A Travellerspoint blog


May 2011

Tour details
We visited Uzbekistan as part of a Central Asia tour organised by the UK based travel agent Undiscovered Destinations.

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Uzbekistan's heritage is centred around its place at the cross roads of the historical Silk Road. The Great Silk Road was a network of trade routes which spanned from the Mediterranean and North Africa in the West to China in the East. First traversed in the 2nd century BC the Silk Road remained a vital conduit between East and West up into the end of the 14th Century when an increase in maritime trade, and the self imposed isolation of Ming Dynasty China, lead to its decline. The term 'Silk Road' was coined as recently as the 1870s by German Geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen and referred to the major role that silk played as a trading commodity. However, the Great Silk Road was used to transport much more than silk and arguably its most significant legacy was the flow of ideas, technologies, culture and religion that came to pass. The ancient towns of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand are as famous as any locations on the Silk Road and today their well restored monuments, mosques and madrassas form the backdrop of Uzbekistan's most impressive sites. All three towns are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Map of Great Silk Road with Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand highlighted

All the states of Central Asia are nominally Islamic but, Afghanistan aside, none are overtly religious. When the Soviets invaded they clamped down heavily on religion. Many mosques were demolished or turned into museums. The Bukha was completely banned and the few remaining madrassas were put under state control. Nowadays most Uzbeks identify themselves as muslims though few seem to actively practice the faith. Drinking of alcohol is commonplace and the wearing of bukhas is rare. There are only a few working madrasses and religious extremism has mostly been kept under control.

Arriving in Uzbekistan
We flew into the Uzbek capital Tashkent on a flight from South Korea. There's a fairly sizable ethnic Korean community in Uzbekistan and our flight had been taken over by more than 200 elderly Koreans returning from a goodwill trip to Korea, organised by the Uzbek government. Unfortunately they weren't overly air travel savy and didn't realise they were expected to sit in the seat marked on their boarding passes. After a lenghty game of musical chairs, and a further delay whilst a passenger received emergency medical attention, we finally took off an hour late. Tashkent airport has a reputation for long queues and official corruption. On arrival our plane was stranded on the tarmac for 30 mins whilst a ground crew was located. After disembarking we made it through to immigration fairly quickly but then the fun and games started. It turns out that if you're not willing to pay the 'express service' fee then the immigration queue doesn't really move. After an hour we finally made it through to the baggage area where, through a thick haze of cigarette smoke, there was absolutely no sign of any baggage. Another hour passed and some bags finally appeared. A further 30 mins later our bags trundled round. All in all it had taken three hours between landing and making it out of the airport. Welcome to Uzbekistan!

After a night in Tashkent we took a short internal flight to Urgench from where Khiva is a 35km drive away. The old town of Khiva is about 1km square and enclosed within a large perimeter wall. Critics say that the town lacks a historical feel due to over restoration of its landmark buildings. However, the city is still undoubtably impressive with its series of historic museums, mosques, madrassas and minarets. The criss cross of lanes are filled with vendors selling souvenirs, many of whom flash a golden smile as they deliver their sales patter. Gold teeth were fashionable during Soviet times so many elder people, especially women, have a whole mouth full of gold. The vendors are generally friendly and not to persistant. People visiting Khiva will, if lucky, stay within the old town itself. Due to over occupancy we ended up in the less desirable Soviet-style town of Urgench. On departing Khiva we headed for the Uzbek-Turkmen border.

