Thursday, August 9, 2007

End of the Road--August 7

Although there's another week to go (in Vietnam where I am currently) on this round-the-world journey, it somehow seems fitting to close this blog in Xi'an, the eastern end of the great Silk Road. Xi'an is one of the few cities left in China still surrounded by its ancient walls. The train from Dunhuang conveniently stops at the station next to the north gate, where it's a short walk to my hotel. In the old days it was camels laden with goods from the East and West heading to the caravansarai, now it's backpackers picking their way through the touts.

Xi'an is a big, noisy Chinese city. Central Asia definitely lies to the west. I wander through some plastic curtains in one building, and it looks like Harvey Nichols in Knightsbridge (London). One whole floor is devoted to cosmetics. I spin on my heels and get out of there fast, perhaps by fear of seeing how awful I look. What else about Xi'an? Out to see the Terra Cotta Warriors. With 6 million visitors a year, it's a zoo. I can't help but think one good earthquake would knock the whole business over like ten pins. The funniest moment is the farmer who originally discovered the "warriors" back in the 1970s now sits prominently in one of the many gift shops, signing his autograph. He wears a pair of sunglasses that covers half his face. No photos allowed. The other peasants in his village must be so jealous.

An English and a German girl on my bus recognize me from back in Bukhara. We chat like the road hardened warriors we are on what was in Central Asia. Re-entry has already begun.

Ever wonder what life is like in your own country? In keeping with the traditions of the region, in Pamistan I have already declared myself president for life. However, freedom of thought, ideas, and speech is encouraged. Blogger isn't banned (or the BBC news). Inhabitants are as wonderfully open, unaffected, and hospitable as the Central Asians. Anybody else who wants to come needs a Letter of Invitation and a visa, approved by the president. Good luck.


Architecture is as grand as Samarkand's; houses look like the courtyard houses of Bukhara and are carpeted with rugs from Turkmenistan. The spectacular scenery looks like Kyrgystan. Air conditioning is Chinese. Food is imported. All toilets flush.

I do have a few regulations in Pamistan. They are:

Pedestrians may use a swift kick with their boot into the side of any car that tries to run them down.

Taxi drivers or any merchant or customs official who try to cheat tourists will be taken to the nearest stadium and beaten with sticks.

Employees in service positions do not play Tetris in front of waiting customers.

Gold teeth are banned.

I'll think of some more later...

Thanks so much for your comments and e-mails; they're really appreciated! (Home on 18 August)

Out with the guys

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Dunhuang--August 5

In Xinjiang province, the Silk Road splits in two: the southern route less traveled but dotted with the crumbling ruins of ancient "lost" towns. The northern route has its air share of ancient sites as well. The two routes rejoin in the town of Dunhuang before continuing eastward through the Gansu corridor, a narrow valley protected by mountains to the north and south. Through this corridor was the major route that Buddhism reached China from India. Even the culture of ancient Greece and Rome made it out here.

Dunhuang, or rather the Mogao Caves, is one of the great archaeological sites of the world. It is a series of over 700 caves, which hold the largest collection of Buddhist art in the world. Dates are from 366 to about 1227 AD. In its heyday, 100s of Buddhist monks lived here, creating a great center of learning, culture, and worship. Silk Road traders stopped by to pray or give thanks for safe journeys.

In the earliest caves, you can see art heavily influenced by India, with a stronger Chinese appearance through the later dynasties. Visitors today are shown about a dozen caves, and these are rotated to help protect them. Photos are forbidden, so none to post. When I get home, I'll scan some and put them up.

In 1900, a Daoist monk and self-appointed guardian of the caves, Wang Yuanlu, accidently discovered a cave filled with over 50,000 manuscripts and paintings, including the oldest known book in the world--the Diamond Sutra. Not exactly knowing what he had on his hands, he sold off a few items to help pay for the caves' upkeep. Sir Aurel Stein, the Hungarian-born British archaeologist came upon these manuscripts while in Xinjiang, realized that this was something huge, and hightailed it to Dunhuang. He convinced Wang Yuanlu to let him remove about 20,000 manuscripts from the library for protection in exchange for less than 200 British pounds. The French, Japanese, and Russians soon followed, carting off what they could, as well. Chinese officials of the time helped themselves, too, so less than 8,000 manuscripts remain in China. Of course, arguments can be made that much of the Mogao Caves would have been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

The story of the "discovery" of the Mogao Caves is every bit as intriguing as Howard Carter's discovery of King Tut's tomb. Great book to read: Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, by Peter Hopkirk, the same author of The Great Game.

I love days like today. There's so much to learn in the world.

