Japanese macaque monkeys in Jigokudani hot springs

 

Japanese Macaques bathing in the Snow Monkey Park hot springs

Oh! It feels so good!

Everybody knows this place. Surely you have seen it on TV any time. The monkeys get inside warm pools while around everything is covered by white snow. Some ape wade its head under the warm water, another jumps to the rocky rim to cool off in the icy morning air, while there’s a pair helping each other to grab parasites from the unreachable part of the back. Without doubt, it’s a wonderful site… But did you thought about getting there? Will you think about it when you’ll plan your trip to Japan? Many people visit Japan, but still not so many think about this magical place. Here, we will explain you how to get there and introduce the many other things to do around the place. Let’s go!

Jigokudani Monkey Park

Jigokudani Monkey Park (地獄谷野猿公苑 Jigokudani Yaen Kōen) is located in the Nagano Prefecture, just near the town of Yamanouchi, some 200 km from Tokyo. It’s part of the bigger Joshinetsu Kogen National Park, also known as Shigakogen, right in the Yokoyu River valley, 850 m above the sea level.

The many hot springs within the valley give it the name of Jigokudani, which in Japanese means “Hell Valley”. It gets fully impressive in winter, when steam and boiling water come out hot from the underground forming warm pools in the middle of a fully snowed landscape. The Japanese Macaques, also referred as Snow Monkeys, wander around the forest during summer, but in winter, when snow falls and it gets -15ºC, they are pleased with some calm baths in the warm pools. Jigokudani is snowed for about four months per year.

Japanese Macaques bathing in the Snow Monkey Park hot springs

Japanese Macaques bathing in Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park hot springs

The story began in 1963, when a young macaque female (nicknamed Mukubili) began to wade into the hot water to retrieve a few soybeans that were fallen there. Soon, she realized it was so comfortable, and stayed for longer times. Scientists who were studying the monkeys, especially Mukubili’s group, soon saw other monkeys following her and beginning to take baths. Other troops of macaques joined them after some time, definitely proving that macaques, like humans, can learn by looking at others behavior. After this, Jigokudani’s macaques have been observed learning how to open nuts, wash potatoes and making snowballs. Soon, this improvements spread throughout Japan

Japanese Macaques bathing in the Snow Monkey Park hot springsOriginally human made, the hot springs baths – onsen in Japanese, roten-buro if they are open air – in Jigokudani provide warm water to a total population of 250 Japanese Macaques. The site is not so crowded of tourists as it’s with monkeys, probably because of the food that the park ranges leave there every morning.

The monkeys are mid-sized by monkey standards, with grey and white winter fur that forms thick tufts around their pink faces and deep eyes. They are quite docile and let the small groups of tourists get close and take photos, usually doing as if they where not there. But, anyway, there are always some warnings you should take, which are described some lines below.

There’s a web cam installed in the hot springs. You can enjoy Jigokudani Snow Monkeys here, but, as said, in summer the monkeys are not always there.

Getting there

You can get to Jigokudani Monkey Park thermal baths by two paths going up the mountain: one coming from Kanbayashi Onsen, a hot spings town; and the other from Yudanaka Train Station, passing through Shibu Onsen.

The first option consists in taking a bus from Nagano to Shiga Kogen Ski area and get out of the train in Kanbayashi Onsen (onsen means hot springs baths in Japanese). From there, you have a walking trail to Jigokudani Monkey Park, taking you about 30 to 40 minutes to arrive.

Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park Map

Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park Map

The second way to the monkey baths is to take an express train to Yudanaka 湯田中, being this service more frequent than the mentioned above. But you are not as close. From there you should choose between taking a shuttle in Shibu Onsen hot spings (working on Saturday, Sunday and Holidays) to Jigokudani Parking Lot, letting you closer to the monkey’s place but with a 15 min steep path. Think that the road is closed to cars in winter, presumably when you’ll want to go to the park, so maybe you’ll have to walk all the way. If you don’t want to walk that much, local buses connect Yudanaka train station to Kanbayashi Onsen, from where you can take the path described firstly.

Japanese Macaques bathing in the Snow Monkey Park hot springsAnother option from Nagano (or even other capitals) is to take an organized tour. You can find it by doing some research; you’ll save on hassles, but you’ll expend much more money.

From Tokyo, a nice option is to take a bullet train to Nagano. Reaching the 260 km/h, it will drop you there in not more than one hour and a half. And, of course, you can also use the traditional cheaper options.

Hours:       8:30 to 17:00 (April to October)

         9:00 to 16:00 (November to March)

Admission: 500 yen for adults; 250 yen for children

Warnings

It’s advisable to don’t get there with food, even if it’s inside your bag. You can leave it in the visitors’ centre, which can save you from some hungry-angry macaque. As said, the monkeys are mostly calmed and let you get close, but some times they can be aggressive, usually when there’s food around. Touching the monkeys is also not recommendable, as well as stare into their eyes is not a good idea.

Also advisable is to have warm clothes, travel lightly and have a good pair of boots.

Around Yamanochi

Onsen in Kanbayashi, Yamanochi, Nagano, Japan - near Snow Monkey Park Jigkudani

Beautiful onsen in Kanbayashi

It would be so nice to take a bath and relax in the same pool as the monkeys do, and some photos are there on the web to prove that it’s well possible, but maybe a parasitologist would not encourage it. You can better go to the onsens of Shibu Onsen and Kanbayashi Onsen, at the bottom of the valley, picturesque onsen villages with more than 1300 years of hot spring bathing tradition.  There you’ll find old typical Japanese architecture, Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, narrow streets and wonderfully decorated thermal baths.

Ski is another activity with wide possibilities around Yamanochi. Here are placed many of the ski slopes that were used during the Nagano Winter Olympic Games and the entire infrastructure for winter sports. Snow boarding half-pipes, ice skating, ski jump… everything. And as we are in the mountains, other nature-related sports such as hiking are also well possible.

