July 15. Almaty, Kazakhstan.

I wake up upon landing and my neck hurts terribly from having slept all crooked up. Whatever, I don’t even care about the pain anymore, I just need a bed. We find a taxi with the help of a Kazakh guy Gian met on the plane and we’re all relieved at this point. We made it!

Yeah, as if it were that easy. We forgot we’re back in the post-Soviet space, so as in most Russian cities, each address has a “dom” and a “podezd”. Obviously our booking only shows the dom number, so once we get there, our driver keeps going round and round. No sign of any hostel whatsoever.

It’s almost 3 AM local time and the phone number we have from our booking is not working. Great! Whatever, we get off the taxi and say to each other that we’ll figure something out, yet in the back of our minds a deep fear of having to sleep in the street starts getting more and more real.

Fortunately, we find a bunch of locals outside a bar and they manage to help us. One of the girls is able to find the right phone number of the hostel so she gets the full address and the right directions for us and… crisis averted!

An old lady waves at us from the side of the road, we check in and collapse on our beds.

I wake up at 12:30 the day after, and as I enter the common room I find Marta sitting next to a guy with black hair. When she sees me she goes: “This is my brother!” – What! How?!

She says she was walking in the hallway and found him in one of the rooms and was just as surprised. Apparently he had told her he might want to come to Central Asia, if he managed to pass all his exams in time, but then they never confirmed with each other, she just sent him our itinerary and well, he showed up! Plot twist! And then they were four.

I’m still trying to recover from yesterday’s odyssey, so we just lay around for a couple of hours and then let Alessandro guide us through the city, which is, I have to say, not incredibly ugly for a post-Soviet city, but not incredibly nice either. There’s honestly not much worth seeing, apart from the “mini” Arbat street and the Bazaar.


Yeah, the bazaar is actually something! It really gives you the feeling that well, you’re in Central Asia. The food section especially. We enter by chance into the meat department and, if you’re a vegetarian, do not do that! Actually, even if you’re not, don’t ever do it anyways. The smell of raw meat is asphyxiating as dead animal parts, mostly horses, hang down from everywhere. And by animal parts I mean any: intestines and other interiors included. I feel like I might puke so we get out of there as fast as possible.


We buy a local SIM card, which will end up being a very smart move, and keep walking down to the main square and the park behind it. We were hoping to be able to see the mountains from the city, but only some fuzzy peaks in the distance are barely visible.

Whatever, we decide to just focus on how to get to the mountain lakes tomorrow. We found an Ecotourism website recommending some homestays in Saty, a tiny village up the Tian Shan Mountains, from where you can visit all the Kolsai Lakes and Lake Kaindy, the last one highly recommended to us by our friend Jan Japp.

Anyways, this place is about 200-something km east of Almaty, which, on Kazakh roads, equals to 5-6 hours by car. We phone the bus station with our newly bought SIM card and they confirm that there are shared taxis leaving from Saiakhat Station between 6 and 7 AM for about 25,000 Tenge per person.

That’s settled then, we’ll just leave super early tomorrow morning, so we decide to get back to the hostel and chill for the rest of the day. We find a place to eat nearby and I phone the guesthouse in Saty we booked in Omsk, to make sure everything is confirmed. I can’t believe it’s been a month since we were in Siberia, checking for routes in Central Asia. Someone answers the phone, it’s a little girl and as I tell her I’m looking for Mr Temirkhan she goes “папа! папа!”. So sweet. Mr Temirkhan actually remembers me and tells me that yes, they have place for us, for Alessandro too. Nice! I’m really looking forward to get there now.

Back at the hostel we hang out in the common room and meet a bunch of people. An incredibly obnoxious Russian guy starts talking to me and I don’t know how or why exactly but in no time the conversation turns from friendly-ish to aggressive and almost inquisitorial. Like for no reason he starts asking very political questions, mentions Berlusconi and Putin, obviously, and then goes on condemning NATO and asking me what will happen once India and Pakistan, two “great nuclear powers”, will join the SCO. It’s not even what he says, the thing is he says it all as if since I’m from Italy, a NATO member, that makes me one of the bad guys, so all of us Europeans should just tremble cause the SCO is gonna destroy us all. You know those kind of people who are just looking for a fight? That don’t see the common ground no matter what, they just want to contradict you and be right and show you that hey, I’m stronger that you! What an asshole.

Whatever, I’m no game so I just stop talking to him, change seat and focus my attention on a British guy with curly hair, Holly, who, in contrast, emanates positive vibes just by sitting and laying back on the couch, smiling. He’s genuine and simple and you can tell it from the aura he has around him, there’s no construction around him. He’s a biker, so he’s been traveling on his motorbike all the way from England, through the Kazakhstan desert to Almaty and will continue down to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on the Pamir Highway until Mongolia.

The way he talks about his motorcycle, about being outdoors all the time, about embracing it is very sweet and makes me smile. He tells us how hard it was to ride in the desert and how he loves sleeping outside, in his tent. Marta and I ask him about his life in England and it turns out he’s a physiotherapist and was working for the NHS, until he quit, cause they wouldn’t grant him his 2-year leave.

We would just go on talking if it weren’t for the obnoxious reception lady who tells us off with a disdained look and scolds us: it’s midnight it’s late! Time to go to sleep! – Jeez, What are you my mother? At your orders, general.

Whatever, we have to wake up early tomorrow so maybe it’s better this way.

July 16. Saty, Kazakhstan.

We get up at 5:30 and by 6 AM we’re out of the hostel, directed to Saiakhat bus station. Once we get there, we’re immediately surrounded by gypsy taxi drivers, who offer to drive us to Saty for 300,000 Tenge. What? That means 1500 Euros. “Are you sumashedshii?” I snap at them as we walk away.

We enter the station, well, station, it’s basically a courtyard with a bunch of cars randomly parked in the middle of it. A man approaches us and asks where we need to go. Then he starts yelling: “Saty! Saty!” to the other drivers. One of them comes closer and we start bargaining for the price. Well, I start bargaining, being the one who speaks Russian best among us. The driver starts at 50,000 Tenge per person and I push for 25,000. In the end, we agree on 30,000, although I can feel he is a bit uncomfortable with having to bargain with a woman. Like it’s not appropriate or something.

Still, he agrees to drive us so we start our 5 hours on the road. Once out of Almaty, the landscape gets incredibly beautiful, high mountains in the distance and wide, green valleys. Slowly, the road gets wilder and wilder, unbent by man, as we get higher. It turns and twists, zigzaging through the mountain walls. The landscape alternates, from dry to green, to dry to green again.


Suddenly our car starts making weird noises and… no, not again! No fucking way. The driver pulls over and starts blabbing something about the fact that he put Chinese benzin, yeah, let’s blame it all on the Chinese. The guys collect some rocks and put them behind the back wheels so that the car won’t go backwards once the driver turns the engine on. But no, there’s no way this thing is going up with the four of us inside it.


Well, it looks like we’re gonna have to climb on foot, while the driver struggles to get the car up the slope. Fortunately, somehow he manages, and as we reach the top we see him frantically speaking on the phone, probably asking for someone to pick us up. At least so we hope. I ask him how far we are and what’s the plan and he goes: about 14 km, get in the car, let’s try again. Oh boy.


The road gets worse and worse, but than goodness at least there’s no more steep slopes, so we actually do manage to reach the village, no idea how exactly, but oh well, we’re here!

I call Temirkhan, the man who’s gonna host us for the night, and he says we should wait by the blue mosque and he’ll come pick us up.

