Rishi Sankar: Ah Trini Travelogue

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Archive for the ‘Uzbekistan’ Category

I miss being the only Trinidadian in Uzbekistan

Posted by Rishiray on March 18, 2014

It’s been about a year since my epic first adventure through Central Asia and specifically being blown away by Uzbekistan as a tourist destination. In a somewhat perverse way, I also miss being a sideshow attraction of being a Trinidadian in Uzbekistan. For instance, when I was walking through the Walled City of Khiva, I subject to many curious glances and a lot of people said “Hi!” …if just to figure out where I was from … since they hadn’t seen a big brown guy before.

While walking out the city .. the kids attacked me for candy

Here’s my longing glance at the camera hoping for rescue from the cute children.

Everywhere Lev (my Russian guide 😛 ) and I walked, people were interested in chatting with us. They asked some of the following questions

  • Where are you from?
  • You’re not from India are you?
  • You can’t be from India because you don’t look like an Indian, right?
  • Where is Trinidad?
  • Is Trinidad in Africa?
  • Why are you friends with a Russian?
  • How did you meet your Russian friend?
  • Your accent is so awesome and funny … do all people from your country speak like that?
  • Can I take a picture with you?

Posing for pictures and being the center of attention … of course I would never like that

The guy in the jacket even looked like my bodyguard

Having lunch in a restaurant, the staff wanted me to take a picture of them and with them.

I’m trying to figure out the right settings. It was some shady lighting in there.

I also miss the super terrible wine that I had in Uzbekistan. I’m not a oenophile but I know shitty tasting shit when I drink it, and that wine in Uzbekistan was super shitty shit … but it’s also a must do experience if you’re there in Samarkand.

Reactions of pain and helplessness

How about wandering through Registan Square in Samarkand?

Ummm why is there a crowd taking my picture?

Yep … this is me trying to escape .. and you’re wondering why I have the same shirt on different days … I bought three of them!

The other thing I miss is bypass all aspects of face control. This was a big concern of mine while I was over there. I thought that since they hadn’t seen many brown people over there, that I wouldn’t have free reign over where I wanted to go. This was never the case, even though I saw signs like this everywhere …

I wonder if they could institute both of these in Trinidad without serious issues?

I think I was also the only person who could dance over there … and I am a terrible dancer for a Trinidadian unless I’m drunk, then I’m pretty awesome … (to my drunken self)

Who doesn’t love a club in the middle of nowhere with all the ladies sitting down?


Posted in Asia, Uzbekistan | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Bukhara Sightseeing : Poi Kalyan photoblog

Posted by Rishiray on May 23, 2013

It’s been about two months since I left Uzbekistan, but I can’t think of a place I’ve been that I’ve expected so little from that offered so much. As a Trinidadian, the idea of vast mosque complexes, rugged terrain and amazing food would be something that I would expect in the much more well known Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran etc … but not Uzbekistan. As for Bukhara, it’s one of the holiest places of Islam and was one of the key stops along the Silk Route. In the Middle Ages, when the region was at its zenith, scholars travelled from all over the Islamic world to study here, including two giants of Persian culture, Ibn Sina and Firdausi. Once you’re in Bukhara, there is so much to do and see, that making a decision on where to go can lead to mental paralysis.
Thankfully, I brought along a list of all major sights in the city. There are a lot of mausoleums, mosques and madrassahs. In fact, there are so many, that you’ll have to spend two full days wandering around, if you wanted to see everything. In the end, I condensed my list into the following high level sights.

  1. Poi-Kalyan complex comprising of the Kalyan Minaret, Mir-i-Arab Madrassah and Kalyan Mosque
  2. Ark Fortress
  3. Mausoleums (4) :Naqshbandi, Boharzi, Chashma Ayub, Samanid,
  4. Madrassahs (6) : Chor Minor, Ulugbek, Djuiboriy Kalon, Gozien, Ensemble of Kosh-Madrassah, Labi-Hauz Ensemble
  5. Mosques (3) : Namazgokh, Balyand, Magoki-Attari
  6. Necropolis Chor-Bakr
  7. Gate Talipach
  8. Trading domes
  9. Sitorai Mohi-Khosa
  10. Bolo-khauz
  11. Ensemble of Khoja Gaukushan
  12. Khanqah Faizabad

Starting your time wandering around, I’d recommend that you visit the Poi-Kalyan complex per my list. There is a lot to see and if you’re a photographer, you’re going to spend a couple hours trying shoot from the different vantage points.

Poi Kalyan in the shadows

This isn’t going to be your typical Poi Kalyan photoblog … So once you’re at Poi Kalyan, then you’re going to see the Kalyan Minaret, which is one of the most famous sights of Bukhara. It towers over everything in the city – which is amazing since it was built in 1127AD (It is still the tallest minaret in East Asia!). In fact, when some random guy named Genghis Khan (I think he’s famous or something like that) passed through the city in 1220 – it was the only thing left standing. Local legend says that Genghis Khan was so awe struck with the exquisiteness of the tower that he specifically forbade its destruction. Here’s some facts about the Minaret – don’t say I didn’t provide some knowledge …

  • Made of of burnt brick with plaster mortar
  • Height of 45.6 metres
  • Base diameter of of 9 meters which tapers to 6 meters.
  • It is topped with sixteen-arched skylight rotunda and its entire height is decorated with 14 parallel bands none of which are repeated.
  • The tower has a brick spiral staircase built around the central pillar and provides access to the rotunda.

