Central Asia

When I first bought my copy of Lonely Planet China, I was immediately taken in by its pictures of the province of Xinjiang. Part Taklamakan desert, part towering snowcapped peaks standing at over 7000 meters, the landscape and the people of this province are incredibly diverse and unique. So after a year of dreaming, and several months of planning that added and subtracted areas to visit (in fact, if we were to go to all the places we had talked about, it would have been a two month trip!)we finally settled on a week and a half exploring the province and a quick detour into Kyrgyzstan, a small, unimposing ex-Soviet country that borders Xinjiang.

As I said before, Xinjiang is one of China's largest provinces; in fact, it almost stands as a country of its own. First, the population is not majority Han Chinese, but is largely composed of a Turkic ethnic group called Uigher (pronounced Wee-ger). Uighers not only have their own language (of Turkic origin) but also their own distinct culture (largely derived from being so central to Silk Road history) and religion (they are Muslims). Due to this quite distinct culture and lifestyle, they have never really integrated with the Chinese, who they see as invaders in a territory that rightfully should be their own country. And while they are often not mentioned in Western newspapers (Americans care about Tibetan Buddhists, not Uigher Muslims), they are quite central to Chinese policy because of the few separatist groups that have popped up (Beijing has convinced many Americans that they are jihadists, which means that the US has given China its support with the Uigher problem). But China is not about to let Xinjiang go, considering its wide territory and strategic position as a gateway to the rest of Central Asia (Xinjiang borders Russia, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan).

This isn't necessarily a travel blog, or an itinerary. They are more disconnected thoughts about my impression of these places, interspersed with strange stories, observations, or anecdotes. I hope you enjoy this sort of inner monologue-esque discussion of my trip to central Asia.

First stop: Bishkek and Lake Issy-kol, Kyrgystan.

We flew into Bishkek very early in the morning; because of the time difference, even after spending 30 minutes while officials at the airport found a very clearly hungover official to issue us visas on arrival, we left the airport before 10 with a driver who had picked us up; fortunately, I had studied the Cyrillic alphabet on the plane, because when they picked us up they had our names written on a paper not in English, but Cyrillic. We had many places we wanted to go, so we immediately went to a travel agency and arranged a car to the town of Karakol, around the giant Lake Issy kol.

Issy kol is the world's second largest alpine lake, and flying over it from China it essentially looked like an ocean. It took us nearly 3 hours to drive around it, but before we even got to the lake, we drove along the border of Kazakhstan. Our driver pointed to the left side of the road, and said "over river, Kasakhstan." We found it pretty neat we were so close, so when we passed by the border crossing we walked up and took pictures in front of it (see below). We then pushed our luck even further and asked the guards if we could walk across the bridge. They did not understand us, so they just pointed to my camera and said "Foto, nyet" (too little too late...) Then we made the signal of walking, and pointed to the bridge. The guard smiled, but then crossed his arms and once again, "Nyet." Nevertheless, we got a great taste of Kazakhstan just driving by, with giant green rolling hills covered in red poppies and cattle. However, the Kazakh landscape did not compare to Kyrgyzstan on the other side, with vived green pastures pressed up right next to towering, snow capped peaks of the Tian Shan range.

We continued on to lake Issy kol, and around lunch time we stopped at our driver's mother's house for bread and tea. She made us delicious milk tea and gave us bread with homemade apricot jam (which came to be a staple on our trip). We also stopped by the lake to take pictures. It was gigantic, and bright blue, a blue not even matched by the waters of the clearest beaches and oceans. It could have passed for an ocean were it not for the now capped mountains barely visible on the other shore.

Next Stop: Karakol and Altyn Arashan

In the afternoon, we arrived in Karakol. We had already arranged a homestay when we booked our driver that morning, and we couldn't have picked better. Jamilya, a charming plump old woman, greeted us at the driveway and led us into her house that could have passed for a Vermont bread and breakfast. Each room had a theme color, and we were placed in the lime green room. She then led us down to the kitchen, where she made us tea and, once again, bread with apricot jam (the best jam we had the whole trip).

The next morning, we wanted to go to some of the beautiful valleys near Karakol, and we thought that the best spot to aim for would be Altyn Arashan. On a tip from friends, we headed to Yak Tours, run by the eccentric Ukrainian Valentin. He drove us up to Altyn Arashan, a valley at nearly 3000 meters where he ran a satelite location, in his "50 year old jeep in a constant state of repair" (states Lonely Planet). When we arrived, we were able to see just how beautiful Kyrgyzstan was (see below). The valleys were green and lush, surrounded by towering snow covered mountains. To me, this was the whole reason for coming here; hang out with sheep hearders in spectacular scenery.

