Saturday, August 24, 2013

10 Things I Wish I'd Known Before Travelling the Silk Road-Guest Post

I have a very special treat for your guys today. Delia's blog, World in Words is a new find for me and I could not be more smitten by her creatively articulated travel stories. She left her job as a politics correspondent in the UK to travel the Silk Road from Turkey to China. I mean seriously, how awesome is that?! After you read her post below on things she wished she knew before leaving for her travels, you seriously need to head over to her page because she has some of the most unique travel experiences I've ever read! Here are some of my favorites to get you started: Walking in the Pamirs, How to Survive a Sleeper Train and Darvaza Gas Craters. Oh and Horse Riding in Kyrgyzstan; because those photos are beautiful!


I've not confessed this to many people... but at the bottom of my rucksack, underneath my medical kit, trainers and other essential items, is a Lada car window handle. And no, since setting off to travel the Silk Road across Central Asia more than three months ago, I've not needed it once. Not once. Truth be told, with it being a road less travelled, I just wasn't sure what to expect. Yes, I hoped for amazing blue tiled mosques in Uzbekistan, a bizarre dictatorship in Turkmenistan and horses on green hills in Kyrgyzstan but that's sort of where my expectations ended. Despite doing quite a bit of research online (and having a guidebook) I failed to really comprehend what I would need to take with me and just what lay in store.
The street of mausoleums, Shah-I-Zinda in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

So, without further ado I would like to dispel a few myths to help others who may be interested in travelling Central Asia:

1) You do not need to take your own car window handle (we read online that this was a MUST pack item due to old knackered cars having no window handles). Most cars have electric windows, and while many of them will not work - your Lada window wrench will sadly be no use whatsoever (it won't even open cans of tuna. Fact.) You will be better served taking a portable fan - perhaps one of those fancy pants battery operated ones that sprays water.
Matty (boyfriend and partner in travel crime) brandishing the single most useless item to travel with.
2) The taxi drivers in this corner of the world play TERRIBLE music at high volume for hours on end. The only solution to this is to bring along an aux cable so you can plug in your iPod or music of choice and take control of the party. Oh, and there's not a lot of public transport in Tajikistan, Kyrgzstan and even parts of Uzbekistan so this really is a serious concern. Otherwise you could be listening to Uzbek dance trash for hours on end like this:
Our 'shared taxi' in Uzbekistan, heading to the Tajikistan border
Or this:
Another day, another journey: My travel buddies Donagh (left) and Matty (middle) on a 12 hour journey to the Pamirs in Tajikistan
3) The toilet paper here (which doesn't actually look like loo roll, more like a bandage - the very reason I went a day without using it at all when we first got here) is incredibly scratchy. It's been christened (by us) as the Chuck Norris paper - because it doesn't take sh*t off anyone... To be honest you're unlikely to bring away enough toilet paper for your entire trip so this is just a warning - get yourself mentally prepared.
4) But while we're on the subject - the bog roll is the least of your worries. The Central Asian 'toilets' are perhaps some of the worst in the world. Of course when I say toilets I mean holes - many of which have a metal wire across them to reinforce the hole, with the unfortunate consequence of catching everything that falls their way... If you get my drift. You will find holes side by side and the locals will think nothing of sidling up besides you - or watching you and asking you where you are from while you are busy squatting. Other holes will just leave you in fear of losing a leg down them, I mean look at this: 
5) Wi-fi: There is wi-fi in Central Asia! And it is quite widely available we had it everywhere from the capitals to the more rural towns like Karakol in Kyrgzstan - although it is almost always painfully slow. If you need a reliable wi-fi connection on the Silk Road the best thing you can do is buy local 3G SIM cards (for about $2) and then buy a 3G package (about $10 for 1GB) which is much faster than wi-fi. We caught on to this in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and our 3G package still had loads of Internet left when we left the countries about two weeks later, despite going on the Internet a lot and uploading picture-heavy blog posts like this :)
Left to right: Me, Matty and Donagh in a remote homestay in the Pamirs, Tajikistan. I admit we had signal of no kind here.
6) What to pack: Central Asia is not as conservative as you may think. Personally, I thought I would need to be covered from ankle to wrist in many countries but it's just not the case. A long skirt and t-shirt is ideal but knee-length skirts and vest tops are also fine in many places - for more details on what to pack and a brief dress code for each country click here. 
Me sporting the most conservative outfit I took on the trip... at Kah Kaag fort in Tajikistan as the sun said its goodbyes for the day
7) Need your hair done on the Slik Road? Fret not. I braved getting my highlights done in Dushanbe, Tajikistan and admittedly I went uber-Barbie-blonde but it gave my roots the lift they needed. If you're wondering what sort of refreshments might be on offer at the salon, forget tea and coffee but think more corn on the cob. Nice touch indeed. Plus it only cost about $30. Bargain.
8) The food. Oh, the food. Believe everything that it is said about Central Asian food - and expect worse. It just ain't that great and is certainly not the reason for visiting this stunning corner of the world. Expect kebabs (great), lots of fatty meat, bland sauces and more fatty meat (not so great). Until you hit Kyrgyzstan and China that is, when the food suddenly takes a turn for the better. If you're vegetarian expect a diet of rice, cucumbers, tomatoes and bread. 
Matty tucks into another kebab....
9) The booze. Praise the booze. Expect to be offered vodka at 10am in the morning - this is ok. In fact just get used to drinking vodka at all hours and forget any hopes of having it with a mixer. Vodka in Central Asia is drunk neat, but make sure you have something to hand to follow it with - tomatoes work brilliantly but sprite is still my number one chaser. There is also plenty of beer in these countries - just keep an eye on the alcohol percentage as many are a tad on low side (about 3%). But the best tip I can give you is - when you get to Uzbekistan make sure this is your beer of choice, delicious:
10) Getting visas on the Silk Road may lead you straight to the vodka bottle. This is ok and normal. The single biggest headache on this journey will be picking up visas. The key is meticulous research - one of the best sites we found was Carivanistan - which is constantly updated with travellers most recent experiences. The situation changes every few weeks - we were denied visas to Afghanistan because the 'rules changed' in Tashkent and we had troubles getting our Turkmenistan visas in Armenia because they're not talking to Azerbaijan which was our exit port. To see where and how we picked ours up along the road click here. But fret not, you're never more than a few metres away from a shot of vodka.
But perhaps the best advice I can give you if you are planning to travel Central Asia is that you are in for a trip of a lifetime. From the incredible high altitude world of the Pamir Mountain range in Tajikistan to the evocative cities of Bukhara, Khiva and Samarkand in Uzbekistan that conjur up images of ancient Silk Road traders; you will be enthralled almost every step of the way. It's a journey like no other. Just don't take a car window handle.
Staring into a burning gas crater in the Turkmenistan desert
Where sleeping dogs lie... A high altitude cafe at 4,300 metres on the Pamir Highway