The Pensioner Pilaf Trail

Traveling through Southeast Asia, we came to recognize something we referred to as “The Banana Pancakes Trail.” This is essentially a well-worn tourist circuit where one can stay in cheap hostels and make your way across several countries. Most hostels seemed to offer banana pancakes on their breakfast menu, not exactly authentic local cuisine, hence the name. As we saw it, this trail probably runs from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City, although you could make a more extensive one looping in Myanmar and Laos.Trekking through Southeast Asia, you’re likely going to see some of the same (tourist) faces as you move from place to place. Many others are moving through similar itineraries, also starting their days with healthy breakfasts of pancakes or muesli and such. In Southeast Asia, it seems like the age demographic for tourists is fairly young. I’m sure it depends on your activities, but you’ll see lots of college-aged students and gap-year Europeans backpacking on a budget. On this trip through Central Asia, we’ve noticed a similar “trail”. There is definitely a tourist loop that takes you at least from Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan. It seems like Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan might be the outliers for some tourists. We’ve seen some faces repeat from place to place. However, there’s a very big difference here vs Southeast Asia with the age demographic. It seems like 80-90% of tourists visiting Central Asia are retirement age. We’re now in Uzbekistan, and this is like some kind of pensioner Mecca. I could speculate on why this is…. a reasonable answer might be that there is not much in the way of nightlife in Central Asia and loads of boring museums and ancient buildings. Another possibility is that these countries are far enough down people’s “bucket list” that many don’t get around to visiting them until they’ve almost kicked the bucket. 

Uzbekistan has been the most extreme in terms of quantities of retiree tourists all over the place. I imagine all the low-budget travel documentaries on “The Silk Road”, highlighting the ancient cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, giving busloads of people the same misguided idea that they would be visiting somewhere off the beaten path. I can assure you, the path is well beaten, and unlike neighbors like Tajikistan, it’s replete with curb cuts and wheelchair ramps. Being a tourist hot spot does have it’s advantages though. Our lodging has been pretty nice overall. While the Ramada in Tashkent was a dump, clearly in sharp decline, the boutique hotels we stayed at in Samarkand and Bukhara were both comfortable and charming. There are plenty of English-speaking shopkeepers. The cities have been easy to navigate. For an inexperienced traveler or a family group, Uzbekistan is safe, comfortable, and approachable. It’s probably closer to a Western European tourist destination than any other place in Central Asia. 

The quality and variety of food in Uzbekistan has been, I think, better than the earlier Central Asian stops. The USD exchange rate for the Uzbekistan Som has become extremely favorable. Against USD, Som are now worth less than 25% what they were a few years ago. While some tourist goods and services have adjusted accordingly, many things around town have not. For our group of three, basic meals were often less than $5. At one of the nicer local restaurants in Samarkand (they had a dress code), we were famished and massively over-ordered. Our spread, including drinks and beer, was less than $20. Even on the tightest budget, you won’t be going hungry in Uzbekistan. Unfortunately though, you’re going to be disappointed if you travel to this region for the food. Expect a parade of cold Russian-style salads with potatoes, cabbage, and beets, lots of heavy stews, grilled meats, and of course…. pilaf. You’re going to be getting lots and lots of pilaf (or pilaff, pilav, pilau, plov), a dish that varies as you travel through the region. The pilaf in Kazakhstan seemed to have much more garlic and salty and savory flavors. The pilaf we have enjoyed here in Uzbekistan had sweeter carrots and raisins and a bit different spices. I’ve enjoyed the Uzbek versions the most in this region. It’s interesting to compare the dish with other regions as well though. Iranian pilaf, for example, adds saffron and pistachios and has some very distinct flavors. Indian biryani is a similar dish, likely with common origins, and contains a variety of spices, yogurt, and lemon and orange to flavor the meats. When one simple dish features so centrally in a region’s cuisine, it’s easy to really focus on small variations. 

So over the week here in Uzbekistan, we’ve moved through several cities. We started out in the capital, Tashkent, arriving after our overland crossing from Tajikistan. Uzbekistan is far more formal than the first three countries. As we mentioned earlier, we had mailed our Mavic drone home from Kyrgyzstan to avoid problems at the border here. At each stop in Uzbekistan, tourists have to get “registration” forms from their hotel to include with their visa. When you leave the country, border agents want to be able to account for all of your time here. That kind of formality carries over to other conveniences like picking up a SIM card. It took maybe thirty minutes or so, but with passports and those registration cards, we were able to all get cards with a few gigs of data for our time here. If we can watch YouTube cat videos and play Pokemon in remote Tajikistan, there’s no excuse for not being able to in a developed city like Tashkent. So after that and settling into our hotel, our Uzbekistan tour got underway.  In Tashkent, we visited mosques, madrasas, public squares and memorials, the metro, and a large market.  

We left Tashkent after a couple of days, travelling by high-speed train to Samarkand. The new “Afrosiab” train makes the journey in about 2.5 hours. Samarkand is a much larger tourist destination, with old tombs and ruins and museums. Oh, and of course the pensioners. Busloads of pensioners. After a couple days there, we travelled to Bukhara by car. The drive from Samarkand to Bukhara was about five hours on long, straight, multilane roads that should be as smooth as interstate highways but in actuality are as bumpy as gravel roads. Needed a Zofran for that ride as well. Bukhara is very, very similar to Samarkand in terms of the types of tourist sites, although Samarkand is much larger in scale. We visited more forts and mosques and markets. I gotta say, by the end, it’s gotten a bit repetitive. We’ve been “templed out” on other trips… On this one we’re definitely mosque’d out, or something like that. I mean, if we were religious pilgrims, seeing the tomb of Muhammed’s cousin’s son-in-law, or the tomb of Daniel’s arm bone, might be meaningful. For us though, those sites have been kind of a snoozefest. 

At this point, we’re heading off to our final Stan country: Turkmenistan. The drive from Bukhara to the Turkmenistan border at Turkmenabat is about 90 minutes. After that, we’ll be driving to the town of Mary, taking a day tour, and flying out in the evening to the capital of Ashgabat. Uzbekistan can be a frustrating bureaucracy, and certainly has elements of a police state, but it’s nothing compared to Turkmenistan. I think we’ll have internet there. It’s even possible that we’ll be able to get SIM cards there, but we’ll see. Stay tuned. Turkmenistan may just prove to be the most interesting stop.