Please note that since this trip, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, travel between these now independent countries is not as straightforward as it was for us back then. I have decided to post this as one article of 2,500 words, and it is therefore a long read. If you decide to stick with it, you have my thanks.
Over ten years after my first trip to the USSR, I was planning another more ambitious holiday to that country. Then separated from my wife and not quite divorced, I was living with a much younger girl, a nurse I had met through work. She had similar left-wing sympathies, and had wanted to visit that country for some time. The fact that I had been twice before, and desired to go to different parts was not an issue, and she was happy to accompany me. Because of work commitments, we had to choose a pre-arranged holiday from one of the established tour companies, and it would include all meals, a guide, and visits to any and all places of interest. There would also be a fair bit of free time. The brochure gave a warning that some parts of the trip would involve walking on rough terrain, being in high altitudes, and sharing compartments on a train. I was only 35 years old at the time, and my girlfriend just 23, so we were both excited at the prospect of something different.
The tour was grandly-titled by the company, ‘In The Footsteps Of Marco Polo.’ In a trip lasting less than three weeks, we were gong to cover a lot of ground. As well as Russia, we would be travelling to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. Some of the delights in prospect included Samarkand, Bukhara, and Tashkent; places steeped in history, and very different from anywhere either of us had ever been. It would involve many internal flights, and an overnight trip on a sleeper-train. We settled on an early September departure, when it would still be warm there, but hopefully not uncomfortably hot.
The first leg involved a flight from London to Moscow, where we met up with the guide who would accompany us, and the rest of our tour party. The good news was that the group was very small, only twelve, including the guide. We had no time to explore the Soviet capital though, as we had to leave early the next day, to fly to Alma Ata. At the time, this city was the capital of Kazakhstan. It is no longer the capital, and has been renamed Almaty. The long internal flight was dull, but we consoled ourselves with being some of the few that had ever visited this remote country in modern times. On arrival, we were taken by coach to our hotel. It was some distance outside the city, on a hillside location, overlooking orchards and farmland. It was surprisingly modern, and the rooms were comfortable, but there was little to do there, and any trip or excursions would have to be taken in the company of the guide, and the rest of our group.
The itinerary was as expected. We visited the huge Central State Museum, which had only been completed a few years earlier. It housed impressive collections, in numerous halls. These included woven carpets and fabrics, clothing worn by Khans and Sultans over the centuries, and valuable gold artifacts. There were also some everyday objects, including a full-size Yurt, a skin tent used by the Kazakhs when they were nomadic. As with all the museums or displays at that time in the Soviet Union, all descriptions were in Russian, so the guide had arranged for an English-speaking local guide to accompany our group, and she gave us the history and detail about each object. She was very friendly, and looked distinctively Kazakh, as did most of the locals of course. We were also taken to see the famous Cathedral Of The Ascension, one of the tallest all-wooden buildings in the world. At the time, it was not being used for religious services, and as a meeting of some kind was going on inside when we arrived, we were unable to go in there, which was something of an anti-climax. However, the exterior is very impressive.
After a couple of days, it was time to move on, and we headed off to the airport for the flight to our next destination, Samarkand. This was a city of legend. Associated with exotic spices and trade goods, and one of the most important cities of the ancient world. It is also home to one of the most captivating architectural beauties on this planet, The Registan. On the way from the airport to our hotel, it was noticeably warmer there, and the sights and sounds were very different indeed. Some people looked similar to Afghans, and even carried ancient rifles. The whole feel of the city was of a Muslim country, and despite many obvious Russians walking around in western dress, it was apparent that not much had changed in centuries. Our hotel was a fairly modern building, and the accommodation was satisfactory, though basic. The best thing about it, was that it was just across the road from the amazing Registan complex, and we had an uninterrupted view from our balcony.
We got out to see it as soon as possible, courtesy of a guided tour and free time as well. At night it is illuminated, and the colours are simply magical. We also wandered around the old town, with its Arabic feel, and distinctive tea houses where you lounge on wooden beds which are covered in colourful cushions. Our tea-drinking companions were mostly fierce-looking local men in turbans, but they paid us no mind, probably assuming that we were Russians. We relaxed and took in the atmosphere, sipping the sweet mint tea, and finding it hard to believe that we were actually in this famous city. The next day after breakfast, I was taken very ill. Stomach cramps and diarrhoea the like of which I had never experienced, as well as feeling cold, and looking pale. I discovered that two other members of our party were very sick too, and a doctor had been called to the hotel for them. One eventually had to be admitted to hospital, and did not rejoin the tour.
This illness meant that I lost most of the next two days, and missed some excursions. I could not be more than a few feet from a toilet, and I was as weak as a kitten too. This despite taking the various medicines brought from the UK, and also making sure that we only used bottled water for drinking, and even for brushing our teeth. As I lay in my sick bed, I discovered the possible cause of this illness. The cleaning lady came in, to service the room. I got out of bed and sat on a chair as she made the beds. She spoke no English, so we nodded politely to each other. Later on, she removed a filthy-looking rag from a bucket, and ran it under the tap in the bathroom. She then proceeded to wash the floor of the room with this rag, down on her hands and knees. After that, she rinsed out the rag in the sink, and started to clean the toilet and bath with it. I tried to stop her, pointing at the cloth, and shaking my head. But she was shouting something in Uzbek, and carried on regardless. Her final act of ‘cleaning’, was to use the soiled rag she had cleaned the toilet with to polish the glasses in the bathroom. The same glasses we had been using to contain mineral water to brush our teeth!
