Four Tongren Monasteries

We took a local bus from Labrang to Tongren, another Tibetan monastery town. The bus was packed to the brim with mostly Tibetans, filling the aisles and all possible seats. We have noticed they have a strange habit of boarding the bus, taking up all the best seats, then proceeding to be kicked out by ticket holders. It's somewhat annoying, but we suspect that passengers pay less if they pay the drivers directly, who get to pocket the money themselves (a win-win situation for the mostly poor Tibetans). We didn't mind the crammed bus ride, even the strong smell of yak butter emanating from most passengers. We passed on the fresh yak yogurt at the pit stop and witnessed our first snowfall of the year as we crossed over the mountain pass separating Gansu and Qinghai provinces.

A traveler we had met earlier had warned us that Tongren was an ugly Chinese city, but this didn't dissuade us from visiting. He was right, Tongren is an ugly Chinese city. But with a little searching, we were able to find what people came to the area to visit. Six kilometers from town are the Upper and Lower Wutun Monasteries, famous for their thangka art schools. We have come to the obvious conclusion that the less visitors to a monastery, the warmer the welcome you receive. At the upper monastery, we were greeted by a young painting master. He phoned the various temple caretakers and managed to get us into one of them, he was exceedingly apologetic that he couldn't track down the key to the main temple hall. We then had hot yak's milk, Tibetan flat bread, biscuits and fresh fruits in his monk's quarters. We were surprised by his luxury apartment, complete with television, DVD player and stereo system. He proudly showed us his ticket stubs from various monasteries around China. The upper monastery is famous for its thangka paintings and art is commissioned for monasteries all over China and Tibet, probably creating a more than decent income for the resident monks. The lower monastery is larger than the upper one, but their painting school is apparently less highly reputed. But the money still seemed to be flowing in, with huge new temple buildings and stupas being constructed when we visited. Both monasteries are painted in bright colours most with yellow and red outer walls (in contrast to the sombre coloured Labrang buildings in Xiahe). From the Wutun monasteries, we crossed the river and headed to the third monastery of the day. The small (40 monks) Gomar Gompa is built around what seemed like an abandoned medieval walled village. The only people we stumbled upon were two young girls praying outside a crumbling temple. A monk waved at us from his quarters and we thought we could make out the faint sounds of prayers from one of the temple buildings. The next morning, before leaving the city we payed a visit to the main Tongren monastery, the Rongwo Gonchen Gompa. The huge maze of monastery buildings covers a large section of Tongren and we followed the streams of pilgrims and monks doing their morning kora. The kora climbs up the side of the mountain, around the monastery, and is more difficult than some that we had seen. That didn't stop the mothers with babies strapped to their backs and the hunchbacked old folks (simultaneously spinning their hand held prayer wheels) from completing their daily spiritual duty. Everyday Tibetan life continues despite the Chinese city encroaching on it.

Three Days at the Labrang Monastery

We got off the Dunhuang-Langzhou night train and got on a bus to the town of Xiahe to visit the Labrang Monastery. The monastery is home to almost 1200 monks (the most of any monastery outside Tibet Autonomous Region, but far less than pre-1959). It is a Geluk School (Yellow Hat), Tibetan Buddhist monastery and is the seat of an important line of reincarnated lamas, the Jamyang-zhaypa Rinpoches. According to the resident monk/tourguide he is the third most powerful Geluk lama after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama and is currently a six year old boy. From the bus station in Xiahe, we first walked past the white bathroom-tiled buildings, neon signs, Chinese-owned Tibet souvenir shops, and other Chinese trademarks before meeting the clear demarcation between China and Tibet. Arriving late in the afternoon, we met the crowds of Tibetan pilgrims, nomads and locals doing their evening circuit around the monastery, shuffling clockwise around the stupas, spinning their prayer wheels while arranging their ornate jewelry and extra-long sleeved jackets. For pilgrims, this is the time to bring out their most colourful and precious clothing. The women in particular are covered in heavy-looking turquoise and coral jewelry including huge headpieces. Men are wilder looking, with long scraggily hair, cowboy hats and huge overcoats with sleeves close to dragging on the ground. We haven't figured out exactly why the sleeves are so long, but they are definitely incorporated in Tibetan dance. There are two main styles: one is to tie both sleeves around the waist forming a giant bunch, the other is to keep one arm in a sleeve and one arm out with the empty sleeve hanging loosely at the side. We ended up sleeping in a wing of the newly opened Thangka Painting Training and Cultural Centre. A well-known painting master (and local monk) raised money and opened the beautiful Tibetan style centre to train young aspiring Thangka painters. One wing of the centre has been converted into a youth hostel, with monks coming in and out, surfing the internet, watching prayer DVDs and snacking on butter tea and various yak-derived food items. We were the only non-Chinese speaking residents and we quickly made friends with an older monk, trying to perfect his self-taught English. He gave us a tour of the impressive centre (still in construction) and accompanied us into town a few times. Even though the town is crawling with tourists, it doesn't alter the atmosphere too much because there are so greatly outnumbered by monks and pilgrims. The only time we felt a little overwhelmed was when we took the guided tour of the monastery along with about 100 other tourists. We didn't quite manage to all fit into the temples, our guide was utterly exasperated as he tried to keep us all together. The Labrang monks can't exactly be qualified as friendly, they can't really be blamed for being tired of tourists shuffling through their prayer sessions and taking excessive amounts of photos (guilty). We were mainly ignored, but were sometimes greeted by eager English speaking monks, one even pointed out his supposed scars at the hands of the local police and mentioned Canada and Germany's meetings with the Dalai Lama. You couldn't look down an alley of the monastic city without spotting the crimson robes of a Labrang monk. Various daily monk-activities include praying (or course), in two two-hour sessions, Tibetan longhorn practice, cymbal practice, debating circles and Cham dance practice. We witnessed most of the activities at some point during our visit. Past the monastery is a Tibetan village which houses a nunnery and a smaller monastery. We visited the nunnery, whose resident nuns, in great contrast to the Labrang monks, were friendly and energetic, laughing and requesting photos (we concluded that they don't get too many visitors). Leaving the nunnery we passed the mysterious Tibetan Red Sect Monastery, which we couldn't figure out how to enter. We did however spot a few of the monks, who, in contrast to the Yellow Sect monks, wear their hair in a long braid wrapped around their head and drape themselves in a red and white flag-like robe. Through the hills surrounding the monastery we followed the kora (prayer circuit) and got get great views of the monastery streets and temples. Spiritual beings that we are, we walked the kora two afternoons in a row. Despite a tight schedule, we dragged out our time in Labrang by an extra day. For the first time in a while we weren't eager to get going; great accommodation, a colourful atmosphere and beautiful surrounding scenery kept us from moving on.

Changji English Lesson and a Tourist Sand Trap

We landed (perhaps surprisingly) safely in Urumqi after a pleasant enough Uzbekistan Airways flight. I wanted to check into the more expensive youth hostel, but Yann got his way and we ended up in a cheapie by the train station (which, other than its very healthy population of cockroaches wasn't too bad), with great views of the concrete jungle surrounding the hotel. We didn't have much to do in the city other than recover from Uzbekistan and plan the next leg of our trip. We headed out to a nearby city, Changji, to meet up with Jochen, a traveller we met in Bishkek in the summer, a teacher at the local college. With more time, Jochen's apartment would have been the ideal place for lazing, with his friendly roommates Kerimjan and Liu Bing Bing, and great cheap food all over the neighbourhood. But, we just didn't have time to stick around and we contented ourselves with a dinner and breakfast together and a trip to Jochen's classroom where we watched his energetic students debate over global warming. We took a night train to Dunhuang, a Silk Road tour group hot spot where we had planned for a day or two of sight seeing. We planned to spend sunset at the Echoing Sands, a 'mountain range' of sand dunes just a few kilometers from the city, with the highest dune over 1700m high. We hopped on a local bus until the dunes appeared towering above us, along with throngs of tourists wearing bright orange 'sand boots', riding ultralight planes, tobogganing down the dunes or riding camels across them. We're used to Chinese tourism, and none of these things bothered us, in fact I was getting excited for a toboggan ride. What bothered us was the 120 yuan entrance fee to the dunes (that's twice times the entrance fee to The Forbidden City in Beijing!) The cost allowed you to enter the large wooden archway built at the base of the dunes and set your feet in the sand. Any of the aforementioned activities most likely required the payment of another large number of yuans, but we wouldn't know, because we wouldn't pay the admission. We walked around for over an hour, through farmer's fields and down dirt roads trying to find a way onto the dunes. A fence is erected around the dunes for a few kilometers with signs warning of a 100-200 yuan fine for climbing over them. We considered climbing them, the fine was almost the same price as the admission ticket, if we were lucky, maybe even half price. The next day we took a bus to the Mogao Caves, a collection of hundreds of caves carved into the side of a cliff, some as long ago as the 3rd century. In the guise of conservation, ticket prices are high and only a handful of caves are open each day (on rotation), with visitors requiring a mandatory tour guide. The cost to visit twelve caves was 180 yuan (three times the cost of the admission to the Forbidden City), we made the decision to invest for our cultural and artistic betterment. We joined a French tour group, because there weren't enough English speakers at the caves to form a group. The adorable old-timers embraced us with open arms when they noticed we were tagging along at the back. The tour starts with the three most impressive caves and then pretty much goes down hill from there, unless you are really an ancient Buddhist art enthousiast. The caves were small, poorly lit, we were all crammed together trying to understand our tour guide through the echoes and the Chinese tour group tailing us and hovering loudly at the cave entrances (you would think they could stagger the tours a little bit better). After three hours, and a lot of repetition on the part of our guide, we had visited our dozen caves and were underwhelmed (for half or even two thirds of the price we might have felt more content). And we weren't the only tourists feeling disappointed, we poured through dozens of disgruntled messages in a traveller's advice book of a local cafe (even the more mature French tourists seemed to be getting pretty bored as we got to the last caves). So we left Dunhuang for Langzhou, wishing we had taken the direct train there in the first place and not wasted a full day in overpriced Dunhuang. On a brighter note, the Chinese tourists were absolutely loving every minute of their Dunhuang visit, handing over their money like they had just won the lottery. Watching them was the highlight of Dunhuang tourism.

A Tashkent 'Homestay'

From Bukhara we travelled by overnight train to Tashkent, Uzbekistan's modern capital (the former USSR's fourth largest city). Our first stop was the Hadra Hotel, described by our guidebook as the "darkest hole in Central Asia" (also the cheapest option listed in the city). The manager at the hotel was perhaps the bitchiest woman in Central Asia. The stench of urine and excrement became stronger as we climbed towards the filthy room that she had to offer. Her asking price was high considering the state of the place, I attempted to negotiate a lower price, I wasn't particularly keen on spending a week at the hotel, but I was willing to make a sacrifice for the sake of our budget. She wouldn't budge on the price, when I mentioned the filth and stench she waved me out.

