China # 8 – Jiayguan -The Western End of the Great Wall – September 2014

June 15, 2018

It was late when we wound our way through the dark streets of Jiayuguan (Gansu Province) to find the official end of The Great Wall of China. A really full moon, the biggest and roundest of the year called Harvest Moon, lit the way as we arrived at an empty parking lot with a sign to the Great Wall entrance, a perfect place for Green to set up her tent. A little store was just about to close but we managed to grab a couple of cold beers. In the morning, a few vegetable and fruit vendors had set out their offerings.

The Great Wall of China

No matter how many photos you have seen, standing on the Great Wall of China is an original experience.

No matter how many photos you have seen, standing on the Great Wall of China is an original experience.

The Great Wall was an elaborate military defense system, including forts, platforms and watchtowers. Started in the 7th century, it eventually stretched 21,196 kilometers, (13,170 miles), across 15 modernnprovinces of today’s China. It has lasted over 2,000 years and is considered one of the greatest cultural and architectural miracles in the history of world civilization. Building materials varied according to topography and what was available. Wood, brick, stone and sometimes just willow twigs were inserted into layers of coarse clay. Natural cliffs were incorporated. Of course, one of the principal functions of the Wall was to protect the Western border of the Chinese Empire and the caravans traveling along the Silk Road.

The view was getting better with every step. Just cut through the smog!

The view was getting better with every step. Just cut through the smog!

As we started up the Wall to the top, we were counting steps. I think I lost count after about 500. From the watchtowers it would be easy to see invaders many miles away especially in ancient times without smog. At the very end of this restored section, actually a rock ridge, peak-bagger Monika climbed to the top. Lovers sealed their vows with a small padlock on the chain handrail and presumably threw the keys into the canyon below. There was thankfully an easier way down, following a long winding flagstone path.

Military fortress at Jiayu Pass

Leaving the West Gate entrance, the caravans headed for the treacherous Gobi and Taklamakan Deserts.

Leaving the West Gate entrance, the caravans headed for the treacherous Gobi and Taklamakan Deserts.

The large fortress protecting Jiayu Pass was built near Jiayuguan, a small town that became a prosperous center for the production of silk. At the large parking lot at the entrance of these historic grounds we quickly learned to always bring our passports as the folks at ticket counters and later security guards inspected them. First we visited the informative museum before walking up more stairs to the actual fortress. It encompasses 40’100 square yards (33,529 m2) and had a complex defensive system with an inner city with two gates, a central area with many buildings including pretty temples with fierce looking monster guardians, an outer city with two more gates, and finally a moat. Along the walls were watchtowers, turrets and cannons.

Last Outpost before the treacherous Gobi and Taklamakan Deserts

We would see the Great Wall of China two more times before our wheels touched the Yellow Sea of the Pacific Ocean.

Caravans coming from all four directions stopped here to trade. The General’s Fortress (as it is sometimes called) was the last outpost of the Chinese Empire for anyone heading west along the treacherous Gobi and Taklamakan deserts of the Silk Road. What trepidations they must have had leaving this haven! And what a relief others must have felt arriving safely after months of hardship and worries. Just having driven through those two treacherous deserts in a modern expedition truck with air conditioning we were in awe as we walked through the thick tunnel wall to see nothing but waterless wasteland. Camels were waiting for (tourist) cargo. One could only imagine the sounds and smells of the masses of men and animals in the mist of bartering and exchange of goods, news and ideas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

China # 7 – Gashun Gobi Desert to Dunhuang’s famous Mogao Caves

June 8, 2018

Leaving the oasis of Turpan, we were back on the seemingly endless and quite boring toll highway along the northern edge of the Taklamakan desert. It felt like driving across Nevada. By late afternoon I was falling asleep. Then we saw it, an actual break in the fences and guardrails into the black rock desert of the southern Gashun Gobi Desert. An area, 1,295,000 km2, (500,000 mi²), it is the fifth-largest desert in the world, stretching over 1,600 km (1,000 mi) from southwest to northeast and 800 km (500 mi) from north to south. Once an ancient inland sea, water now is almost nonexistent. Most of the topsoil has been blown away by the prevailing northwestern winds, leaving rocky mountains and stony plains devoid of vegetation.

Gashun Gobi Desert

This part of the treacherous Gashun Gobi Desert was one of our most memorable camps in China. Photo by Zhang Zhi Qiong aka Green

Seeing this break in the fence, we switched from highway to “off road” and drove about half a mile onto a flat plain of clean black gravel. We could see the curvature of the earth. Wild camping doesn’t get any better than this. It was magical. Green set up her cozy MSR tent and we prepared a great dinner. No sound of any kind and no light except for the stars and nearly a full Harvest moon. Green broke out some very special “moon cakes” to celebrate the beginning of the Chinese Moon Festival.

