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To Damaraland

Namibia Days Seven and Eight


View Namibia road trip 2004 on ToonSarah's travel map.

We left Swakopmund after another of Sam’s great breakfasts (best Swiss muesli ever!) and drove north along the coast. At Henties Bay our route led inland, but we detoured a little further up the coast to get a quick look at the Cape Cross seal colony. The Cape Fur Seals that breed here are actually a species of Sea Lion. There are between 80,000 to 100,000 seals at Cape Cross! We only had time for a short stop but it was well worth the detour. Unfortunately though I don't have any digital photos of the seals (maybe my digital camera didn't have a good enough zoom?) and any slides I took are missing along with the rest from this trip. But this link will give you an idea of how crowded the beach is there: http://www.namibiahc.org.uk/perch/resources/pdf/cape-cross-brochure.pdf

Herero women

We drove back to Henties Bay and turned inland, regretting a bit that we hadn’t found time in our itinerary to continue further to the Skeleton Coast. But there was plenty to see on the route we had chosen and lots of fantastic sights ahead of us. Our drive took us through a region inhabited by the Herero people, and we saw a number of roadside stalls selling crafts, fruit and vegetables. We stopped by a couple and asked permission to take photos which was readily granted. As we didn’t want to buy any of their wares (the most popular item is a doll dressed in the traditional Herero costume), we offered a small tip instead, which was accepted with a smile.

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Herero women

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Herero souvenir stalls

Although this is not the case in every region where the Herero live, in this part of central Namibia their dress was heavily influenced by Western culture during the colonial period and today the women’s dresses still approximate the styles of clothing worn by their German colonisers. It may seem strange that they continue to follow a custom once forced upon them, and long after those enforcing it have dropped these styles, but nowadays it is part of their traditions, and they wear them with pride.

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Herero women
(taken by Chris)

But while the general shape of the dress harks back to colonial times, with a full floor-length skirt and puffed sleeves, the fabrics are definitely African in both their colours and prints. And the most distinctive feature of their costume is solely their own tradition – a horizontal horned headdress, known as the otjikaiva. The Herero are cattle farmers who measure their wealth in cattle, and this headdress is worn out of respect for the cows.

Twyfelfontein

Twyfelfontein means ‘doubtful fountain’, so-called because the natural spring in this valley proved too unreliable for the farmers who settled here in the mid 20th century. To the indigenous Damara this place is Uri-Ais, ‘jumping fountain’.

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Path to the rock art at Twyfelfontein

Today the valley is famous for its many rock paintings (petrographs) and rock engravings (petroglyphs). Most of the engravings and probably all the paintings were made by Stone-age hunter-gatherers, some as much as 6,000 years ago. Later the San people (also known as Bushmen) occupied the valley and added more petroglyphs.

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Rock art at Twyfelfontein

Most of the images are either of animals or are hunting scenes, with the hunters using bows and arrows. The animals depicted include many you would expect to see here – rhinos, antelopes, zebras, giraffes, lions etc. But rather more surprising is the presence of a seal, given that the sea is around 100 kilometres away. Those ancient hunter-gatherers must have got around!

Other images are of geometric shapes, and these are the ones added by the Bushmen. They may relate to their herder groups or to shamanist rituals. Some of the animal images too are thought to be related to such rituals, as they seem to depict the transformation of humans into animals.

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Rock art at Twyfelfontein

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The valley was declared a national monument in 1952 to prevent the theft of the petroglyphs and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007. The site can only be visited with a local guide. Ours pointed out some of the best images, although we didn’t get to see the seal or any of the most famous shamanistic man-animals, which I only read about later. He also told us a bit about the history of the area and what the pictures tell us about the people who used to live there.

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Rock art at Twyfelfontein

Twyfelfontein Country Lodge

Our base for tonight was Twyfelfontein Country Lodge, very near the rock art site. Larger than the places we had stayed so far on the trip, it seemed to be popular with tour groups so as a couple travelling independently, we felt a little out of place. The dinner was served buffet style and was rather bland, in a partially open-air restaurant which was rather chilly, as was the bar – especially as we were the only people in the latter when we went for a post-dinner drink. Perhaps the tour groups were making their own amusements somewhere else?

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Twyfelfontein Lodge


On the plus side it had a small but very pleasant (if chilly) pool and by day-light the restaurant had great views over the surrounding countryside which we were able to enjoy the next morning from our breakfast table.

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Breakfast views

The Petrified Forest

Not far from Twyfelfontein is the Petrified Forest, our first stop after leaving the lodge. The name is a bit misleading as it is not exactly a forest which turned to stone, but rather a collection of enormous fossilized tree trunks about 280 million years old. It is thought that the trees were swept downstream by a large flood at the end of one of the Ice Ages and were covered by the alluvial sands also carried in the flood water. Without air the trees didn’t rot and decay, but instead, over millions of years, underwent silicification, whereby each cell is dissolved by silicic acid and replaced by quartz (silicic acid in its crystalline state). The surrounding sands meanwhile turned into sandstone, which has gradually been eroded away, exposing the trees.

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Petrified tree trunks

The tree trunks are scattered over a large area; some are pretty small, but others are huge – two of them are 45 metres long and 6 metres in circumference. They are estimated to be about 280 million years old. Altogether about 50 individual trees can be seen, some half buried on the rock or soil, others lying on the surface. There are also many small stones which, on close inspection, turn out to be petrified wood too.

