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Armenia

Differences in the Kavkaz


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Armenia is definitely different. The aphabet, although still undecipherable, is less swirly and more u and n shaped (all the letters kinda look the same). The people look slightly more middle-eastern, still with big noses, but with the bump in the nose in a slightly higher up place. The typical Georgian face, with a thiner jaw than forhead is long gone, and the men's haircuts have all become short, with a (nasty) fringe. The music has definitely changed, with cafes, restaurants, marshrutkas and taxis now blaring our seriously middle eastern sounding music, quarter tones and all, a change from the ballads popular with their Georgian counterparts.

The infrastructure and the roads have definitely gotten better (these ones aren't bombed out), we now have hardly any potholes, hardly any cows, and barriers on the sides of roads! Luyks! The economic situation here is not great though, and the crisis really shows, there are no jobs in the towns, and many people leave for Istanbul, Moscow and anywhere else they can get a visa for work. This tourist season also seems to be a record low, we've been alone in all of the places we've stayed at, and we've seen hardly any foreigners at the sights, most taxi drivers and hotel owners we've met have been complaining about how there's noone around (to swindle) compared to last year (when foreigner's money flew straight into their hands). Hmm... comments in brackets must be the Georgian propaganda.

Dilijan is a town famous during Soviet days for being a retreat for the creative socialist workers, which the Armenian tourist machine has audaciously rebranded "The Switzerland of Armenia". Although the forested mountainsides were pretty nice, the Soviet appartment blocks and buildings take something away from the alpine charm, as do the piles of rubbish and building materials. There we did the standard hitchhiking around, which has been amazing to meet funny bored drivers looking for some foreign entertainment, as well as getting us to monasteries hidden away in the forests. We got lost looking for one, and ended up trekking through the forest for quite a long time, knowing that the monastery wasn't there but hoping to stumble upon somthing good, until we found some lumberjacks who told us to turn back "nehuya tam i netu" ("nothing there", but in a style you would expect from a lumberjack).

Today, we managed ventured into long distance hitchhiking, after some transport around the pretty lake Sevan, a fairly large blue lake surrounded by grassy mountains we got onto a bus of middle aged German hikers, a bus which we actually hitched on before, albeit previously without the germans. This was an incredible piece of luck, and I was happy we had more in common with the driver and some random Armenian dude on the bus (who was probably on the payroll but didn't seem to actually do anything apart from chat to us) than with the bourgeois European scum. Yeah. Then after some waiting (we have nothing but time), we fulfilled another dream and got a Kamaz, carrying around 30 tonnes of wet sand to a factory somewhere. Clearly, 30 tonnes is a lot, and going uphill seemed a slow as if I were pushing it. A few painstaking mountian passes later, we reached our target in the southern grass covered mountains: Sisian, in a piece of Armenia wedged between Azerbaijan of 2 sides and Iran from the bottom (lots of Hajji truckers). Tomorrow we plan to inspect the petroglyphs and other cool stuff around here, a welcome change from the seemingly hundreds of thousand-year-old monasteries that seem to be as common here as gold teeth on old ladies (that's very common to the uninitiated into all things Soviet).

Posted by Nomadics 09:46 Archived in Armenia Tagged backpacking

Georgia (Sakartvelo) to Armenia (Hayastan)

Back into a Stan.


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From Tbilisi we took another marshrutka north, along the Georgian Military Highway to the town of Kazbegi, nestled in some steep snow-capped mountains, with the mighty Mt Kazbeg in the distance. Or at least, it should have been behind the clouds. Our stay in Kazbegi was mired by lots and lots of rain, which made most of the paths into the mountains into mud streams.

There was a little sunshine, in the morning, during which we managed to walk up to a breathtaking monastery on a wind swept peak above the town, it's beige stones standing out against the green grass of the mountainsides. After that, it started pouring down, with no apppearance of subsiding, so we decided to return to Tbilisi.

In the marshrutka, we met a few Georgian students who'd been holidaying in Kazbegi, although they ran out of money and had been boiling grass for food. They took us in as guests and showed us some famous Georgian hospitality. Big thanks to Sergei, Sandro, Pompe, Georgi and the gang.

First they took us to a folk festival, which eventually turned into a rock concert, which wasn't actually too bad, although Georgian conservative values shone through a little: the only people dancing were some drunkards, whilst everyone else laughed at them. Later we went back to Sergei's (decended from Georgian aristocracy, although that doesn't mean much now) for fine wines and dumplings. We had a lot of interesting discussions, and eventually got to sleep. Next morning, we were going to Armenia, despite warnings from the guys that and Armenia is a terrible place with horrible people (they said that Georgians were intrested in wine, whilst all Armenians are after is money)

My impressions of Georgia were very positive. The people are very warm, the hospitality is awe-inspiring (we left the boys with a really nice bottle of wine and a horn to drink it out of), and definitely one of the highlights of the trip so far. The scenery and the nature is amazing (awesome fruit).
The country is a bit of a wreck, but it is changing fast, President Saakashvili has made a lot of positive changes, the boys were especially thankful to him for returning the rule of law. Before, they were "street boys", who lived by what essentially were prison rules, which governed the whole country. They didn't go into what they actually did during the "bad times", but suffice to say it wasn't pretty. The new regime caught and imprisoned all the mobsters and corrupt officials, and almost instantaneously the county returned to law and order.
Georgian people are passionate and can get argumentative in politics, making it hard to reach a consensus, which means that no matter what any politican does, in a free society there will always be some camped outside the parliament building shouting for the downfall of the President. But hey, changes are definitely happening there, and compared to the nineties, it can't get worse.

A few minivans later we crossed the border into Armenia, and after hours of waiting and chatting to people heading to Istanbul on coaches (apparently there are no jobs in Armenia, so everyone goes to Turkey), we hopped on a bus going to Alaverdi, our first stop.
Alaverdi was a Soviet copper mining town in the Debed canyon, where most of the mining and mettalurgical complex had shut down (standard) and now most of the population was unemployed. Well, a very small part of the complex was functional, unfortunately, it happened to be the part that spewed white fumes that pollute the canyon. Surprisingly, this was the first (partially) working factory I had seen in the Caucasus.

Anyway, we stayed in another homestay, this time in a gritty Soviet flat (it seems that many flats are abandoned in the town as many people have left to seek out work elsewhere). I wont describe further in the hope that time will erase this memory...

The way we travel also had to change in Armenia, since all the moasteries are scattered in various lonely places throughout the countryside. Taxis are too expensive to be an option (it seems like the default job for anyone with a car, so predatory taxi drivers are everywhere), we hitch around and walk a lot to reach these places, which were specially built to be hidden away so invading armies (Arabs, Persians, Turks, Mongols, Russian etc.) wouldn't find them. These churches (especailly Hagpat and Salahin) were very beautiful, but seem a lot more sombre and austere that Georgian churches, made from a dark stone and without coulourful frescoes inside, just lots of intricate carving work. They have a solidity about them that seems to express their timelessness. They are very, very old (Armenia was the first christian kingdom), and will probably be around for a lot longer that I will (although maybe not, since I may live forever).

Finally we leaft the post-industrial wasteland, for the forested mountainsides of Dilijan.

Posted by Nomadics 06:40 Archived in Georgia Tagged backpacking

Tbilisi

The Revolutionary Capital


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Arriving to Tbilisi, we got onto a standard Soviet metro (probably made in the exactly the same factory as the metro we took in Kiev), and walked along the dusty street of Marjanishvili, lined with old ladies selling vegetables, to one of the homestay-hostels in the area. A quick shower (the water problems in Kutaisi meant I hadn't washed in a while...) and we went to look around the town. It's actually very nice. The streets need a little paving in places, but the archtecture is impressive, with definite Russian and Persian influences.

Wandering aound we got a good feel for the town, walking along the leafy, boutique lines Rustaveli we reached the Parliament Building, where the street became blocked off by white boxes labeled with "Cell" and a number, which are where the prostesters to the Saakashvili government currently reside. There are about 50 or so of these boxes surrounding the government building, most empty, but a few groups of die hard protesters are still holding out for change. There is also a large podium directly in front of Parliament with a massive banner reading "people for the resignation of Saakashvili".

We chatted to some of these protesters to get the word on the street, and were pointed to their "starshiy", the elder of the group, a large man with a huge beard sitting on a bench. He spouted a lot of rhetoric, some sensible, but a lot of nationalistic ramblings. They say that both America and Russia want the take over Georgia (they seemed to dislike America more as Russia is an orthodox country), but do not care about her people, and naievely that they want Georgia to be a neutral country trading their wares with the rest of the world. They dislike Saakashvili as he is not religious, or nationalistic enough. They wanted a lot of change, but didn't seem to offer up any ideas. A few months ago there were apparently millions out in the street demanding change, but recently the protests have died down, wih only the die-hard remaining living here for the past 3 and a half months.

The next day we saw Tbilisi properly, especially the old town, which is nice but still very run down with a surprising amount of abandoned building which we broke into and climbed around. After some more walking, st seemed that most of the centre was suddenly flooded by busloads of police, police armoured vehicles which began clearing the streets of people. Biden was in town, which also explained the US flags flying around the place. The police were fairly polite though, unlike during the Shavernadze years, as some locals recounted, when they'd used to beat and extort people for fun. This hampered our exploration of the town somewhat as it shut down all of the centre until tomorrow, but there was wtill a lot of interesting things to see, like a market which consisted of old people selling off random stuff, like plates, knives forks and heaps of Soviet trinkets from their homes to make ends meet.

Anyway, I have little time now, but more to follow... Tibilisi is very nice, but tomorrow we head back into the wild mountains along the Georgian military highway.

Posted by Nomadics 11:49 Archived in Georgia Tagged backpacking

Into Georgia Proper

More like the land of Borat than Kazakhstan could ever be, although he would be Boratashvili or Boratdze.


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After whole day of driving on the dusty roads avoiding cows, potholes and other cars we got to Kutaisi, our first stop in real Georgia (the Svan are slightly different, although happy to be part of Georgia unlike most of the other random ethnicities around here). We stopped in another homestay, with an old couple called Suliko and Mediko. As soon as we arrived we had a variety of foods and homemade alcohols shoved into us (in a nice way), and spent a long night chatting with the other guest, a Czech guy who we teamed up with to see the sights the next day.

The sights were pretty nice, we saw the first of many ubiquitous churches and monastries (all with the seemingly standard bleating goats) that dot the hills and mountains of this country, complete with bearded, black clad monks in funny hats, incuding one mafiosi looking one in sunglasses driving a blacked out jeep. A long walk accross the hills and we saw another, this time on a dramatic clifftop overlooking a valley. The walk seemed to be through fairly average Georgian countryside, but it was packed with a variety of fruit and nut trees. Everything seems to grow here in abundance (except bananas, accoring to Suliko), and walking along almost any road you can pick blackberries, plums, cherries, pomegranates, grapes and nectarines off the trees.

One striking thing about the cities here is the proto-capitalistic bazaar culture,with people selling all sorts of random stuff of the pavements, mainly large piles of fruit (including amazing watermelons). The bazaar of Kutaisi neems to sprawl through most of the centre of town, with old ladies and men sitting around spitting sunflower seeds hawking random wares (none of which seem any good for trading though).

The utilities infrastructure are also an issue here. Is our homestay, there was no running water in the evenings, and here was he occasional blackout (as well as one in the internet cafe halfway through a blog post...), and this ass seems very standard in Georgia, although they all seem to cope by having massive water tanks they fill up during the day and candles. Apparently, it used to be much worse before, as Suliko and Madiko recounted, and it seems they spent most of the early nineties by candlelight.

Some more random walking around and eventually getting stuck in an internet cafe during a huge downpour of rain (the central square filled with almost half a meter of water), we eventually got back to the homestay for more delicious home cooking and homemade wine.

Next stop was Gori, famed for the most famous Georgian of all time ever, Iosif Vissaronovich Jugashvili, better known as Joseph Stalin. He's still pretty popular in Georgia, with many streets named after him, but Gori was a particular Stalinfest, with many statues including a huge one in the main square (obviously Stalin square) which the russians avoided bombing when they shelled the town last year (there's a large Georgian half-rebuilt military base nearby that was their main target).

The Stalin museum is a temple like structure built next to the wooden shack where he was born which is now encased in a superstructure over it, the roof of which is covered in an assortment of stars, hammers and sickles as a sort of temple to communism. The museum is even stranger, containing hundreds of photos and paintings of the man, charting his course from childhood to death, portraying his as a heroic revolutionary who kicked Hitler's ass so hard Hitler could taste the shoe polish. It also proudly displays a room full of his personal items like his pen, his cigars, pipes, a watch he gave his mum, and his entire office from the kremlin. There is also a room dedicated to his bronze death mask, which lays in the middle of the circular pillared room, creating a definitively religious feel.

After a quick overview of empty ruins of a castle (apart from some AK toting guards) and some cheese pies, we were quickly shoved into a packed taxi heading to Tbilisi.

Posted by Nomadics 13:00 Archived in Georgia Tagged backpacking

Georgia: Out of the Sea, Straight into the Mountains

A country with 5 George's crosses on it's flag. Take that England.


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So, there we were at the port of Poti, walking out of the boat onto a mysterious new country, surrounded by abandoned buildings and huge piles of scrap metal. On the dirt outside we got a taxi into town, where we withdrew some money (lari) were immedeately shoved into a minivan heading where we needed to go, a town called Zugdidi, a stepping stone to the mountains of Svaneti where we wanted to be to that night. Even though there isn't any proper organised transport system, it seems quite easy to get around, or rather, our travelling luck is continuing. With the help of the friendly marshrutka people, a quick khachipuri (a staple Georgian cheese pie) later, we were on a jeep heading deep into the mountains.

What struck me about Georgia is the amount of abandoned buildings and ruins, a third of Poti was in ruins and empty. According to some locals, it was much more bustling and full before the war last August, but then many fled and have not returned. Since Poti is the site of the main Georgian naval base, the Russians bombed it last year, and it definitely has a wor-torn atmosphere, although there is no danger now. The town of Zugdidi was packed full of people, standing around and doing nothing. Being the closest town to Abkhazia, it has taken in many Georgian refugees (The Abkhaz were ethnically cleansing the Georgians) from that conflict. The separatist conflict was in the early nineties, and what these refugees are currenly doing and how they are managing to survive is unknown to me, standing around doesn't seem particularly profitable.
Another thing about Georgia are the animals, especially cows, on the all the roads we've seen, just eating grass by the side of the road, or just sitting in the middle of the road. Combined with the giant pot-holes and other cars, driving along the roads involves a lot of swerving, obviously at high speeds.

Our UAZ Soviet jeep up to Mestia in Svaneti was no exception, the road was a dirt track, populated by mountain cows, who seem completely oblivious to the cars driving dangerously close to them. The road led deep into the mountains, with spectacular views of forested mountainsides, rivers and lakes, untouched by human hands (except the occasional Ex-Soviet abandoned building by the side of the road). There were 8 people in total in our jeep, including Avtandil and a slightly drunk Gurgen, who had amusing sounding banter in a highly enunciated but completely incompresible Svan language (same linguistic family as Georgian, so, unlike eveything else). On one of our many stops (the jeep kept breaking down) they introduced us to hospitality Georgian style, lots of booze, and lots of toasts.
We arrived very late to Mestia, and Avtandil even arranged a homestay for us, with lovely woman called Anna, who lives with her mother-in-law and her 3 kids. Highly recommended if anyone's in the area (I'm going to start diversifying into travel recommendations now):

Anna's Homestay,
Senaki Street 1
aniuta_76@mail.ru
899-420-437
(35-40 GEL all inclusive)