While we were here, we went horseback riding, we soaked in natural hotsprings, and we had a vodka shashlyk party with Valentin. It truly felt like we were on top of the earth, a place completely untouched by the modern world. We also took some time to have a picnic in another nearby valley; the colors seemed so incredibly vivid (especially as compared to Shanghai, where everything has a gray tint).

Next stop: Back to Bishkek

We didn't have a lot of time in the capitol, but from an afternoon or so wandering the streets of Kyrgyzstan's extremely small capital (we walked almost the whole city in an afternoon), we learned a lot of things about this former soviet states. One of the things that struck us about Bishkek especially was the multi-ethnic feel of the city. For the first time in months, we didn't stick out. It also seemed, from our discussions with people, that everyone was able to freely choose an identity with which to associate: Kyrgyz, Russian, Ukranian, regardless of birthplace or passport. While this is probably not true for the entirety of the former USSR (certainly Kyrgyzstan is currently one of the most stable of the central Asian countries) it is such a different feel than the ethnic tensions we found in Xinjiang.

Nevertheless, this was still a very poor part of the world. The modern conveniences we so desparately need were not common here; for instance, indoor plumbing and good quality roads. We pointed out that if this were China, their major arteries (like the road from Bishkek to Karakol) would have been fixed within a day. Things are certainly moving slow in China, which we enjoyed.

It almost felt as if the country had not changed since 1991. The national museum is still a shrine to Lenin (see above), and Soviet style tanks, toilet paper, foodgoods, etc., are still common. It will be fascinating to see what happens to this part of the world as the world becomes more globalized and connected (however, it seems that of all these countries, the world is much more focused on Uzbekistan).

Next stop: Kashgar China

The moment we arrived in Kashgar, we were completely confused as to how we could still be in China. No longer were we the strange people with different colored hair standing out against a sea of Han. Gone were the garish Chinese lights, and the Ming Dynasty architecture were replaced by carpet shops. Fried dumplings replaced with rice stuffed intestines, and Chinese tea replaced with sour mare's milk. Instead of buying silk scarves, we looked at silk carpets. And gone were the chic high heels of Shanghai; they were replaced by head scarves and colorful full length dresses.

A great example of the strange new culture we had happened upon was the Sunday Livestock market, where men came (yes, only men) from all over the city to sell their sheep (all tied up in a row) cows, donkeys and horses. Standing in this field bustling with people and animals and men yelled at each other to settle a price while kicking a donkey in the butt to make sure it had good reflexes was quite a sight to see.

We spent a day wandering the old town, observing every day life. It felt more central Asian than Kyrgyzstan by far, with carpet salesmen, and winding brick allyways that looked straight out of Kite Runner (actually, I think parts of Kite Runner were actually filmed here). We also learned a lot about the plight of the Uigher people. The walls were stamped with constant reminders of religious restrictions (such as going to Mecca). And while there were no Han people in sight, the explanations of all the tourist sights included insidious statements about racial harmony and anti-religious extremism (obviously spurred on by the recent spurts of violence from separatist groups).

We also learned, right before we arrived, that the Chinese government is planning on tearing down old town to "save it." Essentially, the government argues that because the foundation underneath Kashgar is quite unstable (many of the houses are up on platforms, and it is hollow underneath), they need to tear it all down and rebuild it for safety reasons, in case there is an earthquake. They plan to rebuild the old town in a traditional Islamic style, thus maintaining its original ambiance.

A few interesting things about this current decision. The earthquake argument is understandable to some, and confusing to others. It seems to me that the reason for giving this justification for tearing down the old town would sit well with many Chinese and the international community because of the recent disaster in Sichuan. The Uighers of old town, however, while probably not surprised, find this justification confusing or humorous (according to the Uighers around the old town I talked to). They have lived there for over 1000 years, and the old town has survived many earthquakes and has never fallen down. According to one woman I spoke with, she explained that they saw it as a tragedy to their history that they could do nothing about, and they all strongly feel that they were not given accurate justification for why their homes were taken away from them. They also, at least those I talked to, saw this as a direct attack on their culture, a way for the Chinese to further demonstrate their power over the region in light of growing tension and animosity.

But destroying things in the name of progress is certainly not new for China. It was a common practice of the 1960s and 1970s, of course, but the Beijing Olympics and the coming Shanghai Expo saw similar situations: peoples’ houses torn down with little compensation. Many of Beijing’s old hutongs are still inscribed with the kiss of death, the character “chai.” But this destruction in the name of progress differs from these other situations in its direct relation to cultural autonomy and ethnic tensions. Furthermore, if the Id Kah mosque is any indication of how the new Kashgar Old Town will look, it is likely that it will turn into a Lijiang-type tourist old town with little resemblance to anything except another stop for Chinese shoppers and photographers.

As far as this relates to ethnic tension, the Uighers I spoke with about this situation feel relatively hopeless. But it will be interesting to find out how this will affect a city that already feels more Central Asian than Central Asia itself. Perhaps it will spur on new problems, or it will exacerbate the failure an already dying cause.

Next stop: Pakistan

Disclaimer: For people worried about 1.) my personal safety; 2.) Fulbright rules, we actually only stepped our foot into the border; we more just wanted to see the highway. Please relax and continue reading.

Probably the highlight of our trip to Xinjiang (aside from donkey-buying) was a road trip up to the border of Pakistan on the Karakorum highway. Built 40 years ago, this was meant to be the "friendship highway" between the 2 nations. It passes through the immense Karakorum mountain ranges, passing by deserts, rivers, and towering snow mountains at nearly 7200 meters above sea level. The border itself is on the Khunjerab pass at a harrowing 5000 meters.

Somehow or another, between a violent 24 hour flu that passed among our group, a car that would only start if we got out and pushed it, and a midnight joyride that ended in a dead donkey, we made it to the border and back. The views were astounding, and we were able to witness many of China's fringe groups living in what felt like the end of the earth. We visited some Kyrgyz goat herders and a young Tajik girl with her mother. All of their houses use solar panels, and they are actually given a lot by the state. Not that they would ever forget; propaganda is heavily stamped on every flat surface, sometimes interspersed with China Mobile advertisements.

What was amazing to me is that our driver, who was Han Chinese from Xi'an, seemed to really treat all of the peoples of the silk road with respect and admiration; except for the Uighers. He often made derogatory comments about them, and telling us why they had such a bad stereotype among the Han of Xinjiang (that they are often in jail, they often steal, they get into violent fights, etc.) Similarly, when we had other conversations with Uighers, they (in very low voices) expressed their problems with the Han Chinese. Whatever else we may have discovered, it is clear that probably more than anywhere else in China (except perhaps Tibet) tensions here are incredibly high.

We spent, well, no time in Pakistan. I think the only story we have about Pakistan is the road; it was a fantastically renovated, smooth, safe highway up to the border; in fact, the border was made clear by the line between the renovated and non-renovated road. Also, the direction of traffic switched from right to left (apparently Pakistani's drive on the left side of the road too).

On our last night, we spent the night at Karakol lake with some friends of our driver's, the personal home of a Kyrgyz family. We were finally tucked in under mountains of blankets when at 1 in the morning, we were raided by local police who demanded that we stay in a state approved hotel. Apparently what caught the attention of the police was our driver, who on a midnight cigarette run, hit a donkey and killed it (see below the post-donkey car).

While the situation certainly scared us at the time and made us laugh afterward, what it indicated to me was the amazing amount of control the government in China had in keeping tabs on everyone. I never gave much thought to showing my passport at internet cafes and hotels, but looking back, I realized that the government really does know where I am almost all of the time. I don't live permanently in China, so this will (hopefully) never affect me, but it is disconcerting to think about. It is easy in China, I think, to forget that we live in a single party Communist state, until you begin to realize these small symbols of complete control all around (for more on this, look at the government's new Green Dam project for new computers).

These thoughts, however, all came post-trip. All we could think about after our adventure was the beautiful landscape. See below.

Final stop: Turpan

This was probably the more relaxing and definitely most touristy part of our trip. We only took a day to see the major sights around Turpan, including the Emin minaret (China's largest) the Flaming mountains, Turoq (a cute Uigher village) and some Han dynasty ruins that looked like Utah. While it felt somewhat anti-climactic, the scenery was really beautiful. It was also unbelievably hot; this should not have been surprising considering it is actually China's hottest spot, with record temperatures of 47 degrees farenheit.

This trip was an enormous learning experience for me. I never really knew anything about post-soviet central Asia (or Soviet central Asia, for that matter). And I believe my trip to Xinjiang opened up to me a part of China people very rarely see, a part of China I never really knew anything about. China is a growing, impressive power, but there are underlying problems and tensions. My guess is that eventually, these will slowly be snuffed out rather than escalate into a full scale struggle, but who knows? And while it is sad to see essentially the death of a culture, this situation is certainly not exclusive to China (I think our Native Americans serve as an appropriate, albeit anachronistic, comparison). All that being said, I hope that the knowledge of these peoples, and how they have influenced history, won't be lost as they face the modern world.

And as a side note, I would highly recommend all or any of this trip to travelers with even a slight sense of adventure. The scenery is among the most beautiful I have ever seen in my life, and for sure in China, and the culture is incredibly unique, even in central Asia.


  1. I promise I will, as soon as I have my own computer and can easily upload pictures!