Monday, 12 February 2018

Bukhara - an ancient city in Central Asia's Uzbekistan

Kalon Mosque and Minaret

One of my favourite Silk Road cities is the town of Bukhara, located a few hours west of Samarkand. Like Samarkand, Bukhara is also home to significant and stunning architectural sites (like the Ark, Po-i-Kalyan and Char Minar), however while they may not be as grand in size and scale, it is the city as a whole that makes Bukhara a truly special destination. The Old Town in particular has an atmosphere and feel that in moments will make you feel as if you have travelled back in time. You will see people living their day-to-day lives, in their beautiful courtyard houses, whilst also being surrounded by historic architecture and significant monuments.

The heart of the Old Town is Lab-i-Hauz, a beautiful pool and courtyard-like area, surrounded by old Madrassas (buildings for Islamic education). It makes for a great place to rest under the shade and take time out when exploring the city - especially in the scorching hot summer. In fact, you’ll notice the town has a few ponds dotted throughout, another unique feature. These were much more common and were once Bukhara’s main source of water, however most were filled in during the 1920s to stop the spread of disease. However, on my visit they were being used by local kids as spot for swimming.

Your Uzbekistan trip should include another highlight is the Taqi-Zargaron market, also known as the Trading Domes, and is the spot for picking up a gorgeous souvenir. There are carpet sellers, antique dealers and jewellers all under the one roof, which happens to be a collection of beautiful (and quite minimal) domes. You will find the usual mass produced items here, but you will also find some truly unique Silk Road treasures, especially of the textile variety. Suzanis (embroidered blankets which were used as part of a dowry), ikat fabrics (dyed fibres that are woven, creating beautiful patterns) and traditional clothing items are all here in various shapes and sizes.  

After travelling throughout Central Asia you may start  to feel a bit fatigued with the Blue Domes and Madrassas, however the Old Town of Bukhara and it’s inhabitants are what make this city a really special experience and a standout on your Silk Road journey.
Tour Uzbekistan and the rest of ‘the Stans’ with Blue Dot Travel! Click here.
Map of Uzbekistan

One of the many characterful faces of Bukhara
The Ark of Bukhara

Traditional ceramics

Kalon Mosque

Lab-i Hauz

Some of the local wild life

Colourful Ikat fabrics
Bukhara Old Town

Black tea

A traditional Bukhara mansion

Overlooking Bukhara

Samarkand, Uzbekistan on the Silk Road - the ancient trade route linking China to the Mediterranean

Exploring Samarkand


Samarkand. It conjures up so much when you say the name. One of the oldest inhabited cities of Central Asia, Samarkand was a legendary stop along the Silk Road, being strategically situated between China and Europe, in modern day Uzbekistan.

During the 14th century, Samarkand came under the rule of the conqueror Tamerlane who had a passion and commitment for the arts. In fact, it is said that while being ruthless with his enemies, he would spare the lives of skilled artisans and craftspeople and bring them to Samarkand to improve the city - and the result of such compassion is clearly seen through the city’s ornate architecture. With an impressive skyline of domes and minarets you can easily see why Samarkand is the star destination of Uzbekistan. Looking more closely at each of these sights reveals an incredible amount of intricate detail with the use of ornate tile work in an array of blues and turquoises.

No trip to Uzbekistan would be complete without visiting these notable architectural marvels:
The Registan - a public square surround by three madrasas, Ulugh Beg, Tilya Kori and Sher-Doh.
Babi-Khanym - one of the most important buildings in Samarkand - it was once the largest and grandest mosques in the world.
Gur-e Amir - a mausoleum which contains the tombs of Tamerlane and his sons.
Shah-i-Zinda - a necropolis that contains a cluster of mausoleums and areas for religious rituals.

Not only is Samarkand an architecturally significant city, it still is home to many craftspeople and artisans, and thus you will see an abundance of hand made textile and ceramic pieces including embroidered suzanis and hand painted dinnerware, which make for a special Silk Road souvenir for your home.

After exploring each of the amazing sights in Samarkand, sit back, have some tea and enjoy the incredible city skyline that sits before your eyes.   The best time to visit Uzbekistan is Spring (April to May) & Autumn (September to early November).

Book your trip to Uzbekistan and the rest of ‘the Stans’ with Blue Dot! Click here.

