A Touch of France—and Getting Touched in France

What Not To Do On a Paris Metro

For those into schadenfreude, you will enjoy this post. For the rest of my readers, sigh along with me. Our original plan (actually version three of the plan) was to fly to Paris on the 4th of September, take a train from Paris to Tours, pick up a rental car, and spend (with the McKennas) the next 18 days circumnavigating France, from Tours to Bordeaux to Nimes to Lyon to Strasbourg and back to Paris.

Two events overturned this plan. First, we have been unable to obtain the vaccine “passe sanitaire français” needed to go anywhere and do anything in France. Even in a cafe one needs to show the “QR” of the pass to get served. In our case, we could show them the paperwork for our latest COVID test results, valid only for three days (or even one day in some circumstances). Last week we submitted the paperwork to get the French pass, with the response that it would be four days before approval. We’ve heard nothing, even now; the application is still in the “en construction” status. To get by, we’ve again taken a COVID test. All of this must be paid for, of course. Paid for in euros which I was unexpectedly short of, because:

I was robbed on the Paris Metro on our way to Gare Montparnasse to catch the train to Tours. We were on a crowded metro car, shepherding our luggage and backpacks while holding on to a post. I was a 75 year old man struggling with baggage—a perfect victim. One man tried for my zipped pocket which contained my wallet. Frances slapped his hand and he stepped back and glared. Then, as the train was coming into a station another man on the other side of me pushed into me, interlocking his legs with mine. While I struggled with him, the first man got to the wallet. They both jumped off the train as the door was closing.

They got my driver’s license, a credit card, a debit card and some cash. We reported the theft to the station ticket agent, who was unable to contact the police. I called my credit card company and $8,000 had already been charged to the card, plus there were several other attempts that had been blocked.

There is a story I must relate. Fifteen years ago, while Frances and I were visiting Prague, a 75 year-old member of our group was knocked over and robbed. I remember telling Frances that we should get our more adventurous traveling in before be reaching that age and condition. There is a cruel irony to that memory.

Having a train to catch to get to Tours, we went on. Arriving in Tours I picked up a rental car (good trick, given I didn’t have my license!) and drove to our Airbnb apartment near Tours’ old town. The apartment came with a garage. It has been some trick getting the car into and out of that garage, but, with three others guiding me, we succeeded.

The apartment is a quirky place that we are sharing with the McKennas, but it’s well located to explore Tours. Before we could do much visiting though, we had a decision to make and actions to complete. The first was to officially report the robbery to the national police, given the failure of the station manager to do so. A young Frenchmen took us in tow and led us first to a municipal police station then to a national police station. None of the policemen (and women) spoke English, but our young guide (who spoke little English himself) convinced them of our reason for being there and I filled out an official “complaint”. After an hour there we “released” the McKenna’s while Frances and I continued to wait for some kind of interview. Another hour later, we asked if they could just give us a copy of our complaint. We should have thought of this earlier. One official pulled out a stamp, stamped each page of my original complaint and give it to us. Apparently, they were glad to be rid of us. Like minor crimes in San Francisco, transit robberies must be so common as to be recorded and ignored. I certainly am glad I didn’t have to look through mug books.

Our apartment. Just like we would decorate it. 

Somewhere about this time the four of us had a heart to heart talk. We all decided to scrap the rest of the trip and head home. Traveling in France now is just too hard. (And I haven’t been the best of company since the robbery, I must sadly confess.) So we got on the phone with our respective airlines and we were both successful in changing our reservations to September 8th.

More fun followed with cancelling the remaining reservations for hotels and changing the place and date of returning the rental car. We’ll lose a few deposits but most of the prepaid arrangements should be refundable. A few expenses we’ll chalk up to sunk costs and sad experience. We were able to book a train reservation from Tours directly to Charles de Gaulle airport on the 7th, where we’ll stay in an airport hotel until the next morning.

We had a bit of fiasco getting new COVID tests and test results for the return, but we believe we’re set now.

A Touch of Tours

Let me take a break from our laments to mention that we have indeed been able to see a bit of the city of Tours. As I mentioned, our apartment is on the edge of the old city, the most historical part being but a few minutes walk away. Tours is on the Loire River.

We purchased food at a nearby grocery for our first breakfast (plus a couple bottles of wine and some cheese for later) but found a delightful brasserie/patisserie for our remaining breakfasts. I’d forgotten how good croissants could be and the oranges were squeezed for our juices as we ordered them. Using my backup credit card, I sheepishly admit I used “tap” payment for the first time in my life. It was quite convenient. (If there are any younger readers of this blog, please don’t laugh.)

Having leisurely breakfasts and suppers in the restaurants of Tours reminded us why we normally enjoy coming to France, even if we had to show our COVID test results to get served.

While for one evening, wine, cheese and story telling sufficed for a satisfying evening, two other nights we enjoyed local restaurants. Brian and Frances are both adept at picking these establishments, with Brian winning the award for our last Tours supper, Bibovino in the old town. We each chose a wine growing region of France and enjoyed three glasses (modest portions, I promise) of different wines from the selected region. The food was equally good. This is all the best of France.

Before, during, and after our meal:

On Sunday, much of mid-town and old town were dedicated to a street market. (And, yes, one had to show a vaccine passport to get by the barriers. Fortunately, the guards accepted our passports plus COVID test report.) All we purchased was frozen yogurt. 

Sunday, besides several hours trying to get presentable proof of our test results, we visited Tours magnificent 900 year old Saint Gatien Cathedral. This cathedral was the successor to several Roman and Dark Ages cathedrals. The location has a long history. The twin towers, built in the early 1500’s, are 230 feet high! Repair and rebuilding took place throughout its history, as Hundred Years Wars and French Revolutions are wont to require. Renovation of windows and cleaning of the exterior continues. The stained glass windows alone are worth a trip to Tours. There are dozens of these extraordinary windows. These pictures do them no justice.

Monday we wandered through the old town. It’s a nice place to visit, both for the preserved centuries old structures and the ambiance of a lively French community. Mixed in with the structures were attractions such as The Basilique of St. Martin (merely 300 years old—and beautiful), Tour (Tower?) Charlemagne, and a beautiful in-town chateau whose name I failed to record. (Six years ago we stayed in nearby Amboise and can confirm the entire area is a wonderful place to visit, which is true of most of France—except maybe the Paris metro.)

Basilique Saint Martin.

So this blog is the end of an interesting but problematic trip. The fact is that traveling in the COVID era is not for everyone. Wearing masks for hours on end, especially in the heat, is, well, wearing. Places are closed and the differing rules in different locales show that no one really knows what best to do to balance safety with sanity. The degree of rigor in wearing masks by the natives varied widely, from most (i.e. > 50%), as in Tbilisi, to almost no one, as in Yerevan. Conformance inside establishments was much better, except restaurants, of course. Our advice? For the adventuresome, go for it and deal with the aggravations as they occur. For those wary of the danger or who do not want to deal with the aggravations, stay home for now. We can all hope better times will return.

