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From Bukhara to the desert

Uzbekistan day five


View Uzbekistan 2007 on ToonSarah's travel map.

It was time to leave Bukhara, much as I would have liked to have stayed another day. After breakfast in the beautiful dining room of our hotel, the Mosque Baland, and farewells to our hosts there, we set off, driving east on the main road to Samarkand.

Gijduvan

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At the potter's wheel

Our first stop was in the town of Gijduvan (46 km north-east from Bukhara), famous throughout Uzbekistan for its distinctive pottery. The best place to see this is at the workshop of Abdullo and Alisher Narzullaev, just north of the main road. These brothers are the sixth generation of a family of famous potters, still practising the traditional skills passed down through the family.

The Gijduvan school of ceramics is unique. It is characterised by an overall brown colouring as a background, with yellow-green and blue hues as accents. The ornamentation of clay dishes and plates consists of mainly floral pattern, incorporating images of big flowers, leaves, and various rosettes, and some use of geometric patterns. Unlike other Uzbek ceramic styles, the lines of the patterns are slightly blurred, with a hazy effect created through the use of a dark glaze.

We were first shown around the museum of ceramics housed above their shop, which displays items from all over the country. Alisher described the different styles, and showed us some tiles made by his grandfather who had worked on the restoration of the Registan in Samarkand.

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In the ceramics museum

We were then taken to the workshop area where we saw his brother Abdullo at work at the potter’s wheel (see photo above), one of the daughters of the family painting some completed pots, and the different kilns.

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Painting the pottery

In the courtyard another of the girls was drawing designs for embroidery, a further family tradition.

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Preparing cotton for embroidery

Our tour finished, of course, in the shop where many examples of their work was for sale. There was really something for every pocket, with the smallest bowls starting at just $2, so most of us bought at least a small souvenir to thank them for the trouble they’d taken with our tour. But one of our group fell for, and bought, quite a large bowl; we were all anxious about whether she would be able to bring it safely home on the plane, which luckily she did.

Finally, we ended our visit with green tea and sweetmeats in their pleasant shady courtyard. Then it was back on the bus to continue our drive.

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Sweetmeats

Karmana

We made another short stop near the town of Karmana to see two ancient buildings which straddle the main road a few miles west of the town. On the north side of the road is the impressive portal of the Rabt-i-Malik, all that remains of a one-time royal caravanserai, where noble travellers would once have rested during their journeys across the steppe.

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The caravanserai portal

Almost opposite on the south side of the road a restored dome covers the well where the camels would have found refreshment. Now instead of caravans of camels, cars and trucks roar past these ancient relics, creating a microcosm of Uzbekistan’s ‘past meets present’ character.

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Restored well

In Karmana itself we stopped by a small park near the bazaar to see the Mir Said Bakhrom Mausoleum, built in the 11th century. Its ornamental brickwork, with inscriptions from the Koran set in it, reminded me of the Ishmael Samani Mausoleum in Bukhara, though this one is older and less elaborate than that more famous example.

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The Mir Said Bakhrom Mausoleum

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Detail of brickwork

Petroglyphs

Our final stop of the morning was to take a look at some petroglyphs near the roadside. Uzbekistan’s most famous site for petroglyphs is the Sarmysh Gorge, but we weren’t able to visit there unfortunately. However, we did stop to see this small group in the rocks right by the road that runs from Karmana to Nurata, near its highest point Black Crow Pass.

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The road over Black Crow Pass

A short scramble up the rocks brought us to several with these ancient markings, reasonably well-preserved considering their proximity to the road.

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Petroglyphs

Nurata

We arrived in Nurata, which lies some way north of the Bukhara-Samarkand road, around lunch time and had lunch in there in a house in a residential area not far from the main road. This was a real family home, and we ate in what was obviously their main sitting and dining room, with shelves of ornaments and family photos for decoration. We sat on cushions on the floor, as is the Uzbek way, either side of a long low table. As elsewhere in the country, I found this home cooking better than many of the meals we had in restaurants, and there was certainly plenty of it.

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Lunch at a family home

We started with the usual range of salads, accompanied by bread of course, and augmented by some tasty cream cheese. These were followed with a bowl of the typical simple Uzbek soup – a clear broth with potato, carrot and meat (for vegetarians the meat was, we suspected, simply removed before serving!) We were then served big platters of plov, the traditional Uzbek rice dish – very tasty, although I for one was a bit too full to do it justice. There was green tea and bottled water to drink, and watermelon to finish the meal.

One small downside was that, inevitably, the ladies of the house were keen embroiderers, and they were eager to show, and of course sell, us their work. I admired, but resisted the temptation to buy, although I believe one or two in the group did get something.

Most of us did however make use of the clean toilet at the foot of their pretty garden! And then it was time for some sightseeing. We drove the short distance to the cluster of sights on the south side of town, where we paid a small fee to the imam at the Friday mosque in order to visit, and take photos of, Nurata’s ancient citadel.

Alexander the Great’s Fortress

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Ruins of Alexander the Great’s Fortress

There is supposed to have been a fortress on this hill-top above the town even before the time of Alexander the Great, but it was his soldiers who strengthened it in 327 BC. Locals believe that Alexander gave the city its name, Nur, and credit him with building the kariz, a complex water system that brought drinking water several kilometres from a spring right into the centre of the citadel. This ancient town held a strategic position on the frontier between the cultivated lands and the steppe.

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Chris exploring the ruins

Alexander’s fort was constructed in the shape of the constellation of the Plough, and consisted of several parts, with an inner town, 500x500 meters in size, surrounded with a large wall and towers. Nurata was chosen as the site of a fortress because of its strategic setting at the border between an agricultural area and a wild steppe, making it a convenient point for gathering an army before attacking neighbouring lands.

Today the fortress is largely ruined, but by climbing the hill we got a good sense of its size and layout. The climb was very easy although it took a bit of energy in the hot Uzbek sun, and we were rewarded with a good view of the town and mosques below. The ground underfoot consists in places of adobe bricks, compacted by thousands of feet and by the elements over two millennia. As you climb you are walking in the footsteps of those who built the fort and who lived and worked here.

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View of the town
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Looking down at the mosques

At the top we found that people had tied small cloths to the bushes, probably reflecting Nurata’s significance as a place of pilgrimage.

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Prayer cloths

Visiting the mosques

At the foot of the hill on which perches the fortress of Alexander the Great are a pair of mosques, the town’s Friday mosque and ‘everyday’ mosque facing onto the same small square near the sacred Chasma Spring. Our guide Marat had intended that we only visit the older of the two mosques here, the everyday mosque, which was built originally for visiting pilgrims in the tenth century and which still retains its roof of 25 small domes. This is the mosque on the left of my photo taken from the hill-top fortress (above), and photo shows the interior of its main dome with a lacy effect created by the windows and central chandelier.

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Ceiling of the Pilgrim's Mosque

But the friendly imam insisted that some of us at least also visit the Friday mosque, which although newer and of less historic significance, was the more decorated inside. This probably explained his insistence that we see it, and as you can see he was also keen to pose inside in front of the ornately carved mihrab. This mosque also boasts one of the largest domes in Central Asia, more than 16 metres in diameter, which can be seen on the right of my photo of the mosques above.

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Outside the mosque

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Imam in the Friday Mosque

The Chasma Spring and fish pools

The Chasma Spring is the source of Nurata’s reputation as a holy city and place of pilgrimage. It is said to have been formed through a miracle, when Hazrat Ali, the son-in-law of Mohammed, struck the ground here with his staff. The waters rise nowadays into a rectangular tank near the two mosques, and flow down into the town along a narrow canal which skirts the small market-place.

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Local sightseers at the Chasma Spring

The waters are teeming with fish, which are considered sacred and cannot therefore be caught or eaten. These fish are large and very lively (guided by Marat we threw a handful of clover leaves into the pool and watched them react!), and they obviously thrive in the mineral-rich water. This water is believed to have health-giving powers, so people come from miles around to anoint themselves with it, and large water-containers are sold in the nearby market to pilgrims who want to take some of the water away with them.

