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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)

From Bukhara to the desert

Uzbekistan day five


View Uzbekistan 2007 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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

Gijduvan

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At the potter's wheel

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

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

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

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In the ceramics museum

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

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Painting the pottery

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

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Preparing cotton for embroidery

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

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

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Sweetmeats

Karmana

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

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The caravanserai portal

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

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Restored well

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

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The Mir Said Bakhrom Mausoleum

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Detail of brickwork

Petroglyphs

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

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The road over Black Crow Pass

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

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Petroglyphs

Nurata

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

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Lunch at a family home

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

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

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

Alexander the Great’s Fortress

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Ruins of Alexander the Great’s Fortress

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

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Chris exploring the ruins

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

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

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View of the town
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Looking down at the mosques

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

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Prayer cloths

Visiting the mosques

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

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Ceiling of the Pilgrim's Mosque

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

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Outside the mosque

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Imam in the Friday Mosque

The Chasma Spring and fish pools

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

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Local sightseers at the Chasma Spring

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

Nurata market

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At Nurata Market

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

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In Nurata market

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

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Chris's photo of the card players

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

Yangikazgan

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

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The children of Yangigazgan

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

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

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Women and children in Yangigazgan

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Women firing bricks

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

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

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Our old Soviet bus on arrival in camp

Desert yurt camp

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

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First view of the camp

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

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

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Our yurt, outside and in

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Yurt roof from inside

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

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Desert camp washing and showering facilities

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

Camel ride

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

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Our group of Silk Road explorers!

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

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

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

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

A night in camp

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

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

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Dinner in the camp

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

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

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

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

Our Land of Enchantment

New Mexico introduction


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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At Acoma Pueblo

We love to take a US road trip exploring one (or sometimes several) of the states, and one of the ones we enjoyed the most was our 2011 visit to New Mexico.

New Mexico dubs itself the ‘Land of Enchantment’ and indeed we were enchanted! And what delighted us most was the variety. In two and a half weeks we saw natural wonders and man-made. We followed trails worn down over the centuries by the moccasin-clad feet of early inhabitants, and sat in the cramped confines of a Mercury capsule (used in the first US spaceflight missions). We marvelled at the legends of those early Native Americans, and at the tales of aliens crashing near Roswell. We stayed in an historic hotel where outlaws had shot and sometimes even killed each other; in a cosy adobe casita; and in a former brothel. We saw ancient petroglyphs, Route 66 Americana, and exciting modern art in the contemporary galleries of Santa Fe.

We drove for miles, often seeing more cattle than cars, with skies, and landscapes, that seemed to go for ever. And as we travelled I came to think that there was more than one New Mexico.

Native New Mexico

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Taos Pueblo

There is ‘Native New Mexico’, seen best in the ancient pueblos such as Taos and Acoma, but throwing its influence over the whole state. Long before Europeans came to settle this area, native tribes lived here for hundreds of years. For centuries, these ancestral Indians lived a nomadic life, hunting and gathering their food throughout the Southwest. About 1,500 years ago, some of these groups began practicing agriculture and established permanent settlements, known as pueblos, while others remained nomadic. As everywhere in North America, the coming of the white settlers devastated the lives of those who called these plains and mountains home, and that too is part of their history. Today 22 tribes live in the state: Apache, Navajo, and 19 pueblo tribes (Acoma, Cochiti, Isleta, Jémez, Laguna, Nambé, Ohkay Owingeh, Picurís, Pojoaque, Sandia, San Felipe, San Ildefonso, Santa Ana, Santa Clara, Kewa, Taos, Tesuque, Zia, Zuni). New Mexico’s unique character owes so much to these tribes. The cuisine incorporates elements of traditional cooking, such as the blue corn tortillas and puffed-up sopapillas. The adobe building techniques were embraced by the Spanish settlers and now dominate towns like Taos and Santa Fe. Arts and crafts thrive and are dominated by the pottery, jewellery-making, weaving and painting of the various tribes.

