A Travellerspoint blog

North-western China

China

sunny 31 °C
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Hello again! I hope everyone is well. Lachlan and I have spent the last week in northern China, but we are making our way west and south by degrees. Right now we are in Tianshui, which is a city with a population of about 400,000 people, situated about 200 kilometres south-east of the bigger city of Lanzhou, which we passed through yesterday on the train en route from Jiayuguan. Lanzhou is situated on the Yellow River at the geographical centre of China...so we are pretty much in the middle of this enormous country (around the size of Europe itself!) now. And, finally, we are in greener country! Tianshui's rainfall is between 400 and 500mm per year and there is forest on some of the slopes!

Tianshui_geopark

Tianshui_geopark

In general, the landscape during our last fortnight of travel has been very dry. The whole way between Kashgar and Jiayuguan we did not see a single tree, unless it was in a river bed or in a place where water had been used to irrigate the land by man. This part of China receives less than 100mm of precipitation annually - Kashgar and Jiayuguan get about 64mm and 85mm respectively. I don't think I have ever been somewhere where it is so dry, and yet people actually live in towns and cities.

gravel_beds_Torugart_pass_road

gravel_beds_Torugart_pass_road

The towns and cities can exist because of the rivers that run through the dry landscape, carrying snow melt from the high peaks in the Tian Shan mountains on China's northern border (with Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia) and the Pamir mountains to the west (on the border with Tajikistan). Within the cities there are even some street trees in towns, and some parks, although the leaves of the trees tend to be very dusty as they rarely get washed clean by the rain, and the streets feel dusty despite being swept daily by hand (with long brooms of bunched brush or straw). Outside of the cities, crops are grown by using flood irrigation on flat areas or in man made ponds, where the earth has been built up at the edges to stop the water escaping. The water is channelled by gravity to the crops, using open ditches. We saw corn, cotton and trees (poplar - for timber, and a scrubby type of willow) grown in this way. Both in the country side and in the suburbs on the outskirts of cities, buildings are built from sun-dried mud bricks, typically with a flat roof (no need for drainage if there is no rain) made of mud slopped over wood and branches. When we see buildings in ruins or abandoned, often the roof will be caved in whilst the walls still seem to be standing fine.... it must be hard to build a strong roof when there is not much timber about.

The mountains that rise up out of the river valleys are ridiculously steep, rugged and wrinkled in appearance, with some of the ridges and spurs like knife-edges - there is so little rain that the surfaces have not been smoothed down by water eroding them away. Whilst we were still in Kashgar, we took a weekend trip travelling south to the town of Tashkurgan on the Karakarom highway, passing by the Khongurshan and Muzlagata peaks on the way. At 7719m and 7546m, these are only about 1000m lower than the famous K2 peak situated 300km further south on China's border with Kashmir. The peaks were impressive, but it was also rather hard to envisage the height properly as we were at around 4000m ourselves. So they only looked about as big as Mt Egmont does in New Zealand, when we are looking at it from sea level. Or four Mount Loftys (for an Adelaide perspective :))

karakarom_highway

karakarom_highway

camels_in_riverbed_Karakoram

camels_in_riverbed_Karakoram

goats_in_riverbed_Karakarom_hwy

goats_in_riverbed_Karakarom_hwy

Tashkurgan is only a small town about the size of Mount Barker or Katherine but 85% of its population are Tajiks, making it home to most of the Tajiks living in China. I had not thought about what Tajiks look like before, but after weeks of seeing people with dark skin and dark eyes, all through Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and also in Kashgar in China, it was a surprise to find some blue-eyed, brown and blond haired children when we chanced upon an evening of children's dance performances on an outdoor stage in the park. Most of the dances seemed to have some traditional elements. The more typical 'Han' Chinese children did a dance with fans in their hands, which they folded and unfolded to make patterns as they moved around the stage, whilst the smallest, littlest Tajik dancers wore elaborate two piece suits with a jacket and pants in bright blue for the boys and a skirt and jacket costume of bright orange for the girls, complete with boots to stamp their feet in and handkerchiefs to wave. After having been in more conservative areas with a high proportion of muslims, it was refreshing to be surrounded by friendly, curious faces. The kids spontaneously came up to us to say hello and tell us their names or sit near us and look at us. There was a distinct lack of parents though, which we found rather puzzling, and led us to wonder whether the children might go to boarding school in the town while their parents are labourers elsewhere - possible working on the highway, which is an ongoing construction effort owing to the frequent landslides of rock, and huge swashes of gravel, pebbles and boulders that come down the valleys with melt water.

