd arrived after me. I was nervous about ordering something outside my typical comfort foods but, as mentioned above, it turned out to be a fabulous choice. I hadn't intended to order dessert… but when there is a Warm Chocolate Chip Cookie on the menu, there's basically a law that I must try it. Alas, it was slightly disappointing as I wished it had been served at a warmer temperature… but it's hard to totally mess up a cookie so I still enjoyed it.
One of the tiniest details I appreciated was how the bottom of the check for my meal included the typed line "Have A Great Flight". I was satisfied with my meal overall, although the service could have been more prompt. It was definitely not cheap, but sometimes you just need to splurge and go with it- especially when celebrating the start of a vacation!
It was pretty late when I was done eating, but I spent a little time exploring a couple of exhibits at the end of the corridor leading to the wing of rooms where I was staying. This area included a model of the terminal and a small corner that was fashioned as a design office of architect Eero Saarinen, complete with blueprints. But my favorite part was the colorful recreation of a 1962 era living room! You could walk around this area freely and I was surprised how many items there didn't appear to be bolted down at all; the cynic in me wondered how long some of them might be around. The level of detail in the room was truly amazing.
At about 11pm, I headed up to my room to go to bed. I planned to awaken early the next morning to take advantage of as much daylight time as I could for further exploration before heading off for my flight. I'd been nervous when I'd headed out, especially since I had to take an uncharted path of transit, but the TWA hotel truly brought me into the mindset of a traveler eager to head out into the world, open to whatever adventures were waiting for me. I was so glad I was able to spend the night there.
I thought it would be fun to watch the sunrise from the rooftop pool but the viewing area didn't open until 7am. When I awoke to my 6:30am alarm, the sky already was brightening with color even though the sunrise was technically just before 7. It was pretty cool watching some planes take off into the nascent morning sun from the vantage point of my room.
After taking a shower, I arrived at the rooftop pool just after it had opened. I made myself comfortable on a lounge chair and was thankful to be able to use the beach towel that had been rolled up on it as a makeshift blanket. It was quite chilly out and my light sweatshirt wasn't nearly warm enough. Despite the temperature, I enjoyed lazing by the pool, eating a breakfast bar, and watching one plane then another take off for parts unknown. Clouds of steam drifted upward from the heated infinity pool which added a surreal feeling to the landscape I enjoyed in a solitary peace.
After eating, I walked around the perimeter of the roof. In one corner, there is a pool bar which serves light meals and snacks but it wouldn't be open until later in the day. One side provided a great view into the hotel lobby, with the tables from the Paris Cafe and Lisbon Lounge clearly visible. I mostly had the area to myself… or, more accurately, I was the only person crazy enough to sit outside on a blustery fall morning! I wasn't insane enough to take a dip into the pool, although I did dip my fingers in ever so briefly.
There is a small indoor area by the elevator which, as one might expect, was decorated with attention to detail. The walls featured blown up ads which were spot-on thematically: 2 featured people enjoying vacations by a pool; a couple others depicted people watching aircraft fly by.
When I felt I'd seen enough (and craved some warmth), I decided to revisit some other areas of the hotel to take photos with better light. In particular, the exhibit of flight attendant uniforms was much more photogenic during the daytime. I also was able to visit the TWA store which was just opening at 8am; I believe it had been closed by the time I'd arrived the previous evening. They sold a lot of cute items, but none seemed essential enough to carry around for a 2 week adventure.
I once again braved the chill and ventured outside again to take a few photos of Connie in the daylight. It was too early for the lounge to be open, of course, which is why I'd visited the previous evening despite being pressed for time. I also poked my head outside the front of the hotel for a couple minutes and saw that a vintage convertible was stationed there. I loved how the uniforms of the parking attendants resembled airline maintenance crew jumpsuits.
All too soon, it was time to head back to my hotel room one more time to gather up my belongings to head out. While taking some photos of the room with planes taking off in the background, I was glad I'd chosen to sleep in the bed furthest from the windows; this way, I could take pictures with a pristine bed in the foreground.
One last detail to enjoy was a re-creation of former owner Howard Hughes' office just by the entrance to the terminal. I hated leaving the hotel but I vowed to be back. Given how often I've flown from JFK, I figured it would be easy to work in a return visit where I could include the things I missed such as enjoying a cocktail in Connie, ordering a snack by the pool, and just having a little more time to relax. Soon after my stay, the hotel announced a seasonal ice rink with nightly performances also appealed to me. Alas, as of this writing, Covid has put any thoughts of leisure travel on hold… but hopefully some day…!
The TWA hotel is an absolute must to visit if you are a travel nerd like me, but I think most anyone could enjoy their stay. The level of detail is so outstanding that I can't possibly describe it with words. If not traveling solo, you could have a ball posing for fun photos.
Some of the initial issues described from the May opening seemed to have been worked out by the time of my stay, although I felt the restaurant service could still stand some improvement. There were some complaints about the long corridors and lack of luggage service, neither of which bothered me at all since I'd packed with the aim of being able to manage my luggage through multiple borders and fast paced movement. (and I did see someone helping a guest by wheeling a cart with her luggage so the hotel may have upped their game with that kind of service). On surface, the hotel seems expensive… but it compares favorably with prices for hotels that have much less character in Manhattan. And of course it's super convenient for a morning flight from JFK.
I'd definitely had a more relaxing morning than if I'd had to schlep all the way from home, so my hotel stay was as practical as it was fun. It was quick and easy to take the AirTrain to Terminal 1 where I needed to check in for my Turkish Air flight to Istanbul. Arriving at the terminal, I was struck by a 9/11 commemorative sculpture. When a nice lady saw me take a photo of it, she offered to take one of me and I figured why not.
There was nothing noteworthy about my time waiting to board my flight. I'd arrived quite early and had no major waits for check in or security.
The flight to Istanbul was scheduled to take just under 10 hours- so while it was a long flight, it wasn't nearly as crazy long as some others I've taken. Like other Asian airlines, Turkish Air provided a higher level of service than American carriers- notably giving out a small packet of travel items to those in economy like me. Although the flight attendants were skeptical of my claims that the first one they gave me had a stuck zipper, they did eventually replace it.
The food was ok- I had pasta for the main meal, and scrambled eggs before landing. The cheesecake served with my entrée was a highlight. It felt classy to be eating with regular silverware despite traveling in coach class.
There was a screaming toddler on the plane but fortunately I got some sleep. Rest was essential because I had a 15 hour layover ahead of me in Istanbul during which time I'd booked a private tour of city highlights. I definitely wanted to be able to be awake enough to appreciate my first visit to this intriguing city.
As the plane touched down at Istanbul Airport, passengers clapped in approval which seemed a little odd for a flight that had gone completely smoothly; such a reaction seems more apropos when there is a delay or turbulence or some other event that causes the end of the flight to be cause for celebration. We'd landed at 4:45am, a half hour early, and it was still pitch black outside. Normally I'd be elated to have stolen some extra time at my destination- but sites wouldn't be opening sooner nor would my tour guide be arriving more quickly. Of course it was raining out; I'd almost come to expect wet weather to greet me on my travels.
It was quite a long walk to get through customs- my phone calculated that I'd walked a half a mile through the building. Opened less than a year earlier, the airport was bright, airy and modern. I'd applied for an e-Visa for Turkey online and the process was quite easy. My luggage was checked through to my final destination of Almaty so I didn't need to stop at the baggage carousel.
Exiting from the secure area brought me to a small clearing surrounded with railings where clusters of locals were waiting to meet arriving passengers. This is normally the part of the story where I glance around, see my name and start heading off with a smile. Only this time, I didn't recognize my name on any signs. I figured maybe fatigue caused me to miss it, so I methodically circled around and checked carefully- nope, I still didn't see anything even close to my name. I am sure I repeated this routine several times, with the result always the same.
Finally, a guy offered to help me. I gave him a print out of my tour confirmation and he called the company but they didn't answer- which is probably not surprising given the time. I hadn't researched a back-up plan, like I had in similar circumstances in Casablanca, so I had no idea what to do if no one ever showed up. I looked around again and then re-read the paper confirming my tour. For the first time, I noticed that it gave some detail on the 3rd party company meeting me- it said they were known as "M44." Lo and behold, I was able to spot a sign matching that identifier- it was attached to the very same guy who had offered to help me! I asked to look through the pile of papers that were in his hands- and shocker, he had one with my name on it. Argh. So he was there the whole time! When I asked why he wasn't holding it up, he said that it was because I wasn't expected until 6am. I have so many questions… How is it even possible that someone who works as a greeter in an airport is not aware of the phenomenon of flights arriving early?!?! Did I give out my flight information for kicks?!? And then when he looked at my email, did he not recognize my name, the name of the tour company or M44?!? When he called the company for me, was he unaware that he had a passenger arriving from them?!?
At any rate, at least things were settled and I was grateful I wouldn't have to improvise a 15 hour layover on little rest. The greeter told me we would leave at 6 which gave me some time. I set off in search of the left luggage area to store my large backpack for the day. I didn't immediately see anyone working there, but then I caught sight of a man using the bottom shelf as a makeshift bed. I got his attention, and was glad to be free of my bag. I'm not sure if I used the ATM then or a little later, but I took out the equivalent of $20. I went back to the international arrivals area and sat down waiting for the appointed hour of 6am.