With an early start in the morning—we really could have stayed longer—we headed back on the endless highway and made a quick fuel stop. There were no “four star tourist toilets”, so we were introduced to the normal road stop commodes, always a bit shocking; basically filthy pits and holes in a cement floor if travelers made it that far. Even Green was a little disgusted.

Dunhuang, Gansu Province

By evening we had maneuvered into the pretty oasis city of Dunhuang, for centuries an important commercial center along the Silk Road and today, famous for its night market. After getting Green settled in a hotel where we could park for the night, we headed for the market which had a great food court. The market itself, geared mostly to Chinese tourists, was fun to wander through and we couldn’t resist buying a tiny souvenir.

Mogao Caves – Caves of the Thousand Buddhas

The main temple of the Mogao caves was beautifully restored and a great photo op.

The main temple of the Mogao caves was beautifully restored and a great photo op.

In the morning, we slipped out of the city to visited the famous Mogao Caves, also known as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas. Carved into the cliffs above the Dachuan River, they comprise the largest, most richly endowed, and longest used treasure house of Buddhist art in the world. They were first constructed in 366 AD and represent the greatest achievement of Buddhist art from the 4th to the 14th century. Situated at a strategic point along the Silk Route, at the crossroads of trade as well as religious, cultural and intellectual influences, the 492 cells and cave sanctuaries in Mogao are famous for their statues and wall paintings, spanning 1,000 years of Buddhist art. They have become one of the three most famous ancient Buddhist sculptural sites of China.

Taoist Abbot Wang Yuanlu discovered the Library Cave at the Mogao Caves Buddhist Center. Photo 1900 (open source)

Taoist Abbot Wang Yuanlu discovered the Library Cave at the Mogao Caves Buddhist Center.
Photo 1900 (open source)

In 1900, the Taoist Abbot Wang Yuyanlu discovered a sealed cave (11th century) with up to 50,000 manuscripts in several ancient languages, now known as the Library Cave. The contents of the library were subsequently dispersed around the world and the largest collections are now found in Beijing, London, Paris and Berlin, and the International Dunhuang Project. It is one of the greatest treasure troves of ancient documents ever found. While early 20th century European explorers acquired many manuscripts, wall murals and other treasures for researchers, collectors and museums much to the chagrin of today’s China government but thanks to them, these precious historical documents were also saved as at that time, China showed no interest. Luckily, Mogao escaped any damage during the Cultural Revolution.

Not being Buddhist ourselves, we could only marvel at the caves and sculptures and the massive effort it has taken to restore them. Now we were looking forward to our next stop, the western end of The Great Wall of China.

China # 6 – Turpan – Heading east along the Northern Taklamakan Desert – September 2014

June 1, 2018

After a short drive from the Gaochang ruins we arrived in the pleasant city of Turpan. Turpan is China’s “Death Valley”. Part of the Turpan basin is 154m, (505 feet), below sea level, making it the second lowest depression on earth, just after the Dead Sea. It is the hottest spot in China. In July and August, temperatures soar above 40°C and even 50°C, (120°F), forcing the local population to sleep on their roofs.

We arrived in the heat of a summer afternoon to visit the Turpan Museum, a wonderful collection of over 7,000 exhibits including cultural relics with examples of pottery, bronze copper and textiles dating back to the Silk Road civilizations of the Greek-Roman, Ancient China, Persian-Arabian, and the Nomadic peoples of the Eurasian Steppe.

To give cooling shade during the intense summers, many streets in the nearby villages are covered with grapevine trellises. Despite the heat, the ground water and fertile soil of the Turpan depression has made this a veritable oasis in the desert. An amazing sophisticated irrigation system known as the Karez brings irrigation water from the surrounding mountain ranges from the annual melting of the snow. The Karez System consists of wells, underground channels, ground canals, and small reservoirs, which use the natural slope of the terrain to sustain the water flow and guide the water right to the plants while minimizing evaporation. California could learn something here. Just under 1,000 canals with a total length of about 5,000 km (3,100 mi), the system is considered one of the three great ancient projects in China along with the Great Wall and the Grand Canal.

These unique buildings are where grapes and other fruit are dried, out of the direct sunlight.

These unique buildings are where grapes and other fruit are dried, out of the direct sunlight.

Farming in the Turpan Basin is particularly famous for its fruit production, especially grapes. Because of the dry and hot conditions, the fruits grown in the depression have very high concentrations of sugar. They are traditionally processed by drying in open drying barns. The cultivated fruit include mulberry, peach, apricot, apple, pomegranate, pears, fig, and more than 100 varieties of grapes.

Green, (our trusted guide), was good at keeping us away from tourist traps, but the Grape Valley Amusement Park and the annual Grape Festival in a nearby village sounded interesting. Indeed, we arrived just in time to watch a talented group of musicians and folk dancers. Monika was invited to join them while I was busy taking photos. There were small shops selling souvenirs and special musical instruments. We really had to laugh at all the signs, especially those about the bathrooms. You must read them! (see photos).

This friendly farmer suggested we should buy a particular raisin because they were particularly healthy for "old" folks. Hm.

This friendly farmer suggested we should buy a particular raisin because they were particularly healthy for “old” folks. Hm.

Walking back to our truck, which was probably parked illegally, we were admiring the beautiful art on the doors of homes when a man approached us and insisted we come in for tea. We accepted and he humbly explained to our guide that he, (obviously Muslim because of the area), just wanted to tell us and show us he and his family were not terrorists. He gave us an interesting tour of his home, including his vineyard, his stable of goats, and his irrigation channel that was most likely part of the Karez System. We met his mother and his wife and were treated to some appreciated tea and fruit. It was a refreshing experience and we thanked him many times.

Back on the main promenade there were many stands selling the fresh and dried fruits of the area, including piles of sweet raisins and grapes. The first place we stopped, the owner, a gregarious guy, also invited us in to see how the grapes are hung and naturally air dried, a very interesting process. He explained that one kind of particularly big and wonderful tasting raisins would be most beneficial to us and when questioned why, he smiled and said that variety was good for “old” folks. Hm. We were good customers and stocked up on several raisin varieties for the rest of the trip and gifts, knowing that we would never see any better.

 

China # 5 – Along the Taklamakan Desert’s Northern Silk Road – September 2014

May 25, 2018

OK, so we can almost cross the Taklamakan Desert off our China Bucket List; amazing but thanks to the paved oil exploration road, not so bad. Given that without the road it would have lived up to its reputation, “The Sea of Death”.

We had to make a “few” miles every day because we still had lots to see in the next 21 days – 4,000 miles. Unfortunately, our route demanded that we stay on main highways, but in Korla we veered off on an interesting secondary road. It was certainly a slower pace and we had to constantly be aware of pedestrians and other drivers, both of whom operate with blinders on.

The Fat Man Noodle Restaurant

Green insisted that we stop at the Fat Man Noodle restaurant. Great idea! Green knew her Chinese food. Apparently, many towns are famous for something.

This is the proud owner of the Fat Man Restaurant in Kumux, southwest of Turpan.

This is the proud owner of the Fat Man Restaurant in Kumux, southwest of Turpan.

Taking a loop into the desert, we visited an old Uyghur village and the Jiache Ruins before continuing on to the larger ancient oasis of Goachang. This was a busy trading center and stopping point for merchant traders traveling on the Silk Road starting in the 1st century BC. It was destroyed in wars during the 14th century, but many ruins of this impressive and large city including the old palace can still be seen today. The standing walls and structures, now over 2,000 years old, were quite amazing. Bricks were apparently not used back then. The building technique was handfuls or buckets of mud one layer at a time and patted in place or formed into huge blocks. There are 77 known caves nearby that still have murals and tombs where nobles, officials, and others were interred.

Trouble in the Rear

Arriving in nearby Turpan early evening, there was no place to set up Green’s tent, so we found a cute hotel with a big parking area where we could relax and she could sleep and clean up. It was here that we discovered a major problem. The camper had been listing to the passenger side even though the Hellwig airbags were holding their 40 pounds of air pressure. Closer inspection showed that the shroud of the camper body was actually coming down and touching the airbag. The temporary solution was to take my Ingersoll-Rand air-powered reciprocal saw and grinder powered by our twin ExtremeAir Velocity compressors which feed our Viair 2.5-gallon aluminum reserve air tank to 125 psi. and trim the inner camper shroud off so that it no longer touched the airbag on bumps. Having the right tools for emergency repairs on a long overland trip can save the day. This was not the ultimate solution and we would not find out the real problem for several weeks.

 

China # 4 – Crossing the Taklamakan Desert – September 2014

May 18, 2018

Three hundred and thirty seven thousand square kilometers, (130,000 sq. mi), The Taklamakan is one of the largest sandy deserts in the world and one of the most dangerous. Nicknamed “The Sea of Death”, one translation in Chinese is, “If you go in, you won’t come out.”

Flanked by the high Tien Shan Mountains to the north, the Kunlun Mountains to the south, the Pamirs to the west and the daunting Gobi Desert on the east severely restricted access to a region that was already extremely hazardous to traverse. With a length of 1,000 kilometers, (620 miles), and a width of 400 kilometers (250 miles), it was a major obstacle for caravans along the Silk Road. Lisa, our trip planner at Navo-Tour, was surprised that we insisted on crossing it.

Taklamakan Desert, the Sea of Death

Its larger sand-dune chains range from 100 to 500 feet (30 to 150 meters) in height, while its pyramidal dunes rise 650 to 1,000 feet (200 to 300 meters). Needless to say, no one in their right mind would attempt to cross this waterless desert with a string of camels. Caravans had to go around it. In the 1950s, oil was discovered in the north and even greater deposits were found in the 1980s along the southern rim, which is where we turned north off  the “Southern Silk Route” (Hwy 315). Our plan was to drive across the center to Luntai where we could pick up the “Northern Silk Route”. Our map showed a secondary oil exploration road that would traverse the desert at one of its widest points. Even with altitudes ranging from 3,900 to 4,900 feet above sea level, daytime temperatures can still exceed 100°F, and unless you are a lizard there is not a lot of shade.

As we headed across, the landscape was flat and barren. A stream disappeared into the ground. Drifting sand was a major problem. Artificial sand breaks were built out of reeds stuck into the sand and an extensive drip irrigation system kept a row of tamarisk and nitre bushes alive along the edge of the blacktop. The occasional hummock in the sand dunes formed around a struggling tree or scrub. Soon there was only endless sand, but it was spectacular in its diverse shapes and colors. Strange outcroppings of clay or sand stone surfaced occasionally, possibly formed during the Cenozoic age about 655 million years ago. We saw no wildlife of any kind, only the funny tracks of lizards, snakes and mice. Depending on the texture of the sand and the direction of the wind, the surface was constantly changing.

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Gary trekked up a sand dune in the middle of our Taklamakan desert crossing.

The original idea was to spend a night in the middle of the desert, but the soft fine almost powdery sand was no place to set up Green’s tent. To our surprise, we came to the small settlement of Tachong midway with a gas station and a bunch of run-down hotels “servicing” the nearby oil exploration sites employees. No place for Green to stay safely. We asked permission to camp for the night on the edge of the gas station pad and we all relaxed in the cool of the evening. I was reminded of a famous saying by Carl Franz, author of People’s Guide to Mexico, “Wherever you go, there you are!”

In the morning we got an early start, which for us means maybe 9:00. As we got closer to Luntai vegetation increased and a grove of suffering sand blown Euphrates Poplar made a good lunch stop. We soon came to our first military checkpoint and Green convinced them that she really was a guide. She had to dig out her official papers.

Our wonderful guide, Green, was happy to have crossed the infamous Taklamakan Desert. She had never been here before.

Our wonderful guide, Green, was happy to have crossed the infamous Taklamakan Desert. She had never been here before.

Tensions between Han Chinese authorities, (the majority of the population), and the Hui minority people, (Muslim), natives to the Taklamakan, have existed for centuries. Han Chinese migration into the region, coupled with Islamic fundamentalist agitation elsewhere in Asia and minority unrest across the border in the Central Asian Republics, has fostered more open hostility by local peoples against the (Han) Chinese.

Just after we joined the “Northern Silk Road”, (Hwy 314), we spotted a deserted workers’ camp and truck stop. It was a perfect place to spend the night. There was even an irrigation ditch that gave us a chance to replenish our water supply, one bucket at a time. Monika and Green did a quick laundry and we studied our route to Turpan and the Gaochang Gucheng ruins. Gaochang Gucheng had been a busy trading center in the 1st century BC and it was an important stopping point for merchant caravans traveling on the Silk Road.

 

 

China # 3 – Along the Taklamakan Desert’s Southern Silk Road – September 2014

May 11, 2018

A little sad that we had missed the knife factories in Yengisar, but it wasn’t really on our major must-see list. We were following the southern edge of the infamous Taklamakan Desert. In at least one of the Chinese languages, Taklamakan means, “If you go in, you won’t come out”. Hummm?

We always knew what jade was but never imagined that there were so many colors and huge examples.

We always knew what jade was but never imagined that there were so many colors and huge examples.

After spending an hour and a half driving around Yecheng in the dark and being stopped by a SWAT team, we finally found the Electric Hotel that allowed foreigners, (many did not), and a safe enclosed parking lot. We were advised not to venture outside the hotel grounds at night for our safety.

Hotan, a famous jade town

An early start in the morning brought us to the historic oasis town of Hotan (Hetian), strategically located at the junction of the southern (and most ancient) branch of the Silk Road joining the West with one of the main routes from India and Tibet to Central Asia and China. It was an ideal meeting place where not only goods, but also technologies, philosophies, and religions were exchanged from one culture to another.

Gary was in seventh heaven tasting all kinds of street food.

Gary was in seventh heaven tasting all kinds of street food.

Where there is water there is life. Surrounded by the Karakash River and the White Jade River flowing from the distant foothills of the Himalayas, the Hotan area prospered and survived on the edge of the vast Taklamakan Desert. Hotan artists and craftsman are known for their prized carpets and carvings, and for the “mutton fat” jade still being collected from the White Jade River. Of course we never get tired of exploring new markets, but after our recent visits to some of the biggest in Asia, like Kashgar, a stop at the famous jade market was not on our agenda. OK, Green loved jade so it was easy for her to convince us. We did stop at the food market to see what edible treasures we could find, but the Jade Market was definitely amazing. We were the only Westerners in town. Noted in our Lonely Planet China guide book, as the “Sunday Jade Market”, it is a very busy place every day of the week. While serious jade buyers scrutinized the overwhelming selection, food vendors were as interesting, with barbecue grills full of juicy lamb Shish Kebabs or Shashlik and rolling buffets of tempting dishes to go.

These guys were walking the market selling sunflower seeds, a popular snack.

These guys were walking the market selling sunflower seeds, a popular snack.

Jaded” out, figuratively speaking, we headed west just in time to find a nice gravel pit for the night, a quiet place for Green to set up her comfy MSR tent for the first time with a double layer of  Therm-a-Rest sleeping pads. She thought it was cool that it was “green”. Monika cooked up a delicious lamb stew and we slept well——except someone back home had put a bug in Green’s ear that there were wolves in the desert, so she ended up sleeping in a bed we made for her in the truck’s cab, try as we did to convince her that there was not a wolf for a hundred miles cuz there was nothing for them to eat. Turns out she had never slept in a tent alone, only with other people. No wolves came that night. She got braver and later, we all could laugh about it.

 

China # 2 – Kashgar – August 2014

May 2, 2018

Back in the days of the Silk Road, Kashgar was one of the most important trading stops along this historic Route. Having survived the treacherous crossing of the Taklamakan Desert east of Kashgar, many merchants probably stopped here for weeks to bargain and exchange goods before returning home. In essence, it was a giant marketplace and bazaar which continues today. Our wonderful guide, Green, had some other ideas to explore and we followed her obediently.

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Kids are kids anywhere in the world!

We would be preparing most of our food on the road which included Green. As luck would have it, she was a pretty good cook herself. Our next stop was a giant produce market. Along the way we passed the hardware bazaar which is always fascinating. Wandering along alleys of “Old Kashgar”, we started to get a close-up look at the Chinese people, at least at this end of the country. They were Uyghur, an ethnic Turkic group.

Leaving Kashgar we started our journey southeast of what would be a series of superhighways. We needed to cover distance each day in order to keep on our route. We would rather have followed the many secondary roads through villages in the distance, but these main highways were protected and guarded by 2 or 3-foot metal guardrails and eight-strand barbwire fences behind them. We could drive an hour or two before there was even a place to turn off the highway.

Yes, women really do wear these amazing prints and colors.

Yes, women really do wear these amazing prints and colors.

We had hoped to stop at the famous knife factory in Yengisar, but we missed the turnoff and there was no way to make a U-turn on these highways for miles. We later suspected that Green may have missed the turnoff on purpose because Yengisar was an Uyghur Moslem town, and Green was a Buddhist Han. The majority of Chinese are Han. There had been some recent uprisings and it’s very possible that an authority ordered her not to stop as it might have endangered her and our safety or so they thought. (A political incident with foreigners needed to be avoided at all cost.)

We were starting to understand that China is not a unified nation. With so many different languages, conflicting religions and cultures it turns out that there seems to be a lot of people who don’t want to be “Chinese”, which represents quite a problem for the controlling communist government.

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Unintentionally, the boy was displaying his sister’s pretty dress.

Then there was wild camping. RV parks or campgrounds were nonexistent, and as one overland traveler observed, if there’s a flat piece of land anywhere near the highway, someone is growing something. That was mostly true further east. Around 5:00 in the afternoon we would start watching for empty lots, gravel pits or ???. By 6:00 we got less picky. There had to be a dry flat spot for Green to set up her MSR tent.

Now we had barely a month to play, minus the two days it took to get into China and the two more days it would take to get out of China, (talk about bureaucracies), and unlike our normal mode of travel, “Don’t take the trip. Let the trip take you.”, we did have somewhat of a march route. As previously mentioned, we also had to exit China at an exact place on an exact day. There was lots to see over the next 4,286 miles (6,897 km). We were following the Silk Road and our Eurasian Odyssey goal of driving ocean to ocean, wheels on the ground, was in sight.

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These kids loved posing for us.

Without running on about all the incredible things we saw, as the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. If you glance through this selection and read the captions, you will get a feeling for the experience we were having on our first real day in China. The first night on the road we prepared American style spaghetti, and Green was learning how to eat noodles with a spoon and fork instead of chopsticks. She was a real sport.

China # 1 – Arriving in Kashgar – August 28, 2014

April 20, 2018

China! We had started our process to drive across all of China months before. Working with Lisa Li at NAVO Tour in Chengdu, we explained to her what our overall plan was; to drive from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, across all of Eurasia, following the Silk Road. To drive our own vehicle in China, we would need a guide, whether it was one vehicle or ten. Three would be nice so the cost of the guide and other paperwork could be shared. In the end, by the time we had reached Turkey, others who had said they would go with us wimped out. We were not about to turn back! In retrospect, it turned out to be the best decision we made.

Evidence! Only 5,000 miles to go to reach the Yellow Sea and the North Pacific Ocean.

Evidence! Only 5,000 miles to go to reach the Yellow Sea and the North Pacific Ocean.

The paperwork involved detailed information about our truck and ourselves. Really detailed!! Then a route needed to be designed so that we could enter at an exact place and time and exit at a specific border and time and stop at some of the historical and cultural highlights of this huge and very complex country like the Great Wall of China and the famous Terracotta Warriors. We also wanted to cross the Taklamakan Desert. In Chinese, Taklamakan means, “If you go in, you won’t come out.” Well yeah! Our mandatory guide would ride with us every inch of the way, and once our route was decided on, we could not deviate from it for more than 35 km, (21 miles), or risk heavy fines which would be imposed on us and on NAVO Tour. An advance deposit of $2,500 was made and we were committed.

Women were very proficient motorcycle drivers.

Women rode their motorscooters very proficiently.

Through all of this process, Lisa at the NAVO’s head office was extremely efficient and patient, answering our every question and advising us of what we should not miss.   (en@navo-tour.com) If we had a problem, she had an answer. Now, with our truck parked a few yards from the gate at the Chinese border at the Turugart Pass, 3,752 meters, (12,909 feet), we waited for an intermediate guide to meet us.

The lengthy 2-hour lunch lethargically crept by and our first guide finally showed up. We presented our papers and proceeded to the second Customs and Immigration center an hour away, still an hour’s drive from Kashgar where we would meet our real guide that evening. We would need to drive to yet another Customs and Immigration center outside of Kashgar the next day with our temporary guide for even more inspections and paper work; Chinese driver’s license, temporary import license plate etc., etc. Every inch of our expedition camper and truck was checked, measured, weighed and scanned.

Green spotted a cute hole-in-the-wall café and I tried to remember how to use chopsticks.

Green spotted a cute hole-in-the-wall café and I tried to remember how to use chopsticks.

Our official real guide was waiting for us at the Hotel Seman, the old Russian embassy, where we could park and camp for the night. We had asked Lisa to find someone who was short, thin and spoke fluent English. Picky, picky, but knowing the guide would need to sit on a make-shift seat on the center console for a month between us, this was very important. Green was perfect. She was born on Earth Day so she gave herself the English name Green. She was excited to travel with us. We would camp every night possible and weather permitting, Green would sleep outside in the MSR tent we carried. Every third night, we would try to find a hotel where she could stay and we would camp in the hotel parking lot.

At Kashgar's Copper Market craftsmen were still using traditional hand tools.

At Kashgar’s Copper Market craftsmen were still using traditional hand tools.

Green had an astounding knowledge of China and had prepared well to be our guide in Kashgar. The next day, we headed straight to some of the many markets and learned very quickly that she was a “food junky”, in a good way. She could spot tasty street food or a safe hole-in-the-wall café wherever we went. Having a guide was a huge advantage. There are at least eight different linguistic groups, with hundreds of dialects and variations. Often they are not mutually understandable. Green was fluent in at least a couple of the main languages.

Driving in Kashgar was—huh—exciting. Eighty percent of the traffic was by motorscooter and 95% of those were electric, so we could not hear them coming. Drivers are totally unpredictable. Painted lines are just decoration and pedestrians will simply walk out in front of an oncoming vehicle without even looking. Thank the gods for our two very loud Fiamm air horns. “Loud Horn” is an international language! As a method of survival, we used taxis to get around big cities. Our first stop was the bank to change money, then lunch, one of Green’s specialties, and then on to the copper market. Let the photos tell a little of the story. Too many words get in the way of the experience we want you to have.

 

 

Kyrgyzstan # 5 – Tash Rabat – August 2014

April 13, 2018
Dirt tracks to yurt tracks were tempting but China was calling.

Dirt tracks to yurt camps were tempting but China was calling.

As we picked up the highway coming out of the valley below Song-Köl lake, we figured we’d better top up our fuel before we hit the Chinese border. The last possible place was the town of At-Bashy. We weren’t the only ones with same idea. Trucks, buses, cars and people with jerry cans were all waiting in line. Half an hour later, we finally made it to the pump and nudged ourselves in front of a line of well used cans, interestingly enough, mostly NATO style, the same as we have used for many years. The imported European pumps measured fuel in liters and cost-per-liter in Euros. The actual price was converted to Kyrgyz Soms. After we filled our two tanks and our two reserve jerry cans, much to the annoyance of the waiting line, it worked out to 219 liters or 58 gallons at a cost of $ 3.05 per gallon. It was a seller’s market to be sure. We took a quick spin through town. There were some interesting monuments, with horses of course. After picking up a few last-minute supplies in a small corner store, we were back on the highway, which was excellent or under construction as usual.

Tash Rabat

The Turtle V is parked in front of Tash Rabat, a Kyrgyz caravanserai.

The Turtle V is parked in front of Tash Rabat, a Kyrgyz caravanserai.

The turn-off for Tash Rabat was good gravel as it climbed to just over 11,500 feet into a high mountain valley, and there it was, one of the most impressive caravanserais we would see on the entire Silk Road. Surrounded by mountains, this 15th century stone fortress is truly a lasting monument to the famous trading route we had been following for over a year. Originally built as a Nestorian monastery in the 10th century, the interior included 31 rooms and chambers in the main hall where merchandise could be safely stored. There were long benches, probably for sleeping. The rooms were dome-shaped, making an interesting transition from a quadrangular frame. The entire building was made of stone with a clay mortar and gypsum mortar to seal the joints. Being a popular tourist attraction, there was even a pit toilet outside, but not one you might really want to use. Before there were physical borders, border guards, customs, immigration and visas, caravans of camels and horses laden with goods from both east and west would stop here to rest and trade their treasures.

This cozy guest yurt at Sabyrbek Yurt Camp in Tash Rabat sleeps four.

This cozy guest yurt at Sabyrbek Yurt Camp in Tash Rabat sleeps four.

We drove out past the tourist home-stay yurts and found a perfect spot near a clear running creek. A Kyrgyz family was preparing a serious picnic near us with a small wood-burning stove and two more big pots steaming away. A few buckets of water from the creek made The Turtle V presentable for the border crossing and we enjoyed a long hot shower.

Before leaving Tash Rabat we decided to check out the nearby Sabyrbek’s Yurt Camp where we met the friendly owner, Tursun, who spoke excellent English. 

For several of our sponsors, we took some PR photos of The Turtle V "yurt" parked among other yurts. Gates received this hilarious version, courtesy of an internet transmission fluke!

For several of our sponsors, we took some PR photos of The Turtle V “yurt” parked among other yurts. Gates received this hilarious version, courtesy of an internet transmission fluke!

She runs the camp and her husband organizes horseback tours throughout Kyrgyzstan. Tursun invited us for tea and we exchanged much information about Kyrgyzstan and the puzzling behavior of tourists. Heading south, first on a good highway, then more construction and finally the road just turned rough gravel. We said goodbye to the snow-clad mountains and herds of yaks, sheep, goats and horses peacefully grazing around tidy yurts. Chinese guard towers welcomed us.

At a small blue trailer perched on rickety stilts they checked our passports and we paid the $50.00 (US) exit fee. A guard opened the gate to let us out of Kyrgyzstan into no-man’s land. Somewhere near the top of Turugart Pass, 3,752 meters, (12,909 feet), we arrived at the first entry into China where we were supposed to meet a guide who would take us to the first immigration station. Our official guide who would travel with us across the country was waiting for us in Kashgar. The first guide was not there yet, and the crossing was closed for a long lunch break. We waited. It would not be the first time. This was China.

 

 

 

Kyrgyzstan # 4 – Lake Song Köl – August 2014

April 8, 2018

Leaving Kochkor, we filled our water tank at a street faucet. In these countries you need to fill every time you can. Once again, it was bucket time. We had purchased a large funnel to fit the fill tube on the camper back in Khorog, Tajikistan at their weekly open market.

At today's modern world, "highways" like this don't happen very often.

At today’s modern world, “highways” like this don’t happen very often.

Turning off the pavement, we aired down to 35psi to smooth the ride and prevent flats. As the road began to climb there were herds of yaks grazing peacefully. Never a fence in sight. No yaks wandering across the road. Maybe they have more sense than normal cows and horses. The rocky washboard twisted west and we could see the shimmering water of Lake Song-Köl in the distance. We turned into a multiple set of ruts, obviously a well-used track. The view was breathtaking, and it wasn’t the altitude, now 3,016 meters, (9,895 feet). Surrounded by mountains and rolling hills, it was the postcard picture of the Kyrgyz nomadic way of life, sprinkled with scattered yurts and herds of cattle, sheep, goats, and horses. We could explore the lake shore in the morning. For the moment, it was so peaceful, we simply pulled off the two-track for a hundred yards and set up camp. Time to cook dinner. I pulled out our Weber Go-Anywhere barbeque and laid on some juicy lamb chops we had scored back in Kochkor. People often ask, “Well, what do cook on the road?” The answer, “Everything!”

Lake Song-Köl

At first glance we thought this was a statue, but it was actually a lone horseback rider checking his cell phone.

At first glance we thought this was a statue, but it was actually a lone horseback rider checking his cell phone.

The cozy-looking yurts were our neighbors’ summer homes where these nomadic people take advantage of the high-altitude grass for their herds of cattle, horses and flocks of sheep. Smoke from their cooking stoves gave the yurts a warm feeling as evening temperatures dropped. We momentarily wished we had a little stove in our camper, (yurt), but then, where would we store all the dried yak dung for the fire. We quickly abandoned the idea and turned on our Espar diesel-powered Airtronic heater. By early Fall the yurts would be folded up and taken to lower elevations. The area is covered in snow for 200 days a year, the lake is frozen over, and the road we drove up is most likely closed.

Except for the occasional distant baa-ing of a lonely lamb, the silence was magical. There were a few yurts used as home stays at the far end of the lake but no tourists in sight except for one British couple camped by the shore. We later joined them for an evening of travel talk and beer.

This small herd of horses preferred the narrow peninsula that jutted out into the lake. Maybe there were fewer flies out there.

Lake Song-Köl is the kind of wilderness gem that you drive thousands of miles on questionable roads just so you can sit in the glow of a setting sun and marvel at the immense beauty. After three days, China was calling and the last road sign we saw said, “Torugart, 396 kilometers”. We headed back out, but there was a T-junction where the ruts merged with the two-track. On a hunch, we turned right and followed it toward the horizon. This had to be the alternate way back to the blacktop, right? When you come to a fork in the road,—-take it.

At the edge of a deep valley, the road dropped precipitously through a dozen or more spectacular switchbacks to another junction and improved gravel. Road construction was ongoing. Vendors had set up along the sides of the “highway” selling mountain honey and balls of dried yoghurt, a popular snack calle

d Qurut (Kurut).

Whiffs of smoke drifting out of the yurt on the right, told us someone was already preparing dinner.

Whiffs of smoke drifting out of the yurt on the right, told us someone was already preparing dinner.

Our final stop before leaving Kyrgyzstan would be Tash Rabat, one of the most impressive caravanserais along the entire Silk Road. Half buried in a hillside overlooking a beautiful valley, 3,530 meters, (11,581 feet), above sea level, some say it is Kyrgyzstan’s most treasured monument.

A little update on the “Magic Girl of the Pamirs”, the young girl who waded out into the creek, took the brush from my hands, and proceeded to help wash our truck. (Along The Pamir Hwy – Tajikistan #8). For simplicity and to protect her privacy, her name is “Masha”. We were able to contact the director of The American Corner in the town of Khorog three hours from Masha’s village.

The innocent eyes of wonder we saw in this eleven year old girl said: "I don't know who you are but I want to talk to you."

The innocent eyes of wonder we saw in this eleven year old girl said: “I don’t know who you are but I want to talk to you.”

The American Corner is a free learning center sponsored by the American Embassy designed to promote mutual understanding between the United States and Tajikistan. They provide up-to-date information about U.S. history, society, education, culture, and teach English to visitors.

The director, Sheroz Naimov, volunteered to help us. Hitching a ride with a friend to Masha’s village, he spoke to her and her father and explained that we wanted to sponsor her in the prestigious Aga Khan Lycée private school in Khorog, Sheroz told us Masha had tears in her eyes. Her father called Sheroz the next day to ask in wonder, “Is this really going to happen?” Yes, Sheroz told him, but now the first problem would be to find a safe place for her to live in Khorog. Secondly, could she pass the entrance test with her very poor math and Russian? Dreams do come true. Stay tuned.