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Learning to drive in Namibia!

Namibia Day One


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

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Eningu Clay House Lodge

We landed at Windhoek’s small airport around midday and after clearing all the formalities and collecting our luggage we made our way to the car hire desk. Once our paperwork was checked we were escorted to the parking area. After taking advice from the tour company we had decided on a 2WD rather than 4WD vehicle – although we’d be driving on gravel roads for most of this trip we were assured all the ones on our route were manageable in a 2WD and as we had no experience of 4WD we felt trying to learn here would be the harder and potentially riskier option.

Before leaving we took our time checking the car thoroughly, as we’d been warned that we could be penalised for damage not already logged – damage that was all too likely on those gravel roads. We pointed out a few additional scratches not marked on the hire company’s record sheet and then signed for the car – it was time to hit the road!

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Welcome to Eningu Clay House Lodge

Chris had kindly ‘volunteered’ to do all the driving on this trip, so I was navigator. We had opted to spend our first night in a lodge that was relatively near the airport – around 70 kilometres away. For the first couple of these we were on tarmac but very soon we had to turn south on our first gravel road.

Fortunately there was very little traffic (as we were to find pretty much everywhere) so we could take our time, mindful of the advice we’d been given. The main points of this were to stick to under 50 kph and not to do anything (brake, change direction) too suddenly.

Just fifteen minutes into our drive we spotted a kudu – another reminder, if we’d needed it, that we were driving somewhere very different from home and needed to stay alert not only because of the road surfaces but also the very real risk of encountering animals on the roads. There are very few fences here, and the quietness of the roads means that animals are likely to regard them as a simple extension of their usual territory.

Eningu Clay House Lodge

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Our bungalow

We arrived at our destination unscathed after just over an hour’s driving and were immediately taken by the property. The rooms are in individual adobe buildings in attractive grounds on the edge of the Kalahari Desert which the lodge’s website describes accurately as ‘vast camel thorn savannah’.

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Inside our room

There was plenty of time left of the day to enjoy our surroundings. At our host Stephanie’s suggestion we went for a walk in the bush, accompanied by the lodge’s friendly Labrador dog Shaka. The walk led to a small lookout tower with views of the surrounding land.

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Chris in the grounds

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Chris with Shaka, and cacti in the grounds

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Toucan in the grounds

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Me at the lookout tower

When we got back I braved the small unheated swimming pool which was pretty chilly despite the heat of the day (it gets very cold here at night as we were soon to see) but very refreshing.

In the evening we had a delicious dinner served to us and the two other guests in front of a welcome open fire.

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A much-needed warm fire

After dinner we all went outside and Stephanie led us up onto the flat roof of the main building where there was a good telescope. Living in a city I was astounded by the number and brilliance of the stars – it was my first time star-gazing in such an unpolluted environment and I’d never seen anything quite as spectacular! We saw some of the brightest shooting stars I'd ever seen, and found three of Jupiter's moons through the telescope.

But July is winter in Namibia and here in the desert the nights are freezing, so after our time up on the roof we thoroughly enjoyed a glass of the local brandy in front of the fire, and were happy on returning to our room to find a hot water bottle in the bed. What a great start to our Namibian adventures!

Posted by ToonSarah 08:38 Archived in Namibia Tagged birds night desert road_trip hotel roads africa dogs namibia cacti kalahari 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)

On the road to Bukhara

Uzbekistan day three


View Uzbekistan 2007 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Breakfast in Khiva

Breakfast was served not in our Khiva hotel but in a restaurant in a nearby madrassah. No complaints about that though – the breakfast was fine, accompanied by pretty good coffee, and served in a striking interior which seemed to combine traditional styles of décor with Soviet-style exhortations celebrating the contribution of Khorezm province to the world of science!

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Our group at breakfast in the Matinya Madrassah

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Chris at breakfast

We ate bread, cheese, sausage, pancakes and jam, with drinking yoghurt, tea and the aforementioned coffee, plus some rather amusingly decorated biscuits with an image of the cartoon character Shrek embossed on each!

