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Live the adventures of Dan Walker's travels through reading his travel journal. The travel journals are listed below in descending order of date. To search the travel journals, use the keyword search at the bottom of the page.

Journal Entry:

Wednesday, October 22, 2003 09:32:06

Central Asia 2003: 13 - Penjikent, Tajikistan, Tashkent Uzbekistan

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

The poorly maintained Hotel Afrosiab Palace in Samarkand had one more surprise for us. A couple from Israel, Marilynn and I got trapped in the elevator between the 4th & 5th floor as we were leaving with our luggage. The Jewish fellow went into a complete panic, leaning on the alarm bell, pounding on the doors and trying to rip them open with his bare hands. His wife was doing a little better, but not much.

I tried the phone in the elevator, but like many things with the hotel it didn't work. The ringing of the alarm was heard throughout the hotel, our travelling companions later reported, but was ignored. Eventually the elevator gave a great lurch and free fell to the fourth floor, where the doors opened. The couple from Israel flung themselves from the elevator like they were shot from a catapult, followed closely by Marilynn who had two suitcases but forgot her purse in her hurry. Being trapped in an elevator did not help her claustrophobia!

I was still in the elevator with the rest of the luggage when the doors closed, so I thought I'd give going down a try. It and I got out at the main floor where our travel companions were wondering what was going on. We waited for some time for Marilynn, and she eventually showed up, out of breath, as she'd had to walk down four floors with two suitcases - the elevator did not return to the fourth floor..

We were finally underway a little after 8:30 in cold, cloudy weather. We reached the Tajikistan Border with no problem, and exited Uzbekistan. Timur, the driver and all our gear stayed with the van on the Uzbekistan side of the border as they had no permits to exit the country. Once clear from Uzbekistan we were met by Kholmahmad, our guide for Tajikistan, and a driver in a large van. Obviously things had been well arranged in advance, as passports were not stamped and we jumped the long line of people waiting to clear customs. The paperwork was minimal.

Our route took us through Penjikent, a city of 40,000, to the architectural site of Sogdiana, a city which ceased to exist after being conquered by the Persians around the 5th century BC. We had been joined by an older English speaking guide and a 20 year old girl who is in her final year at university. She was getting practical experience in guiding, and spoke English quite well. They all hope that the site will be restored when the economic situation improves for the country.

The reason for settlements in this area is the broad river which runs through Penjikent from its source in the mountains, then travels 700 km into Uzbekistan, until it peters out in the desert near Bukhara, its waters totally disbursed by irrigation projects. This is the fate of many rivers in this area, and the reason for the rapid shrinking of the Aral Sea.

The financial situation in Tajikistan is desperate. They were devastated by a civil war, which added to the woes shared by all the former soviet republics. A teacher earns $12 per month, and must work on a farm or in some other job for supplementary income just to survive. A large number of Tajiks have left to work in Russia, Europe and North America to earn money to send home.

Education is free to grade 9. It is necessary to pay $70 per year to attend university, and $12 per day for a hospital room. While medical care is not free, it is inexpensive by our standards, but not in accordance with local wages. The country has a serious brain drain as educated people immigrate to places they can earn more. 80% of the country is covered by mountains up to 7,450 meters in height, leaving little agricultural land.

They produce wine here, as do most Central Asian countries. I told the guide I'd like to buy a bottle if he could recommend one, so he had the driver stop and he picked up a couple of small bottles and presented them to me. He would not accept payment. Jim, who has been a complete pain for the whole trip, almost burst into tears and he whined, "But I want a bottle of wine too!" I finally gave him one of mine just to keep him from embarrassing us, and the guide, further.

We visited the small history museum, which they were keeping up as best they could. Visitors are very infrequent, and Marilynn bought postcards and handicrafts we didn't need just to try to help out a little. The displays were stuffed animals, local costumes and some findings from various digs around the area. The most interesting thing for me was a small Russian diesel generator which brought the very first electricity to the are in 1946. Most of the world had long been electrified by then.

Back at the border we once more jumped the line to clear customs and immigration. A request was made to stamp our passports, and the friendly Tajiks agreed. Kholmahmad joined us as he was going to a tourism conference in Tashkent, so he drove back to the outskirts of Samarkand and on to Tashkent with us. Lunch at a restaurant along the way consisting of a soup/stew with meat, potatoes and vegetables plus salad, yoghurt and a large beer each came to $5 for all of us.

