Traveling the Silk Road from across the “STANS” Introducing Central Asia


wild camels

I recently got back from traveling across Central Asia. Some things have changed and some things haven’t.  The road is now mostly paved roads, but you will still find sheep herders, and wandering camels in some places.  When I shared with my friends I was going to Central Asia and even mentioned some of the countries by name… Most don’t know what I’m even talking about even when I added Silk Road or Central Asia.  I needed to fill in the detail between China, Russia and Turkey.  In this post, I want to give you some of the highlights and background.

My friend Michael and I have been planning to travel the silk road and visit “the stans.”

Our plan involved spending time in each of the following countries:

  • Kyrgyzstan – Serene Kyrgyzstan Land of Mountains
  • Kazakhstan
  • Uzbekistan
  • Turkmenistan
  • Afghanistan – A day as a tourist in Afghanistan
  • Tajikistan

I plan to share some of my experiences from each of these amazing and diverse countries.  Each of them is different in their own way and I saw amazing and fascinating things in each of these places.  There are incredible people in every country.  I continually get asked if I ever felt threatened or at risk.  No, I didn’t.  I did have some moments where I was feeling eyes watching me and moments where I felt like I was out of place, but I really enjoy that feeling of being the minority and feeling odd.  If I’m traveling and I’m not feeling that then I’m not challenging myself enough.  This trip was the most logistically challenging.  It took over 3 months just to get visas and I still didn’t get all the visas I wanted.  I missed out on Pakistan due to my Jamaica and trip to Quebec and Montreal earlier this year.  The only country that didn’t require a visa for US Citizen was Kyrgyzstan, and the hardest to get into ended up being Turkmenistan who assigned us a monitor and required traveling company which ended up being our most expensive of the trip.  In addition Pakistan was a challenge for time.  The visa would have been an additional 4-6 weeks and I couldn’t surrender my passport long enough make it with my Jamaica plans.

Samarqand, Bukhara, and so many of these places stir up the magical and mystical old world of East meets west.  Where Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and a variety of old faiths like Zoroastrianism met through caravans and trade routes.  I had the incredible opportunity to visit some of these places and soak up the influence of this melting pot of culture, religion, food, and history.  I plan to share the highlights and some favorite stories, but wanted to get this post out as a placeholder.  I’ll link to the subsequent posts from this one to be as a landing page of the best of Central Asia.

 

Women of the desert of Turkmenistan

Turkmeni ladies of the desert selling camel hair trinkets on the side of the road

 

desert yurt

Desert Yurt in Turkmenistan

furry camel

One of the friendliest camels I’ve ever met. This friendly hairy camel enjoyed posing with us.

 

dome

Old Dome in Merv

merv

Merv, Turkmenistan

bukhara, uzbekistan

Bukhara, Uzbekistan

blue mosque of mazar-e sharif afghanistan

Blue Mosque and Shrine in Mazar-e Sharif Afghanistan

uzbekistan yurt

Countryside in Uzbekistan

sheep herding

Wandering Sheep in Uzbekistan

 

shakrazabh

Old Shakrazabh, Uzbekistan

ark in shakrazabh

Ark of Shakrazabh, Uzbekistan

Travel Back in Time – Smell the Mint Tea of Morocco


I am entranced with Morocco.  There are few places in the world that do such an amazing job of preserving life as it was hundreds even thousands of years ago.

Fez Medina Donkey Travel

Fez, has truly captured life as it was 1000 years ago.  The Medina or urban center is the gated old city in Fez.  The only transportation in the Medina is by foot, or by donkey. No cars.  I have seen a scooter or two, but the preference is no motorized vehicles.  The narrow old streets couldn’t support a car anyway.  It is amazing how well preserved the the traditions, culture, and structures are in Fez.

Narrow Alleyways Vegetable alleyway Morocco Metalwork

You see water being hauled in for drinking, common community ovens for cooking bread, hammam or bath houses, and common tanneries and more.  The beauty of this gem of the desert is most precious.

 

Riad Fez .

