Edit Blog Post
Published: March 11th 2013
My son Will, who has been teaching English for the last year in Bangkok, Thailand, was planning to move to Europe to attend law school. He didn't want to fly there directly; preferring to take an overland route across South Asia. I suggested to him that this route was difficult...not sure if you could even go from Thailand through Burma to get to Bangladesh...and certainly going through Pakistan and Iran would pose some dangers. Perhaps he should consider overlanding at a higher latitude...like the Silk Road. He agreed and asked me to go with him.
Having just spent beaucoup bucks on our 40th anniversary trip across the South Pacific to Sydney and then New Zealand, I wasn't sure I could afford such a trip. I turned him down initially. But in the back of my mind I really wanted to go. Traveling the Silk Road had always been on my bucket list. I have read many books; e.g., "Shadow of the Silk Road" by Colin Thuberon, in anticipation of the opportunity.
So I produced a spreadsheet itinerary which I began to fill in. It started with Beijing, China, from where we would travel via the Ming city of Pingyao
to Xian, the eastern terminus of the Silk Road. But when Will didn't get his Bangkok-Beijing ticket before it doubled in price, and had to fly to Xian and then take a train to Beijing to meet me, we decided to go to Plan B. We cut out Pingyao and Xian to take the soft sleeper overnight train directly from Beijing to Lanzhou. This would give us another day in Xiahe (Labrang). We had traveled from Lanzhou to Xian in 2009, so at least we weren't skipping the beginning of the Road...road being a bit of a misnomer because it was a mishmash of trails, not a formal road like the Romans built.
From Lanzhou we will take the side trip to Xiahe, ethnographically Tibetan, where my parents were married in 1949. We had planned to visit Xiahe with the Labrang Monastery in 2009, but missed it due to travel restrictions. Instead we visited Minxian where Mom and Dad had lived for the first five months of married life. We were not able to find their home then. On this trip I have printed a photo album of pictures (many with this blog) to show people so that I
Pilgrim making his way around the monastery
by standing, then laying prostrate, then standing where his hands were, and repeating thr process all the way around the monastery...5 km at the time.
might identify landmarks in the pictures. During our visit to Xiahe, we will attempt to find landmarks and tour the Labrang Monastery.
We will return to Lanzhou in time to catch the soft sleeper overnight train to Dunhuang. Originally we were going to stop at Jiayuguan on the way to Dunhuang to see the fortress at the western end of the Great Wall which marked the end of civilization. However, the train passes through Jiayuguan at 2 am, so we thought it would be better to return through Jiayuguang on the way from Dunhuang to Turpan, where we would have the afternoon to visit the fortress and wall.
We will have two full days in Dunhuang to visit the Mungao Caves, with the best Buddhist caves in China. The caves included murals at statuary built by devoted merchants at the point where the Silk Road splits into north and south routes to go around the Takla Makan Desert. We will also have a chance to ride camels into the desert.
After Dunhuang, and an afternoon in Jiayuguan, we will catch the overnight soft sleeper train to Turpan for a day or so of sightseeing. From there we
Mom and Dad at the market in Labrang
This was taken in 1948 during their courtship. They are accompanied by their chaperon.
will take the two hour train ride into Urumqi in the far west of China.
I then started to investigate prices, starting with transportation; knowing that if I couldn't use frequent flyer miles, the whole thing was off. I was able to use 32,500 United frequent flyer miles plus $5 fee to cross the Pacific Ocean (actually the flight path takes a northerly route over Canada, the Barents Sea, and Russia, not even crossing the Pacific). I checked the cost of trains across China for the itinerary discussed above...only $278 (including travel agent fees) for a soft sleeper, with three nights on the train, thereby saving almost half that amount in hotel bills.
I wanted to end our travels along the Silk Road (which goes all the way to Istanbul, Turkey) in Uzbekistan, touring Samarkand, Bakhara, and Tashkent, but didnt' know what was the best route (best being a very subjective term) to take from West China to Tashkent. My overland options were:
- from Urumqi by bus or train along the northern route through Almaty, Kazakhstan, or
- from Kashgar by bus along the middle route through Osh, Kyrgzstan.
I checked Travelblog to see
Mom and Dad strolling by the Labrang Monastery
Will and I will try to find this spot and take the same picture when we visit in March 2013.
the experience of others through this area. I was surprised to see how few there were traveling through Central Asia. However, I received some valuable advice from those I contacted. One was that the roads across Krygzstan were terrible...it takes 18 hours by bi-weekly bus to go 300 miles from Kashgar to Osh on the Kyrgzstan border with eastern Uzbekistan, and then a similar amount from there to Tashkent. The weather is also a delaying factor with snow in the high passes in early April. Similary, the train from Urumqi to Almaty and on to Tashkent was only twice per week and very slow, with difficult border crossings.
Overland didn't sound viable given my time constraints. I checked airfares from Urumqi to Tashkent transiting Almaty which were $328. This would be faster and cost less than the buses, food and lodging for the more lengthy and arduous overland route (although the Chinese are building a highway from Kashgar to Tashkent...which will make travel so much easier someday). I recognized that a purist would want to travel the Silk Road overland for the authentic experience, but I didn't have the time...and didn't want to pay $160 for a visa just
to pass through Kazakhstan when there isn't much evidence of the Silk Road left anyway...no caravanserai, mosques from that period, etc.