Hospitalised in rural Uzbekistan
After spending three nights in Turkmenistan it was time to return to Uzbekistan. The five hour road trip from the Turkmen town of Mary to the Uzbek border is mostly through arid desert. The long trip was fairly uncomfortable due, in part, to the heat and uneven desert roads but furthermore because of a dodgy shashlik kebab eaten the night before. On reaching the border the exit procedures from Turkmenistan were fairly straightforward. However, to reach the Uzbek side of the border required a 3km trip across the demilitarised zone which separates the two countries. A shuttle bus was on hand to take us half the way but on reaching the mid-point we were left in the desert with our suitcases to walk the remaining 1.5km. Unfortunately the desert trek took its toll and upon commencing immigration procedures on the Uzbek side the aforementioned kebab was regurgitated in front of the border guards at an inopportune moment. Having already seized our passports the border guards decided we'd only be permitted to enter the country if taken into the care of a local hospital. Our assertations that only water and rest were required were to no avail and an ambulance was called for. After an hour of waiting in an unairconditioned room, and trying unsuccessfully to talk our way out of going to hospital with the non-English speaking guards, a small van arrived with a doctor, nurse and dirty bed in the back. By this time we'd managed to contact our Uzbek tour guide but, despite her best efforts, we were told we were now in the hands of the local hospical. The local hospital was 30km away so off we set with our tour guide following behind. The hospital was a small ex-Soviet style afair with no electricity or running water. We were taken to a dark room with a bed in the corner where we waited for the doctor and hospital manager. Having a couple of foreigners in the hospital was obviously a novelty because before long there were four nurses and various other people sticking their heads around the door to watch proceedings. When the hospital manager appeared he seemed keen for us to stay the night. However, after a lot of persuasion he finally agreed to discharge us if we first drafted a disclaimer absolving the hospital of all responsibility should we leave. A disclaimer form was quickly written and signed and finally we were on our way. Upon reaching our hotel in Bukhara the hotel manager recommended vodka laced with salt as his remedy for an upset stomach. We politely declined and after a days rest were ready to continue with our tour.

Bukhara is considered to be the holiest site in Central Asia. Like other Silk Road towns it has a long history of invasions and conquest. Genghis Khan rampaged through here in the 13th century and Timur followed a century later. Today the old town is full of well preserved historic sites including Bukhara Arc (fortess), Mir-i-Arab madrassa and the Kalon Minaret. Bukhara is arguably the most impressive location in Uzbekistan.

Timelapse photograpy of Mir-i-Arab Medressa and Kalyan Minaret at sunset:

Samarkand is the second biggest city in Uzbekistan and probably the most famous of Central Asia's Silk Road towns. In the 14th century it was the capital of Timur's extensive empire and now is home to his mausoleum. The city has an almost mythical status and has been refered to in many works of fiction. Samarkand's most notable sites include the Registan, Bibi-Khanym mosque, Guri Amir mausoleum and the Shah-i-zindi (avenue of mausoleums).

Ever since independence Uzbekistan has struggled with rampant inflation. Though slightly more under control now than previously there is still a large gap between the officially published exchange rate and reality. People are normally keen to get hold of US dollars and often jack up the price considerably if you pay in local currency. Due to the low value of the local currency even small exchanges result in a huge number of the highest denomination local currency notes.

Less than USD 100 in highest denomination local currency notes:

As a sightseeing destination Uzbekistan is extremely underrated. There are numerous impressive sites to see and the ancient Silk Road history mixed with the more recent Soviet legacy add an interesting contrast. The people are generally welcoming and friendly. On the negative side the quality of hotels and restaurants is fairly low and the service in most places seems to be trapped in a Soviet timewarp. Official corruption is widespread and infation rampant.

Posted by bsmethers 00:23 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged tashkent bukhara samarkand khiva Comments (1)


November 2009

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Reaching Bhutan
The Kingdom of Bhutan is a small country nestled high in the Himalayas. The only international airport is situated in the second largest town of Paro and only the national carrier Druk Air is permitted to land there. Paro is located in a steep mountain valley with large peaks on all sides. Such is the difficulty of flying into Paro that, at the time of writing, only eight pilots hold the special license necessary to land there. Landings are also restricted to high visibility daylight hours only. The flight into Paro from neighbouring Nepal must count as one of the most spectacular in the world. Checking in early to secure a seat on the left of the plane ensures unsurpassed views of the highest peaks in the world including the highest of them all, Mt. Everest.


Tour route

Tourism restictions
To minimize the adverse effects of tourism Bhutan has implemented quotas on the number of tourists who are allowed to visit each year. To maximise revenues a minimum daily charge has been introduced. The daily charge of USD 250 covers the cost of a full time guide and driver as well as hotels, meals and entrance to tourist sites. Hotels and restaurants are selected by the local agent though in recent years a small number of higher end hotels have sprouted up where visitors can choose to stay for an additional charge. The government are said to be keen to avoid the more mass-market back-packing type of tourism seen in nearby Nepal.

