Monday, July 28, 2014

2015 - Your Year to Discover Uzbekistan & Kyrgyzstan

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The magnificent dome of Bibi Khanum, Samarkand. Image: R. Marshall
Dates for Uzbek Journeys 2015 small group tours to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have just been published.

The 16-day Uzbek tours, scheduled for the very best seasons in Uzbekistan, focus on the art, craft and history of this fascinating section of the Silk Road.

Explore the architectural masterpieces of the ancient cities of Samarkand, Shakhrisabz, Bukhara and Khiva.

Visit artisans’ workshops to meet families who have practised their craft for generations and contemporary artists who are fusing ancient techniques with modern style.

Roam the bazaars, lounge around in tea houses and spend the night in a yurt in the Kyzyl Kum desert. Learn about the intrigues of the Great Game between Britain and Russia and view the extraordinary collection of avant garde art in remote Nukus.

Kyrgyzstan landscape Issyk Kul region Image: Lilya Kas'yanova
The 8-day Kyrgyz tours combine the majestic, rugged landscapes of snow-capped mountains and lush valleys, with visits to craft co-operatives, design workshops, felt carpet makers and yurt makers. 

Travelling around shimmering Issyk Kul lake, with the towering Tien Shan mountain range in view, you will understand how nomadic traditions are still at the core of the Kyrgyz people, who take immense pride in their heritage.

There are opportunities for hiking, picnics by streams, and listening to traditional musicians and bards in private homes. You will have the chance to see a kupkari (buzkashi) match and an eagle hunt. The tour also includes a visit to the famous Sunday Karakol livestock market.

Kyrgyzstan is a beautiful country, often called the Switzerland of Central Asia, and makes a marvellous contrast to the landscapes of Uzbekistan.

Why not discover this fascinating region in 2015?

View the 2015 Kyrgyzstan tours.
View the 2015 Uzbekistan tours.

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Kyrgyz shyrdak carpets. Image: Rosemary Sheel


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Glimpse of Khivan Woodcarving 1937

Khiva is still famous for its woodcarving today. Image: Richard Marshall
British Pathé was once a dominant feature of the British cinema experience, renowned for first-class reporting and an informative yet uniquely entertaining style.

Now considered to be the finest newsreel archive in the world, British Pathé is a treasure trove of 85,000 films. And they are all uploaded on YouTube to watch for free.

In the archive there is marvellous, one-minute clip of Khiva circa 1937 (below). It shows tantalising shots of minarets and courtyards, men wearing their big, woolly telpeks astride donkeys, and artisans of Khivan applied arts.

Khiva today still prides itself on its artisans. As you wander the backstreets you see felled trunks of elm, walnut and apricot trees outside homes - a sure sign that within is a woodcarver with young apprentices.

The design is drawn on paper and placed on the wood. Then the pattern is pin pricked through. More experienced workers then chisel and carve the ancient patterns as their ancestors did.

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Young woodcarvers in a Khiva back street. Image: Wendy Relf
Former madrassahs have been converted into woodcarving centres and you can watch the process. Happily there is still a market for superbly carved columns, doors and beds: trade is flourishing.

Smaller items such as pencil boxes, book stands, cutting boards, jewellery boxes and walking sticks make perfect souvenirs of your visit to Khiva.

As you watch the one-minute clip below, remember that it was made in 1937 and overlook some of the commentary (and some factual errors!)

It is a precious record of a marvellous city little changed in 75 years. (If you cannot view on your device, go directly to )

Related posts:
Strolling Through Samarkand in 1930
The Beauty of Khivan Carpets
Mennonites in Khiva 1880 -1935
Khiva's Sunday Markets

Thanks to Uzbek Journeys client Frank Villante for alerting me to this clip.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Kazakhstan: A Visit to the Arasan Baths, Almaty

Right in the middle of Almaty is Central Asia's largest, and most fabulous, public bathing complex. An architectural Eurasian fantasy, it is a perfect place to spend a few hours relaxing.

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The splendid Arasan baths - echoes of Bukhara's trade domes

Rebecca Beardmore's photo essay in Steppe Magazine provides the historical background as to why this splendid complex was built in Almaty:

 "They were built on the orders of Dinmukhamed Kunayev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan from 1959 to 1986. A close friend of Brezhnev, Kunayev was the only Central Asian representative in the Soviet Politburo, the select committee of super-elites who controlled the workings of the Soviet Union.

With such high connections, Kunayev was able to obtain a generous budget for the city of Almaty, which allowed him to carry out his dream of monumentalising the capital of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Kazakhstan, then called Alma-Ata".

The baths have been totally restored and are immaculate. Opening hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 0800 - 2400. Even visiting alone it is easy to navigate the baths and services on offer. There are separate areas for men and women.

Depending on the day of the week you visit, the entry price is from 800 - 2,000 Kazakh tenge. (About $5 - $11). If you do not bring your own towel, bathing cap or rubber slippers (all of which are mandatory), you can hire them for a modest fee.

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Domed pool and relaxing area, Arasan baths
Entry entitles you to two hours of wallowing in all the baths, the Finnish, Russian and Turkish style hammams (steam rooms) and the rest areas. If, however, you purchase additional services for at least 5,000 tenge (about US$27), such as a massage or scrub, then you have unlimited time at Arasan.

The reception staff give you a micro-chipped, wristband locker key and all your services are recorded on it: massages, green tea, beer, vodka, pedicure etc. So you can safely leave your belongings in your private locker. When you leave the bathing area, you simply present your locker key and pay.

Start with a thorough wash before your first visit to a sauna or steam room. Then lie down and enjoy the heat. You should follow this with a shower. And if you are game, simply tip a wooden bucket of cold water over you.

Then it is time to use the venik - bunches of dried birch or oak leaves, which have been soaked - in your next steam room session. Gently slap yourself with the venik to stimulate your skin and remove toxins.

Follow this with a shower and a dip in the plunge pool. Then relax a while and start over again.

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Pull the rope of the wooden bucket for a cold shower
Spending a few hours at Arasan is a marvellous treat. Although apartments in Almaty today all have bathrooms, locals come here regularly with friends and family: soaking, gossiping, sipping tea and enjoying the special atmosphere.

After bathing, there are restaurants and bars in common areas. In winter, when temperatures regularly drop to -25 degrees Celsius, the Arasan baths must be a real haven.

Review Arasan's English website to learn more about its services, prices and regulations before you visit.

Related posts:
Almaty: Riding the New Metro
Kazakhstan's Beatlemania