Joe Across Asia

A travelogue documenting Joe's journey across Europe, Central Asia and the Far East.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

That's It, Ladies and Gentleman. And now, Q&A.

Seoul, Korea, August 1

I think I am just about ready to go home--my interest in getting out and actually doing things seems to be fading away dangerously. Yesterday I found myself watching a Korean infomercial I could understand about six words of, rather than leave my hotel room (I did leave eventually, and have an excellent evening meal of snails and mussels). So this will probably be the end of my regular updates.

However, I think it might be interesting to answer some of the questions the readers (if any) of this journal might have. Email questions to over the next three or four days, and I'll post a final message later with some answers.

After arriving in Taipei on July 26, I found the place more similar to the mainland than I had expected. Or at least more similar to the richer coastal southern parts. One big difference was the motor scooters, which are absolutely everywhere, including the sidewalks, often parked in masses I found difficult to get around. I only averaged one near-miss encounter with a scooter per day, which was less than I had expected.

The unsimplified traditional Chinese characters were instantly recognizable, which surprised me since I didn't learn very many of the simplified Commie ones from the mainland. In Hong Kong and Macao there are some signs with the more complex traditional characters, but in Taiwan they were all like that.

However, the old Wade-Giles transliterations were not always used in Taiwan, with some signs having the pinyin instead. Actually, there seemed to be multiple transliteration schemes in use, and sometimes the same street (with the same name in Chinese characters) would have differently transliterated signs at different points along its length.

One of my principal reasons for going to Taipei was to see the National Palace Museum. This museum has easily the best collection of Chinese art in the world, containing all the best stuff from the emperors' art collection in the Forbidden City. The collection was moved out of Beijing in the early 1930s to keep it from the Japanese, and then a selection was moved to Taiwan in the last days before the fall of the mainland Nationalist regime in 1949. There definitely are some gaps (regional art schools, archaeological discoveries since the 1930s, items from China's more politically divided eras), but it still represents the best efforts of over 1000 years of art connoisseurship. Every hall contains at least five or six items that would be the pride of a whole museum of Asian art anywhere else in the world.

The museum is undergoing renovation, and only about half of the displays were open. I guess the rooms for the paintings are more difficult to build, since only a few paintings were on display. But the ceramics, jade, carved wood and ivory, and books were well worth the admission. The whole museum is supposed to be open by the end of the year. Definitely see it if you get the chance.

It's hard to single out one item among the dozens of amazing pieces there, but I'd say I was most impressed by a set of miniature ivory baskets. Each basket (with a connected chain) was carved from a single piece of ivory. There were ten of them, with the nine smaller baskets able to nest into the largest. And the biggest one was only about an inch wide, 1.5 inches long, and maybe half an inch high (or circa 2.5cm x 4cm x 1cm, for metric types).

If a trip to Taiwan isn't in your immediate future, you can see some of the collection at the museum's website (be sure you have a fast connection).

Chiang Kai-Shek's memorial in the middle of Taipei is also worth a visit. I found it very similar to the Ataturk mausoleum and I wonder if that was deliberate. The mannequin of Chiang in his recreated office was not as lifelike as Ataturk, though. The office's maps and globe had interesting borders for the Republic of China, including all of Mongolia and bits of India and Soviet Central Asia. Chiang was evidently a Cadillac man; he had one from 1955 and one from 1972, both black sedans.

Chiang also liked medals. He got military honors from most of the WWII allies, and from various anti-communist Latin American states later, and he also gave himself a new medal every year or so. The Latin American medals were definitely the most impressive-looking.

While in Taipei I also visited the currently tallest building in the world, Taipei 101. It will only hold the record for another year or so before a building in Dubai overtakes it. The observation deck is probably the best one I've seen, with awesome views in all directions, and a very informative audioguide included in the admission charge. You can also see one of the mass dampers, which keep the building from swaying much, even in strong winds.

And from Taiwan I went to Seoul, by way of Hong Kong. On the way from Hong Kong to Korea I ended up flying over the same airport in Taiwan that I had left in the morning. Landing in Hong Kong was one of the minor miracles we are all so used to nowadays--the plane came down out of thick clouds with a visibility ceiling of maybe 100 yards, ending up exactly at the end of the runway and bumping no more than usual.

In Korea I felt at once at home after having been in China--being able to read street signs, even if I have no idea what they mean, is apparently very comforting to me.

I hope at least a few people have found this journal interesting or entertaining, and I know that writing it has definitely added to my enjoyment of the trip. Thanks again to Pijus for handling all the technical stuff--I'd never have tried to do it on my own.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Durian Tastes Like a Sweet Mushroom (and Smells Like a Sock)

Taipei, Taiwan, China (?), July 27

Before leaving Macau for Hong Kong on July 24, I had some durian.

Durian is a tropical fruit which I had heard of only because it's banned from the Singapore metro. It smells bad (rotting meat is the normal comparison, although some say it more like a very old gym sock), and unlike some cities I could mention Singapore evidently cares about stinkiness in the subway.

A durian looks kind of like a larger, spikier pineapple. The outside of the fruit has very little odor, but the part you actually eat does smell pretty bad. But it tastes nice, sort of like a sweet mushroom. Definitely an odd dining experience.

Macau has some very nice colonial architecture, including several cathedrals. The Portuguese consul gets a house and office with awesome harbor views. That job must come as a nice reward at the end of a diplomatic career in Portugal.

There is a separate currency for Macau, but I tried (not entirely
successfully) to avoid getting any of it and only get Hong Kong dollars. Everyone in Macau accepts Hong Kong dollars but the reverse is not true.

With the ferry ride to Hong Kong on July 24 I accomplished my original objective of an overland trip from Ireland to Hong Kong. As we entered Hong Kong's harbor I realized I had only gone from one formerly British-controlled island to another. Still, it did feel good.

Hong Kong has a very impressive skyline on the harbor, with much more architecturally appealing buildings than any other Chinese city I have seen. I couldn't see the skyline that well because my visit happened to be on a series of days with really bad smog. After Beijing and Shanghai I didn't especially notice it, but there were a lot of smog warnings on TV.

The other thing I noticed while channel-surfing was the public health warnings about bird flu. Most of the suggested precautions were unsurprising (cover your mouth if you cough, wash your hands frequently), but according to the Hong Kong health authorities the guy habit of leaving the toilet seat up can spread bird flu as well, due to what they delicately referred to as "flying droplets." You learn something new every day.

The people of Hong Kong are definitely better dressed than mainlanders, and with not nearly as many inadvertently entertaining messages on their clothing. Also, they do not let their kids run around with no pants on. They do, like mainlanders, roll up their shirts under their armpits in hot weather. This always struck me as strange, although I guess it probably does help you feel cooler.

My first priority in Hong Kong was picking up my airplane tickets. I ended up leaving my passport at the travel agency, which I fortunately noticed as soon as I tried to check into my hotel. I took this lapse as a sign that I should probably get home soon.

Of the millions of other things to do in Hong Kong, the first one I did was riding the so-called "world's longest escalator." It was fun, but didn't quite live up to my naive expectations--there are many separate sections and a fair amount of walking involved. The tram to the top of Victoria Peak was also a good time, even though the view was mostly nonexistent due to the smog. Parts of the ride are very steep, and much of the ride is through tropical jungle vegetation--although Hong Kong's tourist literature describes the area's climate as "subtropical", the city is south of the tropic of cancer, a fact I somehow never noticed until I arrived in China. So in addition to my other accomplishments on the trip, I have visited the tropics for the first time.

In honor of my Ireland -> Hong Kong itinerary, I stopped by an Irish bar in Kowloon. The guy I sat down proved a very talkative drunk Irish expat, who told me at least three times that I resembled Martin McGuinness (Sinn Fein MP and former (?) IRA leader). I was pretty sure he meant it as a compliment.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Sampling the Pleasures of the Pearl River Delta

Taipei, Taiwan, China (?), July 26

I have no excuse for the delay since my last update, other than the number and variety of distractions available in Macau and Hong Kong. Also, I think I'm starting to look forward more to being home after nearly four months.

The "Buddha Leaping Over the Wall" turned out to be pretty good, a mixture of various types of shellfish and other seafood that looked like a dish from a science fiction movie. The flavors were a bit more subtle than I would have preferred, but still interesting. My final overnight bus ride, from Fuzhou to Guangzhou, was uneventful, and I arrived well-rested on July 21.

My hostel was near the US Consulate, and most of the stores in the vicinity had signs advertising the availability of strollers. This turns out to be because many Americans adopting Chinese babies end up spending several weeks in Guangzhou. I had some dim sum in the city that invented it (Guangzhou is also called Canton), and found that the few phrases of spoken Chinese I had picked up were rendered mostly useless by the change in the local spoken language to Cantonese. But writing down characters still sort of worked.

The next day (July 22) I took a bus to Zhuhai and walked over the quasi-border to Macau. My PRC visa was expiring the same day, and I wanted to leave plenty of time for all formalities. I found Macau nicely Mediterranean in atmosphere, but without the pretty beaches.
There are beaches, but they're strewn with all kinds of flotsam and jetsam, and look out onto brownish-green sections of the South China Sea. Much of Macau is a huge construction site--not unusual for China, except that the main projects in Macau are casinos. Steve Wynn's self-named edifice will be opening in a month or two and has a great location--as you go down one of the main streets it's outlined against the sky at the end of the canyon of buildings.

Other services that gamblers seem to demand are also much in evidence, and heavily
advertised by flyers. One "sauna" offered the massage services of my choice of "elite East-European model", "elite Korean model", "star-class Mongolian" or "star-class Vietnamese." What (if any) difference there may be among these is one of Macau's mysteries.

A local food specialty is sweet pork jerky served in flat pieces which are cut up with scissors. I liked it.

Sorry not to bring the story fully up-to-date. More soon.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Shanghai, Shanghai

Fuzhou, Fujian, China, July 20

Suzhou (were I arrived July 17) has been a tourist draw for at least 300 years. I'm not sure when the place first became known for its ornamental gardens, but now there are several dozen, and East Asians often spend a week or more visiting them. Being unable to appreciate most of the subtleties, I contented myself with seeing two: the Garden of the Master of the Nets and the Humble Administrator's Garden.

