Stage 6: China - Krygyzstan - Tajikistan


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Asia
May 14th 2009
Published: June 21st 2009
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China

Well after the whirlwind that was Pakistan our bus crosses the Kunjerab Pass (4700m) into China. As expected the border controls in China are extremely thorough. Every bag is checked twice and your passport checked at least half a dozen times while you wait outside in sub zero temperatures and the snow falling at your feet. However with all that past us we expect an easy ride on the beautiful tarmac road to the first Chinese city of Taskurgan... how wrong we were (as per usual nothing is easy).

The first signs of something amiss was a bang and then continuous banging coming from our bus. As we stop to inspect smoke starts erupting from our drivers side tyre. The driver asks the passengers for our water bottles and pours it over the tyre and on we go. About 10mins later we stop and same problem, this time he takes the wheel off. An hour later we are on the go again but this time we drive on the wrong side of the road to take preasure off and the driver drives slow so he can casually open his door and pour water onto the wheel. Again this fails and the army arrives to help...

The wheel is off again and the army are inspecting the wheel and report that the bearing is stuffed. So off course this idiot takes off the bearing throws the little balls everywhere gets some grease in it, thumbs up and we are off.... off for about 5minutes. Lastly the army stop a container truck heading into China. All passengers are loaded into the back of the container and shut it like illegal immigrants. After a few hours a replacement bus is found and we spend an hour arguing over the price. Once settled the army breaks out the rations and we spend the rest of the trip chowing down on stale bread and dodgy chinese packaged meat products while one of the soldiers photographs me eating, welcome to China look we look after foreigners.

My first stop is Tashkurgan and is a old Uyghur town. The Uyghur people are the native people of the land however the Chinese have created an autonomous region (Xing Jiang) in which all people including Han chinese can "exist" together peacefully... or so they say. I spend the days gazing out at the vast Pamir plateau and see my first glimpses of nomadic influence in the form of white yurts dotting the country side.

From here it is off to the beautiful alpine lake of Kara Kul. The lake is situated at a altitude of 3600m overlooking the astonishing peak of Muzgah Ata (7500m). I spend the night eating with the family and sleep my first night in a yurt. Not exactly what I was expecting. A yurt is a conical hut with the inside draped in hanging carpets to keep you warm when sleeping on the floor. Unfortunately the temperature inside the yurt that night dropped to -4 enough to freeze my water bottle, I emmerge alive but very cold.

The next day the owner and I load up his Ute and we head off to the world famous Sunday market in Kashgar. This market has been going for hundreds of years and is the biggest in Asia. We arrive at the market and I am blown away by the sights and sounds of thousands and thousands of people doing all manors of business from selling goats to buying silk suits. After that assult on my senses I check into the ex soviet consulate center for the 'Great Game' that has now become a hotel. The Great Game was a term used for the strategic rivalry and conflict between the British Empire and the Russian Empire for supremacy in Central Asia. The hotel is massive and grand and houses many a secret passage, as does the adjacent former Brittish consulate (also now a hotel).

Kashgar blows me away. It has always been a major city on the old silk road and is renown as just one big old city. However when I get there things have changed and China have come to town. The amazing old city is shrinking with massive Chinese high rises encircling it. It almost makes me sick to see what they are doing especially since this is supposed to be a 'protected' region. It is very much apparent that the local people despise the Chinese and there is a untalked about barrier between the two races. It was very sad to see the local people getting trodden on by the Han Chinese. The Han have all the best jobs and the natives are reduced to second class citizens on the verge of begging for survival in their own region. It was not very nice to see expecially since the Uyghur are some of the nicest people you will meet. After seeing what the Chinese officials have done here there is no way I can go to Tibet. The actual Chinese people are very nice abeit a little brainwashed as to what there involvement is doing to the native people but you can see that what is happening is coming from high Chinese officials. The Chinese say they are doing the locals a favour, nice roads, modern buildings, transport and effective governace. However I ask at what cost and the answer is: their own identity. And if you ask me I would prefer to have my own identity intact than to live in the worlds most modern city... handsdown any time. I will leave it at that as I dont need any more hate mail.

Kyrgyzstan

The land of yurts, nomads and big mountains. From China a few travaller friends and I pile into a dodgy bus and attempt to cross the Tourogurt pass (3800m) into Kyrgyzstan. After many warnings about how hard and unpredictable this pass is, it turned out to be straightforward. We arrive at midday at the Kyrgyz border and the customs guys were at lunch so they just told us to go through, haha I love this place already. In Kyrgyzstan the landscape changes dramtically, from high mountain desert to green hills with white capped mountains. We start seeing wild horses everywhere and yurts popping up. Along the way we stop at the 15 century stone caravanserai of Tash Rabat. The caravanserai is a inn like establishment that would house the traders travelling the Silk Road for the night.

As we pull into the first town of Naryn again the landscape changes this time a cultural one. Gone is Asia and now replaced by soviet symbolism. All the signs are in Cyrillic, the buildings are typical soviet ugly monstrosities and the place is clean! Is weird stepping into this type of world after 5 months of Asia but is a welcome change I think and very interesting. I spend the night sampling local cusine in a unusual way. Of course everything here is in Russian including the menu so when presented with one I take the point and hope approach. The waitress looks at me in a puzzled way and I just nod my head. In a few minutes I am presented with a dish of just meat, nothing but meat. I try to order some vegetables or bread or something but of course that aint gonna work so I order a Coke. Coke and Meat for dinner, nice.

From here I head into the alpine town of Kochkor and organise horses to take me into the mountains for the night. I am loaded onto a large Kyrgyz horse and sent on my way with my guide. My horse refuses to move and as I find out later he needs constant encouragement or will be racing for the grass. So here I must whip and kick my attention deficient horse for the entire 3 hours of riding up to the Jailoos. The Jailoos are high altitude alpine pastures the nomads use to graze their livestock during summer. I meet the nomad family I will be staying with as we proceed to put up our yurt. Tonight we feast on noodles and bread in our little yurt. Is quite a laugh as all the nomads sleep hugging each other while I move my blankets away from the group. What a snob but I wasnt keen for a group nomad hug. The next morning my guide and I saddle up our horses and ride up to the beautiful alpine lake of Ak Tul which was still half frozen and then back to Kochkor.

I sometimes think that nobody believes alot of the experiences I have on tour and after the next one I can definitely see why. I leave Kochkor and head to Balychek where my guidebook states there is an info office where I can book a hotel. Of course the book is wrong so I head to the next town of Tamchy where another office is located. Again no luck and no hotels. It is getting late and I am pondering yet another night out in the open to be eaten by wild dogs. Just then a couple of guys approach me and after a bit of bad english I find out that I could stay at their place. I go to their place and although an old mansion with amazing lake views there is weeks old food everywhere and is a general rubbish dump. The guy turns out to be an ex soviet commander (That is how he afforded the 1 million price tag for the lake front property😉) and has been a spy in many many countries. I mention I am hungry so we head to one of his "friends" house. It turns out to be a castle situated on the lake behind a 10 foot iron fence. We knock and get let into one of the weirdest places I have ever been to. There are about 5 cars pumping out tunes in the carpark. There is not just one but three massive stone castles. There are a whole lot of people downing Vodka around a massive BBQ and a pool with 3 waterslides into it. When we walk in the whole party stop and these scary as Russians just eyeball me. One of the biggest guys walks up to us, grabs my friends hand shakes it vigourously asks if im a Turk and when I say no he then shakes my hand a little tentatively. He invites us to the table where we take many, many Vodka shots over the course of a only few minutes. (As an aside Russian shot glasses are maybe 2-3 times bigger than standard ones). It is a bit of a weird setup as I try to piece together what is happening:

* Everyone calls the big guy boss
* There are about 20 skinhead guys in white tshirts standing around watching
* No Kyrgyz is spoken just Russian which is weird
* Finally my friend just keeps telling me about big money and to watch my back mimicing fight scenes as he does it

My only assumption to this day is that they were Russian Mafia vactioning. My friend then negotiates with the Boss if it is safe for me to stay the night as his place is a piece of junk. The Boss swears it is safe and that is how I end up staying the night in the nicest place I have ever been in. They lock me into my room consisting of Chandaliers hanging from the ceiling and bathrooms covered in Marble. What a night... I jam a chair against the door just in case.

The next morning I sneak out of this Russian Mafia HQ early and catch a bus to the Lake village of Karakol. From here I head up the beautiful alpine Valley of Alta Arashan with one of my Czech friends. The valley is stunning and looks like a Canadian postcard with green trees and white mountains poking up. I try out the hot springs that the region is famous for, very nice 45 degrees of bliss while it is -1 outside. The next day we start to descend back to Karakol and are met on the track by 5 OTHER Czech people. Somehow they all manage to convince me to spend the night with them (Yes a few vodka shots were involved) in one of their tents. Next thing you know they are chopping down branches and a bonfire is going. roasting a leg of lamb and that is on as a shish kebab. A night of merriment follows and I wonder when the tents are going to go up. Yes it was all a joke we are sleeping in the open. I am very unhappy as my bag is rated at +15 degrees and it is already breaking the 0 degree mark. However they squeeze me into the middle of their "Man-Jumble" and with all the body heat and Alcohol I manage to survive, cold, no sleep but hey thats travel. The next day we visit the amazing red canyons of Jeti Orghuz and then another very long night of Vodka drinking with the Czech people. This one I manage to get myself kicked out of my nights accomodation, so typical of me. I should write a book: How to lose friends and alienate people.

After a very long night I catch a taxi to the capital Bishkek and feast on fast food. The capital is nice however it is not safe after 7.30pm so you have to be home before that. I had two friends attacked at 8pm in Bishkek when it was still light. For the next two days I succeed in getting the fabled Uzbeqistan VISA which I have sought for a very long time. Bishkek is however an attractive city with parks and leafy boulevards, it does have its fair share of ugly russian buildings which mar the landscape somewhat. One of the more different things I have done on my trip was to go to the Russian baths here in Bishkek. As I head into the baths I am obligated to buy a birch bush. I enter the baths and get undressed in the changing rooms with everyone taking an interest in a random foriegner carrying a birch bush. After I try to lock my backpack into the locker, the attendent comes up to me and points to my underwear and shakes his head. As I now remember from my guidebook it says to "check your modesty at the door". I forgot to do that! Anyway after I remove my briefs it is straight into the baths and about 150 stone naked men rocking around sweated up. One corner are about 5 showers with multiple guys in each all soaped up. I head into one of the saunas and slowly but surely my modesty gets thrown out the window. I start whacking myself with my birch bush like I see the others do. Obviously I was doing it wrong and some old balding guy with a pot belly comes over and proceeds to do it for me with full view of everything he had to offer. Now at the time it seemed ok, now I look back shake my head and laugh! A very interesting experience, and a heap of fun especially going from a 50-60 degree sauna and jumping in a plunge pool barely over 0 degrees.

From Bishkek I head south and cross the Ala Bell pass to the health resort town of Jalabad. In Jalabad is a famous natural spring that flows a renowned magical water. Pilgrims from as far away as India have been travelling here for hundreds of years for this healing water. It tastes just like pure sulphur and is absolutely putrid but I force half a litre down my throat and disgusting as it was I felt really good. My next stop is the worlds largest walnut forest in the world, Arslanbob. Here the days are spent hiking and the nights with a local family eating plov and teaching their daughter to read english. My last stop in Kyrgyzstan is the silk road town of Osh. Here is Solomons throne in which it is believed the prophet Mohummad prayed. It is a quick stop in Osh just arranging my transport to Tajikistan.

