Travel and Adventure


I recently took an eight-day trip to Iceland, the land of fire and ice and loads of surprises.

My granddaughter Holly and I had been intrigued about Iceland for some time. Others in our family wondered whether we had lost our minds—giving up a gorgeous summer week in Wisconsin and to don warm clothes, tromp through tundra, and touch glaciers.

The joke’s on them! We came back raving about spectacular waterfalls, faithful geysers, steaming mineral baths, volcanic mountains, mysterious landscapes, turf roofs, and gorgeous flowers (yes, flowers—only the interior quarter of the country was frozen.)

Holly offered to rent a car to drive Iceland’s Ring Road. That eliminated the need to backpack our Canon Rebel cameras and bring layers of clothing on daytrips. Fortunately, we received a free upgrade to a four-wheel drive SUV Subaru Forrester, which we loaded down to “live on the road.” No group tours for us! Now we’re convinced that self-drive tours are the only way to go (during the summer). We used Reykjavik, the capital, as our home base and stayed right downtown at the Alda Hotel. That allowed us to acclimate during our arrival day and to beat the traffic to tourist sites the following days.

Thingvellir Park and Oxararfoss. The next day we awakened at 4 a.m., too excited to sleep. We opened the black light-blocking curtains. The sun was already up! By 5 a.m., we hit the road for the Golden Circle. We were surprised to have the road to ourselves. Our first stop was Thingvellir Park, which sits on a rift valley caused by the separation of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. This stop overlooks the picturesque Thingvellir church alongside a meandering river. This is Iceland’s most historic site as well as a place of vivid beauty. Here, the Vikings established the world’s first democratic parliament, the Alþingi, in 930AD. The meetings were convened annually, outdoors.

Our second stop, a waterfall called Oxararfoss, was our favorite of the day. We meandered through a canyon flanked with rocky cliffs and fissures and filled with gorgeous wildflowers. After an hour, we reached a spectacular falls. We had it all to ourselves! We sat for a while, immersed in the sounds of nature: the roar of the falls contrasting with the gurgling river below.

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During our walk back along this natural amphitheater of Pingvellir, we stopped at Law Rock, where judgements were handed down by the Alþingi, the national assembly. This grand experiment in democracy occurred at a time when the rest of Europe wallowed in rigid feudal monarchies. I was amazed to learn that this Viking system lasted, despite lapses back into chaos, for three centuries. We continued to drive round Lake Pingvallavatn, Iceland’s largest lake at 84 sq. km.

Map of Lake Pingvallavatn Iceland's largest lake.

Map of Lake Pingvallavatn Iceland’s largest lake.

Geysir. Stop three was the site of Geysir, which has lent its name to all water such water spouts around the world. We had soup for lunch—lamb stew for me and cream of mushroom for Holly. Afterward, we walked along a trail called “the land of boiling waters.” We passed steaming vents, bubbling turquoise pools, and multicolor mud formations—all the way hearing the loud belch and burst of the big one. We finally reached Strokkur (the churn), which shoots upwards every five minutes or so to about 20 meters (66 feet). By the second belch, our cameras were poised for action!

Gullfoss, the Greatest Waterfall. Nine kilometers (six miles) further along Route 35, we reached Iceland’s best-known natural wonder: Gullfoss (Golden Falls). We followed a path from the upper parking area, overrun with busses and vans, leading down to the deafening falls, where the River Hvita (White River) tumbles 32 meters (l05 feet) into a 2.5km (1.5-mile) ravine. One can take another trail to get within an arm’s length of the awesome flow. No way! I felt the wind rushing from above and tugging me toward the waterfall. I saw tripods tip like toothpicks. That was close enough for me. I pulled my sailing jacket close around me and tightened my scarf around my neck. Every so often, clouds of spray descended in wind gusts, forcing me to turn my back to the falls. What a spectacular view of raw nature combined with stunning beauty!

After this thrilling experience, we were ready to return to Reykjavik to rest up for another day of touring.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading this nautical adventure trilogy, now on sale.

We travel not for trafficking alone,
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned.
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.
__James Elroy Flecker, 1913

No name is as evocative of the Silk Road as Samarkand. Founded in 700 BC, it is one of the most ancient cities of the world and the most famous city of modern Uzbekistan. In 329 BC, the city was conquered by Alexander the Great who said, “Everything I have heard about Marakanda is true, except that it is more beautiful than I ever imagined.” During the centuries that followed, Samarkand became the key trading center along the Silk Road between China and the Mediterranean Sea. Fast forward to the present, and you’ll find that even after the capital was moved to Tashkent, Samarkand continued to play an important role in the region’s cultural and economic life. After Uzbekistan declared its independence in 1991, the city became an important industrial, cultural, and tourist center.

Samarkand was relatively unknown to the western world until 2001 when the city was added to the World Heritage List. The 2,750th anniversary of the city, a contemporary of Rome, was celebrated internationally by UNESCO in 2007. Today, tourists can enjoy architectural masterpieces as splendid as the greatest monuments of India, Egypt, Greece, and ancient Rome.

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Gunter and I were blown away by the Registan Square in Samarkand—arguably the most splendid sight in all of Central Asia. If I saw nothing else during the trip, I’d have seen the best. An ensemble of three majestic madrassas built during the 15th & 17th centuries form the public square, the centerpiece of the city. I loved the expanse and grandeur of the square combined with intricate carvings and exquisite blue mosaic gracing the portals and domes.

Ulugbek's Observatory

Lois and Gunter rest after touring Ulugbek’s Observatory.

We walked on to visit mosques and mausoleums that dripped blues and greens; however, we were most fascinated by Ulugbek’s Observatory, one of the great archeological finds of the 20th century. Ulugbek was more famous as an astronomer than a ruler. He built his three-story observatory to observe star positions in the 1420s; all that remains is the astrolabe’s curved track. We had seen a similar observatory in India, but our guide claimed that Ulugbek’s lab preceded that one!

Map of Samarkand and Silk Road Cities

Map of Samarkand and Silk Road Cities

Most tours of Uzbekistan begin at Tashkent, the capital, and circle around to Khiva or to Samarkand. We ended our tour with Samarkand.

Our Uzbekistan itinerary had saved the best for last. Samarkand ended our tour. Our guide and driver took us back to Tashkent, the capital, where we relaxed for a day and then flew via Turkish Airlines back to Istanbul and then to San Francisco and on to San Diego.

Lotte City Hotel Tashkent Palace

Lois writes in her journal in the courtyard of the Lotte City Hotel Tashkent Palace.

If You Go:

Contact Zulya Rajabova, founder and president of Silk Road Treasure Tours, Office: 888-745-7670, Cell: 908-347-4280. Her company manages independent and luxury travel tours throughout the Silk Road Countries of Central Asia, as well as to Mongolia and Georgia.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading this nautical adventure trilogy, now on sale.

This is the final blog in the Uzbekistan series. Lois’s next blog will be about Iceland, where she will travel next week.

Uzbekistan camels

Gunter’s camel.

I know someone who vows he’ll never ride a camel again. That someone is Gunter, my husband─not that he wasn’t warned! As we prepared our itinerary for traveling Uzbekistan, my sister Ret begged, “Promise me you’ll delete those horse and camel rides from your trip. You’re not getting any younger.”

Visions of his painful-but-successful knee surgery flashed through Gunter’s head. “I rode a camel at the Pyramids and a horse over Mono Pass in the High Sierras. Yes, a man in his eighties should cut back a little. No horses or camels.”

That was then.

Dinner would be in two hours so we decided to pass the time by going to the camel corral. Mistake! We saw three camels being saddled up—three abreast—for a half-hour circle trip. Two men about Gunter’s age were on the outside with a petite lady about my size trying to mount the center camel. She gave up, saying that she couldn’t reach over the top of the double-humper to reach the stirrups. “Who wants to take her place?” the camel driver asked. There were no takers. “Someone volunteer!” he pleaded. Gunter’s hand went up as my stomach reeled in shock. He mounted his camel and they were off in a flash. No adjustments. After what seemed like forever, the three camels came back. Only one of them had a rider!