This is also a good place to see the amazing Welwitschia Mirabilis plants. These are as amazing as the name suggests. An adult Welwitschia consists of two leaves, a stem base and roots. That is all! Its two permanent leaves are unique in the plant kingdom. They are the original leaves from when the plant was a seedling, and they just continue to grow and are never shed. They are leathery, broad, and lie on the ground becoming torn to ribbons and tattered with age. And boy do these plants age! Their estimated lifespan is 400 to 1500 years, while some of the larger specimens are thought to be 2000 years old. So these aren't the prettiest plants you'll see, but they are interesting and worth capturing on camera.

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Welwitschia and petrified tree trunk

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To our surprise there was no admission charge to visit the Petrified Forest (possibly that has changed since our visit), but as at Twyfelfontein hiring a guide was compulsory and of course you must tip them – they rely on these tips as their income. However, as we discovered, they can be quite creative in maximising that income:

Our guide told us about his life looking after elderly relatives on a farm a couple of miles away. He pointed out the farm and the rough walk he had to take to and from the house several times a day. As we walked and talked, he carved a Malakani nut. We’d been offered these elsewhere, and resisted, but this one was very well done, with a number of animals and my name, so we agreed to buy it in addition to giving him a good tip. When we returned to the car-park he took us aside to pay for the nut, away from the view of the official souvenir stall. And the spot he chose to complete the transaction was ...

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Chris with the guide, watching him carve the nut

... beside his own very good car. So much for the long daily walks in the hot sun! But it made a good story, and as I said, it was a beautifully carved nut, which still hangs in my kitchen to remind me of Namibia.

Our accommodation for the next two nights, Huab Lodge, lies almost directly north of Twyfelfontein and the Petrified Forest, but to reach it on roads suitable for our 2WD we had to take a more circuitous route, arriving mid-afternoon. But with so much to see and do at Huab, that is best left for my next entry ...

Posted by ToonSarah 08:26 Archived in Namibia Tagged art people desert culture history hotel plants africa namibia geology costume seals customs Comments (17)

Our stay at Huab Lodge

Namibia Days Eight to Ten


View Namibia road trip 2004 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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At Huab Lodge

We arrived at Huab Lodge quite hot and dusty after our morning visit to the Petrified Forest and a long drive on Namibia’s gravel roads. And straight away we knew we were somewhere special. This was one of our real ‘splurge’ choices on this trip and it was worth it. Here’s what I wrote for my Virtual Tourist review:

A visit here is more like visiting friends than staying in a hotel. Yes, it's expensive, but if you can afford it it's unmissable! The rooms are fantastic, with huge picture windows with a view of the Huab River (dry for most of the year). Even the showers come with a view (the rooms can't be overlooked by anyone apart possibly by a stray elephant or kudu). The lodge itself is beautifully designed, completely in keeping with the surrounding countryside. There's a natural hot spring, a small pool and a hide for bird-watching. Apart from the birds and the chance of seeing the elusive desert elephants (we weren't lucky) the wildlife isn't as great as elsewhere in Namibia, but don't let that put you off.

What really makes a stay here special are the people. Jan and Suzi will make you so welcome you won't want to leave! Jan is so knowledgeable about the local environment. He can imitate all the birds, identify animals at a glance, and will describe in detail how he and Suzi have restored this former farm-land and given it back to the wildlife. And in the evenings, everyone eats together by candlelight at the long table in the lodge. The food is fantastic and is washed down with a selection of fine wines, lovingly presented by Jan.

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Our room

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Chris on our terrace

On this first afternoon, we had a chat to Jan over a welcome cold drink and discussed what activities we were interested in. At his suggestion, after settling into our lovely bungalow, we headed out with him on a drive around the property. As we drove, he told us more about the land. When he and Suzi bought it in the early 1990s, it had been in use for commercial farming for some time. The farmers had fenced it in, driving away the desert elephants that habitually roam this region and turning them from their traditional migration routes. Other animals had been hunted (the Huab website says that, ‘Some of the previous land-owners shot every animal in sight to make biltong’) and what little water flows here had been diverted to the crops rather than the water-holes on which wildlife relies.

Dismayed by what was happening here Jan and Suzi bought three of the farms along the Huab River. They pulled down the fences and restored the waterholes, to encourage the animals to return. Their aim was to create a private nature reserve which would act as a buffer zone for the desert elephants in particular, and wild animals in general, between the conflicting farming interests. By gradually returning the land to its original condition through anti-erosion measures, and operating a strict hands-off and no-shooting policy, they brought about significant changes.

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Huab Lodge bungalows
(from their website, which I trust as I am recommending the place they will forgive!)

They started to take in paying guests – initially at a simple rest camp, then at the luxury lodge they built here. The proceeds paid for more improvements to the land and they set up the Huab Conservation Trust which financed the purchase of ten giraffes and eight ostriches. But unlike other reserves, Huab isn’t fenced, so these animals and others are free to roam where they want. Their intention in reintroducing game is not to fence it in and manage it for a selected few, but to assist nature in restocking itself.

And it’s working. The numbers of species such as kudu, oryx and mountain zebra are growing and the elephants now sometimes pass through, following their ancient paths, although we weren’t lucky enough to see them.

Jan also told us lots about the different trees we passed, including the bottle tree, Pachypodium lealii. These striking trees are distinguished by their thick bottle-shaped trunk, which is almost branchless until the top. The branches are few and covered with thorns up to a foot long. The flowers appear in the spring, when the tree is leafless, which is why they look so dramatic. Jan told us it was quite unusual to find a tree with as many blooms as this so early in the spring (i.e. mid July).

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Bottle tree in bloom

The Bottle tree is an endemic species of Namibia, growing in semi-desert areas and dry bush, especially Damaraland. Jan described how local people have traditionally used the latex as arrow poison for hunting. In contact with the eyes this latex can produce blindness.

I also liked the white bark of the Mountain Chestnut glowing in the late afternoon light.

