Silk Road 2018

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12 May 

A relaxing start to a holiday. I had booked a taxi to collect me at noon for the trip to Birmingham International Airport, so I had the morning free to prepare the house for my upcoming absence.

A nice taxi driver who grew up in Albania collected me at 11.50am. Traffic was light, and we arrived at the airport an hour later. Slight complication in that he expected to be paid in cash. I went into the airport, visited an ATM, and paid him.

Check in proceeded smoothly. My bag weighted 21.3kg, which I thought wasn’t bad for a 46 day trip, particularly as I had to pack a sleeping bag and mat. The airline didn’t weigh my luggage, which was overweight (camera equipment!)

The first flight was to Istanbul. We arrived around midnight, Turkey time. Off the plane, short bus ride to the terminal, straight through to departures, and the gate for my second flight was on my right. Very easy. 

13 May

Less comfortable second flight, which set off at 12.40am. The plane was full, and I just couldn’t sleep. When we arrived at Bishkek at 8.15am, I was glad that going through immigration and collecting my bag was straightforward. I’d booked a taxi to collect me, and the driver was waiting for me. A 40 minute drive brought me to the hotel, where I checked in, went to my room, and went to bed.

I had lunch at the hotel. The Dragoman truck and my fellow passengers arrived whilst I was eating. A number of them came over to greet me. After lunch, I went back to bed for a couple of hours. Then I started sorting out my luggage for the truck. I always have a ‘bus bag’ for overland trips, namely a small duffle bag to hold items such as rain coat, hat, sun cream, etc. Seems I can leave my sleeping bag on the truck, which will free up a lot of room in my main bag.

The group had consisted of 22 people for the first leg of the journey, which had started in Istanbul around 50 days ago. 9 people were leaving. We walked down to a restaurant where very heart-felt speeches were made about the time they’d had together. I had a delicious local dish, chicken fried in sesame oil (from what I’ve read, all chicken in Kyrgyzstan is raised free range) and some local beer. The latter came with a straw, which is a first for me.

Rain was hurtling down when we’d finished, so we shared taxis back to the hotel. I went up to bed.

Photos from the first two days are here.

14 May

I fell asleep almost immediately, then woke up in the middle of the night and found it difficult to go back to sleep. When my alarm went off at 7.30am, I groaned myself out of bed and went downstairs for breakfast. I hate jet lag.

Breakfast was an intriguing offering of omelette, fried cauliflower, salad, cold meat, bread, cereal, and fruit. I have packed coffee bags for the trip, but the hotel did have some real coffee on offer. I talked to fellow travellers and tried to commit names to memory.

We had the morning free. At noon, we gathered for a briefing about the next five days. I also had a one to one briefing about the truck rules. The main three were no drugs, no smoking on board, and no prostitutes. I assured the guide that I could adhere to those! We all have assigned jobs, and until we reach China I’m on ‘locker duty’. Everyone will bring their bags to the truck by an assigned time, and I will work with one other person to load them.

We then had a guided tour of the city. A quick stop at a lunch bar and a coffee provided much needed fuel. I managed to change some US dollars into Kyrzygstan currency (I couldn’t get any in the UK). 

The architecture is an interesting mixture of Soviet style influenced by local culture. So, for example, the Triumphal Arch had the Red Star at the apex, but the style is meant to emulate a yurt. The eternal flame honours the men who fought for  the Soviet Union, and the women who waited to welcome them back home.

Kyrzygstan became part of the Russian Empire in 1876, and remained in the USSR after the Russian Revolution. On 31 August 1991, the country declared independence from Russia, and is now a democracy.

We walked through a park to the Opera House, admired a statue of Lenin, and then went to see the Parliament Building. Near the latter was a statue for Manas, the main character of an epic poem which dates back (in written form) to 1792-3). We caught the end of the changing of the guard, and a some children played this out themselves for some time afterwards. 

A local man attached himself to our group for some time. I was uncomfortable around him, although others maintained that he was just interested in improving his English. He was of help when several of us decided to take a taxi back to the hotel.

I walked with a couple of other people to our restaurant at dinner time. The place had a sports bar vibe (with large screen TVs showing football matches). The beer was quite good. I had yak ribs. Very tasty, but much smaller than I’d expected. I caught a taxi back to our hotel afterwards.

Photos from today are here.

15 May

Jet lag prevented me from falling asleep until the early hours of the morning. When my alarm went off at 7am, the sound was even less welcome than usual.

At 8.45am I reported to the truck with my luggage. The luggage locker is quite high up, and I offered to be ground staff. Bags were loaded, and I claimed two seats in the rather roomy inside. There are thirteen passengers and three guides, so we have plenty of space. 

We drove out of the city and into the countryside. At first we travelled through flat agricultural land. People were working by hands in the fields, and herds of goats, sheep, and cattle wandered around with shepherds nearby. Every so often we’d see horses. 

As we went into the mountains, the fields disappeared, and the number of horses increased. In addition to the low lying houses, we also passed yurts. Sometimes the horses wandered loose. At other locales, the horses were tied to central stake or, in some cases, their foals, to keep them from wandering. I also saw donkeys and the occasional mule. 

The large graveyards were interesting. Mausolea filled the fenced off spaces. These looked to have been built out of adobe brick, and every so often we’d pass a graveyard in which the structures had crumbled. 

Many of the small towns had very small mosques, almost aways of the same design. We also passed various statues, erected far away from habitations.

Progress was halted for around 30 minutes. A group of men were deliberately loosening stones from the mountainside. These were later transferred into a dump truck, and we were able to move on. A number of people sold some form of vegetable, and caterpillars had come along for the ride.

Lunch was in a cafe with wonderfully clean toilets. Our next toilet stop was not as grand. In fact, I haven’t seen facilities so filthy since my trip to North Korea. At least there was a man on a horse nearby, who willingly posed for photos, and some people decided to wade into the river.

Around 4pm we arrived at our hotel for the night in a small town. I’m sharing with Kay, who started the journey back in Istanbul. We settled into a companionable silence, both of us working on our photos and our blogs.

Photos from today are here.

16 May

Finally a good night’s sleep. 

We headed out after spending some time talking to a couple of men who are doing a motorbike ride from London to Russia. People posed on the bikes. 

We drove through green countryside, dry hills on on our right and snow topped mountains on our left. Sheep in the herds we passed numbered in the hundreds, rather than the smaller flocks of yesterday. The shepherds were mounted, and often assisted by dogs. At one point, we had to drive very slowly to pass a herd of horses using the road.

At lunchtime we arrived at Tash Rabat. This was once a key staging post on the Silk Road. A caravanserai dating from the 15th Century (and rebuilt in the last) is one of the main attractions in the area. Our group is sleeping in three yurts (the women split across two, the men in one) rather than camping in tents. The altitude is 3200 metres/10,500 feet. 

Whilst some people cooked lunch (toasted bread with scrambled eggs, fried sausage, and baked beans) others played football with the locals. Sheep, cows, and dogs wander freely through the site. Small children played with the lambs and were intrigued by our group. 

After lunch (and after the departure of  a large party of tourists had come to visit the caravanserai) we went to look around the structure. It’s very large inside, which rooms leading off on either side. 

I walked further up into the valley. More yurts had been set up. A rider came past and drove cows away from the yurts. I was told that cows will try to go inside and eat anything they can find.

During the drive we’d seen some brown coloured rodents—I later found out that they’re Menzbiers marmots. As I approached the yaks, I spotted several on a ledge just a short way up the hill. They were very obliging as I came closer for some photographs. I also spent time watching the yaks. Most ignored me, but the bull keep turning his head in my direction.

The skies greyed over. I walked back down and went into the yurt. Soon afterwards, thunder and rain followed. The temperature dropped. I spread out my down sleeping bag and put on another layer. Our local guide invited us to go into one of the rooms attached to the site owner’s house. A heater (fuel was dried cow dung, but it wasn’t smelly) had made the atmosphere very cozy. Food was spread across the table-bread, dried fruit, apples, sweets. Later on, we were served our evening meal in that room. A vegetable soup, followed by a rice dish with carrots and a tiny amount of meat.

One of our party has a talent for telling ghost stories. We started in the room, lights off, as he acted out the two main characters by way of introduction. Then he told the tale, only light that of his light and his iPad. We walked up to the caravanserai. The local guide unlocked the gate, and we went inside to hear the rest of the tale. At the end, on cue, someone covered in white sheets shuffled towards us from one of the side passages. We chanted to drive him back. The fact that he stumbled over a bit of floor detracted from the fear factor! Under the sheets as one of our guides, of course.

Went to bed early. The yurt was cold to begin with, but the site owner came in and set up the heater. This made the inside very comfortable. 

During one early morning trip to the outhouse, I looked up and saw the Milky Way. It’s been a few years since I’ve had such wonderful star watching.

Photos from today are here.

17 May

We’d been warned that today would be long and tiring. We were to cross the border into China, which would take many hours and much patience. 

Our departure time was 6.30am. I rose at 5.45 am, and realised that I was in trouble. For those who don’t like reading about digestive difficulties, you might decide this entry is ‘too much information’!

Food, altitude, perhaps not drinking enough water, whatever—I was constipated, and it was the type which makes it impossible to urinate. I think, if I had access to a Western style, toilet, I might have been okay. But I was stuck with the hole-in-the-ground squat toilets.

Breakfast was on the truck as we travelled. Bread, eggs, a small apple, sweets. Food was not on my mind. And although I was thirsty, I didn’t dare add to my existing difficulties. Near the end of the two hour drive, I was standing up in the truck in an attempt to gain some comfort.

At the first border crossing, we had access to squat toilets on either side of the border. As it took some time for our truck to be cleared, I simply hovered in and around the outhouse, hoping for the relief which didn’t come. The local guide brought over more loo roll and wet wipes for me.

I was still suffering when I had to climb back onto the truck. We drove to another check point, went through, then on to the first check point into China. Although we arrived at 11am, in good time to go through before their two hour lunch break, we were not permitted to pass. It seems that there was something wrong with our paperwork.

So we ended up waiting until 2pm. This was actually very good for me, as I was finally able to urinate (down the hillside and surrounded by open countryside. No outhouse at this crossing). I felt able to take in some food and water after that. As we waited, snow and hail alternated with bouts of sunshine. The truck was just about warm enough. 

We finally went through that check point at 2.30pm. We reached our next check point at 3.25pm. Our main luggage had to come off the truck to be x-rayed. Our passports were checked. One of our group was accused of carrying a hand gun in his luggage, so he had to unpack most of his belongings to prove otherwise.

Then the truck had a thorough going over. The Chinese personnel had hand held scanners, and their equipment was telling them something they didn’t like. Our guides had to pull out all of the tents, even unfolding one for inspection. The various lockers around the truck were emptied and contents checked. This took around an hour. 

Back onto the truck. We took our main luggage into the passenger compartment, rather than try to load it back into the back storage locker. A drive through dry hills, some of which bore lovely patterned stripes of red and brown, brought us to another border control. At this one, we had to show our passports, then walk down the road and wait for our truck to collect us. We boarded just before a thunderstorm overtook us.

We reached our final border crossing at 7.10pm. Again it we had a wait on the truck. Unlike the previous crossings, we went into a large modern building. We had to fill out entry cards, and this time our passports were stamped. We also had both hands and thumbs scanned, and a photo taken. Our luggage went through another x-ray machine.

The truck requires additional processing, so a small bus collected us and our luggage for the drive to Kashgar. We reached out hotel at 10pm Kyrgyzstan time. However, this region of China is on Beijing time, so it was actually midnight. We took our bags to our rooms, and went down to dinner. The hotel restaurant had prepared a number of delicious Chinese dishes, and we fell upon the food. Then to bed!

Photos from today are very few (as no photography allowed at the crossings) and are here

18 May

After yesterday’s trials, I was exhausted. I actually slept through to 1.30pm. My room mate and I spent the most of the day relaxing and working on photos and blogs.

We went to a local shopping mall in the evening for our dinner. And I began to feel uncomfortable in this city. Police were everywhere. The pedestrian areas went through fenced areas and I wondered if these were for keeping people in, or keeping them safe in case of trouble. We walked through metal detectors to use the underground passage under the streets, and through another one to go into the shopping mall. Although several of us set them off, no action was taken.

The food court was on the eighth floor. We settled for a Chinese hotpot meal. After some debate, we ordered two dishes, one with chicken (‘with bones in’—this turned out to be true, as the chicken had merely chopped up in thrown in), and one with a mixture of beef and frog. The waitress brought over the ingredients, and the meal was cooked on hot plates in the middle of the table. We also ordered pitchers of beer, most of which we had to leave behind as we’d overestimated!

Photos from today are here.

19 May

I faced my first breakfast at this hotel. And was unimpressed. Tomatoes, watermelon, cucumber in some sort of sauce, white bread lightly flavoured (some sort of spice), deep fried egg, spicy noodles. Tea was free, coffee (powdered) was extra.

We left soon later for a drive to Shipton’s Arch. This arch is the largest natural arch in the world. The height is estimated to be 1500 feet, and the span 180 feet. Once we'd arrived at the visitors’ centre (a large building with nothing inside except an unoccupied snack shop and another room with three beds), we made up lunch to take with us. This consisted of a pancake into which we could place lettuce, tomatoes, and various types of sausages. I decided not to try the ‘preserved ducks’ eggs’. 

The path was all gravel and rocks, with the occasional stairway. I had a walking stick with me, but I found the altitude difficult (2900 metres/9700 feet). I made it far enough to be able to view the arch. As I contemplated the large rocks ahead of me, rain fell and I creased over coughing. I decided that trying to cough whilst navigating slippery rocks was probably not a good thing, so with a sense of disappointment, I turned around and started back down. The cough, sadly, has persisted all afternoon and evening.

The thunderstorm held off until most of us were back in the truck. It was then that people noticed the small surprise I’d added to the truck bulletin board—a keyring of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, placed there in honour of the royal wedding.

We headed back to the city. In the afternoon, the programme for the next section of the trip was handed out. I streamed some of the wedding, and got as far as the sermon when it was time to go for our  group meal in a local restaurant. Great food! Dishes kept on coming, and we passed them around.

There was great amusement at the start of the meal. Our local guide had insisted that we must all try the tea, it was a speciality of the restaurant. Out came glasses, and a see-through pot of, well, tea so weak that it looked like water. We all sampled our portion, trying desperately to find some flavour. A few minutes later, another see-through pot emerged, this one filled with hot reddish liquid. We’d misunderstood. The first pot contained only hot water, the second was the promised tea!

We stopped at hotel reception to ask for more toilet paper. What the hotel provides is very small rolls, no where near enough for two people sharing a room.

Photos from today are here.

20 May

A group outing today. We arrived at the Kashgar animal market around 10.40am, which was great timing. Some goats and sheep were already present, as were stalls offering meat for sale. As we wandered around, the grounds both cleaner and less smelly than I’d expected, trucks began to arrive with cattle. I was surprised by the number of bulls which were unloaded, often two men straining at the ropes to convince the animal to leap off the side. Some people came with smaller vehicles carrying only cow, or a few goats.

There were a few mules and donkeys. Men sometimes had to work hard to take a bull in the human’s preferred direction. Sheep were tied up side by side, heads forced through loops of rope. Negotiations were sealed with a handshake. 

We left at noon and drove back to the city. Our next destination was the Sunday market. Stalls of cheap clothing and shoes gave way to food stalls. Vegetable stalls led on to collections of, well, what looked to have been pulled from rubbish tips. CDs, tapes, bits of metal, old car parts, rotting books, ancient magazines. The stall owners often looked in not much better shape than their wares. As instructed, I asked before taking a photograph, and a decline was very rare.

Down a side alley, a man was having a shave. The sharp blade made me cringe. We used a toilet facility, which was up a rickety set of steps and past a room piled with rubbish.

Kay and I, who are room mates, went out of the market and stopped to eat a snack lunch. We walked over a bridge to what remains of the old city of Kashgar. The Chinese government razed most of it to the ground, and built a newer version of it. We wanted to see the authentic section, but a guard waved us away at our first attempt. So we found another route inside.

At some point, the area had been a tourist attraction. Signs in English explained what you would see inside the (now locked up) houses. People still lived in the area, and we saw a number of children. But many walls had fallen down, and I don’t think there will be anything left ten years from now.

We exited and picked our way over mud towards the rebuilt old city. Children were playing table tennis, using bricks as a middle net and pieces of wood as paddles. As we came round to the main street, we saw what had been the official entrance to the real old city. A police officer warned us that we could not enter.

The rebuilt old city was very obviously newer. Wide streets, souvenir stalls, a few craftspeople working with wood or metal. But some of the wooden doors looked original. We had a coffee and then a wander.

Around 5pm we managed to catch a taxi back to our hotel. After a quick meal at the on site restaurant, we joined a small group to walk back to the rebuilt old city to visit the night markets. Several people decided to be adventurous in the food area, trying the sheep lungs and sheep intestines. I declined, explaining the pun, ‘It’s called offal because it is’ to our Chinese guide.

Rain began to fall. We took refuge under a large umbrella with beers purchased from a local store. At one point, the amount of water which had collected in the umbrella made it tip from one side to the other, splashing against stall holders and other drinkers.

Five of us shared a taxi back. I was one of the four squashed in the back. One of our group had an open can of beer, which he held out in front him to keep his drink safe.

Photos from today are here. Animal lovers might find some of them difficult to view.

21 May

The rain continued all night. Kay and I had a lazy morning in our room. At noon, we decided to venture out and catch a taxi to the Id Kah Mosque. I’d picked up a tourist map, so we were able to show the taxi driver our desired destination.

The city’s drains were not coping with the rainfall. The streets were like streams. As we splashed our way from the taxi, I saw that a collection of animals were enduring the weather near the mosque. I’m assuming that the horses and camel were there for people to sit on to have their photographs taken. The yak and another horse were tied up to carts. The owner was nowhere to be seen,

The entry fee to the mosque was 45R, so around £6.00. Large gardens, dripping wet, greeted us after we walked through the entrnce. At the far end were a number of outdoor prayer areas, and we were allowed to go into a smaller indoor prayer room. I tried to put my Buff over my head, as I’ve done at mosques before, but the guard told me sharply, ‘No scarf!’ When I tried to explain that I wanted to show respect, he said, ‘Sorry, no English.’

And that, as far as we could tell, was it. As this was supposed to  be the largest mosque in China, we kept thinking that there must be more. We headed back out, and tried to find somewhere for lunch. Unsurprisingly, all of the outdoor stalls were closed up. We finally caught a taxi back to the hotel, where we changed sodden shoes for dry before going to the site restaurant for lunch.

I spent the afternoon working on photos. In the evening, we had a party in the hotel’s foyer. (As far as we could tell, we were the hotel’s only guests). The receptionist joined us for the game of ‘pass the hat’ (in effect, a version of ‘mussical chairs’). I came second.

Did some packing after I’d returned to my room. We leave Kashgar tomorrow morning. 

Photos from today are here.


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