A Travellerspoint blog

The Road Awaits...

Pre-trip blog marketing

It's all getting exciting. I'm all packed and have already left the UK, currently writing from Moscow.

For this trip I want to make full use of the blog and internet resources in general, so I'm opening this as a platform for any suggestions and tips for the trip.

One of the reasons I thought up of this trip is for the cultural changes we'll see along the way. From Slavic Ukraine to the mountains of Caucasian Georgian and Armenia, culturally unique in their own right with their own alphabets and languages, but still Christian and ex-Soviet.
Then descending from the Caucasus Mountains we will get into Eastern Turkey, and enter the lands of Islam, although still with scattered ancient Armenian ruins. Then onto the Arab lands of Levant, its baking deserts and plains having seen mark of human civilization from the very beginning.
It should be very interesting to see the gradual change of cultures and peoples along the way.
A lot of ground to cover in one and a half months, but it should be managable.

One cool idea we have for the trip is trading: We'll buy some small Ukranian trinket, and try to trade it for another object in every other country and see what we end up with at the end. Yes, it's likely we'll get ripped off by pretty much every merchant, but it's worth a try.
Also there are some ghost towns (due to ethnic cleansing in the 90s) in Abkhazia that look awesome to climb in and photograph, but as a separatist state it's fairly lawless and dangerous (bandits in the mountains), we'll decide if it's worth going when we know the situation on the ground. Also, we can do some amateur journalism with the local people there to get some view of what's going on there.
I have recently learned how to use my camera properly too, so of course I will try to step it up with my photography skills.

Anyway, if you have any other ideas for our trip, I'll be glad to hear them, so leave a comment or email me.
This promises to be a good one.

PS: Check out the Georgian and Armenian alphabets:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgian_alphabet
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armenian_alphabet

Posted by Nomadics 23:57 Archived in Russia Tagged preparation

I am firing up the blog again!

Back on the road soon.

Very exciting things are a foot. In a few weeks time I will be flying to begin a new adventure.

From Kiev I shall try to get to Beirut over land and sea, going across the Black Sea, through the mountains and valleys of the Caucasus, into Eastern Turkey and eventually the baking deserts of the Levant.

Here is a preliminary map of the trip:

Once again, I will be blogging, this time with another friend of mine, Chuck.

We've got lots of interesting ideas and plans for this trip.

A

Posted by Nomadics 08:57 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged preparation

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

Urumqi and Turpan

Big Cities! Skyscrapers! Grapes!

40 °C

Arriving in Urumqi was like arriving in New York for the first time (except on a smaller scale: Urumqi is definitely no New York). Skyscrapers! KFC! Bright neon lights! Shopping malls! Motorways! Civilisation (kind of)!

That wore off after a while. The city wasn't particularly exciting. For the "Uighur Capital" it didn't have many Uighurs. The Han Chinese have moved in, and are now in the majority, getting all the good jobs and living in high rise appartments that have popped up everywhere. There's even an expat community, and a Curacaoan Restaurant (Curacao is a random island in the Netherlands Antillies, that's even more random than Urumqi..).

Our only reason for going to Urumqi was to meet up with Max, a friend of ours who would be travelling with us down to Shanghai (and provide help with the Chinese).

Anyway, after a little shopping and time wasting, we jumped on a bus to China's hottest place: Turpan (of Tulufan to the Chinese, who can't pronounce most Uighur names).
It was hot. Very very hot: 45C. Ouch.

In Turpan we signed up for a tour to see the sights, which was a huge mistake. The Chinese 'style' of tourism seems to be this: Hop into a minivan, get driven to a crappy and expensive attraction (places that are "symbolic" to the Chinese people, as all the real attractions were trashed in the cultural revolution, so basically there's nothing there except for a modern building), and then pay a fortune for this "privelidge".
We saw a hill, a empty cave, a grape farm, some modern buildings, and some mud. Great. Actually the mopsque wasn't too bad.

The next day we did our own thing. We rented bikes from John's cafe (legendary along the Chinese silk road), and cycled around. I got pretty sweaty in the heat, but we saw a lot more of Turpan. We met a Uighur grape farmer who showed us around, and even gave us some of his grapes (sour, wrong season).

Even Turpan is very "Chinesefied": the Uighur old town is reduced to the southern part of the city, and horrible dirty modern Chinese buildings are everywhere (they are white tiled, badly constructed and are never washed).

We moved on.

Posted by Nomadics 04:06 Archived in China Tagged backpacking

China so far...

in pictures

Sorry for the slow updates, Kyrgyzstan knocked us off track, and we're catching up (slowly).

To make up for it, here are some photos of China so far (proper explanations to come soon, I promise)

Crescent Moon Lake, Dunhuang:
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The Fort of Jiayuguan, last outpost of the Great Wall, and the traditional entrance to the Middle Kingdom:
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Modern China:
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Xiahe, a Tibetain pilgrimmage site just on the start of the Tibetian Plateau (incredible):
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I like this one. Even Buddhist monks are human:
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Posted by Nomadics 09:11 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

Karakol to the Irkeshtam

Kyrgyz Potato Farmers, My Dad and China.

After a purchace of our huge and hugely awesome Kyrgyz hats(ak-kalpaks) in Kochkor, we went to Karakol. We had no reason for going, and chose on the spot over Naryn. We had heard it was quite nice, but had no idea about what to do there...

After a quick taxi and a unexpectedly long minibus around lake Issyk Kul, the second largest alpine lake in the world. It took 4 hours to get from one end to the other. Huge. Scenery was pretty nice, as the lake is surrounded by pristine snow capped mountains and pine forests. Something even the Soviets couldn't ruin, even though they tried (there are a couple of derilict factories around, and a 'polygon', a secret Soviet military reaserch base where they used to test torpedoes).

Karakol is a funny town. Its a collection of dirty wooden shacks, separated by wide, leafy unpaved roads, with the occasional Soviet statue or squat appartment block. It was pretty empty most of the time, and competely unlit at night, apart from the main street, so navigating around at night had to be done solely on the headlights of cars that occasionally drove by.

In one of the few (the best apparently, with the usual lonely planet reader crowd) restaurants in Karakol, we met a French sailor who we had previously met in Samarkand (there really aren't many tourists in Central Asia...). He'd just spend some days hiking in the valleys around Karakol, and recommended us some good sites. Now, we had something to do.

It was worth coming to Karakol after all. After purchasing some bread, cheese and ham for our lunch, as well as plenty of water, we set out to walk the Karakol Valley, aiming to get to the alpine lake of Ala Kol.

After a few hours, we realised that the Ala Kol was miles away. 18 km to be precise, all uphill (i think we would have had to climb over 1000 meters), anyway, there was no way we could do it in one day.

Anyway, we decided to slow our pace and enjoy the scenery, which was fantastic. On the valley sides were lush pine forests, and clear river bubbling through, with snow capped peaks in the distance. Eventually the forest opened up onto a flat clearing, with the river lazily meandering through the grassland, where we decided to have lunch. Somewhat outside of the spirit of this country idyll, we were invited to a picnic by some drunk Kyrgyz potato farmers, who were having their yearly 3-day holiday there, and had just slaughtered a goat.

After a meal and their endless questions about the west, like whether everyone with short hair was a loser, or if dirty t-shirts like the ones we were sporting were cool, we hopped on their hardcore KAMAZ truck (made in the USSR, circa 1960 by the looks of it, but I could see it ferrying munitions to the Eastern front) to get a lift back to town.

It broke down. A lot. They had to wind up the engine every 10 minuites, hit it with a big metal bar every so often, but it all worked out in the end.

Eventually we made it back, after the bumpiest ride ever (the valley wans't exactly paved).

