Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Chinese Democracy


We took a full day to get to Kashgar in China after crossing the Touragart Pass, picking up our guide for the Chinese leg of the journey and travelling a 100ks of no-mans-land, before crossing through the Chinese boarder and entering Kashgar.

The Road to Kashgar


It was nice to be eating good Chinese food after the limited fair in Central Asia and have a couple of big nights out with a bit of clubbing thrown in.
I have to say Kashgar is a lovely city and definitely the highlight of China.

Xinjiang province is a mix of Uyghur People and Han Chinese. The Uyghur people, being the original residents, are related to the tribes of Central Asia. Subsequently Kashgar is a mix of Uyghur and modern Chinese architecture giving the town a diverse feel.

Align Left

Photos of Kashgar

Xinjiang province has had many problems in recent months, primarily in Urumqi (North of Kashgar), where riots have recently occurred with fighting between the Uyghurs and the Han Chinese. The Han make up 90% of the countries population and have been shipped in wholesale to the province by the government in an attempt water down the Uyghur majority, similar to the situation in Tibet. With government backing the Han have been taking the best jobs despite sometimes being less qualified than the Uyghurs, creating great tension which ended with the rioting.
The government army then stepped in to quash the uprising culminating a large loss of life. In true Chinese style a media blackout was enforced with the shutting down of internet access and all international phone calls.

While, on our China leg we visited a desert resort in the Taklamakan Desert (the second largest after the Sahara), a moutain resort and a lake resort at Kara Kul.

Travelling Towards Tashkurgan

All were sanitised versions of potentially great beauty spots. With constant charges, people trying to fleece money from us and the restrictions given by ’our guide’ (government spy/nanny) it was becoming apparent that the group were becoming increasingly frustrated.
The guide was next to useless, giving very little information about the area and things seen. When asked a question the answer was usually just made up on the spot.
The final straw came when they tried to charge us for a national park entry fee which was essentially a 50 yard stretch around a litter strew lake just off the main Karakoram Highway. Enough was enough and the group decided to push on to Tashkurgan and exit china a day earlier than expected.

The Road to Pakistan

I must admit I found the people consistently rude and unfriendly. I'm sure there are nice people in China and it would probably be better if you have the freedom of movement to go where you want.

It’s definitely a cultural thing, maybe driven by a government that has created bureaucracy that renders it’s people inflexible and incapable of making decsions for themselves through fear of getting in trouble.

No where is this more prevalent than in the officials (police and boarder guards).
On exit from China we had a sit in at customs where we refused to pay 10 times over the normal price for disinfecting our vehicles. This had already been done on entry but they insisted on disinfecting again as we didn’t have the reciept from the disinfection process on entry! They then decided the cost was for checking the vehicles, a fairly transparent attempt to lighten our wallets. Eventually they let us leave 4 hours after entering customs but without their baksheesh (bride).
The Pakistan side could not be more different with welcoming smiles and friendly handshakes all around we breezed into Pakistan.

Good riddens China, hello friendly Pakistan…….

Friday, 4 September 2009

UK Bar Brawl ( The return of Terry Butcher)

In Tajikistan, Joe had mentioned a horse festival being held on the 1st of September in the mountains at the base camp of Peak Lenin, just across the boarder in Kyrgyzstan. This became our next destination as we headed off on a superb 180k dirt road to reach the foot of the high peaks.

Road to the festival

Peak Lenin is fame for being the highest mountain in Kyrgyzstan. Climbing the peak is a 22 day round trip. While not particularly technically demanding the bulk of the problems come from the physical exertion needed to operate at 7000+ metres, with altitude sickness an ever present danger.

Peak Lenin

Pictures of the base camp valley

Kyrgyzstan is a bit of an anomaly when it comes to Central Asia. Covered in grassland, it’s a green oasis surrounded by the stark beauty of Tajikistan to the south, the desert land of Uzbekistan to the west, the step of Kazakhstan to the north and Xinjang, the mountainous region of China to the east.

There are two things that symbolize Kyrgyzstan above all else, the horse and the Yurt. Historically a nomadic race, the horse and the Yurt still play a large part in Kyrgyz culture. In fact the wooden crisscross pattern that appears on the top of all traditional Yurts also appears on the national flag.

Building the Yurt

Finished Article

Relaxing in the yurt after a dusty Ride

We arrived at base camp just before nightfall and sorted ourselves a Yurt Stay for the next 2 nights.

Horse festivals are held all over Kyrgyzstan during the first few days of August. The one at peak Lenin was being held for the first time to encourage the revival traditional customs and boost the local economy by enticing more tourists into the area.

The young competitors gathering

Along with singing and dancing there are four main horse games played at the festival.
The first being a game where the rider must race down a fenced corridor stooping down to snatch small bean bags from the ground, attempting to pick up as many as possible in 2 runs.
There’s then horse wrestling where rides must attempt to pull each other from their mount.
Kyz Kuu is where a man on horseback chases a girl, also on horseback, and tries to kiss her on the cheek. Traditionally, if the guy succeeds within an allotted distance they would then be betrothed to marry. For the guys that don’t catch the women the roles are reversed and the woman chases the man with a whip attempting to lash him across the back.
The finale is the famous headless goat game, Buzkashi. A goat is killed, gutted and has it’s head removed. The players are split into 2 teams and must attempt to pick up the goat and and place it on the oppositions flag pole.

The first game

Horse Wrestling

The things you have to do to get a date

The level of horsemanship shown by all the competitors was amazing. In the countryside all people learn to ride a horse from a very early age, we even saw kids not much older than 7 or 8 riding full sized horses.

The games had been fantastic but it was now time to head North to the city of Osh, get a hotel and have a much needed shower.

Osh is a nice city, probably one of the best we experienced in Central Asia, with lots of day to day hustle and bustle and with some good restaurants it made a nice stopover on the way to the capital Biskek.

The city was slightly marred by an incident that happened on a night out, which ended up with a trip to hospital for Ollie and 3 stitches in his forehead.
The following explains how things unfolded as seen through my eyes………

It had been a good evening in a lovely little outside restaurant with much beer and vodka consumed and the best Shaslik (beef shish kebab) I’d tasted in the whole of Central Asia.

Nathan (another British biker) had been acting like an idiot all evening and Ollie fueled by a bit of Vodka had told the guy what he thought of him in no uncertain terms.

I’d been stood away from the table when it happened. I didn’t see the first blow but Nathan had come up behind Ollie and hit him with a stein glass across the head twice, with the third blow being deflected by a Australian guy who had been sitting close by. It was a real cheap shot and cowardly at the extreme.

Nathan then appeared beside me, instinctively I swung a left hook and knocked the guy out.
Chaos ensued, ending up with me in a taxi trying to find the hospital Ollie had been taken. Eventually I found the hospital and Ollie and Jenny emerged with Ollie in a bloodstained top and a head-bandage reminiscent of Terry Butchers infamous appearance for England in the 1989 World Cup Qualifier against Sweden. Thankfully he’d only suffered a cut on the top of head and a few stitches to the forehead, it could have been much worse.
It was time to head to Bishkek and get away from the madness of the previous evening….

The road to Bishkek

After a couple of days camping by a lake, enjoying fresh fish straight from the fisherman’s boat, Ollie and Jenny headed off to a valley while myself and Herbie headed on to Bishkek in search of tyres.

Crossing the first major pass

Sampling honey and jam by the roadside

Herbie collecting wood for a camp fire by the lake

The source of our fresh fish

The final pass before Bishkek

After crossing the final pass, Herbie pushed on to Bishkek having nursed a puncture in his rear tyre which had been getting progressively worse. Catching up, traveling at 70mph along the valley floor, a dog suddenly shot across the road in front of me. Thinking all was fine as the dog passed the front of the bike, it suddenly turned sharply straight under the front wheel.
Hearing the yelps, I looked in the mirror to see the dog limp down a slope to the river. Parking up, I wandered down to find it laid in the river with the owner dragging the now dead dog up the bank. After lots of apologies, and feeling slightly guilty for killing someone’s dog in front of his family, I offered the guy 500 sum (about $10). He seemed more than happy and even offered me Chai (Tea) at his house in the village.

Finally we made to Bishkek putting a close on a very eventful few days…

After spending a few fruitless days trying to buy new set of off-road tyres in Bishkek, I made the decision to head-off alone to Almaty in Kazakhstan where I knew it was possible to get tyres for big bikes…


I heard many things from other travellers about the people in Kazakhstan, some claimed it to be the most unfriendly of the stans. I decided to go with an open mind and see for myself…..

The Kazaks have a real affinity to Russia, probably more so than any of the other stans. They are grateful for the boost in their economy due the advancements brought by the previous occupation. Sub-sequentially half of the population is still made up of Russians.
I also found Almaty to have more English speakers than any other place in the region and a more European feel to the city.

The people at first seem less friendly but once you scratch the surface and get to know them a little they can be capable of incredible feats of generosity, as I was to find out over the 3 days spent in the country.

With the help of a local guy who’s number I’d been given by a bikeshop in Bishkek, I trawled around a few shops and finally found a set of Metzler knobblies that fitted the bike perfectly. The guy even took me to his mates garage and they fitted the tyre for free. It was amazing that someone who had never met me before gave up half his day off to help a stranger in need.

It was time to head back to Kyrgyzstan so i left Almaty heading East towards the Sharyn Canyon where I’d planned to camp the night before heading to the small boarder just South of Kegan.

The sharyn Canyon cut into the Kazak step

While setting up camp at the canyon a Kazak guy wandered over and invited me to join him, his friend and their 2 girlfriends for some food and the obligatory couple of vodkas. On a day trip from Almaty, they were visiting one of the guys brother who had a farm in Kegan where they'd both grown up.
Despite my limited Russian and their limited English they insisted that I should come and stay at the brothers house. It was difficult to refuse such a generous offer……

The brothers wife put on a huge spread.
The food kept coming for 3 hours including endless toasts with vodka and a bit of drunken singing. The finale came with the Kazak national dish, Bisbemark.
The recipe for Bisbemark is pretty simple. Take one sheep-head, intestines, stomach lining, liver, heart and some of the meat and boil for 3 hours. The dish is them served on a platter and the guests are invited to help themselves.
The host took a knife and gouged the eye from the head, as the honored guest it was offered up to me first. Knowing that it was an insult to refuse, i took the eye and swallowed. It wasn’t too bad, better than I thought. Growing up eating offal in the North-East had served me well.

The brother's family

Everyone together after much vodka

After handshakes and hugs all round, I headed off on the last 5k‘s to the boarder with a slightly sore head and the feeling that I’d been privileged to meet such great people and gain a glimpse of traditional Kazak life.

Back to Kyrgyzstan……

I met up with Ollie, Jenny and Herbie again on the shores at lake Ysyk-Kol at Cholpon-Ata a Russian/ Kazak beach resort where we spent a couple of days swimming, eating and relaxing.

Cholpon-Ata beach

We all headed off to the South-side of the lake to the valley of the broken heart with a stopover for myself and Herbie in Karakol to use the internet.
The Valley of the Broken Heart gets it’s name from a huge red rock split right down the middle. Legend has it that two suitors spilled blood in a fight over a beautiful woman; both died, and the rock is her broken heart.

The Seven Bulls

The broken Heart

Jean-Yves off-roading on his 30 year old Vespa

The Eagle has landed

Spending a couple of days relaxing in a yurt in the beautiful alpine valley, riding horses and taking the unloaded bikes up some hard tracks was great fun but time was pressing, we had to get to China for the start of our visas in 4 days.

One man and his horse

Krygyz Kettle

Making Bread

A visitor to the Yurt

Heading west along the lake shore we decided to take the 200km old road to Naryn. It turned out to be the hardest dirt road either of us had ever been on…..

At first the track started with deep sand then became a very rough rock strew road which turned into switchbacks as we gained height. About 300 meters from the pass the road disintegrated into 40 degree scree slopes as we had to force the bikes up the track. Herbie’s bike was struggling to cope with the terrain and altitude; he was having problems kick-starting the bike and at points had to walk it up some of the slopes. Where as the Beamer seemed to be dealing with the anything thrown at it, powering up the harshest of slopes.

The pass

Where's the road gone?

Once over the pass an awesome sight was in front of use…
A remote green valley surrounded by brooding mountains with only Yaks and a couple of yurts for company.

A river bed or a road?

The Beautiful Valley beyond the Pass

Descending down the side of the valley we assumed the worst was over. Little did we know that we had 10 or so river crossings still to come. At points the road had disintegrate completely leaving us with no choice but to leave the track and head off over grass to find ways to get around some of the trickiest sections.
We then came across the worst river crossing I’d seen. About 20 meters wide, the only way over was to ride across the width of the river and travel down a channel with the flow of the water to find a point where the riverbank became less steep and we could blast the bikes up the loose shale bank.

River Crossing Mayhem

7 hours after starting the road we finally made it into Naryn. It had been the worse road but the best road I’d ever ridden.

We spent a couple of days resting in Naryn where we met up with Babak and Jean Yves, the 2 guys sharing the trip through China. It was then off to Tash Rabat an old caravansai (an ancient travelers inn, part of the original silk route) for the group to re-unite for the trip into china.

The China Gang

A Yak

The Caravansai

I loved Central Asia, my favorite countries being Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan for their friendly people and amazing scenery. It’s a region that has surprised and delighted me in many ways, it has certainly been a great adventure. Despite this I was glad to starting a new chapter, Asia sub-continent and specifically China. Here we come!