A Travellerspoint blog

Tashkent Revisited

And do you have a horse?

This is not first time we have been to Tashkent. We were there is 1973, in the middle of the night, on a flying visit – quite literally, for our stopover was courtesy of SAS, just for a few hours. We remember walking across the tarmac from the plane to the airport buildings, soldiers with guns at the ready, the old green wooden structures from the 1930s, the false laughter of the Soviet female officials planted in the corridors, the colourful Russian dolls in the airport shop that wouldn’t open for a plane load of would-be buyers, eager to go shopping. Fleeting and negative impressions.
Even spending 2 or 3 days in a city provides one with a superficial and sanitized view which doesn’t include looking much beneath the surface. Nevertheless central Tashkent today is a modern city with wide boulevards, large treed parks, fine fountains and statues, the latest hotels, and interesting historical features, though not on the grandeur of Samarqand. In 2009 it celebrated its 2200 year anniversary, indicating its age and place as one of the major Silk Road caravan crossroads. It has had its ups and downs, destroyed by Genghis Khan in the 13th century and prospering in the 14th century under Timur or Tamerlane, now elevated to national hero status. Today there is a legacy of ugly Soviet style apartments and industrial buildings in parts of the city, but the centre is very attractive.
Central Asia as a whole is part of the Silk Road, from where traders and travellers went to India, China, Turkey, Afghanistan and Persia with their goods. There are places here where you can capture some of the silk story, not in a museum but in a living working traditional factory. We visited one such place the day we drove from Fergana to Tashkent, in the town of Margilon. It is quite a business finding such places recommended in the guide books, when you can’t speak the language, few locals can communicate in English and signage is almost non-existent. However perseverance pays off – a cigarette offered to an elderly man who comes in the car to show the way (he leads us to the museum and not to the factory, but never mind), and then verbal thanks to a young lady from the museum who walks us several blocks there. It was worth the trouble.
I purchased a handmade silk scarf which seemed to entitle us to the free tour – soaking of the silk worm cocoons, unravelling the silk thread from the cocoons, tying up the strands, dyeing and weaving – in fact everything except seeing the live worms, which don’t arrive for another month. It was all done in the traditional manner with no electric power, very similar to the process of fifteen hundred years ago.
On the ancient Silk Road fuel for the camels was a comparatively simple matter – any green fodder would do. For Bilbo and Heehaw, it is not quite so easy. They are diesel fuelled vehicles of which there are very few here. Consequently it is difficult to find diesel to purchase – such an easy matter in China. Twice we have had to resort to buying diesel by unusual means - poured into the fuel tanks from plastic containers from the boot of an old Lada or syphoned from the tanks of a truck – by the truck owner who took pity on these poor foreigners who couldn’t find diesel to buy.
The truckie stumped Martin by asking him several times if he had a ‘horse’. No, Martin didn’t have a horse at home and he certainly wasn’t travelling by horse. But the truckie persisted: did he have a ‘horse’? Eventually when the truckie produced a piece of pipe, Martin realised he was being asked, not a horse, but for a hose. Such are the language hitches on the Silk Road.
I mentioned the grandeur of Samarqand earlier, probably the architectural highlight of the Silk Road and made famous in the poetry of James Elroy Flecker: ‘We travel not for trafficking alone . . . we take the Golden Road to Samarkand.’ Blue domes sparkle in the brilliant sunlight, capping mosques and mausoleums, huge madrassas stand on large open squares decked with dazzling tiles and beautiful blue ornamentation, and more modern statues of Timur and his grandson Ulugbek embellish the city. We took a walking tour with a guide for about four or five hours – well worth the $35US for the four of us, for it meant we were conducted around with no hassles to the major sites and were given as much history as we could possibly retain. Back home we had all researched some of the background but it’s not like reading parts of English or even European history – unfamiliar events, places and people all need to be repeated a number of times before they become familiar. The temperature rose to about 38 degrees by early afternoon, so walking in the shade of tree lined streets was always the option where possible. Very hot, but certainly easier to endure in this dry heat compared with our humid Tauranga summer weather.
Before I close this blog, I must comment on our lodging. In China, in the main, we had lovely hotels of 3 or 4 star rating, at the insistence of China Travel Services. It was great to arrive at clean pleasant accommodation after a long day driving. Here in Central Asia, the hotels are more varied, with more personality and individuality. I described the Sary Tash Guesthouse in the last blog. Since then we have been housed in a city hotel as well as in several small pensions, family run and with at least one member speaking reasonable English. In Bukhara we are in an old madrassa that has been restored and made into a small hotel – I think our attic like bedroom was once a student’s accommodation. It all adds colour and interest to our Silk Road journey.

Posted by Silkspin 08:07 Comments (0)

On the Roof of the World

Or to as near to it as we are likely to get

China is now a memory and we have left the land of our sojourn for the last month. Xinjiang has proved most interesting. People kept saying to us: if you haven’t been to Xinjiang, then you haven’t been to China, and if you haven’t been to Kashgar, then you haven’t been to Xinjiang. Certainly it gives one a different view of China – much less crowded, a land where the sun shines and you can see blue sky, with barren deserts and green oases. Together with Gansu, the provinces form the ancient Silk Road, a highway now filled with modern cities and modes of transport. Kashgar seems very middle eastern, very Moslem, vibrant, friendly and fascinating.
In some ways coming to Kashgar felt like coming to the edge of the world – so far from anywhere and definitely so far from home. But perhaps, it would be truer to say we were at the centre of the world, for the city developed on the crossroads of the northern (our journey) and southern Silk Road routes around the Taklamakan Desert over a period of 1000 years.
Before we finish with China, Bilbo has a confession to make – he and his driver nearly got a speeding fine which could have cost 500 yuan, about $100NZ. We were driving on a wonderful new road through an amazing mountain pass in Xinjiang and Bilbo accelerated to pass a truck, right where a traffic camera was in operation. Consequently, he and Heehaw were pulled over in the next town, to be presented with the incriminating photograph. There followed a half hour discussion with the drivers, our guide and the gentlemen in uniform in a small building at the side of the road, followed by a reprieve for Bilbo and a warning for his driver, who fortunately was a foreigner and could therefore be excused.
We left Kashgar at 5am, local time, to cross the border two hours away into Kyrgyzstan via the Irkeshtam Pass. (The province of Xinjiang operates on two times, Beijing time, the same for all China, and Xinjiang time, two hours later.) Our goal was to be first in the queue for the passport checks, of which there are three for China and three for Kyrgyzstan. Consequently it is a long process requiring much patience. Yes, we were first in line – except for the hundreds of trucks waiting, and fortunately we were able to drive right pass them all. Goodness knows how long they wait there; it can’t benefit the economy. After about two hours we were driving in Kyrgyzstan with a new guide for our two days there.
We were truly blessed with the most fabulous of days – brilliant blue sky and clear air to view the snow covered mountains of the Pamir Range, the roof of the world, so magnificent in their white glory. The roads through the mountains, dusty and gravelly in part, are not as bad as we had been led to believe – I think the main road was renewed about two years ago and they were free from snow, so driving was not too difficult. The mountain peaks viewed from the passes invited many photo opportunities, one after the other. Marco Polo travelled in this area as did many other Silk Road voyagers and today numerous trekking groups climb Lenin Peak which our guide told us was the tallest of the peaks (though the Lonely Planet places it second).
We stayed the first night in the small town of Sary Tash in a simple farming home: animals in the back yard, pit toilet, no shower, mattresses on the floor; however the food was good with no repercussions, and the hospitality warm. The Pamir range, though 50 kilometres away, filled our view from the yard, the warm weather allowing us to sit outside and enjoy the outlook. We drove 30 km along the road that would eventually lead to Dusanbe in Tajikistan (remember Linda Topp on NZ television), to get a closer view of Lenin Peak. A local family invited us to have bread and yogurt and offered Martin a ride on their horse – farming families here often own horses, using them to tend their sheep and cattle. A most memorable part of the journey.
Sometimes we are tempted to think we are so adventurous and brave driving from Hong Kong to Europe, but at the border crossing from Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan we met three young women, an Aussie, a New Zealander and a Belgian, who really deserve these epithets. They are cycling the journey through Central Asia and free camping in tents along the road. Two of them had begun in Kashgar and cycled over the ranges and passes that we had driven. We listened to them with admiration and astonishment, - but are grateful for Bilbo and Heehaw, our trusty camels and the pleasant hotels we come to most nights night.

Posted by Silkspin 06:41 Comments (0)

More along the Silk Road in China

Markets, Museums and Meals

We are now Kashgar, our final stop in China. We have to remind ourselves it is Easter Saturday, as there are no chocolate and marshmallow eggs or hot cross buns or special church services here. It is nearly a month ago since we landed in Hong Kong and the days are racing by too quickly.
We have enjoyed the many types of markets in China. Most towns have streets stalls where both fresh produce and dried fruit and nuts can be purchased. We usually buy fresh fruit – bananas, oranges, pears – as part of our lunch each day and mostly the people are intrigued to be selling to foreigners. Others gather round and watch the transaction.
Those of you who are related to us and who usually get a present at Christmas can expect to receive a Chinese key ring with attachments for your belt. Martin has started a collection of them, purchasing them in towns along the way mainly from small shopkeepers in dark little shops that sell key rings and all else including the kitchen sink. The first one he bought was the best and since then he has been fruitlessly searching for their like, but still adding to his collection.
The cities of Xinjiang (the province where Kashgar is) usually have night markets where the local people set up food stalls towards evening and sell a whole variety of both Chinese and Uyghur food. Stall holder seems to have their own tables where you sit and consume the purchased items after you have chosen them and they have been cooked. The stoves are half pipes with a chimney at one end – the stall holder arrives with hot charcoal in a bucket, ready to burn, and veges & meat, cut and skewered ready to cook. The food is good! In the main, anyway.
We came across a different type of market a few days ago, near the city of Jiuquan – a livestock market, a mainly male affair where sheep, goats and cattle were haggled over and purchased. We wandered among the small trailers (on the back of bikes and tractors) where farmers had their prized livestock, taking photos and enjoying the noise and activity. Tomorrow we go to the famous Kashgar Sunday market which promises to be a treat in store.
Museums are not all the run-of-the-mill type and can prove very interesting. Part of the Mao story is honoured with a memorial on the way to the city of Lanzhou. On the Long March, Mao and his comrades stayed a night in the humble home of a farmer which has been preserved with an account of the history of those days. A substantial new shrine to Mao has recently been added beside the rural mud buildings but lacks the historical authenticity of the farmer’s home.
As New Zealanders we found the museum to Rewi Alley well worth the visit. He came to China in 1927 and lived there 60 years, during Mao’s rise to power, the cultural revolution and the years beyond. With George Hogg, he established a technical school at Shandan near Zhangye, training young Chinese in trade and farming skills. Numerous historical artefacts which he collected are in the museum along with a record of his story. We also visited the school, much larger now that in his day and saw photos of his life.
The Hexi Corridor is a narrow neck of land through the province of Gansu and forms an important route along the Silk Road with Mongolia to the north and Tibet to the south. There we visited the Jiayu Pass Fort, in ancient times the last stronghold of civilisation, but no longer true with all the modern oasis cities across neighbouring Xinjiang. Built in 1372, its purpose was to control the corridor and territories beyond, the extensive walls, watch towers and courtyards making an interesting visit.
Hospitality is still a feature of the Silk Road. After a visit to the ruins of the ancient Uyghur city of Gaochang near Turpan, we stopped for a ‘photo shot’ (an all too frequent reason to stop) of a picturesque house set in the fresh new greenery of grape vines. The woman of the house invited us in to hot tea, traditional flat bread, salad and green raisins, and with the help of Wahap, our guide, we were able to exchange some communication about daily life with her and her husband. It is these little unexpected experiences that are among the best part of being a traveller in someone else’s country.

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Posted by Silkspin 08:06 Comments (2)