You’ll find the most wonderful accommodation at the numerous ryokans, name of the traditional Japanese guest houses or hotels, with tatami and straw mats on the floor, a small table in the middle of the room and oriental futons for sleep. Usually, ryokans serve two meals per day; if you want more, you’ll find some good restaurants around the town.

Ryokan in Shibu Onsen, Nagano, Japan - near Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park

Traditional ryokan in Shibu Onsen

And for saying goodbye, here you have a few videos!

Submit to StumbleUpon Share

Badain Jaran Desert – 巴丹吉林沙漠

 

Badain Jaran Desert, Nei Mongol, China

Dunes and lakes in Badain Jaran Desert

Can you imagine a place where the highest stationary dunes in the world rise up to 500 m and descend to loads of lakes unaccountably dotted in the middle of the desert, as if them were little oasis here and there? Badain Jaran Desert is one of the most beautiful deserts on earth, paradise for photographers, site of singing sand dunes and a wonderful place for camel crossings.

Extremely dry, the average rain is about 40 mm/year, but despite this, at least 144 lakes spread all over the surface between dune and dune, some of them with fresh water, other ones extremely saline. These lakes give the desert its name, which in Mongol language means “Mysterious Lakes”.

And how is it possible that one of the most arid regions of the world is full of lakes? So these waters come, according to recent hydrogeologic investigations, from Qilian Mountains, situated approximately 300 km away. The water from snowmelt flows under the surface, through fractured rocks, and rises up in this amazing place. The underground water is also responsible for the dunes size. In this arid and windy region, the underwater filters up and humidify the dunes, which can resist the wind erosion.

Badain Jaran Desert, Nei Mongol, China

Beautiful Badain Jaran Desert

Geography

Badain Jaran Desert (bā dān jí lín shā mò 巴丹吉林沙漠) covers an area of 50.000 sq. kilometers, spanding over the south-central part of of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (Nei Mongol) and the north of Gansu. Being the third biggest desert in China, it’s located in the Alxa Plateau, about 1200 meters above the sea level.

Camels in Badain Jaran Desert, Nei Mongol, China

Camels are important in the desert

Both the Badain Jaran Desert and the Tengger Desert (located to the east and merging with Badain Jaran due to desertification of the zone) belong to the Gobi Desert, the 3rd biggest desert in the world (5th considering Antarctic and Arctic as deserts). Badain Jaran is bounded to the north by the Gobi Desert (gē bì shā mò 戈壁沙漠) itself, characterized in this area by blackened gravel; to the east by Mount Lang, which separates the Badain Jaran Desert from the Ulan Buh Desert (wū lán bù hé shā mò 乌兰布和沙漠); to the southeast by Mount Yabraishan (yǎ bù lài shān 雅布赖山), which separates the Badain Jaran Desert from the Tengger Desert (téng gé ěr shā mò 腾格尔沙漠); to the southwest by the He Xi Corridor; and to the west by the Ruo Shui River (ruò shuǐ  弱水, Mongol for “Weak Water”, so-named because it sometimes dries up) or Ejina River (é jì nà hé 额济纳河) in Chinese, which separates the sandy Badain Jaran Desert from the rocky Taklamakan Desert (tǎ kè lā mǎ gān shā mò 塔克拉玛干沙漠).

China Relief Map - Badain Jaran Location

Badain Jaran location

As with other large sandy deserts, the dunes in Badain Jaran are constantly migrating, but there are also a number of them which are static and only the shallow surface is shifting. The middle and lower layers of the highest dunes has been compacted for more than 20 thousand years, causing the grains of sand to be lightly “glued”. In addition, the high moisture levels inside the dunes contribute to maintain them fixed. This rather rigid subsurface structure is what gives these dunes (technically “barchan megadunes”) their shapes, which bring to mind mountain features such as peaks, cliffs, gullies and even caves.

Badain Jaran Desert, Nei Mongol, ChinaSinging sand dunes

As in other deserts, the dunes of Badain Jarain emit a sharp loud noise. Known as “singing sand dunes”, “whistling sands” or “booming dunes”, the dunes of Badain Jaran Desert emit a surprising amount of noise, generated as the wind pulls the top layer of the sand down the dune slope. Although this phenomenon is not widely understood, it’s believed that this action creates an electrostatic charge that produces the noise, a low pitched rumble that can reach the 105 decibels. A booming sand dune manifests itself by initiating an avalanche from the leeward face of a large dune.

When you move a hand through the dry sand of a booming dune, you shear the upper layer and generate another acoustic phenomenon, the burping emission of short bursts of sound.

Booming dunes are silent in the wintertime when humidity is retained in the dune. In summer, when the larger dunes produce their music, the smaller dunes in the dune field remain silent. This indicates that structural properties of the dune are critical for the generation of the singing sand. Also, booming can only be generated at slopes over the angle of repose (30 degrees), on the leeward face of a dune; the same sand on the shallower windward side cannot generate the music.

Badain Jaran Desert Lake, Nei Mongol, China

Lake in the desert

Lakes

As said, Badain Jaran Desert is decorated with about 140 scattered lakes. They are placed in low areas between the dunes, and suppose the life sustenance in the desert. Camels, goats and horses depend on them, as well as the sparse vegetation that paints a green belt around the water, making the whole sight a dreamlike oasis that will challenge your photography skills.

Due to algae , brine shrimp and mineral formations inside the lakes, some lakes get coloured at certain times of the year. Also, evaporation makes other ones turn to hypersaline waters and form a salt crust. And even get dried.

Red Lake in Badain Jaran Desert, Nei Mongol, China

Red Lake due to algae and brine shrimp

History

Appart of older dinosaurs’ fossils and traces of other animals such as ostriches, the firsts human rests date from the later Paleolithic. The firsts documented Tangut (táng gǔ tè 唐古特) tribes resided here during China’s earliest dynastic period, the Xia Dynasty (xià cháo 夏朝, BCE 2000-1500). Trading between China and Bactria, they contributed to the exchange of goods and knowledge between the center and the east of Eurasia, and even the present-day camel of the Badain Jaran Desert is a descendant of the Bactrian camel.

