Ngaire Phillips

I'm an environmental scientist with a passion for exploring.
Living in: Hamilton, New Zealand
  • Day36

    Turkish delight

    June 20 in Turkey ⋅ ⛅ 23 °C

    Being independent travellers again was a welcome change after 32 days travelling with others. Tours definitely have benefits, with the opportunity to travel with interesting others being a highlight. But having ones time organised on a daily basis is less appealing. And indeed the tour itself had in fact felt like 3 separate tours, with different guides with their own styles. We had to work hard to retain that sense of being "along the Silk Road" (as opposed to just going to interesting places.

    Istanbul is the magical city where East meets West, with the Asian and European sides clearly demarcated by the Bosphorous, a narrow, natural strait. The cultural influences of the many empires that once ruled here is especially evident in the very compact Old City, which makes seeing the sites very easy.

    After dragging our suitcases along steep and narrow cobbled streets, then up 5 flights of stairs to our AirBNB, we settled in to our home for the next 4 nights, acquainting ourselves with our hosts Sui and Ibriham and their 3 cats. The sweeping views of the Bosphorous from our top floor apartment were breathtaking, with the construction cranes in the foreground only marginally impacting on the quality of the experience.
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  • Day34

    The tour ends but not our adventure

    June 18 in Uzbekistan ⋅ ☀️ 34 °C

    One thing that Uzbekistan has done well is turn their traditions into thriving businesses. Carpet weaving, metal craft, ceramics, silk work and the like contribute to the economies of small towns and larger cities alike, often geared to the tourist industry. It's easy to be sceptical about the authenticity of goods sold from a city stall, which makes the experience of purchasing from someone actively engaged in producing the goods special. I had the pleasure of purchasing a lovely top from a man sitting at a sewing machine in tiny workroom within a memorial complex we visited in Chor Bakr, a small village out of Bukhara.

    The memorial complex of Chor Bakr was built over the burial place of Anu Bakr Said who died in the year 360 of the Muslim Calendar (970-971 AD). He was one of the four of Abu-Bakrs (Chor-Bakr) who were thought to be descendants of Muhammad. Because of this connection, the Bukharan aristocracy liked to be buried there. It's now become a bit of a pilgrimage site. It was quite pleasing to see something that looked to be largely unrestored (for a change).

    Next stop was the Sitorai Mohi Hosa Palace, which was the summer palace of the last Emir, Alim Khan. Built in 1911, the three-building compound incorporates elements of both Russian and traditional Bukharan architecture. Building actually started in the late 19th century and occurred over a 20 year period, which explains the differences in style. The interior rooms were quite over the top! Particularly impressive was the exterior of the White Hall and the completely separated Harem. The latter is situated some distance from the main buildings, beside a large pool and pavillion. Apparently the women would frolic in the pool and the Emir would stand on the pavilion and toss an apple to the chosen one.

    As well as being the place where the Sufi Order was founded, Gijduvan has gained fame as a centre for glazed ceramic production. This was also the final tourist site of our tour. Our trip notes indicated we'd be having a "masterclass" with ceramic artists. But that was not to be, instead being given a description of the process undertaken (which is impressive), before being shepherded into their showroom. Unfortunately not to our taste but we were treated to a glimpse of Muslim school life as another group visiting were holding a music demonstration for family and friends.

    Back in Bukhara for a free afternoon and morning, which was mostly spent in our hotel room to avoid the heat. A 4 hour train trip back to Tashkent followed by a pleasant farewell dinner. Final farewells to our companions of the last few weeks (and Les and Wendy, our companions of 32 days!). A few hours sleep then off to the airport for our flight to Istanbul for our early morning flight and the final leg of our Silk Road adventure.
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  • Day33

    Mosques, madrassas & minarets

    June 17 in Uzbekistan ⋅ ☀️ 32 °C

    It was a relief to finally arrive in the pleasant city of Bukhara- until we stepped off the bus into 35 degrees! Escaping into the cool of our lovely hotel, we were even more delighted to discover fully functional plumbing in our room. After a quick shower it was off to a football match between the local team and the hot favourites from Tashkent. It felt great to be experiencing a slice of life for a short while, instead of visiting yet another tourist destination. The match was pretty one-sided (5-0 to the visitors) but still good entertainment and the indigo blue sky as the sun set was spectacular. Females over the age of 10 were pretty much non-existent, despite there being no restrictions on their attendance. We'd got used to being stared at and photographed a while back.