Hispanic New Mexico

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San Jose de Gracia, Trampas

There is also ‘Hispanic New Mexico’. Wherever you go in New Mexico, the Spanish influence is apparent. The most obvious legacy is the large number of beautiful adobe mission churches, of which the oldest is variously said to be San Miguel in Socorro (built between 1615 and 1626, but currently closed for restoration following major water damage) or another San Miguel in Santa Fe (built between 1610 and 1628, thus started earlier but finished later). Very many place names too point to the Hispanic influence: Santa Fe (the city of the Holy Faith), Albuquerque (named for the Spanish Duke de Alburquerque) and smaller places like Los Cerillos, Las Trampas, Quemado – there is even a Madrid! In particular the Roman Catholic religion, introduced by the Spanish, has had a lasting influence on the state. We were fascinated by the way in which the native pueblo churches had combined their own traditional faith with the ‘new’ one, with equal emphasis placed on their adopted saint (San Geronimo in Taos, San Esteban in Acoma) and on the natural spirits that have shaped their lives for centuries. Local crafts owe much to this Catholic tradition, such as the brightly painted pictures (santos) and carvings (bultos) of saints that you’ll see not only in churches but in galleries, restaurants and homes. And parts of the state seemed to us to be dual language, with signs commonly in both English and Spanish, and the latter language heard regularly on the streets. Sometimes you might even fancy yourself in Central, rather than North, America!

Wild West New Mexico

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Sign in Truth or Consequences

Having grown up in an era when both films and TV programmes set in the ‘Wild West’ were popular (‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’, ‘Alias Smith and Jones’. ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’, and many more) we were equally fascinated by ‘Wild West New Mexico’. Anyone who has ever watched a western has seen New Mexico, or something very like it. Vast plains, huge skies, and more cattle than people – it is not difficult to imagine a cowboy galloping over the nearest ridge, and indeed many locals still dress the part. And wherever you go, the ghosts of outlaws past will follow you, most notably Billy the Kid. We ‘met’ Billy in so many places. In Silver City, where he came aged just 13 and got into trouble from the start. In Mesilla, where he was tried and condemned to be hung in the courthouse, now (inevitably) a ‘Billy the Kid’ gift-shop. In historic Lincoln, where he escaped from another courthouse in a shoot-out. And in Fort Sumner, where he was shot by Pat Garrett and buried alongside a couple of his pals. But Billy of course was not the only outlaw. Perhaps our most memorable encounter with the ghosts of the Wild West was in Cimarron, in the bar of the St James Hotel, whose ceiling still bears the bullet holes of the many gun-fights that took place here, and whose halls are said to be still haunted by some of the victims.

Space Age New Mexico

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The Very Large Array

Bringing the story right up to date, there is ‘Space Age New Mexico’, because the state's wide open spaces didn’t just suit cowboys – they are also ideal for certain sorts of experiments, especially those involving space flight or missiles. The barren expanses at its heart, around White Sands, have seen first-hand the power of science, both for good and for bad. It is here, at the Trinity Site, that the world’s first atom bomb was detonated on 16th July 1945. Trinity is only open to the public on a couple of days a year, and I’m not sure that we would have visited even if one of these dates coincided with our trip, but we did see one of the ‘souvenirs’ of that deadly experiment, the fragment from Jumbo, the vessel built to contain the explosion, which is now on display near the Plaza in Socorro. On a more positive note, the amazing Very Large Array provided one of the most interesting mornings of our trip. Here, in the middle of the flat Plains of San Augustin, scientists study the heavens with the help of these huge radio telescopes. And if you’re interested in man’s adventures in space, the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo is the place to go. I loved getting the opportunity to sit in the cramped confines of a Mercury capsule (used in the first US spaceflight missions), and to ‘land’ the space shuttle on their simulator.

And maybe it isn’t just human scientists who find New Mexico ideal for their experiments?! There are many who remain convinced that aliens crashed on a ranch just outside Roswell in 1947, and the town has traded on the incident ever since. Whether you believe it or not, this is an opportunity to see tacky Americana at its most glorious, with ‘aliens’ on every street corner and a whole museum devoted to proving the truth of the story.