With the rise of the Silk Route, the He Xi Corridor became an important path for the northern tracks. The city of Alxa (Alashan in Mongol) became an important base, even mentioned in Marco Polo’s diaries and in some Chinese poets’ epopees. But it was frequently raided by horsemen from Mongol desert tribes and with the Mongol invasion of China Badain Jaran was one of the firsts areas to be conquered. The Black City of Khara Khoto was also an important base in the desert (see below).

Sights

Badain Jaran Temple (bā dān jí lín miào 巴丹吉林庙) is a well-preserved Tibetan-Buddhist temple in the middle of the desert. Built in 1868 at the side of a lake, its isolation let it survive untouched since now, allowing you to visit its 300 squared meters filled with Buddhist frescoes, statues, wood and brick carvings, artifacts and a modest library. A white pagoda completes this pleasant sight.

Badain Jaran Temple, Badain Jaran Desert, Nei Mongol, China

Badain Jaran Temple

The highest dune in the desert, Bilutu Peak (bì lǔ tú fēng 必鲁图峰), which rises about 500 meters from its foot and 1609m above the sea level, is also a great place to climb just before descend to the nearby pond. Other peaks, called Badajilin peaks, of which there are numerous, rise about 200 meters above the surrounding terrain.

On the northwestern side of the desert, near the Ruo Shui River (Ejin River in Chinese), the ancient Black City, Khara Khoto in Mongolian, can also be visited. Located close to the new city of Ejin (capital of Ejin Banner), it was a Tangut city founded in 1302, becoming one of the centres of the Tangut Empire. Genghis Khan conquered the city and it succeeds to flourish under Mongol rule, even appearing in Marco Polo’s diaries with the name of Edzina. Located at the crossroad to Karakorum, Xanadu and Kumul, the city triplicated its size during Kublai Khan’s time, but it fell to the Chinese armies in 1372, during the Ming dynasty. It was abandoned and left in ruins, just as it is now, except for the paintings and valuable objects, taken to Russia by Russian explorers in the 19th century.

Between the Khara Khoto and the newer Ejin, particular and photogenic vegetation can be found. Some call it strange forest; the wind give a ghostly shape to the dry vegetation and green and yellow leafs give the final contrast upon the blue sky. When water and dunes appear, amazing photos are assured.

Also don’t miss the beautiful nature near the Ejin River or Ruo Shui:

Juyanhai Lake, north of Ejin, Nei Mongol, China

Juyanhai Lake, north of Ejin

North of Ejin, you can see the the end of the alluvial plain of the Ejin River, the Juyanhai or Juyan Lake, an inland delta where you will see birds, camels bathing and a lot of water. Unfortunately, two of the three lakes at the bottom of the Juyan Lake Basin dried up recently.

Out of the desert but not too far, heading southwest, you can find the remarkable sight Jiayuguan Pass in Jiayuguan city, the first pass on the west end of the Great Wall of China, one of the biggest and most well conserved ones.

Visiting the desert

With the rise of Chinese economy and domestic tourism, the masses from Eastern China are heading to Badain Jaran in their holiday time –very little in China. Camel and 4×4 safaris are organized from the capitals, but it’s still possible to visit the place with certain independence. Basically, what you should do is getting to Alxa Youqi and contract there a local guide and a mean of transport that can arrange a tour according to your possibilities and wishes. Make sure to hire off road vehicles with best drivers and guides.

The best time to get to the desert is September and October, just after the hot summer and before the hard winter. But anytime you go, be sure to bring warm clothes for the cold nights, and sunglasses and sun protection for the intense sun. Be sure to respect local ethnical customs and traditions.

In the website holachina.com will find a more or less useful explanation about how to get there but yourself. BEWARE!, they incorrectly talk about Tengger and Badain Jaran Desert as only one. Alxa Youqi is in Barain Jaran Desert; Alxa Zuoqi in Tengger Desert, offering similar things to Barain Jaran but not as stunning as this.

Zài jiàn!

Submit to StumbleUpon Share

Uzbekistan

 

Uzbekistan mapLost in the immensity of Central Asia, Uzbekistan is one of the forgotten gems of the world. Despite the amazing history of the Silk Route connecting Europe and Asia, its numerous splendid monuments sank in the oblivion of the tourist masses and just now is fighing for some attention. Without any doubts, the beautiful cities of Samarkand, Khiva and Bukhara are the main highlights of Central Asia.

Uzbekistan is the country of the blue palaces and huge mosques and medrassas, built in oasis along the mighty Amu Darya River in the vast Kizil Kum Desert; green valleys near high mountains and the sad story of the Aral Sea. The Uzbeks, the most religious people in Central Asia, are proud of their rich history, their heroes like Tamerlane or Ulugh Beg and their Turkic connection. Uzbek itself is a Turkic language and, in fact, Turks from Turkey come from Central Asia.

And they are also proud of their food. Plov, mantys, samsa, laghman and shurpa are some of the main dishes you’ll find, without forgetting the venerated shashlik, often reserved for great occasions. Taste the delights of this extraordinary cuisine in the cozy chaikhanas, accompanied with a cup of tea or a gulp of ayran, and head to the beauty of the fantastic Uzbek cities. Here we go!

