What’s in my backpack? From Clif Bars to a tape recorder, these are what I never leave home without

This is the backpack I take on nearly all my travels as it always fits in the overhead bin.


A popular question celebrities get online is what’s the one thing they always carry in their bag when they travel. I’ve read everything from a teddy bear to those silly looking neck cushions that bounce around the top of bags like feather boas.

I have my list, too. Of course, it varies where I go. This year I’ve already been to Ireland, Beirut, Central Asia, Spain and around Italy so obviously my clothes vary. Last year I blogged about what to pack for Rome and the list below is what I pack when I leave Rome.

The amount you carry is key. As I wrote before, when you pack, wherever you go, write out a list of what you think you’ll need. Then cut it in half. Every trip you wind up not wearing something. If you only wear an item once, you wasted valuable space for absolute musts when you return home — like souvenir booze.

Also, if you’re traveling to one place for an extended period, such as three weeks or a month, buy some cheap local clothes after you arrive. I’m not talking about going to Switzerland and buying lederhosen but billowy, lightweight cotton shirts and pants can be bought for pennies in South Asia and South America. Just buy them in conservative patterns and colors so when you return home you can still wear them. You don’t want to walk around town looking like Ali Baba.

I travel light. I carry one backpack. That’s it. And it’s usually small. If it’s a hiking trip I’ll stuff a small day pack in the bottom of it. I feel I’ve failed if my pack is so big I must check it. I’m only a nervous traveler when I’m waiting at baggage claim. I don’t trust airports or airlines. Besides, I want to grab my pack from the overhead bin and leave.

There’s a country to explore.

So, again, use my tips as a guide, not a bible. Everyone has different needs. These are mine. These are what I always carry:

Clif Bars. Friends and family members from the U.S. who stay in my Rome apartment know the price: They must bring me Clif Bars. As a traveling food columnist for The Denver Post I called Clif Bars “The greatest invention since fire.” I was not kidding. These little 67-gram energy bars, developed in 1992 by a California outdoorsman and sold nationwide out of Emeryville, California, are the perfect meal replacements. They are 250 calories, only 45 from fat, and 18 percent protein. They’re flat, do not melt and their shelf life ranges between Ivory soap and Tuscan marble. Major U.S. supermarkets often sell them for about $1 each. I pack one for every day I travel. And the flavors explode in your mouth like fresh honey. If I was to be executed tomorrow, my last meal tonight might be a chocolate-coconut Clif Bar.

Clothes folder. The U.S. has a fantastic outdoor store chain called REI. It carries a brand named Eagle Creek which produces a flat rectangular base with four flaps. You fold your clothes, pile them on the base then close the Velcro flaps over them. It cuts down the size tremendously. Put the clothes in plastic to guarantee wrinkle free.

Hooded windbreaker. I don’t travel with coats. Regardless of how cold my destination, I take a lined windbreaker that rolls into a zippered ball and fits in the bottom of my pack. If my pack gets too full, I can wrap it around the handle. In cold weather, such as the high 30s at night in Tajikistan in May, I dressed in layers. Coats are too bulky and a pain when the weather turns warm.

Pepto-Bismol. Complain all you want about Big Pharm but Procter & Gamble got this one right. These little pink pills stop any stomach ailment before it occurs. I take two after every meal in Third World countries where the cuisine is so different from Italy’s that it can send the stomach into toxic shock. As my system gets used to the local food, I wean back on the Pepto. You get a bit constipated but that’s better than sitting on a bus in rural Mongolia desperate for a rest stop.

Seven pairs of underwear. I wear one for every two days. After about two weeks, when I’m in a place for 48 hours, hopefully a sunny place, I wash and dry them. I’m starting to buy Speedos. They’re comfortable and dry faster. No, I do NOT wear Speedos at the beach, unlike most of the male world. This is one fashion statement in which I’m proud to be an American.

Swimsuit. Even in a landlocked destination I’ll bring this essential item. While hiking in Kyrgyzstan in May I came across some beautiful thermal baths. I wore my swimsuit under my hiking shorts, took off my shorts and soaked for an hour, modesty and all. Also, swimsuits are easy to don in the middle of the night on a bathroom break with a shared bath.

Brown Italian loafers. I consider myself a backpacker but unlike budget travelers, I try to travel with some class. Italy has the world’s best shoes and brown Italian loafers dress up everything from cargo pants to jeans. I can hike a mountain in the day and go to a nice restaurant at night without looking like I just, well, hiked a mountain that day. They’re also as comfortable as slippers. The loafers squeeze flat anywhere inside my pack and quickly return to shape. I can buy a pair here in Rome for about 40 euros.

Mini flashlight. I travel to some places where electricity is as scarce as the English language. Flashlights are essential when faced with pitched darkness such as on Nicaragua’s Big Corn Island where I navigated through a post-midnight forest after a long night at a beach bar. In Belize I had to walk down a pitch-black service road before dawn, the haunting noises coming from the adjacent jungle made my flashlight my lifeline.

Lonely Planet. It’s the best guide book on the planet. Like this blog, use it as a guide, not as a bible. Its logistics are always spot on. It cuts down your pre-trip research by 80 percent. The descriptions of destinations are objective. Their writers aren’t afraid to warn about places that, basically, suck. I don’t use its restaurant recommendations very often. I talk to locals. I ask them, “Where would YOU go to eat local food?” After a great meal where I’m often the only tourist, I often return to my room and there it is. That restaurant is listed in Lonely Planet.

A book about the country I’m traveling. Your experience is enriched when you’re reading about the country through which you’re traveling. You learn more. It stays with you longer. I read “The New Silk Roads” while in Central Asia, “The Seasons of Trouble” while in Sri Lanka and “Gandhi” while in India. It’s like having a professional, experienced guide at your fingertips.

AlphaSmart. It’s a little word processor, sans modem, that I use to write a journal every morning. It weighs about one pound, costs less than $30 on Amazon, operates by battery and I can write on it anywhere. I’ve written everywhere from the shade of a camel in the Tunisian Sahara to the foot of a volcano in Iceland. When I get home I can download it all into my laptop which I can not afford to lose or get damaged. After three weeks in Central Asia, I downloaded 25,000 words.

Tape recorder. As a travel writer, you never know when you’ll meet a fascinating source. If I meet someone with a tale to tell, I’ll ask if I can quote them and go fetch my little digital recorder. Or I’ll bring it with me for an arranged interview in case we talk in a loud bar. After 45 years in the business, my handwriting looks like Sanskrit graffiti. I don’t trust it. I trust my recorder. So should the people I interview.

Sounds like a lot? It’s not. I can fit it all into a 24-inch-by-11-by-11 backpack that stores easily in the overhead bin. So this summer as the travel season heats up, remember to pack down.

Happy trails.

The Liechtenstein Trail bounces New York Times off my bucket list

Martin Knopfel, who designed the Liechtenstein Trail, and I at about the midway point before it opened in May. Photo by Marina Pascucci


TRIESENBERG, Liechtenstein — I’ve always had two bucket lists: one for travel, one for writing. My travel bucket list has shrunk rapidly after 105 countries. My writing bucket list remained frustratingly stagnant, even after retirement 5 ½ years ago. It sat on my computer screen, mocking me like an old boss saying I should find another line of work. I had plenty of time on my hands to knock off goals. I thought I would X-out Publish in a Major Magazine four years ago when Penthouse agreed to buy my story on a hotel in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, that specializes in S&M. Then Penthouse got sold, its direction changed and all I got was a nice kill fee and nightmares about leather-clad women in cages.

Marina and I holding up our New York Times debut.


I’d tell you the cliche that I could wallpaper the inside of my apartment with rejection notices from The New York Times. But I never received any. I didn’t get a single response. However, my sportswriting background turned me into a bulldog at a young age and now I’m just a stubborn old dog. A year ago, I made a friend who knew someone at The Times who knew the travel editor who put a bug in his ear about me.

The result came May 26 when The New York Times published my story on Liechtenstein along with photos from my girlfriend, the uber-talented Marina Pascucci. My writing bucket list just got shorter, finally.

Why Liechtenstein? Where is Liechtenstein? What is Liechtenstein? Good questions, all. I visited and wrote about Liechtenstein in 2016. The tiny principality in the middle of the Alps between Austria and Switzerland was a fall-back destination after a freelance assignment in Austria fell through. Turns out, the fourth smallest country in Europe has more than just beautiful, oversized postage stamps. From the gorgeous, lightly trodden mountains to the cute villages to the great cuisine, Liechtenstein is Switzerland light, the perfect off-the-beaten-path post for the intrepid traveler.

Last year while researching future travel story topics I stumbled onto this factoid: 2019 is the 300th anniversary of Liechtenstein’s independence. Yes, through Napoleon Bonaparte’s wide swath through Europe, World War I and Nazi Germany, Liechtenstein never lost its country. Or its soul.

I called Liechtenstein Marketing for a story angle. Among the year long list of events, they were creating a 46.6-mile hiking trail that connects all 11 cities in the country. It would open in May 2019 and would include an app that gives information and virtual reality visuals of 147 places of interest (POI).

The views of Triesen from Triesenberg, the highest town in Liechtenstein. Photo by Marina Pascucci


It’s called the Liechtenstein Trail and in October, I was going to be its first guinea pig.

Marina is a gym junkie and not much of a hiker but she loves mountains. I love her photos of mountains. She came along. We had a one-night layover in Zurich then took the train south to the cute capital of Vaduz and a bus to a gorgeous off-season ski resort, Malbun, the only ski resort in Liechtenstein.

Sure, saying I walked across a country, knowing it’s Liechtenstein, is like saying I got published in The New York Times and it was a want ad. I once walked across Monaco. It took 45 minutes. Liechtenstein isn’t that small but it’s all of 17 miles long and nine miles wide. As I wrote in The Times, “It is one cattle farm bigger than Staten Island.” You can drive the length of it in 25 minutes. A middle-aged person with a long-expired gym membership could walk across it in two days and have time for lunch and dinner out both days.

“Many people have only vague cliches about our small country,” Alois, Hereditary Prince of Liechtenstein, wrote in an email. “I hope that the anniversary will help the world to get to know Liechtenstein better.”

