A Travellerspoint blog

China: the good stuff

semi-overcast 21 °C

As promised, the good side of China, at least our experience there.

We were pleased to find that the people were markedly friendlier than on our previous trip. We got smiles and unsolicited help aplenty. One lady even drove me around a busy city to find a post office that dealt in sending international mail before taking me back to where we started and giving me a present of a (rather ugly) Chinese mask.

The desert and mountain landscapes in the far West were amazing. We did a 3-day bike ride along the Karakoram Highway, a place that had been somewhat mystical to me before, somewhere far away, I wasn't sure where, and never thought I would see. We started up near the Pakistani border, skirted alongside the Tajik border for a while before dropping down into Kashgar. It was 320km, which was crazy hard work, in endless headwinds, at high altitudes, made even more difficult by the fact neither of us had been on a bike for 5 months! The landscape was barren, massive and sand coloured. We spent the days cycling around the two biggest mountians I have ever seen - 7,719m and 7,546m. Dotting the scene were two-humped camels and yaks.

Karakoram Highway

Karakoram Highway

The food was tasty, a welcome change from the endless tomato and cucumber salad of Central Asia.

Sichuan BBQ. Loving the street food

Sichuan BBQ. Loving the street food

Despite Hanification, Kashgar still retains a uniquenss about it, another worldliness. So old, surrounded by desert, in the middle of nowhere. Women dress colourfully, including an array of headscarves. The mens' faces are weathered, the old with long white or grey beards, always wearing a light oversized shirt and their boxy little hat. It has always been a city of crafts and in among the rubble of what is left of the old town, blacksmiths, carpenters, seamstresses all work away in the front of their small workshops.

Craftmen at work. Getting your wok fixed. Kashgar

Craftmen at work. Getting your wok fixed. Kashgar

Uighur men selling grapes. Kashgar

Uighur men selling grapes. Kashgar

It was wonderful to see the world slowly move from desert to the tropics. The landscapes were beautiful (when not interferred with by man) and changed considerably, especially when compared to how far we would travel in the 'Stans before seeing a difference. It tooks us 78 hours by bus and train to cross the desert, moving away from the borders of Central Asia. Up into cold and green Tibetan plateaus before going down into the rice paddies and banana trees of the tropics.

Tibetan countryside, Gansu Province

Tibetan countryside, Gansu Province

It was cool to see the different cultures within China, in particular for us the Tibetans and the Uighurs. Strikingly different cultures, beliefs and ways of life to Han Chinese, and each other. Interesting trying to get our heads around how they can all be living together in just one country.

Monk and Tibetan women spinning prayer wheels

Monk and Tibetan women spinning prayer wheels

Last, but of course not least, the pandas, you've gotta love the pandas. They are adorable slobs that don't wipe the food from their chin and don't do much other than eat and sleep. Their babies are only c.150 grams at birth, which is smaller than their poos!

Panda slobs!

Panda slobs!

Posted by chrisgulik 00:19 Archived in China Comments (2)

Destructive progress

China

overcast 21 °C

This was our second trip to China, a somewhat inevitable necessity on an overland trip like ours as most other routes across the world are blocked for various reasons. We decided this time to travel to some more remote corners of the country, the more ethnically diverse and therefore less Han China (92% of Chinese are ethnically Han). This would take more time and effort. And sadly we were not rewarded. We were too late. Everywhere we went the bulldozers had beaten us. Old towns, cities even, were being demolished in the name of progress, replaced with identi-kit concrete structures as-seen-all-over-China. History and cultural diversity is currently being whipped out, cultural (Han) hegemony is being established in its place. It makes for boring and depressing travel.

The old street knocked down, the new being built. Langmusi

The old street knocked down, the new being built. Langmusi

One example. We visited Kashgar in the far west, covered in a film of dust from the demolished homes. It is an ancient city, was a pivotal point on the Silk Route and until recent times had a majority population of the Uighur people. They have long been fighting for their independence from China, China fighting back to keep the territory. One of China's tactics is to try and Han-ify the region aka, colonise it. In a country with a one-child policy, Han Chinese who move to Kashgar are rewarded for doing so with permission to have multiple children. They also get their first 3 years there tax free and their relocation costs paid for them. The result, Han are now the majority in the region - there are 8,000 new arrivals every day. This has created some serious civil unrest and now there are riot police 24/7 on the main street corners in town because uprisings against the Han and local government are common.

Just a little bit of old Kashgar still standing... not for long

Just a little bit of old Kashgar still standing... not for long

Moving on from destruction it's hard not to be taken-aback by the propaganda. The Uighur Mosques and Tibetan Monasteries we visited were littered with information boards re-writing history to show the 'friendship' and 'harmony' of the locals with the Han. We also got to witness some serious modern day government-led enciting of hatred. While we were in China the Japanese government bought the Diaoyu Islands from the current Japanese owners. China has disputed Japanese ownership of these remote, uninhabited islands since WWII and this new transaction really riled them up. It proved to be a great opportunity for the government to stir up some nationalism.

Every news channel and news paper headlined the story. As we sat in a restaurant with the news on we watched locals roar their distaste and approval to scenes of Chinese school children practising for air raids - as if the Japanese were about to invade, this then cut to footage of the Japanese actually invading back in 1930. Such scenes, and aggravating language being used by the government big wigs led to some nasty reactions. Japanese manufacturing plants and stores in China were closed because of sabotage, riots took over the streets with Japanese flags being burnt, in a bus station of a national park we saw a bus stickered with a Chinese flag with the hand written slogan 'F*!k Japan & the Philippines'. It was an intense reaction to a small issue (still ongoing more than a month later), building on a hate of a common enemy that has been cultivated by the leadership for 80 years.

Racial hatred

Racial hatred

Just a few examples of what's not to like about China. It wasn't all bad of course and I will write a whole separate blog on the good. Still, I wouldn't say it was a fun place to travel nor a highlight of the trip. I will take from it an interesting insight into a different place (a future superpower??). I'm glad I'm not Chinese. And perhaps the world has a little to fear from a government who can so easily stir up the hate of a billion people and turn it into violence.

The new surrounds and dwarfs the old. Langmusi

The new surrounds and dwarfs the old. Langmusi

Posted by chrisgulik 09:53 Archived in China Comments (0)

Kyrgyzstan: an overview

sunny 25 °C

I love Kyrgyzstan. We spent over a month there and had an amazing time. Along with Georgia, it is currently sitting in my top two countries on this trip.

The landscape is stunning - immense mountains, immense wide open spaces, gorgeous valleys, clear open skies and see-through rivers. As we were there still in summer, this beautiful landscape was dotted with white yurts, horses and sheep. Many Kyrgyz are shepherds, some even professionally so - looking after many others' animals, and spend the summer months on higher ground living in yurts. It seemed to me a lot like going away camping for the whole of summer, just taking all your herds and flocks with you.

The Arashan Valley

The Arashan Valley

The nomadic lifestyle, Song Kul

The nomadic lifestyle, Song Kul

All the people we met were warm and welcoming. They are happy, proud of their country and genuienly curious of ours and us. It makes for some great conversations and encounters. You learn so much more about a place when people are this way. Our little bit of Russian really went a long way, and we were also lucky to meet an uncanny number of English teachers - all on holiday for the summer.

Classic Kyrgyz village scene

Classic Kyrgyz village scene

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It has a much more open economy than the other 'Stans yet it is still a fairly poor country living a somewhat traditional way of life. You have your shepherds still living the nomadic lifestyle. We stayed in one village where instead of hearing cars outside our window at night, we heard people riding past on horseback. Hiking through forest one time we came across some 'forestry workers', i.e., a couple of older guys with an axe and two kids on horse back dragging a felled log each behind them. I never thought I would see that. Plumbing is still rare and walking around a village at dusk you will see people with various vessels heading to one of the water taps in town.

Kul Ukok

Kul Ukok

Song Kul

Song Kul

It was the perfect combination, we had endless opportunity for independent-good times-exploration. We did lots of hiking. A long, cold but rewarding 6 day hike when we woke up twice to a thin layer of ice coating the inside of the tent's fly. A briefer 3 day hike where we got to hang out on a beach at 3,500m above sea level with a view over a lake towards many glaciers. We had tea with a friendly shepherd and his family - as we were hiking past his yurt he invited us in. We rode horses for 3 days up hills to an alpine lake, staying in shepherds yurts, eating their fresh cream and sleeping under mountains of blankets to keep warm at night (in Kyrgyzstan you are always at a high altitude). We spent several days in the capital Bishkek, a really pleasant leafy city where good coffee is readily available, even flat whites! We even got a history fix with a hike to a remote petroglyph site and a visit to a caravanserai. Every drive was scenic, the inevitable mountain passes spectacular.

Cowboy

Cowboy

Camping at Kul Ukok

Camping at Kul Ukok

Beachside at 3,500m

Beachside at 3,500m

What we found with Kyrgyzstan, as with most of Central Asia, is that it isn't about the blockbuster hits. There is no Machu Picchu, no Serengeti or Mt Everest. It's all about the details, the little things. It works a treat, keeping the hordes of tourists out and delivering in authentic goodness, daily.

As Silk Road as it gets in 2012

As Silk Road as it gets in 2012

Posted by chrisgulik 07:38 Archived in Kyrgyzstan Comments (1)

The animal bazaar

sunny 20 °C

The first taxi that came past us at 6am already had some locals in it, but they stopped anyway. They were going to the same place as us so we jumped in the back. As soon as the car took off we heard knocking coming from the boot. Our eyes flashed frighteningly at each other for a quick moment, before we both realised that it wouldn't be a person locked in the boot, just a few sheep. Sure enough, when we arrived and the boot was opened three sheep were revealed - one black, one white and one caramel. We were at the Karakol Sunday animal bazaar.

Sheep for sale

Sheep for sale

The outdoor market, with a spectacular backdrop of the snow capped Terskey Ala-Too mountains, and beautifully bathed in the early morning light, was in full swing. It was busy. There were several hundred farmers and buyers tightly packed into the market space, with as many animals. Most of the farmers have only one, two or three animals to sell, very rarely more. Every man has on a hat, many a version of the characteristic Kyrgyz felt hat. All serious buyers carry a loop of rope in hand in order to take home their new purchase - no animal comes with rope (used like a leash). Some entrepreneurial women had set up stalls to cater to the early morning needs of the farmers, selling an array of vodka and beer. It is noisy and smelly and its best to watch where you step.

Classic Kyrgyz style

Classic Kyrgyz style

The bazaar is divided into different sections for the different animals. You walk first into the sheep section, the loudest and most chaotic. Also the most stubborn of all the animals, but then I would be too if I had a rope tied around my throat and was being dragged along. With animal fat being such a staple of the diet throughout Central Asia there are plenty of fat tailed sheep to be seen, and there are some big booties! The cow and horse sections are more sedate and orderly with most of the animals being tied up to wooden poles. But keeping things interesting and unusual to us city slickers, there is the the odd potential buyer taking a horse for a test drive. Finally there is the pig section. We nearly walked through it thinking it was the car market, but get a little closer and you notice all the boots are open and full of piglets. Being a predominately Muslim country, who don't eat pigs, this section is almost deserted and all the farmers here are Russians.

A fine specimen of a fat tailed sheep, mmmm mmmm

A fine specimen of a fat tailed sheep, mmmm mmmm

Piglets in the back of a Lada

Piglets in the back of a Lada

Trades are swift, a few prods of the animal, perhaps a lift of a fat tail, a little negotiating and the money changes hands. The owner's rope is untied from the animal, the buyer ties up and walks off. And with this pattern, slowly the bazaar empties.

It was a unique experience and a wonderful insight into the life of the small scale farmers who make up a large percentage of the Kyrgyz economy and population.

The horse section

The horse section

Posted by chrisgulik 20:21 Archived in Kyrgyzstan Comments (1)

Making hay while the sunshines

Literally!

sunny 25 °C

Well I am way behind on this blogging business. I have so much to say, because we have been doing so many great things, and that of course in turn gets in the way of writing this. But. We are now in China, and have some mega train journeys ahead of us, currently on a 36 hour one, and its the perfect opportunity to catch up. Terrible blog practice I am sure, a lull and then an overload, but its just the way it is. So... to Kyrgyzstan!

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All over Central Asia we had been seeing the same comic sight of donkeys and old Soviet trucks totally overloaded with hay. There was dry grass fields all around us. So in our first few days in Kyrgyzstan when the opportunity arose to go hay making with a local family for the day, we were in.

The setting is beautiful Arslanbob, a village at the tip of a steep valley with mountains behind and steep hills on either side. We climbed West up one side of the valley up onto a plateau and through fields of dry grass and sunflowers until we reached the family group, of about 16, we would spend the day with. It seemed all the women of the extended family between 15 and 45 were there, boys under 16 and Dad/Uncle whose particular piece of land it was. I was curious what the men were doing while the ladies laboured away in the fields, but I was reassured that the men of working age were at another family member's piece of land scything the grass ready for the ladies the next day, just like they had been here the day before.

Beautiful fertile fields in Arslanbob

Beautiful fertile fields in Arslanbob

We arrived just in time for breakfast, cooked on-site in a cauldron over a fire by one of the ladies, and shared from a central plate while we all sat on blankets. Then to work. The ladies all had a sickle and in a line, worked their way up the hill using the sickle to pull together a large bunch of dried cut grass. This was laid on top of a piece of string and the boys followed up behind to tie the bundle up and heap them together. It was hard work, but with plenty of opportunity to stand around and chat, fortunately a few in the family spoke English so we got more of an insight into life in this village.

Family at work

Family at work

Sickle in hand

Sickle in hand

Lunch was shared in a similar fashion to breakfast, a hearty plov - rice with a few veg. Once all the hay was bundled the hardest part was to begin, dragging all the heaps down to the bottom of the field (which was pretty hilly and steep) so that it could all be brought together into one massive pile. Some of the boys fashioned a sleigh to carry as many bundles as possible, I joined up with one of the ladies to share the burden of each load. And one super strong girl threw each bundle, by pitchfork, up to Uncle to form an absolutely enormous pile of hay.

Building the pile of hay

Building the pile of hay

After some watermelon to celebrate the job done all 16 of us piled into Uncle's old UAZ jeep, with a hay bale for a back seat, several people completely hanging out the window, but Dan, the second oldest man, ceremoniously given the front passenger seat. We bumped down a rocky road, into the sunset and through the fields of sunflowers back to town.

In Uncle's UAZ jeep

In Uncle's UAZ jeep

It was hard work, about 10 hours of labour, and we were exhausted. But this group were back out tomorrow to do it all again on another piece of family land. Some of the ladies were teachers, one a doctor, most of the girls students, and this is what they did every day for at least a month during the summer months. A real family team effort, and really hard work. These people are super hardy and incredibly welcoming. They politely didn't mention how crazy they thought we were for volunteering to work with them for a day!

Posted by chrisgulik 21:32 Archived in Kyrgyzstan Comments (1)

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