Well no, Marco Polo never made it to Korea…

… but actually Korea did play a part in the Silk Road, Korean coins have been found as far west as Tajikistan and records from 14th century Samarkand mention the Korean court sending mathematicians to study at Ulugh Beg’s astronomy madrassa.

Mostly though I’ve just wanted to visit Seoul for a while now, nearly 30 million people, the subway system is likely the second largest in the world and I really know very little about Korean history or current Korea really.

My flight from Almaty to Seoul left Kazakhstan at 1:00am, got into Seoul at 9:30am, I got a couple hours sleep on the plane but landed not feeling that great, need sleep (also watched most of Annie Hall in Russian on the plane, I think something gets lost in translation). Major culture shock coming from old Soviet flavoured Central Asia to ultra high-tech blade runner Seoul. The trip from the airport to my Airbnb was 90 minutes of maglev trains and bullet trains and a fairly intimidating subway system (got it figured out but took a while) and fingerprint scanners and palm print scanners and keypads, etc, got to my place above Gangnam Station around 11:30am.

My toilet remote, yay!

My Airbnb has a crazy complicated, all in Korean washer-drier in one unit, managed to figure it out and threw in a load of my shamefully filthy clothes and set my alarm to wake me when I would have clean clothes to wear. Woke up around 1pm and headed out for lunch.

More culture shock at the scale of the city (half the population of South Korea lives in Seoul and its suburbs), the overwhelming number of restaurants and stores and activity compared to the past few weeks. Picked a lunch place at random, no English spoken, played the point at food and laugh game until the waitress brought me this:
Which was really tasty, much hotter and more strongly flavoured than any Korean food I’ve had in Canada.
Spent the rest of the afternoon just walking around, trying to get my bearings, pretty thundering city, subway full all the time, dozens of subway lines, millions of passengers each day. I expected more tourists but in most settings I’m the only non Korean. Man, I really know nothing about Korea.

I’m outta here

My last day in the ‘stans, so long Central Asia. Bit of a quieter day today, I did a bit of a number on my legs in Kyrgyzstan and am paying for it now. I had planned to explore a gorgous area just outside the city today but my legs are not up to it. Instead I headed to the Museum of Kazakh Musical Instruments, there is a huge musical history here and the unique Kazakh instruments are considered spiritual items.

Wanted to head up here…

Unfortunately the museum was all locked up, despite all information elsewhere saying they would be open, that is something I have noticed generally in Central Asia, opening hours are pretty much a crapshoot, too bad.
Instead spent the day wandering through the shopping district, moving from park to park, coffee shop to coffee shop and patio to patio, just hanging out, reading and relaxing, occasionally stretching my sore legs.
Most of the parks also have guns, I am assuming that was a Soviet thing.

More war stuff!
This entire park is dedicated to Panfilov’s 28 Guardsmen, a famous Russian-German battle from WWII that according to all modern sources never happened, don’t tell the kids in the pic.
(seriously, it never happened, one of the soldiers in the memorial who supposedly gave his life in the battle actually lived until 1980 about 2 blocks from this park, oh well)
Kazakh telecom building, apparently not everyone is a fan, I happen to love it, the tubular mesh is the load bearing portion of the building, leaving almost the entire interior available for telecom and wiring.
In their defence, the menu did say “Soup of 1 Quail”.
These channels runs all through the city, collecting rainwater and runoff from the mountains near the city, the water is used to irrigate the parks, it’s kinda neat.
Almaty is really lovely and I wish I had more days here, had I know I would have stayed in the area a week, if I was to pick a city in Central Asia to live it would definately be here.
This one’s for you Kurtis, I think this was the only American vehicle I saw at all in Almaty.


My throat is no longer swollen shut so I headed out again. First stop the national art gallery which was a surprised. Packed with room after room of really interesting work, most of it Central Asian and of the best quality I have seen since Istanbul.
This humble looking plate of meat and veg and noodles is lagman and the one in the pic below is the best thing I have eaten all trip, better than anything in Turkey, better than anything in Georgia, just amazing.
Flavoured with sumac and some heat and I think bayberry, wonderful.
Dinner was followed by the best tea I have ever had, the waiter just called it traditional Uzbek tea, looked like green tea but sweet, I think he said “sweetened with apple”. 

Welcome to Kazakhstan

What a day this would be if my travelling friends were here with me. There’s rock climbing for James, there’s hanging with me for Candise, there’s tons of Russian history for K & N, I’ve even see a few big BMW’s for Dermo… Almaty would really be a blast with you all here.

Alas you are not, instead I spent today with my new best friends Dennis and Marcus.  Dennis is originally from California, hanging out with a North American voice all day and the fact that none of you guys are here with me has me feeling not exactly homesick but just excited to see you all at Joe’s party when I get home.

Walked around the bazaar, probably the nicest and friendliest one I’ve seen so far, I think it’s called the Green Bazaar.
Pickled rooster comb, a bit like a a less chewy version of the pickled pigs ear, not bad, lots of chili.

If you’re thinking these ladies look Korean you are correct, I’ll tell you why sometime as I don’t feel like typing it all.
The cream coloured pickles in between her and Dennis are pickled soy, I first had them in Moldova, they are awesome.

You can’t really see it but there are pails in front of her with more sour milk drinks. Tried kumis (fermented horse milk) again, still terrible, they add ash to it to cover the funk… tastes like funky, fizzy, ash…
Also had the camel milk version, much less awful than the horse version, I could see possibly developing a taste for the camel version, maybe.
Everything you see in front of her are the Kazakh version of cheese, all interesting, a couple actually pretty good if a bit odd. Some of the little dried curd pellets are total flavour bombs and a bit addicting. No pic but also had horse sausage and horse jerky, the jerky is quite good, almost pastrami like.

I’ve had dried fruit and nuts from Indio to Vancouver, from Istanbul to Bishkek and this guy (and others in the market) by far has the best I have ever tasted, incredible pecans (they call them American nuts) that taste like candy and the dried fruits are off the hook amazing, especially dried quince.

In the basement under the market there are a bunch of really little, plain restaurants. Went to one for lunch, wonderful food, lagman (meat and noodles) and some sort of garlicy greens and these steamed pockets of meat, all of it really good. 
I forgot to take pics at lunch, maybe I will go back again tomorrow, lunch for 3 was about $10.
The place we ate at is run by a Uyghur family from western China, Uyghurs are interesting, an Asian looking muslim people from China who speak a Turk language written in Arabic, wild. 
Zenkov Cathedral
Russian Orthadox cathedral in Almaty, rumoured to have been the tallest wooden building in the world when it was completed in 1907 and one of the few large buildings to survive a giant earthquake that hit the city in 1910.
Because of Easter and the mass baptism in the pic below the cathdral was actually a bit of a madhouse.

I’m not going to post yet more pics of parks and statues, so much of that already, I will say though that Almaty is impressive, it appears that the entire city is a park, green-space everywhere.
I would post more but, unbelievably, something I sampled in the market has triggered a little alergic response and my throat has closed up a bit so I am currently back in my room waiting for the benadryl to kick in.

Told ya I was (kinda) hardcore!

I realized after a day and a half that I’d seen what there is to see in Bishkek so I spent last night scrambling to find a guide to get me out of town today.

Got lucky and got connected to my man Azim who offered a day of mountain treking in the Tian Shan mountains. I should have realized I was in over my head when Azim said “mountain” treking.

We drove an hour and a bit south of Bishkek to the Ala-Archa Gorge, strapped our packs on and headed up.

And up and up… I am in better shape than I have been in years and I’ve been a walking machine for 6 weeks now so I figured I was adequately toughened… nope.

Bishkek is at about 1500 feet, I’m not sure how high we drove before hiking but after hours of up we topped out around 9350 feet, likely the highest I’ve ever been. My legs really are tough lately, it was more about the struggling to breathe.

Azim was a great guide, he realized I was not quite the mountain goat I appear to be and was encouraging, plus we took lots of breaks.

Not to be dramatic but I honestly think this may have been the hardest I have ever pushed myself, convinced that I wouldn’t make it to the waterfall at the end of the trek but just taking step after step and trying not to puke.

Weather was amazing, blue sky, a couple tiny splashes of moisture from the clouds that streamed by so quickly their shadows on the trail made a cool strobe, or that could have been just the altitude sickness.

We had a nice picnic at the top, a nice rest, and started back down. As steep as the trail was I found the way down wasn’t all that much easier than the way up, just traded lung pain for knee pain and trying not to slip off the edge of the trail.

Lunch! I asked Azim how many times he climbs this trail, he laughed and pointed to a peak way above us and said he climbs that one 50-60 times a season, yeah he didn’t break a sweat all day.

Azim dropped me at the airport after and I’m there now writing this and feeling pretty darn pleased (and sunburned), this trek was tough and I’m thrilled and surprised to have made it up and down again.

Kyrgyzstan got shafted

Originally I had planned for more time in Central Asia but as I spent more time in Europe something had to give and that something was Kyrgyzstan. I originally had a week here which would have allowed more time to explore the countryside but with only 3 days here I’m fairly tied to the capital, Bishkek.
Went for a walk first thing this morning and discovered the first really good coffee I’ve had since Hungary, and cheesecake, perfect breakfast.
 Bishkek is about 800,000 people, very green if a bit rundown and full of parks. Ping-pong is the sport here and walked around I saw table after table being set up in different parks.
Headed to the local art gallery, neat to visit but not a whole lot of interest, a local artist’s painting of Ziggy Stardust with a pig’s nose was at least attention grabbing.
Like most of the rest of Central Asia, Kyryzstan is quite poor and finding restaurants (or even stores) isn’t so easy. After a while found a burger place and I have been craving one… uh… I’ve eaten beef twice here so far and the meat is… different, and not in a way I can really enjoy.
The center of the city is a huge Russian style square (the city is quite young and mostly a Soviet design) with fountains and tons of beds of long stemmed roses and such things. The centerpiece of the square is the National History Museum which is supposedly quite good and next on my list. 
Large sections of the square including the area around the museum were fenced off and under construction. I walked all the way around the fence and on the far side there was a gap. Walked through, stepped around the construction and into the museum.
Hmm… dark hallway, empty… well this is the side door maybe if I walk around to the front area… so I start walking through a dark and empty museum that anyone else on earth would have realized was closed. Not me! I walk around another corner, in darkness and see three soldiers with rifles goose-stepping towards me. 
I fumble and say sorry and quickly retrace my steps out of the building and then my head voice says “Uh… was that really 3 goose-stepping soldiers?”. Turn around, yup, here they come out the door, goosing right past me and down the sidewalk. I follow them, they come around another corner, into the main part of the square and in front of 20-30 people with cameras… ohhhh…. changing of the guard… oops, hustle my way back the way I came and back to the side of the barrier I was supposed to be on….
Yup, I was the stupid tourist messing around with the changing of the guard ceremony. Should have yelled to the crowd “Sorry we don’t have these in America”
  In this pic the museum door is behind me and they have just passed me and I have just realized I was in their way.
Here come the guards who have just been relieved and have no idea that I am dumb.
And here are the ones who are staring at me and laughing at the dumb tourist.
 Dinner with the POTUS

 Had the chicken burger, much better than the beef. Would have loved to have tried a place with Kyrgyz cuisine but could not find one. 

Tashkent Metro!

Central Asia may be a huge area, stretching from the Black Sea to China, but it only has two subway systems (I know! Why even visit?). The oldest of this pair is the metro in Tashkent (1977).

With 30 stations and 60kms of track it compares in size to Skytrain in Vancouver but was constructed in the most Soviet of Soviet styles. For whatever reason the subway here was designed in the style of the Moscow metro, with fancy, unique stations featuring marble and chandaliers and such, very different from the other former Soviet state subways I visited.

Being a Soviet system it runs the same 8171 trains (built in Moscow by Metrovagonmash, a division of Transmashholding as most other former USSR cities, some appear to have been updated at some point, perhaps to 8171M but info is hard to come by.

Uzbekistan has never really stepped out of the shadow of the USSR and the subway stations are still run like military installations. Seriously, no photos allowed ever of anything at any time and you will be searched every time.

No photos allowed so I will have to include some stock photos, these photos are accurate however Uzbekistan is now a very poor country and the stations in these pictures are poorly lit and a little grubby.

That could have gone better

First off, this is my fault, I understand that completely, no one to blame but myself.

I was bound to make a mistake sooner or later. Leaving Uzbekistan for Kyrgyzstan today, checked out around noon and headed for the airport. Uzbekistan is a police state run by a dictator (I wasn’t comfortable posting that info while I was in country, everything is checked and monitored) and they are seriously strict on seriously everything. At the airport I filled out many forms, gathered the stamps from each hotel (each hotel gives you a stamp for each day you stay there so when you leave they can see your movements), and headed into the first of 5 (!!!) metal detector security screenings at the airport.

The first few scans went fine and I worked my way through the airport. The second last scanning station however…

I placed my stuff on the belt and walked through the metal detector, all seemed fine, I picked up my pack and the guard motioned to follow him. Went over to a table and he started opening everything up, I wasn’t too worried as I had read that they do this regularily.

He went through every pouch and every pocket on everything I had. He found the little bottle of Transnistrian Cognac I was bringing home to give James (sorry buddy) and took it away, he didn’t see too concerned. Eventually though he unzipped the side pocket of my coin purse and I saw right away that we might have an issue. Inside the pocket was two little white pills, my Tylenol with codeine that I carry for migraines.

Codeine is extremely illegal in all Central Asian countries because it comes from opium and next door is Afghanistan.


I was well aware of the legality and had flushed my remaining pills when I left Georgia… except the two I in my change purse… forgot about those.

He asked what the pills were for, I answered that they are for headache, he asked if I had perscription with me, I showed it to him, he saw “codeine” on the perscription and told me to wait there.

He came back a few minutes later and invited me to a private room where his boss was waiting. You know you are in for a bad time when the customs room has a medical table….

All my stuff was searched again, one piece at a time, and I was also searched…. thoroughly.

I was pretty freaked at this point and have a little trouble keeping it together, I sat down and waited.

The boss man told me I could pack my stuff up again, I started packing things and kinda tearing up, I wasn’t sure how to ask what was going to happen so I asked if I would still make my flight. I don’t remember his exact wording but he basically said I could go and the flight was fine but that if they had found the undeclared codeine on the way into the country rather than on my way out it would have gone differently.

Got on plane, flew to Kyrgyzstan, in my hotel now, palms still sweaty typing this.

(was reading the Lonely Planet forums on codeine and Uzbekistan tonight, sounds like it usually ends up with a couple days in jail, $500 fine and deportation)

Let’s just pop down to Termez!

Termez is the southern-most city in Uzbekistan and is the main border crossing to Afghanistan, I had wanted to go as there are some old ruins that are supposed to be interesting and I just wanted to see Afghanistan, even if only from across the border.

I had decided a while back that I wouldn’t have time but my guide from yesterday was willing and able to set me up with a driver for cheap for the day.

Met Timur the Driver (all men here appear to be named Timur) extremely early and we headed out, I have a train tonight back to Tashkent so we won’t have much more than an hour in Termez but I got no other plans today so let’s do this!

The road isn’t bad compared to streets in Samakand and Timur drives in the Uzbek style so we got to Termez in what I can only assume was record time. We stopped at a slightly scary looking place for lunch that turned out to have a lovely garden out back where Timur and I and a friend of his we picked up along the way ate big plates of plov, the standard central Asian dish of rice and yellow carrots and chunks of meat, and lamb shashlik (kebab), food was all good. Uzbek food is simple and basic and always good or at worst fine.

My guide yesterday informed me that because the day I arrived was a national holiday (it was Fountains Day, celebrating fountains, not sure if I mentioned that already but it was a great time) the reason so many people were asking to take a picture with me is that they are likely from smaller villages and don’t see Europeans (sic) that often.

This theory makes sense as after lunch in little remote Termez I was swamped by about 15 kids age 7-14, they encircled me outside the tea house and were achingly sweet, asking every question they could or just yelling random english words they knew. Highlight was the leader of the pack, the boy with the best english, pointing to one of the girls and telling me her name is “Gazar”, I said “Hello, Gazar” she blushed a bit, the boy then added “She is the most beautiful I think” (she was a cutie for sure), one of her friends translated that to her and she turned crimson and started slapping him, it was bliss and if the two of them aren’t married in five years I will eat a loaf of non.

I explained that I was from Vancouver, Canada and one kid yelled “Vancouver! NHL hockey team!” maybe kid, some years, maybe…

 After lunch we stopped just long enough to see the Friendship Bridge that joins Uzbekistan to Afghanistan and is the major importing point for NATO supplies for the Afghan missions. The city has a large NATO base (currently Dutch and US soldiers I think) and I thought we might run into some staff but never saw anything.

I had heard that the border was unsafe and that the other side was Taliban controlled but apparently that is not even remotely correct and crossing is no big deal, didn’t cross though as nowhere near enough time to get through the border and back again.

Timur and I stopped for literally 5 minutes at the ruins of the Kit Kat (ok, it is not the Kit Kat fortress but I am writing this later on the train with no internet and can’t remember, lousy tourist) and then started the long drive back.

I wondered if Timur the Driver thought this Canadian is crazy hiring him to drive all over the place for such a short stop but he seemed happy as a clam all day, no english, same with his friend, we did out best and actually had a pretty great time.

Made it to the train station in Samarkand with half an hour to spare, on the four hour ride back to Tashent now and my back really hurts, doesn’t usually happen to me and it sucks.

Fun Fact: Termez is where we get the word Thermos, because it is always hot there.

Fun Fact #2: When Alexander the Great came through he described a magnificent city, today not so much, and he ended up marrying an Afghan woman from Bactria, not that far from Termez.

Fun Fact #3: For a time Termez was a Greek city and marked the absolute eastern limit of the Greek empire.

Fun Fact #4 (aka no one is reading this far): In a little shop near the ruins I found the most awesome momento for Uzbekistan and I will show and tell when I get home, you will be enthralled.

The conqueror and the scientist

The heat finally eased off today but an epic downpour started around 6pm so I’m back in my room at the guest house after a great day with a guide I found last night.

Valentina picked me up at 9 and we headed out into the city, I know some about the city’s history and its place both on the Silk Road and as the capital of the Timurid Empire and I had walked around plenty last night amoung buildings that I am familiar with but having time with a local is so much better.

Tamerlane – The Conqueror

First stop was the Tomb Of Amir Timur (Tamerlane in the western world) the last of the great Mongol warlords.

Yup, real gold, about 2kg of gold leaf.

The tombstone of Tamerlane, the largest single piece of carved jade in the world. It looks black most of the time but the tomb is designed so that at each solstace the stone is lit with sunlight and becomes translucent green.

A century after the time of Genghis Khan (Chinggis Khan in the Ridley world) Tamerlane carved an enormous empire in a very short time, reaching from Turkey to China and down into India and Persia, all ruled from his capital, Samarkand.

I saw a letter today in the museum written by Charles V of France to Tamerlane basically saying “You sure are doing great over there, good for you… is there uh anything we could do to convince you to maybe stop coming this direction”

After the death of Tamerland the control of the empire eventually fell to his grandson…

Ulugh Bek – The Scientist

Tamerlane’s grandson was one of the great renaissance men of history, he was painted and remembered by Davinci, he took the title Mirzo (Professor) instead of Amir (Khan). Militarily he expanded the empire to it’s greatest size but his main focus was science. Ulugh built Islamic madrasas where almost all the subject matter was the sciences, in particular astronomy and math.

Ulugh Bek’s Madrasa – 1417AD (the Arabic over the door says Learn & Learn & Learn & Learn)

Ulugh made major strides in geometry and trigonometry and built the premier astronomical instrument of its day: his observatory (pre-telescope) was a huge building with a series of shafts for light and what was basically a giant marble and sunlight sextant that he used to publish the movements of 1018 stars and to calculate the lengths of solar rotation of the planets more accurately than anyone had before and the length of the year more accurately than Copernicus or Tycho Brahe did a century after Ulugh (he was less than 30 seconds off of the exact length of a year and had the Martian year within 10 seconds of exact). Spain and Algeria are both known to have sent their learned men to Samarkand to learn trigonometry and astronomy from Ulugh. I love the idea of your emperor also being your Stephen Hawking.

Less than 20 years after being built the observatory was destroyed by religious zealots, Ulugh waas murdered and all that is left is a small piece of the underground trackway for the light.

Walking around the old city
After the historical tour we went to the produce market and tasted everything, the pickled veggies the lady below had were amazing, it’s starting to rain a bit here so she is covering things up.
Uzbek bread, called non, is considered nearly sacred, and is supposed to be treated with respect. I had read this but didn’t really understand until lunch today with Valentina.
 We stopped at a roadside place for grilled meats, the chef brought a plate of non. I actually don’t like the Uzbek bread very much, to my palate it is heavy and dry and tasteless so I didn’t try the bread. The chef came by a few times looking concerned, finally Valentina said “You must break the bread!”. I did and we ate it and some soup and kebab. After lunch Valentina said “You also cannot leave non behind, will you eat it later?”, I told her I likely would not and she asked if she could take it for her neighbor who has very little and is struggling. She taught me the Uzbek word for leftover take-home non but I forgot it.
Uzbek custom includes not just leaving your door unlocked but actually leaving it open, walking around the old town it’s one open front door after another, hard not to love this place.

Walking around the old city with Valentina and came across this man cleaning old silver tea sets for sale in the big bazaar, we stopped and chatted with him for a while, discussed what he would do if a genie came out while he was rubbing, yay.

All of today was wonderful but the best part… Valentina was asked to help translate Uzbek to English for what will be new signage for the Necropolis Museum, she asked me for input. I told her the truth, the english she had was fine, she asked how to make it perfect. I rewrote the sign’s text in the way that sounds best to me and we spent 15 lively and fun minutes debating and working with the Museum Director on the wording. Valentina has promised to send me a picture of the signs once they are made with my oh so perfect wording, hahahaha.