Vance Travels Through Asia
[My good friend Vance has taken three months to travel the nether reaches of the world. He started in South East Asia and before he's done he will ride the silk road through the dry west of China into Pakistan and will wend his way through Kajikistan. Here is his journal so far.]
It's Monday in Vientiane. I just arrived back after spending a little over 8 days in the North of Laos. So let me give you the brief summary of the country.
Vientiane - The Capital
I know I have arrived at a destination when the streets are dirt and every purchase is a negotiation. Vientiane is a sleepy little place which just happens to be the capital of Laos. Although is supposed to have about 150,000 people, most would describe it as 'town' rather than the big city. The Mekong River runs beside it. The river is big and brown. If any of you for some reason decide to come Laos, blow right by Vientiane and get to the country.
Luang Prabang - Asia Without the Crowds
The guidebooks say that you don't go to Laos to see sights. You go to see Asia as it was; and you can't see it any better than in Luang Prabang. You could spend weeks here. I spent almost 5 days here, but many of you that know my travel habits would know how long that is for me. The town can be walked from one end to the other in about 30 minutes, but the preferred transport method is the bicycle. The city lies on a peninsula between the Mekong and Khan rivers. it's tropical with the many bamboo plants and banana trees. Kids play in the streets. The markets hum with women seemingly selling things but not really caring if you buy. Resting in the shade with a cold Beer Lao is the favored past time which I learned with little effort.
The markets are the site of the black market for kip, the Lao currency. You cannot officially buy foreign currency in the country so when a foreigner comes walking up to the market, a swarm of ladies will buzz the unsuspecting, with the chant 'kip, baht, US dollars". You tend to go every day because although you don't spend much in a day, the largest bill in the country is only worth 30 cents. In the first 3 days, the currency went from 2500 kip per dollar to 3700. The official government rate is 3200. During this rapid devaluation the hotels quickly changed their prices to be US dollar denominated rather than kip. And more telling the beer price went up from 2500 to 3000 for a large bottle.
This town is west 25 minutes by airplane from Luang Prabang. It is in the mountains so it is much cooler. It is also close to the Ho Chi Minh trail and was along the way to Hanoi for the US Air Force. As you are landing you notice lines of craters all around the plain but especially on the mountain tops. Instead of landing with spare bombs the planes were allowed to drop them here. The original town, Xieng Khouang was so bombed out, they moved the city. All around the city are rice fields littered with bomb craters. You can see bomb casings in front of yards, in the markets for sale to the Vietnamese for scrap, as planters, and foot bridges. The cluster bomblets, tennis ball size devices filled with pellets and used as anti-personnel weapons, are used as candle holders.
The town has dusty, Old West streets, very few cars and people, and plains of Jars. These jars are made of stone and there are hundreds of them scattered around the countryside. Some can weigh several tons. Very few tourists come here but everyone has heard about them. They are a backpacker legend. I really enjoyed seeing the area. Some Europeans mentioned that the green rolling hills reminded them of Ireland.
The People - Laoations are a very laid back people. The guidebooks say that "The Vietnamese grow the rice. The Cambodians watch the rice grow, and the Laotians listen to it grow". It's not that they are lazy, they work hard, but they are just relaxed about life.
The Accommodations - My rooms have all been above the normal backpacker grade. All have had hot water and private bathrooms and except for Xieng Khouang had air conditioning. The most expensive room has been in Vientiane at $21 while the lowest was $6.
On Money - When I got to Laos I decided to change some money into Kip, the local currency. I tried to change $100 but the guy at the counter suddenly had this look of panic and surprise. He asked me if I really wanted to change this much. So I quickly reduced the amount to $20. With even this amount I walked away with a stack of money 1/2 of an inch thick. The HIGHEST denomination bill is 1000 kip which equals about 40 cents.
A Typical Travel Story
I had decided that I wanted to leave Vientiane and go to Luang Prabang in the north. It is about an hour away by plane. So I woke up early to see about a flight. Arriving at the airline office in Vientiane, I found about a dozen people sitting around. There were signs to various destinations but there was no one from the airline to get a ticket from. I waited with the rest of the people for about 20 minutes and decided that this was not going to work. Since I didn't even know my itinerary yet, I would need to speak to someone who understood English and could actually add value to me.
So I went to the office of a travel agent, Diethelm Travel, a supposedly high end place. I sat down at the desk of the agent and told her what I wanted. She said that I would have to go to the airport, that the flights were all booked, but that 'everyone cancels'. She said to go 2 hours in advance. I check out of my room and head for the airport. Upon getting here I go first to the domestic terminal, not seeing anything remotely looking like a ticket office, I go to the international terminal. There they point me back to the domestic terminal. I find what looks like an office. There were about 5 people in the room, sitting and doing nothing. 2 of them were busy however catching up on their sleep. Eventually one of them speaks to me. I tell them I want to go to Luang Prabang. They ask if I have US dollars. Now I must be getting somewhere. Instead they tell me to come back in 2 hours. I eventually did get on the plane with the first 2 rows of seats filled with the luggage and various fruits, vegetables, and meats under the other seats. Obviously Lao Aviation has not heard about the two carry on bags rule.
The Vertical Runway - Vientiane has built their version of the Arch in Paris. They call this the vertical airstrip because the concrete used to build it was paid for by the US during the Vietnam War. It was supposed to be used to extend the airstrip for B-52's, but the Laoations used it for the monument instead.
Costs - Once here you would have to work to spend a lot money. However, you find that the definition of a lot of money changes. Taking out airfares, my 10 day trip cost me about $250, with airfare within the country my total skyrockets to $385. Things are cheap here. For example, I had a great French dinner - pepper steak, steamed potatoes, green beans, and beer for about $3.
Other Travelers - All in all there haven't been too many foreigners on the road here. Maybe I've seen 100 in total. In Luang Prabang perhaps 20. In Phonsavon, 8 of us. Most have been Australian, although I've run into a couple of Americans. Other relevant demographics are that women seem to outnumber men 3 to 2. Age varies from 25-55. Half are professionals taking time off between jobs. Half are new college grads. Average time on the road 3-6 months.
Well that's it for my Laos report. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to email me. I am sorry but the Laos telecomm solution didn't work, China should be much better. I'm slowly getting my email backlog worked down. Be patient, and keep sending me those emails.
On the Road,
Before I get into the subject matter of this release of my notes, I need to tell you a story. I went to the airport in Kunming to catch a flight to Dali. I arrived about an hour and 15 minutes early, which is really early for me. I arrived at the airport, and scanning the check-in counters which were in Chinese, couldn't find my flight. I went to another counter which was the second flight to Dali, scheduled for a 8:30 departure. They said I couldn't check in. I went over to the ticket purchase window and told them in Chinese, "I want to go to Dali. Where is my airplane. They said, 'Mei You' or don't have. I asked, "Aren't there two flights today?" They replied yes. I said I didn't understand (My most used Chinese phrase) They said that it was 7:45. I had gone for 3 days, with my watch 1 hour behind! What does that say about time for the traveler? It all fell into place. The night before I was going to have a drink with a Dutch guy and I show up and he is not there. I catch a bus to go sightseeing and it leaves an hour early. Now to my original topic...
For this issue of my notes, I thought I would begin a series on China. For those of you that have been here before let me reassure you, some things haven't changed. For those of you that haven't been before this series of vignettes of China will provide an introduction. After that report, I will give you various other travel thoughts..
The place to start is with the people. They can be some of the most friendly and fun-loving people anywhere, but I don't think most people would describe them that way. First there are a lot of them, although the official statistics say there are 1.2 billion. And in general, they all seem to converge on your location at the most frustrating times. The following examples will help you understand.
Checking in to a domestic flight is a great experience. As soon as the airline person shows up, a mass of humanity surrounds the counter, waving tickets at the guy and jumping over one another to get checked in. Also, a millisecond after the plane wheels touch down on the ground, the Chinese in mass jump up and are opening the overhead bins. Soon you find yourself acting the same way.
One of the things that is really annoying to people, is that the Chinese appear to have no problems telling you lies - This happens when they either have something they are not comfortable telling you so they tell you something different, or they don't want to deal with you. For example, I tried to get on a flight which I knew was available. They told me it was full, maybe tomorrow, but they couldn't tell you if tomorrow's flight was full either. Or, if you want a car to go to a certain place, they would have no problem saying the place didn't exist in order to not drive you there.
On Traveling Independently
For those of you that haven't traveled independently, I thought it would be nice to give you a picture of what it was like. I am sure that you have images of sitting alone in hotel rooms and in restaurants eating at a counter with no other human beings. It's not like that at all.
When traveling with other people, two things happen - First, you tend to interact primarily with your travel partners. Since you have someone with you, you don't need to put the energy in to meeting others. Secondly, other travelers and locals are less inclined to approach when you are with others. When you are alone, it is amazing how easily and quickly you meet up with others. During my short 17 days, I have met up with 4 different sets of people to share expenses and experiences with. It is very rare to really be alone, and then usually it is your choice.
So where do you meet them? Foreigners all tend to stay at the same places, they eat at the same restaurants, and they visit the same sights. The travelers all tend to need each other for the social interaction, so they are usually very friendly and approachable. You tend to meet while doing some activity, find out if there is a match in personalities and interests, and then perhaps go on to the next activity together. When schedules diverge, you split up and go your own ways. Many times you'll exchange reading materials, advice and perhaps addresses.
