Archive for September, 2009


Week 27: Dushanbe

   Posted by: Rhona    in Uncategorized

Two nights of luxurious accommodation in Dushanbe were enough for us (besides, it was sending our daily accommodation budget through the roof!) so we headed north. Our constantly changing plan eventually ended up with us hiring a taxi to take us to Iskander Kul, a lake in the Fan Mountains, then on to Istaravshan the next day. Given the minibus from hell experience getting to Dushanbe I feel it’s only right to tell you about how fantastic this drive was. The 4WD was comfy, the bumps were doable and we had no flat tyres or engine problems. We felt nice and smug about our choice of transport up until the time we saw a very similar vehicle stopped because the wheel had snapped off the axle. Another new sight to add to the mental bank of weird stuff that never happens in Australia. Well OK maybe it does but certainly not on the average Sydney street, Tajik roads chew up cars and spit them out like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

Up at Iskander Kul we stayed in an old Soviet holiday camp which had a vibe similar to the sanatorium in Kyrgyzstan. Well past its glory days. The shower block was missing parts of the roof and the whole place had that run down look to it which I’m actually quite a fan of. Maybe I can travel the former Soviet bloc countries and hunt down these forgotten and forlorn Soviet relics before they completely turn to dust? The lake itself was pretty, a gorgeous turquoise colour, and we wandered around the shore as the sun sank in the sky.

The next morning we went for a short walk to a nearby waterfall on the river flowing out of the lake. I think I enjoyed the walk more than the waterfall itself (impressive as it was) because our self appointed guide fed us with berries picked from the trees en route. The oval shaped blue ones were super sour but you got used to it. The bulbous red ones were sweet and my favourite until I threw a whole handful in my mouth. When you do that they make the back of your throat feel like you’ve just eaten hot chilli or something, a really strange sensation. Round red ones with pits almost as big were good too but relatively rare. We weren’t the only ones feasting on berries, the guide pointed out a sizeable pile of bear poo and we spotted many more just like it. I selectively ignored the fact that this meant there was a sizeable population of bears in the area.  

Later that day we drove to Istaravshan, a town in the skinny part of Tajikistan as it squeezes up between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. In the guidebook it sounded nice and historic but there was a weird vibe to it. If you’ve ever wandered the streets in a dodgy border town then you know what I mean, it was as if everyone was sizing us up. The stares were nothing like anything we’ve had in Central Asia so far and any thought I had of coming back alone once Brett went to work quickly disappeared. The old town was as disappointing as the welcome, though we did have a nice time wandering around, gathering children like the Pied Piper of Hamelin and having tea at the house of an English teacher. Some of the historic buildings were nice but overall we weren’t sad to leave.

On the way back we were stopped for 3 hours behind a Chinese road crew who figured that the middle of the day was a perfect time to stop all traffic in both directions on the only road north to south in this part of the country. As the crew stopped for lunch (road still closed) I talked to one of the workers. He told me he hated it here, the people don’t do what they’re told and they cheat him because he’s a foreigner. Sounds like my impression of China. Oh no, he protested, Chinese people wouldn’t do that. The people here are terrible. As I looked up at a blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds he told me that the weather in Tajikistan is awful, and the food worse. He’d been here for two years and was headed home in a few months. As for how long it might be until we could pass through? “hard to say” “who knows”. He was the one in charge of making sure the traffic didn’t go onto the freshly laid asphalt and he achieved this by throwing hissy fits, screaming at people in Chinese and banging on cars that crept slowly forward, frustrated by the wait. Apparently we were lucky to only wait three hours; sometimes they stop traffic for seven or eight hours at a time.

Back in bustling Dushanbe (read with ironic sarcasm) we had a lazy day before Brett took his early morning flight back to work. At least this time it was a relatively short trip up to Norway. I’m still in Dushanbe and will hang out in Tajikistan for about a week. So far I have a ticket as far as Riga and Brett and I will meet up again in Cairo. Plans are flexible; especially because we have no idea how long the work stint will be this time. Istanbul, Cyprus, Stockholm and Helsinki are all possibilities for me before I meet up with Brett again.


