By the time I boarded my flight out of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on September 16, I was ready to say goodbye to Central Asia. My three months in the region left me physically and mentally exhausted and all I could think about was getting back home. I struggled through difficult border crossings. I endured hot, sweaty train rides in horribly cramped quarters. I survived the hottest temperatures I have ever encountered in my life. As I wrote earlier, traveling in Central Asia was like running a marathon. It was just plain difficult. But it was also awesome.
When I think back on the three months I spent in the region, there are a lot of things that make me smile:
1. Ice cream
How can you not love a place where they sell ice cream on every corner? Soft serve ice cream, ice cream bars, ice cream sandwiches – you name it, you could find it almost everywhere in Central Asia. Enterprising women even sold ice cream treats out of portable freezers on the train platforms throughout Kazakhstan.
2. Adorable kids
Yes, kids can be adorable everywhere. But Central Asian kids were just particularly cute in my eyes. And they loved to have their picture taken!
3. Amazingly delicious melons
I confess, I have never been a big fan of melons. The watermelon and cantaloupe I have tried in the United States has always tasted a little blah to me. But melons in Central Asia were like a whole different fruit – so sweet, so juicy, so perfect. And they take their melons seriously – Turkmenistan even celebrates National Melon Day in early August.
4. Fascinating history
From nomadic tribes and violent warriors to Silk Road merchants and curious explorers – Central Asia has seen it all. Ancient ruins, underground mosques, vast cemeteries and fully restored madrassahs and mausoleums are sprinkled throughout the region, meaning you can get a taste of the history no matter where you go.
5. Diverse landscapes
Rivers rage and turquoise lakes sparkle in between rocky mountains in Tajikistan. A white marble oasis rises out of the vast, dry desert in Turkmenistan. The tree-lined streets of Tashkent and Samarkand eventually give way to the brown clay buildings of Bukhara and Khiva. Shepherds roam and horses and cows graze throughout green pastures in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan.
6. Meeting other travelers
Back in the dead of winter when I hit a wall and bemoaned the fact that it was so hard to meet other like-minded travelers, my friend Megan assured me that once I got to the ‘Stans, it would be much easier. This may seem counter-intuitive, but she was right. I met more people in Central Asia than anywhere else. I hung out with Adam and Adrian in Bukhara after stalking their Mongol Rally car. I met up with Derrick in Nukus after exchanging messages on Twitter. I traveled with Blanca in Aktau and Aralsk after a random meeting at the migration police office in Aktau. The owner of the guesthouse I stayed at in Zhabagly paired me up for a day hike with a cool Germany guy. I overheard Scott and Jay speaking English at a café in Bishkek and we ended up spending the afternoon exploring the city together. And finally, I spent my last week in Kyrgyzstan with Bene, Sylvain and Alain after a chance encounter at the tourism office in Bokonbaevo. Lesson learned: it is possible to meet fellow travelers everywhere in Central Asia!
7. Conversing with locals
Last but not least, I loved that everyone I met seemed to love that I was visiting their country. When I travel in Europe, I don’t usually feel that anyone really cares I am there. In some cases, I even feel like my presence slightly annoys me them. I can understand that because, in cities like Paris, Rome and Barcelona, tourists are a dime a dozen. In Central Asia, we are a novelty and it shows. Everywhere I went, people were baffled as to why I was there, but they were excited to get to know me at the same time. The Tajik woman who shared a taxi with me to the Uzbekistan border whipped out her smartphone to snap a picture of us together after chatting for just a few minutes. As I rode in a van crossing from Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan, one woman asked me questions in Russian and then translated my answers into Uzbek so the rest of the group could understand. Kazakh girls flocked around to practice their English with me when I visited Beket-Ata. And in Kyrgyzstan, a group of locals insisted on sharing their watermelon with me, Bene and Sylvain as they asked us a thousand questions.
So yes, Central Asia frustrated me with its bureaucracy and Soviet-era ways. It disgusted me with its over reliance on oil in just about every dish (not that it stopped me from eating enormous quantities of plov). And it wore me out with its scorching heat, burning sun and dry, dusty winds.
But more than anything, it gave me some of the best memories, experiences and friendships of my entire thirteen months on the road.