What You Miss
This varies significantly from person to person. The most popular items are salads and ice cream (can't be sure it safe), sports (no newspapers), friends, and your own bed. Keeping in touch with home used to be the thing, but this may be going the way of the horse and buggy with the advent of email.
Well I have written enough, again keep those cards and letters coming.
On the road,
I have to blame myself, but for any number of reasons, you can never really get away. Yesterday I went to a "Internet Cafe" to connect my email. The guy there had a bunch of problems with his computer and so wanted my help to fix them. I spent 4 hours messing around.
Tomorrow, I head off to Xian, which is the unofficial start of the Silk Road. I have been here kicking back in Dali for almost 4 days. It is a nice escape but really too much of a backpacker ghetto. Dali has a Foreigners Street, as the locals call it, where cafes advertise the best brownies or banana pancakes in town. The music varies from Alternative at Marley's Cafe, to 70's and 80's music at the Tibetan Cafe. In addition, the street is lined with 'Travel Agencies", where 'horses to mountains' and 'bus tour to minority village' can be had for $10USD or less. The last must for any place to qualify as a ghetto is the multitude of gift shops - all carrying the same goods usually made in another part of China. A relatively new addition to this set of musts is the internet shop which can allow people to sign onto email services like hotmail and yahoo, send faxes, or call collect to home.
First thing in the morning the ghetto is deserted. Around 8:00, the locals start coming out and setting up the outdoor cafe tables. The backpackers start arriving in numbers around 10:00 because most of them had late nights drinking. You tend to sit an average of 3 hours at any one cafe, writing postcards, updating journals, and talking. The talk centers mostly on where everyone has been and where they're going next. It is funny how much validity you place on this data. Whole backpacker tourist markets could be destroyed overnight.
By the way for those of you that would like to make a special trip to visit one of these ghettos, here is a list in no particular order (I am sure many of you can add more):
What I Did in Dali Which Can Qualify as Sightseeing
What I Did the Rest of the Time
On China - Continued
For this edition, I have chosen to discuss China transportation. The Chinese seem to have most of the forms of transportation found in both the first and third worlds:
Airplanes - Chinese have come along in air transportation. They used to fly around in old Russian planes which didn't always quite work well. So their airlines developed nicknames like China Air Always Crashes (CAAC). These days they have replaced most of the planes with Boeing 737's. Now the best reason these are better is not necessarily anything to do with the personnel or equipment per se. It really is that the planes are just newer. You see, the Chinese don't do to well in the maintenance department. A plane (or hotel) when new is looking nice and clean, but over time things degrade or just become dirty in China. On the positive side, Chinese airlines always give you these stupid little gifts - shiny commemorative coins or scarf. You can be assured it will not be something you'll want to carry back in your luggage.
Trains - This is the form of transportation in China. The railroads basically go everywhere. The problem is getting a ticket. First, the English spoken or written in the train station is close to non-existent. Secondly, you can't always get the class of service you want. Many times you end up in the hard seat class, with the hordes of spitting, smoking, and nose picking Chinese and their animals.
Buses - This is the typical backpacker form of transport. The most common being the minibus. These have individual seats and hold around 20 people. You can find this form of transportation for trips between adjacent towns. The major problems with this form of transport is that you are never sure when they will leave. You see they decide when to leave when the bus is full, rather than according to some schedule. The second problem is that these buses stop all the time along the way to pick up and drop off people. The upside is that they are cheap. A one hour trip may cost 50 cents.
Motorcycles Converted to Pickup Trucks with Seats - These are usually strictly intra-city transport. They are an engineering miracle. Carrying up to 10 people with their pets/dinner and goods, these are hell on wheels.
Taxis - Yes there are actually taxis in China. And many of them actually have meters in them. Now many times these meters are not used, so you have to negotiate beforehand, but it's progress. Almost all of them have this plastic bubble surrounding the driver. I am not sure whether this is a crime thing, or to protect the driver from the spitting.
Bicycles - In the beginning there was only the one-speed. It had skinny tires, rattled, and weighed a ton. Now China has the 'mountain bike'. These are multiple gear bikes, looking like the American counterpart, but always breaking on a ride - either the seat doesn't stay, or the gear shifter doesn't work. In addition, the bike still weighs a ton. You can generally rent these for about 25 cents a day.
Well that's enough on transportation. And I think that's enough for this edition.
On the road in China,
I have gotten a couple of undeliverable error messages, so some of you may not have received all my 3 messages. If you haven't seen them all, Jim Schrempp has put my travelogue on the Net. Check his page out http://www.wenet.net/~jschremp. Yes Jim is amazing. [That's me. -ed]
Just for everyone's' info, I am aware of the Pakistan problems, and will probably make a decision about whether to actually go when I get to Kashgar, China. Don't worry, I may be adventurous but I won't be stupid...
Email in China
As you can tell by the frequency of my emails, my internet connections here in China have been great. All I do is find a place to make a phone call to Beijing (which I have found everywhere. You would guess if there is one place to call from anywhere in China, it would be Beijing). I hook up my little computer and make the connection. Yesterday, I was in the little town of Xiahe, where there is a famous Tibetan monastery. It has one main street, about 1500 monks, perhaps an equal amount of other locals, and when I was there about a dozen foreigners. Well there I was in a little phone booth with an operator connecting to the internet. The connection for sending and receiving my mail generally costs $2USD.
For any of you who have the desire to look at a map. My route started in Xian, which is south west of Beijing. I took the train northwest to Tianshui, then Lanzhou, buses to Xiahe, which is west of Lanzhou. Back to Lanzhou, with my next stop being Jiayuguan - a 17 hour train trip northwest through the desert, relatively close to Mongolia. After that I will go to Dunhuang, make my way to Turpan and Urumqi (all northwest). Then south west to Kashgar. From there I will go due south to Pakistan. This is one of the Silk Road routes, of which there were many.
For those of you that haven't written. This is the commercial, like PBS, you need to give back. Please write me with your thoughts. I look forward to every time I log into mail. AND I personally answer every mail message I receive... The theme to this issue is a continuation of my experiences here in China.
Knowing Your Place
I have had to rely more on my Chinese. But I have everyone from cab drivers to school kids helping me. The other night at a restaurant in Xian, I was practicing with some kids of the family that runs it One of the them, a 9 year old girl, would constantly correct my pronunciation. She was frankly annoyed with me when it took me more than a couple of tries to get it right.
On the flight from kunming to Xian, I sat next to a 3 year old and her mother. I again tried my language skills but her vocabulary was clearly better than mine. Talk about embarrassing. Now I realize that to save my ego, I just need to find a two year old to talk to...
Another Transportation Story
Lanzhou is the major city around these parts. 6 hours away is the town of Xiahe. You can only go by minibus. These buses have about 20 seats but end up holding around 30 when all is said and done. These buses are supposed to be for long distances, but the driver and money person always stop and pick up people along the way. Like musical chairs, sometimes you are the one without a seat. At that point they break out these little stools about 8 inches high for you to sit on in the aisles. Because the shocks usually need replacement, both your back and butt end up sore.
On the way back from Xiahe, I woke up and caught a 6:00AM bus to a town midway to Lanzhou, because I wanted to get to another Tibetan monastery town called Xining. However when I got there the people said there were no more buses to Xining. So I would either have to wait in that stupid little town or take another minibus to Lanzhou and then take a train to Xining. I chose to head off to Lanzhou. I eventually got to Xining later that evening after being on the road for about 14 hours. In the US this probably would have taken only about 5 hours. In addition, you can never really be sure that there wasn't a bus to Xining. But what can you do?
No English Spoken Here
Last week there was a 3 day period without English, except for talking to myself. As you can imagine they were difficult days. You don't realize how much your self needs verbal expression without having to work too hard at it. It is not like you don't talk to anyone, as the locals love to talk to me in Chinese, but you get tired of the small talk, since that is really all of the Chinese my skills can support. If it doesn't have to do with the weather, where we live, where I've traveled, or am I married, then I am pretty much lost. From the looks of it, I had better get used to it, I was the only foreigner in Tianshui and on this train. One of the attractions of this trip was the supposed lack of tourists. I have clearly met my objectives. I am now feeling a little Marco Polo-is. Until Xiahe, I hadn't seen a single foreigner. The good news is that my email is still working.
I confess after my long discussion of do's and don'ts with regard to food, I have been eating off the streets - because it looked and smelled good, and it is dirt cheap. I had 15 of these shish kabobs and a whole plate full of dumplings for about 75 cents. Even then I think I was probably overcharged. The streets out here at night are alive with cooking and eating. You walk around to look over what's available, and then usually stop and order. I do a combination of my Chinese and a little mime for emphasis. The food was really good (and spicy), but we'll see in a few days how my digestive track liked it.
The Thrill of Victory, The Quick Defeat
Today I ordered breakfast off the street, got a taxi to take me to a specific bus station, took a minibus for an hour ride out to a monastery, took another minibus back, bought a railroad ticket, and an ordered lunch - all this in Chinese. I was starting to feel pretty pleased with myself. However, another taxi ride brought me back to Earth. I must have pronounced the word for train station about 10 times. It's like a great roller coaster ride, one minute you think that this isn't too bad, and the next, you're scared to death....
