Altai ExplorerTour Mongolia’s wide open spaces and experience Siberia’s spectacular flower show on this unique East Asian tour.
Murray wrote in his blog about Iran – Qazvin in particular – Its probably another of those spots to keep ‘mum’ about in case a horde of 21st century invaders rolls up in a fleet 48 seat coaches. Well no one kept ‘mum’ about Xian, We were one of a huge fleet of buses heading out on the motorway to the Terra Cotta Warriors – Chinese tourists have arrived en masse, bolstering the numbers of Western tourists who have been coming here since the Buried Army was discovered by a farmer in the 1970’s.
Xian – Ancient Chang An (Heavenly Peace), one time centre of Chinese civilisation, capital of the Tang dynasty and the largest city in the world during the peak period of silk road trade. The city has an intact wall and a history that encompasses over 1000 years and twelve Imperial dynasties. It also has the fabulous buried army of terracotta warriors.
The Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses are the most significant archaeological excavations of the 20th century. In 246BC, when he ascended to the throne at the age of 13, Qin Shi Huang, later the first Emperor of all China, commenced work on his mausoleum. It took 11 years to finish. The Warriors are located in three huge vaults. We also visited the Museum where the most spectacular exhibits are the half size models of two bronze chariots with horse and coachman.
We’ve visited many mosques on our journey across Central Asia so it was fitting to conclude our journey with a visit to the Great Mosque of Xian. This is the oldest and one of the most renowned mosques in the country, founded in 742. It is still used by Chinese Muslims (mainly the Hui people) as a place of worship and apart from the Dungan Mosque in Karakol, Kyrgyzstan, it is unlike any of the mosques we have visited, as it is Chinese in its architectural style, and except for some Arabic lettering and decorations, the mosque has neither domes nor traditional-style minarets.
Surrounding the Mosque is the Muslim Quarter – a popular food street and a bazaar lined with a huge number of small shops selling every possible souvenir you might want. Quite a few items made it into our bags, filling up the few spare niches for the journey home!
The monk Xuanzang (602-64) carried the Buddhist sutras and texts from India, these are now housed in the Wild Goose Pagoda that was built to house the sutras. The Pagoda design was based on the stupas he had seen on his travels in India.
So like the Buddhist monk Xuanzang who concluded his travels from India in Xian, we too have finished our journey.
For centuries the region west of Jiayuguan was the limit of civilisation. Beyond Jiayuguan was alien territory, the home of wandering desert ghosts and fierce nomads – but we survived and are now in ‘China proper’. We visited the ‘first and greatest pass under Heaven’ – Jiayuguan Fort completed in 1372 to mark the end of the Ming Great Wall – it was the last civilised place before the outer darkness – those proceeding beyond, whether disgraced officials or criminals faced a life of exile among nomadic strangers, before which they had to cross the ghost infested wastes of the Gashun Gobi where hapless travellers faced extremes of heat and cold. Bet they would have appreciated the bullet train that now zips passed Jiayuguan from Lanzhou to Urumqi in 10 hours!
From Jiayuguan we ventured out of the protecting walls to head back east to Dunhuang – a smooth motorway drive across the stoney desert interspersed with oasis towns. Dunhuang and the Magao Buddhist caves are a popular tourist destination – not so long ago 90% of tourists were “foreign” tourists with only 10% Chinese – nowadays the number of ‘foreign’ tourists has increased slightly, but only makes up 5% of the total tourists to the area with 95% being Chinese tourists. 6,000 people a day visit the Magao Grottoes – but the site is well managed and it doesn’t feel too crowded.
The caves contain the most spectacular array of decorated Buddhist cave temple complexes in Asia. 45,000 square metres of decorated stucco meant to bless those departing on the next stage of their journey or to celebrate a successful return. The first cave was carved out and painted in AD 366, and eventually there were more than 490 caves, most containing murals.
Together they hold more than 2,415 statues. They also previously contained manuscripts dating from the 5th to the 14th century. The caves had been largely forgotten when a Taoist monk stumbled upon them in 1907.
