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Have you ever wondered why Columbus discovered America while he was commissioned to find a reliable supply route of spices from India? Apparently, so it has been claimed, he used an astrological map created by the famous Fergana-born (today’s Uzbekistan) scientist Ahmad Al-Fargoniy which came to being in the 9th century and was completely accurate but Columbus mixed up the top and the bottom of the map and therefore went in the opposite direction.
These are lands of fascinating stories and legends, even more intriguing the less western people know about them, Central Asia offers a rewarding travel experience embracing history, spiced up with genuine oriental hospitality and leaving you to contemplate just how far-reaching this area’s influence has been on transforming the world.
In this entry we are featuring the Nomadistan journey with Vodkatrain that takes you across 4 countries into the heart of Central Asia to ancient Bukhara and Samarkand across the steppes of Kazakstan and into the western China – home to the unique Uyghur minority before finishing in the amazing imperial city of Beijing.
Start your journey in the magnificent city of Moscow where the speed of life can be compared to that of the expensive cars flashing by over the Kameny (Stone) bridge. The medieval, never-fading beauty of St Basil Cathedral reminds of the times of Ivan the Terrible and the decisive years of Russian history when the small slavic state was being centralised and started to turn into a new empire that would replace the fallen Byzantine one… Moscow proclaimed itself the third Rome and by emphasising its growing importance and responsibility took over the leadership of the Orthodox Church in the Christian world. Although the original Silk Road never stretched as far as Moscow, its ties with Byzantine Empire created the links between the states and thus oriental goods having travelled from China along the Silk Road also reached Russia. The main purpose of the Silk Road was as a network of trade routes connecting East and West and has created an extraordinary journey for curious travellers.
From the city of Moscow and across the south-west of Russia into Kazakstan on a three-day journey to Tashkent – the Uzbekistan capital. The adventure begins when you need to take the train in Moscow which leaves from one of the THREE train stations located on the same square. Moscow is truly a transport hub and to facilitate in figuring the train stations out they are called after the direction in which trains depart. So the train bound to Tashkent leaves from Kazansky train station and as you can imagine – the city of Kazan is located on this line. However it still doesn’t help us with the train to Tashkent 😉
Thankfully you don’t need to worry about the right train station as your Honcho will take you there and help you board the right train!
As you get on the train, make an effort to become friends with your carriage attendants. It is always fascinating to try to find out their story, how many children they have and how long they have been doing this job for. Since most of the attendants are men, female travellers need to come up with a fake (if there is no real) family story – to minimise the temptation of them making you their second wife and also for the enjoyment of conversation as Central Asian people love hearing about foreign people’s families even if they are only imaginary.
Border crossings are the essential part of the overland travel and on The Nomadistan journey it is a part of the fun as well. The first train journey takes you across Kazakstan. First you will cross the Russian-Kazak border with non-smiling officials on both sides. But indeed – border crossing is nothing to laugh about! 🙂
Then the Kazak-Uzbek border which, due to the elaborate map making process during the Soviet times is only a few kilometers from Tashkent.
Filling in the declaration forms is also part of the deal. Pay attention when you do that! They may seem difficult but in fact the rules are quite common across the board. As you enter Uzbekistan list your valuables like camera, phone and laptop. Declare the cash but no more that three thousand USD. And most importantly, when you leave the country ensure to declare less dollars than you declared on the way in otherwise the Uzbek officials will think you had engaged in some illegal high paid job while going through their country. All the forms are normally asked to be filled in twice – one for the officials and one for you to present on the way out of the country. A sample Uzbek declaration form can be downloaded from here.
Finally after the ordeal of getting the visa, spending three days on the train and crossing two borders you are in Tashkent! Settlement appeared here more than 2000 years ago however the look of Tashkent is quite modern mainly due to the massive earthquake that happened here in 1966 and destroyed the great deal of the city’s old quarters.
Compared with other world capitals, Tashkent doesn’t quite stand out. Nevertheless, the main square with its Victory park, eternal flame, fountains, spotless boulevard and flashy government buildings is quite pleasant especially on a sunny day. The most prominent relic that is kept in Tashkent these days is one of the 5 Qurans remaining from the 7th century. If you wish to learn more about the Quran and the history of the blood stain still visible on it, check the article here.
There are a few museums in the city that are worthy a visit but for the taste of Central Asia go to the “Pilav Centre” which is great for the hearty bowl of flavourful rice with meat and vegetables – staple food in this part of the world. Prices are low in Uzbekistan which makes it a great place to try all sorts of local varieties. Tashkent is the most expensive city of the country but even there you can have a feast at the local chaykhana and it will cost you a maximum of 10 US dollars!
