Silk Road 9 – The Dunes in Dunhuang

From Kashgar, the Silk Road splits in two routes that border the impenetrable Taklamakan desert: the Northern route and the Southern route. I took the Northern (easiest one) through Ürumqi and Turpan. Both routes merge again in the famous oasis town of Dunhuang. Getting there involved endless train journeys in crowded wagons: people on every open space. Two years ago I could book a cheap sleeper berth for longer journeys even 1-2 days before, but they are so popular now that it’s impossible to get one unless you book long in advance; even securing a seat isn’t that easy.

I left amazing Xinjiang and entered into not-less-interesting Gansu, a province that extends along the Hexi corridor, the only pass merchants could use to avoid the high mountains on both sides.

Dunhuang is the Silk Road town in China par excellence. It is a very nice, smallish, laid-back town. It is quite touristy though, although of course 98% of the tourists here are Chinese.

From a historical perspective, the most interesting site in Dunhuang are the Mogao Buddhist caves. Buddhism arrived here from India also following trade routes. Merchants would finance the building of these caves thankful for crossing the dreaded Taklamakhan. Monks inhabited the caves. Inside, there are beautiful painted Buddha statues, some small, some huge, as well as paintings in the walls and ceilings with religious motifs. This enormous complex that contains 735 caves is recognized as one of the masterpieces of Buddhist art in the world. No pictures allowed inside (so you need to go! :)).

Mogao Caves

The other big draw here, other than the town itself, is to explore the desert in an area with big dunes near the town, called Crescent Lake. The Crescent Lake itself is just a small lake in the desert which is supposed to look like a crescent moon. It is really popular with Chinese tourists, perhaps even more than the Mogao caves. Surely, Chinese and Westerners have very different tastes. The entrance ticket to this area is really expensive, completely overpriced. The problem is that all the desert area is fenced and you cannot just wander through the amazing sand dunes without paying the hefty ticket.

But a group of university students at my hostel had a plan. They wanted to get up before dawn, jump the fence far from the gate while still dark, and sneak into the complex. They invited me to join them. A Chinese guy who had studied in the US and spoke great English also joined (useful for translating the rest of them), as well a younger Chinese student who came separately. And so we did. It took us a long time to find a spot where we could possibly jump the fence and also quite a lot of difficulty to move up and down the sand dunes, but we finally arrived to the main area at the time the first tourists got there. Inside the complex, all kinds of touristy stuff like taking pictures with camels, etc., that Chinese tourists enjoy so much. This group of students were really nice to me while I was in Dunhuang, always offering me food or something, even though I couldn’t speak with them in Chinese.

Dune in Dunhuang

Crescent Moon

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Silk Road 8 – Kashgar’s Sunday Market

And so Benoît and I arrived before the weekend to Kashgar, definitely one of the highlights of my Silk Road journey.

The inmense region of Xinjiang is the homeland of the Uyghur, a Turkic ethnic group. They look more like Central Asian, a completely different race to the (Han) Chinese; they speak Uyghur, a language related to Turkish and written on an Arabic-based calligraphy; they are Muslims and eat very different food. In short, being among the Uyghurs, you don’t feel like being in China at all. However, the Chinese Government is encouraging more and more Chinese people to migrate into Xinjiang to consolidate the region, and therefore the population is now split: two utterly different worlds share the same cities. They generally don’t mingle, it is uncommon to see a group of friends with Chinese and Uyghur, nor do they eat in the same restaurants.

Old and new Kashgar

Kashgar is still a good place to appreciate the traditional Uyghur lifestyle. The old town, with traditional family homes, stands in stark contrast to the new Kashgar, with enormous Chinese buildings, broad avenues and a big Mao statue. In the centre of the old part lies the main mosque, and around it food bazaars and Uyghur shops, which according to Benoît, felt like the Middle East.

Kashgar is well-known for the Sunday Market. This colourful market is held every day, but Sunday is the big day. It is like taking a step back in time. Everything can be bought in this enormous bazaar: meat, spices, knives, jade, second-hand utensils, etc. (or a haircut!). No Chinese in sight, bar a few tourists camera in hand. Awesome, a true Silk Road experience!

Market

Need a haircut?

Only on Sundays, another beautiful market takes place: the livestock market. Thousands of animals are taken to the venue for sale. There are separate areas for cattle, sheep, horses, donkeys and so on. The potential buyers inspect the animals and negotiate directly with the owners. Again, 100% of the merchants were Uyghur. And again, I found the place truly fascinating.

Livestock Market

Livestock market

Animal instincts!

Deal!

I will finish this post with another curiosity about Xinjiang, regarding the time. Officially, this region shares the same time zone with the rest of China (Beijing time). But as it is thousands of kilometres west of Beijing, the official time is ridiculously at odds with actual solar time. Locals unofficially use Xinjiang time (mostly used by Uyghurs), which is 2 hours ahead of Beijing time (mostly used by the Chinese). Therefore, you not only have to ask “What time is it?” but also “Which time?” 🙂

Silk Road 7 – Hitchhiking towards China

Crossing the Pamir and Tien Shan ranges that separate China and Kyrgyzstan today was one of the most difficult stages for Silk Road travellers. And it continues to be. 🙂

There are only two border crossings: Irkeshtam and Torugart. For crossing at Torugart you need special permits, a Kyrgyz driver with special permits to take you through the no-man’s land and pre-arranged transportation from the Chinese border to Kashgar, everything to be arranged through a travel agency. A costly nightmare of red tape. Obviously, I chose the Irkeshtam option, despite the greater distance. I wanted to cross before the weekend (on weekends both borders close) to be in Kashgar for the Sunday Market (next post). The only public transport is a very uncomfortable bus going twice per week, but the cheapest and most comfortable option is to hitchhike.

The journey started in the city of Osh. Just after arriving from Bishkek, I started looking for a shared taxi leaving for Sara Tash. It was rather difficult to find one. All the drivers would insist there were no other passangers going, in their – hopeless – effort to make me hire a full car. But finally in a more out-of-the-way stand I found a driver heading for there. It took me more than half an hour to negotiate a fair price, probably the lack of competition pushed the prices higher.

In this trip through mountaineous roads I met Benoît, a French traveller who would travel with me for the next 3 days and share the effort of hitchhiking. And he was experienced: he had come hitchhiking all the way from France.

After a few hours we arrived at Sara Tash, in time for dinner. This is a very small village, spread over the intersection of two important roads: the one that goes to Tajikistan and the one that goes to China. We asked in one of the two “hotels” in town, and agreed to sleep there for the night and have dinner. The place was a family house with a semi-independent big room where they welcome travellers to sleep on the floor with some pillows and bed linen. A hole-in-the-ground toilet was outside with no shower. Later, 4 travellers from Israel, Canada and Poland who were heading for Tajikistan appeared and shared the room with us. Two tents were also laid in the garden by Swiss cyclists.

The village boasts some spectacular views of the mountains that separate this country from China:

The road to China

Our first driver

We decided to skip breakfast and start hitchhiking at 6 am believing that most Chinese trucks would cross early. No truck or car passed through the road to China for the first 40 minutes, and I was really freezing! Suddenly, the first truck appeared and stopped. We got on, and this nice driver took us all the way to the Kyrgyz frontier, for a small fee.

We reached the frontier at 9 am, exactly when it opens. There were many trucks stopped there but nothing seemed to move. I was hoping to find some breakfast or at least a hot drink but none of the houses marked as “bar” seemed to be open. So we continued to the frontier and were particularly welcomed by the guards, being the only travellers who were crossing on foot in such a remote location. We had to wait some time until a truck was inspected and ready for crossing, and the Kyrgyz officers put us into it.

In this second truck we crossed the no-man’s land, a really scenic road where we only saw a couple of trucks.

Trucks follow the scenic route to China

When we reached the Chinese frontier, we entered the immigration post and surprise: the only bus that links Osh to Kashgar twice per week was crossing at the exact same time. Then waiting, waiting, waiting. In total, crossing from the Kyrgyz frontier to the last Chinese immigration post was something like 8 hours. We handed our passports to the officer and had our baggage thoroughly inspected. He took all my clothes one by one, opened all my medicines and stuff and asked me what each thing was. Then he took my books and looked at them, and he started watching the videos in my iPad (in Spanish). Apparently, he didn’t see anything offensive in my belongings, but one of his colleagues noticed my Lonely Planet guidebook. He knew that the map on the first page did not include Taiwan as part of China and therefore he had to tear it out from the book. I tried to convince him to strip only Taiwan (which is not included in the guidebook anyway), but after consultation with his superior, he tore the whole map.

A sign informed that the actual immigration post had moved something like 125 km down the road, and that people crossing on foot should join a truck so as “not to get lost”  and because “truck drivers know the way” 🙂 But the high-ranking Chinese officer ordered us to get into the bus instead. The bus conductor asked for a lot of money to take us to Kashgar (the full fare from Osh to Kashgar, even though we had covered most of it), and we refused. The officer got really angry but in the end he gave in and ordered a cheerful young officer to take us to a truck, while saying “here, no money, no money!”. The trucks were waiting there for ages, but this one immediately got permission to proceed.

Our third truck driver that day told us he was neither Chinese nor Kyrgyz, he was a Uyghur. Except for the last part, the approx 125 km were mostly empty space, just like the no-man’s land, occupied by some of these camels. There was also a checkpoint in between.

When we got to the new immigration post, the same story: waiting, waiting, more waiting, full baggage inspection item by item and, finally, we got our passports stamped and could proceed. It was late-afternoon, and we hadn’t  had breakfast yet. There were no moneychangers, so we had to rely on a few yuan I carried from a previous trip.

There was still an hour or more to Kashgar by car. There was only one taxi driver outside the border, offering his services to us insistently. But we had already come a long way to here, so why not continue hitchhiking?? We walked to what seemed a main road and eventually found a driver who took us to Kashgar for much less than the taxi fare.

Silk Road 6 – Kyrgyzstan

The first impression when entering Kyrgyzstan is that nothing has changed much: Uzbek people all over Fergana. Actually, boundaries in Central Asia are nonsense. The frontiers were drawn by Stalin when they were not intended to be national bordes. Tajiks inhabit Samarkand in Uzbekistan, while Uzbeks live in Fergana Valley in Kyrgyzstan and so on. To fully understand the region, you need to forget official boundaries and think in terms of the other, more real frontiers which are not drawn in any map.

The road trip to to Bishkek was enjoyable. I met a colourful local family and two young students who were back from the military academy in Moscow and could speak some English.

Bishkek also has the looks of a USSR capital. Broad avenues and monumental buildings fill the city centre. Russian is the language of choice here over Kyrgyz, and there’s a sizeable Russian population.

Bishkek

The rest of the country is eminently rural in stark contrast to metropolitan Bishkek. The most visited part of the country is the area surrouding huge lake Issik-Köl. On the Northern shore there are some resorts catering to wealthy Kazakhs, as this is the spot that most resembles a beach town in thousands of kilometres.

To the East of the lake stands Karakol. This city is the base for most western travellers, due to the fact that there are countless opportunities for trekking in the surrounding mountains. Actually, most western travellers in the country are experienced mountaineers or at least nature-lovers.

But there are also a couple of interesting sights in Karakol. One of them exemplifies the great exchange and merging of cultures, religions and peoples along the Silk Road. This mosque in an Islamic Central Asian country is built in the style of a Chinese temple, merged with Islamic features such as a minaret and crescent moon. Interesting.

Chinese Mosque in Karakol

Some Kyrgyzs still preserve a half-nomad lifestyle. They go up in the mountains with their livestock in the summer and back when it starts to feel really cold. You find yurts dotted in the countryside in many parts of the country.

Yurts

Market

You don’t have to go far in Kyrgyzstan to find one of the many traditional markets that still give a commercial flavour to this once important stop in the Silk Road. From spices to vegetables, fruits or cheap clothes, everything can be bought in the bazaars across the country.

Merchant in Kyrgyzstan

I recommend all of you to visit Kyrgyzstan. Far from the package tours radar, it preserves a sense of authenticity and tradition that fascinates most travellers.