It’s clear France does not yet want American tourists. Our inability to get the vaccine passport is proof of this. We tried both pharmacies and official websites. No luck. So be it. This is official France that does not want us; all the French people we encountered were friendly and, as in the case of the young man who led us for nearly 30 minutes to a police station, helpful.

One must also be wary of airports. When leaving Armenia, we arrived over two and a half hours early—and barely made the flight. We spent nearly an hour in the ticket line and an hour passing through passport control. Thankfully we got through security relatively quickly. And at CDG? We were in line at passport control well over an hour. It was a mess. Half of French colonial Africa was in line with us. Some of the national costumes were quite interesting. (Does this make my pickpocket-prone cargo pants the American costume?) For our return, we intend to get to CDG at least three hours early! And, if we have any luck, we’ll be successful with getting on the flight, France and American Airlines willing.

We are due to arrive back in Austin late the 8th. The trick then? Among the items I lost with my wallet is my parking ticket for our auto, parked somewhere in the airport’s economy lot. The location? Written on the lost ticket. I can only laugh.

Armenia

Insomnia

Insomnia. Until this last night, getting to sleep on this trip was no problem, even in Khiva, where the mattress felt like a rock slab. My mind was spinning with a few new problems with our trip. It started with an email from the rail company that we are planning to use when we first arrive in Paris. No French vaccination “sanitaire”, no ride. We had already started the application process for the French vaccine passport but have heard nothing since. We’re looking at alternatives, such as standing in front of the French Embassy here in Yerevan and looking pitiful.

It got worse. In preparing the application, among other documents, we were to provide proof of our ticket out of France. I went to the American Airlines site and, uh, the return flight (London to Austin leg) was missing. Concerned (to put as kind a face on it as I could) I checked the British Airways site and—no flight. (We booked through AA; the return leg was on BA.) Shock of shocks, when I called AA I got an agent almost right away. He found us new flights and said I’d get a confirming email in two hours. It’s now been twelve hours, but I can trust the airlines, I’m sure. (When I go to the AA site, our flights are indeed there, so I’m not really worried. Much.) The agent, by the way, had no idea why we weren’t informed of the cancellation.

All this can be put down as part of the adventure, only we’re finding as we “mature” that adventures are more enjoyable based out of a Four Seasons than a madrassah. 

Now on to Armenia

Armenia, We Mourn For You

Mourn? This is not a apt description for a proud and historic people. But Armenia is a country over a barrel. Reduced to 10% of its historic greatest land area and landlocked, Armenia is now about the size of Maryland—only Maryland isn’t surrounded by two enemies (D.C. excepted) who wish nothing but ill will for the nation and its people. During last year’s war Armenia was badly defeated by Azerbaijan, with Turkey’s full help. Armenia’s ally was and is Russia, which provided little support (but imposed a peace after 44 days). I believe the US role consisted of “where’s Armenia?”, despite the American embassy complex here in Yerevan being monstrously huge. I wonder why.

While the borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan are closed, I should add that Armenia also borders Georgia to the north, its only “friendly” border and Armenia’s only access to the seas. Iran is to the south and border crossings are possible there. We won’t be testing this.

Armenia is in the Caucasus and thus a mountainous country. It’s resource poor but for a few metals and has no gas or oil. It gets these from Russia via Georgia, giving Putin great leverage here.

Only Israel and maybe Ireland can compete for the size of its diaspora. The nation has three million people; seven million live abroad. Most of those seven million had roots in eastern Turkey, where the Armenian genocide occurred. More on that later.

Now on to more positive things. As I reported in the last posting, the border crossing went smoothly. We arrived a little early and waited a while for the opening. We did compete with a small Austrian tour group, which jostled through our group to get to the front, more Eastern than Western European in this behavior. Once we were all through we had a delightful chat with a couple of the Austrians. (I limited my German to “Guten Morgen”.)

We cross the border and enter Armenia:

Our new bus worked its way through the attractive, forest-covered mountains of Northeast Armenia, the province of Tavush, skirting the current border with Azerbaijan. Amongst the scenery were the abandoned villages of Azeris. (Farther east is the Armenian enclave, inside Azerbaijan, of Nagorno Karabakh. Even the most optimistic cannot envision a broadly acceptable solution to the situation.)

Lunch in route was the usual cornucopia of local cuisines and multiple courses. We thought the sturgeon the best fish we’d tasted during this trip. Brian and Karen thought otherwise, but we’re the gourmands of the foursome, so only our opinion counts. :-) At least the courses in Armenia are being served family style, so cleaning my plate is easier. Mom and Dad would be proud.

Our first heritage stop was at the Sevanavank Monastery, located on a hilltop on a peninsula jutting into Lake Sevan. (It was once an island.) We gaily skipped up the 210 steep steps to the top. (Believe that and I have a bridge to sell you.) But up we did go. The view, no surprise, was wonderful and the small church we visited (two remain; one was not open) more interesting inside than we had expected. The monastery was founded in the tenth century with ruins from earlier times.

Our group supper featured a talk by Levan Barkhnadayan, a former minister of finance. One of the great things about Stanford Travel trips is the access to such speakers.

A few notes about Yerevan itself. While the countryside seems to consist of old homes and abandoned factories, Yerevan has a lively feel, especially at night. We walked back through crowds of young and old, all enjoying themselves. The feel was similar to many New York City neighborhoods (the better ones). One could like this city.

The morning of day two in Armenia included a tour of the Ethmiadan, the spiritual center of the Armenian Apostolic Church, followed by a visit to the ruins of the Zvartnots Temple, once one of the tallest buildings in the world. The temple was a three-tiered circular structure, almost lost to history. Archeologists uncovered much of the first tier and, from the blocks and other remains, were able to surmise the original structure. It must have been impressive.

Ethmiadan
We encountered a large school group when we first arrived at the Zvartnots Temple. We soon were more alone.

We had another special speaker at lunch, Hamazasp Danielyan, a current member of the Armenian parliament. Alas, as usual, I could follow little of his talk except for the gist of his comments.

The two afternoon stops could not have been a greater contrast. The first was to visit the Genocide Memorial and Museum. Our Stanford lecturer, a second generation Armenian-American, who has visited this memorial several times, was, not unexpectedly, teary-eyed in her presentation. It all reminded me of our visit to the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The commonly accepted numbers of those who perished in this period of WW1 and years thereafter is 800,000 to 1,500,000 (the latter number based on church records). The Turks claim the number was but a few tens of thousands and state that since at times the Armenians had the audacity to defend themselves their acts cannot be called a holocaust. Tell that to the million souls or so who perished. The Armenians had the audacity of being a Caucasian people adjacent to Turks, Persians and other Asian peoples, and, even more so to be Christians surrounded on most sides by Muslims.