Today we had a long drive in front of us, but I was excited at the chance to travel by road and see something more of Uzbekistan than had been possible so far on this trip. We spent most of the day on the bus, so this will be a shorter entry - I can sense the relief of those of you who have waded through the previous one on Khiva

Talking of the bus, I was pleased when we climbed on board to find that it was air-conditioned, but that’s a relative term. This was a rather elderly European bus and having been designed for European summers it really struggled to cope with the 52 degrees we experienced on this drive!

In the heat of the day

Just as the bus was at its hottest, and we hit the day’s high of 52 degrees (according to Marat, our guide), we stopped in front of a small roadside chaikhana shaded (thankfully!) by trees – lunch-time!

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Roadside stop on the way to Bukhara

We scuttled across the sun-baked forecourt and into the shade, made use of the rather primitive ‘facilities’ and then lunched under the trees on non, salads and cold drinks. There was also an opportunity for a few photos of these local women who were happy to pose for me.

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Women at the roadside chaikhana

Crossing the Oxus

Soon after leaving our lunch place the road crossed the Oxus. This river flows to the north and east of Khiva and cuts off this corner of Khorezm province from the rest of Uzbekistan. It is properly known by the name of Amu Darya, but in ancient times it was the Oxus, one of those places you’ve heard of in old history lessons but never dreamed you would see (another was the Euphrates which we had seen some years previously in Syria). So I was thrilled to realise that to leave Khiva and drive to Bukhara we would have to cross the Oxus, and as we did so I grabbed a couple of photos.

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Crossing the Oxus

The bridge itself was unusual and thus also worth mentioning here. Our guide in fact told us it’s the only one of its kind in the world though I have no way of checking that. Its uniqueness stems from the fact that it is single track for both road vehicles and trains (i.e. one track for each).

We stopped a bit further down the road where there was a view of the river from above, although I would have welcomed a chance for a closer look than this.

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The Oxus

Arrival in Bukhara

We arrived in Bukhara late in the afternoon and were warmly welcomed at the Hotel Mosque Baland. This was probably my favourite of the hotels we stayed in during our trip round Uzbekistan. It’s a small, family-run affair, not much more than a B&B despite its grand name, situated in a residential street on the south western fringes of the old town, about 15 minutes’ walk from the Lyab-i-Hauz. Rooms are grouped around the typical Uzbek central courtyard. Ours was a good size, nicely decorated, clean and with a comfortable large double bed. We had a fridge to keep our water chilled, efficient air-conditioning and a TV we never got around to switching on.

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Courtyard of the Hotel Mosque Baland

One feature that both amused and slightly horrified me was to be found in the bathroom. The toilet had the most unusual seat I’ve come across, covered in a soft slightly fluffy fabric (such as you might use for a child’s pyjamas) adorned with cute cartoon mice (ditto). It seemed perfectly clean, but didn’t strike us as the most hygienic of decorative touches, especially in a country where regrettably foreign tourists do often have to spend more time than they would like in its vicinity ;)

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Our bedroom, and toilet!

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The family who ran the hotel were friendly and keen to be helpful although they spoke little English. They happily changed money for us, served green tea whenever it was wanted at no charge, and other drinks, including beer, at very reasonable ones.

Soon after arriving our group was invited to drink tea in the beautiful dining room of the hotel. This was decorated in typical Uzbek style, with ganch (carved alabaster) and niches displaying colourful ceramics, and was truly stunning. The family produced a beautiful cake for Georgina, whose birthday it was, to accompany our tea – somewhat to her embarrassment, as of course we then all sang ‘Happy Birthday’!

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Birthday cake for Georgina

Lyab-i-Hauz

Life in the old town of Bukhara centres around the Lyab-i-Hauz, both by day and at night. If you want to sense the heartbeat of this special city and immerse yourself in its soul, this is the place to be. Here you can for a while feel part of a way of life that stretches back through the centuries and defines Central Asian society and culture. For centuries people have come here to relax, drink tea at the chaikhanas, meet friends, do business, play backgammon – in short, to live. Nowadays the regular locals, in particular the aksakal or ‘white beards’, have been joined of course by groups of tourists, and the two cultures seemed to me to be mixing and enjoying the pleasures of Lyab-i-Hauz in harmony.

