Lake couple travels to the “five stans”

Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan

By Page H. Gifford

Al and Sue Mink usually spend each spring and fall nesting – living and working for three months in different overseas countries. Last fall, while nesting in Slovenia Al broke his femur during a bike ride incident and later was told that it could take a year for him to recover. Therefore, there was no nesting for the Minks this spring. Al, being diligent about his physical therapy, progressed to the point that in less than five months he was skiing, back on his bicycle, and hiking. It was too late to nest this spring, so they took a normal vacation.

“We decided to go somewhere we wouldn’t think to nest – somewhere exotic and edgy with a small group of similar-minded adventurers,” said Sue. They selected the “Five Stans” tour of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. “The remaining two stans are Pakistan and Afghanistan and it seemed prudent to skip them.”  

Friends who had taken the “5 Stans” tour the year before touted the glories and wonders of   Central Asia, recommending the trip to the Minks. Their friends had traveled with East Side Travel. East Side Travel is located in Central Asia and is one of the few agencies that host tours to Central Asia highlighting The Silk Road.

The Minks discovered a rich ancient history of the Silk Road. This trading route passed through the 5 Stans and although they are mostly desert and open grasslands with little population. In the Middle Ages, the 5 Stans had some of the largest and richest cities in the world but by the 1600s The Silk Road was replaced by the discovery of sea trade routes around Africa.

In 19th century  Imperialist Russia, the czars began to conquer the five Stans and by the early 20th century, all Stans were under Russian rule.

“The individual cultures of the nomadic tribes there remained strong, preserving their languages, crafts, nomadic games, and food. After the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, these regions gained independence,” she said. “One of the fascinating things about visiting these countries is to see how they have adapted after such a long period of Soviet rule. Each has made very different choices in crafting their visions of self-rule.”

Along with their friend and neighbor, and avid traveler, Val  Palamountain, the three departed for Almaty, Kazakhstan, the first “Stan” of their tour. After spending a few days there, they then headed to Kyrgyzstan.

“Culturally, the two countries were similar; at least the parts we saw.” They visited a beautiful mountainous region that separated the two countries along with the pristine blue Issyk Kul Lake. It is an area of nomadic culture where many people still live in yurts – at least in the summertime.

“Horses are a central part of the culture, and we saw those on horseback in the major cities.” One of their tour guides was from the Kyrgyz tribe and an expert horsewoman who takes part in the Nomadic Games, popular in that region. Sue described one of the nomadic games. “One game, called Kokburo, is a wild version of polo with tractor tires as goals and the headless carcass of a goat as the ball, throwing the goat from rider to rider to the goal. Our guides told us it usually resulted in multiple injuries but left a very tenderized goat that the teams feasted on after the match.”

They then flew to Tashkent, the largest city in Uzbekistan.

“Of the five countries they visited, Uzbekistan seems to be the most successful in its transition from Soviet rule. The Uzbek government had invested in tourism as a major industry and renovated many of the spectacular madrasahs, or Islamic centers, which were built there during the heyday of the Silk Road,” she said. She adds their native crafts industry thrives, including rug making, embroidery, pottery, and woodworking.

“They are focused on Uzbek crafts, seeking out the most skilled craftspeople and funding schools and craft centers. As a result, three ancient cities we visited in Uzbekistan (Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva) have been beautifully restored,” she said. “This Stan is a shopper’s paradise too, such that specialty tour groups cater to visiting artisans and craftspeople, most notably textile artists. Uzbekistan is still largely undiscovered, especially by American tourists. But we feel it’s only a matter of time before this incredible country becomes a sought-after destination.”

Turkmenistan was the third Stan they toured. Few tour groups visit this country because of its tough visa and tourist restrictions. Their tour guide from Uzbekistan was not allowed to enter Turkmenistan. She had never visited this neighboring country. She brought them to the border crossing where she handed them off to their Turkmen guide who brought them to the city of Mary. Sue said they would never forget that 3.5-hour drive at a top speed of fifteen miles per hour across the desert. The roads consisted of dirt, rocks, ruts, and washouts.

“Turkmenistan has huge oil deposits and supports itself from these natural resources. But the government spends little of this revenue outside the major cities.”

The first Turkmen city they visited was Mary, located near the ancient site of Merv. Merv was once the largest, and perhaps richest city in the world. For 300 years the Silk Road caravans created its wealth.

“But all of that was destroyed by Genghis Khan in the 1200s and was never rebuilt. Today Merv lies in ruins, only some of which now benefit from recent restoration,” she said.

After Mary, they flew to the capital of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat. She describes it as a stark contrast to the desert roads, Ashgabat is a spectacular white marble city with architecture that brings to mind Las Vegas, especially at night with colored lights.

“Huge six-lane roads run between sparkling apartment buildings, but the city was strangely empty. There were very few people or cars on the roads. The guide explained some of the laws in the town, every building must be built with white marble and every car registered in the city must be white. Photography was highly restricted and nearly everything, including our hotel, was government-run. The overall effect was eerie.”

They passed back through Uzbekistan, visiting historic Khiva, on their way to Tajikistan, the fifth and last Stan in their itinerary.

“Tajikistan has developed strong relations with Uzbekistan and tries to emulate Uzbekistan’s model for progress. Unfortunately for Tajikistan, it suffers from a long border with Afghanistan and struggles with the political and social difficulties that cause,” she said. “We spent our one night in Khujand, a city that is closely associated with Alexander the Great but was also destroyed by Genghis Khan in the 13th century.” 

Their tour of the five Stans spanned 20 days of nonstop activity.

“While this is shorter than our usual “nests” we were fascinated by the history and culture of the Five Stans. She suggests anyone interested in history, culture, crafts, and new experiences will enjoy the Five Stans. She also adds as a bonus, the trip might be less expensive than many shorter trips to the more-traveled typical tourist destinations. “We decided we will nest there in the future – probably in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. If we’re nesting there when you tour the five Stans we hope our paths will cross there.”

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