I doubt the garden's designers would entirely appreciate the comparison, but the pleasantly maze-like design of the Garden of the Master of the Nets reminded me of Disneyland's crowd-control techniques. The garden does not cover a large area, but the sightlines are laid out so that you constantly see something new, or see the same things from different perspectives so they look new. My only complaint was not being allowed to go to the second floors of the pagodas, but then I realized that from higher up you'd see over the walls to the surrounding urban sprawl, and (to some extent at least) the illusion would be shattered.

Leaving the garden, I had to run the customary tourist-hawker gauntlet. As with everywhere else, old coins were on offer everywhere. Since China remained on the silver standard even after the major European powers switched to gold, a lot of countries minted special silver coins for the China trade. Also, during the warlord era everybody who ruled even a single province made his own silver dollars. Souvenir stalls everywhere in China have forgeries of these coins available at very reasonable prices. Some of them could be better executed (a Maria Theresa silver dollar from the 1700s should probably not be bright and shiny, and a few times I could see file marks), but most are quite well done, with an appropriate amount of wear. I bought a couple of US trade dollars, bearing dates from the 1870s, for an amount that would have been theft if they were real. Since the seller accepted my price (when I started to walk away), I can assume they're not.

The Humble Administrator's Garden is one of the bigger gardens in Suzhou, about 10 times the size of the Master of the Nets' (but it only looks 3 or 4 times bigger). It has large lotus ponds with huge multicolored carp, and you can get into the upper storeys of the pagodas. There's also a very impressive bonsai exhibit (or whatever the Chinese word for bonsai is).

The Grand Canal goes a couple of miles west of Suzhou, and is a fascinating spectacle in the evening, as boats of all description hurry by to get their owners either home or to the nearest bar or restaurant. I saw boatmen hauling almost everything: pipes and rebar for construction sites, loads of ducks packed in like sardines and hopefully not infected with avian flu, piles of carp and eels slithering over each other, and (this one I smelled long before I saw it) pig manure, the worst-smelling manure in the world. Judging by the sounds and smells of the engines and the number of near-miss collisions I witnessed in only an hour or so, I would advise against getting into the inland waterway insurance business in China.

I was glad to arrive in Shanghai (July 18) fully rested--had I been sleep deprived I'd have found the experience overwhelming, I think. All the cliches say Shanghai is the place to see the massive contradictions that are today's China, and as far as I can tell they're all true. The train station has the most aggressive beggars I've encountered since Istanbul, for one thing. Note to poor Chinese: pulling on my arm hair does not make me more likely to give you money.

It undoubtedly says a lot about me that my first stop in Shanghai (after getting a room and my onward ticket) was the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall. I'm a sucker for huge city models, and they have a very nice one, although you only get to look at it from the edges. There are also big displays about the new airport and the container port they're planning to build about 20 miles offshore, connected to the mainland by a bridge. Shanghai will only have a couple of minor Olympic events, but they're planning some kind of World Expo or something for 2010, and the virtual reality flybys of what they say Shanghai will look like by then are very well done, with full 360-degree views.

As with other parts of China, lots of women in Shanghai carry parasols. In addition to keeping off the sun, they are handy in Shanghai because the sidewalks are constantly drizzled on by air-conditioner condensation. It seems like everybody in Shanghai that can afford it has AC, and for some reason they have to let the drippings go onto the sidewalk. I told myself that since it was distilled it was probably the cleanest water I'd encountered in China.

The obligatory walk down the Bund was next, and the old colonial architecture made most of the new buildings across the river look pretty bad. The Oriental Pearl Tower (the thing with the three spheres) was the worst offender--God, it's ugly. Silver, purple, and bare reinforced concrete are just not a good combination. In fact, I would say that reflective purple is a bad enough color on its own (for a building, that is). The tower does look better at night, though.
Most of the Art Deco lobbies are closed, but the ones that are still open were tolerant of tourist gawkers.

Rather than take an evening cruise, I saw the Shanghai Acrobatic Theater, which was astounding and which you must see if you get the chance. One of the most impressive aspects was that they weren't able to do everything right on the first try. A few times they'd come close but not quite get it (e.g. send only 2 instead of 3 people jumping through stacked rotating rings at the same time), and they'd set up again and get on the second attempt. China is expected to get at least 80% of the gymnastics gold medals at the 2008 Olympics, and it's not hard to see why.

For my final stop of the evening, I went to the Cloud 9 bar at the Grand Hyatt (it's on the 87th floor, with corresponding views). There is a $15 drink minimum to visit, which I would have been happy to pay, but it turned out that (a) the only beer they had on tap was Budweiser, and (b) they didn't bring me a drink menu for at least three minutes after I asked for one. So I ate some peanuts, walked around to see the city from all sides, and left. An awesome location is no excuse for bad customer service, I say.

The train ride to Fuzhou takes 24 hours (sleeper car this time), because it doesn't go in a very direct line. The rice paddies are almost done with the first crop of the year, and are a beautiful shade of green. The landscape can switch from pastoral to high-tech instantly, rather like some parts of northern Indiana. Perversely, the pervasive air pollution makes the surrounding hills look softer and more inviting, like in an old Chinese painting.

I'm not planning to spend very long in Fuzhou, but if I can I'll sample the local specialty, "Buddha Leaps Over the Wall." This is a marinade of about 50 different types of vegetables and seafood, so named because even an ascetic vegetarian would jump over a wall to get some. After that, an all-night bus ride to Guangzhou, and I'll cross into Macao on the 22nd, which is the day before my visa expires.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Getting Close to the Chinese People

Nanjing, Jiangsu, China, July 16

On the way here, I found out how many Chinese you can cram into a railway car. The answer: a whole lot. You probably knew that already, and so did I, but it was different to see it demonstrated.

It's supposed to be six hours by train from Qufu to Nanjing (or actually from a town near Qufu, since Confucius's descendants were able to stop a railroad from actually going through town, since it would mess up the feng shui or something). Having spent longer periods than that in very close quarters during my military service, I thought a standing-room-only ticket would be no problem. I even considered going straight through to Shanghai (another four hours).

The train was pretty crowded when I first managed to fight my way aboard, and then more people got on at every stop. A few would get out, but it was obvious that almost everyone on the train had tickets through to Shanghai. For the first half hour or so, I could actually sit down in the space between two cars. After that, I was able to squat for an hour and a half or thereabouts. And then it really was standing room only, as in everybody standing because there was no room to do anything else. Eventually they stopped letting people on, so the railway apparently has some idea of the total sitting and standing capacity. I'd love to know what it was and how they calculated it.

All the Chinese passengers took it very well, and in fact seemed to become calmer and more subdued the more tightly packed they were. One of the perks of traveling by train in China is that every car has a water boiler so you can make tea or instant noodles. But when just about every square inch of floor space has a foot on it, it's not so easy to get to the water. No problem; people passed teakettles and noodle bowls the length of the car. Getting to the toilet (one per car only) was a bit more difficult, but people crammed themselves against the wall or climbed up on the backs of seats to let those in need get by. It was kind of inspiring, especially when everybody made heroic efforts to let a mother holding a screaming baby make a beeline for the toilet. Since the baby was wearing no diaper and had a hole cut in his pants to allow urination or defection (quite common in both rural and urban areas of China), we all had a really strong incentive to let him get by as fast as possible.

When we got to Nanjing two hours late, I was very glad not to be continuing to Shanghai. Nanjing's train station is right by the Yangtze, and the city seemed incredibly roomy and open, but then my senses recalibrated and it looked like other Chinese cities. I took the bus to Sun Yat-Sen's mausoleum, which like Ataturk's has a very nice hilltop location. The building with his statue has a big Nationalist Chinese star on the ceiling, just like on the Taiwan flag, which surprised me a bit. But I guess the PRC has retroactively converted Sun to communism (Mormon-fashion) and he can be allowed these little eccentricities.

It turns out there's a Nanjing recipe for duck, in addition to Peking duck. Maybe every Chinese capital gets a duck recipe, in which case I should have looked for Xian duck too. Nanjing duck is soaked in strong spicy brine and then sliced thinly by a knife that easily cuts through bone, gristle, and everything else. The slices on your plate look just like CAT-scan photos, and you have to spit out the bones. It's pretty good, but Peking duck is better. As an appetizer I had some very small birds on skewers. They cut off the beaks and feet, and you eat everything else. It tastes like very crunchy chicken.

For my next train trip (to Suzhou, where I will see some gardens and hopefully the Grand Canal) I was able to book a first-class seat. No more standing room for me, unless there's no other choice.

Kong Fu-Tze

Qufu, Shandong, China, July 15

After my last message (July 12) I filed a police report on the theft of my bag. The experience was about what I expected, although we were lucky enough to have found a neighbor who spoke excellent English and agreed to act as interpreter. After the trip to the police station, several police came back to the hotel, where they criticized the management for not having the necessary paperwork for keeping foreign guests, as well as for lax security. This was possibly in part a show for my benefit, but it did make me feel better.

The 22-hour train ride back to Beijing was not as much fun as the ride out since we had only seats instead of sleeping compartments. The landscape was nice, though, looking almost the same as country districts of South Korea (and presumably North Korea as well, but I haven't been there). A lot of the farmers had set up rows of plastic bags containing forest herbs they picked and then grew in the bags, which served as small greenhouses.

In Beijing I spent most of the 13th after we arrived buying new clothes and toiletries, not a fun experience but a necessary one. My patience for bargaining was less than usual, and I probably upset a few people by just walking away from their ridiculous opening prices rather than waiting for another offer. They'll recover.

It turned out to be impossible to get a train ticket to Qufu (Confucius's hometown), which was my next destination, so I had to go to the bus station to get my ticket. This was actually a nice bus ride, going by Tiananmen Square and many of the other sights of downtown Beijing.

Since I'd already seen most of the major tourist attractions in Beijing on my previous visit in 1998, before leaving yesterday (July 14) I mostly wandered around the city and tried to figure out if (and how) it seemed different. Traffic was probably a bit worse, and I didn't see quite as many piles of coal behind houses in residential neighborhoods, but other than that Beijing made the same overall impression of huge, bustling near-anarchy. I did visit the Taoist temple just east of the Forbidden City. At least according to the translated signs, the Taoists have heavenly departments for everything from increasing longevity to protecting the environment. All are staffed by a colorful variety of demons and heroes, who will reward or punish you as appropriate. The demons seem particularly fond of spiked clubs and of pushing people headfirst into rice mills and grinding them into paste.