Week 26: 6 months!

   Posted by: Rhona    in Tajikistan

After much charades and Pictionary action at the local taxi stand we managed to organise a car from Osh, Kyrgyzstan, to Murgab, Tajikistan. There wasn’t much in Murgab itself but the homestay we found was fantastic and we did a nice day hike up in the Pamir Mountains over Gumbezkul Pass. Overall the mountains seemed to be pretty rocky and barren which makes it hard to believe there are snow leopards lurking in the area. We did see a group of four ibex which was pretty cool, though they ran off before I could get overly close. Obviously seeing animals in the wild is cool but in a way I’m always disappointed that I can’t get as close as I can in a zoo. Another indicator that I’m a city girl I guess? Water in the hotsprings nearby was hot enough to boil a person and the hospitality of our guide’s family nearly made us miss dinner at our homestay completely. Most of the population in the Pamir mountains are ethnically Kyrgyz though apparently the “city” of Murgab is majority Tajik. In language and religion the Pamiri Tajiks are different from the lowland Tajiks who live in other parts of the country. Not that we were there long enough to see these differences, they’re just things we’ve read about or been told.

Driving from Murgab to Khorog wasn’t as spectacular as we expected, though towards the end as we followed a winding glacial river through a scenic valley we did wish we had the flexibility to stop. Khorog immediately impressed us, there were so many people on the streets and the fact that it has a campus of the University of Central Asia seems to give it a youthful, energetic vibe. Apart from the odd car on fire or terrible Indian restaurant.

From Khorog we headed into the Geisev Valley to do some hiking. The Aga Khan Foundation and MSDSP have helped set up homestays in the 3 villages by providing toilets, showers, mattresses, cooking gas and tea sets. Altogether in the valley there are 100 people in 15 houses, mostly in the first village which is 2.5 hours from the nearest road. The nearest road is still a long way from anything you could call a decent sized town, and even Khorog (1.5 hours away) isn’t that big. Ironically the isolation which could make life difficult at times is the thing that makes it such a nice place to hike for people like us. A man who spoke some English told us that many of the men went to Russia to work, and the CIA fact book says that nearly half of Tajikistan’s labour force works overseas. At the moment jobs are scarcer because of the financial crisis. It’s hard to believe that a place as remote as this feels the pinch when the global economy falters.

Back in Khorog we tried, with no luck, to organise a flight to Dushanbe as we’ve heard it’s a scenic/scary route through the mountain valleys. Instead we opted for a share taxi to the capital, though our choice of car ended up being a bad, bad mistake. Before we even left town we were going to petrol station attendants houses to wake them up and buy spare tyres. Not that it did us much good, within 5 hours we’d stopped twice to fix flats. At lunch time we had another flat and ate lunch looking across the river to Afghanistan. At 3pm we stopped to put more water in the radiator as it had a leak and tried to put a new fan belt in as the engine was steaming. Then the back right tyre exploded. The driver disappeared to buy fan belts and inner tubes and 3.5 hours later we were on the road again. Around 11 pm we stopped in a town and there was much discussion (none of which we understood of course) and we ended up sleeping in a gostinitsa where the floor in the squat toilet was caving in. 17 hours into what was meant to be a 10 hour trip we were half way, there was still 284km to Dushanbe.

