A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: ameurice

China - Pictures

Xi'an's Big Wild Goose Pagoda
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Pingyao At Night
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Some kind of warning?
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Ravaged Buddhist Rock Art At Longmen
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Approaching The Shaolin Temple
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Posted by ameurice 02:00 Archived in China Tagged photography

Kashgar (喀什)

Great Game Glamour

sunny 34 °C

Kashgar, epicentre of the Great Game - the infamous 'cold' war between the British Empire and Tsarist Russia for domination of Central Asia - looks like any provincial Chinese city with a smattering of ossified Uigur backstreets. Having arrived through the parched foothills of the Pamirs, and energised by the tastiest plov (rice and meat) at the border, we were initially disappointed by the wide highways, shopping malls and encroaching Han (ethnic Chinese) colonisation. Nevertheless, we chose to stay right next to the old Russian consulate in a vain attempt to discover what Kashgar once was.

The warrens and back-alleys of the old town were genuinely atmospheric - once we delved deep enough behind the multitude of tacky tourist shops - as was the Id-Kah mosque overflowing with worshippers during Friday prayers. The Chinese presence can, however, be felt in the exorbitant ticket prices required simply to walk up some of the old streets, and less subtly with the giant statue of Chairman Mao (one, if not the, biggest in China)... We entertained ourselves by shopping around for the ubiquitous Uighur knives - which every man carries - and which are sharp enough to completely remove the hair on one's arm, as the stallholders were always happy to demonstrate!

The real highlight and purpose of our visit to Kashgar was the Sunday Market. Supposedly 50,000 people descend on Kashgar from all of Central Asia to trade horses, goats, sheep and cows as well as a multitude of goods - however since most of Central Asia lies hundreds of kilometres west of Kashgar beyond the Tian Shan and Pamir ranges, the crowd was almost exclusively Uighur and Chinese...

The next day we boarded the Kashgar-Urumqi train - a 23 hour, 1500km journey which turned out to be extremely comfortable despite being forced to eat a whole, raw cucumber for breakfast by a very generous fellow-passanger!

Posted by ameurice 03:01 Archived in China Tagged backpacking

Kyrgyzstan - Pictures

Jailoo (Summer Pasture) on the Osh-Bishkek Road
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Song Kol - Reflection
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Song Kol - Our Yurt
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Yurt by the Song Kol lake
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Horse and Toilet
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Karakol Valley
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Posted by ameurice 03:51 Archived in Kyrgyzstan Tagged photography

Song Kol

Summer Pastures in the Roof of the World

all seasons in one day

We crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan at Osh, also in the Fergana valley but with a very different flavour to Uzbekistan. The town itself had little to keep us there - we spent most of our time planning the coming several days in the mountains. Nevertheless we kept ourselves entertained by climbing a (very) large rock in the centre of town mysteriously called Solomon's Throne (rumoured to have come all the way from Israel?) and in the more bluntly named 'Rich Men's Cafe'.

Kyrgyzstan is roughly divided into two by the imposing Fergana mountain range and on our journey from Osh to the northern village of Kochkor (via the capital Bishkek) we crossed three passes above 3000m and enjoyed some splendid scenery. The drive took an excrutiating 22 hours or so so we made a stop in the dreary township of Toktogul; a word of advice: never come here of your own will, the 'motel' could well have been in the film of the same name...

During our brief stop in Bishkek we enjoyed both the calm tree-lined avenues as well as some solid Japanese/Korean food (Bi-bim-bap, kim-chi, gyoza...) The connection to Kochkor went smoothly (but still involved fighting through the locust swarm of taxi drivers). The bumpy ride took us through stunning pastures, desert and mountain scenery - not uncommon for Kyrgyzstan.

Arriving late in Kochkor - a tiny, secluded village lacking even running water - we were greeted by Omar whose tour agency organised everything from immediate accomodation to a horse-trek for the next three days, in the space of half an hour! We were lodged in a charming Russian-style house owned by an old Kyrgyz woman who kept a room free for tourists. Unfortunately we weren't served Russian food... Located as it was in a fertile valley and surrounded by gigantic snowy peaks, the thunderstorm's aftermath (and rainbows) made for a pleasant walk around the village.

The following day, after a heavy meal eaten in a grey house and under grey skies, we me our guide (Jyldyz-Bek), mounted our horses and set off towards the legendary lake Song-Kol. As if on cue, the skies opened up and we had the privilege to ride through the verdant pastures in a pleasant golden light (a privilege that would not last...). The sense of freedom is surprising and puzzled me at first, but later I realised that while riding through these rolling hills, prairielands and mountains we had not seen one single wall or fence. Indeed the land seemed to belong to everyone and our only company were wild horses, cows and the occasional sheperd. Several hours later we stopped at the yurts in which we would sleep that night; another storm gave us the excuse needed to nurse the aches and pains of horseriding...

Up at dawn, and greeted by a howling storm on the morning run from the yurt to the toilet (dodging cowpats and the angry bull) set the tone for the first half of a very uncomfortable day. Our guide led our horses over a slippery, rocky mountain pass at 3500m in the full fury of a hail storm which lasted for a good couple of hours. However, as the valley opened up on Song-Kol, divine providence again rewarded us with stunning blue skies and great sunlight (the light seemed different in Kyrgyzstan, probably a complete absence of any pollution...) Having left our horses at the yurt encampment, we walked around this beatiful plateau and I somehow lost sight of Anton in the undulating hills; while searching for him a Kyrgyz herder rode up to me and dragged me into his family's yurt. These were probably the most hospitable people I have met while travelling and I had the honour of sitting at the back of the yurt, sandwiched between a bleeding goat's head and trotters, and the local wisemen. There was no choice but to eat what was offered - rolls of intestine, raw backbone and bleeding liver, and to wash it all down with some strong Kumys (fermented mare's milk) - how I didn't also leave with crippling food poisoning amazes me, maybe I have something to thank Uzbekistan for!

