After visiting Uzbekistan, some days Kirgizia, one day Tajikistan, and one day Turkmenistan in October 1994 as independent birdwatchers (together with my wife Krystyna and friend Bart), I have been asked by the Belgian/Flemish (Dutch-speaking) tourist organization VTB-VAB to guide a group during 14 days through Northern Iran and along the famous cities from the Great Silk Road in Uzbekistan.
Maybe a few words to start with. There are many, many interesting species in these two countries. "Unfortunately" the VTB-VAB trip was a cultural trip and not a birding trip. But let me not complain: for guiding and translating the group my trip was total free. And anyway I managed to see some birds!
The VTB-VAB trip was very well organized: a local agency with a guide in Iran and an Uzbek agency with several local guides took us under their wings. All guides were perfectly fluent in French or English language. The Belgian group consisted of 10 people, and after a few days I managed to raise their interest for birds, even so much that in Uzbekistan they started to photograph and film the vultures flying over us. Although this report is -- consequently -- not a full bird one, I think it's quite interesting, for those who want to visit these countries, to have an idea where to visit what.
On the 4th of September we left Brussels with an Lufthansa flight towards Frankfurt and later on towards Teheran. Being in bed in a very nice room from the Azadi Hotel by 03.30h. couldn't help that the next day I felt quite dizzy. The permanently working airconditioning and the 2.30 hour difference with Brussels were part of the reason. Anyway, the next morning with some Hooded Crows (C. corone cornix) and several European Turtle Doves (S. turtur) around the hotel the day looked promising. Teheran is a city under construction: due to the war with Iraq and several "problems" with the US and the EU foreign investment is rare. Today was just Friday: the holiday for Muslims. Lucky for us, no traffic and all shops closed. We visited the traditional musea: the Archaeological, the Carpet, and the Glass & Ceramics museum. The last one housed the Egyptian Embassy and is worth to visit.
By the end of the day we took an evening flight with Iran Airways (Airbus) towards Tabriz in the North-West in the province of Azarbayjan-e Sharghi. The arrival was promising: several White Storks (C. ciconia) and a Little Egret (E. garzetta) in the river close to the airport made a day almost without birds good. Tabriz has a Russian air about it and resembles a Russian provincial town, not so much reminds of Iran. The Tabrizis are not known for their hospitality, which we could experience the next day Saturday 6th of September.
After visiting the city with its 15th century bazaar and its Masjed-e Kabud (or Blue) Mosque, we went towards the Turkish border to visit the most interesting and remarkable Christian monument in Iran, the Ghara Kelisa or Church of St. Thaddaeus. A wonderful road, a unique place, and the first great birds. Situated in the mountains (some 1000m. high) the church is surrounded with colorful hills. Almost no vegetation and if there were some trees Lesser Kestrel (F. naumanni) were sitting in them. Most amazing was that there were still fledglings around the nest. Going back towards Tabriz we made a photo-stop in a Kurdish village: very gentle people, and of course the participants took some extraordinary pictures. In the mean time an Imperial/Golden (A. heliaca/chrysaetos) passed by. The distribution map and the V-flight pattern could suggest a Golden Eagle. With this "not sure" determination we arrived by 21.30h. back in the hotel.
The next day was my longest day ever in a bus: leaving at 06.30h. and arriving at 21.00h. Only a few short stops for a meal and a visit of the shrine of Sheikh Safi-od Din in Ardabil. This 14th-century mausoleum is more than worth paying a visit. The road towards Ardabil leads over a kind of plateau (which is more humid), and from the bus I could see -- this time for sure -- a Golden Eagle (A. chrysaetos) and European Bee-eaters (M. apiaster). It was very funny because our local guide announced that this area is known for honey. Along the road you can find hundreds of bee-houses, and above on roadside wires were the Bee-eaters. As soon as the bees came out they "attacked." Good honey, I suppose.
Soon after Ardabil, the Alborz mountains are getting really high, and we arrived at a total different Iran. The provinces of Gilan and Mazandaran occupy the coastal belt between the mountains and the Caspian Sea. No-one can claim to have seen Iran without traveling this northern enclave. The two provinces are thickly forested and have a coastal plain (to 100km. wide). From a mountain pass we went down towards the city of Astara (near Azerbaijan) and what was visible (exceptionally green and humid), it started to rain.
