A Travellerspoint blog

June 2007

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
Jailoo.jpg

Song Kol - Reflection
Song_Kol_2.jpg

Song Kol - Our Yurt
Song_Kol_1.jpg

Yurt by the Song Kol lake
DSC02089.jpg

Horse and Toilet
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Karakol Valley
Karakol_Valley.jpg

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

Big City Life - Tashkent

Corrupt Cops and Money Machines

We were warned about going to Tashkent. It was apparently full of militsaya (police) that shake traveller's down for cash, there was nothing to do and that it was dirty, sprawling and dangerous. Well, we're rebels without a pause (thanks Chuck D). So, we decided to go.

That was part of the reason, we needed cash, and the only ATMs in Uzbekistan are in Tashkent. Also, it was in our way, since we needed to go to the Fergana Valley, and there is no way of getting there without going through Tashkent.

So, we arrived and quickly got ripped off for a taxi to a nice hotel (we decided to treat ourselves in Tashkent after 2 months of roughing it), but we were turned away, because they were apparently full. I think I'll call Amnesty International about discrimination to dirty backpackers. On second thoughts, they probably have something better to worry about, we went to another decent hotel.

We actually had a daily routine in Tashkent. Wake up, waste a little time, go to the bank, eat (usually in the same place), change money, waste more time, then eat again.

Withdrawing money is a pain. There are ATM's, but they never have money, and eat your card (actually, Alex's card was eaten and the slip said "YOUR CARD HAS BEEN ARRESTED BY THE NATIONAL BANK OF UZBEKISTAN!!!", but he got it back). So the only way to get money out of your account was to go to a bank and go through some beurocracy.

If you think it's that easy, not all banks have money. Eventually we found a small room (room 211) in the main branch of the National Bank of Uzbekistan, where they could help us (after we got the forms signed by someone else, then take these forms to the cashier for our money). Eventually, after two days, we managed to withdraw a decent amount of money that should last us to China. Job done.

Everything else in Tashkent was a bit of a dissapointment. We didn't get accosted by corrupt cops, the museum was crap and we weren't even mugged, despite walking through a few dimly lit parks at night.

The main roundabout of Tashkent is Amir Timur Maydoni, with it's massive statue of Timur on horseback. Right next to it was the Amir Timur museum, which has nothing interesting in it, but is quite funny. It portrays Timur (who is estimated to have killed about one million people) as a really nice and generous Uzbek, a pious patron of the arts (he did make Samarkand nice, but only by abducting artisans). It had modern paintings of his many children, with description's of how pious and well educated they were, with little bits at the end that they were murdered (about 4/5 were murdered, the rest died in battle, nice). It also showe the cheap crap that foreign countries give Uzbekistan as diplomatic gifts. They are generally cheapo books, plates, small medals, or sometimes carpets that depict Amir Timur (It looked so cheap, it was probably about 10 dollars, but it's the thought tha counts, right?)

Anyway, after the fun we had in Tashkent (there really wasn't much to do, even nightlife wise everything was closed), we hopped into a shared taxi to Fergana.

Posted by Nomadics 03:48 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged backpacking

Uzbekistan - Pictures

Samarkand's Registan
Registan.jpg

Samarkand's Bazaar
Bazaar.jpg

Bukhara
Bukhara_from_above.jpg

Bukhara Bug Pit
Bukhara_Death_Pit.jpg

Khiva
Khiva.jpg

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

Bukhara

Pure Silk Roadness

After a rather expensive shared taxi through the dry Kyzylkum Desert, we arrived to the fabled city of Bukhara, the classic silk road city.
We were dumped in the centre and soon found some cheap accomodation in a traditional house.

Bukhara is clean, nice and yellow (from the bricks). Lots more tiled timurid mosques, medrassas and a half restored castle (Red Army blew it up). Most of the old courtyards have been turned into bazaar-shopping malls for tourists, selling overpriced 'traditional goods', which included everything from shoes and hats to animal skins.

Bukhara does have a gruesome past though. During the age of the Great Game (Russia vs Britian imperialist maneuverings in Central Asia), the Emirs were known to be especially depraved. Two British men, accused of being spies, were thrown in the Emir's special bug pit (a large hole in the prison 5 meters deep that was filled with all sorts of nasties, now filled with small change), which, according to the sign (understatement of the century), it was reserved for the "least favourite jail inhabitants". The prison was surprisingly small, but apparently thats because 50 to 100 people are meant to be crammed into each cell.

There is also a beautiful minaret that may have been Bukhara's famous "tower of death" from where those sentenced to death were thrown from to splatter onto the pavement below.

Central Bukhara seems orientated solely towards tourists, and was completely dead at night, but fortunately we managed to find a hotel with some old Europeans who up for the Champions League final, incluging an Italian engineer who worked on particle accelerators in CERN...

In all, Bukhara was fairly touristic, but not as fake as Khiva. It still retains some of it's mystique and charm, and on a nice sunset evening, you can really feel the magic...

Posted by Nomadics 05:07 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

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