Tuesday 28th February 2017

We moved on from Samarkand to the sprawling city of Tashkent. We left Samarkand on the 10:34 train, leaving the city shrouded in mist with a cool 5 C compared to yesterday’s 16 C. The gloom never really lifted until we reached our destination. Our train used the valleys to cross the low mountain range, known as the Turkistan Range, to the town of Jizzakh where we left the old railway line to follow the route of the new high speed trains (one of which we saw in Samarkand).

En route there was lots of evidence of how the rivers from the mountain range had been influenced by human action and lots of erosion of the hard river banks showing that this form of human action is inappropriate. There were many small farms alongside the tracks, a lot of them with beef cattle, fruit trees and rice fields.

We arrived in Tashkent in sunshine and quickly transferred to the 17 storey Hotel Uzbekistan which dominates Amir Timur Square. We are on the 16th floor.

Tashkent was founded in about the first century BC and by the time the Arabs captured it in 751 AD it was a major caravan crossroads. This is illustrated by a statue outside the hotel.

We end the day with a meal of lamb kebabs and delicious fries with local beer and have returned to our room to scan the TV channels. This is our view of central Tashkent.

Monday 27th February

We awoke to a beautiful sunny morning heralded by birdsong.

Samarkand is one of the most ancient cities of the world and a rare one as it has been fought over by three of histories greatest generals; Alexander the Great, Ghenkis Khan and Timur. The ancient part of Samarkand is situated on a hilly area named after a Turanian king, Afrasiab. A settlement was built here in the early 7th century BC. Some remains have been found including wall paintings from the royal palace dating to the 8th century BC.

The archaeological excavations here seem to be more or less abandoned but we think we found the site of Marakanda (early Samarkand). We also attempted to find the tomb of the Old Testament prophet Daniel. It is thought to be a low structure topped with domes and contains a sarcophagus which has to be enlarged as legend has it that Daniel’s body grows a little each year. His remains, which date to about the 5th century BC, were brought from Iran by Timur for good luck. The Iranians claim they still have him.

This is the mausoleum of Daniel that we were trying to find as shown on a photograph from the beginning of the 20th century.

The Hazrat-Khizr Mosque is at the entrance to the hill that forms the Afrosiab Park. Khizr is believed to be a protector of wayfarers and a possessor of ‘live’ water. This photograph was taken in 1890 and is rather unnerving as the people are actually standing on the course of today’s high speed duel carriageway!! There is little chance to stop a motor vehicle here and no bridge has been provided, so crossing the road today is an experience!!

In a guide book the mosque is described as being at a crossroads on the Old Tashkent Road. This has been obliterated by a concrete lined cutting, but in doing so has actually elevated the position of what some describe as Samarkand’s most beautiful mosque ‘with its fine domed interior and ribbed ceilings dripping colour’. All of which was out of bounds for us today.

To reach here we walked past the Registan

and along the now pedestrianised Old Tashkent Road. This pleasant urban walk took us past the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, also called the Amir Timur Mosque which was constructed as the main mosque of Samarkand in the early 15th century. The best architects, artists and craftsmen from a variety of countries were involved in its construction for 5 years. Indian elephants were even used for heavy lifting. It is thought Timur returned from a campaign and was disappointed by the scale of the construction, so it was made 45metres high with big pylons and minarets and arches up to 60m in height. Unfortunately the mosque was so big that the brick design behind all the colourful facades could not bear the weight and so the mosque collapsed little by little. By the time of reconstruction the building was in ruins and was not restored until the early 21st century. It is still undergoing restoration.


We rounded off the exploration with a meal, not of plov today, but of Lulya kebab (pieces of lamb, sweet fat and herb kebab), shashlik (keema kebab), sweet raw onion, home made bread and local beer. Delicious!

This is what it could have been like on the train! It says ‘Super Plov’.

