07 - Central Asia: Georgia

Our first stop in Georgia is Telavi, the principal town of the Kakheti region, famous for its vineyards and wineries. Wine has been produced in Georgia since 4000BC and the industry has played a small but significant role in the country’s history ever since, as winemaking (and its consumption) has enjoyed an important role in Georgian culture and society.

Telavi itself is a fascinating and relaxing place to spend a couple of nights with many good restaurants and cafes, and not far from the town there are other sites well worth a visit, such as the monastery of Akhali Shuamta, and the small village of Ikalta and its Church of the Transfiguration which dates from the 8th Century BC.

We depart Telavi and turn west before arriving in Georgia’s historic and multicultural capital, Tbilisi.

Tbilisi is the end of my trip. From here I'll return home... loaded with many stories, memories and photos.

06 - Central Asia: Armenia

We cross the border and enter Armenia, where we instantly see the landscape change from dry and arid to lush, forested hills and flowing rivers. After bush camping just after the border we enjoy a stunning drive through the Sikahogh State Reserve on our way to Yerevan, Armenia’s capital city.

Yerevan is a cosmopolitan and relaxed city, where we will spend a few free days. There is no shortage of things to keep us occupied, with numerous museums, walking tours, and brandy distilleries to visit (Armenian brandy is the only type made outside of France that is permitted to call itself ‘cognac’). Yerevan has a culture of pavement cafes, and one of the real pleasure of the city is sitting back enjoying a drink by one of the city’s imperious Soviet-era squares while watching the locals go about their day-to-day business. Yerevan also has a vibrant nightlife, with numerous local bars to be found, many of which offer live music.

Not far from Yerevan it is also possible to visit the Geghard Monastery, a still-functioning site built in a picturesque hillside location, some parts of which are carved into the rock. Also nearby you can visit the Temple of Garni, a site that dates to the time of Ancient Greece and before Armenia’s conversion to Christianity. It holds the distinction of being the only Greco-Roman complex surviving in the whole of the former Soviet Union, and the views across the surrounding countryside are similarly impressive.

Leaving Yerevan we continue north through Armenia, stopping off at Sevanavank, a small monastery sat on a hill overlooking Lake Sevan. Formerly situated on an island, following the draining of the lake as during the time of Stalin’s rule, the monastery is now sat at the end of a small peninsula and is a picturesque spot well worth a short detour. We will bush camp for the night before heading the next day into Georgia.

04 - Central Asia: Turkmenistan

We cross the border into Turkmenistan, one of the world’s most secretive and mysterious countries, largely cut off from the outside world. Most of Turkmenistan is covered by the vast Kara-Kum (Black Sand) desert and conditions can be challenging with hot weather and some poor roads to travel along, but it is all worth it with some memorable stops along the way and also the opportunity to travel through this rarely-visited country.

Our first stop is Kunye Urgench, a UNESCO World Heritage site and ancient stop on the Silk Road; now largely abandoned we are able to bush camp near the site. It is said that the 60 metre high Kutlug-Timur minaret so impressed Genghis Khan that he specifically ordered for it not to destroyed when his Mongol hordes invaded the area in the thirteenth-century, so we are able to see it for ourselves today!

Continuing south through the desert our next stop is one of Central Asia’s most curious and impressive sights, the Darvaza Gas Crater. Also known as the ‘Door to Hell’ or ‘Gates of Hell’, this remarkable sight is the result of a Soviet-era gas exploration accident, when the ground beneath a drilling rig gave way and to prevent poisonous gas leaking out it was decided to burn it off. Originally engineers believed it would all be burned in a few days, but that was in 1971 and the field is still burning to this day. The result is a sight quite like no other as we are able to peer down into the crater and see the fire, and feel the intense heat coming from the flames. Road conditions permitting we will get to the crater in the truck and bush camp nearby in the remote desert.

Leaving Darvaza we then have around a half-day drive to reach Turkmenistan’s unique and bizarre capital city Ashgabat where we check into a hotel to wash off the sand from the desert and enjoy a well-earned bed for the night.

We have time to enjoy a city tour of Ashgabat. Turkmenistan’s capital, founded in the 1880s by the Russian Tsarist government, sits between the foothills of the Koptedag mountains to the south, and the vast Karakum Desert to the north. The city was almost entirely destroyed following an earthquake in 1948 and rebuilt in the Soviet style. Following independence in 1991 the city has been transformed into a futuristic, and in many ways bizarre collection of unique structures and wide streets lined with marble. For many travelers, Ashgabat is one of the most mystifying and unusual cities they will ever experience.

On the city tour we visit Independence Park, the Ertogrul Gazi Mozque, the Arch of Neutrality, the Turkmenbashi Mosque Mauasoleum and many other sites throughout the city. We will have the chance to explore some of the markets and meet the locals.