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Lyab-i-Hauz at night

The pool is an ancient one, dating back to 1629, and many of the mulberry trees which surround it are even older, having been planted in 1477. It was built as a reservoir of fresh water for the city, and water carriers would deliver large leather bags of its water to those citizens who could afford the service. It fell into disuse however, and for years was stagnant and infected with disease. We have the Soviets to thank for its restoration to the pleasant and tranquil waters we see today.

So we carefully followed the directions we had been given and found our way to this enchanting spot, which was to become one of my favourite memories of Bukhara. We were in search of dinner, but there was no hurry, and the light on some of the buildings around the pool was perfect for photography so that was my first priority.

Nadir Divanbegi Khanagha

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Nadir Divanbegi Khanagha

The building on the western side of the Lyab-i-Hauz is the Nadir Divanbegi Khanagha. A khanagha was a hostel for dervishes, with a mosque and cells for these holy men to live in, although you won’t be surprised to learn that this one now houses souvenir stalls.

It was built at the same time as the pool, early in the 17th century, by (as the name suggests) Nadir Divanbegi – a divanbegi being a sort of finance minister. There is a cautionary tale attached to the origins of the khanagha which our guide told us the next morning, but I include it here alongside my photos:

The Divanbegi’s wife complained that he went away too often and the presents he brought her were not valuable enough. On one occasion he brought earrings which she dismissed as a very poor gift. He asked his architect to take one of the earrings, sell it, and build whatever he could with the proceeds; this was the result. He then brought his wife to see it and said ‘See what I was able to build with just one of your earrings. Do you now still say it was worthless?’ And, according to our guide, the next thing he said, repeated three times as was necessary by law, was ‘I divorce you’.

The other buildings I photographed were the Magok-i-Attari Mosque and the Tok-i-Sarrafon or Money Changers’ Bazaar, the smallest and most southerly of the remaining great trading domes of Bukhara. We were to learn all about these tomorrow so I will say more about them then.

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Tok-i-Sarrafon

Dinner by Lyab-i-Hauz

Bukhara isn’t, or at least wasn’t back in 2007, a place for fancy restaurants but what its eating places lacked in the quality of their cuisine, they made up for in their setting and atmosphere. The place to eat was in one of the chaikhanas and restaurants that surround the pool of the Lyab-i-Hauz, which at night was especially lovely – the coloured lights strung in the trees were reflected in its waters and locals and tourists alike relaxed over a green tea or a cold beer, an ice cream or a grilled shashlik.

This first evening we ate in the chaikhana on the eastern side of the pool. The setting was great, the large beers refreshing after our hot day in the bus crossing the desert, and the bread excellent (more of a flaky pastry than what we could call bread, and different from any we had elsewhere in the country).

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Bukhara non and chicken shashlik

The chicken shashliks we both chose however were disappointing – they looked good but were fatty and bony, with very little meat on them. The price was reasonable but given how little we ate was not such good value as other meals we had in Uzbekistan. And I should mention that it was the morning after this meal that I experienced my first attack of ‘Uzbek tummy’, though I can’t be sure I caught it here of course.

Caravanserai Nughay

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Bukhara at night

After dinner I attempted a few night shots and we popped into the Caravanserai Nughay just south of Lyab-i-Hauz. This attractive old caravanserai now, inevitably, houses a number of handicraft and souvenir shops. We didn’t buy anything but enjoyed browsing around. The owners of the shops were welcoming without being too pushy (something that I found was generally the case in Uzbekistan). I was also really taken with the lovely appearance of the courtyard with each of the small shops glowing in the twilight and showing off the colourful textiles to great advantage.

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Caravanserai Nughay at night

As we strolled back to the hotel along quiet residential streets we were trailed by a small crowd of young children clamouring to be photographed. As soon as we gave in and agreed they arranged themselves in a tiered group in front of a nearby wall and posed laughing and waving. The only reward they sought was to see the photos afterwards (oh the joys of digital photography that allow this!) and to follow us giggling to the end of the street.

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Group of children in Bukhara

Back at the hotel we joined a few others from our group sitting on the dais in the courtyard, where we chatted about the day over a vodka (me) or beer (Chris).

Posted by ToonSarah 02:03 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged bridges night road_trip restaurant history hotel river uzbekistan bukhara khiva Comments (9)

More tales from Bukhara

Uzbekistan day four continued


View Uzbekistan 2007 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Carpet shop near Lyab-i-Hauz
- a reminder of Soviet times

I finished my previous post just as we arrived at the Lyab-i-Hauz during our tour of Bukhara. It was lunch-time, and as the meal wasn’t included in the tour, we split up to eat, or at least that was the plan. As it happened quite a few of us headed for the same restaurant, a chaikana on the north-western side of the pool. We found a table in the rather grandly decorated but cool interior, where air-conditioning providing welcome relief from the intense sun. We shared some salads, a basket full of great bread (both the flaky pastry and more usual varieties), sparkling water and Sprite.

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Our group in the restaurant

Khodja

We met up again with our guide by the statue of Khodja on the eastern side of the Lyab-i-Hauz. This bronze statue stands among the trees (so hard to photograph, or so I found) and depicts Khodja Nasreddin, the wise fool who features in so many stories of this region, riding his donkey. The donkey’s ears are shiny where children have clutched them as they scramble up to ‘ride’ with Khodja.

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Statue of Khodja, Lyab-i-Hauz

Our guide Marat loved to tell us Khodja stories to while away the long bus journeys between the Silk Road cities. Here’s one I remember:

One day a man tried to steal Khodja’s donkey, but he threatened the thief: ‘If you steal my donkey, I’ll have to do what my father did when someone stole his.’ The thief was frightened and ran away. Some bystanders asked Khodja, ‘What did your father do when someone stole his donkey?’ And Khodja replied, ‘He walked home.’

And another:

Khodja borrowed a cauldron from his neighbour. When he didn't return it for a long time, the neighbour came to ask for its return. When Khodja handed him the cauldron, the neighbour noticed that there was a small pot in it. ‘What is this?’, he asked.

‘Congratulations neighbour, your cauldron gave birth to a baby pot,’ replied Khodja. The neighbour, incredulous but delighted, thanked Khodja and took his cauldron and the new little pot home. A few weeks later Khodja came to ask again if he might borrow the cauldron. The neighbour didn't hesitate to lend it, however, again Khodja failed to return it. The neighbour had no choice but to go asking for it again.

‘Khodja, have you finished with my cauldron?’

‘Ah neighbour,’ bemoaned Khodja, ‘I am afraid your cauldron is dead.’

‘But that's not possible, a cauldron cannot die!’, exclaimed the neighbour. But Khodja had his answer ready: ‘My friend, you can believe that a cauldron can give birth; why than can't you believe that it can also die?’

Nadir Divanbegi Madrassah

Last night Chris and I had seen the Nadir Divanbegi Khanagha, which our guide now pointed out, telling us the story of the finance minister and his ungrateful wife. On the opposite side of Lyab-i-Hauz, a few years later, Nadir Divanbegi built a madrassah to complement the khanagha. Or so it appears, but our guide explained that this was not his original plan. This building was intended as a caravanserai, where trade would provide a good income for him. But soon after its completion the Khan was passing and commended the divanbegi on his great religious devotion, having taken it to be a madrassah. You didn’t argue with a khan, who was considered Allah’s representative, so the divanbegi had to change his plans and adjust the building to be used as a seminary, although without the usual accompanying mosque.

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Nadir Divanbegi Madrassah

Perhaps this story explains the dramatic departure from Islamic tradition in the use of images of living creatures in the decoration on its portal. Admittedly these can be taken as mythological beasts – they certainly don’t resemble any real birds – but even so they are an unusual sight, as are the white does clasped in their claws (these are not pigs by the way, despite a slight resemblance, as this would certainly be unacceptable on an Islamic building of any sort, let alone a religious one).