Tashkurgan_dancers

Tashkurgan_dancers

We have been using mostly train travel to get around, stopping off for a couple of nights here and there. At Jiayuguan we visited a fort museum situated on the western-most bit of the Great Wall of China. On display were a number of 'now' (2000's) and 'then' (early-mid 1900's) photographs showing views of sections of the wall at many different localities in China. In some places the wall has been restored, with forts and watchtowers rebuilt, but in other places the wall is in increasing disrepair, becoming more overgrown by vegetation. At some localities bricks of the wall have been removed over time when needed for other building activities nearby. Where we saw the wall, it was positioned across the narrowest gap between the eastern end of the Tian Shan mountain range and the northern extent of the Tibet plateau. Here the wall was of mud and the fort was positioned at that point (in AD 1372) on the wall because there was a spring for water. The observation towers on the wall, near the fort, were 17m high, with the wall itself about 12m high.

train_to_Jiayuguan

train_to_Jiayuguan

Jiayuguan_fort

Jiayuguan_fort

Here at Tianshui we stopped off to visit the Mai-ji Shan (haystack mountain) which is a conglomerate stack in a valley, where a series of grottoes (alcoves) have been carved in to the cliff face of the stack, 100 - 200m up from the ground. The grottoes contain statues or effigies of buddhas and boddhisattvas built from clay covered wood and straw, and painted with colours. The effigies were mostly made between AD386 and 581 so they are faded and broken in places due to age and earthquakes (restoration ongoing....) but very impressive all the same. It is not clear how the grottoes were created and then accessed, considering they are so high up the side of the stack, above the valley floor. Nowadays, to view the grottoes, tourists climb up a series of staircases that are built onto the face of the cliff for that purpose.

Haystack Mountain

Haystack Mountain

haystack_mountain_ladders

haystack_mountain_ladders

butterfly_at_haystack_mountain

butterfly_at_haystack_mountain

Tomorrow we get on the train again, heading for Nanjing (near Shanghai), where we hope to spend a few days.

Posted by LS overland 20:52 Archived in China Comments (0)

Orienteering in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan

semi-overcast 20 °C
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Time for another update. We are now in Bishkek which is the capital of Kyrgyzstan. We arrived yesterday, coming off an overnight train from the eastern part of Kazakhstan and transitting quickly through Almaty, Kazakstan's old capital city (before it was moved to Astana, in the north of the country), to take a bus across the border in to Kyrgyzstan.

I was a bit sad to leave Kazakhstan behind. The orienteering weekend at Tainty was lovely. The weather became sunny and the location was very picturesque, with pine trees and rocky slopes rising out of a grassy valley. Because it was somewhat remote, most people were camping there together and we were able to rub shoulders with the Kazak orienteers. T he weekend of events came at the tail end of a ten day training camp at the same venue, and we were taken in by the camp organiser and treated as guests. We weren't allowed to help get any of the food ready and we were served first at meal times. We camped amongst a large contingent of teenagers from Karaganda, most of whom had been orienteering for less than three years, having been introduced to the sport by teachers at their college. Overall we were made to feel very welcome.

Kazak transport_resize_20130821_221322

Kazak transport_resize_20130821_221322

The camp infrastructure was a sight to behold, with metal cubicles for pit toilets, a shower curtain cubicle with a black plastic tub on top for filling so that the water would rain down on the occupant inside, a camp kitchen made from pine tree trunks sunk in to the earth as uprights, with pine log rafters and wooden slat benches inside, all protected by tarpaulins tied down to make a roof, and most importantly, a trailer comprising a wood fired oven, with doors in the sides in which big (50L?) cauldrons of food could be cooked.

Kazak orienteering_resize_20130821_221325

Kazak orienteering_resize_20130821_221325

Everything seemed to be directed by an extremely energetic orienteering advocate by the name of Irina. Not only was she our point of liaison, but she also took responsibility for directing the catering, bus transport from Ust-Kamenogorsk, prizes and certificates at presentation time, and packing up the venue on the last day so we could all go home leaving the area spotlessly tidy. Everyone gave a hand packing up. The toilets were dissassembled in to sheets of metal and the kitchen in to a pile of logs that was loaded into the back of a truck. Amazing!

Pretty girls_resize_20130821_221208

Pretty girls_resize_20130821_221208

That was our weekend. Since then we have spent the best part of three days getting ourselves to Bishkek and sorting out payment for the tour that we head off on tomorrow. We will be spending 13 days travelling as a group of four with a driver (organised by Community Based Tourism) taking us about the country. At the end of this time, Lachlan and I will be crossing the border in to China, whilst Emily and Duncan return to Bishkek and head to the UK.

Posted by LS overland 20:46 Archived in Kazakhstan Comments (0)

Kashgar, Far NW China

sunny 30 °C
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Lachlan
We got in to Kashgar a couple of days ago. Kashgar is a small city (300 000 people) in far NW China. It is wedged between the desert and the mountains so it has a real mix of races, foods and customs. We have been staying in the Uyghur district which means lots of mudbrick houses, confusing alleyways and not much spoken Chinese (they speak a language which is more like Turkish). The old alleyways and buildings were great to explore - but not for much longer, as they are being rapidly redeveloped and will probably be all gone in 6 months.

Fat-bottomed sheep outside redevelopmet

Fat-bottomed sheep outside redevelopmet

The first night we got in we went out to the night markets which is basically a heap of street vendors selling food from small carts. I was probably a bit boring, avoiding the goat heap stew and the offal soup. As it turned out we probably would have been better going a bit more adventuristic as Susanne got food poisoning that night. Fortunately it seems to have finished now.

Breakfast options in Kashgar

Breakfast options in Kashgar

We ended up spending more time in Kashgar than we intended. Students go back to school and university this week and next week which as meant that trains and buses are booked out for 2 weeks anywhere there is a bottle neck - such as at Kashgar. After investigating various solutions (hiring a scooter, taking a series of buses and cars through the desert route and hitch hiking) we have found a relatively easy option; private mini-van to a small town with no students and then catch the train from there. In the meantime we will kill some time by travelling partway down the Karakoram Highway past the Pamir to the Himalaya.

Old Kashgar

Old Kashgar

Posted by LS overland 05:46 Archived in China Tagged kashgar Comments (0)

Kyrgyzstan - Mountains, Mountains and more Mountains

20/8/2013 - 3/9/2013

sunny 28 °C
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Lachlan
The last two weeks have been great. They started off with us entering Kyrgyzstan and going to Bishkek, the capital. Bishkek is a chaotic, busy city of 900 000 people. Most of the people seem to be only first or second generation city dwellers which means that everyone has a different idea of how a city should work. Every 10 m someone would be selling something - either salted sour milk (it didn't really do it for me, I gave most of my cup away to a local), plumbing supplies or new shade of lipstick. The traffic was also a bit different. No one is game to run an orange light, let alone a red one as drivers tended to jump the lights, entering the intersection a few seconds before they go green (the lights count down the seconds until they go green). Also, people seem to have a different idea of what the line markings on the road mean - it seems oncoming traffic is expected to get out of your way if you want to overtake. We saw the aftermath of 3 or 4 crashes in the 2 days that we were in Bishkek.

Susanne
In Bishkek we began a tour organised by a company called Community Based Tourism, travelling with Darwin friends Emily and Duncan, and driven about the country in a Toyota Hiace van by a Kyrgyz driver. Most of the time we were in rural areas, travelling through small towns and villages, some quite remote. Travel times could be quite slow as the country is very mountainous. We took a number of un-paved roads through spectacularly steep river valleys, where the road was more like a gravel track hugging and switch-backing up a slope of the ridge, until eventually flattening out for several hundred metres at the mountain pass at the top before repeating the winding-ness down the other side, in a different river valley.

Lachlan
Hiring the driver and his minivan seemed a bit like a cop out, avoiding local travel but it meant that we were able to see a lot of Kyrgyzstan that we would not have been able to see otherwise.

Susanne
Our Kyrgyz driver claimed to not speak English, but his English seemed to be at least as good as our Russian so we managed by communicating in a mixture of both. Every second guest house generally had a younger woman who spoke a bit of English, so we could save up our complicated questions until then if necessary. Overall it was a great experience and we had a very good time. We felt that people were genuinely friendly and that the country had a good feel.

Lachlan
Community Based Tourism also arranged for a series of homestays in the commuinities and villages that we visted. This meant that we were able to stay in all sorts of accommodation e.g. mud brick houses, yurts, cottages, wooden houses and soviet apartment blocks. It also meant that we got to sample lots of local foods as the host family would cook for us most nights. It also meant that we had a few extras included like visiting someone who hunts with eagles, going hiking and getting guides in a few places.