Wondering where the Kalyan Minaret is? Look for the tallest freestanding structure … there you go!!

After wandering around the Kalyan Minaret, you can also walk into the Amir Alim Khan Madrassah. It’s just a fantastic structure – the colours and detail make it impossible to take a poor photograph. It’s best to photograph in the afternoon, as the light will be at your back. This madrassah is still a working school, so unless you can chat with the guards at the door, you won’t be allowed in … doesn’t mean you can’t take pictures of all the detailing.

Amir Alim Khan Madrassah .. I had to take notes of everything – there are so many Madrassahs

Inside the main portal of the Kalyan Mosque, it’s quite spartan and bare. Walking around, you will get some great vantage points of the entire complex and you can do a shadow/silhouette shot like the one I took below.

Just in case you forgot your praying times … I’m assuming this is what this is 🙂

Once you walk out of the complex, you can wander over to the main wall to capture the city.

Posted in Asia, Uzbekistan | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Wine tasting in Samarkand … yep … seriously!

Posted by Rishiray on April 15, 2013

Wine tasting in Samarkand? You didn’t know that Uzbekistan had wine? Neither did I! So our gracious friend and guide Yuliya suggested that we try some Uzbek wine, you could imagine the face I made and the thoughts which ran amok in my brain. Yuliya’s suggestion wasn’t really about the wine but her story that the woman who runs the tasting is frequently drunk while things are going on. That sounded like excellent entertainment to me. The Filatov winery also has a museum of wine, which stores collection of the winery’s best wines – but I couldn’t be bothered about such types of education – I wanted the drinking entertainment.
filatov winery samarkand
filatov wine museum
I did learn that even with the harsh sunlight and heat, different varieties of grapes grow in Samarkand. The grapes are quite sweet – so for instance, in Europe, the sweetness of grapes is on average 14-18%, while the grapes grown in the Samarkand region are between 24-35% of sugar (fructose). They make a lot of wine here …
wine tasting in samarkand
If you do come, you will be shown around the museum  and it’s dedicated to the wine history of the region. BTW Important Note : No bad jokes about what horrors you expect from Uzbek wine … everyone speaks excellent English at the winery.That being said, if you’re hoping for a delightful array of different whites and reds to tantalize your taste buds – you are going to be completely surprised by the collection of sugar “stuff” you’re going to taste. Your wine tasting guide is this very cute old man … he knows the facts he’s been giving and I’m sure that if you’re a lot more educated on wine, then you’ll have better responses than the ones I gave.
get ready for sugar shit
I’m no wine expert … but the tasting goes from sweet wine to vatted poison. Our grey haired wonder above even told us that wine number 7 was given as medicine to the victims of Hiroshima and more recently the Japanese tsunami disaster due to its “blood cleansing qualities”. If you count my glasses, you can see that I couldn’t finish #8 and #9.

In fact, our grey haired wonder referred to #8 as a “Cognac”. As a note, the wines below get sweeter and sweeter. Just because a liquid gets sweeter and sweeter, doesn’t mean it gets better and better or tastier and tastier.

As you will note from the following reaction shots … things didn’t really hit a high note. Pictures speak a 1000 words … hopefully the following sequence of sampled shots will convey what I thought of the wine. My disclaimer here is that I’m not a wine snob, but my Russian comrade shown with me, is a wine snob. Look at the last shot in the sequence.

Now that you know all you need to know about wine tasting in Samarkand, I do recommend the tour just for the camp value and it’s only $10USD. Spend your money and go do some wine tasting in Samarkand and get some truly horrific wine (Again … I am no wine expert … I just know what’s drinkable!)

Useful facts:

  • The winery was opened in 1868.
  • The founder was the Russian entrepreneur D.M.Filatov.
  • 1883 they won the Gold Medal in the International Fair of Wines and Brandies
  • The winery processes 16,000 tons annually
  • The price for tasting and museum tour is US$ 10 per person – so it is a bit steep, but where else could you get entertainment like this?

Posted in Asia, Uzbekistan | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Dealing with my food preferences on the road

Posted by Rishiray on April 7, 2013

When you’re on the road, chasing epic food adventures is part and parcel of your journey. This being said, with all my years of travel experience and exposure, I am a very finicky eater. For too many reasons, I have the following aversions

  • I don’t eat Lamb/Mutton or Goat Meat … I’ll eat them once in a while, but only if very certain people cook it.
  • I don’t eat anything with dairy (Milk, Butter, Cheese)
  • I don’t like the strong taste of margarine

I might not learn the language, but I’m always 100% sure of how to say I don’t want something in my food.

  • In Spanish speaking countries … my order is always proceeded by ” sin mantequilla, queso o leche, por favor. Soy alérgico.”
  • In Russian speaking countries … ” ne maslo, syr, moloko ili pozhaluysta. YA allergik.” … I’ve also have to learn “Nyet Baran” …which is “No Sheep!” … it’s tough getting a meal without some sheep’s part in Central Asia
  • In Portuguese speaking countries … “sem manteiga, queijo ou leite, por favor. Sou alérgico.”
  • I even learned the phrase in Tagalog for my Philippines trip … “walang mantikilya, keso, o gatas. Ako ay allergic.”

This being said, how do you refuse 3 day old smoked lake fish? This was one of the first challenges that I had when I was in Kyrgyzstan, with my indomitable hosts Camilla & Bolot and the most hardcore Russian I know … Volodia (I could offer more reasons for his “hardcoreness” … but let’s just say he is old school and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to be in a fight with him). Driving to Issyk Kul, there were a number of people selling these fish along the roadside … while passing them, I thought “There is no way I’m going to eat that stuff … is it even food?”
Of course, after meeting Volodia at this swank cottage complex on the lake … I was taken to the piers to have a true Russian experience … eating smoked fish and drinking 3 day old beer.

Yes, Trinidadians … if you’re in Kyrgyzstan and you have great hosts, you’re going to face this. If you’re ok with Sushi, then you won’t have as terrible a time, but the “freshness” of the fish definitely requires the beer to wash it down. As I write this, I can still smell the fish, it’s not a scent that will go away from my scent bank for a very, very long time.  How about another challenge … we love Tomato Herring at home, in the cans. We make this into a spicy “sap” that goes with hops bread.

Not over here … you eat the stuff raw … on rye bread.  Correction, it was Black Sea Sprat (Kilka) … wondering why the image is fuzzy … because I was quivering at the thought of barfing this stuff up and having Volodia laugh at me. Wasn’t going to happen …!!

How about some raw mackerel  “pechen’ trski” aka fish liver (of sorts covered by egg and mayonnaise? This wasn’t as bad as I thought it could be … but the texture combinations proved quite challenging for me. I didn’t actually know what it was, so I dug in and had a good helping of the stuff, before I knew what it was. I think the last time I was this surprised, I was eating Chicken in Blood Sauce in Rio de Janeiro – so always ask what you’re eating and make no assumptions.

How about some horse sausage? This is quite the delicacy over here … in both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. This collection of phallic like sausages was at a restaurant in Tashkent. The sausage is usually chipped finely and mixed in with cold noodles … there was a rather large woman tossing the whole table of noodles by hand. – had I seen the making of the noodles …. I don’t think I would have been able to stomach the dish. I did learn that if you toss tons of hot sauce on the horse, it doesn’t have a bad kick (hahahaha)

Horse Sausage and Cold noodles

Horse Sausage and Cold noodles

How about some Shirgrechka – Milk porridge with buckwheat. It took me a long time to figure out what the hell these people were making, when it takes 5 people to stir a massive pot of porridge, then you know you have something going on.

Posted in Asia, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

That’s a lot of porridge …

Posted by Rishiray on April 5, 2013

I’m not a fan of anything with dairy, so you can imagine my surprise when I saw this huge vat of Uzbekistan Porridge or Shirgrechka being made. I don’t know what the cost of labor is in Uzbekistan, but I’m pretty sure when you hire 5 women to stir one gigantic pot of porridge or whatever the hell it is that they are stirring, then you know that your labor costs needs a revision. I was actually told that if I made a comment to anyone that machines could this more efficiently, then 20 people would automatically lose their jobs. No pressure to keep the silence eh?


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Wednesday Photo Nights #14 : The walled city of Khiva

Posted by Rishiray on April 5, 2013

Walking through Khiva feels a bit contrived and artificial. The place looks like they lifted it from a movie set – it’s UNESCO money done right. The city looks fantastic, and when you compare it to the squalor that surrounds the town – it makes the comparison even starker. When you get in at night and I do recommend that you spent at least two nights in Khiva … you’ll be treated with a town that’s completely yours between 8pm and 8am. If you’re into challenging night photography … Khiva is your place.

However, it’s during the day that the city shines. There is a reason that all trip itineraries start in Tashkent, go through Khiva and Bukhara and end with Samarkand – the progression of elements is a natural one from old Soviet layouts to old Timur layouts.  The old city is surrounded by an impressive 15m high wall and contains the real architectural gems of the city, even at first glance, Khiva was quite different than both Bukhara and Samarkand. Starting outside the western gates, you’ll see a signboard for the UNESCO Silk Road project (If you would like more info … here is a great link to BorobudurTV. This project is beyond ambitious … but there are actually people who are hiking or cycling the Silk Road! As you can tell, Bukhara is the junction of everything, and it’s reflected in Bukhara’s importance.

As Khiva is a walled city, it meant that the sights of Khiva were more concentrated and finite dimensions to your walking around town. Walking around the city is free, but if you would like to enter all the madrassas or mosques/museums, then you’ll have to pay a one time fee of 20,000 Som ($8 USD) – Don’t complain about the fee … just pay it and move on, even though it is expensive by Uzbek standards – you’ll be rewarded with some great pictures.

There are three minarets in the city, of which two are accessible to the public. Spend the time and climb them … you’ll be rewarded with some spectacular views of the city. You can also climb to the top of the guard towers … for another vantage point.

The building themselves are so elaborate and interesting.

If you’re wondering about the “imcomplete” looking minaret, then you’re probably looking at Khiva’s most famous sight –  the unfinished Kalta Minor. It was commissioned by a khan who, sadly, passed away before it was complete. Had it been finished, it likely would have been the tallest building in the world at the time. You really cannot miss it from any vantage point in the city.


