Monday, July 23, 2007

Silk Road Adventures

For the past week I have been working on an incredible itinerary for a group travelling the old silk road from Almaty to Ashgabad. It's an incredible part of the world and a real adventure for intrepid travellers. I once took a group from Xian in China to Islamabad in Pakistan on what turned out to be a wonderful journey full of surprises...

Silk Road Adventures

There is something very remarkable about this story. Not the fact that it covers part of the ancient Silk Road route from Xian in China to Islamabad in Pakistan. It’s not the fact that we crossed desserts, remote wilderness and the highest border crossing in the world. Nor is it because we explored the world’s greatest market in Kashgar or stayed with Kazakhs in traditional yurts during a blizzard. These are all special in their own right but what made this such a memorable trip was the group I travelled with. Four girls and you’ll have to wait until the end to find out why they where so remarkable.

We start in Xian ancient capital of China and regarded as the true start of the Silk Road. I was escorting four girls on an Imaginative Traveller tour to Islamabad on what I consider to be a pretty hard going trip into some of China and Pakistan’s remote corners. After meeting the girls and having dinner in a very local street restaurant I was confident we would have a successful journey.

Back to Xian. Xian is perhaps my favourite Chinese city. I love the way ancient and modern blend effortlessly in it’s architecture and local culture. The history is long, sights are everywhere and there seems to be a surprise around every corner. But what really brings travellers to Xian are the Terracotta Warriors. I will not write about them as I’m sure others can and have described this ancient wonder better than I. I will give you a tip though - find out what time the doors to the warriors open and get there first. When I was there is was 8 am. You see most of tourists coming that day are in Xian –one hours drive away- having breakfast at their hotel at 8am. The crowds start arriving around 9 - 9.30 so getting there early means you get the warriors for at least one hour without the crowds.

Now we head west and leave the tour buses behind. We are going to the end of the Great Wall to a small town called Jiayuguan. Famous for being at the edge of ancient imperial China, the Last Pass Under Heaven is the fort we have come to visit. In ancient times an imperial guard was considered very unlucky or must have upset the wrong person to be posted so far away from the centre of the universe. It’s really not that bad! The fort is fine for a few hours but the beauty is in the town’s remoteness and the surrounding snow capped mountains. A couple of us hired bicycles and gently explored the local villages and countryside.

The Silk Road traders took Silk to India and returned with Buddhism which although didn’t take a hold in India spread throughout the Far East. Dunhuang, our next town, was a popular stop for the traders and a large Buddhist community grew there. They built the Magao Grottoes a spectacular series of Buddhist carvings, murals and statues that if were closer to tourist China would, in my opinion, be one of her greatest sights. There are more than 492 caves carved from the cliff face, featuring 2,415 coloured statues and murals covering an area of more than 45,000m². Incredible.

The desert is harsh in this part of China. Mountains of stone become mountains of sand, the sun’s heat is fierce and will run it’s course of relentless torment everyday. Crossing these deserts in search of wealth on slow and stubborn camels must have been daunting. Sitting on our bus travelling on a tarmac road we were silent trying to grasp the enormity of the trek taken by Silk Road traders that came before us. But the desert can occasionally be kind and the oasis town of Turpan was more than kind for the passing trader, it meant survival.

Turpan sits in a depression meaning it is lower than sea level. A basin that holds heat even during the winter months when nighttime temperatures in the surrounding desert mirror the summer suns heat. This can be stifling during the summer but Turpan holds life for the desert traveller in the form of water. It comes from a unique system of ancient aqua ducts bringing water from the distant snow mountains. Grapes are grown everywhere even on the back streets where the vines are trained on trellises to provide shade during the hot still days.

The great thing about this trip is it’s diversity of different landscapes, culture and peoples. Urumqi is in the mountains and the world’s remotest city from the sea, 2,500 km from the nearest coast. We came to spend a night at the Lake of Heaven in traditional Kazakh yurts –felt tents. We had two options, we could stay at the government fixed yurt camp that was very nice, just off the main road and had an ablution block with hot showers. Or we could take a boat across the lake to see if any nomads were willing to let us spend a night with them. A quick vote and we were on the boat crossing this beautiful lake surrounded by mountains and alpine forest dusted with late spring snow.

Our hosts welcomed us the way nomads do. No big fuss just an instinctive show of hospitality and a safe, warm place to stay given to all passing travellers. We paid them the same as we would have paid the state camp but this was so much better. The group helped cook food and milk some goats while I and our local guide helped feed the horses and yaks. After dinner we sat in the yurt around a pot belly stove with the family and finished the bottle of scotch I was carrying. It was probably the scotch that made me sleep through the howling blizzard that night. About 4 am one of our hosts brought in two young goat kids to shelter from the snow. After calling for their mums and trying to eat my hair two of my group took them and snuggled the goats into their blankets to sleep. Sun rose and my guide expressed his concern about the blizzard, we had a plane to catch later that day and the boat couldn’t launch in the snow to take us back to the bus. We had no choice other than take the horses through the forest to the main road. Wrapping up I put three of the group horses while waiting for Peggy, the fourth member, to put on her lipstick! She never left the house without makeup she explained. The trek took two hours and the snow wasn’t so bad in the forest. O.K. it was cold and not the most comfortable ride but what an adventure! We were going to make our flight with time to spare so we stopped at the guides house to have lunch with his wife and kids before heading to the airport.

Half way through the trip and so far so good and the group were in high spirits. It had been pretty hard going so far with long days, strange food, harsh climate and hard beds but for a pick me up exploring Kashgar’s Sunday Market is better than any energy drink.

Kashgar is the trading centre for many different tribes Tajiks, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Uigers to name a few and there has been a market in Kashgar for over 2000 years. Being from the west we are used to traffic jams but a donkey cart jam is another thing all together. Tens of thousands of tribes people make the trip into Kashgar to trade on a Sunday creating one of the worlds largest and most outstanding markets. The animal market is the biggest draw where many come to watch the horses being put through their paces. Boys are paid to gallop horses over a short distance on a dusty track so the potential buyer can see how it performs. The faces and dress of different tribes and their wares makes Kashgar a photographic nirvana.

Xian seemed an age ago, we had done a lot in a little over a fortnight. Terracotta warriors, desert oasis, snow blizzards and ancient markets so what now? Now we needed to get to Pakistan over the worlds highest border crossing the Khunjerab Pass which will take us onto the Karakoram Highway down to Islamabad.

Our crossing date coincided with the opening day of the pass for the season, 1st May and I wanted us to be the first group through that year. I was informed by the operator that I didn’t need a visa as that year Pakistan were issuing tourist visas free on arrival. I knew that, the operator knew that and even the Pakistani government knew that but forgot to inform immigration officials at the border. The most magnificent black moustache I have ever seen told me there was a problem because I had no visa and his subordinate needed to phone Islamabad to “sort this confusion out”. While I was waiting he insisted we drunk tea and discussed the up and coming football world cup, he was a big Manchester United fan. As we had the most surreal discussion on David Beckham’s right foot the all clear came from Islamabad to let me enter Pakistan. A make shift entry stamp was made up and he asked “how long do you intend to stay for” “ten days” was my reply “I’ll give you 60 days, I’m sure you will like it here”

The pass we came over is 4693 m./15,397 ft high but to look at the mountains around you would think you were at sea level. This part of Pakistan boasts the highest concentration of mountains over 7000 meters in the world, it is truly breathtaking. We spent a week in this area and to this day I cannot get over the extreme beauty of this place. Looking down at the Indus River you raise your head slowly pass fruit orchards in blossom, pass mighty glaciers up through the clouds to the top of mountains almost the height of Everest.

From here South to the Pakistani version of Canberra Islamabad. A city designed to house government departments it’s clean, green and very modern. A nice change to the wild remote places we had experienced over the last 21 days and I soon got bored of it. Hopped in a taxi and took a short drive to Rawalpindi. This was more like it. Dust, noise, people, chaos, smells and life, a good way to end a journey like this.

My group and I had experienced a lot and it wasn’t always plane sailing. This route is away from the tourist trail so hotels, food and transport are all basic and not what we are used to. We were taken out of our comfort zone practically for the whole trip but there was no alternative and maybe that added to the experience. So what is so extraordinary about my group of four girls? Well the youngest was 67 years old and the eldest Peggy, remember the girl with the makeup?, was 72.

A journey along the Silk Road needs planning and consultation why not start with the experts? Travel Light

Travel Light Reading
Foriegn Devils on the Silk Road - Peter Hopkirk

No comments: