A Brief Look at Tashkent

After a 4:00 AM flight from Bishkek (for which I had to get to the airport before 2:00 AM), I made it to Tashkent today at 4:30 AM local time.  Unfortunately, the two hours that it took to get through customs were not enough to let my hotel check me in when I got there.  Instead, I had to wait in the lobby for four hours before they would let me have a room.  Needless to say, I was more than a little exhausted, and immediately fell asleep when I was finally let into my room.  Sleeping through lunch, I finally made it out of the hotel around 2:00, ready to see the city in all of its sweltering afternoon glory.

Tashkent is clean, almost too clean, and I was reminded of the fact that I’m visiting a police state as soon as I tried to take the subway.  I was immediately taken aside to be searched, and needed to have four police officers take a look at my passport ant visa.  Fortunately, this time, everyone was uniformed, and they just took me aside in the middle of the subway station, so I was not as worried as I was yesterday when I was harassed.  I’ve learned that the best way to get through these things is to smile, and act very friendly.  Acting frustrated is a good way to get harassed in return.

Aside from the police, everyone here has been extremely friendly.  I’ve had to change traveler’s cheques in a number of different cities over the past several weeks, and this was by far the most enjoyable experience.  One of the bankers even talked to me about the Bruins and Bobby Orr.  I also managed to convince the bellhop in my hotel to take me to a market so that I could exchange dollars for Uzbek som at the best black market rate (see photo below).  I don’t think that I would have gotten as good a rate by myself.

I had a chance to check out the huge bazaar here, and got to take a brief glimpse of the Old Town before I decided to hoof it back to my hotel.  It ended up taking much longer to get back than I thought it would, which was not helped by my lack of sleep.  Next time, I’ll go through the security checks again to take the subway.

I don’t have much more time here right now because I have an early morning train tomorrow for Samarqand, which I’m really looking forward to seeing.  I’m not sure what kind of internet access I’ll have there, or in my next stop, Bukhara, but I will definitely have a good connection when I get back to Tashkent on the 7th.  With luck, I’ll be able to post a bunch of updates while I’m gone.

Here are the photos from today (click to enlarge):

This was the bazaar where my hotel's bellhop took me to get the best black market exchange rate. The trip ended up saving me about $70.

More cash than I thought I would ever see at once, however it's only worth $200. The Uzbeks don't have any bills over 1000 som, which is only worth about 50 cents. How am I supposed to carry around this many bills? This much cash should only be seen in a briefcase that is handed to a criminal in exchange for contraband.

Many buildings here, regardless of their age, have ornamental (and perhaps functional) brises-soleil. In fact, there's ornament everywhere.

This is the old 5-star hotel in town, which must be about forty or fifty years old. It reminds me of what you would have expected from a luxury desert or tropical hotel in the sixties. I'm pretty sure that I heard the old soundtrack to Hawaii Five-O when the wind whistled through the brise-soleil.

Presumably inspired by the subtlety of exquisitely elegant banquet facilities in suburban Buffalo, this monstrosity is the Dom Forum, where the government hosts events for visiting dignitaries.

This is the sort of traditional tile work that is representative of ancient Uzbek architecture, but I have a feeling that this was done recently.

Another day, another bazaar. This one had fresh-squeezed blackberry juice.

I think that she's cutting mangoes, but it was hard to tell.

These dried yogurt balls are extremely popular in Central Asia.

This is the largest bazaar complex that I've seen so far. This is the back side of one of the radiating rows of covered market spaces.

A lazy Wednesday at the bazaar.

This guy really wanted me to buy some of his spices. He would fill up a cup with a spice, and dump it into my hand. I figured out too late that he just wanted me to smell it, and I found myself eating dried tea leaves, much to everyone's delight nearby. He convinced me to buy some cardamom tea, and some kind of pepper.

This woman sold me my non (Uzbek pronunciation) for the day. For those of you who did not know, gold teeth are very popular here, and are considered a status symbol.

This is the woman who sold me my bananas.

These pictures are probably getting repetitive, but this was by far the best bread that I've had so far on this trip.

I hope to get some more time to explore the Old Town when I come back on the 7th.

These guys made me my dinner, and insisted that I take their photograph.

I've really got to figure out the word for this dish because it's pretty much the same thing that I had right before getting ill in Kyrgyzstan, and I don't particularly like it. I asked the waitress for a recommendation, and this is what she brought me.

Even the old Soviet apartment blocks all have some sort of ornamental motif.