Biden is the first U.S. president to use the words “Armenian Genocide”. One can only be glad his handlers allowed him to do so. Regardless, Armenians were thrilled as to this utterance. By contrast, Armenians were upset when in 2013 Obama declared the Armenia elections free and fair, when in reality they were far from so. Not sure why Obama would have said this beyond not wanting to upset the Armenian rulers. Regardless, this Holocaust, like all massacres, is yet another example of our checkered past as human beings and a reminder as to the thin veneer of civilization.

This visit was followed by a tour of the Yerevan Brandy Company—and a tasting. Their cognac (they can’t use that term) is as good as any I have tried (admittedly, I am not a cognac expert) and continues to win gold medals for their products. Winston Churchill is said to have purchased 400 bottles of their Ararat brandy, or Stalin sent him 400 bottles. The story varies.

A word on our local guide. Her English is good, up to a point. As usual, I have difficulty understanding accented English. But beyond this, she speaks in an even cadence without pauses for sentence and paragraph ends. I’m going to have to read to catch up on what I am sure she has communicated verbally.

For dinner (on our own) we settled for hamburgers from a Russian burger chain. Does this qualify as native cuisine?

The morning of day three was COVID testing time. We’ll get the results late today or early tomorrow. 

Our bus then headed to the monastery of Khor Virap, located as close to Mt. Ararat as we would get. It was here that a king of Armenia, Tradt III (there were several kingdoms during that time), was converted to Christianity at the end of the second century.

Top picture: View of Mt Ararat and the monastery Khor Virap. Bottom picture: View of Mt. Ararat obstructed by two people.
Khor Virap

The cemetery near Khor Virap was “interesting”. Note the way some meant to be remembered. One looks too much like someone lynched.

A note about the geography of the area. When we entered Armenia in the northeast, we were greeted with forest-covered mountains. This was deceptive. Most of the rest of Armenia is more arid. Regardless, some of our drives were up beautiful, steep canyons with spectacular views. And Mt. Ararat? Until 1921, Mt. Ararat was always in Armenian territory. Lenin, for some reason, gave it to Turkey.

One of these steep canyons was Noravank Canyon. Near its beginning is Areni-1, a cave with Neolithic and Paleolithic artifacts, but barely examined by modern anthropologists. It was here that a 5,500 year-old leather shoe was found, nearly intact. Most interesting to me were the remains of a 6,100 year old winery production facility. (The dried remains on the bottoms of the clay vats allowed carbon dating.) The U.S. government gave $54,000 to the site’s preservation and left two small plaques with even smaller U.S. flags on them at the caves entrance. This upset the Russians.

We then traveled up the canyon eight kilometers, along the canyon bottom then up switchbacks to the Noravank Monastery. The two churches here include one with steep steps, perhaps 16 inches wide. I struggled up and, when attempting to come down was buffeted with a strong wind. I made it, obviously, but those first two steps back down were nerve racking. I won’t try that again. That is Karen (not Karen McKenna, but a group member from Austin) on the top of the steps. She was disgustingly nimble. I believe the crosses carved into the church wall are a record of failed climbing attempts.

Canyon views, plus only on our return did I notice the picture in our hotel room is a winter scene of the Gavin Monastery.
I have my days confused. I’ll have to look at the date/time stamp of my photos to sort this all out, but let us now jump to our visit to the Geghard Monestary, much of which is carved out of the rock of the cliff. It was here we heard the beautiful singing that I posted in my previous blog entry. This was arranged just for us. The acoustics in the church made the quartet sound like a full choral group, There is a hole in the corner of this church which extends to the convent below. Those below could thus hear the singing from the church above.

Over lunch, we again witnessed flat bread making, this time close up.

We were not done. Our last visit was to the Temple of Garni, which stands on a cliff over the Arafat River Valley. This temple was built in the 1st century and survived until destroyed by an earthquake in 1679. It was reconstructed, beginning in the Soviet era and restoration continues. It was a special end to what may have been our best day in Armenia (COVID test excepted).

And what trip of ours would be complete without at least one picture of a wedding photo shoot.

For the second night in a row, we were on our own for supper. As the first and second restaurants we and the McKennas looked for were closed, we two couples split, each of us seeking out restaurants to our taste. We settled on a restaurant that served sobe noodles. I think the McKenna’s opted for ice cream. Good choice in the heat. You’ve already seen too many blurry night pictures, so I’ll spare you more.

Our walk across town to return to our hotel again passed through streets swarming with activity. As I stated earlier, Yerevan has a wonderful feel to it 

The hot weather has finally broken. Better late than never.

Our tour group just received the results of our most recent COVID test; we’re all negative. I should add that almost no one in Armenia (except our group and some of the hotel staff—at least in the lobby) is wearing a mask. For whatever reason Armenia is carrying on as close to normal as possible. Perhaps because they are just recovering from last year’s war, they consider COVID a minor problem in comparison.

Our Armenian guide and all our guest speakers are obsessed with their current circumstances. Armenia may be virtually a rump state in a difficult region, but the Armenians will not go quietly. Azerbaijan has not yet returned Armenian prisoners of war from the last conflict and is not in a hurry to do. The Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan is no longer self governing and likely will be depopulated of ethnic Armenians. This is not to say that these last several wars were morally one-sided. In the early 1990’s war, Armenia was definitely the aggressor, grabbing and occupying Azerbaijani land to give Armenia physical control of the corridor between Nagorno-Karabakh and the rest of the Armenian territory. In the 2020 war, Azerbaijan was the aggressor, wanting (and succeeding) in getting its land and pride back. The intractable problems continue, making this a Caucasian version of the Israeli-Palestinian situation. We’ll be watching.

The group we traveled with has been an enjoyable one. One couple from the Austin area we intend to stay in contact with. As we all tested negative for COVID, we’re clear to leave as scheduled. All our flights are in the middle of the night, apparently a standard feature of Central Asian and Caucasus countries, if one is traveling west.

We’re off to France now for what we had planned as nearly three more weeks of touring. Something has happened to change this, but I’ll share this tale during my next, and final, post for this trip. 

საქართველო

I’m really hoping საქართველო is Georgia in the Georgian language and alphabet. If not, my apologies to my many Georgian readers. Well, I may have one reader in Georgia, USA. The alphabet is unique. Unlike Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, where Russian is the second language (and co-equal to a great degree), there is almost no Russian here. If a second language is featured on signage, it’s English. The country wants to be a western country, despite being in the backyard of Russia, which regards all its neighbors (except China, presumably) as temporary breakaway members of the Russian Empire. While the current government is pro-Russian, the people generally are not (despite this being the birthplace of Stalin and Beria). That Russian occupies 20% of the nation doesn’t help their case. To paraphrase  Animal Farm, to the Russians, all nations are sovereign, but some are more sovereign than others.

As days go, this was an easy one. Partly this is to prepare us for tomorrow’s all day transit by buses from the capital of Georgia to the capital of Armenia. We started by traveling (after our hotel breakfast) a short distance to a restaurant for a talk by the U.S cultural attaché to Georgia, Christopher Anderson. His 45 minute talk, with answers to lots of questions, covered the 4,000 plus year history of Georgia plus current politics. A modest goal, but one generally met. He was followed by Chuck Vogel, with the CDC station here. He neatly finessed the questions on the politicalization of that agency and discussed Georgia’s current COVID situation, as well as other disease issues of the area. He must not be overly concerned as he entered the restaurant without a mask. Meanwhile, we were fed with nuts, fruits and desserts along with liquid refreshments. If we die of anything here, it’ll be of overeating.

Chris Anderson and a decal on the restaurant’s WC.

This area of town has a considerable number of Soviet built apartment buildings. They are the epitome of ugly.

Back in the bus and while traveling to our first cultural destination of the day, Sabrina, our Stanford-Travel assigned lecturer gave us a talk on UNESCO. No surprise, much of that agency’s work is dominated by politics.

Finally, we arrived at the the Jvari Monastery, one of the oldest (built between 590 and 605 AD) Christian churches in the world and still essentially in its original form. Impressively, it stands atop a high bluff over the town of Mtskheta. (Georgians love lots of consonants in a row.)

Views of, in and from the Jvari Monastery,

It was here that St. Nino converted King Miriam of Iberia to Christianity early in the 4th century. (Georgia competes with Armenia for the title of the first Christian country in history.)

We then traveled downhill to Mtskheta, a market town built on the confluence of the Kira and Aragvi Rivers and once the capital of the Georgian kingdom of Iberia. (No quiz at the end, I promise. I’d flunk it myself.) In this town is the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, one of the most venerated places in Georgian Orthodoxy. The core of the current cathedral was built in the early 11th century. The king then had the chief architect’s right hand cut off. Two theories are given for this act. One is that the king wanted the architect to never again design something so beautiful. The other is that both were in love with the same woman and that woman chose the architect. Bad luck for the architect. The cathedral was partially destroyed by Tamerlane and then restored. Restoration continues. It’s a UNESCO listed site. Apparently Russia loves to harass Georgia by getting its allies (a majority) on the UNESCO Committee to declare the cathedral as endangered, a national “embarrassment”.

I was both awed by its interior size and height and impressed by many of its thousand year old murals.

And then it was off to lunch at the Ornament Restaurant, and again course after course after course. I no longer remember being hungry. One reason for the incredible volumes of food served to us throughout this entire trip is COVID. Instead of serving the meals family style, the usual method, we are each given overflowing plates of each course. For instance, between the fish course (a trout each) and the final course we were each served individual pots of spicy beans. I barely touched dessert. OK, I barely touched dessert several times. I guess sated tourists are happy tourists. We must be ecstatic.

Another COVID casualty? The metro system is closed. We understand it’s stations compare to those we visited in Tashkent.

Our last supper in Tbilisi was originally scheduled to include Georgian dancing and singing, but COVID changed these plans. (Our pre-trip agenda was only vaguely related to what we actually did.) Instead we ate in a restaurant located in building built by an oligarch in 1905 and housing the Writers’ Union during Soviet times. We ate in the courtyard, the only downside being the high walls around the courtyard blocking any breeze. The menu was a “fusion” menu with modest serving sizes for once. The Georgian yogurt, cucumber and avocado soup was excellent, the beetroot croquettes with blue cheese less so. Of the two main course choices, we were looking forward to the wild mushroom entree, only to find it was intended for the the vegetarians—and everyone at the first table served claimed to be vegetarians. None were left for us (and the true vegetarians at other tables). The shrimp dish we ended up with was fine, but very rich. So was the dessert—but I ate all of that, too.

Speaking of buildings, we several times passed what once was the Institute of Marxism and Leninism. It’s now the Biltmore Hotel. How’s that for irony? 

Off to Armenia

This morning we are driving to Armenia and its capital, Yerevan. Several stops, plus lunch, are planned and the trip will take all day. This will be our first border crossing by land this trip (and perhaps our first ever outside Europe and North America). One thing nice about our group being only sixteen in number (plus four guides and escorts) is that we can spread out and occupy two seats each.

We’ll be sorry to lose our Georgian tour bus. The A/C is excellent, the wifi is the fastest I ever ever recall on a moving vehicle, and the headrest is comfortable. The on-board WC is locked, but nothing’s perfect.

It took us less than one hour to get through the border crossing. We’re in Armenia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Georgia

Tbilisi

It’s hot. Just plain energy sapping, clothes soaking hot. I believe Georgia’s capital would be a wonderful place to explore, but all Frances and I wanted to do this first afternoon is to escape to our hotel room. The hotel, the Marriott Tbilisi, is a comedown from the Four Seasons Baku, but, then again, almost anything is a comedown from a Four Seasons. We’re sharing the hotel with a German and a French tour group. The French group, in particular, pretty much ignores mask protocol. Not so our group.

Our visit to Tbilisi began with a talk by our faculty advisor. She was unable to join with us in Azerbaijan as her heritage is Armenian. (Her last name ends with “zian”. That and “jian” are dead giveaways for Armenian ancestry. I’ll say nothing about “shian”. Good for you if you don’t get this.) Sabrina is a last minute substitute for the original Stanford advisor, who could not join us. She is both young and very Armenia focused. Her talk was a bit too Armenia centric and academic for my taste.

We then began our walking tour of the old city. It’s a fascinating mix of architectural styles, much of it from the 19th century, when Georgia was under the control of the tsars. The tour included entering two Georgian orthodox churches. Scarves for women required and no shorts for anyone. No such restriction for other venues.

Our hotel lobby. The rooms are not quite as impressive, but satisfactory. The other pictures are sites in Tbilisi.

We visited an art studio located in a two hundred year old structure. There was electricity, but little other change (or maintenance) from its beginnings.

Our second church for the day. The interiors are dark (compared to mosques, to be sure) but with impressive iconography.

Lunch under the misters was good. (Almost all our meals on this trip have been excellent, if way too much in quantity. It has been a gourmand’s delight. There was a somewhat silly separation of table settings, but we rearranged into groups of four. Afterall, our group, by now, can be considered a pod. (Needless to say, we’ve all been vaccinated.)

After lunch we were guided on a tour of the National History Museum. The gold jewelry (mostly from ancient burial sites) and other artifacts from earliest history were incredibly finely crafted. Some looked appropriate for a modern high end jewelry store.

We were exhausted by this point and regretfully missed the visit to the museum floor dedicated to the Soviet Occupation. By all reports, it was not a flattering depiction of the times. 

At dinner we listened to a talk by a university professor who was once a member of the Georgian parliament. His comments were frank, even brutally honest. His description of the current state of politics in the nation included problems with the Russians (who occupy two major breakaway regions of Georgia) and the difficulty in establishing the rule of law. Georgia is still dominated by clans and other such confederations which, when in power, treat all opposition as enemies. (Hum. Reminds me of the growing tendency in another country I can think of.) He sat with us for the dessert portion of the meal. We enjoyed our conservation with him, more so perhaps than the meal itself.  This was a rare case of unexceptional cuisine, at least to our tastes.

Throughout the evening we were entertained by a Georgian quartet, signing in the polyphonic, a cappella style unique to Georgia. We enjoyed it very much, although Brian and Karen, seated closer to the group, later complained as to their volume. 

Speaking of volume, I finally got an over-the-ear listening device. I’ll no longer have to remove my hearing aids every time we begin a narrated tour. Of course, I now have a hearing aid, glasses stem, mask strap and earphone all piled on my ears. It’s getting crowded there.

We checked out of our hotel after two nights and are headed to wine country for two days and one night in this, the Kakheti region. We are then to head back to Tbilisi for two more nights in the Marriott. It’s good that we are visiting this eastern region of Georgia as on our previous trip to Georgia in 2014 the emphasis was on the Western regions.

We passed over the a mile-high pass to the museum and winery of Alexander Chachavadze, a nineteenth century Georgian aristocrat, poet and intellectual who managed to both fight the Russians and have a successful career in the Russian military. The estate’s history includes being the oldest winery to produce bottled wine in Georgia. Georgia, in fact, claims to have produced the earliest wine in history, but before Chachavadze, the wine was stored in clay vessels and animal skins. The Soviet invasion ended Georgia’s wine industry until after WW2 . Today this original winery is restored as a museum and, of course, a winery. Of the five wines we tasted, two were ones we would have gladly purchased. Maybe we’ll feature Georgian wines at a future neighborhood wine tasting.

From the winery, we progressed to the Mareta Cheese Farm in Tilavi, or maybe it’s Kakheti. We’ve had many good meals since we’ve begun the Caucasus portion of our trip, but this lunch may have been the best. Banana bread to die for. Six cheeses, all delicious. An eggplant appetizer that many of us grabbed seconds of, despite knowing the main course was coming. And creamy mashed potatoes and cauliflower with chicken. Hungry yet? If you ever find yourself in Tilavi, Georgia, you know where to stop, or maybe it’s Kakheti.

The village of Signagi was our destination for the evening. Once on the edge of the Georgian frontier and the first barrier against the many invasions, the village is now a popular tourist destination. We were told to expect a step down in the quality of our lodging, but the hotel, for us, was quite nice. Frances and I had a two-floor suite. Fortunately, the spiral staircase linking the two levels wasn’t a challenge. 

OK, I get it now. Kakheti is the region. 

Get Thee to a Nunnery 

Our first stop after departing Signagi was the Bodbe Convent, with roots back to the ninth century. St. Nino is buried here, her life (much as a hermit) described by our nun guide. Despite her excellent English, I followed little in detail, hence I’ll have to look up St. Nino and the history of the convent on my own at a later time. I did fully understand the tremendous improvement in the lives of the nuns here over the last thirty years, from no water or plumbing, no fuel or electricity, and little else in the early days after Georgian independence to a more comfortable life now. Our guide is from the Russian occupied NW Georgian region of Abkhazia, a place she can no longer visit.

Not Another Winery

…And in the morning again. 

Georgia has been making wine for over 8,000 years. They’re somewhat proud of this tradition and were wise enough to stay with a religion that doesn’t mind. Neither do we. The co-owner and our tour guide for the visit to Tibaani Vineyards is an American-expatriate who is a leader in Georgia’s “natural wine” industry. (This same person ran the restaurant, the Pheasant’s Tears, where we had eaten the night before in Signati. This restaurant is named the “Crazy Pomegranate”. The American undoubtedly did the naming.)  Natural wine has no additives and the wine-making techniques use traditional methods, such as aging the wine in subterranean clay pots. Our five-course lunch was paired with as many wines (all good, we thought), finishing, as the night before, with chacha, a schnapps-like wine created from fermented wine mash pulp. We slept most of the way back to Tbilisi.

 

 

 

Azerbaijan

Our tour has started. We’ve been joined by 14 other travelers. Two others were last minute cancellations . Frankly, the fewer the better for the logistics of a tour. Most of our fellow travelers are Stanford grads or their spouses/significant others. Half hail from California, no surprise, but four of us are from the Austin area. There is one young couple (engaged, we believe). The others are in their fifties up to, well, our age. One is a veteran of over thirty Stanford trips. This is our third Stanford trip and the McKenna’s fourteenth!

The McKenna’s had a surprise waiting for them when they checked into their hotel room—a dozen balloons and a “Happy  Birthday, Brian” sign. It’s not Brian’s birthday. It turns out it was the birthday of another Brian, our tour leader. Apparently even a Four Seasons Hotel doesn’t get everything right. Nevertheless, for us, our room is about as perfect as a hotel room can be, i.e. a room designed for two occupants (two sinks, a place for two suitcases, etc.) and a wonderfully comfortable bed. There was no reading (or blogging) in bed. Sleep came too quickly. At least that’s the excuse I’m giving for this tardy posting of our time in Azerbaijan.

Within the tour group, there has been no talk yet of U.S. politics, beyond our L.A. dinner mate last night stating he preferred admiring Texas “from afar”. I responded that we visit our L.A.-based children as infrequently as possible. (Neutral ground, such as daughter Christina’s home in Washington State, is the compromise.)

More Baku

Our first event was a talk by the U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Lee Litzenberger. A career diplomat, he has had this assignment since 2019. He was well spoken and quite open and informative in his comments, ranging from not only our relations with this nation but also to Azerbaijani history and its relations with all its neighbors. He added tactful comments on the current Azerbaijani government. The biggest issue between the U.S. and Azerbaijan, surprise, surprise, concerns human rights. Ambassador Litzenberger also finessed my tactless (but courteously worded, at least in my opinion) question on the Azerbaijani government’s reaction to our lack of planning and coordination with our allies concerning our exit from Afghanistan.

A bottom line on our relations is that, by the ambassador’s admission, Azerbaijan is well below the radar of U.S. interests, particularly with the current administration. During the recent Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict, Turkey and Russia were the major foreign players, Russia imposing the peace to temporarily end the active fighting (introducing unwanted Russian peacekeepers). The president of Azerbaijan was on the phone with Putin once a week. Our ambassador received no instructions from our state department.

At this point I am inclined to bore you with a few words on the history of the Azeri people. Any errors I make please blame on my writing this while riding our bus into the heights of the Caucasus mountains. The Azeri are an ancient people, with Neolithic origins, centered around the southeast coast of the Caspian Sea. (“Azeri” is derived from a word for fire—and Baku means wind. Throw in the sea and one has three of the four elements of the Zoroastrian universe, from the broader region’s earlier religion.) For most of their history the Azeris were dominated by the Persians, either as part of the Persian Empire or as a dependency. Early in the 19th century, forces of the Russian empire invaded and annexed the Caucasus region. The border between the Russian empire and Persia was set along the Astarachay River. This divided the Azeri people in two, a third in Russian territory and the larger majority in Persia. The area north of the dividing line eventually became Azerbaijan. The Azeris south of the river are now in Iran. After two hundred years under very different empires and cultures, their histories have diverged significantly, well beyond carpet weaving. 

