Day-to-day pics through Uzkbekistan

We arrived in Bukhara from the Turkmen border by taxi, though we left town through the rather swish train station later in the week.

Bukhara Station

The hotel we’d originally hoped to stay in in Bukhara was fully booked the day we arrived, but the manager kindly helped us round the corner to our second choice. Having stayed at Akbar House now, I would strongly recommend this place to anyone visiting Bukhara. You’ll basically be staying in Akbar’s home and living among his extraordinary art collection.

This was the view from our room

Akbar House B&B in Bukhara

This was on the walls of our room

Akbar House in Bukhara

And this was in the marvellous dining room where we had breakfast each morning.

AkbarRoom

Within five minutes of our unannounced arrival this tray was presented to us – a real ‘welcome to Uzbekistan’ after the relative trials of Turkmenistan and Iran

AkbarWelcome

And on our first evening there was a bit of a party, with a group of Israeli tourists invited along for dinner under the moonlight – we were invited to join, and this was the dinner on the open oven

Dinner simmering in Bukhara

There was music, too – this Zaraoastrian band played and the Israelis let their hair down, along with Akbar’s wife. A great intro to our time in Uzbekistan.

Zaraoastrian singers in Bukhara

We loved Bukhara not only for its architecture (see our last post) but also some of the lovely touches around town. These camels looked great by the pool, which had been dug in 1620 and probably fed thirsty camels for centuries when this was a stop-off point on the old Silk Road.

Camels by the pool in Bukhara

I rather liked the Wise Fool sculpture. Erected in 1979, when this was part of the USSR.

Wise Fool statue in Bukhara

Great markets with wonderfully-presented goods. Nuts…

Nuts

Dried fruit…

DriedFruit

And Non-Bread (took me a while in this market that seemed to have lots of bread stalls, to realise that non is actually like the Indian bread ‘nan’, rather than a section that did not sell bread at all…)

NonBread

The Sharq Express was our first bit of travel luxury for weeks as it sped from Bukhara to Samarkand.

Sharq Express

Sadly was not quite so comfortable for the onward section Samarkand to Tashkent later in the week, but at least we saw how good it CAN be

Carpets on the Sharq Express

We rather liked the gentlemen’s Friday Best outfits, especially with the skull cap, which all guys seemed to be wearing

MenSundayBest

And we took a trip from Samarkand up to Urgut for their famous Sunday market.

Urgut Market near Samarkand

Actually that bus ride – 45kms that took 90 minutes and was unbelievably bone rattling – has put me off local bus journeys in this part of the world for life. A dreadful experience, especially if you’re 6’2″…But Urgut market was probably worth a visit (especially as we weren’t at that stage sure we’d make the Osh Sunday market a week later)

Fabrics for sale at Urgut market

In Tashkent we had the great pleasure of meeting Serj and Zoya, who had contacted us by Twitter after our announcement of impending arrival in their town to sample the coffee (more on that in the blog to come). Great to meet some locals, a lovely couple and hopefully a new friendship forged for future contact too. Thanks to both of them for showing us great places in Tashkent…

SerjZoya

Anita will write in more depth on our wonderful visit to Margilon’s silk factory, but here to give you a flavour of its delights is the lady who starts the whole process going by separating out the silk strands from the cocoons via this bubbling vat of boiling water – utterly fascinating place.

Silk factory in Margilon

And on to our final night in Uzbekistan – in Andijon – which had a bad reputation for tension (in years gone by) but we found extremely friendly (even the plain clothes policeman who checked us in the bus station was extremely cordial and helpful). A quick mention also for Moazzem, the delightful waitress who pounced on us in her café and wanted to talk to us at great length about her dreams of one day becoming an interpreter. Good luck to her in following her dreams!

AndijonCafe

We really enjoyed Uzbekistan; another country we knew little about before arriving and another we’d like to study more once we’re settled in our new home. Thanks to everyone we met there for tremnedously warm welcomes.

 

 

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Two highlights of our journey: Bukhara and Samarkand

There isn’t much to say about Bukhara or Samarkand. They’re both places we’d been longing to see and they totally lived up to expectations. Utterly beautiful buildings in both. On the whole for this blog, I’ll let you just enjoy the pics.