Nurata market

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At Nurata Market

We also had time to wander through the nearby market. It wasn’t very large but proved to be a good place to observe daily Uzbek life and, as everywhere in this friendly country, to meet some of the locals. I got talking to the lady on the right in my photo above, an Uzbek tourist from Tashkent, who was feeding the sacred fish in the canal and keen to practice her few words of English – as I was my even fewer words of Russian.

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In Nurata market

Meanwhile Chris was invited into the front yard of a house to take a photo of a group of card-players.

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Chris's photo of the card players

Soon though it was time to go back to the bus to continue to our base for the night, one of several yurt camps in the Kyzyl Kum desert in the area around Aidarkul Lake.

Yangikazgan

Our main tour bus was unsuitable for the rough roads (little more than tracks in the sand) leading to the camp, so it was parked in the village of Yangikazgan for the night where we transferred to an old Soviet bus to drive the final seven kilometres. This gave us an opportunity for a brief look at this small rural village, very different from the Uzbek cities where we spent most of this trip. I was grateful for the brief glimpse it afforded us of genuine Uzbek village life.

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The children of Yangigazgan

The village is a Soviet-built one, so the houses are functional concrete blocks, but as everywhere on our travels we were welcomed with friendly smiles that were much more photogenic than any building. I spent quite a few minutes photographing the children, naturally, and I think they were pleased to be given a couple of the postcards from home that we’d brought with us in return.

I also enjoyed seeing other aspects of life here – the women spinning in the shade of the trees and others with the far hotter job of firing bricks in a clay oven.

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Women and children in Yangigazgan

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Women firing bricks

Our old bus seemed from appearances to be a bit uncared for, but I think that was just on the surface, as it coped very well with the desert conditions. OK, it was pretty uncomfortable, and I wouldn’t have wanted to do a long drive in it, but it certainly did the job and got us there!

One great little touch in the bus’s décor caught our eye. Chris and I are big fans of Newcastle United, so you can imagine our pleased surprise to find that this bus had a small sticker of a former Newcastle player (the gorgeous David Ginola) in the famous black and white strip above the door. I can’t imagine that there could be any connection between a French footballer and a remote village in Uzbekistan so I’m not sure how it came to be here. Maybe a French tourist gave it to the driver?

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Our old Soviet bus on arrival in camp

Desert yurt camp

We arrived in the camp and were welcomed with green tea and sweetmeats.

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First view of the camp

Then we were shown to our sleeping quarters. The yurts were constructed in the traditional style, with collapsible lattice frame walls, a roof of branches, and the whole covered in felt. As the weather was hot, the sides of ours were partially rolled back to allow the cool air to come in. The floor was covered with felt too, and from the roof hung colourful mobiles.

The yurts sleep four and we’d been warned in advance that we would have to share. Chris and I were allocated to one with the only other couple in our group, while those travelling alone or with friends shared with three or four others of the same gender.

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Our yurt, outside and in

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Yurt roof from inside

Of course, a yurt doesn’t come with an en-suite bathroom! The washing facilities at the camp consisted of two open-air basins and two basic shower cubicles, all fed with water from tanks perched above them, warmed by the sun. The two toilets were ‘long drop’ ones, situated on two dunes a short climb either side of the camp – fine in the daylight, a bit of a challenge to find at bedtime (we went in a small group with several torches between us) and a real concern to those of us (thankfully not me at that stage) who were suffering from the side-effects of Uzbek cuisine and needed to climb those dunes several times in the night.

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Desert camp washing and showering facilities

But I am getting ahead of myself, as we had a desert evening to enjoy first.

Camel ride

On arriving at the camp we had been asked if we wanted to go on an optional camel ride – an option that only six of our number took up, which surprised me. I personally rather like camels, despite their (probably deserved) reputation for surliness. Without doubt this was a great experience. We were led out into the dunes and took a circular route at some distance from the camp, so that for most of the ride we could quite easily imagine, just briefly, how it would have been to travel the desert in a caravan at the height of the Silk Road’s domination. And the late afternoon light on the dunes was really special, as I hope my photos indicate.

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Our group of Silk Road explorers!

As there were only six of us (so no need for the camel owners to do several trips) we got quite a bit longer than the promised hour, but I for one was still sorry to see the camp come back into sight and know that our ride was over and I had to say goodbye to Kumba, ‘my’ camel.