I am starting to get out west now. An interesting thing is happening, more and more of the Chinese here are Muslim. You can tell because they all wear these white skull caps. The guidebooks say that many of them are descended from the original Arab traders on the silk road over 400 years ago. They look mostly Chinese but they sometimes have more Caucasian features, like the color of eyes may be different. The markets, especially the food, is more middle eastern in taste. This crossover is fascinating.
Out here, the terrain looks very Utah-like, with red sandstone cliffs and sparse vegetation. The railroad here is amazing, going along canyons, through long tunnels, and over raging brown rivers. It must have taken decades to build. The temperature has been in the 80's during the day, perhaps down to the 60's at night. It rains at least every other day. Sometimes really hard, where the streets become flooded and the roads end up with 5 foot high mounds of rock and dirt from the erosion. Well I think that's it. Sorry this one has been a potpourri of little stuff.
After a 7 hour bus ride, I have arrived in Dunhuang. Now why in the world would I want to be here, you may ask. Well there are some amazing sand dunes and there are hundreds of caves decorated with carvings and paintings. You see, in the Silk Road days, this was a key point of arrival and departure. So when leaving, the travelers would donate money to the local Buddhists for the decorating of a cave and hope that it would ensure a safe journey. On the way back, the Buddhists would solicit donations as thanks for the safe journey they just made. Today, the locals are not Buddhists any more, but they are still soliciting money from travelers.
This issue will be devoted to the process of traveling by bus and train in China. Dunhuang is approximately 36 hours by train and 24 hours by bus from Xian. Instead of describing each and every grueling minute of the 60 hours, I will spare you the agony and only tell you about 2 segments to give you a flavor.
The 17 Hour Train Ride - Averting Potential Disaster
I arrived in Lanzhou the starting point for the long train ride at 7:30 in the evening. My plan was to catch the train for Jiayuguan that evening. The guidebook said there was at least one train going the right direction. My hope was to buy a soft sleeper ticket for the 17 hour trip. If I couldn't get on that train, I would take the 7:00AM train the next day and get a hotel room for the night. My worst fear was that I would get on the train that night and end up in hard seat, which per my previous discussion means sitting upright with hordes of spitting, smoking, and sick Chinese.
I went to the station ticket office, and after fighting my way to the window, found out that there was indeed a train headed in the right direction at 1:00AM, but there were only hard seat tickets available. My worst fears were becoming a reality . I had a bunch of Chinese behind me trying to push me out of the way. I had to think fast. Buy a ticket and hope that I would be able to upgrade to a better seat, but risk spending what could turn out to be the worst 17 hours in my life...
I decided to roll the dice. In my best Chinese, I said to give me the ticket. Between 8:00PM and 1:00AM, I had dinner in a dive restaurant near the train station, and had tea in the lobby of nearby hotel. About 10:00, I decided to go ahead and sit in the station. The place was empty and most of the lights were turned off. I scoped out a set of chairs to lay down on, set my pack down, and put on my Walkman. You have to scope out the places you sit carefully because of the spitting. For the next 2 hours, I half napped (this is because you need to watch your bags).
At 1:00AM, the train arrived. I lined up with the other Chinese and headed to the train. I got into my car, and found it full of smoking, sleeping, and snoring Chinese. I walked up to my seat, looked at the guy who was sitting there, showed him my ticket, and it didn't phase him. No reaction at all. He was not going to move. My worst nightmare...
I starting walking up the train, looking for a seat. Nothing. Cars and cars full of spitting, sleeping, snoring Chinese. I MUST UPGRADE. I found the train official and with my best behavior asked if I could upgrade to soft sleeper. Now you have to be polite because if they don't like you, you are stuck. He said OK. I was ecstatic inside. I paid my money and waited patiently for my paperwork. After about 10 minutes, I was given my papers and headed off to the soft sleeper car.
They showed me to my compartment. There was only one other Chinese person in my compartment and he had a cell phone. This compartment has four beds with clean sheets and is air-conditioned. The attendants are helpful and the bathrooms are relatively clean. I changed to my sleeping t-shirt and shorts and went to sleep. It was heaven. The next day was spent reading, eating, and watching the scenery.
Although you can't say the scenery is beautiful, you do get a sense of how big any how harsh the terrain is. The land is relatively barren, you might call it desert but it isn't relative to the terrain today. The tracks follow along remnants of the Great Wall. It is no where near as preserved as near Beijing. What is left is the clay insides because the peasants took the stone bricks to make their houses. At7:00PM, I got to Lanzhou, rested and ready to go. It was better than any of nights in the hotels here in China.
For those of you interested, the cost of the trip was 285 yuan or about $35USD. Hard seat cost 100 yuan or about $11USD. Plenty of hard seats are available, if you can convince the Chinese person in your seat to give it up. Bathrooms are available, but bring your own toilet paper, don't drop any valuables (they will end up b between the tracks), and hold on, you wouldn't want to slip.
The Road to Dunhuang
This segment started in Jiayuguan, the end of the Great Wall. Although I prefer to take a train. Dunhuang, my destination doesn't have a train station, so bus is the most efficient way to get here. My trip started the day before with a trip to the bus station. I always like to figure out my next transport before doing a place.I found that there were four buses a day to Dunhuang, 9AM, 11AM, 12Noon, and 1:00PM. I went ahead and bought the 9:00 bus for a couple of days later. I chose the 9:00AM bus since it would probably be cooler and if I missed it, there were always more buses available.
I showed up at 8:00AM on the designated day. As opposed to my US air travel habit , I make sure I get there on time. You never know if the Chinese will leave early or late. At 9:00, they called for the passengers. We all climbed in and took our seats. I went to the back with the only other foreigner. We stacked our backpacks on the back seat and took our seats. The bus held around 50 people and although it didn't look like we were going to fill it, we picked up all of these other people wanting to only go partway.
The bus was relatively comfortable. This meant that one actually had a seat, the seat still had cushioning, and it wasn't too dirty. At about 9:30, the bus left the station, but wait, we picked up some more passengers in the city. Now fully loaded including a girl with a dog, we headed out. Immediately a women in the seat a across my aisle had her head out the window. As a clue, she was not looking at the scenery, she was getting sick. As opposed to Indonesia, at least they stick their heads out the window.
The other thing that happens very quickly is that every male in the bus alternately smokes and spits out the window. Ah China - Now why did I come here? You find that you are constantly asking yourself this question. Anyway back to my story. We're now driving northwest towards the Taklamakan Desert with the Gobi desert to the northeast. We see old Chinese outposts from the Silk Road days all along the road. The temperature starts out a pleasant 80 degrees but just a few hours later it is close to 100.
There is less and less vegetation. The road goes through a number of oasis towns long the way. We stop and both pick up passengers and leave them. About 4 hours to the trip, we are in the desert. No plants, no cities, just sand and rocks for miles in all directions. I can't imagine walking or riding a camel through this. I get worried, what if we breakdown? I should have bought another bottle of water.
This is the He Xi Corridor. The stretch of space where all of the Silk Road routes converged into one. In those days, whoever controlled this corridor, controlled the Silk Road. Needless to say, control changed hands numerous times. Now all along the road there are these advertisements saying "The New He Xi". I don't really understand the point.
The road is paved and very well constructed. There are many of the large blue Chinese trucks carrying everything from people to PVC pipe. We pass many of those little trucks which are basically a motorcycle with a small bed in back of the driver for stuff.
Along the way we stop at a couple of the larger cities and park. They don't want us to get off the bus yet, we don't move. We kill about 20 minutes at two of these stops . After 7.5 hours we arrive in Dunhuang. It is green all around with 1000 foot sand dunes right next to town. It's about 100 degrees and it's almost 5:00PM. I bring this point up because there is only one time zone in China, Beijing time. China is so big that it would be like all of the US including Hawaii being in one time zone. It doesn't get dark here until 10:00 at night, and I am only just past the halfway point in my journey to far western China.
It is time to get off the bus and find a hotel. That experience I will save for other email.
For those of you interested in taking this trip, buses go four times a day. They only cost 28 yuan or about $3USD. No reserved seats and there isn't a no-smoking section.
Well that's way more than I wanted to write. My next transmission will probably be from Turpan or Kashgar in a few days.
On the Silk Road,
I would like to thank all of you that wrote after my last email. I will devote this issue to answers to some of your questions. I have decided to make this issue anonymous since I did not gain permission to publish:
Q: How's the beer (or local alcohol) scene as you travel from place to place? What's it cost them in terms of their wages?
Editor: This is an excellent question. Let me tell you first however that if the beer is cold, then it scores an 8 out of ten already. I have sampled a few beers along the way. The best has to be Beer Lao. It is available all over Laos and generally costs about $1USD in a restaurant/bar for a big bottle. Since the average salary of a Lao citizen is around $20USD per month, a beer in Laos costs 1.5 days wage. The reason the beer is so good is that the Germans taught the Laotians how to make beer.
In China, each region tends to have it's own beer. For example, in Dali, there was Dali beer. It was no where near as good as Beer Lao, but for the most part it was cold. That beer generally cost about $0.75 for a big bottle. This is about a half a day's wage for the average Chinese worker.