Bukhara skyline

Bukhara

Bukhara minaret at sunset

Bukhara

 

The Ark in Bukhara had a couple of interesting stories attached to it. The original may date back over a thousand years but the Bolsheviks did their best to destroy the place shortly after the Russians came down here to include Uzbekistan in the USSR. The back side of the Ark shows a little of the state the place may have been until restoration work began a few years back.

The Ark in Bukhara - before and after recent renovations

 

And the front of the Ark has its own story, even more gruesome: here two British soldiers in Victorian times were publicly beheaded after digging their own graves after the local Sultan was apparently insulted because Queen Vic didn’t personally answer a missive he had sent…I wonder what different versions of that story there are…

The front of the Ark in Bukhara

The Ark in Bukhara

 

I preferred Bukhara for its serene beauty. But Samarkand is stunning, and the Registan quite extraordinary.

The Registan in Samarkand

Samarkand Registan

Lions that look like tigers on the Registan

Registan at sundown

And it’s not just the Registan that dominates Samarkand’s skyline.

CrinkledDomeBest

KhayimMOsque

BlueDomeGarden

 

We didn’t go into the detailed history of either city or the buildings, preferring just to drink in the beauty and enjoy the feel of two touristy towns after a week or so in more difficult countries.

 

Next blog: day to day pics from Uzbekistan

Marvellous, mysterious Merv the highlight of Turkmenistan – in pics

We were the only tourists crossing the Iranian border into Turkmenistan in the early afternoon, and there weren’t many locals there either. But a short bus and taxi ride later we were through the desert mountains and into the nation’s bizarre capital: Ashgabat.

The thing you read about Turkmenistan is that if you take pictures of the wrong government building, you are liable to have your camera memory stick confiscated or emptied. Travellers’ myths these may be, but we weren’t about to risk losing all our 6 weeks of pics. So our only shot of the surreally lit up centre was from our hotel at night.

Ashgabat at night

Ashgabat was destroyed by an earthquake in 1948 and rebuilt in a style that matches Vegas,without the neon lights (though actually someone has since told us that the current leader pulled down a few thousand houses to make space for his space age city…). It’s not unattractive (as some say), but it is bizarre in its appearance of wealth and cleanliness. And there was nobody around; nobody on foot; no cars on many roads. We didn’t venture out much in the small amount of time we had,  but we are still mystified by who lives there and what they do.

Ashgabat in the distance

Given that the few tourists who come here travel mainly in groups, there was no information to be found on how to get out of Ashgabat. Even our hotel (used by foreign workers mainly) had no idea whether there was a long distance bus station. So we felt mighty smug to find ourselves on a bus to Mary the next day, paying normal Turkmen prices (£5 for a 5 hour journey) rather than the tourist rates we’d paid so far (our most expensive hotel yet).

Bus from Ashgabat to Mary and Turkmenabat

Mary is a city in the middle of the Karakoram Desert, the driest in Central Asia.

The bazaar in Mary, Turkmenistan

It was a relief to be in a fairly normal town at last, and it had the most relaxed feel of any town since we left Azerbaijan.

A quick note on women’s clothes in Turkmenistan: the beautiful headwear and long colourful dresses make a wonderful contrast to Iran, but since every single woman seemed to wear the same style of (shapely and fitted) dress, we couldn’t help wondering whether it was fashion or a diktat from the Turkmen leader and therefore not so different from the Hijab over the border.

Mural in Mary, Turkmenistan

But our main motive for coming to Mary was as base for getting to Merv.

Entrance to ancient city of Merv in Turkmenistan

Merv is an extraordinary city built right in the middle of the desert

Merv in the Turkmenistan desert

Merv was once one of the great cities of Islam along with Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus, but was laid to waste by Gengis Khan, who killed two thirds of the population as he destroyed virtually the whole town. The Bukharans then wrecked what was rebuilt afterwards and they just gave up after that. So the small town of Bayram Ali now gets on with its daily business with the old Merv town walls still on its edge.

Old city walls of Merv

Some of Merv’s buildings survived better than most

Merv in Turkmenistan

But the site – covering an enormous area the size of a mediaeval city – lies bare now except for a few key monuments. Apparently Gengis Khan spared the tomb of the local Sultan

The Sultan's tomb in Merv

With its beautiful ceilings even today.

MervSultanCeiling

But we happened upon a group of archaeologists doing a dig a few hundred metres away who are looking for the real tomb of the Sultan this autumn. Yes, apparently in a bid to evade the grave robbers of the period – not knowing that Gengis Khan would also be fooled – the people of Merv saved not only the Sultan’s tomb but the building it was supposed to be housed in.

The walls on Merv near Bayram Ali

We loved this place, just for its vastness and its emptiness. A fantastic spot to imagine Istanbul-style narrow streets bustling with people 800 years ago. I’m glad they haven’t rebuilt it, but I guess my only tourist tip would be to have some sort of model at the edge of the site to help you imagine what it must have looked like.

We’re so glad we got to Merv. And glad, therefore, that we went to Turkmenistan. But just as we were glad to have been there, we were kind of glad to get out too. The most expensive country on our trip so far – yes, more than France or Austria – with its prices for ‘tourists’ being about 10 times the locals’ rates. I don’t think they really want independent back-packer types.

Oh, and for the coffee or tea followers, there was not a lot to be had.

The coffee in Mary was an instant brew, so instant that the little sachet contained not only coffee but dried milk, copious amounts of sugar and a hazelnut flavouring.

It actually wasn’t bad if you need a caffeine kick. But it’s not worth a review for Fancy a Cuppa.

Coffee in Mary at Altyn Asyr Cafe

The tea was OK and well-presented on the whole, but Liptons seem to have a stranglehold on the desert How do those guys manage that??

Tea in Mary, Turkmenistan

Coffee in Tehran – it can be found!

There used to be a thriving coffee scene in Tehran. If you type the words ‘coffee in Tehran’ or ‘Tehran coffee shops’ into a search engine you’ll find quite a few blogs and reviews of what sound like really nice places, frequented by a largely arty, slightly bohemian crowd.

But look more closely at when most of these entries were written and you’ll find that some date back 10 years or so, and there isn’t much online that gets nearer to present day than about 2011. The reason for that, it seems, is that a whole swathe of coffee shops was closed down a couple of years ago as the authorities saw them as places where western culture dominated and as potential sources of opposition.

Hopefully this blog entry might start to freshen things up a bit, not that we’re in the business of trying to drum up opposition to anything in Iran, but more because it is possible to find a decent coffee even now and it’s nice to let others know where to go if they just happen to be in Tehran…

We found two coffee shops within ten minutes’ walk of our hotel (near the former US Embassy) and would highly recommend either of them.

Cafe Van in Tehran

Café Van is on Karim Khan Zand Street, and we found it by chance when we were trying (in vain) to find one of the coffee shops mentioned in those blogs written a few years back.

It’s tucked away from sight through a doorway that also leads up to a restaurant upstairs. There’s a book shop next door and a pedestrian bridge over the main road just a bit further up the street (useful markers in a city where you don’t often find buildings with street numbers).

Cake and coffee in Tehran at Cafe Van

There’s a nice, relaxed feel to the place, with couples quietly chatting or friends gathering for a laid back cuppa to while away the afternoon or evening. And that, by the way, is the first big difference between any Iranian coffee culture and anything we are used to in the West.

Nobody, apparently, grabs a latte on their way into work; there’s no quick espresso at the bar before you head to the office. No, the coffee shops we found only opened at 11am (and ran through to about 11pm), which meant in our busy schedule it wasn’t possible to have a morning coffee to kick-start the day.

Café Van serves up an Italian roast. It’s maybe a bit frothy on top for the type of cappuccino I like, but after several days without a decent brew, this place was really most welcome.

Cappuccino at Cafe Van in Tehran

The café is run by a guy whose Dad is Italian and his Mum Iranian, so we stopped in for a bowl of pasta, having initially gone for an afternoon tea time coffee and cake (the cakes were delicious by the way).

