Travels off the beaten track through Asia
My reasons for visiting Turkey were less out of interest in seeing the country, and more for reasons of simply relaxing in the sun, after seeing through a winter in the UK. First stop Istanbul. This city really is East meets West. Officially it lies across the strait separating Europe from Asia. From the ancient mosque's in the old city, to the skyscrapers in the new it is a city of contrasts, and probably the most gentle introduction to Asia that a Westerner can get! An unforgettable experience was sitting on the roof of the hostel in the evenings, watching the city slip into darkness with the impressive Blue mosque and Aya Sofia sillouetted above, while the haunting cries of the muezzin's fill the air all around.
From Istabul I travelled around Turkey's Western and Southern coast, following the typical backpacker circuit. I decided to travel using a backpacker's bus service, allowing you to jump on and off at leisure anywhere along the route. It is an easy way to meet other travellers. This route takes you first to historical sites such as where the battle of Gallipoli was fought in the 2nd world war, to the magnificient ancient ruins of the city of Ephesus. Then as the Southern Meditteranean approached, the focus changed and the trip became about relaxing - spending several days on a Gulet (a local wooden sailing boat), swimming, socialising and eating!
At the tiny retreat of Olympos on the South coast, all accomodation is in wooden treehouses. They cling to every available limb, transforming the area into something that resembles a wild-west town, suspended 4m above the ground!! Nearby the Chimeara is an eternal flame that bursts from the ground. In fact there are a number of these flames burning over an area the size of a tennis court. They seem to come from the rocks themselves, making it more mysterious.
Then on to central Turkey, to what must be the country's premier tourist attraction - the Cappadoccia region. No doubt you will be familiar with pictures of the "fairy chimney's" that make it famous. Countless thousands of rock pillars, many that have been converted into homes, by hollowing out the core. I stayed in Goreme, living in one of these rock caves. The area is impressive at any time, but a sunrise hot air balloon ride was without doubt the highlight of the trip!!!
Here I broke away from the usual route, making a side trip with 3 friends I'd met. We hired a car and drove 500km West to visit Mt Nemrut. Nemrut is a high mountain peak that has been converted into a tomb. On top there is a massive rock cairn some 40m high, and 100m wide at the base. Originally on each side (East and West) there stood 5 giant statues of Kings, Queens and Gods. Now collapsed, the heads stand looking out into the distance, counting sunrise after sunrise, sunset after sunset. I'm not sure I envy them as even in mid-summer the sunrise was a bitterly cold experience - but impressive nevertheless.
I flew from Istanbul to Islamabad/Rawalpindi in Pakistan. I had met up with 5 other trekker's on the internet and we were all meeting to trek one of the classic Karakorum Himalaya treks in Northern Pakistan. I had chosen this region as it is a lot less busy than popular Nepal. I had also read much about the area. The trek we were planning was is called "Gondogoro La". It takes in the 63km length of the Baltoro Glacier, passing impressive Concordia, a side trip to K2 Base camp and then over the Gondogoro La (pass) at 5600m. This trek is known for the sheer rock walls lining most of the route. Concordia is the confluence of 3 glaciers, and stands at the foot of K2, Broad peak and the Gasherbrum's. These are 4 out of 5 of Pakistan's 8000m peaks. The trek takes a little over 2 weeks, most of which is spent on glacier.
Summer glacier travel is nothing like you probably expect. For all except 1 day, We saw little ice. Glaciers resemble little more than a massive quarry, as they are covered in a thick layer of rock and debris. Most of the time you spend boulder hopping. They are also impressive on a grander scale than can be imagined! Huge hills and valleys of debris, cliffs and crevaces must be negotiated all the way, as the glacier makes it's tortured way down the valley. On each side vertical rock walls tower, topped high above with snow and ice. Upon reaching Concordia, it is no suprise that it was described as "The Throneroom of the Mountain Gods" by one of the first western explorers to reach the area.
On the morning we crossed the pass, we were up at 1am. We donned crampons, roped up into teams and set off across the glacier toward the niche in the ridge high above. 4 hrs later, we came out on top just before sunrise. The vista from this pass is considered the best in the entire Karakorum region. Unfortunately the weather turned nasty, blocking views and turning the usually difficult decent into a treacherous one as the sleet and snow formed an icy layer on the rocks. After 2 harrowing hours we were over the worst, and descended the valley to a pretty camp on a riverbed. From here it was another 2 days through beautifull green valleys to the first village that marked our endpoint.
A few days later I trekked another 4 day trek to a serene lake at 4400m. The promised views from here were once again unfortunately obscured by clouds, but several breaks gave some idea of the vistas far below. Upon my return to Gilgit, I was faced with a decision I had long been wrestling with: whether to head North into China and the former Soviet states, or West into Iran. Lacking any firm plans I tagged along with 2 fellow trekkers who were following a hairbrained scheme to visit Afghanistan.
The Afghan border town in Pakistan is Peshawer. It has long been the meeting place of smugglers, and is something of a wild west town. The Pakistan/Afghanistan border is lined by a number of tribal areas that are out of official Pakistani control and out of bounds to foreigners. I had heard of an illegal gun factory in one of these "tribal areas" in a town called Darra. We found a guide who was quite willing to take us there. Upon arrival, we stepped out of the bus, and were immmediately approached by 2 armed tribal police. I had heard that they put foreigners straight onto the next bus back. However as our guide stepped out, suddenly there were smiles and greetings all round and we were whisked off for a welcome cup of tea. However before we could take a few steps, we were deafened by the sound of several rounds of gunfire across the street. I turned to see a guy examining a handgun, before wandering back into a shop. A little later, the same again, just down the road.
As it turns out the entire village is the factory. Every shop manufactures some part of a gun. They make imitations of every gun you can imagine. German pistol, British shotgun, American revolver... Within days of being given a new model, they can be producing. All around town you will see kids wandering with large crates full of metal bits: triggers, barrels, sights etc. After a tour of the town, they ask you if you would like to shoot any weapon. I chose the favourite it seems: the AK47 Kalashnikov. So off they took me toward a nearby hill to the "shooting range". And as I walked every doorway of every house seemed to burst forth with little kids, until I felt like the Pied Piper leading them into hills. Interestingly the girls kept shouting something that I couldn't make out. I was told by our guide that it was "Aiwa". Nobody knows why.
The Afghan border is located on the far side of the Khyber pass. To reach it, you must drive through the Khyber tribal agency. As a foreigner is is compulsory to have a permit and take a gunman with you. The Khyber pass is fairly impressive but is probably more interesting from a historical perspective. The border crossing at Torkham was fairly fast, and then we stood in Afghanistan.
We hired a taxi to Jalalabad and on to Kabul, arriving there just after dark. Kabul is a tense, and bland city. I didn't stay for long, flying to the West of the country the next day.
In Herat I immediately applied for a visa to enter Iran. I was told to return after a week. So I spent a week getting to know the town. It was here that I had the time to really get to know the people and something of the culture. When I returned after a week to collect my visa and was told to return in another week, I decided to put my time to good use. I flew back to Kabul, and then started an overland trip around the North of the country. The village of Bamiyan was the site of the 2 Budda's one of which used to be the 2nd biggest in the world at 53m. However in 2001 the Taliban decided that they "un-islamic" and destryed them. However the niche's in the cliffside remain and are still a huge attraction. Nearby the blue lakes of Bandi-i-Mir are considered Afghanistan's most impressive natural feature, and they don't dissapoint. From there it was a long arduous road trip through imposing rocky gorges to Mazar-i-Sharif. Then perhaps the most memorable part of the trip. A 3-day 450km jeep trip, taking 45hours of driving in total to reach Herat. Along the way we passed nomads, camel trains, bazaars and impressive desert scenery. It was exhausting, as we followed roads that at times were no more than a large rut, sand dune or dry river bed.
First stop in Iran was the city of Mashhad. At it's centre is the Shrine of the 10th Imam Reza, considered the 3rd most holy site in the Islamic world. It is awash with Pilgrims during 4 months of the year. Unfortunately foreigners are not allowed into the impressive shrine itself, only the outlying courtyards.
An overnight train brought me into Tehran. The city is famed for its horrific traffic. Indeed, crossing the road here is something you avoid doing at all costs. The city itself has few significant attractions. However just outside the city one can catch a telecabin (ski-lift) most of the way up a nearby 4000m peak. During the walk up to the summit, I was astounded to find myself in a 1/2hr sub-zero snowstorm!! No visit to Tehran would be complete without seeing the old American embassy. Graffiti on the walls declares "America is our greatest ememy after Qods" (Israel), and "The US is the great Satan". This is the official line however, as most Iranians you meet seem to be looking for a way to get to the "land of milk and honey".
The country is very Westernised. Compared to Pakistan & Afghanistan it is very clean, modern and advanced. Admittedly I didn't go to any of the conservative cities, centres of religion, but the ones I did visit presented minimal cultural shock. And is seems that along with westernisation comes western ills. I had my digital photo storage device stolen on a bus, along with all my Iran and Afghanistan pictures. After this, I was in no mood for sightseeing, and simply started on my way pack to Pakistan. On the way I did manage to visit the Ancient city of Persepolis, and the mud city of Bam. But for most of the next 4 days I was on busses and trains as I made my way back to Lahore in Pakistan, via the Southern border and Quetta in Pakistan.
My hasty return to Pakistan was also motivated by a desire to catch the South African cricket team playing Pakistan in Rawalpindi. Arriving late the night before, I quickly discovered that all tickets were sold out. However on the morning of the game, I found a ticket tout outside the stadium selling ground entry. I had taken $30, knowing that touts are looking to make a quick buck. When I asked the price, I could see him weighing me up, before finally announcing "$3". I uhmmed and ahhhhed for the required time before parting with my cash with a grin. If he had known!! Admittedly he had already put 100% on the original price! Yes- Pakistan is CHEAP.
My ticket would put me right in the middle of the Pakistani crown, and although I was sure it would be exciting, I was also nervous. So after much looking I eventually spotted another westerner emerging from the TV caravan. I explained my story, and next thing he took me into the VIP stand, and parked me in the media box, with the cameramen and the best view in the stadium!! After the game, one of the guys also took me down onto the field for the prizegiving, where I met many of the SA team!
The next day I applied for my China visa, and with several days to wait, I made my way back to Lahore where I watched the first few days of the SA vs Pakistan test match. Once I had my China visa I was on the road again. The trip to China from Pakistan, takes you over the Khunjerab pass, on the famed Karakorum Highway (KKH). I have been wanting to travel this route since I read about it years ago. I was not dissapointed. The road (often described as the 8th wonder of the world) clings perilously to sheer cliffs as it crawls through the Himalaya. The pass tops out at 4800m where it crossed into China and the scenery changes suddenly and dramatically.
The route from the border to the first big city is a mixture of open desert and huge snow-capped mountain ranges. The colours of the landscape range from white to red and black with every shade in-between. Kashgar is the first major city you reach, 300km from the border. Immediately is was obvious that China was very different to what I had expected. China is building. everywhere new buildings are being put up. All congrete, glass and steel. The roads are wide with big cycle lanes and wide sidewalks. Bus services are fast, efficient and clean. It was a model town for a model citizen. Only lacking the personality of a town that is allowed to develop and grow. The Chinese seem obsessed with building. Clear away the old towns and build high rises. It can't be denied that they are easy places to live in.
Once you start peeking behind the tall buildings you find the old narrow cobbled city streets with stalls and vendors. Kashgar is in the Xin Xiang province of China, which is traditional home to the Turkic speaking Muslim "Uighar" people. Kashgar is a main point of convergence of the ancient Silk trading routes. A remnant of this is the famed Sunday market which is supposedly the largest in Asia!
I was unfortunately unable to relax for too long, as I head 10 days to reach Hong Kong to attend my cousin's wedding. So in the next 8 days I spent 5 on trains and busses heading South. I only paused for 3 days in Sichuan to do some sightseeing. Here I visited the world's largest Budda at 71m!! After finally reaching Hong Kong it was wonderfull to see the familiar faces of my family after 5 months on the road!
From here I made a short trip to Macau, a former Portuguese colony only 60km away. Then it was back to mainland China. Now I travelled North West into some of the most popular tourist regions of China. The limestone Karst peaks around towns like Guilin and Yangshuo are famous and it was in a well-known backpacker resort town here that I spent my birthday surrounded by other travellers. From here I continued West toward the mountainous borders of Tibet.
A 5 day bus trip from the beautifull town of Lijiang via the Tibet border regions and back the Chengdu was perhaps the highlight of my trip in China. Here I passed over 6 snow covered passes of over 4000m, topping out at 4750m. The people here are more Tibetan than you will find anywhere else in China, and as the temperature plummeted below freezing, I grew ever more jealous of the locals Yak-Skin jackets!
After a short visit to modern Chengdu, I followed the tourist route North to Xi'an, an ugly town that is home to the famous army of terracotta soldiers. And then on to Bejiing, where I met some friends and got my first look at the Great Wall, 3 hrs north of the capital. The City itself is sprawling, but the central areas are impressive with all buildings looking as if they have been on steroids! Everything is built on a grand scale here. The precedent was no doubt set by the imposing Forbidden City, just off Tiannamin square.
My last 2 weeks in the country seemed a flurry of activity, visiting Shanghai, one of the 4 Holy Taoist mountains, Yangshuo for Christmas and finally 2 days in a winter wonderland - the Juizhaigou National park with it's spectacular bright blue pools of water, with snow hanging from every branch.
I loved China and would consider coming back here for a longer time, perhaps to work one day.
Look at my postcards, numbers 9 thru 22.