So having decided to fly from Urumqi via Almaty to Tashkent, I checked the cost to fly Will from Tashkent to Rome. I discovered that AirBaltic had a flight via Riga to Rome for about $250. Now I also have the Baltic Republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania; and Finland on my bucket list. Continuing west would save me 50,000 frequent flyer miles for a separate trip there, which I could now use for another trip. I will likely go to southern Poland with Linda in conjunction with the Balkan visit someday...these 50,000 miles will come in handy then. So rather than flying back to Colorado via the Pacific, I decided to keep going west!
I asked Will if he wanted to do these countries with me or go directly to Rome. He chose to travel with me. So I booked flights from Tashkent to Riga for $215/person. I completed my booking home using 20,000 American Airlines frequent flyer miles (plus $280 fees, which I hate to do, but the cost of a one way ticket would
Mom and Dad's Wedding in Labrang
greeting Tibetan general and his wife at their wedding reception
have been about $1720). So I will fly from Helsinki with a layover in London, arriving at 5 pm and departing the next day at 11 am. This allows me time for an evening in the West End; seeing a play at 7:30 pm may be a bit tight, however.
So with total a transportation cost of ~$1100 to go all the way around the world, and a chance to scratch a few things off my bucket list along with 6 countries towards my goal of 100 countries, I couldn't afford not to go.
The next issue was visas. I read on Travelblog that the Chinese government had made it more difficult to get a visa, so more research was in order. I learned that I needed to have confirmed flights into and out of China together with hotel reservations in Beijing as part of the application package...but no Letter of Invitation. I took the risk of paying for these non-refundable flights and then not getting a visa. Then I learned that the application with $140 application fee had to be hand delivered to the Chinese Consulate in Chicago, which serves Colorado...no mail in was acceptable. However, they
would send the passport back by Express Mail. Fortunately for me, my sister lives near Chicago, so she agreed to hand carry it; delivering it to the consulate on 30 January. I received the passport with visa back on 9 February.
While my Chinese visa was being processed, I broke my right ankle on 4 February and had surgery on 6 February...six weeks and one day before I was due to fly to Beijing. My surgeon thought I would be healed by then, but that depended upon several factors including keeping my foot elevated. I certainly have an incentive to follow doctors orders! I also think I am jinxed. The last time I was in China in 2009, I had gout in the same foot which disabled me then.
Next, applying for the Uzbekistan visa. I heard from fellow Travelbloggers that this was a difficult time-consuming process. At least they didn't require a Letter of Invitation. On 16 February I mailed off the application with the $160 fee which arrived at the Uzbekistan Consulate in Washington, DC. on 20 February. They had promised the visa would be issued within 10 working days, so adding mailing time back, I
Monks at the Labrang Monastery
Will and I will try to find this spot and take the same picture when we visit in March 2013.
fugured I should have the passport with visa by 8 March; but it didn't arrive then. I called my friend Darryl (who I've known since 11th grade) if he would stop by the Uzbekistan Consulate the morning of 11 March, which he did. They still hadn't processed the visa, so he waited until they did. He expressed mailed the passport and visa to me the afternoon of 11 March...I should have it by 13 March, a week before I leave. I hate cutting it so close!
During all these preparations, I Skyped Will several times to make sure he was purchasing his Air Asia ticket from Bangkok to Beijing. He couldn't take time off from teaching, but the semester ended 1 March leaving about three weeks to get the ticket and visas. By 1 March, the Air Asia ticket from Bangkok to Beijing had doubled in price so he booked a non-stop flight from Bangkok to Xian with an overnight train to Beijing (total still less than the flight to Beijing)...arriving the morning of the same day I do.
I called him on 6 March to ask how things were going with visa applications. He said he wasn't
planning to submit the first one until 8 March...a whole week wasted! I almost had a panic attack! Well, he submitted the Uzbekistan application on 8 March and was promised he would have it by 15 March. He would then have 18-20 March to get the China visa, which can be processed in one morning with express service. I felt a bit better that I might actually meet him in Beijing!
With both visas in hand, I made some additional train and hotel reservations required by my itinerary, but leaving some open in case of a change in plans. I found http://www.seat61.com/China.htm
to be extremely useful for all matters related to train travel (e.g., train reservations can only be made 18 days in advance, and seats were usually available 2-3 days in advance). I used http://www.travelchinaguide.com/china-trains/
for train schedules and prices, and used them to book the more expensive overnight trains as they charge a service fee of $25/ticket (e.g., it doesn't make sense to include a $25 fee on a $26 ticket from Dunhuand to Jiayuguan or on a $13 ticket from Turpan to Urumqi). I used Kayak, Hotels, and Hostelworld.com to reserve hotel rooms. This way I
was able to use my credit cards to lock down 90% of the cost of the trip before it started.
So now my Plan A itinerary had been replaced by Plan B. Going to Plans C and D is what makes travel exciting!
Tot: 0.166s; Tpl: 0.069s; cc: 18; qc: 31; dbt: 0.0248s; 1; m:saturn w:www (22.214.171.124); sld: 2;
; mem: 1.4mb