An Uzbek yurt camp and desert stops along the way

Yurt camp in the Kyzylkum Desert

I woke up the last morning in our Bukhara hotel thinking that I’d be sleeping in a yurt that night and hoping I wouldn’t regret having chosen this little adventure. I’d been told there was the possibility that we’d have to share the yurt with another couple. Not great. And what about cleanliness? Vermin? Heat? I knew it got cold at night, but the closest weather forecast I could find showed warm daytime temps and there certainly wasn’t going to be air conditioning. Oh well, we were committed and it would probably be fun, right?

With these concerns in mind, we asked Umid to leave an hour later than our originally planned 9am and to take his time getting us to the yurt camp. We had some stops to make along the way, and it was a long drive into the desert.

Our first stop was at Rabiti Malik, a brick cistern reservoir dating from the 11th century, one of many such domed structures that were constructed at various points along the Silk Road. Water still collected in a deep spot inside. Darting across the highway, we checked out a caravanserai, a place where caravans could shelter for the night. As with most of the historical sites we visited in Uzbekistan, much restoration had been done on both the cistern and caravanserai.

Rabiti Malik cistern and caravanserai

About 2.5 hours from Bukhara, we arrived in Nurata where we enjoyed one of those ample Uzbek meals while lounging on a cushioned topchan, a raised platform with a low table in the center. Afterwards, Umid dropped us off to explore the remains of Alexander the Great’s Nur Fortress and the Chashma Mosque complex and its “miracle” fish situated below it. Perched atop a hill, the fortress dates to the 4th century BC and is probably the oldest surviving ruins in Uzbekistan. It’s now very eroded, looking much like a sandcastle obliterated by a wave.

The Chashma Mosque complex consists of a large main mosque, a smaller mosque and a few other even smaller buildings set on a paved courtyard. A deep pool behind the smaller mosque feeds into a narrow paved canal where we watched men filling large jugs with water. The pool and canal were home to many fish, 10″ or so long, that Umid claimed were never fed, but miraculously lived off nothing but minerals from the water. (I’m skeptical.) I read later that one of the legends about the place claims a meteorite fell on the site of the complex thousands of years ago, causing a spring with healing powers to flow at the site of the fall. Local residents began to call this place “Nur” meaning “light” after the glow of the comet and eventually the town became “Nurata” (nur – light/ray, ata – father = Father of Light). Pilgrims still flock to the site, drawn by the lure of healing waters.

Chashma Mosque complex and ruins of Nur Fortress on the hill

After another hour of driving into the desert, we arrived at Aydar Lake, a vast manmade lake from the Soviet era where waves lapped on a barren shore. [This stop brought us another of Umid’s interesting versions of history: Umid told us the lake was created by an earthquake in the 70’s. Cool story! But wrong.] We stopped at a lonely convenience store and sometime café (now empty) where, as always, Umid seemed to be great friends with the locals. He greeted the proprietress then stretched out on a topchan with his buddies while David and I walked down a low slope and across a wide empty beach to the water. A fresh breeze blew off the lake which felt great, but didn’t encourage us to swim as Umid had suggested.

Aydar Lake

When we wandered back up to find Umid, he clearly feared we’d want to leave too soon. He bought us a cold beer and brought pillows to ensconce us on a topchan a distance from his own where we had total privacy and could lay back enjoying the breeze and the pleasant-if-desolate view of the lake.

Enough stalling! The day was cooling and we were ready to drive on to the yurt camp. Umid knew the way, but new acquaintances of his (a new driver and his Scottish client) needed help. So, we set off across the desert with this car trailing behind us. When we came to an isolated town where Umid was ready to turn off into the desert again, we realized the other car had stopped a block back. In typical unabashed fashion, Umid proceeded to blare the horn, then get out to yell across the distance at the rookie driver to come on and follow us. Of course, we drew the attention of everyone else in town. Finally, the other car caught up to us, the rookie explaining he’d lost his Google Maps signal. Umid scoffed at this and told him to forget Google and follow him. Good advice. The “roads” to the yurt camp were unmarked save for the occasional tire half-buried in the sand.