05 - Central Asia: Iran

We wave goodbye to fascinating Ashgabat and head to the border of Iran. Our first destination here is Mashhad, the second most visited pilgrim city in the Islamic world (besides Mecca). The holy city, meaning The Place of Martyrdom in Arabic is said to have over 20 million pilgrims a year visiting the Imam Reza shrine. We explore the stunning Iranian architecture and monuments of religious significance.

Leaving Masshad, we venture into the dust and heat, the beautiful but stark Dasht e Kavir Desert. Driving through the sandy scenes is incredible but can be challenging, so a stopover at the wonderful Garmeh Oasis provides welcome relief. We relax under the date palms and cool our feet in the streams, or hike the surrounding hills if needed to stretch our legs. On the way we'll pretend to be Nomads and visit an old Caravanserai, an ancient stopping point for camel trains travelling the old Silk Road.

Continuing south we travel to Yazd and are able to find out about Zoroastrian history and culture by visiting the Towers of Silence. With its mudbrick old town and winding lanes, Yazd is one of Iran’s highlights. The city has a very relaxed atmosphere.

Leaving Yazd our next desination is Shiraz; once famous for its vineyards; Shiraz portrays a certain sophistication. Whether you visit the exquisite mosques and mausoleums or just soak up the atmosphere in the tranquil gardens, we are sure to enjoy our time here. It’s also a great place to try typical Iranian food or get a fast food fix! Near Shiraz we follow in Alexander the Great’s footsteps, with the opportunity to visit Persepolis. This ruined city was formerly the capital of the Achaemenid Empire, and dates back to the fifth century BC, with some well-preserved relics and buildings to be found. Some compare this magnificent site to other ancient constructions such as Angkor Wat or the Great Pyramids.

We next move on to Esfahan, for many the jewel in Iran's crown. Esfahan was once one of the largest cities in the world and served as the capital of Persia in the 16th Century. We have the option of a guided city tour to take in the majestic Imam Square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, that is home to the famous blue mosaic tiled Imam Mosque, the Mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah and the Ali Qapu Palace. Other highlights are the historic bridges on the Zayandeh River and the old Shah Carvanserai that used to be the port of call for caravans on the ancient Silk Road. Esfahan is a great city to wander around, while away the day in local tea houses, converse with the incredibly hospitable and friendly Iranians, watch artists at work in bazaars and marvel at the silk Persian rugs in the carpet emporiums.

A long drive day north brings us to Iran's capital, Tehran, a cosmopolitan and frenetic city in the shadow of another mountain range - the Alborz. We discover the numerous mosques, museums and pay a visit to the former US Embassy and the fascinating painted murals close by.

As we continue northwest our last stop in Iran is Tabriz, a large city and important trading post between Iran, the Caucasus and Turkey on the Silk Road. The city’s most famous sites is the Blue Mosque, known for the ornate calligraphy displayed on the tiles that cover the building. Another highlight is the labyrinthine bazaar, the largest covered bazaar in the world and a great way to spend our last few Iranian Rials before we leave Iran and enter the next country on our Asian adventure.

03 - Central Asia: Uzbekistan

Leaving Kazakhstan we turn south and enter Uzbekistan, a country synonymous with the Silk Road and famous for its evocative and historic ancient cities. A first stop, however, is the modern and cosmopolitan capital of Tashkent where we will stay in a hotel for a couple of nights. Much of the city was destroyed during an earthquake in 1966, and is now a mixtures of ancient, Soviet and ultra-modern buildings, making it a fascinating introduction to Uzbekistan as the country continues to develop and modernise after independence.

One of the highlights of  Tashkent is riding its subway, with ornately decorated stations much like the Moscow subway, while the Old Town has a vibrant bazaar where locals in their traditional colourful dress barter for goods. There are also a number of museums, national monuments and even the Tashkentland amusement park with some rollercoaster's and other rides!

In Uzbekistan we will find well preserved relics from the time when Asia was a centre of empire, learning, and trade along the famous silk route. Some of its cities have abundant old architecture, mosques and minarets cloaked with the mystery of the orient dating back thousands of years.

Samarkand is the second largest city in the country. The history of Samarkand is about 2,500 years old and it's as old as Babylon or Rome. Here we will explore the splendid architecture such as the 15th century Bibi-Khanum Mosque which when it was built was considered to have the largest dome in the Muslim world. Today it stands next to a noisy and colourful Oriental market. No trip here is complete without a wander around the three edifices of the Registan, once Medieval Samarkand's commercial plaza and today quite possibly the most awesome sight in Central Asia.

Leaving Samarkant the truck will heading more south to Shahrisabz; this where Alexander the Great chose to spend his winters, and the area is steeped in history. The gigantic tower gateways of Tamerlane's summer palace, along with the Dorus Saodat Mausoleum (containing the tomb of Tamerlane's favourite son) are just two of the sights. Upon leaving Shahrisabz we next drive to Termuz, which sits alongside the famous Oxus River that forms the border with Afghanistan. This ancient strategic town is intrinsically linked to the history of the region, from Alexander the Great through the Silk Road and to the Great Game of the nineteenth century. We will explore the town and look across the Friendship Bridge into Afghanistan.