Political background
There cannot be many countries in the world where an incumbent ruler has implemented democracy against the will of his own people and introduced laws allowing for himself to be impeached given a majority vote. That is exactly what happened in Bhutan when the King, and absolute ruler, Jigme Singye Wangchuck initiated political reforms back in 1999. Initially he relinquished considerable power to a newly formed cabinet of ministers. Then in 2005 he announced a full shift from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy and scheduled the country's first general elections for 2008. At the same time he announced his own abdication in favor of his eldest son Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. Democracy was a new concept in the isolated kingdom and mock elections had to be held to teach people how to vote. Many people openly questioned why they would give up royal rule in favour of politicians who they viewed as more prone to corruption. The initial election was contested by two newly formed parties which spent much of the campaign complimenting and agreeing with each other. There seemed to be none of the mudslinging traditionally seen in other democracies around the world but, no doubt, that will change over time as democracy 'progresses'.

Gross National Happiness
Bhutan is the only country in the world that measures its development based on Gross National Happiness (GNH). In recognition of the idea that progress is not purely measured in monetary terms the government spends a lot of effort trying to gauge its peoples' happiness. The king recently embarked on a three year plan to personally visit every household in the kingdom and question residents on what they were, and weren't, happy about.

Bhutan is a Buddhist country and many aspects of Bhutanese peoples' lives are governed by their Buddhist beliefs. Many of the tourist sites are temples, stupas or monasteries and monks have a revered status in Bhutanese society. Some monks undertake periods of silent retreat where they lock themselves away in mountain temples for three years, three months and three days. During this time they are not allowed to cut their hair, shave or have any contact with the outside world. Family members will deliver food for them on a periodic basis but are not allowed to see or communicate with them. Superstitions are also common in Bhutan and at the Chimi Lhakhang fertility temple in Wangdue the resident monk will bless visitors by patting their heads with a giant wooden penis. It is also common to see large penises painted on the sides of peoples' houses to bring good luck.

The Bhutanese are keen to preserve their culture from outside influences. Television was banned in the kingdom up until 1999 since it was feared it could corrupt people. Other measures have been implemented to maintain a sense of national identity such as making the national costume mandatory and forcing all new buildings to be built in the traditional style. It is usual that whenever a new house needs to be built the entire village comes together to help with construction.

Traditional style house and good luck mural:

Family in national dress:

Bhutan is unlikely to win many plaudits for its cuisine. A large number of the people are vegetarian and the range of food options is limted. The chilli is considered to be a vegetable rather than a spice and the Bhutanese eat copious amounts of them. The most famous dish in Bhutan is Ema Datsi (chilli with cheese) which is literally a plate of red chillies drizzled in cheese sauce. Our guide's favoured lunch dish consisted of a plate full of chillies doused in chilli oil (the chillies alone were apparently not spicy enough). Other favourites include hard dried yak's cheese and the particularly sickly and salty 'butter tea'. The food served in tourist restaurants was fairly basic but edible.

The environment
In an effort to maintain its pristine environment Bhutan has made education on environmental issues a priority in all schools. A number of Green laws have also been passed such as banning plastic bags and tabacco and making it illegal to cut down a tree without planting a new one. A government mandate says that at least 60% of the country must remain forested at all times.

Traffic lights
Bhutan briefly flirted with the idea of traffic lights but shortly after the first set of lights were installed in the capital Thimphu they were removed again since people preferred the more traditional human traffic controllers.

In his spare time our guide was a singer, film star and somewhat of a local celebrity. One evening he invited us to the local Paro night spot to see him sing. He belted out a number of tunes from his album to the delight of the assembled audience. Afterwards some girls in national costume took to the stage to perform dances on request. The process seemed to be that guys from the audience had to pay the girls to dance to their favourite songs. However, regardless of the song the girls performed the same dance and managed to hold a look of thorough boredom throughout. The majority of the audience looked equally unimpressed.

The most memorable part of the tour was the trek up to the Taktshang temple and monastery (AKA the Tiger's nest). Hanging precariously to a cliff 1,000 meters up the only way to reach the temple is by foot or donkey. The views from the top are as impressive as the structure itself. Another highlight was being invited into the private quarters of the 2nd Lama at Paro Dzong monastery (who happened to be our guide's uncle). At the time of our visit the lama was busy carving a trumpet from a human thigh bone, the origins of which remain unclear.

