My dear readers,
In a couple weeks I will start my next trip, this time from Russia to India. Going overland from Russia to India is a pretty challenging trip with rich historical reminiscences. In this sense I would like to mention just two names: First is Russian merchant Afanasii Nikitin, who first reached India in 1471. Second is a person who recently publicly revived the centuries old inspirations of Russian imperialism, the scandalous Russian politician Vladimir Zherenovskii who shocked the Russian parliament (Duma) by telling them that he is dreaming about times when Russian soldiers will reach the Arabian sea and will wash their shoes in its water.
This is schedule of my trip from Russia to India:
I will start from Almaty in the middle of June and expect to be in the Delhi by the middle of September. It is quite possible to go through this route in the opposite direction, start in Delhi and finish in Almaty. I will appreciate your suggestions on this matter as well as on others. My initial intension was to continue to Kunming, Dali and Lijiang areas in China, but I probably will not have time for that.
Attached is map of my trip
Apr 29 2005
From now I will not attach photos to my Travel Notes but I will provide link to the Yahoo Photo Album where you will be able to see the photos. Photos for these notes are at: http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/mumzhiu/album?.dir=/a4ab&.src=ph&.tok=phK6UHDBtk9n6nGz
My most significant trip started May 30 2005, on my son's birthday. I already made first camp on the shore of the Issyk Kul Lake, prepared my food on a fire and swam in the cold Issyk Kul water.
It is my forth attempt. First was in 2001 and failed because of 911. Second was in 2003, but my bicycle frame was broken in Mongolia and I returned. Third, was last year, but I canceled it because I wanted to travel with my son, during the Russian part of his round-the-world trip.
Why I am so attracted to this area: Central Asia, Tibet, Xinjiang, Ladakh? I already wrote about this before. These areas were the place of the "Great Game" between the Russian Empire and British Empire in the 19th century. Famous Russian Explorers such as Przhevalski and Semenov Tian Shanski as well as painter Roerich made their expeditions through these places. Semenov Tian Shanski lived right across the street from my home on Basil Island in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Many geographical names from these areas, such as Takla Makan Desert, Kun Lun, Djyngaria, Karakorum I read on the memorial boards on my way from my elementary school to the home. Members of Russian Academy of Science used to live in the big house located in the area, and places they had visited during their geographical expeditions were mentioned on these memorial boards.
My trip partially goes along the Silk Road but Silk Road does not mean much for me personally. My route repeats considerable pieces of Przhevalski and Roerich expeditions, and this is the most exiting thing for me. My proposed route from Altay through Northern Xinjing (former Djyngaria) to Urumqi and Turpan coincides with Przhevalski and Roerich expeditions. Both of them also traveled around Takla Makan Desert. But nobody thought of crossing the "Desert of no Return" at that time. Now Chinese built an automobile road across the desert and I will be probably the first folding bicyclist to cross it. Kashgar and Kashgaria have always attracted Western travelers. Some lost their heads there. Roerich went from Kashgar to Ladakh over Tibet. Now this route is closed because China and India both claim this area their own. I will go to Ladakh through Pakistan over the Kunjerab Pass instead. Roerich built Institute of Himalayan Research (now abandoned) in Kulu Valley in Ladakh. I plan to visit it as well as Dalai Lama home in nearby Dharamsala. After this "short" interruption I would like to return to my travel diary:
In St Petersburg I met the only other enthusiast of long travel on folding bikes that I know, Romanycz. Romanysz translates my Notes in Russian and publishes them on his Internet site.
Then, I flew to Almaty. In Almaty I took my bike through the famous skating ring Medeu and Shymbulak to Talgar Pass, see picture. I know many of my readers remember these names. I planned to go down on bike, but I realized that I have to attach skis to bike to do this.
From Almaty, Kazakhstan I went to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
All former Soviet Central Asian Republics are very corrupt. Corruption is rather a rule than exception there. I also had to deal with it, unfortunately.
There are complicated and cumbersome rules of foreigner registration here. If you break them you have to pay. There are many corrupt countries in the world. But in most of them if you did something wrong you have to pay some predetermined amount of money, that's it. In Russia and former Soviet Republics you have to participate in a certain ritual: "You broke the rule. I cannot register you", official would say. "So how can I get my registration", you reasonably ask. "Go back to your Australia and enter my county the proper way" official replies. Next step is yours. You have to beg: "Devushka (lady) I cannot return to Australia because my return flight is a month from now" Sometimes you have to beg few times. It helps to mention sick relatives. When she (most of time it is she) will make exclusion for you, only, and take the bribe. It is good to know approximate amount of bribe, or it will be another problem. In my case bribe supposed to be between $1.30 and $2.30. My violation was unavoidable. Like most people I came to the capitol of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek by shared taxi and did not have a ticket to prove the date of crossing the border. They do not put stamps in passport at the border, I guess with the only purpose to get bribe later. This total corruption does not influence national character of Kyrgyz people badly. Ordinary people (not officials) are very kind, helpful and welcoming. Country is very poor and not only bribes but the other goods are also very cheap.
Nothing remind the recent velvet revolution in Bishkek. Most danger came from the open manholes on the mostly unlit streets.