I could feel my stomach grip and my face go pale. Fak, our guide, took off running through the sandy trail. I followed, but soon lost sight of him rounding the bend. When I had run far enough to see, there was Gunter dusting himself off while Fak helped him stand. He seemed okay! “I was afraid I’d see metal from my knee poking out of my leg,” he grimaced. “First, the left stirrup came loose and fell off. Then the saddle started to slip and I began to slide. I knew I was going down. Luckily, I managed a controlled fall and then I quickly rolled out of the way of the camel’s feet.” He limped alongside Fak back to the corral.

Staying at a Yurt Camp.

After walking a village in Nurata, we wound around mountains and deserts, ending with a stunning view of Aydarkul Lake, sparkling as if it were a mirage. Then we turned back and into the Yurt Camp to check in. Gunter and I occupied a yurt near the office/restaurant with five single platform beds. We used the spare ones to spread out our belongings. Then we walked through the circle of a dozen yurts, past the campfire surrounded by wooden benches, and up the hill to the facilities, which resembled those of a typical western campground. I turned to Gunter. “Nice, but it will be a long walk at night!”

Dinner would be in two hours so we decided to pass the time by going to the camel corral. Mistake! We saw three camels being saddled up—three abreast—for a half-hour circle trip. Two men about Gunter’s age were on the outside with a petite lady about my size trying to mount the center camel. She gave up, saying that she couldn’t reach over the top of the double-humper to reach the stirrups. “Who wants to take her place?” the camel driver asked. There were no takers. “Someone volunteer!” he pleaded. Gunter’s hand went up as my stomach reeled in shock. He mounted his camel and they were off in a flash. No adjustments. After what seemed like forever, the three camels came back. Only one of them had a rider!

I could feel my stomach grip and my face go pale. Fak, our guide, took off running through the sandy trail. I followed, but soon lost sight of him rounding the bend. When I had run far enough to see, there was Gunter dusting himself off while Fak helped him stand. He seemed okay! “I was afraid I’d see metal from my knee poking out of my leg,” he grimaced. “First, the left stirrup came loose and fell off. Then the saddle started to slip and I began to slide. I knew I was going down. Luckily, I managed a controlled fall and then I quickly rolled out of the way of the camel’s feet.” He limped alongside Fak back to the corral.

Uzbekistan camel ride

Gunter points to the camels before he decides to take a ride.

The other rider had come back as well after his camel spooked and shook him off. He seemed okay.

That was then.

As they sat down to dinner, the riders were immediately offered shots of vodka. After that, we all enjoyed red wine. Our lives had returned to normal. We enjoyed nomadic, country-western-type songs around the campfire. As we walked hand-in-hand back to our Yurt, the night sky filled with a million stars reminding us of glorious night watches while sailing around the world.

In the morning after breakfast we asked the other rider whether he slept okay. “It was a terrible night,” his wife answered. “He was in pain all night.” I fetched some stronger pills for him from our Yurt, and she accepted them gratefully. “He will need them for a few nights, I fear.”

But that wasn’t the end of the story. Before we left Uzbekistan, I contacted her and learned the bad news: they had checked him into a hospital in Bukhara; x-rays showed that he had five or six broken ribs, plus internal bleeding. He had stayed in that hospital for five horrific days before being airlifted to a Canadian hospital in Dubai. At last report, the couple was safely back home in United States. All had learned a tough lesson: never ride a camel before you know it’s safe.

Lois Joy Hofmann blog image

I grow a beard and know things.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading this nautical adventure trilogy, now on sale.

Lois’s next blog in the Uzbekistan series will be about Samarkand, crossroads of the Silk Road.

Gunter and I embrace the concept of “slow travel.” Our preference for this method of land travel is probably a byproduct of our slow sail around the world (it took us eight years). We like to decide on a destination, dream, research and read about it, plan an itinerary with plenty of spare time built in, and then go. And when we’re there, we like to take our time, surround ourselves with the power of place, understand the culture, and break bread with the locals if we can. Walking a Village is part and parcel of this experience.

