Traveling from the edges of Kyrgyzstan to the western frontier of China is for those looking for beautiful scenery and unique experiences. Flying is just too easy. But, be aware. There is a mental and physical price to pay. Many foreign passport holders are still required to hire a private escort to take them through the area south of the border and then on to Kashgar, The journey usually requires a long wait at the top of a chilly mountain and a possibility that a truck full of uranium could be sitting next to your car the whole time. Start the journey from Naryn before dawn, bring some snacks, maybe a face mask and a whole lot of patience. Border guards usually have no knowledge about what’s going on and take a large break at lunch time. Remember, this border is primarily used for shipping goods back and forth between the two countries. No warm welcome here.
Of course, there are rewards to all the aches and pains. Endless views of barren pastures featuring packs of wandering wild horses, playful yaks, remains of ancient Caravanserai’s and occasional sightings of a local family packing up their yurt as the sun comes up. This is probably one of the best ways to experience this part of the ancient Silk Road. Now, it’s really all about the journey.
Kashgar’s Sunday Livestock Market experience is equivalent to going back in time. Horses waiting for a test drive and Bactrian Camels seemingly striking a pose for the cameras are a couple of highlights for curious visitors. This place is all business, so in the very least try to stay clear of the path of galloping horses, what they and their four-legged friends leave behind and try take tons of great photos without any accidents.
Take a close look at this picture. Observe the hindu symbols and how the Arabic script and short phases do not flow from tile to tile. They must not make any sense for those who can read them. The how ironic is this wall of tiles? The site is a beautiful and mysterious place to see how the Chinese of the wild west used to live. The sleepy camel and the colorful walls all make a great backdrop for souvenir pictures.
The Apak Khoja mausoleum is where five generations of the Apak Khoja family lay to rest. One of them is the subject of two very different folktales. The Han cast her as a romantic Uyghur princess and she is known as the “Fragrant Concubine” who is a loving companion of a Han Emperor who united a once divided nation. In the Uyghur version, she is known as Iparhan, granddaughter of Apak Khola. Locals say she died in Beijing after being taken there by force by a victorious and greedy Han Emperor. It is thought that she either committed suicide or a her jealous mother-in-law ordered a eunuch to murder her. Iparhan is a nationalist hero of the Uyghur people who symbolizes the resistance against the Han.
People from both camps come here to see where this mythical princess lays to rest. The tomb is possible empty because both tales are pure fiction. The government has decided to keep the dream of the “Fragrant Concubine” alive and charges visitors to see what used to be a Sufi pilgrimage site. It’s upkeep and renovations are not cheap. Camel rides are not included.
A large pomegranate fruit sits in the middle of Kashgar’s Old City just behind the refurbished Id Kah Mosque. The Chinese have long believed that this fruit symbolizes fertility and those consuming it will have a long life and possibly chance at immortality. In ancient Egypt, the fruit represented ambition and prosperity. The consumption of these fruity seeds by Persian warrior made him invincible. The pomegranate will hopefully offer such gifts and more to the Uighurs here in Kashgar.
Animals usually travel to and from Kashgar’s Livestock Market on the backs of trucks, inside the trunks and back seats of cars, or packed inside trailers pulled either by a motor bike, horse or donkey. Sheep and lamb are usually tossed in and out like bails of hay, while agitated cows, camels, horses and donkeys get pulled and lifted into and out of the backs of trucks. Visitors will find it hard not to marvel at a group of men collectively pushing a few stressed out cows up and on to a truck bed by using all means necessary. The best maneuver that afternoon was something that can only be described as the tail twister. Check out this video by stefhoffer on YouTube for a better look.
Dunhuang is different things to the various travelers who either arrive by private car, bus, train or plane into this “City of Sand”. Some come here seeking to concur the Gobi Desert by camel and others are simply looking to view what’s left of the ancient Silk Road. There is enough here to please both groups.
The Mogao Caves
Dunhuang is currently one of China’s top domestic tourist destinations and currently under construction. The Mogao Thousand Buddha Grottoes just outside of town is getting a complete makeover, like much of China’s top tourist sites and cities these days. According to our tour guide, the ancient Buddhist caves dating back to the 5th century. A.D. get up to 6,000 visitors a day during the high summer season. Carbon dioxide has been taking a toll on the interior paintings that have been open to the public since the 1980’s. The damaged cave doors will soon close when the brand new Mogao Caves Museum opens in a year or so giving the public a shiny new camera friendly scene to witness.
The current ticket price to tour the caves is ¥160 + another ¥20 for a guide for Non-Chinese. Was it worth it? Yes, now it is even though no pictures are allowed. In the long run, the site will get a rest and hopefully will be properly preserved. At least some will be may happy with the change. I’m sure many welcome the chance to be able to take pictures despite the fact that they aren’t the real thing.
The Yardung Geological Park
To some, the desert areas that make up the Yardung Geological Park west of Dunhuang is just a bunch of rocks shaped supposedly like Chinese mythological creatures and leftovers from the good old days of when this area was the gateway of the Silk Road. It was once the area where dinosaurs roamed, a very large lake once stood. Centuries later, trade masters, maybe even Marco Polo, lead their camels through the Jade Gate. It was a place to refuel and pay taxes before continuing west to Central Asia and east towards Chang’an. Little has been left behind but there is still much to see here in the Gobi Desert even if it’s a rock shaped like a Phoenix.
The Buzzing Sands
The dunes resting next to fruit tree groves at the western edge of town where once a place where travels could rest and enjoy a sunset while listening to the wind pass through the orange sandy hills. They have long been known as Mingsha Shan or the “Echoing Sand Mountain”. Today, the luxury Silk Road Hotel Resort, cranes and workers building more resorts, thousands of camels and all types of recreation vehicles all can be found in amongst the dune landscape. The buzz of paragliders drowns out any singing going on here.
A ticket ¥180 gets visitors though the gates, into a rented a pair of orange booties and away off to explore the dunes on the back of a camel or inside of a less than safe looking paragliders. Many visitors can skip all of that. There are roads that lead into the apricot groves and end where the desert is less crowded. It is still possible to see the dunes minus the tour groups and hubbub of the theme park it has become.
Japan will always be on the top of my travel list. June was spent traveling around the southern parts of Japan. Previous visits were short, but we now had the ability to spend as much time as we liked or could afford on the weak USD. We started in Osaka since a couple of friends were getting married in May on Lake Biwako near Kyoto. After that, we grabbed a Peach Airlines Flight to southern island of Kyushu and spent a couple of weeks hopping around the volcanic island. We ended up just skirting the usually wet rainy season they experienced just a few days after we flew to Tokyo.
We ended the Japan trip in Tokyo. We decided to rent out a service apartment in the Shinjuku. Here, we planned out our upcoming Fall trip and sorted out most of our visas to the “Stans” of Central Asia, spent our days hanging out with friends, enjoying the city, local food and the luxury of having access to real high-speed internet.
Bumpy ride to Beijing!
It’s been a few years since I have experienced one of those flights that makes you swear you will never fly again. We landed after the pilot decided to head straight through a storm that was heading towards Beijing. When we landed, most passengers were flushed and blurry eyed as we streamed into to arrivals terminal at Beijing International. Some fellow passengers were stained by the flying sodas, juice etc. that flew through the air as our plane made an unexpected drop during dinner service. I managed to escape unscathed. I was just so happy to be on solid ground once again. The pilot did manage to get the plane down ahead of the storm, but the dark clouds caught up streamed in and opened up just as we arrived into the city.
The downpour started just as we got off the metro. We got trapped at the metro station without umbrellas or a small boat to get us through the flooded streets to our hostel. We ended up spending about 1 hour waiting for an opportunity to make a run for it. The journey from metro to hostel required some puddle and sidewalk sink holes dodging but we finally made it.
We managed to drag ourselves and our stuff safely to the Hutong west of the Forbidden City that first stormy night in Beijing. We got soaked but our stuff wasn’t. I’m not sure how we pulled that one-off, but we did thankfully.
Waiting on a Visa…
We had just one night at the Hutong Hostel and later moved to an apartment on the other side of Beijing until we headed west towards Central Asia in a couple of weeks. Hostels are great but having a washer, kitchen and quiet work area were necessary this time.
We were here to get our Turkmenistan Visa and see more of post-Olympics Beijing. It was a lot of work for all the back and forth, waiting, some more waiting all for a 10 day required tour. Beijing is a large city so there’s much to see and do while we wait.
The National Museum, the Olympic Park and the Military Museum were the top three on our must see list this time. We got our Turkmenistan visa, saw the top three, and managed to see both the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square again.
Our time in Beijing soon came to an end. With our visas in hand and better idea of what direction we will be going in the next few months, we boarded an Air China flight to Urumqi. In Beijing, we managed to survive both the elevated AQI levels and a couple of storms that pummeled the city during our two-week visit. I’m sure Beijing will all be a totally different the next time we stop by for a visit or maybe not?
It’s been a long time (a few years actually) since I’ve written anything substantial in a blog post, so please forgive me as I get my ‘blog legs’ back in order. Oddly enough, this will start off with a case of deja vu from early 2008. Back then we were traveling around Laos and Vietnam and were trying to do some forward planing for the next few months. Singapore, the Philippines, Japan, and China were on our wayward list, but what about after that? How about Central Asia or “the ‘stans” as they are colloquially known? Thoughts of Mongol hordes, glorious Persian architecture, and towering mountains filled my head and invoked some serious wanderlust. We could travel by land across China and fly out from somewhere in the region (Tashkent perhaps?). A great way to spend late Spring/early Summer. Easy, right?
A few days of detailed Internet searching put that notion of ease quickly to rest. Central Asia is definitely not high on the tourist/backpacker roadshow and gathering information on a general route through the region was few and far between. Tales of “Letters of Invite”, mandated tours, and Soviet style bureaucracy left a distinctly dry feeling in ones mouth. We would either have to get visas as we went (less than ideal given visa constraints) or would have to get them all at once in Beijing (the only place in East Asia with all five consulates). Given that we were coming into China on a 30 day non-extendable visa, logistics among the embassies would be tight. This was right before the Olympic games and the Chinese authorities were starting to clamp down on giving out/renewing visas. Ultimately, however, our hopes were dashed when we arrived in Beijing in early April. The March 2008 events in Tibet resulted in the closing off of western China to foreigners (i.e. anything past Chengdu). We decided at that point to move on to North Africa and would revisit the plan for Central Asia at a later date. The one upside was that we started following the Uncornered Market folks, as they were one of the few blogs out there with information about the region.
Fast forward to 2012 and we’re in East Asia again. After spending three months last year dealing with visa/tour fun for our September trip to Iran, acquiring visas for Central Asia is easy by comparison. It took us a total of 10 calendar days (i.e. Monday to the following Wednesday) to get four visas for Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakstan in Tokyo. This can be done a few days earlier (say 7 or 8) if you’re prepared and quick enough on the metro.
Beijing is the only place in East Asia with a Turkmenistan consulate. The next closest one is in New Delhi or in the other ‘stans.
For a tourist visa, a LOI from an approved Turkmenistan travel agency is needed. We used Ayan Travel who were able to arrange a LOI in 9 business days (they applied on a Monday and it was sent to us from them the following Thursday evening). NOTE: The Beijing consulate does NOT require the original LOI (i.e. a faxed/emailed copy is OK), unlike Moscow, etc.
Cost for Americans: 10 day single entry is $35 for normal service (one week) or $55 for express (3 day/weekend) service in USD only. They will keep your passport the entire time (so have a copy for yourself as that is against Chinese law). There is a Bank of China down the road on Tian Ze Lu that can exchange RMB for USD. Keep in mind the consulate is closed on Wednesdays (and at 12:00 (at least on the door), not 13:00 as listed on the website). We went with the express option and dropped ours off Friday morning at 11:30am and it was ready Monday at 15:00.