Nowadays this coastal area is one of the most densely populated regions in Iran, which resulted in slower driving (and being even longer on the road), but for me quite interesting. Nothing to say to people (they were anyway amazed by the way of driving in Iran), so time for birding from the bus! Due to the humid climate the main agricultural crop of the region is rice. Rice means water, water means birds, and yes there they were: Grey Herons (A. cinerea), Common Tern (S. hirundo), Caspian Tern (S. caspia; Jesus, they are big!), and due to not stopping either White-winged Black Tern (C. leucopterus) or Whiskered Tern (C. hybrida), and also some little plovers. Near the city of Bandar-e Anzali (with a sturgeon/caviar-processing factory, do "special" gulls like these exclusive products?) is the outlet of the Mordab-e Anzali (Anzali Lagoon). A nice inland lake was thus created. Birds, birds, birds and not allowed to stop! I became so frustrated that I could have taken off any women's chador (they are obliged by law to wear full-length black dress which covers their nice "forms"). This could cost my surely a year in prison, but then, no bus driving in this good birding area.
The arrival of a Night Heron (N. nycticorax) was for me the sign that there were only another two hours to drive. The grand-luxe class hotel was situated in a palace built by the last shah. He knew where to build: who could blame him for setting this palace in the thickly wooded hill overlooking Ramsar? Foreigners stopped staying here after the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran ordered to start charging them in dollars (rooms start from 55/60 US$).
In the next morning, a superb view on the gardens (a lot of trees and shrubs; could you imagine what could have been inside them?), but we had to go: catching a flight in Teheran at 15.00h.
From the city of Chalus a mountain road goes to Teheran. The pass is called Candevhan and is about 2200m. high. Near a few houses several Eurasian Crag Martin (H. rupestris) were seen. During this trip the weather changed dramatically: from rain into thick fog. At a certain moment about 50 to 60 Common Buzzard (B. buteo) and Long-legged Buzzard (B. rufinus) and a few Black Kite (M. migrans) were trapped by the low hanging clouds. With our bus we were just driving at their height and later higher than them. They had to interrupt their migration and go back towards the Caspian Sea. We, unfortunately, could not and arrived on time at Teheran airport. The same evening a plain brought us to Mashad.
Tuesday 9th of September was a day without -- almost -- birds. Mashad used to be known for three things: religion, commerce and tourism. The transit trade with the former USSR and Afghanistan has all but dried up (except for illegal opium), and tourism has collapsed (thanks to the ayatollahs), thus the one thing remaining is religion. The city's name means -- literally -- "place of martyrdom" with the burial place of a martyr (the eighth emam Reza). Very beautiful place, very conservative city, a huge pilgrimage center and no birds. In the evening we left again for Teheran.
The next morning, no breakfast and a flight to Tashkent, started at 04.00h. Leaving in an Tupolev from Iran Airways, we stopped for about an hour in Ashabad (Turkmenistan), to be grilled in a plane from which they stopped the engine, to arrive at Tashkent about 1.00h. local time. After changing from the old to the new airport, a flight with an Iljoesjin (25 passengers) from Uzbekistan Airways, we were flying again for two hours to Urgench. Time of arrival 18.00h. A day in the air -- among birds -- but without seeing them! Luckily near the hotel were several Common Myna (also called Indian Myna, Acridotheres tristis) to spot. And a first surprise: they expanded their range dramatically (cfr. Flint in Birds of the USSR). We stayed at the hotel Jaikun, a three star hotel (the best value in town), but it is a common habit to 'do away' with stars in Uzbekistan. Anyway we had, after Iran, every reason to celebrate. The liberation of the women and the possibility of alcohol were only two of them.
Before going the next morning towards Khiva, I made a small walk in the garden of the hotel. An Eurasian Hoopoe (U. epops) at 4 meter: the day started very well. A bus trip with along the road European Roller (C. garrulus) and European Bee-eater (M. apiaster) to the old town of Khiva, what could go wrong today? Visiting Khiva is stepping right up to the strangest little time-capsule in Central Asia. Although it looks like a medieval town, it's not older than New York. Khiva was in the 18th and 19th centuries the most remote and now the most complete (with Unesco help) of the old Silk Route's oasis cities.
A whole day on foot in a superb old town, and this with a French speaking Uzbek guide: a dream after the plane/bus horror. Old towns in Central Asia are the home several dove species. The Eurasian Collared Dove (S. decaocto), which seems to expand also a lot in Central Asia, and the Laughing Dove (S. senegalensis) are living together in the old houses. Surprising was the sound coming from tower of the Pavlan-darvaza (east gate), an resonant "ho-bo, ho-bo." After a while a Oriental Turtle Dove (S. orientalis) appeared, in fact a bird found in various types of forests. Happy about this day, our group went back to the several-star hotel for an outstanding tasting of Uzbek vodka.
On Friday 12th of September we had to take a bus ride south towards Bukhara. Leaving Urgench, a trip through the Kyzyl Kum desert was in front of us. A last stop along the Amour-Dyrja river (the only one who brings a little bit of water to the dying Aral Sea) for a water supply gave me the opportunity to spot some birds: Herring Gull (L. argentatus), Lesser Black-Backed Gull (L. fuscus) and Great Black-Headed Gull (L. ichthyaetus) were along the river close to some fishermen. Several Barn Swallow (H. rustica) and Common House Martin (D. urbica) migrated southwards.
Then into the desert: one road leading towards Bukhara. This road should be better called "the road of the thousand tyres." Due to the heat, all cars, trucks and buses are loosing their tyres. This is the reason why during summer you should only take this road during the night. After about 2 hours it was our turn: suddenly a lot of noise in the front left. No more tyre. Replacing it took a good hour. But this was my luck! In 1994 I have been looking -- without success -- for the Pander's Ground Jay (Podoces panderi). This scarce species is found in desert scrub mostly single. Here, thanks to a broken tyre, I was lucky to see this special bird. Nobody understood that I was unhappy when the bus was repaired!
In the afternoon we made a stop at some oasis: result several Crested Lark (G. cristata), and something like Greater Short-toed Lark (C. brachydactyla), although the last one was very quick gone, so I am not sure of the species. Apart from the Central Asian form of the White Wagtail (M. alba), which has a much darker head, a juvenile Bluethroat (L. svecica) took my attention instead of drinking water or tea. The closer we came to Bukhara the more European Bee-eater (M. apiaster) and sometimes a Blue-Cheeked Bee-eater (M. persicus) could be seen along roadside wires.
Hotel old-Bukhara, known for not having hot water, is a typically Intourist boring hotel. The hot water was not a problem after the (longer than expected) stay in the desert. Cold water was more than welcome. The restaurant serves good Uzbek salad dishes with meat and cold canned western, in casu Dutch, beer. The last one you have to pay in US$, and two of those is really too much for Dutch beer. Try Uzbek wine instead: better value for less money.
Saturday 13th September: another day on foot in Bukhara. Can you imagine strolling around between a late 9th century mausoleum, a mid-9th century city wall, the Kalyan minaret completed in 1127, and the Mir-a Arab Madrasa (Koran-school, still working today)? Between this all the already mentioned "old-town-birds" and as extra the Central Asian form of Great Tit (P. major incl. cinereus). This bird is much paler than the one we know. Mark Beaman (Palearctic Birds, a checklist ...) gives the bird also the name Cinereous Tit (rather than Grey Tit, which removes the need to amend the latter to 'Asian Grey Tit'). Just a day in the life of a guide.
The next day we took the road towards Samarkand, but going by the city of Shahr-e Sabz. Along the road we passed the 5000ha. fenced nature reserve where a reintroduction of the Houbara Bustard (C. undulata) is going on. In 1994 I had the opportunity to visit this area. Not this time! On the road towards Shahr-e Sabz several buzzard-like birds migrated. Unfortunately no stop.
At the heat of the day we arrived in Shahr-e Sabz and paid a visit to the so-called White Palace (in fact only the entrance) of Timurlane. Into the left side of the magnificent gate, a couple of Common Myna (A. tristis) is breeding. Their calls are going from maybe ten different whistles over a more scraping cry. The way towards Samarkand brought us along the border with Kirgizia: again the roadside was full with European Bee-eater (M. apiaster) and more and more Blue-Cheeked Bee-eater (M. persicus). Also regular were an Eurasian Roller (C. garrulus) and from time to time a Long-tailed Shrike (L. schach). Eurasian Rook (C. frugilegus), Brown-necked Raven (C. ruficollis) and Crested Lark (G. cristata) were the birds easy to see from a driving bus. About 18.30h. we arrived in the very good hotel Afrasiab in the center of Samarkand.
Monday 15th of September: visiting Samarkand, the city of the tales of thousand-and-one night. Names like Shak-i Zinda, Bibi Chanim, Gur-e Mir and Nadir Diwan-Begi are making you believe that birds are not important. But being in the evening at Registan brings you back to the real life. Hundreds of Alpine Swift (A. melba) are circling around and are looking out for a sleeping place in the Chir-Dor medresse. Twice a group from about 30 European Bee-eater (M. apiaster) passed by on migration. Can you imagine that this was a favorite place for our group, who in the mean time knew that birds were existing?