Next day, we got onto a bus to Bishkek, where strangely enough, I was going to see my Dad. Yes, in Bishkek (it's the capital of Kyrgyzstan). He was on some business in Almaty, which was only 300 km away, so he decided to drop by. Unfortunatley, he came in a car with Kazakh licence plates, which meant that EVERY cop in Kyrgyzstan stopped them and wanted bribes, for made up reasons such as that tinted windows are illegal.

Anyway, after a nice, if short dinner, to prove him I was still okay, and the opportunity to unload a few sweaters from my backpack, he was gone...

Next day, so were we. To Osh, in a ride that proved that all taxi drivers are dicks. It's a long story, but it was expensive, long and unpleasant.
Back in Osh, we quickly organised some transport to China for the next day did some errands, like sending photographs to our Kyrgyz Potato farmer chums.

The road to the Irkeshtam pass was unpaved and mostly empty, but as usual in Kyrgyzstan, within sight of huge, lonesome snowcapped mountains (the Pamirs this time). After a quick night in a village on the way (very quick), we were off to China.

The border was a mess. It didn't look like a border per se, but an impromtu parking lot for truckers, patrolled by soldiers checking passports. They were quite surprised by us, but quickly let us go. After hitching with a trucker to the Chinese side (7km away), we entered the People's Republic. A big clock tower showed Beijing time (+4 hours, rediculously), and the immaculately unifromed solders showed us the way...

Posted by Nomadics 01:54 Archived in Kyrgyzstan 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

Fergana Valley

Wedding Crashers

From Tashkent the drive took us up the mountains, through some refreshingly green mountain scenery that was all the better after about a month of deserts. The Fergana valley is famous for having some of the most fertile soil in Central Asia (sub-tropical apparently), and more recently for being the scene of a massacre of protestors against the Karimov regime in Andijon. Muhammedjon, who worked in our B&B in Khiva, referred to it as an 'accident'. Yeah, the fingers of the soldier's accidentally slipped, and they accidentally all fired at the crowd.

We arrived late in the town of Fergana, and had planned to stay in the LP recommended guesthouse (Olga and Valentina's), but when we arrived it was empty. After a phone call, Olga and Valentin appeared, very drunk. They proceeded shouting abuse at our driver (who was a very good guy, and had driven us all the way from Tashkent) because he drove 50 meters past their door. Anyway, we made a quick getaway and found another decent guesthouse not far and settled in.

In our shared taxi, we also met Abror, a young student studying in Tashkent, but from Margilon (15km from Fergana). He offered to show us around and even invited us to a wedding on the next day, which we gratefully accepted.

There's not really much to see in the area, so our "tour" consisted of eating some proper Margilon plov (complete with large greasy chunks of mutton fat...), and seeing a mosque and a bazaar. After killing a little time, we were off to this wedding.

The Uzbek wedding system is complicated, but I'll try to explain. The type we went to was an all-male affair. We started at the groom's house, then moved onto the bride's house, but at no point did we actually see the bride. The format was the same, and pretty strange. Basically, there was a singer and a band who blared out loud Uzbek music, whilst the friends of the singer and of the groom took turns to dance frenetically to it.

Then, some people got around in a circle and started to throw money at the dancer, which would be collected by a minion for the singer. Only about 80 of the 500 or so guests actually moved, most seemed to sit around unhappily and not eat the food placed before them.

Suddenly, after 5 hours of pretty much non-stop singing and dancing boxes of gifts were heaped on the groom, and some old people ran up and took him away. signalling the end of the wedding.

Interestingly, no one was drinking, apparently since it was too expensive, and if they would, they would get violent. Nice. Our hosts did find us a little vodka though, which got some dark looks from the other guests though. They were probably jealous.

Anyway, our hosts seemed to think that we were bored, but it was a really fun experience. There wasn't much we could actually join in with, but the atmosphere was really lively and vibrant.

This is actually the third time I am trying to post this entry. First time there was a power failure in a Kyrgyz internet cafe, the just now I re-did it (twice) and some Chinese came up. Urgh. Hopefully this will work.

Posted by Nomadics 05:17 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged backpacking

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