Thursday 17 July 2014

Almaty: by Ian Neuss

Today at 4 pm we reached Almaty.

We have seen more road rage and accidents in two days here than in 56 days in China.

The quote of the trip is

Gerard to customs officer in an unnamed Stan : I am from Australia where we have some crocodiles that eat people.

Customs officer : here the police are crocodiles.

Friday 11 July 2014

Tash Rabat stories: This could only happen in Kyrgyzstan, by Rex Hewett

Tuesday 1 July, Dateline Kyrgyzstan.

The Whippet seemed to enjoy the cold clean Kyrgyzstan air and Bill and I headed off like bats out of hell after the border. Forgetting that we had agreed to drive to Tash Rabat, and missing the half metre high sign, we finished up lost, and in the well-intentioned hands of a couple of locals in a well worn late '80's Audi (the car of choice here). Handshakes were exchanged plus the occasional shot of Stollie. Remember that this was in our first few hours in Kyrgyzstan and we had yet to purchase Kyrgyz SIM cards, so no phone contact.

Eventually we set off back to the last checkpoint with less than 4 litres to spare in the tank. Soldiers appeared from everywhere and in broken English explained that the Toyota and Dodge had set off down a side road to squat in a Yurt near the original Silk Road gateway (the caravanserai).

Two young soldiers, Bukyt & Syrgar (pronounced, and always fondly remembered, as Bucket and Sugar), kindly agreed to drive us to Tash Rabat, leaving the Whippet in the secure hands of the remaining 20+ checkpoint guards. In fading light we set off on a 50km trip into the unknown. Sitting in the rear seat we noticed the fuel gauge on empty as Bukyt pressed pedal to metal in his Nissan Bluebird. Just before the turn-off to Tash Rabat, Bukyt spotted the guage and phoned a friend who duly appeared in an old Lada 10 km further on and frantic petrol siphoning began.

With an additional 10 litres on board we resumed the search, arriving at the Tash Rabat valley in darkness at around 11 pm. A fruitless search through the first Yurt camp left us even more fearful that we may have to share quarters with our second best soldier friends. Finally Syrgar was inspired and directed Bukyt to drive to a small caravan. Awakening a soldier friend Syrgar kept repeating 'white Toyota Landcruiser'. Finally the friend connected 'yes I saw white Toyota Landcruiser at my friends Yurt camp today'.

So off we go again, this time testing the waterproofing on the Nissan as it careered through streams and paddocks into yet another Yurt camp. Success at last -- the white Landcruiser and 1920 Dodge sitting amongst the Yurts.

Hugs and congratulations with our new mates (our old ones didn't even wake to welcome us), and the wonderful Yurt owner offered a light meal and tea in solace. Much to their delight Bukyt & Syrgar secured 10 litres of fuel, barely enough to make it back to the border gate, and Bill and I secured a warm Yurt bed for the night and reunion with the team next morning. Next day, as we collected the Whippet from the checkpoint, the story had spread and cameras recorded the legend.

Rex Hewett

Ten grand

Congratulations to all our followers. Yesterday our blog passed 10,000 hits.

Thanks for your interest, stamina, and sacrifice of time that could probably have been better spent.


The B2B Expeditionaries.

Wednesday 9 July 2014

Felt and Community Based Crafts

The locals, with the help of a Swiss Group, have set up women's cooperatives to make and sell the felt and leather-based crafts produced mainly during the long winter months.

The felt is produced from local sheeps wool, working it into sheets by rolling it behind horses along the road. Of course Yurts are the main product and they are warm and cosy and keep out the chilling wind on the high summer pastures. Some are highly decorated both inside and out. Carpets are the next on the list to cover the floor of the summer yurt or at home in the village. Slippers and wall hangings, both embroidered, look great. Natural dyes are the fad and cases for phones and iPad are appearing.

Ian Neuss

The Road to the Sky, by I Neuss

A quick look at the map shows that there is a road from Naryn, west along the Naryn River, then north up to Song Kol. Looks good, looks easy, and we can continue north around the lake to Lake Yssyk-Kol. We leave Naryn late in the day and drive ‘til it’s late and camp on the banks of the large Naryn River at Ak Tal. We get visited by numerous locals some of whom offer us a drive of their car if they can drive ours. No thanks. They return with a few mates later for more photos and "can we have a drive" again.

It’s a short 125 km to the lake the next day, and a few bends, so we set out early on a beautiful morning. The road passes a few villages and farms and starts to go through a beautiful limestone gorge. The landscape turned from brown to green and pine trees started to appear and the road got steeper and rougher, and rougher, and stonier. Turning the corner at the end of the gorge all was revealed with the 9 switchbacks appearing up the hill.
Not a worry for both cars. A thousand metre climb to the pass and a few tourists coming down, jumping out of their cars to take photos. A few locals all packed up going to the summer pastures with their yurt and the kitchen sink were enjoying the beautiful morning as well. Coffee and lots of photos with local tourists at the top at 3400m and on to find a yurt to stay in.

All uneventful for the two cars.

Ian Neuss

Song Kol

Song Kol exceeds all cliches. A shallow basin surrounded by a ring of mountains, with the lake in the middle and the sky above. It's a bit over 3000 metres and has very changeable weather, and all three seasons, Autumn, Winter and Spring. We had blue sky, thunderclaps, rain and sleet.
We were made very welcome at Jolamon and Zamira's yurt-stay, described accurately by Naryn CBT as a good Kyrgyz family. The kids put on a show for us on the first night. To see our welcome concert to Song Kol click HERE

All audio-visual records of the reciprocal team performance of Waltzing Matilda have been destroyed.

Tex Hewett surveys his domain.

Our first yurt-stay

Tash Rabat is the location of a 15th century 'caravanserai', a resting place for caravans on the Silk Road (some scholars think it may be even older, a 10th century Christian monastery). It's in a valley, off the main road, with a number of locals happy to provide B&B in their spare yurts, all part of Kyrgyzstans' flourishing Community-Based Tourism (CBT) network. The Tash Rabat valley is a comfortable day's drive from Kashgar, China, even with Chinese bureaucracy and 2 cars with a combined age of 182 years.
We had worried about how to contact the CBT, but no need to worry as it contacts you (Tursu of Sabyrbeks yurts waved us down on the road), and their tourist information offices are findable among the jumble of street-front labels in most towns.
Sabyrbeks had the added luxury of a banya, in this case a stone sauna. Just the ticket after a long drive, in the bracing air of a 3000m mountain valley. The photo shows the banya in the background, with Ian eschewing the shelter of the yurt.

We would have no hesitation in recommending Tursu's Sabyrbek yurt-stay, especially the banya.

Kyrgyzstan on a handshake

After the gentle climb from Kashgar to the border post at the 3700m Torugart Pass, and the paper warfare of getting out of China, Kyrgyzstan opened up.

The two border officials walked up to our cars and SHOOK HANDS with us. They waved away our carefully completed visa applications, with photos attached, and stamped our passports. A couple of us walked through the Red - Something to Declare door, the Green - Nothing to Declare door was rusted shut, past the large Duty Free sign over the cobwebbed and empty "shop", and out the back door. After the usual photo-shoot of the cars, they waved us on. This meant driving to the boomgate, which was closed. We waited a minute or so before realising that this was a DIY border gate, so I got out, braving potential machine gun bursts, and lifted the chain on the gate, swung it open, and there we were, in Kyrgyzstan. We had been so conditioned to restrain our own photography with officials (and the recalcitrant Michael Noyce had gone home a few days before) that the only photo we have is one taken of us, BY the Kyrgyz officals.

The difference doesn't end there. To borrow a cliche, Kyrgyzstan is Big Sky country. The constant smog, and desert and cement dust of China disappears. The air is disturbingly clear, the mountains brilliantly coloured, only the roads disappoint.

Much more to come.

Xinjiang and "The Situation"

Xinjiang Province is also called the Uyghur Autonomous Region. The Situation is well known and security is visible everywhere, even in the city squares where people are dancing in the evenings.

Note the position of the trigger finger. He was probably more scared of his officers than any external threat.

I'm sure they'd rather be shooting unthreatening, funny old cars with their i-pads.

Xinjiang: by Ian Neuss

Xinjiang is the largest Chinese administrative division and borders Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. It is also the home of 7 ethnic groups of which the Uyghurs are the largest. Reputably only 4.3% of the land is fit for human habitation. Its rivers disappear into the desert or salt lakes, fed by snow from the surrounding mountains.

The deserts are rich in salt, borax, oil, gas, coal and jade, with metals and gold in the surrounding mountains. The desert is also rich in subterranean water but most life and agriculture clings to the present water courses where cheap flood irrigation methods are available.

It is 1/6 of China and is divided into two basins, the Dzungarian and Tarim basins, by the Tian Shan mountains, and is surrounded by mountains pushed up by India, the Pamir and Karakoram to the south west, Kunlun in the south, and Altai in the north east. It has huge tourist potential and a rich and romantic history.

It is very poor with a very low GDP and it shows. The Uygurs feel they are being swamped by recent Han Chinese and they are. Although their standard of living has increased they feel their voice in local affairs is not being heard. This was felt by all in our travels through the region when ever we came in contact with Uyghur individuals.