Oslo based Fabio Buonsanti, from Matera in the Basilicata region of southern Italy, talks about his recent trip through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. While at times he had a nerve wrecking time, our Italian friend survived the ordeal and in the process became a true travel idol of Globerovers Magazine. Watch this space as we follow this incredible man in his travels around the world!
Fabio was educated in Mechanical Engineering and in Solar Energy. He earned a Master’s Degree (Hons) from one of the world’s top research institutions in Renewable Energy and Technology Studies (SUM, University of Oslo) and then joined the Management Team of Aega AS as Head of Operations. Born and raised in southern Italy, Fabio likes football, Formula 1, and travel. He has visited 79 countries and has many countries on his To-Do List of which a trip to the Caribbean is coming up next.
Q1. What was your greatest motivation to visit Central Asia?
In 1998, when I left Italy for the very first time in my life, I would never have anticipated just how much that event would change me. Country after country, adventure after adventure, driven by a continuous and an inexhaustible need of adrenaline and knowledge, I have travelled through diverse landscapes and ethnicities, facing beauties and issues that back then I would never have expected to encounter. From the North Pole to Borneo; from China to Baja California; Iceland, the Atlas Mountains, the Philippines, Transnistria, and Iran, to mention a few.
Travelling became my new lifestyle and I’m in love with it.
As I pushed myself further and further away from home, I realized that this was what I wanted to be. This was what made me truly happy, and this was my way of grasping new energy. It was in such a setting that my idea was born to explore Central Asia.
I had only one main source of travels in Central Asia: the Book of the Marvels of the World (in Italian ‘Il Milione’), a 13th century travelogue describing Marco Polo’s experience at the court of Kublai Khan, and his travels between 1276 and 1291 throughout Asia, Persia, China, and Indonesia on the so-called Silk Road.
As a kid that book was an item that I would take along with me even to the toilet. It was one of the few things I grew up with, together with my atlas, my stamp albums, and a football of course. Lately, in addition to Marco Polo’s writings, the reports from two of the most esteemed travel buddies of mine (Peter Steyn at Globerovers Magazine and Tay-young Pak) revived and triggered my desire to explore Central Asia.
After some serious deliberating, I plunged in and booked a flight to Osh (Kyrgyzstan), via Istanbul (Turkey) and Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan). To ensure I don’t conquer this region alone, I managed to organize a group of six like-minded and “tough-enough” friends, ready to face this demanding trip during the late winter of March / April 2015.
Q2: Which countries did you visit and which one country did you find the most exciting?
In order of visit, we crossed Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and ended in Kazakhstan. Despite all of these countries being special in their own way, Tajikistan is the country that most impressed me and offered me the most memorable experiences.
Q3: For each country you visited, which experiences were the highlights during your trip?
Located in the Fergana Valley, the city of Osh is the entry point for few of the intrepid travellers who arrive in Central Asia. Most travellers start their road journeys in either Bishkek or Tashkent as these cities have relatively good connections with cities like Istanbul and some European cities. Against the mainstream we decided instead to start our journey from Osh.
Osh, with its rich history of caravans on the Silk Road that goes back 3,000 years, is considered by many to be the cultural capital of Kyrgyzstan. It is a bustling city and home to more than a quarter of a million people. Osh is known for its frenetic bazar, which is the largest and most crowded outdoor market in the whole of Central Asia. Here, we had the best lunch of the entire trip. The shish kebab with onions, fresh bread, and tea was absolutely scrumptious!
Our interaction with the people of Kyrgyzstan was incredible. People constantly smiled at us and the very few who could speak at least some words of English approached us and tried to make some small talk. Many even asked to keep in touch with us via email or chat-apps such as WhatsApp. Taking a selfie with a Westerner or having them as a Facebook friend is very cool in Kyrgyzstan these days.
In Osh, apart from sightseeing around town, including a climb up Sulayman Mountain for a breathtaking view over the city and the mountains, we prepared all the essentials for our long trip along the infamous Pamir Highway (the M41 highway). We arranged a car with a driver and loaded our backpacks with water, medication, and snacks. Plastic containers with extra fuel for our car were also loaded.
