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.

 

 

“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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Our travel took over a day—from San Francisco, to Istanbul, to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. When we arrived, our guide, Fakhriddin, was waiting at the exit of the airport with a sign. We walked into the cool early morning air to a waiting car and driver and were off to Tashkent Lotte City Palace. We were checked in by 2:45 a.m.

Günter and I were wide awake by 6 a.m. so we had a chat with AT&T in New York about how to switch our phones to Wi-Fi only and avoid international roaming. Then we enjoyed a deluxe east-meets-west breakfast soon after the dining room opened at 7 a.m. Our Day 1 schedule said, “check in and relax” but we were too excited. I’d fueled myself with a cappuccino and we were ready to stretch our legs and see the sights. “Just a short walk around the area,” Gunter said, “to get out the kinks from all that sitting. Then we’ll relax.” Famous last words. After 4.2 miles on our sports bands, we arrived back at the hotel exhausted. But already, we’d seen and learned enough to get a sense of place.

Navoi Theatre

Navoi Theatre. This Soviet-era Opera House, directly across from the Lotte hotel where we stayed, was built by Japanese WWII POWs but with the Uzbek design detail shown here.

Directly across from our hotel stands the huge Navoi Soviet-era opera/ballet theatre built by Japanese POWs using Uzbek architectural techniques. We walked around the huge building trying to get that concept into our jet-lagged heads while Fakhriddin (Fak for short) riddled us with other stories. I liked the one about the 7000 children—most of them Jewish orphans from Europe—that were dumped by the Soviets into the city of Tashkent along with orders to “just take care of them.” Rather than build an orphanage, the Uzbeks took them into their homes; sometimes half a dozen would be taken into one family and brought up along with their own children. That story introduced me to Uzbek culture: one of hospitality in which foreigners are treated as guests of honor. Tashkent has a sizable Jewish and Japanese population to this day.

I was amazed at the mix of nationalities and styles of clothing in Tashkent. Street vendors were dressed in multicolor dresses and scarves and clunky shoes with socks. But at the main thoroughfares, businessmen wore black suits, white shirts and ties with dark, highly polished shoes and women wore long sleeve blouses, blazers, and skirts at knee-length or slightly above—with nylons and heels. It could have been New York!

Tashkent plov and samosasAt one corner, an open-air restaurant was serving plov out of a humongous wok and samosas (meat-filled pastries) from another. “Take a look,” Fak urged. Plov—a conglomeration of rice, vegetables, and bits of meat swimming in lamb fat and oil—is a staple throughout Central Asia, but most closely associated with Uzbekistan. Each province has its own style, which locals proudly proclaim is the best. Rumor has it that drinking the oil at the bottom of the kazan (large cauldron) adds a spark to a man’s libido. “The plov here is the best,” said Fak while directing us to an oil-cloth-covered table. “You have to try some. I’ll make sure the cook selects portions that he’s pushed up along the side of the kazan, so you don’t get the fat.” Soon dishes of plov, samosas, and a heap of naan-type bread covers our little table. And we weren’t even hungry.

We walked off our lunch by walking through the near-by park, art lining the sidewalks. Then we walked a long way to the main post office to select commemorative stamps for a friend. By then, we were ready for a taxi back and a long, well-deserved nap!

Tashkent Barak Khan

If Day 1 was a taste of Tashkent, Day 2 was some serious touring. We walked through Old Town and much of the Khast Imon Square, ending with the Barak Khan Medressa (school) on the west side where we strolled along souvenir shops that formerly housed students. Northwest of the square, we peeked into the mausoleum of Abu Bakr Kaffal Shoshi, a famed Islamic scholar and poet.

We ended our tour at the famed Chorsu Bazaar, one of Tashkent’s 16 open-air farmers’ markets. What an amazing and energizing experience! This slide show depicts a few of our many encounters with locals there:

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A restaurant bordering a park was the perfect place to eat and relax. As we were finishing our lunch, a bridal party asked their photographer to have a picture taken of them with us. Americans! How special! Who knew? This scenario would be repeated throughout Uzbekistan.

We booked our Independent Travel tour to Uzbekistan through Zulya Rajabova, founder and president of Silk Road Treasure Tours. Coincidentally, she was attending a travel conference in San Diego during our first weekend back home! She visited us to debrief and is bringing back my first two books to add to The Long Way Back she already has.

Silk Road Treasure Tours

Lois and Zulya in San Diego

Do you stare at the window at work, nod off into a travel dream while watching TV, or dream of yourself in another place while you’re waiting in the check-out line at the grocery? Do you say to yourself I wish I could be there now…but I can’t? Maybe, someday…Why dream when you could actually do it? Here’s how:

Step 1: Prepare your bucket list and set your travel goals.