Tajikistan

The trip from Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan is not an easy one. When Stalin was drawing up lines for these countries he created something referred to the jigsaw borders, an absolute mess. The lines are everywhere and whats worse there are little islands of other countries inside Kyrgyzstan. Therefore the only way for me to get to Tajikistan is to hire a 4WD and driver and get him to drive around all the border checkpoints and avoid the guards. Is a very interesting afternoon going 100kms around a pocket of Uzbeqistan stranded completed around Kyrgyzstan which would of only taken 10minutes to go through, but no we play the border running game yet again. After taking an illegal entrance into Tajikistan I force my driver to find the right one and then we finally get there.

Tajikistan is like a breath of fresh air. I havent gone 5minutes in the country before my taxi driver stops by the side of the road and we are picking and eating fresh organic apricots, cherries and green rasberries. The people here are amazing and so nice, I dont think they see too many tourists and I experience great hospitality from them. My first stop is Kojand and I spend the days exploring all the ex soviet architecture. Another great thing here is that I can finally walk the streets safely after dark.

Next stop is the backwater town of Istaravashan. Again I am treated to amazing hospitality as I walk the crowded old city streets. A bunch of young guys show me around all the sights as our group grows bigger and bigger ending in a 15 strong gang cruising the streets. From here it is over the Shakkristan pass to Dushanbe the capital. The roads here are riddiculous, they are the worst I have ever been on in all my travels. All intercity taxis in Tajikistan are 4WD for a reason and we are thrown around in the back of the car like lotto balls being spun on a Saturday night. The scenery is spectacular however and we admire the Chinese in trying to upgrade the road to an all season one. To do so they are laying hundreds of kilometers of tunnel. The largest one thus far takes about 40 minutes to get through and is completely flooded with water varying from ankle deep to waist deep, what a ride.

We arrive in Dushanbe, the capital a little shaken and stirred but happy. The city is very beautiful and reminds me of a european one with modern conveniences and large tree lined boulevards. Here I meet up with my first backpackers since Bishkek a very long 2.5 weeks ago. Is great to speak english again and not have to resort to my extremely poor Russian.

My last stop on my tour of Tajikistan is the border town of Penjikant. Again I take an absolute joke of a road to get here. It takes me two days as the road gets closed whenever the Chinese feel like it so we got stuck alot. In Penjikant I hire a taxi to help me explore the beautiful Fan mountains. Again is there anything I do that does not involve mass drama??? Here after an hour of driving we reach a 100m section of the road that has been covered by a mudslide. I try to talk my driver out of trying to go through as he only had a shitty little 2WD Lada. Nope he says it will be fine.... 1 second later we are stuck. He refuses to get out as he needs to drive so I must. Shoes off I sink to my knees in mud, thanks mate. He then yells out his window to get a random nomad to help. After an hour of struggling the car keeps on sinking. Fortunately a dumptruck comes along and pulls us out but in the process destroys his bumper; serves you right mate should have got out and helped... and no I dont see the Fan mountains today.

So that was my journey through Tajikistan. Was truly a great place and an undiscovered gem. The people were amazing, the sights amazing but you got to be ready for adventure because I dont think a single day went by without drama. Broken down cars, closed roads, no water, no power, crooked officials. However I think that these types of countries are worth the effort and remain untouched because others just right them off as being "Too Hard". Anyway I was very lucky to get here and would recommend it to anyone that wants a real off the beaten track adventure. It can get bloody lonely though seeing no-one that speaks english and hard if your russian is as bad as mine.

Well thats it, the first part of Central Asia has been a real adventure but thoroughly worth it.

Here is the link to my pictures:

China Photos
Kyrgyzstan Photos
Tajikistan Photos

Thanks
Shaun





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23rd February 2010

From Kyrgyzstan to US
Hey, I just found this post and even though it is dated, I just wanted to say that I appreciate the fact that you wrote about Kyrgyzstan in the warmest tones possible for someone who is not from there. I love my country beyond the usual merits of patriotism and I always get defensive when someone talks about it, but your post made me smile and remember that even though Kyrgystan is backward and REALLY weird sometimes, I really love it, I am glad you were able to see its beauty beyound the shots of Vodka and strange men who insist on helping you wash!!!!!! :)

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