Archive for the ‘Kyrgyzstan’ Category


Weeks 60 & 61: Pecha Kucha

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Seeing as I put the effort into selecting 20 photos to present at Pecha Kucha in Muenster I might as well share them with anyone reading my blog – I’m looking at you Nan! It wasn’t easy to select only 20 photos from the past 61 weeks of travel. A quick count says I’ve taken just over 11,000 since the start of 2010 alone, and I don’t want to admit how many I’ve taken in total over this trip. Let’s just assume it was many more than 20. So below are what I think are some of the best photos I’ve taken this trip, though some of them were chosen more for the story than the artistic side of things.

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Week 52: Statistics

   Posted by: Rhona Tags: , , ,

A year into the trip I’ll share some statistics about what we’ve been spending our money on. Brett, the nerd that he is, has kept track of every yen, somani, kroner, hryvnia and lei that we’ve spent. Not only that but he’s broken down our spending into various categories – accommodation, transport, food, sightseeing, visas, communication and misc. It seems like a lot of work but actually the data he’s put together is really interesting. When we were feeling a little low on cash it was good to know how long we could sustain our lifestyle given the reserves we had left. Besides, it’s just good to know where the money goes. I’ll give a quick summary of costs in this post – I know it’s not for everyone, but if you’re interested read on…

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Week 52: Highlights

   Posted by: Rhona Tags: , ,

Seeing as we’ve been on the road for a year, I feel it’s time to write about some of the highlights. Some of these were written about when they happened, but some are little things that didn’t necessarily register as worthy of a mention at the time. In no particular order:

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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…

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.