Posted by ameurice 22:20 Archived in Kyrgyzstan Tagged backpacking

Uzbekistan - Pictures

Samarkand's Registan
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Samarkand's Bazaar
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Bukhara
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Bukhara Bug Pit
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Khiva
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Posted by ameurice 03:47 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged photography

Samarkand

sunny 30 °C

Thanks to the Kyrgyzstan national electricity company, the full and unabridged Samarkand entry is lost in cyberspace... so until I find the time/courage to start again here is a brief outline:

We stayed in a homely hostel full of great travelling advice and where we met our Dutch friends again, an entreprising Japanese girl travelling through the Middle-East and Central Asia on her own (!) and some cyclists travelling round the world in seven years...

Samarkand generally disappointed - both the ancient and the modern - the Registan was considerably more impressive in my imagination, and the other sights were few and far between; these included Amir Timur's tomb, the imposing Bibi Khanim mausoleum, the "City of the Dead" and the vast archeological dig area of ancient Marakanda (visited by Alexander the Great). Having said this, Samarkand was the most worthwhile Silk Road site in Uzbekistan...

The highlight of our visit was meeting a man called Dilshod - a local Tajik - who took us round the sights and proceeded to invite us to his home. There his wife (married only 3 months previously and so following a strange and elaborate protocol) prepared us a delicious dinner followed by showing us their marriage photos; we were somewhat embarassed to notice that noboby was smiling... Then we visited the local bar which presented a great snapshot of Uzbek district life, with all generations represented. Here I was convincingly beaten by a 12-year old boy in a game of chess...

The following day I contracted some very serious food poisoning with high fever, cold sweats, headaches, etc. which made the long bus journey to Tashkent less than entertaining...

Posted by ameurice 03:44 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged backpacking

Khiva

Long Shadows of the Silk Road

sunny 30 °C

Crossing over the monumental Oxus of old, now renamed the Amu-Darya river, we entered Khorezm and arrived in Khiva at sunset. Having been one of the pivotal trading posts on the old Silk Road, its wealth eventually waned until it was reduced to a petty khanate reliant on brutal intimidation to rule over its people. Yet it was the last independent power in the region to fall into the hands of the Russians, after which the last of its vibrant spirit finally disappeared.

In the 1970s Khiva was entirely rebuilt as a large tourist attraction. This involved moving out the indigenous population wholesale, abolishing all commerce except for souvenirs/restaurants/hotels, and charging a stupendous amount ($10 each) to even enter the city. There was no choice, however, and having paid at the gate we entered as the minarets and madressehs cast dramatic long shadows over the city. Shadows which reminded us how little of the Silk Road's previous wealth, culture and excitement remains today.

We did find a friendly B&B, with great food (not that I would enjoy, still being ill from Nukus...) and some enthusiastic young Khivans. Here we met a couple of Dutch students who were on a very similar journey to ours and had crossed the Turkmen border at Nukus the same day as we had - this would not be our last encounter...

Sights in Khiva consist of little more than a procession of medressahs, minarets and museums none of which are remarkable but they form quite a comprehensive ensemble.

We expected more from Bukhara....

Posted by ameurice 05:00 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged backpacking

Nukus

Karakalpakstan and Deviant Soviet Art

sunny 34 °C

If one still subscribed to the idea that the earth was flat, Nukus would certainly be placed on its remotest edge. The capital of the little-known Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan suffers from a staggering variety of ecological, social and political disasters and limps along on subsidies from the Uzbek capital Tashkent, itself not the most prosperous place in the world...

First there is the shrinking Aral Sea, or Seas to be more precise - it is predicted to break up into some five tiny individual lakes by 2015 or so - which has resulted in huge amounts of wind-borne salts and pesticides. To illustrate the problem the once-thriving Aral fishing port of Moynaq is now 150km from water! Once fertile floodplains have been reduced to salty wasteland, and the population is severely affected by respiratory disorders, cancers, birth defects and deformities. The latter was sadly evident in many of the people we met there... Furthermore after the collapse of the USSR the local economy was annihilated and the rampant unemployment has driven many locals to numb the pain with heroin - every street was littered with used syringes. Ironically what used to support the local economy happens to have been the Red Army's Chemical and Biological Weapons Research Centre. Now disused, the toxins (including Anthrax, Smallpox etc.) are leaking into the water supplies and adding insult to injury for the already desperate local population.

The Soviet insistence on the homogeneity of its peoples has also eradicated all culture and identity of the Karakalpak people; indeed Karakalpak means 'Black Hat' but the people have been so estranged from their traditions that they have had to set up a research initiative to find out what exactly this black hat, after which they are named, looks like.

The one highlight in the town was a mildly interesting museum where a certain Igor Savitsky had hidden away a huge amount of art which had been considered "Un-Soviet" during Stalin's rule. Unfortunately, the works on display were few, misteriously organised, and more interesting for what they represented then for any intrinsic artistic appeal.

I was able to leave Nukus with two things. One was an appreciation of how badly things can go wrong economically, socially and ecologically. The other was some really bad food poisoning, complementary with dodgy Plov from a Soviet-era canteen.

After our short stay we hurried on to Khiva....

Posted by ameurice 04:42 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged backpacking

Minaret of Kone-Urgench

The largest in Central Asia - survivor of earthquakes as well as Mongol and Timurid hordes

sunny 39 °C

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Posted by ameurice 04:36 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged photography

Darvaza Gas Crater

sunny 37 °C

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Posted by ameurice 07:17 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged photography

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