We were now in somewhat of a bind, of our list of "budget hotels", this was the only one that fell into our range. We had been determined to turn down our Tajik travel companions, Myriam and Mathieu's, offer of a pullout couch in their appartment, not wanting to impose, especially that they were preparing for their move back to France in the upcoming month. But Hotel Hadra traumatized us enough that we ended up on their doorstep early Sunday morning (after a wake up call). We had a long coffee-filled breakfast and got a tour of the appartment before the four of us left for Mathieu and Myriam's favourite spot in Tashkent, the giant Yangiobod flea market. Yann and I ploughed through Yangiobod's endless alleys of gadgets, clothing, furniture, nuts and bolts, pets and Soviet memorabilia. We ended up with a little contraption used to measure distances on a map, a Lenin coin and a t-shirt. Ramadan didn't seem to have affected local appetites, we sat elbow to elbow in a market eatery sharing palov, salads and sandwiches for lunch. We met up again for dinner together along with French friends of Myriam and Mathieu's at a big Uzbek restaurant complete with a dance show. The Texas cowboy routine seemed a great insight into Uzbek culture.

The next day, Yann and I made up our mind to skip travel through Kazakhstan. Despite having waited nearly a week for our Kazakh visas, after surveying other travellers it became clear that the country was expensive and full of hassles, including costly registrations and a frustrating border crossing with Uzbekistan. We were running out of time anyways and Kazakhstan would have only served as a transit to China. We booked a flight to Urumqi in Western China that morning, with the highly reputed Uzbekistan Airways.

We filled our remaining five days in Tashkent with museums and other tourist activities. Most dinners were shared with Myriam and Mathieu and filled with fresh produce from the huge Chorsu Market. We found homemade cheese at the market and flattered the vendor by returning two days in a row, the second day buying twice as much as the first. One of our favourite Central Asia activities has become visiting self-praising exhibits dedicated to the quasi-dictatorial corrupt governments and country leaders. Tashkent museums did not disappoint. At the National History Museum, most of the top floor is a self-congratulatory exhibit of President Karimov's many accomplishments. A highlight, the photo of him receiving the award for "Outstanding International Leader", presented to him by Henry Kissinger for his "outstanding contribution to the struggle against international terrorism". Relations have since cooled after the massacre of hundreds of innocents civilians in Andijan. The Amir Temur Museum featuring dozens of tacky tribute painting to the great warlord, not surprisingly doesn't mention some of his more tyrannical activities such as the stacking of his thousands of victims' skulls into pyramids. Oh well, as one particularly annoying traveller put it "Everybody needs a National hero". Or better yet, as President Karimov put it: "If somebody wants to understand who the Uzbeks are, if somebody wants to comprehend all the power, might, justice and unlimited abilities of the Uzbek people, their contribution to the global development, their belief in the future, you should recall the image of Amir Temur". Two evenings in a row, Yann and I went to shows at the National Opera and Ballet Theatre. For the paltry sum of 3000sum each (2.5$), we got 10th row seats to a full length ballet, and the next night to the Tchaikovsky opera 'Evgeni Onegin' (we only made it through half of this Russian marathon). The National troupe, around since Soviet times, lives on, albeit not too healthily. The theatre wasn't more than half full, most in attendance were tour groups or Russians, the Uzbeks in the crowd were few and far between (and talking on their cell phones). The performers were mostly Uzbek and put on spirited performances, the most adorable were the orchestra members, who called me over to the pit to photograph them in their very casual uniforms. Two days before our scheduled departure, I was knocked out by a flu bug, Yann followed the next day. We slept all day and had to miss our last night's dinner planned with Myriam and Mathieu at their favourite Tashkent restaurant. Since our flight was at 6a.m., in theory we had to be at the airport by 3a.m. the next day. We drafted our sick selves up, along with generous Mathieu who escorted us to the empty streets to find a taxi (and negotiate us a good price). When we arrived at the airport we read that our flight had been pushed back two hours, which was agonizing only because of the potential sleep that we were missing. We divided our time between the uncomfortable metal benches and the second floor bathroom, in what must be one of the last airports to allow smoking.

When the Uzbekistan Airways counter finally opened, the passengers (most of whom had arrived two hours early) formed, in Uzbek style, a gigantic blob of pushing and shoving. Yann and I chose the most competent of the three staff members manning counters, he managed to process a single boarding pass in over an hour. Meanwhile we had to fight off the Uzbek passengers attempting non-stop to cut in front of us in line. The few foreigners were vigilantly holding our places, we allied ourselves with the French tour group to battle such unscrupulous behavior (I was simultaneously holding in diarrhea, quite a feat indeed). By the time all the bags were checked and boarding passes were printed, there was only about an hour left before departure time and now all the passengers formed a similarly giant swell at the customs gates. We were waved through with scary speed. Yann and I had spent a painstaking morning and a whopping 50USD getting ourselves registered in Tashkent and we didn't even get to show our stupid registration stubs to anyone. In Uzbekistan, tourists must be registered for every night they spend in the country. This is usually done automatically by hotels, who present you with a small stub stating the dates you stayed with them. We had no stub for the dates we spent with Myriam and Mathieu in Tashkent. Hotels are required to register their guests within three days of their arrival, Yann and I had already been in Tashkent for five days when we attempted to get a registration from a hotel. We finally found a hotel that would register us for the days they could and give us a fake registration stub for the missing days (for 50USD), but in the end it didn't even matter. As we waited to board the plane, we hoped the Uzbekistan Airways maintenance crews and pilots weren't as incompetent as everyone else we had dealt with at the airport.

Best (and Worst) of Tajikistan

This is our choices for the best and worst moments of our 22 days in Tajikistan. We've also put together a gallery of our favourite photos which you can visit here here.

