Life on the bumpy road to Kyrgystan was a far cry from their picture-perfect wedding just weeks before they left Ireland, but after 69 days, 18,000km, 43 campsites, 20 countries, eight ferries, five visas and six Harry Potter audiobooks, they returned to Ireland, they say, knowing four things for sure: The world is huge, but very accessible; a smile speaks a thousand foreign hellos; people are kind, and; nature is incredible.
In an extract from e-mails home to friends and family while on the road, Caroline gives an insight to their honeymoon with a difference...
"Hiking in the TienShan mountains for five days was definitely a “high” point"
"I'm currently sitting on a balcony over-looking a pool and in the distance a wide flat river valley with towering mountains on the far side, we're in Georgia! It is as beautiful as we remembered from our trip here five years ago, a few things have changed and the economy has certainly developed more than any of the other countries we have passed through in the last month. We decided to treat ourselves to a bit of luxury – so we are staying in a trendy hotel in the Telavi area of Georgia’s eastern wine region - having had a fairly frustrating and uncomfortable ordeal trying to get out of Turkmenistan.
But first, let me rewind a bit.... I think in my last email I said we'd arrived into Kyrgyzstan, it was such a great surprise to us both and really lived up to the hopes we had had for the place, the most popular of the “Stans”. Hiking in the TienShan mountains for five days was definitely a “high” point, and a chance to use the legs after three weeks of heavy driving through northern Europe, Russia and Kazakhstan. We had snow, hail, blistering heat and wind throughout the five days but enjoyed every moment in crossing the 4,000m pass above Altyn Arashan.
"We found ourselves in a small village, not marked on the map, and in the hands of a nearly deaf octogenarian, whose face was all smiles"
We headed south from central Kyrgyzstan towards the Fergana Valley and a small town call Arslanbob. On the way we got lost and at sunset found ourselves in a small village, not marked on the map, and in the hands of a nearly deaf octogenarian, whose face was all smiles. She was absolutely tickled to be able to jump into the front of Poppy and show us directly to her home a few minutes away, where her daughter-in-law and grandchildren stood open-mouthed at our arrival.
It was magical, the simplicity of their lives and its focus on nature and subsistence was really enviable - all of our lives are so clogged up with “stuff”.
We spent the night there with the family, it also happened to be the national day so we were treated to a freshly slaughtered lamb and the local dish of Plov. Early to rise the next day we headed to our real destination, Arslanbob. On driving up the bumpy roads it felt like we had really arrived at the heart of our adventure, this was the one place we had talked about on multiple occasions and it was such a welcoming town, and homestead, nestled amongst 1,000 hectares of walnut groves with meandering forest tracks and, again, a simplicity to life which we found alluring.
Roger Deakin describes this hidden area of Kyrgyzstan perfectly in his book Wildwood: “as soon as we entered the forest I realised it was full of people. The almost vertical track rose through towering walnuts, their grey, cracked bark swollen and blistered into burrs. They were heroic, dishevelled trees, and they were laden with walnuts.” We found that Arslanbob provided the gateway to the forest and we ventured in by horseback to enjoy all that Deakin had described 10 years prior. We returned to our host family that evening full of the joys of nature, and then drugged by a million walnut leaves, we slept well.
"Samarkand seems to have become a bit of a Disney Land with its growing popularity"
From there we aimed for Uzbekistan, with only one false start, due to a closed border as a result of the tensions in the area. we passed through the border at Osh and travelled to Kokand via the silk factory in Margilon. Incredible to see real silk worms and the harvesting and weaving process, so delicate and a really ancient art, increasingly being overtaken by machines and competition from China.
Then to Samarkand, where we had a chance meeting with two friends who had been at our wedding. A fun time with them, but a surprising time in Samarkand which seems to have become a bit of a Disney Land, a rebuilt (rather than restored) caravanserai – perhaps this is due to its growing popularity and potentially visa free entry in the near future. But nonetheless, we learnt a lot about the Silk Route, the ancient Parthian culture and stories of the most infamous rulers of Samarkand, Tamerlane and Ulugbeg. Bokhara was a similar experience, although we thought the buildings had thus far retained a more genuine feel, the amount of construction going on in the city left us with the feeling it too would turn into a shiny Samarkand in the coming years...
"We've had many interesting conversations with people about Communism, the Soviet Union, religion and identity"
Perhaps most interesting, for us, have been the books we have read as we've travelled through these far flung cities and countries. J has been entrenched in Colin Thubron’s “The Lost Heart of Asia” and then “Shadow of the Silk Road”, such an accurate and brave description of the route that we have followed. I am engrossed in The Great Game, about the political history to this region and of course, Roger Deakin’s book, Wildwood. We've had many interesting conversations with people about Communism, the Soviet Union, religion and identity. It's a confused area, but hopefully the people of “the Stans” are beginning to find their roots from before soviet times, we certainly came across signs of a reversion to the nomadic nature of their past. And now for the news from Turkmenistan... we knew the border would be tricky and slow so we burst with happiness and relief when a well-spoken Turkman met us at the desk and introduced himself as Ilias, our guide for the week.
Even with the help of Ilias the border-crossing process still took five hours (and there was no queue). But this was just a flavour of things to come, a country strangled by bureaucracy.
We spent the next five days chaperoned by Ilias through the ancient cities of Merv, Abiverd, Nisa, Geok-depe, to the fascinating Dervasa gas crater in the Karakum desert and sulphur lakes in the mountains bordering Iran.
It was an incredibly untouched place and we fell in love with its people. Ilias' knowledge of history was limitless and his willingness to talk openly on the country's situation was
refreshing. Our hours together in Poppy were spent listening to his tales and stories of the ancient past.
"Ashgabat was a ghost town - alcohol was banned for the month of September and only clean cars are allowed into the city"
There were many stark reminders that this was a like no other place we have been to. Alcohol banned for the month of September due to the forthcoming Asian Games and only clean cars allowed into the city (Poppy cruised through after a nice man in Arslanbob had given her a surprise clean for us whilst we were out for a walk 'a good machine deserves to be clean', he said).
And then we headed to the Caspian Sea, spirits high at the prospect of a ferry that afternoon, but on arrival 'niet' this ferry didn't take vehicles... so for three days we waited, sleeping in Poppy beside the ferry terminal, rationing our water and food as there was no shop or way of getting more, and with an indeterminable wait we kicked into survival mode. Finally a call for passports and the process of exiting the country began, twelve hours later we were in our cabin and on the open sea - multiple oil and gas rigs dotting the route across to Baku. Gas and oil fuel the economies of the Stans, but for how much longer? The influence of China in all the countries we have passed through is overwhelming and definitely a covert re-enactment of the great game in the 1800s.
Into Azerbaijan, Baku is a pleasant city, more manageable temperatures than anywhere in the past month and a feeling of European influence Georgia is glorious and with a healthy amount of local wine we enjoyed our first evening here. We are now heading to Borjomi and then on to Turkey in the coming days. Likely to be offline for a while as we go back to camping, but will touch base when possible.
Revisit Caroline and Johnny's trip of a lifetime via Instagram @poppy_goes_east
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