Just in case you were wondering, there’s a bit of a VW Campervan theme to this place, not because the parents were ageing hippies who used to drive one, but just because it’s a cool vehicle, we were told. Fair enough.

Model VW Campervans in Cafe Van Tehran

Nice place, nice vibe, decent coffee.

Café Grooshe was even more convenient for us, being right across the road from the Hotel Mashhad on Mofatteh Street, where we were staying.

Film posters in Cafe Grooshe in Tehran

It’s a smaller place, with a great atmosphere, and nice film-themed décor.

It’s run by really friendly guys, some of whom speak excellent English. But we didn’t get a chance to sample their coffee.

Yes, the day before we hit town, their espresso machine had ceased to work, so we had to make do with tea (very good quality loose leaf, by the way – and served in beautiful mugs).

Tea in Tehran at Cafe Grooshe

Their new Simonelli machine arrived on our second day in town and when we popped back in for a late brew at about 7pm, they were just installing it. They promised that cappuccino would be available within half an hour, but half an hour round these parts can quickly become three hours, and we decided to stick to tea, not wanting to risk another sleepless night on the caffeine.

Best coffee in Tehran may be at cafe Grooshe

So, I can’t vouch for their coffee at Café Grooshe, but if their tea is anything to go by – not to mention their choice of espresso machine, they’d do potentially the best coffee in Tehran (even if it is another Italian bean and roast…).

Italian coffee in Tehran

We were on a tight tourist schedule in Tehran, visiting rather more museums than I would usually choose. But we did manage a quick look at the Arab section of Tehran’s central market (enormous place, by the way), where coffee is one of the specialities.

Coffee in Tehran's central bazaar

This may have been instant coffee, but it was a pretty good instant and their cake was really the best we’d had for a while. To be honest, if I’d had a choice, I’d have happily spent three museum hours just wandering up and down these coffee aisles talking to the coffee merchants and trying different roasts.

Coffee and cake in Arab section of Tehran bazaar

But when you’re a Brit in Iran, you have to follow the guide, so that wasn’t an option.

So we didn’t manage more than a quick scratch to the surface of coffee in Tehran, but the scene is still there and it gave us a chance not only to say hello to the baristas there, but also to post a new blog about coffee shops in Tehran, making the google search hopefully a little more up-to-date than we’d found before we got there.

Enjoy your coffee, people of Tehran…and anybody visiting!

On women’s clothing in Iran

For a few weeks before we entered Iran I surfed the net looking for advice on appropriate dress for women while there, and whilst there are a few blogs on this (of which the best is probably the Journeywoman (She Dresses Smart in Iran) – http://www.journeywoman.com/traveltales/dresses_smart.html – although not particularly recent) – none are particularly recent, so I thought I would post my experiences and thoughts on what to take.  I am not generally commenting on the issues around a country having a dress code for women.

Day 1:  Going in from the Azerbeijan border at Astara, I noticed a lot of Azerbeijani women in the crowd, dressed in their usual clothes (fairly conservative – mostly dresses or skirts, trousers or jeans on younger women, usually long or elbow length sleeves, all wore tights or socks with shoes or sandals).  Few wore headscarves until they actually got to the Iranian border, and many skirts were calf or knee length, but always with dark tights.   I had chosen stretch black trousers under a knee length dress and a trench coat over the top, with one of my usual scarves as a head covering.  I was wearing shoes without socks initially but put some socks on when I didn’t see anyone without socks or tights – I needn’t have worried and went without socks later in the trip – many women do.

AnitaDay2

In fact, the only real “rule” I was told to adhere to as a foreign woman was to wear something over my hair – and even then it is fine to drape it and show hair at the front particularly.

AnitaDay1

Other than that, all you really need is trousers or a long skirt (most Iranian women wear trousers), a few long sleeve tunic tops (again, most Iranian women wear their tops tunic length), and a scarf or two.  Alas, I had not packed any tunic length tops, so had to be creative!

We had cool, rainy weather in the north and I just used my rain coat as a my tunic length item; on the second day I wore my black trousers with only a light summer top and the rain coat on top.

