Mashhad, Iran

Iran has two very wildly diverging reputations in the world.

To the Western powers and its media, Iran is the enemy. A state sponsor of organisations deemed terrorist, anti-American and anti-Israel. Located smack in the center of the Middle East, stoking up conflicts, secretive with nuclear ambitions. Anti-women, forcing all of them (whether local or foreigner) to wear a hijab, enforcing gender segregation. A theocratic regime enforcing Islamic principles on all its people regardless of religion, with “religious police” running around.

To virtually any traveller you meet, Iran is the nicest country in the world, hoping to break free. The sights are beautiful, the country safe, and the locals keen to counter the ridiculous claim that they’re terrorists: in welcoming foreigners with legendary friendliness, helpfulness, and hospitality far beyond what you’ve ever encountered elsewhere; in the youth pushing the limits of Islamic dress and straining against the theocracy, partaking in banned social mores (drinks, drugs, sex) behind closed doors; in the wishes for reform and aspirations to be friendly to the West.

And so, my first impression was confusing.
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 Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

Other than the gas crater, if there’s anything Turkmenistan is known for, it’s… how little everyone knows. The country has a reputation comparable to North Korea in more ways than one. Foreign visitors are heavily restricted, with visas subject to arbitrary rejection and guides mandatory (although, to their credit, transit visas without guides are allowed). According to Reporters Without Borders, press freedoms in Turkmenistan rank third-last in the world. (The bottom five are China, Syria, Turkmenistan, North Korea, and Eritrea in dead last.) But most notoriously, until his death in 2006, Saparmurat Niyazov Turkmenbashi was the dictator president of the country, forming one of the most bizarre personality cults in the world around himself.

This is a man who wrote (or possibly ghost-wrote, as an electrical engineering dropout purportedly not fully literate) a book, the Ruhnama, calling it the spiritual guide for all Turkmen people, and cut subjects from schools like physics and algebra while making Ruhnama study a mandatory part of the curriculum and a tested subject, and closing libraries around the country since “only the Qur’an and Ruhnama are necessary”; who renamed the Turkmen names of the months and the days of the week, some after himself, his book, and even his mother, and required all media to use them; who renamed himself as Turkmenbashi (“leader of the Turkmen people”) and used it in the country’s motto (“People, Nation, Turkmenbashi/Me”) and named a city after himself; who issued arbitrary decrees banning lip syncing, owning cats, facial hair on teens, ballet, smoking in public, and hospitals existing outside of the capital city (?!) in this very large country. That’s only the tip of the iceberg.

And there’s no greater showcase for Niyazov than the capital city of Ashgabat, home to the largest concentration of marble buildings in the world. Not only is it blindingly white, it’s also blindingly full of gold, most of which is used in statues of Niyazov, commissioned by the man himself. (North Korea-like in more ways than one!) Government buildings are decorated with gold-laid carpet patterns — Turkmenistan’s most famous export, even displayed on their flag. And at night, it all lights up impressively too, like some sort of Las Vegas, except all the hotels are made of marble and they’re all empty.

Whew. That’s a lot (of crazy) for a country I just said people know little about. But how is it actually? We know a lot about its presidents (and more on the current one later), but what about everyone else?
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 Darvaza, Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan’s hellish bureaucracy and its uncertainty have been the source of many troubles this trip. It’s the reason why I’ve missed two weddings, why I had to stay in Uzbekistan for weeks longer than intended, why I ended up backtracking great distances to Tashkent twice, why I had to line up at 6:30 am at an embassy three times, and why I rushed through Kazakhstan. Needless to say, it’s incredibly difficult to score a visa, and indeed, it’s likely one of the most difficult places to visit in the world for that reason. All of that effort over the course of seven weeks resulted in a mere four-day transit visa (not even the usual five!) with fixed entry/exit dates and border crossings, and I was only able to apply for it after getting visas for both Uzbekistan and Iran, my origin and destination countries. Better than nothing: many people I met were rejected for no reason, time and effort wasted, trip plans forced to change.

Rather than being brusque and abrupt like their bureaucracy, Turkmen people are very warm (at least if they speak Russian and then realise you can understand at least a little), and that even includes all the staff and soldiers I dealt with at the very time-consuming border, some of whom were more eager to chat than search through my belongings. Crossing the border on foot without my own transport, I was nearly immediately picked up for a free ride 15 km to the share taxi station in Konye-Urgench, and a fellow passenger even invited me to his home the next time I’d be around, audibly and visibly dismayed that I only had four days. (Sadly, with the way things are, it’s not likely I can ever come back…) Other than the people at the border and those working in hotels, locals seem oblivious to how difficult it is for foreigners to get in and for how long they can stay.

Unfortunately, I went against the advice of a nice soldier at the border, who gave me a pretty blatant “hint” about the money situation. While Turkmenistan has an official pegged exchange rate of 3.50 manat to US$1, there seems to be a black market rate somewhere between 6 and 7, far less open and “more” illegal than the one in Uzbekistan. The man who picked me up at the border tried to drive around asking people surreptitiously to exchange money with me, to no avail. All I could get was the bank rate, which hurts in a country as expensive as this one. (Not to mention I can’t use ATMs or credit cards in this country or the next, so cash is tight!)

More egregiously, I vastly overestimated the time I needed to reach Darvaza, completely skipping the UNESCO-designated mosque/mausoleum complex in Konye-Urgench, which the soldier also suggested I visit. While also Khorezm in style, they’re far older than those in Khiva and in a heavier state of ruin, dating back around a thousand years, which fellow passenger Davranbek told me as he implored me to take a photo of him. Our share taxi briefly stopped outside one of the mosques in the complex, and the rest of the passengers said a quick Islamic prayer before we headed off.

Off to where? Hell, of course!
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 Moynaq, Uzbekistan

The Republic of Karakalpakstan isn’t its own country, and of the various large subtractions and additions of territories to Uzbekistan done by the Soviet regime, this one is a bit of an odd fit. Karakalpaks look and sound far more like Kazakhs (that is, more Mongoloid) than Uzbeks, yet they belong to neither group — and even then, they only make up a third of the population of the republic, dwarfed by the number of Uzbeks and even maybe Kazakhs. And even if you consider the entire population of Karakalpakstan, regardless of ethnicity, it only forms 3% of Uzbekistan’s population, yet nearly half of its land mass.

Their own distinct culture, formerly nomadic, is on display at the Karakalpakstan Museum in the republican capital of Nukus, where Alexa, Cesar, and I stayed for both nights we were in the area. Again, their yurts, jewellery, and dress suggest relations far closer to Kazakhs than Uzbeks. More interestingly though, this museum used to be named after the late Igor Savitsky, who moved here from Russia and amassed a collection of banned works during the Soviet era, when paintings of anything *but* realism, people with full bellies, and a “celebratory” mood were not allowed. At over 90,000 pieces, his is the second-largest Soviet art collection in the world (and sadly only a tiny fraction of which was on display) outside of Russia, and while seeing some abstract paintings drawn in cubist or surrealist styles might not sound so interesting, reading about the state of mind of the painters brought it into context. One painting of a dumpling, sadly not displayed, was rendered so plump and juicy… because the artist had been stuck in a gulag, so hungry that he painted what he wanted to eat. While I couldn’t take any pictures inside, it was well worth the visit, and I wish I had opted for a guide to hear more stories.

But what brings me to this area is what’s killed a primary mainstay of Karakalpak culture, their tradition of fishing. The town of Moynaq, 200 km north of Nukus, used to be a port city on the shores of the Aral Sea. It’s now 300 km from the water: the sea is disappearing. You’d have to scroll pretty far north on the map above just to find it!
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 Khiva, Uzbekistan

Khiva is perhaps Uzbekistan’s best-preserved city, the final capital of the former Khorezm kingdom (now just a province and a fraction of its former size), and what used to be the setting of the largest slave market in Central Asia. None of that is visible now in its old town, the Ichon-Qala, a pristine, museum-like place that reaches that uncanny valley of “so cleaned up it doesn’t really look real”, at least to me. It’s still incredibly beautiful, but amongst the medressas and mosques and old town houses transformed to souvenir shops, large tour groups snapping away, and an odd emptiness in the streets, I have to admit that it left me a little cold. (Not to mention it was actually below freezing, for my first time in this entire year of travelling! Perhaps that’s why the streets are empty.)

Having seen enough mosques and medressas and museums (which are often haphazardly translated anyway), I opted to forgo the admission tickets (save for one) and just wander around within and around the old city walls, peering/sneaking into whatever places I could, and climbing up the city walls (rather than pay for the watchtower or minarets) for an overhead look.
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 Boysun and Termiz, Uzbekistan

Finding myself with extra time in Uzbekistan, and having also tired of Tashkent (in which I made a third stay, due to bureaucracy), I took a train to Termiz, again just on the edge of the Afghanistan border, fence visible and 60 km from the major city of Mazar-i-Sharif. (Nope, still not crossing.) Its former history as the southern limit of Soviet control does mean that there’s a large ethnic Russian population, which was a bit of a surprise.

But to be honest, it really just felt like a time-killer, and checking out the sites felt more draining than rewarding. While a perfectly fine and normal city, Termiz isn’t really a place worth going out of your way for. On top of that, travel fatigue is a thing, and having been on the road for quite some time now, I felt unmotivated and lethargic, and also pretty tired of the “prescribed” checkbox-ticking tourist trail in Uzbekistan. Remembering a throwaway suggestion from another traveller, I decided to just head to Boysun, with no info other than it being a pleasant town I might be able to kill a few more days in.

That turned out to be a serendipitous choice, as I couldn’t have predicted the wonderful experience I had, seeing a whole different side of Uzbekistan! But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Termiz may have been a bit dry on spectacle, but that’s not to say there’s nothing of interest.
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 Samarkand and Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Let’s just cut to the chase here — Samarkand and Bukhara are home to some of the most awe-inspiring sites of Central Asia and the Silk Road. No place epitomises and evokes the bygone era as much as Uzbekistan’s historical circuit.

At one point, this was pretty much the centre of Asia, if not the world. Founded in the 600s BC by the Sogdians, Samarkand was taken by Alexander the Great in the 300s BC, then a litany of other empires of Turkic, Mongol, and Persian origins until Genghis Khan crushed everyone in the 1200s. Most of the preserved buildings so celebrated now comes down from the Timurid empire of the 1300s-1500s, founded by Amir Timur, better known in the West as Tamerlane or Timur the Lame due to battle injuries. They fell into disrepair when the Uzbek Shaybanids moved their capital to Bukhara, but when Russia took over in the 1800s, the city began to see life again and eventual archaeological restoration.

Timur brought with him a wave of religion and culture, despite being a ruthless warlord. Sparing the lives of artists, architects, and craftspeople, he had the capital built up in a never-ending state of construction, doing so with Islamic symbols and a promotion of the religion to legitimise his own rule.
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 Tashkent and Fergana Valley, Uzbekistan

For a country with so much outsider interest, home to what was once the largest, most advanced civilisation in the world, Uzbekistan seems oddly insular, with two contrasting narratives on its reputation. On one hand, this country is known for its Silk Road history, and with that comes the beautiful crafts of ceramics, fabrics and silk (obviously), both still produced to mastery in the Fergana Valley. There’s also the vast blue mosques that bring about massive tourism to the country’s west, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.

On the other hand, this is the country that makes headlines for an autocratic leader who passed away just one month ago, a Harvard-educated corrupt businesswoman/popstar daughter who he put under house arrest (which she is still under) several years ago, the use of torture with rumoured tactics such as boiling opponents alive, massacreing over 500 peacefully protesting citizens in the Fergana Valley in 2005, and modern slavery in the form of forcing citizens young and old to work in cotton fields for next to nothing. Not so much in the headlines but in everyday reality is that the currency is inflating severely, with a black market exchange running twice as high as the bank rate, and the highest bill available (5000 som) still less than US$1 black market, causing everyone to carry and use giant stacks of money on a regular basis. Also, while not terribly intrusive, inconveniences abound — police checks, registering at every place you stay at as a foreigner, surveillance measures seemingly designed to project a sense of danger and government protection, like getting out of a share taxi outside of a gas station or crossing a bridge on foot or having to remove headphones in a car or draw down the curtains in a train when going through a tunnel. The first assumption upon visiting would be some sort of dystopia of fearful, unhappy citizens.

Hardly. Instead, it’s obvious when walking around that Uzbekistan is the second-richest Stan in Central Asia. People openly bring up the topic of so-far-only president Islam Karimov’s death and the tears they shed (well, everywhere but the Fergana Valley). And at least tangentially, people allude gratefully to the actions he’s taken to keep the country stable, fracturing hardline Islamic terrorism, and their newfound prosperity. I’m constantly being welcomed to Uzbekistan and asked how I like the country. The populace is quite educated, and it seems many more here speak English — good English! — than in the other Stans. And sure, while music and its accompanying videos are almostly universally in the form of singers standing in front of the country’s famous sites, looking around as if there for the first time, or singing about the sights in front of a backdrop of the flag, you get the sense that while probably state-controlled, it comes from a genuine sentiment. Whether or not they know of the wrongs, there is much they clearly feel is being done right, and they’re proud of their country.
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 Almaty and Turkistan, Kazakhstan

Fresh from a speedy, comfortable overnight train ride from Karaganda, Almaty and its walkable, leafy streets, convenient buses, and relatively new metro felt a lot like a detour into my comfort zone: this is easily my favourite city of the trip, and a place I definitely wouldn’t mind living in. Unfortunately, having to deal with visa bureaucracy for the next parts of my route cut short my time here, but I tried to make the most of it.

More than any other place in Central Asia, Almaty feels positively European. The crowd is international. The city is laid out like a grid. Cafes and restaurants of all price ranges and cuisines line the streets. Signs in English make a slightly more frequent appearance. The bazaar is organised like a giant, clean supermarket, though it’s definitely still a bazaar, selling some eye-catching foods (including an entire horse meat aisle) without the typical chaos. There’s even a pedestrianised street lined with juice stalls, ice cream carts, souvenir sellers, musicians, artists, and restaurants. Rather than visit any museums, having visited enough in Astana and Karaganda, I chose to just soak in the atmosphere. (And of course, splurge on some wonderful meals!)
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 Astana and Karaganda, Kazakhstan

Travelling 1200 kilometres and 21 hours by bus from Bishkek to Astana (plus another two hours by public transport after I was dropped off my Russia-bound bus unceremoniously just outside the city, too sleepy to attempt to figure out a more direct route), the differences are stark. Gone are the mountains, replaced with endless flat steppe. Flat flat flat. Nothing. It sure makes for a smooth car journey though, at least, and Kazakhstan, being a far more prosperous country, has some excellent roads — necessary, given that it’s the 9th largest country in the world. And being so far north, I found the temperature markedly colder, needing a jacket even in the day time.

That’s hardly the best way to begin to describe what the heck Astana is, the city that jarringly rises from the middle of nowhere to break the flat landscape.
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