In the morning our travel companions had disappeared. But we found them again near our still broken down car where we waited a few hours until the car was “fixed”. Half an hour later we had another flat and sat there for about 4 hours. Incredibly the driver was not carrying a pump and so we had to wait for someone to come past and lend us one. That and he had to keep begging inner tubes from people as we were going through them faster than he and the lackey could fix them. Unfortunately there wasn’t much traffic, possibly because it was the end of Ramadan, a celebration we’d hoped to experience in a big city. Around this time the engine started having real problems and we had to push start the car regularly. As it was getting dark we had another flat and a fellow passenger told us that we still had 200km to go. Fixed again we headed off and got another flat tyre a few hours later. With not much traffic going past it was looking like a night in the car, a perfect end to a perfect 6 month wedding anniversary. Suddenly the four other travellers bailed on us, hopped into a passing truck and left us with the driver, lackey and the broken car.

By 9am the next morning we were ready to go again and about 20 minutes later we had another flat. I think by this stage even the driver had had enough as he just kept driving, determined to at least get to the town in the distance before he let something so trifling as driving on rims stop him. The tyre was absolutely shredded and by the time we stopped there was a second flat. We had been travelling for 50 hours at this stage and by hour 50.5 we gave up on the minibus and hopped in a passing 4WD. By hour 55 we checked in to a super expensive hotel where we enjoyed luxuries like running water, a toilet that flushed and a hot water shower. All these have been relatively scarce in the past few weeks. We also took a break from local food and had some Mexican, sometimes the expat cocoon you find in capital cities can be oh so welcoming.

We spent today relaxing, wandering the streets of Dushanbe and trying to organise ourselves for Brett’s final week before he heads back to work on the 29th. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have felt a bit rushed, we could definitely have used a month in each but it was a good taster and if nothing else it was great to finally get to a small part of Central Asia. At the moment it looks like I’ll hang out in Tajikistan while Brett’s at work though apparently visa extensions are hard to get as the president’s daughter is out of town. She heads up the ministry in charge of these things and we’re told things don’t happen when she’s away. Nobody can tell us when she might be back. When Brett gets off the boat in early November we’ll meet up again in Cairo for some time in Egypt then north through the Middle East until he gets pulled back to work.

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Week 25: Cruising Kyrgyzstan

   Posted by: Rhona    in Kyrgyzstan

While in Karakol we went to the Sunday animal market, Dungan mosque and Russian Orthodox Church. The animal market was a lot better than I expected, having just visited the Kashgar version. There were plenty of animals spread over a large area of squelchy mud due to recent rains. Possibly more interesting was our first real opportunity since arriving in Kyrgyzstan to see lots of people in one place. There’s the most amazing mix of facial features here – Russian, Chinese, Mongolian, Middle Eastern and every possible mixture thereof. At times it’s difficult to tell tourists from modernly dressed locals, a weird experience after 5 years in China and Japan.

The Dungan minority are Chinese Muslims who fled Xinjiang in the 1880s after persecution there. Seems that’s been going on for a while, though I’m not sure if the Dungans are what the Chinese call Uyghurs, Hui or some other minority which no longer exists in China. The mosque had a weird design, very similar to some of the Buddhist temples we saw in Korea with soaring eaves and detailed carvings on the underside of the roof. The Russian Orthodox Church also had a very distinctive design. Built in 1895 of wood the exterior has details and flourishes galore and the onion domes are topped with Russian Orthodox style crosses.

From Karakol we headed along Issyk Kol Lake’s southern shore to the small town of Kadji Sai. There we planned on staying at the B&B run by the local eagle hunter but he wasn’t home. A friendly neighbour invited us to stay with him instead and we accepted. After a wander down to the choppy lake for some photos of the snowy mountain range on the other side we headed “home” to be entertained and fed fruit by his grandson, Erbol. As the two boys played soccer I was relegated to being the goalpost (by spreading my legs rather inelegantly). Sitting there eating apples freshly picked from the trees in the garden and listening to Russian music on the radio the grandfather had hung up for us I enjoyed the afternoon sun and realised that these are the moments that make travel great. We shared no language with the family but worked out that Erbol’s father and family were part of a traditional Kyrgyz music group that had played in America early this year. Not only that but they’d played in Montana, in the town where Brett’s sisters went to college. What a crazy coincidence!

Before we left Kadji Sai we did manage to see the eagle and meet his owner. I guess I’ve never really seen an eagle up close because I was surprised by how huge she was. At age 7 she had a 2m wingspan and was incredibly heavy. I know, I held her for a photo. Apparently at age 10 she’ll be set free. There was the option for a hunting show where a rabbit is let loose to be caught by the eagle but we’d decided not to do that as it just seemed cruel. As it turns out rabbits aren’t the eagle’s usual game, as the eagle hunter told us in sign language they’re a pain to catch and they’re too small to be worth the effort. In the summer he takes her out to hunt foxes and wolves.

Our next destination was Arslanbob though we didn’t exactly take the most direct route. From Kadji Sai we went west to Balykchy then down south to Naryn. There we were told that the best way to get to Arslanbob was to go northwest to Bishkek (6hrs) then southwest  to Arslanbob (8hrs). Silly of us to think that it would be possible to head directly west from Naryn and get to Arslanbob. Actually it would be possible on Tuesdays and Fridays when the bus goes but on other days there is no transport at all to Kazarman. So we decided to retrace our steps to Balykchy and head to Bishkek. There we finally found a car to take us to Bazaar Korgon, on the road to Osh, where we could find a car for Arslanbob. A young man in an oversized suit told us we could be there by 9pm. We should have insisted that he answered why he could do it in 6 hours when everyone else told us 8-11 hours. Before we left Bishkek he asked us if we had a map of Kyrgyzstan. Alarm bells were ringing. We’d just packed the back of the car with enough mattresses and blankets to open a hotel, a TV, boxes of household goods and an ironing board. His friend didn’t seem like an overly confident driver and they were using a plastic children’s map of Kyrgyzstan to navigate. Over a greasy meal of manti at 9pm Uzgen admitted that maybe we wouldn’t get in to Bazaar Korgon on time. No kidding. Maybe around 1 or 2am? At 3am we were driving around trying to find a) Bazaar Korgon and b) a place for Brett and I to stay. We never did find the latter so all 4 of us tried to sleep in the car for about 3 hours then the boys headed on toward Osh and we tried to find a share taxi that would take us to Arslanbob for a fair price.

Thankfully Arslanbob was more than worth the pain of getting there. Set in a stunning valley with a range of snowcapped mountains to the north it was an idyllic village full of fantastically friendly people. Interestingly enough 99.9% of the people there are Uzbek and have been for a very long time. Nearby is the world’s largest walnut forest where in a good season 3,000 tons of nuts are harvested. The harvest in a few weeks is only expected to yield about 10 tons because there was heavy rain in May which knocked most of the flowers off the trees. We were told that most people have kept some of last year’s harvest or have other ways to support themselves so they’re not in as dire a situation as they could be. We spent our time there wandering into the surrounding hills and looking down on the village as we played sho (a Tibetan game) and snacked on Haribo sweets. The  patriarch of our homestay spoke better German than I do, a relic of his time in the KGB.

In Osh, our final stop in Kyrgyzstan we’ve had some down time and explored the Sunday market. There are also some great restaurants near our hotel, simple places serving laghman, naan, chai, manti, shashlik and other staples of Kyrgyz cuisine. At the market you could buy just about everything except lipbalm, something I found hard to believe given the dryness of the climate. At the stalls selling baby products they also had a large selection of contraceptives and I’m not really sure how to read that. “buy these condoms or you’ll need these nappies” or “look at what happened last time you didn’t use these condoms, better stock up while you’re buying baby formula”.

We may be heading to Tajikistan tonight, or tomorrow morning depending on whether we can find two more people to share a taxi to Murghab. At the moment it looks like Brett will be heading back to work at the end of September but we’re not sure. If he does I may meet him in Georgia (the country, not the American state), Ethiopia or some other random place i can get cheap flights from Australia (if I go home). It’s all a little up in the air at the moment but we’re both looking forward to more mountains and fantastic scenery in Tajikistan. As for going overland from Tajikistan to Ethiopia, did you know that women can only get a tourist visa to Saudi Arabia if accompanied by their husband or brother? Scratch that one off the list, even if Brett does accompany me it doesn’t sound like a place I’d want to go…

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Week 24: Yurts galore

   Posted by: Rhona    in China, Kyrgyzstan

From Beijing the train to Urumqi took 40 hours but the time passed relatively quickly thanks to a book and some entertaining compartment mates. In Urumqi I was met at the station by my couchsurfing host for my first couchsurfing experience. We went to lunch then headed to the police station to register me as staying at his house for the night. When the riots happened at the start of July he hadn’t registered two foreigners staying with him because he didn’t know it was required. As a result he was demoted at work and doesn’t know if he’ll ever be allowed back to his original position. He’s Uyghur.

While I was in Urumqi he took great care of me and when he had to go to work the next day some of his friends took me around town and to the museum. On display are some incredibly well preserved (European looking) mummies from as far back as 1800BC! All the sections had English, Uyghur and Chinese captions except the modern history section which was lacking English explanations. Presumably because foreigners would ask awkward questions like “If Xinjiang has always been an inalienable part of the glorious motherland then why did the Red Army need to march in here with a buttload of tanks and German made machine guns in 1949?” or “was the plane crash that killed all the important leaders of East Turkestan as an independent country really an accident?”. And yes, much as I joke about it, “Xinjiang”, “inalienable” and “motherland” were indeed used in the same sentence.

Back in Kashgar I wandered around the old town some more, aware that by the next time I come back (assuming that I probably will) things may be very different. According to people I’ve talked to about 200 people were killed in Kashgar alone during the riots and the overall number of people killed across Xinjiang is more like 2,000 rather than the approximately 200 the government admits to. People I’ve talked to saw mobs of Han Chinese armed with whatever they could find and in search of Uyghurs and when they found their prey the Chinese army was slow/reluctant to do anything about it. It’s an impossible situation, you never know the truth but I know enough not to trust the official government sources. On the train in from Beijing I was asked by the guard if I was a reporter, I’ve never been asked that before in all the travels I’ve done in China. I wonder what would have happened if I’d said yes?

There was a mob of armed soldiers permanently stationed outside the main mosque in Kashgar and on Friday their numbers swelled to about 300. They did drills, brandished machine guns and generally made sure everyone knew who was in charge. Even with this show of “strength” and the 3 more trucks circling the streets (each holding at least 20 more fully armed soldiers) there wasn’t anything like the army presence I saw in Urumqi. There every street corner was like a tableau of Han Chinese weaponry. Of course I have no good photos as the army knows as well as I do that what they’re doing looks more like an occupation than “keeping the peace”. They weren’t keen on having anyone document it.

I don’t think anyone has an easy answer to the “troubles” but I think at least part of it stems from the fact that the Uyghurs aren’t being allowed to be a part of the “New China” that’s emerging. They’re discriminated against in the workplace and have more restrictions on them (in their own country) than the newly immigrated Han Chinese. If they could start seeing improvements to their lives, have new opportunities and start feeling the freedoms that come with economic stability, the way the Han Chinese are, then I’d say at least some of them would be happier with the whole situation.

Moving away from politics briefly… Brett joined me on the 28th and we planned on spending the 29th in the hotel room, sleeping, eating and watching movies. Suddenly there was a knock on the door and a staff member told us that the hotel was being closed and everyone had to leave. The police were here. I’m not sure what the official reason given was but the fact that it’s a Uyghur run place opposite the main mosque and the 60th anniversary of the glorious motherland is coming up may have something to do with it. This being China I would say the rat in the wall, the toilet that didn’t flush properly and the broken shower taps weren’t major problems.