He shows up about 10 minutes later with two of his sons in an old SUV. We pay our driver and agree that one of his colleagues will come pick us up tomorrow and drive us back for the same price. We get in the SUV, whose seats are covered in velvet blankets with Kazakh patterns, and we reach our farm house.

It’s completely immersed in the green, hugged by the mountains. The garden is huge and there’s sheeps, horses, and dogs just wandering around freely. We sit on the porch of the wooden hut and simply enjoy the stunning view and the fresh air.

Temirkhan says lunch will be ready in a bit and that he’ll arrange a car for us to go to Lake Kaindy. Meanwhile, Ale asks for the bathroom, and Temirkhan looks at him and replies: У нас туалет на улице. Oh, it’s the hole, again. Whatever, we’re expert at this now, no big deal. I translate to Ale and he goes: “what do you mean ‘on the street’” – “You’ll see, you’ll see”.

As he comes back we start wondering if there’s even a shower and come to the conclusion that we’ll probably have to use buckets, Olkhon Island style. Still, nothing can be worse that Olkhon from this point of view.

Lunch is ready: plov with Kazakh bread, some sort of чебурек, and chai. We sit at the table in the living room with Temirkhan, his daughter Sinbad, two of is sons and two other guests. Temirkhan doesn’t seem big on chatting, he has this strange aura of earnestness and distance from the world. Like, there’s even a tinse of sanctity in it, like he comes from another reality and you can’t really get in there. There’s something weirdly likable about this silent, serious and smiley man, who’s facial features look like they’re carved in stone.

Lunch is delicious and after some 4-5 cups of chai we head outside and wait for our ride to the lake. Fortunately, they didn’t offer us Kumis, the traditional fermented mere milk. If you come across it, do not ever try it. Like, seriously, NEVER.

Our jeep is finally here and our driver is a boy who looks no older than 16-17 and who has beautiful, almond-shaped blue eyes.  We start our ride toward the lake, which is really more like a rally: we’re jumping through holes and bumps, crossing streams, cruising through forest tunnels. Clouds of dust float up from the ground as we pass and almost blind us. Marta and I had the great idea of sitting in the back, the back door being a mere opening, no glass not even a plastic window, cause “hey, we can better see the landscape this way!”. Yep, and by the time we enter the lake area my has turned from brown to white.

Our driver parks the jeep in a clearing, smiles, points us in the direction of the lake, and disappears behind the door of a yurt.

We walk down to the lake and WOW. It is stunning. The color of the water is so blue it seems unreal. It’s actually more green than blue. Trunks of trees emerge from its surface. Emerge, not float. It really looks like they’re literally standing on water.


Lake Kaindy was originated indeed as the result of a huge landslide triggered by an earthquake sometimes at the beginning of the 20th century. That explains why the dried-out trunks of submerged trees rise above the water surface. Wow. It’s breathtaking. Probably one of the weirdest, most interesting places I’ve been. It’s incredible what nature can create isn’t it?

We enjoy the amazing view, fill our bottles with fresh water from a stream and lay in the sun till it’s time to get back.

We find our driver working on some wooden structure with a bunch of other guys: they’re building a hut or something. We hop on our jeep and start our ride back. Two guys who were working on the hut with our driver follow us in their car.

Then, suddenly, their car stops while crossing a stream. One of the guys gets out and well, something is wrong with the engine or whatever, and they can’t get it going again. Oh man, I feel ya.

Not to worry though! Our driver pulls out a robe and a chain and hooks their car to ours. We’re gonna pull them! One of the two guys jumps on our jeep and rides with us, hanging on the outside, holding himself onto the roof. Gotta love the Kazakhs!


He then smiles and asks me if I’m married, which is apparently a fairly legit question over here, and I lie: “Ehm, yeah, yes I am married”. He’s kind of handsome. For a second, I imagine how it would be to fall in love with a guy like him, I mean for a European girl. What it would mean, like leaving everything and being his wife here in the mountains and doing whatever Kazakh wives do. Hell no, like, no way.

Back at our farm house, we really need a shower. We’ve got dust everywhere. Temirkhan tells us not to worry, he’ll prepare the sauna for us! Sauna? No, shower! Bath! And he goes: yes, yes we wash in the sauna!


So Marta and I go in first. It’s burning hot in there. We grab a bucket each and start filling it with water, mixing the steaming one with some cold one from a sink not to fry ourselves. And yes, one bucket, two bucket, god it’s hot in here, three buckets…

Once we finish, we get dressed and exit the sauna hut. I gotta say, I feel reborn. Really. My limbs are all relaxed and my whole body is at peace. Sauna shower. Look at that.

It’s now Ale’s and Gian’s turn, we wash our clothes and then sit on the porch. Meanwhile, Temirkhan sits with us and opens up a little and starts telling us about the Tian Shan mountains and his family. He even shows us the family book that goes back by some 200 years. They were all mountain farmers and as he speaks about it such pride and love for his land comes out of his eyes.

We have another lovely dinner and spend the rest of the evening outside, looking at the mountains.

July 17. Stay, Kazakhstan.

We wake up at 6 AM and Symbat has prepared for us an amazing breakfast, so we sit in the living room and enjoy it as we wait for our driver. Jeez this little girl is barely 14 and already has to take care of all the housework, including cooking for guests at 5 in the morning. And I thought I wasn’t spoiled..

Our  new driver arrives at 7. We hoped for a better car, one that at least looked more reliable that the one we took on our way in, but no, if anything, this one looks even older and more rickety. Well, let’s just hop in and hope it gets us back to Almaty.


We thank Temirkhan for the hospitality and give him the money for our stay. he doesn’t even check them, just thanks us in return and smiles.

We get in the car and get ready for the descent. It wouldn’t even be so bad if it weren’t for the heat. We are literally burning in a furnace. We told the driver to stop at Charyn Canyon on the way so that we could visit it and after a couple of hours he pulls over and here we are, staring at the Canyon.

It’s the second biggest canyon in the world after the Grand Canyon and it is stunning. It’s interesting how water can create such things, such shapes in the rocks.

We ask the driver if it’s possible to hike down and he says that technically yeah, that’s possible, but also quite dangerous on this trait so we decide to stay safe and just enjoy the view from the top.


The rift is about 80 km long and the part we’re looking at is the Valley of Castles, which is named this way because of its unusual rock formations that go down by some 100 meters.


We walk along the edge for a while and damn it’s hot. The sun is burning my skin and we’re almost out of water. We head back and hope to find some refuge in the car, but that only makes it worse, considering it literally turned into a furnace, giving that there’s no shade anywhere.

We hang in there for some 3 more hours till we’re finally back in Almaty. We get to the hostel, jump in the shower and chill for the rest of the afternoon.

It’s actually a national holiday today and as I’m laying in my bed, the hostel owner, who is also the son of the obnoxious reception lady, knocks on the door and invites me to try some of their national products. He has a glass of what looks like milk in his hand. Oh no, please no, don’t be Kumis.

He gives me a glass and goes, all excited: try it! try it! I close my eyes as I swallow a gulp and realized that, wait, this is actually not that bad, doesn’t really taste like Kumis. And indeed it’s Shubat, which is fermented camel milk, instead of fermented mere milk like kumis. I mean, not that I’d go on drinking it every day, but at least it’s drinkable. Oh no, here he pours another glass.