Brief History

Tashkent

The capital of Uzbekistan is the biggest city in Central Asia. And although it doesn’t have the old relics and peaceful ambiance as other destinations of Uzbekistan, it has some decent sights, busy markets, nightlife and the enjoyable movement of masses that all the big cities have. Even more, if you are planning a trip to more than one country, it’s very probable that you´ll need to stay in Tashkent for some days in order to get visas or catch flights, so it is better to know what to do and where to go in this city:

Chorsu Bazaar, Tashkent, Uzbekistan

You'll find everything in Chorsu Bazaar

If you look at Tashkent map, you will probably think that Amir Timur Maydoni, with its Timur Statue, is the neuralgic center of the city. Well, that’s maybe true for the cars, but like a traveler you can consider Chorsu Bazaar to be the place where you’ll find everything you need. The Bazaar itself is a huge circled green dome occupied by farmers and traders trying to sell their products, it’s nice to take a walk among the color of the stands and enjoy the taste of new food and spices you can’t find home. Not far from there, you’ll find Juma mosque (Friday’s mosque) and Kulkedash medrassa, built in 15th and 16th century respectively.

Further north you’ll find Khast Imom, a Islamic religious center where lives the spiritual leader of the country. Within its premises there are Telyashayakh and Barakhon Mosques, the Mausuleum of Abu Bakkr Kafal Shoshi, Imam Ismail Al-Bukhari Islamic Institute and Moyie Mubarek Library Museum, where you’ll find the famous Osman Quran: a Quran from the 7th century made of deerskin and brought to Samarkand by Timur and stolen by the Russians for a some time.

After having a walk in Navoi Park, you can head to Yunus Khan Mausoleum, where the corpse of Babur’s grandfather is resting. And finally you could choose between going to Mustaqillik Maydoni (Independence Square), where you can find a mix of soviet and new-made monuments, or visiting some of the numerous museums of the city.

But all these things can be seen quite fast, so if you are here waitng for a plane, a visa or anything else, a good idea is head to Chimgan and take a hike in Ugam Chatkal National Park, one hour away from Tashkent in the Tian Shan Range, with summits until 3700 m.

Tilla-Kari Medrassa in Registan - Samarkand Uzbekistan

Tilla-Kari Medrassa in Registan

Samarkand

For history lovers, Samarkand is somewhere to go at least one time in the life. Praised by both Alexander and Marco Polo, the mighty city of Central Asia proudly shows its great treasures: the huge medrassas and mosques left by the Timurid Empire and its successors.

Historically a Tadjik city, Samarkand was founded around the 7th century BC as Marakanda, and soon became a Persian center and one of the wealthiest cities in Central Asia, until Alexander came and conquered it. The development of the Silk Road and the geographical placement of the city –a must-stop place between the desert and the mountains-, gave it the richness that made it grow as one of the most populated cities in the word, even bigger than it is nowadays.

Genghis Khan pillaged the city in 1220, but for 1370 it had already recovered its splendor with the enthronement of Timur the Lame.  During his reign the city became the capital of one of the largest empires in world history, the Timurid Empire. Under Timur, Samarkand became a mythical city and Central Asia’s center.

Timur was followed by Ulugh Beg, a great astronomer who made the city a capital of science and knowledge, building a huge sextant to observe the sky. But due to his secular perception of the world, the sextant was destroyed and he was killed by religious fanatics in 1492.

Samarkand had never recovered the importance of those times. First, due to navigation discoveries the commercial routes moved to the sea and the Silk Route fell in decadence. Then, the capital was moved to Bukhara and the Russians came. But the majesty and magnificence of the past has been preserved in Samarkand. And can be seen for all of us.

Samarkand Registan

Registan complex is the main symbol of Samarkand's spledorousity

Registan ensemble is the centerpiece of the city. Three huge and well-proportioned medrassas stand in three sides of the Registan Square, giving a solemn and imperious majesty to the center of the city. Ulugh Beg Medrassa, the oldest one and built under Ulugh Beg reign, stands on the left side of the square. Opposite of it there’s the Sher Dor Medrassa, decorated with two lions, which is prohibited by the Islamic law and cause the laugh of the not-so-religious Uzbeks. In the middle of them, Tilla-Kari Medrassa is remarkable for its indoor mosque recovered with gold to make everybody remember the splendorous times of the city.

A little further there is the even bigger Bibi Khanum Mosque. Timur ordered to build a huge mosque with the name of his spouse. When he saw the mosque built, he said he wanted something bigger, and ordered to hang the architects. The newer mosque, one of the bigger in the Islamic world, was as big as unstable and had been slowly falling until finally collapsed during an earthquake in 1897.  In front of the restored mosque stands the 14th century grave of the woman that gave name to the mosque: Bibi Khanum Mausoleum.

Not far from there,there is Shah-i-Zinda: a line of mausoleums climbing to a nearby hill. The place is an important Islamic center of pilgrimage, probably containing the grave of Qusam ibn-Abbas, cousin of the prophet Mohammed, who brought Islam to Central Asia. The tomb existed before the Mongols’ pillage, what made Timur and Ulughbek and other emperors to bury their family there. A controversial restoration of the complex under Karimov government has been called to be a disaster, however it is worth visiting. Dress respectfully.

Guri Amir - Tamerlan Mausoleum - Samarkand Uzbekistan

Guri Amir Mausoleum, where Tamerlane is buried

On the other side of the monumental zone, Guri Amir Mausoleum is a must-see for all travelers to Samarkand. Tamerlan’s mausoleum is also the resting place for Ulugh Beg and other royal family members. The azur dome is decorated with golden, red and blue ornaments, in the middle of which lays a dark green block of jade marking the tomb of Timur (in fact, the real tomb is in a crypt beneath). Around Timur’s stone, there are blocks of white marble, marking the points for the other inhabitants of the mausoleum. The one to the left of Timur is Ulugh Beg. Two more little mausoleums stand in the same square.

Northwest of the monumental center you can find Afrosiab, the ruins of the ancient Marakanda, the legendary city that Alexander conquered. The ruins are not so well maintained, but you can visit some excavations at Afrosiab Museum. Not far from there, the tomb of the Prophet Daniel, a character from the Old Testament, is a restored building containing a 18m tomb. The legend says that the prophet corpse (supposedly brought from Persia to Samarkand by Timur ) grows some centimeters each year, so the tomb has to be enlarged regularly.

Past the end of the ruins, in the north side, Ulugh Beg Observatory well deserves a visit and some respect. With his huge sextant and observatory Ulugh Bek determined positions of hundreds of  stars, which makes him one of the most important astronomers in the history. Now only remains a 30m curved rail, some archaic form of mechanic stairs used to move along the sextant.

On the other side of Afrosiab you can visit Hazrat-Hizr Mosque. Actually all over the city you can find more mausoleums, mosques and even a soviet styled statue of Yuri Gagarin.

From Samarkand it is recommendable a trip to Hoja Ismail (more or less 30 minutes away), a complex including Ismail al-Bukhari Mausoleum, one of the greatest scholars and lawyers mentioned in Quran. Like in all the centers of pilgrimage, dress respectfully and stay calm.

Aq-Saray Palace, Shakhrisabz, Uzbekistan

Aq-Saray Palace in Shakhrisabz

Shakhrisabz

Un-Russified Shakhrisabz is Tamerlan’s hometown, with some ruins left from the times of the monster. Once it was called Kesh, but Timur gave it its present name ( “Green Town” in Tadjik) and ordered to build him a mausoleum which finally was not used due to snow in mountain passes at the time of his death. The historical monuments of the city are enlisted in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The legacy of Shahrizabz can be seen in Ak-Saray Palace, former Timur’s Summer Palace and probably the most ambitious project of  his life. Nevertheless, it’s almost in ruins except of pieces of the gigantic 65m gate-towers and some left mosaics where you can read “If you challenge our power – look at our buildings!”.

Kok-Gumbaz Mosque, Shakhrisabz, Uzbekistan

Kok-Gumbaz Mosque

UlughBek ordered to build Kok-Gumbaz Mosque near Dorut Tilyovat to honor his father and Timur’s son Shah Rukh. Near it he built a mausoleum for his family, Guymbazi Seyidan. On the other side you can see the Mausoleum of Sheikh Shamseddin Kulyal.

East of Kok Gumbaz, Hazrat-i Imam Complex is another mausoleum complex built for Timur’s son. And behind it there’s a simple crypt discovered in 1963 that was destinated to be Timur’s Tomb. In the middle of it there is an impresive decorated stone on which should have been placed the body of the great leader who, as said, was finally buried in Samarkand.

Other places of interest in Shakhrizabz are the old baths, the 18th century bazaar and the Amir Timur Museum.

Bukhara (Bukhoro)

If Samarkand is the Imperial capital of Uzbekistan, Bukhara is its spiritual cradle. Unlike Samarkand, Bukhara preserves an untouched old center with narrow labyrinth streets, plenty of mosques and medrassas, a well preserved royal fortress and a once-big bazaar complex. It all gave to the city a place in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Located on the Silk Route, the city has been always a center of trade, culture and religion, as well as a caravanserai city. Like Samarkand, Bukhara has been historically a Tadjik city, joined to Uzbek territory during the Russian rule.

Kalon Mosque, Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Kalon Mosque is one of the highlights of Bukhara

Also named Bukhoro-i-Sariff (Noble Bukhara), Bukhara has been one of the pillars of Islam and its most important city in Central Asia, especially in two moments of history: during the Islamic Renaissance and after the Timurid Dynasty in Samarkand, when the capital was moved here. The decline of the Silk Route by the 16th century brought Bukhara back to the ground, but its past splendurousity can still be seen nowadays.

The neuralgic point of the city is Lyabi Hauz (or Lab-i Hauz, tadjik for around the pool), a square built in 1620 around a pond. Pleasant chaikhanas offer Central Asian specialties in this peaceful place surrounded by Nadir Divanbegi Medrassa (built firstly as a caravanserai and decorated by two forbidden birds), Nadir Divanbegi Khanaka and Kukeldash Medrassa. Under the trees on the eastern side of the square, you can find the statue of Hoja Nasruddin, a sufi character from mythical tales.

Kalon Minaret and Kalon Mosque, Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Kalon Minaret and Kalon Mosque

Po-I Kalon Complex is where you will find Bukhara’s masterpiece, the 12th century Kalon Minaret. Once the tallest building in Central Asia, its 47 meters of decorated bricks astonished even Genghis Khan who left it untouched. It was also the first place were the typical Central Asian blue tiles were used, and for centuries the criminals were executed by being tossed off the top. Near the minaret stands the huge delightful Kalon Mosque, dating from the 16th century, and on the other side of the square Mir-i-Arab Medrassa shows its two blue domes completing a beautiful envirointment.

Ismail Samani Mausoleum, Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Ismail Samani Mausoleum

Don’t miss the beautiful covered bazaars, topped with low domes and offering a precious shadow in the cozy streets of the old city between Lyabi-Hauz and the Kalon Minaret. Near them, Ulughbeg Madrassa and Abdul Aziz Khan Medrassa are good options to take a look. North of the Kalon Minaret, you will be gratefully pleased in the carpet bazaar.

Of course, from there you should go to Registan Square and visit the Ark, the fortress of the city, and a little town itself. About 80% of it are in ruins, but you can still find the Juma (Friday) Mosque, the Reception & Coronation Court and plenty of buildings turned to museums in Soviet times. In front of the Ark main gate, Bolo-Hauz Mosque was the emir’s place of worship. On the other way, behind the Ark, Zindon was the main jail of the city, now turned to a museum.

Not far away you will find Ismail Samani Mausoleum, the oldest bulding in Bukhara which managed to survive till our days due to its 2m thick brick walls, a joy of old architecture honoring the founder of Samanid dynasty, the last Persian dynasty to rule in Cental Asia. Near it, Chasma-Ayub Mausoleum, meaning “Spring of Job”, erects to mark the place where Job (Ayub) threw his stuff on the ground and a spring appeared. You can drink the water, which it’s believed to heal.

Chor Minor, Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Chor Minor

The city has loads of other medrassas, mosques and minarets, which you can see by loosing yourself  in the narrow streets of the old town. And it’s quite possible that by doing this you arrive to the last sight you must see in Bukhara, the Chor Minor, four photogenic minarets build together.

Around Bukhara you can find several interesting sights. The most recommended is Bakhautdin Naqshband Mausoleum, a holy place for Sufism. Here was born and died Bakhautdin Naqshband, the founder of the most influential Sufi orders in Cenral Asia. Take a look at the beautiful mosques and minarets, make three anticlockwise rounds to the tomb and make the same with a petrified tree in the gardens: tradition says it’s auspicious for your luck and procreation. As a holy place of Sufism and Islam pilgrimage, dress and act respectfully.

Ichon Qala walls, Khiva, Uzbekistan

Ichon Qala walls

Khiva

When you walk for the first time inside Khiva’s Ichon Qala (Old Town), you feel as if you have entered into a dream of the past. In the history of Khorezm, Khiva was not as important as Konye-Urgench (now in Turkmenistan), but it’s very well preserved, just as if the time had stopped infront of the walls of the old town and hadn’t entered inside.

After Timur defeated Konye-Urgench and the later decay of his empire, Shaybanids Uzbeks came to the area and founded a new state in Khorezm, making Khiva their capital in the 16th century. The town was famous for its slave market, where Kazakhs, Karakalpaks and other nomads were sold to rich Persians and Tadjiks, being the biggest slave market in Central Asia for more than three centuries.

After some treasals and betrayals between Khorezm and Russia, a few Persian invasions and the “Great Game”, Russia invaded the city in 1873, and in 1924 it was annexed to the USSR.

Kalta Minor Minaret, Khiva, Uzbekistan

Kalta Minor Minaret

When you will firstly pass the stunning Ichon-Qala walls and gates, you will understand that you have moved back in time. From the asphalted city outside it turns to a world of bricks, turquoise tiles and delightful architecture surrounded by the calm of the pedestrian zone only disturbed by the chant of the imam.

The first thing you will notice is the turquoise Kalta Minor Minaret, an unfinished minaret which Mohammed Amin Khan ordered to build. Had it been finished, it would surely have been the world’s tallest building of the time, but the Khan died and it was never finished. As the legend says, he wanted to see Bukhara from the top of the building. Near the Minaret you can find Sayid Alauddin Mausoleum and Qozi-Kalon Medrassa.

Kuhna Ark mosaics detail, Khiva, Uzbekistan

Kuhna Ark mosaics

Just a few meters away (everything is a few meters away inside Ichon-Qala) Kuhna Ark was the khan’s palace. Inside, take a look at the Summer Mosque, the throne room, in front of which was placed the royal yurt, and the many stances and rooms, finishing with the harem, where locals say the khan had 65 concubines. Most of the outside rooms are decorated with blue and white mosaics and wood carved columns with different degrees of restoration. To go up to the top of the Oq Shihbobo bastion, the oldest part of the Kuhna Ark, probably you’ll have to bribe some guard, but it’s worth the money (they will tell you). Finally, near the entrance you can see the Zindon or khan’s jail, and some steps further a camel is waiting to pose with tourists in front of the Mohammed Rakhim Khan Medrassa.

The next important sight is Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum, housing the town’s patron saint, poet and philosopher, as well as the loveliest tiling in the city. From the door of the Mausoleum it’s speacilly wonderfull the view of Islom-Hoja Minaret and Islom Hoja Medrassa, the newest Islamic monuments in the city, but maybe the most beautiful. Get impressed by the turquoise and red bands of the 57m tall minaret, Uzbekistan’s highest one, which you can climb bribing someone.

 

Islom-Hoja Minaret, Khiva, Uzbekistan

Islom-Hoja Minaret

Another remarkable sight in Khiva is the Juma Mosque, with its 218 wooden columns, where you can also climb to the Juma Minaret. Within its proximities you will find Matpana Bay Medrassa, Abdullah Khan Medrassa, Aq Mosque, Anusha Khan Baths and Tosh-Hovli Palace, holding some of the best interior decoration in the city.

Follow with the Alloquli Khan Medrassa, Kutlimurodinok Medrassa and Alloquli Khan Bazaar and Caravanserai, a real working indoor market that will lead you to Dekhon Bazaar, the same market continuing outdoors. Take a look at the black market money traders with their huge bags full of Sum notes (Uzbek money).

You can see all the sights in Khiva buying only one ticket in Eastern or Western Door. Usually, you can climb every minaret or high building paying something to the guard or the caretaker: it’s good to take a view of the city from the top, but maybe one time it’s enough as it will always look more or less the same.

Usually, one day is enough to see everything, but the place is worth to stay for two or even three days. More than three is too much due to the little dimensions of the city. Or maybe you can spend this last day making an excursion to the old fortress or Elliq-Qala which can be found in Khorezm. Some examples of them are Ayaz-Qala (the most visited), Qoy Qyrylghan Qala, Guldursun Qala, Toprak Qala or Qyzyl Qala. You can make it complete by staying in a yurt that will surely be offerd and taking a camel ride.

Aral Sea and Karakalpakstan

“When Allah loved us,

brought us Amu Darya;

when He stopped loving us,

sent us Russian engineers”,

preys a newly made Karakalpak song. The home of the Karakalpak people was once a prosperous and wealthy land. And it probably got better in the first years of the Soviet irrigation program, but it didn’t last for quite long. The water from the Amu Darya River was used in its totality to irrigate the cotton fields that nowadays are still the main industry of the region, and the Aral Sea got dried. Hundreds of fishermen and sea-related workers lost their jobs, and towns that were lying by the seashore now find themselves in the middle of an arid desert.

With the Aral Sea almost totally dried, the cotton is the only industry left in the land. That’s why this industry that brought the poverty to the region is impossible to leave. With this cruel dilemma, you’ll arrive to desolated Karakalpakstan.