    At its peak, the ancient city of Bukhara boasted 250 madrassas, 200 minarets and a mosque for everyday of the year. By this stage of our trip, we'd seen our fair share of each of these, as we travelled through the predominantly Muslim countries of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (as well as Western China). So it wasn't surprising that monument burnout was beginning to set in. However, Bukhara still had a few surprises in store for us.

    The 10th century tomb of Ismail Samani, founder of the cultured Samani dynasty, was one such surprise. Cleverly designed using basket-weave brickwork, it reflects the status of science in society at the time, with its mathematically derived form. There's a legend that if one particular brick was removed, the entire building would collapse. So it's basically a giant Jinga game! Apparently it survived the perils of the Mongols because Ismail instructed his army to cover it with sand. When Genghis Khan arrived, he found only a large mound. Clever!

    The Ark is the heart of ancient Bukhara, around which the city has formed. Fortified, destroyed and rebuilt many times, this complex of buildings became home to the emirs (leaders). From the roadside, with the cars buzzing by, this spectacular structure seemed quite otherworldly.

    A welcome afternoon rest from the oppressive heat, followed by a visit to the Kalon Minaret and Mosque (where I managed to lose my hat). At the time it was built (1127), the minaret was probably the world's tallest building. Apparently Genghis Khan was so awestruck that it was spared from the general Mongol destruction policy. The minaret was nicknamed the "Tower of Death" in the 19th century, when criminals were tied in sacks and hurled over the side.

    Dinner turned into a repeat of at least 3 previous experiences, in which my meal failed to materialize! "We don't have ...." I'm told, once the rest of the party has finished eating. Just as well there's plenty of bread!
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  • Day32

    Shakhrisabz

    June 16 in Uzbekistan ⋅ ☀️ 30 °C

    Today we were headed for the ancient town of Bukhara. Our huge bus meant we were unable to negotiate the faster mountain pass route. Instead we prepared for a 9 hour journey along pot-holed dirt roads.

    While Tamerlane is buried at Samarkand, his birthplace is to the south near the town of Shakhrisabz, along a side branch of the Silk Road on the Oxus River. Evidence of past history is found amongst the numerous ruins, with the best known being Ak Serai or the White Palace. Built by artisan slaves, it was intended as the summer residence for Tamerlane. Known for its blue-tiled walls, golden ceilings and lush surroundings, restoration provides a glimpse of its' past glory.

    Beyond this complex, where once there was desert, now resides an accomodation and service complex. Clearly tourism is a good business to be in, in Uzbekistan!

    Several tombs can also be found here, as well as a crypt containing an empty tomb intended for Tamerlane. Two of his sons are buried in the Tomb of Jehangir, all that remains of the once spectacular Dorius Siadat, a Timurid family memorial.

    As we approached Bukhara the browned earth turned to sand, as the city is bordered by the Kyzyl Kum Desert. I wasn't looking forward to high temperatures again!
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  • Day31

    Islamic beauty

    June 15 in Uzbekistan ⋅ ⛅ 25 °C

    The Registan takes your breath away by its sheer size and expanse. However, there were 2 building complexes that really impressed me with their architectural beauty.

    Bibi Khanum Mosque was built in honour of Timurlane's chief wife, Saray Mulk Khanum. Financed from the spoils of his campaigns to Delhi (1398) and built with the help of 95 imported Indian elephants, this monumental structure was built in haste. Consequently, the walls started to crumble almost as soon as they were finished. Apparently Timur was so keen to get it built that he tossed gold coins and scraps of barbecued meat to encourage workers. It's been suggested that recent restoration work has been done in a similarly hasty fashion. Regardless, it is still very beautiful. This was also the first place we'd been to where the interior had been left unrestored- it felt somehow more authentic than anything I'd seen previously.