After a short stay in Tashkent we make our way to the station where we board the train for a few hours journey to Samarkand. It is a truly amazing city and the architectural ensemble of Registan Square is just mind-blowing.
Negotiate the fee with the square guard and climb the minaret of the madrasa to the left of the square. This 5 dollars will be worth spending as the view from the top of the minaret is breath-taking. It goes without saying that you need to be careful climbing up and we don’t guarantee that it will still be open during the time of your visit. Ask your Honcho to help you if you decide to give it a try!
Samarkand has once been a capital of the vast Timurid Empire which stretched across Central Asia from the Black Sea in the west to China in the east. The glory of the 15th century capital can still be seen today – intricate tiles of mausoleums at Shah-i-Sinda and spacious dome of Bibi Khanum Mosque, perfection of Registan Square especially in the light of the rising sun. With the conquer of Persia, and the following assimilation of Turkic and Persian cultures it was a golden age of Persian language, literature, art and architecture leaving magnificent examples of persian influence in Central Asia.
The journey continues by train to Bukhara – the jewel of the Silk Road and with not doubt the most atmospheric city on this journey. Bukhara is full of historic buildings but there is nothing better than just wander around the old center getting lost in the maze of narrow streets in the Old City.
When you get tired of your walk, sit and chill out at the Lyabi Hauz – beautiful ensemble of edifices created in the 16-17th centuries around the pond (hauz). The madrassas around the pond and the trading domes are occupied by craftsmen offering unique Uzbek souvenirs including Suzanne embroideries that a specific to this area.
Bukhara is easy to navigate thanks to its small size and you can pretty much walk the whole Old City in a day. The Ark fortress requires a bit of time to visit thoroughly and British travellers will be surprised to hear a tragic story about their countrymen who were executed here back in the 19th century during the Great Game. The Kalian Minaret is beautiful although it is also known as the Tower of Death as for centuries criminals were executed by being pushed of the top of it.
Changing the topic to a more pleasant one, should your time permits, treat yourself to the Turkish Bath – hammam which is located right after you exit the trading domes heading towards the Ark. You need to make an appointment few hours in advance as the place is very popular. After an hour in a pleasantly warm sauna with a relaxing massage – you will feel that life can hardly get any better. For the excellent dining experience with the view over the Bukhara sand brick domes, visit Minzifa Cafe which features both Uzbek and European cuisine.
Back on the train for an overnight journey to Tashkent where we take the second glimpse of this city in the middle of Central Asia. The same day we depart by train to Almaty. Having crossed Kazakstan by train we are now making the second entry into this emerging new oil powerhouse. Therefore a double entry Kazak visa is required for the Nomadistan journey.
With the Kazak new capital Astana starting with the same letter as Almaty, it makes it a prefect trivia question. Although Almaty is no longer capital of the country (since 1997) it remains the largest and the busiest city in Kazakstan.
“Alma” means apple translated from the Turkic language – the family of languages that Kazak belongs to as well. Recommended reading before visiting the country is “In search of Kazakhstan” by Christopher Robbins who discovers many facets of the country being intrigued by the hypothesis that apples originate from Kazakstan. No need to say that watching “Borat” is unnecessary before the visit.
–CHINA– With your batteries charged we board the train again and our next destination is Urumqi – capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region of China.
Urumqi hit the headlines of newspapers in 2009 when it became the centre of separatists riots. As a return measure Chinese government cut the whole region off from international telephone access and Internet for the few months putting the region into sleep mode and causing small businesses to search for alternative sources of income.
Urumqi is a big industrial city with the majority of population being Han chinese. During the times of the Silk Road, it was a seat of the local authorities that collected taxes from the bypassing caravans.
Urumqi has wonderful museum which is worth a visit and there are some great things on display narrating the diversity of the minority groups living in the region.
The Uyghur ethnicity is of Turkic origin and most of them practice Islam and Sufism. Uyghur culture has distinguish features and their art, musical instruments, medicine and literature have been known and respected for centuries with some of the relics now being found in the history museums around the globe. Uyghur dance accompanied by the local musical instruments is particularly beautiful. The complicated sequence of hand moves and skilful following the music is just enchanting!
This video features the Uyghur dance.
From Urumqi we get onboard the Silk Road Railway with the train taking us through the high plateau of the Chinese North and then south bypassing ancient Chan’an – the Silk Road terminus and our journey will end in Beijing where everyone can enjoy the activities of their taste – thankfully in the city of this size and so much history there is no lack of things to do!