There was one incident which soured Chris’s pleasure at the ride, however, and he has never felt quite as keen on camel rides again since. He found himself riding alongside one of our travelling companions, Sally-Ann, who unfortunately had been allocated a camel who appeared to be suffering from the same digestive ailments as some of us, and with a lot less control! This at first only gave Chris a problem of smell, and distraction from the beauties of the desert, but then Sally-Ann’s camel decided he would like to walk much closer to Chris’s, and the result was a very unpleasant deposit on Chris’s leg!

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My view from camel-back
- Sally-Ann's camel, top right, is the culprit!

Luckily (?) Chris was wearing shorts rather than long trousers, so only he needed to be washed, not his clothing – and this is how Chris came to be the first in our group to try out the slightly primitive, but thankfully very effective, showers!!

A night in camp

Once Chris had showered it was time for dinner, and the meal we were served here this evening was one of the nicest we had on the trip, in my view. We ate at a long table set up under an awning near the caravan where the Kazaks who run the camp live and cook. First, bottles of water, vodka and port were placed along its length – the vodka very good (if you like strong spirits) but the port a little sweet for my taste, though others in the group enjoyed it more than the vodka. We could also buy beer and soft drinks at very reasonable prices considering that everything had to be brought out to the camp.

The meal started with a buffet table of bread and salads, as everywhere in Uzbekistan, but here there was a particularly good variety of salads, including aubergine, roast peppers, a carrot and cabbage dish, beetroot … After this we were served a tasty hot dish of beef, potatoes, carrots, cabbage and onion, all cooked in the one pot (a bit like Lancashire Hot-Pot for the Brits among us!)

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Dinner in the camp

The meal ended with slices of very juicy watermelon, and then most of us drifted over to the campfire that had been lit a short distance away in the centre of the camp. Out in the desert of course, the display of stars overhead was amazing, and we had a great time spotting shooting stars and satellites and looking at distant galaxies through the binoculars of a keen amateur astronomer in our group, Lawrence, who was also happy to share his knowledge about what we were seeing. It was a lovely way to end the day, although it would have been even nicer if one of our travelling companions hadn’t though it a great idea to play his transistor radio – not popular with the rest of us, who wanted to enjoy the tranquillity of the desert uninterrupted by the noise of the 21st century!

Then it was time for bed. We made the climb up the dune to the drop toilets in groups before retiring for the night. We slept on mattresses on the ground, which I found a little thin, and were provided with a cotton sheet and coverlet. I used the latter to augment the mattress to give me a softer base – which is maybe why I became very aware of the cool breeze later in the night!

This was a very special part of our holiday, and I for one wouldn’t have missed it for anything! Sleeping here was a magical experience, especially when I awoke at about 4.00am to see a thin crescent moon through the lattice, and when I got up at 5.30 to find myself the only one awake in the camp. But that’s a story for my next entry …

Posted by ToonSarah 09:05 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged landscapes people children food architecture desert mosque road_trip history fort market village camp uzbekistan customs Comments (11)

We take the golden road to Samarkand *

Uzbekistan day six


View Uzbekistan 2007 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Desert sunrise

Today we were to travel to perhaps the most famed city of the Silk Road, Samarkand. Would it live up to expectations?

Morning in the yurt camp

The day certainly started on a high note. I had slept well at the desert camp at first, until the cool wind coming through the lattice frame of our yurt at about 4.30am woke me. I opened my eyes to see a thin but incredibly bright crescent moon hovering above the nearby sand dune. After dozing fitfully for some time, I decided, about an hour later, to give up and get up. Slipping into my shorts and reaching for my camera, I left my still-sleeping yurt-mates and stepped outside. I didn’t know what time the sun would rise but I figured it would be great to try to capture it on camera and much better than lying on the slightly hard ground trying unsuccessfully to sleep.

I had rather more of a wait than I had expected, but it was a lovely sensation to be, for a short while at least, the only person up in the camp. Gradually though a few others woke up and joined me outside, but still not so many that when the time for the sunrise came we couldn’t almost have a sand dune each to watch it from! Certainly I was alone on mine when the sun first climbed above the more distant dunes.