The next day a visit to Penjikent in Tajikistan was planned. Everything went as planned, our guide waited at the border, and after some 5 minutes we were driving into the Independent Republic of Tajikistan. Unfortunately for the people it's no so independent. Due to the civil war and regular some 'influx' from Afghanistan, the country is not as well developed as the other Central Asian neighbor. Already in the streets the lack of daily goods is visible. United Nations is giving them permanent food-help. However the word 'dollar' found its way here too, and to photograph the ruins of the "Pompeii of Central Asia" (in the 8th century the Sogdianen founded here a multi-cultural and multi-functional city) it was necessary to pay one dollar (without receipt of course!). In his Kazakhstan/Uzbekistan report (25.06-16.07.97), Graham Tebb wrote: "Any Westerner is viewed as a potential gold-mine, to be exploited to the maximum extent possible." Indeed, just keep also in mind that trading and bargaining has been the habit since centuries in Central Asia. So, like Uzbeks do for bread (costs 15 zum = 1/6 US$), bargain on your 1 photo dollar. It works! The day was very funny, in the city-park there is still a statue of Lenin and a metal wall-plate with Marx, Engels and Lenin on it. When questioning the guide about this, he answered "we like(d) them." That's independence. Over our good friends was flying high an eagle, not to be identified. Apart from the Central Asian form of an Azure Tit (P. cyanus) (seems to be called now Yellow-breasted Tit, P. c. flavipectus), I was disappointed: in these nice mountains I hoped for some more birds and surely more time, but back to Samarkand for a free shopping (!!!) afternoon.
On Wednesday 17th of September it was already time to think about going home: first a bus trip towards the capital Tashkent. Along the road, during several stops some nice bird-surprises: at a place (some higher rocks) called "Tamerlan's gate" we had a photo-stop. Almost immediately some vultures started soaring. Two Eurasian Griffon Vultures (G. fulvus) and four Egyptian Vultures (N. percnopterus) were the top of the day. My tourist non-birders started to film these birds!
Further, a female Marsh Harrier (C. aeruginosus), a male Pallid Harrier (C. macrourus), and a Black Kite (M. migrans) were along the river Syr-Darja. The well known row of Stork (C. ciconia) nests near a place called Jizzak, but the Storks had already left for even warmer areas. More and more Blue-Cheeked Bee-eater (M. persicus) were among the European Bee-eater (M. apiaster). My culture lovers started to ask "what are these greenish birds along the road?" My task as (bird)guide was fulfilled.
By noontime we arrived at the Hotel Uzbekistan in Tashkent, and after the x-th time of eating plov (a rice-based national dish), we took a tour guided in English of the city. Just this day the prime-minister of Italy was on a visit in Tashkent. Will there be a joint venture between the Uzbek and the Italian Mafia? Anyway, I never saw so many police in the streets. After the city-tour we ended our own tour with a trip on the beautiful metro. Worth doing, and costs only 10 zum (1/10 US$). You can't even photograph for that!
Back in the hotel, after an evening meal, the kitchen-staff prepared chicken with pommes frites (French fries) for the Belgian tourists, (as if we do not eat enough of this already in Belgium), so everybody could have a rest before leaving somewhere around midnight. Some of the single (men) rooms received strange calls from the floor-lady proposing to see "nice" pictures. You could make a choice, and half an hour later the lady (from the picture) would help you spent the rest of the night. Luckily (or maybe unfortunately for some men), we had to leave the hotel by midnight and fly back on Lufthansa towards Frankfurt and later Brussels.
Northern Iran is worth visiting, especially the Caspian Sea coast. Take your time and some money. Be ready for regular police controls. I think that the month of May must be the most beautiful in this area. After looking back on my 'bustrip', migration can be very rewarding, I think.
Uzbekistan is a cultural highlight. Between the cities you can find a lot of birds, and surely spring is the best period. Try also the mountain-area near Sachimardan, which we visited in October of 1994. On that occasion we saw Little Forktail (Enicurus scouleri), a species which range is in the Pamir-Altai and the Tien-Shan mountains.
During this cultural trip, Common Myna (A. tristis) was the only bird which really was very very common in Central Asia, also in the center of the cities. Blue-Cheeked Bee-eater (M. persicus) and European Bee-eater (M. apiaster) were the birds seen by the thousands on migration. When I visited Uzbekistan in the first half of October '94, we only saw 10 Blue-Cheeked Bee-eater. What a difference.
As Graham wrote before: "This region offers outstanding cultural attractions together with larger areas of natural beauty." Here, birding will be on the rise for the future, it will be far from easy, but worth the effort. Good luck to any and all who are prepared to make the effort.
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