Sunday 26th February 2016

We are in a small hotel called The Malika Prime which is located in parkland overlooking the Gur-Emir-Amir Mausoleum which is the burial place of Timur, his two sons and two grandsons. It has a fluted azure dome.

Close by is the statue of Amir Timur. He played a major role in forming Samarkand as an epicentre for Central Asian economics and culture.

The city is one of the regions oldest settlements. Founded in the 5th century BC it was already a multicultural walled capital of the Sogdian Empire when it was captured by Alexander the Great in 329BC. The city was also by now at the crossroads of Silk Road routes to and from China, India and today’s Middle East bringing with it trade, craftsmen, languages, religions, scientific ideas as well as fruit, spices and textiles.

The city changed hands many times before being ransacked by Ghengis Khan in 1220. In 1370 however Timur decided to rebuild and make Samarkand his capital. His grandson Ulugbek ruled until 1449. The city again fell into decay and was only restored in 1868 by being linked to the Russian Empire by the Trans-Caspian railway.
We visited the Registan which was the medieval city’s commercial centre and the plaza was probably the bazaar. The complex has three grand buildings which are some of the oldest preserved medressas and are a majestic mass of mosaic and well proportioned spaces. The fact that they are still standing after frequent earthquakes that rock the region is a testimony to the craftsmanship of their builders. They too have at times fallen into disrepair but the Russians have worked hard to restore these treasures. We were inside one of the medressas when we were invited to see black and white photographs of the complex in the late 19th and early 20th century when some of it lay in ruins.

Saturday 25th February 2017

We had a last look at the old city of Khiva and managed to get to some sights that we had missed on yesterday’s visit. In particular we saw a timber and mud brick minaret by the west gate which gave us great views across the old city and along the western section of the walls with their crenellated tops and supporting buttresses. It is also thought that the minaret was originally the watchtower as it commands views over what was the desert towards today’s Turkmenistan.

  


Spring has certainly sprung today as we were able to sit outside in the sunshine overlooking the west gate with a cold drink and watch the world go by. Later we witnessed farmers hoeing and ploughing the fields, applying manure and bringing animals outdoors for the first time since last autumn. A taxi journey to Urgench enabled us to catch train 056 to Samarkand. This will be a 12 hour journey and we should arrive at 02:45 tomorrow morning.

As we write we are onboard the train and have crossed the Amu-Darya River and the Tyuamayin Reservoir on a new bridge and railway line that will enable the high speed trains from Tashkent to reach Urgench.

So proud is the railway company of this venture that glossy brochures were available at the station in Urgench as well as a multiscreen presentation of the new trains. We are now in the desert heading east to Uchkuduk 304km from Urgench and expected to arrive at 19:22. We are likely to have had dinner by then and hope that there is more than plov (mutton pilaff style) as the last restaurant car had only that!
Guess what?! It was Plov!!
Our journey continued across the Mingholog Depression part of the Great Central Asian Desert to the remote town of Uchquduq.

From there although we couldn’t see anything it was more desert until the early hours of Sunday morning we reached the mountains that extend from The Pamirs, Karakorem and Himalayan Mountains. Here the peaks are about 2000m high but the ice and river formed valley provides easy access for the railway to Samarkand. One could hear from the noise of the wheels and track that we were crossing many bridges as the major river was fed by small ones from the surrounding mountains. We arrived in Samarkand at 02:45.

 

Friday 24th February 2017

Today we are based in Khiva at a hotel across the road from the west gate of a most amazing mud brick-walled city. It has colourful domes and minarets which today were piercing the brilliant blue sky.

Legend has it that Khiva was founded when Shem, the son of Noah, discovered a well here and it became known as Kheivak from which today’s name is said to originate. Our explorations took us to the site of the original well in the courtyard of an 18th century house with a small white door in a mud wall. Unfortunately we could not gain access but to support this theory in the courtyard of the neighbouring house was a working well! This has to be the origin of the settlement. It is historical continuity in action.

Khiva, archaeologists have found, certainly existed in the 8th century as a fort and trading post on the Silk Road but the Khorezm route continued to dominate the area until the 14th century when the rulers of old Urgench were defeated by Timur (more about him later) and Khiva became the dominant settlement. The city acted as a trading centre, an overnight service point for the camel caravans and had a busy slave market as people were traded by Turkmen tribesmen from both the Karakum Desert or the Kazakh tribes from the Steppes. In 1740 Khiva was destroyed by the Shah of Persia but rebuilt in the 18th century and continued to trade as the largest slave market in central Asia until 1873 when Russian forces ousted the rulers. The historic centre fell into ruin but fortunately with Unesco support it has been restored as a museum city. To walk through the walls and catch that first glimpse of mud brick walls and colourful minarets along with the twisting alleyways is certainly magical. We toured the old city for 5 hours and never saw any Europeans. An extra magic moment was yesterday at about 8:00pm when looking for a restaurant we entered the old city. There was almost total darkness punctuated by an illuminated minaret and an amazing star-filled sky.

     Â 

 

Thursday 23rd February 2017

The formalities of border crossing made us forget that it is really Thursday though again sleep meant that we missed the end of the Steppe and the beginning of the desert.

We could have slept longer but around 10:00 we were woken by what seemed like an army of itinerant traders selling food, drink, clothes, toys, perfume, phones and most importantly the money changers. It is called the Black Market but the wads of notes are wrapped in official bank wrappers and in a minute 100US$ is changed into tens of thousands of Uzbekistan som. The desert is now widespread with lots of evidence of salinisation and the receding Aral Sea. The Aral Sea is fed by two major rivers, the Syr-Darya and Amu-Darya, which flow roughly west and northwest from the region of central Asia where the Pamir, Tian Shan and Himalayan Mountain ranges collide. In the 1950s the Aral Sea covered about 67,000 sq.km and was up to 400km north to south. Fishing fleets operated from a town not far from our railway track at Moynaq and even passenger ferries crossed it. All this unfortunately changed as Soviet planners saw the boosting of cotton production in the republics of this region as a means of improving standards of living in the republics and the textile industry. This demanded the use of the river’s water but, as many of the fields were on poorer desert soils and fed by unlined canals open to the sun, evaporation was a major problem which was solved by extracting more water. The effect all this had is evidenced today by the shrinking Aral Sea and the migration of more than 60,000 people who were involved in the fishing industry alone. This turned the fishing industry into a relic of the past. Today fishing boats are left high and dry surrounded by desert. The impact on humans is only one of the impacts that the irrigation schemes have had. It is thought that the Aral Sea and its surroundings had more than 150 different animal species but today it maybe only one-fifth of that. As the Aral Sea was so large, like the Great Lakes of the USA and Canada, it affected the weather and climate of the region. This continues but the effects are different. The air is drier, the winters are colder and longer and in the summer it is much hotter. Every year some hundred thousand tons of salt and sand from the now exposed bed of the sea is blown many kilometres in sand storms which also pick up the residues of fertilisers and even some biological warfare chemical’s remains. This clearly has an impact not only on the land but on the remaining people.


Our journey continued along the floodplain of the Amu-Darya with lots of small farms with lots of evidence of rice production.

We finally arrived in Urgench at 18:30 having travelled through the Amu-Darya delta. This region is where the river breaks into many branches called distributaries as the water enters the Aral sea. The rivers alluvium at times of flooding was deposited upon the sands of the region and therefore made the delta into a productive farming area. Settlements in this region had easy access to water and therefore each settlement had at least a well and acted like an oasis. The historical name of this delta was Khorezm and many ruins of over 2000 year old towns still stand in this area. Unesco has named this area as the ‘Golden Ring of ancient Khorezm’ which hints at the areas original name of Elliq-Qala or Fifty Fortresses. (Qala means fort). The oldest fort which archaeologists have revealed to have been circular is the Koy Krylgan Qala which was built in the first century AD. Not very far away is the Toprak Qala which was the main temple complex of the Khorezm kings who ruled this area in the 3rd and 4th centuries. We managed a glimpse of these from the train but despite that mere glimpse they were important centres of trade and accommodation on the Silk Road.