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Desert sunrise

Soon after this I headed back down into the camp where more people were by now up and about. In fact my one tiny criticism of the camp would be that, with breakfast not served until 8.00, and so many of us up before 7.00, they didn’t think to provide a pot of tea at that time. Nevertheless, this was a wonderful time to be in the desert, with sun growing in strength and warmth every minute and the dunes glowing in the early morning light.

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The camp from the dunes

And when breakfast was served it was very good: bread, pancakes, cheese, meat, jam and hard-boiled eggs, washed down with either green tea or decent (though instant) coffee. After this, and a short walk on the dunes with Chris, who had slept through the sunrise, it was time to leave the camp to the next visitors and head back to Yangikazgan to pick up our bus.

Lake Aidarkul

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Lake Aidarkul

We didn’t drive immediately to Samarkand but instead made a detour to Lake Aidarkul, which seems to be standard practice on all these tours. Opinions in our group about this were rather mixed, with some of us enjoying the interlude in the intensive sightseeing, and others regretting that it gave us less time in Samarkand. I think it depended on whether you found something there to appeal to you. If like me and a few others you were keen to swim it was great, and if like Chris you fancied a walk and a chance to see the desert scenery from somewhere other than out of the bus window, it was also good. But this isn’t really a place to come to simply relax – there is no shade, and although an awning was set up for us to sit under, it was rather small and everyone was rather on top of each other. Those who wanted peace and quiet to read, write up their journal or just unwind would have found the chatter of the others distracting.

For me, the highlight of our visit to Aidurkal Lake was the opportunity it afforded for a swim. After several days travelling, and some involving long bus journeys through the hot desert, I was glad of the chance to relax in its cooling waters.

There were no bushes for privacy behind which to change, so those of us wanting to swim went off to change in the bus. The edge of the lake was a little stony, so I kept my flip-flops on, but we didn’t have to wade too far for it to be deep enough to swim, though the odd sand bank beneath the surface meant that I did find my toes scraping the ground again at intervals. There was also no shade at all, so I had to resist the temptation to stay in the water too long, however lovely and cooling it was.

Meanwhile Chris, who is not so keen a swimmer, chose to climb a small hill near where we had parked to get some photos of the lake from above. Aidarkul is man-made, created during water supply projects in the area in the early 1970s (resulting in the Sirdarya river overflowing from the Chardarinskaya Reservoir). It is over 200 km long and in some places as much as 15 km wide – enough that you can’t see the far side. The bay where we swam was fairly uninteresting to look at, apart from the pretty green rushes captured in Chris’s photo below, but elsewhere I’ve read that it attracts a lot of birds such as cormorants, pelicans and herons – I would have liked to have visited that part. It’s also well-stocked with fish, and indeed fishing is the main industry in this region, apart from (increasingly) tourism as more and more travellers choose to spend a night (or more) in one of these yurt camps as part of their Uzbekistan experience.

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Photos taken by Chris from above the lake
- you can just make out the small group of swimmers, of whom I am one!

Our visit concluded with a picnic lunch that had been provided by the Kazaks at the yurt camp – salads, cold potatoes, bread, watermelon, with bottled water and green tea to drink. You can see how small our awning was in the photo below, as we all jostled for some shade in which to eat!

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Picnic at Aidarkul Lake

Then it was back into the bus for the long (over five hours) drive to Samarkand.

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On the (not very golden) road to Samarkand

Arrival in Samarkand

We arrived here late afternoon and checked into our accommodation at the family-run B&B Zarina. This rivalled the Hotel Mosque Baland in Bukhara as the friendliest we stayed in on our travels, and definitely took the prize for best location! It is situated only a few minutes’ walk from the Registan and set back from the main road in a quiet cul de sac. Our room wasn’t large, but it was clean, with an en-suite bathroom and air-conditioning (though the latter wasn’t as efficient as I’d have liked in that heat.)

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Our room at the Zarina B & B

The building itself was lovely. The courtyard was decorated with a large number of antique architectural objects such as old doors and the family were obviously keen collectors because the basement breakfast room had displays of old radios, musical instruments, a Russian adding machine and more! The columns supporting the front porch seemed to be antiques too.