Map of Uzbekistan

Tile details at the Registan

Sher-Dor Madrasah

Handcrafts for sale at local markets

Blue Dot on tour
The entrance to Gur-e Amir
Inside Gur-e Amir

Dried fruits and nuts at a local market

The ornate and stunning Shah-i-Zinda

Beautiful tile details at Shah-i-Zinda

Walking through Shah-i-Zinda

Bibi-Khanym Mosque

Enjoying the peace and quiet

The Samarkand skyline

Monday, 29 January 2018

Nalychevo National Park - Kamchatka - Far East Russia

Photos Blue Dot Travel

Lonely Planet claims one of the most accessible attractions for hearty independent travellers is this nature park encompassing lovely Nalychevo Valley and the twelve volcanoes (four active) that surround it.  It earned its UNESCO World Heritage Site listing due to its natural beauty and offers visitors hidden thermal and mineral springs, comfortable walking tracks, magnificent mountain views, a main base area with accommodation of new huts/chalets, a camping area, information centre and museum, plus armed Park Rangers who maintain the pristine area and act as protection against the (supposed) many brown bears.  

The water of the natural thermal and mineral springs gives health, energy and quite simply, puts people in a good mood. Mind you, we were already in a positive frame of mind after our helicopter arrival when on settling in to our digs, we were pleased to have our own basic but clean huts nestled in a perfect place to hibernate in warmth during the snow season.  We had our own dining area and a lady who had specially come with us on the helicopter had the important task of feeding us.  She excelled with all the meals that included salmon, caviar, fresh salads, chocolates and more.  

There are no showers here but who needed them?  We had several walks through low fields of flowers to the river and the three thermal pools where we all swam.  Our guide smeared what looked like slime on her face and assured us it was good for the skin but we all decided we were past looking beautiful and left her to it. 

With the fresh air, wonderful scenery and our small compatible group of travellers we enjoyed many a stroll through the floral fields, taking the time to stop along the way and look for special flowers, pick berries and mushrooms and take photos.  

It's hard to describe the rare beauty of this place and the feeling of good fortune in having experienced it first hand, truly out in the middle of nowhere. And while doing nothing particularly exceptional, we all relished the privilege of experiencing nature at its very best in such a rare and remote setting.  

Our next Blue Dot Travel adventure to this wonderful place is in August 2019.  Interested?  click here for more information.  

Monday, 22 January 2018

Ile Sainte Marie or Nosy Borah, Madagascar

Words and photos by Brett Goulston 

Off the north east coast of Madagascar lies the tropical island of Sainte Marie, a place where bragging rights are assured because you can almost certainly be sure nobody you know will have heard of let alone this majestic island.  The word paradise simply doesn’t do it justice!

This best way to reach this small island - barely 50km from top to bottom and very narrow - is to fly from Madagascar itself. Air Madagascar flights are frequent but frankly, not known for their accurate departure and arrival times.  Book a minimum of two nights on Ile Sainte Marie but three or four is even better!   

I first travelled to the island with a small group. We booked into the Masoandro Lodge and checked into a delightful bungalow. Run by French woman Anne Baruch Huguet, this is basic but very comfortable accommodation and certainly all you need. The food is great and the views from the restaurant balcony are stunning.  During your stay you can choose to chillax but if you are the more active type, then there is plenty to see and do.    

Around July and August, the humpbacks come to the warm channel to breed. We spotted dozens very close to our boat. My photos may have been average (I'm blaming the stability of the boat) but regardless, it was amazing watching them breach and come up for air. Rent a bike from any of the hotels and, depending on your level of fitness, ride the length or just a section of the island. There is just one road up and down the island so do take care! Make sure you take a tour to the pirate cemetery and book the services of a guide so you can learn the fascinating and somewhat scary history from a few hundred years ago. There is one absolute must-do on the island: head to its southern tip by 4WD to the smaller island of Ile aux Nattes. Canoe or take a small boat across the channel of 200-300 metres, depending on tides. There are a few small villages and a bar or two serving lunch. The bar where we lunched served lobster which was to die for! Our cook assured us it was caught that very morning and judging by the freshness, I doubt he was fibbing!  

Blue Dot Travel's next small group tour to Ile Sainte Marie and Madagascar departs August 2019. Do yourself a favour and hop on board. Click here for more information.