Q: What do the locals do for fun, especially in the more remote towns?
Editor: In Laos, the adults didn't seem to do much but sit around. The kids played sports. Basketball (they're terrible, but I guess it's tough to play in flip-flops), volleyball (they used their feet), and this game like badminton where you can only use your feet.
In China, the old men play Chinese board games - one like chess. They also go to the movies. Titanic has been sweeping the country. Someone said that tickets were going for $50USD in Shanghai. The reason for the popularity is that the premier talked about it. Seems he focused on the class struggle aspect of the movie.
Out here in western and central China, I am not sure what people do, both at night and during the day. Everyone just seems to be sitting around. For example, you may go into a bank to change money. The office may be huge, but you may only have 2 or 3 people inside, with their head on their desks sleeping. You get their attention and then they all participate in filling out paperwork and checking each other's work.
Q: What do I do for fun?
Editor: Well it is hard for me to put this type of travel in terms of fun. Basically from day to day I tend to be more concerned with finding good food, a clean place to sleep, and the right transportation. Relaxation tends to be kicking back in a quiet town, doing laundry, and reading and writing. Sightseeing via bicycle is usually very fun. And most importantly, sitting around, drinking beer, and talking to other travelers or locals is a regular activity.
Editor: For you nerds out there (which are many of my friends), here's the scoop.
Hardware: I am using a Windows CE2 handheld, an NEC Mobilpro 700. It is relatively new on the market. It is about 3"x1"x9" and weighs 1.25 pounds. It has a LCD screen with weak back lighting and runs about 25 hours on a couple of AA batteries, so I don't need to carry around an AC adapter. It has a built-in 33.6kbs modem and has Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook.
The way I connect is that my ISP in California is a member of a global roaming service. You get local access in over 80 countries. You login with a special account name and password, the local ISP checks back with my ISP to ensure I am authorized, and then I am billed at my local ISP. The charge is $3 per month when you use the service, and from 4 - 25 cents a minute depending on the in-country ISP. I have been using it in the US, since they have local access at a few hundred cities. It has been working great. In China I call Beijing (all phones lead to Beijing in China). It runs about 15 cents per minute to connect and I typically connect for 20 minutes. The service also has connections in Pakistan, and I believe in Uzbekistan, but we shall see.
Q: Your travel reports indicate some of the experiences you're having, but bottom line, how is it? Are you seeing and doing interesting things? Meeting expectations? Still getting the travel high? Am I missing anything?
Editor: It is clearly meeting my expectations. I still have a strong travel high. There is something very appropriate about following the Silk Road by bus and train. Seeing the terrain and the transition from Han Chinese to Central Asian is fascinating. Most of the times it is very boring just seeing desert. But it makes it easy to imagine what it must have been like to be traveling out here a thousand years ago. They were very tough people. For example, a trip that took 17 hours by train and bus, took 17 days just 75 years ago.
I can't say that any specific activity is memorable, although I have visited some enormous sand dunes, walked at the end of the Great Wall, climbed on scaffolding to see Buddhist caves decorated with sculptures and fresco paintings, and seen the plain of Jars. Not to get too philosophical, but it is more of a travel experience and a way to gain understanding rather than a sightseeing trip. Some of those experiences have been:
The language component has also added a whole new dimension to foreign travel. It has made the trip both easier and more challenging. It has been easier to get around and get the results I desire. I've also been able to actually talk to people who don't speak any English. For once it feels really good to speak more of someone else's language than they know of yours. Although I have had a few low periods, which are to be expected, where I would go days without speaking English and talking to other travelers, the email is a great backup. It helps smooth out the highs and lows. [Write to Vance! -ed.]
Lastly, are you missing anything? It depends. If you want to come out and experience the history, you would want to come out and see it soon. What is already happening is that the Han Chinese are taking over out here. Seems it's an historical problem. The original Arab/Moslem traders have been assimilated by the Han Chinese, and have lost their language and a lot of their appearance. The cities are losing their character and all looking very Chinese big city like.
Q: What have my photo experiences been?
Editor: My roll count is somewhere around 25. I can't say I am very happy with what I've shot so far. Until recently the area has been frankly boring. Most of the cities have already been transformed to the typical Chinese model. So up to now I have shot mostly street scenes with some people shots, and the mandatory tourist "I was there" shots.
Q: When will I visit cities one can pronounce?
Editor: I am not sure this will happen.
Well that's it for this letters to the editor. I want to thank all of you who submitted
This potentially could be my last email for some time. I will soon be leaving China for Pakistan. For those of you looking at maps, I have continued west from Dunang, through Turpan, through Urumqi, through Kashgar. Kashgar is in the far west of China, right near the border of Kazakstan. Kashgar used to be the one of the key crossroads for Silk Road trading - essentially where East meets West.
I cheated, I flew from Urumqi to Kashgar. A $10USD, 45 hour bus trip through the desert Vs paying $120USD for a 2 hour flight... it took me about a nanosecond to come to a decision. Some may say that I didn't do the whole silk road on the ground,but I believe Marco Polo would have flown if he had the choice.
Arriving in Kashgar, the only things seemingly Chinese were the flag, the money, the police/military, and the key jobs (As far as I can tell, the jobs where money is involved). Otherwise, you would have thought I caught a wrong flight and arrived in the Middle East. Veiled women and mosques everywhere. The one most obvious adaptation is that all of the Muslims use chopsticks and opposed to most Muslim countries, they use their left hands when eating (Some of you may have questions about his. My hint is that they also don't use toilet paper in most Muslim countries).
The reason everyone comes to Kashgar is for the Sunday Market. The market draws an amazing variety and number of traders from all around the neighboring countries. If it's available, you can get it here. Carpets, textiles, food, tools, soaps, the , nuts, goats, sheep, and the donkeys with carts to haul it all away. They say that 100,000 people come to Kashgar on market day. I saw more tourists on Sunday than I have seen in total on this trip. Since there's an airport here, tour groups can basically fly in from Hong Kong.
Anyway, it's quite a scene from the total number of people. But I must say, the scale is not as Silk Roadish as I would have liked. The market in Cairo is a much more picturesque location. But the variety of ethnic groups and languages spoken makes up for it.
There is also a old city part of Kashgar, which retains the flavor I sought. It is a large area, with mud houses, and narrow streets which are right out of Indiana Jones. The people there were very friendly. I ate at the night market near the mosque. I had cold spicy noodles and these shish kabobs that were very chewy (I think they were chicken hearts. They looked good over the coals).
The hotel I am staying at is an annex to a hotel that used to be the Russian Embassy. The hotel has about 15 tourists and the rest are Pakistani traders. As in other parts of China, tourism is way down, and they are very sad. The rooms are going for less than half of what the guidebooks say. I am sharing a room with it's own bathroom with a Canadian for $2.50USD. Now it isn't the Ritz but you have to admit it's cheap.
Reflections on the Silk Road
The road has been an educational experience. There were many hardships and hassles, but these were an important part of the learning. The distance, and time it took to traverse it, gave me an appreciation for the level of motivation of the travelers during those days (and frankly today's travelers). More specifically here is my summary:
I have spent about $1000 total here in China over 26 days. Transportation costs have been roughly 55% of the total. Daily averages for all other expenses have been: $8.61USD for lodging, $5.42USD for food, and $4.58USD for everything else. Therefore, my per day costs have been $18.61USD. Relative to my original targets for the whole trip, I have experienced a negative variance of 4%, or about $80USD, primarily due to unplanned places I've visited.
Only In China
When you're doing budget travel in these out of the way places, one of the things you ask is if they have hot water. Most of the time hotels have hot water, but only once a day, during a couple of hours in the evening. Well I checked into a hotel in Turpan, with an average daily temperature of 110 degrees. As usual I asked if they had hot water. They said yes, all day. I thought I hit the jackpot. This must be a great hotel. Later when I decided to take a shower I found out that yes indeed they did have hot water as advertised, but there was no cold water. I asked later and found out that cold water only ran between certain hours in the evening. Because the toilet was connected to the cold water, you couldn't flush the toilet more than once (the solution later was to use the shower hose to fill up the tank with hot water). The icing on the cake was that when I asked about it, they said that the whole city was like this, so there was no use in looking for a different hotel. Yeah, right.
Where I Go From Here
I will now be heading south towards Pakistan, over what is reputed to be the highest maintained highway in the world. The word 'maintained' is used loosely since the area and road are frequently victims of landslides. The Khunjerab Pass is about 15,000 feet. The mountains, the Karakorams, are a continuation of the geology which produced the Himalayas. This geology is the result of the collision of two tectonic plates, the Indian plate, which is moving north towards the Chinese land mass. Since the Chinese mass isn't moving, the result is the Himalayan and Karakoram mountains. The Karakorams divide northern Pakistan from China. The Karakorams are the home for some of the highest mountains in the world, including the second highest mountain, K2, which most climbers believe is more technically difficult a mountain to climb than Everest. This is my destination, base camp K2. Along the way there is a confluence of 3 major glaciers, the Concordia, which is surrounded by 4 25,000foot mountains. It will take almost 3 weeks to get there and back.
Well this is much longer than I normally write. I am also sorry, because one of the requests was descriptions of some of the travelers I've encountered. I'll have to wait for the next time.