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Mountain chestnut tree

Back at the lodge we freshened up and went to dinner in the large main building called the Lapa. It is a large open-sided space, partly built into a granite outcrop and covered by an enormous thatch roof which echoes the shape of a nearby mountain. The meal was served ‘family style’, with all the guests sitting at one long table with Jan and Suzi. Before the meal the menu was presented to us by the chef in her mother tongue, Damara, which intriguingly for us is one of the so-called click languages, helpfully followed by an English translation. Jan then introduced his recommended selection of wines for the evening – both these and our meals were included in our stay. The food was excellent and afterwards we went out on to the verandah with Jan while he pointed out some of the stars and planets, using his telescope for another look at Jupiter and his moons.

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Huab Lodge Lapa at night
(again from their website)

Over dinner we had discussed plans for tomorrow with Jan. The other guests were leaving, and new ones arriving, so we were the only ones accepting his suggestion that we join him on an early morning walk around the property – something he does every morning to check all is well. With that in mind we didn’t linger too long after dinner but headed back to our lovely bungalow to enjoy a comfortable night’s sleep.

Sunrise walk at Huab

We were up early as planned and were glad of the hot coffee served by the Lapa before leaving on our walk with Jan. We set out in the half-light of dawn. It was still pretty chilly so warm clothes were needed. Of course Jan knows this land intimately and as we walked was looking for any signs that all might not be well, but thankfully it was.

We followed the dried-up river-bed for part of the walk and Jan described to us the very different scene in the wet season when for a few short weeks the water (usually) flows through the farm. We also climbed a small outcrop for a wonderful view of the sunrise.

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Huab sunrise

Jan is an expert on the local birds, as on so much else, so was able to tell us which birds we could hear in the bush and even imitate them to encourage more calls and singing.

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Landscape near Huab

Heading back to the Lodge Jan took us up the hill behind the accommodation bungalows and showed us the extensive solar panel system and small generator that keep all the buildings supplied with light and hot water. We arrived back at the main building just as breakfast was being served, a wonderful spread: home-made breads, fruit, various meats, cereals etc – all served on the terrace under what is by then a beautifully warm sun.

We then decided to have a relaxing rest of the day, enjoying the lodge facilities and surroundings. We took books, cameras and binoculars to the hot spring a short walk away, where Jan and Suzi have built a stone shelter and added comfortable seating. We enjoyed a dip in the springs followed by a laid-back couple of hours, although we didn’t spot any passing wildlife.

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At the hot pool

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Helmeted guinea fowl

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Grey Go-away bird?

I did manage to get a decent photo of a Helmeted Guineafowl and a very poor one of what I think may be a Grey Go-away bird, based on a photo I took of one years later in Botswana: https://toonsarah.travellerspoint.com/239/ (unfortunately I wasn’t interested enough in birds back then to have noted its name anywhere).

A black eagle chick changes our plans

By dinner time the new guests had arrived – a woman a little older than us, her adult son, and her brother. As we all ate, they were naturally discussing with Jan their plans for the following day. We were due to leave after breakfast so had no such plans to make, but were interested listeners. The conversation turned to eagles and Jan mentioned that a pair of black eagles was nesting on the property. The nest was high on a cliff face, but he had climbed up a couple of times to check all was well. Last time he was there the egg looked almost ready to hatch and the new baby should have arrived by now. By the way, he did reassure us that unlike other eagles, black eagles won't desert a nest that has been visited, hence his regular trips to check up.

The woman asked if this was something they could see tomorrow and was told yes, if you’re able to make the climb. She assured Jan that she was, as was her son, while the brother said he would be happy to relax at the lodge while they went. I was sensing that Chris was a bit disappointed that we were leaving and wouldn’t be able to join them on this adventure, when suddenly Suzi asked if we’d like to stay until after lunch so that we could do so. With only a fairly short drive to our next destination of course we accepted the invitation. This is one example of why I said in my review that staying here was more like staying with friends as that’s just the sort of thing a friend might do – ‘Stay for lunch, don’t rush away, there’s something interesting happening this morning’. How many hotel owners do the same?

[Incidentally, I’ve read in recent reviews that although Jan and Suzi still own Huab Lodge they are no longer so actively involved in running it, and guests no longer get these personal touches, nor is the guiding quite so good now Jan has stepped back from that too.]

Jan suggested that, instead of waiting at the lodge as he had planned, the brother/uncle might like to come along for the ride and wait at the foot of the cliff, something I was also keen to do (no way could I climb a cliff face!) So we stayed below to watch and take photos of the climb, while Chris and the others started up the cliff.

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The climb to the eagles' nest

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Seen near the eagles' nest

The nest was perched on a rocky ledge high above the dried-up Huab River and wasn't easy to reach. Once up there they could no longer see it, but Jan had left me with a walkie-talkie and using that I could direct them from below so that they went up past the nest at a little distance and then approached quietly from above. The climbers’ efforts were repaid by some stunning views of the young chick, who was about seven weeks old and already the size of a hen. Obviously all the photos here were taken by Chris or others of the party!

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View from the eagles' nest
(taken by Chris)
~ you can see the lodge's jeep and perhaps just make out the figures of the uncle and me beside it?

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Jan & Chris by the eagles' nest

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Chris by the eagles' nest

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Baby eagle chick, 7 weeks old
(by Chris)

We learnt later that the chick continued to thrive and took to the skies a few months later, none the worse for the invasion of his privacy!

Meanwhile we headed back to the lodge for a lunch of spaghetti and a useful chat with Suzi who suggested a better route to Etosha, our next stop, than that proposed by our tour company. So with the route mapped out we loaded the car and somewhat reluctantly said goodbye to Huab and our wonderful hosts!

