Turkmenistan

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The next morning soon after breakfast we hastened to the Turkmenistan border for the crossing into the country.  Like Bishkek it was a waiting game and we got cleared only after some 6-hour wait.  Fortunately daylight hours remained until 8:00 pm or so.  The destination was Mary (pronounced Maa Ree.) The city was also formerly known as Merv, an oasis for travellers on the Silk Road.
Much of Turkmenistan is desert (70%) and we could feel it as we drove from Turkmenabat to Mary. The real desert, however, is to the north — the Karakum desert — the void as seen on the map.
It was a hard drive through the night; and we had an incident whereby one of the cars lost its right-rear wheel which decided to break away and roll down the slope. That was a major breakdown and after assessing the situation, Convoy Leader decided that three cars (the stricken car, the Mechanic’s car and Grandpa the Sweeper’s car) had to stay back, fix the car and camp in the wild. The rest of us drove on to Mary arriving there around 2:00 am.
Unlike Tashkent, our hotel didn’t have late dinner service. So a frantic search was made; and thanks to our Russian-speaking handler we had late dinner at an all-night cafe somewhere in town. That excitement certainly broke the boredom of Bukhara!
Next morning we had to hang around waiting for the three cars that camped in the wild to join us. They didn’t arrive until about 10:30 am. And then they have to go find a workshop so that they can make good their temporary repairs to the rear undercarriage system. That was a blessing because it meant we could have some additional snooze time (until 12:00 pm) to make up for last night. Not so for the mechanics and Grandpa though.

Catching up on lost sleep

Catching up on lost sleep

Bye bye Mary

Bye bye Mary

Ashgabat
The drive to Ashgabat some 370 km west was less than five hours. So after lunch we gladly said goodbye to Mary in the hope of a better time at Ashgabat, the capital city of Turkmenistan.

All set to go

All set to go

Arriving Ashgabat

Arriving Ashgabat

The President was omnipresent

The President was omnipresent

Open air market place

Open air market place

Ashgabat is a beautiful city especially when it’s lighted up at night. Fuel is cheap hence lighting costs for the city would be quite affordable. However, we didn’t have much time to tour the city except for visiting their Sunday market (aptly known as the “Thieves Market”) where you could get anything you want by just asking the numerous vendors there. If it’s not there they’ll get it for you in a short while. And sure enough, when we got to our cars to depart Ashgabat, our Toyota emblem was missing. Somebody must have wanted one!

Turkmenbashi
Our next destination was the port city of Turkmenbashi (which means Leader of the Turkmen, a reference to the President) located on the Caspian Sea coast. According to our itinerary, we were to board a ferry and sail to Baku, Azerbaijan from here. Anyway, back to that later.
The drive to Turkmenbashi was tedious; not that their roads were not good, but because there were too many security road blocks. In fact it was at every entry and exit to a town or village along the way.

Drought condition

Drought condition

Fuel is cheap

Fuel is cheap

Caspian Sea in sight

Caspian Sea in sight

Checking in

Checking in

We arrived at 9:30 pm at the Serdar Oteli, a rather nice hotel by the sea, but rather low on occupancy. We almost had the place to ourselves. Wow, it’s already 18 Sep and we were more than half way to London. And the day after we were to sail across the Caspian Sea.
The next day was a free day and we took time off to visit the city for some shopping. Nothing much to shop really except to buy some local fruits and delicacies. We also learned that there were Malaysians — Petronas Carigali people — in Turkmenbashi. That was nice; and they were ever so pleased to meet up with fellow countrymen. The next day they even came to send us off at the port.

Nicely lined up for boarding

Nicely lined up for boarding

Hanging around

Hanging around

So we hung around and around until almost noon when we were told that there was no such thing as a ferry to Baku. The ship that came from Baku was a cargo ship and it could take only just the cars; no passengers, not even drivers. All hell broke loose and some people lost their cool. The blame game started and profanities came off from the most unexpected quarters. Finally five drivers were allowed to board to look after the cars. (It was later learned that these poor guys suffered a most unpleasant night aboard the cargo ship.) The rest of us had to hightail it back to Ashgabat and take a flight to Baku. And we must be at the airport before 7:30 pm because the counters would close at that time.
The excitement had just begun. And Convoy Leader and his management team got one big problem-solving headache to deal with.

The bus...

The bus…

...or the pirate taxis?

…or the pirate taxis?

Just kidding. That bus could never make it to Ashgabat within five hours. So we settled for the pirate taxis of Hondas and Toyotas; they were more flexible and the taxi men promised that they’d deliver all of us (30 pax I think, with 3 guys cramped at the back) by 7:00 pm at Ashgabat. Well, they did. They knew when to speed and when to slow down for the security checks; only one car had a minor mishap but no injuries. Yes, the counters did close at 7:30 pm but our flight by Lufthansa was scheduled for well after midnight for the 2 hr flight to Baku. More tempers and curses, but I just played the “glad game.” I was glad that we were to get to Baku after all with no serious mishaps to cause more problems. I was also glad that I could now boast of another “stan” to add to my brag list — “Gostan” (go astern or backtrack in colloquial Malay.)

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Kyrgyzstan

On 8 Sep 2005 after breakfast we assembled for the morning briefing by Convoy Leader. Soon after we left the hotel and drove north to the border. To our delight we had no problems with Immigration and Customs on both sides. And I was really looking forward to this experience of travelling in a former Soviet republic. For one thing they still speak Russian, so our Russian-speaking handler that met us at the Immigration was very much needed.

Our stop for the night was a camp site at Tash Rabat on the way to Naryn.  We were to stay in yurt tents, a legacy of Genghis Khan, I think.  Well it was a nice experience to feel like a nomadic Mongol.

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The yurt camp was in a valley that facilitated a fertile grazing ground for sheep. Zaki made friends with the shepherd and was allowed to mount his horse and trotted around. Nearby was a caravanserai, a roadside inn for weary travellers/traders and their caravans of the Old Silk Road to bed down for the night. It even had a few cells obviously to accommodate rowdy quarrelsome drunks and thus maintain the peace. Wow, I was really re-learning a lot of history!

Lots of sheep

Lots of sheep

Zaki riding

Zaki riding

Yurt Camp

Yurt Camp

Caravanserai

Caravanserai

The next day we drove on northward to the next yurt camp site by the shores of the Issykul lake. Along the way, I can’t help but notice that dying must have been quite an expensive business in Kyrgyzstan; considering that their cemeteries had very elaborate structures with varying degrees of opulence to reflect a person’s wealth or station in life. This is a bit surprising because Islam discourage such extravagance (Kyrgyzstan is a Muslim-majority country.)

Kyrgyzstan is mountainous

Kyrgyzstan is mountainous

Kyrgyz cemetery

Kyrgyz cemetery

Issykul lake (fresh water)

Issykul lake (fresh water)

Dining in a yurt tent

Dining in a yurt tent

Some of the women participants must have had enough of the hardships of the trip. Two yurt camps in a row so soon after the rugged living during the 2,400 km trip from Tingri to Kashgar, must have broken their adventure spirit. So, as soon as we checked into the 3-star Dostuk hotel in Bishkek, they decided to break ranks and went to stay at the 5-star Hyatt hotel. This upset the Convoy Leader (and rightly so) and the women got a dressing down. What these women didn’t realise was that should something happen to them in this foreign country, it was the Convoy Leader that would have to sort things out; not to mention the delays and hassle it would have caused.
We had two days in Bishkek. We spent it sightseeing and shopping. I bought some change in clothing because they were irresistibly  cheap. The city appeared modern, very much “Soviet-styled” with boxy low rise buildings along wide boulevards. Monuments were everywhere; an interesting one being Stalin’s statue which was turned round to face south. At night we had dinner at a good restaurant with superb entertainment dedicated to us. And the girls were beautiful.

Stalin's looking south now

Stalin’s looking south now

Lovely musicians

Lovely musicians

We left Bishkek for Tashkent, Uzbekistan on 12 Sep. We left early so that we could be ahead of the queue at Immigration. Unfortunately other people had the same idea. We were told that it was going to be a long day; and indeed it was. We had to cross into Kazakhstan to get to Uzbekistan because the Soviets took the easy way out by building the highway through Kazakhstan to avoid the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. So we had to go through Immigration/Customs formalities four times before we were in Uzbekistan. All in all we spent the whole day loitering at the Kyrgyz/Kazakh Immigration; cars cleared only around 6:00 pm. So it was a night drive to Uzbek Immigration which took eight hours on the good highway. We got to the hotel in Tashkent at 2:00 am on 13 Sep.