Finally, my greeter led me to a garage with the car that would drive me to meet my guide for breakfast. During the ride into the city, all I could see was darkness and rain. After we got into the center of town, we picked up my guide and then the 2 of us were dropped off at a little corner restaurant. I appreciated that the guide was equipped with a large umbrella for my use.
I can't remember what was on the menu at the restaurant, but for some reason absolutely nothing appealed to me. Sometimes when I am tired and overwhelmed, it's hard for me to find anything that seems appetizing, especially if the options are not very familiar. Someone mentioned that they could get me a bagel from a neighboring shop and that sounded much better! Alas, what they brought me would not qualify as a bagel even by my loosest definition- but it was a simple grain so I was cool with it. I also had a diet coke.
After eating, I went upstairs to use the restroom. When I pushed a button to flush the toilet, I quickly realized that was actually the button for the bidet… and water started spritzing out all over my legs. The actual flusher turned out to be a little odd. And people complain about Japanese toilets being complicated! Fortunately, the water wasn't very noticeable on my black leggings and it dried fiarly quickly.
We left the café at about 8am when the nearby tourist sites would finally be opening. By some brilliant stroke of luck, the rain had stopped. The ground was still glistening from the early morning showers, but- spoiler alert- the skies were most kind to me and there was no further precipitation during my day. After having kept a close eye on the forecast, I never would have guessed that I'd get wetter from a toilet than from the rain… but that's what happened.
Upon leaving the restaurant and walking along a cobblestone street, I was excited to see a black and white cat sitting by the edge of a park. At the time, I had no idea how ubiquitous felines are in the city. Over and over, I'd see adorable kitties and I'd naturally wander over to take pictures of them. Most seemed healthy well cared for. They definitely added to the city's charm in my eyes.
And so marked the official beginning of my "Let's walk 13 miles on a Sunday that still feels like Saturday and cram in as many of Istanbul's sites as possible without falling over" tour. Fortunately, a lot of the major sites are concentrated in one area. As one might expect, my memories of the tour were a bit of a blur when I finally got around to writing them down 1-2 years later. But I've done my best to jot down my recollections- my photos and search engine were definitely helpful.
Our first stop was Sultanahmet Square, which is where a Roman hippodrome once stood. Strolling through this area, you can see a 16th century German fountain, a couple of historic obelisks, and the remains of an ancient Greek column. From there, we walked along a short street, Tavukhane Sokak, which was lined with some really fun colorful buildings. We also walked through the Arasta Bazaar which was just starting to open for the day. It was oddly peaceful walking through the market with barely any other people around.
The first major site we visited was the Blue Mosque (aka the Sultan Ahmed Mosque), an elaborate structure that was built in the early 17th century. There were no crowds, perhaps because it was so early in the day. The mosques in Istanbul were pretty incredible in general- the exteriors reminded of castles due to their pointy minarets, and the interiors were elaborately detailed.
Our next stop, just across a small park, was the Hagia Sophia- perhaps the most famous site in the city. Originally built as a church in the 6th century, the structure was converted into a mosque in the 15th century and then into a museum in the 1930's. (subsequent to my visit, it has been used once again as a mosque since July 2020) Due to its unique- not to mention long- history, it contains a treasure trove of interesting details. While the spacious main hall (which was partly under renovation during my visit) had the definite flavor of a Muslim place of worship, the upper gallery was home to the ruins of golden mosaics of Christian icons.
But if I'm honest, I was most enchanted by a feline. I learned that the Hagia Sophia was home to an adorable, chubby tabby named Gli who of course made an appearance while I was there. Naturally, she was famous on the internet even though I'd personally never heard of her. Sadly, Gli passed away about a year after my trip when she was about 16 years old. It seems that she received the best of veterinary care during her final weeks- she was obviously well loved by locals as well as by the world. Based on her Instagram, it seems like other less famous felines still may visit the mosque. I'm very glad I had a chance to meet her.
Another very short walk brought us to the Basilica Cistern, perhaps my favorite stop on the tour. The atmosphere as I wandered among lines of columns in the dimly lit subterranean chamber was hauntingly serene and so unlike most tourist attractions. The 2 columns in a corner with medusa heads at their bases were particularly interesting, but I mainly enjoyed the feeling of strolling through an ancient, dark, underground refuge.
A leisurely walk of about 0.5 miles brought us to the Grand Bazaar. Along the way, my guide bought himself corn on the cob from a street vendor. I thought about trying one, but didn't think I'd be able to eat the entire thing. We didn't actually go into the Grand Bazaar because it was closed on Sundays although we did wander through a market that sold cheesy items such as (I assume fake) toddler sized Gucci shirts with Minnie Mouse on them.
The next stop was Suleymaniye Mosque, a beautiful 16th century mosque that sits atop a hill. Because of its location, it seems to float above the city when viewed from the strait of Istanbul. But I wouldn't realize that until later; I could only know that it offers scenic panoramic views from its exterior gardens. It was turning into a beautiful sunny day and I really enjoyed taking a few minutes to enjoy gazing out on the city vista.
A short walk through a seemingly quirky, colorful area brought us to the Spice Bazaar. I'm rather jaded from having experienced so many foreign markets, especially since I no longer have a penchant to buy many items when I travel. The arched ceilings and colorful goods were visually interesting but I mostly found the experience crowded and annoying.
I finally was able to sample some street food when we passed a cart selling Simit, which apparently is also known as a "Turkish Bagel." Although I don't much recall how it tasted, it looks a lot more pleasing than the thing they brought me at breakfast that they claimed was a bagel. We then stopped for a short time at a little outdoor coffee shop. Of course I drank a Coke Light since I don't do coffee.
I spent a little over half of an hour in the afternoon taking a round trip on a public Bosphorus Ferry which traveled across the strait to the Asian side of Istanbul. My disappointment in the experience was no doubt due to the fact that this was probably the shortest option for taking a ride through the city's waters (although I didn't realize it at the time). Also, my guide hurried me to turn right around and re-board once we arrived at the destination; I barely even had time to photograph a man selling cotton candy. Nonetheless, at least I got a taste for sailing on the waterway that divides the city among 2 continents. It was a pleasant ride and I particularly enjoyed getting a different visual perspective on the city.
It was only 1:30 when we were done and my flight didn't leave until 8:30pm. I was already aware that, much to my disappointment, the guide wasn't going to be able to help me take advantage of the full length of my extended layover but it was still much too early to head to the airport. (the tour company had communicated with me in advance advising that I'd be returning to the airport earlier than I'd wanted; I didn't really have the energy to try to negotiate the length of the tour although I'd gladly have paid extra to have some more time in the city) I feel like he would have rather finished his day even earlier than the agreed upon time since we'd already covered the itinerary but he ended up agreeing to stay in the city a little longer and he led me to the grounds of the Topkapi Palace where we walked outside for a bit.
Finally, we sat at an outdoor cafe not too far from the Hagia Sophia. By then it was about 2:30pm and I was quite hungry. I solicited my guide for opinion on a traditional option for my meal and I settled on "meatballs". This ended up being a plate of about a half dozen small meat patties served with an equal number of large steak fries and a scoop of couscous. It wasn't exactly what I'd expected but I'm pretty sure I enjoyed it. My only regret is that it took me awhile realize I could ask for ketchup for the fries; when no condiments were brought with my meal I'd assumed that ketchup just wasn't a thing in Turkey.
There were several cats roaming amongst the tables and it shouldn't be surprising that I spent some time chasing after them with my camera. Eventually one of the ones who had an affinity for chairs came up to me when I was seated at my table and then curled up snugly on my lap. I didn't want to move but I had to when my guide was ready to head back to the airport.
Overall, after a dicey start, it turned into quite a lovely day packed with the most essential tourist highlights, much more than I could have accomplished on my own. I discovered a taste for what makes Istanbul such a fascinating destination- ancient buildings, colorful streets and markets, a beautiful river flowing through it… and the ubiquitous cats roaming the streets. Despite remaining almost exclusively on the European side of the city with its cobblestone streets and outdoor cafes, the Asian influence was obvious. I mainly wish I'd been able to take advantage of a bit more time in the city before heading back to the airport. And it would have been nice to have been able to spend a little time on the Asian side of the city instead of immediately turning back around onto the ferry.
I had about 4 hours to kill at the airport before my flight to Almaty, Kazakhstan. So of course I wandered around and lingered in the stores. Some of them sold Turkish Delight which I'd had a chance to sample during one of the forays into a market. I'd quite liked the sweet, gooey confection so I was keen to try some of the free samples. However, I quickly discovered that a little Turkish Delight goes quite a long way. I only had 3 samples but by the last, I had to force myself to finish. Even now, almost 2 years later, I really am not sure if I am ready yet for more.
It took me awhile to get the airport wifi to work, but eventually I did which helped pass the time. I purchased some Salted Caramel M&M's which are not available in the US because I didn't know if I'd have time to pick up any on my way home. Fatigue was starting to catch up with me and I was feeling loopy from being overtired. I had a whole exotic adventure ahead of me… and yet, my most highly anticipated experience at the time was the bed that would greet me in my Almaty hotel.