Posted by ToonSarah 11:01 Archived in Namibia Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises trees birds road_trip wildlife hotel africa namibia eagles Comments (16)

Game viewing in Etosha

Namibia Days Ten to Twelve


View Namibia road trip 2004 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Signpost in Etosha National Park

We had spent the morning visiting the black eagle chick in his nest at Huab Lodge and not left until after lunch, but following Suzi’s recommended short cut we arrived at Etosha National Park in good time.

We had our first exciting sighting on the road between the park entrance and our accommodation, when I spotted a rhino quite a long way off on our left. The sun was already quite low in the sky and the rhino was backlit, but we managed to get a couple of passable photos.

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Rhino, late afternoon sun

Okaukuejo Camp

When planning this trip we had the choice of staying inside the park in one of several government-run rest camps (with fairly basic chalet style accommodation) or outside in more up-market lodges with organised game drives included. We chose the former – partly because we needed to balance the books as some of our other choices were splurges, and partly because we quite liked the idea of exploring on our own.

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Warthogs fighting on the lawn at Okaukuejo Camp

Our choice was Okaukuejo Camp because of its good location on the south side of the park near the gate where we arrived, Ombika. This is the oldest tourist camp in Etosha. Our room was in a chalet, reminiscent of the old British holiday camps, and wasn’t particularly well-equipped, although I guess things could have improved since 2004. It was especially short on blankets, which in the chilly July nights was a major draw-back!

On this first day we only had time to settle into that sparse chalet (no photos as this was pre-VT days and I had no interest in photographing such dull accommodation!) and go to dinner. Here we found the other down-side of Okaukuejo – meals were self-service in a large dining hall that had all the atmosphere of a school canteen, and the quality of the food was a bit patchy, although the meat was pretty good. One nice thing though was that some local children came to perform songs and dances during the meal.

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Evening entertainment

After dinner we went to the camp’s main attraction, a permanent waterhole which is floodlit at night and attracts a fair amount of game. This is the centre of camp nightlife! Everyone gathers round the hole after dark to see what animals are visiting. We were thrilled to see a mother and baby rhino this evening, although it was too dark (despite those floodlights) to take photos of them, at least with the limited equipment we had back then.

The next morning we were up early for an equally dull buffet breakfast, the compensation being spotting some oryx down at the waterhole.

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The camp waterhole with oryx

Etosha National Park

The best time for game viewing in Etosha National Park is from May to September, the cooler months in Namibia, and as we were there in July we hoped to see plenty of animals. I’d read that visitors can usually expect to see antelope, elephant, giraffe, rhino and lions, and in our short stay we managed to see all of these (although the lions only at night). Apparently, some lucky visitors also see leopard and cheetah, but we didn’t find any here, although we were to see the latter a few days later at Okonjima. There is a good network of roads linking the rest camps and various waterholes and other game viewing spots, all of which are navigable with a regular saloon car, so driving yourself is a possibility here as an alternative to guided game drives.

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Wildebeest obeying the sign on our car window
(the sign is there to remind tourists to drive on the left, hardly a problem for us!)

So as soon as we’d finished our breakfast, we set off on our independent game drive. A detailed map showed us what roads were accessible to us, all of which were on the southern edge of the great salt pan, plus waterholes, viewpoints, picnic area etc. We mapped out a route that would take us quite close to the far end, with several detours off to promising-sounding waterholes.

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Zebras

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Another zebra
(taken by Chris)

Etosha Game Park was declared a National Park in 1907. It covers an area of 22 270 square km, and while it isn’t as abundant with game as some of the more famous parks on the African continent, it is home to 114 mammal species, 340 bird species, 110 reptile species, 16 amphibian species and one species of fish.

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Springbok

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Ostrich

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Wildebeest

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More wildebeest

Etosha means ‘Great White Place’, and the name suits the landscape, which is dominated by a massive mineral pan. This covers around 25% of the National Park and was originally a lake fed by the Kunene River. However, the lake dried up when the course of the river changed thousands of years ago. The pan is now a large dusty depression of salt and dusty clay which fills only if the rains are heavy and even then only holds water for a short time. But the springs and water-holes which remain along the edges of the pan attract large concentrations of wildlife and birds, and are the prime spots for viewing game.

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Waterhole with zebras, springboks and elephants
~ what looks like the sea beyond is the pan

Exploring the park

Our day is pretty much a blur now, writing so long after the event, but I know from my VT review and what photos I could find (as I said in my intro, the 35mm slides I know I took have somehow ‘disappeared’ from our collection) that we saw we saw lots of zebra, giraffe, wildebeest, several different species of antelope, a herd of elephants and a few ostriches.

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Ostrich, and oryx

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Giraffes

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Ground squirrel at our lunch stop

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Zebra crossing!

My favourites are always the elephants, and towards the end of the afternoon we found a large herd at a water-hole – definitely the highlight of our self-made game drive for me!

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Elephants at a waterhole

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Sunset at the waterhole

In the evening we watched the sunset over a beer by the camp’s waterhole, and after another uninspiring buffet meal returned to the viewing terrace from where we were excited to see a lion come down to drink, although again too dark to take photos. An exciting end to the day’s game viewing and our short stay at Etosha.

Tomorrow we would head to our final lodge in Namibia, and one of the best!

Posted by ToonSarah 08:27 Archived in Namibia Tagged animals birds sunset wildlife hotel elephants africa safari zebra namibia national_park giraffes salt_flats etosha Comments (14)

With the Africat cheetahs

Namibia Days Twelve to Fourteen


View Namibia road trip 2004 on ToonSarah's travel map.

After two nights in Etosha National Park we left to drive south to our final destination in Namibia, Okonjima Lodge. And we had left one of the best till last!

