Sunday, August 26, 2007

In Central Asia or I Finally Got There!

I’ve called this the trip of a lifetime:  nearly a month, traveling from Delhi to Amristar to Lahore and Islamabad to Peshawar, to the Hunza Valley to Kashgar to Tashkent to Samarkand and Bukhara. and finishing at  Khiva!  Five countries, all involved with The Great Game of Kipling’s time.  For several years, I had been trying to book  a tour, anyone’s tour, to Pakistan:  the Karakoram Highway (one of the most scenic in the world!) and  the Hunza Valley, a claimant to being the original for James Hilton’s Shangri-La.  I would sign up and then it would crash shortly before takeoff:  security problems and/or not enough participants.   

So, to find an itinerary that also included the Sikhs’ Golden Temple and main part of the Silk Road (which I had considered as a separate tour) and was too good to be true, though it was touch and go for  there was the minimum number in our group.  Four women of a Certain Age, e.g., over 60:  two Aussies, one Canadian and myself.  The Tour Leader was an experienced, affable, knowledgeable  and enthusiastic guy who did well in meeting the needs of our disparate group.  He also spoke passable Russian which helped in  Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, both former Soviet Republics where Russian continues as a second language.

The tour was called Mogul Caravan (“Follow in the footsteps of Babur, great grandson of Tamerlane, last of the Timurid Dynasty of Central Asia and founder of the Mogul Empire”) and was put together by Sundowners, an Australian bunch that specializes in  journeys  to Central Asia, Mongolia, Siberia and Russia.  I booked, as usual, through Adventure Center in Emeryville, California (1-800-227-8747;  I opted to omit the first seven days, the so-called Golden Triangle (Delhi-Jaipur-Agra-Delhi), for I had been there before..  So I met my group  May 7,  at Delhi, India, and returned home June 4, 2007 from  Tashkent,  Uzbekistan.  

India continues to be a fascinating, dusty and unkempt country.  I love it.   This was my third experience and I still believe they haven’t cleaned up since the Partition.  (Pakistan, on the other hand, was quite tidy.  Maybe it’s the difference between a democratic and a more authoritarian approach to government.  After all, Mussolini did make the trains run on time!)  Amristar’s Golden Temple is in the center of a reflecting pond and is absolutely spectacular.  There was a continuing flow of Sikh pilgrims into and out of the temple with ongoing chanting.  The other moving sight was Jallianwala Ragh, the park  honoring the 2000 unarmed  Indians killed or wounded by the British in 1919 during an antigovernment  demonstration; bullet holes are still visible.

Just over the border was the Pakistan city of Lahore.  Throughout the stay in Pakistan, I was impressed by the beauty of the country and the friendliness of the people.  Though there were several  outbursts while we were there, we were totally unaffected.  We spent one evening at the Pakistan-India border crossing closing ceremony in which the border guards tried to outdo each other in their execution of military steps - all seemed very choreographed.  I asked one of the  Pakistani guards   if they rehearsed; he admitted the Indians and Pakis  would work on it during the day.  There were grandstands on either side of the border, filled with partisan supporters.  On the Pakistan side, we had a middle aged cheerleader who voluntarily came out each day to whip up the support for his troops.  And chastised those women who were uncovered, women being seated in a sparate grandstand.  I talked with   a couple of Americans, schoolteachers, who were at the International School in Lahore, but thinking of moving on to Africa once their present  contract was completed.  

In  Lahore, Rawalpindi and Islamabad, we visited forts, mosques and bazaars, We ate Italian after I convinced my fellow tour member  they should purchase The Kite Runner  at the nearby mall bookstore; it had just been filmed near Peshawar.     Large posters of General Musharraf, Pakistan’s de facto ruler     ,  were up along clean expressways  for he was scheduled to speak  the following day, part of his ongoing dispute with the Chief Justice, who was to participate in  a rally on the same day  in Karachi - that developed into a riot! but did not affect us as we had moved on to Peshawar, near the Khyber Pass one of the historic entrances to Afghanistan.   I had hoped to get to the Pass but was not to be;  I needed a special permit plus an armed guard, none of which could be arranged in the two days we were at Peshawar.  Another time!  

Peshawar is a frontier town; while I didn’t see armed Pathans, soldiers and police were evident.  We did spent time in in the Old City, at the Fort and the Cantonment when we weren’t looking for truck body  shops:  all of us had been fascinated by the multi colored trucks in both India and Pakistan.  They were works of art, all so individual.   We searched out shops where the painting  was being done, along with the intricate carving on the cab’s doors.  Several days after we’d left, a True Believer blew himself up at an Afghan hotel/restaurant in the Old City, killing and maiming locals!