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Gian walks in and as soon as he sees the white glass in my hand, barres his eyes and starts walking backward, trying to escape. Too late! The owner has already spotted him and poured a glass of Shubat for him. He looks at the glass, fear in his eyes, as I tell him “relax, it’s not what you think it is”. He then warily looks at me and turns his back on the owner, as he takes a sip and makes a face, although it does agree with me that this is actually not as bad as we thought. I guess camel beats mere!

And if you think we’re overrecting about this whole fermented milk thing, you clearly have never tasted kumis.

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There’s also some sort of fried bread on the table, we take a bite, oil coming out of it from every side, it’s called Baursak.

We spend the afteroon talking to the owner, who turns out to be way friendlier than his mother, and who genuinely wants to know what we think about Kazakhstan and Almaty and gives us tips about Central Asia. He then goes: “you know what we central asian people say about each other? The Kazakh organize everything, the Uzbek work their asses off, and the Kyrgyz stand there and watch”. That’s an interesting description, a fairly accurate one, we’ll come to witness.

He also explains that yeah, President Nazarbaev has been in power for a long time, about 25 years, and yeah he holds a lot of power, so some may see him as a dictator, but the important thing is that he did good for Kazakhstan, he has fought corruption, kept the peace, made the economy boom and hence the people of Kazakhstan are doing well thanks to him. So really, who cares about who holds the power, when criminality is down and the economy is good? He’s just like a very controlling father who’s only looking out for his children. Go visit Kyrgyzstan and you’ll get it, he says. Democracy there yeah, many government changes, but also lots of riots, lots of corruption, poverty and criminality all around. You’ll see.

Well, we’re definitely curious now.

We decide to spend our last Kazakh evening in the city, having dinner in the center and just strolling around.

Cheers, P.


July 18. Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

We’re going to Kyrgyzstan today! We head to Sairan bus station early in the morning, buy our ticket to Bishkek for about 1300 Tenge and find our marshutka. A crowd of people, all locals, is already waiting on the platform, and since we know the marshutka’s gonna leave whenever all its seats are filled, we prepare ourselves for a fight to earn our spot.

So Marta and I are gonna put the bags in the back while Gian and Ale will find some seats. There’s a lot of pushing from all sides but, mission accomplished! We are on board. In about 5 hours we’ll reach our destination.


The lady in front of me keeps closing the window, god knows why, it’s terribly hot, and I keep trying to push it down. It’s seriously hard to breathe in here. We finally get to the border and it looks like we’ll have to pass through the customs control on foot, while our marshutka will wait for us on the other side. Well, “wait”, we’ve been told that if some of the passengers take too long to go through customs, marshutkas usually leave without them.

So we grab our bags and arm ourselves with determination, leaving behind any queueing manners. It’s not like anybody seems to respect them anyways over here. A chaotic mass of people is already trying to get through, officers struggling to restrain them and maintain some kind of order. Luckily, one of them sees that we’re foreigners and lets me and Marta through, Gian and Ale right behind us.

We get to the Kazakh immigration booths and get our stamps, then proceed on to the border river bridge and reach a smaller Kyrgyz immigration building. We have to knock on the window to get the attention of the officer, who grabs our passports and disappears for a few minutes. Once he’s back he hands us our stamped passport, without even getting a real look at our faces.

We walk toward our marshutka and flocks of taxi drivers are calling out from every side. A Kyrgyz girl almost has me fall on my face as she pushes me to surpass me. We decide to exchange money right away, so we find a currency exchange booth. There’s a woman changing her money at the counter, and we wait inside the little cabin to get some shade from the burning sun. As we do that she turns and barks at us in Russian: “don’t you see it’s my turn?” – I calmly reply that we’re just trying to get some shadow and did not intend to take her spot. But apparently that only makes her angrier, and she starts yelling something like: “You foreigners! You think you can do what you want? You’re in my country? Okay? My country!”. Jeez, “okay, calm down it’s okay” – I go, and oh boy, had I never said that, she turns to Gian, pushes him, then yells: “You pushed me! You touched me! Don’t touch me! I’m calling the police!”.

What the hell just happened? Fortunately, the lady at the counter gives her her money just in time, she grabs it and leaves, flames and smoke coming out of her hair.

Well, that was a warm welcome. Damn, these people seem angry!

Whatever, we get over it and hop back on our marshutka, which in about an hour gets us to Bishkek bus station. We grab a taxi from there and head directly to our hotel. Yeah, hotel, cause apparently there are no hostels in Bishkek, we weren’t able to find any anyways.

As we drive, we look out the window and are a little taken aback. This doesn’t look like a city, not even a Soviet one. It’s really more like a village stuck 50 years ago or something. Our hotel is located in some isolated street surrounded by trees and we’re lucky our driver knows how to find it.


As we walk in, we are greeted by a 15-year old boy who introduces himself as the hotel manager and shows us to our room. Wow, private bathroom. We’re not used to this sort of perks any more.

We really wanna go to Osh Bazaar today, so we ask him for directions, but he looks at us and replies: “Are you sure you wanna go there? It’s quite dangerous, especially for foreigners”. We tell him we really want to see it so he reluctantly tells us how to get there, along with a list of recommendations: “1) Beware of pickpockets, they are really aggressive in the bazaar”; 2) Do not show your passport to the police if they ask you to. You know it often happens that they ask this to foreigners and then tell them they have to check something at the police station, instead take you to some isolated street and rob you of everything, passport included. It’s just police is corrupted here. Also, if something like this happens, just pretend you are calling your embassy and that usually scares them off”.

Jeez, is that all? Kinda getting nervous now.

We thank him for the tips and his father even offers to drive us to the bazaar. The place is gigantic. Really you can literally find all sorts of stuff. Food, clothes, general appliances, phones, really think of whatever and you’ll find it there. It also looks like a labyrinth so it’s really easy to get lost. We stick together and walk through the food section first. We stop to buy some fresh juice and a cart full of dead goat heads stops in the middle of the street. People start approaching it and bargaining with the seller, picking up skulls and choosing whichever they like the most. What! I wish my eyes could unsee this but they can’t. One thing about Central Asians is that they eat literally every part of the animals they kill, skulls included.

We buy some clothes and souvenirs and then go on and visit the city. It’s a really ugly city. I mean, really ugly. And sad. Most buildings look like they’re gonna collapse any minute and the rest is just grey, soviet blocks.


Even the main square is sad, a whole army of pigeons sitting and pooping on the statue of some Kyrgyz warrior.


We head back to the hotel and decide to have dinner there, as we plan our trip to Issik Kul’ Lake tomorrow.

July 19. Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

As we browse to get some information about Issyk Kul lake and the best spots to visit it, we somehow bump into an article about Kyrgyzstan’s national sport: Dead Goat Polo. Yeah, you read that correctly. This “peculiar” pastime basically involves players riding horses and attempting to drag a goat carcass and throw it into a scoring circle!

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I mean, really? Yeah, really.

Anyway, back to our plan: we have to grab a marshutka from the Zapadny avtovokzal, from where it’ll take about 3-4 hours to reach Cholpon Ata, one of the main touristic hubs on the lake. It may not be the best part of the shore, as it hosts many resorts so we fear they may sort of spoil the atmosphere, but Karakol is too far for a one-day trip, so is the southern shore.

We pay the 250 soms for the ticket and hop on the marshutka. The landscape is incredibly beautiful: wild spaces ringed by mountains. No cities, no villages, just spaces.