On the way we stopped in the town of Outjo to fill up with petrol and check emails and news at an internet café (this was before the days of smart phones and wifi everywhere). Of course we took a few photos too!

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Panorama shot (stitched) of Outjo

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In Outjo

Okonjima Lodge

We arrived at Okonjima around lunch time and were welcomed and shown to our room. This was in an individual round adobe hut, beautifully decorated and with part of the wall cut away and covered with a canvas flap so that we could ‘let the outside in’. Bird food was provided so that we could encourage them to visit our little ‘patio’ with its small bird bath– a family of ptarmigans visited us soon after our arrival!

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Door to our room, and seating area

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Our room

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Feeding the birds

The large main building or lapa is apparently shaped like a Camelthorn pod. It is open-sided and overlooks a lawn and beyond it a waterhole.

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Okonjima Lodge

But the star attraction for us on this first afternoon was the resident semi-wild lynx, Pixie. She was tame enough to hang around the lodge and tolerated people but we were warned not to try to pet her as she was pretty aggressive when upset.

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Chris photographing Pixie

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Pixie
(image on the right taken by Chris)

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Pixie

The Africat Foundation

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Tracking the cheetahs

Late afternoon it was time for us to head out on our first activity here, a visit to the Africat Foundation. This is a non-profit organisation, based at Okonjima. It is devoted to the conservation of cheetahs and leopards, rescuing animals that have been trapped by local farmers; providing humane housing, treatment and care for orphaned and injured animals; educating visitors and local people, especially farmers and school-children, about the animals they protect.

They provide a home and care for animals that cannot at present be released back into the wild, often orphaned cubs that are too young to cope on their own. These have either been captured without their mothers or their mothers have been killed. Others are animals that have been in captivity elsewhere and have become habituated to people or completely tame, making them unsuitable for release.

Most of the cheetahs and leopards that have suffered injuries are returned to the wild after recuperation, but in cases where the injuries have been too extensive, the cats have had to remain in captivity. The animals are housed in spacious enclosures of between five and four hundred acres in a natural, stress-free environment.

On our visit we went first to see the clinic and food preparation area, and then went into the cheetahs’ huge enclosure in jeeps which were delivering their food (very large and bloody joints of game!) I’d imagined that we’d be lucky to spot a few cheetahs in the distance but that wasn’t the case at all. The rangers can identify roughly whereabouts in the enclosure the cheetahs currently are, as they are all radio-collared. And once the jeeps are close to them there is no need to search further, we discovered, as they have learned to associate the noise of the vehicles with food and soon came running towards us.

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Some of the cheetahs

It was a fantastic experience to see how fast and how beautifully they run, and then to be able to watch them from such a close distance – at times only a metre from the jeep.

Back at the lodge we enjoyed an excellent dinner followed by a night-cap while sitting around the large (and necessary!) fire in the lounge area of the lapa.

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Getting warm!

Bush walk

We were up early on the following morning for another of Okonjima’s popular activities, a ‘Bushman walk’. An early morning snack consisting of tea or coffee and muffins was available at the lapa before we set out, wrapped up warmly against the morning chill. With our guide we followed an easy trail around the surrounding property. The guide stopped in various pre-arranged spots to describe an aspect of the San bushman’s life, such as fire-making, hunting, trapping etc. Although he wasn’t a bushman himself, he had lived with a San tribe in the north for about a year while studying and could tell us lots of interesting stories about his time there.

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Fire-lighting the bushman way
~ twisting a thin stick quickly in a hole in a larger stick to create sparks

The walk lasted about 90 minutes and we got back to the lodge in time for brunch. This was a substantial meal of maize porridge, muesli and other breakfast cereals, fruit, yoghurt, salami, cheeses and bread, followed by eggs, sausage or bacon. Brunch was served daily at Okonjima instead of a conventional lunch and we were certainly glad of it after our early start!

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Kudo on the law

We spent much of the day relaxing at the lodge, making the most of what was our last full day in Namibia. Between a dip in the pool, a walk around the grounds, taking more photos of Pixie and enjoying sitting outside our bungalow watching for birds, we were kept very happily occupied.

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The waterhole during the afternoon and at sunset

Local nightlife

After dinner everyone wrapped up warmly for a short drive to a hide that the lodge has set up for visitors to view two rather special local animals. On arrival we were reminded to keep very quiet as we all filed into the space. Torches were provided so that we could see where we were going. Everyone was seated on a long bench, and when we were all in place our torches are switched off and the flaps covering the window slots were lifted. The guides put raw meat in a clearing just in front of us, and we waited …

The porcupines were first to arrive – three or four of them came snuffling out of the surrounding trees and nosed around the meat for a while. We all took photos and the flashes didn’t seem to bother them at all – the guide explained that they probably think it’s lightening. But you will need a good flash to get a photo - mine were a little disappointing so I borrowed an image from the lodge website, with permission.

After a while the porcupines left, just as the honey badgers arrived. Just one at first, then a couple more. These aren’t anything like the shy, cuddly British badger, being notorious for their strength, ferocity and toughness. In fact I read a description of them as the fiercest animals, for their size, in the whole of Africa. Perhaps that’s why the porcupines left!

Again, my photos weren’t successful, so here is a copyright free image found online.

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Honey badger

After an hour or so watching and enjoying, it was time to go back to the lodge to get warm by the roaring fire, and a welcome warming drink. A great last evening in Namibia.