Natural New Mexico

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Fall colours in Picuris Pueblo

But the setting for all these stories, both factual and fictional, is as important as the tales themselves – ‘Natural New Mexico’. For while humans have made their mark on New Mexico over the centuries, and in a number of ways, it remains for the most part a state of wide open spaces and natural wonders. You can peer down into the depths of 800 foot deep Rio Grande Gorge, travel mountain passes well over 8,000 feet above sea level, wander among the remarkable rock formations of the City of Rocks or the hauntingly pale dunes of the White Sands. Travelling in September and October, we were treated to displays of golden aspens and of flowers in all hues. Nearly half the state’s annual rainfall comes during July and August, and the dry dusty plains respond with a wonderful show. At lower elevations I never tired of seeing the yellows, mauves and reds alongside the road and spreading beyond in the pastures on either side. And at higher ones the vistas were often of waves of dark green and gold, the conifers and late-dropping trees setting off the early-turning aspens to best advantage.

Travelling to New Mexico

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El Paso Airport

It may perhaps seem a little odd that for a holiday spent touring New Mexico we should fly to Texas, but for a couple of reasons El Paso made real sense as an entry point. Firstly flights there from London were just a little cheaper than to Albuquerque, the only obvious alternative. But secondly, and more importantly, it suited my route planning (and route planning for these trips is always largely my responsibility!) to start in the south of the state. I knew that we would want to spend several nights in Santa Fe, and probably only one in most other places en route, so it made sense to make Santa Fe roughly the mid-point of our tour, which would have been very difficult had we landed in Albuquerque.

So El Paso it was. We flew with United, changing in Chicago where we had a five hour layover. That seemed quite long, but once we’d spent over an hour in the queue at Immigration, transferred to another terminal, and then spent a further hour in the queue to go through security, we were glad of the slack time in the scheduling. When we finally landed at El Paso it was 10.20 pm local time, 5.20 am London time, so we were pretty tired. But El Paso is a small and rather charming airport, easy to navigate and to face even when travel-weary. Furthermore we had booked a room for that night at the airport’s Microtel, an easy stagger from the terminal (less than five minutes’ walk across the car park area). Within 40 minutes of touchdown on the runway we were in our room – and there can’t be many airports where you can manage that!

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Our car number plate

We had arranged car hire for our trip with Hertz who have a base at El Paso Airport, so the next morning we walked back across to the terminal to collect our vehicle. We had to do some negotiation on arrival however as we weren’t at all happy with the car they’d allocated us, a Nissan Cube (ugly thing, with poor rear visibility and all the luggage on display however you stowed it, so not ideal for touring). But a quick discussion with a helpful lady on the counter and we were upgraded from compact to mid-size at no extra charge, with the only catch that we had to wait 15 minutes while the Mazda was brought over from another nearby lot – a small price to pay for what proved to be a comfortable and easy to drive car.

And I would defy anyone to tour New Mexico properly without the benefit of a car, except perhaps a very fit cyclist. Although there’s lots to see and do, places can be quite far apart and no public transport serves many of the most scenic routes, although in places like Santa Fe and Albuquerque there are buses.

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Our hire car on the High Road to Taos

Plus, driving here is a real pleasure. Of course it’s easy for me to say that, as Chris nobly did all the driving, waving aside my rather half-hearted offers to help! But one reason for that refusal of help was the fact that with just one or two exceptions, the roads were quiet and the driving pretty easy. We covered just under 2,000 miles in the two and a half weeks of our trip, and that felt very manageable and undemanding. Our longest drive was about 220 miles, but most days we did around 100 and on a few very little at all.

So we have our car – it is time to hit the road!

Posted by ToonSarah 08:02 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes road_trip culture history usa science space new_mexico customs Comments (6)

Staying in Silver

New Mexico day one


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Having collected our hire car from the Hertz office at El Paso Airport we drove north along I10 towards the border with New Mexico. And talking of borders, from the road we had a clear view of the one between the USA and Mexico proper off to our left, with a lot of high fences, the Rio Grande beyond, and beyond that the houses of Ciudad Juarez.

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Entering New Mexico

Crossing into New Mexico we swung west past Las Cruces, which we planned to visit on our return to the airport at the end of our trip, still on I10. We stopped briefly in Deming for a coffee and to pick up picnic supplies. I photographed a shiny Harley Davidson bike parked outside the coffee shop – such photos were to become a recurring motif on this trip.

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In a Deming coffee shop, and Harley parked outside

City of Rocks State Park

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City of Rocks panorama

Our first proper stop was at this small but fascinating state park some miles north of Deming. If you like unusual landscapes and photogenic rock formations, this is the place for you. A group of bizarrely-shaped rocks rises from an otherwise fairly featureless plain as if they had been placed here by ancient man, but this is a completely natural construction. The outcrop was formed of volcanic ash 35 million years ago and sculpted by wind and water into these rows and groups of monolithic blocks, which are said to resemble streets of skyscrapers (hence the name, City of Rocks). Apparently the rock formations at the park are so unique that they are only known to exist in six other places in the world – but I haven’t been able to find out what those six places might be.

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At the City of Rocks [our picnic spot on the right]

This was a great place in which to enjoy the food we had bought in Deming, with lots of tables dotted among the rocks. A helpful ranger spotted us setting up for our picnic and recommended that we try a different area on the other side of the formations where the views and light would be better – they were.

Lunch finished we spent some time exploring between the rows of rocks and taking lots of photos. It’s hard to do this place justice, but I hope my panorama gives an idea of the scale.

We also went into the visitor centre where you can see a short video about how the rocks were formed. We thought about doing the nature trail through the cactus garden too, but an approaching storm made us think twice, as we weren’t sure this would be a good place to be if the fork lightening came any closer. Our new friend the helpful ranger pointed out how the rain wasn’t actually hitting the ground – rising heat from the plains turns it to steam before it can do so. This phenomenon is known as virga.

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Storm approaching

Silver City

From the City of Rocks we continued north to Silver City which was to be our base for the night. We had pre-booked accommodation at a B&B, the Inn on Broadway, which seems now to be operating under new owners as Serenity House. It looks as if it would be just as good a place to stay now as we found it to be back then, and it certainly gave us a very well-located base for enjoying all that Silver, as locals call it, had to offer.

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The Inn on Broadway

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The Hummingbird Room

Silver City was formed in the 1870s, after the discovery of silver in and around the town. It quickly became a boom town, and like many in New Mexico can lay claim to an association with the outlaw Billy the Kid. He lived here as in his teens (some accounts say he was born here, but most that he came with his family from New York), had his first job here, committed his first crime here, and reportedly killed his first man here. He was arrested and briefly imprisoned, before moving on to wreak his havoc elsewhere, most notoriously in Lincoln County.

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Colourful street in Silver

Meanwhile the silver boom faded, and with its demise Silver (as the locals call it) faded too. But in recent years the town has undergone a revival. And unlike some carefully ‘restored’ old towns it seems unafraid to mix old and new. It has become common to use cheerful paint colours to restore and revive the old buildings, perhaps influenced by the many artists and hippies who have settled here.

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Cast iron building on W Broadway

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Another splash of colour

Shops on the main street, Bullard, are an idiosyncratic mix of appealing galleries and small-town ‘not really changed since the 1950s’ shops. Residents too seem to be a mix of ageing hippies, relaxed artists working in all genres, university students and lecturers, and assorted drop-outs. We liked Silver a lot!

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Harley Davidson detail

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Bikers outside the Palace Hotel, and another Harley

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Ice cream at Alotta Gelato

When we set off to explore Silver our host at the Inn on Broadway had mentioned that the best ice cream could be had at Alotta Gelato (also now sadly closed down) towards the north end of Bullard. So when we arrived at that end of town we decided to pop in for our first ice cream treat of the holiday. And it was a treat! This unprepossessing place served only ice cream made on the premises and the guy who served us, whom I suspected was also the owner, was very helpful and knowledgeable in describing the flavours and how they are made. It was pretty difficult to choose even though the mid-size cups we selected held enough for three flavours. In the end I opted for lemon sorbet, butter pecan and sour cherry – all were good, but the lemon sorbet in particular was a belter! Chris chose mango, blueberry and chocolate – I had a taste of the latter and it was dark, rich-flavoured and totally excellent.

Refreshed we continued our wander, heading one block east to see Silver’s most idiosyncratic ‘attraction’, a ditch. Yes, really – but not just any ditch! This is the Big Ditch. Until the end of the 19th century it was Silver City’s Main Street. But around that time there was a series of floods, and one result of these was that on the night of July 21st 1895, Main Street collapsed into a muddy chasm. Businesses on its west side ‘turned their backs’ on it and started to use their rear entrances on Bullard Street, which therefore gradually became a replacement main street without ever changing its name accordingly, and the original street was never restored.

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The Big Ditch

Nowadays the chasm has been turned into a pleasant park that runs the length of downtown and provides shade on a hot day. About halfway along, on the west side of the park, you can see Warren House which is the only one still standing intact from the pre-flood days.

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Warren House

Back near the B&B we passed the town’s museum, which is in a nice old Victorian house and is apparently worth a quick visit to see the old photos of the town (especially before the floods that created the Big Ditch). Unfortunately though we spent too long taking photos in the town, and enjoying our ice cream, with the result that we got here just after the rather early 4.30 pm closing time. So we didn’t get to climb up the cupola, which our Moon Handbook said was worth doing, and didn’t get to check out the old maps (I love maps!) and a room furnished in Victorian style.

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The museum

An evening in Silver

For dinner that evening we went to the nearby Jalisco Café at the bottom end of Bullard. Unlike our B&B and the ice cream parlour, this is still in operation it seems. It occupies a row of three or four old shops and looked welcoming with an appealing New Mexican menu. It also seemed very popular with local families and was pretty busy – both good signs, we thought, although as it turned out this was to be a somewhat mixed experience.

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Chris in the Jalisco Café

On entering we found ourselves in the first ‘shop’ in the row, now just an entrance lobby with seating for waiting customers. We were welcomed and shown to a table in the middle section, where most other tables were already occupied. Our server was friendly and explained a couple of dishes on the menu, as well as recommending a good Mexican beer (Dos Equis, which became a staple on our trip).

Our meal started with complimentary chips and salsa. We had barely started on these though when our main courses arrived. Chris had chosen the chicken enchiladas with red chilli sauce – hot and tasty. I’d gone for a slightly riskier choice but it paid off – I really loved the crab tostadas and they would be worthy of a more up-market and pricier restaurant than this. Two crispy shells spread with a thin layer of guacamole and piled high with plenty of crab meat, chopped mango, red onion etc, all drizzled with red chilli sauce – delicious!

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My delicious crab tostadas

But while we were still enjoying these dishes our waitress came over to ask if we wanted dessert. We explained that we wouldn’t know until we had finished our mains, which she accepted, but she was back again the moment we put down our cutlery. Although full, we decided that as it was our first night in New Mexico, and we’d heard so much about sopapillas, we should try one. She willingly brought us one to sample – a large puffy bread with honey to drizzle inside. But she also brought the bill, and it seemed pretty clear to us that we were being encouraged to leave, especially when the now-empty tables around us were cleared and the chairs upturned on some of them.

Please don’t think we were eating late – this was at 8.10 pm (the restaurant apparently closes at 8.30 p m which seems ridiculously early by European standards but is fairly normal in small-town America). So we got the message, paid our bill and left, assuming ourselves to be one of the last to go. Imagine our surprise when we walked past the far section of the restaurant, which had been hidden to our sight inside, to see it with tables full and meals still coming out. We couldn’t help nursing a suspicion that our young waitress had a date that evening and was super-keen to get away early! Well, never mind – we had enjoyed our meal and as the night was young we headed to the nearby Buffalo Bar ...

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In the Buffalo Bar

Our Moon Handbook on New Mexico told us that, ‘Just about everyone in town mixes at the Buffalo Bar’, so we decided to do the same. This is an unpretentious-looking (and unpretentious) bar on the main drag, Bullard, towards its southern end, and still in operation today as far as I can see.

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Beer in the Buffalo Bar

When we first went in and took seats at the bar it was fairly quiet, and it never got exactly busy, but it did liven up and we had a really nice evening here. On the bar maid’s recommendation we drank, and enjoyed, a few bottles of Sierra Blanca from Carrizozo in the middle of the state – a pleasant lager which unfortunately we never saw again on our trip. Some locals came in and started a game of pool, as well as putting some coins into the juke-box – and this was just the right setting in which to enjoy their chosen Tom Petty tracks. When we went over to pay for a few tunes ourselves, as seemed only fair, another local came over and insisted on paying, while asking us what we would like – very friendly. We ended up staying well over an hour, despite being a little tired from our first day’s driving (and being still on English time). Do drop into the Buffalo Bar for a drink if you’re in Silver – I’m sure you’ll get a warm welcome too.