We arrive in Cholpon Ata and the town is kind of exactly how we expected it to be from what we read. An old Soviet summer resort town, full of rich Kazakhs and Russians. The beach is very crowded, but what makes it interesting are the folkloristic yurts on the sand, the topchans, together with the random camels and the eagles perched on some 15-year old local boy.




Issyk Kul happens to be the second largest alpine lake in the world, lying about 1600 meters above sea level and surrounded by the peaks of the Tian Shan mountains. Its waters are slightly saline and warm, as they never freeze, not even in the coldest winters.


We find a spot to leave our stuff and jump in the water. It’s a beautiful day and it’s nice to just sit back and enjoy the sun.


When we start to feel hungry we enter one of the topchan-restaurants on the shore and order some local food. I just go with a simple salad cause I don’t think my stomach can take any more meat, but Ale is still in the “excitement-never had this before-gotta try it” mindset, so after finishing a huge plate of egg noodles with horse meat, he steps out, walks to an umbrella-stand, and comes back with a dried fish in his hand, smiling. Oh man, are you sure you wanna do that? I mean, I speak from experience, but I get his curiosity and as he reasserts his determination, he looks at me and goes “Wait, how do I eat this? Like, how are you supposed to eat this?”. I tell him that well, you first have to take the head off, then open it and just watch out for the bones.

After a few bites he realizes how salty the fish is, but it’s like he’s on a bet with himself, so he has to go through with it and finishes it. Yeah, he won’t be happy he did. Half an hour later his face starts going pale and his stomach decides to riot. Poor Ale! Hey, we tried to warn him, didn’t listen!

We need to get back to Bishkek at a reasonable time, possibly before it gets pitch dark, so at 5ish we return to the bus stop and find a bus to take us back.


The heat is now not as unbearable as this morning so this time we actually get to enjoy the ride. Yeah, enjoy till you can, I would tell myself now, and you’re about to find out why.

As soon as we step foot in Bishkek bus station, a flock of gypsy taxi drivers calls us from all sides, which is pretty normal here and we’ve gotten used to it so we don’t really mind. Then one of the drivers comes in my face and offers a ride for 300 som, which is about 3 times the price it should be: “300? No way”, I dismissively reply to him in Russian, and walk away. Never had I done that.

We reach the area where the official cabs are parked and Gian tries to get us one, when I suddenly see someone push him and slap him. What just happened? Gian is obviously crossed but, before the situation gets out of hand, Marta and I grab him and take him away. As we start walking we get immediately surrounded by what looks like 50 men, who somehow separate us and start pushing us back and forth, trying to get us into their cabs or vans. They’re all yelling and I see them punching and slapping the guys, throwing stuff at them, I feel someone touching me and grabbing me from behind, lifting me up. I pull away as hard as I can and manage to get away, disgusted. I can’t see Marta and at some point I hear her brother yelling her name, I run toward him, he grabs my hand and we finally see her behind a van. We manage to get to her and all move toward Gian, holding each other hands. At that point we just get into the first taxi we see and tell the driver: “Drive! Just drive!”.

What the hell just happened? Seriously what the hell? We look at each other in shock. And the worst part is that no one did anything about it! Hell we were at a station full of people who just stood there and looked as a bunch of men molested us. Why?!

The driver gets us to the hotel, we pay him and get the hell out of there. As we sit at one of the hotel tables in the courtyard, just trying to process what just happened, we tell the management boy, who just sort of shrugs his shoulders, as to say “well, I told you so, there’s nothing to do about it”.

Man, to hell with this country and its people, seriously, we all think. Thank goodness we’re getting the hell out of here tomorrow! Let’s just hope Uzbekistan will treat us better.

We eat our dinner in silence, everybody’s mood is down and everyone is sort of reacting in their own way: I’m pissed as hell, Marta is sad, Gian is scared and Ale is kind of trying to make some sense out of the whole thing.

Well, at least we’re all okay, and except for some bruises, nobody got seriously hurt.

July 20. Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

Our train is leaving at 12:30 from Bishkek central station today. We’re indeed moving to Uzbekistan, but since there are no running buses nor trains directly connecting Bishkek and Tashkent, we’re gonna have to go back to Kazakhstan, and then take a marshutka from Chimkent to Chernyaeva, which is a walking border, so we’ll have to get off the car, walk to the other side into Uzbekistan and then find a cab or something to Tashkent. Piece of cake.

Also, we’ve been told there are no ATMs in Uzbekistan and credit cards are not accepted anywhere, so we’re bringing cash, mostly Euros and USD, that we’ll have to exchange on the black market. Black market? Yeah, I know, we were kind of suspicious too when our friend Jan Japp, who’s traveled to Uzbekistan a few years back, strongly recommended us not to go through the official exchange, but apparently, everybody does so because the official rate is about 50% less convenient than the one you get on the black market. Basically, the inflation is so high that the currency gets constantly devalued, yet the government is unwilling to print higher notes, which translates into people having to literally carry stacks of bills around.

Hence, since the biggest piece they’ve got is 5000 Soms, which according to the black market rates is about 1.20 Euros,  you can imagine the amount of cash you’re gonna get when you try and exchange something like 100 Euros. The only problem with the black market is that they may try to rip you off and insert smaller pieces like 1000 soms pieces into a 5000 soms stack. Taxi drivers usually do this, so: “always count the money! At least try!”.

Well, this all sounds definitely interesting, we’ll see how that goes!

Anyways, back to our plan, we buy some provisions for the journey, pack our bags and get ready to leave, when Zhika, a Kyrgyz friend of ours from Moscow, texts Marta and says she just got back to Bishkek and will come pick us up to say hi. She arrives all dolled up and insists to take us to eat something before we go. It’s already 11:30 and we only have one hour before our train leaves, but she’s like: “Yes yes don’t worry I will take you to the station just let’s go quick quick”. Oh boy, we are so gonna miss our train.

We get to a local restaurant and sit on one of the topchans as Zhika orders kyrgyz plov and bread and meat, insisting it’s on her. It’s 11:45. We start chugging the food, which is very tasty, but we’re in such a hurry we can’t even enjoy it. 12:00. Okay, we’ve really got to go now.

Once we’re back in the car, Zhika asks which station we need to go to, “Uhm, the main one” – “Oh, okay, cause there are two, and I’ve never been to either” – You’ve never been to the station in your city?” – “Well, I’ve never taken the train here, I go by plane or car always!”. Right.

The traffic is terrible, Zhika doesn’t really know her way, plus she decides to stop at a kiosk to buy us food for the road, pirozhki, the best in town. “But Zhika, really you don’t need to! You’ve been so kind already! Oh, okay, thank you”. Yep, we’re missing the train.

At 12:25 we reach the station, grab our bags and quickly hug Zhika goodbye as we run to the first counter we see, hoping they can point us to the right platform. We show our tickets to the cranky lady behind the glass window, then she looks at us like we’re stupid and goes: “Ваш поезд отправляется через 4 часа” (your train leaves in four hours) – “четыре часа? Нет,здесь написано 12:30!” (what do you mean in four hours? It says here 12:30) – “Да, время московское ” (yes, Moscow time) – “Mosc.. oh, damn, really? What the..?!”.

We look at each other and laugh, half embarrassed and half genuinely amused. The soviet railway system strikes again! I mean, we bought the ticket in Kazakhstan! Why in the world would they indicate the Moscow time! This makes no sense. So yeah, ex-Soviet railways still refer to Moscow, even if you’re not actually in Russia and no matter where you buy your freaking ticket. Anyways, this is actually a good news! It means we still have some time to hang out.

