Central Asia May 2009

27th June
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My second big trip of 2009 - after the coastline and wildlife of The Falkland Islands in February this trip was about as far from the sea as it’s possible to get - Urumqi claims to be the &l

My second big trip of 2009 - after the coastline and wildlife of The Falkland Islands in February this trip was about as far from the sea as it’s possible to get - Urumqi claims to be the ‘city farthest from the sea in the world’.

We flew into Beijing, spending just a few hours there before flying back west again to Urumqi – then we took to the road heading west along the northern side of the Takla Makan desert through Korla, Kuqa and Aksu – then south across the desert to Hotan before tracking the south side of the desert to Yarkand and Kashgar. From Kashgar we briefly went south along the Chinese section of the Karakorum Highway, before turning north over the Torugart Pass into Kyrgyzstan. We spent a couple of nights in the mountains staying in yurts before finishing up in Bishkek.

Highlights

Seeing and crossing the Takla Makan. Peter Fleming did this by horse and camel and took several months, we went across one of new ‘desert highways’ in an air-conditioned bus in about 6 hours. The Takla Makan really does fit all the desert stereotypes.

‘Doing’ at least part of the Karakorum Highway. I bought the KKH guidebook in the early 1990’s when I visited Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province - so it was high time I travelled along at least part of the route.

Seeing Kashgar before all the old bits get demolished. The name (for me) conjures up images of camels and a dusty oasis town – there are still a few camels, and it’s still dusty in places, but there are now an awful lot of new buildings too. A lot of building and demolition work going on at the moment involves removing big chunks of the (mainly Uighur) old town – lots of 500 year buildings are being bulldozed as potential earthquake hazards. They can’t be that vulnerable to earthquakes if they’re been there for 500 years.

Learning about Uighur culture. I didn’t know a huge amount about the Uighurs before we booked the trip – it was fascinating to learn about the culture and to meet lots of very friendly and welcoming Uighur people. Staying in a Yurt These are the traditional tents used in the high mountains in Central Asia – I’ve now spent two nights sleeping in them. And I remember at least some of the reasons why I retired my tent and promoted myself to places with hot and cold running water.

Having a city-break in Bishkek. OK, it’s a long way from the UK for a city break – but Bishkek is an fantastic place to spend a few days, a mix of Central Asian cultures, Soviet-era architecture and western comforts.

Lowlights

Chinese Breakfasts. I love Chinese food - and almost all the evening meals were either Chinese or (more commonly) Uighur, but I really can’t manage Chinese breakfasts. The group got to the stage of fantasising about muesli with cold milk – and the reaction on discovering that we would get the option of porridge once we crossed the boarder into Kyrgzstan was close to hysteria.

Long-drop toilets. There are some occasions when I feel the need to offer thanks that I have a really awful sense of smell – this holiday provided many such occasions.

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