But despite the welcoming atmosphere in the bar, a fairly early night was required as we still had a touch of jet lag, so we walked back to the Inn on Broadway pretty pleased with our first day in New Mexico.

Posted by ToonSarah 09:33 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes streets beer road_trip restaurant history weather new_mexico street_photography Comments (12)

Meeting the Mogollon

New Mexico day two


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

We had spent our first night in the state in the now-closed Inn on Broadway, situated in a lovely house with bags of character (and now operating, I have realised, as Serenity House B&B). The house is over 100 years old (which I know is old by US standards, although our own home in London is the same age and we think nothing of it!) According to our host, who welcomed us, it was once home to a madam who ran a string of brothels in the area, though I noted there was no mention of that on their website – perhaps they thought it might deter some visitors?

Anyway, we had a very comfortable night’s sleep in the pretty Hummingbird Room. Waking early, as I usually do (and always on holiday) I wandered downstairs in search of the morning coffee that had been promised. I was poured a large mug and it was suggested that I might like to take it out on the porch, which I did. I was joined there by the resident cat, Midnight, who was very friendly – so much so that getting a photo was quite a challenge as she kept coming too close to my camera, and to the rather hot mug of coffee I had to put down in order to take it!

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Midnight the cat

Once Chris and the other guests were up, we had an excellent breakfast – cheese muffins with delicious chilli marmalade, fresh melon and blueberries, raisin pancakes and crispy bacon. The only sour note was introduced by our hostess who, although very friendly, spent rather too much time complaining to the whole room about a recent slightly unfavourable review on Trip Advisor. The message was clear – a better review was expected from us!

Pinos Altos

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The (closed) museum in Pinos Altos

After breakfast we checked out and drove north out of Silver City on winding Highway 15. A few miles out of town we made a little detour into Pinos Altos, a sleepy remnant of the once-Wild West. The town was founded when three frustrated 49ers stopped to take a drink in Bear Creek and discovered gold here. Word spread, as it always did, and soon there were over 700 men prospecting in the area. Roy Bean operated a mercantile here in the 1860s before moving to West Texas to gain fame as Judge Roy Bean. Today several buildings of that era remain and have been restored, including the Buckhorn Saloon which is still open for business in the evenings (but not on the morning when we visited).

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Buckhorn Saloon

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Buckhorn Saloon and old opera house

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A peek inside the Buckhorn Saloon, and a rather less well-preserved building

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Town Hall sign

The small town hall above and the fire station in my photos below are not in the town itself but on the main road just before the turning off. They were beautifully lit by the morning sunshine, unlike many of the more interesting buildings in Pinos Altos itself which were unfortunately in shadow. I guess you need to come in the afternoon if you want to capture the saloon at its best, and if you made it late afternoon, you’d be able to enjoy a drink or meal here too.

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Fire station, Pinos Altos

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Fire station sign

But we had other places to visit today …

Gila Cliff Dwellings

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The Trail of the Mountain Spirits

From Pinos Altos we drove on north along Highway 15. This is not the easiest of drives – a sign soon after leaving Silver warned us that the journey time to the Gila Cliff Dwellings is about two hours. This may seem surprising as it is only 43 miles but at the speed you need to drive this road (SLOW) it does take close to two hours. It’s worth it however, as this is really a lovely drive with lots of stunning views along the way. It is part of one of the state’s many Scenic Byways, this one known as the Trail of the Mountain Spirits. We made a point on this trip of driving as many as possible, so there will be more in future blog entries for sure. There are few places on this one where you can pull over to admire the view, however, so it was hard to get any photos this morning.

The highway ends at the Gila Cliff Dwellings. These were built by the Mogollon people within the natural caves high in the cliffs lining the canyon of what today is called Cliff Dweller Creek. They lived here between 1275 and 1300 AD, farming the valley floor by day and retreating to the safety of their lofty homes at night or when danger threatened. Archaeologists have identified 46 rooms in the six caves, and believed they were occupied by 10 to 15 families. There are also structures used for storage, and signs that some were used for ceremonial purposes. What makes them special is the fact that you can explore inside the caves and buildings. This makes it easier to conjure up images of the people who once lived here and to imagine what their lives must have been like.