Posted in Asia, Uzbekistan, Wednesday Photo Nights | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Roaming Chorsu Bazaar in Tashkent …

Posted by Rishiray on April 4, 2013

Getting into Uzbekistan generally means that you have to spend some time in Tashkent. While the Silk Road beckons, I would actually spend more time in Tashkent … not only is it a big city, but it is a super historical one as well. Aside from the large roads, beautiful subway stations that you cannot legally take pictures of, and great architecture … you’re also going to find a lot of markets. I like markets a lot … I’ll put them with churches, cemeteries and waterfalls on my photographic wish list. They’re always super interesting and you’ll always meet tons of curious people. Tashkent has many markets and bazaars and you can buy almost anything at the markets in Tashkent. If you’re on a timeline as I was, then I would pick a walk through Chorsu Bazaar. It’s the oldest market in Tashkent and you cannot miss the distinctive blue-green dome. It dominates the skyline of the area.

Hundreds years ago it was one of the busiest bazaars in Central Asia, since it is located on the silk route. The location hasn’t changed in all these years but the old buildings have been replaced by modern buildings. Like any other oriental Bazaar, Chorsu is spread over a large area – so be prepared to walk around. Architecturally, the dome is fantastic … it’s tough to take an uninteresting picture in here.

While walking around the market, be prepared to haggle with vendors. The great thing was that people were more curious than anything else. Unlike our markets in Trinidad – people aren’t aggressively trying to sell you stuff (I won’t even mention a Jamaican shopping experience). The market is definitely busy, but as mentioned – you won’t have a bad shot. BTW – do buy some nuts from the vendors … you’ll probably have the best pistachios of your life in here, as well as honey dipped, sesame seed crusted varieties …

There is also a full abbatoir and dairy market … they also sell these dried yogurt like things. There are tons of vendors selling them, but I had no idea what they were – but thankfully if you google “Dried yogurt balls in chorsu bazaar”, you’ll get Kurut. Thankfully, I had my Russian spy to sample them for me … his feedback was that they tasted like “old yogurty feet” … the powdery consistency got stuck in his mouth for way too long, and the saltiness was only slightly overpowered by the harsh old yogurt/cheese taste.

I guess if you’re looking for cheesy, salty, yogurty balls … then Kurut is your thing. I’m so super glad, I had someone there to try this stuff … because if I had tried it … it would have resulted in a diplomatic incident … most likely all over the floor of Chorsu Bazaar. My advice is that if you’re not a fan of dairy products, then it should take a very, very long time before you get into an actual food-to-mouth position with kurut. As an FYI, there were entire stands of pungent rocks and balls.

trays of salty, yogurty Kurut

As a Trini, you’re also going to want to buy some chilies or spice in the market. The food will never be hot enough for you. I suggest going to any chili vendor, having a Russian explain that you think their chilies are shit and that they couldn’t produce something spicy, if their lives depended on it and possibly their grandchildren’s. You’ll be inundated with requests to try every type of spice for free!

If you’re super lucky … you’re going to end up with a bottle of very good pepper sauce (hot sauce) … and like a good Trini … you’re going to take it to every restaurant with you – like the WORLD BOSS that you are, to apply generously with your horse meat and cold noodles (shown directly in the center) … but that’s for another blog.


Posted in Asia, Uzbekistan | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

How to enter Uzbekistan as a Trini or Canadian (Step by Step Uzbek LOI/VISA Process)

Posted by Rishiray on April 3, 2013

From the last couple posts, the most asked question I’ve gotten so far, was “How to get an Uzbekistan visa” or “How to do I get a visa to Uzbekistan as a Trini or Canadian?”. Here is my comprehensive primer on how to get your visa as a Canadian or Trinidadian.

  1. Budget enough USD for your trip. Here is a sample budget I did for my trip.
  2. Book your accommodations in advance. You can do this yourself, but you will find that using a tour operator like Stantours will get you a better rate. My 7 day trip cost me 250$USD – I travelled with another person, hence total cost was $500USD. That’s pretty great!
  3. Start the visa application/Letter of Invitation (LOI) process for Uzbekistan 21 days before your flight (anything else and you’re cutting it close – but I’m sure that with 7 days notice, you can get it done – but I’m not ever recommending this)
    1. You can get a LOI from many tour agencies there. I recommend Stantours – my experience was smooth and seamless.
    2. In order to proceed: Send them your personal data via email (I dealt with David : stantours@gmx.net) and arrange for prepayment according to their instructions AND send them a copy of the main page of your passport by e-mail attachment or fax, additional documents may be requested. You can see the results in the pictures below :
      1. Full Name (incl. name at birth or previous names if applicable):
      2. Date of Birth :
      3. City and Country of Birth :
      4. Citizenship (also previous citizenship if changed) :
      5. Passport Number :
      6. Date of the passport issue and expiration :
      7. Issuing authority :
      8. Gender :
      9. Marital Status:
        1. 9a if married: spouse’s full name
      10. Occupation, Place of Employment and type of business :
      11. Address and phone number of place of work :
      12. Accompanying children travelling on applicant’s passport :
      13. Previous visits (date, purpose and inviting party if applicable):
      14. Port of Entry :
      15. Date(s) of Entry and Departure :
      16. Cities and Sites you wish to visit :
      17. City/country where you will obtain visa :
      18. Home Address and Phone number:
    3. Cost of LOI service : $40. You can arrange with them via Western Union or wire transfer
    4. Cost of Visa at Tashkent Airport : $50 USD. Get a receipt. Don’t take a picture at the Airport!
    5. Trinidadians and Canadians can absolutely apply for a visa at Tashkent Airport. There is a specific counter for this. It might not be staffed when you get there, but once you indicate that you need one, the officers will send someone over. The whole visa application and passport stamping process took 15 minutes from start to finish. Have your cash in hand … they’re not the friendliest, but they’re efficient.
      1. Airport arrival visa are possible for Canadians and Trinidadians, since there is no Uzbek Embassy in either country.

You’ll need to fill out the following form

Visa Application Form

Here is what your LOI will look like – from CrossTravel/Stantours. (This will look different depending on the agency that you use)

Letter of Invitation

Here is what your Uzbek passport stamp will look like

Canadian Passport with Uzbek Visa

Questions :

  1. I am uncomfortable arriving in a country without a visa attached to my passport.
    Don’t be … it is a seamless and easy process to apply for the passport in Tashkent Airport
  2. Has any Canadian recently successfully obtained a visa for Uzbekistan? Cost, etc.
    Yes … as recently as three weeks ago.
    LOI : $40 USD
    Visa at Tashkent Airport : $50USD (The price seems to differ based on the officer you get … the girl in front me paid $60USD)
  3. Has anyone obtained a visa at the airport in Tashkent, with only a letter of invitation?
    Yes, see above.
  4. Is the Visa Counter open 24/7
    Yes. If there is no one there, the officers will find someone for you
  5. Do I have to speak Russian or will English be enough?
    Russian always helps but if you only speak English, it will be enough.
  6. Is one copy of my letter enough?
    Always take two printed copies and email a scanned copy to yourself in case you need to access it quickly in an emergency. This is Uzbekistan, don’t give the authorities any excuse to screw around with you.
  7. Do I need to send pictures along with my visa/LOI application?
    Nope … I didn’t send any, and I was perfectly fine.
  8. Did you bribe anyone? Were your documents checked everywhere?
    Nope … in fact, because I was brown skinned, the police seemed to stay even further away from me – since I was obviously a tourist. I had ZERO + ZERO incidents with the police.
  9. Do they always check passports in the Subway?
    Yes. If you take the subway, be prepared to show your documents.

My personal experience:

I had prepped for two weeks in gathering all the information for the LOI and the Visa. I did my checklist for the hotel, double checked reservations and paperwork. I was ready for them … getting off the plane, I was psyched up for my battle with the authorities, especially as a brown guy. It didn’t materialize … it was kinda anti-climactic, actually it was an f’n non-event. The visa guy looked at my LOI, looked at my passport, asked me for my money, stamped the passport, put the sticker in and sent me on my way. MEH!

The customs guys was a bit more suspicious, especially because my passport was so worn out (they spent 5 minutes looking at all the passport stamps from other countries!) but with my Russian buddy to translate, all was good. In fact, they give him a lot harder time than me.  He made a mistake on his entry form, and implied that he was entering Azerbaijan.

The customs guy shot him the following statement : “Do I look like a fucking Azerbaijani?“. I think we were all shocked, but this is Uzbekistan … no one is going to argue with the police/customs. Moral of the story … don’t make a mistake on that entry form and put “Azerbaijan”. In the end, I’m glad I “overprepped” rather than ‘underprepped” – I would offer the same advice to you.

All in all … I hope this answers the question : “How to get an Uzbekistan visa”

Posted in Asia, Ask a Trini, Uzbekistan | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

71 interesting anecdotes a Trini needs to know in Uzbekistan

Posted by Rishiray on April 3, 2013

For the last couple days travelling through Uzbekistan, I was shocked at how much culture shock even an experienced world traveller like myself experienced. For the first time, acting like a professional travel blogger, I had a notepad. Here are some of the notes I took while roaming Uzbekistan. Many people were happy to offer “interesting” facts to me … some of them were mundane and some of them were extremely interesting … of course, I’m not going to list 71 facts … as if I had so much time …