A 35 minute taxi ride took us to Khiva, the World Heritage site, and fortified town on the Silk Road. The approach to the city was amazing as the setting sun illuminated thin lines of cloud in brilliant deep red which was reflected in the black flooded rice fields.

Wednesday 22nd February 2017

We left Volgograd at 19:59 yesterday by train and have so far travelled down the Volga River valley towards its delta and the Caspian Sea. North of Astrakhan at Aksaraiskaya at 02:25 this morning we arrived at the Russian border. Here immigration and customs formalities take place on the train and for more than 2 hours one just has to wait. By 04:45 we were on our way to Ganyushkino in Kazakhstan. This is 87km further east so the train is sealed and one travels through a no-man’s land until the next set of formalities are completed. We arrived at the border post at 06:09 Moscow time but Kazakhstan operates on GMT+6 so here it was 09:09. We were finally on our way at 10:55. It is difficult to relate much about the next 200km as we were asleep!

The fresh bed linen is supplied in a sealed bag.

When we reached Atyrau we were at the northeast end of the Caspian Sea where, from a small port on the near horizon, ferries cross to Tblisi. Further east at Dossor the snow was really deep, wind blasted and formed into miniature dune like shapes of different lengths extending to the horizon. This is the Steppe – a scrub like grassland that extends around the world at this longitude but because of its experience of continentality the cold and the snow is more extreme.

Dossor is the gateway to the Russian space project. We could see from the train that entry points to the town were signalled by signs in the shape of a 1960s rocket. The Baykonur Cosmodrome is an area of some 6000 square kilometres of this semi desert and a couple of hundred kilometres from this town. Visits are possible but advance permission is needed and on an expedition like this is not possible. One of the reasons for the remoteness is possibility security but in reality the Russians need the space for returning cosmonauts to land because they land on the surface of the earth and not in the ocean as the Americans do. Kazakhstan was originally a Russian Republic when the space programme began.


We have also here crossed the ‘Ural line’, a line extending southwards from the Ural Mountains, and are now geographically in Asia.
We continued to make good time to Makat where the train was serviced and 40 minutes later we were travelling through the marshlands of the northeast part of the Caspian Sea.

These lakes were frozen but the further southeast we travelled the less snow was present but there was evidence of salinisation as the summer heat and a possible lack of rainfall is turning the lakes into salt pans (in miniature this is the same way as Death Valley and the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea have formed). Onwards we went and by 23:21 we arrived at our next international border at Beineu Granitsa. If anyone was sleeping you certainly knew one had arrived at this important place because the provodnik works his way down the carriage opening compartment doors and letting everyone know that you have to be wide awake and seated to await the soldiers and officials who will inspect passports, visas and luggage. By 01:24 formalities were complete and we were on our way in a southeasterly direction, again sealed for the 98 km journey to the Uzbekistan border post at Karakalpakya where we arrived at 03:00. Uzbekistan operates on GMT+5 so our clocks go back one hour so it is 02:00 here. By 05:00 we are on the move again.

 

 

Tuesday 21st February 2017

Having travelled overnight we arrived in Volgograd bang on time at 08:19.

The railway station from our hotel room.

The city was shrouded in freezing fog which cleared to reveal a very grand city. It was founded in 1589 but made history when known as Stalingrad. In 1942 the city became the scene of an epic battle that changed the course of WWII. The number of citizens and soldiers who died in this battle is almost twice the current population of the city. Volgograd had to be rebuilt from scratch in a style known as Soviet baroque with large squares, equally large buildings and broad avenues.

At Mamayev Kurgan is a hill which was a strategic location during the war and is now a memorial complex, the centrepiece of which is a massive statue of Mother Russia wielding a 27 metre sword. It is one of the largest freestanding statues in the world.