My bus to Qufu proved unusual in three respects: it left early, the AC worked very well (maybe too well--I was actually a bit cold), and it also arrived early. I ended up being able to get almost a full night's sleep instead of only half, which was nice, and probably let me better appreciate the immense Kong family compound.

Kong Fu-Tze (better known as Confucius) died in poverty, but when his ideas became official ideology a few decades later his descendents were able to cash in on a massive scale, and build both some very nice living quarters for themselves and a huge temple to their illustrious ancestor. According to the Kongs' family records, Confucius's direct male-line descendents lived in Qufu for 77 generations in a row before the family head left for Taiwan in 1949. Even though much of the compound is untended and covered with vines and weeds, the part you can visit still has a sort of progressive, overwhelming grandeur. There are many tour groups, but they all seem to follow the same itinerary, and if you wander just a bit off the main path it's easy to have a whole courtyard to yourself. Then, once you leave, you get to run the gauntlet of souvenir salesmen peddling Confucius's books along with the fans, "old" coins, figurines, and name stamps that get sold outside every Chinese tourist attraction.

After visiting Kong's tomb north of town, I'll get on a late train to Nanjing. Unfortunately, it looks like this will involve six hours of squatting in a hallway or between two cars, as I was not able to get a seat. The travel agent I consulted said the railroads are even more crowded than usual this week because it's the start of summer vacation and a lot of families go traveling together.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Fleeced in Yanji

Yanji, Jilin, China July 12

The train ride up from Beijing turned out to be not quite as long as I expected--only 24 hours instead of 26. About 8 hours out of Yanji I found another westerner (a German) was in the next car, also planning to visit Baektusan (I will be using the Korean name; the Chinese call it Changbai Shan).

Upon arrival, we first tried to get seats on a train back to Beijing. It is extemely difficult to get return train tickets in China without using a specialized ticket agency; I have no idea why. The best we were able to do was an ordinary seat, not a sleeper. We'll make it somehow.

Then we looked for transportation to Baektusan. Since it's a popular desination for Chinese and Koreans, we thought there would be a variety of offerings. We were wrong. All we could find were trips leaving Yanji around 4:30, arriving at the mountain around 9:00, leaving at 2:30 and getting back toYanji around 7:00. This means people pay around $45 to be at the summit lake for something like 20 minutes. But we thought that by skipping one side trip we could stay a bit longer.

That night we had an excellent Korean meal. I remembered a surprising number of Korean dishes from the menu. We stayed at a small hotel, neither the nicest nor the cheapest we'd been in.

Departure yesterday (July 11) was a couple of minutes lates since my taxi took me to the wrong bus staion at first. But this was quickly ironed out. We had bought only bus tickets, not a full tour, so we were a bit surprised when our bus made multiple stops at souvenir stands on the way totalling almost an hour. Instead of getting to the park gate at 9:00, it was 9:45. The number of people arriving was very impressive.

We paid multiple levels of fees but balked at a final reuest for $10 to take us up to the actual lake in a jeep when we could walk it in 90 minutes at most, and see a lot more on the way. This caused our driver a certain amount of consternation, but we found out when the bus would leave the parking lot and assured him we'd be there.

On the hike up to the lake we were hit with some more fees. It seems impossible to see Baektusan (once you get to the gate) for less than about $20. Also, you have to fight your way up a tunnel staircase. This was no problem for me; I summoned my experience from the Seoul subway years ago. I haven't actually dealt with any crowded subways in China yet.

Still, the view at the top was just about worth the aggravation. The weather, drizzly all morning, had cleared, and we could easily see the whole circle of the late, including the North Korean side. Off to the north, we could see a long way and we were almost at the same level as the remaining clouds, so it seemed we were floating above the earth. Our fellow travelers on the bus, who had been driven to a diferent part of the lake, said it had been very cloudy and they hadn't been able to see much at all.

The downward journey went much faster, and we were at our bus before the rest of the group. They had apparently spent much longer at a waterfall and hot spring area we walked quickly past. Then we had a late lunch and set off a bit late at 3:00, using the remaining daylight for the drive instead of for visiting the lake. With one more hour there we could have climbed some beautiful rock formations and seen a lot more. It seemed an odd set of priorities, but judging by the number of buses following essentially the same schedule a popular one here.

After more rest stops where we looked at ginseng roots and Cultural Revolution posters (often in suspiciously good condition), we made it back to Yanji, it seeming like a good day.

Then I discovered that my hotel room had been robbed, and everything I left behind (except a wet towel) had been taken. This included almost nothing of value to anyone but me (other than my large backpack itself)--I was carrying all my money, my passport, my camera and binoculars. But I lost my change of clothes, my journal, and all the pictures I'd taken since leaving Uzbekistan, including the horseback trek.

My feelings have been going through a strange cycle from spitting anger to philosopical acceptance. I'll be talking to the police in an hour or two (we went over last night with the hotel manager, but they told us to return in the morning. We have luckily found a translator). It won't help, but it may make me feel better.

I still have my ticket to Beijing, and I'll buy what I need for the next couple of weeks there. Let me repeat that there is no emergency; I will be able to get to Hong Kong and home.

Hopefully my next update will be a bit more positive.

Monday, July 10, 2006

In and Around Xian

Beijing, China, July 9

My only Fourth of July celebration turned out to be a meal at KFC in Lanzhou. Pathetic, I know, but I was really tired after the long bus ride from Xiahe. I nearly missed my train to Xian, despite staying in a hotel just across from the train station, due to a combination of a really, really slow elevator that stopped on every floor of a 20-story building and an astoundingly slow checkout procedure. I'll definitely allow more time in the future.

The ride along the Wei river valley to Xian was extremely picturesque, with the classic North China yellow soil everywhere in evidence. It's hundreds of feet thick in most places, and it holds its shape very well if dug into terraces, so you see terraced fields everywhere, for all kinds of crops. You can also apparently make bricks out of the soil; there were a bunch of brickyards of various sizes surrounded by steep-sided holes with crops growing on the bottom.

For about 20% of recorded Chinese history, the capital has been in the vicinity of Xian (although the last time was over 1000 years ago). Some would say the city's been coasting on its previous reputation ever since. I found it a nice mix of the almost incomprehensible bustle and confusion of today's China and quieter, very atmospheric back streets. Xian has a mosque entirely in the Chinese style, very different from any of the 50 or more others I've seen on this trip.

On July 6 I made the trip out to the terracotta warriors, which the Chinese seize every possible opportunity to call "the eighth wonder of the world." I think that may be a bit of a stretch, but the site is very impressive, even with only about 10% of the warriors restored and on display. I was surprised to learn that not a single statue was found intact--the underground vault's roof collapsed perhaps 50 years or so after construction, and all the statues were broken. Before the collapse, some skinny people (to judge by the remains of their tunnel) dug in and took most of the bronze weapons the warriors were originally carrying. I guess bronze was more easily fenced than big clay statues. In addition to the life-size clay statues, there are some bronze chariots and horses about half life size. The chariots have a removable umbrella with a complex locking mechanism that the Chinese are apparently very proud of; there's a replica you can open and close yourself in the museum.

The tomb of Qin Shihuangdi , the first emperor of China, is nearby, which is not surprising since the terracotta warriors were supposed to be guarding it. I didn't visit the tomb since about all you can see nowadays is a big earth mound. The amount of stuff buried in the vicinity must be astounding. Later dynasties sent at least three major looting expeditions, and local graverobbers have been at work off and on for about 2000 years, but the Chinese are still finding interesting artifacts in the area.

From Xian I headed to Pingyao overnight July 7/8. Pingyao is one of the best-preserved Ming Dynasty towns in China, and has a full set of city walls. For much of the 19th century it was one of the financial centers of China, which I suspect may have something to do with its excellent state of preservation--apparently most of the real estate inside the walls was owned by a few banking families until well into the 20th century. The city's temples (Taoist and Confucian), its old government buildings, and many classically-styled shops and houses have survived. On a weekend it's pretty packed, as I found out, but I thought that added to the atmosphere. Among the many souvenir items on offer were small figurines of male infants in various poses but with their genitals always exposed. I didn't buy any. Also on display were piglet statues in pretty much the same poses. I'm definitely not in the Islamic world anymore.

My stopover in Beijing will be brief--I will be leaving in a few hours on a 26-hour train trip Jilin in the northeast. There, I'll be visiting the Korean Autonomous Prefecture and also heading to the North Korean border where it crosses an Alpine lake. This is a major point of pilgrimage for South Korean tourists, and it may be interesting to see how they interact with the locals. I should be back in Beijing in three or four days, and I'll probably stay around
24 hours then before heading south.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Yak-Butter Sculptures

Xiahe, Gansu, China, July 4

After 20 hours mostly on buses (with no experiences I haven't had and related previously), I made it to Xiahe yesterday. Xiahe is right on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, and the town is about 50% ethnic Tibetans. Right next door is the Labrang Monastery, one of the most important Tibetan monasteries outside of Lhasa.

The monks are very picturesque in their outfits, and a lot of ordinary Tibetans do the 2-mile pilgrim circuit around the complex grounds. There are almost 1200 prayer wheels the faithful can spin on their way. Yesterday I dined on yak meat and tsampa (baked barley flour mixed with butter). I tried to find the Tibetan barley beer called chang but failed miserably, although one shopkeeper did try to sell me an 84-proof liquor made from barley, or so he claimed.

This morning I took the monastery tour, which is the only way to see the inside of the buildings. Most of my group were Danes, and they had their own translator along. Since our English-speaking monk guide tended to be quite briefly spoken (although willing to answer additional questions), there was still plenty of time. We visited the main temple, the Institute of Medicine where the monks study traditional Tibetan healing, a museum of artifacts donated to the monastery since its foundation in the early 1700s (those that had survived the ravages of time and politics, anyway) and a refrigerated room that held the yak-butter sculptures which are made over the course of the year and then melted down as part of a festival. In addition to the red-cloaked monks, there are a fair number of nuns around, wearing either purple or else red and white stripes (the latter outfit seemed oddly appropriate for Independence Day).

