Pamir Mountains: A Beginner’s Guide

Our visit to the Pamir Mountains introduced us to some the most spectacular scenery we’ve taken in on our journey thus far. Other mountainous areas, hyped in guidebooks and on travel websites, have only paled in comparison. The Pamir region not only stands out for the severity and beauty of its landscape, but it shines most of all for the colorful, hospitable and fascinating Pamiri people who live there.

The Pamir Highway, roughly speaking begins in Kyrgyzstan and winds its way through Tajikistan, is one of the world's greatest road trips.

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Big Almaty Lake and Kosmostancia: The Hike and The Observatory

Big Almaty Lake in Tian Shan Mountains - Almaty, Kazakhstan
Big Almaty Lake in the Tian Shan Mountains near Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Sometimes we seek beauty and sometimes we find it. Sometimes we seek a thrill and it finds us, giving us more than we had bargained for. Along our journey into the Tian Shan Mountains in Kazakhstan, we encountered pieces of history, stunning landscape, a draining hike, and the softer side of Almaty. The only thing missing: a map.

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Kazakhstan’s Postal Police

You know you are in trouble when the only people in the place who smile at you are the missionaries.

A trip to the post office in each country we visit is pretty standard for us. We dread it because of the time it usually eats up, but we always find ourselves making the journey in order to mail backup DVDs of our photos or an occasional postcard. From a cultural anthropological point of view, however, a trip to the post office affords us another slice of real life and provides a window into how a country actually works (or doesn’t).

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Uzbekistan? Overchargistan!

Shaft us once, shame on you. Shaft us twice, shame on us. Try and shaft us repeatedly and charge our friends $1.00 for a few teaspoons of sugar, and we write a blog post about you. [Yes, one of our travel mates was repeatedly charged for sugar – and outrageous sums, no less.]

Apologies to all of our recently acquired Uzbek friends, but rip-offs in Uzbekistan – particularly along the touristy parts of the Silk Road – seem endemic.

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A Real Peek at Uzbekistan’s Silk Road: A Scavenger Hunt

We unintentionally followed the Silk Road in reverse order – from somewhere near its western end in Tbilisi, Georgia to its eastern terminus in Xi'an, China. Although our first taste of UNESCO Silk Road sites occurred in Turkmenistan (Merv), Uzbekistan is where the Silk Road unexpectedly reaches a sophisticated tourist marketing level.

Silk Road City - Bukhara, Uzbekistan
Silk Road city of Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Don't worry, we won't bore you with a bullet list of must-see Silk Road sites.

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Reflections: Expectations and Delivery in Turkmenistan

While planning our itinerary through Central Asia, we dismissed Turkmenistan mainly due to Audrey's impressions of the place. She envisioned a dark, totalitarian state where people mysteriously die in jail. The outlandish whimsical declarations of its leader, Turkmenbashi, would be humorous if they didn’t encase the six million people living there in a difficult reality. Having worked with Turkmenistan and some of its neighbors in the job she’d recently departed, Audrey was certain this wasn’t her vivid imagination running wild.

Dan kept Turkmenistan in sight and brought it up often enough to keep it on the radar of travel possibilities.

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Kicking Up 4000 Years of History in Turkmenistan

If a baby died, its bones would be kept in a ceramic jar in the house.

— Our guide Oleg providing another fascinating background tidbit on the ruins at Gonur Depe, Turkmenistan.

Fifteen minutes later, one of us literally kicked up the fragmented top of an ancient ceramic urn encrusted with earth and filled with small bones. The bit about the bones may sound morbid, but when you realize that what you just overturned with your hiking boots probably dates back 1000s of years, it becomes a really cool find.

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Reflections: Crossing the Caspian Sea

Your trip across the Caspian may provide some of the scariest and most fulfilling moments of your entire journey.

— A veteran journalist we met in Tbilisi, Georgia who had seen it all in the former Soviet Union.

Although we are posting this from Pingyao, China, we dial back a few clicks to the beginning of our journey in Central Asia in an attempt to adequately address the images in our mind and the notes in our journals.

Oddly shaped like a damaged index finger or a distressed plume of smoke, the Caspian Sea pumps out oil and caviar in the midst of the surrounding desert and extreme landscape.

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