From mosques and mountains to hats and limousines, the often unusual sights and scenery of the Caucasus and Central Asia always kept us guessing. Here are some of the more memorable landscapes, religious buildings, cultural artifacts, animals, and people that we encountered during the five months we traveled across these regions. If you check out the categories and keep reading, you'll see why this is a unique part of the world and travel experience.
Best Scenery: The Pamir Mountains
Most Gregarious Kids: Tbilisi, Georgia
The kids who rock the most: the kids from the Sololaki (Sololaky) neighborhood in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Most Memorable Random Act of Kindness
It’s a toss up between our feast in Zugdidi, Georgia and Khiva, Uzbekistan. In Khiva, an 8-months pregnant woman and her friend abandoned their table and insisted that we and our friend Dave eat their lunch. Touchingly, they fetched some tomatoes, cucumbers and bread to round out our meal.
Honorable Mention: The Kazakh family who gave us a ride to Almaty’s town center after we almost stranded ourselves in the Tian Shan Mountains.
Best Smile: Murghab, Tajikistan
This is a tough one. We'll never forget the smiles, whether they were pearly white or glinted with gold, like the one pictured here.
Small World Award: Karakol, Kyrgyzstan
We were hosted by a woman in Karakol whose first visit to the U.S. happened to be to Dan’s hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Here's the full story.
Honorable Mention: Tatev, Armenia (near the Iranian border)
Our home-stay family featured a woman whose daughter now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and works at the same place Dan’s sister worked at over 10 years ago. Our Armenian host flipped through photo album pages that chronicled her recent visit to Northern California, including Monterey, California where Audrey got her MBA.
Best City: Tbilisi, Georgia
The city whose people, neighborhoods and history won our hearts.
Honorable Mention: Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan for a little bit of the laid back in Central Asia.
Best Donkeys: Tajikistan’s Wakhan Valley
“Why Donkeys?” you ask? Melancholy (think Eeyore) and under-appreciated, these animals mark a nostalgic trail to the past from today's rapidly developing world.
If Kashgar were included it would win due to its vast donkey parking lots. Since Kashgar is technically part of China, however, the prize goes to Tajikistan’s Wakhan Valley which featured large gatherings of these under-appreciated beasts of burden. When a group rounds the bend with the Hindu Kush in the background, it just doesn't get any better for us donkey lovers.
Best Cemetery: Mizdakhan near Nukus, Uzbekistan
We really enjoyed cemeteries throughout this region. They were places of unusual beauty, benevolent tranquility and much-needed reflection. Central Asian cemeteries are fascinating, none more so than Mizdakhan outside of Nukus in western Uzbekistan.
Best Museum: Savitsky Museum – Nukus, Uzbekistan
Nukus is an unlikely location for an art museum, which is exactly the reason why Savitsky managed to put together a museum of banished art from the Soviet Union there. Rounding out the museum is an ethnography exhibition on the Karakalpakstan region in western Uzbekistan.
Honorable Mention: State Historical Museum – Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Once called the Lenin Museum, the State Historical Museum still features a Lenin shrine on the second floor. Make sure you look up to take in the ceiling murals of Lenin leading people to liberation in the Bolshevik Revolution. The third floor features a man riding a nuclear warhead. Strangely Dr. Strangelove. Update: The murals have been taken down from the Historical Museum and we've been told they are searching for a new home. We sincerely hope they will be available for the public again soon.
Best Camels: Turkmenistan
183 of them herding near Gonur Depe and 100s of others skulking about in the Karakum Desert of Turkmenistan.
Honorable Mention: To the lone and peaceful wooly Bactrian camel (with a fallen hump) on the road between Murghab and Langar in Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains. Go and visit him. He could use the company.
Best Lenin Statue: Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
We considered sending an official invitation to the governments of the ‘Stans for formal submissions, but alas we ran out of time on our visas. Our favorite in this category is the Lenin statue in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan whose base features traditional Turkmen carpet designs. Vladimir Ilyich's head often serves as a bird lavatory and his arms as bird posts.
Best Place to Catch a Wedding: Shakhrisabz, Uzbekistan
We were engulfed in a sea of revelers and it felt like a carnival. Before we knew it, we were having our photos taken with the bride and groom and a horde of friendly strangers.
Longest Limousines: Almaty, Kazakhstan
The longer the limousine, the longer the marriage? If so, the couple inside of this this Hummer limousine has a record-breaking one ahead of them. “It’s like driving a school bus,” the chauffeur told us.
Best Dressed (Women): Turkmenistan
Dressed in floor-length, brightly colored dresses with colorful neck embroidery, Turkmen women seem to glide as they walk. Their colorful scarves were pretty spiffy, too.
Best Hat: The Kyrgyz Kalpak
Lively competition including Lahic hats, Turkmen head-covers, and Muslim headwear, but the prize goes to all the Kyrgyz men who emphatically extoll the virtues of the Kyrgyz kalpak: keeps cool in summer, stays warm in winter, and sheds water to boot.
Best Soviet Architectural Aesthetic: Tashkent, Uzbekistan
Although it may be criminal in some circles to follow the word “Soviet” with the word “aesthetic,” Tashkent is as admirable as a completely Soviet built city could possibly be. For the historically curious, Tashkent was completely rebuilt after it was leveled by an earthquake in 1966.
Best Religious Buildings:
Best Church: Svititskhoveli, outside of Tbilisi, Georgia
The incense, the ritual, the people. The atmosphere there is transcendent.
Best Monastery: Sapara near Akhaltsikhe, Georgia
Nestled in a beautiful forest and mountain setting, monastic life doesn’t seem to get any more peaceful than Sapara. If you go, ask for George, the friendly English-speaking monk who is more than happy to show you around.
Best Mosque: Karakol, Kyrgyzstan
We’re certain to catch some flack for not choosing one of the Silk Road Mosques, but our most lasting impressions in this sub-category belong to the Chinese-style Mosque in Karakol, Kyrgyzstan and the friendly, talkative imam who minds it.