Turpan to Dunhuang--August 3

For some reason, travel in China seems much easier than Central Asia. Here, for a price, it's easy to find someone to scrum on your behalf for a train ticket. Turpan has no train station, that's in Daheyan, about 40 miles to the north. I have a small problem of finding a seat since the train originates back in Urumqi. That can be worked out, they say! It's arranged that a "body" will board in Urumqi and take my spot until we can make the change. For about $12, two girls from CITS (China International Travel Service) and a driver take me to Daheyan, usher me through the train station bedlam, and make the passenger swap.

I'm in soft sleeper--a 4-bed compartment, blissfully air-conditioned, and with a sparkling white duvet and pillow laid out. I'm in heaven.

There's only one other passenger in the compartment: a Chinese mining engineer on his way home from a month on the border between China, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia. He barely speaks English, but we manage just the same. He flips open his laptop and shows me gorgeous photos he's taken of glaciers, wild horses running in the shadow of mountains, even a bear. He next clicks on a RealPlayer icon with the title of Bathing Beauties. "Oh boy, here we go," I think to myself, imagining he's got something really perverted he wants to share. No, it's an old Esther Williams and Red Skeleton movie dubbed into Chinese. He loves Esther Williams. I tell him I know her son. He is happy beyond words. So, dim the lights, we now have a laptop cinema going, as our iron-rail Silk Road caravan glides across the desert under the stars.

About 7 am, soft bird chirping coming through the speakers overhead wakes me. This is followed by classical Chinese and Western music--Vivaldi to be exact. By about 9 am, the music intensity begins amping up, followed by Chinese comedy hour at 10--sure to get you out of bed.

We arrive in Dunhuang, and my new Chinese friend accompanies me by taxi to town, makes sure I am happy with my hotel, then runs off to catch his bus for a 14-hour ride to his home. Amazing.

Dunhuang is an easy town to deal with, and I have to say, it's the first time since Italy way back in June, that I've seen store fronts where someone has made the effort to display things attractively, as well as seeing things for sale worthy of a second look. Also, since being in China, buildings, construction, interiors, everything is finished off a 1000 times better than the Caucasus or Central Asia. A pride of workmanship best explains it. Sidewalks aren't treacherous challenges to walk on (in fairness I did sprain an ankle in Italy); wires aren't hanging down inside hotel rooms. Here it seems someone finishes the plasterwork, the painting, the stairways. Weird pipes aren't jutting out where they shouldn't; carpets look washed since installation; window panes and windshields aren't cracked; drapes aren't shabby and hang nicely. I can go on and on and on about it. There's an aesthetic with the little things here I find a welcome relief.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

The Turpan Depression--August 1-2

No, not that kind of depression. Turpan is the second lowest spot in the world (the Dead Sea is the first), as well as holding the record for the hottest place in China. This little oasis town lies smack on the northern Silk Road. All of Xinjiang province in China is full of ancient towns, half eroded away, and remains of Buddhist outposts. With limited time, it's a matter and picking and choosing where to go; the region is worth a trip in itself.

From Kashgar to Turpan, it is impossible to take the train. It's packed for days to come. Something about the weather and the track--standing room only for now. Uh, no. Not for 23 hours. I fly to Urumqi--nice new Boeing. From there, it's only 2 1/2 hours on the bus through the desert. It's not too bad; there's A/C, but typical of buses in China, they show martial arts videos--at full audio blast, and there's a speaker above every seat. The woman across from me sleeps the whole way.

Blogger note: I can log on to Blogger and post, but to log on to my site at, guess what? It's banned in China!! What is with it in these countries? At least I can post--pictures, too. I can't log on to BBC News either--that must be banned as well.
Anyway, Turpan hosts a variety of fun sites to see.

The Jiaohe Ruins: Thousands of years ago during the Han dynasty, the Chinese established a series of military garrison towns, of which Jiaohe is one of the best preserved.
Tuyoq: Surrounded on three sides by valleys lush with vineyards and at the base of the Flaming Mountains (so called for its color at midday) the tiny village of Tuyoq is typical of traditional Uighur life and architecture. It's also supposed to be a big Muslim pilgrimage site. Only 30 yuan, please.

Jiaohe Ruins

Jiaohe Ruins


A little cafe at Tuyoq

The desert whizzing by at 70 mph.

Camels out here are the two-humped variety.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Great Game: Kashgar--July 31

Kashgar, China

Thoughout the 19th century the Russians and British played out a great chess game across the mountains and deserts of Central Asia. The British feared, with some justification, Russian intentions in India--the prize of all Asia--since Russia was rapidly expanding its vast empire. Traders and eccentrics, scholars and soldiers, and seeker of adventure spent months to years in this vast unmapped territory reaching to the Caucasus, drawing up maps, trying to influence fickle if not outright bloodthirsty khans. In the ancient Silk Road town of Kashgar, the game was played out to the max with both the British and the Russians establishing consulates--all the better to spy on each other. An absolutely great book is The Great Game, by Peter Hopkirk, who tells a great tale of the personalities and geo-conflicts of the two powers of the time. And for a fun afternoon, Rudyard Kipling's Kim is a thoroughly entertaining read, as well.