I contacted the tour guide, and told her about this. I made a formal complaint, that she took up with the hotel. I was very ill, and one of the party had nearly died. Was it any wonder, given the hotel’s cleaning regime? The hotel manager told me that if I didn’t want our room cleaned, then that was OK with him. I learned a valuable lesson about what is considered to be hygienic in different parts of the world. Luckily, by the time we were due to depart, I was feeling much better. Just as well, as we faced a long train journey, overnight to Tajikistan.
We were told that we had to share a compartment for the train journey. They suggested we choose our own companions from the group, as each sleeping area had four places. We were approached by the oldest couple in the party, a retired professor and his wife, experts in ancient languages, and very interesting company. They suggested that we might share, as they were not capable of getting into the top bunks. With this arranged, we headed off to the station. We would get the train in the late afternoon and travel overnight, arriving in Dushanbe the next morning. The length of the journey was caused by having to travel some distance in the opposite direction, before turning east again due to the terrain, we were told. This was an exciting prospect, and a part of the trip I was really looking forward to. The compartment was quite small, just enough space for four adults. But it was a corridor train, and we could wander around as we liked. Our luggage had been stored elsewhere, and as we had come to expect, would magically reappear in our next hotel room.
The sights and sounds of that train journey are never to be forgotten. Long delays waiting for other trains to pass, occasional stops in distant stations with names we did not recognise, vendors crowding the platforms to try to sell all and sundry to those of us on the train. One memorable stop was next to a train going in the other direction. It was crammed with young Russian soldiers. Our guide told us that they were probably returning from the war in Afghanistan, as Dushanbe is less than eight hours from Kabul. I can still see the blank stares on the faces of those young men. Sleep was hard to come by that night, and we chatted until late, when our older companions needed to rest. I was up very early, disturbed by the professor’s snoring. I headed off to use the bathroom at the end of the corridor, and was delighted to find a tea vendor had set up close by. He smiled at me and said, “Chai?”
I took the glass of tea that he had poured from the samovar, and placed in a metal holder. It was strong and refreshing, already sweetened. I offered him some money, and raised my hand, showing three fingers. He got the point, and filled three more glasses. The cost for all four was ridiculously cheap, and my companions were delighted to be woken up with a delicious glass of tea. The vendor had reminded me to return the glasses later, by an amusing mime action of someone bringing back empty glasses.
My girlfriend and I went along to the other end of the carriage to have a cigarette. The view from the window at that time of day was just magical. Dusty sand dunes spread as far as we could see, rocks and distant mountains all glowing orange in the morning light. We were soon arriving, and our guide appeared, to make sure we were ready to leave the train. Then there we were, Dushanbe, capital of Tajikistan, a country bordered by Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and many Soviet republics at the time. This is a comparatively modern city, and was only developed in the twentieth century. However, we were there for a specific reason, to travel into the mountainous region close to the border with China, and explore the rugged scenery. This would involve a very long trip by coach to the national park close to Murghab, on the other side of the country. After an overnight stop, we would reverse the journey, before leaving for our next place of interest. This was the most arduous part of the trip, and some older members of the party sensibly decided not to bother. Almost twelve hours travelling in a hot and dusty small coach, in temperatures close to 40 degrees. Despite some amazing scenery, we were pleased when we got to the hotel and had the chance to wash and change before dinner. After that, we happily collapsed into bed.
The next day, we drove into the mountains. Waking across rope bridges, we could see China in the far distance. It was perhaps the most rugged and inhospitable-looking terrain I had ever encountered. Although I was pleased to have had the experience, the long journey back was tiresome and dull, mostly spent in the dark.
The following morning we left by air for the relatively short trip to Bukhara, back in Uzbekistan. It was a very small aircraft, and our group and guide were the only passengers.
Bukhara, like Samarkand, was an important trade centre on the old Silk Road, and retains some very impressive ancient buildings and architecture. It is a UNESCO heritage site, and designated a ‘city museum.’ It is easy to see why. In the old town, it feels like you are walking through history, as if nothing has changed for thousands of years. Mosques, Minarets, and fortress walls surround you. It is like being in an ‘Arabian Nights’ fantasy. We had a short guided tour, and wandered around freely too. It is hardly known as a tourist destination here, but one I would recommend. The hotel was once again basic, but comfortable. And this time, I was careful to avoid using the glasses supplied in the bathroom! We enjoyed a couple of days in that city, before we had to move on.
Our next destination was reached by yet another short internal flight, to the city of Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. This is a large city, with a population of some 2.5 million. Despite its destruction by Genghis Khan in the 13th century, it remained another important stop on the Silk Road, and developed accordingly. Tashkent has suffered many earthquakes throughout history, and in 1966, the majority of the buildings were destroyed in the city’s worst recorded 5.1 quake. Rebuilt by the then Soviet government, much of the place has a modern feel, and technology has been used to attempt to make the new buildings ‘earthquake-proof’. This did seem to be a little pointless as a tourist destination though. We were shown around some museums by various guides, and given free time in a dull park, in 40 degree heat. Other than the interesting bazaar in the centre, there was little of interest, to be honest. We all agreed that our time there was just to fill-in the trip until we took the flight back to Moscow.
As I have covered Moscow and Leningrad previously, I will not describe our short time in those cities.
With the exception of the rather irritating stop in Tashkent, and the arduous journey across Tajikistan to the mountains. This was a memorable holiday, full of the sights and sounds of the ancient places we visited, and some breathtaking scenery too. If you ever get the chance to visit Samarkand and Bukhara, then jump at it. You will not be disappointed. Here are some links, in the absence of my own non-digital photos.