AmandManagerUs

I didn’t take the coat off except when back in the hotel room.  I was less conservatively dressed than some local women (e.g. those wearing the chador) and more than others (e.g. a young woman wearing skinny jeans and a hip length leather jacket with a lightly draped headscarf, and this was in a small country town).  So I was being more cautious than perhaps I needed to be.

On day 3 we drove into Tehran and the weather changed to a desert climate – I had planned for this by borrowing one of Simon’s shirts and wearing it “granddad” style with my black trousers and a light scarf – in the cool morning I wore the trench coat but ditched it as the day warmed up.  I was actually quite glad to have the head scarf on that day as a dust storm blew in – although mostly I found it a bit hot around the neck.  I wore the granddad shirt outfit a lot when relaxing around the hotel in Tehran as well – at breakfast, or popping out for an evening cuppa or bite to eat as well over the next few days.

AnitaDay4

On day 4 we were touring Tehran, in 30 degree temps.  I had followed the Journeywoman’s advice and popped to a womens clothing shop to buy an inexpensive lightweight cotton tunic length jacket – mine is teal green – and wore just that, no top under it, with my black trousers and usual scarf.

New Outfit

I was relatively cool in this, and wore the same outfit with different scarves the rest of my time in Iran.  An added bonus to this outfit was when we crossed the border out of Iran into Turkmenistan and arrived at our much posher than anticipated hotel in Ashgabat, I felt quite smart in my tunic and trousers, even with a rucksack on my back!   I did ditch the headscarf pretty quickly though.  However, I needn’t have bought anything – our guide’s wife kindly offered to lend me some things, and I could have got by with Simon’s shirts and the dress-over-trousers combination with a cardigan or light jacket again quite easily.

I did have to wear a chador – once – to enter a mosque and was lent one – it was a large piece off brightly patterned fabric, a far cry from the black ones, and many women in the countryside wore these bright patterned chadors in fact.  It was extremely difficult to hold it closed, keep it in place on my head, carry my handbag and focus on our guide’s explanations all at once!  It fell off quite a few times.

Sufi

The next day I saw an Iranian woman wearing a chador, carrying a sleeping infant, supervising a toddler and holding a smart handbag all at once and wondered how she did it.

So in summary if you are visiting Iran and wondering what to take – a couple of pairs of trousers (they don’t have to be baggy, and jeans/tight fitting is fine – Iran is quite hot though so bring light ones if visiting in late spring/summer/early autumn), maybe a long skirt, a few long sleeved high necked tunic tops, and a lightweight trench coat with a few light scarves would be fine.  Make up is fine, sandals with no tights/socks is fine, but most people seem to stick to crew or high necklines, elbow length or longer sleeves, tunic length tops and ankle length bottoms whether trousers or skirts.

Remembering Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, in an Iranian tea factory

Our second day in Iran was devoted to tea, and that meant sticking near to the Caspian Sea in the west of the country.

Our guide Hamid reckoned that the town of Fuman would be the best area to look for tea plantations, and he was right, though the factory he knew had changed hands since his last visit and the workers there were a bit shy of unexpected foreign guests.

So we ended up at a neighbouring town, where we visited Amard Tea Company.

Amard Tea from Iran

Here we hit the tea jackpot. Owner Reze Astanehe came over to meet us and with his excellent (American educated?) English, told us the story not only of his family firm but also a bit of the background to tea in Iran.

The founder of tea in Iran

A photo of the gent who brought tea to Iran stands proudly on the wall of Amard Tea’s shop outside their factory. I forget his name, but he came from India with the tea plants some 115 years ago and had various failed attempts to grow the crops in different parts of Iran before having success in the Caspian region.

Mr Astanehe’s family started the business some 55 years ago, his granddad moving to this factory about 50 years ago, and some of the machinery in use in the factory today must still date from around that time.

Marshalls tea machines from Gainsborough

To our delight a fair few of the machines – a dryer and a roller – were manufactured in the UK, in Gainsborough by a company called Marshalls. That company has long gone now (though this discovery gives me an idea of finding out more when we finish this trip), so any break downs or parts needed to be fixed by the techies on site using imagination and their own resources rather than British replacements.

British machinery in Iranian tea factory

The Marshalls machines work alongside Iranian and Chinese models, but Mr Astanehe clearly has an affection for the solid reliability of the British equipment. I wonder how many other tea factories in the world are still using Marshalls tea machines.

We were shown the whole process from the picking (up to 5 harvests a year on these plantations compared to the normal four in Iran – and only three in Turkey), through the sorting, drying, rolling and oxidising to storage. It was a fantastic introduction to the tea-making process from a man who clearly loves his tea!

As do we, as I can confirm having had a cuppa with him and his colleagues after the tour. Oh, and we got to meet his longest standing employee, who had been a gardener virtually from the start of the family firm.

Amard Tea manager and his oldest employee

Of course we couldn’t leave without a box of tea, and it is supplying us every morning now on our journey with a real quality cuppa, not to mention great memories of the visit to this part of Iran.

Amard Tea from Iran

We also drove past another tea plantation, in the middle of which we saw that a hotel was now being built. What a great idea if Iran starts to market itself as a tea tourism destination.

Tea plantation in Iran

In complete contrast to what would be possible with health and safety rules in the UK or elsewhere in Europe or Australia, we were invited to go up to the 6th floor, where they are still building, and get the best views of the tea plantations.

Tea fields through an unbuilt hotel window

Although they hadn’t finished the building yet, the restaurant on the first floor was open for lunch if we fancied it…I’m sure this will be a lovely place to stay one day (so keep Hotel Mohin for future reference) but we might leave it for a year or so until the final rooms are actually in place…

One tour operator we had consulted for our visit to Iran (all Brits have to be guided at the moment) had said simply ‘you can get tea everywhere in Iran’, when I expressed an interest in learning about Iranian tea. And in a sense they were right (though we didn’t choose them as guides in the end).

Tea is almost as ubiquitous as in Turkey.

We didn’t manage to find any particular tea rooms for reviewing for the Fancy a Cuppa blog of this journey, but one of the coffee shops we found in Tehran did rather good loose leaf tea, so that’ll get a mention when we write up the reviews later on.

So Iranian tea is well worth a taste. I’m not sure the country is ready for tea tourism yet, but some of the tour operators could seriously consider offering a tea element to any guided tours, as well as the ancient history and archaeology sites.

AmandManagerUs

And we thoroughly enjoyed our day connecting with the tea culture there, especially given the link we found to Gainsborough. Anyone know someone who worked for Marshalls all those years ago?

Shifting sands in Iran and Turkmenistan’s deserts

Iran gave us our first sighting of desert on this journey. In some ways the changes in landscape reminded us of Australia, though the shift from green, fertile land to arid desert happens even more quickly in Iran.

Desert in Iran

A lot of the desert we saw in Iran was the rocky, craggy type.

Craggy desert hills in Iran

And on the road to Tehran, we saw caravanserai just off the road every 40 or so miles. When a dust storm blew up just outside Tehran, we began to see what a safe haven those caravanserai must have been.

Caravanserai in Iran

Farmers herd their sheep and goats in the desert, though you wonder sometimes what they feed on

Desert sheep in Iran

From time to time we’d see really old villages built in the sand in houses that have lasted hundreds of years.

Village built in the sand in Iran

And then suddenly there can be an oasis town, which appears as lush as the coastal fringes. And in the case of Sharood (far east of Tehran), it even reminded me of the pretty avenues of Aix-en-Provence.

Sharood, an avenue in the desert

As we approached the Turkmen border, the deserts returned, with craggy mountains as the backdrop

Desert near the Iran/Turkmenistan border

The Turkmenistan sands were much more the archetypal deserts with sand dunes we think of as kids – and this was the Karakom Desert, the hottest in Central Asia (lucky we were there in autumn)

DesertBorder

And the occasional herd of camels fit that western image perfectly, though we didn’t manage a shot of the best group feeding with their kids by the road.

Camels in Turkmenistan

More to come from Turkmenistan when we report on the desert city of Mary and its ghostly ancestor Merv – coming soon.