Monday, June 28, 2010

Nomadic Living

A very unique thing about Central Asia is the fact that many people live in yurts. A traditional yurt is typically circular in shape and is made out of wool, timber and ropes. Yurts can be dismantled, which explains why nomads use this as their home wherever they choose to set up. Naturally, I felt that staying in a yurt was a must, and the opportunity did come!

We left Khiva after spending two full days there and headed towards our camp in Ayaz Kala. Ayaz Kala is an ancient fortress site in the Karakalpakstan province of the country and so, we crossed the border of Khorezm to enter this region. This part of Uzbekistan can get scorching hot and the temperature can even rise to 60-70 degrees celsius during the summer months! How crazy is that!!! When we were there, it was about 40 degrees and already then, I was exhausted. Still, the natural beauty and serenity of the place made up for it.

The distance between Khiva and Ayaz Kala is about 70km and along the way, we stopped to visit Toprak Kala. Toprak Kala is an archaeological fortress that is surrounded by the Karatau mountain range (black mountain). Toprak Kala used to be the ancient capital of the Khorezm province and was built around the 1st century AD (sources vary). Like all fortresses, Toprak Kala also served as watch point for enemies. It was extremely windy there as we climbed up the rock formations. Quite a beautiful site and view though!

We then drove on to our camp in Ayaz Kala. I was really excited as it was to be my first time sleeping in a yurt. I was overjoyed at the sight of the grey yurts lined up one after another at the camp and could not wait to get in and enjoy every minute of it. Our yurt was not ready yet but the owners were ready to serve some lunch. So, we (us, our guide, the local guide and the driver) assembled in a yurt and ate some local food together. Not the best, I must say.

After lunch, we made our way to the Ayaz Kala fortress by foot. We had to walk through the very dry desert and along the way, we spotted some lizards. Yuck! The heat was also unbearable and I could feel my head burning. That itself was motivation for me to walk quickly to seek some shade at the fortress. The fortress is beautiful but very secluded and used to be a much bigger site than what it is today. It was built around the 4th century BC and was also designed to protect the locals from nomadic invasions.

We spent some time exploring the ruins before returning to our camp. We could finally check into our yurt #9 and I was simply thrilled! The yurt was beautifully decorated and offered all the basic comforts one desires. The hosts had laid out thick mattresses and pillows for us and we really enjoyed the spaciousness and cleanliness of our yurt. After a short nap, we hung out at the camp and enjoyed watching the sun set. It was one of those "me and nature" moments for me. I just had to do some yoga in this setting and it felt great! David also totally relaxed that evening!

Ayaz Kala looked stunning at sunset and was most beautiful under the moonlit sky. The picture speaks for itself...

We had a great night. I slept so well and never imagined that I would be so comfortable in a yurt! I am so grateful for this experience as I truly loved it.

Up next, our adventure in Bukhara!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Wonders of Khiva

As soon as we reached Tashkent, we made our way to Urgench with Uzbekistan Airways. Urgench is situated in the western part of the country and it took about 2 hours to get there. There is nothing to see or visit in this city, but travelers usually go there as it is the closest city with an airport to Khiva. Once we arrived, our driver and guide took us to Khiva by car, and the ride was about 45 minutes.

I instantly fell in love with Khiva. Usually, it is nice to save the best things for last, but after reflecting on my trip, I think I started out with the best thing. Khiva is a small city that is situated along the Silk Road and is only 5 km away from the Turkmenistan border. It is in the province of Khorezm and is divided into two parts: Ichan Kala (Inner city) and Dishan Kala (Outer city). Our hotel, Hotel Orient Star, is situated in Ichan Kala, where all the major sites are. So, it was very convenient to sightsee and explore the area.

Hotel Orient Star enjoys a very unique setting and has very beautiful rooms. I have never stayed in a place like this before, and I really loved staying there. You can see the photos for yourselves:

We had a local guide with us and she was very informative about Khiva's history and culture. We had an entrance ticket for all sites and also paid extra to use our camera and video camera. I felt that this system was good as we did not have to pay for cameras at each site but rather got the payment done in one shot. In other Uzbek cities, it is not like that.

My favorite monument in Khiva was Kalta Minor. This minaret is very unique in its architecture and I love the different shades of blue used in its design! The funny thing about this minaret is that it is unfinished. The minaret was originally thought to rival the Kalon Minaret in Bukhara but the architect was afraid that he would be punished or killed by the king and so fled before it could be completed. So, just imagine how beautiful it would look had it been finished!