On the way to Mt. Popa and Table Mountain in Myanmar (Burma), a popular tourist site southeast of Bagan, our guide parked his car and led us into a small village where we walked among thatched huts, met villagers, and visited a school. We also walked a village outside of Varanasi, India.

During our recent trip to Uzbekistan, we drove off the beaten path into Nurata, located in the foothills of Nuratau Mountains which stretch out hundreds of kilometers from Barren Steppe to Navoi and Kyzylkum Desert. This village is almost 200 kilometers from Samarkand. It was founded as ancient Nur in 327 BC by Alexander the Great, and the remains of his military fortress can be seen on a high hill to the south of town. The fortress was a strategic center for gathering an army before attacking neighboring lands.

Nurata is known for its famous mineral springs.

Nurata is known for its famous mineral springs.

The elaborate water system Alexander had installed is partially used today. But the locals don’t care about which western conquerors were here; instead, they host Eastern visitors who come as Muslim pilgrims to visit the holy places and mosques. A settlement called Nur—at the foot of the mountain—contains the graves of many “who have seen” the Prophet Mohammed. This site was chosen as a settlement for its mineral spring, known as Chasma, which always stays at 19.5°C. According to legend, a fire rock (probably a meteor) fell from the sky and a spring of healing water rose where it hit the ground. Now, thousands of believers—most from neighboring towns—come to visit every year to view the strange radiance that sometimes appears over the spring. The complex contains a Friday mosque, qubba (Arabic for shrine or tomb) and a bathhouse.

A group of tourists in Nurata.

A group of tourists in Nurata.

Far from industrial and tourist centers, this town of 25,000 leads an unhurried, idyllic life. The innocence and genuine hospitality of the residents is a primary reason that pilgrims and tourists like to visit Nurata. While our driver parked the car on the outskirts, our guide Fakhriddin, Gunter and I walked into town.

Eager to witness this hospitality for ourselves, we were not disappointed. We felt as if the town had been swept clean for guests: bushes and flowers had been carefully manicured, there was no trash on or along sidewalks, and smiling faces greeted us everywhere. While Fak tried to explain the inner workings of the unique system of underground pipe channels running from the spring, onlookers kept asking questions about us. We were their newest attraction!

“Why are you here? Where are you from? Do you like Uzbekistan? Why? What do you like best?” Of course, we couldn’t understand a word of Tajik or Russian, so Fak was bombarded with questions. He turned to us, “Are they bothering you?”

“Quite the opposite,” Gunter explained. “We want to talk with them. You can fill us in on the history later.”

“America! California!” a student from Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, yelled to his friends. Soon his friends surrounded us and the questioning resumed.

An English teacher from Tashkent visits Nurata.

An English teacher from Tashkent visits Nurata.

A teacher approached to ask Fak whether her International Language university students could come over to interview us. They were taking a cultural field trip. “How fortunate for us to find American English speakers,” she said. “That is unusual; few Europeans come here and almost no Americans.” We sat on a bench while a parade of students passed by. “Only one question each,” she instructed.

As we walk along the town’s main plaza, a withered man approached with a young boy, about 5 or 6 years old. “Photo of my grandson with you?” he asked.

“Okay,” Gunter said. “Come and stand here in front.” The grandfather releases the shy boy’s hand and gently pushes him forward. After he snapped his photo, his gnarled face broke into a wide grin. “My grandson will remember this photo for the rest of his life.”

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The center of attention all afternoon, we continued to walk and talk around the village. Those inquisitive-but-friendly people of Nurata will always hold a special place in my heart.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading this nautical adventure trilogy, now on sale.

Lois Joy Hofmann updating her travel journal.

Lois Joy Hofmann updating her travel journal.

 

 

Sharing Lap-Lap in Vanuatu

In Vanuatu, Lois and Günter watch a local knead dough for lap-lap.

One of our favorite things to do when traveling is to finagle an invitation to the home of a family who lives there. Or, when we were sailing around the world, we liked to invite locals on our boat.

