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Following the Silk Road: A solo traveler’s journey through the ‘5 stans’

Our readers share tales of their ramblings around the world.

Who: Cathy Alifrangis of Herndon, Va.

Where, when, why: I was celebrating a special birthday in April and decided to treat myself to a three-week adventure to five “stans”: Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan . The Adventures Abroad trip held an allure because of the culture and history, but also because it’s not one of the usual destinations for travel. I wanted this trip to be memorable. And, for a multitude of reasons, it was.

Highlights and high points: Although advertised as the “5 Stans,” the trip could also have been called the “5 m’s” — mosques, minarets, madrassas, monuments and museums. In each of the five countries, the Islamic architecture was a reflection of the religion, the people and the period of time before Russian control. Each country revealed part of the story of the Silk Road and the various wars, treaties and efforts to control this link between the East and West. And although there were similarities in these areas, each had an individual flavor. The different colors, designs, emphases, native dress and foods kept the places from becoming repetitious.

Cultural connection or disconnect: When I would tell people where I was going, the most common response after “Why?” was “Be careful.” Their cautions were totally unnecessary. The people were extremely warm and friendly. Wherever we were, they wanted to have their pictures taken with us, so much so that we often spent 10 minutes posing again . . . and again. Many were especially excited to meet someone from the United States. Kids would run up and say “Hello” and laugh or follow our vans as far as they could, waving the whole way. Wedding parties would call one of our group over to pose with them for good luck. The language barrier was always removed with a smile.

Biggest laugh or cry: Our group was composed of three Americans and eight Canadians. The banter between the two nationalities was fun and informational. Instead of something not being over “until the fat lady sings,” I learned that it’s “until the last stone is thrown.” (That’s a reference to curling.) Canada won the World Curling Champions during the trip, and I heard about the games every morning over breakfast along with weather reports, another daily part of Canadian life. One day, I saw a group of Uzbek women sweeping the streets with their short brooms and told my group that I needed a minute to take a picture of the Uzbek curling team practicing.

How unexpected: The five countries are predominantly Muslim. I expected hijabs, burqas and beards, calls to prayer from the minarets and other outward signs of Islam. Instead, I found countries where it seemed that religion was a moral belief system, not a strict way of life.

Favorite memento or memory: I am not a shopper. I look, but rarely buy. On my birthday, we had some free time before dinner and I walked back through Samarkand with Molly, another group member. We stopped at a handicraft store with very unusual jackets. “Treat yourself,” Molly insisted. The jacket was hand-quilted and embroidered by five women. It was the perfect souvenir.