Every now and then, travelers muse about going somewhere completely different. Phrases like “off the beaten path” or “hidden gem” pop up in conversation.
Sometimes it takes a special event, or a snap decision, to move from the daydreaming phase to the bag-packing stage.
For Maria Benner and her husband, Scott Clendaniel, it was the occasion of their 20th anniversary. Maria’s mother was planning a trip to central Asia — so the couple decided to join her on part of a journey that included visits to Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan.
Central Asia is sort of a blur for many Americans, so I was anxious to hear how Benner and her family navigated the region.
“I would definitely recommend a visit,” said Benner. “It’s not hard to get to. There were other Americans — and the transportation infrastructure was flawless.”
Benner and Clendaniel started their journey flying over-the-top to Frankfurt on Eurowings, continuing on Lufthansa to Istanbul.
“I knew we were going to spend a little more than a week in Turkey, so I just Googled ‘tours in Turkey,’ ” said Maria. “I ended up on a site called toursturkey.com which worked out really well.”
Prior to departure, Benner picked up a book on Turkey and identified four destinations in addition to their initial stop in Istanbul. One was the historic city of Ephesus. Another stop was at the odd-shaped dwellings in Cappadocia (where people lived in caves), followed by a beach stop on the Mediterranean in Antalya. The last stop was a visit to Pamukkale, known for its hot springs.
“Our eight-day package for two people was $2,500,” said Benner. “That included airfare, buses, hotels and some meals.”
Before taking off to see the rest of Turkey, Benner and Clendaniel explored popular sites in Istanbul. “Of course we went for a cruise of the Bosphorus,” said Benner. “You have to do that.”
The Bosphorus Strait runs between the Black Sea and the Aegean Sea, dissecting the city and separating Europe from Asia.
Another highlight, after visiting the giant Blue Mosque, was a visit to the Topkapi Palace, with remarkable exhibits of the staff of Moses, the sword of King David and a piece of Abraham’s hair. The palace served as the administrative headquarters for the Ottoman Empire between the 15th and the 19th centuries.
“Going to Ephesus was like going to Rome,” said Benner. “There were Roman ruins and theaters, since it was all part of the empire.”
Christian pilgrims also flock to Ephesus.
“There are lots of holy sites,” said Benner. “We visited Mary’s house, the mother of Jesus.”
Throughout the course of their entire trip, Benner and Clendaniel visited one or two UNESCO World Heritage sites each day. “They’re everywhere,” said Benner. Sites include established historic landmarks like Ephesus, as well as small monasteries which dot the landscape.
Following their time in Turkey, Clendaniel and Benner flew to Armenia to meet up with Maria’s mother Klavdia Benner.
“My mother grew up in Kazakhstan,” said Maria. “So she’s been wanting to return to the area for some time. We were happy to join her.”
Part of Maria’s quest was to check out some “real modern Armenian culture,” she said.
That meant taking in a soccer game. While they were visiting, the Armenian national team faced off against Croatia.
“The game was completely sold out, so I had to buy some tickets from a scalper,” said Maria. “They were $65 per ticket —and Armenia lost, 1-0.”
Armenia is well-known for its cognac, so a visit to a distillery was next on the agenda.
Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, also is home to a Soviet-era subway system. “I love these old subways,” said Maria. “They have the longest escalator to get down to the platforms. And the old trains are so loud.”
In the country’s southeast corner is the world’s longest aerial tramway, more than 3.4 miles. The ride is more than 12 minutes and ends at an ancient Tatev Monastery. Dubbed the “Wings of Tatev”, the tram goes over two valleys, at a maximum height of over 1,000 feet.
“We drove from Armenia into Georgia. The border crossing was easy,” said Maria. “Georgia’s not as developed as Turkey, though.”
Maria characterized Georgia as having a “post-Soviet vibe” and “a little behind the times.”
In the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, Benner and Clendaniel rented one of several cabanas downtown located at a hot spring. “Each cabana has the warm, clear waters of the hot spring right there,” she said. “There was a toilet, a shower and everything you needed to just relax.”
Benner’s favorite part of the trip to Georgia was a visit to two cave complexes. The first, a cave city in Vardzia, which once was an effective hideout for military forces guarding the region.
The second cave complex was the Prometheus Cave, which was discovered in 1980. There are more than 11 miles of caves. Paths have been carved out for about a mile, complete with light shows, for visitors. The caves are located about 250 feet below ground level.
Next stop on the tour was a visit to Baku, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, in Azerbaijan.
“You can tell right away that Baku is a modern, civilized city because of the oil money,” said Maria. “The roads are nice. No trash or stray dogs.”
There’s quite a bit of oil-industry history in Baku, including the first oil rig and the first oil pipeline. The pipeline was constructed in 1876 by the Nobel family, including Alfred (founder of the Nobel Prize).
The last country that Maria, Scott and Klavdia visited was Uzbekistan. They took a flight from Baku to Tashkent, the capital.
“Uzbekistan is where the food is fabulous,” said Maria. “Tashkent is on the ancient Silk Road. It’s home to a giant market that’s been there since 500 A.D. There are five giant domes: one is for baking, one for meats and so on.”
Maria finally found her favorite food in Tashkent. “It’s samsa,” she said. “It’s a croissant dough filled with lamb, beef, onions and delicious spices.”
The group finished their tour after taking a fast train to the city of Samarkand, which used to be the capital.
“There are beautiful buildings built by King Temur,” said Maria. “He lived 1,000 years ago.”
After traveling through central Asia for five weeks, the region is “no longer a blur,” said Maria.
“I think tourism is the best form of diplomacy,” said Maria. “Instead of being strangers, I now know about the region’s food, their culture and history.”
Although she saw other Americans on her trip, Maria surmises that Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan and even Turkey are “not on Americans’ radar.”
“I just want to go back and eat some more samsa,” Maria confessed.