Silk Road Adventures 3: Tehran (Iran) to Samarkand (Uzbekistan)

The third section of the Silk Road journey with Rally Tours NZ takes our adventurers from Iran to the mountainous regions of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Tehran is a large, vibrant and fast moving city, and we were anxious to see its sights, so a city tour had been arranged.

Our guide “Mansoor” had left a message that he wanted to get sightseeing underway at 9 am, and over before the mid-afternoon heat became too unbearable. On his agenda were the Shah’s palace, the history museum and the Tehran bazaar.

I, unfortunately, had a different agenda for my day in Tehran, as my priority was to sort out our electrical issues on the 100 series, which was not charging.

I located a Toyota dealer some 10km from the hotel, who, although extra busy due to a pending religious holiday, was happy to have a look at our problem.

They immediately dropped tools on my arrival, appointed their top technician to the job, who was so short he needed a stool to stand on to reach into the engine bay. However he pinpointed our problem very quickly: a series of blown fusible links. These were quickly replaced and an “exorbitant” bill of just $US15 was paid in return for the prompt and efficient service.

I then had time to treat the vehicle to a wash, by a workforce of Afghani labourers, at a facility just 500m up the road. I was ushered into the boss’s office to share a cup of tea and talk about New Zealand. The elderly boss spoke good English and openly expressed his opinion and dissatisfaction with the current regime in his country.

We were lucky to escape the impending religious holiday, but as we headed east to Sharuud it was obvious that, not unlike home, a lot of people had taken extra holidays, and escaped Tehran early.

The traffic volumes were heavier than usual, with little Peugeots loaded with family and belongings, heading to some favourite holiday destination. We saw at least 3 nasty accidents, probably due to bad driving and impatience (not unlike a holiday weekend out of Auckland or Wellington).

 Iranians, like their Southern European counterparts, take a break mid-afternoon in the hot summer weather and then open up shop again later in the early evening. So, after arriving in the small town of Sharuud, we took to the streets on foot to see what the place was about, and, as usual, meet some friendly locals. Ross Taylor has a nose for ice cream and pastry shops, and will probably submit names and addresses to Lonely Planet publications on arrival back in NZ.

Mashhad was our last destination in Iran and is and one of their two holy cities, where Muslim pilgrims head to declare their faith. In the 80’s Mashhad used to be our last destination before heading into Afghanistan and onto India and Kathmandu. Along with Qom, we generally passed through as quickly as possible, but the world is changing and Mashhad seemed a pleasant place today.

The hotel had a nice outdoor restaurant, serving traditional Iranian dishes and for the first time we had to sit with legs crossed on an elevated table covered in Persian rugs and cushions. This dining practice became common as we travelled further into Central Asia, and could be a challenge for anyone with arthritic joints. A smoking pipe is an optional extra at the table, and a common practice with the locals, men and women alike.

Although sad to leave Iran, we were looking forward to Turkmenistan, yet another country we hear little about. The “Bajgaran” border post sits high on a mountain at about 2000m, and the entry into Turkmenistan took us from one small cluttered office to another. The Turkmen authorities were organised and polite and smiled every time we handed over another tax payment in $US for the various fees. Each time another receipt was issued, until we had so many bits of coloured paper that we had no idea what they were all for.

Our local guide, “Jappa,” met us on arrival, satisfying the authorities that we really wanted to visit Turkmenistan and drive on their “rough as guts” roads, no matter what the cost. He led us to “Nisa,” a 3rd-century Parthian city to check out the ruins, and its anticipated partial restoration. When it came to Turkmen history, our guide was a walking encyclopaedia, and really brought these places to life.

The entry into Turkmenistan also crucially signifies our arrival into Central Asia. This is one of the last frontiers, an area that fairly unknown to western civilisation but possessing a huge amount of ancient history, some of it quite well preserved.

Its boundaries and the names of the respective areas changed often until 1992 when the USSR surrendered these countries back to independent rule (due to the fact that they could not afford to prop them up any longer). The “Stan” countries, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are tough countries with huge arid deserts and high mountainous terrain. Some have huge oil and gas deposits, making them rich nations and others can’t even supply fuel to their citizens.

Those with huge rivers that could supply endless water to their oil-rich but water starved neighbours, but they don’t! These historical, political and domestic issues are part of what makes travelling through this area so interesting and unique.         

Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, is a fairytale city. Built by President Niyazov after an earthquake levelled the old city in 1948, it is constructed from white marble and gold and has spectacular water fountains. Ross is a student of architecture and we drove up and down the empty Main Street twice photographing these amazing structures, most of which are government buildings.

As soon as we left Ashgabat we struck the barren “Karakum” desert, and the roads severely deteriorated, into some of the worst broken tarmac roads in the world, for the 400km to the almost civilised city of “Mary”.

100km outside of Mary is “Gonur Depe” one of five ancient cities in the area. This visit involves a “desert drive,” which was one of the attractions that led us to this reasonably well preserved, heritage area, which dates back to 3000BC.

Leaving Turkmenistan, and entering Uzbekistan, via a traditional border crossing was always going to be hard work on a hot day, with the mandatory and repetitious form filling to be done, but we had become reasonably good at it, and the majority of the officials were pleased to see us and offered all the help they could to speed our exits and entries. This one only took about 3 hours.

Uzbekistan overflows with Silk Road history, even our first night stop, Bukhara, had been a major trading post. Our hotel was located in the centre of the old city and many of the buildings, mosques, minarets and mausoleums that are still in use today have interesting stories pertaining to a much earlier time.

A stay in Bukhara is always enjoyable, as the surroundings transport you back in time – and did I mention that the food, the accommodation and the hospitality aren’t bad either? A two night stop here is always appreciated.

Samarkand, like Bukhara, is another mystical place, that we have either read about in a fairy-tale or history book. Samarkand was our next two night stop, just 300km up the Silk Road.

“Registan Square” had to be the centre of Silk Road trading of yesteryear. The huge conglomerate of ornate and decorative Mosques and Madrassas (schools of religious education) surround what used to be the main trading area right in the heart of Samarkand.

A local guide showed us the sights, including an amazing observatory, a series of mausoleums, the Museum of Ancient Artefacts, the Registan Square and “Timur” the local hero’s final resting place.

At present Uzbekistan is governed from the capital Tashkent, and is a little vulnerable, located in the middle of Central Asia with few of the resources of their neighbours.

Fuel supplies have been almost non-existent, and what diesel they did have was being consumed by tractors and harvesters, as they were in the middle of the harvest season. However, we did manage to find a fuel station en route to the Tajik border that was happy to take our money, in return for as much diesel as we wanted, which meant that our 100 litres of expensive Turkish fuel were still intact, in case we needed it. Just another of many challenges conquered on our Silk Road Expedition.

We then headed into the mountainous regions of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and on into China. The roads will be diabolical, and the weather conditions unknown, on this next leg of the journey.

Photos by Greg Paul and Murray Taylor.

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