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Monthly Archives

June 2011

Zhangye, China

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We had no option than to stay an extra night here. No train to Xining, we preferred to travel daytime instead of 10 hours seated this evening.

 

Our hotel is opposite the 10th century temple which convinced Marco Polo to stay one whole year here. It also contains the 34m long sleeping Buddha. Peaceful and serene traditional courtyard architecture in the middle of a busy city.

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Marco Polo statue looks sad and crying in the crossroads and street in faux Venetian architecture.

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The 90th anniversary celebration was heavily celebrated on the main square with thousands massing in various coloured shirts. The green, yellow, red and blue seat and applaud together. Montgolfiers and fireworks! Star singers, musicians, dancers and performers with giant screens transmitting every scene to the whole crowd. Carmen and Vivaldi executed in Chinese performance. We met Julien and Isabelle again and were surrounded by curious Chinese wishing to take photographs with us. We must have looked bizarre and immediately spotted among the thousands. It was amusing to see all the young children with the split trousers to enable them perform their natural needs at any urgent need.
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Kashgar, China

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Kashgar did not live up to our expectations. In addition to the disappearing city, the market also was well below its mythical description. The livestock market Mal Bazaar was just selling grounds for cattle and sheep. No camels or horses which would give it the Silk Road fare. The most interesting moments were the price negotiations with intermediaries working hard to reconcile the buyers and the vendors. The usual crowd accompanied such gatherings, food venders (polo, samsa, lamian, cha and nan. Some tourists like us, and most surprisingly the same Israeli couple met in Altyn Arashan, Kyrgyzstan.

The day started on an unusual note. We woke up 2 hours earlier being on Beijing time instead of the Xinjiang one. The taxi took us into a strange place at 4H00 am with a special fauna of late sleepers and early risers come to eat shashlik and a cup of cha. In any case it was the second error of the day.

Uyghur and Chinese names are different and all taxi drivers are Uyghur.

After a long siesta to catch up the lost sleep, we gave the night bazaar a second chance. It was lively and somehow retained the local authenticity. Over 80% of the city is still Uyghur and this has not been erased by the Han Chinese. Shashlik smoke fill the air everywhere, melon vendors cut and sell their fruit by the slice, women sit around the ice grater to drink coloured lemonade and crushed ice. Huge lake fish are cut to mouth size bites and are offered crispy fried. Large soups with head of animals soaking for hours to water the lamian in delicious (!) broths, steaming mutton dumplings in their bamboo baskets. In between these food stalls, the dentist celebrates his profession with white teeth arrangements.

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Kashgar, China

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We nearly missed the plane by 2 hours. Xinjiang and Urumqi run on 2 hours earlier than the official Beijing time – the unified time for all China. We managed to get to the airport in time and arrived in Kashgar this afternoon at 15H30.

I have never been offered a hotel room without window and then to be upgraded for one with window for an extra 10 dollars.

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Kashgar is almost defunct. The old town is giving away to new buildings and new roads through the traditional houses area. Such a sad sight to see all the brick walls being torn down. In 5 years time nothing will be left and it will be just another city like everywhere else in China. The Uyghur people too looked sad and have this look in the eyes which knows that it is a lost battle and they are slowly but surely being absorbed by the Han official identity. Yesterday at the Urumqi Museum visit, I was quite amused with the exhibition of all the various minorities showing the traditions and customs of each ethnic group, Uzbek, Tajik, Kyrgyz, Uyghur, Tatar and Russian. The Russians were presented as a strange minority group which performs songs at Christmas and Easter. The world seen from the East and especially by the Middle Kingdom.

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Urumqi, China

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We are in Urumqi since the afternoon. Just another Chinese city without any soul, with no identity. Being on the Silk Road is just something in a distant past with no relation whatsoever with the office towers, shopping malls, highways. We visited the Xinjiang museum which is quite well designed with its highlight the Loulan beauty 3800 years old European mummy found near the Taklimakan museum. Unexplained presence of Europeans in this area.

We jumped from all writings in Russian and Kyrgyz to Chinese and Arabic. Quite a change, especially after 2 months trying hard to read Cyrillic letters.

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Friday night in Urumqi! Quite a sight! Large open air square where they all come to eat al fresco. Every thing is being cooked, shell fish, all kinds of fish and seafood, kebabs of all meats and vegetables. Noodles being cut by blades and swirled into the steaming soup. Thin pastry swirled thin to the right thickness and then grilled with all kinds of fillings. Shellfish fried into flaming woks and dipped in several sauces before the final spices are sprinkled over. All in loud cries, smoke and laughter. I am reconciled with Urumqi. It may have lost its identity in its new construction clothes but not its soul. It is amazing how a few km away from the ‘stans how all is so different. Food here is an art, a refinement which takes every simple central Asian dish to unknown and unexplored heights.

 

We decided to skip breakfast tomorrow and go directly to brunch before Kashgar.

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Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

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I like the way the Kyrgyz people position themselves in relation with all their neighbours. They feel they are the elder brothers to the Kazakhs, Uzbeks and even the Chinese. Their history goes deeply into the past linking Scythians to Mongols, West and East. When they start speak about Manas, their steppes Iliad, they become passionate and recite poems to the glory of the first khan Manas. It is one of the most national binding tradition.

 

We had dinner in a traditional place last evening with passionate poems from the Architects President Bektashov. They would have killed a horse for dinner if we were a greater number for dinner. Their hospitality knows no limits.

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Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

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We have been well treated and received by the local architects and the girl from the Aga Khan Foundation. Hotel was booked and this morning they took us to lunch with a museum visit. Half of the museum is dedicated to communism and Lenin. A past glorified for such a poor result.

We kept the evening free to enable us receive the Skidmore summer adviser call.

 

Bishkek is a quiet laid back capital in an appropriate scale driving people to be more convivial. The soviets left large green avenues and parks. People go out and sing karaoke outdoors, others play ping pong. Women push their prams and babies late at night. It is a far less conservative city than the other capitals, Dushanbe and Tashkent. However like the others several of the young people have left as soon as they have an opportunity, either to Moscow or elsewhere. Jobs are scarce and there is high unemployment among the young.

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Karakol- Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

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Horse riding gives nature a greater chance to be observed and appreciated, like driving in an open roof car. The natural scenes open up slowly and gradually to us as the horse climbs up the hill.
We said goodbye to our guide Almaz Japarovich Apiev round noon and reach the Karakol centre by marshrutka. We are off to Bishkek by car. Despite our negotiation, we have not been able to stop him from putting his music. They love it and love it loud. I hope the 5 hour drive leaves me without a headache. The views on the Karakol lake is a good compensation.
We are expected by the lady Asel Betsova from the Aga Khan Foundation who has been kind enough to reschedule our hotel arrangements 4 or 5 times. I have a series of meetings during my stay until Friday morning with the Minister of Architecture and other officials of Bishkek.
Our Kazakhstan visa has expired and it is too much of a hassle to apply for a new one. We are sick of bureaucracy and have decided to skip the Almaty stop and fly directly to Urumqi.

Karakol mountain horse trek, Kyrgyzstan

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Around fifty years later I had my second horse ride. It was like yesterday. I did well and manage to stay on it for 6 hours. Long trek through breathtaking landscapes.

Our guide is a young Kyrgyz, who qualified in tourism at the local university and speaks excellent English. He is a wealth of knowledge on the nature, horses, and the region. I am amazed how he can find his way through all the rivers, gorges without any map.
We are now in a yurt near the river up in the mountain with hot sulphur springs. The yurt is Spartan. A raised platform with some thick blankets that serve both as mats and to cover oneself. The night is very cold and we feel like a in a sandwich in the layers of blankets.

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Karakol, Kyrgyzstan

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We decided to stay an extra day in Karakol to enable us complete all the administrative matters concerning Kim’s registration at Skidmore. Karakol is just a typical soviet town. Grid plots and large unused space in between. Nowadays these open space are all unused and abandoned. The town itself looks abandoned. Apparently all the city dwellers move to the green pastures and their yurts in summer leaving the town empty and renewing with their nomadic life.

But every Sunday is the animal market where one can buy horses, sheep, yaks and sometimes camels. Lively and Kyrgyz.

 

Food is improving as we move closer to China. We had our second dinner at Fakir café written Fakup in Cyrillic letters and tasted our first Moldavian Cabernet sauvignon.