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xEurasia Odyssey

A couple of days on the road: petroglyphs, yurts, lake and village

UZBEKISTAN | Tuesday, 20 August 2013 | Views [1246]

Alexander's Fortress

Alexander's Fortress


A Day on the Road


Started the day with a fairly long drive to the Sarmish Petroglyphs, broken up by a stop at a 11th C Caravansaray and an 11th, but remodeled in the 14th C, Cistern, where we took a few pictures.  Not too far from the Caravansaray is a new hotel, so life doesn’t really change much over the centuries.

 We had hoped to be able to drive through a children’s summer camp for access to the petroglyphs, but they wouldn’t let us through, so we had to take the car on a few jeep trails up the mountain.  When it got to the point that it didn’t look like the car was going to make it any further, three of us got out and walked while Kamola stayed back to watch the car and luggage.  Unfortunately, none of us really knew where we were going, but Kahramon was luckily able to ask a couple of men we met on the path where the artwork was.  On the path there was a plum tree fully laden with fresh just ripe fruit, so we had a little pick-me-up thanks to the tree. There was a breeze, but it was a hot wind, so the cool juicy fruit was even more delicious than it might otherwise have been.  The landscape is pretty stark in this region, with crumbly shale on the almost barren hills.  The goats and sheep seemed to do okay, though, and we almost ran into a large herd of both.  The goats led the way down the hill and the sheep followed behind; the two species were together, but each in his/her own territory. After we had walked about a kilometer, we were told by the local villager that we were going in the wrong direction, so we backtracked, stopping at the plum tree again, and went further down the other path.  Amazingly, out of nowhere there were three small streams to cross, with stepping-stones kindly placed by the locals to get across.  The water seemed so out of place yet inviting.  The thought of getting sick, however, kept Paul and me from drinking from it.  After a few more bends in the road, Kahramon pointed to the first petrogylph, a pair who were ecstatically dancing.  From there we were able to see dozens upon dozens more.  Once we really looked, they seemed to be everywhere.  I tried to scramble up to some of the one near the top, and did get some good shots, but baled out it came to boulder and ledge hoping. Kahramon, who seems to be quite adept at most things, took my camera and scurried up the cliffs to get the pictures for me.   I haven’t a clue how old these petroglyphs are, but some definitely look to be at least 5-6,000 BCE, and others as recent as 1,400 CE, as well as the 20th and perhaps 21st C graffiti to contrast with the earlier artistic pieces. There were a number of pictures of gazelle and cow/bull like figures as well as humans, including a long man with a spear, and one, obviously very late, with a horse and rider.  Some were very representational , others not so much.  What I found especially interesting was what was not there, namely geometric or abstract shapes.  All these petroglyphs had to do with living beings, not abstract concepts the way our much much later Native American petroglyphs do.

 We were running out of time, so we had to leave the Samish site earlier than I would have liked, but am grateful for the time there. On the way to Nurata, we briefly stopped at another petroglyph site that Kahramon knew.  This was a real treat as there were camels on the rocks, and single and double humped Bactrian camels. These may well have been ‘just’ from the Middle Ages rather than from any time prior to the Common Era, but it was fascinating to see them nonetheless.

 After taking a battery full of pictures, we drove on to Nurata, which is one of Uzbek Muslims leading holy sites.  For me the most interesting part of this site was what was behind the Friday Mosque and Dome Mosque, namely Alexander the Great’s fortress.  No one knows for sure whether he built the fortress, or just enhanced it, but it is recorded that he spent several months on the site preparing to conquer Samarkand.  Over 1,200 years later Genghis Khan came to conquer the same region and also stayed in Alexander’s fortress.  He decimated the town (& everything else in his way), but didn’t harm Alexander’s site.  After visiting the Friday mosque, Paul and I went up the dirt and packed mud remains of the fortress, walking on the surrounding walls, and taking pictures from the ancient watchtowers.   Being in the same place as Alexander the Great and Ghengis Kahn is a real thrill.

From Nurata we headed directly to the yurt where we are spending the night.  This one even comes with a lightbulb and electricity.  There are at least 12 yurts in a not-quite-closed circle around a fire circle. We are sleeping on mats on the floor and I’m typing this while sitting (most uncomfortably) on the floor.  There is no furniture because the nomads didn’t have any.  They do have camels, even the double-humped kind, which we rode just up and down the dunes for a few minutes before dinner. It was like rocking on a board in ocean waves, which I guess is similar to a camel crossing the waves of the dunes. After our short ride, we had a very substantial dinner of various kinds of salads, chicken noodle soup, Samarkand style Plov, and watermelon.  They even had a red wine – also from Samarkand – for me. I wouldn’t normally buy this wine, but it was a treat to be able to taste the local fruit of the vine.

 After dinner one of the men who works at the site played and sang songs of love and friendship in the nearby Kazakh dialect/language.  He had a beautiful tenor voice and were he living in a major city rather than a tourist yurt camp, could well have a real career as a folksinger.

 It was simply a fabulous day. The temperature has now cooled to about 80 under the starry sky with just over a half moon, making it a once in a lifetime night in the middle of the Uzbekistan desert.


Day 2 of Roadtrip

 This morning we headed off to Aydar Lake, which is about 250 km long. It’s huge and so surprising to see in the middle of the Kyzyl Kum desert. I wasn’t sure how clean the water was, so I didn’t go swimming, just waded around a bit. Paul, however, decided to swim fairly far to an island and back.  I don’t know whether or not this contributed to his stomach problems this evening, but I’m guessing it didn’t help. 

 After the lake we drove to Sentob village with a stop for an Uzbeki picnic.  This translates to stopping on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, without even any nice scenery to eat.  The folks at the yurt camp had provided fried fish for lunch along with french-fries and a cucumber.  I ate the cucumber as I didn’t trust the fish. After the break, we continued on our way across the barren landscape on some fairly tricky jeep track roads.  When we entered the village I was a bit concerned about where we were going to spend the night, but then we headed downhill to a stream and amidst the green was the guesthouse owner waiting for us.  The village is typical for Uzbekistan with almost everyone related to one another.  There are about 3,000 people in Sentob with 200 attending the local school. This evening at dinner the owner, Kahroman and Kamola were discussing how village students do better in school than city students because they are more motivated. It is easier to get a good job and work in the city than it is trying to eek out a livelihood in the village. Though it seems that villagers who do move to the city, always come back for vacation and all their free time.


The oldest son, took us on a couple of different trails to some of the petroglyphs in the area that the family knew of.  I’m not sure that many of the ones we saw are prior to the Common Era, I know most of them were not.  But they did have some interesting Arabic glyphs and one that was in a Persian script near an Arabic one.  The historical connection and conflict between the Arabs and the Persians comes out quite clearly in this small little village.


It is quite peaceful here now, but this must be a very very hard life. The contrast between the cities and the villages is quite stark in Uzbekistan, as it is in most transitional countries, though perhaps not so much as in Turkmenistan given its ultramodern capital.  The wonderful aspect of these rural villages is that they do keep the traditions alive.  Other than updating the furniture and putting in showers and electricity for tourists, our host family lives the way they have for centuries.  The yoghurt is freshly made, the bread comes from their own oven, they have a vegetable garden, a few sheep, a couple of cows, two donkeys and lots of fruit trees by the stream.  Most of their goats and sheep aren’t on site as they are still in the mountains with a shepherd who watches out for the entire village’s livestock in the summer, then brings them back to their owners in the Fall.  The shepherd is paid by head, so each villager pays just for the care of his own animals.


Donkeys are still the major source of transportation in the mountains and rural villages.  They pull carts, are ridden and are loaded down as pack animals.  We were told that the donkey is so important that a villager will pay for medicine for a sick donkey but not for himself.


Our hosts are lucky in that they live by the stream.  I’m sure it was quite different and much more difficult for the people up above the water table.



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