Once we left Osh, we quickly realized that nothing would be the same again. The road, while largely paved for the first 150 km, was almost completely deserted. Surrounded by majestic mountains, the persistent wind was slowly becoming colder and colder as we travelled further south.
As we arrived in the village of Sary Tash (183 km to the south at an elevation of 3,170 m) it felt like we were dumped into the deep freeze of winter. Sary Tash is the last village at the edge of Kyrgyzstan and is the convergence point of the Chinese, Tajik and Kyrgyz roads. This place once was a strategic point in the silk trade, before opium and iron became more popular. Today, only a few poorly kept houses remain, surrounded by a vast flat valley, void of any significant vegetation and where the feeling of loneliness is overwhelming. Unaware of what else we could encounter further along the Pamir Highway, we described Sary Tash as the most depressive place on earth. As we stopped at a small shop for the last hot soup for a long time, we were offered a glass of Kumis, the national Kyrgyz drink. Kumis is a slightly alcoholic, fermented beverage made from mare’s milk. Its impossible to describe the taste, but suffice to say that I could not manage to drink more than a sip.
The road from Sary Tash to the Tajik border was in a debilitating state though the scenery absolutely stunning. “Welcome to the Pamir Highway” our driver announced with a mischievous grin.
Moving along at an average speed of 25 km/h in our very uncomfortable, old and noisy Mitsubishi Pajero, and knowing that many driving hours still lay ahead of us, we all started to show signs of fatigue. Our happy mood had come crashing down, but at this stage of the journey there was absolutely no option of turning around.
When we crossed the Kyrgyz/Tajik border we had to show our pre-arranged permit to enter the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) of Tajikistan. While the GBAO makes up 45% of the land area of Tajikistan, it accounts from a mere 3% of the country’s population.
When we finally arrived in the village of Karakul on the shores of Karakul Lake, it was almost dark. Our driver’s sister hosted us in her basic home, filled with happy faces. The village is located along the shores of this eponymous lake, known for its turquoise beauty, though often described as the “black lake”. To our disappointment, the lake surface was pure white – entirely frozen.
Even though spring was around the corner, the night temperature went down to -25°C. I then decided that the village of Karakul was the most desolate place I had ever experienced in my life. If there is one place on earth I can match with how I imagine the moon looks like, then this is definitely the place!
The few houses here are made of mud with most painted white. They are all heated by burning dried goat’s dung that creates a lot of smoke. The national electricity grid does not reach these remote areas of Tajikistan, so the few inhabitants must rely on their own generators to light up a bulb or two for a couple of hours during dinner time.
My impression of Karakul is one of ‘none of everything’. No asphalt roads, no shops, no beds, no pillows, no plastic bags, no inside toilets, no hot water, no sinks, no restaurants, no hospitals, and the list goes on! It is a place without time in which goat farming is the only way to survive. It’s a tough place!
Marco Polo defined this part of the Pamir Highway as: “No birds fly here because of the height and the cold. Fire is not bright and it changes color. It does not burn well. Also, food does not cook well”. (Marco Polo quoted [c. 1271 – c. 1295] in the Italian version of National Graphic by: Brennecke, D. (2005): I Viaggi di Marco Polo. Vercelli: White Star).
At nearly 4,700 m above sea level at Ak-Baital Pass, located almost halfway between Murghab and Karakul, we all suffered from varying levels of altitude sickness. Also known as acute mountain sickness (AMS), it causes hypoxemia (low blood oxygen) which results in persistent nausea and headaches which then lead to severe, acute insomnia. The first night in Karakul must have been the longest night of my life. The AMS kicked in quite rapidly. Throughout the night the wind gusted at storm strength while I suffered from severe discomfort. My heart was beating faster and irregularly, and I needed to breath twice as much to get enough oxygen in my system. At the same time I felt cold and hot and had a non-stop urge to puke my lungs out. A terrible experience!
I am convinced that, considering the period of the year, it was not wise to start the Pamir Highway from its highest elevation on the eastern frontier. Our bodies did not have enough time to acclimatize to the high altitude! Next time we will know better and start the journey from the west. That is, next time in a next life!
Completely “stoned”, we continued our journey further south along the China border until we eventually reached the small town of Murghab. Once again we were hosted at another sister of our drivers’ for the next two nights. Murghab is bigger than Karakul and the living standards here seemed also slightly higher. At least we found a tiny market and a couple of shops which sell candies, potatoes, onions and a few other items.
An unforgettable experience in Murghab was when we bought a football and started playing with the local kids in the middle of the market. However, we could not play a good game as we found it totally exhaustive to play at such high altitude!
Our trip continued, alternating from snowstorms to breathtaking landscapes to tire punctures which further slowed our journey to Khorog in the east along the border with Afghanistan.
Khorog is famous for being the gateway of the Afghan opium trade into Tajikistan, destined for places such as Russia, Eastern Europe, and China. This explains the high number of road checkpoints in the area.
Despite all issues we encountered, the Pamir Highway in all its length, from Osh west to Khorog and then northwest up to the capital, Dushanbe, remains one of the world’s greatest road trips. For me it has also been one of the most dangerous road trips. It was long and exhaustive as we had to cope with terrible weather conditions, altitude sickness, lack of infrastructure, corrupt police, people involved in dirty business, avalanches, and awful night driving on very dangerous roads where graves are definitely higher in number than all the living people we met along the way.
When it comes to the country itself, Tajikistan appeared to be a fragile mixture of clans, dialects and identities, forged together by nothing more than the Soviet past, poverty, corruption, and perhaps the shared hope for a peaceful future. Luckily, the spectacular scenery provided by the so-called “Roof of the World” by far outweighed all the risks and discomfort.
Our experience in Afghanistan is the result of a contrast between the countryside and the small villages.
The Afghan Pamir snowcapped peaks and glaciers dominate majestically over the Panj valley, in a land of immense scale, beauty and contrast that seems to extend forever. All is so incredibly beautiful. Here, it is more likely to bump into a big-horned sheep, a brown bear, or a landmine, than another human being. However, what really defined my short experience in the few visited villages of northern Afghanistan, is fear. Maybe I had too many warnings about visiting Afghanistan and as I was walking around, in my mind I kept hearing people saying: “Why do you want to be a tourist in a war zone?”
Time in Afghan villages seems to have come to a halt two centuries ago. People looked at us as if we were aliens from another planet. In one of the northernmost villages, we stumbled upon a market and decided to explore it. In just a few minutes we had kids and adults all around us begging for money, food, and any handouts. Police intervened and brought us to their local office where we were warned about the dangers of the area. Apparently, less than two months earlier the Taliban once again invaded this part of Afghanistan.
Uzbekistan was somewhat of a culture shock from the very first moment we entered. I’m not sure why the shock. It could be that it was in the middle of the night when we crossed the border, or because I had just been in Afghanistan. Or simply because I am an Italian from the south.
At the border I was interrogated for 2.5 hours, longer than any of my travel mates, by several short, overweight policemen, all of whom had shiny golden teeth. It is very fashionable in Uzbekistan to pull out teeth even at a young age, and substitute them with golden teeth as a way of gaining social status. During the tedious interrogation I was asked to empty my backpack on a table. T-shirt after t-shirt, underwear after underwear, shoes, everything. Every item of my backpack was carefully checked.
However, apparently not satisfied with their first round of checking, they then scrutinized my iPhone and MacBook for videos, pictures, and music, which they methodically scanned. Still not satisfied one policemen stuttered: “Where is porn?” at which I replied: “At home in Norway!” My cocky answer provoked a beautiful golden-toothed grin.
They were mesmerized by my ear-cartilage piercings and their touching was accompanied by discussions in Uzbek followed by laughter.
When I thought the ordeal was finally over, the oldest and biggest policeman made a sign for me to join him in another room, where he asked me to completely undress. He then continued his search!
The Uzbek border crossing was a very unusual and unpleasant experience. Experienced travellers know that one has to cope with such situations. However, forever and ever will I associate Uzbekistan with shiny golden toothed policemen at the border crossing and their humiliating interrogation.
Bukhara and Samarqand are home to incredible World Heritage Sites, yet they are simply void of tourists. While in the old town of Bukhara, it takes no effort to close the eyes, imagine turning back time a few hundred years, and see the caravans, camels and merchants. Simply magic!
Kazakhstan is the world’s largest landlocked country by land area, so it is hardly impossible to offer any comments as we only saw a fraction of this vast country. As we travelled through the city of Shymkent and the surrounding areas of southern Kazakhstan, there wasn’t much of interest to travellers. These areas have completely lost that “Silk Road” atmosphere which was so evident in other parts of Central Asia. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the huge wide-open spaces and plenty of wild horses we met on our way back to Bishkek, where we first landed. Think of Kazakhstan as an enormous, beautiful, flat place, surrounded by mountains that serve as some of its borders.
Q4: Which areas or specific places across Central Asia that you visited would you recommend are not to be missed by travellers?
If you are into adrenaline travelling, take the Pamir Highway through its entire length. It is an expensive and demanding trip. Make sure you plan enough days and take good care of yourself!
Samarqand and Bukhara in Uzbekistan, too, are not to be missed. Silk Road at its best!
Q5: Which areas or specific places did you not visit, which you would highly recommend travellers should visit?
Considering the time of the year when I visited Central Asia (March-April), I definitely missed most of the beauty on offer by Kyrgyzstan such as staying in yurts along the shores of the big lakes, grazing horses on the green jailoo summer pastures, hiking and camping next to glacial lakes high in the mountains, and so much more. Kyrgyzstan is probably the Central Asian country that loses the most of its appeal during the off-season period. Remember, early spring in Central Asia is still deep winter.
In Karakul, Tajikistan, people manage to survive in a hostile, extreme environment, far away from what we commonly define as “civilization”. Although these people have nothing, they gave us more than anybody else.
Q7: And where do you feel you met the most friendly and hospitable people?
In Osh, Kyrgyzstan we met with the friendliest people of Central Asia. A big group of locals invited us to their private party and made us the special guests of the event. Dancing with them has probably been one of the funniest events of the trip.
Q8: Tell us about the food in Central Asia. Where did you find the most exceptional food?
However, having said that, the food was quite similar all across Central Asia, and always lamb-based. Among the most common dishes are Shorpa (lamb soup with heavy fatty broth), Manty (boiled dumplings filled with lamb), and of course Plov (cooked in a lot of different ways) can easily define the essence of the Central Asian cuisine. The ever present Shish Kebab (shashlik) with meat and grilled onions we were served at the Osh bazar will never be forgotten. Just like the fresh round bread sold everywhere in Uzbekistan. A must-try!
Q9: Some travellers are concerned about safety in Central Asia. Can you address their concerns?
It would be highly misleading to state that Central Asia is free of dangers. At some border crossings in Tajikistan (in particular the ones in Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan) travellers should be aware of the rampant corruption in place. Small cash in your pocket will usually solve most of the issues. Drug trafficking is a fact of reality in this part of the world. Kidnapping in Khorog is common too, just like bribing all over Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. Use common sense and stay away from some markets, mosques, sketchy people, and especially police and the army guys.
Afghanistan remains way too dangerous and no insurance will honour your claims. Ironically, we felt very safe in Uzbekistan, where probably the strict dictatorship plays a major role in keeping the society well in order.
The Stans are countries with enormous ethnical problems, with a high inflation, and a number of other issues left unsolved since the Soviets departed.
The above risks should be added to the always unpredictable weather conditions and to the narrowness of the fascinating Pamir Highway. Make sure your driver takes a rest from time to time, and avoid expecting him to drive at night or in inclement weather. Always bring enough food and fuel on board.
Q10: Another reason why travellers hesitate to visit this region is the perception of poor infrastructure available to travellers such as transportation, accommodation, traveller services and assistance, etc. What was your experience?
Imagine yourself without internet, toilet, bed, electricity, hot water, and shops. Imagine yourself eating the same hard bread for days. If you are lucky, you will have a fatty soup along with the bread.
There are areas in the Stans that will test your adaptation skills. Such areas are not for novice people. On one hand, it is true that one should be ready to expect tough conditions. Yet, it is also true that countries like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and in a way also Kyrgyzstan are way more developed than Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and they will always provide you with a wider and more comfortable choice.