Anyway, Kashgar is another name that evokes images of exotic bazaars and treasures, and it does not disappoint. Sections of the old town that have still survived the new China look unchanged in hundreds of yeas. Weathered adobe structures open onto twisting lanes bordered by cobblers using hand tools, metal workers pounding away, bread makers baking in ancient ovens. An enormous mix of Central Asians mill about, haggling. It's the real thing, and it's awesome.

The Uighurs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Pakistanis, and everybody else have well figured out this capitalism thing. If you want to wander around the residential section of the old town--well, that costs 30 yuan (about $4)! The Silk Road is alive and well here, so is the Great Game, with the powers-that-be in the world vying for Central Asia's markets and resources.

Some photos about town:

From Osh to Kashgar, China--July 29-30

The most authentic Silk Road route to China is through the Irkesktam crossing, a 2-day journey up and over part of the Pamir Mountains. Nemat, a young, energetic Kyrgyz guy who bikes around every hotel in Osh to do his business, arranges a 4-wheel drive Russian "jeep" I share with a couple from Italy. The car is a piece of junk, and a jerry can leaks gas on my backpack, but the driver Jinghis is an excellent driver. He takes it upon himself to look after me.

The first day's drive climbs up a beautiful little valley to the summer pastures of the Kyrgyz. Yurts become commonplace, along with the flocks of sheeps, goats, and yaks. Horses are beautifully taken care of.

Although distances aren't huge, travel takes forever because the road is truly atrocious. We must spend the night at Sary Tash, a "town" near the Tajik border. Elevation is about 11,000 feet. Jinghis looks around town for somewhere we can stay. Hey, a yurt is fantastic! They pile up enough quilts to keep you warm, but the night is freezing. We must leave at 5am to arrive at the Kyrgyz border crossing by 9. The irony is that no sooner are you through with the Kyrgyz side, you must wait an hour or two for the Chinese on the other side to finish lunch--they're 2 hours ahead. Jinghis (who we grat well) zips us through customs and puts us in a truck to take us several kilometers through no-man's land to Chinese customs. From there, it's another 4 hours and a new driver and taxi to Kashgar. The entire two days are just fantastic.
Note: will post more pictures when I can. These are just a few:

This Kyrgyz girl, upon seeing visitors by the side of the road, comes running to offer us some bread and sour cream. The Kyrgyz people are fantastic.

Entering the town of Sary Tash

Only lodging around is in a yurt. 50 lbs. of quilts keeps me warm because it's freezing out.

Along the mountains heading towards China.

Over the mountains into China, the landscape abruptly changes back to desert.

To Osh, By Gosh--July 27-28

I know a few of you out there have had the adventure of flying in a Soviet-era AN-24. I wonder how many more decades these things will stay in the air?

For various reasons--time, money, and geography--I have no choice but to fly from Bishkek to Osh in one of these prop planes. It is surely more terrifying than any monster ride at a county fair.

A humongous thunder and rain storm in Bishkek doesn't bode well, but it clears. Off we go! The guy in front turns to me and motions that this is his first time flying. I tell him this is not a normal flight or plane. The man next to me tells me he is from the Sudan. He has a really loud giggle I find irritating. The engines are noisy as hell, and things aren't too bad until we hit a rain cloud. The plane bounces; it drops. The rain pelts the plane like tiny BBs. I put my head on my knees and clutch the arm rest, but the arm rest just flops around. The Sudanese man is giggling uncontrollably. "This pilot is stupid!" he shrieks with a spitting emphasis on the word stupid. I tell him he's not helping things. Finally, the rain stops, and I can see flat land below. We land. No one moves. The pilot hurries down the aisle looking pissed. A few people applaud. The flight attendant has a nervous smile. I need a gin and tonic.

Osh. This ancient Silk Road city dates back to the 5th century B.C., although there's nothing around to indicate its ancient origins. The town is laid back, friendly, and host to a huge bazaar. Because of the political and artificial gerrymandering of the borders from the last century (with violent consequences back in 1990), there's a mix of every Central Asian ethnic group imaginable. by this time, I can pick out Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kyrgyz, and those most alien of them all--backpackers. Osh is also one of the jumping off points to cross the mountains into China.

Across Central Asia the melons are utterly delicious.