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On the Nadir Divanbegi Madrassah

As in so many of Uzbekistan’s former religious buildings this one is now devoted to the sale of handicrafts and souvenirs. We didn’t go inside but I imagine that they are of a similar quality to elsewhere. The main attraction for me was this striking façade with its total and flamboyant break with tradition.

Chor Minor

For our last sights of the afternoon we were back in the bus. We stopped first at the Chor Minor, one of Bukhara’s best known and most idiosyncratic sights, tucked away in its back streets east of Lyab-i-Hauz. I have seen it described as resembling an upside-down chair thrust deep into the ground!

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The Chor Minor

Chor Minor means four minarets, but to use that term for the four small turrets at the corners of this one-time madrassah gatehouse is perhaps stretching things. None of them has a gallery and they wouldn’t have been used to call anyone to prayer, being mainly decorative. I loved the way that, at first glance, they seem all the same, only for a closer look to reveal a host of difference in the decoration of each.

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The Chor Minor's minarets

Today very little remains of the 1870 madrassah to which this would once have given entry, but if you look either side of the building you can see still some remains. My photos were taken from the south side which would have been the madrassah’s courtyard.

This must in its day have been quite a grand building, with a mosque and pool incorporated, and its seclusion in these sleepy back streets really emphasises how its fortunes have changed. It is unique among all the buildings of Uzbekistan, although it was possibly inspired by the Char Minar Mosque in Hyderabad, where its patron, the merchant Khalif Niyazkul, is thought to have travelled.

Sitorai Makhi Khosa

We drove north a little way out of the old town into a more rural area to visit our final sight. This palace, the Summer Residence of the Emir, was built by the last Emir of Bukhara, Alim Khan, who had close links to Russia, making frequent visits to St Petersburg and living an increasingly cosmopolitan lifestyle. In some ways he epitomised this period of 20th century history in the region, as the modern world collided with the medieval and trying to balance the two worlds he straddled. The architectural style of his palace reflects this – a weird mix between traditional Islamic influences and the tastes he had acquired from his visits to the great cities of Russia. He employed Russian architects to design the facades and external structures, while local artisans decorated the inside. The fine line between art and kitsch was often blurred as these artists competed to present the best of their cultural traditions.

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The entrance to Sitorai Makhi Khosa

The first thing that struck me after being in Uzbekistan just for a couple of days, growing used to the favoured blues, turquoises and jade colours of the tile-work, was the shock of the deep red majolica on the entrance portal here. Passing through here we came to the courtyard of the main palace building.

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Main courtyard

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Traditional Uzbek cradle

Part of the palace houses a museum of applied art. This was very interesting to visit, both for the artefacts it houses and the building itself.

The former include an excellent example of the traditional Uzbek cradle. We were told that these are still in use and assured that they are both practical and cause no discomfort to the baby, but they seem strange to western eyes. The baby is tightly bound and carefully positioned above a hole in the cradle’s base, below which a small terracotta receptacle (differently shaped for a boy or a girl) catches what in the west a nappy would absorb.

The decoration of some of the rooms in palace is striking, to say the least, not least the ganch and mirror-encrusted White Hall. It is lit by a huge chandelier imported from Poland; the door locks and door handles came from England and most of the furniture from Russia. The mirrors are of Venetian glass and the tiles for fireplaces were brought from Germany.

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The White Hall

Another room had coloured skylights which lit it up almost like a disco.

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Coloured skylights

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Decoration in the guest quarters

Outside we had a short stroll in the grounds. On this hot summer’s day the temperature here was a welcome few degrees lower and there was more breeze than in the city, so it made a pleasant break.

We saw (but I mysteriously failed to photograph!) the harem, and by it a pool where the concubines would swim, naked of course. A nearby platform apparently allowed the emir to watch this spectacle, and to indicate which one he wished to have sent to his chambers by tossing her an apple. The chosen girl would then be washed in donkey’s milk (one of the emir’s eccentricities!) and delivered to his bedroom.

We also went into a small octagonal building, used to accommodate guests, which now houses a small collection of traditional costumes, with beautifully embroidered robes – one completely covered in gold, and another woman’s robe with the sleeves sewn together as a sign that she was married.