I haven't yet figured out how I'll celebrate the Fourth, but most likely it will have to wait until tonight anyway when I'm back in Lanzhou. From there I'll head on to Xian, where I'll stay 2 or 3 days before the long train ride to the North Korean border.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Dozing Budha of Mogao

Jiayuguan, Gansu, China, July 2

As a clarification to my previous entry, I really don't mind being stared at while traveling. But I do know it bothers some people, and I thought my experience might be of use to others. An email correspondent has pointed out that traveling with a 6-foot black woman (or man) in China would probably be an even better way not to be stared at. I would be happy to test this method also if the opportunity presents itself.

The sleeper train to Dunhuang (June 29/30) was actually more comfortable than I expected, although there was no air conditioning and the electric fan did not turn on until pretty late at night when it had already started to cool down anyway. We had obtained our tickets through the hotel in Urumqi without having to fight through the lineless ticket scrum at the station. I was expecting we would have to battle our way onto the train, but the ticketed passengers formed a fairly neat line, albeit with a certain amount of cutting.

It turned out the sleeper cars were way at the front of the train, and we did not have time to walk all the way there before the train left the station, so we walked through 5 or 6 cars to get to our reserved places. Our bunks were not large (Leslie had to scrunch up a bit to fit), but definitely better than on the sleeper bus. A little girl traveling with her mother in the bunk just across from us didn't take her eyes off the bizarre foreigners for at least 90 minutes straight.
I think it was a new record for my trip.

I had hoped to arrive in Dunhuang early in the morning, get to the Mogao caves soon after opening, and head on to Jiayuguan (western terminus of the Great Wall) in the same day. But the train took several hours longer than I had thought, which made that timeline impossible.

The Mogao caves are artificial caves dug into a canyon wall near an oasis. In the Silk Road days, the complex was at least a week's detour off the main route to Central Asia, but many merchants made the trip either to pray for help in crossing the demon- and bandit-infested howling wilderness to the west, or to give thanks for having successfully crossed it from the east. There are Buddhist wall paintings and statues representing different eras spanning over 1,000 years, although most of the remaining statues date only from 1700 or after.

Mogao was also the site of the (in)famous Library Cave, which had about 50,000 old paintings and scrolls. About 80% of them, including most of the best ones, have ended up in museums in Britain, France, the USA, and Japan. The PRC government is understandably upset about this, but I didn't think our guide overdid the subject. All visitors to the caves must be guided, and the caves have their doors closed when not being visited to protect the paintings from sunlight. There are about 500 caves which have paintings or statues left, but on the regular tour you only get to see 10 of them. If you want to see the depictions of Tantric sex in one cave, you have to buy a special ticket that costs $65, 5 times as much as the regular ticket for 10 caves. We decided to forgo this dubious pleasure.

I hope all the guides are as good as the one we had. Her English was excellent, and she could answer all our questions, both about the art and about the history of the complex.

Unfortunately, Leslie started to feel violently ill after we had visited four caves, having not felt entirely well all morning. The only likely reason was the previous day's dinner, which we had eaten at a guidebook-recommended restaurant. I seem to be back luck for her with regard to restaurants: after we met for dinner just before I reported for basic training in 2001, she ended up hospitalized with a temperature of 103 F (I didn't notice any problem with my food then either). She insisted that I finish the tour after getting her to a good place to lie down and wait. I allowed her to convince me after a few minutes.

The massive seated and reclining Buddhas are awesome. The reclining Buddha looks kind of strange because accumulated dust makes it look like the left eye is closed and the right eye is half-open. Both eyes are actually half-open.

After the tour, we went to the best hotel in the vicinity of Dunhuang, since (as Leslie pointed out) if you're sick in a foreign country it's a lot better to be in a good hotel than a bad one. She slept for about 14 hours straight and felt much better afterwards. I watched some of the World Cup coverage and also the ongoing festivities for the Chinese Communist Party's 85th anniversary spectacular. The CCP's celebration was amazingly bizarre, and I wonder if it's being covered in the Western press much. Massive choirs of children, uniformed soldiers acting out scenes from politically inspiring actions, and a huge assembly of dancers representing many of the PRC's ethnic minorities (including Koreans) were among the highlights. A musical number that I'm pretty sure was about the early completion of the railroad to Lhasa was the highlight. Male dancers in hardhats carrying pickaxes and railroad ties pranced around in various configurations on the massive stage as a man and woman sang about (I presume) their achievements. If I hadn't felt perfectly well I'd have assumed it was some kind of fever-induced hallucination.

The next morning (July 1) I set out on what was supposed to be a six-hour bus ride here. Leslie, fully recovered, went back to the caves in the morning and took a plane to Beijing in the afternoon, thus rendering me visible to the Chinese again.

It ended up being the trip from hell, taking 11 hours and involving hours of bone-jarring travel over dirt roads because the main road was being fixed. Also, someone took my watch. Not off my wrist, but off my backpack which was next to me on the seat when I dozed off for a second (I had taken the watch off to let it dry since the band was completely sweat-soaked). It was no Rolex, and in fact I had paid nothing for it at all but got it from a barracks-mate who was going to throw it away because the battery had died, but the incident still put me in a foul mood. At the end of the ride, well after dark, the driver and ticket collector tried to get me to exit on the outskirts of town and take a taxi rather than drive me to the bus station in the center. I refused.

It wasn't all bad, though, since we did get to see some blasting in progress. A guy with a walkie-talkie stopped the bus, and for a few minutes I couldn't tell what was going on. Then there was a huge spout of dust from the ground about 200 yards ahead, closely followed by the boom. There were 5 or 6 blasts in total, and the kids on the bus loved it.

This morning (July 2) I visited the Jiayuguan Fort, the western end of the Great Wall. Only the fort has been preserved, not the wall itself, so you don't quite get the end-of-the-line view, but it's still an impressive structure in a good setting. The fort blocks a pass between two ranges of snowcapped peaks. At an adjoining museum, the entry sign instructs visitors to "study the Great Wall in order to develop national pride and internationalism."

In a couple of hours I'll be taking an overnight bus to Langzhou, capital of Gansu province. From there, I'll most likely head to the Tibetan monastery at Xiahe (also in Gansu), and then on to Xian.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Across Xinjiang with J-Lo

Turpan, Xinjiang, China, June 29

If you're travelling in China, and you get sick of being stared at, there is a simple solution. Not necessarily easy, but simple. Find a 5' 11" white woman with blue eyes to walk next to you. You will become the Invisible Man. It's kind of like being Jennifer Lopez's cohost at the Grammys.

I was able to put this method into practice with the help of a good friend of mine from high school, who happened to be visiting Shanghai for several weeks and had wanted to visit western China. She flew out to Urumqi and I met her there two days ago (June 27). Not being subject to my budgetary constraints, she was staying in one of the better hotels in Urumqi. The "non-muslim food" breakfast of bacon, eggs, and sausage was extremely welcome after close to two months pork-free.

Our first stop was the Urumqi provincial museum, which has a lot of great exhibits including some naturally mummified bodies of the mysterious Tocharian people who lived in far western China about 2000 years ago. The most famous of these is the "Luoyang Beauty", a woman whose slim physique and reddish-brown hair have been preserved across the millennia, and who has become a symbol of Uighur nationalism. She's even spookier than most mummies, and I couldn't look for more than a few seconds at a time.

After that we hired a taxi out to Heavenly Lake, a beautiful alpine lake north of Urumqi where we stayed in a yurt camp for Chinese tourists. There were a huge number of large hawks or eagles, who turned out to subsist largely by foraging leftovers from the dumpsters. They still looked nice, though. The owners of the camp assumed we were married and we decided that correcting them would just lead to unnecessary confusion.

As with most Chinese scenic areas, pretty much every rock in the place had a centuries-old name based on a fancied resemblance to some mythological scene or on the alleged fact that a famous person had once stopped there. We pretty much ignored this aspect of the experience, but some of the Chinese tour groups had very thick guidebooks explaining all these things.

Today we had the same taxi take us to Turpan, an oasis with some interesting sites in the surrounding desert. We skipped most of the ruins, but stopped at the 1,000-year-old city of Jiaohe, carved out of the hard dirt on top of a mesa, and also looked at a museum related to the underground karez tunnels which bring water to Turpan from the snowy mountains miles away. The oldest tunnels were first dug around 1 AD, and the system has been maintained ever since. Many of the tunnels are lined with concrete now. It was nicely cool in the underground museum after an hour baking in the ruined city.

Our next step will be taking a sleeper train to Dunhuang, which has some of the best Buddhist art in western China. If all goes well, we should be there tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Down the Karakoram Highway

Urumqi, Xingiang, China, June 27

Last Sunday (June 25) I got a taxi out to the weekly livestock market early in the morning, before my bus along the Karakoram highway. There was a bit of mutual incomprehension with the cabbie since, having not seen any metered cabs since Ankara, I tried to negotiate a price for the ride in advance. Anywhere in the Caucasus or Central Asia, getting in a cab without a price first agreed upon is asking for trouble. After a couple of minutes he figured out what was going on and tapped on the meter until I looked at it and understood. The market was pretty good, but no better than the ones I'd seen in Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan. There were some two-humped Bactrian camels, which was nice.

The bus to Tashkurgan, which is as far as you can go down the Karakoram highway without a Pakistani visa, left on time but quickly fell behind schedule. The trip ended up taking 11 hours, instead of the 6 hours I had expected. We had to stop several times for road construction--it was clear that the spring floods really tore up the road every year, and that keeping it in good shape was a full-time job. Where we were actually on the road, instead of on a bumpy detour, it was very good. All the sharp curves have guardrails, and the shoulder is always at least a few feet off the road surface. The stories I had heard of how scary the Karakoram Highway was are obviously out of date, or maybe they apply only on the Pakistani side.

The scenery was amazing, with a couple of 7000+ meter peaks visible. Every few minutes there would be a mountain vista that would tempt you to stop and marvel on just about any other road. We passed several small settlements, and an alpine lake where several of the passengers got out to go trekking in the surrounding country. One of them was a young Chinese woman who, as soon as I had seen her, had struck me as somehow odd. It took a few minutes to realize that I hadn't seen a woman dressed as she was (fairly low top, narrow shoulder straps, definitely no bra) anywhere in Central Asia. The man sitting next to me, an elderly Kyrgyz, clearly did not approve. But I noticed it took him about an hour to stop looking off to the side to verify that she was still sitting there and still dressed in this flagrantly immoral fashion.

I had hoped to catch a late bus back to Kashgar, but our late arrival stopped that. I ran into some trekkers heading into Pakistan the next day and swapped stories.

The bus back the next day (June 26) also took longer than I expected, but only 8 hours. I arrived just in time to get a 24-hour sleeper bus from Kashgar to Urumqi. It had the same design as the bus I'd ridden from Osh, but was in much better shape, and the bunks had seatbelts. But we were on expressways the whole time and didn't end up needing them. There was a pretty good view of the Tien Shan mountains to the north, and at a few high passes I could see well into the Taklamakan Desert to the south. Most of the passengers were Uighurs, and the more devout of them performed their prayers at the appropriate times, facing toward the western (rear) end of the bus.

To keep the road in good shape, road crews were going along the sandy shoulder and filling in the small gullies, formed by the intermittent heavy rains, with shovels. I guess this kept the gullies from getting big enough to undermine the road and cause washouts. It seemed like a very hot and unending job.

In Urumqi I hope to meet with a high-school friend of mine who is visiting China with her husband (he's involved with setting up the production of the Lion King musical in Shanghai). After that I plan to stop at Turpan to the southeast and then probably go directly to Xian if I can.

I don't know if any of the kosher Chinese restaurants in New York are run by Hui, but their cooking could easily form the basis of an authentic Chinese cuisine. From what I found in the restaurant I visited, it's pretty much northern Chinese food (mostly wheat instead of rice), but with lamb or beef substituted for pork. I liked it.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Shakin' and Rollin' to Kashgar

Kashgar, Xinjiang, China, June 24

It turned out getting from Osh (Kyrgyzstan) to Kashgar (China) was a bit harder than I expected, nearly 24 hours on the bus or waiting at the border.

I got on an overnight bus from Osh on June 22. I didn't particularly mind that it left over 2 hours late, since that gave me time to spend the last of my Kyrgyz money on a good meal and a few beers. We were going to be waiting a few hours for the border to open at 9:00 the next morning anyway.

The bus was a sleeper, with two decks of rather narrow beds. It would have been pretty comfortable except for the condition of the road, which was really bad. I fell asleep after a while, but then around midnight the driver slammed on the brakes hard enough to bang my head against the front of the bed (I seem to be slamming my head into things a lot on this trip), which woke me up. I grabbed onto the railing out of some kind of waking reflex, and the fact that I was holding on was the only reason I wasn't pitched out of the bunk when we hit a massive pothole a couple of seconds later. I was amazed nobody else fell out of the upper berths, and I understood why only a few of them were taken even though most of the lower ones were full. The godawful shaking stopped when we got to the border a while before dawn, and everybody got a few hours of good sleep before we began the formalities to exit Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyz customs were not a problem; the bus was done within an hour even though we weren't first in line. There were a couple of trucks full of scrap metal, bound for Chinese steel mills, ahead of us. By this time is was almost 10:00 local time, which meant it was 12:00 in Beijing, hundreds of miles to the east. And so the Chinese border post was closed for lunch, for an hour and a half. We waited in the parking lot, and I ate or gave away the last of the almonds I had bought in Uzbekistan a few weeks earlier. I'd like to say I anticipated the Chinese agricultural inspection, but in reality it was the only food I had except for a can of tuna.

Inprocessing by the Chinese took longer than any previous crossing except Turkmenistan, with a fairly detailed search of our bags and SARS-related superficial medical exams. I didn't find any currency exchange except one guy with a bunch of banknotes, but he offered 10% less than the official rate, and since counterfeit notes are a problem in China I preferred to get my first Chinese money from a safer source.

We would have been on our way by midafternoon local time except that our bus backed into a car behind it, which required about an hour of arguing between our drivers and the owners of the car. One of the guys whose car we'd hit seemed very upset (understandably, I thought, since the accident was clearly our driver's fault), and had to be restrained from throwing a rock at our bus. But eventually some sort of settlement was reached.

The Uighur towns we passed through were quite similar to Kyrgyz or Uzbek settlements, with a lot of adobe-like buildings that wouldn't have been out of place in the US southwest. In China, the Uighurs use Arabic script to write their language, and I discovered I remembered very little of that alphabet. Uighur women apparently consider a unibrow to be desirable, and if they don't have one they'll sometimes draw a connection between their eyebrows with makeup.

I still hadn't found a decent exchange rate by the time we got to Kashgar. Fortunately, the hotel right next to the bus station didn't insist on being paid until the next morning, and I easily found an ATM that accepted my card. Today I looked around Kashgar and found out about going south on the Karakoram highway and then east by the Trans-Desert highway across the Taklamakan Desert. It looks fairly easy, although sometimes the buses don't leave if they don't think there are enough passengers, pleading nonexistent "mechanical problems" or some such. I guess there can be a downside to the change to "to get rich is glorious" way of thinking.

Kashgar has many Han Chinese residents as well as Uighurs, but the local Han seem to avoid upsetting their Muslim neighbors in some ways--I didn't see any restaurants displaying pig heads or carcasses, for instance. The local mosque, built in the 1440s, has been pretty well restored, complete with an inspiring message from the PRC government about how this proves all of China's national minorities are respected and like the PRC's minority policies. There are a lot of messages like that on signs around Kashgar, most of them semi-translated into English. Instead of praising Mao Zedong thought or attacking the Four Olds, they now say things like "Forge up the Kashgar focus place of economic circle of central and South Asia, To develop the foreign trade" and "Kashgar: The Place of Achieve Your Dream".

Uighur cooking is pretty similar to other Central Asian cuisines, but with a bit more spices and served with chopsticks. I hope to have a dinner of Hui food instead. The Hui are a Chinese muslim group descended mostly from Han converts to Islam, and I haven't eaten their food before.

Tomorrow I'll check out the Sunday livestock market, and hopefully head south toward the Pakistani border by the Karakoram highway.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Blue Lake Issyk-Kul

Osh, Kyrgyzstan, June 21

I'm back in Osh, and I got my ticket on the bus to Kashgar, China (well, actually a town about 20 miles from Kashgar, but close enough).

From Naryn, Gilles and I headed north to Lake Issyk-Kul two days ago (June 19). Our efforts to find a jeep and driver for a more adventurous direct routh across the mountains were unavailing, so we took a minibus along the main road. The drive was mostly uneventful, except for one annoyingly friendly drunk on the minibus. Fortunately, he got out after a couple of hours.

Lake Issyk-Kul is amazingly beautiful, both for its astoundingly Mediterranean blue color and for the awesome snowcapped peaks surrounding it on all sides. The name means "warm lake", since it never freezes due to a combination of mild salinity, great depth (up to 700 meters), and maybe volcanic vents too. It's still really cold in the surrounding area in winter, but at least you can go fishing. Stands selling dried lake fish are everywhere on the shore.

We drove along the south shore, and Gilles bailed out about halfway through because he'd made a lodging reservation. I stayed on until Karakol, just past the eastern tip of the lake. Karakol is basically a Siberian town in Central Asia. In Siberia they plant trees on both sides of every street. It's very bucolic in appearance, but it makes it very hard to see most buildings or landmarks until you're right next to them. Still, I eventually found my hotel.

The next day (June 20), I took the bus to the Przewalski Museum just north of town. The Russian explorer Nikolia Przewalski (1839 - 1888) died here from typhoid after he unwisely drank water directly from a stream without boiling it. On his four expeditions he explored Mongolia, Western China, and Tibet. He discovered (for Western scientific purposes, at least) the small wild horse that bears his name, as well as many lakes and mountains. His museum was built by the Soviets in 1957, and it shows (the tickets, for instance, still claim to be issued by the Ministry of Culture of the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic). This is straight Triumph of Science and Reason over Barbarian Darkness stuff, with nary a postmodern doubt in sight.
I loved it. The best part was a huge relief map of Central Asia with the tracks of Przewalski's expeditions, next to a huge globe at least six feet across. There was a guide who spoke good English, which helped since the English-language captions weren't always very good. The actual grave, on a bluff overlooking the lake, is right next to the museum. From the gravesite there's a good view of an old military installation where the Soviets used to test torpedoes very far from the prying eyes of the US Navy.

After visiting the museum I got a shared taxi from Karakol to Bishkek along the north shore of the lake. I was the third passenger to show up, and the taxis normally depart with four people plus the driver. Sometimes, however, if things are slow, a smaller number of customers will pay extra to leave partly empty. My two fellow passengers suggested this after a half hour or so. Showing the hardening process of all this bazaar haggling, I agreed to pay more to leave at once, but only if I got to move to the front seat. I doubt it would have occurred to me to do this a couple of months ago. There were great views all the way to Bishkek.

Until the end of the USSR, Bishkek was called "Frunze", named after a Bolshevik leader who directed the Red conquest of much of Central Asia. The new name means, roughly, "plunger:" (A bishkek is the wooden plunger in a barrel for fermenting mare's milk into koumiss).
I'm not sure this is much of an improvement, but I guess it's really none of my business since I don't live there and didn't even visit for more than a couple of hours. Capitals of ex-SSRs tend to kind of run together after a while, and I wanted to be sure to catch the bus from Osh to China on Thursday.

To get to Osh I took another shared taxi, and it was a 16-hour trip. It actually wasn't that bad, except that one of the other passengers (three passengers and two drivers this time) brought some cats. They were fine as long as they were in a box, but once removed from the box they proved not to be housebroken just yet. But enough on that topic.

In Osh this morning I managed to pursuade the ticket office to sell me a through ticket to China, and I'll be leaving tomorrow afternoon. I've learned a couple of Chinese characters, but no longer being able to read the signs in Cyrillic is going to be a major adjustment.