Alois, also known as Count Rietberg, is the perfect symbol of Liechtenstein’s friendly, homey, small-town feel. Not many members of royal families in the world can be seen jogging through the streets of the capital, or sharing wine with the public at his own winery or walking the same trails I walked.

The 51-year-old Hereditary Prince, the eldest son of Hans-Adam II, the Prince of Liechtenstein, opens his castle to the public every summer for an annual party. A bigger party occurred Jan. 23, the date in 1719 when the communities of Vaduz and Schellenberg, at the time members of the German state, signed the contract forming the principality of Liechtenstein.

Me and Marina at our Hotel Turna Malbun balcony.


This is heady stuff for the population of 38,000. Vaduz, about as big as some rest stops on Germany’s Autobahn, has all of 5,300 people. Liechtenstein has no airport or military. It has two train stations, two newspapers, one hospital, one TV channel and one radio station.

It also has one very proud boast: It has had the same border for 300 years, something its bigger neighbors can’t claim. In Liechtenstein the only things big are its mountains. This anniversary is bigger.

“Historically, this is the most important event in my life,” said Leander Schadler, 61, a Liechtensteiner historian and hiking guide. “For the people of today’s principality, the (merging) of the earldom of Vaduz and the lordship of Schellenberg to an imperial principality was a fundamental change. My ancestors no longer lived in a German state.”

Liechtensteiners have also waited 300 years to tell the world where they are. Please note: They are between Austria and Switzerland — “not Australia and Sweden” as Liechtenstein Marketing CEO Michelle Kranz often corrects. It’s not just geographically challenged Americans they must educate.

“Good journalists in Switzerland, they don’t know what currency we have,” said Martin Knopfel, Liechtenstein Marketing’s marketing director who developed the Liechtenstein Trail. “They think we have the euro. (It’s the Swiss franc.) This is one of our major tasks: To put Liechtenstein onto the landscape and for us, the 300-year anniversary is a big, big, big chance.”

Before 2019, Liechtenstein was best known for colorful — and large — postage stamps and being a tax haven for companies around the world. Liechtenstein used a low corporate tax rate of 12.5 percent to lure corporations in the 1970s. At one point, 73,000 holding companies were in Liechtenstein. The tax windfall helped give Liechtenstein the third highest gross domestic product in the world behind Qatar and Luxembourg.

In 2008, U.S., Germany and the United Kingdom investigated companies avoiding local taxes by registering in Liechtenstein. Now Liechtenstein is no longer so lenient. It hasn’t hurt the economy. The average annual income is $65,000 and its unemployment rate is 2.4 percent. In fact, there are more jobs than citizens to fill them. About 20,000 people commute daily into Liechtenstein for work, causing what many locals say is the nation’s No. 1 problem: Traffic on the main two-lane road leading into the capital can be a bit slow at rush hour.

That’s it.

Liechtenstein has maintained its culture through 300 years of independence. Photo by Marina Pascucci


“The greatest accomplishment of the last 20 years has been how Liechtenstein has handled the global financial crisis and modernized its financial industry,” the Hereditary Prince emailed. “Liechtenstein has a very internationally oriented economy with a large export industry and an international financial center.”

It also has something that doesn’t make the news: 250 miles of hiking trails. Working with Liechtenstein Marketing, I broke up my trek along the Liechtenstein Trail into five days. I’m an experienced hiker: I’ve backpacked in the Himalayas and the Andes. I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. I lived and hiked in Colorado for 23 years. I trekked for five days in Slovakia’s High Tatras in 2014, in the highlands of Laos two years ago, the Caucasus of the Republic of Georgia last year and the Fan Mountains of Tajikistan in May.

But never have I experienced hikes with such variety as Liechtenstein: mountains, forests, villages, farms, rivers — sometimes all in the same day.

“This is the difference between this trail and other long-distance trails,” Knopfel said. “Nature, nature, nature. This trail is really in the heart of Liechtenstein.”

I’m 63 and pretty fit. But despite the trail having a mile in elevation gain, it is for anyone. Those who want to bail, can stop in any village and grab a bus back to their hotel — as Marina did in the two days she joined me.

The hotel Jacuzzi was a great place to greet me after hikes. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Malbun, our lovely ski resort, sits on the southeast end of the country. It’s a short ride from any town using Liechtenstein’s efficient bus system. And the Jacuzzi, Turkish bath and sauna at the Hotel Turna Malbun were welcome signs upon return each day.

Here’s what makes the Liechtenstein Trail unique to the world: No need to pack a lunch. Because it connects all 11 towns, you can always drop your backpack at one of the plethora of restaurants. I never did. I wanted to cut costs. But I often walked past people sitting outside in the sun digging into kasknopfle, Liechtenstein’s national dish. It’s a big pile of short noodles covered in two cheeses and shaved fried onions. It’s great fuel for hiking up your next mountain if you don’t fall into a food coma first.

The Liechtenstein Trail officially opened May 26. In October, pre-app, I marched off feeling a bit naked using Liechtenstein Marketing’s stack of trail maps and my cell phone’s iffy GPS. With only a few wanderings astray, on sunny October days in the high 60s, here’s what I found (detailed map here: file:///C:/Users/johnh/AppData/Local/Packages/Microsoft.MicrosoftEdge_8wekyb3d8bbwe/TempState/Downloads/Panoramakarten-Grafik_2019_EN%20(9).pdf:

The 12th century castle in Balzers.


DAY 1 — Balzers to Triesen to Triesenberg: 8.6 miles, 1,970 feet elevation gain, 5 hours, 15 minutes.

I stood on the edge of the border town in the shadow of a 12th-century castle high up on a hill. Above the castle the craggy brown peaks of 7,200-foot mountains faced another series of peaks on the other side of me. The only sounds I heard were birds chirping. The rural village road had nary a car.

Schadler met Marina and I in Balzers on the east bank of the Rhine across from Switzerland. The 12th century Burg Gutenberg castle is the first POI on the trail. Schadler explained that it belonged to Austria until 1824 when the community of Balzers purchased it and eventually turned it into a museum which it remains today.

Schadler is the authority on Liechtenstein history and hiking. Short, stocky with short gray hair, he peppered the day’s hike with an oral history of Liechtenstein. It began as the Earldom of Vaduz then became absorbed by the German state and the Holy Roman Empire. The German Reichstag felt that Schellenberg was too small to be a member so it joined with Vaduz to form Liechtenstein, which, in German means “light stone” for the color of the five castles that dot the landscape.

Leander Schadler, perhaps Liechtensteion’s leading historian, and me on a bridge heading to Triesenberg. Photo by Marina Pascucci


“There was a time when Liechtenstein was very, very poor,” Schadler said. “Armies were always going through the Rhine Valley and they took everything they could receive.”

During World War II Switzerland protected Liechtenstein and Adolf Hitler never invaded. “Maybe he had too much money in Switzerland,” Schadler said, half jokingly.

Balzers is a postcard-pretty town with bright white fences, vine-covered houses with a plethora of maple trees and a small creek running through it. We walked through town on deathly quiet streets then followed the Rhine until Triesen, Vaduz’s “suburb” to the south.

The trail then heads east and uphill, in parts, seemingly straight uphill. The steep trail to Triesenberg at 2,952 feet passes through beautiful green meadows with dairy cows whose clanging bells were about the only sounds we heard. We walked by dirt fields ready for farming. The trail turns to a dirt service road that is conveniently blocked off for foot traffic and mountain bikers.

A sign on one of many trash cans in the forest reads, “Don’t make noise in forest. Think also of animals.”

The unmanned souvenir shop.


We passed a small alpaca farm where alpacas graze near a self-service souvenir shack selling everything from cheese to llama wool. You look at the price and leave the money in an open cash register overflowing with money. I bought my nephew’s wife some alpaca wool gloves for Christmas and used the credit card machine to pay. Yes, Liechtensteiners are a trustful lot.

Between cuts in the trees are spectacular views of the Swiss Alps, all brown and craggy and imposing. Below are the tile roofs of Balzers and Thiesen peppering the landscape. Park benches are strategically placed at each vista. As I would learn, around every corner is a new view of this lightly trodden country.

All day we only see five people, all joggers.

Martin and I walk through the forest above the capital of Vaduz. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Day 2: Triesenberg-Vaduz-Schaan, 9.3 miles, 1,970 feet elevation gain, 7 hours.

Knopfel met us at 8:30 a.m. at Triesenberg’s post office. Triesenberg, the highest town in Liechtenstein and the closest to Malbun, rests on a mountain with brightly painted houses sporting vegetable gardens and private vineyards and flower boxes with purple, white and pink flowers.. Grapevines hang over front doors.

Knopfel, 42, is a Liechtenstein native and lifelong hiking enthusiast. After Schadler led me through some thick forests and forks in the trail with no signs up yet, I asked Knopfel what should trekkers bring to Liechtenstein.

“What they should do is before they come here, download the app so they have it on their phone,” he said. “Once they are here, they don’t need Internet connection because the app will know your position by the GPS.”

The view of Vaduz, one of the many around every corner.


Day 2 was mostly downhill but no less beautiful. The main road that snakes its way up from the valley to Malbun has lookouts near cows grazing in meadows. Below I could see the town of Triesen, churches, the Rhine and the Swiss Alps beyond.

The path starts out steep into a forest and past little farm houses before we came to the day’s first Point of Interest: a rock. It looks ordinary, only five meters long and 4 ½ meters wide. However, it is 400 million years old, left over from a prehistoric glacier that 18,000 years ago stretched 35 miles into Germany.

We continued through the forest and, this being October, the leaves had turned to yellow, orange, green and red. It isn’t Vermont but add the view below of Vaduz and the Swiss town of Buchs on the other side of the Rhine and you may not find a better view of fall colors in Europe. I saw all of three hikers.

The 12th century Vaduz Castle is on the main road just above the capital. Photo by Marina Pascucci


As the mountain trail descended into a clearing, Knopfel told me this is the trail the Heredity Prince can often be seen. Then I knew why. Greeting us as we emerged from the trees was the princely family home: Vaduz Castle. If a 12th century castle can be unassuming, this is. While it looks majestic with its many A-frame roofs, tower and turrets, it sits directly above the capital. You can walk to it up the main windy road from downtown like a local market.

It has been in the family name since 1712 and their primary residence since 1938. I walked by the gated entrance, framed by ivy, as if walking by a neighbor’s. The castle isn’t open to the public, except one day a year, but Knopfel’s office negotiated with the princely family to include photos of inside the castle on the app.

We passed the castle and dropped into downtown Vaduz (Va-DOOTZ), where we stopped at a carnival and had bratwursts on brown bread for 5 Swiss francs (about $5), an absolute steal in a country with prices higher than Switzerland.

Vaduz is a small-town capital, with a walking mall lined with restaurants and boutique shops but that all but closes down at 8 p.m. I asked one local what you do at night in Liechtenstein and he said, “Go to Austria.” However, Vaduz also has the most Points of Interests. On the main road we walk by the Kunstmuseum art museum, the Postal Museum, the National Museum and garachly yellow brick Parliament building.

The walking mall in Vaduz.


Knopfel led me back up the hill past the ultra-rich Park Hotel Sonnenhof with a beautiful view of the castle from the gazebo and back into the forest. We eventually descended into Schaan, abrutting Valduz to the north and Liechtenstein’s largest city with a whopping 6,300 people. We stop near the bus stop for a well-earned beer.

After two days of going up and down nearly 2,000 feet, my legs were feeling the first signs of fatigue. Marina, whom I took to North America in August, told me, “I think I lost the two kilos I gained in the United States.”

“I have journalists and they say, ‘Oh, I’m a hiker and all physical and we should go on all the tracks,’” Knopfel said. “Then they say, ‘Oh, I didn’t think Liechtenstein was so big.’”

Church of San Laurentius in Schaan, Liechtenstein’s biggest town.


Day 3, Schaan-Planken-Nendeln-Eschen, 10.6 miles, 820 feet elevation gain, six hours.

Schadler picked me up at my hotel and we drove to Schaan and walked through a string of businesses and past the 19th century Church of San Laurentius, another POI. I noticed there is no garbage. I remembered in Vaduz seeing a woman light a cigarette and walking 50 feet to put the match in a trash can. My street in Rome has so much garbage it looks like an alley in rural India.

Liechtenstein’s trails leading back into the highlands are spotless. Schadler says Liechtensteiners are particular about leaving the country the way they found it. We climbed high into the forest and he pointed out an example: A long expanse over a major drop off to the forest beyond. The country proposed building a 180-meter bridge for $1 million for easier access.

The citizens voted it down and leave it as it was, Schadler said, “No good for the forest, no good for the animals.”

Planken, home to Liechtenstein’s Olympic skiing heroes, Hanni and Andreas Wenzel.


The forest led uphill to the town of Planken, home to large, poster-perfect houses all lined with red shutters and flower boxes in full bloom. It’s also home to the Wenzels, Liechtenstein’s first family of skiing. Between Hanni and Andreas they have won five of Liechtenstein’s 10 Winter Olympic medals making the country, they proudly point out, No. 1 in the world in Olympic medals per capita.

We switchbacked down into Nendeln, walked through town where Schadler left me at a bus stop and told me I could walk to Eschen’s post office at the end of the trail just down the road. We said goodbye for the last time as the final two days it’d just be my maps and GPS.

I was on my own.

A tractor rolls along the street in Eschen, Liechtenstein’s industrial town.


Day 4, Eschen-Bendern-Gamprin-Ruggell-Schellenberg, 14.3 miles, 1,640 feet elevation climb, 5 1/2 hours.

We made a mistake.

The day before we were supposed to walk around Eschen, not make a beeline to the post office. Backtracking, I had to hike the steep, quiet residential streets of this otherwise industrial town for an hour, not a good way to start my longest day on the trail. However, the sun had just come up on almost a panorama of mountains and the dairy cows eyeing me lazily as I walked by a meadow gave me an early second wind.

Eschen represents what the Hereditary Prince mentioned as one of Liechtenstein’s great achievements. It’s the headquarters for numerous multinational companies such as Thyssenkrupp Presta, an auto systems manufacturer.

The trail led to Bendern on the bank of the Rhine, noticeably shallow from the lack of rains in the fall. So shallow, I saw a man sitting on a sandbar nearly in the middle of the river.

In the mid-50s and sunny, the weather couldn’t have been better as I meandered through Ruggell, wedged between the forest and the Rhine and where an old man took a pole to knock down apples from his huge tree.

A stone oven from the Roman Empire in Schellenberg.


From Ruggell I walked across expansive farmland and the length of a forest before ascending through a 100-foot canopy into a clearing. Here I saw Schellenberg’s claim to fame. Liechtenstein was part of the Roman Empire and in front of me stood a Roman ruin, complete with a round stone oven and lookouts over Ruggell, the Rhine and the Swiss Alps.

For a Roman soldier, this wouldn’t be a bad outpost.

A forest trail in Schaanwald.


Day 5 — Schellenberg-Mauren-Schaanwald, 6.8 miles, 820 feet elevation gain, 6 hours.

My last day may have been the most beautiful and the most exasperating. Rising early as I had to catch a flight out of Zurich that night, I found myself high above Schellenberg. At 9 a.m., as I climbed through farmland, a sea of clouds had settled under the mountains beyond. A velvet blanket formed the perfect backdrop for small, lonely farmhouses in the fields.

Inspired that I’d seen it all, I began double timing it to the Austrian border and the trail’s end. However, my cell phone’s GPS failed me. It couldn’t match up with the maps and I wound up asking directions in the town of Mauren three times and backtracking twice. When I finally made it across a huge green field into Schaanwald, I could not find the entrance to my last forest walk.

At the Liechtenstein-Austrian border and the end of the trail.


Fighting the desire to see if primal screams echo in the Alps, I called Knopfel who sent me on the right course. However, I took the wrong exit out of the forest and when I found the Austrian border, I had entered on the Austrian side. I missed one side street.

Still, I ventured 50 feet back across to Liechtenstein, turned around and snapped a memorable photo of the border sign and the end of my, ahem, cross-country venture.

Since the trail opened on the day my story appeared, Marketing Liechtenstein reports that more than 10,000 people have already hiked it. Did my story spoil it? No. In this Internet age, the world has no secrets. It just has more people with more information. Liechtenstein won’t change anytime soon.

Three hundred years of independence will do that.

The morning clouds sit under a small shelter above Schellenberg.

Menorca: Mallorca’s little brother is the ideal birthday getaway from Rome — or anywhere else

Cala Santa Galdana is just one of the beautiful beaches on Menorca. Photo by Marina Pascucci


SAN LLUIS, Spain — For the last couple of years Marina and I have tossed around a plan to live half the year on an island and half the year in Rome. If there is a more heavenly existence than that, it’s in a religion I don’t believe in. We focused on the Caribbean. I leaned toward Tobago; she favored Antigua. We discussed doing recon missions every summer to scout new islands.

That plan got scuttled when we saw the airlines fleece Italians going to the Caribbean every August, the most extended vacation time Italians have under their society’s Soviet-era work schedule. Every flight was more than 1,000 euros. We also didn’t want to spend our half year in Rome worrying every hurricane season if our newly acquired island flat would wind up kindling in Venezuela.

Then last winter I asked Marina where she wanted me to take her for her birthday in June. We’ve gone all over. Nice. Berlin. Oslo. Her answer surprised me.

“Minorca,” she said.

Huh?

Wait, I told her. I’m not going to Mallorca. The place is a tourist trap, lined with crowded beaches and drunk Englishmen. (Does Mallorca really have fish ‘n chips shops on the beach?) I’ve never been there and don’t normally judge anyplace until visiting it first. But Mallorca sounds like tripe: I don’t need to taste it to know I probably won’t like it.

“No,” she said. “MINN-orca.”

As it turns out, Mallorca’s little sister, which had avoided my rapidly shrinking bucket list for my 63 years, is one of the true pearls of the Mediterranean. I hadn’t heard of it because the Menorcans kind of want to keep it that way.

Located 155 miles southeast of Barcelona, Menorca (English spelling) has a population of 94,000 and is about a 10th the size of Mallorca (pop. 895,000) 80 miles to the southwest. Ibiza, one of the other major islands in the Balearic Islands chain and 190 miles south of Menorca, has 133,000 people and, I hear, almost as many clubs.

A couple on the beach of Punta Prima with the Illa de l’Aire lighthouse in the background. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Abhorring clubs and drunks with equal vitriol, I thought Menorca would be as nice a present to me as Marina. Yet when we landed — it’s only a 90-minute flight from Rome — I knew I’d made one big mistake in my homework. We walked by the car rental desks and each one had at least 10 people in line. We went to the taxi stand and the drivers were doing crossword puzzles. We were the only passengers.

You need a car on Menorca. But this isn’t like you need a car in California. With 270 square miles, Menorca is about the size of El Paso. You can drive the lone main road of ME-1 30 miles from one end to the other in about 40 minutes. Small roads snake off ME-1 to various golden sand beaches, lonely coves and quaint villages.

Menorca, a UNESCO biosphere reserve since 1993, has no scenic coast road. Instead, it has Cami de Cavalls (Bridal Path), a 115-mile walking path that circumvents the island broken into 20 handy hiking sections. Visitors don’t dance the night away in Menorca.

The walk the day away.

The view from our balcony at the PortBlue Hotel San Luis. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Correcting my brain lock was no problem. Our PortBlue Hotel San Luis, part of the PortBlue Spanish chain, arranged for a car to be delivered the following morning. The 133-euro charge for three days began a trend of surprisingly cheap prices for our entire stay.

The hotel is in S’Algar, an unincorporated coastal resort area in Sant Lluis, so named for King Louis IX when France ran the island in the 18th century. The PortBlue is one of the few buildings on the island more than three stories as Menorca’s government put the kibosh on construction for a recent three-year period.

Yes, this is MEN-orca and not MY-orca.

The PortBlue Hotel pool.


The PortBlue isn’t on a beach. But we had a huge swimming pool ringed with comfy lounge chairs, a big air-conditioned room with a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean less than a mile away. The breakfast buffet, Marina’s find-or-your-life-is-over travel requirement, had more variety than Denny’s.

The PortBlue is one of those all-inclusive resorts where visitors can eat every meal and drink every drink and only leave if the grounds are invaded by cobras. One hotel source said a British couple has been coming here twice a year for the last 45 years. I wonder if they’ve ever seen a beach.

We did not do the all-inclusive. We only did breakfasts, allowing us to explore the island every day for four days. The beaches were atop our list as the island is ringed with rock-free beaches and the kind of secluded coves you dream about while working your 10th straight day at your computer.

We drove to Ferrerias, in the center of the island, and took a left down a well-paved two-lane road to a huge gravel parking lot just above the sea. We walked down a wide, dirt path through a forest for 15 minutes before it emptied out to Cala Mitjana, recommended by our hotel.

Marina and I gasped. We were astonished by the beauty of this small beach on a narrow cove lined with cliffs for diving beneath a forest of trees. The mix of turquoise and blue-green sea looked like a water color on a museum wall. We were also astonished by the crowd. It was packed, towel-to-towel flesh and not a lounge chair in sight. This is called savage where you pack in your own chair and umbrella.

Being spoiled by Italian beaches, which make up for what they lack in barren simplicity with modern comforts, we stayed only 90 minutes and returned to the car. Getting directions from a woman handing out restaurant fliers, we walked out of the parking lot and descended a steep staircase. In five minutes we were at Cala Santa Galdana.

The water at Cala Santa Galdana. Photo by Marina Pascucci


“Oh, my God!” Marina said in her soft Italian accent.

We had found Spanish Nirvana.

Cala Santa Galdana is a wide, gently curving beach about a kilometer long with fine, white sand and big shady trees scattered along the beach. Each comfy lounge chair had its own thatched umbrella. A couple of restaurants serve fresh fish and beach bars sling cold mugs of underrated Spanish beer.

I was definitely at peace on Cala Galdana. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We ignored the plethora of screaming children and fat, pasty English tourists and had a lovely two days on the sea. The Mediterranean was crystal clear and just cool enough to ward off dry, mid-80s temperatures. Between the comfy lounge chairs, a good English novel, the occasional cold beer and Marina under the umbrella, I think I saw a glimpse of our future part-time home.

Galdana isn’t even Menorca’s best beach. Cala en Turqueta, about three miles west as the seagull flies, is so popular a sign in the junction town of Ciutadella indicates if Turqueta’s parking lot is full. It always is by 10 a.m.

Menorca’s many outdoor cafes are perfect places for Estrella beer breaks. Photo by Marina Pascucci


The beauty of Menorca is the towns and villages all have their own individual character, fleshed out after a violent history. Formerly part of the Roman Empire, Menorca was also a target of pirates who raided rich Roman establishments. Then came the Vandals, Moors, Catalans, Turks and, presumably, Real Madrid. This is an island that over a 100-year period came under English, French and Spanish rule. The Spanish loved Menorca’s port to launch its naval wars and to begin the slave trade.

Sitting on Sant Lluis’ Carrer de Sant Lluis street, it’s hard to imagine the hardship suffered in a village so quaint. San Lluis is a collection of whitewashed buildings on quiet streets. A 40-foot flour windmill, built in 1792 and operational until 1942, dominates the landscape. An 18th century water well is nearby.

The 18th century windmill in Sant Lluis was operational until 1942. Photo by Marina Pascucci


The narrow road is cut off to cars on weekends but on weekdays not many come, either. We took an outdoor seat at Divinum, a wine bar that has five Menorcan wines in its collection from around the world. Owner Rachel Fletcher, a tall, statuesque wine connoisseur, came to Menorca when she was 9 after her father remarried and fell in love with the island on his honeymoon. He went back to England and brought the kids.

Forty years later, she’s still here. Over a glass of local Binifadet red wine with soft Spanish jazz playing in the background, I asked her what Menorca was like back when she was a kid.

“There was nothing,” she said. “It was wonderful. When we came over, there were four English families. We were one of them. That’s it. The port, the harbor, was all brick. If you moved over too much you’d be in the water. And it was real narrow.”

I told her it seems like Menorca has kept its culture. The island government’s restrictions on building have worked.

Carrer de San Lluis street in San Luis.


“Yes, Ibiza and Palma (Mallorca’s capital) have grown a lot more and they’ve got more hotels,” she said. “Here we’ve tried to maintain or keep the architecture. You don’t see huge hotels everywhere.”

Some in Menorca claim they’ve kept growth down too much. Tourism this year is down 30 percent. They blame excessive airport taxes that have made flights here more expensive than to Mallorca. A sample flight from Rome to Menorca on July 26 and returning a week later was 244 euros this week. To Mallorca on the same dates is 172 and with many more times from which to choose.

That’s fine with me. We were able to stroll the lovely city of Ciutadella, Menorca’s largest town with only 29,000 people, without ever running into a tour group in headphones. On the far western tip of Menorca, Ciutadella has quiet streets lined with maple trees, plazas filled with outdoor cafes and people strolling in the summer sun.

The pastel buildings on Ciutadella’s Parroquia Sant Francesc d’Assis. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We took a seat in a quiet courtyard with two facing outdoor cafes. I ordered an ice-cold Estrella from inside where old Spanish women played video poker while young women in stylish shorts walked their dogs past our table. People of all ages biked down bike lanes with palm trees providing shade in the median.

We walked down Parroquia Sant Francesc d’Assis, an alley lined with small houses of beige and yellow and pink and blue. Pots with blooming flowers sat on window sills. And the town was spotless. In fact, all of Menorca was clean. We nary saw a cigarette butt. Coming from Rome, the filthiest capital in Europe, I almost felt as if I should take off my shoes.

Ciutadella’s harbor. Photo by Marina Pascucci


“They are very recycling friendly,” said Vanesa Rodriguez, our hotel manager. “Everybody on the island is very responsible with the nature.”

At the end of the alley we saw Ciutadella’s beautiful harbor, a narrow inlet lined with pleasure craft bobbing up and down on cobalt blue water.

It made us want to jump in. So we did. I got us on a 3 ½-hour catamaran cruise out of Fornells, the major port town in the north. We joined about eight others from Sweden and Germany on a 40-foot boat under cloudless skies and pleasant wind.

Marina and I in front of Ciutadella’s 19th century city hall.


Few expensive pleasures are better than a sailboat ride on a perfect day. Spray over the bouncing bow cooled us off as we sunbathed on deck. When I gathered enough energy, I raised my head 12 inches and saw the high cliffs showing the geological marks dating back to the Jurassic Period. Due to the dryness, Menorca isn’t beautiful from sea. We passed barren land mass as we skirted around the west end of the island.

Snorkeling revealed remarkable visibility of about 60 feet. That’s South Pacific level for Europe where I’ve always avoided scuba diving despite being certified for 36 years. A school of a local seabream called an oblada circled around my fins before being served up in local restaurants later that week.

I came

The 40-foot catamaran even had a windsurfing board. Photo by Marina Pascucci

aboard and the captain greeted me with a pomada, an addictingly sweet local drink made from Menorca gin and lemon soda. With a little ice, it is what a Spritz is to Italy or a martini to Manhattan.

Besides the beaches, the tranquility and the villages, our other draw to Menorca was food. While Italy has the best food in the world (Shut up, you French. Tartare sucks.), Spain is certainly in the top 10. The fresh seafood along its 3,000-mile coastline, combined with its national dish of paella, its tapas and variety of grilled meats make dining out anywhere in Spain a gastro kaleidoscope.

Our paella at La Oveja Negra on Punta Prima. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We started out with seafood paella, Spain’s big sloppy skillet filled with brown rice, clams, mussels and octopus all swimming in a thick sauce. We found it La Oveja Negra, part of the string of casual, open-air restaurants lining Punta Prima, the beach just south of S’Algar. La Oveja Negra (The Black Sheep) has a sign listing all its different paellas, ranging from lobster to chicken and artichokes. It’s one of the heartiest dishes in Europe and the perfect fuel for a walk along the quiet beach in the moonlight.

At Meson El Gallo.


We ventured further afield to Meson El Gallo, a long one-story converted house in a garden covered with shady tree branches along the road to Cala Santa Galdana. A giant cactus stood in the parking lot, giving it the feel of a hacienda in rural Arizona. The waiters all wore jeans and T-shirts. If it was any more casual it would be a beach bar. But I had a terrific, lean steak in cheese sauce and a glass of Rioja, Spain’s internationally famous red wine that can’t match Italy’s gems but on a Spanish island in the middle of summer no other world wine is a better match.

But if Spain doesn’t have a law requiring every visitor to try tapas, it should. Tapas are Spanish hors d’oeuvres. These are not chips and dip or celery sticks. These are handcrafted snacks, usually hot, using everything from fresh fish to spicy sausage.

Salud to Menorca. We will return. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We returned to Carere Sant Lluis and took an outdoor seat at S’Olivera, next door to Divinum. From an entire page of tapas, we ordered little plates of croquetas de endivia (a breadcrumbed green vegetable native to Menorca), tiras de pollo (chicken fingers with salsa curry and mango sauce), camembert con jalea de moras (goat cheese with blueberry jam) and good ol’ fashioned fish ‘n chips. It was just the right amount of food and with a glass of wine each, the total bill was all of 33 euros.

About 80 percent of Menorca’s businesses close from about Oct. 1 to April 30. Still, that leaves about five months of pure island bliss, away from Rome’s heat during the tourist season and its growing garbage all year round.

Living in Menorca is a long way off but as this long weekend proved, it’s not just the destination. It’s the journey that’s the most fun.

Uzbekistan: Following in the footsteps of Marco Polo as the world discovers the old Silk Road

Islom Hoja Medressa and its minaret in Khiva’s Ichon-Qala.


(Last of a four-part series on my three-week journey through Central Asia)

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan — The Silk Road stretched from eastern China to what is now western Turkey, a 4,000-mile highway of transported goods that connected East with West like no time ever before. It was the 2nd century’s version of Amazon.com. Genghis Khan did his best to destroy it; Marco Polo did his best to revive it.

Sitting in the middle of the old Silk Road, like a hub of a subway network, is Uzbekistan. No place in Central Asia do the riches and glory of the Silk Road’s commercialization come through more than here. Giant mosques look like museums. Mausoleums could pass for summer homes. Gardens and pools and castles dot cities like ancient country clubs. From the 6th to the 12th century, Uzbekistan was the place to go if you were a trader, traveler or dreamer.

Today, it is a country in positive transition. A new president has softened its rough edges and the food and architecture are from another world. The New York Times listed it as one of its places to visit in 2019.