We arrived to yurt camp in the afternoon with the day cooling nicely and eager to scope out our yurt. A canvas cloth lined with a thick wooly pelt covered the two rickety saloon-type doors to the circular structure. Clean sheets, blankets and pillows waited on two of the five single beds. We were to be the only occupants. Hooray! The center of the domed ceiling rose high above and it and the walls were decorated with long strips of embroidered fabric.

Interior of our yurt

We headed over to where several two-humped Bactrian camels waited. We were joined by David, the Scotsman who’d been in the car behind us. In no time, the two Davids and I were seated and riding high atop our camels through the scruffy desert, camel drivers in local dress escorting us. As the sun dropped lower, the whole scene took on a storybook aspect. This was fun!

Dinner was served in a communal building where drivers and guests ate together. Most of the drivers (who spoke no English or French) sat together at a separate table, but Umid joined us as did our new friend, David from Scotland. Umid’s English, though not perfect, was a huge benefit and other travelers often came to him to ask him to translate things to their own drivers. He was also fun, and a serious food pusher. His own appetite never flagged and he seemed always worried that we must be starving. In addition to our table of English-speakers and the drivers’ table, there was another table of with a small group of English-speakers and a couple of other tables of French tourists traveling together. The camp was clearly nowhere near at capacity which was nice, but there were still enough people to make the atmosphere festive. Shot glasses of vodka were served all around which started a chorus of toasts. The meal was typical Uzbek, hearty and plentiful.

After dinner, we sat round a central campfire listening to a local musician. He played on a two-string instrument made from apricot wood and sang folk tunes that Umid later told us were love songs. The musician was talented and the music far exceeded our expectations. With the stars thick in the inky sky and the air crisp and clear, we relished the experience.

Around yurt camp

Bedtime meant a trip to the communal toilets (separate for men and women) and washing sinks (near to the toilets and for both sexes). There was also a shower or two, but we decided to hold off until we got to a hotel and I think nearly everyone did the same thing. The toilets were immaculately clean and well-stocked with paper. There was also plenty of hot water for washing. I’d wondered about sleeping: Would we be able to hear the other people? Would it be comfortable? Hot, or maybe cold? It turned out to be pretty quiet once the two drivers in a yurt near us stopped talking. They yammered on for 45 minutes or so after everyone else had quieted, sounding like they were standing next to my bed. I could hear someone snoring off in the distance, but they were far from us, thankfully, and not an issue. The beds were comfortable enough and heavy blankets kept us snug as the temperature dropped. No need for a heater on this September night.

The next morning was my birthday, and I woke with a smile to think where it was starting out. At breakfast, Umid presented me with a bouquet of flowers and a box of dark chocolates from Silk Road Destinations and I got a rousing version of “Happy Birthday” from everyone present, too. Totally unexpected, but great. Umid was extremely proud of himself for producing such gifts in the middle of the desert. When the owner of the yurt camp gave me a bottle of local red wine, Umid stated he had a bottle of white wine as well for me. I was overwhelmed.

Umid was nearly as pleased with my birthday flowers and chocolates as I was.

The birthday treats kept coming as we stopped for lunch at a guesthouse in Mitan village. As I stepped out of the car, our hostess greated me with a bunch of roses she’d just cut from her garden, wishing me “Happy Birthday” via Umid. Clearly, Zokir or Umid had called ahead. We spent a delightful break checking out the grounds of our host couple with its flowers, chickens, fruit trees, grapevines and beehives. Our hostess demonstrated baking traditional bread and samsas on the walls of an Uzbek tandoor oven, then let me try it myself. She also made the best plov we had during our entire visit. Lunch was a feast.

Lots of protective gear is required for this type of baking.

After the meal, our hostest brought out a birthday cake and gifted me with a headscarf while her husband brought me a cloth bag of raisins from their own vines. Such generosity touched me and really made this a special birthday.

In borrowed finery (and my birthday scarf and roses) with our charming hosts

All in all, yurt camp and all the stops along the way were big fun and a real change from the Five M’s (mosques, minarets, madrassas, mausoleums and markets) that occupied much of our time in Khiva and Bukhara.

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