Bhutan is a special to visit for many reasons. The mountain vistas and unspoiled landscapes are stunning. The culture is unique and the people are reserved yet friendly. The hotel and food options are a little limited, as is the nightlife, but all considered Bhutan is still a great location.

Posted by bsmethers 06:13 Archived in Bhutan Tagged bhutan paro thimphu Comments (0)

Kaesong, North Korea

June 2008

Tour details
We visited the North Korean city of Kaesong as part of a day trip from South Korea. The tours were organised by the South Korean company Hyundai Asan as part of a cooperation innitative between the governments of North and South Korea.

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Seoul to DMZ
The pick-up point for the tour was a bus station in suburban Seoul. A small handful of mostly South Koreans waited as the coach pulled up at 6am. Other than ourselves one lone American made up the foreign contingent. The 35 mile trip to the demilitarised zone (DMZ) which separates the countries took about an hour. Upon reaching the South Korean side of the DMZ we disembarked the coach to collect our visa papers. The papers had been arranged in advance and consisted of a clear wallet containing a photo card and visa document. The wallets had been colour coded based on nationality (yellow for South Koreans and Blue for other nationalities). It would be mandatory to wear the wallet around our neck for the duration of our stay in the North. We were also issued with instructions informing us of the rules for our stay: "No mobile phones. No radios. No video cameras. No literature of any kind (including newspapers and guide books). No photos taken from inside the coach. No photos of soldiers or any military building. Etc...". Our previously empty coach had now filled up with tourists from other parts of South Korea and with seven other coaches joining us we set off in convey across the DMZ

Crossing the DMZ
Despite its name the DMZ is said to be the most heavily militarised zone in the world with estimates of one million soldiers guarding each side of the central demarcation line (DML) which officially marks the central part of the 2.5 mile wide DMZ. Despite this build-up the DMZ is a strangely quiet place with few signs of the large military presence. The view from each side of the coach was mostly of green fields. However, as we reached and crossed the DML things changed a little with watch towers coming into sight manned by soldiers intently watching our coaches pass through binoculars. After a short while we reached the North Korean side of the DMZ and it was finally time to enter the North.

Entering the North
Our coaches pulled up at the North Korean immigration point where we disembarked again. As we entered the immigration building loud music blasted over the PA system. Fellow South Korean travellers informed us the tunes were old Korean folk songs which had been banned in the South following the Korean war. After some basic immigration checks we reboarded the coaches again, this time with new drivers and and the addition of 4-5 North Korean 'tour guides' dispersed in various places throughout the coach. Following a welcome announcement in Korean we were off on our way to Kaesong.

DMZ to Kaesong
Kaesong town is about 5-6 miles north of the DMZ and on our way there we passed through the Kaesong industrial complex which is a joint venture between the North and South Korean governments to provide manufacturing jobs to North Koreans working forlarge South Korean companies. The scheme tends to prosper or fail depending on the prevailing relationship between the two governments at any given time. The complex was quiet as we passed through but it was a weekend. As we made our way towards Kaesong the speed at which we were travelling became noticable. Whilst in South Korea the coaches had diligently kept to the speed limit but now we were driving at breakneck speed along patchy roads. As we made our way through the North Korean countryside at speed you could make out blurred images of people manually labouring in the fields. There was no sign of any machinery but there soldiers were stationed every 200-400m or so, often just standing to attention in a field. It was not clear whether they did this all day or just when the weekly coach conveys passed through. We didn't see any vehicles other than our convey. Despite our earlier instructions one fellow tourist tried to take a photo from the coach but was quickly reprimanded by one of the 'travel guides' sitting throughout the coach. It soon became obvious that the guides were primarily there to enforce the rules and the driving speed was designed to prevent us seeing too much from the windows as we passed. The head guide now decided that the time had come for some light entertainment and started belting out karaoke versions of popular North Korean songs from the front of the coach. The majority of the coach looked on rather bemused.

