The ancient city of Bukhara, thought to be founded in the 6th century B.C., is like a small outdoor museum of its history. Important as a stop on the Silk Road and as a trading and cultural center before that biz ever started (so old), Bukhara's city center is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. The whole city center. I think you can guess by that fact that Bukhara is not exactly the most modern place to visit. So in the previous post, about Tashkent, I mentioned how our next stop of Bukhara was like stepping back in time like whoa, and I realized afterward that I was thinking about Khiva, one of our subsequent and much more impressive stops, when I said that. Still, Bukhara is hella ancient too, and I don't think the center has changed in a long time, except for the tiny shops getting new kinds of soda and stuff. Full of mosques and madrassahs, dust and ashes, Bukhara seems to have preserved history. remarkably well. But with that comes, well, a bit of a hard time for tourists. Despite recognizing how important this place and its history were, we were kind of over it really fast.
After our terrifying border crossing experience from Kazakhstan, we arrived in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. It was blindingly sunny and dry. Like...really dry. Like Kashgar levels of dryness. I'm literally in a desert on a horse with no name or something I guess not literally but I was all a mess because my eyes are so dry! It may have been the climate (I mean it definitely was) but it also could have been due to the extensive construction projects happening all over town. Seriously was it just the season of construction works in this region? Everywhere we went we were stymied by drilling and jackhammering and dust flying errrwhere. So much dust and rubble! Despite all the dust and rubble, we had a decent time exploring Tashkent's mosques, museums, markets, and other m words. But my strongest memory will always be of something that starts not with 'm' but with an upside down 'm', a 'w'! (For watermelon.)
After our perfectly lovely time in Almaty, Kazakhstan, it was time to cross into our final 'stan, the one most believed of Herman Cain: Uzbekistan. There was no easy direct way to go from Almaty to our first destination in Uzbekistan - Tashkent - so we had to take an overnight train (but of course!) to Shymkent, Kazakhstan first, then get a taxi to the border, cross the border, and then get another taxi from the other side of the border to Tashkent. It was exhausting just to think about, but considering how relatively well our travels had gone so far, I was optimistic that it wouldn't be too troublesome. I think I've previously shared on this blog that IQ quote about being an optimist and fool? Yeah.
Chinqui! After the nonstop action of our previous few weeks in Kyrgyzstan, a few days in Almaty provided the easy, relaxing tourism we needed for recovery and rejuvenation. I know what you're thinking because it's what I thought too: "No way you're talking about Kazakhstan being the easygoing part of this trip." I know! Mah wife! Against our (unfounded) expectations, Almaty was nice and perfectly boring. For the first time in a long time, it felt just like your average cosmopolitan city, with nice cafes, restaurants, buildings, and even recognizable brands. It was clean and modern and was the first place to remind us of London since Shanghai. Yep, Kazakhstan is just like London.
After our 10 or so wonderful (well, like six were) days in Kyrgyzstan, we were due to find our way to Kazakhstan. If you've been following along this adventure for the past three months, I know what you're thinking: 'Oh they're gonna take another train! Hah I hope this one is clean!' Bitch I WISH there was a train! I wish we could cross the next few borders on our agenda by train instead of figuring it out ourselves when we don't speak the language and the locals are insane! But no no no, Kyrgyzstan DOESN'T HAVE TRAINS. Didn't you find it odd that I haven't written about trains in a while? I know I miss it too. Well there aren't any so deal. Our options for getting from Bishkek to Almaty were: private car (too expensive), private car shared with other tourists (still a bit expensive; hard to find other tourists willing to do this; hard to negotiate with the driver when we don't speak the language well; we hate strangers), or marshrutka (the unmarked white vans perfect for kidnappings but instead used in this region for public transit mm okay). Well gird your loins because we chose the latter option.
After a week in the wilderness of eastern Kyrgyzstan, we were finally on our way to the big city for a few days. Bishkek (formerly Pishpek lolololol) would bring us restaurants, cafes, parks, museums, a hotel, laundry, all the markings of civilization - plus a shittonne more people and, with other cars besides ours in a 100 mile radius for the first time, lots and lots of pollution from the exhaust. But laundry!
Now that our time in yurts is over (forever?!), I could fully relax (well I still had to worry about bathroom breaks) and enjoy the rest of our journey around Kyrgyzstan. This country kept surprising me! The people were nice, the food was plentiful, the watermelon was given to me, the roads were in existence. Most of all, the landscape kept enthralling us with its extremely varied beauty. We still had a few more days driving with Sacha around Lake Issyk Kul and in small villages and towns before we landed in Bishkek, the big city capital. I liked the activities almost as much as I liked the fact that we had activities, but I started to get sick of the little villages. (Literally.) Hence my completely shocking personal revelation mentioned in the title.
After too many nights in freezing cold yurt camps, we started the next section of our Kyrgyzstan country tour, which would take us a little more towards civilization and, even better, into guest houses! We packed so much activity into these extremely active days and got to see so much of the country, which we grew to love. Maybe it's because I didn't have to pee outside anymore, maybe because I finally got to wash my hair, but I started having a swell old time.
If you've been a devoted reader of this here website, then you know that I ABSOLUTELY ADORE sleeping outside in the countryside and worrying 24/7 about bathroom access. Readers familiar with my simply outstanding time in Mongolia will be happy to know that there's more of that coming. That's right, our first night in Kyrgyzstan, discussed in the previous post about our entry into this country, was the first night of several back in the yurt camps of my youth. In addition to our first night booked with Kubat Tours, we had an eight-day tour of the country booked with the company NoviNomad, and I was so nervous that it would mirror our Mongolian adventure in more ways than the structure of our sleeping shelters. And while it did - it really did in a few ways - this experience was roughly 100 times better than that in Mongolia, so much so that we said many times "Kyrgyzstan is what Mongolia wishes it could be." Such a catchy catchphrase right?
After our six weeks in China, we planned to leave the western Xinjiang region of the country and enter Kyrgyzstan, one of the harder ‘stan names for me to remember in the past that would soon become my favorite one. But the journey from 'wait that's a real country' to 'this is my favorite stan' is a long one, one that doesn't resolve in this post or even the next one - first we have to cross a scary mountain pass to enter the country, and then we have more time in yurt camps! I know! Again! That's the next post; I know you can't wait to read more about how terrible I am in the outdoors. Today, let's talk about that mountain pass: the Torugart Pass, one of the lesser-known, lesser-traversed ways of going from Kyrgyzstan to China or vice versa.