Azerbaijan had two years of independence after WW1, before the Soviets came and conquered the nation. It was not a soft invasion. Much of Baku was destroyed, including the churches. The nation finally got independence in 1991 with breakup of Soviet Union, but not before Gorbachev initiated a massacre, souring relations for a while with Russia. This independence came at the cost—a lost war with Armenia. Better armed and more martial in tradition than the Azeris, Armenia grabbed 20% of Azerbaijan’s territory, effectively connecting its country with the Armenian majority population of Nagorno- Karabakh . (A section of Azerbaijan remains separated from the rest of the country and can only be reached by air or a land route through Iran.) Azerbaijanis never forgot the humiliation of the defeat and, being a richer country, upgraded its armed forces. In the spring of 2021, Azerbaijan attacked Armenia and using Turkish drones to destroy Armenia’s air defenses, regained its land and national pride.

Today relations with Russia are reasonably good (like in Uzbekistan, Russian is the second language here, especially in Baku). But it is to Turkey that Azerbaijanis, particularly the young, look for regional and cultural leadership.

After the talk, we toured the old city, known as the Icheri Sheher. We covered much of the same ground as we had on our own the day before, but this time with tours inside things, such as the Shirvan Shah palace. The bust is of the poet Aliaga Valid. The museum of miniature books is said to contain the largest collection of such books. Other shots include baths, tombs and minarets.

After yet another great lunch, we visited the State Museum of Azerbaijani Carpets. When one thinks of Persian rugs, we are told this means Azeri rugs (most Azeris being in Iran). The rug collection in the museum was spectacular.

Scenes while driving through the city.

Our touring day was not done. We all know about Alfred Nobel and his invention of dynamite. Many of us know there were two brothers in the the Nobel businesses. And some of us know they made their fortune within the Russian Empire before buying redemption with the Nobel prizes. But where was a center of this business and what was the business? Baku and oil. We toured their residence, “Villa Petrolea”, now a museum. 

At the museum we enjoyed a reception and a talk by a young Azeri university lecturer in operations management, (OK, they all seem young to us now.) He gave an honest appraisal of the state of affairs in Azerbaijan, including its politics. The country, like a lot of oil-rich (and oil-poor, for that matter) nations, has a reputation for corruption. But he felt this was improving, improving enough to entice him home after years abroad.

And dinner? Yet another excellent meal, this time accompanied by “mugham” music. At our table, we got to talk in depth with our fellow travelers from Austin.

An aside before I tell you about our trip to the mountains the next day: I had earlier described the Uzbeks as an attractive people to my eyes. A typical look in Azerbaijan, but hardly universal, is a leaner face, with a sharper nose and chin. Almost all the men have short beards. They dress informally. The dress of the women ranges from western informal to conservative Islamic dress—but not a great deal of the latter. Azerbaijan is officially a secular state with undertones of Islamic modesty. (A few bikinis we saw at our last seaside luncheon near a swimming pool will attest to the generally liberal atmosphere.)

North into the Mountains

It’s Wednesday and we’re heading out of town—all the way north, almost to the border with Russian. The first 2/3rds of the trip was In our full-sized bus and over a smooth highway. For the last 60 kms we transferred to three mini-buses and drove the mountain road to our destination, the village of Khinaliq, or Qinaliq (or one of three or four other spelling variations we encountered). It’s 7,700 feet above sea level. It’s also as far removed from the Four Season hotel environment as one can get. Heating and cooking is still done (to some extent) with burning cattle dung. Some building blocks are prairie-style sod blocks. The residents (who move themselves and their animals down the mountain in the winter—except for the kids and a few caretakers, who attend the school) speak a language unique to the area. We divided the group in two for a lunch with a local family. For us, the highlight of the meal was the meats, with a tender beef one could cut with a fork (good thing, as no knives were provided), and chicken wings that would make Hooters proud. I admit it, I’ve never been in a Hooters thanks to my sheltered adulthood). 

It was supposed to be marginally cold on the mountain, with the possibility of rain. It was cooler than below, but it never got cold and never rained. 

It was a four hour trip up. We had perhaps an hour and a half in the village. Then it was time to leave. On the way back we stopped in the city of Quba, once the capital of a small khanate. There are several sites to visit in this city but we concentrated on the village of Karnataka Sloboda, or “Red City” (for its red brick construction). This is the home of a community of “Mountain Jews”, a Jewish community long separated from the rest of the Ashkanazi Jewish world.

The rest of the way back? As smooth as the highway was going north, it was rough on the return. It made for a long day. We went to bed without supper and I ignored my blog for another night. 

Gobustan

Petroglyphs. This word makes my sister Peggy excited. She would have loved visiting this site, the location for a substantial number of rock carvings ranging from the Upper Paleolithic era (15,000 years ago) to the Bronze Age.  The site also sports a modern, interactive museum.

The second picture is an old Soviet era drill rig, now inactive

Now to Gobustan.

Thor Heyerdahl once proposed, thanks to the carved pictures of boats, that the people of Norway must have been descendants of these early Azeris. If true and since the Vikings were the first to discover America, it seems to me that Azerbaijan has a claim on North America. About as logical as some of the Chinese claims.

Traveling back north to Baku, we stopped to visit a mosque, the. On to our last lunch in Azerbaijan. The main course was sturgeon, which I don’t recall having eaten before. It was quite tasty, although the pomegranate sauce on it didn’t hurt. 

We did get into an active mosque. It contained a shrine which, if prayed to, will help a wife get pregnant. The mosque is adjacent to Caspian Sea oil industry works.

This post is just a tad too long. Guilty. But we must now say goodbye to Azerbaijan. Proof of vaccination was enough to get us on the airplane to Tbilisi. Our adventure continues.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Baku, Azerbaijan

Baku

We’re in Baku, the capital and dominant city of the nation of Azerbaijan. We’re also lodged in the Four Seasons Hotel Baku and, if I can be modest, in the lap of luxury. We have two nights here before we join a tour organized by the Stanford Travel/Study organization. This is our third tour with them. Brian and Karen have over a dozen trips with them. (Brian earned his masters at Stanford, hence the initial connection.) We have found their tours well organized and generally disposed to quite, shall we say, comfortable lodgings. Of course, the tours are not inexpensive.

The views from our balcony.

On our first evening we ate at a nearby restaurant. Frances chose well. They had no lamb but promised a lamb dinner for the next night. We returned. After the first night’s dinner we walked the promenade along the seashore. The moon was full and the night breeze was refreshing. The second night we were too full and went straight to our hotel rooms.

