Friday, July 11, 2008

Why A Trip At All - Part Two

The Silk Road/Silk Route is a series of trade routes from China to/from the Mediterranean. Two pictures are



Initially, we conceived naively of the Silk Roads as roughly paralleling a road along the following cities: Xian, China, to Urumqi, China, then west to Almaty, Kazakhstan, then to Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, Uzbekistan, then to Mary, Turkmenistan, then across the Caspian Sea, through Azerbaijan, Armenia, and across the entire length of Turkey. I figured that we could travel this in 30 days.

I mentioned this to my Silk Road sophisticate friend and he said: "Are you going to Kashgar?" After the first response: "Where is Kashgar?" I did a little bit of looking and found out that Kashgar is at the extreme SW corner of China where China, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikstan all come together. This city of 1.5 million may be the most isolated city in the entire world. It has a Sunday market (animals, and everything else) that is worth traveling around the world for.

So we, of course, had to add Kashgar.

From Kashgar, you can go southwest into Pakistan across the Karakoram Highway at elevations over 15,000 feet, with the Himalayas to the east and the Pamirs to the west and northwest. This is God's country, but you end up in Islamabad, with no real option but to fly out, or travel back to China along the same route. Furthermore, who wants to visit Pakistan, with the possibility of Taliban activity in the lowland portions of this route. That stayed in the background as an option.

The real way to leave Kashgar is to the west/northwest through the Irkeshtam Pass into Kyrgyzstan. This is a grueling 10-15 hour bus ride, with a 4 - 8 hour delay as you leave Chinese customs, and enter Kyrgyzstan customs. It leaves on Mondays (only). You end up in Osh, an ancient Silk Road town with not a lot of history left, right on the border of Uzbekistan.

The easy roads through Almaty are now no longer part of the trip planning.

From Osh, to the west is the Fergana Valley. Aside from the Fergana Valley, rich, lush, and fertile, everything so far is like Arizona and California - hot, dry, desertified, with high mountains (Mustagha Ata in China (close to 26000 feet), the Tibetan Plateau peaks just south of our route (in the 14000-17000 feet range)) and low desert (the Turpan Depression is 500 feet below sea level). Think, for example, Death Valley and Mount Whitney in California. Think of temperatures as high as 115-120 in the hot August afternoon sun, and below freezing in the high mountains. Think of sandstorms whipping across the desert.

The natural route goes through Fergana Valley to Tashkent, an old Silk Route which was totally destroyed in a 1966 earthquake, and is now a modern Soviet city. Then to Samarkand and Bukhara, the gems of the entire trip. Old cities, dating back at least 2500 years, with old neighborhoods, old Jewish populations (most of which have emigrated since 1980), old connections to historic Islamic scholarship and Persian civilization. Off the track, 7 hours to the northwest, lies Khiva, an old city that has become a preserved heritage site.

As one website puts it:

"Khiva may be a small city -- its population barely tops 40,000 -- but its history as the best preserved stop on the old Silk Road gives it a broad appeal for tourists tracing the historic trading route. In the Khorezm oasis of the Kara-Kum Desert, Khiva was the capital of the Khivan Khanate from 1592 until the Bolshevik take-over in 1920.

"Nobody seems to know exactly how old this ancient city is, though the story goes that Khiva was founded by none other than Shem, the son of Noah (of “and the Ark” fame); at the very least, the city dates back to the 7th century, and probably much earlier. Despite its seemingly romantic history as a Silk Road oasis, the city became most notable as Central Asia’s biggest slave trade center." [url][/url]

From there the road goes west into Turkmenistan, with the ancient ruins at Mary [Merv].

We now digress a little about Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan is an ex-Soviet country, which at birth was dominated by a dictator who named himself Turkmenbashi, the father of all Turkmen. All citizens of Turkmenistan were required to read the writings of Turkmenbashi, to view lovingly the huge statutes of Turkmenbashi, to have pictures of Turkmenbashi in their houses, perhaps in a more prominent place than Mohammed, etc. The place was widely ridiculed as "The North Korea of Central Asia." It became fairly clear reading the guide books that one does not get a visa to Turkmenistan without either a personal guide, or a tour.

Even though it makes sense to go west through Azerbaijan, the real Silk Roads mostly continued to the southwest through the Iranian cities of Mashhad, Teheran, and to the west. Iran, while a wonderful place to visit, also cannot be seen by an American without a personal guide, or a tour.

A little practical timing. The eclipse is on August 1. If we land on Xian and take 3 or 4 days to see Xian and survive the jet lag, the trip starts on July 24 or 25, or even earlier. If you are going to the Sunday Kashgar market, and why go to Kashgar if you don't see the Market, then you will be in Kashgar on Aug 10, and cross the Irkeshtam Pass on Aug 11, arriving in Osh on Aug 12. That means that that you can't realistically leave Bukhara before Aug 22. This is already a 30 day trip, and you haven't seen Kyrgyzstan, the Switzerland of Central Asia, at all, and you haven't seen the Pamirs at all.

Ah, the Pamirs. Lying south of Kyrgyzstan is this high plateau, mostly between 12000 and 15000 feet, called the Pamirs. Nearby are some of the highest mountains in all of the former Soviet Union, at close to 25000 feet. This is God's country. It is hard to get into and out of. The usual way to do it is to hire a private driver, and spend 3 or 4 days just driving, stopping for dinner, staying with the locals, having dinner and breakfast, maybe sleeping in a yurt, and then driving again. The Tajiks consider this a sensitive military region, so you need a special permit to enter, and you are subject to lots of military checkpoints, which your driver hopefully handles.

Got to add the Pamirs (5 - 7 days).

So now the trip is: Kashgar, to Osh, across the Pamirs to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikstan, through Penjikent, another old Silk Road town in Tajikistan, then to Samarkand, etc., finally doubling back to Tashkent, where you fly out.

What happened to the rest of the Silk Road on this trip? Swallowed up by the realities. Can't do Turkmenistan, can't do Iran, couldn't do Iraq or Syria, the next countries on the Silk Road. Turkey, part of the point of this exercise, seems to be another trip now. In fact, most of the western Silk Road seems to be reserved for another trip, time and place.

The tentative trip now goes from Xian to Tashkent. It starts on July 22 and ends on Aug 28 - Sep 1, flying back from Tashkent, with maybe a stopover in Istanbul, Turkey, on the way back. Pakistan, and the Karakoram, are gone, although we may be able to take a day trip up to the Pakistan border. A side trip into northern Afghanistan, suggested by some, is also gone. Too much time, too much risk, too little gain.

What happened to viewing the eclipse? You will notice from the maps that the main road runs along the south line of the eclipse. If you want to see the eclipse from the center line, you have to get off the beaten path, and go into the Gobi Desert (into isolated country). So, even though this was nominally an eclipse trip, we will now see the eclipse only from the edge. We will travel 8000 miles, in order to see a 5 second eclipse. Oh well, we have seen eclipses before, but have never seen this part of the world. And if we see it this time, we probably never will see it again.

Next, the languages and the visas.

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