Do you have a travel Bucket List? If not, start a Pinterest Vision Board and pin your favorite travel ideas from the Internet. That will give you some ideas of where to go. If you already have such a list, so some additional work on it. I use an accordion-style folder and then add individual file folders inside. My Bucket List folders have expanded into an entire desk drawer over the years. You could divide your own list by national and international, long-term travel vs. vacation, must-do vs. nice-to-do, immediate and later, or simply year by year.
We’ve all learned how to set goals in business. We know that goals must be:
• Measurable
• Achievable
• Realistic
• Time-based
You can use this same goal-setting process to achieve your personal or family travel goals. For example, we added “Central Asia” to our Bucket List after we’d completed our world circumnavigation and wanted to travel to landlocked areas yachts and cruise ships couldn’t reach. About four years ago when traveling in Myanmar (Burma) we met a couple from New York who had been there. They recommended Uzbekistan because they had used a travel agent who had grown up there. We contacted her and set a measurable goal to go there in two years. That goal was achievable but not realistic because it was not the right time of year and we had time-based family obligations. We changed the plan to four years, and voilà! we will make that trip in April of this year.

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Step 2: Decide where to go and make your travel plan.

Decisions are never easy. And sometimes you can be overwhelmed by so many choices that the year goes by and you realized you haven’t gone at all. Think of it this way. Yes, there are so many places left to see, but you do not have to do it all at one time. So simply decide how long you can be gone and then block off that time on your calendar. Select a trip that fits your timetable and budget. If you don’t travel often, start small and stay close until you’re comfortable with longer trips. If you’re not comfortable traveling alone, go with a group or with a friend who knows the ropes.
What is holding you back? Bring that Thing out of the closet and examine it. Can you go anyway? If that Thing is money, think about what you can give up to make it happen. Going out for dinner? Going to theaters when you could get a subscription to Netflix and pop your own corn? Do you really need that new car, new sofa, new bike, new…? Remember, “Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.” (see my last blog). If you decide not to travel, it’s because you don’t value it enough.

Step 3: Research your chosen destination.

This is the fun part. Do take the time to look through travel brochures and tag the specifics you want to see. Explore alternatives before you choose what you want. Research on-line comments about day tours and hotels, keeping in mind that complainers are more vocal than “happy campers.” Learn from the mistakes of others but stay optimistic and excited about the places you’ve chosen to visit.

The Travels of Marco PoloBuy guide books, travelogues, and history books and read, read, read. Watch movies and documentaries about your chosen destination. Immerse yourself into the customs and cultures of locals.
Right now, I’m buried in the romance of the Silk Road. My head is bursting with blue-domed cities filled with gorgeous blue tiles, remote yurts (yes, one night will be a yurt-stay), and colorful bazaars. I’m ensnared in the clutches of Samarkand, founded in the 5th century BC. In 329 BC, the walled city was taken by Alexander the Great who said, “Everything I have heard about Marakanda (Samarkand) is true, except that it is more beautiful than I ever imagined.” This strategic city sat on the crossroads leading to China, India, and Persia. In Bukhara, two thousand years old, I want to bury myself into Marco Polo’s world, so I’m reading The Travels of Marco Polo, an illustrated classic about his excursions from 1271-1295. In Tashkent, the capital, I want to see for myself a city destroyed by Genghis Khan in 1219 and rebuilt to become a prominent center of scholarship, commerce, and trade along the Silk Road. Altogether, I want to take on what has been called “the glorious weight of history” by understanding the customs and culture of just one country: Uzbekistan. Instead of sailing in the wake of ancient explorers, such as Cook and Zheng Ho, I’ll be traveling the sandprints of some of history’s greatest travelers and invaders.

The Travels of Marco Polo

What type of travel do you prefer? At our ages, Gunter and I opt out of group tours whenever we can. We prefer independent travel. We generally go through a travel agent who helps us plan our unique itinerary; sets up inter-country flights, trains, and cars; and books with a local guide. We also prefer “slow travel.” We choose a relaxed itinerary that includes time for leisurely breakfasts, “walking a village” (by ourselves, if permissible), and an extra day or two near the end for me to catch up on my journaling and posting before we head back.

Step 4: Make a commitment.

Those who achieve their dreams go out and do what others dream of doing. So, get out of your little bubble of existence today before you dig so deep into that comfort zone that you become mired and cannot claw yourself out.

“Some people live in a dream world and others face reality and then there are those who turn one into the other.” –Douglas Everet.

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.

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“What you see is what you get.” Not necessarily. Henry David Thoreau said, “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” As a philosopher, I think he was describing what we see internally.

It boils down to this: We only find the world we’re looking for. As photographers, we often search for that perfect landscape, the ones we’ve seen in the photography and travel magazines, only to miss what’s right before us. Instead, we should give up our preconceived ideas of what an image should be and open our minds to the unexpected.

I’ll give you a few examples from photos published in my new coffee table book called In Search of Adventure and Moments of Bliss: The Long Way Back.  

Visitors and residents flock to Darwin’s public beaches to view the glorious sunsets. While visiting there, of course, I planned to go there at sunset as well. Imagine my surprise and dismay when I arrived to find hundreds of people with the same idea as mine! Many of them had walked right into the surf to take their photos. Being short, I could never walk though that surf to get in front of them; nor I could I shoot over their heads! I decided to take a photo of everyone else taking a photo, and to describe what the people of Darwin came there to do.

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I used another example of this approach when I photographed a crew, Kate, on our catamaran, Pacific Bliss, looking back at the sunset behind her. We readers can then share in her moment of bliss.

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When entering the bleachers to see the dancers perform in the Festival of Pacific Arts in Palau, I caught sight of this dancer beneath the stands, putting on his make-up. That photo became one of my favorite pictures of that event.

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There was no way I was going to make it up all the way to the top of the pilgrimage to Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) without beginning that climb at 3:30 a.m. so I could photograph the view from the top. I could, however, photograph those who were coming back down. This 82-year-old Sri Lankan guide has been leading pilgrimages there for the past twenty years.

IMG_8265 Indian Guide in her _80s_ Adams Peak_ Sri Lanka

Sometimes, I see someone walking into the scene and I wait patiently until he or she is just in the right spot:

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Other times, I want to portray how small people seem in relation to the immensity of the structure.

IMG_9465 Palace complex built into rock

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Truly “seeing” requires that we slow down, wait, and get into a different space in our heads. Try that the next time you take a photograph.

We writers are expected to wear two hats, that of an introvert who retreats to her writing cave and excels in words, phrases, and commas; and that of an extrovert, a flamboyant artist who tells tales and binds an audience under her spell. And sometimes, we’re expected to wear both hats at the same time.

This summer and fall, I couldn’t wear both hats and meet my publication deadline for the final book in the trilogy, “In Search of Adventure and Moments of Bliss.” Something had to go, and that something turned out to be this blog. My sincere apologies to my followers.

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My lowly gardening and pool hat and my expressive roaring twenties hat. I failed to wear both at the same time.

Last Monday, The Long Way Back went on the press in Anaheim, and since then, I’ve donned my extrovert hat. I’ll be launching the book after it’s printed.

Meanwhile, here are photos from the press check:

 

 

 

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My book designer, Alfred Williams of Multimedia Arts, and the owners and staff of LightSource Printing have been wonderful! I can’t wait to unveil the gripping conclusion to my nautical trilogy, “In Search of Adventure and Moments of Bliss.” Coming soon to Amazon and www.LoisJoyHofmann.com.

I’m sitting on the top deck of the Ariana while the sun shines on the rippled but peaceful Danube River below. Controlled by numerous dams and locks, the medieval wildness of the Danube has been tamed centuries ago. We began our trip in Passau, Germany; we’ll reach the delta of the Black Sea before turning around to head back.

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The view from our cabin while traveling through Germany to our first destination in Austria

Called the King of Rivers by Napoleon, the Danube is really the Prince. The King title belongs to the Volga, the great River in Russia that drains into the Caspian Sea and is 500 miles longer than the Danube. And even though the Danube is the second longest in Europe, it is only the 25th longest in the world. The Danube begins in Germany’s Black Forest and ends on the Romanian and Ukrainian shores, in the delta region of the Black Sea, 1777 miles away.

While sailing, I’m reading “The Danube, a Cultural History, by Andrew Beattie.” He relates the stories of empires that have risen and fallen along the Danube, from Macedonians, to Romans, to the Hapsburgs, the Ottomans, to the Nazis, and most recently, the countries that have shrugged off the yoke of Communist Socialism.

I wondered how such a river affecting so many countries could be governed. The book covers this in its last chapter. In 1946 a council of European foreign ministers announced the creation of the International Danube Commission, with headquarters in Budapest, Hungary. At first, only the Eastern bloc countries, along with Yugoslavia, formed this new body; then Austria joined in 1960. Germany did not join until after the  fall of communism. With the break-up of the Balkans in the 1990s, the commission rose to ten countries, with Slovakia succeeding Czechoslovakia, Serbia and Croatia succeeding Yugoslavia, and Moldova and Ukraine succeeding the USSR. There is probably no other river in the world whose navigable length is of such international complexity!

During this trip, we will see a panoply of flags displayed on the boats that ply this river. Just as during our world sailing circumnavigation on Pacific Bliss, it doesn’t matter much what one’s nationality is. In this river, we are all Mariners.

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