Out of town, a good hour in a car, is the first lock of the Volga-Don Canal. Built in 1952 it is a grand gateway to the waterway which connects the White and Black Seas by way of the Volga and Don rivers. One million people were involved in its construction of the 101km canal and was the final link in a European waterway ring that shortens shipping routes. Today though the canal was frozen and contrasted with the turquoise blue waters of the River Volga. In the sunshine temperatures reached 6 C which has led to a rapid melt of the snow and the frozen ground so water is running off land and footpaths and welling upwards through the soil and the foundations of the roads. In many places there are frost broken surfaces and deep black puddles. Motor vehicles bear no resemblance to their original colour!!

We leave this evening at 19:59 by train to Urgench in Uzbekistan arriving on Thursday 23rd February.

Monday 20th February 2017

Today we commenced the long train journey from Moscow to Hong Kong. This first leg had us depart from Moscow Paveletsky Station on an 18 hour overnight journey to Volgograd, 1071km to the south.

We are in a first class compartment with a la carte meals served to your own table. Between us we ate chicken with buckwheat salad and a beef stew in its own decorated ‘marmite’ style container, accompanied by some very good wine!

We have crossed the last remnants of the North European Plain, through silver birch forests and large isolated settlements, many of them on bluffs above frozen rivers.

As we write we are departing from Gryazi-Voronezhskie where the locomotive has been changed and the train checked in readiness for 11 hours of travel through the night. This settlement has a large railway station and stall selling provisions for the journey. The snow here is certainly deep, crisp and even with the well-trodden platforms, at 9:00 p.m. covered with frozen slush.

Sunday 19th February 2017

The street plan of central Moscow is a pattern of concentric circles which mark the city’s development outwards over many centuries. In the middle is the Kremlin, the fortified hill which is the country’s political headquarters. It is the former citadel of the tsars and now the residence of the Russian president. It has been a symbol of the power of the state for centuries. In 1156 Prince Dolgorukiy chose this site for the first wooden kremlin or fortress. In the 15th century Tsar Ivan the Great organised a major reconstruction which included the present ensemble of cathedrals and monuments that form the site today.

One enters the fortress through the Trinity Gate Tower by the main highway near our hotel.

Soon one is surrounded by white-washed walls and golden domes such as those that top the Assumption Cathedral, the Great Bell Tower and the Archangel Cathedral. Later one can stroll through the gardens close to the perimeter wall overlooking the Moscow River. We exited the fortress into Red Square by the the Savior’s Tower close to St Basil’s Cathedral.

Across the Square is Moscow’s first suburb, Kitay Gorod which was settled in the 12th century by traders and workers. The word Kitay is thought to refer to the wattle and daub ramparts that surrounded the suburb. Red Square was initially the market place where merchants from across Russia and as far away as Britain traded from the 16th century.

In the early evening we explored the late 15th century area behind Red Square which is on a bluff above the Moscow River. Here a number of boyars, including the Romanovs built their estates to control the trade along the major route way in and out of Moscow. In the 19th century this became Moscow’s financial district and continues today as a major cultural and historic area. In fact as we write a major complex including a music amphitheatre is under construction and overlooked by 17th century churches.

One church, St. Maxim the Blessed, was paid for by Novogrod merchants and was consecrated in 1698.

Next door is the Old English Court which has been restored to its 17th century appearance. This merchant’s residence was given to visiting English traders by Ivan the Terrible in the hope of securing arms and other goods from them.

Further along the road is the Palace of the Romanov Boyars which was originally occupied in 1607 by Nikita Romanov and is now a museum that explains the life of such noble families in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Returning to the hotel we passed through the Spring Fair and saw an ice castle amongst the stalls perfectly illuminated by the lights in front of the Bolshoi Theatre and the looming statue of Lenin.

Before returning to the hotel we checked on progress for the 2018 World Cup.