I’ve done many overland border crossings alone. Kenya-Tanzania. Thailand-Malaysia. Brazil-Uruguay. I never had a problem. I’d read Uzbekistan was manic about forms, kind of like the USSR in the ‘60s. Strict registration rules made you collect forms from every hotel you stay at and every money transaction you make. A homestay required a visit to a local office of Visas & Registration. I expected I’d be tied up at the border filling out documents and giving itineraries.

However, I also read that Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the president elected in 2016 to replace the old communist hand, Islam Karimov, had loosened restrictions to increase tourism. As a U.S. citizen, I didn’t even need a visa.

Mirzioyoyev’s gentler hand was in evidence when I broached the 100 yards between the Tajik and Uzbek border patrol buildings. I approached the Uzbek building with “O’ZBEKISTON REPUBLIKASI” sign and a beaming Uzbek soldier said, “Welcome to Uzbekistan!” I’ve never had a border patrol soldier even smile at me before.

Uzekistan-Tajikistan border.


I walked in alone. No one else followed me. This was not Tijuana-San Diego. I showed my passport and visa and was out the door in five minutes. No form to fill out, no money to declare. I was free.

Then I wasn’t.

About 20 cab drivers descended on me. I said, “Samarkand” and they all shouted “FIVE DOLLAR!” “FIVE DOLLAR!” A young man in a clean white dress shirt cut me out of the crowd and led me to a parking lot. I agreed to $5 or 50,000 som. When I reached his car, a burly man started yelling at me. “HE NO TAXI! HE NO TAXI! I OFFICIAL TAXI!” He showed me his car. A sign read “TURIST TAXI.” Whether it was real or not, it looked more official than this guy’s sedan. I got in the older man’s back seat and the young guy sat in the front trying to get me to leave, speaking in Tajik, which is spoken in southern Uzbekistan, as if I’d hear something to convince me. The older guy came, pulled him away and pushed him. The young man laughed. They acted as if they were old friends.

The old guy got in and we started to leave. About five minutes from the border, he pointed at his empty front seat.

“FIFTY!” he said. He pointed at me.

“FIFTY!” He then said “SAD!” No, he wasn’t unhappy. “Sad” is the Tajik word for 100. I was unhappy.

“ONE HUNDRED?!” I said. “No!” I motioned to go back. He stopped the cab. He made it clear I’d have to pay for the empty seat. Since I waited 15 minutes for him to find another passenger and at the time thought of paying extra to leave without one, I agreed. My anger subsided when I forgot I was in the middle of a desert and put it in perspective. I was paying 100,000 som (about $10) for nearly an hour cab ride.

Here’s a look at my week in Uzbekistan one step at a time:

The roof of the Tilla-Kari Medressa in Registan is actually an optical illusion.


SAMARKAND. I once had a list of the top man-made structures I’ve seen. I always had the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower, St. Peter’s and the Colosseum. In Samarkand I added a fifth.

Registan.

I’d never heard of it until I planned this trip. In fact, I didn’t think much about it during my first two weeks. But when I left my lovely hotel here and walked down the street, Registan stopped me in my tracks, like when the Taj Mahal emerges through the streets of Agra. Registan is three massive mosques on three sides of an enormous square. Two nearly identical mosques face each other with the third, slightly smaller, in the middle. Busy Registon ko’chasi street is lined with photographers. I returned at night and the scene had changed. The mosques exploded in blue and yellow. The blue onion dome, built by the Russians in the 19th century after an earthquake, looked like a flying saucer.

I just stood there, my mouth agape. I caught myself saying, “Fuck!” “Holy shit!” “Mother of God!” After 105 countries, it takes a lot for me to mutter “Mother of God.”

Sher Dor Medressa


Samarkand and Burkhara were the halfway points for many traders from Baghdad and Aleppo in the south to meet traders from Kasgar and Yarkand in the north. A number of rabat or caravan lodgings were set up along the route and with lots of horses and camels to trade here, this area became real wealthy.

The Sogdians, an Iranian civilization that ruled this area in the from the 6th to 11th century, used the money to dress up their cities. Samerkand got a good share of the booty as my visit proved this place was one of the wealthier areas in the Muslim world in the 13th century.

Registan’s three mosques are eye popping. The Sher Don Medress has a gorgeous portal of lions (they’re supposed to be tigers) chasing deer. The architect, Shaybanid Emir Yalngtsh, put these strange, large eyes on the lions’ backs to signify Islam’s law against depicting animals.

The middle mosque, Tili-Kari, has an optical illusion inside. The ceiling, covered in gorgeous, bright gold leaf representing Samarkand’s wealth, looks like a dome. However, because the leaves get smaller as they reach the center, it’s actually a flat ceiling.

The left mosque, Ulugbek, is the most original. It took only three years to build and inside were classrooms where such subjects as astronomy, math and theology were taught.

The story behind the Bibi-Khanym mosque is of romance and blood.


The most interesting story behind a mosque was about 300 meters northeast of Registan. The Bibi-Khanym Mosque isn’t all that beautiful. It’s more known for being one of Islam’s tallest mosques with a dome 41 meters high. It collapsed in an 1897 earthquake and refurbished in the 1970s and also during independence in the ‘90s. But today it’s more known for its legend.

Timur was a 14th century Pesian conqueror who ruled much of this area during the Persian Empire. He had a Chinese wife named Bibi-Khanym. She had the mosque built to surprise him when he came home from raping and pillaging. However, the architect fell in love with her and refused to finish the job unless she kissed him. Then Timur found out.

Oh-oh!

He executed the architect and ordered all women must wear veils entering the mosque so as not to tempt other men. Women adhere to that still today.

My hotel, Jahongir B&B, is a real oasis with a great buffet. It’s a series of rooms wrapped around a big garden-like courtyard. The manager, a tall handsome Uzbek, lived in Fort Myers, Florida, for six years and had an American sense of humor.

“I lived in Florida — unfortunately,” he said.

I had my first good meal in many days. Uzbek food is fantastic, the queen of Central Asian cuisine. Entire menu pages are devoted to healthy, fresh salads that became my daily appetizer. The kabobs sizzle in beautiful displays and the plov, Central Asia’s rice pilaf with a big pile of rice, lots of veggies, garbanzo beans and usually meat, is nowhere better than it is in Uzbekistan.

I took Lonely Planet’s recommendation and went to Besh Chinor, a modest local diner with a pretty indoor courtyard. On a perfect 70-degree night, the waitress brought two massive trays of sample salads. I chose the tomato-green onion-yogurt and the pickled cucumbers. Then came two long sizzling chicken kabobs, so tender I cut them with a fork. That and a big Pulsar local beer, the total bill was 37,400 som, about $4.

Uzbek plov, Central Asia’s version of rice pilaf..


I took my hotel’s advice and went for the best plov in town. It was a place oddly named Plov Sentr. The cab driver picked up two other passengers and we drove to the north end of town, far away from any tourists or even any Roman-letter signage. We passed smart, obviously modernized government buildings and streets lined with cheap retail stores.
After about 40 minutes he finally stopped on a narrow street in front of an open-air shop with a sign in cyrillic. I saw some cooking equipment inside. I showed a man standing at the door the note. He nodded.

This is the place.

Plov Sentr is a classic Uzbek businessman’s lunch place. I sat down under a fan to chase away the 90-degree heat and a woman immediately brought out a steaming pile of plov and a salad with sour cream dressing and a big, doughy chunk of Uzbek bread. The plov was great, clean, fresh, hot. The walls had paintings of everything from waterfalls to giraffes and deer by a lake.

A view from Hazrat-Hizr, Samarkand’s prettiest mosque.


Fat and happy, I took another cab to Shahi-Zinda, still considered one of the most beautiful places in Islam. It’s a long corridor of mausoleums. It’s the prettiest place of death I’ve ever seen. Many of the mausoleums have unnamed people in tombs that sit in the middle of the floor like furniture. The most beautiful, filled with bright tile work, is of Shodi Mulk Oko, built in 1372 and home to the sister and niece of Timur. One of the tombs allegedly holds Qusam Ibn-Abbas who was said to have brought Islam to this area in the 7th century.

The mausoleum Shahi-Zinda has tombs dating back to the 13th century.


The tilework is exquisite. It’s all bright blue as if painted yesterday. In fact, most of it nearly was. The oldest date to the 14th and 15th centuries but much of it was restored in 2005. Still, the colors exploded in the heavy sun.

Bukhara’s Kalon Mosque can hold 10,000 people.


BUKHARA. This is Central Asia’s holiest city, once part of the axis of the old Silk Road although a bit later than Samarkand. I could see the middlemen during these 300 years of dealing made a damn fortune. Both cities have enduring landmarks that are spectacular. Samarkand looks like a iman’s wet dream, full of giant mosques and gorgeous mausoleums.

Bukhara is more subtle. The center of Bukhara is Lyabi-Hauz. Bukhara thrived in the 16th century, after getting poleaxed by Genghis Khan in 1220 (after he did the same to Samarkand) and Samarkand’s Timur in 1370. For 400 years, 200 stone pools called hauz watered the city. They were also used by the people to bathe and socialize. They were like the old Roman baths but 1,500 years earlier the Romans had the good taste, not to mention hygiene, of changing the water. In Bukhara they didn’t.

Thus, the average life expectancy of a local was 32. The only big hauz that has survived is Lyabi-Hauz, in the heart of the city next to the main drag. It’s a big square Olympic-sized pool surrounded by tables, shady trees, bars and ice cream stands. Tourists sit around drinking cold draft beer and watching ducks float around.

Lyabi-Hauz is the last of the 200 pools built during Bukhara’s heyday. It’s touristy but the beer is cheap.


I wanted to avoid it. It looked like a tourist trap but then, nothing in Uzbekistan is real expensive, not even tourist traps. Tired, hot and thirsty from a short walk, I asked how much a beer was: 20,000. About 2 euros.

I love Uzbekistan.

I sat down under a tree and drank a big bottle of Sarbast, one of the best beers I’ve had in Central Asia. I had a group of women take my photo with the pool in the background. The four middle-aged ladies were part of the Italian group. They were 40 of them from Northern Italy all cruising around Uzbekistan for a week on a tour bus. We tortured each other with what Italian food we missed. (I would’ve killed for a gorgonzola and sausage pizza at my C’era Una Volta pizzeria) and for a good glass of wine.