I stayed for a couple of nights in Riad Fez – very beautiful feel to it.  The wood is so intricate, and the tile beautiful with color.

Fez Metal Work

This chandelier the size of a VW bug is hand made stamped metal.  Morocco is known for the lamps and chandeliers.

Moroccan Coke Donkey

In Fez, this Coca Cola delivery donkey is the same as a Coke Truck.  Fez, now preserved as a UNESCO heritage site.

The Medina of Fez was founded in the 9th century and is home to the oldest university in the world. Fez reached its height in the 13th–14th centuries when it replaced Marrakesh as the capital of the kingdom. Much of the infrastructure in the city dates from this period.

Mosque in Fez Water Delivery by Donkey

The Medina of Fez is considered as one of the most extensive and best conserved historic towns of the Arab-Muslim world. The unpaved urban space conserves the majority of its original functions and attribute. It not only represents an outstanding architectural, archaeological and urban heritage, but also transmits a life style, skills and a culture that persist and are renewed despite the diverse effects of the evolving modern societies.

Moroccan Tannery

15th Century Tanneries of Fez from a neighbor balcony

You just have to imagine the sounds and smells of the tanneries.  Here they start with sheep, camel, goat and various animal skins.  Here they soak them to remove the wool with lyes, and then move to drying and dying.  You can then purchase a huge assortment of hand made leather goods.

Much of Morocco is still very local.  I worried I would see tons of tourists in the cultural capital of Morocco.  I didn’t see a single tourist until I reached the square.  Going through the narrow labyrinth of the Medina was awesome.  While I would have preferred to simply get lost in the streets, the locals all really want to help.  At some point it is easier to allow someone to be a guide than continue to be bothered.  There are official guides and hotels can arrange them, but the students love to help as well even if they may be restricted to their routes.  Don’t let someone tell you they can’t take you somewhere.  There is much to see and experience.

acrobat gathering in fez

Instead the squares are full of locals who browse the flea market style spreads of clothes and shoes.  One doesn’t have to feel like a tourist.  You can try to blend in.

the square in Fez

Unfortunately, in a crowd watching an acrobat it’s still tough to blend in.  Reality sets in.  Of course, they need to see a tip.  Make sure you have lots of small bills and coins on hand to keep the entertainment going.  Asking for change with this crowd doesn’t work.

Jewish Cemetery in Fez Morocco  Jewish Cemetery in Fez Morocco

This Jewish cemetery in Fez reminds me of the scattering of Israel and gathering of Israel.  Amazing how far the Israelites were spread across the world.  Ethiopia, Georgia, and across Europe and even Argentina and Mexico city.  Amazing stories abound of how the King would keep the Jews as advisors, ambassadors, and tax collectors.  Apparently 15% of the current state of Israel or 1,000,000 Israeli Jews are of Moroccan descent, while only 35,000 Jews remain in Morocco.  Jews have 2000 years of history in Fez.

There isn’t just one amazing city in Morocco.  There are many.  I love Marrakech and Meknes as well.  Do not judge Morocco based on a brief visit to Tangier.  I highly recommend you spend time in the Atlas mountains.  They are magical.  They themselves contain the history of the world.  Incredible fossils have made their ways across the globe.  Rock hounds will find heaven.  Those wanting to see a simplier life will see the mountain people with their goats and sheep walking on trails thousands of years old.  If you can… escape to Ait Ben Haddou.  As a child when I imagined visiting Jerusalem, a visit to Ait Ben Haddou is closer than the real thing.  It’s in many of the biblical stories.

Ait Ben Haddou - Kasbah

From Ait Ben Haddo, Oaurzazate is a quick trip and the great Sahara is nearby.  The gateway to the Sahara with a variety of multi day excursions with Berbers into the sand and mystery of the desert.  I found this the beginning of another world.

Simple and pure I found many people who willed life itself to slow.  While many vendors simply want to show you their wares, and the children want to put you on the backs of their donkeys and horses, the simple life is pure.  Tourism has left some scars, but there are ways of finding the past and connecting with time gone by.  Slow down, sip the mint tea and relax and listen to the stories of the desert.