Well, I've taken a few days to organize my thoughts...
and recover from jet lag. But WOW. What a trip I just had to Central Asia. I'm so grateful and inspired! Caution: long post ahead, but necessary ;)
If you just want to look at photos of Central Asia, click here.
I've decided to structure this post a little differently than usual by embedding pictures throughout so they are broken up and I can remember for myself- that's why I started my blog after all! Pictures were taken by me and my friend Alex (mostly Alex ;)
In the West, the Stans are either seen through the lens of Borat, assumed to be war-ridden, or thought of as the remains of the Soviet Union. Although it is naive to dismiss all stereotypes, there is SO much more to know! As excited I am to share with you, since, in general, many people know so little about the “Stans", I also feel some pressure to adequately describe this diverse and fascinating part of the world in one post! And further, after visiting it also pains me to group the Stans as one since each country has an such an individual culture and beauty. Below is just a summary of the highlights :)
What is Central Asia
Not to belittle you, but I want to explain a smidge about what makes up this diverse region. So, there are seven Stans: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. In a geographical sense, they all make up Central Asia, but when talking to people, at least in Uzbekistan, they did not count Afghanistan or Pakistan as part of Central Asia proper. Others include Eastern European countries, Turkey, or Middle Eastern countries. Whatever works for you. I only went to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan and it was partly because it was the target of my research (see below), but also possible for American citizens to get to. Also, Central Asia is often connected with the Silk Road: an ancient trade route from the far East to Europe. As caravans traveled, they left culture, language and architecture throughout the region.
Why I went on this trip
Most people that travel to Central Asia are hikers or climbers (or elderly Europeans, I learned after I got there!) and there is not much info online. Before I travel, I always like to do a lot research to know what I'm looking at and only found a few other blog posts to prepare me. The purpose of my visit was different as I was conducting research on the holiday Nowruz. I'm a student of the Middle East and study Persian (Farsi). With seven other students and two professors (either Persian or Russian speakers) we set out on an awesome 3-country adventure by Sitara Travel to discover how the holiday is celebrated throughout Central Asia. Originally a Zoroastrian holiday celebrated on the Spring Equinox and adopted by Iran and consequently Islam, I want to know how citizens from each country view the holiday differently. Essentially, my thesis will evaluate the secular or religious nature of Nowruz. Do people see it as an Islamic holiday? A pagan (and thus very anti-Islamic) holiday? A national holiday? How do they celebrate it differently than Iran? How did the non-religious influence of Soviet Union impact Nowruz? We had many people fill out surveys, made conversation, and visited two universities to ask opinions. Hopefully, my work (once complete) will provide consolidated information to better prepare US Military personnel or NGOs on how and why Nowruz is so celebrated throughout the month of March. I'm actually so excited to analyze all the feedback and write this thesis (nerd)! Just to name a few interesting facts I learned: in Tajikistan, people are not even let into Mosques until the age of 18 to avoid radicalism among the youth. And women are sent texts from the government reminding them to not wear hijab but traditional clothing instead. Fascinating! In addition to all the data, the site-seeing was so unique and that is what I want to share with you :D
I only went to the city of Almaty in Kazakhstan. I was so surprised to see how modern and westernized it is. Honestly, it felt the same as any European city. Kazakhstan is the richest and most modern country in Central Asia. It was fascinating to see the left-over Soviet architecture and parks throughout the city but was also littered with cute cafes, poppin' nightclubs, and fancy restaurants. Kazakhstan is trying to increase its tourism and they have a one month free visa if you're interested in going!
What I saw...
- Panfilov Park - One of the main parks in the city with many memorials from the war.
- Zhenkov's Holy Ascension Cathedral - Located in Panfilov Park. It is a colorful, all wooden (including nails!) Eastern Orthodox Cathedral. Sadly, it was under construction when I was there, but still beautiful inside!
- Zeelyoni (Green) Bazaar - Influenced by the old Silk road, the bazaar is filled with fruits, meats, cheeses, and anything you can think of. It had NO SMELL and was so clean.
- State Museum of History - great place to learn about Yurts and old Kazakh nomadic history.
- Kok Tyube Hill - See a panoramic view of the city and eat above the rest!
- Medeu Skate Rink - The Kazakhs are very proud that they have the highest skating rink in the world.
- Chimbulak (Shymbulak) Ski Resort - a resort above the treeline reaching 10,500ft (3,200m)
I spent most of my time in Uzbekistan and for good reason! I visited four different cities and each had so much beauty to offer. Uzbekistan had the most historic, foreign, and "Silk Road" feel.
- Old City Hast Imam Complex - beautiful refurbished Central Mosque
- Chorsu Bazaar - the main bazaar of the city with EVERYTHING you could think of
- Kukeldash Madrassah - a beautifully manicured Madrassah (school)
- Tashkent Armed Forces Academy - the campus is beautiful!
2. Khiva: there is an old and a new part of the city. The old city is completely walled and absolutely beautiful!
- Ark Fortress: the ultimate fortress in the middle of the city!
- Balokhauz Mosque: another old beauty!
- Ismail Samanid Mausoleum: built between 892 and 943 AD. It was burried under a graveyard and discovered in the Soviet time period.
4. Samarkand - all stops were SO beautiful!
- Registan Square
- Bibi Khanum Mosque
- Shahi Zinda Necropolis
- Ulugbek's Observatory
We briefly saw Penjikent and spent the night there after a long boarder crossing process. Early the next morning, we headed through the mountains to Dushanbe via jeeps to celebrate Nowruz on the actual day! Until this point, we had taken a coach bus and the jeeps were SO fun. The trip between the two cities was actually the highlight and we stopped in a small village in the mountains for lunch. I was in awe the entire trip, partly because of the CRAZY and unsafe drivers and partly because of the #views!!!
Iskanderkul (Alexandar Lake) was one of the most amazing stops on the entire trip. The glacial water was so cool (visually and actually). I obviously had to take a little swim and let me tell you... I've never felt more alive. It was SO. COLD. but worth it ;)
In Dushanbe itself, I honestly felt like I was in the Hunger Games. Driving into the capitol, people were so poor and had nothing. Dushanbe was perfectly manicured, painted, modern-looking, and covered with murals of their "democratically elected" president (dictator) of 24 years, Emomalii Rahmon. He ordered the Nowruz Palace to be built, one of the most over-the-top structures like Versailles or the Taj Mahal. I was so upset the entire time I was there as the billion dollars could feed the people of the country. Not my fight. BUT the next day, we got celebrate Nowruz itself! It was so fun! :D After doing research before, it was great to see the holiday really does exist!
I am so grateful for the opportunity to travel to Central Asia. It's simply a part of the world many people don't travel to or know much about, so I feel like the experience was very unique. From an academic perspective, the research I gathered was awesome and I'm really looking forward to finishing up my thesis (and undergrad in general!!!) This trip was the cherry on top to my education.
I went to a bible study the day I got back to New York and a girl was talking about how important it is to surround yourself with people who think and live life like you, which is SO true many times when it comes to friends and helps you stay on the straight and narrow. However, I couldn't help but think about how important it is to see how other people live life and how impactful travel has been to my maturity, compassion, and faith. When I traveled to the mountains in Tajikistan last week, these people lived such beautiful, simple lives. They may shit in a hole and not have WiFi, but they care about their children, love their spouses, are exceptionally thoughtful and hospitable, and are HAPPY. This is why I love to travel. I want to be able to meet the world's people and see new perspectives. It will move you too, friend. Get out there. Thanks for reading.
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