On Sunday we went again to the animal market and the Sunday Market which were dusty and huge accordingly, as they were last time we went. We bought 2 prayer carpets and later I convinced Brett to buy 3 more. For a whopping US$5 per piece it seemed silly not to but maybe that’s just me? A frustrating afternoon at the Bank of China and China Post was how we spent the latter part of our last day before heading to Kyrgyzstan.

We went via the Torugart Pass into Kyrgyzstan, which is said to be one of the more difficult and temperamental border crossings. This is due to weather, Chinese red tape and all sorts of other random reasons. Our main problem was the abysmal car that we’d been supplied which finally managed to get us to the border 2 hours later than expected. It was only meant to be a 4 hour drive. By the time we limped to the pass there was a hole in the muffler and he had to start in first gear. Once it got going he couldn’t change gear. Admittedly some of the time was probably lost at the Chinese immigration where _every_ _single_ _one_ of our Xinjiang photos had to be checked. Twice. By two different officials. They then let us go without checking our bags at all, though they were very suspicious of our newish passports for some reason?

We were welcomed to Kyrgyzstan by a friendly man in a fantastic car. Breathe out… Our first night was spent in a yurt next to the Tash Rabat Caravanserai, an ancient ruin (though nobody knows how ancient) which was apparently a sort of hotel on an old branch of the Silk Road (though nobody is really sure of this either). It was a beautiful little valley and we were really impressed with the way the yurt stay was organised. We woke to a crisp morning and a thin blanket of snow before heading on to Naryn where we took care of some admin and headed out again. Further north in the mountains is a lake called Song Kol which was described as very pretty. It was nice but not amazing, though I may be biased by the world record in toilet trips I made the morning we left. Instead of heading further we stopped in Kochkor where I whined and Brett was sympathetic until my stomach bug passed.

From there we headed to the Karakol area, famous (amongst the few tourists that come here) for its amazing hiking. For the longest leg of the journey we were in a share taxi with a congenial driver and a colony of flies. The 5 of us (yes, that includes the driver) swatted, slapped at and killed as many as possible as we careened along the wet road trying to avoid the many potholes. Best advice for women coming to Kyrgyzstan? Pack a sports bra. Up in one of the valleys near Karakol is the Jeti Oghuz sanatorium, built in 1932 and seemingly unrepaired ever since. There were quite literally chunks of the building missing. The sign on the door of the reception office said that there was lunch break from 1-2pm and at 2:32pm on the dot a lady in a lab coat came back. By around 3:30 we were shown to our room where the toilet cistern was held together with sticky tape (it didn’t work). There was no water in the basin and about a third of the light bulbs worked but when we asked if there was another room we were told that this was the best room available. No wonder the share taxis all stopped to buy cheap vodka. Dinner was surprisingly good, as was breakfast the next day.

Yesterday we planned on hiking up the valley from the sanatorium but were turned back by rain. So far we’ve been less than impressed with the weather in Kyrgyzstan, though the Lonely Planet lists September as the best time of year to travel here. We’d planned to do more hiking up into some of the (apparently) spectacular mountains but the forecast says more of the same over the next few days so we may just head west and see how we go.

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Week 23: Kyrgyzstan

   Posted by: Rhona    in Kyrgyzstan

I made it to Urumqi, had an awesome time there with a couchsurfing host then flew to Kashgar which was as amazing as ever. Brett arrived, we got kicked out of our hotel because it was suddenly closed down, we ate ramadan food, went to the Sunday market and ate far too much watermelon. Now we’re in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan after crossing the Torugart pass and spending a night in a yurt next to Tash Rabat caravanserai.

First impressions of Kyrgyzstan are great – lots of mountains, nature and wide open spaces. We have about 2 weeks here before heading to Tajikistan. Updates may be a little sporadic but hopefully in Karakol (in a few days) I’ll have more internet time and electricity so I can use my laptop to work on photos. A shower would also be nice at some stage.