Chinese Turkestan & Central Asia: Exploring the Silk Road

Chinese Turkestan & Central Asia: Exploring the Silk Road

Andrew Barron, MIR’s Director of Scheduled Group Tours, visits the ancient Silk Road in Western China and the ‘Stans with a Chinese Turkestan & Central Asia scheduled small group tour. Read about his journey from Almaty to Urumqi, Kashgar and Bishkek.

  • Arrival in Almaty

    May 13, 2008


    Arrival in Almaty was quite easy and straightforward. We made our way down from the plane through passport control, then baggage. Though there were customs forms on hand to fill out, the signs were clear for the green line, and I met my waiting transfer driver just outside of the baggage claim/international arrivals area.

    My main impression so far of Almaty is that it has grown immensely. Our hotel is just across from Panfilov Park, which always has people of every age heading in, heading out or just spending time in the shade. Likewise, the street a block down from the Otrar is surprisingly busy, packed at noontime with people of every description strolling, shopping at the outdoor vendors, headed to small shops and stores, or meeting friends to get lunch. Busy but not chaotic; there is a real bustle to this city (Almaty is not the capital, but is certainly the principal city) that matches its modern architecture and its substantial number of motorists.


    In fact, it was clear that the streets here were not made for nearly the number of cars that they now have to handle. Bumper to bumper traffic on the main arterials seems to be the order of business at all hours of the day. The streets are wide and tree-lined though, lending a green background even to the most snarled traffic.

    My fellow travelers mostly arrived late night tonight, tired from the long trip here, but excited to be at the jumping off point for their Silk Road exploration. All told they’ll enter 6 countries in 24 days, making this the longest and most visa-intensive of MIR-operated scheduled group tours.


  • Almaty -What Kind of Potatoes?

    May 14, 2008

    Today was a full day of touring the city sites here in Almaty. We saw all the highlights of the town, which is very much just a modern city. The most striking site was the World War II monument. The monument is in Panfilov Park, and is in three main parts. The outlying sculptures make a sort of gate, or entrance way, like open double doors framing the “front” of the square in which the monument sits. Then about fifty yards behind is the eternal flame and the main sculpture itself, absolutely enormous over the tree-enshrouded plaza below. At the monument we ran into a local school group; the young children were very cute, and I was glad to see that Kazakh school children use the buddy system just like back at home.

    Dinner was independent tonight. Most everyone felt like getting out of the hotel, and nearby options included Kazakh restaurants, small cafes, Russian eateries, and even a sushi place. I explored a few blocks from the hotel and found a small corner restaurant with covered outside seating. Russian is spoken in the big cities in Kazakhstan, as well as Kazakh. Larger restaurants near traveler hotels will have English-language staff, or menus, or both, and where the English facilities aren’t as well-developed, there are still often photo menus. Most meals on our program will be fixed-menu experiences with the group, so I was glad to get to experiment on my own a bit. My dinner experience was quite good, and I was lucky to have a very friendly waiter, a young man who spoke a bit of English. “Lucky” might be a bit of an overstatement, actually – it seems most of the restaurant staff I met here and on other occasions were friendly, helpful, and eager to assist foreign visitors. My meal turned out to be delicious, not only in the quality of the shashlyk, local beer and excellent bread, but a good exchange with the restaurant staff, who were eager to know where I was from, what I was doing in Almaty, and when I’d be back. I had a bit of a funny misunderstanding when the check came though. When ordering I thought I was getting some kartochki, or potatoes, for free. (We were speaking a mix of Russian and English throughout the evening.) However, I was surprised to find a charge for the potatoes on the final tally: it turns out they were kartochki fri, or French fries, not “kartochki…free!” It was an inexpensive laugh, and definitely a language lesson that I’ll remember.

    Photos from this leg of the tour:





  • Almaty -Thin Ice. Very Thin.

    May 15, 2008

    We got an early start today to allow time to see more of the city highlights and still have time to drive out to the Medeo sports complex for lunch. Winding up the road into the mountains you can see successive avalanche barriers that were constructed over time. Almaty sits at the bottom of an area that is quite avalanche prone, and the first ranks of barriers were not effective. Eventually a vast earthwork was put in place, which ended the threat to the city. We got to the foot of the earthwork where the Medeo Ice Rink is and it was amazing. We would have needed hours more time to climb it and come back, so we satisfied ourselves at the panoramic view over the open air stadium.

    Where there was no ice. There was a place where the ice would be, and on it were set up basketball courts. Our guide explained that there is ice year-round but that the cooling system was currently drained for maintenance. It was definitely cooler up here in the mountains, and the fresh air and mountain vistas were a very nice change from the heat of the city. We also saw a very good folk show while we ate lunch in a yurt restaurant and dined on traditional Kazakh dishes. The carrot salad was delicious, and the horsemeat sausages were surprisingly good. I think the traditional stuffed pasta went over a bit better but it was a good chance to try something a bit more exotic.

    We got back into town in time to go see a Russian Orthodox service at Zenkov Cathedral, also located across from the hotel, in Panfilov Park. I didn’t stay for the entire service, but was there long enough to be censed by the priest, and to admire the evening light slanting into the icon-rich sanctuary.

    Photos from this leg of the tour:



  • Turgen Gorge, flight to Urumqi - Waterfall

    May 16, 2008

    We drove even further outside the city today to Turgen Gorge for a hike up to Medvezhiy Waterfall. The name means Bear Waterfall, but we were lucky enough not to run into any of the namesake animals. The hike was fairly challenging, as the surface was on large uneven gravel and rocks most of the way up. The cascade at the top of the trail was pretty, and well worth the hour-plus hike. What was better was the shashlyk picnic waiting for us back at the bottom. I could eat grilled lamb for lunch every day of the week, but for those who weren’t quite as interested there were salads and breads, hot tea and cold juice. We ate by the river under cover of trees, and had the picnic area there to ourselves.

    We headed straight to the airport at the end of the day for our flight to Urumqi in Xinjiang Province China, where we had a very late arrival and transferred to our hotel.

    Photos from this leg of the tour:





  • Urumqi, flight to Kashgar - Hints of What's To Come

    May 17, 2008

    Urumqi, like any big Chinese city is paved, noisy, buzzing with construction and for all the foreign writing and new sights and smells, very familiar. There are highlights, but it is not an exotic town by any measure. What is interesting about it though, as was the case with Almaty, was the mix of ethnicities. I’ve been to eastern and Central China a number of times, and always found a homogeneous population. Urumqi is different and has a very ethnically mixed population. It felt to me like the way I imagine Silk Road jumping-off points of old. There were ethnic Chinese, of course, but also Uighurs, Kazakhs, Mongolians, Russians, and other Central Asians. Though the architecture and setting were very Chinese, it had that “edge of the empire” feel. This was heightened by knowing we were headed to remote Kashgar tonight, the first of our true Silk Road oasis stops.

    We visited Red Hill Park, where people-watching was definitely the highlight, and saw a pagoda around which is a fence festooned with locks. These are placed by couples as a sign of love, and the effect of thousands of locks was a fairly strong one. We also visited the bazaar, which has largely been sterilized and feels more like a shopping complex than anything else. Hints of authenticity poked through though, from the hand-shaved ice fruit drinks to the young Uighur kids causing a ruckus. In my opinion, Urumqi is best seen as an appetizer for the main course down the road.

    We caught an evening flight to Kashgar and arrived late at the small airport, transferring to our hotel for the night.

    Photos from this leg of the tour:





  • Kashgar Sunday Market - The Real Thing

    May 18, 2008

    Today is Sunday, and that means the Kashgar Sunday Market. We started with a drive to the livestock section of the market. We arrived by bus, but it may as well have been a time machine. Despite a fair number of obvious tourists, the market is absolutely stuffed with local livestock handlers, purchasers, shoppers and, well, processors. You can literally purchase a sheep, walk down the row of stalls along the far edge of the open animal area, select a butcher, have the animal slaughtered, and take the meat back up the row to a restaurant booth. Other vendors are set up outside the livestock field, where you could buy a bridle to lead the animal to its fate, vegetables to throw in the pot with it, and a plate to eat it from. Some sellers were bringing their sheep, cows, camels etc. in by truck, but others were trailing cattle on leads or with well aimed use of a switch. No attention was paid to the travelers taking pictures except to occasionally give a warning shout when the stock was coming through. It was a noisy, odorous, and absolutely amazing place.