We arrived at the Sheraton Hotel in Tashkent, a refreshing change from our last hotel. We have all the conveniences and everything works. Timur and the driver had no budget to join us for dinner, but as Timur had purchased a bottle of wine as a gift to us I invited them to join us for dinner as my guest. We drove some distance to the Maya Café, a place decorated by animal skins and featuring live jazz provided by two guitarists. The three course meal was one of the best we have had, the wine was excellent and the cost for the guide and driver less than $10.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

There was an easy 9:30 AM start for today's tour of this beautiful city of almost 3 million people. It covers 360 sq. km, making it the largest city in Central Asia. There are four distinct seasons here, but Tashkent escapes the excessive heat and cold of the north. The old city of Tashkent still exists with single story mud houses and old mosques. Beside it is the modern city which was built by the Russians, starting in 1870. At that time the Uzbeks were call "dogs" by the Russians, and were not allowed into the new city.

The city has extremely wide streets - a real challenge to cross in traffic, huge areas of park, lots of statues and monuments and there area trees all over sporting their fall colours. Women here are not at all like those we saw in the rest of the country. Traditional dress has been given up for mini skirts and other modern clothing. The friendliness which we have found throughout the country is the same, though. In Uzbekistan there is a proverb which says, "A guest is better than a relative", something by which the people live - they always have their doors open to strangers.

The city has a lot of theatres, museums, art galleries and other cultural outlets. The impressive Katta Ballet & Theatre was built in 1945 with the help of 4,600 Japanese prisoners of war. There is also a permanent building here for the circus.

We visited a complex on the river in memory of 7,000 Uzbeks murdered by Stalin's forces during his regime. It was interesting that the languages in the monument were Uzbek and English. We also visited the library at the Uzbek Muslim headquarters, where the ceiling is done to look like bookshelves containing hundreds of volumes of books. There are very old copies of the Koran here, some done on silk. One from the 7th century was written on leather by the Imam whose new mausoleum we had visited - the one I mentioned was built by the Saudis outside of Samarkand.

We took the subway (metro) between the main market, which we had explored, and the parliament. It is very efficient and inexpensive - the cost is 12 cents. Some of the stations are lavishly decorated with tile, painted domed ceilings and pillars. When we got on a young girl promptly stood up and insisted that Marilynn take her seat.

After an outdoor lunch at a riverbank café we stopped at Turkish Airlines where the other two confirmed their flights, and then they all left to continue the tour. Marilynn and I jumped ship, not wanting to go through the Natural History Museum or the Museum of Fine Arts. I checked into upgrading our flights from Almaty to Istanbul, not wanting to spend 5 ½ hours in the cramped position I was in on the Istanbul - Baku flight. The very helpful attendant recommended that we not spend the money on business class, as there was not a whole lot more leg room. The plane is a Boeing, and she said we could have window and aisle seats in the exit row at no extra cost which would have more leg room.than business class. Hopefully that will work out.

We went back to the hotel to clean up and then caught one of the many streetcars (trams) which ply the main streets of the city to look for shopping areas for Marilynn. There was an unexpected adventure as one tram made an unexpected turn, then didn't stop for about a mile. We used the time to look around until another tram came the opposite way. Getting on and off at the standard fare of 12 cents didn't exactly break the bank!

Marilynn did do well on some cosmetics, after a crowd of well wishing Uzbeks gathered to help translate. It finally involved a phone call to a student who was studying English to get the message across that she wanted face cream for dry skin, and then only after Marilynn spelled it out and the student found it in her dictionary.

We had dinner at an even better restaurant tonight. It served an oriental type cuisine and had a very good guitarist and pianist/singer for entertainment. Tonight Tom invited Timur and the driver to join us as even on the final night the tour company was not going to pay for their dinner. We had another bottle of fine Uzbekistan red wine and then had my bottle of Tajikistan wine - which is a type of sherry - with desert.

I'm going to get this off before going to bed, then sleep quickly before our 3 AM wake up call. The Uzbek Airlines plane leaves at the ungodly hour of 6 AM for our flight to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan.