Tashkent to Kashgar - China

We left Tashkent a little better rested and made our way South and East, eventually driving through the Fergana Valley to the border with Kyrgyzstan at Osh. The Fergana Valley is a stunning slice of rural idyll, with lush farmland and mountains occasionally glimpsed in the distance. All this apparent tranquility has not always been the reality, however our journey was relatively incident free. Only the smog posed any kind of irritation, this was unlike anything we had experienced: a thick blanket of foul smelling fog that can only be explained by the Central Asian fondness for Shashlik roasted on an open wood fire.
The Fergana Valley is also home to one of our journey’s more bizarre international borders, cutting across the valley and isolating Kyrgyz Osh from the rest of the Uzbek population. Fortunately, cross border trade is apparently still flourishing in spite of restrictions, some report that homes built on the border provide useful front-back door trade routes during the occasional border closures. Unfortunately our drive took longer than we thought and we ended up approaching the border in darkness, something that we usually avoided. The tension was further increased when we came up to what looked like just another police check point until we saw the men in fatigues, balaclavas and AK-47s. Definitely not what we had grown used to, even in central Asia: we hesitated for only a second before resorting to our usual regal tactic of confident smiles and waves as we continued to drive past the static vehicles and threatening firepower on either side. Several yards past with still no reaction from the goons we thanked our lucky Landrovers and continued on our way to the border.
Expecting another Central Asian border story, we were surprised by the apparently relaxed atmosphere on both sides of the gates. We accompanied a truck as the only other border business that evening: money appeared to change hands at customs, however we seemed to be exempt from that particular payment. Once on the Kyrgyz side we were delayed momentarily by a security official who had locked his keys in his office and a computer system that refused to boot up. It also took a certain amount of searching to find a customs official that would sign the necessary import documentation for the car. Once found he could not locate his forms but seemed satisfied with the spare that we had picked up in Georgia, still with its import/export stamps from that country.
Far from being pleased by this relaxed attitude to border control we were left a little disconcerted and apprehensive of how any potential omissions might play at any of the inevitable police road blocks, or when we tried to bargain our way across at the exit. We need not have worried: our highly tuned travelers’ paranoia was unnecessary in Kyrgyzstan, an island of rationalism in an ocean of authoritarianism.
We stayed the night in Osh, Ruth achieving a 50% discount on the price of the room, which is a considerable achievement given our tattered nerves and the negotiating skills of Central Asian businessmen. Apart from this it was not our best stay: I got ill with what later turned out to be Giardia, while Ruth discovered that our four bank cards had been whittled down to one. We were used to banks’ inflexibility from previous travelling so had hard cash to spare, however it was still irritating to be left high and dry by banks we had searched out and kept informed prior to the trip.
We spent the following two days leaving the tarmac road behind and heading across passes and through extraordinary folded landscapes to the town of Naryn, a day or so’s drive from where we would be crossing into China at the Torrugart pass. After our experience of Central Asia it did not take much distance to feel as if things had changed. As soon as we were out of the Fergana valley people’s dress, their looks, the landscape and the culture all made a transition. We soon passed our first Kyrgyz shepherds, their yurts a short distance on. The local dress took some getting used to, in particular the hats worn by the men: tall and brimless, they are made of felt and finely decorated, quite out of keeping with their otherwise sober clothing.

We spent the night of the drive almost at the peak of the precipitous track that crosses a 3200m  pass. This was part of our aim to gather as much time at altitude as possible before we crossed into China and headed up onto the XinJian/Tibet highway, the highest road in the world with a considerable time spent hovering around the 5000m mark. Apart from seeking out some thin air we also went hunting for Diamox, a drug that accelerates the growth of red blood cells. We thought that this might be a challenge for a small town such as Naryn, however we were happy to find that pharmacies were the dominant business in the region, certainly outnumbering decent grocery stores. After our 7th pharmacy we had emptied the town of Diamox as well as buying various other antibiotics to deal with our withering health after a month of our Central Asian diet of mutton kebabs, dust and plov.

After a couple of nights in a homestay in Naryn we headed up to Lake Song Col, an immense body of water at 3000m altitude, completely surrounded by low mountains. Below the mountains the lake sits in a wide, flat valley with little vegetation other than grass to break the views. It is an empty and hauntingly beautiful landscape. We arrived late in the year and many of the shepherds had moved on, descending out of the isolated Song Col valley to warmer pastures for the winter. We still saw a few isolated yurts, perhaps 4 or 5, either on the flat land surrounding the lake or close to good grass and streams behind. Apart from these few signs of people we were completely alone, so when we woke up after our first night’s camping to 4” of fresh snow we started to worry that we had misjudged the seasons and might get embarrassingly stranded on the wrong side of the steep pass to the lake. Fortunately the day time sun is still strong enough in early October to melt any overnight snow and free up the road back down.

After Song Col and another night in Naryn we started the drive towards the Chinese border, hoping to stay in Tashrabat, once an important silk road caravanserai and now a short distance from the modern trade route between Kyrgyzstan and Kashgar. We gave a lift home to a lady we met on the way and were invited in for chai and curds with her family in return. Just before leaving a work colleague of her son woke up from his vodka-snooze and decided that we needed a guide to show us the way to Tashrabat. In the confusion we ended up taking both work colleagues the 10km or so, they shouting and miming nice things about the car and drivers as we went, only to turn around once there to give them a lift back home again when it turned out they would be stranded. On the return journey we spent a lot of the time stopping to buy vodka from householders and workers along the way. We had been warned by our friends in Naryn that “Kyrgyz are usually very quite people, but after vodka…”

Once in Tashrabat we spent a short time wandering around the Caravanserai: now a cold and empty stone building, its domed roofs rebuilt recently to save them from ruin. Traders and travelers would have slept on stone benches in the many cells off the main hallway leading to the main room and mosque at the back of the building. We got to stay the night in a Yurt, an elaborate shepherd’s tent built for nomadic comfort in spite of temperature extremes. Each yurt is beautifully built of different layers of plain and coloured felt and canvas for insulation, decoration and weatherproofing. These are wrapped tightly around a circular wooden frame using ropes that are tied to a series of iron stakes hammered into the ground. Heating and cooking is provided by a simple steel plate stove burning poo accumulated from the wintered animals and then dried. Of course, when the stove goes out the temperature still drops very fast.

We ate meals with the family, Naizira, her husband, father, son and two daughters. The family run a tourism business with the yurts during summertime alongside shepherding. Naizira also spends winter in the valley with her family and neighbours, which must be a cold but cosy existence for 5-6 months of the year. After eating dinner at her house on the second night she kindly invited us to spend a winter’s month with her. We would teach her English and computers in return for accommodation and as much skiing and local cooking as we could wish for. When sitting in their small home, built rather like a Scottish black house, with the family around it seemed like a very attractive invitation.
Instead we trudged out into the darkness and spent that night within sight of the outer Kyrgyz checkpoint. Once the army had checked we were legitimate travelers we were allowed to catch some sleep as the car gradually frosted from the inside out.

The actual crossing was exhilarating, we had been woken at all times of the night by passing trucks, catching up on cross-border business following a 10 day Chinese holiday, and we spent all day overtaking them. The majority we passed in a queue at the border, however some posed greater challenges as they jack-knived across the road in the snow that led up to the pass. The Landy had no such trouble and coped well with the snow and the 3700m altitude. Apart from giving assistance to stuck truckers we paused only once to take waters from a naturally carbonated and very ferrous spring part way up the Kyrgyz side.

Once over the pass we met our guide for the next month, Leon, and our local Uigher guide, XaiNiLa, who was to take us around Kashgar. Leon is in his early 20s and appears to be using guiding as a means of discovery and forgoing his inevitable descent into adult hood. His local knowledge was extremely sketchy for a guide, however he would be enduringly cheerful company for the next 4 weeks.

Comments (2) Comments are closed
2 Tuesday, 01 December 2009 11:36
Heidi Cane
Wow! What a lot to take in and so exciting. Can't wait to hear the next instalment. Keep on having fun :-)

Heidi & Mike
1 Tuesday, 01 December 2009 10:03
Mike B
Hi Ruth, John
Good to see an update - although the occassional EMails at least let us know you are safeish! Perhaps Niles and I will try to follow your route by air one day......but the paperwork would double!
Remaining jealous (and keep feeding John!)

Last Updated (Friday, 04 December 2009 05:47)


Caspian Sea to Tashkent - Uzbekistan

In the end we spent 4 days sitting on our ferry, the vast majority of it queuing for a slot at Turkmenbashi’s only rail pier. Time on the ferry is metered by the number of cigarettes smoked and vodka drunk as the crew while away the boredom. We avoided both until the final evening, when we were pulled into a “family group” for toasts and fermented milk to offset the 75% proof cha cha. Again –“Why no children?! What else is there for you to live for?!”

We finally entered the port after an hour’s sleep and disembarked after a customs inspection of the cargo at 2am. After some initial confusion in customs we were met by our guide, Maksat, who took us through by far the most complex and expensive customs process we have experienced. By some miracle of organization, and by dint of being the only vehicle, we managed to get through in 2 hours with a wad of paperwork signed, stamped, countersigned and counter stamped by a gaggle of officials. Each piece of paper logged in several ledgers by several people, some of whom occasionally forgot their responsibilities until we were straying out of the door. This, along with the obligatory employment of a guide, makes Turkmenistan our second most expensive destination, and because of this one of the least visited by foreign tourists. Maksat’s previous clients to enter by this route were a group of 17 motorcyclists that arrived at midnight and finally exited customs at 6am.

The most unusual document is a record of our journey through the country with various charges applied depending on mileage and car type, this is to offset the fuel costs that are heavily subsidized for locals. In fact, not only is fuel subsidized but gas, water and electricity are all free in the country, for those living in approved areas. This often has the bizarre consequence of cookers that are kept burning to save on the cost of matches. Where Turkmenistan can possibly afford to be generous with its plentiful resources of gas and oil we were a little more perplexed by its free use of water in such an arid region.

Following that welcome Turkmenistan turned into one off the highlights of the trip, possibly assisted by a guide that could remove some of the usual stress of decisions to be made as well as cultural and language barriers to be surmounted. Following Turkmenbashi we spent our first full night at a homestay in Nokhur, a mountain village on the way to Ashkabat. Maksat forgot to phone ahead, or rather he said that he preferred to arrive unannounced in case the family might go to too much effort. In spite of this we were still fed like kings and were left to sleep like babies.  Both feeding and sleeping take place on the ground as the traditional house has minimal furniture, life taking place barefooted on beautiful carpets that are spread wall to wall across each room of the home. Although a fairly simple farming community, the town still has access to gas, water and electricity and each home has an array of satellite dishes. Ours had three, gaining access to Russian, Iranian and Turkmenistan television, although all that was ever watched was an array of music channels.

After maximizing our time in Nokhur we spent three nights in Ashkabat, capital of Turkmenistan. Ashkabat was completely destroyed by earthquake in 1948 and its modern reincarnation is a mix of soviet architecture and modern, gas-fueled extravagance, topped like a wedding cake with an immense gold statue of President Niyazov (now deceased) that rotates on top of his giant plinth to face the sun. Even at night this most prominent of landmarks is illuminated by a glow that is constantly changing colour, more gaudy even than a Hong Kong skyline.

Unfortunately I took this time to catch the flu that had been bugging Ruth, however we still managed to get out to sample some excellent food as well as spend a morning at the bazaar. Other than the oceans of carpets our favourite sight was the farmers market and the loading of camels bought and sold here for 700 – 1000USD. Camels are a contrary beast and will not be persuaded to climb the ramps onto the soviet trucks that are taking them to their new home. The only option then is to tie the legs and hoist the poor animals with a crane, which is an incredible sight and sound as the camels roar their frustration.

We headed North into the Karakum desert, Central Asia’s hottest, on our fourth day. This was my first taste of “proper desert”: although there is still a wide mix of vegetation the sand dunes are for real. We also had our first taste of desert driving in the Landy as we headed off road for the Devaza gas craters: a series of impressive artificial craters around 50-60m in diameter and 30m deep that were formed when the soviets started digging around for gas. The most astonishing is the fire crater – an enormous furnace of flames that were possibly lit by a shepherd who was fed up with his flock falling into this inconvenient hole in the ground. We camped by the crater and gawped at the fire after eating our home-cooked Shashlyk – a magical and surreal night in the desert with the added entertainment of our guide, Maksat, who was forced to drink his entire bottle of vodka after we wimped out in favour of Georgian white wine.

Heading further North on the following day we made our dash for the border with Uzbekistan, giving scant attention to Konye Urgench on the way. Konye Urgench is one of the most important ancient Islamic cities having risen and fallen with successive leaders over the millennia. Now there are the remains of an impressive collection of Mosques, palaces, forts and mausoleums above ground level. However, Ruth was most intrigued by yet another fertility rite, this time involving rolling down a hill meant to be the location of the last stand against the Mongols.

We made it across the border into Uzbekistan late in the day and made a night time dash across the desert to modern day Urgench, a city, now on the Uzbek side, where the inhabitants of old Urgench were relocated following the natural diversion of the river. This time our navigation luck broke down and we spent much of the final 20km or so asking for directions and then disbelieving them as the roads got smaller and smaller as we headed towards the area’s capital. This culminated in the late night crossing of an immense pontoon bridge – another surreal arrival into a new country.

Our time in Uzbekistan has been cut shorter than we would like by more Visa deadlines and our dash across Central Asia before the snows start on the border with China. This has been an exhausting section of the trip, however we have managed to spend some hours touring the monuments of Bukhara and Samarkand. By the looks of our fellow tourists, this is an excursion that we will be able to make again later in our lives so we are not too upset to be skipping through so many millennia of history and culture. Suffice to say that the Mosques, medressas and mausoleums are truly awe inspiring in their scale and complexity. At the same time we were burning witches and relying on leeches for our medicine the Islamic world was building these most incredible centres of learning and culture.  Ruth also bought a scarf, we had a few nice cups of tea and a jolly good chin-wag with the locals.

We are now in Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan, where we are catching up on some sleep, getting our Kyrgyzstan visa and doing our admin, possibly for the last time before we enter China on the 12th. Our next stop is Kyrgyzstan, and a few days at altitude doing our best to acclimatize before we spend most of the coming month above 4000m. We are getting increasingly excited at the prospect of this incredible drive across the roof of the world as well as a little anxious that there is something we have forgotten to prepare, which is probably the best state of mind.

Comments (7) Comments are closed
7 Saturday, 28 November 2009 03:42
David Shaw - Previous Land Rover owner
Good to hear that you are in Lhasa - Hope to see a picture of the old bus in Tibet. A long way from suburban South London. Have a great time. More pictures please!!!


SKYPE number = david.shaw69
6 Saturday, 14 November 2009 15:20
Heya! Loving all the photos, and I like the new map too - as it happen it's exactly the same map I used as a template to paint countries on the bonnet of out Yoshi-car when we dove to Kyrgyzstan - random! :o)

5 Tuesday, 10 November 2009 11:24
John Selwyn Gilbert (friend of previous owner of Land Rover)
Very good luck - have fun! One of my cousins did something similar on a motorbike and I have been to the Karakum and out along the old Silk Road and it is fabulous. Such good people, at least in my experience - but my cousin crashed his motor bike when he got back home and I had a few problems as well! It's when you make it back that it all gets to you, so never come back, just keep going - you can have the children your ferrymen wanted en route .....
4 Tuesday, 10 November 2009 08:38
Tina Gerets
Hey guys,

I'm glad to hear you're having a great time! I hope the Torugart pass will give you no difficulties and you make it to China (and out of it) safely.


Tina (we met in Tbilisi at Dodo's guest house)
3 Sunday, 08 November 2009 22:28
David Shaw
Hi there Ruth and John - I wonder how close you are to Lhasa? Hope all going well

Good Luck

David Shaw - previous owner of Landrover
2 Thursday, 05 November 2009 14:46
James Lesser
Hi John & Ruth,
I am a friend of Helen's. Went to hear her sing beautifully at Cadogan Hall last night and she told me about your trip. I am green with envy and hoping to organise one along similar lines. It looks simply incredible. I would love to find out more and definitely meet up with you when you get back. Logistics being first concern.

I hope you are both well!
1 Monday, 19 October 2009 13:41
john, ruth
After a bad week working on some the projects you left behind reading this made me feel better
Tell me again why are you doing it
Best of luck and hope you get on with the Ughars

Last Updated (Saturday, 03 October 2009 14:15)

More Articles...