Dunhuang has a busy night market to cater for the large number of Chinese tourists and us – we enjoyed shashlik, Chinese pizza and a few beers in the food market before trolling along the many souvenir selling stalls.
On the edge of the large sand dunes on the town’s boundary is a small lake – Crescent Lake – surrounded by sand and adjacent to a small pagoda. The Singing Sands have been turned into a Chinese playground with steams of tourists mounted on camels ploding up, around and over the sand dunes; tourists can walk up simple steps to the top of sand dunes and slide down on trays, try your hand at archery, ride a quad bike, take a hand glider – the choice is endless!
and have a cup of tea…. Ken was waiting for a goldfish to swim out of the greenery at the bottom or the cup!!
Next stop – a flight across the Hexi corridor to Xian, our final destination....read less
Urumqi with a population almost the same as the whole of NZ to the remains of the 2nd century BC ancient city of Jaihoe – truly a trip back in time! We’ve travelled north from Kashgar, flying over the ridges of the Tien Shan and the wind blown foothills of the Taklimakan Desert; we’ve swopped the electric motor scooters for traffic jams and congestion! But our host’s hospitality makes up for any delay in the traffic – we were treated to an abundance of food and a fine home cooked meal. What a welcome to Urumqi!
Urumqi to Turpan, its just over 200 km with a drop in altitude of 800m, driving through a forest of wind turbines catching the winds as they blow from the high plateau to the Turpan Depresssion, at its lowest point 154m below sea level. Its normally very hot in Turpan but our good fortune with the weather continues – high cloud and only in the mid 20oCs. A perfect day to visit Jiahoe ancient city. We waded our way through the large groups of Chinese tourists walking into the site to the first viewpoint, wandered beyond the Chinese tourist stopping point, through the old streets and paths, marvelling at the extensive remains Jiahoe was an important site along the silk road adjacent to the Korla and Karasahr kingdoms to the west. The city was built on a large island in the middle of a river which formed natural defenses.
Another anciety city – 2nd century BC Gaochang was also on our list of places to visit. This place is even more extensive that Jiahoe, but the remains are more weathered. We made use of an electric car to take us around the ruins and to the remnants of the Buddhist monastery – nowadays the niches are empty of Buddha statues but its not hard to visulise the building as it was. Gaochang is the site of an ancient oasis city built on the northern rim of the inhospitable Taklamakan Desert. A busy trading centre, it was a stopping point for merchant traders traveling on the Silk Road.
Astana graveyard was the cemetery for the Gaochang city – not much to see on the surface, but a descent to the underground crypts reveal decorated walls and in the crypt we visited, the mummified remains of two ancient people lie beneath protective glass.
We drove alongside the Flaming Mountains – named from a fantasy account of a Buddhist monk, and through the spectacular geological formations into the Toyuk Valley for lunch with a local farmer, earning a few extra dollars by opening his courtyard – a very pleasant place to sit beneath the grape vines to drink tea and eat lunch.
We visited Sugong Ta (Emin Minaret) dating from 1777 and built entirely with clay bricks. The minaret is 44m high and built in simple Afghani style. We looked at the Karez underground water system – Turpan’s well system was crucial in Turpan’s development as an important oasis stopover on the ancient Silk Road skirting the barren and hostile Taklamakan Desert. Turpan owes its prosperity to the water provided by its karez well system. We saw hundreds of Chunche (Raisin drying house) – a building used to dry grapes into raisins. The building has a dark interior, and the walls are covered with a large number of holes to allow wind to pass through and assist in the drying process through evaporation.
Our next stage of the journey was by overnight train to Jaiyuguan – we boarded the train with bags of raisins and several bottles of the processed grapes in the liquid red variety. We are continuing east to Mainland China – next stop the western most point of the Great Wall.
Follow Pat and her fellow Great Silk Road travellers as they make their way to Xian...read less
Kashgar – a meeting place of the ancient trade routes from the east via the northern and southern fringes of the Taklimakan desert; from the south across the Karakoram and Kun Lun mountains and the Indian sub continent and from the west over the Torugart Pass – the route we have travelled through the Tien Shan mountains from Central Asia.
It has been a change of pace for us – from the quiet and cool mountains pasture of east Kyrgyzstan to the neon lights, eletronic music and electric scooters of new Kashgar mixed with the donkey carts, roadside butcher’s shops and timeless scenes in old Kashgar that seem to have been there forever.
We’ve timed our visit to join the throngs of locals attending the weekly market held in Kashgar on a Sunday – its reputed to be the largest bazaar in Asia. We certainly watched our feet as we mingled with the animals jumping – or being dragged – off the trucks to be lined up for inspection and hopefully for sale; the fatty tailed sheet roped head to head with the farmer doing one last tidying trim of the wool. The Uyghur farmers shaking hands to signal a sale has been made. There were even camels and yaks lined up for inspection. A timeless scene – even with the western and Han Chinese tourists weaving their cautious way through the animals that watch out for no man.
We visited the old town – in recent years there has been some international condemnation of the way in which the old town has been reconstructed by the local authorities. In part this is probably justified where modern non-sympathetic materials have been used, but this criticism might be tempered by the fact that reconstructed buildings in the Old City now comply with China’s modern earthquake standards and much material has been salvaged and reused. There’s certainly a lot of rebuilding and not just in the old town – on the road to the Abakahoja mausoleum the land previously used for farming is now being smoothed out and new buildings are sprouting up. Not sure where the farmers have gone.
Historically the ethnic majority of Kashgar’s population has been Uyghur, but nowadays it is a mix of Uyghurs, Han Chinese, Kyrgyz, Tajiks and Uzbeks, boasting a colorful ethnic variety. Change is in the air – but its not hard to get a sense of life as it used to be in Old Kashgar – our entry point to China. Tomorrow to Urumqi to continue our journey tracing the Silk Road trade route to mainland China and Xian...read less
At 3,200m asl, our overnight at TashRabat was enough to take your breath way. But not because of the altitude, but because of the location of our overnight accommodation in yurts adjacent to the 15th Century caravanserai. The building is reputed to be either a Nestorian or Buddhist monastery; the use as a caravanserai is doubted by some, but nontheless this old stone structure is a stunning site in the beautiful grassy valley. The yurts are super comfortable – just 2 of us to each yurt – fires lit and provided felt slippers welcomed. We even had an extra sleeping bag in case we got cold.
In Kochkar we watched (and took part) in a demonstration of felt making – our involvement was to carefully add a kiwi and kangaroo decoration to the small piece of felt we helped make! We were also shown the traditional method of making shyrdaks – the colourful felt rugs that line the walls and floors of the yurts. We stayed in local homes – two separate houses for our group. The floors are covered with traditional rugs, the walls with carpets, dinner was served in the dining room with a china cabinet full of crystal and family photos; there’s a samover bubbling with hot water for tea (or maybe coffee!) Our visit to the local homes was arranged by the well developed community based tourism organisation. It was a great
Its an easy drive from the yurt camp to the Kyrgyz / China border gate – a few passport checks and an exit stamp, then up into the mist, and lightly falling snow to 3725m asl to cross the border. Pleased to see our Chinese guide and bus had made it up to the border crossing in good time – we were through the gate before the Chinese shut down for lunch.
Welcome to China!
Follow Pat and our Great Silk Road group as they travel to Xian...read less
As we lumbered over the boulders to crest the top of the ridge on the so-called road, we knew why we had bumped around in the 6WD truck to reach this point. The view was spectacular – snow was quite low down this year which added to the spectacle. Cattle and horses were being moved down valley as the winter has arrived early this year – we were lucky – the forecast was for snow, but the day was mostly clear, a cool breeze, and just a shower of rain to make our picnic lunch an inside picnic. Some of our group soaked in the hot pools and some walked a short way up the valley before heading back down to the milder temperatures in Karakol town.
Karakol was a Russian military outpost founded in 1869, but quickly grew in the 19th century after explorers came to map the peaks and valleys separating Kyrgyzstan from China. In the 1880s Karakol’s population surged with an influx of Dungans, Chinese Muslims fleeing warfare in China. Nowadays the peaks and valleys are popular with trekkers and serious mountaineers.
We’ve visited two mountain valleys close to Karakol – Altyn Arashan and Jety Oguz. The entrance to the Jety Oguz valley is guarded by the Broken Heart rock and the Sevel Bulls rock formation, established in 1975 as a national monument.
In this valley a Golden Eager Hunter demonstrated how his eagle hunts – an impressive sight to watch this magnificent bird swoop down from the hill side and scoop up his prey.
Lunch at a a yurt camp and a pleasant walk up the grassy meadows – horses, sheep and a few cows were enjoying the last of the summer grass before heading down to lower pastures for the winter. We are leaving sleepy Karakol tomorrow to drive to a homestay in Kochkar, then an overnight in a yurt close to a 15th Century caravanserai at TashRabat before heading down to the edge of the desert and Kashgar. It will certainly be a change of pace.
Follow Pat and our Great Silk Road Travellers from Tashkent to Xian
The reality of how many footsteps have passed through the IssyKul basin came home to us as we wandered across the boulder strewn slopes at Cholpon Ata above Issy Kul lake. There are over 10,000 drawings on the rocks, some well preserved, others not so clear – the site dates from II millennium BC and was used by the Saka priests as a sacred place for sacrifices and other rites to the sun god.
Travellers from the 10th century also left their mark on the area at the western end of the lake at the site of Balasagun, where the Burana Tower still stands. The tower was built as a minaret and was originally 45m tall. Its only half that height nowadays but is still a good vantage point to view the surrounding plains.
At the eastern end of the lake we visited the burial site of a more recent travelller, from the era of the Great Game – Nikolai Mikhaylovich Przhevalsky, a Russian geographer and explorer of Central and Eastern Asia. Despite several attempts he never made it to Lhasa and met his death from typhus on the shore the lake.
The rich grasslands of Kyrgyzstan fed the horses of the nomads and the travellers of old – nowadays, locals are more than happy to demonstrate their riding skills and ‘horse games’ – horse back wrestling with a sheep’s carcass used as the rugby ball, racing, and the skill of reaching down from the galloping horse to scoop a marker from the ground.
IssyKul lake is the second largest mountain lake in the world – the name means warm lake – and as travellers over the centuries have no doubt done, our group of present day travellers headed to the lake for a swim – a traditional way to conclude a journey to IssyKul....read less
There is only one way to leave Tashkent if you are travelling on to Osh in Kyrgyzstan by way of the Silk Road.
The once upon a time verdant paradise of the Fergana valley was the magnet back then for travellers and it is today for us.
Mind you back in the day the fabulous Rishtan pottery was only an a twinkle of an idea in the mind of a local artisan. Today it is a serious draw card for modern day travellers to the Fergana valley and we are no exception.
There are too many legends tied up in this basin of the once mighty Sri Darya river. Sadly the once upon a time grassy engine room of the legendary Celestial horses has been converted to endless thirsty acres of cotton. There may be worse fates for a river but I cant think of one.
There were great verdant plains here, watered by one of Central Asias great rivers. This was the magical paradise where Arabian bloodstock horses were bred by Tajiks of Persian ancestry. To the Chinese those horses were more important than silk and utimately they traded the one for the other. The secret of sericulture was out for want of an Emperors horse. Once the Persians got hold of it there was no turning back.
It was a case of who wants a Chinese gooseberry when you can have a Kiwi fruit, so it was in the sericulture business, when the ferganan’s got their heads around the business of making silk no one needed the Chinese middle man.
Persian descendents still live in the Fergana valley but the arbitary Soviet era ethnic partitioning dealt to them in a big way. Now fergana is the powder keg between Farsi speaking Tajiks and Turki speaking Uzbeks. Despite this the Fergana has such strong links to the ethos of the silk road that it is a must do for seriously minded travellers.