My first experience receiving such an invitation was during a Cruising World charter. Heading back from a Polynesian church service in Yassawa, Fiji, a couple beckoned us from their thatched-roof dwelling. “Would you like to join us for dinner?” a man in a sulu (sarong) asked. My husband, Gunter, nodded and we walked over, took off our shoes, and went inside.

“We only have one fish, but we’d like to share,” his wife offered, while her young boy tugged at her muumuu-style dress. The meal had already been spread out on the floor on top of a tapa cloth. The small fish occupied center stage, surrounded by mashed sweet potatoes and what appeared to be back-eyed peas. We all gathered around on the floor and took part in the meager meal while answering questions about “those boats anchored in their bay.” They wanted to know about our cruising lifestyle and we wanted to learn about theirs. “Breaking bread,” although none was offered here, was a ritual we would repeat often during the nineteen years we’ve been retired, sailing and traveling the world.

Many years later, we were no longer sailing charter yachts; we had retired and purchased our own yacht, Pacific Bliss. While sailing to the Northern Banks Islands of Vanuatu during our world circumnavigation, we anchored in Vureas Bay. The villagers there had a problem, they needed to fish to provide for their families, but the propeller for their only boat was kaput. Would Günter take a look? The propeller was beyond repair, so Günter offered to give him the spare prop for our dinghy. It was brand new, but we planned to leave Vanuatu to sail to Bundaberg, Australia, where we would store Pacific Bliss for the cyclone season. We’d buy another one next year. The villagers were flabbergasted and threw us a “Thank You Prop Party.” They strung flowers over fishing line hung high to surround the feast area. On top of mats, they spread various dishes donated by the villagers. One lady brought four of her precious eggs in a homemade basket as a gift!

The locals in Vureas Bay, Vanuatu threw us a Prop Party.

The locals in Vureas Bay, Vanuatu threw us a Prop Party.

During the Waterfall Bay Festival we invited Chief Jimmy and his wife Lillian for afternoon tea. I recount this in my second book, Sailing the South Pacific. I’d put a double-sized load of cinnamon-raisin bread mix into the Breadmaker. The story continues:

“It is far too hot for tea…I served cold juice in cartons, and we talk in the cockpit. The Breadmaker beeps. Both visitors rush to see the machine. They had never seen a Breadmaker before! The chief makes that loud whistling sound, common to all Ni-Vanuatu when they’re impressed. We allow the bread to cool while we attempt to continue the conversation, but Jimmy is distracted. He just stares at the loaf on the breadboard. I slice half the loaf and place a slice on each of the small plates, along with knives to spread butter and jam. The jar of raspberry jam is labeled “Made in Port Vila, Vanuatu” but our guests have never tasted anything like it. It goes fast. I ask Jimmy whether he wants another slice. Of course, he does!

‘Go ahead, slice it yourself,’ Gunter says.

Jimmy cuts a thick slice. No tea-sized portions for him! As he slathers on the butter and jam, he says, ‘Very good. American lap-lap.’ He devours that slice and cuts even more. Before long, the entire loaf is gone!”

Lap-lap is the national dish of Vanuatu, similar to pizza, that’s baked in earth pits covered with hot rocks. The locals cover the crust with small fish, coconut paste, or smashed sweet potato (see my blog Why Travel.)

Ni-Vanuatan women demonstrate how to make lap-lap.

Ni-Vanuatan women demonstrate how to make lap-lap.

Our most recent “breaking bread with locals” occurred during our trip to Uzbekistan. To our delight, Zulya Rajabova, owner of Silk Road Treasure Tours, had arranged a surprise visit to her childhood home in Bukhara. We had the opportunity to meet her parents, sister, numerous relatives, as well as two other travelers and their guide. The home is typical of Uzbekistan family compounds, a one-level U-shaped structure surrounding an inner courtyard. So while Zulya was busy running her company in New York, we enjoyed having a marvelous lunch with her family! After multiple courses, nieces and nephews performed for us. Saying goodbyes was difficult, but despite the surprise visit, we still had a schedule to meet—including a stop in Nurata on the way to a Yurt Camp near Aydarkul Lake.

Lois and Günter with Zulya's parents.

Lois and Günter with Zulya’s parents.

Uzbekistan bride

Günter poses with a recently married family member.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading this nautical adventure trilogy, now on sale.

Bukhara architecture

Bukhara architecture

From Khiva, we took a midnight flight to Bukhara, where we checked in at the Komil Boutique Hotel. This privately-owned bed-and-breakfast, built over 100 years ago, is located in the heart of the Old City. The young proprietor had waited up for us, and he graciously led us to a unique, exquisite room decorated in traditional style. Each room in the hotel remains as it did in 19th century Bukhara and ours was no exception. As tired as we were, we marveled at the intricately carved and hand painted walls, wood trim, and shelving. The old house was originally owned by a Jewish merchant, one of the wealthiest men in Bukhara, and was purchased 50 years ago by Komil’s grandfather. We enjoyed a wonderful night’s sleep and wandered into the 19th century breakfast room refreshed and ready to walk around Old Town. Because we were staying in the Jewish quarter, we explored that nearby area first. We visited the Bukhara Jewish Synagogue, and after that, the shop of a puppet maker.

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Amazingly, there have been Jews in Bukhara since the 12th or 13th century. They developed their own unique culture with its own language, Bukhori, which is related to Persian, but uses the Hebrew alphabet. Bukhara’s Jews still speak it, as do an estimated 10,000 Jews, most of whom now live in Israel. At the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Jews made up 7% of Bukhara’s population, but after they could exit, all but a few hundred left the country.

Bukhara was founded over 2500 years ago, and I must say, this ancient city stole our hearts! It’s one thing to be old, quite another to be beautiful and old. Bukhara blossomed as Central Asia’s religious and cultural heart as capital of the Samanid state in the 9th and 10th centuries and never looked back. In 1220 the city succumbed to the Genghis (Chingiss) Khan and in 1330, she became part of Timor’s Samarkand. Her second chance came in the 16th century when the Uzbek Shaybanids made it the capital of the Bukhara khanate. The city was turned into a vast marketplace with dozens of specialty bazaars and caravanserais, more than 100 madrassas housing over 10,000 students, and more than 300 mosques. From 1868 on, Bolsheviks took over and by 1914, the city was absorbed into the newly created Uzbek SSR.

In the late afternoon, we wandered around the central park where we watched robed men levitating. We wondered how they did it while we browsed souvenir shops. Our guide had reserved a front-row table for us in an outdoor restaurant, where we dinned to a folklore performance and fashion show. It was a fitting end to a wonderful time in Bukhara. We looked forward to the next day’s adventures, when we would take a road trip to Aydarkul Lake, stopping at villages along the way, ending up at Yurt Camp.

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About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading this nautical adventure trilogy, now on sale at a reduced price for a limited time through Father’s Day.

“You cannot make a drawing without shadows.” Anonymous.

Our final morning in Tashkent, we transferred to the airport an early-morning flight to Urgench. Then we drove to Khiva along the Amu-Darya delta, which stretches from southeast of Urgench to the Aral Sea. This region, an important oasis called the Khorezm Delta, has been inhabited for millennia. Along the way, we stopped to walk through the rooms of an ancient palace with a stone courtyard surrounded by a harem’s quarter, visited a caravanseri (inn for traveling merchants), and photographed an old mosque with 200 uniquely carved wooden pillars.

Urgench, Uzbekistan

Carriage used to bring a new bride to the palace near Urgench, Uzbekistan

Khiva seafood

My fish takes one last breath.

We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant specializing in seafood. Skeptical, Gunter asked, “Seafood this far inland?”

“It’s from the lake close by,” Fak answered. We saw fish was swimming in a tank outside the restaurant. At least, they would be fresh. What I didn’t realize is that they were carp!   Growing up in Wisconsin, I was taught never to eat these bottom fish. I ate a few bites, didn’t like the texture, and hid the meat under the skin. And then we traveled on to Khiva.

