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.