Silk Road 5 – A journey through Uzbekistan

You’ve seen enough mosques, so today I’ll focus on a few curious situations I came across while travelling in Uzbekistan.

Change for 100 $

The first thing you do upon arrival in Uzbekistan, like anywhere else, is changing currency. You need to go to the black market, because official exchange rates are ridiculous. However…Beware! You can’t just go with a wallet, since the wad of banknotes you’ll receive will be really bulky. For a 100 US$ note you’ll get about 380,000-385,000 som. The Government doesn’t print notes of a higher denomination than 1,000 som, so you’ll pack at least 380 notes. Take a bag!! 🙂

Most travellers go to the capital, Tashkent, sooner or later. It is a city laid on a Russian style, with broad avenues and monumental buildings. It isn’t considered one of the “jewels” of the country (Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand). Nevertheless, many travellers stay there for some time while sorting out their next visas for Central Asian countries, such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, China or Iran. If you stay in one of the two guesthouses that cater to backpackers you’ll hear loads of terrible stories about this, because…getting the visas for Central Asia is a nightmare!!

The city is very policed, you find army officers everywhere. Sometimes they will ask for your passport or to open your bag. This is a result of the policies by current president Ismail Karimov, who’s been in power since USSR times. He is better known in the country as “Papa” (the father of the country, self-explanatory).

Tashkent

Most interesting in Tashkent are some of the markets, very colourful and traditional as elsewhere in the region:

Chorsu market

Train “Talgo”

The best way to travel around the country is by train. I had to take my first steps in Russian and Uzbek to buy the train tickets for the day in the week when I actually wanted to travel :), and also for not being saddled with the tourist train, much more expensive.

Those are sleeper trains, quite comfortable, I even managed to get some sleep. But for the first couple of hours I was really busy. As I was the only foreigner in the carriage, everybody wanted to strike a conversation with me. But since I don’t speak Uzbek or Russian and they don’t speak English, communication was rather difficult. They asked me: “don’t you speak Russian?? (surprised) Why don’t you speak Russian??!!” 🙂 That question would’ve been funny in my country, but here Russian acts as lingua franca for international communication in the region, much more than English.

I could also realize how famous my country is in the region. Of course, that is only because of football. As soon as I mentioned my nationality , they started crying: “Spain champion Europe!! Barcelona, Real Madrid!!” “Which city are you from, Barcelona or “Real Madrid”??” [sic] 🙂

Backpacker hangout. Full of cyclists!!

In Central Asia one of the most interesting things is meeting other travellers. They are totally different to those you find in more popular regions such as Southeast Asia or South America. They tend to be older (no 18-year old boys on a gap year), really interesting and with an amazing travel experience. Most of them travel for months across the region. Some Asians but most Europeans, many of them French as apparently the Silk Road is a popular concept there. What striked me most was the big percentage of cyclists. Some of them had come cycling from Belgium, Switzerland or Holland, what seems to me no mean feat.

Since there are not so many travellers and just a few hostels in the region, eventually you come across the same people criss-crossing the region. Someone you met in Samarkand could well be two weeks later in Kyrgyzstan, or someone you saw in Bukhara could be next to you in the queue for a visa in Tashkent. It is somewhat familiar, with everybody sharing their experiences.

Problems on the road

Travelling to the East of the country, towards Fergana Valley, there are no trains or buses, and shared taxis are the only option.

I couldn’t tell whether it’s my bad luck or the usual thing, but we would always have a flat tyre. We would also stop frequently for buying watermelons, cheese or anything else along the road, so you need to take it easy. As it was Ramadan at the time, at sunset we would stop for breaking the fast with a big dinner (even though many Muslims here are not strict with Ramadan).

I arrived to Kokand, the first important city in Fergana and former capital of the Khanate. This region is known for being more conservative and Muslim than the rest of the country.

Khan’s Palace, Kokand

The next cities in my route were Fergana and Andijon (infamous for the massacre of anti-Karimov Islamic protestors in 2005). After that, I crossed the frontier to Kyrgyzstan and I continued my journey through the Fergana Valley. I’ll tell you about that in the next post.