Zhika takes us to her house, well, mansion (which really feels out of place in Bishkek, like it does not fit at all with the rest of the city), where her mother greets us and offers us watermelon and three glasses of an unidentified homemade drink: “It’s traditional from Kyrgyzstan!” – goes Zhika. It has a brownish color with some lighter transparent spots that look like oil. Zhika explains that it’s made of fermented wheat and it’s supposed to be very healthy, especially in the summer. What’s with people in Central Asia fermenting everything?


After our experiences with Asian fermented drinks, none of us really feels like drinking this, but it’s not like we have a choice, so I swallow a gulp and try not to make a face. Yeah, I can’t even explain the taste, I just grab a piece of watermelon, hoping it’ll make it go away.

Zhika changes into  comfier clothes and asks us what we wanna do, so we figure a shisha bar would be cool. We go to a nice hookah place and spend the afternoon smoking and chilling, till it’s time to get back to the station, this time in reasonable advance.


We thank Zhika for her hospitality and kindness, she really sort of turned our general impression of the Kyrgyz people after yesterday’s “incident”, and we hop on the train. It’s now 4:30 PM, local time, we’ve got food, we’ve got beds, and a beautiful view on the Kyrgyz wastelands.


Cheers, P.


July 21. Chimkent, Kazakhstan.

It’s 4 AM and it’s pitch dark. We get off the train and, despite the early hours, Chimkent train station is already buzzing with people engaged in all type of things, old ladies pushing carts filled with packaged food, taxi drivers smoking by their cars, little kids running around and passengers boarding and getting off the trains, with their white sacks on their shoulders.

We spot a man smoking a cigarette and ask him where we can find the marshutkas going to the Chernyaeva border. He’s a taxi driver so, of course, instead of answering our question, he starts bargaining and trying to convince us to take his taxi. He seems like a nice guy so in the end we opt for riding with him rather than waiting a couple of hours for the first marshutka to leave. Gian seems pretty wary of the whole 4 AM gypsy taxi drive to a walking border somewhere in the -Stans, but well, Marta and I make the decision and hop in the car.

And god, what a ride. I mean, the first 15 minutes are actually not that bad, meaning there is actually a cemented road, sort of lit by a street light here and there. Then I look out the window and see a corpse lying face up on the side of the road. A woman. A whole bunch of people is gathered around her, two crashed cars behind them. It’s a dreadful scene and as I turn my face not to look at it and trying to control my breathing, the driver lightly explains that oh yeah, happens all the time on this road, as he speeds past them.

This however seems to have triggered is eagerness for conversation, so he starts asking questions about us, and since I’m not in the mood after what I just saw, I let Gian handle the conversation from his front seat.

Question #1: “вы женаты?” Are you married? – there you go. Since there is really only one correct way to answer this question is Central Asia: “oh yes, she’s married to me and she’s married to him”. The man immediately gets relaxed, as if we’ve passed some sort of test and nods “хорошо хорохо. Это хорошо”. The questions keep coming till at some point I hear something like: “so you let your wife handle money? I give my wife money sometimes but I am always in charge of the money! It’s better this way!” – Gian is just as startled as I am, wondering if he understood well, and just awkwardly replies with a “да да”, hoping to let the subject drop.

Fortunately, or not, a new subject naturally comes up: there is no road anymore. We’re riding through what looks like a desert and suddenly our car gets stuck. “Oh, don’t worry” – Our guy says – “They are still building the road, see?” and point to a truck moving dirt from one place to another. He then pulls behind, pushes on the accelerator and manages to get the car going. We’re literally in the middle of nowhere, how does he even manage to know his way? Is he even taking us to the border?

I look at Marta and as we always do in these situations our silent answer is: let’s just hope for the best. An attitude that has always brought us luck so far, and indeed at about 6 AM we approach an area full of parked cars, a few currency exchange boxes and a big gate. This must be it. The driver tells us to get off and walk to other side. We pay him and thank him, then head toward the gate.

We take out our passports and start going through security checks. One of the soldiers sitting on a plastic chair past the first gate grabs my passport, looks at me and smiles: “where are you from, Turkmenistan?” – “Ehm, no, Italy”. Man, that’s a new one! I mean, I’ve been asked whether I’m from Lebanon, Turkey, Spain, Mexico, but well, Turkmenistan? Ha!

He hands me my passport back and directs me to a building packed with people. We enter and start standing in line in front of the immigration booths.It looks like we’re the only “foreigners”, everyone else is either from Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan, carrying sacks and boxes full of stuff. Once it’s my turn, the officer takes a good look at me and then stamps my Kazakh visa, letting me pass through.

As I exit the building, an Uzbek soldier is sitting on a plastic chair, checking passports before he lets people through. I show him mine and wait for the others. We’re now walking through some sort of corridor, soldiers standing every ten meters holding their rifles, till we reach another building. And it’s chaos inside. A crowd of people is pushing each other, moving toward the immigration entrance, while others are sitting and leaning everywhere, filling up some sort of forms. It doesn’t take long for us to figure out that the crowd is actually pushing to grab the forms from an officer standing near the entrance, “distributing” such papers. Okay, let’s do this.

Gian and I join the crowd and slowly move forward, trying to avoid getting bruised. Finally, we manage to get 4 forms and zigzag our way back to Marta and Ale. Once we get a chance to actually read the forms though, we realize it’s all written in Uzbek. Great. How are we supposed to fill these out? We try to ask some people for help, but either they’re Uzbeks who can’t speak Russian or they’re Kazakhs who can’t speak Uzbek and are just as confused as we are. Finally, we find a man who speaks both languages, well, claims to, and gives us some hints, although he’s in a hurry and just quickly explains us what to put in the main blanks, then disappears. Meanwhile, behind us, a guy is copying from our forms, which is funny, cause, dude, we have no idea what we’re even writing.

Half an hour later, with a little help from here and there, we’ve completed our forms: victory! Now back in line. this time to actually pass through and reach the immigration booths. Using our backpacks as shields, we navigate through the crowd and get to the first desk, where we hand in our passports and forms. The officer looks at us and goes: “where is the other form?” – “What form? Here!” – ” Yes, you need two copies each.” – “What?” You’ve got to be kidding!

So back to the distributing officer, completing the forms, again, and sailing back to the controls desk. Now that we’ve got TWO copies, the officer actually checks what we’ve written, scrutinizing the part where we’ve declared our possessions and the amount of cash we’re bringing in. An average of 300 dollars for me, Marta and Ale, and… 900 Euros for Gian. When we read he’s actually carrying all that cash, Marta and I look at him like ” you are crazy!”. He smiles, embarrassed, and explains it’s all hidden inside his belt. Oh great, except the officer actually wants to see all that money, so here we go thinking there’s a bribe in store for us, while Gian takes off his belt, terrorizing the old lady sitting on a cart next to him, and pulls out a bunch of tinily folded bills, for the officer to count. And… no bribe! The man just hands him back the money and tells us we are free to head on to the final checks.

We put our bags into the metal detectors, reach the immigration booths and, finally, get our visas stamped! We made it! We’re in Uzbekistan! As we step out of the building, a bunch of men approach us, taxi drivers, mostly, asking if we need a ride or if we want to exchange money. Tashkent is less than an hour away so we negotiate our price and hop into an old car, one of those you would see in the ’80s. We debate whether we should trust the guy and exchange money with him and in the end decide to change like 20 dollars to see if the whole black market thing is legit.