So Long, Kyrgyzstan

My stay in Kyrgyzstan has been short-lived, and today was my last day.  I took a long walk out to the Osh Bazaar on the western side of town.  I seemed to be having a great day until things went a little sour.

I had was having a good time walking around and snapping photos, when I was suddenly surrounded by three men in plain clothes who claimed to be police.  One of them showed me his badge, and demanded to see my passport.  My guidebook had mentioned that people have had some difficulties with shady police at this market, and said that I should hand them a photocopy of the passport, and not let them search me.  Neither of these two tactics worked, as they were very persistent, and insisted that I follow them into a back room for a search of my bag.  They got hold of my passport, and there was nothing that I could do but follow them.

Two of the police officers led me into the basement of one of the market buildings, and one of them, who spoke a little bit of English, proceeded to take everything out of the bag that I was carrying, feel it in his hands, and then sniff it.  Meanwhile, the other guy who had followed us down there got busy patting me down, and inspecting my arms to see if I had any needle marks.  I had a scratch on my upper right bicep from putting on my backpack, which he found suspicious.  They then demanded to see the narcotics that they claimed I was carrying.  I told them that I didn’t have any, and then they started asking about counterfeit money.  I figured this was their way of asking for bribes.  They then went through every note of currency that I had in my money pouch, and I’m not sure exactly what they were hoping to find, since they weren’t making a very thorough search of watermarks or other telltale identifiers.  When, they had finished looking through everything, they got friendly, and started shaking my hand, telling me that everything was OK, and that I was clean.  After handing me back all of my stuff, they each gave me another hearty handshake, and sent me on my way.

In all, the incident only lasted about ten minutes, and I don’t know if the police really were looking for bribes, or just checking out foreigners.  Needless to say, though, the whole episode left me with a very bitter taste in my mouth.  I’m glad that nothing came of it, but afterwards, I was thinking that there was the potential for everything to go very wrong.  I had just been thinking about what a great experience I had enjoyed in this country, and how hospitable the people had been, but I have mixed feelings about the place now.  Of course, the countryside is a completely different place than the city, and I would not have had any kind difficulties like this in Kochkor (or any other village, for that matter), but I think that I will definitely avoid the Osh Bazaar if I ever come back to this country.

I feel conflicted about leaving this place because my trip to the mountains was definitely the highlight of my journey so far, and I would have loved to spend a couple of weeks exploring the high pastures.  It’s time to start the next chapter, though, and I will arrive in Tashkent, Uzbekistan in the morning.  I’m planning on following a similar, but extended schedule there.  I’ll arrive in Tashkent tomorrow, spend a night there, and then spend over a week exploring Samarqand, and Bukharra before heading back to Tashkent to catch a flight to Istanbul.

Here are a few pictures from today:

If you are ever in Bishkek, I know a guy who has the best used pitchforks.

These apricots looked pretty good, but I was a little more interested in the apples, which are native to Central Asia, and were brought to the world by the Silk Road. They didn't look so good, though, presumably because it's way too early for them.

What can't be found at the bazaar?

Just in case you happen upon a body of water on the way home, they sell pool toys pre-inflated here.

There is no shortage of carrots in Kyrgyzstan.

The bazaar is like one enormous bulk foods section.

I could smell these strawberries from about twenty feet away. I immediately began salivating, and I had to put in a lot of effort to stop myself from getting them. Berries are too hard to clean here because I have to go through an elaborate ritual to soak them and rinse them in sterilized water a couple of times. These looked like eating berries, and they probably would have turned to mush by the time I made it back to my hotel in the blazing sun.

There's always a bargain to be had, and deals are made with a handshake.

If a fruit can be found in this region, then they've found a way to dry it.

This was the fried food section of the bazaar.

For those who like it spicy, this is evidently the section of the bazaar to visit.

After that whole trip to the bazaar, this is the lunch with which I walked out of there. Bananas are the easiest fruit for me to eat here because they require no cleaning. These pockets are sort of a mixed bag, but everyone seems to eat them here. I never actually know what I'm going to get inside. This one had meat and onions.

Saddle Up for Yurts and Kymyz

It has been an eventful few days since my last post.  I’m relaxing in Bishkek right now, and after two days in the saddle, my whole body aches.

On Saturday, I took a long cab ride to Kochkor, a small farming village in a mountain valley.  I had tried to get a shared taxi, which is the most efficient, and economical way to get around this country, but the guys at the taxi stand convinced me that nobody else would be heading to Kochkor anytime soon.  I ended up having to take a cab myself, which, by American standards, was still cheap, but I felt ripped off nevertheless.  The drive was beautiful, and we stopped at a rest stop to get lunch, where I just got the same thing the driver got.  Shortly thereafter, as we were speeding up into the mountains, and while my driver was blasting Russian pop and techno, I had a completely euphoric moment, when I realized how lucky I was to be having this experience.  In retrospect, this was probably just the calm before the storm.

When we got to Kochkor, I had my first bad experience on this trip with a thieving local, as my cab driver attempted to extort an exorbitant fee for the ride.  He claimed that the price we had worked out before we left Bishkek had been for one seat in a four person car, and I was responsible for the other three seats.  This was completely absurd because the fee that I worked out was about double what he would have gotten if all four seats had been filled, and I specifically bought all the seats.  We had a long, heated argument that involved me showing him in my guidebook what the ride should have cost, and him claiming that gas prices had increased since the book was written (perhaps this was true, but they did not increase by 12 times).  Anyway, it ended with me giving him an extra $20 to get my bags back (much better than the $200 for which he was asking).  To top things off, he then insisted that I give him a souvenir because we were now friends.  I told him that friends didn’t steal from each other, but he didn’t seem to catch on.  Finally, I told him that I didn’t bring any souvenirs (at least not that I would give him).  He ended up giving me a half empty bottle of Russian herbal Viagara.  Meanwhile, my stomach was beginning to show the first signs of disturbance.

Kyrgyzstan has a great tourism system in small towns, called Community-Based Tourism (CBT).  Since the traditional Kyrgyz way of life is under threat from a variety of influences, like every other culture in our increasingly globalized world, it has become increasingly difficult to sustain the nomadic lifestyle for which the region is known.  Traditionally, shepherd families travel to the high pastures in the mountains, staying in yurts, during the summer, and occupy the lowlands during the long winters.  CBT connects travelers with local families so that, for a small charge, visitors can stay with a family, experiencing the way that they live their daily lives, and taking advantage of their famous hospitality.  In turn, the family is able to supplement their income so that they can continue their traditional lifestyles.  The organization hires local young people to organize the whole thing, and it helps to keep them in the area, and interested in their heritage.  They also really enjoy it because they connect with people from all over the world.

In all, for under $100, I was able to get five meals, two nights’ lodging in yurts, a horse, and two guides.  I also got a truly unforgettable experience.  The families with which I stayed, and my two guides more than made up for my scuffle with my cab driver, as they were incredibly hospitable, and really made the whole weekend enjoyable.  I highly recommend Kyrgyzstan to anyone who loves mountains, and is on a budget, especially if they like horses.  One thing to note, though, is that you will need to have Kymyz, fermented mare’s milk, in large quantities, so get prepared.

Once I got everything booked, I soon arrived at my first destination, a house in the village.  Because I had told the coordinators that I wanted to stay in a yurt, they gave me a place with a yurt in the back yard.  It wasn’t quite as picturesque as I had imagined, but it wasn’t so bad, nevertheless, and I was heading to the mountains first thing in the morning, anyway.  As soon as I got settled, however, for the first time on this trip, I got violently ill.  I’m not sure exactly what it was that made me sick, but I have a feeling it was the roadside meal that I had with my cab driver.  It was painful, and I couldn’t stomach anything at all for the rest of the day.  Shortly before going to bed, my host brought me some special tea that had been made from flowers gathered in the mountains. I was promised that it would calm my stomach, but I did not hold out hope.  I tried my best to get a good night’s sleep, and figure out if I would be able to make the trip into the mountains in the morning.

I awoke to a symphony of farm animal sounds.  While, by cliche, the roosters in the neighborhood started everything off, they were soon joined by the cows, the sheep, the horses, and the neighbor’s dog, who had so nicely lulled me to sleep the night before.  Miraculously, although a little weak, my stomach felt fine, and I was ready for some trekking in the mountains.

Without further ado, the photos of the trip are below (click to enlarge).  Sorry that there are so many of them this time, but it’s been a while.

These hills, snapped through the windshield of my cab, are in Kazakhstan. While I didn't go there, I saw about an hour's worth of what the country had to offer.

The meal that did me in? I blame my thieving cab driver.

The ceiling of my yurt in Kochkor. What really struck me this weekend is how these things can be really beautiful inside, especially at night, when the soft lamplight is flickering on the radiating wooden rods.

