Doğubeyazit to Istanbul, Turkey

Standing at the Esenler bus terminal in Istanbul after a 23-hour bus journey, I felt a sense of going full circle.

Istanbul is the endpoint I had in mind for this journey, a city straddling both Asia and Europe, and the Silk Road to its most logical conclusion. While finally reaching it is still an accomplishment I can be proud of, it felt a little anticlimatic, given that I skipped the rest of Turkey yet again and took a direct bus over. But four years ago, I found myself at this very station, taking a bus to whatever was available and feasible (which ended up being Macedonia and Kosovo) in a moment of grief for a friend lost days before our reunion and intended trip. But at the same time, I was confounded by this bus station, with destinations every which way — to Europe, but also eastwards towards Syria, Iraq, and Iran, and connections to other points further. I saw flags around that I didn’t recognise. It may seem tenuous as I didn’t visit any of those places save for Iran, but it really was that one glimmer of curiosity that planted the seeds for this Silk Road trip.

But anyways, where did I leave off? Right, Iran. After crossing into Turkey, I made a brief stop in Doğubeyazit, the town closest to the border.
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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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 Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

I have it admit it’s a little weird that I saved Bishkek for last. The capital has the biggest airport and it’s usually where people start. Bishkek is a pleasant city in its own right, but let’s face it, it’s not what you come to Kyrgyzstan for. But to be honest, it is kind of nice to be in a big city again.

Beyond the typical Central Asian chaos of bazaars taking over sidewalks (or roads, when there isn’t one) at the edge of the city, Bishkek feels orderly and almost Western. Bus routes and marshrutkas run on a schedule, and there are apps for figuring it out. 4G data in Kyrgyzstan is ridiculously cheap (8GB per week for $1.50), topping up is done by machines found in virtually any corner store or cafeteria, and people here are rabid smartphone users. Malls with international brands urge visitors to check in on social media, cafes serving real coffee do the same. Restaurants offer choice, for once — though sushi/pizza combo restaurants tend to be oddly prolific. Streets are lined with mixed-use residential buildings and shops and department stores.
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 Song-Kul, Kyrgyzstan

In a country whose flag features the top of a yurt and whose (non-Lenin) statues all seem to feature people on horses, what better represents the country to visitors than a horse trek with yurt stays?

Joining up temporarily in Kochkor with travellers Jack, Jessica, Charlotte, and Matt, we arranged a three-day trip up to Song-Kul and back. After a two-hour car journey to the middle of nowhere, we met up with our guide, Marat, who set us up with five of his 15 horses.
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 Southern Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan

The World Nomad Games gave me a small taste of the scenery of Issyk-Kul, and with the games over, I was eager to explore it some more. With plenty of tourists bunched together, the day after the closing ceremonies, all heading in the same direction — a bit of a rarity in this part of the world — it was remarkably easy to group up for virtually any activity, whether lakeside or off to a jailoo.

Issyk-Kul is the 10th-largest lake in the world by volume, and the second-largest alpine lake in the world after Peru/Bolivia’s Lake Titicaca. It may not look like much on a map, but its deepest point is 668m — pretty crazy! I had a quick swim between kok boru matches back in Cholpon-Ata, and was itching for a few days by the lake, but with the tail end of summer approaching, I decided to wait a little longer, and do a bit of mountain hiking before the weather got too cold.

The Issyk-Kul region seems markedly less Kyrgyz than the rest of the country (save for internationally-minded Bishkek), with people from Siberia (Russia) and Kazakhstan having a prominent presence, not just as vacationers, but as long-term residents as well. After all, with the only other large body of water in proximity being the Arctic Ocean far to the north, it’s the only bearably swimmable body of water they’ve got! But surprisingly for a place like this, much of the lake shore is underdeveloped, dotted with humble villages, the odd small resort, faded and few tourist shops, and occasional run-down or abandoned settlements.
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 Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan

I can’t emphasise how incredibly lucky I am to have been able to attend the 2nd edition of the World Nomad Games.

Founded by Kyrgyzstan as an Olympics-like showcase of traditional culture and sport with an emphasis on nomadic peoples, Kyrgyzstan hosted the inaugural games in 2014, kicking off a two-year cycle with them hosting again this year — just around the time I happened to be in the area. With some infamously unique sports being played in competition that are otherwise rare or difficult to witness, a cultural festival happening simultaneously, previous experience hosting in the same place, and twice the number of participating countries (40 of them — though mysteriously, Canada’s flag was flying despite no representation), this is most likely the largest event Kyrgyzstan has ever hosted, its biggest chance to showcase itself to the world — still modest for an international event, and yet full of potential, promise, and positivity.

The fact that an event like this comes with cheap accommodation and cheap food already makes it a big draw to people in the know — that is, locals, and other tourists in the country whom I grouped up with. What puts it over the top though, in an incredibly admirable decision that truly sticks to the spirit of celebrating culture, is that all of the events (save the ticketed opening and closing ceremonies) were completely free.
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