IMG_2643.jpg
Both wearing eye-protection

Susanne

During our trip we spent four nights in yurts and the rest of the time in guest houses, apart from one night in a mountain hut whilst on an overnight walk. The guest houses were varied but generally we were provided with lavish spreads for dinner and breakfast. The table always held bread, and small glass dishes of apricot and raspberry jam. Often there was a fancy dish or platter containing biscuits (often stale) or sweets, and sometimes nuts. Our dinner meal typically began with bowls of soup that had potatoes and meat, followed by a second dish of rice and meat (or more potatoes and meat!), accompanied by a side plate of salty cucumber and tomato salad. Breakfast meals seemed to alternate between a sort of thin, runny porridge with a semolina kind of texture, or fried eggs. Both meals were accomanied by an endless supply of milk-less Chai (tea), served in small china bowls.

Lachlan
After leaving Bishkek behind we drove through a narrow, steep sided gorge that eventually took us to Isy-Kol Lake, a 100 km long fresh water lake that is 600 m deep. We went hiking from the lake shore up to 3000 m where stayed in a mountain hut, hopped in a thermal spring and saw boys and men on horseback herding up animals for the local market. A couple of days later we were in Karakol and were able to get to the livestock market. It was a very noisey and smelly experience but it was quite good entertainment seeing people trying to shove their (live) purchases into taxies, boots of cars and on the back of motorbikes.

IMG_2539.jpg
Lachlan and some of the "seven red Buffalos" above Isy-Kol

Later we passed through several passes and reached Song-Kol Lake at 3200 m where we stayed in a yurt camp. Unfortunately for me I got a good dose of food poisoning and spent 24 hours trying to coordinate the squirts and spurts so that I didn’t soil the yurt. Our driver tried to fix me using his special tonic of vodka and salt. Unsurprisingly it didn’t work but it did seem to earn me a bit of respect!

IMG_2741.jpg
Yurts on Song-Kol

Susanne
At Song-Kol we spent two night in a yurt camp on the edge of the lake. Herdsmen (and women) bring bring their animals (sheep, goats, cows, horses and the poor old donkey) up to the lake to graze during the warm season, which lasts from June until September or October. Men on horseback watch the animals during the day, bringing them back to the yurt in the evening where they are retained in a wire enclosure overnight. Sheep are used for meat and sheep wool is used for making felt fabric (which is what yurt walls are constructed of) whilst horses and cows are milked. The Kyrgyz love a fermented horse milk drink. The mares are kept close by to the yurt for milking, by keeping their foals tied on picket lines near by to the yurt. In Kyrgyzstan farm fences are almost non-existant so animals seemed to be roaming everywhere. We frequently had to slow down or stop for animals wandering across the road. Driving nearby to the more main towns on a Friday or Satrurday could be especially slow, because of herds of animals being driven along the road to go to market. In villages it was common to see cows and horses tethered to front garden fences and road side trees or power poles, or else hobbled with their front or back legs tied together to restrain movement, so they couldn't wander too far.

270_IMG_2575.jpg
Susanne and the coloured hills above Isy-Kol

Lachlan
After Song-Kol we passed through a series of gorges to Osh and then onto Arslanbob. Arslanbob is a village up in the mountains which specialises in growing walnuts. We had a short walk through the walnut forests and village with a guide. The houses used the water from the creek, via irrigation system. They had dug little water channels from the creeks so that all of the houses in the village had their own stream running through their gardens. From Arslanbob we slowly made our way to Torugart Pass where the border with China is. Here we switched cars and continued down to Kashgar in a Chinese Car.

Susanne
Apart from right at the Chinese border (3752m at Torugart Pass) our highest pass was the Kalmak-Ashuu Pass at 3446m, which we went through in order to reach Lake Song-Kol.