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In the bar

Time to go home

The next morning, after another good brunch, we packed up the car for the fairly short drive back to Windhoek. We had some time to spare so drove into the centre for a look around. This isn’t the daunting adventure the drive into some capitals would be as Windhoek is relatively small and quiet. We had already learned, while in Swakopmund, the best way to park in a town centre in Namibia. Local people, usually young men, hover by the kerb ready to approach you as soon as you step out of the car, in order to offer to look after it. If you accept, you’re charged a small fee and a slip of paper is tucked under the wiper to indicate that ‘this car is being watched, so meddle with it at your peril’. At times three or four people were competing for our custom in this way.

We didn’t find out what would happen to your car, if anything, if you refused these offers as we never did. We were conscious that:
a) this fee may be his main or only source of income
b) it was still a lot cheaper than parking in most cities around the world
c) it was a lot less hassle than a damaged or stolen hire car would have been!

We didn’t have much time for sightseeing, so we just strolled around a bit and went into a couple of shops. If I remember rightly, we bought some coffee to take home as gifts (I may be wrong about that detail – I didn’t note it at the time, and it was almost sixteen years ago!)

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Shop sign on a wall in Windhoek

All too soon it was time to drive to the airport, forty kilometres east of the city centre, and hand in our hire car. To our relief nothing was said about the few extra scratches it had acquired during the past fortnight. I guess minor scratches are to be expected driving on those gravel roads and only more significant damage is considered an issue.

We flew home to London via Johannesburg as on our outward journey. It was an overnight flight which is always tiring, but we were grateful for two things – firstly, that there is no jet lag travelling south to north like that, and secondly that it was July so we weren’t transitioning from a hot climate to a cold one!

Writing this sixteen years later I still look back on this as one of our best trips ever, and would love to return to Namibia … one day perhaps.

Posted by ToonSarah 09:00 Archived in Namibia Tagged animals night road_trip wildlife hotel flight africa namibia kalahari customs big_cats Comments (10)

‘Stone Fortress’: Uzbekistan’s modern capital

Uzbekistan day one


View Uzbekistan 2007 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Tashkent

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Khast Imam Square, Tashkent

There has been a city here for over 2,000 years, its position on a junction of the Silk Road, advantageous geographical location and favourable climate making it a centre for trade from ancient times. Tashkent (the name means ‘stone fortress’) became a Muslim city in the 8th century AD, was part of Ghenghis Khan’s empire in the 13th century, an important commercial centre during the Middle Ages and from the mid 19th century part of the Russian empire.

Today it is a largely modern city, thanks mainly to the devastation caused by a huge earthquake in 1966. It is often overlooked for this reason, and certainly doesn’t have the wealth of attractions of the Silk Road cities, but there are some monuments and other sights worth visiting.

Flying to Tashkent

Tashkent’s airport is located only 7 km from the city centre, and handles both international and domestic flights. We arrived here at 3.30 AM after a long journey, having had to change from a direct Uzbekistan Airlines flight to an Aeroflot one via Moscow only a few weeks before our holiday. This was apparently because the European Union refused to renew Uzbekistan Airlines’ license on safety grounds – a decision which after our domestic flight with them to Khiva I fully understood!

The flight was fine – new planes for both legs, punctual, but with unappetising catering and a too-long wait at Moscow Airport. But landing at that time of day after a long flight is never fun, and we found the customs and security procedures particularly tiresome as well as tiring. I decided that the quality you need most in dealing with these is patience, followed closely by sharp elbows! Once through passport control (which we found slow but not unreasonably so), we had to collect our bags from the conveyer belt, and even though we had arrived in the middle of the night on what appeared to be the only flight, we had to wait some time.

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Tashkent Airport
~ photos were strictly forbidden, but I only found that out
after taking this one while we waited
for our fellow passengers in the transfer bus!

Our next task was to fill in the customs declaration form in duplicate. A number of small tables were provided for this purpose at the airport, with racks of the forms on each. Most of the forms were in Russian but were a few in English and grabbing these made our task much easier.

When we’d completed the forms, we could proceed to the customs queue. I say ‘queue’ but in practice we found a crowd of people all pushing forwards to get through a narrow gap! Many of these were evidently locals who’d been shopping for electrical and other goods in Moscow (where we’d had to change planes) and therefore had a large number of bags and boxes. All baggage was scanned at this point, so progress was slow. I’m afraid at five in the morning after a long journey we weren’t feeling too charitable, but we eventually got to the front by dint of joining up with our fellow tourist passengers to form a wider barrier to prevent queue-jumping!

We eventually made it through and outside almost an hour and a half after landing. Luckily the airport is very close to the city centre and as we were travelling with a group we were met by our local guide Marat, who was to prove an excellent host, and were whisked to our hotel where we finally made it to bed at 5.45 AM.

That late arrival meant that we didn’t really get the best out of our visit to Tashkent. We only had one day here, and not getting to bed the previous day until 5.45 AM was not the best preparation for a day’s sightseeing! Add to that our first taste of the hot Uzbek summer sun, and you can see why I managed not to take so many pictures as usual nor visit as many sights as I would have liked.

One consolation is that Tashkent was certainly the least interesting of our four stops on the Silk Road, although it had its charms, including the best meal we had on this trip (also as it happens our first, so it set high expectations that were sadly never fulfilled!)

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Traditional teapot and bowl on display at our Tashkent hotel

But I am getting ahead of myself. First, a bit about our hotel (not that we saw that much of it!) We stayed in the Grand Raddus, which was fine for our needs but which I see these days gets very poor reviews. On VT I wrote:

‘This is a comfortable small three star hotel in a good location to the south of the city centre. It’s particularly convenient for the airport – a big plus when your flight arrives at 3.30 in the morning, and you need to check in for the departure to Urgench at 6.00 AM the next day! The staff speak some English and are friendly and helpful. There is a pleasant courtyard with a small pool (which we didn’t find the time to try).

Our room wasn’t large but was clean and nicely decorated, although I smiled to see the painting of the sea above the bed in this double land-locked country. We had a TV (didn’t try that either!), safe and should apparently have had a minibar, but unfortunately ours seemed have been removed for repair, which was a shame as it meant we also didn’t get the promised complimentary bottled water. The bathroom was also nice, and well-provided with large (for a 3* hotel) towels, but less so with toiletries, and the shower cubicle would have given anyone larger than us some difficulties as the entrance was very narrow.

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Breakfast room

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Pool

The included buffet breakfast is served in a dining room with plasma screen TV showing Uzbek MUTV (thankfully with no sound!) or if you’re lucky a news channel. We had bread, cheese, cold meats, sausage, eggs, porridge, refreshing apple juice (had to ask for this on the second day as none had been put out), watermelon, dried fruits and nuts, plus instant coffee.

The hotel is just off the main road in a quiet and very safe-feeling residential neighbourhood. We went for a short walk to explore and were greeted with friendly smiles. It was good to get a sense of the styles of housing and way of life here. We also felt very safe walking back from the Caravan Restaurant in the evening, even after dark.’

So that’s all good – but it must have gone seriously downhill since then from all I read, as recent reviews are poor.

After breakfast we set off on our included tour of the city, which took us to several of the main sights, and despite my tiredness from the previous day’s journey I managed to enjoy the tour a lot.

Earthquake Memorial: the Monument of Courage

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The Earthquake Memorial

As I mentioned above, Tashkent was struck by a huge earthquake (7.5 on the Richter scale) on 26th April 1966. Casualties were relatively low for such a catastrophe – the weather was already hot and many people were sleeping in their gardens rather than inside the old houses which were easily destroyed by the force of the quake. But the city itself was devastated – 300,000 were left homeless, and many traditional old buildings, both humble and grand, were destroyed. A massive re-building programme was initiated by the Soviet government, which explains the heavy use of concrete and grandiose style of architecture in much of the city (some old houses do though still remain in the western part).

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The Earthquake Memorial
~ you can see the crack on the left, while Chris, on the right, provides a sense of the scale

This memorial commemorates the bravery of the ordinary people of the city. A granite cube displays the exact time of the first tremor, 5.22 AM, and a dramatic crack runs across the paving to illustrate its effect. Above the crack a man, considerably larger than life, holds up a hand as if to protect his wife and child cowering behind him. Around the area of the monument names commemorating those who died are carved on the wall.

This is a popular place for wedding photos – we arrived just too late to include a wedding party in our pictures (we spotted them leaving), but the bouquet had been left, rather poignantly, on the granite cube.

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The granite cube with the bride's bouquet

Khast Imam Square

On the edge of the old town lies a group of religious buildings, several of them dating originally from the 16th century, though much restored. The complex acts as the religious headquarters for Islam in Uzbekistan and the on-going restoration work when we were here symbolised the country’s revival of interest in and commitment to its faith, though the number of actively practising Muslims was (and I believe still is) quite low.

On the western side is the Barak Khan Madrassah, founded by a descendent of Tamerlaine and decorated with blue mosaic and inscriptions from the Koran. This was our first introduction to the style of architecture that was to dominate our journey along the Silk Road, and although not as impressive as the sights of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, it is still a striking building. It is the administrative centre for the mufti of Uzbekistan, the head of Islam, and as such cannot usually be visited by tourists (although our city guide did ask, and told us that occasionally she is granted permission).

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Curious children in Khast Imam Square
~ the Barak Khan Madrassah is in the background

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Reconstruction work at the Barak Khan Madrassah

Facing the madrassah across the large open space is the Tellya Sheikh Mosque, from the same period, which now acts as the city’s Juma (Friday) mosque. The mosque itself is also out of bounds to tourists.

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The Tellya Sheikh Mosque

The remaining buildings are the Abu Bakr Mohammed Kaffal Shashi Mausoleum, which was built over the grave of a local doctor, philosopher and poet, and on the southern side of the square the former Namazgokh Mosque, a more recent 19th century addition to the complex which now houses the Imam Ismail al-Bukhari Islamic Institute.

Muyi Muborak Library and the Osman Koran

This library, part of the Khast Imam Square complex, houses an important collection of Islamic texts. Muyi Muborak means sacred hair', a reference to a holy relic held here: a hair which is said to have belonged to the Prophet Muhammad himself.

According to the Lonely Planet guidebook at the time, only male tourists were allowed in to the collection, but to my delight we found that information to be out of date, at least in respect of the star attraction. A room has recently been specially restored to display this, the Osman Koran, which is considered to be the oldest extant Koran in the world, written on deerskin.

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The replica of the Osman Koran
in Bukhara Ark

Said to date from 655 (although this has been challenged by experts who put it as more likely from the 8th or 9th century) and stained with the blood of murdered caliph Osman, it was brought by Tamerlaine to Samarkand and displayed on the huge stone lectern in the Bibi Khanum Mosque there (which we were to visit later in the trip). It was seized by the Russians and taken to Saint Petersburg but returned to Uzbekistan after the Russian Revolution and since 1989 has been housed in this library. It now takes centre stage in this small room, displayed in a glass cabinet on a raised platform. To view it you must remove your shoes, and photography is strictly forbidden. But there is a replica in the Ark in Bukhara, which we also saw later in the trip.

The imam/librarian told us (through our guide as translator) that the Koran had been restored with assistance from experts at the British Library, and that his daughter is now in London studying these techniques. The photography ban supposedly extends to the whole room, so when Chris asked for, and was given, permission to take a picture of the imam he gestured to the door, planning to photograph him in the entrance. However the man was adamant that the picture should be taken inside and with the Koran in its case in the background, as you can see.