Anyway, having arrived we were immedeately sat down and fed with excellent Svan cheese, bread, and watered with hot milk and chacha (a local grape liqueur) made by the mother-in-law. Our first day we spent hiking around the area, and deciding to push ourselves to the limit, pointed at a nearby snow-capped mountain and decided to climb it. This involved 9 hours in total, walking many arduous kilometers, hanging on to small ledges, and being breathless from the altitude (it was probably around 2500m near the top). The views and the endorphins were definitely worth it though, we saw the glaciers of mt Ushba nearby and the whole of Mestia and the Svaneti mountains around it unfold beneath us. We even had a snowball fight. We just made it down in time before sunset, had it been dark it we my have broken our necks as there was no path and it was very steep. Completely worn out, we stumbled back to Anna's for a heartly Svan meal (and of course chacha), and fell into a deep, deep sleep.

Waking up sore the next day, we decided to take it easy and wandered around town with the aim of getting into one of the Svan towers (big, old, stone towers that every family house used to have) that litter the town. after some wandering we ran into Paata, who I can only describe as a lovable mix between the village idiot and violent drunkard.
It was around 11, he shouted at us and waved us into his house, where it seemed that his sister had locked him in his bedroom (although he escaped through the window and managed to down a bottle of vodka). He was a very proud man, and loudly proclaimed that he was the only jew in town (he did actually live in Tel Aviv for a few years, but said that he didn't feel at home there). He was a sargeant in the Red army, and insised that he is very strong and would never die, he would even kill his enemies from his grave.
We had a variety of adventures with him trying to get into one of the towers which mainly involved going into peoples houses so that Paata could fill up with more booze. Eventually we got into one of the towers, where he embarassed his sister who also turned up leading a very official group of tourists by shouting drunken "truths" at them, which were apparently painful but necessary to hear. There truths were that the Svan towers were created as instruments of death and hatred, and that the Svan, although never invaded by the Mongols, have been killing each other since time immemorial. I guess there is some truth to that. Eventually, after more hilarious ramblings like that he would kill, choke or crush anyone that would give us any problems, that all non-believers in Jesus Christ should be killed we shared some vodka with him and he left us, having found some out of town women to harass.

That night it was also Anna's birthday and we were invited to the festivities. A Georgian feast is really a sight to behold. There is a tamada (a toastmaster) who leads the drinking with long and eloquent toasts to pretty much anything. The wine, chacha and congac drinking was interspersed with some food too. We chatted and danced long into the night with Anna's schoolfriends, and my memory of the occassion gets very hazy...

Next day, with our sore heads, we went into the main square of Mestia to try to find a ride out of Svaneti. A few hours of sitting around and haggling with random drivers we finally managed to get a ride back, agaist all expectations. Another stunning 4-hour drive through the mountains and we found another marshruka going to Tbilisi, which dropped us off at the ancient Georgian capital of Kutaisi, our current location (although we got ripped off a little, but we had no choice).
Getting around has definitely been easy, it seems the old adage needs to be adapted somewhat:
Where there's a will and a wallet, there's a way.

Posted by Nomadics 08:25 Archived in Georgia Tagged backpacking

Poseidon Ruins the Party

Boredom on the Boat


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Our arrival to Georgia was meant to be highly romanticised, arriving by boat to the shores of Kolchis like Jason and the Argonauts (Kolchis is an ancient kindgom in western Georgia, and interestingly enough, to this day there are mountain traditions of using a sheep's fleece to filter the gold out of the rivers, hence the golden fleece). In a cynicism-affirming turn of events, because of "bad weather" (a little rain), or more likely lazy Georgian port authorities, we were stuck on the boat for 3 days, of which the last night we were anchored floating tantalisingly close to shore.

The boat was an interesting experience nonetheless. It seemed that we crossed the Europe-Asia divide when we reached the ramshackle port building in Illichyevsk in the Ukraine, complete with Georgian truckers squatting, smoking, and displaying their fat hairy bellies. The port building was surrounded by token Ex-Soviet industrial buildings that served no obvious purpose apart from creating a post apocalyptic atmosphere. In a Tarkovskyesque attempt, I photographed a few of them, but was immedeately shouted at by some woman, screaming things like "do you want your hands broken?", "do you think you're smarter than us?" and generally implying that the customs officials would rape me (to put it nicely). Nothing came of it.
Anyway, after hours of waiting for the customs officials to arrive, then waiting for the head customs official to have a 3 hour cigarette break, we were driven just to the stairs leading up to the giant MS Greifswald, and then we had to wait (this time in the rain) for them to open the door. The Greifswald is a Northern European (Danish I think) build ferry which took on trucks, trains and a few passangers. The signs on the ferry were in Danish, German, English and Lithuanian, with some paper Russian signs taped over. Clearly it was built for the Baltic, how it ended up ferrying Georgian truckers I have no idea.

There wasn't much to do on the boat. We had 3 meals a day of filling Soviet canteen style food, read, played chess, played capoeira, and slept a lot. The other passengers seemed content chain smoking huddled around the TVs watching terrible Russian programmes (all about crime) or even worse Georgian programmes (a bunch of people talking gibberish) with a light smattering of static. A small group decided to have a backgammon-fest, playing for pretty much the entire time. There were also some Russian and Ukranian truckers on board, but they kept to themselves, the Georgians dominated with their hairy exposed bellies.

Eventually we docked after hours of manuever, to another post apocalyptic Ex-Sovet port. This time with even more rusting piles of scrap metal, abandoned industrial complexes, and even half sunk rusting ships. Amusingly enough there was also a shiny white marina with a gleaming yacht in the middle of all this. Now, Georgia awaits...

Posted by Nomadics 07:54 Archived in Ukraine Tagged backpacking

Adventure has begun...

Freedom of the open road


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A quick flight, and I'm in Kiev, meeting Chuck at the airport. Everything is in place.

Central Kiev, we arrange for an overnight train to Odesa for that night, which gives us a few hours to kill looking around the oldest Slavic city there is. Kiev is nice, more european than Moscow in my eyes, tree lined boulevards, cafes, quaint old buildings that definitely look their age. Of course, this quaintness is surrounded by giant generic Soviet blocks and more modern buildings with shine plastic windows, but who would have it any other way? Although it seems Kiev has managed to throw off it's bad memories of the past.
As it was a weekend, the main thoroughfare is all pedestrianised, there was a mini anti-drugs techno rave, complete with 3 ravers, and all manner of vaguely entertaining street performance, like a man trying to cycle with no steering.

The churches in Kiev are definitely worth seeing, golden domes glittering under the blazing sunshine, it was very photogenic. We even managed to catch an orthodox service, the trance inducing harmonic chanting and incence was very awe-inspiring. A quick capoeira session on the square and meal later, and we got onto our overnight train heading south to the seaside, sharing a cabin with 2 Ukrainian Babushkas going on holiday.

Odesa is a nice town, very atmospheric old world buildings with the paint peeling off. I kept picturing in my head a story about my great-grandma, who lived here as a little girl. Apparently when she would go to the theatre with her father, he would always carry a pistol with him, just in case. Odesa has a huge network of tunnels underneath it, which have traditionally been the hiding place for all manner of brigands and pirates, giving a reputation of the black sea pirate capital during the Tsarist era.

Now it is a tourist haven, packed full or tour groups taking in the sights and the sun (although there has been a huge thunderstorm and rain all day today). We spent most of the day in a cafe, and fortunately stumbled upon the office of the ferry company that would take us to Georgia. Everything has worked out incredibly well, perfectly to plan. The boat is delayed for a day, so we can get on tomorrow, we found the offices 10 minutes before they shut, bought the tickets and now we're ready to go.

We have raced through the Ukraine in search of places more wild, and tomorrow we get on a 40 hour boat to Poti, Georgia, finally leaving Europe. See you on the other side :).

Posted by Nomadics 03:21 Archived in Ukraine Tagged backpacking

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

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

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