One of the narrow alleys of Bukhara’s Old Town.


My Arabon Hotel is a pleasant, simple two-story hotel where I wrote in the courtyard, listening to birds chirp in the large vines coming down from the second floor. It’s in the middle of Old Town, a warren of narrow alleys that haven’t changed in thousands of years. But it’s changing soon. The whole neighborhood is under construction. Rubble has joined the dust on the streets. Construction workers were everywhere. I had to take detours around scaffolding to get to the Lyabi-Hauz. It’s always a good sign when a city has enough money for construction, but I don’t think Rudaki, the great Central Asian poet who lived here for years, had to listen to pounding hammers while he pounded out poems.

The food continues to lift Uzbekistan up from its Central Asian neighbors. I took the advice of the hotel manager and went to Chinar Chaikhana, a two-story open-air restaurant specializing in Uzbek cuisine. It’s remarkably casual. I entered and asked the manager if they had plov. He yelled to the kitchen, in Tajik, “Do we have plov now?”

An indecipherable comment returned.

“We have plov.”

I hadn’t even sat down yet. I ordered plov and a Russian beer then read in Lonely Planet that its kabobs are the best in town. I leaned over the staircase and said, “Excuse me! Can I change my order to a meat and chicken kabob?”

He ran back to the kitchen. The kabobs were fantastic, sizzling and fresh and tender. The beer was ice cold and the breeze through the open air terrace cooled my sweating body.

Children in the streets behind Bukhara’s Ark.


At night, Bukhara is famous for … nothing. I stopped by a modern bar called Ecko Bar. Small, dark with a hip vibe, it has a big screen and a bar filled with spirits. They said they’d have the Chelsea-Arsenal Europa League title game at midnight. When I returned at 11:30 p.m., four guys sat around a table drinking Coke and fruit juice. One young guy smoked a hookah. The guy who confirmed the game said, “We’re sorry. The TV doesn’t work. No game.”

“OK,” I said walking to the bar. “I’ll take a beer. You have Sarbast?”

“No beer. Ramadan. You can go to the grocery store and buy some and take it to Lyabi-Hauz.”

I went home through the pitch black alleys of the old town, the pounding hammers long gone silent.

The 47-meter Kalon Minaret is one of the few structures Genghis Khan didn’t level.


The next morning I explored Bukhara under overcast skies and was as impressed as Genghis Khan was. He took one look at the 47-meter tall Kalon Minaret (1172) and let it stand. Maybe it reminded him of his penis. But even more impressive than its size is its design. Each panel is individually carved. It stands between two facing mosques, Kalon Mosque, which replaced the one Genghis leveled, and the Mir-i-Arab Medressa, with blue domes you can see from all over.

I ventured farther afield to the Ark. It’s a castle inhabited from the 5th century to 1920. I walked through the ceremonial grounds where they honor the old Bukhara emirs, saw the apartments where visiting heads of state stayed — not too far, not coincidentally, from the mint and harem. I saw portraits. The area where the stables were is still an open area with the remains of three horse-drawn carts parked along the edge.

The Bug Pit where a British military officer spent the last three years of his life.


Speaking of which I went to the Zindon (Tajik for “prison”) where a British military officer named Charles Stoddart spent three years for the audacious offense of not bearing gifts or a letter from Queen Victoria when he visited. He spent much of his time in the Bug Pit, a 6 1/2-meter pit with a cage over it and only accessible by rope. He spent it down there with lice, scorpions and other disgusting creatures. In the pit today is a dummy sitting on a dirt lump with various som notes scattered around from morbid tourists. Another British soldier, Arthur Connolly, came trying to appease the emir and release his buddy. It did not go well. They were both beheaded in front of the Ark.

For dinner I succumbed to the tourist trail and went to Lyabi-Hauz, a restaurant that wraps its way around the Lyabi-Haus pool. I sat uncomfortably on a low-slung table meant for sitting Indian style and stared at the packed restaurant filled with Russian tourists. It really was a lovely night, though, with the sun setting and water glistening. Russian love songs played while I ate some fantastic plov with black grapes and a fitness salad.

My evening view of Lyabi-Hauz.


As I finished my beer, an old man, stooped and looking ready to die, walked slowly, with his head down and sat awkwardly on the bench opposite me. My waiter brought him some leavened bread and put his hand on it to show where it was.

He was blind.

The waiter later brought a bowl and poured in some meaty soup for him. A nice touch in a city known for so much violence.

The Juma Mosque in Khiva is supported by 218 wooden columns, a half dozen dating to the 10th century.


KHIVA. I had a fleeting tour of Khiva. Too bad. It’s the first time I’ve ever stayed in the middle of a perfectly preserved medieval city. Khiva was a mere fort along the old Spice Road before the Khorezm Empire in this northwest part of Uzbekistan grew from the 10th to the 14th century when the capital was moved from Old Urgench in what is now Turkmenistan to Khiva.

The Khorezm built a massive walled city called Ichon-Qala filled with sandstone structures connected by dusty streets. Ichon-Qala remains to this day, almost identical. The taxi from Urgench after a long, six-hour taxi ride from Bukhara, drove through what looked like a castle gate, complete with ramparts. We stopped at my B&B, the Mirzoboshi, which has a big, open-air teahouse and a building of simple single rooms behind it.

I dropped my bags and looked around. All around me were towering minarets and blue-domed mosques. It was like an Islamic theme park. The Uzbek government had long ago banned the call to prayer. What a shame. To hear a mosque blaring out an iman’s voice in the air filled with towering Islamic architecture would be a cultural orgasm.

I was beat after bouncing along a lousy Uzbek highway for six hours. I sat down with the owner, a husky, round-faced Russian man named Makhnud Baltaev. I told him how much I loved Uzbekistan, the food, the people, the freedom. It wasn’t nearly the police state I read about. He said the fall election and getting Mirziyoyev as the new president after the old commie hand died helped a lot.

Kalta Minor Minaret


“It’s changed 30-40 percent,” he said as he dug into an impressive pile of plov. “Before you couldn’t say anything. Now the president has a website where you can write complaints. If he can help, he does.”

Baltaev, however, wouldn’t bad mouth Karimov, the predecessor. When you’re sitting in the sun, sipping cold beer and looking at mountains or minarets, you forget you’re bordering on some major war zones. Afghanistan borders Tajikistan; Iran borders Uzbekistan. Turkmenistan, a short drive from Khavi, is no Cancun, either.

“Central Asia has a big problem with ISIS,” he said. “He really kept the border safe.”

Khiva is called the Museum City and no city is more appropriately named. The old buildings, from the medrasses to the mosques, have been turned into museums. A map showed 52. I first went into its Ark. The castle has two beautiful mosques with spectacular blue tile still glistening on a cloudy day. Out front is an open courtyard where they performed executions. The adjacent jail was closed but I can imagine what it was like being on death row and hearing an ax chop off a head outside.

“NEXT!”

The beauty of Khiva is astounding. Everywhere I turned a bright blue dome towered above me. The two giant minarets serve as twin peaks holding the city together.

I walked 10 minutes along the Ark’s big West Wall to the North Wall. I walked back toward the West Wall where Khiva’s fascinating skyline got closer. By the time I got to the middle of the West Wall, two mosques and a minaret were right in my picture frame. The sun had dipped from under a cloud and bathed the monuments in brilliant sunlight.

A couple atop their hotel enjoying the view.


Satisfied with my photos, I started walking back. But about 50 yards away, I had my, literally, Kodak moment. A couple had climbed to the roof of their hotel. They were sipping beer, staring off at the same view as I did. I got behind them and shot the couple staring out at a bright blue mosque and mausoleum.

A lover’s view set forever in a timeless city.

You can eat like a king in Uzbekistan, such as my last meal at Alfarso in Tashkent.


TASHKENT. I polished off my Central Asian adventure by polishing off two bottles of wine and three beers in Uzbekistan’s lovely capital. It was a good way to end an otherwise exasperating last day. When I woke up in Khiva the day before, I had no cash. None. And I needed about 80,000 som to get to the airport.

I wolfed down a breakfast of cheese and bread. I had 15 minutes to get cash before the taxi left. Every cash machine I tried kicked back the same message, in English: “Your bank has no response.”

I raced back to the B&B, using the minaret as my compass. The driver was there with the assistant manager. I told him my dilemma. I suggested Makhnud pay him later and I’d send him money through PayPal. PayPal? I might as well have said use money from Mars.

The assistant manager said, “Don’t worry. He’ll take you for nothing.”

I was too grateful and desperate to argue. I just blurted out a promise to save his life whenever he needed and hopped in the car.

When I arrived in Tashkent, my driver was a husky 40ish man with some decent English hired by my B&B, also called Jahongir. I asked if a cash machine was near the hotel. He mentioned one. Knowing my card was on a bad run of luck I suggested he stop on the way. Thus began a city tour not found in guide books.

We stopped at a luxury hotel. No. It was out of money. I went to a long row of bank machines. Nope. They wouldn’t take my Visa debit card. Another bank machine would only dispense dollars and would give nothing less than $100, way too much for one night in Uzbekistan. Finally, at the sixth stop, a machine allowed me to change the dollar amount. I got $40 U.S. and was set for the day.

I checked into my B&B and had a horrible welcome wagon. Not only was my room barely big enough for a bed and a backpack but they wouldn’t accept Visa. It cost $25 plus $10 for the two airport shuttles. I needed $5 more dollars in som.

So instead of going to one of Tashkent’s famous museums or visiting its beautiful Russian orthodox church with the gold onion domes, I went on a mad dash around its highly disappointing Old Town looking for money.

I was desperate. I thought I’d be stuck in my room dining on my three remaining Clif Bars. A woman in another bank suggested KapitolBank, whose machines had mocked me from Khiva to Tashkent.

It was 3 p.m. and broiling. I still had on jeans and my black cotton India long-sleeve shirt that was plastered to my body with sweat. One of the many nice Uzbeks I met told me to cross the street and walk. It was on the right.

I tried the cash machine and left before it even declined me. I went to the bank teller. I tried not to clench my fists. While I talked to her a short man in a position of authority took me outside.