After a full day of sightseeing, it shouldn't be surprising that I spent much of the 5 hour flight sleeping. But I was awake for the meal service which consisted of some mediocre pasta.
We landed on time at around 4:45am. Despite being one of the first people to exit the plane, I was one of the last through customs. I am pretty sure that was at least partly because sleep deprivation was starting to impact my ability to make good decisions. First of all, I had to stop to fill out the Customs form; I am definitely not a fan of not having such paperwork distributed on the airplane where I'd have the plenty of time to fill it out during the flight. As I recall, the customs area was a small room without much in the way of huge obvious signs or agents directing passengers. I chose a line and then, after some time, I realized that I was surrounded by Kazakh passport holders so I switched to another queue. After doing so, I realized it probably didn't matter; it just served to put me at the very end of the waiting passengers. I've definitely experienced much longer waits at larger and busier airports, but that definitely was not my most savvy travel moment.
Unsurprisingly, my bag had already made it to baggage claim before I did. After my experience in Istanbul, I was beyond relieved to see someone waiting for me in Almaty. Next stop… BED! It was still dark out during the drive so I wasn't able to see very much, and I don't think my driver spoke much English.
I arrived at my modest looking hotel and I was just slightly annoyed that I had to wait for an Aeroflot flight crew to finish checking in. When it was finally my turn, the clerk told me that I was booked for a deluxe room but they only had standard rooms available so I'd have to switch that night. (I'd paid for the previous night due to my early arrival) I told him I'd much rather stay in whatever room they had for the duration of my stay. I'd already prepaid through my tour but I honestly didn't care about the money. I just wanted to crash on a bed and not have to move my stuff, especially since this was one of only 2 stops where I'd be able to stay in a room for more than 1 night. I totally didn't need anything even remotely fancy- just a clean, private room. With a bed. And a shower. Unfortunately, the clerk wasn't amenable to my desired solution so I grudgingly headed to my temporary standard room and started to unpack a bit.
Just as I was getting comfortable, someone knocked on my door and said they somehow found a deluxe room for me. So I had to repack. And wait. When all I wanted in the world was to sleep. Finally, about 25 minutes after arriving in my first room, I transferred into a room where I could remain for my stay. The "Deluxe room" was definitely bigger and a bit nicer. But the original room has been plenty large enough for me and it had a large bed, which I prefer, instead of the 2 small ones in my new room. I was also slightly disappointed that the minibar featured Pringles brand chips which were totally not as cool as the "Kracks" chips in my original room. I don't usually eat minibar snacks but those had been tempting. The shower was rather wonky; I didn't try the one in my original room but I'd be surprised if it was worse. Despite not feeling thrilled about my new deluxe room, I was glad I could get settled without worrying about when I'd need to move.
I finally was able to surrender to blissful slumber at around 7am… just as the sky was beginning to lighten. I awoke just after noon and enjoyed the luxury of lazing for quite awhile. This was when I took a shower and discovered that it was not all that it could have been. Nonetheless, it felt great to freshen up.
At about 2:30, I was ready to head out. I wanted to find the front desk for some reason (to ask about laundry perhaps?) but the hotel was a little confusing and when I found a door to the outside, I decided to just go with it and head out. I was very nervous about walking around Almaty on my own- perhaps influenced by my anxiety. However, the city felt very safe and pedestrian friendly, with wide sidewalks set in from the street. After the busyness of Istanbul, the quietness of this area of town was most welcome. I noticed quite a few pastel colored buildings whose design reminded me a bit of St Petersburg, Russia… which makes sense considering the fact that Kazakhstan was part of the USSR for a long time.
There was only one place I needed to visit on my free day, and that was the memorial to figure skater Denis Ten. Fortunately, it was only about a mile and a half from my hotel. Ten had died a little over a year earlier, tragically taken too soon by an act of violence at the age of 25. An elegant skater who had won a world silver medal and an Olympic bronze, he was someone I always cheered for. Sports like figure skating are what put Kazakhstan on my radar to begin with, so I was compelled to pay tribute to his memory.
In June 2019, a statue was erected at a modest park near where Denis had been murdered. Depicting the skater reaching upwards to the sky, the sculpture seemed to capture his elegance and also point to his place in heaven. Spontaneous tributes including flowers, notes, and pictures lined a fence behind it. I was most struck by the inclusion of plush animals among these items. For those who may not be as familiar with watching figure skating events, it's traditional for fans to toss stuffed animals onto the ice after a skater's program to cheer them on. I kept thinking of how audience members should still be able to hurl these little animals onto the ice for him rather than placing them at a memorial. It was impossible not to be moved. I sat on a bench for a short time to honor Denis' memory.
After achieving my goal of finding the monument, I just wanted to relax and explore a bit- and to get something to eat. I withdrew a modest amount of local money when I happened upon an ATM and then I tried to find a sushi/pizza place I'd seen on Google maps. Alas, I wasn't able to find the restaurant I was seeking but no worries- there are apparently plenty of sushi/pizza places in Almaty!
I sat at an outdoor table at the cafe on a pleasantly quiet street. It was a lovely day and I was glad to be able to see some of life passing by during my meal. I found it interesting that there was a buzzer on my table I could press when I was ready for a waiter- this would have been super convenient so many other times when I've been in foreign countries and unsure how to get someone's attention! For my meal, I wanted to try an interesting variety of sushi rolls and I spent much time perusing the menu trying to make a decision. Based on my photos, I think I finally settled on "Green Phila" (salmon, cucumber, avocado, cream cheese; I almost always try Philly rolls at any new-to-me place), "Hatake" (Japanese pancake with shrimp and garlic sauce, onion and black sesame) , and "Hedgehog in the Fog" (eel, crab mix, cream cheese, tobiko, sesame). As per usual, I also had the local equivalent of Coke Zero.
I enjoyed the sushi, although I think it might have been a lot to me to finish. However, eating so much at 5pm after not having had any food all day proved challenging to my stomach so I ended up feeling hurried to get back to my hotel. But I still stopped along the way to take some photos of interesting sites such as a "Book Crossing" which was a little nook with benches and shelves; I guessed that that it was meant for people to leave books for others to take, although there was no reading material on the shelves at the time.
Once back in my hotel room, I passed out for about an hour on the bed due to my stomach ache. I was definitely glad not to have to worry about changing to another room! I then had a chill night working on some notes and reading before finally going to sleep.
Although my alarm was set for 7am, I woke up at around 5. I wasn't able to get back to sleep but I just lazed in bed anyway. It felt luxurious to be able to do so after 2 consecutive overnight flights.
I finally went down to breakfast at around 7:30. Since my stomach had been bothering me, I just wanted oatmeal. However, I couldn't resist the temptation of cottage cheese dumplings- they were quite tasty! I had some time afterwards to do some reading and drop off some laundry at the front desk (it was early in my trip but I knew I wouldn't have many future opportunities to do laundry since we had so many one night stays)
At 9am, I went downstairs to meet up with my group to officially start the tour. I already knew that there were 4 others. It was unfortunate that a 6th person never signed up since that was the minimum number of people required for a tour leader to join the group for the full trip. 6-8 would have been a perfect number- still small enough not to feel like you're part of a mass of humanity descending on each tourist attraction, but enough to have some options of who to hang with and, as mentioned, to have a dedicated leader. The absolute maximum from this company was 16 people, which is one reason I chose them; I don't really want to travel again with huge groups of 40+ people.
The others in my tour were:
O - an Aussie woman who has an affinity for animals
R - a woman who worked as a high power attorney who was thinking about a career change
A(m) & A(f) - a couple from NY
They were all somewhat younger than me, but not so much as to cause incompatibility.
We also met our local guide, E, who was great! He would end up staying with us for the first 3 days through Kyrgyzstan. On his advice, I went back up to my room to retrieve a warmer jacket for our afternoon trip to the mountains.
Once everyone was ready, we loaded ourselves into a spacious van for our tour of the city. We were each greeted with a large bar of Kazakhstan chocolate as well as bottled water- the latter was standard on most of our organized excursions.
Our first stop was Ascension Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox church that was built in the early 20th century and which survived an earthquake. The exterior was colored brightly- yellow with dashes of blue, green and red; obviously I was drawn to it. A service was being conducted inside, and we went in for a short look. It ended up feeling pretty crazy- there were so many people pushing to get in and out of the small chapel where we were among the crowds standing behind the pews The interior was as visually interesting as the exterior- mostly a lighter shade of yellow with gold accents, chandeliers and religious imagery. It was much more modern and Western looking than the religious houses of worship that I'd see on the rest of my trip.
The church is located within Park of 28 Panfilovtsev, which named for a regiment of soldiers that held off the Germans in Moscow in 1941 despite being extremely outnumbered. The style of most of the monuments in the park is quite recognizably classic USSR, which was pretty cool to see especially since I hadn't been to any former Soviet republics in decades. Our guide E explained the meaning of each of the sculptures.
The edge of the park is home to the Museum of Musical Instruments which we spent a half hour looking at traditional Kazakh instruments. Most of these were beautifully crafted representations of instruments which reminded me of ones within my European-centric musical vernacular such as the Dombra, a traditional 2 stringed instrument reminiscent of a lute, the Sybyzgy, a reed instrument, and the Zhetygen, which has some similarities to a lyre harp. Others seemed much more ancient or foreign.
Zelyony Bazaar should be familiar to anyone who has watched Amazing Race season 32 (which aired in 2020) as the market in Almaty where teams had to realize they needed to climb some stairs to find a clue; when I watched the episode, I was excited because I'd been in that exact spot on my trip! I'm not much for markets so I decided to wander along with R. It was interesting to explore and take some photos, and we both laughed when R asked for 2 cookies and the vendor gave her a lot more than she expected; we assumed she'd thought R's two fingers corresponded to something along the lines of 2 lbs. R also bought some braided dried melon that she'd thought was bread. Our guide saw this and ran back in to get some for everyone to sample. I tried some, but I have an (undiagnosed) sensory aversion to certain textures and so I wasn't able to tolerate it.
Our final morning stop was Republic Square which includes the Monument of Independence, an obelisk that was erected in 1996, several years after the country became independent after being under Soviet rule for over 100 years. Our guide explained the symbolism behind the various sculptures in the plaza. One of the more interesting- because it included a rare English description- was a book symbolizing the constitution bearing the hand print of the controversial first President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev. The inscription reads "Choose and be in bliss!" I'm not really sure now what it means but my research indicates that people are supposed to put their hand in the print and make a wish.
By now, a lunch stop was in order. We were taken to a local chain whose bright and eclectic interior pleased my eyes. We were mostly served family style and there was so much food! I particularly enjoyed the creamy lentil soup which came with a side of croutons and something that seemed like lamb rolled up in tortilla bread. The bread, shredded beet and carrot salads were also quite good.
After we were all stuffed (and feeling naively optimistic about the cuisine we'd partake for the rest of the tour), we headed to the Shymbulak Mountain Resort. I was extremely nervous about this stop because it entailed taking a cable car ride up into the Tian Shan mountains that can be seen just outside of the city. Due to my fears of heights and small places, cable cars are understandably not my favorite things in the world. So I was pretty happy when the cable cars were closed for the first leg of the journey which forced us to take a van. Alas, the van was crowded, slow and made me feel a bit woozy. I was shocked to feel thrilled when we could transfer to a cable car for the 2nd part of the journey. Cable cars may terrify me, but at least they don't make me nauseous!
In the winter, the resort is known for skiing but in the off season, such as when we traveled, the ski lifts were not functioning. But people can still visit to go hiking or have a scenic meal. We just spent a half hour in the snow capped mountains, staying relatively near the cable car station and enjoying the dramatic and photogenic views. We all got a kick out of watching O's delight experiencing snow up close for the first time in her life! I was glad I'd gone back for my fleece jacket since it was much cooler at altitude.
Going down, I was glad that we were able to take the cable car for the full route. At one point, our gondola stopped for a minute and started swinging back and forth; I'm proud of myself for not totally freaking out even though obviously I wasn't very happy at the prospect of being stuck in there for an extended period of time. Much to my relief, the pause was not too long and our car soon resumed its journey down the mountain. We made a bathroom stop on our way out which required descending (and of course subsequently ascending) so many stairs that I joked that we were headed directly to the sewers.
The final stop of our tour was the Sunkar Falcon Farm, where we saw a show featuring indigenous birds and owls performing tricks. I had mixed feelings about it- the host was amiable and the fowl were fun to watch. But I really prefer seeing wildlife in its natural habitat, and I could hardly even bear to look at the birds in (decently sized) cages at the end of our visit. It's funny how so many trips to places like Africa can change one's perspective on things; at one time I would have surely enjoyed the show without thinking any further about it or wondering what kind of quality of life the birds enjoyed when not on stage.
When we arrived back to the hotel at around 7pm, I realized that the World Gymnastics women's team final was happening live in Stuttgart and I managed to pull up a feed on my iPad. I decided to order dinner from room service, which proved to be slightly complicated due to needing to call a 2nd number which rang forever before finally being answered by someone with limited English language skills. It's always humbling trying to communicate with someone trying their best to assist me in a language foreign to them when I can only really converse in one language. If you've read any of my blogs, you should not be surprised that I ordered Spaghetti Bolognese, my favorite travel comfort food. I also broke open the salted caramel M&M's that I'd purchased at Istanbul airport.
I was very happy with how the day went. We saw an interesting variety of sights and I felt that the group mixed well together. I'm always s tad nervous that I'll be completely incompatible with travel groups, which is surely a result of my experience at a teen travel camp. Even though I could cope much better on my own now that I'm older and more independent, I obviously would hate to be stuck for hours a day with a group of people who annoyed me, especially if they were complainers.
I was relieved that my stomach felt much better, and I didn't have any repeats of the previous day's episode. Eating scheduled meals is definitely a good thing. I still felt jet lagged and I napped during van trips. (but I always tend to nod off during rides even when I have no excuse to be tired). I wished I'd had more time to spend in Kazakhstan to see places like Nur-Sultan (the capital city which was formerly known as Astana) and Charyn Canyon. But I was excited to be headed to my 3rd new country of this whirlwind trip the next morning.
When my travels take me across many timezones, I sometimes have trouble sleeping for the first couple nights. So it didn’t shock me to wake up at 4 or 5 am in Almaty which is 10 hours ahead of home. But I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to fall back asleep until my alarm went off at 6:15am. I hadn't intended to wash my hair but I felt so gross that I endured spending extra time in wonky shower to freshen up. I definitely felt better rested than the previous day.
I ran into the others from my group when I went down for breakfast at around 7. I was disappointed they didn't have oatmeal this time, but at least they had the yummy cottage cheese dumplings. I grabbed some cereal as well before going back to my room briefly to brush my teeth and grab my luggage. It was a total win that my hotel bill (for laundry and room service) came to almost the same amount of Kazakh cash I had on hand, since I’d be leaving the country and would have no further use for the currency.
I wasn't sure if the airport would weigh my carry on, so I'd moved some things to my main bag, which I expanded. They never did- but I've had some experiences with foreign airlines being stricter about such things so it was better to be prepared. As I'd surmised upon my arrival, the airport was small. But they did have a lounge and A(m) and A(f) had lounge passes that entitled them to each bring a guest. I was nearby and so was O, so we accompanied them; we all felt a tiny bit bad that R was left out but figured she could be a guest in a future airport. (turns out she probably would have declined but we didn't know that at the time) The lounge was just a little nicer than the regular waiting area but the sofas were comfortable and it was nice to have a cozy spot to chat with my fellow travelers.
I hate when you have to take a bus to from the terminal in order to board an airplane. I really hate when you have to take a bus that packs people in more tightly than I pack clothes in a suitcase. I think they had all the passengers crowd into one bus and the plane holds roughly 97 people. So…. the process of boarding my flight out of Kazakhstan wasn't off to a great start. Finding someone in my window seat didn't improve things- it can be hard enough to politely ask someone to move when you speak the same language!
But there was one bright spot- the Air Astana plane to take us to Kyrgyzstan was decorated with a snow leopard on its nose. It was obviously not as cute as the Hello Kitty jets I've flown, but I still appreciated the unique design. According to my research, the plane was styled to draw attention to the threat of extinction for these large cats that are indigenous to the region.
A(f) and I were surrounded by a group of South Korean men who seemed oddly amused by the 2 white women sitting amongst them. At least it was a really short flight- less than 1 hour; barely enough time for the briefest of snoozes. I have no notes about the my experience with immigration at the airport but, based on the timestamps of my photos, it only took about a half hour from when we landed until we were on the vehicle so I'm going to say that the process was speedy.
I had no idea what to expect in Kyrgyzstan. I'm not even sure I knew the country existed until I started doing online geography quizzes… and even then it took me quite awhile to learn how to spell it, since at least one quiz was very generous in allowing for typos and misspellings. (both of these facts also apply to Tajikistan, which I'd visit later in the trip) The sight of a huge, oversized teddy bear at the unstaffed airport tourist information desk in Biskek made an excellent first impression
We all cracked up when we saw the bus that had met us at the airport; I think we could each have occupied 2 full rows of seats! This was a most welcome contrast from the vehicle that we'd had to endure at Almaty airport earlier. The best feature of our transportation was that it had a wifi connection- very sweet.
We stopped first at the hotel to drop off our luggage, arriving at around noon. I was totally wowed by the room; after the disappointment of my Almaty "deluxe" accommodations, I was thrilled to find a king size bed with a teal cover in a tastefully decorated, modern, spacious room that even had a sofa! The shower was lovely too. Alas, my lodging fell one step short of ideal- there were no outlets near the bed. I had to keep my phone all the way across the room to charge. Fortunately I was traveling with an old iPad that I could use for an alarm in a pinch; the battery lasts longer and I don't need to use it during the day so it doesn't need to be at 100% when I wake up.
Before lunch, we went in search of somewhere that would exchange small bills to Kyrgyz money; it took a couple attempts to find one. On the way, we walked past a sporting complex in front of which was a statue of a man holding a horse on one of his shoulders. Our guide, E, told us this was Baatyr Kaba Uulu Kozhomkul, who was known for his strength. Legend has it that he once carried his horse home as depicted in the sculpture.
Our lunch spot was a super quirky restaurant which had an old fashioned record player in the lobby, and a model of the old fortress for which it was named. We were seated in a private alcove and joined by the bus driver. There was such an extensive menu that I had a hard time deciding what to order as is usual for me when I'm flooded with choices. I started with the lentil soup since I'd adored the one we had the previous day; this one was different and not quite as amazing but still good. For my main course I finally settled on my old standby, Spaghetti Bolognese, which was great. But I was eyeing A(f)'s pumpkin manty (dumplings) which was obviously a more traditional option. Little did I know that I'd have more than enough opportunities to sample Central Asian dumplings.
After lunch, we took a bus to the Bishkek Central Mosque which is the largest mosque in the region. Architecturally, it reminded me of the mosques I'd seen in Istanbul… and, in fact, it was funded by Turkey. I quite liked its sleek, modern design- elaborate without being ostentatious. Islam is the predominant faith in the country although obviously the open practice of the religion was not broadly tolerated while under USSR rule.
The bulk of the afternoon was spent on a 2.5 hour walking tour of the city. Rather than discussing my stops sequentially which would end up being very scattered and staccato, it makes more sense to describe them in a more thematic manner. There are few things I enjoy more in a city than being able to walk around on a nice day. I feel much more familiar with a place when I've explored it by foot than when I've been bussed from one site to another. Similarly to Almaty, Bishkek was very pedestrian friendly with wide sidewalks.
One of the most interesting things about Bishkek is that it seemed to have more of a flavor of the USSR than most places we visited. Our guide, who is a native of Kyrgyzstan, told us that Soviet symbols are protected and must be preserved, although some monuments have been moved to less significant locations. He also opined that it was good that Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan had joined the Russian empire for protection during tribal times. The Soviets brought education and infrastructure to the region. If these countries had not aligned with Russia, they would have been taken over by China which he thought would have led to a worse outcome.
There are quite a number of buildings which are visually reminiscent of USSR architecture. I saw many of these, although I'm disappointed that my recent research has pointed me to some unusual looking ones that we did not see. Among the city's sculptures are representations of communist icons- we saw one depicting Marx and Engels and another of Lenin.
Similar to the monuments I'd seen in Almaty, Bishkek's Victory Square was a classically Soviet styled tribute to victory over Nazi Germany. It, too, features an eternal flame. But it's interesting to me that the centerpiece of the plaza is decidedly Kyrgyz with its only slightly abstract rendition of a yurt, the traditional local nomadic dwelling.
Another sculpture that symbolizes multiple cultures is the Peoples' Friendship Monument celebrating the kinship between Russians and Kyrgyz… although it feels to me like the "friendship" was forced such that this monument was designed more for propaganda than genuine mutual respect. Our guide had a dry sense of humor and, before offering us the true explanation, he tried to convince us that it was a celebration of the first gay marriage in the country. (In actuality, we found out that LGBTQ+ are unfortunately not as free and protected as in other regions of the world)
The Monument to Those Who Died in the Events of 2002 and 2010 is a visually interesting representation several men trying to push a large jagged black block of stone away from interlocking with a jagged white block. The name makes it obvious that this monument is more recent than the others mentioned, dating from post Soviet times. It is meant as a tribute to those who died in 2 periods of political upheaval.
I saw different types of art on display at the National Museum of Fine Arts, where we spent about a half hour. I regret not taking a picture of the plaque next to my favorite work of art, and although I can find a couple instances of its image online I haven't been able to identify an artist or title. I therefore have no idea exactly what it's meant to convey but it's a fabulously bold representation of 4 fierce looking women standing with sticks that are topped with goats' heads; there's also a hint of the Statue of Liberty in the background and a more central winged figure of a woman holding a symbol of a yurt. Based on my online research, the central figure looks like the statue of Erkindik which was created in 1999 as its own celebration of national liberty. (I never saw this statue in person; in fact, it's had several locations and I'm not sure it's even on display anymore) To me, the painting seems to symbolize freedom and feminism even though I'm not sure of the exact nuances it's trying to imply.
The other highlight of the museum was its colorful displays of tapestries. But I was left scratching my head at a room which was captioned "The World's Greatest Sculptures Reproductions Gallery". It was, exactly as advertised (well the "greatest" is highly debatable), a very small collection of reproductions of Western icons such as the Venus de Milo and Michelangelo's Dying Slave.
Another surprising appearance of European influenced art is the Opera and Ballet Theater building which sticks out as something that seems to have been dropped in from a Western European city. It was built in the 1930's or 1950's depending on which website is more accurate; either way, it was created during a relatively modern era of Soviet rule.
Bishkek also featured some pleasant areas to relax. One of these is Oak Park, a small plaza whose pathways were lined with sculptures. A fair number of people were sitting on the benches reading or eating, while others were strolling around. Another location to congregate was a market by Victory Square. It's most known for selling honey but I was far more enchanted with an adorable black kitten that was sitting in a cage (I am pretty sure he was someone's pet, not for sale). I squeed when someone let us hold the little darling.
The heart of Bishkek is Ala-Too square which seems to bring together the diverse highlights of the city. It is backed by the State History museum, formerly known as the Lenin museum, which is an example of Soviet architecture. (we didn't go inside; it didn't seem to be open) A focal point is the statue of Manas, the hero of an ancient epic Kyrgyz poem that was originally passed through oral traditions. (in former times, the Lenin statue mentioned earlier was displayed here) There are flowers and fountains to make the area friendly for congregating, as a central square should be. The centerpiece is the large flag waving from the Official Kyrgyz Flagpole. It's always guarded by 2 soldiers, and our guide timed the visit so that we could see the changing of the guard ceremony. It's obviously not as elaborate as, say, Buckingham Palace, but it was cool to watch. Incidentally, our guide explained that the Kyrgyz flag is imprinted with a sun with 40 rays which represent the country's 40 tribes, with its center being the top of a yurt which represents family living in unity.
I caught site of an intriguing display across the street on the other side of the square from where we'd been watching the ceremony so we went over to take a look. It turned out to be a digital countdown to the World Nomad Games which was set to 0. The last World Nomad Games had been 1 year earlier in 2018; my research indicates that this display was put up before the 2016 games. Well, what it lacked in timeliness, it made up for in looking festive.
When we returned to the hotel, I ended up sitting on an outdoor terrasse with R, which is when I found out about how she was wrestling with her career choice of whether to continue in her high stress attorney job or shift gears. We both ended up ordering milkshakes which were very good, despite not being quite what I expected. As I recall, the texture was thinner and mine tasted ever so slightly of banana.
If I have to pick my biggest regret of the trip (among things I could control), it would definitely be not having the gumption to go back out and explore the city. It was still relatively early, and the hotel was well situated to either explore places like Ala-Too square in more detail or to discover details we hadn't had time to see.
Our guide had recommended a couple restaurants but I only barely enjoy going out to eat on my own when I know the language and culture; it felt like too much for my anxiety to do so in Kyrgyzstan and I hadn't been able to make arrangements with anyone in our very small group to join them. I almost skipped dinner, but I'm glad I pushed myself to at least eat at the hotel restaurant- especially since I'd had a little bit of a headache beforehand. I started my meal with tomato cream soup- again, it was not exactly what my Western palate expected (less sweet for one thing) but it was quite good. And then I was glad they offered meat manty so I could sample the dumplings that had looked so intriguing at lunch.
Bishkek had been a surprisingly enjoyable little city. I think it was probably one of my favorite places on the tour- it was modern but still had much charm. It was very easy to navigate by foot and there was much to appeal to my interest in unusual art and architecture. I enjoyed revisiting the city and learning more about it (or being reminded of facts I'd been told but had forgotten) while working on this entry. I doubt I'll have an opportunity to go back, but I'd definitely consider it if I did.
Although the bed in my swanky room was comfortable, I woke up a few times in the night before finally getting out of bed at around 6:45am. I eventually found oatmeal on the breakfast buffet; it wasn't labeled so at first I just got regular cereal. It was a morning of confusion I guess; I originally poured myself a glass of iced tea which I expected to be apple sauce.
We set off at about 8:30am for the day's activities. After about an hour's drive, we got off the road for a rest stop at what seemed like a hotel. But oh, no- it was so much more than that! Beyond the Grand Burana Hotel's rose garden is a site called "Hawaii Park"- the name alone oozes quirkiness. I can honestly say I've never seen a place quite like it.
For practical purposes, the area made for an excellent place to take a break from a long drive because of its walking paths which were perfect for stretching one's legs. These went along a lovely little lake where you could see some swans. If our guide hadn't mentioned them, I wouldn't have expected to see live animals in pens- including camels, goats and what looked to be guinea pigs. And yet those were probably the most "normal" sights on the trail.
The walkway abounded with sculptures that were weird and wacky and wonderful. They started out merely quirky with a golden Medusa and then representations of the Chinese zodiac along with signs labeling the most recent or upcoming year they corresponded to. But then there were quite a number that seemed robotic or mechanical- depicting subjects ranging from animals to fantastical. And then there was a helicopter, with a (non-mechanical) statue of a man whose arm was in a sling standing before it. What did it all mean? What did any of it mean? Why was the area seemingly named after a US state? I have no idea. The sparse signs were written in Cyrillic and seemed like they might just be warnings although that's obviously just a guess.
I may not have understood it, and it certainly seemed extremely random, but I quite enjoyed having a half hour to explore Hawaii Park. Both photogenic and highly unusual, it had so much more character than, say, a NJ or PA Turnpike rest stop.
Just a short drive of about 30 minutes away, we came upon the day's main tourist spot, the Burana Tower. After disembarking from the bus, I was immediately thrilled by the snow covered mountains in the distance. I'd been chasing photos of similar mountains during the entire drive, but obviously I could achieve better results while not in a moving vehicle.
Burana Tower is a minaret which is the only known remnant of an ancient city which flourished from the 9th- 12th centuries. There is a small hill nearby which may contain ruins of a temple or other building but so far archaeologists have not explored it. Built in the 11th century, the top 30% or so was destroyed in a 14th century earthquake. It is central to a legend that seems to combine elements of Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel: Upon hearing a prophesy that his daughter would be killed by a spider on her 16th birthday, the Khan protected her by having her reside in this tower. On the date of her birthday, he brought her a basket of fruit to celebrate. However, in his elation, he wasn't as careful as he should have been and so he didn't notice that a poisonous spider had crawled into the fruit… and the end result was that the prophesy was fulfilled after all.
Ascending the tower requires climbing a short spiral staircase outside before transitioning to the dark interior with its steeper spiral stairs. It was so claustrophobic that I was ready to nope my way back outside, but R quite literally had my back. Thanks in part to the encouragement of my group, I made it to the top where I was treated to a fabulous view. Descending the stairs proved even harder for me than the way up, and I was relieved to get back outside.
We had some time on our own to explore, and I walked up the hill that may-or-may-not cover an unexcavated temple for another perspective. I also strolled through the rows of Balbal, ancient Turkic gravestones with faces carved into them. We'd previously seen a few in Bishkek by the State History Museum. Finally, I went into the small museum housed in a yurt which featured a plethora of archaeological findings.
One of the most intriguing items on the day's itinerary was a demonstration of "Ulak Tartysh (also known as Kok Boru)… a fight between two teams of horse riders for a goat carcass." I've been to quite a few sporting events in my time but nothing close to that description. Or so I thought. In actuality, the game is much like hockey played on horseback… with a goat carcass in place of a puck. Upon being told that the winning team gets to keep the (now abused) dead goat, we speculated that might actually be motivation to lose.
Before actually playing a game, the players practiced by trying to pick up bags off the ground while still riding their horse. This was followed by a series of what appeared to be one-on-one arm wrestling while on horseback.
The game itself was fascinating to watch and I found myself caught up in excitement each time the horses raced to one end of the field or the other as the players attempted to hurl the goat into one of the pits that served as a goal. All of this occurred on a field backed by dramatic mountain scenery. It was another beautiful day, and after all the effort I'd had to exert climbing at the previous stop, it felt great to sit outside and enjoy the privilege of seeing an event most Americans will never get a chance to see in person.
We were allowed to take a short ride on the horses at the end, but only O wanted to do so. I'm usually game for volunteering for any experiences, but I can't say that I have had any positive experiences on horseback- ranging from day camp to Patagonia. So I was very happy to just be a bystander.
For lunch, we were treated to a home cooked meal by a local family. I actually tried a few things out of my comfort zone and enjoyed the soup, salads, some kind of a beef stew and a dessert that seemed like wontons in honey.
During the meal, our guide E talked about his memories of life under Soviet rule. He recalled lines to buy only limited items for sale; he pointed out that you would never be able to purchase a chandelier such as the one in the room where we dined. He used to love getting items like gum and jeans from the West. My notes say that he and his friends would often share chewing gum and dye it with pen ink… but I totally don't remember the rationale for dyeing it, or if one even existed.
After eating, we watched a demo of erecting a yurt. They asked if any of us wanted to join in and this time I enthusiastically volunteered. Both R and I "helped" them put in a beam on the framework. I use the word "help" very loosely because I was pretty useless making a knot to hold the beam in place. There's at least a 90% chance that any yurt I built by myself would be a total catastrophe. But I was game to participate and it was cool to see how one was put together. Later at the airport, I saw a store advertising yurt kits that appeared to be very similar to the one we used so you, too, could put up a yurt in your backyard if you were so inclined… and if you had an unlimited airplane baggage allowance.
Before leaving the house, a couple of girls who appeared to be around 10-12 years old performed what I assumed to be a traditional Kyrgyz dance for us. They were clearly not professionals and weren't always in sync but they were having a good time and it was cute to watch. I particularly liked their pink and blue outfits.
Finally it was time for us to take the 45 minute drive back to Bishkek Manas International Aiport for our 6:40pm flight to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. There was some confusion about whether O needed a visa for Uzbekistan but it turned out that the rules had recently changed and Australians no longer needed one. We were all sad to say goodbye to our guide E with whom we'd spent 3 days; he'd been fabulous- enthusiastic, knowledgeable and congenial- and we gave him a group hug in appreciation (in addition to tips).
While the other 3 went into the airport lounge, R and I preferred to explore the airport a little. I decided to snack on a frozen ice cream cone. When I took a gulp of the bottled water I'd purchased, I realized to my dismay that it was carbonated. I've become fairly good at searching labels in European languages to tell whether or not they have carbonation but obviously I was clueless with Cyrillic letters. Ah well- it wasn't what I'd have chosen but sometimes you need to go with the flow, especially when you are halfway across the world.
I was pleased to have a window seat on the plane once again. This time no one was occupying my assigned place. However, after I sat down, the man in the aisle seat tapped me and showed me his seat belt. I had absolutely no idea what he was trying to convey; I lifted up the long sleeved shirt that was on my lap to show him that mine was buckled but I got the sense that that my response didn't satisfy him though he didn't pursue any further interaction.
During the flight, I was enchanted by the sight of snow capped mountains leading into a lovely sunset. We were high enough that it seemed almost like the earth was covered by an array of meringue instead of mighty peaks. I lamented the fact that it was just a shade too dark out for me to be able to capture the moment in a photograph that might adequately convey the beauty I was seeing.
The landscape completely changed as we started to approach our destination. My initial impression of Tashkent was that it was a sprawling city, as evidenced by the multitude of lights dotting the horizon. My feeling was confirmed as we drove to the hotel and passed many light displays and quirky artworks.
We were met at the airport by the lady who had been corresponding with us individually to organize the trip. It was great to put a face to the name. Once we arrived at the hotel, which was another swanky one, we sat on sofas in the lobby as she briefed us on the information we'd need for the rest of the trip. There was so much she went over that my brain wanted to explode. Somehow it was decided that I'd hold on to the train tickets for everyone for the rest of the trip. Finally she collected our passports so she could finalize our Turkmenistan visas for us.
By the time I was able to get settled in my room, I was too tired to venture out for dinner; it was around 9pm which felt like 10pm due to the time change between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. It would be best to eat something so I decided to order room service and was pleased that Pasta Bolognese was on the menu.
Kyrgyzstan was a happy surprise on my trip. I went into the country knowing nothing about it and I left having enjoyed an eclectic mix of experiences all of which were positive. Of all the countries I visited during this madcap adventure, it might have been my favorite (even though Turkmenistan was easily the most fascinating). As of this writing, I still keep the Kyrgyzstan keychain E gave us amongst the few that adorn my everyday sets of keys.
My Tashkent hotel had quite a nice spread for its breakfast buffet. I chose to have some cereal, a waffle with chocolate sauce, and a French vanilla yogurt.
It was a rare day when our organized tour didn't start until 10am so I decided to spend a half hour exploring the local area which had looked intriguing upon our arrival the previous evening. That was probably one of the best decisions I made during the entire trip. I didn't really have a definite direction to my wanderings; I think I was trying to go to Independence Square though I didn't quite make it there. But it's actually more fun to roam without a definite goal, choosing the paths that seem intriguing, and then discovering what they have to offer. The only issue I encountered was in the underpass that I was pleased to discover by my hotel which facilitated crossing a street where there wasn't a traffic light. Once I descended, I saw that there were a ton of exits to choose from and it would take me more than one try to pick the best one for my purposes.
After taking a closer look at the theater directly across from my hotel, I saw so many fun, whimsical sculptures in nearby park and was particularly excited to find the "Tashkent loves you" one that I'd spotted from my bus window. It was quiet out at 9am, but I could imagine that some of the charming pedestrian and shopping areas would be full of people a little later in the day.
Right from the start of our organized tour, we were introduced to the classic, distinct Uzbek style of architecture which had piqued my interest in pictures and which we would see many times before the end of the tour. Featuring cream color bricks, pale turquoise domes, and bluish colored mosaics, these buildings are unlike anything I'd seen in my previous travels and often quite impressive.
Our first stop was the Kaffal Shashi Mausoleum, which was built in memory of a 10th century Islamic scholar who was a key figure in Uzebekistan's history. While the facade was quite impressive, the interior was much more modest. But you could still see that it was designed with a high level of craftsmanship. Our guide particularly pointed out some wood carvings to illustrate this point. Upon exiting, we noticed a black and white cat… which was obviously an adorable distraction.
The mausoleum is part of a larger complex known as Hast Imam Square. It was pretty amazing to enter the central area of this spacious plaza- a total "Wow" moment. We spent an hour and a half touring and learning about the buildings as well as Uzbekistan as a whole. Our guide mentioned that Uzbekistan is the only country with a full Islamic education system. He said that they don't allow propaganda, but I'm not exactly sure of the nuances of what that implies. One building housed an ancient Koran dating from the 8th century which is debatably the oldest version of the holy text in the world; unfortunately, photography was prohibited inside.
The Chorsu Bazaar, our next stop, is the city's central market. Its most distinctive feature is its central turquoise and blue domed building. Based on my photos, I don't think we ever went inside which is a shame because the interior seems to be as fascinating as the exterior. There are many outdoor kiosks and makeshift stands selling all varieties of foods (both groceries as well as prepared dishes) and other items. We spent the most time inside a side building where we saw a demonstration of bread making; I'm pretty sure we bought samples and that it was quite tasty.
This marked the first (but not the last) time that we lost R because she wandered off from the group without telling anyone. I'm well known for my affinity for taking a ton of photos, and she might be the first person I've traveled with who takes even more than I do. I'd catch her clicking the shutter multiple times and be puzzled because I was sure the conditions would not allow for good results. At any rate, when I'm with a group I try to be mindful that my actions have consequences for others. So if I'm curious about something that is off the path, I'll either ask for a detour or figure that I can live without a closer look. Getting separated from the group sucks for everyone. We eventually found R, of course, but a crowded market is probably the worst place to lose someone.
After visiting the bazaar, we took the subway to get to our next stop. This would always be a treat for me since I'm such a transit nerd, but it was extra special in Tashkent because their stations are gorgeous. Since we had to transfer, I was able to see 3 different stations which had very distinct artistic designs. Our guide mentioned that the metro was also used as a bomb shelter.
Amir Temur square is perhaps the heart of Tashkent. This was our first introduction to Uzbek hero Temur who is depicted riding a horse on a statue on which is inscribed "Strength in Justice" in several languages. Throughout the trip, any time we were asked to guess the subject of a monument in Uzbekistan, it seemed like there was at least a 50% chance it was Temur. Born in the 14th century and known for both his military prowess and his belief in education, Amir Temur was the leader of an empire which encapsulated much of the region. He is considered to be responsible for the rapid development of Central Asia.
Behind the square is the Hotel Uzbekistan which dates from Soviet times. We stopped here briefly to meet our transport for lunch. On our way, my eyes perked up at a "Hello Kitty" sign with an arrow indicating it was 50m away. I'm glad I didn't let my curiosity lead me astray since my research indicates that the business is a nursery school... not a store or any other place that might have been fun for me to see. However, their Instagram photos are delightful and I low key wish I could have gone to a school with so many adorable dress up opportunities!
Lunch was at an intriguing establishment called Jumanji which had a large menu. I ordered the "Home Made Dumplings" which were remarkably similar to what I'd call "meat tortellini" except that they were served with sour cream instead of tomato sauce.
Our first afternoon stop was the small Museum of Applied Art. One of my favorite areas featured brightly colored tapestries which contrasted with the simple decor of the room in which they were hung. Another was a room whose every inch of walls and ceilings were elaborately decorated in a traditional Uzbek style and which featured some large gently colorful paintings. There were a lot of other interesting touches which caught my eye such as carved wood doors and small sculptures.
We then spent a very short time at the Minor Mosque. It's name derives from the district in which it's located, not its size or significance. Opened in 2014, it's obviously a modern structure, but it maintains some of the architectural stylings of the older buildings we'd seen. It was quite lovely and peaceful.
My favorite sight in the city was probably our final stop- the Victims of Repression Memorial Complex. On the surface, it was a scenic multi-tired park which had a gentle river running through it. Particularly stunning as the sun was starting to set, the area attracted quite a number of bridal parties who were posing for formal photos while I was there.
The centerpiece is a memorial to those who perished due to persecution particularly from Soviet regimes. Its dome displays the phrase "May the memory of those who have fallen for freedom of their country live forever!" There is a museum on site, but we didn't have time to visit (and it may have been closed for the day already). So the area's significance was far deeper than merely its beauty.
Finally, we headed to Tashkent railway station to take a high speed train to Samarkand. I was surprised that our passports and luggage were checked before we could enter the station. (at some point, our passports were returned with the Turkmenistan visa) The 1 hour train ride was pleasant; it was a nice touch that we were given some light refreshments: a croissant, cookie, and instant coffee.
After arriving in Samarkand, we located the vehicle that would drive us to the hotel. I apparently drew the short stick in getting assigned hotel rooms since mine was right off the lobby and it was not at all sound proofed. I kept hearing the phone ring any time anyone called the desk, but fortunately I was able to sleep ok with ear plugs.
I got to my room at 9:30 and I obviously had no bearing at all for the city or what might be around the neighborhood. The hotel did not have a restaurant that served dinner. It seemed to be located in a dark, quiet area where I hadn't seen any obvious signs of a place to eat when we were dropped off. This was one of the times we might have benefited by having a dedicated guide with us. Otherwise, it would have been great to have stayed in either a livelier area or in a hotel with a built-in option for dining. While the others ended up finding places to eat, I just finished off my salted caramel M&M's and called it a night.
My day obviously ended on a downer that had little to do with my destination itself. But even aside from that, I didn't quite feel the same warm feelings about my day in Tashkent as a whole as I had about my previous 2 days despite individually enjoying each of the places I saw. Some of that was due to having a guide for the day who was not as good as E; he kept cramming us full of facts instead of bringing the sites and history to life. The city itself was also quite large and therefore didn't feel quite as friendly to me as Bishkek. Perhaps another reason of my lack of enthusiasm due to pacing- certain places seemed quite rushed and others, like Amir Temur park, we'd spend quite some time at one spot (without seeing more of what the area had to offer). My favorite memory was my little morning walk- I may not have made it to any major sites but I had a lovely time and it was all my own.
I woke up glad that to be vacating the hotel room that was just off the lobby. It was such a weird little hotel… the shower was a little corner unit elevated off the floor. There were 2 power cords plugged into the bathroom outlets. I wondered if they were for hot water or some other need. The breakfast room, which was decorated with huge colorful paintings that spanned the entire height of the walls, was only accessible by going outside and turning a corner; someone had to walk me there. I noticed on the way that the exterior grounds contained some fairy tale touches like a carriage. It's almost like they were aiming to be quirky but didn't quite succeed- at least not in a positive way. To be honest, I wouldn't have really cared so much about any of the oddities if I'd been in one of the upstairs rooms and if there had been any obviously available dinner options nearby.
The breakfast buffet had a variety of offerings of grains, meats, cheeses and some fruit. I settled on just some cold crepes and oatmeal. Since we were returning to the same hotel (*groan*) after one night in Tajikistan, we left our larger suitcases behind and just took overnight bags with us.
We left at around 9:15am… but we had to turn around after several group members realized they'd left their Tajikistan e-visa papers behind in their luggage. I'd kept mine with my passport; given how closely I guard my travel documents, perhaps it made sense that I wound up being in charge of everyone's rail tickets. At least everyone realized they were missing their documents before we'd driven too far. On the way back, we saw a car accident being cleared. It didn't seem like we had been gone long enough for that to have just happened, but perhaps we took a slightly different route back.
Our Uzbekistan driver dropped us off at the border which was about 45 minutes from our hotel. This was our first land border crossing, and it was slightly tricky without a guide, but we figured it out. At one point, the A's and I saw an Uzbekistan guard talking for awhile with O and R after scanning their luggage. We were curious what we might be asked, but we're all NYers (or honorary NYers in my case) so we ended up just breezing on by! A few people were asked some questions at various points but I never was- must be a benefit of my resting bitch face. Fortunately, there were no lines and there was only a small walk from where we were dropped off to the Tajikistan side; the trip notes had warned that we may need to carry our luggage for up to 1 km across borders.
When we had finished with the formalities and exited the official areas, I was a little worried because I didn't see anyone waiting that was holding a sign for our group. But it turned out that I missed the placard because it only had R's name on it and didn't mention the tour company. So we met our Tajikistan guide and driver and then got comfortable in the van.
Our introduction to Tajikistan was Penjikent, a town we drove through that was about 20 minutes from the border. We made a quick stop so that our guide, D, could photocopy our passports to give to someone when we drove to the mountains. Typing that out… it sounds really sketchy; my research mentions that a passport check is required but says nothing about needing to hand over a copy. Shrug. It seemed to make sense at the time… and what choice did we really have?
During the morning drive, I felt like the distant mountains on the horizon were calling to me, beckoning me closer. Anyone who knows me can easily tell that I am a total city girl. But one of my favorite things about travel is that I can spend time enjoying experiences outside of my comfort zone such staying a quiet location where I can be immersed in nature. Mountains and bodies of water are always favorites, so I was excited to be heading to the Seven Lakes region in the Fann Mountains.