Another interesting site is the Pahlawan Mahmoud Mausoleum. This mausoleum has a striking blue-green dome and is dedicated to Pahlawan Mahmud who is revered by Muslims in Central Asia for his bravery, strength and generosity towards the poor. Pahlawan Mahmoud's grave has become an important shrine for pilgrims and the mausoleum also contains the tombs of other kings of Khiva.

The Islam Khoja Minaret is also a very beautiful minaret from where one can enjoy panoramic views of Khiva. Islam Khoja was a high ranking political advisor to Khan Asfendijar who ruled Khiva in the early 20th century. The Khan did not trust anybody and was constantly suspicious of everyone, particularly Islam Khoja. He therefore arranged for Islam Khoja to be killed one evening.

I also enjoyed visiting the Juma Mosque as it is designed very differently from the usual mosque. Although the mosque's interior is not decorated, it consists of 212 long carved wooden pillars. We walked up the dark and steep stairway to go to the top to enjoy spectacular views of Khiva, as you can see:

We also enjoyed beautiful views of Khiva at sunset from another point:

Other splendid sights of Khiva:

Of all the Uzbek cities, I thought that Khiva was that one that was most beautifully lit up at night. Every monument sparkled at night and some of them had interiors that were colorfully lit in green, red and blue.

I loved Khiva as it is a very calm and peaceful city. There was hardly anyone at night while we were strolling around the streets. We also enjoyed drinks in typical Uzbek style and even then, no one was there! So, it really felt like Khiva belonged to us! The other thing I noticed was that the number of females largely outnumbered the number of males. Our guide told us that this is because many of the men are working in Russia to earn more money to support their families back in Uzbekistan.

Justify Full

One last thing I want to mention about Khiva is the beautiful folk dance performance put up by a local family at a harem. The parents and their two young daughters were very entertaining and energetic and it was great to see their traditional dance and costumes. They invited us to join in the dance, and I am trying to minimize the embarrassment by putting up only a few seconds of that in my video, hehe. We also watched some acrobats in action. The setting was so beautiful-the interiors of a medrasah.

Being the first city I was exposed to in Uzbekistan, I was very touched by the locals' hospitality and in fact felt like a star! People kept approaching me, recognizing that I was Indian, and joyfully kept saying "Hindustan! Namaste!" Everywhere I went, I got attention from everyone -men, women and even kids! Lots of them wanted to take photos of me and many just kept joining in the photos. It was very amusing and I can't deny that I enjoyed the special attention, haha. It only brought me closer to the locals :)!

I hope you enjoy this video of my favorite things in Khiva:

For those of you who can't see the video, please click the link below:

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Guess who's in the news?!?!?!

Ok, ok, it's not like I got interviewed or had a photo shoot...but, still, it is something worth talking about, and that too, on my blog!!!

Peeps, my photo got published on CNN as "Photo of the Day"!!! You can't imagine how happy I am about this. It's a teeny thing but still, it feels great!

The photo I chose was one that David and I had taken on our desert trek in Jordan in November 2008. It was an amazing day as we walked through the very colorful Wadi Rum desert and kept stopping to admire the wonderful natural rock formations. This photo so beautifully captures that moment when it was just us with nature, and nothing else. How often do we actually get to experience that?!

I hope you all like the photo too, and I'll be sure to let you know if something like this happens again!

If you can't click the link, copy and paste this:

I'll continue with my Uzbekistan experience on my next entry...
Monday, June 7, 2010

Exploring the Enchanting Silk Road...

I am back with a bang and have lots to share with you!

I got back from a 12 day holiday filled with great discoveries, fun, laughter, warmth and love. I went to a part of the world that I wanted to discover for so long, an area that I was unfamiliar with and that is nestled away in its own little world. My dream finally came true a few weeks ago when David and I made our way to the mysterious Uzbekistan.

We took more than 2,000 photos during our stay there, and as you can imagine, it is taking quite a while to sort them and the videos out.

My trip to Uzbekistan started off with a flight from Geneva to Tashkent via Moscow. The flight was operated by Aeroflot, and this in itself was an adventure. More about that later, when I write about my return to Geneva. I must admit that I was nervous and skeptical about flying with Aeroflot and did not quite know what to expect at all, but I am relieved that I am back in one piece.

After a 10 hour flight, including the transfer in Moscow, we reached Uzbekistan's capital, Tashkent, at 3.30am. From there, we took a domestic flight to Urgench to start our trip from west to east.

Our 12 day trip was like this:

Tashkent - Urgench - Khiva - Ayaz Kala - Bukhara - Samarkand - Shakrishabz - Tashkent

You can watch my video below to have a glimpse of Uzbekistan. As usual, each segment of the trip will be written about in detail in the upcoming entries! Hope you like the video!

For those of you who receive email updates, please click the following link to see the video:


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