The Kyzylkum Desert is about 300,000 sq km and lies between the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya rivers. This is a vast arid plain with a number of isolated bare mountains rising to 900 meters and we journey across it on our way to Bukhara.

Bukhara, our next stop, is situated on a sacred hill, and was founded in the 13th century BC and it is home to over 350 mosques and some 100 Islamic colleges. The city is intrinsically linked to the history of the Silk Road and later ‘Great Game’ that played out in the nineteenth century between Russia and Great Britain. One of the most famous individuals involved in this historical period, the Englishman Alexander Burnes, was known as ‘Burnes of Bukhara’ and the books he authored based on his adventures in this part of Asia gave him celebrity status in Victorian England.

Bukhara today is an attractive city with narrow streets, green parks and gardens, and is a pleasure to wander around and there will be the opportunity for a bout of good humoured haggling in the bazaar.

Continuing north, we bush camp out in the desert before reaching Khiva, another town with much historical influence, that was also on the great silk route. This, our last city stop, is one of the most noteworthy of the cities and towns of Central Asia. It is a unique monument town, completely preserved in the cultural style of the region, and is a World Heritage Site for its historical significance. It has more minarets than any other place in Asia, and the Juma Mosque, which has an amazing 218 ornate carved wooden columns, is another of the main attractions. We will spend a couple of nights here to explore the ancient medressas, medinas, mausoleums and museums and soak up the unique atmosphere.

Road conditions permitting, we will then drive to the edge of where the Aral Sea used to lie. In the 1960s the Soviet Union began an intense irrigation project to boost cotton growth in the region using the then vast sea as its source. The project led to the sea shrinking to just 10% of its original size and today as we reach where its edge formerly was, we can see ships sitting incongruously in the middle of what is now a huge desert where we camp for the night.

02 - Central Asia: Kyrgyzstan - Kazakhstan

I'll arrive in Bizhkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan on the early morning of September 4th. I'll stay here some days do accommodate and to explore the city.

Leaving Bishkek, we cross the border into another former Soviet country, Kazakhstan. We head north to Almaty. Next we travel west across the southern corner of the country, bush camping on the way to Aksu-Dzhabagly Nature Reserve. The oldest nature reserve in Central Asia and covering the far northwest of the Tien Shan mountain range, the reserve is a stunning spot and rich in flora and fauna. We camp for a couple of nights with free time to explore the walking trails or optional horse riding through the grasslands and forests, past mountain rivers and rugged mountain peaks.

01 - Central Asia - Introduction

In September I go to Central Asia to explore some of the -stan countries with the backpack. I will not have Internet all the time and therefore you might miss my daily updates on Facebook and this new media. I'm sorry for that ...

When I can and when I have the mind to do it I will report you briefly about my two months trip. The best way to stay informed is to consult more often this place!

I don't have a fix route and I'll take things as they come but in the next comments I'll give you a pretty good idea of the plan.

It will be a trip with sometimes long drives through the desert, especially in Turkmenistan and Iran.  It can get hot with no luxury and camp with no facilities, no electricity, no showers, no toilets,…  With an overland truck one reach unique places where we're able to get off the beaten track and see some amazing places. Of course we'll visit also the beautiful world heritage of architecture and ancient cities along the Silk Road…

Please feel free to comment or to make suggestions in whatever language... for me it's always good to read news from the home stayers :--)

 ----- NEDERLANDS -----

Begin september vertrek ik met de rugzak naar Centraal Azië om oa. enkele -stan landen te bezoeken.  Ik zal daar niet altijd Internet ter beschikking hebben en daarom zullen mijn dagelijkse updates op Facebook niet kunnen plaatsvinden. Ook deze posts kunnen dan niet bijgewerkt worden. Mijn excuses voor dat...

Als ik kan en ik heb er goesting voor dan post ik uiteraard een kort verslagje over mijn tweemaandelijke trip. De beste manier om op de hoogte te blijven is dus om hier regelmating een bezoekje te brengen.

Ik heb geen vaste route en ik bekijk de dingen zoals ze komen maar in de volgende commentaren geef ik een korte samenvatting van het plan.

Het wordt een uitstapje met soms zeer lange ritten door de woestijn, vooral in Turkmenistan en Iran. Het kan er zeer warm zijn, er is geen luxe en kampeerplaatsen zijn er zonder faciliteiten, geen electriciteit, geen douches, geen toiletten... Met een overland truck kunnen unieke plaatsen worden bezocht waar we afwijken van de begaanbare paden. Natuurlijk worden de unieke historische erfgoedcites langsheen de Zijderoute bezocht...

Voel je vrij om commentaar of suggesties te geven in gelijk welke taal... voor mij is het aangenaam om iets te vernemen van de thuisblijvers :--)

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