So once we reach the city, the drivers pulls over in a back street, gets off the car and says he’s going to get the money. Oh-kay. Five minutes later he is back with a stack of bills. It’s 84000 Soms, all in pieces of 1000. We count them and it’s indeed 84 pieces, although we have no way to tell if they’re counterfeited or not at this point. Anyway, we take it and tell the driver the address of our hostel, which he easily finds.

We pay him and walk in. The place is really cool, young and hip and, although our beds are not ready yet, we can rest on the topchans on the upper floor, which kind of looks like an inner terrace. The other guests are all western travellers, mainly solo bikers and “walkers”, yeah, you get these in Central Asia, people just hitchhiking their way to the East. Finally! A “normal” hostel.

As the others crash on the topchan pillows upstairs, I head to the kitchen and try to make some coffee. I’m so tired I can’t even see the water boiler on the counter, till I hear a voice pointing me to it. I turn around an Irish guy with scruffy hair and a big smile introduces himself to me and we start talking. His name is Alex and he biked his way here from Ireland. Yes, biked! He even crossed Turkmenistan on a transit visa, which only allows you to stay in the country for 5 days, and as he tells me of his misadventures through the desert I am amazed. He’s got no phone nor laptop or anything, all he needs is his bike and some paper maps so he decides which way to go as he goes along. He’s been on the road for about six months now and will keep going east, though he admits his routes do not follow an exact logic, like he says he went all the way to Morocco and then turned back and recycled to the Alps.

“But that doesn’t really matter you know?” he says “I just go with the flow, sleep where I can, and sometimes you end up sleeping in amazing places, sometimes it’s on a bed of leaves under the stars, sometimes it’s inside a museum, once I even slept on a luxury boat on the Cote d’Azur after I sort of broke in! You know it’s just at some point my life was kind of figured out, I was about to get married to this girl and then I thought why? Why do I have to do this? And once I got myself an answer there’s no way back you know? Cause we all try to live our lives and make them into a straight line, but that’s not natural. That’s not how nature, how the universe works, you know? Think of the seasons, think of the tides, the waves in the sea, it’s ups and downs! So why fight it? It’s okay, sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down and that’s okay. It’s the beauty of it you know?”

Wow, yes! I love you.

And the way he says all this, it’s so genuine and natural, void of artificialities, that it brightens everything up. Even when he asks me what I’m gonna be up to once I get back to Italy and I go “I have no idea”, he stays true to that and tells me: “Well, you know, that’s great! Interesting people never know what they’re going to do. Cause there’s so many possibilities, right?” – Right! Best answer to the question I hate the most.

Anyways, our bed are finally ready, but we decide to pretend we’re not dead tired and head out to explore Tashkent. Our first stop is the bazaar. It’s huge and chaotic and completely awesome. The smell of fresh bread is pervasive and everything is so colorful. Even the people are colorful, and as we look at more and more of them, I notice how beautiful some of them are. They are actually very different from the Kyrgyz and Kazakhs, they don’t have those Mongolian features, they rather resemble the Persians: bright dark skin, thick black hair and deep green eyes, with lashes that last for miles.

We make it to the clothing and tapestry area and decide to try and exchange some money. If anything, this is the place to do it. We enter a small shop and ask the lady if she can exchange about 100 USD for each of us. Her eyes light up as she says “of course!”. She then starts moving some things around and pulls out  box full of cash, hidden beneath some scarves. “1 USD = 4300 Soms, okay?” – “Sure! Great!”. Man, that means 430,000 Soms for each of us! How are we even gonna count them! Not to worry though, she has a money counter machine in the shop. She just insterts the stacks of 1000 Soms bills in the thing, which starts scrolling them and counting them for us. Cool! This whole black market thing seems pretty legit after all.

I now have like 5 stacks of bills in my lap, which I put in my back but can’t help but feeling like someone who just robbed a bank. The lady is counting the money for Gian, but as we basically took all that she had in that box (400 USD is a LOT here), she smiles at him and tells him not to worry, then puts her hand inside the upper part of her dress and pulls out two more stacks of bills from her breast! What? She seriously had them hidden under her bra. Amazing! I love this country already.

We decide to hold the shopping for another day and visit the rest of the city, a few mosques and mausoleums, to which we are escorted by a 60-ish-year old local, who voluntarily offers to guide us, no money asked.


Tashkent is a strange city, it has a few contrasts. It definitely seems more developed than Bishkek, at least infrastructurally speaking, but at the same time it really depends on the areas. There’s the crowded, chaotic and dusty bazaar, there’s the back streets with their old, modest houses, and then you get these polished, newly-constructed buildings with their square shapes, these large empty roads with their shiny cement, a huge park where the grass is so green it almost looks fake and here and there, golden plates reciting something like “this area was created and realized thanks to the great president of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov”.


Karimov is indeed in power since 1990 and has installed a highly authoritarian, personalized regime on the one side, and focused on de-russianizing the country after the long Soviet rule, reintroducing old Uzbek customs and traditions and promoting the Uzbek language, on the other. He also set himself firmly against islamism and any type of its radicalization, which explains why Uzbeks are in fact muslims for the majority, but are also very open and moderate.


Anyway, the first impression of the country is definitely positive and we can’t wait to head on to Samarkand and discover one of the oldest cities in Central Asia!


July 22. Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Time to head to Samarkand! I am excited like a little kid on Christmas eve. This city is just so legendary that I am buzzing with curiosity. I remember when I was in first grade and the teacher would play us this old Italian song by Roberto Vecchioni called “Samarcanda”, which reinterprets an old Arab story about a servant who meets non-other than Death at the village market. So he runs to his master asking for the fastest horse in order to run away from the black lady, toward Samarkand. The master then goes to the market asking Death why she scared his servant and she replies that she was just surprised to see him there because she was waiting for him in Samarkand that same night!

I don’t know why exactly but that song had a huge impact on me, it’s like I have this vivid memory of it, and it gave me this image coupled with a big question mark about this legendary city somewhere East.

So we wake up early and head directly to the main station, in the hope of finding a train or a bus to take us to one of the oldest inhabited cities in Central Asia. Obviously, no trains are apparently heading there this morning and before we even make it to the bus and marshutkas parking spot, we are once again surrounded by taxi drivers who start bargaining with us and, eventually, we end up agreeing for a private drive.

We get in the car and in no time we’re out of the city, the arid lands surrounding us, one lonely dusty road to guide us. Here and there, cotton fields and police cars parked on the side of the road. Actually, as we look closer, we realize they’re fake, they’re not even cars, but shapes of cars, planted as to scare the drivers out of speeding. So sort of deterrence measure, apparently, cheaper than using real cars and real officers.

I look out the window and somehow, unexplainably, I feel good. Like, really good, free, unafraid. And I tell myself that yes, do not be afraid, the flow goes and you just go. Never be afraid, do not force it, don’t force anything, just go with whatever. Ups and downs, and it’s beautiful like that, even the downs, it’s all just natural, like the waves, like the tides. Stability is a fake, it’s a mockup. It’s like we’re obsessed with it, we’ve been taught to look for it, to hold on to it. So we cling on to everything, but there’s no need. Movement is the most beautiful thing, movement is life. Once you understand this, just go with it, there’s no way back. The earlier you get it the better. And I, i feel like I’ve seen too much to go back. Once you realize it, it’s too late to reteach yourself the acceptable way, what society put in your head since you were little. It’s too late. So go, change, don’t be afraid. There’s so many possibilities, and each of them is valid, each way is okay. There’s no right way to do anything, there’s just your way, no dogmas, except be true to yourself, and don’t hurt others. Reshuffle. Reset. No fear. Never hate.