Our FAVOURITE Cities/Towns
According to Yann:
1- Dushanbe
2- Ishkashim
3- Khojand
According to Emilie:
1- Dushanbe
2- Khojand
3- Ishkashim

According to Yann:
1- Amazing nothingness at Alichur, Pamir Highway
2- Yamchun Fort, Wakhan Valley
3- Behzod Museum, Dushanbe
According to Emilie:
1- Yamchun Fort and Bibi Fatima Hot Springs
2- Yassyk Kul Lake
3- Views of the Hindu Kush Mountains from the Pamir Highway

The WORST Sights
According to Yann and Emilie:
1- Scummy, lukewarm hotspring water at the sanatorium in Jelandy, Pamirs
2- Istaravshan, some charm but largely overrated old town

According to Yann and Emilie:
1- Honey melon
2- Palov (rice pilaf cooked with lots carrots, mutton and lots of lard)
3- Compote (homemade concentrated fruit juice)
4- Homemade sourcream/cheese

According to Yann and Emilie:
1- Stale nan bread
2- Potatoes fried in copious amounts of USAid cooking oil
3- Mutton fat, in all its forms (excepted melted in palov)

BEST Aspects of Tajik Tourism
According to Yann and Emilie:
1- Almost no other tourists
2- Tajik hospitality
3- Unibrows and gold teeth

WORST Aspects of Tajik Tourism
According to Yann and Emilie:
1- Roads, and having to travel on them
2- Officialdom: permits, registrations, police checkpoints...
3- Expensive hotels with stinky bathrooms
4- Tajik Air

Tajik Trademarks
According to Yann and Emilie:
- Mouthful of gold teeth
- Unibrows
- Taxi drivers proclaiming that their extortionate rates are due to "Benzene! Benzene!"
- Shoulder padded, flower patterned, full length moomoos
- Museum displays dedicated to President Rahmon
- Handshakes with one hand placed on the heart
- Four cornered, black and white embroidered hats
- Militsia on every corner (especially Dushanbe)
- Terrible roads

For those interested in our expenses, we have updated our homepage with our financial information for Tajikistan, it is available here

Bukhara TV

Leaving Khiva by public transportation shouldn't have been too complicated, except that we arrived at the bus station at 8 a.m. and the day's first bus to Bukhara left at 2p.m. This meant we had to negotiate with the dreaded minivan drivers for an earlier departure. After taking a survey of other passengers we determined that the cost of the trip was 10,000 sums (about 8$) per person. When we approached the driver and were quoted 15,000 sums each, I am embarassed to admit, I unleashed a tirade of epic proportions. I blame it on a build up of overcharging in the weeks leading up, but as Yann walked across the bus station to check the afternoon bus fare, he could apparently still hear me swearing. The driver claimed that the extra fee was for our baggage, which just made me angrier. Our bags are small were small enough to fit under the seats, so the surcharge couldn't be for the space we were taking up. Our bags weigh less than 10kg each, so when two gigantic Uzbek women joined the passenger list, that ruled out the weight surcharge. The driver tried to bring the price down, but still not to the actual fare, so I refused to talk to him. Despite my slightly psychotic reaction I felt that other passengers sympathised with us (at least a little bit). After over an hour, still with not enough people to fill the minivan, the other passengers ganged up on the driver and made him take us for the 10,000 sum fare. The driver and I acted as if all was perfectly normal as Yann loaded our bags into the minivan. I was mighty greatful, I definetely thought I had cut off that transport option. Most of the Khiva-Bukhara drive is through the desert and the scenery is pretty much unchanging for the six hour trip. At one point we did pass some desert nomad's tents and concluded that we had witnessed some of the most harsh and unpleasant living conditions imagineable.

Thanks to European style tourism initiatives, dozens of homes in Old Bukhara have been restored and transformed into cozy, Western-amenity filled guesthouses. With lots of competition, the prices are low and we stumbled upon a great room down an alley just a few meters from the central landmark of the Old Town, Lyabi-Hauz, a small pool surrounded by trees, teahouses and medressahs. The major selling point wasn't the great location, old stone courtyard, clean bathrooms or cheap price, it was definetely the satellite television, complete with Al-Jazeera and dozens of Arab porn station commercials. We spent a few too many hours hauled up in our room channel surfing. Just down the street from our guesthouse was one of two remaining synagogues in Bukhara, serving the small Jewish community that settled in the city during the 12th or 13th century. We frequently crossed yamaka-clad Uzbeks, an small pocket of distinction among the majority muslim population. We spent two days visiting more of Uzbekistan's architectural heritabe, medressahs, blue domes and minarets. The Bukhara Old Town is certainly more lively than Khiva's but you still get the impression that the average Bukharan doesn't spend much time inside the old city walls, unless they are trying to sell something to tourists. Overcharging tourists is definetely commonplace in Uzbekistan, but the shit really hit the fan when a local grocer tried to charge us twice the price for a chunk of smoked gouda (I really really wanted that smoked gouda). I won't go into the painful name-calling story. Yann cruelly made me go back to the same store to buy bottled water, since it was the cheapest price in town (and marked with a price sticker) and I couldn't resist taking another cheese-price-jab at the grocer. Due to our inability (or laziness) in finding reasonably priced food within the Old City we self catered most of our meals (a generous breakfast was provided by our guesthouse). Dinner usually consisted of fresh nan bread, smoked gouda (from a deli in the market), fruits and marinated Korean salads (made by the Korean-Uzbeks whose families were relocated by Stalin around WWII). We had to cut the salads out when we realised that the overload of garlic was keeping us from sleeping, although, it did give us more time to enjoy the great novelty of Bukhara: the TV.