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The imam and our guide Natasha in front of the Koran
[taken by Chris]

The imam asked if we could get in touch with his daughter to give her a copy of the photo; I later made email contact with her, hoping to meet up with her in London, but unfortunately she never responded. However, the experience of seeing this wonderful old document was really enhanced for me by meeting and talking to this man so committed to the collection in his care.

Abdul Khasim Madrassah

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Young Koran stand carver at the Abdul Khasim Madrassah

This 19th century madrassah, greatly restored, was founded by a man famous for his ability to recite all of the Koran by heart, Abulkasym Eshon. He was a significant figure in Tashkent’s history, one of a group of prominent people of the city who gathered here in his madrassah to sign a Tashkent-Russian peace agreement in 1865. He funded the education of 150 pupils here every year, was respected as a wise and enlightened man to whom many came for advice.

I’m not sure what such a religious man would make of his seminary’s conversion to a crafts centre and souvenir-shopping destination. But if it’s any consolation to him, many of the objects on sale here are beautiful and the peaceful atmosphere of the courtyard has been retained.

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Painted box

As we were to see later in the trip at the Registan in Samarkand, each of the hajira (students’ cells) houses a different shop, but here the shops mostly double as workshops, so we could enjoy watching the craftsmen at work and could see the skill and techniques that went into creating the objects on sale.

We particularly admired the detailed miniature painting on the small papier maché boxes and bought a couple as gifts for family. They cost $11 for the pair, after haggling (starting price $7 each) – we may have got them even cheaper with more effort but we were very tired from our long journey, and in any case less than £6 for two beautifully hand-painted was enough of a bargain.

Other possibilities here are the traditional carved wooden Koran stands, walking sticks, wooden boxes, embroideries and rugs, musical instruments and silver knives.

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Artist's work-space

Applied Arts Museum

This is a lovely small museum, both for its collections and perhaps even more so for the building that houses it. This was built for a Russian diplomat, Alexandrovich Polovtsev, who so admired the architecture of the region that he had the best craftsmen from all over the country to build his residence.

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Main room and ceramics display at the Applied Arts Museum

The main hall has a decorative mihrab which points in the opposite direction to Mecca as Polovtsev was aiming for decorative, not functioning, Islam. Quotes from Omar Khayyam frame two doorways:
‘The world is a great caravanserai with two doors: one entrance and one exit. Every day new guests come to the caravanserai.’

The hall also has a central pool, while the courtyard has traditional verandas complete with colourful painted and carved columns.

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Courtyard, Applied Arts Museum

The highlights of the collection for me were the beautifully embroidered suzanni which we saw in the first room we entered.

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Suzanni

There is also an extensive collection of ceramics from different parts of the country; this is a good place to appreciate the varied styles and use of colours from each town, though you’ll need a guide to interpret this for you unless you speak sufficient Russian to read the various labels. I also liked the pottery water vessels – many of these get around the Islamic prohibition on living animal images by depicting evidently mythical beasts, or indicating that the animal is dead through slashes to its throat etc.

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Dragon water bottle

I had paid extra to take photos inside, which I found worthwhile. Other people in our group hadn’t bothered to pay and I think a few regretted it.

There were a couple of very good shops here, selling superior local crafts. I bought a beautiful purple silk scarf – dearer than those sold on the street stalls but of superior quality I felt. I am still wearing it regularly twelve years later!

After this it was back to the hotel for a short and much-needed rest.

Caravan Arts Café

This restaurant had been recommended to me by a friend, so I was pleased to discover that it was only about 15 minutes walk away from our hotel. The recommendation turned out to be spot-on (thanks Tom!) and we were very pleased with our evening out, despite being very tired after our long flight the day/night before and our first day’s sightseeing in the Uzbek heat.

We were joined by two others from our group, Sue and Georgina, having got friendly already during the long journey from London (it is these two group members with whom I am still in touch). On arrival we had a choice of sitting inside or out and chose a table in the pretty courtyard. We’d come early, about 6.00 PM (because we were planning on a much-needed early night) – later arrivals who hadn’t reserved a table had to sit inside as the courtyard ones were all taken. The first requirement was for cold beers all round, and we were quickly supplied with glasses of Shimkent, a pleasant-tasting beer from Kazakhstan. Our friendly waiter was very patient as we tried to decide what to eat – this was our first encounter with Uzbek food and despite some research before we went we weren’t at all sure what to order. Eventually we settled on sharing some samsas to start with (small pasties filled with meat or vegetables). Chris then chose a plate of manty (soft pasta-style dumplings filled with mutton and onions, often likened to ravioli but to me more like Chinese dim sum). I went for the stuffed peppers, Sue a Greek salad and Georgina a vegetable curry.

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With Georgina at the Caravan Arts Cafe [taken by Sue]

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Manty

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Vegetable curry

Just one small thing marred our otherwise very pleasant evening, albeit only slightly: our waiter had perhaps been too busy trying to please us with his helpfulness, and had forgotten to write down my order for the peppers, so I ended up eating my main course after the others had finished. Not to worry though – another beer helped pass the time, and when I’d caught up we ordered some desserts. My ‘Eastern sweets’ turned out to be a selection of dried fruits and nuts; we ate a few then packed up the rest to take out (they proved to be just what we needed a few days later on a long drive through the desert).

We walked back through the quiet streets to the hotel, ready for that early night. Tomorrow’s alarm was set for 5.00 AM as we had another plane to catch!

Posted by ToonSarah 08:01 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged food architecture mosque restaurant monument history hotel flight airport shopping city museum crafts uzbekistan tashkent silk_road Comments (16)

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