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Cliff Dwellings panorama

Before reaching the Cliff Dwellings themselves we made a short detour to the Visitor Centre. There were interesting displays of Mogollon artefacts from the caves and surrounding area, and an exhibit on the Chiricahua Apache who consider this wilderness to be their homeland. There was also a video showing what life may have been like for the Mogollon who built and occupied the Cliff Dwellings, but we decided to skip that and head on up to the dwellings themselves. We also bought a few post-cards and had a chat with the helpful rangers who told us a bit more about the path to the dwellings and also about some good places to picnic.

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Visitor Centre

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Memorial to Geronimo at the Visitor Centre

Outside the centre we spotted a memorial to Geronimo near the entrance to the parking area. The Chiricahua Apache chief was born very near here (‘By the headwaters of the Gila’, as the monument says). He was one of the fiercest warriors who ever lived, but he didn’t turn to fighting until after the senseless slaughter by Mexican troops of his mother, wife, children, and other tribal women in 1858. During his time as a war chief, Geronimo was notorious for consistently urging raids and war upon first Mexican and later American settlements across Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. In 1886 he surrendered to U.S. authorities and the Government moved him and the remaining Chiricahua Apaches out of their homeland. He became a celebrity in later life, but was never granted his wish to return to his homeland.

After checking out the Visitor Centre we went back to the car to drive the two miles to the main parking lot for the dwellings themselves. It isn’t possible to see the cliff dwellings from the road so you have to be able to walk a short-ish distance even to see them from a distance. As we set out a ranger gave us a leaflet (the ‘Cliff Dweller Canyon Companion’) and explained the walk. He also asked if we were carrying any food or drink – only water is allowed on the trail so everything else has to be left in your car. We had already eaten our lunch at the picnic area near the car park, so were fine to continue.

From the parking lot the path led across the West Fork of the Gila River, which was largely dried up when we were there (late September). It then followed a tributary stream, Cliff Dweller Creek, on a path that ascended a little, with a few steps in places.

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West Fork of the Gila River

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Along Cliff Dweller Creek

So far the walk was easy, although not accessible for anyone with real walking difficulties (we noticed that one elderly lady turned back, leaving her husband to do the walk on his own). The path was mostly shaded and there were glimpses of the cliffs above us, although not yet of the caves themselves. Looking out for wildlife we spotted a good-sized lizard, which a ranger later identified for me as a Collared Crevice Spiny Lizard.

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Collared Crevice Spiny Lizard

After about ¼ mile the path brought us to the viewpoint from where you can get a first glimpse of the cliff dwellings.

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First view of the dwellings

This is the point to turn back if you find walking difficult, as the path is about to get a lot steeper. The trail is described as being a mile in length, but we felt that it was probably longer than this, though it’s hard to judge when you’re stopping frequently – either to catch your breath on the steep parts, to take photos of the fantastic views in places, or to explore the interior of these fascinating caves. On the late September day when we were here it was also pretty hot, especially on the long shade-less descent from the caves, so in mid-summer it must be even more so.

I don’t however consider myself especially fit or accustomed to hiking, and I had a bad back on our visit, yet I did make it to the top and around the full loop without too much difficulty, so I was glad I had given it a go. The steepest part is that immediately beyond this first viewpoint – a series of steep steps winding upwards until you emerge at the level of the dwellings.

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The dwellings seen from the top of the ascent

From here it is a more level walk along the face of the cliff to cave one.

Exploring the caves

What makes the Gila Cliff Dwellings special is not their size (several other places, such as Bandelier or Chaco Canyon have bigger groupings) but the fact that you can explore inside the caves and buildings, and can do so if you want to on your own. This makes it easier, I think, to conjure up images of the people who once lived here and to imagine what their lives must have been like. This was why we deliberately chose to explore on our own, rather than take a guided tour.

Whether exploring alone or in a group, there are six caves that you can get a close look at on this trail, although as four and five are linked it may not feel like that many. The first one is the smallest and has very little in the way of structures, but moving on to cave two we could see some of the original Mogollon constructions. These had already been vandalised when the dwellings were first properly explored by experts, but about 80% of the original structures remained, and the rest have been carefully restored.

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Dwelling in cave two

There are more structures in cave three, which you need to climb up to. This is where you can really get a sense of the long-ago inhabitants, as you look up at the roof of the cave blackened by soot from their fires, or look out across the valley from its cool interior, as they must have done.

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Cave three from cave two

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Looking out from cave three

Caves four and five are linked, and I confess that I couldn’t work out exactly where one ended and the next began, even though a helpful ranger whom we met here explained it – the small structure to the right of my photo below, with what appears to be a window, is at the point where cave four becomes cave five. There is apparently a mystery surrounding the purpose of this structure, which is too large to have been a storage area (and in any case has sooty walls) and too small to have been a dwelling.

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Cave four, with five beyond

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View from cave five

Without that helpful ranger we would not have known to climb the ladder propped against one wall in cave five and and would have missed seeing the pictograph painted there by the Mogollon, and the remains of some corn husks on the floor below.

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Pictograph in cave five

To exit these caves we had to climb down a wooden ladder of about a dozen steps. This was the longest of the ladders but like all of them was sturdy and stable so should have been easy enough to descend. However it was in full sun and the wood had got surprisingly hot – so much so that I could barely hold it!

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Ladder from cave five, after descending, and looking up at cave six

The trail then took us past cave six, which you can’t enter, and then looped round the cliff face before descending steeply to rejoin the outward trail just before the bridge.

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Panorama of Cliff Dweller Canyon on the descent from the caves

Lake Roberts

By the time we had finished our walk it was time to leave. We needed to retrace part of the winding route along Highway 15, and drive a little distance on nearly-as-winding Highway 35, to reach our base for the night. Unlike this morning, we did find one place where we could pull over and properly take in the view.

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On the Trail of the Mountain Spirits, near Gila Cliff Dwellings

There is no accommodation at the Gila Cliff Dwellings, and many people visit as a day tour from Silver City (which is perfectly possible, though it’s quite a long drive). But we wanted to have more time to explore the caves than this would have allowed for, so I hunted around for other options and found a group of cabins in a rustic spot near Lake Roberts, known unsurprisingly as Lake Roberts Cabins.

We knew this was a pretty isolated location, with no restaurants in easy reach, so we planned to make our own dinner in our small cabin. The website told us that the on-site General Store sold ‘Groceries, including canned goods, microwave dinners, and other convenience foods …Staples like bacon, fresh eggs, milk & butter … and Seasonal garden fruits & vegetables’. So we planned to buy the makings of our evening meal there on arrival. However when I had rung to confirm our reservation a couple of days before, and to enquire about the store opening times, the owner told me that although they stayed open till about 7.00 pm, he had been running the stock down as it was late in the season (the last week in September) and he would have very little from which to make any sort of meal. So we shopped ahead in Silver and when I saw how empty the shop was, we were very glad that we had!

But before eating we had time to check out Lake Roberts itself, about half a mile away from the cabins. The lake was created in the early 1960s by damming Sapillo Creek, but it nestles among the pines in a very natural-looking way, although its deep blue waters are perhaps a surprising sight in this otherwise quite rocky landscape.

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Lake Roberts

Back at the cabin we made our simple meal and relaxed. At one point during the evening we spotted a deer from our porch, although unfortunately not when I had a camera to hand.

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On the porch of Cedar Cabin

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The seating area

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The small cabin suited us just fine. We had a small sitting area with a sofa and a table and two chairs. There was a TV for watching VHS tapes only, which could be borrowed free of charge from the store, so we watched a film after it got too dark and chilly to sit out on the porch.

A kitchenette opened directly from this, with a microwave, two ring gas stove, fridge etc, and all the crockery and cutlery two people might need. The bedroom was really only big enough for the double wood-framed bed, which was comfortable enough but very creaky – when one of us turned over, both woke up! Although it got very chilly after dark, being quite high above sea level here, the cabin stayed warm all night, so despite the creaking bed we were very happy with our choice of accommodation.

Posted by ToonSarah 01:24 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes lakes road_trip history views national_park new_mexico Comments (7)

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