Central Asia

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Samsun, Black Sea, Turkey, August 2008. On the way to another inland sea, the Caspian Sea.

Actually, this section should have been called, From Europe to Japan Overland Along the 40th North Parallel (N40°) — plus/minus five degrees, for we are not birds nor spying satellites! A transportation friend of mine graciously offered us the 600-km ride from Thessaloniki near our fishing village (N40°18, E23°4) to Istanbul (N41°5, E29°0), Turkey. After a couple of days in one of our favorite cities to visit the very old, and very cute Ceramic Pavilion of the archaeological museum, previously closed for restoration, we boarded a second bus at the Emniyet Otogar in the busy Aksaray neighborhood of Istanbul. Forty-one hours later – past barely post-war, yet very quiet Tbilisi (N41°43, E44°46), Georgia – we set foot in traffic-clogged downtown Baku (N40°22, E49°48), Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea. We were stuck for five days in this expensive city (soothed by the delicious Azeri and Georgian food), inquiring eight times at the harbor, awaiting the normally daily ferry to cross this internal sea. A bridge had been blown up during the war in Georgia, so “no train, no ferry” were we told, as the latter’s main business is freight and passengers are accessories. Without the help of Elvin, a very kind and courteous Azeri, we would not have been able to board at all, as space is limited and loads of people were waiting. We stayed anchored for another 20 hours — more than the time to cross — outside Turkmenbashi (N40°1, E52°57), Turkmenistan, before getting a free dock to land.

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Yangy-Kala, Turkmenistan, September 2008. Amazing colors and forms on a most remote land.

From there on we were catapulted on the Central Asian deserts, steppes, and summits. Turkmenistan is but a desert, the Karakum (Black Sand), yet, megalomaniac Turkmenbashi (the Leader of Turkmens) maintains huge lawns in the capital of Ashgabat (N37°57, E58°23) in between tall, all-marble government and apartment towers. Europeans usually stare blankly when you say Uzbekistan, but most do know Khiva (N41°22, E60°21), Bukhara (N39°45, E64°25), and Samarqand (N39°40, E66°58), all mythical cities on the border of the Kyzylkum (Red Sand) Desert. Special is its Fergana Valley (N40°22, E71°46), an enclave to the East, surrounded on three sides by Kyrgyzstan, with lovely inhabitants, ready to talk and be taken a portrait.

People are also Tajikistan‘s best asset, warm, hospitable, and Farsi-speaking — they are Iran’s cousins — while the four other Central Asian nations have a Turkic language. The Pamirs (Roof of the World), are breathtaking, especially in the fall, all trees being bright yellow to red against bare, high peaks. We spent an unforgettable week with only a stream separating us from Afghanistan. Started by taking us two days and six meals to cover 500 km from the capital Dushanbe (N38°33, E68°46) to get to Khorog (N37°29, E71°33), the capital of the autonomous Gorno-Badakhshan region, seven people and lots of freight squeezed in a 4×4, each time a co-passenger got off, he/she invited us home for a meal and/or to sleep, then, in a valley in the middle of nowhere, people stopped our car and invited us to a long table full of food to celebrate Id, the end of Ramadan. Arriving home the last but one passenger started cooking and we ended up dancing in her traditional wooden house with the whole family — forgot to say the driver had been putting music loud and dancing at the wheel! Further east, the Wakhan corridor, in the heart of the Pamirs, coming as close as 30 km from Pakistan, offered the same lovely people and nature, before we got back on a barren, eerie haut plateau full of deep blue lakes, the Pamir Highway crossing several high passes up to the 4,655 m Aik-Baital (White Horse) one, and coming as close as 20 m to the Chinese border.

They say, save more time for Tajikistan than Kyrgyzstan, we ended up entering three times into the latter due to the artificial borders, spending double the time, and taking triple the amount of photos. Of course we had the incredible luck of bumping into an authentic bouzkachi (a kind of polo using the carcass of a goat or sheep instead of a ball) played by two villages not far from Osh (N40°31, E72°47), see lots of multicolor flowers around vast Issyk-Kul Lake to the East, and go ourselves horseback riding in the huge Tian Shan mountain range which extends into Western China.

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Khiva, Uzbekistan, September 2008. Dilfuza, 14 year-old Turkmen resident, visiting with her family their ethnic origins next door.

Kazakhstan, by far the biggest country, was our shortest stay, extremely expensive accommodations in Alma-Ata, inept registration rules for visitors, the least friendly people (the most Russified of all), precious little to see, both in terms of culture and nature, except for the Yasaui Mausoleum in Turkistan (N43°17, E68°15), the blueprint for the famous ones in Samarkand.

We were lucky with famed Torugart Pass, closed until a couple of weeks before, due to unrest in Xinjiang during the recent Olympics, closed a week later due to heavy snow… But Kashgar (N39°23, E76°3), the legendary trading oasis on the Silk Road disappointed us. Yes, the market was probably the largest we have ever seen, and the animal market too was interesting, but it’s just one more, huge, modern Chinese city. We saw far fewer than the Thousand Buddha Caves in Kucha (N41°42, E82°55), Turfan (N42°58, E89°10) and Dunhuang (N40°10, E94°40), three dots in the 1.6 million square km Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, but joined for three days a friendly, small group of Fine Arts students from faraway Guangzhou with whom we re-visited Xian (a peak south at N34°) and its terracotta army a decade and a half later. From light sweater temperatures, the train dropped us 33 hours later in freezing Harbin, a peak north at N45°, but this is the only sensible itinerary, and we wanted to see the old capital of Manchuria, with the warmest and most smiling people of the whole of China. A final leap took us to Vladivostok (N43°7, E131°54), the end of the Transsiberian train, the base of the Soviet Far East fleet, the port to embark on a 36-hour journey to Toyama (N36°37, E137°15) for the Hokkaido-bound ferry stops by October — a big, expensive, dirty, rapidly modernizing city, ugly were it not for its position on hills overlooking the Sea of Japan.

Japan was the big surprise, we expected modern architecture, cold people, dull nature. We saw the Japanese Alps, which could very well be in Austria, experienced sun and warmth in Tokyo’s lively neighborhoods, rain in the plain further north while riding the bullet train, and snow over the forests near the northern tip of the Japanese mainland at Aomori (N40°49, E140°45) before taking the tunnel to Hokkaido under the Tsugaru Straits. We were totally taken in charge by our Sapporo-based friends, fully appreciated the civility of people who not only warn you, but ask you if they can recline their seats in front of you, and refrain, not only from talking but even letting ring their cell phone in public. We were incredibly lucky to attend a court ceremonial, Shinto marriage (our Japanese hosts had never seen one) while visiting the beautiful temples of Kamakura. And, well, modern buildings are indeed… ugly.

We finally took a plane, several planes, to return back West, flying from Sapporo (N42°59, E141°14), the furthest east we had been, to Seoul (N37°33, E126°59), Korea, crossing for the last time in the Far East the 40th North parallel, then on, for a short but real break in Thailand!

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