I’m a regular sucker for that Rishtan pottery and Atlas silk. I have no idea what to do with it when I haul it home but theres always Christmas, someones birthday and a friends anniversary. Good stuff always finds its way into a good home....read less
Heaven is a 5 hour journey into the Nuratau mountains north from Bukhara. The way is a bit convoluted, as any path to paradise should be. It must have seemed that back in the day way when people sought out isolated spots like this to get away from the tyranny of marauding hordes. Asraf village would have been a prime location back then because it hasn’t lost any of its appeal over the centuries since this valley was first settled. I get a sense that we are in for a unique experience as our bus climbs the steep gravel track towards a cluster of stone houses sheltering amongst swaying poplar and walnut trees in the head of the valley.
The people here are Ari – an ancient Persian community who have lived in this valley forever. I’m impressed but really shouldn’t be because in this part of the world people can actually trace their roots back several thousand years. Ari have their own language and have not intermarried with the local Uzbeks. Our host family are subsistence farmers – fruit and walnut trees and a few cows, goats, and poultry. Although a relatively recent enterprise in these communities Eco tourism is a big help and nowadays 90% of their income comes from the homestay. There are three generations living in this house – Yachshigul the hostess and her daugher-in-law prepare the food a- with a little help from our group members!
The father and son look after the animals. The children are still quite young. There is a small school close by for children from aged 7 to 11, from 12 to 16 years old they go to school 4 km down the valley, and for high school, its 20km into town where the children stay in a hostel. In the winter the village is covered by a metre of snow – transport is by donkey! Yep, donkeys are much more useful that smart phones and tablets in this neck of the woods and that gets me thinking that perhaps Paradise really is a place free from the distractions of electronic wizardry. This revelation comes as I’m preparing to post my blog and send photographs of sleepy Asraf halfway around the world....read less
In the courtyard of the Nadir Devonbegi Madrassah the past seems to have overtaken the present. Timeless Uzbek melodies float amongst the brightly coloured silk dresses of the twirling dancers. I easily can imagine myself in times gone by until the music takes on a contemporary tempo and the dancers fade into the shadows. Now strikingly tall girls in beautiful silk couture stalk about the stage in the same ageless and beautiful silk fabrics but now cut into fashions fit for Paris catwalks.
Our Great Silk Road group of travellers have arrived in Bukhara. The hotel is on the edge of the old city near the Lab-i Hause and in the Jewish quarter. In a previous life it was a family house but nowadays it’s a lovely hotel with a long history and strong connections to the past. Like the dancers and strutting fashion models of last evenings ‘cultural show’, old Bukhara has easily merged into the new.
And that seems to sum up our experiences in Bukhara. It’s a place where history seeps out of the architecture and saturates the atmosphere of this ancient trading centre and one time religious capital. There are a myriad stories to tell; of the history and the people who passed through this place like Alexander, Genghis Khan, Timur. Shopkeepers and caravanserais still line the streets offering goods and respite from the road as they have always done. Now old buildings are home to boutique hotels and smart restaurants serving old recipes on new pottery- plov, kebab, samsa.
Today we mingled with the pilgrims visiting the Shrine of the great 14th century Central Asian mystic Baha al-Din al-Naqshbandi on the outskirts of the city. We stood beneath the Kaylon minaret and walked in the Kalon Madrassah. Below the ramparts of the Ark Fortress we pondered the fate of the 18th century British spies Stoddart and Conolly who met a terrible end at the hands of the despotic Emir on this very spot on 24th June 1842. We visited the Trade domes and the stalls of the modern day artisans who maintain the tradition of ancient hand crafts – silk embroidery, knife making, copper engraving, puppet making, carpet making and jewellery fabrication in silver and turquoise. Its all been a bit overwhelming. The spectacle of Bukhara really is a jewel in the crown of the Silk Road. Tomorrow its time to sample some traditional countryside hospitality when we head into the mountains....read less