Following the Silk Road

Camels Past and Present

It is now a week since we left Xian, the official start of the Silk Road. Several days before that, we went through the city of Nanchong, which could lay claim to being the real beginning as it was famous for its silk which was sent to Xian and on towards Europe, with mulberry trees growing well in the surrounding mountains. Anyway Xian gets all the cudos and has a fine statue at the western exit to celebrate its importance to the Silk Road. We had the obligatory photo stop there to mark our venture onto the famous route.
As one journeys westward via Pingliang, Lanzhou, Zhangye, Jiayuguan, Dunhuang, Hami and Turpan (our night stops) one is full of admiration for those ancient travellers with their camel trains and goods of silk, porcelain, spices, paper and so on. Many of the towns would have been oases of green with water available, as they are today, but in between the territory is dry, rough dusty wind-swept desert, with areas where not a plant would grow. Ruggard mountains intervene between flat plains that roll out to the distant horizon. A most inhospitable environment.
Unlike them we travel on modern motorways or rough older roads, with the ever present new road building alongside. We may be going through the desert but we are seldom alone with nature – oil rigs, windmills, 2 or 3 rail tracks, road works for a new motorway, and trucks by the hundreds. Our constant companions are the camels of the 21st century – huge trucks, laden high, wide and long with goods going from east and west. Driving a NZ vehicle with the steering wheel on the right necessitates Martin asking me if a truck is approaching before he risks entering the left side of the road to pass.
It is early spring at present and trees are in blossom or still in their winter bareness. As we move west, the fresh green of new foliage is evident. At Turpan we have hit the heat, it being the hottest place in China, but still quite pleasant in mid-April. Grape vines trail over domestic courtyards and leafy trees line the urban streets.
Ideas and religions also travelled along the Silk Road. Buddhism came from India from the 1st century AD when a Han emperor sent for monks and Buddhism scriptures, and much later the famous Chinese monk Xuan Zang journeyed to India, returning with writings which were then translated. Consequently there are numerous Buddhist sites that the tourist can visit along the Silk Road; we went to the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang where we were shown through 9 caves with their ancient paintings and Buddha statues. Various intrepid European explorers ‘stole’ a number of scrolls and paintings in the 19th and early 20th centuries and they now reside in western museums, much to the chagrin of today’s Chinese.
Nestorian Christianity also came to China via the Silk Road. Under the Tang dynasty from the 7th to the 9th century there was a thriving Nestorian community, recorded on a stele in Xian, the former ancient city of Chang’an. It lasted about 200 years until the then emperor persecuted foreign religions, both Christianity and Buddhism, causing their decline. We viewed the Stele Museum from the city walls in Xian as we bicycled along, Martin and I on a tandem and Maurice by himself. Great fun!

Posted by Silkspin 03:28 Comments (0)

Up Close and Personal

On being female and dealing with loos

I will excuse you if you decide to miss out this section of the blog, but when you are a ‘well-bred’ western female with geriatric knees, the need to use squat loos plays heavily on the mind. At home I have an ensuite and a bidet (a bit spoilt, I hear you say) so I am used to my home comforts. The Lord provided men well to cope with the use of eastern privies, but I’m not so sure about us women.
Imagine Anne and I side by side in the women’s side of a service station toilet stop. If we stretch out our elbows we can touch each other. Our feet are firmly planted each side of the pit beneath each of us (you can see the rubbish dump and the area beyond) – we don’t want to fall in – and we are both squatting. I won’t bore or embarrass you with more details. At least this time we are on our own, as the previous day we had a local woman in the next door pit!
Oh, the joys of travelling out back! So far the hotels in China have all had western style toilets, but we look forward with a certain amount of trepidation to the Stans. One thing is that it provides Anne and I with a frequent subject of conversation – the state of cleanliness or otherwise, whether the flush works (it often doesn’t), the other patrons. At least the Chinese don’t charge you to use their public loos.
Most public amenities at tourist places are Asian style squat ones and are usually clean. In Xian we found that cubicles with a wheelchair sign on the door would be western style – there was actually no way you could fit a wheelchair in, but they provided us well. Since Xian, disabled toilets have been locked – for some reason we are not allowed access to them.
This nation is wonderful at building modern motorways and city skyscrapers, but when it comes to plumbing and maintenance of waterworks, things seem to fall down. Any unemployed NZ plumbers looking for work? Again and again we have found the road side service stops have hand basins but no running water with which to wash your hands. Oh, the joys . . .
Anne and I have both come to China armed with a shewee each. If you don’t know what a shewee is, google it and expand your education. They do work – the secret is to relax enough to make their use worthwhile! On the subject of men and toilets, on the one occasion that Martin has had to use a squat loo, he couldn’t decide which way to face, and I am fairly sure he was facing the wrong way!
Next time I promise to be much more dignified.

Posted by Silkspin 03:37 Comments (0)

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