This first morning we had to force ourselves to leave our Caspian Sea view suite to walk around the city. After a huge breakfast at the hotel, our lunch was an ice cream cone. It’s a hot day. Many asked us where we were from. Responding “United States” or “America” (my favorite, given my lack of political correctness), the reaction was either positive or, more often, an enticement to enter a shop or restaurant. We continue our record of encountering no Americans. We may have been the first of the Stanford group to arrive. These are random photos from our rather random walk around the walls of the old city. (We will be getting a tour of the old city with the Stanford group.)

We will be visiting all three Caucasus countries: Azerbaijan, Georgia and finally Armenia. (The order is not irrelevant.  Azerbaijan and Armenia are not friends. More on this in another post.) The only country we had been to before was Georgia and then only to its west coast (off the Black Sea) and several hours inland. So all we will see and experience will be new to us.

Of the three countries, Azerbaijan was the one most unfamiliar to me. Baku has a reputation of being a wealthy and prosperous city, and our first exposure to it confirms this. It’s based on oil wealth, as confirmed by our view of Caspian Sea oil rigs as we were flying in. The city is very European in its appearance with prices closer to those of the West as compared to Central Asia.

Hum. The entire street in front of hotel has for the second time today been blocked off for a quarter mile to allow a convoy of police-escorted black limousines to pass. Senior government officials? Oligarchs? Whose to know. I hope they didn’t mind a bathrobe-clad spectator taking pictures from the seventh floor of a hotel.

The tour starts tomorrow morning with a nine o’clock briefing. I believe I’ll start a new post then.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Farewell to Uzbekistan

This, our last Day on Uzbekistan, was not a day we were looking forward to. It was to be the infinite day: a full final day in Samarkand, a train ride back to Tashkent, a farewell dinner, an entire two hours in a hotel room to “rest up”, a 2:30 a.m. five-hour flight west to Istanbul, and another 2 ½ hour flight back east to Baku, Azerbaijan. (This convoluted, ill-timed route is a consequence of COVID and flights route cancellations.)

The three major statues of Timur, only one taken from close range. Besides replacing statues of Lenin and Stalin with Timur, All the Russian-named streets and sites in Uzbekistan were renamed—except for two streets, one named for the poet Alexander Pushkin and one for the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Good choices.

It all ended better than hoped (or at least as well as a journey with a redeye flight can be). The start, in fact, was an unexpectedly enjoyable last day in Samarkand. We had been thinking, what possibly could be left that was different from what we had already viewed? Plenty.

First, we visited the mausoleum for Daniel. Yes, of Daniel and the lion den fame. There are several claimants to the location of Daniel’s bones, the most recognized being Shush (or Susa). The Uzbek claim comes from the time of Timur, when he had the body removed from Shush and reburied in Samarkand. He made the tomb over 50 feet long, most likely to discourage grave robbers from trying to locate the remains. The picture of the hill is actually of a section of what was Samarkand’s wall. Apparently, Genghis Khan so destroyed the city that the rebuilders didn’t bother reconstructing the old city. The old wall looks like an extensive hill line.The pistachio tree is over 200 years old.

The highlight of the day was the Necropolis, a Timur age complex of dozens of mausoleums, most of them in excellent condition. (Many are restored, others conserved.) While I meticulously took a picture of the signage of each mausoleum, I’ll not bother with that here. Do recognize that none were alike (by law as well as by tradition). Beside the varying designs, the décor varies from glazed porcelain tiles to terracotta to mosaics. It was a dizzying array of monuments.

Lunch was in a room called the Library in a restaurant we frequented before. The food, as always, was excellent. We wondered when and how our driver kept the van in fuel. (There actually is a considerable number of petroleum stations along the highways, but in the ten days he was our diver, we never saw him refuel.  Now we know. And the line of parked cars? White Chevys, of course.

It’s a Muslim country but Samarkand has several Christian churches. The two we visited were built by the Russians in the 1910’s, before the Soviets arrived. The first is a Russian Orthodox church, the second, Roman Catholic (Saint John the Babtist). Both were used for other things (including being a military garrison) or neglected during Soviet times, but not destroyed. They reopened as churches after Uzbek independence.

Our final event in Samarkand was a wine tasting. I was careful to select only the ‘before’ pictures for this post. The best of the wines of this winery were the dessert wines, many of which have won awards. It was good that our ride back to Tashkent was on the high speed train. 145 mph was the fasted I tracked, plenty fast for the distance between Samarkand and Tashkent and far faster than any American train service. We wish we could have used the train for more of our Uzbek travel.

Our experience at the Tashkent airport consisted of more security and passport checks than one could imagine. Just how many times does an organization need to check passports, visas, COVID test results, and baggage? But our flights to Istanbul and then to Baku were smooth and nearly on time. (We did have to hustle in Istanbul to make the connection due to the walking distances involved. The arrival gate and departure gates were close together, but the security check to get between the two was a good half mile away.)

We had the reverse experience from Tashkent in the Baku airport. One check on landing and we were in.

Some last thoughts.

Uzbekistan was certainly worth visiting. I hope some of my pictures have convinced you of that. Yet the trip was not always comfortable. COVID has made this worse by limiting means of travel. Until the roads are fixed, flights and train rides would be the way to go.

The food is excellent. We consumed “native” specialties most of the time. The bread was so-so and the wine “OK”, but the salads, soups and main courses were routinely delicious.

Our tour operator placed us in hotels and inns convenient to the major sites. Mostly. This was OK. I cannot comment on the quality of the newer, western-style hotels available in the larger cities. Only our hotel experience in Khiva was one we would not repeat. Staying a night in an ancient madrassah may be romantic, but uncomfortable.

Dollars are widely accepted, but we tried to use the som when we could. Loosely, a dollar was treated at 10000 som. As 10000 som is closer to 95 cents, paying in som was worth it. I never used my credit card.

Uzbekistan is a developing nation, which I believe is the current terminology, but not a third world country. Tashkent is considered a moderately wealthy city, Samarkand more of a middle class city, and the rural areas are less developed. We felt safe and welcome wherever we went. The entire country, as we saw it, was clean and tidy. The people we met were all happy to meet Americans.

On our next to last day we crossed paths with a Spanish tour group. This made three groups of Western European tourists that we encountered in all of our visit. We saw no East Asian tourists and, as I mentioned in an earlier post, we have not met any other Americans. This in a country that, pre-COVID, supported a 2 billion dollar a year tourist industry. Internal tourism seemed somewhat more alive. Selfishly, we thus benefited from the lack of crowds.

Samarkand was invaded ten times over its history, mostly destructively. The rest of the nation surely has a similar record. May the country’s next invasion be a benign one of eager and friendly tourists interested in their history, their culture and their people.