And knowing all this, who would think that in Nukus, the poor Karakalpak capital, there’s placed one of the best art collections in ex-Soviet Union? So that’s it, the repudiated artist and ethnographer Igor Savitsky, with some help, succeed to bring here most of the early 20th Century Russian art that was not according to Soviet Realism standards. You can find a rotating display of the collection in Savitsky Karakalpakstan Art Museum.

But if you did it to Karakalpakstan it’s surely to head to Moynaq and the Aral Sea. The Aral Sea has been called the biggest ecological disaster in the world, and Moynaq was its second port (the first one was in Aralsk, Kazakhstan). With a surface of 68000 km2 in 1960, it was only some scarce 5000 km2 in 2010. And without any source of constant water it’s estimated to be completely dry in less than 10 years.

Beached ship, Aral Sea, Moynaq, Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan

Ship beached in the Aral Sea bed, near Moynaq

Before placed in a peninsula penetrating the waters, now Moynaq stands 160 km away from the shoreline. The new desert brought sand, salt and dust storms, giving the inhabitants no end of health problems and pulmonary diseases. Not surprisingly, everyday more people are leaving the town. The only inhabitants that still want to stay seem to be the rests of the former fishing boats that are still lying in the sands around the town. Some of them were taken in front of the War Memorial that before occupied the top of a cliff with the best views to the sea. It has been converted to an Aral Sea Memorial, with more or less a dozen of beached ships lying in the former sea platform in front of it. If you explore a little the sea layer further, you can find more rests of ship structures, some of them already eaten by the desert sand dunes. The writer of this article was talking with the driver of one of these boats, listening to his sad explanation of how it was before, while tears in the eyes smudged his view of that nonexistent sea.

A nearby lake was artificially created trying to restore the climate of the city, but it didn’t work so much. It looks like in Moynaq everything that can work badly, gets worst. And the only ones who can find some fun in it are the children who can happily play pirates jumping from vessel to vessel.

Fergana Valley

Conscious that Fergana Valley is the most populated and with the strongest ethnic consciousness in Central Asia, Stalin played a diabolic game with its borders, trying to divide and isolate the places where some ethnicity was strong. The result is clear: as some routes have up to 4 border crossing, they are completely abandoned. Also, the little “islands” of one republic within other’s border, help to make it difficult to normalize the diplomatic relations between the different countries, as the country surrounding a foreign territory always try to claim it. And some say the recent conflicts in the Kirguiz city of Osh between Uzbeks and Kirguizs are another result of the Stalin’s politics of mixing ethincities.

It’s difficult to say the Fergana Valley is actually a valley, as it’s mostly flat. Nevertheless, in the extremes of it you can find stunningly high mountains. In the north, the Tian Shan Range reaches the 4000 m, and in the south the Pamir Allay Range, 5000 m.  The melting snow from the mountains in nutrishing the upper Amu Darya descends through the valley making it the most fertile area in Central Asia.

Bazaar in Andijon, Fergana Valley, Uzbekistan

Bazaar in Andijon

Andijon is the largest city in Fergana valley, and apart of the Juma Mosque it’s worth seeing its numerous bazaars. Also, don’t miss Babur’s (Mughal emperor) royal apartment, now turned to Babur Literary Museum.

Placed southwest of Andijon, Fergana is the most russificated city in the valley. It has not so much to see, but the accommodation and services are the best in the region, so it’s a good base-town to explore the entire valley.

The best sight of the valley is the Khan Palace in the western city of Kokand, completed just three years before the Tsarist troops conquered the city. Half of the palace was occupied by a harem, inhabited by 43 concubines. Now this part of the palace is in ruins but 27 of the 114 original rooms are used as a museum. Another highlight of Kokand is Narbutabey Medrassa, containing some remarkable tombs in a venerated graveyard. And finally, you can explore some Russian buildings and a couple of mosques and medrassas left.

Angren and Chadak are good places to prepare some hiking up the Tien Shan Range, though you will see better mountains out of the valley, in other places of Uzbekistan, for example  if you head to south to Zaamin National Park or north to Ugam Chatkal National Park. And even better if you look for higher mountains in Kirguizstan or Tadjikistan.

 Old Uzbek woman in silk

Border Crossing, registration and corrupt policemen

Crossing borders is part of the fun in Uzbekistan. If you arrive by plane, the hassle shouldn’t be so big. Also, when entering the country, it shouldn’t happen nothing apart the long waiting times and some eventual search. The fun comes when you are leaving the country, specially by land. Long queues are made, registration papers are asked and declaration of goods is religiously checked. But it’s nothing you can’t success with some tips:

By first, your visa must be correct. Second, it’s very important that you declare your goods at the entrance of the country and keep the customs recipe (yes, that stupid paper you must fill in a lot of countries) with yourself until the exit border. You must declare everything supposed to have some value, like cameras, laptops and more importantly, money. And that’s a problem. Nobody likes to take with himself a paper saying that he’s carrying, for example, 2000 dollars. Some people declare only 200 or 300 dollars, and it’s normal that they do. But if you are checked when you are leaving the country with more money than you declared in the entrance, police will keep the difference. This is because Uzbek currency policy (read some lines below for more).

The third question you should solve before leaving the country, especially by land, is the registration. You must register to the OVIR (a sort of Foreign Affairs Ministry) everyday you stay in Uzbekistan, except for three days per month (data from 2010). It means that if you had a one month visa, you can stay three days without sleeping in a hotel, where checking-in means automatic registration. You can stay also in a private house (friend, etc.) and register at the OVIR providing the required info, but the hassles are huge and probably you will have to bribe someone, so it’s better to bribe a hotel directly. Honestly, I haven’t met anybody who tried to leave the country without the needed registers. But as you could understand, Uzbekistan is a country where bribes work well.

Another question are the corrupt officials (not in the border).  Since some years ago, when the reports about the mass abuses to travelers from officials in Uzbekistan reached the western books and specialized magazines, the dictator Karimov wanted to give a better image to the exterior. He put strict penalties to the policeman with bad behavior against tourists and the police got immediately more affable. But nevertheless you still have the chance of getting in touch with croocked officials; here you have a guide about how to act in such cases.