  1. Did you know that there was silk money in Khiva? Super interesting right? OF course, but the best part of having silk money was that it could be sewn into your clothing. Think of the applications! Here is a great article on Silk Money of Khorzem and I’ve also archived the contents of the article here (I get tired of stale links).
  2. Since the cities were all Khanates – there was a law saying that all men had to shave their beards off, because the Khan didn’t want men weaving money into their beards and smuggling it away.
  3. I learned that the famous Islamic physician Ibn Sina (Avicenna in the Latin world) was the one of the first people to advocate using women’s hair as suture material – about 1400 years ago. Here is a medical article from 2003, showing that we’re still researching this idea
  4. People in Central Asia love having golden teeth. In fact, walking around Khiva and Bukhara, you’ll see lots of people with full golden “grills”. Since people were originally nomadic, there were no banks that you could easily store money, hence people had to carry their money with them at all times … gold teeth were an excellent mechanism for this. It was fairly easy to deposit and difficult to withdraw 🙂
  5. If you’re travelling through Central Asia … you must absolutely love
    1. Dill – blame the Russian influence
    2. Vodka – see above, but you really have to steel your stomach for the drinking.
    3. Meat & Sausage – see below …  it’ll give you a great idea of what’s coming your way
    4. Bread – They have phenomenal breads over there … you’ll never go wrong with chilies and bread.
  6. Learn the difference between “No” and the Russian “No!”. The English “No” is a suggestion, while the Russian “No!” is an order. If you don’t learn the difference, then you’re going to be eating and drinking till your stomach and/or liver explodes.
  7. Learn how to say “No Thank You” in Russian … “Нет, спасибо” (Nyet, spasEEbah) expresses a polite but firm refusal. Saying “No Thank You” in English, is treated as a suggestion …. vendors will chase you even more fervently, if they know you speak English. Saying in Russian, is an absolute sales killer.
  8. Vodka is treated as an appropriate drink for every occasion – Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner. It really doesn’t matter … if you’re with friends, you’re going to be drinking a lot of vodka. Even after a sauna and hammam in a 100+ yr old Uzbek massage house, I was treated to Vodka … I also went through this “medieval” torture chamberhttpvh://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9aV2xLUhCJQ
  9. As a follow up to my Uzbek massage … they’ll give you some ginger and honey to rub all over you. The attendants then tell you stand in a cooking room for it to heat your skin. Don’t put too much of the stuff on your nether regions as recommended … it will cook your stuff.
  10. Don’t bother with eating Chicken in Central Asia … you’re going to be disappointed 9/10 times and it’s the most expensive meat on the menu. Eat the mutton/lamb or the beef … they know how to do this well. The quality of the meat is also quite spectacular. I compare Kyrgi or Uzbek beef with any other beef in the world.
  11. If you want to be safe in your culinary adventures … you just need to know three words
    1. Shashlik : Which is basically BBQ/Grilled Kebabs. Chances are that your meat will comes with Armenian lavash bread. You’re going to be eating a lot of meat on your trip. When you get back home, you’ll be craving lettuce by the bushel. I’ve shown 5 different meals in 4 days, all with the meat, dill and vodka troika. If you’re lucky … you might end up getting some sauce on your meat.

    2. Lagman : It’s known as Laghman noodles in English, after Laghman Province in Afghanistan where it has its roots. It’s like a spaghetti in a soup – but just better. Do eat it by taking large mouthfuls.
    3. Plov : Think Central Asian Biryani … you’ll get the idea

      The Plov Master

  12. If you walk into an Uzbek restaurant for dinner, don’t be surprised with all the dancing, and with all the women drinking vodka by themselves. Many husbands are away in some other Central Asian republic working and bringing home the money. What else are the married women supposed to do with their time?
  13. Unibrows are “IN” … in Uzbekistan. They love their unibrows … like seriously. If you’re someone, who loves facial separation and hates the “Bert” look … then Uzbekistan is not your place.
  14. Dancing in Uzbekistan is super easy … all you need to know are the 5 basic moves
    1. Chicken dance
    2. The Ironman
    3. Indian “Screw the lightbulb”
    4. The Eagle
    5. South American “Pick da cotton”

If you can master combinations of these 5 basic moves, without any waist movement, then you’ll be a superstar dancer over there. If you’re travelling through this part of the world … and you remember 5 of the 14 bullet points I’ve given … then you’ll be in good standing!

Posted in Asia, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Open letter to Howard Hillman : Hillman Wonders

Posted by Rishiray on March 31, 2013

Hello everyone,

This is an open letter to Howard Hillman from Hillman Wonders.

How are you doing? I’ve been a great fan your website for the last 10 years, in fact I’ve used your Hillman Top 100 as my defacto bucket list. It’s a great bucket list and although I might not have agreed with everything in your top 100, it’s a great list to aspire to.

I’ve finally seen more than 1/2 of your Top 100 list, which is something that earlier in my life, I thought I would have never had the chance accomplish. I even have a gallery where I’m charting my “Hillman progress”.

Now that we’re acquainted a bit, here is the gist of my letter. Everyone has an opinion and we all have to respect those opinions, but as a traveller myself, I think that you’ve made one egregious ranking error in not categorizing the towns of Uzbekistan significantly higher.

Going through your top 1000, I understand that everything cannot make it to the top. I understand the North American bias that you have to your rankings/top 100 – I have no issue here – we live in North America. I will even understand that you didn’t put a ranking for Trinidad’s Carnival Celebrations – which as a Trinidadian – should annoy me significantly. Here is a screenshot from 31/Mar/2013.

The fact that you put Rio’s Carnival celebrations at 78 (which I have no quarrel with) is fine, but Trinidad’s celebrations should definitely rank in your top 200, especially when compared to at least two other highlights in your 100-200 ranking.

  • The Statue of Liberty … seriously?  Great symbol … but in the top 200?
  • Millau Bridge … engineering marvel, but in your top 200?

Maybe your staff needs a bit of education on what Trinidad Carnival is … and the fact that Trinidad Carnival is a year long set of events culminating in the two days before Ash Wednesday. I’d be more than happy to offer some insight. However, even this omission isn’t so bad when compared to the ranking of Uzbekistan’s troika (Bukkara, Khiva, Samarkand)

The fact that Khiva isn’t listed here, is an omission that should be corrected – or you could replace Tashkent Old Town with Khiva. Even looking at the USVI and not seeing Magens Bay listed, seems to be an omission, especially when thinking about “Ski Dubai” … but again, we all have different opinions and I respect that.

I would think that rather than breaking up the troika into separate items, I would combine them all into an “Uzbek Silk Road” adventure. The three places together is simply a world highlight and should easily rank in your top 100. Thankfully, I can say this because I’ve now seen 51 “wonders” and I can compare the troika against the others. There are four “wonders” that are simply overrated … and could easily be replaced/reclassified.