Kashgar

Kashgar or Kashi as the Chinese would like it to be called, is a very Islamic-looking city. The Uighurs are the the majority ethnic group in Xinjiang Autonomous Region with several other Turkic ethics. They are all Muslims except for the Han Chinese and Tibetans. Islam came to Kashgar in the 8th Century and entrenched itself in the 10th. The Idkah mosque in the picture below was built in AD 1442 and is one of the oldest mosques in China.

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Kashgar is the gateway to other Central Asian countries like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and some other …stan countries. It is not the capital of Xinjiang; Urumqi is. There is plenty to see in Kashgar and we had the opportunity to visit some of these sights, since we had 2N3D in the city. So while all the cars went for servicing and repairs, the non-owners went shopping. There was a big Grand Bazaar but I preferred to visit their restaurants and eating places for a good meal of halal food.

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Fragrant Concubine's Tomb

Fragrant Concubine’s Tomb

Fragrant maidens?

Fragrant maidens?

Finally we had to leave Kashgar, and China, on 8 Sep 2005. The night before we had our farewell dinner to say goodbye to several people who were leaving us for home or elsewhere. Oh yes, we also welcomed three wives plus another lady who rejoined us here. And from Kunming, Convoy leader Linus and wife rejoined us also. So we had dinner of barbecued lamb and excellent Uighur cuisine, song and dance entertainment depicting Uighur arts and cultures. It was also quite an emotional time when we exchanged momentos with our Chinese handlers who accompanied us all the way from Mengla, Yunnan. They were excellent – the three of them two men and a girl. See below:

I didn't like lamb

I didn’t like lamb

Lovely Uighur singer

Lovely Uighur singer

Excellent handlers

Excellent handlers

Commemorative plaque

Commemorative plaque

We’ve been away from home for almost a month. Homesickness was setting in. But fortunately for me there were new friendships made and we were on the move and waking up everyday at different places on earth, to new surroundings and experiences. Hence we were not bored and contact with home readily available. So with that positive outlook I was looking forward to go into Kyrgyzstan, a country I’ve not even heard of before much less spell it right first time.

Destination Kashgar

After breakfast at Tingri on 29 Aug, we departed for Gar, one of the few decent towns in Western Tibet. But we didn’t get there until 1 Sep, having spent two nights at two different truckers’ halt on the way. The going was getting tougher and tempers were beginning to fray. Fortunately there were no fist fights or anything like that; our experienced Convoy Sweeper (callsign Grandpa) made sure of that. Gar or Ngari is about 1,100 km away from Tingri and about half way to Kashgar. Vegetation is semi arid and road junctions hardly marked. Fortunately our Chinese guide that we picked up in Lhasa took us along the right road well marked by heavy truck tyres. In fact when we got to Gar in late afternoon, we were pleased  to see Yakuza (and his car on a truck) welcoming us.

Western Tibet landscape

Western Tibet landscape

Yakuza's Landcruiser

Yakuza’s Landcruiser

From Gar we continued NW through very sparsely populated region. We hardly met anyone, not even shepherds except for the occasional trucks. From the map we were to drive along the shores of Bagong Co or Pangong Tso lake. [Pangong Tso, Tibetan for “long, narrow, enchanted lake”, is an endorheic lake in the Himalayas situated at a height of about 4,350 m. It is 134 km long and extends from India to Tibet. Endorheic lakes are bodies of water that do not flow into the sea. 60% of the lake lies in Tibet. Wikipedia.] And apparently the water on the Indian side is salty while the Tibetan side is fresh.

Bangong Co or Pangong Tso lake

Bangong Co or Pangong Tso lake

After enjoying the view of the lake and having had lots of photo shoots we proceeded onward to find a camp site. We were to camp because the distance to the next town/village/truckers’ halt was just too far. But we couldn’t find any; and the guides were quite hopeless. Fortunately Convoy Leader Y2K had his wits about him and decided that we couldn’t continue wandering. So he decided to turn back because he sort of saw a possible camp site some way back. Well, it was a farm house (apparently abandoned) with a fairly big walled compound. It was getting dark and nobody argued about not wanting to camp there. We pitched our tents and boiled some dinner of maggi mee; what else! No camp fire or anything; everybody was just too tired to chit-chat. I was soon asleep in spite of the howling wind and freezing temperatures; we were at over 4,200 m (>14,000 ft.)

Bangong Co lake

Bangong Co lake

Breaking camp

Breaking camp

The next morning, to our horror we realised that were sleeping in a sheep pen. There were lots of evidence to show; but fortunately they were all hardened stuff and our clothing and equipment didn’t get soiled. But it was enough to put me off to skip breakfast.

It was 2 Sep 2005. Two more stops before Kashgar, we were told. Only about 1,000 km. How exciting. We have been roughing it out since Lhasa for 10 days now. We need decent food, hot bath and proper toilet. But it was not to be, for at the next truckers’ halt we were held back two days. There were some Army exercises going on and the mountain pass was blocked. You could get through if you were a cyclist, as this crazy solo cyclist Dutch fellow told us about it. He was on his way to Pakistan via the Karakorum highway. He looked half-starved so we shared our food with him. With this embargo, this little town became quite crowded with truckers in particular. They looked quite a rough lot. In fact we were looking like them too.

He's one of us

He’s one of us

Uighur Muslim lodging house

Uighur Muslim lodging house

Mountain pass to Kashgar

Mountain pass to Kashgar

We got down from the mountains around lunch time. What a relief (literally, since I was holding back going to the you-know-what since two days ago.) We were supposed to rest at the next town, Yecheng, but since we had lost one day, it was decided to press on to Kashgar arriving there after 8:00 pm (Beijing time.) It was 6:00 pm Kashgar time.

Distance about 2,400 km

Distance about 2,400 km

Everest, North Face

From Lhasa, the drive to the Everest North Face base camp took us 2 days.  It was tough getting there since there were lots of road works.  The Chinese government seem to be doing a lot of these civil works in Tibet including a high altitude railway from Golmud to Lhasa, obviously with the view of opening up the country; for tourism in particular.  

The Everest North Face was hardly popular with climbers then simply because it was difficult to get to it from Tibet.  But now (2013) Everest North has become as popular as Everest South probably because it’s cheaper and more challenging.  However, the South (from Kathmandu, Nepal) is much more developed commercially-speaking than the North with better sherpa, rescue services etc. Apparently there were also more deaths on the North Face than the South in the ratio of more than 2:1 (according to http://www.alanarnette.com/)

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We didn’t actually get to the Base camp because of our convoy’s late arrival at the final check point beyond which motorised vehicles were not permitted. From here it was by donkey cart taking about two hours to the camp. Since we arrived at 2:00 pm there wasn’t much time to get there by donkey cart. If we risked it, by the time we get back to the check point it’d be getting dark and insufficient time to drive all the way to Tingri some 60 km away. Nevertheless, I was very grateful that the weather was fine and the Everest peak was picture perfect. Unlike one of the convoy members (callsign Yakuza) whose Landcruiser broke down and he had to miss the ride to Everest. Apparently this was his second time not being able to see Everest; the first time when the weather was bad and Everest was hidden behind thick clouds.

I have no passion for climbing because my knees are not that good now. But Zaki has picked up rock climbing together with his wife and cousins. But I might do Mount Kinabalu just to keep up with some spastics that my Rotary colleagues proved that even they could do it. They had the spirit even though the flesh was weak.

Lhasa

Lhasa is a beautiful city.  It’s the capital of Tibet and the centre of government for the Tibet Autonomous Region. It is also the centre for Tibetan Buddhism whose head, the Dalai Lama used to reside in the Potala Palace until 1959 when the 14th Dalai Lama fled to India during the Tibetan uprising.

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We went up to the palace that is now a tourist attraction by walking up the hill for 210 m. That was some walk in rarefied atmosphere on the roof of the world. But I had to do it; that was one of the highlights of the trip and something to give me bragging rights.

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It has been about two weeks since we had a taste of Malaysian type food of rice, curry, roti or biryani. So when told by the hotel that there was a good Indian restaurant in the city, we made a beeline there. Oh it was great.

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We had two nights in Lhasa enough time to have the cars serviced and repaired. We also had some people departing for home and work, and some joining us here. Our Convoy Leader and wife decided to fly out to Kunming for some medical attention after his nasty experience doing a roll downhill a few days ago. So leadership was handed down to his Deputy, a nice guy with callsign Y2K.

So what’s next on the agenda? Well a drive out to the base camp of Everest North face. On the way we’d stop at a few temples and monasteries, enjoy the fantastic scenery of the Tibetan plains with sheep and yaks grazing, turquoise lakes all over the place, and snow-capped Himalayas in the distance.

Curious eyes, nifty fingers

Curious eyes, nifty fingers

Off road to Everest

Off road to Everest