Khiva was an 8th century minor fort and trading post on a side branch of the Silk Road. The town remained an insignificant player until the 16th century when it became the capital of the Uzbek Shaybanids. Khiva ran a busy slave market for more than three centuries. Slaves were bought by Turkmen tribesmen from the desert and Kazakh tribes of the steppes. By 1740, the town became an outpost of the Persian empire and by 1873, its khan became a vassal of the tsar of Russia. Finally, in 1920 the Bolsheviks installed the Khorezm People’s Republic, theoretically independent from the USSR.

What I wanted from Khiva was a spectacular photo of its west-facing facades bathed in the orange glow of the setting sun. What I got was clouds, rain, wind for two days. And I was still trying to recover from a cold. Our hotel, the 78-room Orient Star, offered us the chance to stay inside a 19th century medressa, with its hujras (study cells) converted to rooms. We were told to bend low climbing the high steps curving toward our room the second floor, but with my short height, I’ve never had to bend over for ceilings. Bump! Fortunately, I have a hard head! Because Old Town is a UNESCO heritage site, certain restrictions applied, for example, only one electrical outlet to plug in all our electronics (we each had an iPod and cellphone). No matter, internet reception was only available—quite intermittently—in the walkways facing the courtyard. I didn’t feel too much like a hermit; the bathrooms are made of fancy stone, similar to the rustic farmhouse décor currently in style.

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Pomp and circumstance: a dual presidential visit. The next morning, after a simple breakfast of fresh yogurt, wonderful cheese, warm bread and fruit, we found the courtyard and all the streets filled with frenetic activity. The following day, the president of Uzbekistan would be visiting Old Town Khiva, along with his guest, the president of Turkmenistan! Gorgeous young women from both countries were flown in. The day before the event, we saw them practice standing in a receiving line the delegation would pass by. Bands were blaring; dancers and other performers were perfecting their arts; all the while, locals swept the streets clean and gardeners planted wheelbarrows full of colorful annuals—gold marigolds and red petunias—along the parade routes.

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That evening, we attended a magnificent dinner, complete with a musical performance and a puppet show. I feared it would rain on Khiva’s parade because it poured most of the night. But while the morning dawned cold and windy, the rain had ceased. We skirted puddles along mud walls dating from the 18th century, rebuilt after being destroyed by the Persians. We were relieved to get back inside the walls to the familiarity of “our street.”

The plazas and streets looked deserted. “Where are the other tourists? Gunter asked.

“Oh, most of them stayed inside because of the weather,” Fak explained. I wondered what I was doing there! Then he added, “When the event begins, they’ll have to stay inside their hotels, or another hotel or restaurant. Security.”

Shivering, we ducked inside a restaurant offering freshly pressed ginger tea. How wonderful! I asked for the recipe and it turned out the chef was from Germany! Gunter talked with him about his experience coming to Khiva to train the restaurant staff in “western” ways.

A Special Ginger Tea

A Special Ginger Tea

We took an afternoon nap before packing for our flight home. Our morning flight–which had unfortunately been scheduled the day the two presidents would arrive—had been cancelled. The airport would be closed all day. Security.

We were driven back to the airport for our re-scheduled 7:30 evening flight, which we were assured would take off to Bukhara. The airport was still closed. The visiting president was apparently still in town. Our driver could not enter the airport parking lot, and only those with tickets were allowed into the terminal. We passengers had to pull our luggage from the other side of the building, around to the entrance. And then we had to wait, and wait, until close to midnight, when the plane finally took off. Our guide, Fak, was flying with us, so we weren’t left alone.

“In the U.S., if a visiting president were in a town or not,” I told him while we waited, “the government would not close the airport.

“It happens all the time here. How would they provide security for your president if he came to your town?” he asked.

“In San Diego, he would probably land at our naval base,” I said.

“Keep in mind,” Fak explained, “we do not have private or government airfields outside of Tashkent, the capital.”

Always expect the unexpected. These are but the “shadows” of a country just opening to tourism.

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