It seems criminal to me that Registan Square doesn’t rank higher in your list. It’s truly one of the great squares in the world. The scope, scale and grandeur is easily on par with the Taj Mahal … if you want a monument to love, then the Bibi-Khanym Mosque wouldn’t be a bad choice (even it has had significant restoration)

Hopefully, I’ve made a case for some investigation, reclassification and maybe a trip on your part to revisit Uzbekistan’s Silk Road.
Rishi Sankar

Posted in Asia, Ask a Trini, Uzbekistan | Tagged: , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Forget your wallet, bring a backpack when carrying Uzbekistan money …

Posted by Rishiray on March 30, 2013

In Uzbekistan, using money is actually a full contact sport and something of a ritual here as the largest note is 1000 Sum and is equal to around $0.37 USD. So you inevitably end up feeling extremely rich with wads of cash stashed in your bag. Due to a number of economic and political factors (which I won’t go into), walking around will millions of som (pronounced “Soom”) is not an uncommon concurrence. When the exchange rate vary between 2066 and 2800 som per 1 USD, you’ll find that converting 200$USD will require a dollar bill counter. When buying stuff there, you will have a lot of som … like a lot. Your restaurant bills could range from 25000 – 65000 som ($10 – $25 USD), and if you’re spending $25USD on dinner, you will have a feast.

  • Personally, I used to laugh at Trinidadian money as Monopoly money, since we have so many colours, but Uzbek money takes it to another level. It really is like monopoly money and has about the same value. (No offense meant to my Uzbek friends)

Officially, one USD will get you 2066 som, on the black market, you’ll get about 2600-2800 to the US dollar. (BTW changing money outside of the bank is illegal – so while the governmental rate is financial rape, it will also ensure you don’t get tossed in jail. Personally, I only changed money at the official rate : ONCE) The rest of the time, I could have changed money with different sorts of people in different sorts of places.)

Changing money in Uzbekistan is like being in a drug deal. Everything is under the table and feels shady, but everyone does it – but you do have be very careful – Trinidadians don’t have consular representation and Canada only has an honorary consul. As for getting your money changed …

  1. You cannot trust anybody at the border to give you the correct exchange rate. They practically halved it on my first asking. You need to educate yourself.
  2. The difference between official and black market rates is dramatic, the illegal rate being some 35% – 40% higher.

Anyway, back to the backpacks of money. When you change 100$ or more, it means that depending on your negotiating skills, you’ll be handed over stacks of 1000 som notes. Think I’m kidding … we changed 200$USD and ended up with this …

Finding money changers, is not an issue at all. Knowing who to trust, is definitely an issue. Unofficial money changers haunt city bazaars and it is rare to pass the gates without hearing, “Dochka, dochka, dollar?” (Dochka means daughter and along with ‘sister’ and, strangely, ‘senora’, is a standard way to claim the attention of a strange woman). The standard tourist joke is that if you’re changing more than US$100, bring a backpack. We stopped trying to figure out how much money we had and basically used a “stack” to mean 100,000 som. Prices were estimated in figures like 1/4, 1/3, 1/2 of a stack.

Here is a sample dialog from my first day at the Tashkent Palace hotel … you’ll get the idea

  • Rishi: Do you have ATM machines here?
  • Receptionist: Yes, sir!
  • Rishi: Can I use my Visa here?
  • Receptionist: Yes, sir! (I wander off to the ATM … but it doesn’t give money)
  • Rishi: Excuse me, but the ATM does not work! It won’t give me Som. It will give me USD though.
  • Receptionist: Yes, sir! The ATM works. But there is no cash now! But you can take USD to the currency exchange (points another counter to me) and they will change the USD.
  • Rishi : @$!$~~$$$

Here are a couple tips from my experience

  • If you’re staying for less than 7 days, bring about $1000 USD. This will pay for all your hotels and allow you to convert into som, so that you can negotiate for taxis and buy food. A tour operator like Advantours or Stantours will only take cash for your reservations. With the high levels of inflation, dollars are much sought after. I would advise that you bring all money you need for your trip in USD dollar.
  • This is a cash economy, so here is my sample calculation of how much you will need on a daily basis assuming that you get a rate of 2750 som per 1 USD
    • Food : 40000 som will feed 3-4 people. Assume 2 meals = 80000 som
    • Taxis : Local taxis between 4000 – 8000 som per ride ( you don’t pay by the person). Assume 4 rides around town per day = 32000 som
    • Drinking : You can take your own liquor to places! Seriously … just buy some food. If you have friends in Uzbekistan or someone who speaks Russian, then this will be even easier. Assume 1 nightly bar visit … seating cost is between 5000 – 1000o som per person = 4 people = 40000 som
    • Hotel : I strongly suggest having your reservations premade. You’ll know your cost and you won’t have any hassles.
    • Hence, you should need about 152000 som daily spending money for 3-4 people = which equates to about $75USD. NOTE: This is a VERY HIGH estimate – but I always use a high estimate to avoid surprises.
  • On your first day only … change 100$USD officially. It’s a terrible rate but it will help you get your mind at ease.
  • When you find a good rate (between 2700 – 2800 som) … attack the rate. Change between 300 – 400 USD at a time.
    • It will save you the hassle of changing money multiple times
    • It will save you the hassle of negotiating with money vendors
    • Reduces your illegal exposure. You always want to be safe.
    • It will save you time looking for an emergency ATM. There aren’t many around. If you find one, it might not work.
  • Do actually bring a small knapsack to carry your money in. You cannot use wallets – there is no wallet or pocket that can fit all those notes
  • Don’t even bother trying to make sense of 1000 som notes … it will blow your mind.
  • When entering Uzbekistan, you have to declare all money you have on you. It doesn’t matter how much you have, there is no need to lie. Keep the copy of the declaration. When you exit, you have to declare all the money you have on you again. You cannot have more money with you when you exit Uzbekistan than when you entered.
  • Be aware that there are scammers around and lots of fake and real police – but if you’re cautious, you’ll be fine. I had ZERO issues with money or police there. It’s a police state, so it’s super safe for tourists. At no point, did I ever have any anxiety about safety. The prevailing sentiment is that locals have lots more to fear than tourists.