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The hallway at the Zarina B & B

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In the courtyard

There wasn’t time left today for sightseeing so our thoughts turned instead to dinner. A small group of us decided to visit a restaurant just a short walk from our hotel, the Marco Polo. Marat, our guide, had told us that it was just recently opened so he had no reports about its quality, but he knew the chef who had a good reputation. Well, we had to conclude that it was the chef’s night off!

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At the Marco Polo restaurant
- Chris, me, Georgina, an Irish lady (whose name I've unfortunately forgotten) and Sue
Thanks to Sally-Ann who took the photo

The setting was nice, with a large paved area screened from the main road with bright yellow and white awnings. Our group of six got a good table in the centre of this area. The waitress though spoke no English, and unlike everyone else we met in Uzbekistan, was not inclined to be helpful, although was not exactly unfriendly. We managed to decipher some of the options on the Russian menu, but everything we tried to order seemed to be unavailable – although one of her colleagues did eventually appear with the hoped-for cold beers.

Chris and I ended up ordering beef shashliks, which were OK but not what we’d wanted. Meanwhile Georgina, having been assured that the salad she’d ordered was vegetarian (and in fact their only vegetarian option), was quite surprised to find a small pile of meat on it – which the waitress ‘helpfully’ suggested could be pushed to one side to turn it into the vegetarian dish requested. This would have been less irritating had we not spotted, some minutes later, two local men eating a very obviously vegetarian aubergine dish.

Oh well, at least we had enjoyed the beer!

The Registan at night

Of course, we couldn’t be so close to the famous Registan and not take a first look. I will save all the history and detailed information for a later entry as for now all we wanted to do was see it!

Some evenings there is a son et lumiere show at the Registan, usually arranged especially for tour groups. I had read that this wasn’t of great quality – the sound poor and the commentary fairly dull. We didn’t bother even trying to get to a show during our stay, but there had been one on this first evening, and although it seemed now to have finished it meant that we got to see the magnificent buildings nicely illuminated.

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The Registan at night

Guards ensured that we didn’t get too close, as we hadn’t paid for the show, but no matter – we could see a fair bit from further back, and the edge of the fountains made a good rest for my camera. And what we saw certainly whetted our appetites for a more detailed look tomorrow.

* James Elroy Flecker

Posted by ToonSarah 10:35 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises lakes night architecture desert restaurant hotel camp uzbekistan samarkand registan Comments (8)

Glamping in Rajasthan

India day eight


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Thar Desert stay

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Desert sunset

Rajasthan is in part a desert state, and a visit here, for a desert lover such as myself, would not be complete without spending a night in one of its desert camps. It was this that brought us to Dechu. The Thar Desert is the 17th largest in the world and home to 40% of Rajasthan’s people who for the most part eke out a living growing what crops they can in its arid soil or raising livestock. But in recent years eco-tourism has brought a much welcome boost to the region, and we were here to help!

We left our lovely Jaisalmer hotel, Fort Rajwanda, after breakfast and set off through the desert, at first retracing our steps eastwards from a few days previously but then branching off to the south towards Dechu. The drive took only three hours, mostly across flat scrubby desert.

Along the way we enjoyed seeing our first mongoose on the road, while I failed to photograph successfully, and a large herd of camels, some 400 strong, by which Mehar stopped for photos. One of the herders explained that one camel had fractured a leg and they were trying to separate it from the rest. This was a great photo opportunity and I also managed to shoot a video of the herd – I found their constant movement rather mesmerising.

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Another sight, well-spotted by Mehar, was a small antelope, I believe a Chinkara, resting under a bush in a lentil field. According to Wikipedia around 80,000 of India’s population of 100,000 of these live in the Thar Desert so it was perhaps not surprising that we saw several while there.

Near Dechu the scenery got more varied, with sand dunes dotted with stunted trees either side of the road. About seven kilometres beyond the town we turned off the road into Samsara Resort.

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Chinkara

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Scenery near Dechu

We didn't stay at Samara Resort itself but at the Desert Camp about eight kilometres away. However we arrived here around midday and were given the use of a room and the run of the facilities until our transfer to the camp some four hours later (in October when we visited it is far too hot in the desert during the middle part of the day so guests only spend the evening, night and first part of the morning at the camp).

The room we were given was really lovely (we dubbed it "the nicest room we never stayed in"!) and we enjoyed a good lunch in the restaurant and a few pleasant hours swimming in, and relaxing by, the pool. I am pretty sure this would be a great place to stay if you'd like to sleep in a proper bedroom and see the desert on excursions rather than spend a night in a tent, however luxurious.

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The nicest room we never stayed in, and hotel pool

But that was not for us – we were headed for a night under canvas …

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Our stay at the desert camp was one of the highlights of our trip to India. The whole experience was wonderful, starting with our late afternoon jeep transfer to the camp from the resort, which, although a distance of just eight kilometres as the crow flies, is lengthened into a mini safari through the surrounding countryside. The return journey the next morning was to take just 15 minutes, but this outward ride was more like 90.

Our luggage was transferred separately (the next morning it was to travel with us) and we had the jeep to ourselves. After a short ride along the main road we turned off on to a sandy track that wound among some scattered houses. We passed the government-run school and the all-important water tank. We made a wide loop through this area, at one point spotting some more Indian antelopes, Chinkara, like the one we had seen earlier on our journey to Dechu.

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Chinkara antelopes

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The grandmother

We stopped at one house to visit a local family. Obviously this was a bit set-up compared to the visit we had made with Mehar a few days previously (see my earlier blog entry), but it was nevertheless interesting and the family were very welcoming. Mum and Dad were away working in the fields, so we met the grandmother and children. All were very happy to pose for photos. Unlike that previous visit with Mehar, we were able to go inside the various buildings which included a kitchen, living/sleeping house and storage room.

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Family possessions

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With our hostess and her oldest grandchild

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The home

Leaving the village area we returned to the main road, only to leave it again after just a short distance. Now we were among the dunes proper, although in this desert you find scrubby growth on the dunes rather than the empty wide sweep of sand you see elsewhere. Our driver took us on a roundabout route that involved at least three very steep descents – the sort where you get something of the sensation of being on a roller coaster (although much more fun to my mind). We stopped for photos at the top of one dune, and at another the guide got out and borrowed my camera to take pictures of our descent from below – although I was surprised when I looked at the photos later to see that the steepness wasn’t that apparent. Much more effective was my own photo taken looking down on him just as we started down from the top of the dune.

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Jeep ride in the dunes

Eventually we topped one particular dune to find ourselves looking down on the camp. We dropped down into it and pulled up at the edge of the circle of tents.

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Samsara Desert Camp, late afternoon

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We were greeted with the news that our luggage was already in our tent, number three, and our camel was waiting for us, ready for the next part of the experience as soon as we had freshened up. So we hurried to our tent to leave our day bags, taking only our cameras with us on the next experience, a camel ride on the dunes. We have ridden camels in the past and it is something I always enjoy (although after an unfortunate encounter in Uzbekistan, which I will no doubt share here some time in the future, Chris is slightly less enthusiastic!)

On this occasion, we both rode on the same camel. I was up front and could hold on to part of the harness, but Chris, behind, had only me to clutch. If I had fallen, so would he! This was quite a short ride compared to the one we had in the Uzbek desert – just up and over the nearest dune, a short stop for photos and then up to the highest point from where we would be able to watch the sunset.

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Our camel gets a well-deserved rest, after carrying us both up the dunes!

Desert sunset

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We arrived by camel at the top of the dunes, to find that the camp staff had set out some cushions to sit on and laid on a musician playing the traditional Rajasthani double flutes. A few other tourists from the camp were already here, having come by jeep. There were drinks available (tea, coffee and water at no charge, plus soft and alcoholic drinks to buy). It was all very low-key – we all stood around or sat and listened to the music, drinking a beer or a G&T and chatting, as the sun got lower over the dunes.

It was quite hazy, so the sky was pretty rather than dramatic, but the photo opportunities were greatly enhanced when a local happened to drive his flock of sheep along the ridge of the dune right in front of the setting sun. The sand kicked up by their hooves filtered the rays and created a timeless scene that made a pleasant experience into a totally memorable one.

