Once in Central Asia, we heard from other backpackers about Community-based tourism organizations. They essentially assist travellers to have real, local experiences as yurt stays, horse riding, mountain hikes, workshops, etc … More importantly, they serve as direct contact between travellers and local people, who should be the first beneficiary of all activities. Money then goes straight to the family providing the service. This kind of activities and organizations are mostly based in Kyrgyzstan, with CBT (Community-Based Tourism) and Tajikistan with PECTA (Pamir Eco Cultural Tourism Association) or META (Murghab Eco Tourism Association). In Uzbekistan, there is NURATAU (Nuratau-Kyzylkum Biosphere Reserve).
Arrived to Uzbekistan, we therefore wanted to live the experience of getting closer to local people
In particular, we wished to spend at least one night in a yurt (a circular tent used by nomads mostly in Central Asia) and visit Aydar Lake (“Aidarkul” in Kyrgyz language), a unique crystal pure lake situated on the south-east side of the Kyzylkum desert, in the North of the country, close to the Nuratau mountains.
The way to contact the Nuratau association is sending an email so that they can arrange everything with the hosting family and provide all the necessary information to get there.
Unfortunately, however, we didn’t have enough time to wait for the association’s answer about the family direct contact. Instead, through a helpful hostel in Bukhara, we got in touch with a yurt camp in Dungalok offering a similar service.
The closest village to the lake is Nurata (or Nurota in local language), situated at around 100 km from the yurt camp. From Bukhara, there is no direct bus or marshrutka. First you have to go to Navoi by shared taxi or be lucky and take an irregular bus directed to Tashkent and stopping in Navoi. As an alternative, you may arrange a taxi straight to the yurt camp for 100$.
Following our policy of travelling locally and in the cheapest way, we then went through these steps:
1. In Bukhara we caught a local bus n 5 from Kryty Rynok Bus Stop to Abtabazzan. There, we found a bus heading for Tashkent, due at unknown time. Nevertheless, while trying to ask the price, we were stopped by a taxi driver asserting the bus was not operational. Some instants later, a samaritan women appeared, wanting to protect us from any “price abuse”.
This is typical in Uzbekistan bus stations, where a mass of taxi drivers try to catch you saying that there is no public transport to get more passengers !
2. After one hour unsuccessfully waiting for the bus departure, we had to finally give up and search for a shared taxi. Following the ritual negotiations, we then arranged a taxi to Nurata, with a change in Navoi.
We nonetheless had to wait half an hour until the taxi was full and ready to leave !!!
3. In Navoi, after changing taxi, we had to wait again 30 minutes to recruit 2 more passengers to fill the car. On the way, you start to see some spare yurts and isolated houses in the middle of the quiet desert.
4. Once in Nurata, we discovered a small and charming village in the solitary lands.
Again, since there is no marshrutka to the yurt camp, we had to engage another taxi. In this case, however, the “lazy” drivers refused to bring us to our destination. In their opinion it was very far.
Only two young guys accepted to lead us there, purporting that they knew the place. On the way, they lengthily had to fulfil some personal errands though.
As expected, after two hours driving we got completed lost. We hence started to turn in circles, stopping cars and people on the road for information.
Finally, we bumped into somebody knowing the place. Following his indications, we eventually could reach our destination.
Notwithstanding, our drivers were not happy with the amount arranged at the beginning, asserting that after the long ride they were running short of petrol to come back. We replied: “no way man!”.
Eight hours after leaving Bukhara we arrived in Dungalok to the Aidar Yurt Camp, the closest base to Aidarkul Lake, just 10 km far away. The camp is composed of eleven well preserved and colourfully decorated yurts equipped with electricity and comfortable mattresses. It also has hot showers and Western throne toilets.
All that dismissed our genuine expectations: instead of basic and rural yurts, we found a tourist settlement replete with ad-hoc facilities.
The only “local” aspect was the language barrier inside the camp, as none of the people working there could speak English, which at least made our experience more challenging
In terms of activities, the structure offers camel rides, visits to the lake, local food tasting and regional music played around the fire at night. We discarded the camel ride as we had already done it in Iran.
After being showed our yurt, we were welcomed with a cup tea and some snacks in a common wooden house used for meals and interaction with other guests. We met a couple from Japan and another group of tourists from Kazakhstan.
With the former we went afterwards to the lake, where we had our first swim in Central Asia. The water was clear and warm enough to stay there a couple of hours. The lake offers brilliant views in the most enjoyable quietness.
Around 8 o’clock we came back to the camp and we relished the spectacular sight of the sunset.
Subsequently, we tasted a lavish and delicious dinner with local food and even shots of vodka.
The temperature was agreeable to stay outside and admire the stars in the clear sky. Around 22.30, fire was started and we sat around to listen to local music played with a traditional Uzbek guitar. Here you have a significant sample of the melodies:
To properly complete the day , we couldn’t avoid coming back to the lake and have a peaceful night swim!
The following day, after breakfast, we spent some time with the people working there, who kindly taught us how to play backgammon, a popular game in Central Asia.
We decided to leave before lunch to go to Samarkand. The return was easier than getting there. We took a taxi without problems to Nurata and another to Navoi. From Navoi, we went to Samarkand by a really uncomfortable bus, without air conditioning. But this is another story : )
To sum up, although it was not the real local experience that we were looking for, we nonetheless enjoyed the still placidity and the charming views of the biggest lake in Uzbekistan. We also appreciated the thoughtful kindness of the staff running the place, despite the language obstacles.
All in all, however, it was a “refreshing” break into the soothing nature. A pleasurable escape from the Silk Road urban landscape and the overall scorching Uzbek desert.
And you, have you ever had any yurt experience in Uzbekistan or other countries? We’d love to hear your stories!