Posted by LS overland 05:14 Archived in Kyrgyzstan Comments (0)

Estonia, Latvia, and tomorrow to Russia

24/07/2013


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Before I go on, firstly sorry that last week's blog/email didn't eventuate. I had good intentions, but ended up feeling rather drained after the World Champs week finished (excitement of watching the relay, then a night of partying, then a day long train trip with a bunch of hungover Aussies, plus the slightly lost feeling associated with having finished something that has been on your mind for ages!) Now everything is good again, Lachlan (my partner), Emily and Duncan (Darwin friends) and Zara (my partner for the 24hr Rogaine World Champs in Russia) arrived in Helsinki a week ago, shortly after the World Orienteering Champs finished. Together we had a brief poke around Helsinki, including taking the ferry to the close by island fortress of Suomelinna (massive granite walls with stone tunnels with small windows and slits for the armies to fire things out of at approaching ships) and explored an open aired museum of old Finnish houses (wooden, the oldest being log cabin style, often with decorative carving on eaves, gables, doors and balconies), on a forested island connected to the mainland by a short walking causeway. The forest raspberries were just ripening, growing like weeds at the foot of the big slabs of granite rock, and on the edges of sunny paths...very tasty!

Reindeer sandwiches_resize_20130821_221536

Reindeer sandwiches_resize_20130821_221536

, Suomelinna

From Helsinki we caught the ferry (a 2 hr trip) south across the Baltic to Estonia's capital of Tallinn. Tallinn is famous for it's World Heritage listed Medieval Old Town region. There are many 'Old Towns' in Europe - within each city, the Old Town is the suburb with the earliest city buildings, typically with a strong stone wall built around the area to keep it secure from invaders, with city gates where everyone had to pass through. Tallinn's Old Town is enclosed by ten metre high walls of grey slate like stone with towers at strategic corners. The towers have red terracotta tiles on their conical roofs, looking every bit like they belong in a fairly tale. Within the town, the streets are narrow and cobble stoned, the houses painted in pale pinks, yellows, greys and blues with white window sills, built together as a row to form tall faces with no gap between the buildings, with doorsteps right on the foot path.

Boat to estonia_resize_20130821_221537

Boat to estonia_resize_20130821_221537

From Tallinn we took a bus south to South Eastern Estonia, hiring a car in a town called Tartu, so that we could drive ourselves around to various places to practise our navigational skills in the forest. All of us are competing in Russia, this coming weekend, at the World Rogaining Championships. The purpose of the training was to help us familiarize ourselves with how the forest will be, including how easy it will be to cross marshes, run through forest that is dense, deal with the distraction of abundant mosquitoes, and just in general, become more used to the kind of courses we might get in the competition. One of the areas that we went to (used for the World Rogaining Championships in 2008) is supposed to be known for its beaver dams, but we didn't see any....there were a gazillion ripe blueberries though...as distracting as the abundant mosquitoes!

Rogaine training_resize_20130821_221153

Rogaine training_resize_20130821_221153

We have sampled a variety of accommodations, ranging from small and basic dingyish rooms in a workers' hostel in Tallinn, to a home stay with an Estonian woman in a tiny hamlet of houses in the far south-eastern corner of Estonia, near the Russian border. Here the food on the table was delicious, with three quarters of it coming from the extensive garden - overflowing with ripening gooseberries, currents (red & black), raspberries, tomatoes, peas, beans, potatoes, kohl rabi, swedes, carrots, beetroots, rhubarb, cucumbers, sweetcorn, strawberries, red stalked silver beet....and I know I've missed heaps of things. The mince meat in the spaghetti was 'small deer' and pig, from the forest....everything truly tasted amazing, and we could have all eaten forever!

Now we are in Riga, which is the capital of Latvia (another of the old Baltic states of the Soviet Union). We drove in to Latvia from Estonia yesterday, staying near Cesis last night, where we braved camping. It was a trial run for fitting the two couples in to their space-saving one person tents and Zara in to her newly purchased ten Euro tent from the supermarket in Estonia. Lachlan and I fit ok in ours, so long as we roll over at the same time! Here in Riga we dropped off our hire car today - Lachlan did a great job of dealing with pushy drivers and 'no left turn' signs, getting us in to the car hire place with five minutes to spare, and tomorrow we get on a bus which will take us to Russia. We do the 24 hour championships from noon on Friday until noon on Saturday, and then we are off to St Petersburg until the middle of next week.

Latvian sunrise_resize_20130821_221529

Latvian sunrise_resize_20130821_221529

I hope everything is good back home in Aus. I heard it tried to snow on Mt Lofty last Saturday, and winter rainfall is above average. Very nice! And it sounds like Darwin is getting dribs & drabs of dry season weather...only a bit jealous:). Here it seems like cloudy and about to rain one moment, then sunny an hour later, with temperatures around twenty in the day and eighteen or so at night.

That's all for now, big hugs,
Susanne

Posted by LS overland 05:01 Archived in Finland Comments (0)

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