Moving around

Uzbekistan has an acceptable net of buses and marshrutkas. Train connects the main cities at pleasant fares. For everything else, shared taxis are not expensive and work well.

40 dollars in Uzbek Sums

40 dollars in Uzbek Sums

Currency

Uzbek Sum is a funny money. The biggest note, 1000 Sums, is something equal to 0.30 €, so when you change money, for example 50 €, you will get a huge amount of notes. But apart of this, the currency is tricky, as the government fixed an exchange rate different than the “market” rate. Known this, it’s much more profitable to change your money in the black market. You will see people with huge bags full of Sums in the market, nearby those who are selling apples or carrots. Well, maybe the best option is to change via black market, but do it better in your hotel or somewhere not as public as an outdoor market. If you ask your hotel staff, they will provide you a dealer for sure.

Submit to StumbleUpon Share

The second largest aquarium tank in the world! – Kuroshio Sea

 

Before continue with the a places been and the things seen abroad, I want to share with you a new place to go. I always liked aquariums, but if you like to travel is difficult to maintain any of them. Instead, you can go to public ones. Some of them are really impressive, like this. It’s located in Japan, exactly in Motubu (Okinawa Islands), and it has the second largest aquarium tank in the world, called Kuroshio Sea.

It holds 7500 cubic meters of water and features the second largest acrylic glass panel. Whale sharks and manta rays are kept amongst many other fish species in the main tank.

So now it’s time for you to turn on full screen mode, relax and enjoy the smooth movements of the fishes. Can you imagine to be the diver?

Kuroshio Sea – 2nd largest aquarium tank in the world – (song is Please don’t go by Barcelona) from Jon Rawlinson on Vimeo.

Submit to StumbleUpon Share
Jan 122012
 

I always had the sensation that going to the east was something special. Probably this is caused for my location: Spain is in the very West of the Eurasian continent. My first idea – cross the land from Spain to Magadan – is one of the longest straight ways that can be made without crossing any sea, and this had something that made me dream. The same piece of land should be all the same, but it is not. Everything, the landscape, the people, the nature, the food… everything changes little by little, and in the end you look backward and nothing is like it began. Being an observer of this film was my fantasy for a long time and finally I decided to do it.

Whatever it was, I decided to go straight to the East, always stepping forward with the Sun lighting upon my forehead.

Crossing the Eurasian continent

The Sun in my Forehead and other recent route

As I look back, the route is quite different as I planned before. But this is something that easily happens in long travels like this. Europe is easy to hitchhike, and arriving to Ukraine was an easy task. Then I had to cross the Black Sea by boat for made it to the crazy Caucasus lands. From there, I passed through Central Asia – probably the most interesting part of the trip – until the Chinese border, and by several means of transport I arrived to Southeast Asia. There I stayed for six months, a one-moth scape to India included. And still smarting from that Russian disappointment, I flew to the north of the country and crossed down until Ukraine.

After all, I came back home, with my backpack full of stories, tips and photographs to share with all of you.

Oct 082011
 

It didn’t begin looking at the white sea-foam on a sunny afternoon, nor looking the horizon on a high peak dominating the plains. It was just a matter of time. Time by time, little by little, I realized that the crazy long travels I read on the books were not unachievable targets, they were not heroic deeds done by amazing people with lots of funds, it was only the decision of simple people who wanted to change a little bit their life. And they found somewhere the bravery to do it.

Despite all this, I was never sure to begin the adventure. It was just not easy to give up it all, leave everything and everyone and take a round over the world. Not everyone understands it, mostly the family or the father who always talks about work. Until one day I began to plan everything. Everything became clear, everything looked as easy targets, the impossible connections I thought before were little by little turning to reasonable objectives, the unknown countries didn’t seem that strange after getting some information. The forgotten paths, the visa issues, there’s nothing impossible for a person who really wants to do this.

But, anyway, I was still afraid. Maybe not afraid, but unsure of it. I had planned many things, but didn’t fixed a departure date. It was difficult for me to set a departure date. One thing is to dream, and another is to say “ok, I’m REALLY gonna do this”. Until one book came to my hands. It was Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and it really changed my mind. Yes! There’s no need to be scared, that’s not the spirit you may take. Just go there, rise the thumb and hit the road. That’s all, there’s nothing more to think about. It’s not just a dream, it’s my dream and I can do it. And after some time it becomes a way of life.

UlughBeg Madrassa in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Ulugh Beg Madrassa in Samarkand

Choosing the route was an easy thing. For years the ancient city of Samarkand was the point were all the wishes started and the thoughts were coming from. Samarkand the Great, Samarkand the Mighty, Samarkand the land of the Monster, Old and Elder Marakand. Once destroyed by Alexander the Great, then governed by Tamerlan, forsaken into the desert sands when the Silk Route fell down, now was an unknown place in the forgotten country of Uzbekistan. The beauty of its buildings, the legendary name of the place, the far it is from everywhere… everything made Samarkand a magic place, a place were I didn’t know what to find, a place of legend, the rule of communism, the turkish muslims and the Mongol facial features.

Well, it’s true, I had some point to shot my mind. And that’s a lot. My plans would go straight to Samarkand, crossing Europe, the Caucasus, the Kizilkum desert from the new sands of Aral since arrive to the old powerful town. After that, all the plans seemed so far, so long, like talk about fantasy or sci-fi. I did plan to go up to the north through the Kazakh steppe, cross to Russia and find the Kolyma Highway after Yakutsk. The plans then included Japan and America until the south… but it’s talking in vain. I changed all my plans after the Central Asia shake.

And what’s the point of all the speech? Well, probably there’s no point at all. Just to share what I took and what I owned. You can plan a big trip if you dream of that, you just need some stimulation, an objective, and a spear to make it all explode. And to find this things is quite an easy thing!

Go there and find it out!