From Peshawar, we headed off  to the Swat Valley.  Enroute we spent time at the old Buddhist ruins at Takht-i-Bahi and the Lotus City ruins  at Charsadda.  Swat Valley is one of the loveliest areas in northern Pakistan.  From there, we headed off  to the KKH via a road-not-yet-in-progress.  But the scenery was spectacular and since we were  driving at a very slow pace, we had time to enjoy it.  It was a long drive but worth it.    Eventually we ended  at Gilgit,  with the British Cemetery with its graves of trekkers and explorers and the Uprising Memorial, in honor of those who rose against the Maharaja in l947.  

KKH is an engineering marvel for it snakes its way along the sides of mountains, into areas that had been isolated  from the mainstream for centuries and through high narrow passes.   On the Pakistan side, the road can be a bit rough but the Chinese portion is beautifully asphalted.  We spent two nights in the Hunza Valley at Karinabad.   Enroute, we picked up a couple of British backpackers:  one on his way to Kashgar where he taught English and the other, a photographer traveling about until his money runs out.   I did a two hour hike up to the Eagle’s Nest, a promontory,  with  a magnificent view of the entire Valley -  overwhelming.  As our tour leader had spent time in the area with a NGO, we had entry at the small  local health clinic, arriving soon after a baby had been delivered, and had tea with several of the staff.    We also  were able to meet and talk with local students.  

From Pakistan then, to China, with chances to photograph  the Ibex and marmots along side the KKH as we drove through the Khunjerab Pass to Tashkurgan.  It was a basic border town, which  boasted an old Fort,  an internet cafe, a hotel  and a restaurant which I remember little about.  I do remember that loudspeakers were on continually, full of good advice for the locals who could understand what was being said.  I couldn’t - and didn’t regret it.  

Driving  onto fabled Kashgar, heart of China’s Moslem Uyghur population., we shared KKH with camels as well as trucks  and stopped to talk with nomad peoples camped  along the Kara Kul lake.  The Chinese have tried to modernize Kashgar but the old time spirit seems to live on.  Sunday livestock market found all sorts of tribal people there with mules, cows, horses,camels. chickens - you name it and it was for sale.  A side enterprise was going on with half a dozen street barbers plying their trade.  The Chinese had razed the old downtown bazaar but there were small bazaars who had  found homes elsewhere on old city streets.  We stayed in the old Russian consulate now a hotel; I stopped by to see the former  British Consulate, also a hotel.                                                                                                                                            

Leaving China to enter Kyrgyzstan via the Irkeshtam Pass was either the high point or the low point of the trip:  First, you need to know there is 7 km of no-man’s land between the Chinese and the Kyrgyzstan border stations, an area where  buses, either from China or Kyrgyzstan were not allowed.  You cleared customs at the Chinese station and then hoped to hitch a ride with a truck traveling through. We were lucky:  for $5 a head, we latched onto a Kashgar to Osh shuttle.  We packed in with a full load of locals,  our luggage tied on  with the  Sunday market Kashgar purchases atop the bus.  It seemed the bus was as tall as it was long.  And  at a check point part way through, the driver picked up another passenger who semi-stood/squatted as there was no absolutely no room.  Our Kyrgyzstan bus with driver and guide, bless them, was waiting for us once we cleared the Kyrgyzstan border.

By now, we had moved from hot to cold weather.  Snow and a high wind chill factor.  I had layered up with socks, pants, tops and jackets.  The roads were abysmal, similar to the Swat Valley-KKH road. So slowly, we headed off to the village of Sary Tash, barely mentioned in Lonely Planet., where we had a “home stay”!  We ate at the “home” and then bedded down, all four of us, on mats and quilts on the floor of a rather cold room with our Tour Leader in the adjoining room - the one with  a wood stove.  Facilities were an outhouse (squat toilet) and a gerry-rigged sink. People were nice and the  livestock was friendly.  From there we moved via a truck-gutted road to Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city, where we stayed at a “guesthouse” aka bed-and-breakfast. Osh is still  Russian influenced  and boasts a large Lenin status in  front of its administration building. However, per Lonely, Planet ”Osh is older than Rome”,  with King Solomon to Alexander The Great credited with its  founding.   We lost our cold weather; it was comfortably warm for the rest of the trip.  

Next into Uzbekistan and the Ferghana Valley, where the Daewoo automobile factory was located and where there had been some Moslem unrest.  Daewoo was certainly the auto of choice throughout Uzbekistan.  The Yadgorlik Silk factory and the ceramic artist Rustam Usmanov were in the area.  We visited these two - where lovely creative work was being done -  in additional to a palace, mosque, museum  and the ever present  Bazaar.  Then onto Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan.     

In Uzbekistan, probably half the population are ethnic Russians along with the Uzbeks, Koreans, Caucasians and Tartars.  It’s a mix though seems a very Russian city. The  City tour which took us all about including  handicraft shops operating from former medressas as well as active medressas (Moslem religious schools).  We rode the metro and hitched a ride from a local (put your hand out and anyone interested  in giving you a lift stops; you then negotiate price and destination) and attended both Ballet (Fountain of Bakchisaray) and Opera (Madame Butterfly).  The orchestra was good and  both ballet and opera company had several excellent performers, but - there was no audience! There was ten to twenty percent attendance, more for opera than ballet.  And this was on a weekend! The government pays  the costs so so no one worries. Several of us enjoyed evenings at the Cafe Caravan, near our hotel; good jazz and great ice cream!  

Then off to the three cities whose names ring in any mention of The Silk Road:  Samarkland, Bukhara and Khiva.  The Registran was Samarkland’s medieval commercial center.  There are magnificant mosques, medressas and mausoleums.  In another area is the avenue of tombs (Shahr-I-Zindah and the Guri Amir Mausoleum.  These building, as the ones in Bukhara and Khiva, are elaborately tiled, with blue domes.  So elegant it’s  impossible to describe.  We did go to Shakhrisabz (Tamerlane’s home town) for a day trip, with its palace and mausoleum complex.

In addition to the mosques, medressas and mausoleums, Bukhara has  domed bazaars, a Jewish quarter (I went into a synagogue where there was a sparse group of men, women and children studying.  Lonely Planet estimates the Jewish population has dwindled to 7%.), the Kalon Minaret (which two of us climbed the 105 steps to the top),and  UNESCO carpet weaving shop (I bought a rug, still in process).  Then there was the Bug Pit: :a dungeon cell  where inhabitants were both human and creepy-crawlies.  It  in the 1800s, it held two Britsish officers, eventually executed.  Kipling’s Man Who Would be King and the Huston film  with Sean Connery and Michael Caine likely are related to the true event.    One evening, several of us attended a dance-fashion show which included a full dinner for $10.  There is simply a lot of stuff to explore and see in this absolutely fascinating historical place.

Closing out the tour was a day at Khiva, a walled city, also packed with exquisite mosques, medressas, mausoleums, and  palaces, many  used for making/selling of handicrafts or as  museums. Easy to get lost.  The old caravansari is now a bazaar, Wal Mart style!    Part of the Old City is still provides housing for local residents, so the ancient mixes with the present, though not much of anything is new.    We leisurely lunched  on the roof of a bed & breakfast, recommended by an American  I met in Bukhara.  A leisurely  sunny  afternoon simply observing the activity below.

From Khiva, it was a short flight back to Tashkent and then flew home the next night.

We traveled mostly in  mini buses, though took the  Shatabdi express train from Delhi to Amristar,  a two car drive across the mountains from the Ferghama Valley to Tashkent (no buses allowed:  fear of a invasion! By mini bus?) and the concluding flight from Khiva to Tashkent.  All of the drivers were outstanding at navigating some rather  impossible roads with a mix of transportation choices including donkey carts and camels.     The local guides were patient and knowledgeable.  

We ran into several other tour groups in China and Uzbekistan:  Australian, French, Japanese.  Also some independent travelers:  a couple from the Bay area, a guy enroute to Italy,  mother-daughter backpackers, and another guy who  wandering around after completing an Explore tour.   Western tourists were not  evident in Pakistan.

Food was fine.  Breakfast was usually flat bread, cucumbers, hard cooked egg, cheese and coffee/tea.  Occasionally  there were apricots and cherries. Most meals were $5 at the local restaurants; salads, soups, vegetables, stews and skewered cooked meats were usual.  Meals were also served in private homes; we took advantage of that several times.  

Generally, accommodations were excellent.  In two instances, I was sharing a suite of rooms in a  rather upscale hotel, which made up for the night on the floor and the outdoor squat.  Usually, we wereπ were in mid-range hotels, as listed in Lonely Planet. The Carleton Tower Hotel ( in Lahore,  Hotel Margala ( in Islamabad  and Hotel Serena (LP lists it as “the best hotel in town”  in Gilgit  were exceptional; we were booked at two of the three   Hotel Malikas (, one in Samarkland and the other in Khiva - both  excellent.  I also should mention the  Asia Hotel ( in Ferghana.

Did more shopping on this trip than ever before;  bazaars abound!  I often buy rugs when I travel but this was a  two rug trip (as I write this, one is  still being woven at the UNESCO center in Bukhara).

Cost of tour was $3772 including breakfasts, fees. local guides and a flight from Khiva to Tashkent; additionally there was a $400 local payment and a $100 tipping kitty.  Airfare from San Francisco to Delhi and then Tashkent back to San Francisco, courtesy Turkish Air and British Air, totaled $1737.


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