    The second, and even more impressive, is the Shah-I-Zindah, a visually absorbing necropolis. Basically a street lined with tombs of the rich and famous dating from 1372 to 1460, it's simply stunning. The decorations are really what sets this apart as artistically superb. Carved terracotta and majolica tilework is arranged in complex floral designs, with stylized calligraphy framing these images, all in various shades of blue.

    Samarkand certainly lived up to its reputation as a place of exotic romanticism, even in the modern times.
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  • Day31

    Sogdians, Afrosiab and Genghis Khan

    June 15 in Uzbekistan ⋅ ⛅ 23 °C

    Our second day in Samarkand started with a visit to a paper making business. It is thought that the secret to paper making reached Uzbekistan via some Chinese prisoners (the Chinese invented paper making). It's a painstaking process, starting with bark stripped from the mulberry tree (a versatile tree - the leaves are fed to silk worms and the fruit to humans).

    As I've previously mentioned, Tamerlane was quite the man of his time, and his descendants certainly carried on in his steed for some generations. His grandson Uleg Beg is best known for his scientific patronage and, in particular, his magnificent observatory, with which he correctly positioned more than 1000 stars. Destroyed by fanatics, part of the underground chamber was discovered by the Soviets in 1938. It shows the arc of the sextant cut into rock. It was a little bit of an anticlimax but the nearby museum provided some useful insights.

    The long history of occupation at Samakand is most evident at Afrosiab, the ancient core of the city which began as a settlement in the 6th century. Excavations have revealed 12 different occupation periods, although the actual site looks like a hilly paddock with a few grassy canals running through. The real evidence is found in the nearby museum. The highlight was definitely the wall murals from the Sogdian period, which depict scenes from the city's Silk Road heyday. Other museum exhibits explained the sequence of civilizations that occupied the area prior to it's almost complete destruction by Genghis Khan. An elongated skull was a particularly interesting curiosity!

    The remainder of our day saw us visiting the mausoleum "alley" of Shakh-I-Zinda and the Bibi-Khanym mosque - both worthy of a separate blog entry.

    We finally managed to find a very pleasant bar (Green Bear), which appeared to be located across the road from a local gambling den! A very pleasant evening, complete with local piano player, a delightful meal and a passable Uzbekistan merlot.
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  • Day30

    Samarkand - City of Tamerlane

    June 14 in Uzbekistan ⋅ ☀️ 31 °C

    Samarkand is strategically located along the Silk Road and has been continuously occupied for at least 2700 years. Set at a trade crossroads and fed by the Zerafshan River, stories of its exotic offerings reached far and wide. Alexander the Great visited in 329 BC (when it was named Marakanda) and remarked that everything he'd heard about it was true except that it was even more beautiful than he'd imagined.

    The numerous historic sites (most of which are reconstructions and/or restorations) certainly provide a glimpse of what the city might have looked like in its heyday. The city has been destroyed and rebuilt a number of times over the course of its history, as different rulers made their mark. Much of the architecture evident now was commissioned by Amir Timur or Tamerlane the Great, who considered himself "Conquerer of the World". Seems he did a pretty good job and it's been estimated that his warring campaigns led to the death of 17 million people. He was also a great patron of the arts and was known to spare the lives of talented artisans so he could bring them to the city to improve and beautify it.

    Our first stop was in fact to the Tamerlane's Tomb, located in the Gur-I-Mur complex. He would have preferred to have been buried near his home in Shakhrisabz but Samarkand was considered more appropriate. His body lies in a crypt below a huge tombstone of jade and amongst family members and his spiritual advisor (presumably not everyone died at the same time!). The interior was truly magical - golden ceiling and walls, decorative sanscript.