 

 

 

 

Shahrisabz

Timur

If there is a downside to visiting Uzbekistan, it’s traveling over its roads. As there were no flights between Khiva and Bukhara, we suffered six hours of road travel that leg. We could get no tickets for the train between Bukhara and Samarkand. So it was five more hours in the van. And the only option for the day trip to Shahrisabz and back? The mountain road or around. We were told the van was too big for the mountain road, so off we went, two and a half hours each way. Karen’s Fitbit recorded thousands of steps each trip, so one can surmise the smoothness of our travel.

The top picture of the mountains includes a military base below. The hole in the floor? You guessed it. A typical village WC, according to Farrakh. This was our only alternative for a long stretch. As with most medieval cities, Shahrisabz was a walled city. This front section is a recent reconstruction. For some reason the reconstructed walls are sloped.  The originals were not. The ruins of the original wall still encircle much of the old city.

But to Shahrisabz we bounced. There was a reward, of course: Oq Saray, the palace of Amir Timur. Had it survived in anything approaching its original form, it would have been included with the wonders of the world. (Unfortunately, the palace was destroyed by the Emir of Bukhara less than 200 years later.) Based on written descriptions from visitors of the time and on excavations, the original construction can be envisioned.

It’s Friday in Uzbekistan, the holy day for Muslims. Just as we used to dress in our Sunday best, so too do Uzbeks still don their finery on this day. When we asked Farrakh to ask the young women if we could take their picture, he added that we thought they were beautiful. Apparently they responded “Yes, we know.” That is Farrukh with Karen and Frances. It was getting close to 1:00, time for the main prayer time at the mosque. The men apparently were getting the best positions early.

The complex contains more than the palace and associated excavations. Among these are two mausoleums, side by side, one for Timur’s oldest son, who died in battle (as did his second son) and one for Timur’s advisor/counselor. One mausoleum is restored and the other preserved/conserved.

What determined how tall a minaret should be? Not so tall that someone in the minaret can look down into courtyards and see the women. There are three primary statues of Timur (Tamerlane) in Uzbekistan. (All three replaced statues of Lenin and Stalin when Uzbekistan gained its independence in 1991 and the nation’s leader chose Amir Timur as its national hero. Some of the descendants of some of the cities he conquered and razed to the ground might disagree, when there were survivors.) This statue shows Timur standing, as it was his birthplace. The one in Samarkand has him sitting, as this is where he ruled his empire. The one in Tashkent has him on a horse, a place he conquered. The top pictures shows the typical table configuration for an Uzbek eatery.

A night view of Registan.

 We have most of one more day touring Samarkand, then it’s back to Tashkent (by high speed train, thank goodness) in time to catch a 2:40 a.m. flight from Tashkent to Istanbul and then another from Istanbul to Baku. Those of you who know geography will scratch your head at this routing. The direct flight was a COVID casualty. We are not looking forward to this part of our adventure.

 

 

Samarkand!

What was it that made us decide to visit Uzbekistan instead of any of the other Central Asian Stans, or any of the stans at all? If you have ever heard of Amir Tamur (Tamerlane) or of the Silk Road or of the fantastic mosques, madrassahs and mausoleums of this country, you would understand. And Samarkand is the showpiece of the country. We were not disapppointed.

But first, we had the six-hour drive from Bukhara to Samarkand. While not under construction, the highway was bumpy. I’m being kind. It was a long drive. In route, we stopped at a porcelain and textile factory, a factory in the preindustrial sense. The ceramic pottery is made with leg-driven pottery wheels. The kilns are wood-fire heated. Natural wild plants are gathered from the desert and burned to create glaze cinders. These cinders are then ground to a powder with a millstone powered by a donkey. All the textiles are hand sewn, woven, embroidered and knotted. (You can tell from my description I am not an expert on textiles.) Small rugs and wall hangings take two months to complete, a large one over a year. Yet the cost for most of the items is in the hundreds and a few thousand for the largest silk and silk-wool mix carpet. Thanks to COVID, the factory is down to a handful of workers.

A second stop (for lunch) was nearby a Silk Road water hole. Across the highway are the remains of the once large compound which protected the caravans when they stopped for several days at the oasis.

Finally, we arrived at our hotel, just outside one of the historic complexes. Getting to the hotel required our van driver to negotiate tight alleyways as the main entrance is on a pedestrian-only boulevard.

Our Samarkand guide, Farruh, immediately took us to Timur’s mausoleum. His grave monument is the black one. The actual coffins are six meters down, under the crypts below. He is said to have issued a curse that anyone who disturbed his bones would be punished. Stalin had the bones removed to Moscow in 1941. Two days later, the Germans attacked the Soviet Union. Stalin returned the bones.

If there is a single image that represents Uzbekistan, it is that of the Registan (Land of Sand). This complex of three madrassahs, a mosque, and other buildings was built over two centuries, beginning in 1417. The first madrassah was the Ulugh Beg Madrassah, the second, the Sher-Dor Madrassah, and the third the Tilya-Kori Madrassah. There will not be a quiz. The minarets were considerably taller, but time and earthquakes have taken their toll.

The Russians, in the 1930’s, attempted to straighten the right tower of the Ulugh Beg Madrassah. They overcorrected.

The group visited the Bibi-Khanym mosque, the complex next door to the hotel. I missed this excursion thanks to some stomach troubles (now gone). Abdul warned me about eating too many of the melons.

Our final visit of the day was to the site of the Ulugh Beg Observatory. Ulugh Beg was one of the premier astronomers and mathematicians of all of history. A grandson of Timur, he was uniquely (for the Timur line) interested in science and not warfare. He built a massive observatory the underground portion now excavated and preserved. His assassination in 1449 ended a golden age for Samarkand. His calculations for the sidereal year, for instance, were in error by 58 seconds, a calculation not improved until by Copernicus 100 years later. His calculation of the tropical year was better than that of Copernicus.

We continue to be pleased with how clean the country is. There is very little trash on the streets and we’ve seen no graffiti. Also, while I would not consider the Uzbeks as an overly demonstrative people (in front of us), they are nonetheless very friendly. I can’t say the same for the French tourists who are staying at our Samarkand hotel. (This group and a Dutch/German group in Khiva are the only foreign tourists, other than Russians, that we have encountered.) The Frenchmen avoided eye contract and did not even respond to a bonjour.

The Registan normally gets a million visitors a year. As with our visits to other sites, as best we encountered a few score visitors, virtually all Uzbeks or perhaps other Central Asians. Sad for their tourist industry but, for us, a gift.

We continue to be amazed at the low prices here. Our evening meal two nights ago at an upscale restaurant came to $40 for five of us. That included a bottle of wine. This is a shoppers’ paradise. Too bad we have all the rugs, dishes, and clothing we need. But if you are a shopaholic, bring an empty suitcase.

Tomorrow we make a day trip to the birthplace of Amir Tiimur and back, but not before we get our next COVID test administered. Our time in Uzbekistan is nearing an end.

I apologize for the messy combination of photos in the previous post. I was having fits with the software and sometimes random photos ended up in the blog, but I’ll blame it on the one-bar wifi signal. And to think I once knew something about computers.