We finally arrive in Samarkand and the driver drops up right across the Registon, framed by its three madrasas. It is majestic. There’s no other word to describe it.


Our guesthouse shouldn’t be too far from here, so we start walking around, getting lost obviously. Fortunately, a nice Uzbek guy, originally from Samarkand but who studies in the States, offers to help us out and takes us right were we should go.

The guesthouse is really nice, it has a huge inner courtyard with topchans and terraces all around. While the owner prepares our rooms, he invites us to sit on one of the topchans for some tea and nuts as we wait. Everything is so colorful, covered in patterned carpets and curtains.



We leave our stuff and start exploring the city. As we walk the streets I feel there’s something undisclosed about it, it’s real life hidden, like they  put on shiny windows for tourists to see, highlighted paths for them to follow, while keeping them out of the dirt of the real streets, the chaos of its real people, the real Samarkand of today is hard to detect.

It’s sort of disappointing, almost disheartening really. The legendary city I imagined from the stories passed on about it is nothing like I imagined it. Or better said, there’s nothing left of it. Of its authenticity. And now that I saw it, now that I’ve been here, that romantic dream-like image of it I had in my mind is gone too.

That said, Samarkand still remains and incredibly interesting place and we did bump into some amazing stuff. The Guri Amir, the mausoleum of the great conqueror Tamerlan, for once. Its massive architectural complex with its light-blue dome contains the tombs of Tamerlane and his sons and grandsons, and its interior blue and golden decorations are something almost outworldly.


One curious fact about Tamerlane’s, or Timur’s, tomb is that it was allegedly inscribed with the words “When I rise from the dead, the world shall tremble” and “Whosoever disturbs my tomb will unleash an invader more terrible than I”, which fed the so-called legend of the “curse of Tamerlane”. Now, when Stalin ordered the exhumation of Tamerlane in 1941, he charged Russian anthropologist Mikhail Gerasimov with the task, who opened the tomb on June 20, 1942. Exactly two days later, on June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union without any formal declaration of war, in an operation named by Adolf Hitler Operation Barbarossa. After numerous defeats by the Germans, Stalin finally ordered that the remains of Timur be returned to his tomb in Samarkand with full Islamic burial rights, which was done on December 20, 1942. Shortly after that, the Soviets won the Battle of Stalingrad, one of the bloodiest battles of World War II, and reversed the fate of the war. Coincidence?


Another stunning site is the Bibi Khanym Mosque, the biggest mosque in Central Asia. According to the legend,  the mosque was built by order of Tamerlane’s favorite wife, Bibi-Khanym, in honor of his return from a trip to India. It was supposed to be the most grandiose creation of Samarkand, but the lead architect fell madly in love with the beautiful queen, and delayed the completion of the works in any possible way. Bibi Khanum was furious and when she asked the architect to hurry with the construction, the architect stated that he would completed the mosque in time for Timur’s return, only if she allowed him to kiss her. The queen reluctantly agreed with the terms, but the kiss was so hot that it left a bright trace on her cheek. When Timur returned and noticed the mark on his wife’s cheek, he was furious, so he ordered that part of the mosque was transformed into a tomb and buried Bibi Khanym alive, then killed the architect and finally ordered all women to wear a veil and hide their beauty. Here, according to the legend, lies the origin of the chador.


An enormous marble Quran stand sits in the inner courtyard and local lore has it that any woman who crawls under the stand will have lots of children.

Still, the spot that most stuns me for its mysterious and unique architectural vibe is Shakhi Zinda Necropolis, located on a hill in the northern part of Samarkand. It is basically an ensemble of eleven ancient mausoleums made up of rows of sparkling blue colored domed buildings, lined up along narrow medieval streets. It is the burial place of royals and nobles, but the most famous “alleged” grave is that of Prophet Muhammad’s cousin, Kusama Ibn Abbas, who, according to a legend,  came to preach in Samarkand in 640, spent there 13 years and was beheaded by the Zoroastrians during his prayer.



It is here, in this necropolis, that I somehow get a vibe of what this city once was.

We end the day at the Bazaar, which, like any bazaar in Central Asia, doesn’t disappoint with its colors, smells and well, occasional cow meat stuffed in the truck of a car and put on sale. But hey, who wouldn’t buy it?




And yeah the “where the hell do I put all this worthless money?” continues. Freezers seem like a good spot no?


July 23. Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

We start our day with a glorious breakfast served on the upper terrace of the hostel, overlooking the Registon. There’s all sorts of stuff, fruits, cheeses, bread, eggs and so on.




As we eat, we make friends with this middle-aged Irish couple who been travelling by car and who’s just arrived by ferry from Azerbaijan and then through Turkmenistan. They tell us that it took them about two days to cross the Caspian sea, as they got stuck on a cargo ferry  which just wouldn’t leave. Apparently it’s normal on the Caspian sea, since there are no commercial ferries but only cargo ones, and all you can do is negotiate a ride with the captain and wait till they decide to leave. Nice, I wanna do it! They also tell us they had no idea about the no-atm thing here in Uzbekistan so they did not bring enough cash to exchange so they’re now counting money and hoping it’ll be enough for their stay. Poor guys!

We spend the morning visiting the Registon, the heart of the ancient city of Samarkand, a public square framed by three massive madrasas, where people attended royal proclamations, executions and other events.






We visit the three madrasas, admire their mosaic patterned decorations and visit local craftsmen’s shops located in their inner courtyards. We even give in to a very commited seller and buy a Suzani, a typical uzbek handmade carpet with beautiful zoroastrian patterns. Although it is hard to tell what this place must have been once, due to its numerous renovations, the high level of security guards lurking at every angle and the crowd of tourists, it still remains incredibly impressive, like few places in the world probably are.

Anyway, time to move on to our next destination: Bukhara, which lies about 4 hours north of here. We grab our stuff and head to the bus station, where we manage to fend off the hungry taxi drivers and get a ride on a bus packed with locals, transporting all sorts of stuff, mattresses, tvs, carpets, textiles, food, there is literally no room to walk the aisle and reach our seats, we have to climb on top of the packages! Marta and I find a spot in the last row, and as we lay down we notice everybody is looking at us, literally everybody on the bus. Two Uzbek girls sitting next to us smile and ask where we’re from, then offer us some pillows to be more comfortable. They’re dressed in the same pink patterned dresses and as I close my eyes, I notice they keep staring at us but everytime I somehow catch them, they shyly turn their faces or awkwardly smile. I wander what they’re life looks like, where they’re going and I somehow feel close to them.


July 24. Bukhara, Uzbekistan.

We arrived in Bukhara last night and I immediately felt like I had fallen into the world of Aladdin. Everything about this city, it’s atmosphere, it’s air, it’s streets is somewhat surreal and as I spent the evening laying on a topchan in the inner courtyard of our hostel, watching the starry sky, I felt like that sort of quiet and peaceful detachment that you experience in dreams.

This city is indeed more than 2000 years old and probably the most complete example of a Central Asian medieval city, its urban structure having remained vastly intact, contrary to Samarkand. Mostly, this city feels alive in its authenticity, it does not feel like a city-museum where you get to see what they want you to see, what the local government put out for show for the tourists. You walk these streets and see the locals, going about with their daily activities, framed by incredibly beautiful ancient Islamic architecture.




Every corner has something to offer, something to admire, from the beautiful madrasas, to the majestic mosques, the trading domes and the local carpet shops.




We end up at the carpet bazaar and are amazed by the beauty and refinery of the huge carpets produced here. We even visit the shop of a carpet-maker, who shows us her work and explains how long its takes for her to create the various carpets (about 8-10 months on average) and all the types of materials she uses, from silk to camel wool.





We also visit the Ark Fortress, the ancient citadel once a residence of the Bukhara khans, whose oddly-shaped towers are very fascinating. According to the legend, the Ark was created by the epic hero Siyavusha, who, when he was a boy, hid from his stepmother in the rich oasis of Turana. He then fell in love with the daughter of the local ruler of Afrosiaba, who agreed to allow them to marry, only if Siyavusha first built a palace on the area bounded by a bull skin, which was obviously intended as an impossible task. However, Siyavusha cut the bull skin into slender strips, connected the ends, and inside such boundary built the palace.


To my surprise and pleasure, we even get to enter a Mosque, which never happened to me before, as, being a woman, I was never allowed to enter. Although you can definitely feel you are in a Muslim country when in Uzbekistan, it is also true that everybody seems quite moderate about it and open to foreigners, which is most likely part of President Karimov policy to fend off all types of radicalizations after the country gained independence from the Soviet Union. The interior of the mosque is beautiful, its walls entirely decorated in blue and golden mosaics. A little boy sitting in a corner slightly moves up his head to look at us as we enter, and quickly returns to reading his quran.




It is almost prayer time, so we hurry outside, as a group of men lays down beautiful red and golden carpets before the entrance of the mosque. A group of old men sitting on a topchan notices us and greet us, welcoming us to their country and inviting us to take a picture of them, “na pamyat”.

We continue on to the bazaar and enjoy its beautiful confusion.





It’s however past noon and the sun is definitely too strong to keep walking around, our skin is already getting burned to we conveniently find refuge in a restaurant-kiosk near the stream just outside the bazaar. There’s a bunch of topchans in the shadow of the treets and two men are grilling shashliks on a barbeque. Best spot for lunch.


We then continue our walk through the city streets and reach the beautiful Chor Minor, a 19th century picturesque structure, whose name literally means “four minarets”. It was originally the gatehouse to a madrasa later demolished and was built in 1807 by Khalif Niazkul, a rich Bukharian merchant of Turkmen origin. The curious thing about this structure is its minarets with their sky blue domes, which have nothing in common with ordinary minarets. Also, the towers’ decorations are believed to reflect the religious-philosophical understanding of the world’s four religions.


The Kalyan Minaret is stunning at sunset. Built in 1127 it has survived since then and still dominates the skyline of the city with its sinuous shape circular formed by baked bricks that narrow from its thick base to the top.


We spend the evening visiting the shops in the trading domes, buying souvenirs and negotiating for Gian, who is determined to buy a carpet. In the end, he scores a deal with an old lady for an 80-year old silk carpet for just 80 dollars. Still, since it is forbidden to export anything which is older than 100 years out of Uzbekistan, the lady has to release a “certificate” stating that the carpet isn’t as old, which is basically a peace of paper where she signs her name. No phone number, no contact or anything in case something goes wrong at the border. Uhm. we’ll see what happens, once again!


July 25. Bukhara, Uzbekistan.

Our morning starts with an awkward situation for Gian, who gets stuck in the bathroom, and lots of laughs for me and Marta. We call the hostel owner who basically has to disassemble the door to finally free Gian! Anyway, crisis averted and we pack our stuff and negotiate a ride to Khiva.


As we drive, we realize we are literally in the middle of the desert, the is nothing whatsoever around us for kilometers. The city is indeed sandwiched between the wide Kyzylkum and Karakum deserts, and lies just a few kilometers away from the Turkmenian border.


We stop to put gas and the gas station is one of those old Soviet ones. We look at the dispensers as our driver fills the car and just pray we’re not gonna end up stranded once again.



Around noon, our driver insists for us to stop and get some lunch at a tavern by the road, where apparently they cook incredibly delicious fish – fish? In the middle of the desert? We sit at the table and order this mysterious fish, and notice a European guy sleeping on a topchan, next to his bicycle. He must be another crazy backpacker biking his way east. As he wakes up, he starts talking to us and we can tell how happy he his to be able to exchange a few words with foreigners, as he’s been biking across the desert for days. We eat our fish with melon and wine, which is actually not so bad and get back on the road.


It is almost 5 PM by the time we arrive in Khiva, as we had to exchange rides in Urgench and grab a local taxi. Our guesthouse lays just a few meters outside the Itchan Kala, that is the old city, surrounded by a mud-made wall. The entrance is majestic and everything reflects the typical Islamic architecture, although everything within the wall does look more like a museum than a city. People indeed don’t actually live within the walls, which mostly contain souvenir shops, restaurants and the numerous madrasas and mosques. The population is in fact concentrated in the modern Dichon Kala, the Soviet-looking part of the city.

As we walk within the walls, it is hard to imagine how this city once was and its long and brutal history as a slave trading post along the Silk Road. According to a legend, Khiva was founded about 2500 years ago when Shem, a son of Noah,  discovered a well in the middle of the desert and exclaimed “Khi-wa!” (“sweet water”).

Around the 16th century, the city was made capital of an Islamic Khanate and started a bitter rivalry with the Khan of Bukhara, 450 km down the Silk Road. It was during this period that the majority of Khiva’s immense architectural projects began and the town established itself as a center of power in the region.




We immediately stumble upon the beautiful blue and green Kalta Minor minaret. It is massive and we discover its weird shape is due to the fact that it is unfinished. It was indeed supposed to compete with the Kalon Minaret in Bukhara and to be tall enough for the Khan to be able to see Bukhara from its top, however the architect fled before the project was terminated.


As the sun goes down, the city becomes magic, its harmonic shapes taking us back in time, the time of the mythical Arabian nights.



July 26. Khiva, Uzbekistan


After another abundant Uzbek breakfast, we spend the day walking through the streets of the old city, admiring its madrasas, mosques and minarets and getting lured in by experienced sellers of all types of textiles.
























And as the day ends and we prepare to leave this surreal place to head back to the totalitarian Tashkent, a piece from the Arabian nights seems like the best way to end this experience:

When the call of the hudud,
echoes through the palm fronds
carrying in their mists,
visions, memories:

caravans of high spirited steads,
crisscrossing the endless seas of sand,
rushing through the oasis,
free, yet under control.

Of women washing in the hot springs,
sheltered in the evergreen palms,
weaving baskets,
cooking, sewing, scampering after the herds,
of days filled with toil.

Visions, memories:
cascading starlight,
casting its mild light over campsites,
the moonlight’s silver shadow
illuminating bearded faces,
young boys thumping their feet
to the wild desert drum beat
Dana, ya dan dan
singing of the pearls in the far away gulf
Dana, ya dan dan

The warm cardamom scented breeze
carrying the fresh coffee aroma,
warming, sizzling in the golden hooked pots
to the young giggling girls
shyly peeking from behind the partitioned tent walls.

Flames flickering in the pit
wood slowly consumed, sparks flying,
dancing to the strain: dana, ya dan dan.

The cry of the hudud
sweeps through the quiet morning air,
to the dawn of a new century.
Visions, memories,
blown away by the winds of change.

– Nimah Ismail Nawwab

Cheers, P.