Kazakhstan is huge. It's the world's largest landlocked country, and the ninth largest country in the world. It has a population of 18.8 million, and so has one of the lowest population densities in the world, - 15 people per square mile. There are more than 131 different ethnic groups living in Kazakhstan, in part because Stalin deported many different ethnicities here during his rule. Kazakhs are about 65% of the population. Kazakhstan might not have many people, but it has a great deal of oil and gas and vast mineral resources.
The primary city in Kazakhstan is not Nur-Sultan, the relatively new capital (which was first called Akmola and then Astana, until 2018), but Almaty, in the south east. Almaty, the former capital is the largest city in Kazakhstan (with over ten percent of the population) and is still the major cultural and commercial centre of the country. This, is where I've landed.
Driver Igor, meets Farida and I at the airport as we arrive from Tajikistan. (Shane has abandoned the tour totally now and gone on to Bishkek to collect another country). Igor is very Russian indeed, pretends he doesn’t speak English and is only interested in taking us back to our hotel. Nichego else. So, a hasty phone call to the tour organiser and Boris is Your Uncle, we are on a city tour.
After the competitively goliath construction in the other Central Asian countries Almaty is struggling to hold our attention. It’s dull and hazy, which doesn’t help and we can only just discern the mountains that surround it, already frosted with snow. (The BBC weather forecast says ‘smoke’). Virtually nothing is written in English and very few people speak the language. When approached people ask, ’Do you speak Russian? ‘Niet’ I reply mournfully.
The Central Mosque is relatively new, completed in 1999, It has a huge gold dome decorated with verses from the Quran rendered by Turkish calligraphers and was designed for 7000 worshippers. The carpets are frayed. The country is nominally Muslim, but there are few outward signs of this and mosques are not commonly seen or heard.
Nearby, the Green Market is open, but it is surrounded by metal hoardings, as it’s being renovated; there are huge signs saying No Photos and everyone looks grumpy. We beat a hasty retreat. Also in the area, a few older wooden style Russian houses with painted shutters and some old brutalist architecture, no longer utilised.
The Park of 28 Panfilov Guardsmen surrounds the Ascension Cathedral. It's named after the 28 soldiers of an Alma-Ata Infantry unit who died while defending Moscow from the German invasion during the Second World War. Ivan Panfilov, was the General commanding the division which, managed to significantly delay the Germans advance to Moscow. There's an eternal flame and numerous other soviet monuments of different sizes.
The musical instrument museum in the park is open, and the wooden building housing it, with its spire, is interesting, compared to most of the others. It's history is also fascinating - it was used for government receptions before it became a museum. but the contents are not exactly riveting. We probably achieve the record for taking the quickest tour.
The highly recommended timber roofed Ascension (or Zenkov after its architect) Cathedral is swathed entirely in scaffolding. It was built at the same time as the Music Museum building. I've found a poster that helpfully shows what it looks like in its full glory. After trudging right round it we find a way in, but it is so dark that we can’t see what it looks like inside without taking flashlight pictures. Then we notice the sign that says Don’t Take Photos Without Permission.
There are several blocks of very flash shops. Kazakhstan is a relatively wealthy country. It’s just not very clear where the money is going. Kazakhstan has been independent since 1991, with the same dictator style president at the helm since that time. Much of the important stuff, ATMs, phones, transport, seems to be run by Qazcom, now spelled Kazcom in the spirit of the new Latin alphabet. Igor is scathing about the grandiose plans made for renovation in Almaty. Nothing ever gets implemented, he says
There are plenty of up market cars creating some awful traffic, so we inch past some more statues, and Independence Square, to our hotel. It seems we’ve seen the best that Almaty has to offer. The guide books say that the tourist industry is very much in its infancy in Kazakhstan.
It seems that Farida and I are the only people ever who have left the Golden Eagle train tour and then returned. A farewell dinner in the restaurant at the top of the Ritz Carlton hotel with the rest of the tour group. The night time views over the city and mountains show Almaty off to the best possible advantage. You can see the bank towers - mock glass covered Soviet monoliths- and the mall.
The forecast for today is fog. I suppose that’s an improvement. Having exhausted the splendours of Almaty, Farida and I are venturing out of town to Shymbulak. This mountainous area was home to the first downhill ski route in the Soviet Union. Skiers originally needed to climb up the mountain tops on foot (which took roughly 3 hours).
The new ski resort was created for the Asian Olympics, as they insist on calling it. Today there’s a gondola to the small village affording views of a few swish chalets and the speed skating rink designed, at the president’s behest, to hothouse local talent. There’s a very light dusting of snow on some of the runs, but it’s mostly shale and rows of snow cannons, at the ready. Despite the snow, it’s warm; up here the fog has burned off and the peaks are bathed in sunshine.
Farida gives the driver hard time - he can’t speak English - as she is determined not to miss any of the scheduled stops made on the commercial tour she was considering. We’ve taken a hotel car instead. The driver is bemused. It takes a fifteen minute phone call and two physical demonstrations before she is convinced that the road up the mountain really is closed. We get to see everything from the cable car anyway.
Back to the hotel, and I’m setting off for the airport - Moldova, via Moscow. I leave Farida with the weary driver. She is visiting Almaty Lake this afternoon and she has decided that she must see the Beatles Monument below the TV Tower on the way.
So, astonishingly, here I am on a totally unplanned (in advance) trip to Tajikistan, with Shane and Farida from the Golden Eagle train. Shane is in charge of logistics and Farida checks to make sure we haven’t missed any of the sights. This involved her leaving at seven this morning, to see a tomb near Samarkand, before the rest of the day’s sightseeing and our trip over the border from Uzbekistan.
The border crossing is a long bumpy walk through no man’s land in the dark, but the Tajiks are extraordinarily friendly. The officer on duty jokes about taking my photograph for his memories and the customs officer declares ‘Tourist? Come on through.’ Our guide, Shahbos (‘Not Shah-bus, as that’s a goat’, he requests) is highly organised and speaks good English. Why haven’t I come here before?
The only problem seems to be finding a toilet. ‘It’s up there’, everyone in each of the offices in immigration says, peering round their doors and extending their arms. But it isn’t. Eventually, we set off in our minibus, stop at a garage and are directed through some locked gates into a field. There’s no toilet here either, just some bushes and a shed. I shuffle across to the far side of the shed and promptly fall in a hole. There is some bad language and three fat sheep amble over to watch. I expect they think I’m marking my territory.
I haven’t seen a single other tourist yet, which is perhaps why the Tajiks are so friendly. Khujand, right in the northern finger of the country, where we overnight, is spaciously laid out with avenues of trees, colonnaded parks, a Lenin statue (removed from its central location to a more deserted spot) and a heavily restored fortress that's now a museum. In the central bazaar, swarms of stallholders shove to have their pictures taken and demand to know here we’re from. The word Anglia has been added to my very limited Tajik/Uzbek vocabulary of salaam alaikum and rahmat (thank you).
Then we set off into the Pamir Mountains. We began at the ungodly hour of 7 a.m. as Farida has insisted that Iskanderkul (Alexander’s Lake, he of the Great fame) be added to the menu, so there will be two mountain passes to cross to the capital, Dushanbe, with a long diversion to the lake, after lunch. This is not a rich country. There is some agriculture (the mountains notwithstanding) and Tajikistan grows grains, cotton, fruits and vegetables and rears cattle, sheep and goats. We stop to chat to some of the cotton pickers.
The peaks are gorgeous, like fruit cake dusted with icing sugar. This is reassuring, as we’ve been firmly told, by astonished guides when we planned to leave the tour, that there is nothing to see in Tajikistan.
Indian summer has continued and the glacial water of the rivers and the lake (definitely worth the detour) is icy green, stunningly complemented by the deep orange hues of the trees (surpassing the Caucasian countries with their yellow tinges by a mile) There are a few dabs of crimson too.
Today, I’m followed to my bush toilet by a curious child. We can't use the one at the riverside restaurant as the key is broken in the lock.
We continue to Dushanbe, down a long scenic gorge and via a sequence of tunnels, on a road contracted by three Chinese. Ventilation isn’t always a strong point in the tunnels and I’m not sure the driver can always see where he’s going. I’m trying to hold my breath.
As is sadly common in many countries, the bus is stopped by the police and the driver raids his cache of notes, inexpertly hidden under the dashboard blanket, to speed us on our way. A final stop at a car wash. The other passengers jump out to stretch their legs, but I am feeling lethargic. Until there’s a fountain of water through the roof. There’s also a bit of a surprise later, when the driver’s lighter explodes.
It’s a good day to arrive. Dushanbe means Monday; as a small village it held a renowned Monday market. It developed as a cultural centre during the Soviet occupation. And we can already see that this is a city of parks. There are fountains and friendly soldiers. The trees are lit up at night, and illuminations also suspended over all the main thoroughfares. They are in the national colours, so I assume it’s not very early Christmas lights. In any case, this is another, Muslim (but officially secular) country).
I have a huge chunk of yak calf for dinner.
Ashgabat may be winning in the outlandish stakes, but my enormous steak has signalled Dushanbe's intentions. They are sticking with gargantuan. They have built (or are building) the biggest library, the biggest parliament complex, the biggest banqueting hall and the biggest mosque in Central Asia, as well as the biggest flagpole in the world (until surpassed by Jeddah recently, they will have to try again). This is all despite no oil or gas revenue. The country is 93 % mountainous and has some agriculture (mainly cotton) and hydroelectric power.
Tajikistan is a country of four provinces, with a population that is mostly Tajik speaking and nearly entirely Moslem. It became an independent sovereign nation in 1991, following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. A civil war followed almost immediately after independence, lasting until 1997. The country has been led by President Emomali Rahmon since 1994. Wikipedia says, '(Rahmon).. rules an authoritarian regime. There is extensive corruption and widespread violations of human rights, including torture, arbitrary imprisonment, worsening political repression, and a lack of religious freedom and other civil liberties'.
Shahbos was a student to master’s level and now has two children. This is the route to evading military service. One child is not enough, which is odd in a country that is trying to discourage population growth. Shahbos’s brother has a second child on the way but he is staying out of sight in Russia, until the second is safely born. Reception parties at the airport and press-ganging are apparently common
Shahbos tells us that there are two must–sees in Dushanbe and we have can choose which one we want to see before we leave. Well, talk about waving red rags in front of bulls. We get a private and rapid tour of a hugely elaborate gilded ‘Palace of Nations’ used for official events and banquets,that we reckon cost about a billion dollars to build. No-one is owning up to the actual figure of course. They're rehearsing some dancing for an upcoming celebration and not overly keen on an audience for this bit.
And then we visit the history museum. The highlight there is a 13 metre partially reconstructed reclining Buddha. ‘I think you preferred the palace’, Shahbos guesses correctly as we progress to the airport.
Tajikistan was well worth visiting, even for such a short time. Next, rejoin the train trip at Kazakhstan.
We have a chartered Embraer 190 (about 90 seats) to take 13 of us over the Caspian from Baku to Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. TC Ted gets his own seat, so he makes 14 and there are three cabin attendants. For lunch we are given a hot pancake with chocolate sauce and canned fruit cocktail. The airport is all white marble, green and gold, with every modern device possible and cascades of automatic escalators and moving walkways. It is eerily absolutely deserted – even more so than the one in Pyongyang. There are machine passport readers and scores of x-ray scanners. Maybe the men on customs duty are bored, but they find something to question in everyone’s case. They are particularly interested in medication, so Doctor Tino gets a hard time, until ennui sets in for them again.
Our hotel is a smaller version of The Sail in Dubai. We can see it as we come into land, standing proudly isolated outside the city. And as for the city: if other capitals have been space age this one is in another galaxy. It’s all white marble. I’m going to change my mind about where Kim Jong-un got his inspiration. This place is Abu Dhabi, meets Las Vegas, meets Pyongyang. It’s so over the top I’m almost lost for words. Ashgabat was rebuilt in Soviet style in the mid-twentieth century, when it was part of the Soviet Union. Since independence, the resulting monoliths have all been re-clad in marble. Some have had neoclassical pillars added. In a city of just 22square kilometres, there are 543 buildings covered with 4.5 million cubic metres of imported Italian white marble.
As if that wasn't enough, the city is filled with grand monuments honouring former president Saparmurat Niyazov - or Turkmenbashi. (The name Turkmenbashi means exactly what it suggests, Leader of the Turkmen.) This man was a specialist in building a personality cult. He renamed the city of Krasnovodsk after himself and then set about placing gold statues of his image around Ashgabat. Just as in North Korea, there are statues to commemorate the dead and pictures for the current incumbent. The current president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, was born sixteen years later and is, officially, no relation. But he looks uncannily like him, as is evident from his many pictures. The opposition party (at least there is one) have dubbed him The Turkmenator. Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow became president in 2007 after winning a non-democratic election (he had been vice-president and then acting president previously);
Wikipedia reports that, 'the country is widely criticized for its poor human rights, its treatment of minorities, press and religious freedoms.'
There are also gold domes, towers, an enclosed Ferris wheel (unsurprisingly unique in the world), towering pillars, a rocket shaped memorial, a whole line of sports stadia, strings of fountains, parks and a multiplicity of other extravaganza. The highlight is the tripod/rocket shaped Neutrality Monument. (Apparently, Turkmenistan is the first officially neutral country in the world. I will have to check that. What about Switzerland? ) This is all in the new town, which is criss-crossed by three lane highways. The gantries, lamps and traffic lights are white, with a filigree gilt finish and there are videos running on LCD screens (with white and gold frames) at the sides of the road, showing the president and other dignitaries working, and also, bizarrely, fun fairs and other jollity.
There are no people around here, other than cleaners, pretending to sweep and wash the stone paths and men on mobile platforms polishing all the numerous lamps that illuminate them. Almost 90% of workers in Turkmenistan are employed by the government. The many elite apartment blocks look empty and another car on the mega highways is an event. Our guide says that the old town is livelier - he lives there - but we haven’t been taken to visit it.
Like Pyongyang, much seems fake. There is no roaming cell phone signal and little Wi-Fi. All the social media sites are blocked. Our out of town hotel also fits the bill. It's a modern tear drop shaped beacon. At 5.5 stars it’s much more stylish than anything in North Korea, but it’s isolated and is reached using its own deserted three lane highway. There’s no 16th or 17th floor button in the lift (!) I have a view across the Marble City and there’s an illuminated star encased globe on the next hill, which turns out to be the Happiness Palace, where people get married.
The room is decorated with fancy wood furniture. The bathroom has a heated floor and there’s even a TV at the end of the bath. There are Bulgari toiletries beautifully arranged- all very elegant with glass and marble fittings, shower and separate toilet. And then a tube of Colgate toothpaste and a tooth brush in their original wrappings. Very odd. The service is interesting, the staff look surprised and little put out if you ask them to do anything. At breakfast, there is no-one at the egg station, and when she does return the chef has a hissy fit if she gets more than one order at a time.
There are a few more people in evidence today. It’s nominally an Islamic country and only 30% of the population are practising Muslims, but the women are fully covered with very long skirts. Before they are married they sport small skull caps and long plaits. When partnered up they move on to bright headscarves, tied to make it look as if they have as much hair as possible, Iranian style. (Iran is only just the other side of the mountains). Some of the men wear small skull caps too. They are all very reluctant to have their photographs taken. Elvin says that newly married women are forbidden from speaking to their fathers in law at all. When they have had a baby they may inquire what he wants for dinner.
There’s also almost a small traffic jam in another part of the new city as we progress to and from the mud remains of the Parthian Fortresses of Nisa. It's mainly two 'tells' or flat but apparently it's the site of one of the earliest and most important cities of the Parthian Empire, a major power from the mid 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD. The most exciting thing to do here is walk round the mud ramparts for great views of the Kopet Dag mountains and across the flat valley.
The Kipchak Mosque is also gleaming in the haze. There’s also a green roofed village nestling below the peaks, the remnants of old Soviet collective farms. Winter wheat and cotton are major crops, as well some grapes. The guide says the wine isn’t very nice, it’s very sweet.
The huge mosque is built in memory of Turkmenbashi and his mother and is one of the largest mosques in Central Asia. It's adorned with an immense golden cupola 50 meters in diameter and four tall minarets 91 meters high (Turkmenistan gained independence in 1991), Inside are interlocking eight-sided stars from cherry wood and pillars cased in Carrara marble and a huge handwoven carpet. There's room for 10 000 worshippers inside the mosque, but it usually sits empty, as the mosque is somewhat controversial. It incorporates scripts from the Ruhnama, the former president’s moral guidebook, which are given equality with the Koran. The family mausoleum is alongside, suitably guarded by goose stepping soldiers.
Then, back to the train, which has crossed the Caspian Sea to reach Turkmenistan on a ferry. It’s the first time, on this journey, that I’ve sat in my cabin and been able to look out in daylight. So far all I’ve seen is acres of scrubby flat desert, a herd of camels grazing and the odd industrial plant, which I assume is for the extraction of the natural gas, which is the country’s main export. Most of the country is covered by the Karakum Desert. The population is about 6 million, the lowest of the Central Asian republics, and Turkmenistan is one of the most sparsely populated nations in Asia.
Turkmenistan has long served as a thoroughfare for other nations and cultures. Merv is one of the oldest oasis-cities in Central Asia, and was once the biggest city in the world. It was also one of the great cities of the Islamic world and an important stop on the Silk Road. Annexed by the Russian Empire in 1881, Turkmenistan figured prominently in the anti-Bolshevik movement in Central Asia. In 1925, Turkmenistan became a constituent republic of the Soviet Union, the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic (Turkmen SSR); it became independent after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Gas certainly contributes to the country’s most impressive sight. The Darvaza Gas Crater in the middle of the Karakum Desert has been alight since the early 1970s when a gas rig collapsed, creating a huge hollow. It was lit deliberately to eliminate the leaking poisonous gas. They thought it would take a week to burn out. It’s astonishing in the dark, like a giant cauldron, and we tiptoe round the edge with torches and then, at Tino’s insistence, scramble up a much too steep hill for the view, tumbling into thorn bushes on the way. There’s definitely no way back out if you fall in, assuming you don’t catch light straight away.
The showers in our compact cabins are a little annoying, as you have to keep your hand on a knob to maintain the flow of water. It’s not easy to do this and spray yourself holding the showerhead simultaneously. Shane suggests that we should adopt the yoga Tree Pose, standing on one leg and pressing the knob with your knee. I’ve tried it, but it’s not hugely comfortable.
We’re supposed to be over the border in Uzbekistan when we awake, but the train is still sitting at Dashoguz on the Turkmen border. They seem to be changing the engine. Here, there’s a built up area and an insight into the real Turkmenistan. The houses are mainly crumbling clay and stone shacks, though they all have a satellite dish on the roof. There’s an Uzbek flag waving tantalisingly in the distance as we, perplexingly, reverse out of Dashoguz station. We’ve decided the drivers are more used to freight trains as they have not yet mastered the art of braking smoothly. Everything in the carriage topples over as we halt.
I was wrong, that wasn’t the Uzbek flag, it was the Turkmen flag – Dashoguz must have been a terminus and this is the border area. There are soldiers observing alongside the track every 100 metres or so now. Uzbekistan here I come. Farida from the train is re-joining us when we do finally get there. She was refused a visa for Turkmenistan, no explanation given.
My ANZAC tour of The Silk Road, with guide Surat, continues over the border from Uzbekistan into Kyrgyzstan. (It's taken me a long time to learn to spell that properly.) “Kyrgyz” is thought to be derived from the Turkic word for “forty” – a reference to the 40 clans of the great Manas. So the country’s flag features a 40-ray sun.
Kyrgyzstan is definitely landlocked. It's farther from the sea than any other individual country, and the Tian Shan (Heavenly) Mountains cover over 80% of the country. with the average peak coming in at over 2000 metres. It's yet another Switzerland - "the Switzerland of Central Asia" - as a result. A very well travelled lady I met in the Philippines told me that the dramatic scenery here on the Silk Road was the best thing she ever saw. So I have high hopes.
The crossing Uzbekistan into Kyrgyzstan is extremely tedious. Passports are checked at four different places before I am allowed an exit stamp. We are also enjoined to keep the registration document from each hotel we have stayed at. Guards need to look at them and other Uzbek hotels will not be allowed to register us unless they have seen these. The customs officers are bored and rifle through everything in my bag before spending ten minutes looking at all the pictures on my iPad and asking who everyone is. They are bewildered because I don't speak Russian. All foreigners speak Russian.
Another minivan and another driver and a very short tour of Osh, Osh is both ancient (It is the oldest city in the country, estimated at more than 3000 years old) and the second town in Kyrgyzstan. It is immediately obvious that Kyrgyzstan is much poorer and more liberal than Uzbekistan. Lenin is in favour here again, but otherwise there is little in the way of buildings or monuments to admire. The roads are decrepit, and structures are low build and crumbling with corrugated tin roofs. Most of the cars here are Japanese. These are cheaper when the steering wheel is on the left so fifty percent of the cars in the country are left hand drive and fifty percent right hand. There are a lot of accidents - the government, we are told, is going to take steps. There are also flies everywhere.
There's a bustling fascinating and friendly bazaar and another mosque before we return to find yet another driver. The last one has been taken sick. I hope it's not an omen. We don't get lunch as it takes so long to get through the border, so dinner is fairly early. Traditional rice plov, (pilaff) eaten on a blanket covered wooden verandah that is built out over a swift flowing river. There is a little water wheel turning to one side.
We are in a homestay tonight. I have been allocated the dining room and I am sleeping on a sofa bed. There is a shared bathroom and very hard toilet paper. But at least there is some. I don't think it's a good idea to inspect anything too closely. There is a huge dining table and a large flat screen TV and an extension lead with sockets. The latter might possibly have been an advantage except that there are no batteries in the remote control and the lead fuses with a loud bang when I plug in my phone. There is no WiFi. This is a residential area and outside there is nothing but trees, houses and shrieking children. It looks like an early night, Except that there are glass doors to my dining room and no curtains or blinds.
A climb up Solomon's Mountain (Sulayman Too). This is possibly Kyrgyzstan's biggest claim to a tourist trap and the only UNESCO site wholly in the country. Sulayman is a prophet in the Qur'an and this mountain is sacred to Muslim pilgrims, the most important sacred mountain in Central Asia. The trees and bushes on the mountain are draped with numerous "prayer flags". There are seven caves in the interior. One houses a historical museum with some wax figures.
At the top there's a shrine that supposedly marks Solomon's grave. Women who crawl though an opening across the holy rock will, according to legend, give birth to healthy children. As if that wasn't enough, if you slide down a slippy piece of slope on the rock three times then all your back problems are cured. I try it, but it's difficult to stop without jarring your spine so I suspect that more problems are generated than are actually cured. There's also a fifteenth-century house built by Babur (Tamerlane's descendant and the founder of the Mughal Empire), a mosque with a cemetery and a viewpoint. There's a great panoramic view of the city and the valley beyond the mountains beckoning in the distance.
As with Uzbekistan, the most interesting aspect of town visiting is people watching. They are slightly more reserved than the Uzbeks, but still friendly, and there is some great headgear. Most notable are tall felt embroidered hats for men.
Then, over the Irkeshtam Pass mountain pass, three thousand metres up. a deep gorge where the southern flank of the Tian Shan mountains meet the Pamir Mountains. The views are not undersold. It's stunning, the colour palette sublime .There are sprinklings of gers (now called yurts) and goats, horses and donkeys meander onto the twisting roads.
We end today's journey in another homestay, at Sary Tash, the seven thousand metre peaks of Tajikistan painting a picture before us. I'm not looking forward to tonight. There are six of us crammed into one room - sleeping on blankets on the floor. The temperature outside is around zero degrees as the sun sets. There are two long drop toilets (grade 2 out of ten) fifty yards away. The smell is indescribable. And it's even harder to hold your breath and go to the toilet at the same time. All I've had to drink at dinner is vodka. I'm hoping it will put me to sleep and I won't have to go the toilet too often.
A diabolical night's sleep. There is a chorus of snoring all night and the ground is hard and cold. It is just about compensated for by the unfolding mountain vistas as we climb higher and higher: velvety green folds backed by white blanketed peaks and azure skies. There are no other cars on the road. Shangri-La is punctuated by stops at border crossings for more passport checks as we inch closer to China. There is the pre-border check in Kyrgyzstan, then the stamp the passport Kyrgyzstan stop, then into No Man's Land and five checks spread over 140 kilometres in China before we actually officially arrive there - in Kashgar.
On the road again, returning from our excursion to Kashgar. Back through the rocky border zone, but not so far this time, turning off over the Torugart Pass towards northern Kyrgyzstan and the Tien Shan Mountains. Border procedures are less onerous, but still irksome. However, the road is single track and not nearly as well maintained. Chinese trucks tear in the opposite direction, taking the middle of the road on the hairpin bends and causing our happy driver to shriek. There are also landslides and wash out from rivers to contend with
The Torugart Port of Entry where travellers must clear for customs, is about 70 miles from the pass itself. Several miles before the border proper there is a broken down lorry stuck in one of the wash outs. Some trucks attempt to manoeuvre round it, wobbling precariously in the mud, but there is a long queue of traffic at a standstill for 20 minutes. After much reversing we are on our way again, the scent of chamomile in the air. The truck drivers continue to be a menace; one misses us by a millimetre. I'm trying to concentrate on the peaks, which are now snow capped again, but it's difficult with all the bumping and Chinese swearing. We ascend once more to well over three thousand metres, snow lying along the side of the road.
There is another minibus waiting at the very top, on the border. This one has so many cracks in the wind screen it looks like a spider's web. Heaven knows how the driver can see. As we enter Kyrgyzstan the pass follows a long wide valley with the iridescent Lake of Chatyr-Kul off to one side. The highest peak in the Tian Shan is Jengish Chokusu (also called Victory Peak) on the border with China. At 7,439 metres, it is also the highest point in Kyrgyzstan Eventually, we turn off into a gorge that gradually narrows. This road, stretching for some 250 miles to Bishkek, is often impassable in winter, due to heavy snowfall and frequent avalanches.
At the end of the gorge is Tash Rabat, a famous stone caravanserai, a stone domed resting place for Silk Road travellers. Or a temple. Or a fortress. Take your pick. We drive the seven kilometres to have a look and I walk back savouring the crisp mountain air and the dinosaur like rock formations. There are little yellow and sapphire alpine flowers. It's picture postcard perfect.
Tonight, we are doing the tourist thing and staying in a yurt. The decent ones are made out of layers of felt, supported by wooden beams. Some of them, however, are plastic covered with steel poles. The locals call these Chinese yurts. There are several yurt camps set along the little stream that tumbles through the gorge. Naturally, ours is the most fleabitten. Tonight all seven of us are crammed into one tent, so I'm not going to escape the snoring. At least we have beds this time.
The snoring was considerably diminished last night. Possibly because no alcohol was consumed at last night's yurt feast of cabbage and potato with microscopic chunks of meat. Fat marmots posture and then scurry back to their burrows, as we head back down the gorge. I'm sitting up front next to the driver. There are a few perks associated with being a The Spare Part. His name is Reynard and he has the usual gold teeth (until recently these were regarded as a sign of wealth). He is driving with one bare foot and one foot in shoe and sock. I'm sure there is a good reason. I have accused him of aspiring to be English, as he spends most of his time driving on the wrong (left hand side) of the road and listening to bad eighties music, like Village People. He thinks I'm being funny.
There is very little traffic (fortunately) on our route through more wide valleys and high passes. For most of the way the road surface is very poor. No-one has done much to the highways since Kyrgyzstan left the Soviet Union and the old Russian roads have disintegrated badly. The Chinese have begun to reconstruct the roads on this side of the country too, but there is little tar-macadam in evidence yet, just plenty of piled up rocks, some concrete piping and a swarm of bulldozers. As with much of Central Asia, any car is a potential taxi. You just have to get the price right.
And, the scenery is still magnificent. The mountains vary between rolling brown and green, herds of goats and horses roam (it's still foaling season) and there are snow tipped peaks visible still for most of the time. The roadside stalls here are touting apricots and the trees in the orchards are laden with the fruit.
Kyrzgstan is landlocked and mountainous so there is no seaside. Right? Our destination today is Issyk Kul (Warm Lake). It's also known as Karakol and is the second highest lake in the world after Titicaca. The sandy beach here is thronged with sunbathers, bright umbrellas and bouncy castles, not to mention donkey and camel rides. The water is heaving with intrepid swimmers (at 17 degrees I wouldn't exactly describe it as warm, but the lake is so named because it never freezes) . A row of white capped mountains form the scenic backdrop. Around the lake, the apricot stalls are supplemented with racks of smoked fish.
Tonight's accommodation is another homestay. Yet again I'm in one of the sitting rooms with no curtains. The toilet and shower are at the bottom of the garden.
We detour along the lake to admire petroglyphs that are nearly three thousand years old. These are of interest, but the field of rocks, seemingly the remains of a moraine, is a more enjoyable experience, another great view in both directions, towards the mountains and back across the lake.
A visit to the eleventh century Burana Tower follows. It is all that remains of the ancient (ninth century) Karakhanid city of Balasagun. As with so many of these Central Asian towers, its height has been reduced by earthquakes over the centuries. This one was originally 45 metres high. and it's now only 25 metres. The whole site, including some mausoleums, is a museum and you can climb to the top of the tower, if you are feeling energetic.
As is also often the case, there's a legend associated with the tower. It says that a fortune tellers told a powerful khan that his baby daughter would die from a spider bite on her sixteenth birthday. To protect her, the khan built this tall tower for her to live in Food was thoroughly inspected and delivered in a basket via a ladder. On her sixteenth birthday the khan himself took her fruit in basket. A spider was hiding inside.
Yesterday the seaside, today Hawaii. Lunch is at a restaurant, on a lagoon full of fountains and floating pavilions and bedecked with plastic palm trees in yellow and red. There are all manner of bizarre statues. The highlight is probably the blue horse.
Then on to Bishkek, nipping through the bottom most finger of Kazakhstan, barricaded with barbed wire. Bishkek evolved from a Russian fortress on the Silk Road called Pishpek. At first glance, the capital of Kyrgyzstan could rival Cuzco or Kathmandu for scenic city views of snowy peaks. However, it is a haphazard sprawl of residential and industrial buildings. There are wide boulevards and marble-faced public buildings, combined with numerous Soviet-style apartment blocks. I can't see any signposts, but people seem to know where they are going. I'm not sure it has a centre, although there is a square, with a statue and government buildings, with soldiers goose-stepping to change the guard this time. Here are also a couple of impressive museums, one with a collection of soviet era statues and tableaux, mostly featuring Lenin.
It's been roasting hot today and a few of us are displaying symptoms of heatstroke. (Temperatures here range from 40 degrees in Summer to minus thirty in winter.)I have compounded the situation as I have been drinking very little to avoid midnight trips to the longdrops. Early bed, with some dioralyte. Surat, the local, is red eyed and looks worse than me. He's got even more confused as the trip wears on and he lives up to the depressed Soviet stereotype. He's called both of us Sues, Susie, the whole trip so far. Tomorrow we fly back to Tashkent, to pick up The Silk Road again.
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