Early than Expected Arrival to Empty Khiva

We arrived in Nukus in the afternoon, after 17 hours of very comfortable train travel. Definetely the best train beds so far, complete with an extra mattress and full set of bedding. Our only complaint would be the locked cabins (freaky) and the way too early wake-up. Nukus is the capital of Karakalpakstan, a large desert area, making up most of northern Uzbekistan. We booked the train all the way here with the idea to travel to Moynaq, a former fishing village, now serving as a testament to the man-made ecological disaster, the shrinking of the Aral Sea. Not disapperaed completely, but now shrunk to less than one third of its original size, its water diverted to cotton fields all over Central Asia via desert canals where 70% of the water is lost to evaporation. The Aral Sea was one the fourth largest lake in the world. Karakalpakstan has suffered, not only on an economic level, its population is plagued by respitory and other health problems related to the desertification of its territory (see

Today tourists head to Moynaq to photograph a handfull of ships, landlocked in sand, with the banks of the Aral Sea now a 7-8 hour drive away. Nukus was hot and dusty, we knew of two hotels in the city and we headed first to the cheapest of the two. We were offered a passable room for about 20$, more than we had ever paid for a room. After attempts at negotiation, we were offered dorm beds on the 7th floor (no elevators), for a small discount. The giant Soviet hotel was clearly nearly empty, but we still couldn't get a room at the 'Uzbek' prices posted on the sign. We left for our second and final option, the Hotel Nukus. Friendlier staff, but equally high non-negotiable prices. Already questioning our decision to come to Karakalpakstan, we hailed a taxi to the bus station and hoped there might still be something heading to Khiva (4 hours away).

The bus station was basically deserted, save for a few taxi drivers hoping to make their monthly salary by driving Yann and I to Khiva. We sat on the curb dejected when a rickety old bus pulled up and saved the day. For about 2$ each we were on our way to Khiva (after waiting a few hours for 2 other passengers to show up). Other than a strange checkpoint stop involving a large suspicious package that was being transported in the bus (involving...surprise surprise...a bribe), the trip was rather uneventful. We didn't get to Ichon Qala (Khiva's old city) until well after dark however. The manager of one of the town's more expensive hotels called around until he found us a hotel in our price range, which we felt was quite a generous gesture. The owner of the cheaper guesthouse even came over to meet us and take us to our new place. We walked together through the quiet old town, admiring its towering medressahs and illuminated minarets. We settled in our quaint family home right beneath the tallest building in the old town, the Islam Huja minaret. The next morning we began the visiting of the dozens of Ichon Qala buildings. We began by buying the rather expensive entry ticket, covering admission to most of the buildings, of course the interesting ones require an additional fee (including climbing any of the minarets or city look-outs). Khiva tourism dollars seem to be tightly controlled by the Ichon Qala residents, who wear photo identifications around their neck, permitting them to run their stalls or collect admission charges. The result of this is a town devoid of any real life or character. Each resident manning a ticket check, seems to get the privelege of sprawling their souvenirs all over the entrance to the buildings, usually blocking the ornate entrance gates. Not only can you not admire the sights without tourist clutter, most of the attendants proceed to follow you around attempting to sell you things as you visit. Our absolute favourite Khiva eyesore had to be the giant stuffed tiger on which you could sit and have your picture taken. It was stragegically placed in front of a medressah gate, making a tiger-less photo quasi-impossible. We resisted riding the tiger, but we did dress up as Khiva Khans... During the day, mainly tour groups ply the narrow city streets. Yann and I were determined to make good of our admission tickets and set out to visit each 'museum' housed in the various buildings. Apart from the tour group highlights, these 'museums' are painfully neglected , as we entered doorways, we often ripped through cobwebs blocking our passage. Could it be the attendants spend too much time trying to sell crap to tourists and not enough time keeping their museum exhibitions dust-free? We did however really enjoy the human foetus alongside the jars of baby sharks and fish. There were some actually decent museum exhibitions, mostly the ones containing old photos from the days of the Khiva Khanate. The days of slave trading, public executions and huge fur hats (for your information you can now purchase such wonderful hats, there is a lovely display hanging gracefully across Kalta Minor Minaret's base). But tourist clutter and the feeling of a deserted city, the buildings of Ichon Qala were nonetheless enchanting. Early mornings and late evenings we could explore the city with the tourist stalls not set up yet, or packed up for the day, when the town was actually supposed to be empty. That's definetely when we enjoyed the city the most.

Finding Other Tourists in Samarkand

We were relieved to be in Samarkand, not only because of our border crossing fiasco, but also because, unlike Tajikistan, we actually had a list of 'tourist sights' to visit. And, we could find relatively cheap accomodation. Our guesthouse in Samarkand was a great deal (at least it felt like it coming from Tajikistan), we had our own room with breakfast for about 10$, and for 1$/each we could join in on the communal dinner with pretty much all the other backpackers in Samarkand. The family that runs the place seems in tune with budget traveller's needs and were extremely organized. Breakfast included coffee, which was good for keeping Yann in a good mood (but became his criteria in Uzbekistan for judging whether other breakfasts were good value).

Samarkand is probably the most well-known Uzbek city, if you can say that any Uzbek city is well-known. It was the capital of the warlord Amir Temur's empire (which covered most of Western and Central Asia) and the city is packed with huge, beautifully monuments dating back to the 12th century. Their signature characteristic is the blue and turquoise tile work that adorns them. The most famous of the Samarkand sights is the 'Registan' i.e. the central square, where three giant medressahs face each other. Our guesthouse was just a few minutes walk away from it, and despite seeing it many times it was always impressive. We didn't manage to get the classic photo of the three medressah gates, due to the exceedingly tacky stage left over from the previous week's music festival. We went everyday in the hope that the stage would be dismantled, but it seemed like only one plastic gold coloured flag was removed everyday. We also paid a guard to let us climb up to the top of one of the medressah minarets. Entering an off-limits part of the complex, you could see how much the inside of the building was falling apart, only the tilework and domes seem to have been restored. The next Samarkand 'must see' was the Shar-i-Zindah, a complex of mausoleums of important people, the most important being a cousin of the prophet Mohammed. The tile work on the mausoleums was definetely the most intricate and beautiful of any of the larger monuments (it was my favourite of the Samarkand sights). Many old pilgrims climbed shuffled around the mausoleums saying their prayers and the place didn't seem to be as over-run by tour groups as the Registan, although I'm sure they were on their way. It had been a long time since we had seen package tour groups, actually we hadn't really encountered them at all, other than in China where we met hundreds of them (full of Chinese people). Now we were encountering dozens of 'Silk Road' tour groups, mainly French, a few Italian. The French tour groups loooove Yann and I, and many followed us around asking us various questions about travels, instead of listening to their own tour guides. We didn't leave the city without also visiting the Bibi-Khanym mosque, with its absolutely immense turquoise dome and Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum, the family mausoleum of the Timurid dynasty, both within walking distance from our guest house. A few hours away from Samarkand is Shakrisabz, the birthplace of Temur. There isn't much left in terms of epic architecture, other than the ruins of his most ambitious project, Ak-Saray Palace. More recently a giant statue of Temur has been erected at its base, and it is swarming with wedding parties posing for photos. When we were there we counted twelve couples queued up waiting for their turn with the statue. Since independance, Lenin and Marx statues have been replaced by the great Timur, in what appears to be somewhat of an artificial attempt at forging an Uzbek national identity. The mosque and the mausoleums nearby were however, almost deserted, which was a great contrast to Samarkand's sights. Mathieu and Myriam ended up in Samarkand with us, after having spent a few days longer in Tajikistan than us, so we had one last dinner together with them at a fancy restaurant (ok, fancy for us, we spent a whole 12$) which we found out later was owned by the former Samarkand chief of police (we didn't let it spoil our dinner). Being Uzbek residents and frequent visitors to Samarkand, Myriam and Mathieu gave us tips on a local market in a town nearby called Urgut, where supposedly all the tourist stands in Samarkand stock up on their merchandise. We visited the market and were completely overwhelmed by the size and crowdedness of it, not to mention the ladies literally chasing us around the place trying to sell us various wall hangings and other tourist items. We ended up with a melon and two keychains.

We managed to book our own train tickets out of Samarkand, despite the best efforts of the nasty bleached blond haired Russian lady at the booking office. She was so scary that we handed over a handful of money without actually knowing what we were purchasing (other than the destination). We knew we were heading to Nukus, when we got the tickets we saw that the date was correct, and we hoped we were travelling in sleepers.

Let Us Out of Tajikistan!

When we got back to Khorog, we didn't have much time to plan our departure. The four of us decided that we really wanted to fly to Dushanbe, rather than repeat the overland trip (once was enough). The number of flights leaving Khorog, depends primarily on the number of flights arriving from Dushanbe (and there are fewer people wanting to fly in to Khorog than there are wanting to fly out). The second factor affecting the flights is the weather, since the flight passes very close to mountains, the conditions have to be perfect for planes to take-off (rumour has it, during Soviet times, this flight was the only one where pilots received a danger bonus). Despite obviously unpredictable factors, the Tajik Air ticket purchase system remained mind-bogglingly infuriating:
- You can't reserve a ticket for the flight until one day before or the same day of the flight and you can't put your name on a waiting list.
- You can't reserve by phone, or with an agent, you have to go directly to the Khorog airport to buy a 7 a.m.
- Once at the airport, no matter how early you arrive, or how close to the front of the line you are, you will inevitably be last in line, after the Tajik men invite all their 'friends' or 'family members' to the front of the line with them (Yann nearly got into a physical fight with one particularly disagreeable fellow, trying to keep him from getting in front of us)
- Nobody seems to know when the office will open, or whether or not there are tickets left for that day's flight, or how many flights there are that day, and no one seems to work at the office. After waiting for almost an hour, a door opened for about 30 seconds, the time for an old man to jump to the front of the queue and hand in his passport as his 'reservation'. He was the only one in line to get on the day's first flight.
- If you are lucky enough to have a staff member take your passport, then it serves as reservation, but we were told that there was 'no chance' we could get a flight that day, and we were fighting to get them to hold us a spot for the next day.
- Meanwhile, all the jeeps heading to Dushanbe fill up from 6-8 a.m. so that by the time we abandoned the hellishness, there was not a single jeep willing to go to Dushanbe AND we didn't have a flight booked for the next day.

With time running out on our visas, we couldn't really afford to linger in Khorog, but after more than an hour wandering around the two bus stations, it was quite clear that everyone heading to Dushanbe had already left. We were eventually approached by a few young guys who were keen on signing us on. Lucky for us, we had chosen the back-to-school weekend to leave Khorog, along with pretty much every young person in Eastern Tajikistan. Prices were much higher than they were supposed to be, but at least the jeep (UAZ) was in new condition.

Within less than an hour on the road, one of the two teenagers squeezed in the trunk with our bags had already started puking. I fed him some gravols and he slept for a long time, which was a relief. Our driver drove exceedingly slowly, which in some ways was a welcomed change, but was also frustrating as he tried to haul the jeep over steep parts of the road in high gear. It was also his first time making the trip to Dushanbe, he got lost in the middle of the night a few times, until he found another jeep to follow. He was a terrible driver who was not comfortable driving the jeep, but at least he was cautious, we made it to the Dushanbe in 22 hours (exactly the same amount of time as in the opposite direction, but this time with virtually no stops). Within a few minutes of entering the city the jeep got stopped by police for having a 'non-regulatory' sticker on the front window, our driver was fined the same amount as the price he charged us for one spot in his jeep. It was karma, for having overcharged us. Now two fat greedy Dushanbe police officers have our money instead, or even better, maybe the Government of Tajikistan has it.

Before leaving Khorog, we had found its only internet cafe, and Yann had read the news that the Uzbek authorities had closed the border with Tajikistan for the next two weeks. This was a serious issue for us as our Tajik visas were expiring before the reopening of the border and our only onward visa was for Uzbekistan. Not to mention, we didn't have a single spare page left in our passport for a new visa, but probably not enough time to apply for one anyways. Oh, and there are no flights between the two neighbouring countries because they just don't get along very well. Myriam and Mathieu, being Central Asian residents and used to the governments bad behavior, tried to reassure us, but we were already making backup plans, trying to figure out the cheapest way of bypassing the Uzbek-Tajik border.

After two nights in Dushanbe, at our beloved appartment, we set out alone to the border post closest to Dushanbe (in case we got sent back), our Russian landlady made sure to remind us that the border was closed. We got to the border quickly, and through the first two Tajik checkpoints without anyone telling us to turn back. We were feeling relieved by the time we were in line for our stamps out, although we heard that the Uzbeks were making all the trouble. The guard took our passports, did the usual inspection and prepared his stamp. But wait... what's this? The consular officer in India has signed your Tajik visas, but he hasn't stamped them with his official consular stamp, we simply cannot let you out of the country. At first, Yann and I were pretty sure that this was a ploy for us to hand over some money, but we held our ground. We had been stamped into the country, we had the receipts for our visas, we were officially registered with the government and we were not shelling out any more money. One of the customs officers began making phone calls to his 'bosses' and we were told that we had to go back to Dushanbe to get our stamp. We held out for three hours at the border, the customs officer even drove us to the army barracks where he made a personal plea to his superiors. The little guys at the bottom of the pecking order had opened up a can of worms and now nobody was willing to give the go ahead on stamping us out (although they will gladly turn a blind eye when things that are actually illegal are going on). We were driven to the taxi stand and sent back to Dushanbe with instructions to the driver as to where to drop us off for our stamp.

So where do we end up? On the steps of the Department of Foreign Affairs, with all our bags and in a really bad mood. Yann marched right in, past the security guards, waving his passport "I need a stamp". We were eventually kicked out and sent to the consular affairs office at the back of the building where we waited for five hours for, once again, the 'boss'. She never showed up, we were told to come back the next day. By this point, we were too exhausted to continue being mad, we were just amazed by the incompetence. The next morning we only waited a little over an hour, this time the 'boss' was in, but the 'stamp' hadn't arrived yet?! Is there only one of these in the country? We got our stamps and made ourselves one last tuna fish sandwich at the appartment and left for the border, take two. We crossed hassle free and were in Samarkand by that night.

Tour of the Wakhan Valley

Mathieu and I woke up at 6 a.m. Monday morning to try and find a jeep driver for a three night, four day tour of the Wakhan Valley. Our target price was 300$, but we were getting nervous about whether or not we would be able to find anyone willing to make the trip. Our planned route passed through some areas that are barely inhabited, and thus not frequently travelled by locals. Our first two encounters with drivers were fruitless, one wanting 500$ and the other concluding that his jeep wouldn't survive the trip. We found Samat, a willing driver at the bazaar, his rundown Russian UAZ already half full with passengers. Once we agreed to the 350$ pricetag he promptly kicked out the locals and within an hour we were on the road.

Two out of four doors were functioning, the suspension was completely shot, the tires were slick, we had to hold the windows open and the jeep smelled strongly of gasoline. But, at least Samat's UAZ had four wheels and seemed to be functioning, and of course, the price was right. Samat, our driver was young and seemed friendly he spoke some English but preferred speaking Russian with Mathieu. Our first stop of the day was the Yamchun fortress a five kilometer drive above a village. The views from the fortress ruins were fantastic and we explored for a few hours before finishing off at the Bibi Fatima hot springs (Bibi Fatima is the prophet Mohammed's sister). Mathieu and Yann had the first session, then Myriam and I got to enter the hot spring water with a bunch of cute old naked Tajik women. Women supposedly come to bathe here for help with fertility problems. The water comes directly from the spring into a small cave where a cabin has been built to shelter the cave. Other than the teenage attendant who decided she would stand a foot away from Myriam and I while we changed, the springs were very pleasant. Our next stop was the town of Vrang, where we wanted to see some ancient Zoroastrian (first monotheist religion) worshipping platforms. In Vrang, we were first invited for lunch in a local Pamiri home, where we enjoyed the first of many potato and carrot meals. Pamiri homes are interesting, as they usually are made up of a single room, with no windows other than a giant skylight. Along the walls there are elevated platforms for sleeping and cooking, and the roof is supported by five wooden pillars (there is some Islamic symbolism behind this). After lunch we were guided up to the Zoroastrian platforms perched on the mountainside above the village. The platforms were not as 'fascinating' as described in the guidebook, but the surrounding mountains are dotted with ancient Buddhist caves and the views of the valley below were worth the visit. After Vrang, the next scheduled stop was Zong, for yet again, fortress ruins and spectacular views. Unfortunately, Samat was getting tired, and didn't know where the ruins were, after a pretty lame attempt to find them, he told us that his jeep couldn't make it up the hill and that we would have to walk. I voted to skip the ruins, and soon after the others followed, I suspect all according to Samat's plans. While Samat attempted to turn the jeep around, the locals whose home we were in front of came out to see what was going on. At first it was only a teenage girl, and within minutes, grandchildren, grandparents, brothers, sisters were out greeting us. It was hilarious and cute, another Tajik swarming of tourists. We settled for the night in Langar, the last 'large' settlement in the Wakhan Valley. We found a good homestay, run by a lovely group of women. After a hearty dinner, the young girls put on Tajik music and we all danced. Myriam and Mathieu showed us some Uzbek dancing, the young girls proudly displayed their Tajik moves and Yann even brought out his Pakistani dance. With no electricity and a long day ahead of us we went to bed early. The first day of our tour was deemed a great success.