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Was it serendipity that brought him here at this moment? Does the camp choose this spot because the locals also come here – or even, dare I say it, encourage him to do so to enhance our experience? Those thoughts occurred to me, but no, I think we were probably just lucky as, since neither shepherd nor hotel staff looked for a tip there would have been nothing for them to gain by arranging the scene.

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After he moved on there was time to take a few more photos of the post-sunset sky, and now our camel took centre stage in the photos.

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Dancer

Then it was back to the camp, this time by jeep, to settle into our tent before the evening’s cultural performance and dinner.

Evening in the camp

In the hour before dinner traditional musicians played in an area of the camp set aside for these performances. There was cushioned seating for the audience, drinks could be purchased and the first course of dinner was served, consisting of stuffed potato chunks, chicken tikka and vegetable patties. While we had seen similar shows in several hotels already (and were to see several more before the end of our trip, this was probably the most accomplished of those we saw, with the quality of the dancing especially notable. These dances are traditional among the Thar Desert tribes as are the elaborate costumes worn by both men and women. I hope you enjoy my little video of the performance.

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Musicians and dancer

Cultural performance

Our evening meal started with small appetisers handed round as we sat listening to the music - chicken tikka, stuffed potatoes and vegetable patties, and we ordered beers to wash these down. We then went up the slope, lit by hurricane lamps, to the dining tent where like all the other guests we chose to eat outside on the terrace. The meal was a buffet with lots of choice, and I found some dishes nicer than others (a potato curry and another with cauliflower among them). You pay for any drinks but otherwise all is included. When we had finished our meal we sat out on the terrace a little longer, enjoying the desert air and a final beer.

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Our tent at night

Desert sunrise

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We slept very well in our “luxury” tent, which was both gorgeous and comfortable. It had twin beds inside, with a properly plumbed en-suite with large walk-in shower behind, and a terrace with loungers in front. The tents are set in a circle nestled under a large dune, with another dune opposite. Part way up this one is the dining tent where both dinner and breakfast are served, and at the foot of this dune is a circular area where the evening entertainment takes place.

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The camp at dawn

The next morning we woke early to the sound of the camp coming to life. Some of the staff were walking around collecting the lanterns that had been hung in the bushes and outside each tent the previous evening, while others were up at the dining tent on the opposite dune, starting to prepare breakfast. When we emerged from our tent we found we were the only guests to have done so, somewhat to our surprise. Yes, it was still early, but it’s not every day you get to enjoy watching the sunrise in the desert. Armed with our cameras we climbed up the steep dune on the far side of the camp and were there in time to see the sun rise over the tents circled below us. Well worth the effort of getting up and clambering up the dune!

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Desert sunrise

By the way, when I first went out that morning I did so with bare feet and really enjoyed the sensation of the cool morning sand between my toes. But it’s not a good idea to walk around like that on the dunes as there are some very prickly burrs that attach themselves to shoes and socks and would certainly be painful if they were to attach themselves to you!

Once the sun was up it was time to descend for breakfast, which was a good one, with eggs cooked to order and other items, including fresh fruit, pastries and toast, served at the buffet. The musician who had played the previous evening when we watched the sun set from the dunes also played during breakfast which was lovely.

Music at breakfast

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Farewell to the camp

All too soon though we were leaving the camp behind us, very pleased to have had this chance to experience a taste of the Thar Desert and a stay so different from those that made up the bulk of our tour.

If you get the chance to do this I totally recommend it as it really shows you another side to Rajasthan. Yes, it is all laid on for tourists and is somewhat artificial, but at the same time you are out in the desert and getting closer to a harsh but beautiful environment that is home to many local people. And of course the camp also brings employment and a much-needed source of income to some of those people. I was pleased to learn, for example, that the guide who accompanied us on the jeep safari and looked after us during our stay was from a village just a few miles away.

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Our jeep driver

We met up with Mehar back at the Samsara resort. It was time to head further south ...

Posted by ToonSarah 21:53 Archived in India Tagged desert culture india music camp camel rajasthan Comments (14)

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