Fast trains in Ancient Samarkand

In Samarkand


These are just my impressions, but there are some things that I really like about Uzbekistan. The people that I have met have been friendly, generous, honest and gracious. The streets are clean, and the infrastructure works well. The cars stop at crosswalks and people smile. The storekeepers want to sell things, and they bargain, but it is nothing like the pushy attitude of India or West African nations that I am more used to. Most of the historical sites have been meticulously renovated and the locals are eager to meet tourists and express their pride in the country. Three boys wanted to take a photo with me today, and I wish I could see how they end up twenty years from now.

These boys wanted a photo with me


This is the first time that I have visited a former Soviet state besides the Baltic States. Lithuania could have ended up like Denmark or Finland now had it not been occupied. Uzbekistan may have ended up like Afghanistan or Pakistan, Syria or Iran. Big difference, and it probably affects the social consciousness of the respective countries. The occupation perhaps led to a more secular society here, and there seems to be very little of Muslim fundamentalism. I am not at all a historian or social scientist, but in my mind, things worked out pretty well for this country in the end. There is a long way to go, in terms of environmental protection and human rights, but they are on the right path.

Samarkand is quite extraordinary. The Registan ensemble is vast and beautiful and can easily rank with some of the major tourist destinations such as the Eiffel Tower, Taj Mahal, Coliseum or Tiananmen Square. But I am trying to not only do tourist things. I went to a hamam, the baths. But since I don’t speak a word of Tajik, Uzbek or Russian, there was no possibility of communication. The women were giggling when I entered, and I got a massage from one strong local woman for $5. I ended up in the shower and bathtub section instead of the steam room section, which was fine, but not exactly what I wanted. In any case, it was certainly an authentic experience, and it is clear that Uzbek women like tall dark foreign men.

We experienced a scorching hot day in the desert followed by a dust storm in the ancient city of Shahrizabz that coated my clothes and hair in fine sand, followed by sudden cold and damp. Amir Temur was born here. He is the national hero of Uzbekistan, and he conquered vast territories from Iran to India in the 14th century. People here don’t talk about how he was a vicious ruler that ransacked cities across Middle Asia, but instead build statues in his honor.

Dust storm surrounding Amir Temur’s statue in Shahrizabz


How is it possible that there is a fast train in Uzbekistan that travels up to 220 km/hr, but no such train in the USA? We traveled with the Afrosiyob train from Samarkand to Tashkent, 300 km, in 2 hours. It was impressively spacious, and modern.

Fast train in Samarkand!


Before flying back to Europe, I note that it is refreshing to be in a place where people are still relatively unaffected by Western culture. There seems to be some sincerity and perhaps naïveté. Uzbeks don’t have much opportunity to travel, and relatively few tourists come here. It is a nice time to visit this part of the world.

Bukhara: Carpets and Cash

Greetings from Bukhara!


Bukhara was an ancient capital and one of the major stops for caravans along the Silk Road. The 9th and 10th centuries were the golden age for Bukhara and it became an important center for learning in Islam. Then in 1220 Ghengis Khan destroyed the city, and it took several centuries to again rebuild and thrive. Some buildings remain from the early times, but now most of the mosques and madrassas are from the 16th century. It is remarkable to see the old tiles on the mosques and the huge Kalyon minaret built with bricks that used bull’s blood and camel milk instead of water: it remains standing from 1127. The mausoleum of Ismael Samani is one of the oldest structures from the 10th century, and the last Emir’s Summer Palace was completed at the beginning of the 20th century before the Soviets pushed him out and he fled to Afghanistan. It is an immense history that is filled with facts and legends.

What does a modern tourist do in Bukahara? Buy a carpet of course. The region is famous for its beautifully designed rugs. After a lot of bargaining, I managed to find a beautiful carpet that I can’t really afford, but could not resist.

My new Bukhara rug


During the soviet times, the mosques and madrassas were closed, and the beautiful Kolyon Mosque was a warehouse. Now it seems that people have moved on. The times following independence were hard, and now, finally there are some tourists here. It is hard to overcome the reputation of being a “stan” country. I had to call my bank today in the USA to let me use the cash machine, and the person thought I was in Pakistan, and had never heard of Uzbekistan (but she didn’t know Lithuania either).

Uzbekistan has a very tricky monetary system. A dollar is officially worth about 2500 Som, but on the street it is worth about 3600 Som. And nobody takes credit cards, so it is entirely a cash economy. The problem is that the largest notes are 5000 Som. So when lunch costs 36,000 Som, or about $10, it means carrying around bundles of cash. They like dollars. Time for monetary reform!

This was interesting to me: the slaves in Uzbekistan were blonde white Russians with blue eyes. Slaves were sold in Khiva well into the 19th century. Officially the blonde taxi drivers and waitresses of Uzbekistan are descendents of Alexander the great, but I believe that they are more recent descendents of the Russian slaves. Here it is opposite from the rest of the world, and the white people were the oppressed, and their descendents still are in the menial jobs of Khorezm province.

Bukharan Fiesta at Doston House Restaurant


Great vegan options at Doston House in Bukhara. My favorite was dill ravioli in vegetable soup, and samosas cooked in a tandoori oven. There are some nice Indian influences here in Uzbekistan. Next stop: Samarkand.


Khiva, Uzbekistan


Khiva is an ancient walled city with mosques, madrassas, mausoleums and minarets. It is one of the treasures of humankind. It was one of the main cities along the Silk Road, and has 2500 years of history. There is the Juma Mosque with wooden pillars from the 9th century, but the most impressive buildings are from the 19th century, with complex patterns of blue tiles adorning the faces of the various Khans’ architectural wonders. Descended from Genghis Khan, each of the kings over the long time period had a story. Some were extremely violent, one king known as the “Butcher Khan” executed 10 people each day.  Another was a poet. Some had long reigns: others were short-lived. The Khorezm area was an independent kingdom until the Soviets came and took over in 1920.

A wall surrounds the city, and it is a nice stroll from one end to the other. Now it is basically a living museum, but some 200 families still live inside the walls. People sell the black or white traditional hats that look like afros, and silk and wooden items. The weather is perfect now with sunny warm days, but it gets freezing cold in the winter, and unbearably hot in the summer. We have not seen that many tourists (considering its beauty and history), and in the evening kids play outside the ancient mud colored buildings.

This is honestly the traditional hat men wear in Khiva.


Vegan in Khiva: I was very fortunate to find a nice restaurant that serves vegan food. Our guide Ali’s family owns a restaurant called Zoroastr. Plov is the national dish, which is made of rice, carrots, spices and raisins. Usually it is made with meat, but I got a vegan version. Pumpkin samosas, green noodles, dill-filled raviolis, and pumpkin soup made me very happy.

But what are people doing growing rice in the middle of a desert?! Rice is one of the most water-consuming crops known, but yet, while driving through this arid land, we saw many fields submerged in water for rice agriculture. The once huge flowing Amu Darya River is now diverted to grow rice, cotton, wheat and mulberry trees to feed silk worms. This has led to one of largest environmental disasters ever created by humans; the depletion of the Aral Sea. We crossed the river near Urgench, and it was shallow and full of silt. By the time it reaches the Aral Sea, it is gone. Now the Aral Sea is basically gone. This was a region rich in wildlife, biodiversity and natural beauty, but one friend in Tashkent said that it is now salty and bitter and nothing could possibly survive in the water. “The ancient oasis of rivers, lakes, reed marshes, forests and farms are drying up and being poisoned by wind-borne salt as well as fertilizer and pesticide residues from the dried bed of the Aral Sea.”  This is a prime example of how our planet is being transformed before our eyes by the arrogance of our species. I will not comment on human rights abuses in Uzbekistan.


Fortresses from more than a thousand years ago are scattered in the desert of Karakalpakstan. This is an autonomous region of Uzbekistan; basically a state within a state. The ruins are made of mud and soft bricks and although they are world heritage sites, they are crumbling underneath the feet of tourists and whoever wants to walk on them. The archeologists are gone, and the treasures that were there are now housed in Russian museums, thousands of kilometers away. What is left are the ruins from the 4th, 7th and 13th century, exposed to the desert sun. It is fun to walk on these ancient places, as if we were discovering them for the first time, but again, they won’t be around long if they are not protected. They were excavated from the sand that preserved them for hundreds of years, but now exposed to the elements and people, I don’t see them lasting more than a generation. Now there are nomadic people hosting the few tourists in yurts.

Young women making silk carpets


There are wood workers and I watched women making traditional silk carpets.  I hear some Khorezm music outside the window, but the internet works here, near the border of Turkmenistan, in this ancient place.

O’zbekiston salomlar

Greetings from Uzbekistan! The weather is rather warm, and sunny, and the wide Soviet-built avenues are clean and spacious with white cars zipping around on this Sunday morning. What am I doing in Uzbekistan? This sabbatical is a time for exploration, and seeing some new places. It gives me the opportunity to spend some time with my father, and he and I have always wanted to visit the cities along the Silk Road. We are on a father/son adventure.

Landed in the middle of the night at Tashkent Airport. No problem getting a visa at the airport.
At the Earthquake Memorial. The entire city was rebuilt after the 1966 earthquake.


Tashkent is the largest city in Central Asia, and there may be up to 4.5 million people here. The Aeroflot airplane from St. Petersburg was full of happy Uzbek people who clapped and cheered when we landed late at night in Tashkent. I noticed that the Aeroflot flights had no first, or business class seats; perhaps a remnant of the socialist era. It is a nice feeling to not have to walk by the people in first class and know that you are not a second or third class passenger. In capitalistic societies, we just accept the class divides but they really don’t have to be there. They also served no alcohol, and since I don’t drink, I also appreciated that.

I do not understand a word of this language, nor Russian, but people have been very friendly and helpful. It is a meat eater’s paradise, but we found delicious dried apricots stuffed with nuts and raisins at the big Chorsu market. We ate at an Indian restaurant, and are impressed with the eagerness of people to help. It is a relatively undiscovered place for tourism, and we are benefiting from the people generous with their smiles and peaceful friendly attitudes.

Tashkent is very clean and organized. The subway is cheap, beautifully maintained and easy to navigate, with art at every station. I was imagining a crowded city that would resemble Delhi or Istanbul, but instead I am experiencing a modern metropolis with big parks and tree-lined avenues. The guide that showed us around today spoke lovely English and told us her opinions about the government. It is dictatorial, but she believes that it is necessary to have a powerful regime to hold this very diverse country together, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union. She would love to live in a true democracy, but right now understands and supports the present regime.

I met a group of working men at Independence Square who wanted to take photos with me, and one taxi driver asked if I was an athlete; made me feel good.  Some children also stopped me to get a photo with me.  I liked the ornate mosque and the museums filled with ornate woven and embroidered handiworks. Tomorrow I will report more from the ancient city of Khiva, and then from Bukhara and Samarkand. An amazing country.

Il Sentiero degli Dei


This is the walk of the gods, between Bomerano and Positano on the Amalfi Coast. The views are hard to describe, but they are spectacular, with the cliffs and then small churches, followed by the view of the islands including Capri, and the seaside resort of Positano. It is a 3-hour hike through nature along the cliffs.

Along the Amalfi Coast, I have seen the main towns, Positano, Praiano, Nocelle, Amalfi, Ravello, and Minori. My favorite was Ravello and the surrounding areas. Ravello has the music festivals and the wealthy visitors, but there are also farmers and sheepherders in the same area. The views of the sea and the quaint piazzas with people eating their pizzas and pasta make it pretty irresistible. I liked the auditorium designed by Oscar Niemeyer, who designed the church that I visited in Belo Horizonte, Brazil in November.  It was a nice surprise to see his architecture here.  April is the right time to visit; warm with beautiful weather, and not too many tourists. I can only imagine that in the summer it would be hot and crowded.

A very lovely beach between Positano and Laurito enticed me to swim in the chilly water. Pizza marinara and pastas with zucchini fill my stomach. Then the drives on the bus zig-zagging while hugging the cliffs make me wish I hadn’t eaten those meals. There are lemon trees on every hill, and ceramic shops selling lemon-motif dishes in every town.  I had never heard of the Amalfi Coast before, but now I would like to make it a regular vacation spot.

Amalfi Coast

Ravinder in Capri


I am enjoying a quick trip to Southern Italy to replenish my vitamin D, and see a completely different part of Europe. It is hard to believe that the European Union contains such completely different cultures. Lithuania, Sweden and Italy have nearly nothing in common, but they are all part of the same union. It is quite amazing that the EU functions at all.

The first impressions of Napoli, Italy are unfortunately of a city with a lot of trash problems. Traffic is haphazard, and some things don’t quite make sense. For example, why is the subway system cheaper than the bus system, but fewer people seem to use the subways? There is clearly a lot of underemployment, and it is quite poor. The city is diverse with people from Africa and Pakistan among the Italians. The archeological museum could not keep all the rooms open, due to lack of funds. It is not a rich city. But the history and riches of culture are truly incredible.

Trash in Beautiful Napoli


I had no idea what to expect of Pompeii. Unfortunately, I never really studied much history from that time period. The train ride to Pompeii is just about 40 minutes, and suddenly you are in a 2000-year-old city. Of course I knew about Vesuvius and the eruption that devastated the city in the year 79, and killed and entombed people while they were trying to escape with gas and ashes. But I wasn’t aware of the incredible art, and the vastness of the spaces. The mansions and bakeries, the baths and brothels. It doesn’t require a lot of imagination to visualize how life was then, and how in reality, we are not much different today. Herculaneum is also fantastic, and although much smaller, it is perhaps better preserved, and there are even 2000 year old wooden doors, and shelves in the ancient stores. These places are impressive.

The National Archeological Museum in Napoli is full of the treasures from Pompeii. The mosaics could have been done yesterday, with bright colors and some surrealistic scenes. Huge roman statues and paintings that seem much more modern than what was done 1000 years later.

Pizza marinara! People pay more than $20 for this kind of pizza in San Francisco, and here it is about $4. Absolutely delicious at Pizzeria da St. Michele, and also Pizzeria Sorbillo. What I love is that at one of the most famous pizza places in the world (da St. Michele), they only have two types, marinara (vegan) and margarita (with cheese).

Pizza Marinara


Today the sun shone in Capri. This is the island of the rich and famous just 45 minutes from Naples.   It is a different world. The views of the natural beauty next to the clear deep blue sea with jumping dolphins and lemon orchards clarify why this is a world destination. No boats were going to the blue grotto, but I got to hike and explore several parts of the island. The house of Axel Munthe, a Swedish doctor who lives in Anacapri, was probably my favorite historical site. Like me, he was a bird lover, and a vegetarian. I bought his book “Boken om San Michele” and I will start reading it with sincere interest in this part of the world. For the next few days, I will be exploring the wonderful Amalfi Coast in spring by the blue Mediterranean Sea.





Easter in Marijampolė

Full moon in Marijampolė


The full moon in Marijampolė, Lithuania marks the 7th month of my sabbatical. It is Easter here, and because this is a very catholic country, people are out celebrating in full force. The church was standing room only. Since I was here for Easter in 2012, the church has been renovated and it is warmer, despite the freezing temperatures and snow flurries outside. The procession begins with a bonfire, from which people light their candles and pass the holy fire around. During the sermons, the people from Marijampolė are quiet and solemn. Nobody dares to look at their mobile phones. A few children walk around. There must be a thousand people in the church marking the eve before the resurrection of Jesus. To me it seems that this seems some more pagan ritual that has infiltrated the modern Lithuanian/catholic culture. We are celebrating with my uncle, who moved back to Lithuania after independence.

We visited the farm of my grandfather that now belongs to my mother. It is about 45 minutes from Marijampolė, meaning that it is not near anywhere that anyone outside of this small region would know. The nearest small town is Višakio Rūda, where my mom used to go to church as a girl. A man is living there taking care of things. He works at a factory that makes furniture for Ikea. The neighbors down the road know my name, and are expecting that eventually I will be living on the farm. It is rather run down, but 3 friendly dogs and 2 cats on the roof guard the small property. This is where my grandfather with his wife, mother-in-law and 4 young children left Lithuania because of the Russian invasion, headed to Germany, and never came back. My mother now owns the farm, because after independence, she had the legal rights to re-possess it. There are some oak trees, and the furniture maker had just found some very old coins from the days when there was a czarist Russian village nearby. The ground is not very productive, and people are poor, but they have mobile phones and internet. Facebook connects them to the world.

The time in Vilnius is going well. I am always working on papers and grants, and spend some time looking at parasites under the microscope. The weather outside is very grey and cold. It keeps people working and inside. But the cheap airlines of Europe are very tempting. I will see some sun soon.