    The Registan is considered one of the most dramatic architectural ensembles in Central Asia. Comprised of a central square, with 3 madrasahs (Islamic schools), the size (35m columns), colourful domes and top-to-bottom tile work make it quite stunning. Originally a market area where 6 city roads met, it was later used for military parades and public executions, while the Bolsheviks used it for political rallies, trials and veil burnings. The madrassas were built separately over a period of 300 years, with the first commissioned in the 15th century by the grandson on Tamerlane, Ulegbeck, a renowned scientist and astronomer (and leader). The Registan looks even more spectacular at night, when flood lighting creates wonderful contrasts.
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  • Day29

    Tashkent

    June 13 in Uzbekistan ⋅ ☀️ 30 °C

    The capital of Uzbekistan, Tashkent is home to more than 2 million people and is the largest city in Central Asia. The overwhelming impression it gives is of financial wealth. Grand buildings line leafy streets and modern cars (especially Chevrolets manufactured in Andijan) are everywhere. At more than 2200 years old, it was originally a caravan town that grew up at the border of the settled and nomadic worlds. The modern face was created by the Soviets after a powerful earthquake severely damaged the city in 1966.

    First stop on our city tour was the beautiful 16th century mausoleum of Yunus Khan, the grandfather of the Mughal Emporer Babur (whose memorial we'd seen in Andijan). Nearby, the Khast-Imam Complex includes a number of madrassas and mosques. It's been the spiritual heart of the city for centuries. At one end is the stunning Barak Khan Madrassa, with its twin minarets. Once a place for religious learning, it's now filled with craftspeople peddling their wares. It is still used for religious purposes on occasion, and the Mufti of Tashkent (the country's top Islam cleric) is based here. Group member Caroline scored an excellent price on a silk wall hanging thanks to some skillful negotiating by our guide.

    Also in this complex is the world's oldest Koran, which dates from 655 and is housed within the Muyie Mubareck Library Museum. Complete with blood stains from the caliph who was reading it at the time and was murdered, it was a surprisingly large book. The murder apparently fueled the split between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. Equally impressive were the copies of the Koran in a multitude of languages- even Braille.

    A trip on the metro to visit the Chorsu market added a bit of fun, especially as many of the train stations are decorated in Soviet style. Not as impressive as what we'd seen in St Petersburg but still worth a look.

    A late afternoon visit to the Museum of Applied Art proved to be a real highlight, with beautifully presented examples of different craft work that characterize the Uzbek people, including embroidery (including with gold), carpet ,weaving, wood feet work and metal work. The whole museum in an exquisite house of ghanch (carved and painted plaster). Built in the 1930s at the height of the Soviet period, it's a real masterpiece (though I wouldn't want to actually live with all that colour!).

    Although this is a Muslim country, alcohol is available everywhere, but they just don't seem to make the most of their warm evenings with pleasant outdoor bars! A search for a glass of wine failed but we happened upon the beautiful Tashkent Opera House.
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  • Day28

    Farewell Kyrgyzstan

    June 12 in Uzbekistan ⋅ ☀️ 27 °C

    Today was the day we would cross the Kyrgyzstan border into Uzbekistan. It also happened to be Richard's birthday. In her usual thoughtful manner, Nastacia gave Richard a little piece of Kyrgyzstan - 2 embroidered cloths, each framed and packed snugly in an equally beautiful Intrepid Kyrgyzstan bag. With the formalities completed we took the short journey to the border, stopping first to change currencies. Our 2000 Kyrgyzstan som bought us 244,000 Uzbekistan som - crazy numbers and equivalent to about $44 NZ. But that can buy you a lot in both countries.

    With big hugs and promises to see her in New Zealand when she started her own travel adventures, we farewelled Nastacia. It was surprisingly easy to cross both the Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan borders. Whenever we appeared in a queue we were beckoned to come forward by both the border guard and non-Western tourists. It seemed unfair to us, as clearly many had been waiting some time. But it seemed like a common courtesy we couldn't avoid.

    As we stepped across the final doorway into the bright sun, the contrast between the 2 countries was immediately evident. As our guide book put it, "landscapes are not Uzbekistan's strong point". To be fair, it was not much different from Osh, but a world away from the fabulous mountains and lush pastures we'd experienced over the last week or so.