“You’re using the wrong machine,” he said. “Let me show you.”

We went around the side to an identical machine. I put in my debit card, punched in my numbers and — wah-LA! — out came
400,000 som.

At Alfarso, I had a lovely meal of chuchvara (dumpling soup) and fried pelmeni (meat-filled pockets) sitting outside on a perfect evening on a busy Tashkent street. I then went next door to The Irish Pub where I met an Uzbek journalist for the Champions League title match.

Bach Hoosier is a husky, bespectacled journalist who has written under communist and democratic regimes. He had articles “prohibited” before but still has an interesting outlook about working here from a journalist’s perspective.

“When my younger colleagues ask me, ‘What about press freedoms?’ nobody tells you, Do not write this,” Hoosier said. “You have freedom in your heart. Open your mind. If you have balls, you can write whatever you want.”

We drank beer and talked politics as Liverpool kicked the daylights out of Tottenham Hotspurs on a big screen in front of us. It was the last night of a momentous three weeks in an underappreciated part of the world. Fantastic mountains. Great food. Incredible history. Lovely people. Two millenniums after this region started its transcontinental, cross-cultural shopping bazaar, one thing became very clear to me.

The Silk Road will never die.

Tajikistan: USSR’s poorest ex-republic stands tall with pretty peaks and a sparkling capital

Me frantically trying to capture in words the raw beauty of Kulikalon lake in the Fan Mountains.


(Third of a four-part series on my three-week trip through Central Asia.)

ARTUCH, Tajikistan — The Artuch Mountaineering Camp sits in a deep bowl in the middle of postcard-perfect snow-capped mountains and a forest of juniper trees. A small river babbles down the valley into a little village below. I’d feel as if I was in Switzerland except for the camp’s origins.

USSR, 1971.

My cottage in the Artuch Mountaineering Camp.


Back when the Cold War had the world on edge, climbers from everywhere behind the Iron Curtain rushed here to exercise one of the few freedoms they had. Climbing was their way of seeing the world. However limited their freedom was on the ground, altitude has no wall.

And the views aren’t bad.

The camp hasn’t changed much since it was built 48 years ago. I believe the bathroom in my roomy cottage was modernized. But my prayer room with the huge carpet still existed and the expansive dining/TV/bar room with adjacent lodging quarters was around.

The mountains certainly haven’t changed. They all look painted by a romantic artist who didn’t think it implausible for each mountain to have its own corresponding lake below it. The snow, even in late May, stretched deep below the peaks and the lakes were so clean and clear I could fill my water bottle without worry of some third world illness I can’t pronounce.

Here’s another fact that hasn’t changed: Tajikistan, the poorest state in the USSR, is still the poorest former Soviet republic. During the days of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan represented only 0.2 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. After independence in 1992 and a civil war that cost 60,000 lives, its GDP dropped 70 percent. It did rebound, growing about 10 percent a year from 2000-07 but its average per capita income is still only $2,100 a year, lowest of the former 15 Soviet republics.

Emomali “Rahmon” Rakhmonov, a former regional communist boss, took over as president in 1992 and has been in charge ever since. Tajikistan has one political party, the People’s Democratic Party. He’s it.

Yet despite the lingering communist hangover, the bloodshed and the poverty, Tajikistan is one of the world’s great new destinations. The capital of Dushanbe shines like a lighthouse in troubled waters. Restaurants and Western-style cafes are popping up around town. The people have held onto their proud Islamic culture and the streets and countryside are safe.

A romantic walkway in Rudaki Park.


Tajikistan’s biggest calling card, however, can be seen from all over the country. Ninety percent of the nation is upland. Mountains provide bookends from the Fan Mountains in the West to the Pamirs in the East. The Pamirs are also where Marco Polo followed the Silk Road and gave name to the sheep who number nearly 24,000, making Tajikistan home to one of the largest wild sheep populations in the world.

It’s also dirt cheap. Taxis across Dushanbe are 3 euros. Beer 1 euro. Lunches 2 euros. Five-hour taxi rides 9 euros.

Greeting me in Dushanbe after my flight from Almaty was Jaf Asimov, a 42-year-old IT wiz who owned my lovely AirBnB in the heart of the city. Short, handsome, with a wisp of gray hair, he spent a year studying at Ohio State and lived through Tajikistan’s bloody civil war.

Like most people who grew up under communism, he’s seen more than he wanted to. Upon my arrival by taxi, he accompanied me on a perfect 75-degree evening about three blocks to Bundes Bar, in a group of glittery, modern bars in an area downtown. We took a table outside and I ordered an ice-cold beer. I told him my plan.

An army of caretakers work Rudaki Park.


I wanted to wing Tajikistan. I had no reservations. I wanted to kick back in Dushanbe for a couple days then hit the trail again, this time in the challenging Fan Mountains. I asked about contacts and beautiful hiking trails. Turns out, Jaf is as connected as any travel agency in Dushanbe. Within an hour and three or four phone calls, he had arranged for a taxi to the jump-off town of Penjikent, a homestay in Penjikent, an off-road vehicle into the mountains and a four-night reservation in Artuch.

The hospitality of the Tajik people I’d read about was in full display across the table from me.

I asked him what I should expect from my third country on this trip.

“It’s the most friendly country in Central Asia,” he said in perfect English. “People are nice here. Nature is nice. We have clean air. It’s not polluted. We have fresh, organic fruits and vegetables and meats, which are very rare and expensive in developed countries like the U.S. and Europe.

“Life here is good.”

He acknowledged that the unemployment rate is high and about a million of Tajikistan’s population of 9.2 million have left the country to find work. But while Tajikistan remains poor, its growth rate is high at about 2 percent a year.

I asked him what he remembers about life in the USSR. Continuing a theme I found all through Central Asia, his memories weren’t bad.

“We lived in one big country,” he said. “We didn’t have any borders. We didn’t have any visas with other regions. We didn’t have visas with neighboring countries. Traveling was easy from one city to another city. Education was much better.”

Today, like many former communist republics and countries, life in the city rocks while life in the country rots. Tajikistan is no different. Dushanbe is one of the many ex-communist capitals that has been polished up, propped up and illuminated. Like Prague, Ljubljana, Tallinn and many others, Dushanbe is immensely walkable.

I woke up on a sunny 75-degree May day and walked up the street to Tapioca, a cute, wood-polished cafe with spacious outdoor seating. A blackboard advertised margaritas and cuba libres. Another sign read, in English, “Why sleep when there’s coffee?” I had a pretty good cappuccino and a very good omelet while a chorus of birds sang next to a street with little traffic.

Welcome to free enterprise, ex-Soviet style.

Ismoli Somoni, the 10th century founder of what would become the modern Tajikistan nation.


A couple blocks farther is one of the prettiest parks I’ve seen in the old Soviet bloc. Rudaki Park is covered with flowers, particularly roses, with fountains and towering monuments. An army of headscarved women wearing way too many clothes under the beating sun painstakingly landscaped every pile of dirt and blade of grass.

As I entered the park, a traffic cop screamed at motorists to keep moving. Another cop saw me pull out my camera and in no uncertain terms told me the same. A government ceremony was being held in front of the 25-meter gold statue of Ismoil Somoni, the national hero who in the 10th century founded the Samanid dynasty which eventually became Tajikistan.

I got closer and it looked as if Somoni was holding up a middle finger, toward Russia. Alas, it was just Tajikistan’s national symbol: a crown under seven stars representing the Tajik heaven of seven mountains and seven gardens.

Rudaki, a native of Tajikistan and considered the greatest writer in the Persian language.


On the other side of the park, behind a ring of five fountains and under a graceful, beautifully tiled arch stood a statue of Rudaki. Considered the greatest poet in the history of the Persian language, Rudaki was born in the 9th century near the Fan Mountains and is among Tajikistan’s heroes.

No writer in Central Asia ever captured the plight of his people better than Rudaki:

Look at the cloud, how it cries like a grieving man
Thunder moans like a lover with a broken heart.
Now and then the sun peeks from behind the clouds
Like a prisoner hiding from the guard.

***

Shah Mansur Bazaar in Dushanbe


The sun didn’t creep behind any clouds on this day. The sky had no clouds. The heat had picked up into the high 80s. The previous week in Kyrgyzstan I kicked myself for scheduling this trip so early in spring, before the snows melted. But as I walked the hot, dusty streets of Dushanbe searching for food, beer and air-conditioning, I was so thankful I didn’t come later.

In summer, Central Asia is an oven.

I searched for typical Tajik food. I doubt anyone outside Central Asia has ever uttered the phrase, “I’m in the mood for Tajik.” But I did. Jaf recommended Toqi, a prototype Tajikistan restaurant near Dushanbe’s Shah Mansur Bazaar, a bustling public market where I picked up 200 grams of sugared almonds for about 25 cents.

Up a hill from the market and near a dodgy neighborhood, Toqi has three trees growing inside the restaurant, up and through the roof. It was Ramadan, Islam’s monthly fast, and restaurants in Muslim countries die from sunrise to sunset. I walked in mid-afternoon and a posse of bored waiters and waitresses sat around for the few May tourists to enter.

Kurotob, Tajikistan’s national dish.


I wasn’t real hungry. The heat and my maddening Maps.me sapped my appetite. But Toqi is as Tajik as reading a Rudaki poem by a mountain stream. No English is spoken. No English menus are offered. Without looking I ordered Tajikistan’s national dish, kurotob. It’s a piece of flat bread covered in tomatoes, onions, chopped parsley and coriander with a yogurt-based sauce. The young waiter came over with his iPhone on Google Translate showing me the message “with meat?”

I expected a little snack, kind of like a quesadilla. No. It was a Denny’s size portion the size of an entire dinner plate piled about two inches high with food. Intimidated and not very hungry, I still dug in. It was fantastic. The bread was soft and kind of cheesy. All the vegetables were fresh and the beef was lean.

Ramadan is a great time to visit Islamic countries. Not only do you not need a lunch reservation, get invited to a local’s home after dark and the food intake is massive. That night Jaf invited me to his home not far from the old presidential palace where in 1992 anti-government demonstrators, furious at the old communist guard still ruling the country, stormed the building and took hostages. Today it is a dark edifice with nary a light on, looking more like a true haunted house than anything close to a palace.

We walked along Rudaki Park with seemingly half of Dushanbe. Men and women strolled together. Kids laughed. Mothers rolled their strollers. The bright lights of the park’s monuments were to our left.

Emomali “Rahmon” Rakhmanov has been president since independence in 1992.


So was the president’s motorcade. We heard sirens and Jaf said it’s an announcement for everyone to get away from the street. The motorcade was taking president Rahmon to his home. I saw a fleet of black cars speeding up the road and I walked across some dirt of a garden to get a closer look.

“John! Get back from the road!” Jaf said. “Otherwise we are in trouble!”

Jaf, separated with two children, shares an apartment with his father and sister. Nigora is the most westernized of the trio. She married a British soldier cursed by being stationed in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. And she thought life in Tajikistan was stressful. Their dad, Muzaffar, is 70 and walks 10 kilometers a day. He looks like an old hippy, with a laid-back nature and long, white hair cut in a bit of a bowl.

“I cut it myself,” he said unabashedly. He worked in computers for the USSR in the ‘60s and even studied at what is now Moscow State Technical University, one of the top tech schools in the world. He said they had competitions against MIT “and we beat them all the time.”

Nigora brought out a pile of pancakes with sour cream and apricot extract and a plate of sweets. Then came tea and coffee. Just a couple of blocks and 27 years after blood spilled in the streets, Tajikistan opens her arms again.

***

Penjikent’s bazaar.


The town of Penjikent (pop. 35,000), once a major stop on the Silk Road, sits on the far western edge of Tajikistan, a country with a border carved up so much over the years it’s shaped like an amputeed reindeer. Penjikent’s bazaar is teeming with women in traditional head scarves and men in tunics selling everything from wheel-sized bread to cheap clothes. With a mosque across the street, it has the air of a Moroccan medina.

It’s here I met Akmal, my host for the night and driver the next day, and Bahodur Rahmatilloev, my 19-year-old guide, translator and all-around fixer. Bahodur is a real bright university student with tons of ambition and, in my case, patience. His father runs Penjikent’s driving school. The school’s perfect driving lot, complete with bright lane markings and stop signs, was one of the few good roads I saw in all of Tajikistan.

Bahodur, Akbar and Akmal and the feast at sunset.


My room in Akmal’s home, a spacious, airy place down a gravel alley, was a giant prayer room with a rug and a cot. Akmal told me an odd time to eat dinner: 7:40 p.m. Who says 7:40? Why not 7:45 or 8? I went into the dining room and saw a massive display of food that could feed the Red Army. With Akbar, Akmal’s nephew, there were only four of us.

“Go ahead and eat,” Akmal said in Tajik through Bahodur. “We have a few more minutes.”

The entire country has a calendar showing what time is officially sunset and it gets later every night. That night was 7:57. So I ate and ate and ate. And I barely made a dent in the food.

The list was exhausting. First there was a plate of pirashki, fried bread filled with meat, onions and a little oil. Then Akmal brought out a huge bowl of oshi turush, soup made with rice, grasses and chaka, a milk-based grain. Kind of sour but not unpleasant. Then came a heaping plate of macaroni with meat which was good but I was way too spoiled in Italy to appreciating it. They offered a mountain of tut, white garbanzo beans which I couldn’t touch.

Macaroni with meat.


Then they had a big bowl of navot, big chunks of what looked like hard orange candy. You put it in your tea to sweeten. By this time I needed a digestivo or I’d fall into a food coma. I couldn’t move. This isn’t mentioning the bowl of fresh cherries, big plates of onions, tomatoes and peppers and a giant plate stacked with plate-sized rolls.

“You eat like this every night?” I asked.

“Only during Ramadan,” Bahodur said. “Normally we eat very simply.”

After dinner as I spent 15 minutes trying to stand, Akmal went to the corner of the room and prayed. He didn’t say anything but with his back facing us he bent down and touched his head to the ground about five times. After 10 minutes he was back. They all pray five times a day and usually get up at 3 a.m. just before sunrise to eat a big meal to last them all day.

“Are you hungry?” I asked.

“Not really,” Bahodur said. “The first two or three days it’s difficult but this is our 17th day.”

Akmal had lost three kilos already. For me, however, it was good carbo loading.

I would be hitting the mountains the next day.

***

Bahodur Rahmatilloev, my 19-year-old guide/translator/fixer.


Hiking in Tajikistan isn’t like it is in Europe where I live or Colorado where I lived. The hiking culture in those places is centuries old and the trail system is as organized as German trains. The L.A. freeways have fewer directional signs.

In Tajikistan you see the top of a mountain and hike toward it. How you get there is up to you. Which is why I found myself looking up a 75-degree grade at a 600-meter climb with no trail in sight. On one side seemingly straight up sat loose shale. On the other side were bushes.

About 30 feet ahead of me stood Bahodur, in a pile of loose rocks, surveying Mt. Chuarak, a mountain of 3,300 meters which hovers over our camp like a night watchman. It’s tall, rounded and craggy and sits below two beautiful snow-capped mountains.

I started to climb. My feet slipped immediately. I fell on my hands. I went a few more feet. I fell again.

“This is impossible!” I said. “I can’t climb this!”

On my way up Mt. Chuarak.


“I think we should go this way,” he said.

He pointed left to the bushes. I saw no path, let alone a directional sign. But my feet didn’t slip. Fortunately, it hadn’t rained that morning and it was relatively dry. However, the incline was brutal. I went up, grabbing bush branches for leverage. I stopped after about 10 meters. I looked up. The top looked no closer. My breath was coming in heaves.

“Bahodur, this is really steep,” I said.

“Take your time,” he said. “We have all day.”

I climbed another 10 meters. I saw a flat rock. I stopped again. I noticed Bahodur wasn’t even breathing.

“You aren’t tired?” I said, gasping.

“Not yet.”

I kept going. I saw another flat rock which by this point started looking like a lounge chair. I looked up. Still, the top could not be seen.

“Bohadur,” I said, “I don’t know if I can do this.”

“Yes, you can. Just take your time.”

The view of our camp from atop Chuarak.


Again, I trudged up. Then I saw something that kept me going: The view behind me. The lake that we had passed on the way to the climb was absolutely breathtaking from above. A turquoise lake set in front of a backdrop of snow-covered mountains. I could only hear birds chirping and a distant cascading river. No other person was within miles. I was definitely at the back of beyond.

I caught my breath and kept going. Another 10 meters, another stop. Then Bahodur got excited.

“Look, Mr. John! We’re almost there! See that rock?”

Wearily, I looked up. I saw a big round rock about 20 feet set between two outcroppings from the mountain. It looked about 100 feet up.

“That’s the top!”

I looked below me. Behind the lake I could also see another. Both lakes were superimposed against a range of snowy mountains. It looked like a tapestry. I needed to take that photo.

I got up and made a determined mad dash to the top.

“You made it!” he said.

Breathlessly, I gave him a hearty Tajik handshake, with my left hand over his wrist.

“FINALMENTE!” I yelled in Italian.

One selfie worth taking from the top.


The view behind me wasn’t as great as 100 feet below. A giant boulder prevented me from seeing the other lake. But the view on the other side made up for it. Down below — WAY down below — I could see a few tiny buildings and what looked like a little creek.

“That’s our camp,” Bahodur said.

It’s true. That little settlement was the camp from which we began. I felt as if I was in outer space. I ate some cheese and a Clif Bar, both of which tasted like filet mignon.

I told him between inhales of thinning air, “Bahodur, in the future I want you to tell me if you EVER get another 63-year-old to make it this far.”

***

Chuarak lake.


Life in the camp felt very isolated. Internet is awful in Central Asia and particularly bad in Tajikistan. It became worse in May when a prison break resulting in deaths, plus an ISIS scare, made the government shut down social media. I had Whatsapp and that’s it. Between that and the camp’s sketchy food, hiking became the lone source of entertainment.

Fortunately, every day’s trail was better than the last. The two lakes we saw from above were two of three lakes, also called Chuarak, that are just a couple hundred meters apart. Each one sits under a snow-capped mountain and is crystal clear. I could see a steady stream of water cascading down the mountain into the lake. This is the water that babbled past my cottage all day and what I used to fill my water bottle.

On a particularly cold, gray, rainy day in which we couldn’t see the mountains let alone climb one, we set out to explore the village of Artuch 10 kilometers downriver. About 2,500 people are spread along the river for about a kilometer. Shadowing us down the hill through a steady rain were cattle and locals on burros. We surveyed about 100 meters of the river to find a place we could safely ford, my shoe surviving the crossing much better than it did the muddy roads. The village is a ramshackle collection of wood and cement shacks with villagers in surprisingly sharp native costumes, as if preparing for a tourist show.

On the road to Artuch village.


No. This is the real deal. The only outsiders these people see are climbers and hikers coming through town on badly needed 4-wheel drives.

“A little girl died today,” said Bahodur who asked one of the locals. A funeral ceremony was about to begin.

A young Tajik man dressed for a memorial service.


We saved the best hike for last. Kulikalon lakes are some of the prize jewels of the Fan Mountains. Meaning “big lake” in Tajik, Kulikalon is 2 1/2 hours away from camp. One long hill was followed by a flat plateau followed by another hill. After two hours, Bahodur pointed out toward the horizon. A huge snow-covered mountain that looked straight from a Japanese tapestry stood before us.

“There it is,” he said.

I saw a narrow sliver of green. We walked about 200 meters and there it was: big and green and clear. It stretched for hundreds of meters in front of me and beyond, reaching to the edge of massive, snow-capped mountains forming a perfect white, wintery background. I stood on a rock at the lake’s edge, stretched my arms out, like, yes, this is what life is about. This is traveling. This is Mother Nature at her most unspoiled splendor.

Bahodur looked crestfallen. He said the lake, and the two others nearby, were too small.

“It’s much more beautiful in the summer,” he said. “The snows haven’t melted yet. I’m sorry.”

We saved the best for last.


Bahodur had nothing to be sorry for. Neither does Tajikistan. In a world that is getting smaller, where the Internet makes nations as accessible as the push of an Enter button, this mountainous corner of the world has picked itself up and stands tall to the intrepid traveler. It’s always better to take the trail less traveled.

And sometimes it’s even better when there’s no trail at all.