On the Road,
Well I made it to Pakistan. I will include a short synopsis of that adventure later in this note. I have had no success connecting so far, here in the Northern Area. The phone lines barely support voice communications. I probably won't be able to send this until Islamabad.
The Northern Area
I have been here for about 10 days. I spent the last 4 days in Karimabad. This is the heart of the Hunza Valley. Karimabad is on a mountainside with a spectacular view of a few peaks and glaciers. There are day hikes all around the area. The city itself is quiet, spotlessly clean, and filled with warm, genuinely friendly people. The Northern Areas have always been isolated from the rest of the country, and the guidebook says that in fact the government has a tenuous hold on the area. To illustrate, I was taking a tour of a old fort here, and ahead of us was a group from Punjerab. Left behind were pieces of trash. A gum wrapper or tissue. The guide picked up the trash and mumbled "Pakistanis". You see, they consider themselves Hunzans not Pakistanis.
The Karakoram Highway and the Mountains
The Karakoram Highway is a marvel of engineering. You can not even imagine the terrain this road traverses. They say that 1 person died for every 1.5 km of the road. Steep narrow canyons following a raging river. In spite of all this, it is much safer and better maintained than I expected. It is also not very busy. There are a few bicyclists doing the KKH from the pass. Since it is mostly downhill, it should be renamed the greatest bike path in the world.
Many of the mountains are visible from the KKH. I have to say that you get slightly jaded, if the peak isn't over 22,000 ft, you don't pay any attention. Glaciers come almost to the road. Sunsets are breathtaking. My hotel room has a balcony which looks over the valley and 3 good sized mountains - Rakiposhi, 25,551 ft; Diran, 23,846ft; Ultar 24,232ft. Today I walked up to the Ultar glacier. It was a good 3.5 hour hike with 1,640 ft vertical. At the top, 10,500 ft, there was a meadow, which is base camp for climbs on this mountain. The glacier/ice fall was about a mile away. All through the afternoon you could hear 'explosions' which were giant ice boulders breaking off and causing avalanches.
My K2/Concordia Trek
Due to a number of reasons, tourism is way down. The bad news is that since I am by myself, I wanted to hook up with a group already heading out to K2; that way I would save a lot of money. Instead I am having to set up the trek from scratch. I ended up deciding to spend the money and go with the best (i.e. most expensive) firm here. My trek starts on July 12, so I will be out of communication for sure during that time (18 days). (Update: In Skardu I've found out that there are a couple of K2 expeditions going on now. One climbing group of 27 people have 370 porters. If all goes well, I may be even able to send this via their satellite phone.)
Shandur Polo Tournament
Before my trek I had a few days, so with 2 others, I endured a 12 hour jeep ride out to Shandur Pass. The 'road' made the KKH look like Interstate 5. In the US, you would have to call it a hiking trail - dusty, bumpy, and crossing numerous streams and rivers.
Once a year there is a polo tournament at the pass, between two cities, Gilgit and Chitral. The pass is between the two cities, at an elevation of 12,500 ft. It was quite the happening. Two matches per day ... no rules. Supposedly polo was invented here in Pakistan. People from all over come to watch the matches and the auxiliary festivities. No real stadium, just a grass field surrounded by some little hills with thousands of Pakistani men cheering and dancing. During the game, a 'band' plays drums and those horns that snake charmers use. There are no accommodations there, so everyone sleeps in tents or just on the ground. There are perhaps 25 foreigners here also.
The game is played with about 8 people on horses per side. They ride like maniacs, with the object to hit a softball sized wooded ball through the goal. In the process the riders and horses get hit by the ball and the mallets, and periodically a spectator gets nailed by all of the above. It is a funny scene to see the horses ride off the field and have the people scatter in all directions trying to avoid getting run over.
After talking to some other travelers, I have decided to try to visit a couple of other Central Asian countries. In addition to Uzbekistan, I will transit through Kazakstan and Krygystan. I don't anticipate I will run into any other travelers.
The Nightmare Trip from China to Pakistan
The trip from Kashgar to Pakistan was quite an experience. It was bound to happen, and it did...transportation became a nightmare.
The trip from Kashgar, China to Sost, Pakistan is done over two days and covers about 200 miles. From Kashgar you catch a bus which is authorized to cross the Pakistan border. It costs about$33USD for the two day trip. I was told to be at the bus station, which happens to be a hotel parking lot, at 11:30 Beijing time or 9:30 Kashgar time. After sitting around for a couple of hours, we finally began to load up. The bus guy tells me that I can take one bag onto the bus, everything else goes on the roof.
Now there are a few problems with this. First, the roof suddenly fills up with Chinese and Pakistanis goods for trading. Secondly, I am not thrilled with putting my bag on the roof and having it fall off somewhere along the way. Lastly, no one else is following the one bag rule. The back seats suddenly get filled with dozens of new blankets, bags of food, pots and pans, and empty suitcases. So I take my bag down from the roof and put it in the back with everyone elses stuff.
We all get into the bus, and it is a pushing match to get onto the steps to get a seat - you'd think they were giving away money inside. I finally get a seat, sitting next to a Chinese Tajik. The passengers are an interesting mix of ethnic groups - Pakistani men who look too slick with their baseball caps, Han Chinese, Chinese Muslim businessman, covered Muslim women, and 6 travelers. The travelers all huddle together towards the back of the bus. We do this both because there is safety in numbers, and none of us pushed hard enough to get into the bus.
The bus takes off at about 10:30AM. An hour later we stop at a restaurant. I ask when the bus leaves. The driver says after we eat. We take off again at around 2:00. We begin the long trip through the desert, gradually heading into the mountains. After an hour or so we are on the KKH. The bus winds through incredibly steep canyons and follows a raging river.
We follow a road which you would think only a four wheel drive should pass through - mostly unpaved. The bus groans up the hill in first gear, bumping along through ditches and dry creek beds. The bus is so loaded, we cut an electrical cable strung over the road. We begin to see 7,000m mountain peaks covered with snow. My head and camera are constantly out the window taking pictures. The terrain is dry and barren. We pass a couple of checkpoints where passports are checked. At about 6:00PM, we stop to let off 3 of the travelers at Kara Kol lake, high in the mountains. They will spend the night in a Tajik yurt. The place is green but a constant wind blows. It is desolate, reminding me of Tibet.
We take off and are on a high plateau. Following a river we see high mountain peaks and flat valleys. There are mud houses along the way, with families grazing their sheep, cattle, and yaks. At 8:00PM we arrive at out destination for the evening, Tashkurgan. The bus stops at one of the cheaper hotels. Everyone gets out. The three of us travelers head for the Pamir Hotel, a 15 min. walk. In theory the nicest place in town. We get a dorm room. No one else is in the hotel. It's$1.20USD per bed. The room is fine and actually has a TV, but the bathroom is disgusting. I go into wash up. Water is dripping on my shirt from the ceiling. Before I realize it, my right arm is soaked. I fear it is an unknown liquid from the bathroom on the floor above. Disgusting....
The next morning we pack and walk back to the bus. We wait around for the bus driver to show up. He told me the bus would leave at 10AM Beijing time. It is 9:30 and no one else is there. Eventually everyone shows up, and we rush again to get seats and stack our stuff in the back. The bus begins to move right on time 10 AM, but only goes about 10 yards. Eventually we are really on the road and go about a half mile to the Chinese Customs post. Everyone again gets off with all their stuff. The boxes on the roof need to be brought down. We head into the customs building, the foreigners are quickly shuffled through. The rest of the passengers take almost an hour and a half to get through. We finally all meet on the other side and wait. Eventually the bus comes around, and yet again we are rushing onto the bus to load and get our seats.
At about 11:30 we finally hit the road. We continue on the KKH, but we are now following wide valleys. At noon, we stop again, not sure why, but it looks like a bathroom break. We again all pile in and eventually begin the long ascent to the Khunjerab Pass. Around 2:00 the bus starts slowing down and making funny noises. It does not sound good. We stop. Steam is pouring out of the front of the bus. We are not at the top yet. We have no idea where we are. The driver gets a toolbox out and begins to work under the bus. I sleep and wake up constantly. We are at over 13,000 ft. One hour, two hours, three hours, four hours. I am beginning to get worried. The driver finishes his work, we all pile back in the bus. The engine starts, we begin to move, and we go about 100m. We stop again. It is 6:00PM and it is beginning to get cold.
A couple of trucks go by, they stop and leave. Eventually a truck comes with more Chinese in uniforms. They have a radio. Three of the uniformed Chinese get in a truck and continue on. We are stuck. A minibus on it's way up to the pass stops. The uniformed Chinese only lets a couple of Chinese Han women on. He gets pissed at everyone else who tries to get on.
The driver has an idea - all the men are told to get off the bus. The bus starts up and goes. The men walk. The Chinese guard is yelling at me to walk faster up the pass. We head up a km or so. It is windy and getting colder. Eventually a minibus which has seats for 18 stops. The crowd gets out of our bus, frantically unloading their luggage and rushing onto the minibus. The three of us can't believe all will fit so we are casual about trying to get on. We realize that this is the only bus. Otherwise we spend the night at 4400m in the cold with the Chinese guards.
We get our bags and begin loading stuff on the roof. We start forcing people to put their bags on the roof to free up seats. Eventually we get over 30 people in the minibus with all of their stuff - blankets and empty suitcases. We head another 6 km or so overflowing with people, many without seats and no one able to move. The Pakistanis are enjoying a great laugh talking about the Chinese Machine Breaking'. We pass the final Chinese checkpoint. Everyone is supposed to get out of the bus, but the Chinese official quickly realizes that will not be possible or advised. They frankly just want us out of China.
It is starting to snow. We go on a couple of kms and reach the border. We are met by a couple of Pakistani border guards. They step into the bus, look around. Nothing seems to be happening. But wait. Three more of the KSF (Khunjerab Security Force) climb on the bus. They want rides down. We now have over 34 people in this minibus. 2 people are sitting in the drivers seat. It's 8PM and we are headed down some of the steepest parts of the KKH in the dark.
The front windshield begins to steam up from all of the heat and moisture from the people. The guy sitting next to the driver tries to use his hand to clean the window. It doesn't help. We yell at him to open a window. Eventually he listens, and the window clears up. Now with that crisis over, the driver starts conversations with some of the people in the bus, only this driver wants to make eye contact while he speaks. He eventually gets tired of the conversation and focuses on driving.
But wait, he needs to make a buck, so he appoints one of the other passengers to collect money. He wants 300 rupees per person. Now this isn't a lot of money per person - it's about $6USD, but with 30 people in the minibus $180 is a lot of money. One of the passengers doesn't want to pay, so the driver slams on the brakes and refuses to go until the passenger agrees to pay. Words are exchanged and so we are off again. I am not sure that this is good news.
We continue down the road. I am sitting down, but cannot move - there is no room. My butt is getting sore and I try to shift around. I am sitting over the engine, and it is getting hot. Luckily we have to stop about 4 times to pass various border checkpoints. You have to stop because they have a gate. Each time we stop, the driver gets out, shakes hands and hugs the guards. They speak and then go inside the office. I assume that they are trying to agree upon a bribe amount, since the driver really is supposed to have an empty minibus. One time 3 of us westerners must go into the office to sign in. We write our names and passport numbers into a big log book. The official checks our passports, not for a Pakistani visa, but for the Chinese visa. I don't understand...
We finally pass the last checkpoints and are in the home stretch. We pass a sign that says 4km to Sost, our destination. The engine stops. The driver coasts for a minute. I am not happy about this coasting thing with the overloaded minibus. I guess that the driver is trying to save gas. I am pissed, especially since he just collected $180 from us. The driver starts the engine. The engine starts then stalls. Not again....
We slow down and stop. The car has run out of gas. The driver says there is a gas station 5 minutes away. The money passenger takes off to get the gas. The three of us decide to take matters into our own hands. I climb up on the roof and untie our bags. We are walking the rest of the way. Supposedly it is less than a couple of miles. We begin to walk, they tell us not to go ourselves. We continue. It is 10:30PM.
It is pitch black and we have our flashlights out. We walk for an hour but no town. A motorcycle comes by and tells us the town is about 20 minutes away. The good news is that we are getting closer to town, no bus so far. We finally get to the town. The immigration/customs guy is in a tent sleeping next to the last gate. He wakes up and tells us to go ahead into town and come back in the morning. So much for customs inspections...
We arrive at the hotel, get a room, and get fed. We finish eating and it is about 11:30PM. We are redeemed, the bus finally arrives about 30 minutes after us. The 30 other passengers pile out and rush to get rooms. We are happy and relieved...
We take 17 hours for a trip that should have only taken 5. Two buses when it should have taken only one. Quite a day.
Well that's it. Frankly it's too much.
It has been a long time since I have been in communication. I am in Islamabad, Pakistan. Since the beginning of the month, I have made my way down the Karakoram highway from China to Pakistan and trekked two weeks to the Concordia and K2 Base Camp.
I am feeling very well considering all I have been through. I have been in Northern Pakistan for 27 days now. For those of you with some concerns about my safety with all the Pakistan problems, the north might as well be a different country. In fact, if you asked locals here, they would not consider themselves Pakistanis. People are warm, friendly, and the Hunzans have more in common with westerners than with Pakistanis.
Northern Pakistan telecommunications is in serious need of help. Here is my routine, which I have undertaken more than a few times. I go to the public telephone office and first try to communicate what I want to do with this computer. After getting permission to connect my computer, I spend the rest of the useless time trying to get connected. Now this doesn't mean I have a problem connecting to my ISP; this means to I have a problem getting a line to Karachi. It is funny to sit in the office, see the line of people waiting for the one phone line, and then hear people screaming at the phone trying to be heard.
K2 Trek Review
In order to summarize the trek I have decided to give you a 'data sheet' overview. Here it is:
Trek to the 'Throne of the Gods'
Concordia/K2 Base Camp/Gondogoro Pass
This trek into the Karakoram mountains can be described as glorious, grand, and grueling. With 12 days of actual hiking at high elevation, you earn the right to enter an area with the highest concentration of tall mountains in the world. The area is legendary among climbers. 10 of the top 30 mountains in the world are seen during this trek, including K2, the second highest mountain in the world. Groups go in 'expedition style', bringing all food, tents, and other equipment in by porters. A majority of the travel is on glaciers. For those willing to put in the time and effort to get there, you will not be disappointed.
Day 1 - Getting Organized: Skardu is the last real town before you start on the trek. It is here that the 'expedition' is organized. Food, porters, and gear are collected and packed for the ride to the trail head. The place doesn't seem like much when you get there, but it will seem like Manhattan when you return.
Day 2 - Jeep Ride to Askole: A wild ride that takes about 8 hours over rivers (literally) and on roads that usually aren't. It is a tiring and scary trip that you keep wishing was over. You actually camp for the night at the trailhead a place called Thungol.
Day 3 - First Trekking Day: This is a relatively light day of hiking, 5 hours. Elevation starts at 9260ft and ends at 9750ft. You stop in Askole to buy your porters' goat, which you now hike with for a few days. Along the way we cross over the moraine of our first glacier, something I will learn to loathe. Camp is in a flat, dusty area with a few trees.
Day 4 - Crossing a River by Cable: Another 5 hour trekking day, but you have to cross a fast river. After about an hour of hiking on the side of a mountain, you come to the river. There is a cable crossing about 45 minutes upriver. A small wooden box hangs from a steel cable. One by one, porters, gear, trekkers, and goats get in and are pulled across the river. The next 3-4 hours is frankly boring, walking along the bank of the river. The scenery doesn't change and it is hot. You camp at an even less interesting place with a few bushes, which you sit under to escape the sun. Elevation goes from 9750ft to 10725ft.
Day 5 - A Half Rest Day: This is a 3 hour hiking day. It is short because at the campsite, all the porters have a party and eat the goat. From here the scenery starts to get interesting. Large peaks are finally visible and the Baltoro Glacier looms in the distance. Elevation is 11212ft.
Day 6 - The Test: This is a grueling day with 10 hours of hiking. The elevation, terrain, and duration of the hike are a test of the trekkers ability to do Gondogoro Pass. The elevation goes from 11212ft to 13325ft and you begin to feel it, getting out of breath very easily. The terrain is 90 percent on the moraine of the Baltoro Glacier. This means that it is a glacier (river of ice), which is covered by dirt, rocks, and boulders. The glacier here is filled with 50 to 100-foot ups and downs. Trails zigzag on the glacier. It never ends. At one point you finally have a stretch off the glacier but the trail ends up going straight up the hillside with no switchbacks for 500ft. At the end of the day however, you are finally rewarded with one of the most beautiful panoramas of the trip.
Day 7 - More of the Same Damn Glacier: A 7 hour day, entirely on the Baltoro. In fact, Goro II, the campsite is on the glacier. It is a cold and windy place. It is getting hard to breath. But Concorida and the huge peaks are calling in the distance. Elevation is now 14235ft.
Day 8 - The Throne of the Gods: A relatively easy day hiking only 6 hours with final elevation 15275ft. As you walk towards Concordia, the giant peaks grow in size. You cannot see K2 until you actually reach the campsite, but there are plenty of other amazing peaks to view. Sunset at Concordia is awe inspiring. It is worth the painful price of admission.
Day 9 - Long Day Hike to K2 Base Camp: K2 looms in the distance from Concordia. It is a 10 hour hiking day, starting at 530AM. Hiking on the Godwin-Austen Glacier, you pass Broad Peak base camp, where many climbing teams are based. Arriving at K2 base camp, many tents are set up. 3 actual teams are climbing. I stop by the American team. I can't believe there are only 3 people in this team. They don't even have a base manager. I try to connect my computer (and theirs) via a satellite phone. No luck. The mountain is huge from here.
Day 10 - Anticipation: Usually a rest day, but the weather is so variable that teams planning to climb Gondogoro Pass, move on to the next camp quickly. A 5 hour hike up a white glacier. There are many crevices and in one section we rope up. Ali Camp, the destination of the day, is a small, rocky, desolate place. All of the groups are camped together. Elevation is 17225 ft. We wait and hope for good weather. At 9PM it looks like a go, so we wake up at 1AM for a 2AM departure.
Day 11 - The Pass: All that happened before is cake. Today is hard, grueling, and dangerous. We leave camp with flashlights hiking up the mountain. The first hour is steep, first jumping from boulder to boulder; later walking up snowfields. We finally reach the Glacier which is easier, but we rope up as crevices can be hidden. After about 3 hours, we reach the base of the pass. I lookup and only see a cliff of snow. It isn't obvious how one gets up this mountain. There are 30 people climbing today. The heavy snow has radically changed the pass. No fixed ropes are necessary, but it is still over 1000 ft almost straight up. Steps are kicked into the snow by all. The elevation makes breathing difficult. We step and catch our breath. The sun is out and it is getting warm. We walk along steep cornices and by deep crevices. One wrong step and it's goodbye. After 5 hours from our departure, we arrive at the top of the pass. The view is spectacular. 6 - 26,00 ft peaks are visible. We are at almost 19,000 ft. But the hard part is yet to come...
We must now descend the other side. A steep 50 degree slope. We use fixed ropes and thank god for our crampons, but the porters are still carrying 50 pound packs with plastic shoes and no crampons. One slip and the next stop is 3000 ft down in a crevice. I feel relatively secure with my crampons, but halfway down, a porter slips. He begins to slide down. Luckily he separates from his pack. He crashes into some rocks and stops. The load ends up in a crevice on the bottom. He has only minor injuries.
We all reach the bottom a couple of hours later. We are lucky that no one else is hurt. But wait, it's still over 2 and half hours to the campsite. This is the real killer. You were mentally prepared for the pass, but now we have another grueling hike on yet another glacier. Finally reaching the campsite, we all are exhausted. The elevation is 15210 ft. I soak my beat-up feet in a cold stream. There is a pup tent store and I have a Pepsi. It is great...
[What happened to Day 12? -ed]
Day 13 - Headed Out: Normally there are 3 stops along the way down. We decide to do it in one day. It is a 7 hour day, with half being more of the glacier. We are breaking trails. Here there is no clear trail. The first 3 hours are tough given yesterday's ordeal. We finally reach 'normal trail' on dirt. There is green - trees, grasses, flowers. The slope down is gradual. We arrive at Shaishcho, our campsite at 12350 ft. it is almost civilized. Cold drinks, French fries, and real buildings. I have a cold Sprite and French Fries. I examine the visitor log. Galen Rowell was here the day before. That night the porters gather and sing and dance. We are all relieved.
Day 14 - Final Hiking Day: We walk about 3 hours to the town of Hushe. Here we will catch a jeep for the ride back to Skardu. This is our final camping night. The guide buys a chicken for the group. For dinner, everyone washes up and wears clean clothes. We pay the porters their wages and tips. They are all smiles.
Day 15 - The Drive Back: This was more an ordeal than the pass. Because the road is out, we need to change jeeps three times, ride 4 hours in a public bus, and overall take 10 hours to get back to Skardu. What a mess.
Most Absurd Moments
The night after the grueling pass, 3 porters came by to borrow our crampons. They wanted to go back and retrieve the lost load for themselves, since we already wrote it off. It happened to be our kitchen equipment - pots, pans, dishes. They said some of it had not gone into the crevice but was still up on the slope. They were prepared to walk uphill for 2 hours, hike halfway up a 50 degree slope with a deep crevice below it, and then walk back down; all for at most $15USD worth of stuff. They went and returned the next morning with two pan lids, a smashed pressure cooker, and a rolling pin.
Experienced, committed backpackers. The duration, altitude, and hardship will wear on those not mentally or physically prepared. Statistics:
For most of you, I am sure you're thinking, "I would never do that". For some of you, mark your calendars - July is prime time for Concordia trekking.
I catch a plane for Almaty, Kazakstan on Wednesday, August 5. I will have been in Pakistan for 37 days. It is time to leave, to change scenery. The last leg of my trip, Central Asia begins. My tentative itinerary is:
The reason I am blasting through Kazakstan and Krygystan is that I don't have a normal visa. I will be attempting to cross through on transit visas, which are the theoretically possible, but only good for 3 days. At least, that is what other travelers have done. I have an internet phone number for Kazakstan, but who knows if I will be able to connect. Otherwise the next probable connection is my stopover in Korea, but that is near my return.
Now for my review of Pakistan:
Pakistan is a very diverse country. It is hard to think of it as one homogeneous place. It is rather a collection of cultures and geographies. The north with its mountains and warm people are a delight. Besides the roads and terrain, travel is easy, the climate is comfortable.
Islamabad is a capital without character. It is a city not quite done with vast [een?] empty lots between isolated clusters of buildings and shopping bazaars. Rawaindi has everything a South Asian city should have: it's crowded, noisy, busy, and polluted. There are times that you just want to be left alone, in peace and quiet But there is nowhere to hide. I didn't want to venture anywhere near Lahore or Karachi.
Places to Visit
Karimabad, Hunza: This is Shangri La, Paradise. Set in a beautiful valley surrounded by 20,000 ft peaks, the views out the hotel window are unbelievable. It should be a backpacker ghetto, but it isn't which makes it even more special.
Concordia/K2 Base Camp: With a high cost of admission, this place is truly majestic. The mountains are so big and so close. I anticipate that my photos will not do it justice.
Things to Miss
Public Buses: Especially ones going over Khunjerab Pass. After my email description, one friend commented that "..it sounded like you were a prisoner of war". A good description.
Goro II Campsite: Unless you like camping and sleeping on rocks in 20 degree weather with the cold wind snapping at your tent, you'd best miss this place. Nestled n the Baltoro Glacier, this place on the way to Concordia is pretty miserable.
Pakistani food is basically like Indian food but without all of the breads. It is generally good but after your 8th dahl, rice, and chappati meal, you are ready for McDonald's. However, you need to try Hunza food, it is very different and very tasty.
Money and Costs
Excluding the little excursion to Concordia, I have averaged $41.77USD per day: $2.42USD for accommodations, $10.74USD for transportation, $7.89USD for meals, and $10.74 miscellaneous expenses. One area of more careful management here in Pakistan is exchanging money. Ever since the nuclear test, all foreign currency accounts here have been frozen. This means that I can't exchange my USD travelers' checks for US dollars, nor can I reconvert leftover rupees back to US dollars. Needless to say, this means that a substantial black market for US dollars has grown. The black market rate is 55 rupees per $USD. The official bank rate is 48 rupees per $USD. Since I am not sure I can cash travelers' checks at my next stops, I have had to cash them here, at substantially less than the black market rate.
Things I Won't Miss About Pakistan - The Taxis
Here's my little rant on using taxis here in Pakistan. You can always find one because they honk at anyone that looks like they might need a ride. After they get your attention, they then slowly drive by trying to make eye contact. I have learned to ignore them. When I do need one, I always choose the most beat up car available. The ones that look like the next stop is the junkyard, as I figure they are the most hard up for money, and I'll get the best prices. Since most of the 'taxis' don't have meters, and the ones that do have them are not used, you need to negotiate a price before you get in. You tell them where you want to go and then haggle a little for a price. Now the thing that really annoys me is when I tell them where I want to go and then ask, "How much?" they respond, "As you like." Now my initial reaction is "free," but I resist that bit of flippancy and respond with what I think is reasonable. Here's the dig, most of the time they respond with a higher price. If they had a price already in mind, I wanted to hear it. This "as you like" is for the birds...
At the Movies - Pakistan Style
I decided to go see a movie the other day. It was hot and I figured the theatre would be air conditioned. The movie was Tomorrow Never Dies, a James Bond movie. I bought my ticket to the matinee for 30Rs or about 65 cents. I took a seat and was lightly concerned that the movie would be in Urdu instead of English (even though I asked someone before I bought my ticket but you can never rely on what the locals say anyway).
I took a seat and then enjoyed the show... before the movie started. Vendors worked the crowd like a baseball game. You could get cokes, tea, nan, and these long and skinny hamburgers that really don't taste like hamburgers. They even had popcorn in these cellophane bags. By the time the movie started, there were perhaps 400-500 people in the theatre. No other foreigners, and if there were 3 of me, I would have outnumbered the women in the theatre.
The show started with the normal previews. Before the feature started, they showed a shot of the approval certificate. When I say shot I am being literal, someone actually took a camera and shot the certificate lying on a table. Anyway the certificate says that the movie has been previewed and censored for Pakistani audiences. This would later be very obvious. As this was a James Bond film, all of the love scenes were cut out. First you would see James Bond ready to kiss the women, the next thing you know, you were in a car chase. I have to see the movie again when I get back to the US because James Bond movies without the love scenes are like watching Snow White without the seven dwarfs. It just doesn't work. Some things are the same however, because before the movie ended, everyone stood up and started to leave. I always like to watch the credits, but here in Pakistan they fooled me, they also turned off the projector right after the credits started. Anyway, in spite of the censorship, the little exposure to home was great medicine for me
The Political Situation
This country is in deep trouble. The government is financially bankrupt. One of e more outspoken papers says that the country is lead "... by pygmies." People all over the country complain about the inequity and corruption. In the next few years, if they don't have a war with India, they will have a civil war. This country will explode one way or another. AND now they have the bomb. One friend wrote that I should take plenty of 'before' pictures. No kidding.
That's it. Twenty days to go, and counting.
I made it to Central Asia, barely. When I last left you I had a ticket for Almaty, Kazakstan. However, when I got to the airport, they wouldn't let me on the plane. Even though Kazakstan will honor any Central Asian visa, the airline refused me. Since I did have an Uzbek visa, they would allow me to come here to Tashkent.
I have been here for 3 days now. Since I couldn't get a flight out, I decided to actually get real visas for Kazakstan and Krygzstan. The visas and getting airline tickets have pretty much taken all my time. Especially since I don't speak Russian.
The other thing I have been doing however, is enjoying the city. After 35 days in Pakistan, this city is the West. The streets are wide and clean. There are green trees everywhere. The cars are clean. I had a burger that was getting close to the west, but at least the fast food restaurant was very western.
And last but not least, there are actually women out. You see in Pakistan, I saw maybe 20 women in the streets that weren't 'covered'. Here in Tashkent, there are women everywhere and they are NOT covered, literally. I don't think I have seen skirts so short. But perhaps it is because I have been in a desert for the past month that it seems so extreme...
Tomorrow, I fly to Urgench in Far Western Uzbekistan. From there I will go to Khiva, an old Silk Road town. Take a bus to Bukhara, take a bus to Samarkand, take a bus to Osh, across the border in Krygzstan. Then make my way to Karakol and Bishkek, and finally Almaty. I will then try to get back to Tashkent in time for my flight back home.
Hope all is well. My guess is the next time I will write is Almaty. I should be there around the 21st of the month, or two weeks from now. Otherwise I will try to reconnect on the 24th when I return to Tashkent.
Everyone, keep writing.
I am in Narita Airport waiting for my flight to LAX. I survived Central Asia in spite of all of the hassles and scares in the area. I am definitely ready to come home. Last night, had to lay over in Seoul and stayed at the Radisson Plaza Hotel. Quite a change. I went from rooms with no windows to one with a fax, 2 phone lines, and voicemail. I rode from the airport on a bus with a phone, TV, seat belts, and left on time. A change from a bus with no seats, animals, and only leaving when full.
I should be back home on Sunday afternoon. In a few days I will issue my final recap of the trip. Until then here is my Central Asian review:
Central Asia - From Silk Road to the Information Highway
Central Asia is a study in contrasts and transitions. From Noah to Genghis Khan to Stalin to Calvin Klein, the land far from any oceans, has a rich history. It is currently is in the midst of a transition from 100 years of Russian domination to a more capitalistic society. In villages that haven't changed for hundreds of years and don't even have a restaurant, Coca Cola is there. In the big cities, there are Levis stores that sell 501 jeans for over 100USD. This is in an area that 25USD/month is the average wage of the WORKERS. I only spent 16 days in the three countries I visited, Uzbekistan (next to Afghanistan), Krygzstan, and Kazakstan, but here are my impressions.
Uzbekistan is clearly the most 'Muslim' of the three countries I visited. It is a country that seems to be afraid of a lot of things. It has recently outlawed the wearing of full veils by women. The overall impression is of a country which has turned its back on its Soviet history but is not clear on where it wants to go. It possesses some of the most famous and well preserved 'Silk Road' oases anywhere, but the infrastructure to allow tourists to see them are limited. Except for the Eastern part of the country, it is a desert.
Tashkent - The capital of Uzbekistan. It is quite European and because the previous 2 and a half months were spent in 'Asia', it felt like London. Wide streets, trees and parks, clean and quiet, and nice cars. I hung out a lot around the 'Ghiradelli Square' of Tashkent with all of the yuppies and other assorted people with money. I feasted on hamburgers, fried chicken, French fries, beers and sprites. As per a previous question, the beer was 120cym or about $0.65USD or half a day of work in Uzbekistan. Not much really to see, so I spent the time doing errands and relaxing.
Khiva - This city/museum is in the west of Uzbekistan, right on the border with Turkmenistan. The 'old city' was turned into a museum by the Soviets and was cleaned up and rebuilt. I stayed in an old Muslim seminary that was turned into a hotel. The rooms were used for the Islamic students in the old days. The hotel is in the old city and staying there is an experience in itself. The surrealistic thing about Khiva is that people really don't live here, so at night the place is deserted and you are basically alone in a museum. Even in the daytime, it is sparsely populated - completely opposite from the image you get of an oasis town. Legend has it that Khiva was founded by Shem, son of Noah, when he dug a hole and found clean water. I went to the well, which is in the courtyard of an old woman. Even though it is 'unreal', the city should be visited. One indication of the lack of tourist facilities is the only restaurant in the whole city closes at 5PM.
Bukhara - Perhaps not as densely packed as Khiva, but Bukhara is the city of great architecture and people too - though not many more. The mosques and medressas are just as large, and perhaps larger, and there is a grand minaret. It is said that Genghis Kahn spared it because he was so impressed. There are also a 2 pairs of mosques/madressas that have incredible facades. But the best is perhaps the old city outside of the sights. The narrow alleys, old walls and homes, are filled with adults and kids who make it easy on a photographer. They beg for photos and their faces and clothes tell stories. This is another must see.
I arrived in Samarkand in the back of a Daewoo minivan after a 3 hour ride through the desert from Bukhara. It was hot and windy but survivable. The trip probably took a week for the old silk road travelers. Samarkand really has very few sight, but their lack of quantity is made up with quality. The Registan, the work of Tamarlane, is one of the most breathtaking squares in the world. I thought Tianamin square was amazing. It is nothing compared to the Registan. Three giant, tile decorated mosque/madressas, built in the 14th century. It is the kind of place that one just sits for hours and stares. There are a few other key sites, the most memorable being the tomb of Tamerlane. For a 50cent baksheesh, the attendant opened the crypt of Tamerlane for me. Samarkand can really be seen in a day, two at the most. The downside to the city is that accommodations are few and expensive.
The Fergana Valley/Osh Krygzstan - The valley is isolated from the rest of Uzbekistan by Tajikistan. Normally if you go overland to get there, you pass through Tajikistan. The boundaries in Central Asia were drawn by the Russians for basically political reasons, to isolate and control the area. Osh which is in Krygzstan is culturally and geographically more Uzbek. The people out here are more conservative religiously and much less homogeneous. In fact, about 6 years ago there were riots between some of the groups. Now all seems calm. It is nice to see so many different religious and ethnic people gather and interact in the markets here. The area is a fertile farmland, much less desert than the rest of Uzbekistan, with the Pamir mountains nearby. This area however gets many less tourists than the Samarkand, Bukhara route and so it is much less tourist friendly.
As opposed to Uzbekistan, the president of Krygzstan has clearly stated his intention to convert his country to a free market, open society. However, this country would appear to have the greatest challenge in getting there - without the natural resources or population of the other two countries. Despite these limitations, in some ways, you could already feel the difference in atmosphere in the capital.
Bishkek - The capital is very Soviet in architecture and layout. Big wide boulevards with huge squares containing political statues, and large public buildings. The city is very green and is lined with trees. One guidebook says there are 100 square meters of shade for every inhabitant of Bishkek. However, the city feels a couple of sizes too big for the number of people actually living here. No place really seems crowded and you get the feeling that the place was evacuated and someone forgot to tell you. All that said, it is a very livable city with clean air and enough of the West to get by. The Lenin and Marx statues haven't been taken down like in the other Central Asian countries, as one guidebook stated, '..they don't seem embarrassed by their Soviet past'. I think they have more important things to spend their money on.
The country is where business is happening. One guidebook stated that 60% of the natural resources of the old Soviet Union were from Kazakstan. This has brought the West here as well as kept many of the Russians around. Mercedes', BMW's, Calvin Klein, and the Hyatt Regency are all here - along with the Russian Mafia, crime, and a high cost of living. Kazakstan is also less desert and more rolling grasslands. As you drive on the road outside the city, you actually pass Kazak families living in yurts and out riding horses on the grasslands. Quite a contrast.
Almaty - Almaty is a combination of the other two capitals. Like Bishkek, the city lies at the base of high mountains, fed by mountain streams, and is filled with trees. The streets are wide and clean. Like Tashkent, the city is more European - it has the feel of a real city. Almaty doesn't really seem to have a city center, though - it is sprawled over a 1 mile by 1 mile area, with residences, parks, office buildings, and government buildings interspersed randomly. The cost of living here is clearly much higher than the other two cities as indicated by the price of meals and the $300USD single room rate at the Hyatt Regency. Like the other two capitals, there is not really much to see.
The real downside of all three capitals is that the culture seems to have been squeezed out. It seems that all three's life dreams would be to turn into New York or London. It seems a real shame, because one of the strongest impressions you get from visiting the area is the rich, ethnic diversity of the people. However, the problem from the traveler's perspective is that the locals don't seem to be very friendly. You smile at them and they only scowl back. They seem very suspicious. But I guess if I'd been through what they had, I would feel the same way.
For the independent traveler, it is more of a challenge out there. You don't see many other individual travelers, and most of the tourist facilities are set up for groups. Every day you'd run across a group or two, primarily French or Italian. But this lack of tourist infrastructure actually means there is a lack of tourists. When I was at the Registan in Samarkand, I had it all to myself. It is a great place to visit if you have the stamina to put up with the hassles. It really reminded me of my early visits to China. Anyway, I must say that I am glad I visited, but I'm glad I also have left.
On the Road Home,