A couple of other things from the six-day horse trek that I didn't mention earlier:

On the bus to our starting point there was an old Kyrgyz wih his Great Patriotic War and 50th anniversary of same medals on. I half-expected to find something in my phrasebook along the lines of "Let me extend fraternal thanks for your sacrifices in the fight against our common Fascist enemies", but no luck. I had to content myself with an enthusiastic "Fascisti, nyet!" and a throat-slitting motion, which was well-received.

Riding horses for hours on end makes your knees hurt by the end of each day. Bad. I think it must be the constant strain to the ligaments. Recovery is quick, though, and none of us had any lingering problems a day later.

When we paid our guide, we mostly used US currency, and the surrounding children proved not to have previously seen a $100 bill, which interested them greatly. I ransacked my phrasebook for ways to describe Benjamin Franklin: "Great American . . . scientist, inventor, political activist, good man." How appropriate, in his 300th anniversary year, for his picture to be intently scrutinized by a couple kids from the other side of the world. He'd have got such a kick out of that.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Across enter Rolling enter Steppes enter plus

Naryn, Kyrgyzstan, June 18

I spent most of the last week on a horseback trip along the Jazy and Naryn rivers, and across a 12,000-foot pass.

My companions were Gilles, a Frenchman I had met in Osh, and Laurens, a Belgian woman who had previously met Gilles. They both speak better English than I do French, but I tried to speak to them in French whenever possible in order to practice. On June 11 we took the local bus from Osh to Ozgon and then further east to the small town of Ak-Terek, where we were supposed to be able to find our guide for the trek. Unfortunately, the name we had been given turned out to be the name of a nearby national park, but a bit of asking around soon located the person we needed. We had thought the price list was settled, but this also proved not to be the case. However, after 45 minutes or so we had agreed upon a price of around $27 per day per person.

I took advantage of the remaining daylight to go on a hike in the surrounding mountains, and I wore short sleeves for the first time on the trip. Naturally, I had an allergic reaction to one of the plants I brushed up against, and developed a nasty-looking red rash with welts on my left arm. It didn't hurt or itch, though, and it's all better now.

When I returned around 7 pm, I discovered our guide was attempting to renegotiate the price, claiming to have just discovered (a) that he'd have to get back to Ak-Terek and this would take three days for which he deserved to be paid, (b) that he'd need to buy another horse, and (c) that he'd have to hire somebody else to come along and look after the horses. These struck us as problems any reasonable and/or experienced person would easily have anticipated (and we knew our guide had been leading trips for at least three years), so we declined to pay any more. We did agree to pay 10% of the total in advance for purchase of supplies.

In the course of the negotiations, I again was glad I had picked up my HP 32S calculator at the last minute before leaving. It has a 12-digit display with big numbers that are easy to read, and an intimidating array of math functions on the keys. And since nobody in Central Asia knows about Reverse Polish Notation, only I can make it work (The calculator has no "=" key--to do 5 divided by 3, you press 5 enter 3 divide). I have found it very helpful in all kinds of financial dealings.

Our first two days on horseback (June 12 and 13) were slow and easy riding along a road, with cars and occasional buses passing by. As the only tourist with any riding experience (maybe 12 hours total during the riding lessons I took a couple of years ago), I was assigned the balkiest and most difficult animal. His name was Tagon, and he wouldn't do much without being whipped fairly frequently.

We passed through several villages, and the local kids all came out to stare. I found myself strangely compelled to tip my hat to everyone we passed, a gesture the Kyrgyz do not practice but seem to be familiar with. Both nights we camped by farmsteads, and our guides bought milk, cream, and butter. The milk was often fresh enough to be still warm. Our guide was named Jengish (as in Jenghis Khan), and his assistant was an older man named Jamolka (one of Jenghis' companions). Jamolka always wore a tall white Kyrgyz hat, and chain-smoked Russian cigarettes.

The third day (June 14) was a lot harder. We began by ascending a canyon along a swift stream. The path was narrow and often very steep, and I tried not to think about the legendarily poor depth perception of horses. We had to ford the stream a few times, and our horses often had to feel around for good footing. But nobody fell. Around midday, we saw what appeared to be a wolf, although even through my binoculars I didn't get a good enough look to be sure it wasn't a dog. After our usual midday siesta of two hours or so, we pressed on to Shulbuly Pass (3878m according to an old Soviet map I saw later).

Everything went reasonably well until we were above the snow line, and my horse fell on some icy rocks. I reacted as I had been taught, yanking my foot out of the stirrup on the downward side of the horse and jumping clear. I wasn't scared until afterwards, when I began thinking about how bad it would have been to have a crushed ankle so far in the mountains. It would have been at least a couple of days to any sort of medical treatment, and our first aid kit was very rudimentary. After the fall, we walked our horses the remaining 15 minutes or so to the crest of the pass. A cloud had blown in, and visibility was down to 50 yards or so. There was a great view of the boiling clouds overhead as we descended to our campsite. The weather was awful all night, with high winds and hail. How the horses dealt with it I can't imagine, but they seemed fine the next morning. Gilles' tent did not fare so well: one of the poles had broken. But the fabric had not torn, and we stayed dry.

Our fourth day (June 15) we followed the valley of the Naryn river eastwards. There were awesome Marlboro Country views the whole way, and we also saw several large eagles. The area we rode over clearly was grazed every year, but the cows had not yet been moved up this high. When we stopped, Gilles managed to get the tent to work with shortened poles, removing the broken section. Still, we were very happy that the night was dead calm.

After seeing no roads, houses, or other sign of sedentary civilization for two days, we reached a road on our fifth day (June 16) after passing several summer grazing camps. Jengish and Jamolka stopped to talk to everyone we passed, and the kids always crowded around. In many cases, the herders were grandparents and grandchildren, with the kids' parents off working elsewhere. Just about all the children were wearing baseball caps.

After a longer-than-usual afternoon ride, we stopped at the camp of some of Jengish's friends, and we stayed the night in their yurt. We had fresh koumiss (fermented mare's milk, about 2% alcohol) with our dinner of rice and mutton. Kyrgyz have two cultural similarities with Jews: the men tend to wear their hats even inside, and they sometimes express displeasure by saying "oy". I didn't notice any other points in common, though. The yurt was pretty crowded with at least 10 people sleeping in it, and the little kid sleeping next to me kept elbowing me in the face.
Around 2 am I had to go to the latrine outside, which turned out to be a good thing since night sky was awesome: the weather was completely clear and there were no lights anywhere. Something seemed strange about the view, and after 20 minutes or so I realized there were no airplane lights in the sky--I hadn't seen a plane since the start of the trek.

The final day (June 17) began with a bit of unpleasantness when our guide tried to convince us to take a car from the camp to our destination rather than riding (this would let him get the horses back a day early). But soon after we set off, and it was a great ride all day. We had become used to our horses, and several times we galloped together across the rolling steppe. Around 2 pm we got to Ak-Beyit, which consists of about three houses. We stopped at one of them, had lunch, and paid our guides. As we were walking around stretching our legs, I noticed that Gilles had a sort of exaggerated John Wayne-style swagger. I was about to say something to him about it in French, but then I noticed I was walking the same way after six days of riding.

We had planned to flag down a bus into Naryn, since it's on one of the main roads leading to the border crossing into China at the Torugart pass. But since it was Saturday, the border was closed. However, we were able to hire a driver to take us to Naryn for a reasonable amount. The drive took about four hours with several breakdowns due to an intermittent carburetor problem and one flat tire. Naryn seems like a pleasant enough place, but all three of us are planning to move on to Lake Issyk-Kul. Most likely we'll head there tomorrow.

Monday, June 12, 2006

On Leopards, Marmots and Horses

Osh, Kyrgyzstan, June 10

Yesterday and the day before I went on a hiking and horseback riding trip to a small town southeast of Osh (it's perhaps 30 km east of Gulcha). The drive there took nearly three hours, but it was a very pleasant stay.

One thing I noticed on the way is that Kyrgyz pedestrians are not quite as suicidally brave or stubborn as Uzbeks. In both countries, people walking on a road generally stay at least three feet from the edge of the pavement, on the road surface. And drivers, not appreciating this, honk at them. The Uzbeks almost always stand their ground--I recall maybe two moving to the edge of the road out of dozens honked at by buses and taxis I was riding in. The Kyrgyz generally do step to the edge of the road, though..

After arrival at village (its name means "White Leopard" in Kyrgyz), a local guide and I hiked up a red rock canyon nearby, reminiscent of parts of Zion National Park. After a couple of hours we reached a great waterfall. It was high but didn't have that much water going over it, so the stream shifted back and forth with the wind. The splashes where the water lands on a sloping rock sometimes seemed to form fleeting pictures. I suspect a suitably-inclined reader of Chinese could read phantom characters all day.

The canyon also contained a bunch of orange marmots, about the size of a groundhog (2-3 feet long). They weren't very afraid of people, although I was told the villagers sometimes hunt and trap them. Snow leopards are supposedly found from time to time in the surrounding mountains, but I didn't see one, or expect to. As in most of their range, the animals are now extemely rare even in places named after them.

Since I'm planning a six-day horseback trip starting the day after tomorrow, I thought it would be a good idea to review some of the basics of horseback riding. I found that I retained a surprising amount of what I'd learned in Georgia two years ago. I won't be doing any jumping or anything, but I do seem to be able to get a horse to go, stop, speed up and slow down, and turn. Which should be enough. My medical evacuation insurance will cover me for injuries sustained while horseback riding, but is voided by horse racing. So I will be an extremely polite rider, and always yield to anyone else who wants to pass.

Back in Osh, I found that one of the local movie theaters was trying to draw business by broadcasting the film dialogue and soundtrack on loudspeakers outside--I haven't seen that before. The movie (according to the poster) was "Troy", dubbed into Russian. I saw a stream of customers come into and out of the theater, although the movie was still going. I guess some people still "go to the movies" here, as opposed to seeing a particular movie beginning to end.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Admiring Kyrgyz Kalpaks

Osh, Kyrgyzstan, June 8

One of the first things I noticed in Kyrgyzstan were the hats. Men wear some interesting hats throughout Central Asia, but the Kyrgyz have the best, I think. They look a bit like something out of Dr. Seuss: tall and rounded, with an small upturned brim which has a v-shaped notch cut out of the front. The most common color is while, usually with some black embroidery. In the park by the river, there are always at least two dozen old men playing chess, every one with a hat of some sort. Some version of dominoes is also popular, but I haven't seen anyone playing go.

There's a mountain overlooking Osh which supposedly resembles a reclining pregnant woman. I couldn't see much resemblance myself. A small Islamic shrine near the summit seems to attract almost exculsively female visitors. From a nearby observation deck, I could see the mountains in the distance on all sides.

Osh is not too far from the border crossings to China, and there does seem to be more Chinese cultural influence than in the Central Asian countries I've visited before. In the bazaars, there are more posters of Chinese than Indian and Iranian singers and actors, and the bootleg movie booths also have a wider selection of Chinese titles.

Tomorrow I'll be heading out for a daylong horseback ride in some canyons to the northeast of here. If that goes well, I may go on a weeklong trip a couple of days later with a Frenchman I met at my guesthouse here. It will be interesting to see if I remember anything from the riding lessons I took almost two years ago.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Gosh, It's Nice to See Osh!

Osh, Kyrgyzstan, June 5

If getting there is half the fun, Osh won't be a very fun place at all. I hope getting here was a lot less than half the fun.

I have discovered it is possible to travel from Tajikistan to Osh without either a Uzbek transit visa or the GBAO permit granting access to the eastern half of Tajikistan. But it's not at all easy. Although no good roads go from the northeastern Tajik border (near Isfara) to Osh without entering Uzbek enclaves, there are alternative routes which bypass these areas. However, they tend to resemble rock-strewn streambeds, and taxi drivers are understandably not eager to use them. So the trick is to go to Isfara (in Tajikistan), find a driver with a Kyrgyz license plate who is allowed to cross the border, and convince him to take you to Osh by the long, annoying route.
Lacking the language skills to do this, I hired someone from a travel agency in Dushanbe to come along with me and make the arrangements.

It was not the best of partnerships, since all the expenses along the way were more than I had been told, and we did not part on the best of terms. However, I did finally get a driver who agreed to take me to Osh, avoiding Uzbek territory (I wrote this down in Cyrillic). As
soon as we were in Kyrgyzstan, which was an easy border crossing on both sides, he headed straight down the main road to the Uzbek checkpoint for the enclave of Sokh. The guards refused us entry since (as I had told the driver about 30 times) I had no valid visa for Uzbekistan. I believe this is the first time I have been turned back at a border.

At this point, the Kyrgyz driver pointed out that he would have to drive a long way on a bad road (and it would be dark soon), and asked for more money.

My Russian phrasebook is not very good, and has a lot of uselessly detailed phrases that you have no business using if you're depending on a phrasebook in the first place (e.g. "Will payments by foreign personnel for their residental accommodations be effected in roubles?"). But it does have some useful stuff too, including how to say "we have an agreement." I pointed to the paper and said about a dozen times that we had an agreement, that I would pay only the sum agreed to, and that I would not pay anything or leave the car until we were in Osh. It worked eventually, and we set off on a five-hour drive along some of the worst roads I have driven a non-4WD car on. Or they may not have been quite that bad; roads tend to look worse by headlights.

We also stopped at about six more Kyrgyz checkpoints, none of which gave any trouble. A couple of the guards practiced their English a bit, and I tried to use some of my Kyrgyz phrases, but I was too groggy for much actual communication.

After all that, arrival in Osh this morning ended up being one of the happier moments in my recent existence. I'll probably always have a warm spot in my heart for this town. Osh is an ancient city, and is supposed to have some good ruins. It also marks my return to the Silk Route after my detour south. I should have more to report on it soon.

In Bureaucratic Limbo

Dushanbe, Tajikistan, June 3

Through a stupid error on my part, I have landed in Bureaucratic Limbo, a region that can cover almost any part of Central Asia. After my arrival in Dushanbe the day before yesterday, I found that the permit I need to visit the southeastern parts of Tajikistan is nowhere near as quick or easy to acquire as I had somehow concluded, but will take at least 6 days to issue. This is a major problem since I have only a 14-day tourist visa which expires on the 13th. In retrospect, I can't tell how I missed this, which makes it all the more frustrating.

And due to the messed-up jigsaw borders of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, it's not even at all clear I can go back to Khojand and go east from there. There are some road connections to Kyrgyzstan, but getting past the extreme southwest of the country generally involves going through Uzbekistan and I no longer have a valid Uzbek visa. I have found one travel agency that can drive me along a little-traveled road between Dushanbe and Sary Tash, Kyrgyzstan, but I'd have to pay for both the outward and return trips since the prospect of a return passenger is very unlikely. Still, I'll probably pay rather than fly--I've come this far.

Dushanbe is not the worst place in the world to be stuck, in any case. It has a nice small-town feel, and I have begun to find my hotel quite homelike. It seems to be run entirely by middle-aged women, mostly with at least half their front teeth redone in gold. one of the main streets has an incredibly long wall of patriotic paintings, covering every era from Alexander the Great to the present. There are at least 40 or 50 scenes depicted, although so far I've only seen them from a passing car. Hopefully I'll make it back there today or tomorrow.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Across Tajikistan With Boney M

Dushanbe, Tajikistan, June 1

Yesterday I got a taxi from Tashkent to the Tajik border at Bekabad. The drive was more interesting than I expected, with a lot of great views of the countryside. This is the beginning of silkworm season, so a lot of people were cutting off the branches from mulberry trees and hauling them to their houses, where the silkworms are. The farmers buy eggs from a state-run cooperative, and a few weeks later they sell back the cocoons. In most of the arable parts of Uzbekistan there are lots of mulberry trees planted along roads and between fields. I also saw some people getting rice paddies ready for flooding and planting, which involves a whole lot of digging. I can't imagine it's much fun, especially if you don't have any of the little multipurpose tractors rice farmers in Korea and China have.

The border crossing into Tajikistan was extremely quick and easy. I wasn't even given a declaration form. Hopefully they won't try to say I'm exporting my camera and binoculars when I go to Kyrgyzstan.

I had to get a second taxi from Bekabad to Khojand, which turned out to be easy. It ended up being six of us in the car: me and the driver in front and four Tajiks in the back. Since one of them was quite fat they were really wedged in back there. But they refused my repeated attempts to offer the front seat.

The drive to Dushanbe takes 12 hours with stops, and you really don't want to miss the scenery, so I killed time in Khojand by visiting a big statue of Lenin and the main bazaar, which seemed like a good contrast. My hotel was called the Leninabad, and was not bad. The main drag of Khojand is still named ulitsa Lenina, although it has some operating Islamic school on it now.

This morning I hired another shared taxi out of Khojand at 6:30. It turned out I was actually sort of late for the trip to Dushanbe, and only a couple more departures were expected. I ended up taking the fifth seat (middle of the back) in a Mercedes driven by a guy who seemed relatively sane and calm. Some sections of the road are very steep and there are very few guardrails, so I had decided I was not going to search for the cheapest ride available. Being in the middle was actually not bad since I could look out on both sides. The other passengers had done the drive before but were quite tolerant of my constant rubbernecking. There is an oddly high number of Mercedes cars in Tajikistan, considering the country has a per capita GNP around $300 a year. The reason may not be entirely unrelated to those pretty flowers that grow just south of the Afghan border.

The drive was every bit as good as I had hoped (one guidebook calls it "one of the world's great road trips." The road goes over two passes over 11,000 feet (3,378 m and 3,372 m), and I definitely felt the beginnings of some altitude effects. But since Dushanbe is not very high I wouldn't be spending long enough at high altitude to cause any real problems.

My companions turned out to be Tajik dentists heading for a convention in Dushanbe. One of them spoke some English, and had also brought 5 or 6 cassette tapes to play. The tapes were mostly Russian pop, but also a greatest hits collection of the reggae-disco group Boney M.

As we headed south, I was again struck how similar the buildings were to the adobe houses in Arizona and New Mexico. We went through the vegetation zones and above the treeline, just like a diagram in a geography book. The first pass was pretty good, but the second (Ayni
Pass) was astounding. We crossed into a beautiful high valley surrounded by snowcapped peaks, with a few clouds coming in around the highest ones. The soundtrack turned out to be Boney M's "Rasputin." For some reason (probably mild oxygen deprivation) the lyrics seemed somehow appropriate for the occasion:

Rah-Rah-Rasputin, lover of the Russian queen
They poured some poison into his wine
Rah-Rah-Rasputin, Russia's greatest love machine
He drank it all and said, "I feel fine"

As we headed into Dushanbe we accepted about the twentieth offer of a carwash (these offers consisted of kids lightly spraying our car with hoses). Getting the mud off south-heading vehicles seems to be one of the major local industries. We stopped for about 20 minutes to let the car get fully dry, and I shared out the last of the horsemeat sausage that I'd bought in Tashkent.

Dushanbe (which means "Monday" in Tajik, a fact some local Abbott and/or Costello has no doubt taken advantage of) looked nice and green after the mountain drive. I will begin to find out about heading south on the Pamir Highway tomorrow.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Headbanging in the Desert, Literally ...

Samarkand, Uzbekistan, May 25

Every traveler, upon reaching Samarkand, must quote the final lines of an apparently not-very-good poem by James Elroy Flecker:

We travel not for trafficking alone,
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned.
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.

Since the penalty for not doing this involves sand, dung beetles, and flaming oil, I'll play along.

On May 20 I was still in Turkmenistan, and we headed north from Ashgabat into the desert, after making a stop at a large bazaar just north of town. They had rugs, scarves, lots of baby clothes, and traditional furry hats (which must be really hot in the sun), but my favorite section was the auto parts. It looked like just about every sort of car in the former USSR had been taken apart and put on display. The bearded old men looked closely at old radiators and crankshafts and debated their relative merits and defects like horsetraders.

Once in the desert, we finally saw some big sand dunes (the desert west of Ashgabat doesn't have them, just rocks and gravel, at least near the road). The highway varied a lot in quality--there would be a good section, then bone-jarring potholes, then another good section.
The road work was going outward from train stations along a parallel railroad. After an hour or so we stopped at a village where I saw how you get camel's wool: just pull it off when the camel starts to shed. Much easier than shearing, I guess. The local kids mugged for our cameras and followed us around, but I don't think they asked for money.

Toward evening we left the road to head for our major objective: a flaming gas crater. Sometime in the 1950s, Soviet gas prospectors conducting seismic studies accidentally set off charges in a more active gas field than they had realized, blowing nine craters in the desert. Most have only slow gas seepage, but one of them has enough gas flowing into it that it stays constantly on fire, visible for miles away at night. Nobody seems to know exactly when it was set on fire, or who did it, but I'm willing to bet lots of vodka was involved.

The crater is about 150 feet across, and the atmosphere is incredibly bizarre, like something out of a Bond film (minus the palatial villain estate) or like a volcano from a 1930s jungle flick. Even in the daytime the heat and flames are amazing, and at night they are astounding. Flocks of birds, hunting the insects attracted by the light, dive in and out of the crater, somehow dodging the intense heat. My guidebook referred to large spiders walking into the crater, but I didn't see any. I went to bed well after dark, secure in the knowledge I had seen something new.

May 21st was mostly spent driving north to the Uzbek border. Our guide drove the jeep about as fast as road conditions would allow, and sometimes arguably faster. There were no seatbelts, and I was sitting in the front and enjoying the view until we hit a bad pothole and I bounced my head off the windshield hard enough to crack it. The blow had taken me completely by surprise, so I had been totally relaxed, which I think helped. I was not cut or even bruised, but I instantly started to recall all the alarming things you learn about brain injuries in first aid classes. Nick was the same way--we checked that neither eye was dilated, did various other neurological tests, and agreed that I should stay awake for at least twelve hours.

In a case of very bad timing, I had managed to get badly dehydrated the previous day through a combination of alcohol, not enough water, wandering in the desert, and a lower intestinal ailment I have been too decorous to mention in this journal. So I started to feel faint about 20 minutes after the accident, but drinking water and eating a chocolate bar soon helped. Since we wanted to arrive at the border with plenty of time to spare, we made only a brief visit to the 12th and 14th-century mausoleums near Urgench.

Our exit from Turkmenistan was uneventful, but the Uzbek border guards (after making me display all my currency and checking my entry declaration) insisted that we accept a ride into Nukus from one of the border guards, and not from the taxis waiting nearby. We were charged $10 apiece for the ride, which we later determined was at least triple the market rate, but since the border authorities could have delayed us any amount of time we thought it unwise to refuse. This was our first encounter with an official shakedown.

In Nukus we made the mistake of staying at the Hotel Tashkent, a Soviet holdover with water in two flavors: slightly warm and brown, or cold and a bit paler brown. It did have nice views, though, and we were high enough that insects were not an issue.

Again, I apologize for leaving the story unfinished, but other matters call. I will be up to date by the day after tomorrow at the latest.

Monday, May 22, 2006

In Turkmenbashi, At Last

Khiva, Uzbekistan, May 22

Apologies for the long delay since my last update. I believe I have better-than-average excuses, though.

May 15 and 16 were among the longest of my life, since I spent almost all of that time on a ferryboat which was only moving for about 12 hours. The rest of the time we were stuck in the dock. I boarded around 10:30 am on May 15, and the boat didn't start moving until 2:30 am. Since I had already had my exit stamp put on my visa, I could not return to Baku. The presence of three other American travelers (they were biking from Turkey to China, or trying
to) made the time somewhat more bearable.

All of us sighed in relief when the ferry moved, and the actual passage was calm and uneventful. The eastern shore of the Caspian looks suitably exotic, with carved desert mountains. Our boat entered the harbor at Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnodovsk) around 2:00 pm. One of the bikers, either more suspicious or with more nautical experience than the rest of us, pointed out that several other vessels were anchored and seemed to be waiting for loading or unloading. About two minutes later, we came to a halt and the crew dropped the anchor. The captain first told us we might unload in four hours, but about 15 minutes later he decided on honesty over encouragement and informed us we'd be spending another night on the ship. It turned out that Turkmenbashi harbor had been closed the previous day due to a storm (which did not affect the western Caspian shore), and dealing with the backlog of ships would take the rest of the 16th. We would be the first to unload on the 17th, although that didn't seem like much consolation. We took advantage of the lack of safety regulations to climb the crow's nests and poke around in just about every part of the ship except the crew quarters and the engine room. On our second night aboard, we spent some of our last Azeri money on a bottle of vodka and played cards.

On May 17 I finally entered Turkmenistan. Turkmenbashi (literally "father of the Turkmen", the name adopted by Turkmenistan's dictator Niyazov in imitation of Ataturk) is not the most interesting of cities, but after two days on the ferry it seemed incredibly vibrant. Our guide picked us up at immigration, and our first stop was a bazaar where we exchanged money at the illegal market rate (four times as many Turkmenistan manat per dollar as the official rate). For $100 I got a stack of 10,000 manat bills about an inch thick. The unofficial exchange rate is around 24,000 manat to the dollar. Central Asia is definitely not the place for anyone who wants monetary calculations to stay simple.

Then we were zipping along a well-maintained highway to Ashgabat, the country's capital. The scenery was reminiscent of the American west, only with dromedary camels and brick villages. And, in the villages, pictures of Turkmenbashi all over the place. We made a brief stop at a mosque Turkmenbashi built after converting to Islam and performing the hajj. It was much cleaner and shinier than the mosques I'd seen in Turkey, but there were no worshippers present and our guide said it rarely had more than 50 or 100 people in it, although it could hold thousands.

By the time we reached our hotel in Ashgabat, I was so tired I barely noticed that four or five birds were nesting in the hotel's enclosed atrium. On May 18th I discovered what you get when you combine a megalomanical dictator, a French construction company, and a bunch of oil money: a city that looks something like Las Vegas, only less fun. Ashgabat is easily the most bizarre city I have visited. The huge highways, gleaming white buildings set wide apart, and fountains all over the place (in a desert) instantly reminded me of Las Vegas. This impression was strengthened when I finally realized who Turkmenbashi reminded me of: Wayne Newton. It's no separated-at-birth resemblance, but they do look like cousins at least. The Bouygues construction company seems to be Turkmenbashi's favorite, and their signs are all over the city's many construction sites.

Ashgabat was leveled by an earthquake in 1948, so there is no old city. Instead, there are grimly uniform rows of decaying Soviet apartment blocks and grimly uniform rows of gleaming new marble hotels, few of which seem to be more than half full (our hotel was 75% empty). For cultural offerings, there are many museums, most of which I had been advised against, but the carpet museum was very impressive. It has both a good collection of historical carpets of a variety of designs and also the world's biggest handmade carpet, which weighs several tons and required 41 weavers.

I realize I have not brought the story all the way to Khiva, but I will have to do that in another update.

Monday, May 15, 2006


Baku, Azerbaijan, May 14 (mother's day)

Unlike the leader of Turkmenistan, I can't rename a month of the calendar after my mother, but I did remember, barely, to send a mother's day email yesterday. Hopefully it got through.

I spent most of the day before yesterday (May 12) walking around the old city of Baku. The old city is fairly small and mostly surrounded by city walls which have been preserved. It contains partly Middle Eastern city with tiny alleyways, balconies almost meeting overhead, and twisty maze-like streets and partly ostentatious mansions built with money from the pre-Soviet oil boom. These houses were designed by fashionable architects from Italy and France, and many of them are being nicely restored with money from the current oil and gas boom. The main tourist sites I visited were the ruler's castle from the 1500s and a defesive tower which gave great views of the city and the bay.

The old city is surrounded by two rings of later construction: first a ring of Soviet apartments, in varying states of repair, and then newer apartment blocks and other developments. My hosts (friends of an old family friend) live with their two children in one of the newer developments, but still within walking distance of the old city. My first real meal in Azerbaijan was authentic Hungarian cooking from a teacher at their children's school.

Yesterday (May 13) I managed to meet Nick, the man I'll be accompanying at least across Turkmenistan. We may travel through some of Uzbekistan as well. He is a dual British/Swiss citizen, and having the Swiss passport helps for visiting places like Iran, where he spen the last couple of weeks. For Turkmen purposes he will be Swiss only.

We had some problems finding where to buy ferry tickets, since the old terminal was closed and the guards were far more interested in making sure we left than in telling us where else we should go. But we did eventually locate the place in the cargo port that was selling tickets for the Caspian ferry to Turkmenbashi. They told us to come back on Monday and we'll buy our tickets and wait until the ferry leaves. One problem with all the walking around we did was that there was a stinging, smoglike dust in the air, with visibility cut to half a mile at most. My eyes were red after a couple of hours. I decided it was best not to think about what petrochemicals and heavy metals it contained. In the afternoon a wind picked up which improved matters considerably. While walking along the Caspian, we could see a definite oily sheen on the water, but not as bad as I had expected.

Today (May 14) we hired a car to drive about 50 km south to a petroglyph museum and some mud volcanoes. The petroglyphs were OK, but we didn't stay too long since they mostly looked alike. The level of the Caspian was several hundred feet higher a few thousand years ago, and the rock carvings are at the previous shoreline.

Finding the mud volcanoes proved more difficult, since we were working with rather vague directions and our driver was understandably not excited about taking his Mercedes over bumpy dirt roads. But we did eventually find the place. The mud forms cones like mini-volcanoes atop a hill overlooking the Caspian. There was some sulfur smell but not as much as I had expected. The mud was quite cool, but still appears to boil slowly like a cauldron as gas bubbles large or small force their way to the surface. The exact limits of each pool are not easy to see, and Nick had his leg go through past the knee, leaving his pants coated with mud. Fortunately, there was a pool of water fairly close by and we got most of the mud off before walking back to the car.

After driving back to Baku, passing an incredible amount of rusty old derricks apparently not even worth cutting apart for scrap, we looked for a restaurant recommended in our guidebook. We found the address, but a large construction project had displaced it the restaurant, with no hint of where it might have moved to. So we stopped at a small restaurant, where we enjoyed the food (mostly rice and meat served wrapped in grape leaves) but found the bill excessive.
It included as it did several items at high prices which we had been brought but had not ordered. Still, the final price we agreed on was fine, and we left with no ill-feeling.

I will try to post an update tomorrow before we leave for Turkmenistan, but this may not be possible. In Turkmenistan, internet access is extremely rare, and also closely monitored by the government, so this may be my last update for a week or so.