Kaesong sights
Kaesong has an important place in Korean history and used to be the capital of the combined Korean peninsula during the Koryo dynasty. The city today is a fairly deserted place with crumbling infrastructure and lifeless streets. The architecture is typically communist in style and propaganda images and slogans adorn the buildings. Traffic police stand in the middle of wide empty boulevards directing non-existent traffic. The local people are noticably shorter than their South Korean compatriots and most are dressed in fairly drab and basic clothing. The first sight on the itinerary is Barkyeon Falls. A perfectly pleasant but unremarkable waterfall which the government has designated a 'scenic materpiece'. The waterfall is surrounded by rock carvings of quotes from the 'Great Leader' Kim Il Sung who alledgely carved them himself. A young tour guide, with broken English, enthusiastically showed us around. The ever present coach tour guides intervened whenever we attempted to ask questions unrelated to the site itself. The biggest point of interest for the local guides seemed to be finding out which countries we came from. Facial features and the blue documentation wallet gave us away as non-Koreans. They generally seemed fairly happy to discover we were not from the imperialist enemy number one, America. Next on the itinerary was Kwanumsa Buddhist Temple, a National Treasure of Korea. In a land where worship is usually reserved for the ruling Kim family it was surprising to see some religious sites remain intact.

One of our coach 'guides' and a local guide proudly wearing their 'Great Leader' badges:

Lunch and shopping
Next stop was Kaesong Model Village and time for lunch. The model village is a recreation of an old style Korean village surrounded by a high perimeter fence. The fence is presumably to prevent unvited people from entering but possibly to stop invited tourists from seeing the less desirable areas outside also. A glimpse through a crack in the gate showed some fairly rundown scenes. Lunch was a full traditional Korean banquet with twelve separate dishes served in gold coloured bowls as well as rice and soup. Waitresses were decked out in the tradional Korean Hanbok dress. After lunch it was time to view what souveneers Kaesong had to offer in the model village shops. The grocery shop had mostly bare shelves but there were packs of stale biscuits for USD 5 (2 months past sell buy date). The book shop mostly stocked books written by the 'Great' and 'Dear' leaders in Korean though some had been translated into questionable English. Audio tape cassettes were available with popular North Korean songs including such classics such as "Yanky Imperialist Bastards". The final shop sold alcohol at highly marked up prices. Not wanting to contribute any further funds to the North Korean government we decided to pass and it was back to sightseeing for the afternoon.

Further sightseeing
Sunjukgyo Historic Bridge was the next stop on the itinerary. The bridge is famous as the place where the Confucius scholar Jong Mong Ju was killed by the first Emperor of the Chosun Dynasty back in 1392. Aside from its historical significance the bridge is fairly unimpressive. The final stop of the day was Koryo Museum which houses important relics from the Koryo period. The most note worthy incident here was when I was ordered to delete a photo from my camera which happened to include a local tour guide who apparently didn't like to be photographed. With sightseeing complete it was time to return to the DMZ.

Exiting North Korea
We were warned at the start of the day that upon exiting North Korea it was likely that our cameras would be checked for any photos deemed 'inappropriate'. And so it was as the passengers from all eight coaches were lined up while the border guards checked every single photo on every single camera. When the last camera had been checked and with other formalities complete we reboarded the coaches and headed back across the DMZ towards the South. As we crossed the DML there was an sigh of relief from many of the South Koreans onboard.

Note on photographs
The 'Authorised photos' on this site were taken at the official tourist sites and were permitted by our North Korean guides. The 'Unauthorised photos' were taken surreptitiously from the coach using a separate and smaller camera. The speed at which the coaches travelled and the ever alert onboard guides made it difficult to get decent shots. On exiting North Korea it was just a matter of hiding the extra memory card and showing the technically challenged border guards the 'acceptable' photos on my main camera to get through.

Visiting North Korea was an unforgettable experience and one I don't regret. I certainly questioned paying USD 200 for a tour where a sizable chunk of that money would fall into the hands of the North Korean government. However, the flip side is that as more tourists visit North Korea it's likely that the informationally starved local population will learn more of the outside world which will hopefully make it harder for the government to maintain its iron grip in the longer term. The tourist sites are fairly underwhelming but it's fair to say that most people visiting the North are not going for the monuments. In this day and age it is unbelievable that places such as North Korea can still exist and that's probably why it's still such a facinating, yet dark, place to visit.

One month after our visit a South Korean tourist was shot dead by a soldier on a tour to the North Korean resort of Mount Kumgang. Tours from over the border to the south were subsequently cancelled and at the time of writing have not resumed. It is still possible to visit North Korea via China.

Posted by bsmethers 23:40 Archived in North Korea Tagged north_korea dmz kaesong Comments (1)

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