The second day of our Wakhan trip started with a tough walk in Langar to see petroglyphs carved into rocks high above the town. Our driver Samat, didn't seem very keen on waiting around while we visited them and made an attempt at claiming that the 'nice' petroglyphs were actually at the base of the mountains (our guidebook described them as being a difficult one hour walk straight up). He showed us two faint carvings and then began rounding us into the jeep. Thankfully, Mathieu had already started the climb and we chased after him, with Samat telling us to "be quick" (as if we had somewhere else to be?!). It took us a few hours to get up to the petroglyphs and back down to the jeep, and to give Samat credit, they were disappointing. Carved over most of the ancient drawings was newer graffiti. For the next few hours we drove through beautiful but desolate scenery. This part of the Wakhan is almost completely uninhabited. We crossed a few cyclists (tourists), a handful of shepherds and one vehicle coming from the other direction (a jeep full of tourists). The only settlement we passed was a military base where we had our passports checked by two very bored looking soldiers, who begged Mathieu for a few cigarettes. We met up with the actual 'Pamir Highway' and paved roads a couple of hours later. We had chosen the town of Alichur as our stop for the night, mainly because it was about the right place on the map, not because the town had anything particular to offer. Before stopping for the night we had planned to visit a brakish lake near Alichur.

Samat apparently had different plans for us, and even though we had made it quite clear that we would be stopping at the lake, he expressed shock and disbelief when we stopped him as he attempted to drive right by it. It's not the first time we had experienced drivers becoming impatient near the end of the day, usually because they have friends in town that they are meeting up with. Samat had been talking about how great Alichur was for most of the day, so we were convinced we had a drinking buddy (buddies) waiting for him. Yann fed him some peanuts to appease his hunger that he was now complaining about, and we prevented him from driving us up to the edge of the lake through the grass. We visited the lake with Samat pouting in the car, which took away some of the enjoyment of our short time there. Alichur is a very sad looking place. Way above the tree line, it is cold and barren and it isn't clear how anybody can or would want to live there. There is no running water or electricity, the town shares public outhouses near the centre of town. We found room to sleep in the English teacher's home, then Samat disappeared to the town's only restaurant. We figured out why he was so eager to get to Alichur: fried fish. The restaurant's served up fried fish from a nearby lake. Availability of a variety of different foods is definetely something that we Westerners take for granted. We were all still pretty mad at Samat, especially when he started to dispute our plans for the next day. We had only one stop scheduled for the next day, the town of Bulun Kul 16km off the main highway. When Mathieu and I were first dealing with Samat we had presented him with a list of all our stops including kilometrage, which he had quickly glanced at and agreed to. Now when we presented him with the same list he claimed that he had never seen it and we had probably just written it. I threatened that he leave us behind and not get his pay, he responded that he would get the police after us. He had really turned into a nasty little brat. Mathieu was able to speak to him (in Russian) and get him to agree to our itinerary (which he had already agreed to once).

The town of Bulun Kul was possibly even more sad and desolate than Alichur, if mainly because it wasn't even on the main highway, completely isolated. After a four hour walk to a nearby lake, we had tea with a local family. The head of the house was also the town weather man. Four times a day he walked out to his little weather station, recorded the temperature and then reported it back by telegram to the central station (in Kazakhstan). He proudly showed us his meticulously kept notebooks (he's probably the only employed man in Bulun Kul). It was August and he had already recorded many temperature below zero degrees. He lamented with Mathieu a bit about the good old Soviet times when trucks actually came to town with fresh fruits and vegetables, those days were quite clearly long gone. We arrived in Jelandy in the late afternoon, where we checked into the local truckstop/hotsprings. We were pretty keen on more hotsprings, but were disappointed by the grotty settings: lots of men (including one carrying a large rifle), public baths with tiles covered in about 2 years worth of scum filled with luke warm spring water. We hadn't bathed in almost a week, otherwise we probably wouldn't have entered the pools. Myriam and I didn't even take a pre-bath shower, a taboo, since we were covered in dirt (this really grossed Mathieu and Yann out when they heard). We also made an important Tajik cultural discovery pertaining to shaving. We had already observed that Tajik women don't shave their legs nor their armpits, but after two naked public baths we were able to conclude that there seems to be widespread shaving of another part of the body...weird (note this was mainly Myriam's discovery).

The next day, we stopped to see ruins near Khorog, I didn't join the other three because of stomach problems. I sat outside beside the jeep and within about 3 minutes I had already been beckoned into a villager's home. I resisted at first but after the third family member had come to get me I surrendered to their hospitality. I was fed a full meal and left with my hat and bag full of apples and tomatoes from the garden. This was the last stop before Samat dropped us off on the side of the road in Khorog, didn't even bother to bring us to our guest houses (we should have insisted but we were tired of arguing with him). Yann and I were warmly welcomed back to our homestay, and Myriam and Mathieu ended up there with us. Despite his best efforts our driver hadn't managed to ruin our trip, or taint the Pamiri reputation of friendliness and hospitality.