My first yurt: a hut set up in someone's back yard in Kochkor. Surprisingly, I slept very well here.

The outhouse was conveniently located just next to the yurt. Unfortunately, my brief episode of violent stomach illness coincided with my stay here, and I spent a lot of time in this facility.

Kochkor is a quaint little community that is a holdover from the Russian colonial days.

The mountains that I would tackle the next day were visible to the south.

A shameless cute animal photo. This little kitten followed me for about half a mile when I was walking around town. I didn't know what to do because it had not clear home. Eventually, we walked by a group of kids, who soon distracted the kitten with petting, and I hope that they found a home for it.

The local neighborhood watch.

My host father for the evening was busy making a shyrdak when I returned. Shyrdaks are felt rugs that serve as the floors in yurts, and they are still hand made in this region. He has laid out the design in dry died wool, and wrapped it tightly in a reed mat before soaking it in boiling water. He was stomping on the mat to set the pattern, and remove any excess water.

This is a finished shyrdak that was in my yurt.

This is the meal that my host mother in Kochkor made for me. Unfortunately, despite the fact that it was mild, i did not have the stomach for it.

Miraculously, I felt much better in the morning, perhaps due to a special awful-tasting tea that my host brought to me for my stomach. It was made from flowers that were gathered on the mountains, and as far as I can tell, it didn't hurt.

One of my guides, Miribaq, was a real comedian. I didn't understand anything he was saying, but I couldn't help laughing along with everyone else.

We came to a bit of an impasse. The previous night's rains had completely washed away the path over this stream. We had to climb up the hill to find a suitable place to ford it.

While the guides tried to figure out how to deal with our little obstruction, I had a chance to shoot this photo back down the mountain.

Eventually, this man came from a hut on the other side of the river, and led his horse across. He volunteered to take my bag to the other side, and I followed him on my horse through the raging river. This was the most frightened I've been so far on this trip.

The shepherd who carried my bag invited us in for kymyz, fermented mare's milk, and tea. There was fresh hand-churned butter on the table for the nan.

The shepherd was excited for me to take this photo of his kids.

This is the hut in which we enjoyed the tea, and everyone but me greatly enjoyed the kymyz (do you like tangy milk that tastes a little like shoe leather?), and where this family will spend the summer.

These two shepherds were heading down the mountain, and begged me to take this photo of them.

A hardworking sheep dog takes a quick nap.

This was the host mother in the yurt on the jailoo (summer pasture) where I spent last night. Here she is milking a horse, which evidently takes a tremendous amount of skill. I didn't even know that people milked horses, let alone drank the stuff.

This is part of the family's herd of horses. They rome all over the surrounding hills.

Lunch: a noodle dish with carrots, mutton, and some kind of dairy product. It was flavored with dill. The family cannot afford to make frequent trips down the mountain, so almost all of their supplies were either brought up when they arrived in mid June, or were gathered up here.

After lunch, Chiqa, my other guide, and I took a hike up a neighboring peak.

The lake that was our destination for today, is on the other side of these mountains.

A view back towards Kochkor. We had come a long way in a day.

The dogs here were very friendly, and were very hard workers. This guy constantly ran up and down the hills protecting his flock.

During a rain shower, I went into the yurt, and got to see the mother and her two daughters preparing dinner. They're making some dumplings here.

Chiqa loves dogs.

The horses seem to enjoy life up here, when the stallions are not fighting.

What gives? I was promised an idyllic setting for my yurt stay.

This is the source of all the water that the family uses. The host mother and I went down here to fill up some buckets.

My abode for the evening is on the left. The dog slept outside.

These were the dumplings that I saw being made. Unfortunately, they were a little salty for my taste.

The horses ate dinner, too, only their meal lasted all day. Unfortunately, horses here only speak Kyrgyz.

They milk cows here, too.

They start 'em out early here. This little boy was no more than five years old, and he had just come back from rounding up the sheep when I took this photo.

The weather changes quickly in the mountains.

It got cold pretty quickly once the sun set.

When i woke up, the sheep were still asleep. Only a dozen or so were baying.

This is Lake Kul-u-Kuk, the destination for my two-day horse trek. The final two hours up here were hazardously challenging. By the way, the dog followed us all the way up from the yurt camp.

I can't imagine a much more picturesque site.

How do you say "giddy-up" in Kyrgyz?

Welcome to Bishkek! (insert comedic, but unintelligible Russian phrase here)

I flew over an endless series of rugged mountains on my way to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan this morning.  Although geographically close to Kashgar, my most recent destination in China, I exited the plane in a completely different world.  The biggest shock:  there are lots of people here who look like me, and they are all Russian.  Although somewhat annoying, I got used to the fact that everyone in China assumed that they could not communicate to me because I looked like a stupid foreigner.  Here, however, everyone assumes that I’m one of the countless Russians who stayed on after the fall of the Soviet Union.  There are pros and cons to this phenomenon.  For instance, it’s nice to not stick out like a sore thumb, but at the same time, there are many fewer people asking me if I need help reading a menu, etc.  Bishkek is a fairly cosmopolitan city, however, and I think that when I head out to the countryside tomorrow, I will experience a completely different situation.  It will also give me a chance to try to increase my Kyrgyz vocabulary from five words to at least twelve, instead of working on my Russian here.

If you are a connoisseur of decaying Soviet architecture, and enjoy lush tree-lined streets, then Bishkek is the place for you.  I spent the day wandering around town, and getting my bearings in the new country.  This is probably the most lush city that I have ever seen.  It comes as a bit of a shock, since I’ve been traveling through the desert since my first week.  Well, I’m certainly not in the desert now, which is just on the opposite side of the massive chain of mountains that make up most of the country.  There are probably four times as many trees in this city as people, which makes Bishkek a nice city for walking around during the day in the summer.  I don’t feel the need to stay here for any longer length of time, though.

I’m only spending one night here now, but will be back for another day before I head to Uzbekistan next week.  Tomorrow, I’m heading up beyond the mountains in the photo above, to the town of Kochkor.  From there, I’ll hopefully spend a couple of days trekking through the mountains (hopefully on horseback), and sleeping in shepherds’ yurts.  I’ll have to see what I’m able to organize when I get there, though.  At the very least, I’ll make my way up to the high pastures, hike around a little, and stay in a yurt at least one night.

I won’t have internet access until I get back to Bishkek on the 27th, so I’ll post all of the images from the mountains then.

Here are the photos from my first day in Kyrgyzstan (click to enlarge):

This is my authentic Soviet era hotel!

Staying in an old Soviet era hotel yields all sorts of interesting surprises. For instance, take a look at these elevator call buttons. Up means down, down means up, and while you're at it, just push both buttons.

This old casino is across the street from my hotel - a relic of a bygone era.

This is yet another installment in my series: Dental Offices of the World!

This old Soviet apartment block has an intricate mosaic design on its flank - somewhat of an anachronism.

Individuality and consistency.

I haven't seen this preponderance of concrete apartment blocks since being in Poland at the age of five, and I hardly remember that.

After walking around for way too long, I finally decided on this place for lunch. It specialized in southern Kyrgyz specialties from Jalal Abad, and diners sit on what look like beds while they eat.

My waiter and I had a lot of trouble communicating. I asked him, in the worst Kyrgyz he had ever heard, what he recommended on the menu. He pointed to several different words, and not understanding what any of them meant, I just picked the first one to which he pointed. Then, we had a long pantomime discussion about what I would have to drink (I won't even mention how he finally led me to understand the word for milk). I just selectively nodded and shook my head until he seemed satisfied. Ten minutes later, in addition to the nan that I had ordered, he returned with a pot of tea, a fresh yogurt drink, a one-liter bottle of coke, and a pitcher of fermented milk. Needless to say, my bladder was a little full for the rest of the afternoon.

This was the meal that I guess I ordered. It was delicious. I think it was sort of a stir-fried beef and vegetable dish that was very nicely spiced. I enjoyed it with my nan, and assorted beverages.

Bishkek has a whole slew of monuments to a number of wars.

I found this disturbingly rusty amusement park behind the Kyrgyz White House.

Every ride made the most painful noises of metal grinding on metal, including the rickety ferris wheel in the background. I decided against going up there for the view.

This is the old circus, that was supposedly a huge attraction during the Soviet era.

What a quaint university building!

Bishkek is full of these verdant parks and shady lanes.

The Kyrgyz decided that they just couldn't give up the old Soviet imagery.

All of the officials in this country wear comically large hats. You can barely see a couple of them here.

The summer sun traces long shadows in the countless parks in the evening.

Wouldn't you like to have your picture taken with this crew?

While many former Soviet states ritualistically tore down all of their old Bolshevik statues, the Kyrgyz couldn't bear to part with them. Why get rid of this perfectly good statue?

A remnant from an optimistically modern age.

This monument, and abstracted yurt commemorating victory in World War II, with an eternal flame, becomes both a great place to take wedding pictures, and a skate park.

Mountains, Goats, and Camels

Hello, from Urumqi.  The past couple of days have been exciting, but now I’m taking a much needed break for a night before my flight to Kyrkyzstan in the morning.  Urumqi is said to be the most land-locked city on earth (meaning that it’s further away from any ocean than any other city).  I’m not sure that it feels all that different, but when in the land of superlatives, it’s important to have something to distinguish one city from another.  It’s a bustling city of 3 million people that was really just a small town for most of its history.  I’m not going to have much of a chance to explore it today, but from what I could tell on the ride in from the airport, I won’t be missing too much.

My last two days in Kashgar involved a trip to the night market, where I took the plunge, and ate the goat’s head stew, and a trip up into the mountains.  Both events were memorable for different reasons, and I would have loved to spend more time in the mountains, but hope I never have to see goat’s head stew again.

We left early for the trip up the Karakoram Highway, the legendary route to Pakistan and the rest of Central Asia from Kashgar.  We made it as far as Lake Karakul, about 50 miles from the Pakistani boarder, which is up on the Khunjerab Pass.  According to my guidebook, “Khungerab” means “Valley of Blood,” and it was given that name because bandits would hide out in the rugged terrain, and murder the merchants who passed through in order to plunder the goods from their caravans.  We didn’t have any problems, but it did seem like a good spot to do some caravan plundering.  Unfortunately, after two days in Kashgar with stunningly beautiful weather, yesterday was hazy and foggy on the lower elevations, and we had no view to speak of for the first part of our trip.  We passed through a stunning gorge, but only got to glimpse it on the way down.  Up at the lake, though, it was mostly clear, so it was still worth the trip.

Here are all of the photos (remember to click to enlarge):

The Old Town is full of these market streets.

These meat pies looked pretty good, though I didn't try them.

Hhhmm. Everyone's an electrician.

Late for dinner.

The infamous goat's head stew. I took the plunge, and I would not recommend that you do the same. For 6 RMB, the proprietor of this stand gave me a quarter of a goat's head, with all it's associated anatomy, and a cup of the soup in which it was cooked. Out of respect for my vegetarian readers, I'll leave out the details, but let me say that the taste was fine, but as the cliche goes, it was a textural thing. The piece de resistance, the great delicacy that I won't name, was particularly troubling, and I'm a little shocked that I was able to keep everything down without making a scene. I will see more of this dish over the next couple of weeks, but not by choice. After I ate it, I quickly found a kebab stand, and thinking that a nice spicy skewer was the only thing around that would kill the taste in my mouth, I quickly bought one. It turned out to be all organ meat, a few different kinds, and was the last thing that I needed or wanted. Troubled, I found the closest watermelon stand, and quickly downed two slices.

For those of you who were wondering, this is how the nan is made. That hole just below the man's hand is the oven.

Our driver takes a break for a smoke during a photo stop. We would take full advantage of the 4-wheel drive that his jeep provided. The pavement simply ended in parts, and gave way to miles of unpaved bumpy roads.

In terms of awe-inspiring landscape, this highway beats any other that I've travelled.

After we ascended through a gorge, we came to this lake, which was surrounded by dunes. Down below, you can see a bunch of sheep. I have absolutely no idea on what they were grazing

We arrived at Lake Karakul, and made our way through a small yurt village. You'll notice that the yurt on the left has a satellite dish.

The lake has the most pristine turquoise water that I have ever seen.

 

Shepherds graze their livestock on the green fields around the lake.

There were tiny fish in this stream, which snakes down from the lake towards the valley through which we had travelled.

 

Finally, I captured a photo of a camel. This guy was part of a herd, which seemed pretty wild, and they were all shedding their winter coats. We found clumps of their hair all over the foothills surrounding the lake.

The mighty Pamir mountains are located to the east of the lake. They are formed at the junction of the Himalayas, Tian Shan, Karakoram, Kunlun, and Hindu Kush ranges.

I think this camel tried to eat me.

Alex, a junior at Harvard, joined me for the trip up here. Alex is studying genetics and linguistics, and is out here brushing up on his Uighur. We were able to split the cost of the journey, which was a big help.

It was a pretty steep ascent to the summit of this foothill.

I lugged this watermelon all the way up the ascent, and it made a good snack at the summit.

Uighur bagels make the best mountain food.

This area was dubbed "The Roof of the World" by British Explorers.

An incredibly hospitable Kyrgyz shepherd invited us into his hut (a seasonal concrete yurt) for tea, but he insisted that we eat and sleep there, too. It was getting cold and windy out, the tea was warm, and the thought of spending the night there was looking pretty good, but we forced ourselves to make it back to our waiting Jeep for the long trip down the mountains after just one cup of tea.

The shepherd who invited us to tea, and his hard-working family in their hut

This was a quick shot out the windshield on our descent. It turned out that the gorge through which we had passed on the ascent was bright red without the fog.

 

 

 

 

Update Coming Soon!

Sorry that I have not been able to update for the past couple of days. I have had trouble getting access to the internet, and was out in the mountains all day yesterday.

I’m at the Kashgar airport right now, waiting to catch my flight to Urumqi (back in the direction from which I came), where I will only stay one night. I’ll then be catching an early morning flight to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan tomorrow. My hotel in Urumqi has promised that they have internet in every room, but based on my recent experience, I will not hold out hope. If they do, though, I’ll post an update when I get there, which will have loads of photos from my trip to Lake Karakul.

Kashgar Almost Lives Up to the Hype

My second day in Kashgar was a pretty great day.  I spent most of the day exploring the Old Town, and I made it over to the Bazaar.  My major regret so far for this trip is that I was held over in Turpan an extra day, and I missed the Sunday Market here.  They have an enormous and world famous livestock market, where every kind of animal imaginable is traded.  I had planned on making it one of the highlights of my trip, and everyone I meet here has asked me why I didn’t go.  Maybe next time.

Last night, I also took a stroll to the night market in town.  Because China is all in one time zone, it doesn’t really get dark here until 11:30.  In a show of defiance, the locals operate on their own time, two hours later, but all of the banks, buses, trains, planes, and government offices run on Beijing Time.

I also managed to find someone to help split the costs of the trip into the mountains tomorrow.  We’ll be traveling along the legendary Karakoram Highway, the old Silk Road route to Pakistan.  Although there’s really nothing architecturally  or historically significant to see up there, I’m really excited to do a little hiking again, and to actually get close to the Himalayas.

Here are the photos from last night, and today (remember to click to enlarge):

This one gets me. China has been following Japan's lead, and putting in all of these special sidewalk pavers for the vision-impared. They seem pretty useless, however, if they lead the blind off a cliff.

Kashgar's night market is a little more legit than Lanzhou's.

No thank you. I think I'll skip the male reproductive organs for today.

I have seen more melons over the last few days than I knew existed in the world.

Would anyone like some meat?

This guy was making goat's head stew, a favorite in Central Asia, so I know I'll be seeing a lot of it over the next couple of weeks.

Watermelon everywhere. As many of you know, I have a really hard time passing up watermelon, but I haven't really enjoyed it here. It would be more refreshing if it weren't kept so darn warm and mushy.

This is in the heart of Kashgar. I'll reserve comments on this one until I've left the country.

The Old Town has little mosques tucked into corners.

This is the entry to the above mosque.

The Old Town has specialty craft areas, where it seems like every shop in a row is devoted to a particular product or technique. This is the lathe section of town.

This is how the food gets its kick.

Another mosque tucked into a corner.

These little alleyways can be found all over the Old Town.

Back by popular demand: Smiling Kids!

By the way, these kids (and the ones above) flagged me down, and begged me to take their picture. They run after me, shouting "Hello! Hello!"

In the summer, the doors to the homes are left open, and a simple drape is used to provide privacy.

You can find absolutely anything at the Kashgar Bazaar.

Yes, they do sell silk here.

I call this section of the market Hideous Carpet Row.

Why wouldn't you have your dental office open to the street?

A sign told me not to go up this way, but I pretended I didn't see it.

There was a similar sign here.

I caved. I know that gelato will win this battle hands down, but I couldn't resist. It was mediocre, but it did the job.

Finally in Kashgar

After the grueling trip that I mentioned in my last post, I’m finally settled into Kashgar, the city that I was most looking forward to visiting in China.  I’ve heard stories about how it is quickly being torn down by the Chinese government, and hoped to get here before it’s all gone.  I’ll be here for four days before saying “goodbye” to China, and heading to Kyrgyzstan.

Unfortunately, I learned today that my plans for making it to Kyrgyzstan have hit a bump in the road.  It seems that the boarder crossing is not going to be as easy as I thought it would be.  Without spending a fortune, it’s pretty hard for one person to make it across, unless that person wants to take a 24-hour bus ride over incredibly dangerous mountain roads (paved and not paved).  The more direct pass through the mountains that I was planning to take is officially closed to foreigners.  So, it looks like I’ll be flying to Bishkek, giving up my dream of doing this part all overland.  The flight is not direct, so I’ll be flying back near where I was two days ago before catching a connection to Bishkek.  Unfortunately, this also means that I will not be making it to Osh, the only Silk Road town in Kyrgyzstan.  Never fear, though.  I will still find a yurt in which to stay.

Without further ado, here are the long-awaited photos from the past few days (remember to click to enlarge):

The Train Ride (apologies for the excess of out-the-moving-train-window shots):

The first part of our journey was a gradual ascent into the foothills of the Tian Shan Mountains. It rained for most of the evening, which, I understand, was an exceedingly rare event.

This was the view out the train window in the morning.

We eventually moved deeper into the desert. I wish I knew the name of that peak over to the left. I know if must have been huge because it took about two hours for it do disappear from view.

This was my prison for almost 32 hours. For those who were wondering, yes, I was still sick, and yes, it was miserable. My head was pounding, and I was in and out of delirious consciousness for most of the ride. Fortunately, the other people in my area were able to amuse themselves by watching me sleep, or pointing at me, telling hilarious jokes, and laughing.

On the far distant side of this mountain range is Kyrgyzstan, my next destination.

The unforgiving Taklamakan Desert was made slightly more forgiving after two surprising days of rain.

At one of our many stops, a bunch of conductors got out and scratched their heads for a while.

This photo was taken around hour 28. There were 3.5 hours to go, and that felt like way too much time. Many people go off into the woods, or climb a mountain to find solitude. Let me tell you, if your really ever want to be truly alone, try taking a 1.5-day train ride in a cramped hard-sleeper car with woefully inadequate language skills. Of course, the fact that I read both "Notes from the Underground" and "Jude the Obscure" when not passed out from delirium probably contributed to this state.

Kashgar, Day 1:

Kashgar is one of those cities that I was really looking forward to seeing. I knew that the old section of town was gradually being destroyed by the Chinese, and there is not all that much of it left. I'm glad that I got a chance to see it, but I wish I had been here five years ago. In another five years, it might not be here at all anymore, or will just be a tourist attraction devoid of any context or function.

The Id Kah Mosque is one of the largest in China, and can hold 20,000 people at capacity.

The interior of the mosque is actually mostly garden. It is lined by these classrooms and studies on the perimeter.

The open prayer hall is approached through the garden.

A glimpse through the main gate

The domed area behind the main gate serves as a transition piece between the street outside, and the interior garden.

Believe it or not, I found more than a few dental offices in town.

I can't help but be drawn through these old alleyways.

Somewhat shockingly, bagels are a local specialty here. They're pretty good, actually - very chewy, and crispy on the outside. I'm not familiar with the actual origins of bagels, but I was pretty surprised to find them here. Are they a Silk Road import or export?

My lunch - hand pulled noodles with meet and vegetables. These might be becoming redundant, although this one was not as good as the others. The mutton was really tough.

The Old Town will soon look like every other Chinese city. I'm a bit torn about this because I have nothing against progress, but my problem is that it comes at the expense of culture (a culture completely distinct from that of the region's colonizers). There are signs all over town that say how well the Chinese and the Uighurs get along, and how much the Chinese respect the local culture. Tearing down the old city, and preserving small elements like the mosque, does nothing but homogenize the country while preserving neutered monuments. I guess the alternative might be something like Venice, though, a tourist attraction that is trapped in its own history.

I held myself back from exploring behind this door.

Internet Woes, Part II

The 31.5-hour train ride was brutal. There is nothing quite like waking up to the sound of a man slurping noodles 12 inches away from one’s ear, and then opening one’s eyes to see that said noodle slurper has been watching one sleep while enjoying his breakfast. This was one of many awkward situations on a ride that just wouldn’t end.

Unfortunately, I recently discovered that there is no internet access in my hotel room (although the opposite was promised). Evidently, this is the result of a new regulation from the authorities so that they can more closely monitor the local people. I will try to see if I can post pictures tomorrow, but I hold out little hope. Sorry for the lapse, and I’ll try to update as frequently as possible.