We were definitely headed off the beaten path; not many other tour companies include a visit the Seven Lakes. During the drive, the bucolic landscape was only occasionally speckled with small clusters of simple homes. There were times when we could see local women doing laundry in the streams. Children would smile and wave, as though it was somewhat of a novelty to see unfamiliar faces passing through their towns.
The narrowness of the twisty road made me a little nervous, but amazingly I didn't have any issues with motion sickness; I'm guessing that I felt ok because we traveled at a very slow speed. We were all excited enough about some small streams that appeared before we reached the lakes that we compelled the guide to stop briefly for photos.
Then we stopped at 3 of the 4 lakes that were en route to our guesthouse. I was beguiled by their gorgeous shades of teal and blue. When combined with the dramatic mountain backdrop and the peace of the surrounding areas, it was a breathtaking experience. I felt so lucky to be able to be there, in those moments… so far removed from the stresses of daily life (or even the annoyances of crowded tourist spots!)
Upon arriving at our small, family run guesthouse at a little before 2pm, we were led into a hut where we sat on the floor around a low table which already contained plates of fruits and vegetables. We were treated to a tasty home cooked meal which included soup and a main course that included meat and potatoes (a vegetarian option was available for the non-meat eaters) As we ate, I was soothed by the calming sounds of a nearby stream.
A little later, we headed out to the 6th lake which was perhaps the most gorgeous of those we saw. The dramatic backdrop of snow capped mountains was gently reflected in the turquoise waters. We spent some time just soaking up the view and taking pictures. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived, it was mostly cast in shade and the lighting wasn't necessarily ideal for photography- but it was gorgeous nonetheless.
I regret that we didn't have a chance to embark on the 40 minute hike to Lake 7, which you can't reach by vehicle, although it was getting to be too late for such an activity. (I'm not sure if the guide mentioned that the path had too much snow; even if he had, I wouldn't necessarily trust that it was the truth)
Have you ever wondered what would happen if your vehicle wouldn't start when you were in an extremely remote area? I can't say I had… until it happened to us! You can't just call AAA (or some form thereof) from high up in the mountains of Tajikistan. At one point, R phoned her dad because he was a mechanic while the rest of us just stood aside and calmly pondered our fate. It seemed like eventually the guide jiggled something with the battery and the vehicle started. I was slightly disappointed because I thought that hiking back to the guesthouse would have been pretty awesome, especially since it was downhill. It was getting to be chilly out but I had no doubts that a little walking would warm us all up.
On the way back, we stopped at Lake 5 as daylight was starting to fade. Some kids came up to the vehicle selling stuff while we were there; I didn't buy anything but some of the others did.
Back in the guesthouse, I chilled out in the dining hut with R and O. Eventually we repurposed the long seat cushions into makeshift blankets for warmth. Dinner was another great meal- my photos show that it included watermelon and a dish with meat and rice (as usual, there was a vegetarian option available)
Throughout the morning, our guide had been telling us that we could stay at a hotel in town if we wanted because it was going to be cold at night and the building wasn't heated. We're pretty sure that he kept making this offer because he would have been more comfortable in a hotel. I was so glad when the group unanimously decided we wanted the experience of staying in the guesthouse. If nothing else, it offered us more time in the region as we could see some of the lakes again the next day. But I think we all also craved the charm, uniqueness, and authenticity of the homestay. Especially since it was only for one night. I am glad I wasn't traveling with anyone who would have traded that precious opportunity for a boring hotel.
I was able to have a room with 3 cot-like beds to myself. This was fortunate because it meant I could use 3x the blankets than if there was only one bed! Even so, I fortified my body against the cold night by wearing a t-shirt, a pajama top, a light hoodie (Come From Away, of course), leggings, and pajama bottoms. The room light turned off on its own at some point and I was never able to figure out how to turn on the toilet light in the communal bathroom which made it challenging to remove my contacts. But I have absolutely no regrets and I'd do it all again! The food was great, the hospitality was wonderful, and it was priceless to have the privilege of spending a night in such a beautiful, remote setting. I love staying in posh, fancy hotels as much as anyone… but sometimes basic can be just as extraordinary in its own way. (not to mention the fact that any hotel in the local town wouldn't have been anything special)
In spite of the basic and chilly conditions, I slept surprisingly well. I woke up before my alarm when I heard the others stirring in the halls. Once I got ready, I walked around the grounds a little to try to take in one of the last chances I'd have to be alone in the tranquil setting. I felt so grateful to be there; it's exceedingly rare for an American to have the opportunity to wake up in a remote area of Tajikistan.
Assuming that breakfast would be in the same external hut where we'd taken our other meals, I headed over there and piled on a cushion for comfort. However, we later found out that breakfast would be served on the 2nd floor of the building where we'd stayed. I was going to have an omelet but decided to pass when I saw that it had tomato and onion in it. I didn't take any photos so I'm not sure what I ended up eating instead.
On the way back into town, we stopped at Lake 3 which we had skipped the previous day. Although we didn't make official stops at the other 3 lakes on the route, I still enjoyed their beauty from the window of our vehicle as we slowly navigated the winding road reversing our path from the previous morning. I marveled at the ever changing angles of mountains and lakes, which is an activity I could engage in for hours on end without ever growing bored.
I treasured the last moments of catching snapshots of life in tiny remote towns where I could only imagine how very different a typical day would be from my high tech suburban existence. Part of me envied the charm and simplicity… but also knew that I would miss the conveniences with which I've been spoiled if I were to spend much more time there. I appreciated the chance to at least get exposed to a jewel of a spot that was about as far off the usual tourist path as one can get.
Once we arrived back at the outskirts of Penjikent, we stopped at a completely charmless hotel for a rest stop. We guessed that we would have stayed there had we decided to forego the guesthouse, and I think we were even more relieved we'd chosen to remain at the delightful and friendly, albeit chilly, little house in the midst of scenic mountains.
We spent abut 45 minutes exploring the ruins of ancient Penjikent, which was a key town in the Silk Road trade system before being destroyed in the 8th century. Most of our time was spent outside where our guide explained what each area was originally. But, to be honest, I had a hard time paying attention- I just enjoyed traipsing around, looking at the ruins without trying to focus on their meaning, and enjoying the lovely day. One area boasted a lovely overlook over the modern city backed by mountains. At the end, we visited a small museum which contained recreations of some art works from the ancient city.
We had a short time to explore the Penjikent Bazaar, which we'd passed by the previous day. Unsurprisingly, I didn't make any purchases. Like other markets in the region, this one sold a very eclectic range of items ranging from spices and produce to bras and soccer balls. I enjoyed wandering around, and found myself most enamored of the vibrant colors and textures of stalls selling traditional fabrics.
Lunch was at a charming little restaurant just off the river. We're getting to the part of the tour where I got too lazy/ tired to write many notes so I'm not sure what exactly I had or what I thought of it; looks like the requisite soup followed by a meat dish with rice and noodles. The hit of the meal may have been the Fanta orange soda that I had for a change.
Our final organized activity for the day was a 45 minute visit to the Historical Museum. Unlike many places which require visitors to remove their shoes, this one provided us with little baggies to wear on top of our footwear. It was a rocking fashion statement to be sure.
I recall at the time finding it interesting to learn a little about Tajikistan history, especially around the period of the country's independence in 1991. But when going through my photos, I'm most struck by the mannequin with the scary unibrow. And also the display of alcohol bottles whose explanation I can't recall. I was less amused with "The nature hall" which could more accurately be called "The Taxidermist's Dream Room Full of Dead Animals and Birds"; I wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible.
Next door to the museum, a wedding was taking place and I was very into the purple frilly heart decorations- excellent color choice.
Pretty soon, it was time to head back through the border crossing and then to meet our driver in Uzbekistan where we returned to the hotel in Samarkand that we'd left the previous morning. We had no issues being united with the large bags that we'd left behind. I was extremely thankful that someone else volunteered to take the room off the front desk this time so I didn't have to be there again. Instead, I had a much nicer (and obviously quieter) room on the 2nd floor which contained 3 beds and a sofa.
It was only about 5pm when we arrived, but I still wasn't sure what was around or what anyone else had planned. . I really wish we'd stayed at a hotel with a restaurant or at least one in a more happening neighborhood. I felt extremely down and alone, and ended up breaking out the emergency M&M's and eating them along with some candies that were in the room and some bread which I still had from… somewhere. This was one of the times when my mental health struggles proved to be an acute challenge- it's rather amazing to me that I've managed to travel as far as I have in spite of my anxiety. At the time, I low key hated Samarkand even though I hadn't actually seen any of the city yet... and since we didn't have a dedicated guide I had no idea what time we were even supposed to meet the next morning.
I can't really say that I got a good feeling for Tajikistan as a country since I didn't even spend 2 days there... and most of that time was in a very remote area. But I have very fond memories of my short time in the country, and I'd definitely be amenable to a return visit in the (unlikely) event that I had another opportunity to explore more of that part of the world.