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.

 

 

On the way to Mt. Popa and Table Mountain, a popular tourist site southeast of Bagan, Burma, our guide parked alongside the road and led us into a small village. It’s one of the many memories of our recent trip to Myanmar that I’ll never forget. Back in 2011, I enjoyed Walking a Village outside of Varanasi, India on the way to Sarnath to visit Buddhist sites. After that experience, I vowed that I would continue to use this method of “slow travel” during future trips. I was not disappointed.

As we entered the village, we were enthusiastically greeted by small children. Some were shy, but most warmed up to me after I crouched to their level.

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As we walked among the thatch-roof huts, we introduced ourselves to a family sow and her brood who scurried away to hide underneath a nearby yam patch.

The family pig

The family pig

The brood of piglets

The brood of piglets

I was impressed with the use of solar panels in the village. One panel could power a small 6-inch TV. One home owner proudly showed how he could charge batteries to power a radio or a smart phone. He showed us his living space. I noticed that his motorcycle was kept inside, under the thatched roof.

Cycle in a village home

Cycle in a village home

This solar panel can power a small radio

This solar panel can power a small radio

Large solar panel on thatched roof

Large solar panel on thatched roof

A group of villagers were busy harvesting peanuts. They smiled as we passed by.

Villagers harvesting peanuts

Villagers harvesting peanuts

We didn’t meet many older children because they were in school. So we stopped on by to take a look at the classrooms before we returned to our vehicle.

Village school

Village school

 

After book presentations and during conversations with friends upon returning from a trip, this question invariably comes up: What was your favorite place?

My count of countries visited now totals over one hundred. So how can I possibly choose just one? One year after returning from my travels, I realized that I had been struggling with this “favorite place” question because I had been approaching it all wrong. There is a simple and obvious answer for a traveler afflicted by wanderlust: my favorite place is always the place where (a) I haven’t been or (b) my visit there was too short.

So this year, my next favorite place is Burma (Myanmar). Back in 2006, I traveled there by bus from Phuket, Thailand on a one-day visa run. All I experienced after a long, bumpy ride was crossing a river in a panga, walking a block to the border station to have my passport stamped, and returning to the bus. Our yacht, Pacific Bliss, was docked in Phuket, undergoing repairs before crossing the Indian Ocean, so the following month when the once-a-month visa renewal was due I decided to fly to Yangon for a three-day weekend. That trip gave me a taste of Burma I’ll never forget. But it was just an appetizer. Now I’m preparing for the main course.

Map of Burma

This autumn, Gunter and I are looking forward to a three-week Burmese adventure, to be conducted in our typical “slow travel” style. We’ve selected a standard 10-day country tour and added a special Paukan cruise down the mighty Irrawaddy River and three days at a seaside resort to write and relax before crossing the International Date Line again during the long flight home. We’ll begin our tour at the Inya Lake Hotel where I stayed in 2006 and repeat my visit to the Shwedagon Pagoda. We’ll travel on to view the ancient temples of Bagan. And we’ll see Mandalay and the famous Pindaya Caves.

In addition to sightseeing, I want to catch up on the opening of reclusive Myanmar to the western world and to find out first-hand how it’s working. When I was last there, the street to the home of Aun Lang Suu Kyi, Burmese Peace Prize Laureate and opposition leader, was blockaded and she was under house arrest. She has since been released but she says, “As long as the military does not stand for the people I cannot guarantee that democratic processes will not go backwards in Burma. When the military is ready to stand for the people and not take part in politics, then we can say our transitional period is concrete. Of course, problems will still remain – but the road to democracy is open.” — https://www.facebook.com/aungsansuukyi

Enjoy these slides from my visit in 2006:

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For a report on my 2006 visit to Burma, click here.