    The livestock market no longer abuts the main Sunday Market, having been moved several years ago. So we drove back to the center of town, about 10 minutes, for a wander through the enormous market. Here the fixtures were a bit more modern, but the crowd, the variety, the mix of people and languages and the hustle and flow of the marketplace evoked a time hundreds of years ago. A few of our group members negotiated for candy, or hats, or spices, and that was just barely the tip of the iceberg. Any conceivable good, with the exception of beef on the hoof (for that you go to the livestock section from which we had just come), is available at the main part of the Sunday Market, and we could have literally spent three times longer here and still not seen everything.

    We departed to Yarkand (Yerkent) after seeing some more of the highlights, and if Kashgar seems the middle of nowhere, we were now headed towards the edge.

    Photos from this leg of the tour:







  • Yarkand - The Edge of Nowhere

    May 19, 2008

    In Yarkand, there is sand in the streets, and dust absolutely everywhere. China feels as far away as America, in this real Central Asian town. We ate last night in a Chinese restaurant near the hotel, and even the “Chinese” dishes are taking on a definite Central Asian feel. One very popular feature of Uighur cooking is a flavor known in Chinese as “ma.” I don’t know an English word that describes this sensation; it usually comes with “la” which is spicy, and the “ma” comes from a teeny peppercorn, inside an opened-up hull that looks like a hard cardamom. The addition of “ma” flavor makes food… well… tingly. Sort of an electric sensation on the tongue and roof of the mouth. This is definitely not a flavor that is limited to the four standbys, sweet, salty, bitter and sour. Instead, this makes the entire mouth feel different. Quite a sensation by itself, it also seems to open the senses to the other flavors in the dish; so the hot becomes hotter, the garlic more fragrant, the sauce more savory. A unique experience, not to be missed.

    The reason we came to Yarkand was to see the desert, and to do that we had about a half hour drive followed by a long walk down an arbored road. Small houses with gardens (or very small farm plots) lined the road to the desert, and then suddenly, that was it. The desert started at the end of the road. The farm plots ended, the trees ended, there was a small buffer zone of scrub, and then full sandy desert, with dunes not that distant. The group got on board camels here for a “walk-along” camel ride up and over the dune ridge to see the vista of the Taklamakan Desert. I sipped tea in the shade of a large open-side yurt and watched a very angry camel kick around in a camel pen. I’m not sure if he was riled because no one was riding him, or if no one was riding him as a safety precaution; the way he snorted, pawed and periodically went into a bucking bronco routine, I feel it was probably the latter. Some clients said they wanted something a bit more adventurous than a walk-along camel ride, but I don’t think even the bravest would have wanted anything to do with this beast.

    The road back to Kashgar was long but we had time to see some of the traditional craftsmen in the old town on our return – blacksmiths, coppersmiths and so on. It’s funny: after Yarkand, Kashgar seems like quite a modern city, and the hotel here has gone up several notches in everyone’s estimation. The large lobby with its black marble floor and its small lobby bar in the corner, feel like returning to the oases of old after the camel trek in Yerkent’s desert.

    Photos from this leg of the tour:





  • Kashgar, flight to Bishkek - Goodbye Group; Cats & Dogs

    May 20, 2008

    The group left today to drive over the Turogart Pass, leaving China for Kyrgyzstan, while I stayed in town to do some extra scouting with a local guide. My guide was excellent, a young man about my age who speaks flawless English, Uighur, Chinese, and surprisingly, French. As the world gets smaller, more travelers will no doubt be lining up to visit this ancient town, with its amazing market and vibrant old town. So it’s not unexpected that western languages, French and English, German and Spanish will become more prevalent. What I noticed most about my guide’s English was his liberal use of idiom. We ate in a local restaurant seated on a platform as in Uzbekistan, and when I asked him if I should remove my shoes, he looked around and said “I guess not, no one else is, and ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans,’ right?” On hearing I live in Seattle, his first question was about the weather: “In Seattle, it often ‘rains cats and dogs,’ right?” He was an excellent guide, and got me through a rigorous day of walking around in the Kashgar heat – hot enough to fry an egg.

    In the evening, I flew to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

  • Bishkek - Tightrope

    May 21, 2008

    I spent today in Bishkek. Wandering around the area near the hotel I easily mixed with the crowds taking care of their shopping and errands, and the city radiated a peaceful calm. For travelers exercising a normal level of street smarts, Central Asia is a safe and welcoming place; the ethnic mix of people in the capitals, and the cities’ modern feel make a casual stroll a great way to familiarize yourself with them. Dinner tonight was a great traditional Kyrgyz meal, at a really interesting outdoor restaurant. The food was delicious, and included a regional favorite, beshparmak, meat with noodles whose name comes from the words for “five fingers.” We did eat it with a fork and knife though. The folk performances were well done during this meal, and were more than singing groups with traditional instruments; about half-way through our meal a high-wire act was set up in the courtyard and drew a huge crowd of locals along with the diners finishing up dinner.

    Photos from this leg of the tour:





  • Bishkek, Lake Issyk-Kul - Don't Quit Your Day Job

    May 22, 2008

    Today I made the long drive out to Lake Issyk-Kul and back. At the same time, the group was heading into Bishkek, having overnighted at the lake last night. Occasionally clients ask me if Lake Issyk-Kul can be added as a day trip from Bishkek, and it could, but it would be much better to include an overnight at the lake. The scenery is beautiful, but the drive is long enough to make a roundtrip less appealing. On the way to the lake on this cloudy day I found the scenery fairly striking. Issyk Kul is one of the world’s great high-altitude lakes, which was easy to forget as it is neighbored by mountain peaks. These nearby hills make it seem as though the lake is at sea level, an illusion that was broken when I noticed some clouds up ahead of us on the ground.

    On my ride back to the city, I struck up a conversation with the city cabbie. He spoke excellent English and asked me all about where I was from, what line of work I’m in, and so on. It came out in our conversation that he is an aeronautical engineer and designs and overhauls airplanes for a private aeronautics corporation when he’s not driving a cab. This reminds me that my transfer driver on my way in from the airport let on that in addition to being a driver, he was also a doctor. Kyrgyzstan has huge economic problems, including unemployment and loss of its skilled and educated class to countries with more jobs and opportunities. It is one of the poorest countries in which we spent a significant amount of time, and the future looks about the same.

    It was good to catch up with the group a bit tonight for dinner and an excellent recitation of (a small part) of the Kyrgyz national epic Manas. The group will head to Osh after some touring together tomorrow, whereas I’ll stick around Bishkek for one more night and then return to Almaty for the flight home.

    Photos from this leg of the tour:





  • Bishkek, departure from Almaty - The Universal Language of Border Checkpoints

    May 23, 2008

    Today we did some touring in and around Bishkek, the capital city, with its wide boulevards, tall statues, sparse traffic and sunny weather. We had a good visit at an upscale school for children of expat VIPs, and then the group had to head to the airport. I talked at some length with our city guide about his real love, the mountains of the southern and western part of the country. I think a return visit to Kyrgyzstan for more exploring in the “hinterlands” would definitely be rewarding.

    The last leg of my journey was to drive from Bishkek back to Almaty, including a border crossing on foot. Our groups often get special permission to stay with their vehicle, but I was asked to hop out of the car on the Kyrgyz side and pass individually through passport control. Exiting the Kyrgyz side was easy; I passed my passport to the border guard, had it stamped, and continued through no-man’s land, with a line of other pedestrians. On the Kazakh side I started to walk down the tunnel to the frontier and was waved inside the building on the side with much shouting (not the threatening kind, but still a bit unnerving coming from the uniformed men who run the border point). Inside was a crowd of mostly Kyrgyz / mostly young men. A crowd lined one wall, and it was suddenly a familiar scene from every border and airport everywhere in the world: blank forms on a table, stubs of pencils being passed around, and officials quietly waiting in booths by turnstiles. I grabbed a form, and that’s when a fellow traveler approached, a rough-looking guy, a bit taller than me, probably Kyrgyz. He said something in Kyrgyz that I didn’t understand, clearly to me. Gesturing. I didn’t follow what he said and he repeated himself, and repeated the gesture. One last time and I got it: he needed a hand with his form, and I happily translated the English language version of the form, and helped him complete his entry documents. I stepped through the turnstile, met my waiting driver, and drove off to Almaty, the airport and home.