    Once we'd located our guide, Khursid, we boarded our excessively large bus. First stop was a local park in the city of Andijan. The park is a memorial to Babur, who was the founder and first Emperor of the Mughal dynasty in India, as well as a poet and writer (and who was born in Andijan). The buildings were certainly very striking, with ornate blue and green tiling. The park was packed with visitors and we created quite a stir, especially our younger group members who were much in demand to be photographed. We hung around for quite some time without any real sense of purpose, before wandering through a nearby amusement park, where Les and I both got accosted by a giant bear. Local women dancing provided some light relief.

    Finally departing we headed for the infinitely more interesting local market. Buzzing with activity and super generous folk, Richard and I were stopped by a pair of 60-something local women. Turns out they were retired English teachers. A delightful pair who were keen to chat, though I found the mouthful of gold teeth that seemed a mark of wealth here a bit daunting. Futher wanderings amongst the rows of fruit, vegetables, spices, bread, meat and all manner of other paraphernalia. Offered wonderful melon to sample, followed by a freebie! Time to find a knife to replace Richard's Leatherman taken at a Chinese railway station.

    Another stop for lunch and then a long wait at the train station. Seems like we'd basically been filling in time. Once aboard, we settled in to our 5 hour trip, although a blasting TV made things a challenge. My recently acquired noise cancelling headphones helped. To our surprise our guide had purchased a birthday cake for Richard and we enjoyed a delicious treat, washed down with local beer (which was actually not a bad combination).

    Arriving at our hotel in Tashkent at 9.30pm, we were ready for bed (we'd lost an hour between countries). From our brief views of the city it was clear Uzbekistan has a lot more monetary wealth than Kyrgyzstan. I certainly felt like we'd well and truly farewelled Kyrgyzstan.
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  • Day26

    Uzgen and Osh

    June 10 in Kyrgyzstan ⋅ 🌫 16 °C

    Another big travel day. "Think positive " Nastacia tells us "and we will make good time and have good weather". And so we did, arriving at the town of Uzgen just after lunch. An ancient trading town and handicrafts centre on the Silk Road, its main attraction is an rebuilt 11th century minaret and a trio of ornately carved mausoleums from the 11th to 13th century. The detailed brickwork was certainly very impressive.

    Osh, a city of around 200,000, is located a mere 5 km from the border with Uzbekistan, in the southern part of Kyrgyzstan. Once part of the much larger area of Turkistan, the 2 countries were created on the basis of ethnic divisions during the Soviet era ( 1917-1991). Osh has a large Uzbek population and thus is much more like its neighbour than it's more northern Kyrgyz communities. It has a more clearly Islamic identity and ethnic tensions have resulted in violent clashes in recent times.

    It was a relief to finally arrive at our hotel. We even treated ourselves to laundry service! We were surprised to be taken to an Italian restaurant for dinner, but it was actually a treat to have pizza and wine. On top of that, Nastacia had organized a surprise birthday cake for group member Lauren. This was the second birthday of the Kyrgyzstan tour, with Vitaly having his birthday only a few days before.

    Next morning we explored the somewhat old-fashioned but nonetheless interesting Historical Museum. Nastacia provided valuable insight into the prehistory and more recent history of Kyrgyzstan, as well as some of the cultural practices.

    Osh nestles at the base of Suleiman-Too Sacred Mountain, the only World Heritage Site in Kyrgyzstan. An imposing rock worthy of a climb, even on a hot day. For centuries Silk Road travellers have sought out the mountains caves and petroglyphs in the belief they would be blessed with longevity (amongst other things). Apparently it ranks amongst Central Asians as Islams third holiest shrine. A museum set within one of the caves presents a commentary on archaeological finds from the area and has wacky lights that are meant to look like stalagtites.

    Along the path to the lookout we came across women and children sliding down a slightly inclined rock. Said rock is supposed to help a) women who want to become pregnant and b) anyone with a sore back. One woman must have been very keen to become pregnant as she must have repeated her slide a dozen or so times!

    A quick wander through the local bazaar and an amazing theme park and it was time for our final Kyrgyzstan dinner. I think we were pretty unanimous that Nastacia and Vitaly had given us a fabulous experience in Kyrgyzstan and would be sorely missed.
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