Street scene in Osh

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Across Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan--July 25

With only a transit visa, I'm unfortunately limited to passing along the southern road of Kazakhstan to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, but it follows along one of the Silk Road routes, so I'm happy. Kazakhstan is such a vast country and the most Russianized of Central Asia, it's almost its own trip. From what little I see, it seems the revenue from huge gas and oil resources is fixing things up. My guidebook tells me in the northeast, pristine countryside nature reserves and a few eco-resorts are springing up. Environmentally, Kazakhstan has its own mess on their hands--a legacy from the 20th century--from the Aral Sea disaster to the depleted soils of the steppe--thanks to Khrushchev's Virgin Lands campaign. Kazakhstan, too was where 467 nuclear bombs were exploded (I'm quoting Lonely Planet here). Fallout contaminated some 300,000 sq. km. In one village, they figured it was "one Hiroshima for every inhabitant." There continues today all the accompanying horrible sicknesses from the radiation.

Today's series of taxi rides takes nearly 8 hours. We pass through more steppe, and occasionally, snow-capped peaks of a mountain range to the south appear. The Kazakh pop music the driver listens to doesn't seem as obnoxious as the Uzbek variety.
Some hours along, I hear a pop and us passengers instinctively lower out heads as the car fills with dust. We've blown a tire. More delays along the way are another border crossing (this is a good time to mention that the crazy jigsaw-like borders of Central Asia comes from a deliberate "divide and conquer" policy from the 1920s and '30s, delineated without any regard to ethnicities, geography, or common sense), and three police checks once in Kyrgyzstan.

As each hour passes, I look in my guidebook for a hotel in Bishkek with a few more amenities. Screw the price. The Silk Road Lodge will do. I beg for a room. Yes, I'll take the suite. The A/C works, the TV works, the plumbing works. A sparkling clean bathtub has a plug. There's a breakfast buffet with food you can actually eat. There's high-speed Internet. There's a coffee maker. There's a library of paperback books, videos even. The sheets aren't scratchy. I see no reason to leave for a couple of days.

On the steppes of Kazakhstan

Self-explanatory fun

Crossing to Kazakhstan--July 24

By 11am my visa is ready. In Central Asia just about any car you see is a taxi--a consequence of unemployment. Off we go to the border, which is in a state of semi-controled chaos. As a tourist, you naturally stick out, and this usually helps you pass through. The residents are treated more as cattle. If customs officials are greedy bastards (I've personally only witnessed this in Azerbaijan), they are a 100 times worse to their own people.

Border crossed, new taxi, off we go to Shymkent. The Hotel Ordabasy seems to work; looks like they're fixing it up on the outside. The inside appears to be retro-Intourist in design: dark hallways, shaking walls when you turn on the hot water in the bath, etc.

I go off on a wander. Although the city's origins lie in Silk Road mythology, this is a completely Russianized city. At least there are restaurants and cafes. People are walking in the streets. One nicely dressed (probably too nicely dressed) girl chats with a cute boy who has pulled over in his car. She hesitates; he makes a face like, "oh c'mon," and smiles. She hops in. Maybe they go make sexy time together :-)

First order of business is to eat. I find a nice looking outdoor restaurant. You ask: "How the hell do you order from a Russian menu?" 1. You can either point wildly and take your chances (not a good idea) 2. Sit there with a Russian phrase book and try to decode (still apt to get something you really don't want to eat), or 3. get up out of your chair with the waitress and look at other people's plates or leftovers and point. This works.

Tashkent Funk--July 21-23

Although the name conjures up romantic Silk Road images, Tashkent is a new city, built from the ruins of an earthquake that thoroughly flattened the old one. It's full of parks and trees, pedestrians have some rights, but there's no one around, no vitality in the streets that I can see. I'm here for three days waiting for the Kazakh consulate to open because I need a visa. Reports say they're issued on the spot.

On Monday morning, while waiting in line in the heat, I chat with a couple from Australia. They've been traveling for a year already. I finally ask them:

"Does Tashkent depress you?"
"Yeah! We can't figure this place out. We've been bored witless."
"I tried to take the metro but was stopped twice by security demanding my documents and a bribe. I had to yell at them."
"We didn't have that problem. We couldn't find anywhere to eat."
"Where are the restaurants and cafes in this city?"
"We found somewhere that had mashed potatoes."
"I found a little store that sold potato flakes in a box. I cooked them in my room with my immersion heater."
"Yesterday we tried to find the cinema that Lonely Planet said showed English language movies at 4:30."
"Oh, I found the theater. It was padlocked with weeds around it."
"We've got CNN on the TV."
"Oh, wow. I've got BBC World."
"On Uzbek TV they showed the Godfather."
"I didn't get that one, but I watched Roman Holiday with the mute on."

It goes on like this. I'm called inside the consulate. "No visa! You must have "letter of invitation!"
"Your consulate in Washington says U.S. citizens don't need them anymore."
"In this consulate that doesn't matter."

I settle for a transit visa. They tell me to come back at 5pm. I've already checked out of my room (I must add that the hotel people were exceptionally nice). I wander Tashkent in the heat until 5 and return to the consulate. They tell me: "Come back tomorrow at 11!"