Posted in Asia, Uzbekistan | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

If you’re brown and Trini in Uzbekistan … this happens …

Posted by Rishiray on March 29, 2013

I don’t know if you’ve heard much about Uzbekistan, but they don’t get a lot of foreigners over there. They definitely don’t get a lot of black or brown people over there. You want to know how I know this?

Well I got double takes everywhere I walked around. Now that’s not too bad … but when the local children are stalking you to take pictures with you, it can get a bit unnerving. Everywhere I walked around in Uzbekistan, I had people asking to chat, or take pictures with me. It was nice in the beginning … the people are just very friendly and very curious … however after about 5 pictures with people, I tend to get a little antsy. The picture below was in Khiva.

In Bukhara, the kids followed me around asking questions, but thankfully I came prepped with some candy to distract and make my escape. You’ll notice my fear of the kids, I think I feared them more than anything else … they’re all so small

What will also happen is that random people will ask you take pictures of them, since I’m walking around with some good gear. Of course, they want pictures with me also …

Here I am in Samarkand begin surrounded by teenagers asking questions about where I was from, my name, why I was so big etc. Of course, in my brain, I thought to myself, if I was actually working out and not looking like a fat pig … what would they have thought?

But the absolute BEST show off experience was a kid riding a horse, and on seeing me … trying to hop a fence with the horse and having the horse flip him over. It happened so quickly, I couldn’t get a picture … but in the end, people in Uzbekistan are awesome, curious and super friendly.

Posted in Asia, Uzbekistan | Tagged: , , , , | 7 Comments »

Why translating Russian menus into English doesn’t work … Cafe Karimbek in Samarkand review

Posted by Rishiray on March 29, 2013

One the best things about going to other countries, is eating in those countries. Along with a heaping helping of great food, you’re bound to get some epic menu fails, especially in any part of Asia. Our first series of menu fails was a restaurant named “Karimbek”. This restaurant was actually pretty awesome : the food was good (they have a wide range of kebabs (shashlik) and they have colorful Uzbek, Arab and European dance shows… with some “dancing”. wide range of kebabs. In terms of recommendations, I would definitely put this one up there, if you’re in Samarkand.

This being said, the point of this post is not really the food but rather the massive menu fails. For instance, can you tell me which part of the chicken, does the sirloin come from? Never mind trying to figure out what “Branded Guard” is. Oh yeah, and there is some snack called ‘Reach Pleasure” … I can’t even figure out that one either.

If you’ve figured out the “chicken sirloin”, then how about some salad. How if you can actually figure out the salad names, how eating some language? (BTW when you translate “tongue” from Russian into English … you get “language”)

If you’re still feeling like salad, you can have some more gems … by now you’re thinking .. what’s the point of having an English menu, if you’re just going to have some fucked up names on everything?

How about some snacks? If you can figure out what the “Mother in law” hot snack is, then you’ve jumped 1000 places on the Mensa list, because I couldn’t figure out what the hell they meant.

But the creme de la creme of this all was the dessert menu. I totally wanted to order the “Luxurious Balls” for desert, but then I realized I already have those <insert drumroll>

As for the actual food and decor … it’s pretty nice … aside from all the people gawking over the foreigners at my table. BTW, in case you forgot that you were in Uzbekistan – the “Face Control” signs will definitely remind you that you’re not in North America.

We learned that Uzbeks love to dance, even though what they call “dancing” can be a little weird. The restaurant transforms itself into a dance club between courses.

Here is a 39 seconds of awesomeness from the restaurant


As for a list of restaurants you might want to try … Advantours put up a list, it’s a good start.

TIP: You’ll also notice, that I walk around with my own hot sauce in Uzbekistan … all Trinis need to walk around with their own hot sauce when in Uzbekistan.

As for the bill … it’s pretty cheap when three people can have a great meal with liquor for 27$ USD

Posted in Asia, Uzbekistan | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Wednesday Photo Nights #13 : Dreaming of Samarkand

Posted by Rishiray on March 28, 2013

Walking through Samarkand is like opening a copy of Arabian Nights. On a sunny day, it’s virtually impossible to take a bad picture here – the combination of the scenes, colour, framing and lighting make it one of the most photogenic of all destinations I’ve ever been to.



Posted in Asia, Uzbekistan, Wednesday Photo Nights | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »