After 2 weeks of relatively quiet downtime in Shenzhen, we were ready to get back to life on the road and all the amazing adventures that come along with it! Ashraf returned from his 2 week break in Thailand and after a quick re-pack, we were all ready to head off to Kazakhstan to start our journey through Central Asia. For this leg of our overall trip we would be exploring Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan with Ashraf and his good friend Connor. Janan had noticed Ashraf reading up on the region the last time he was visiting Canada, and he was kind enough to invite us to join in on the adventure. In fact, we ended up planning our entire trip around these three weeks! Although it had been our intention to head to China to see Ashraf for the past couple of years, we initially figured we would just fly to Australia via China, with a short stopover for a visit, and then spend the majority of our time down under. Once we decided to join up for Central Asia, we ended up shifting our plans around, and adding all the other destinations up to this point. We may not have made it to the Taj Mahal, Everest Base Camp, or Chiang Mai if it hadn’t been for these 3 weeks!
To give you all a little context, Central Asia is the area in (surprise, surprise) roughly the middle of the Asian continent, and is home to ‘The Stans’ – the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan. This area has been a crossroads of cultures for millenia, and was a key section of the ancient silk road connecting China & India with the Mediterranean and Europe. The term ‘Silk Road’ does not refer to one specific road or path, but rather an extensive and heavily interconnected network of trade routes moving goods and ideas from the east to west and vice versa. Originally populated by early Iranians, these people were eventually displaced from the area by nomadic Turkic tribes roaming down from the Mongolian steppe. The tribes gave rise to the ethnic groups of the region as they are known today, and many of the names of the countries themselves. During the 19th century, the Russian Empire was expanding its frontier both eastward and south, and began to colonize the region. With the rise of the USSR, Central Asia was carved up into Soviet Republics and incorporated into the Union. These republics, after finding themselves rapidly and unexpectedly independent in the early 90s with the fall of the USSR, became the countries we recognize today. Being a crossroads between major powers, the region is heavily influenced by its neighbours – Iran to the west, India/Pakistan to the South, China to the East, and Russia to the north.
To get to the start of our Central Asian journey, we flew to Almaty, Kazakhstan, with a quick connection in Beijing. While in line for our plane in Shenzhen, a young local heard us chatting, and in what I assume was an attempt to seize an opportunity to practice his English, he quickly turned around and immediately dove into a conversation with me. After asking how I liked China, what I thought of Shenzhen, and where we were off to, he wished me well, and away we went. Eight and a half hours of flying later and we landed in Kazakhstan. Almaty, the former capital and largest city, is in the southeast corner of Kazakhstan, very close to the Kyrgyz border, and not far from northwest China. It has been described as the most European style city in the region, and has a beautiful mountain range just to the south. Ashraf found us an Airbnb in an old Soviet style apartment building directly across from the airport. As we were only going to be there for the night (for now) before leaving for Uzbekistan the next morning, we didn’t really want to have to head all the way into the city to just turn around and head back to the airport the next morning. Connor was also coming from England and meeting us there in the middle of the night, so this made things that much easier for him as well. The owner met us at the airport and led us to the apartment, which in the dark late at night seemed a bit sketchy, but the next morning we realized hadn’t really been all that bad.
The next morning, after a quick breakfast at the airport we were off to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. With all the abuse my passport has seen over the past months, the printing on the front has worn off and going through immigration at the airport, the border guard seemed very surprised to open up a blank blue passport and see that I was Canadian. He didn’t ask any questions of me though, placed the exit stamp right next to the arrival stamp I’d gotten the night before, and away I went. I ended up sitting next to a young Uzbek man on the flight, who had been studying in China with a number of Canadians, Americans, and Europeans and was heading home to see his family. He was very excited that we were visiting his country and was keen to hear about our plans.
Landing in Tashkent, it was a sunny 42℃ – a nice preview of the weather for the next week of our trip. I had expected the borders in this part of the world to be a little more challenging and complicated, but again, I was processed without any real questions – although being a white male Canadian with a standard European name probably plays pretty heavily into things. After getting some US dollars out of an ATM in the arrivals hall, exchanging some to a giant wad of Uzbek currency, called the Som, and getting a couple of local SIM cards from the incredibly helpful information desk, we were ready to roll. Ashraf had downloaded the local Uzbek equivalent of Uber, and after a few minutes of navigating our way out of the airport complex, we were off to our hostel. We were staying at a cool little spot called Art Hostel, in a private 4 person room – a standard for the next few weeks, and found the place very comfortable, and the breakfast filling and enjoyable.
Getting out to explore Tashkent, we started out by heading to the famous subway system. Each of the stations on the network has its own theme and are some of the most ornate in the world. The first station we visited was Kosmonavtlar, which had a space theme. The walls were covered with dark tiles and had numerous paintings of cosmonauts throughout. It was an impressive start to our multi-station tour. Other stations were modelled after famous people from Uzbek or Islamic culture and history. Until very recently, it was illegal to take pictures of the stations, and a few locals stopped us to warn us that the police would hassle and fine us for taking photos, but we didn’t have any issues. This was a trend I found somewhat surprising on the trip. I had assumed that we would be stopped/questioned/hassled on the regular during our time in Central Asia, but it really seemed like the authorities on high had now deemed tourism to be important and welcome, and that foreigners were not to be bothered. Again, I may have some natural advantages in this department. There were still some older practices at play though, like ensuring we each had slips from all our accommodations stating when we’d arrived and how long we’d stayed. Interestingly enough, on our way out of Uzbekistan the border guards seemed completely uninterested in them.
As we finished our subway tour, and started to walk around downtown Tashkent, I was really taken aback with how European it felt. With huge and imposing government buildings, and beautiful lush parks with large trees and art installations, Taskhent felt like it could’ve just as easily been in central or eastern Europe. Well over 100 years of Russian influence will have that effect though, I suppose. I had a clear imagine in my mind of what the cities in Central Asia would be like, but this was not at all it. We headed down to the Chorsu Bazaar, a large market downtown to check out the foodstuffs and wares for sale, and stopped for a quick bite at a market stall. We’d consistently read that the food in Central Asia was less than stellar, and that we’d mostly be eating plov (anglicized as pilaf – think rice pilaf), so our expectations were pretty low. We decided to split a large bowl of plov and some bread. To our surprise this plov was delicious, juicy and full of meat, rice, and carrots. We figured if this was what plov was like, we’d be fine the rest of the trip. Sadly, we’d slowly learn that this meal was going to set the bar for plov a little too high … (Uzbek bread was delicious though).
After all the exploring, we’d worked up a thirst. From some general research, I’d concluded that expectations for beer in Uzbekistan needed to be kept simple, but we lucked out at our first stop, with some pretty decent (and very inexpensive) locally made lagers. After this initial success, our excitement got the better of us, and we decided to try our luck at the some of the other spots that had come up during my research. After piling into another ride share, with a driver who spoke a bit of english, we headed out to an industrial/residential area further out of town, but upon arrival, found a less than inviting compound, which was also just about to close. A bust on that front, but we decided to try our hand at the last spot on my list, and after the long drive back downtown, we arrived at the restaurant only to find it was closed for renovations! At least we had a nice tour of the less flashy districts of Tashkent, including the local Coca-Cola bottling plant, care of our friendly driver.
We’d read that stopping for a meal at National Food, an enormous restaurant with very hearty and affordable food and seating for hundreds of people was a necessary part of any visit to Tashkent. It was decided that Connor and I should go through all the food stations to view what was on offer with the staff member who spoke english, and order up whatever we thought looked good. After choosing a hearty soup, some bread, and salads, I decided we should also get some meat to round out the meal. Many of the foods were cooked in huge vats to accommodate the huge number of customers, and arriving at the meat vat, I saw multiple cuts of various meats available. I noticed some tasty looking kebabs, and asked for 4 of them to be added to our order. Connor and I went back and sat down with Janan and Ashraf, while we waited for our food to be delivered. The bread, salads, and soup came out first and we dove right in. After a while, we figured that they must’ve forgotten about our order of meat, but it was no real bother, as the portions were very generous and we’d pretty much filled ourselves already. Just as we were about ready to wrap up and head out, 4 huge plates, piled high with four servings of every cut of meat from that vat, arrived at the table. Clearly something had been lost in translation. One plate alone would’ve likely been enough to satisfy all of us without the other starters we’d already enjoyed, but the food was there now, and we were going to have to do our best to tackle it. Buried under horse meat sausages, chicken thighs, and beef cutlets, were the lamb kebabs that I had initially ordered. Not one to back down from a food challenge, I did my best to avoid letting all this good food go to waste. Unfortunately, I didn’t get very far. After strategically shifting some of the food around the plates to make it seem like I’d eaten more than I did, I shamefully tucked my tail between my legs, we paid the amazingly small bill and off we went!