Silk Road Spices Café

The Sitorai Makhi Khosa was the last sight on our tour. It was now mid-afternoon and the bus turned back towards the city and our hotel. On this very hot day some siesta time would have made sense, but you know what they say about ‘mad dogs and Englishmen’! We would be leaving Bukhara tomorrow and it seemed to me and Chris that we should make the most of our short time here, so we asked to be dropped off in the centre. My Virtual Tourist friend Ingrid, who had been in Bukhara the previous year, had recommended a café which I was keen to check out – the Silk Road Spices Café, run by the same family who own the spices stall in the Tok-i-Zargaron (Jewellers' Trading Dome) where we’d earlier bought the six-spice tea. We found it to be a real gem, which definitely lived up to the expectations Ingrid had raised!

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At the Silk Road Spices Café

As soon as we stepped into the cool shady courtyard we knew we were in for a treat. We sat on cushioned benches at one of the long wooden tables and immediately a friendly waitress came to ask if we’d like the fans turned on (‘yes please!!’) and give us the small menu. The choice of drinks wasn’t huge but everything was excellent. Chris had the cardamom coffee while I chose ginger tea. Our waitress explained that the latter is made with several spices, including star anise, black and white pepper, and would be quite hot – sounded good to me, and was! With our drinks we were served a selection of sweetmeats: halva, raisins and nuts.

The family who run the café have been involved in the spice trade for hundreds of years, so I couldn’t think of anywhere more appropriate to sample these drinks while on our Silk Road journey!

We had planned to walk around a bit more and take photos, but after a quick visit to the Tok-i-Tilpak Furushon to buy a pair of the scissors we had seen earlier we walked slowly back to the hotel to relax in the shady courtyard and catch up with some of the others from our group over a cold drink.

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Relaxing in the courtyard of the Hotel Mosque Baland

Last evening in Bukhara

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In the courtyard of the
Nadir Alim Khan Caravanserai

For dinner this evening we decided to return to the restaurant on the north-western side of the Lyab-i-Hauz, where we had eaten such a good lunch. On the way we stopped off at the Nadir Alim Khan Caravanserai near the Tok-i-Sarrafon, as we’d spotted a notice announcing that it was the centre for an organisation called the Development of Creative Photography. As keen photographers we couldn’t resist going inside to check it out and found it was well worth the visit. We met this local man in the courtyard who greeted us and agreed to pose for photos - even though he doesn't look super happy about it in this one!

Inside there was an interesting exhibition of images by local (I assume) photographers, most of a very high standard. It was wonderful to see Bukhara and the surrounding region through their eyes. Some of the best were of local people, reflecting what we had discovered for ourselves – a genuine sense of interest in others that pervades the culture here and an openness of expression echoing the openness of their welcome. I was also particularly fascinated by some photos of Bukhara in the snow – visiting in July’s red-hot temperatures it was hard, even faced with these images, to conceive of what the street outside would look and feel like under those conditions.

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My 'Special dish'

From there we continued our walk to Lyab-i-Hauz and secured a table right by the water’s edge. We chose a couple of salads from a selection brought to our table (so no need to worry about any language difficulties) and the same excellent bread we had enjoyed at lunch time. Chris followed this with a dish of noodles topped with a fried egg (a little odd but he liked it) and I had what was called the ‘special dish’ – layers of meat (mutton), potato, tomatoes and onions cooked and served in the one pot. This was quite tasty and very filling. We washed our meal down with the usual cold local beers and took our time, enjoying the setting and watching all the activity around the pool.

The bonus was a sweet little kitten who stopped by to say hello, climbing up on the next-door table to pose for me!

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Little cat at dinner

After our meal I took a few more night shots on the walk back to the hotel where again we settled on the dais in the courtyard to enjoy a night-cap with some of the others. There was a power-cut in this part of town but the family who ran the hotel were clearly used to these and were quick to bring candles so we could continue to enjoy our final drink in Bukhara.

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Bukhara by night

Posted by ToonSarah 11:41 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged night food architecture mosque history palace restaurants cats spices uzbekistan bukhara Comments (9)

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)

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