From Bishkek I took a bus to Issyk Jul Lake. About mid-night in the middle of nowhere I asked driver to let me exit and went on the shore of Issyk Kul to sleep. Next day I rode to Karakol and stayed in the LP recommended backpacker's hostel. It was a really great! I would recommend it to everybody. Their E-Mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org Valentin Derevyanko, the owner is very knowledgeable and helpful and his mother in law is incredibly good cook. She is a winner of European Cooking Competition.
In Karakol I visited Przhevelski Museum and Grave. According to his will "The Traveler Przhevalski" was written on his grave. From Karakol I circled Issyk Kul Lake from the East and returned to Almaty.
PS: I would like to thank everybody who sent me responses on my Russia to India proposal, especially the great travelers of today, Vladimir Dinets http://dinets.travel.ru/ and Janne Corax http://www3.utsidan.se/corax-e/ also I would like to thank Liza Ch. for last minute help with bicycle parts, Edward B. for hospitality in Almaty and Anatoly B. for very inspiring book on Przhevalski expeditions.
June 9 2005
PPS: Oh yes, I would like to thank everybody who sent me a birthday note
Many of you may be surprised to read such a heading, but this is what I felt as I escaped from Kazakhstan. But let me to continue in chronological order.
I left Almaty on June 11 and went by train and taxi to the town of Zaisan near Chinese border. After bad experience with miserable neighbors on my Trans Siberian route two years ago, I prefer platskart to kupe (open compartment versus closed compartment) in Russian trains.
However conductors allows so many passengers to travel without tickets, that train car had twice as many people than it supposed to have. These un-ticketed passengers were everywhere. Surprisingly nobody complains. Kazakh people used to live in cramped conditions in their yurts and they obviously were not upset. Un-ticketed passengers pay cash directly to the conductors. This is why conductor is considered a very lucrative job here.
In Zaisan I stay in a local hotel which provides addition registration in addition to that one which I already had in Almaty. Anyhow in the middle of night uniformed boarder guard came to check on me.
Next day on the border, the lady in charge of document checking demanded the AIDS and cholera medical certificate from me. Bearers of tourist visa are not supposed to have them. They are required only from the long term visitors, but the lady was unmoved. Even the offer of a considerable bribe did not help. Manager of border crossing was in Zaisan and he was not reachable, because they do not have telephone at boarder crossing!
If they do not let me go, I probably will have to return in Almaty and try another boarder crossing. It was a terrible situation, and I launched a PR campaign with boarder guards. I told them about my trips, showed them my card with all my routes in it. You can see it at:
They get interested, asked me questions, mainly on how can I afford it. I answered: "I travel by bike, stay in a tent. In truth it is not always like this, but it sounds believable."
"Every man has an inner child"
My PR campaign worked, and one of the guards went to that lady to persuade her to let me go to China. He came back in about 40 minutes. He said it was very difficult to persuade her. But miracle happened and they let me go to China.
On China side everything was different: roads were good, people were smiling, nobody asked for medical certificates. There is no stupid registration requirements in China, so I felt as though I came to a free country
But nobody understands English there. Fortunately LP provides geographical names in Chinese characters so I was able to compare them with road signs. This way I reached the next town Jimunai on the bike. From there I managed to hire a taxi to the town of Buerjin. I was using short list of Chinese words in LP book. Main problem was in the facial expressions of Kazakh people, which are different than ours . Driver's face told me that he will take me to nowhere and leave, but it did not happened. He brought me to Buerjin. I rented a small room in LP recommended hotel for $6 with TV, bathroom with hot water and tea/coffee maker. A half a dozen of hotel employees rushed to my room to make the last minute adjustment: to switch on TV, fix lights, switch on tea maker and so on.
A day later I went to Hanas Lake Nature Reserve near the Friendship Peak (Khuiten) on the border with Russia and Mongolia. Two years ago I was in the same area but on the Mongolian side with my friend Vladia D. Tour book said that tourists probably will not be able to find any hotels there and should rely on their own tent instead.
What I saw there was a full developed National Park with dozens of hotels, restaurants and so on. Chinese decided to save a large piece of pristine Altay taiga (forest) and make it available to the millions or may be to tens of millions of Chinese visitors. But how to actually save taiga and make it available to the millions of people?
Nothing can be difficult for the people who built The Great Chinese Wall. They built the perfect road through the difficult terrain to Hanas and they install tens of miles of boardwalks in the park and around beautiful Hanas lake, which is the major attraction there. And nobody, not even one person, steps on the grass from the boardwalks. I rode a lot there on bike and I can certify, the Chinese preserved the Altay taiga perfectly.
Illegal loggers and poachers continue to destroy Altay forest in Russia, using lawlessness and general luck of order. May be one day Hanas will be the only piece of Altay taiga saved. And definitely Chinese people deserved many thanks for what they done.
On my way back I camped (outside the park) on the bank of Hanas river which later became Irtish river. It is the only Chinese river which bring its water to the Arctic ocean. I rode the bike down the road until I get exhausted, then hitchhiked back to Buerjin. For all this time I did not see any non Chinese persons. However my way of traveling as always helped me. One man who saw me on my bike in Zaisan, recognized me in Burching. He speaks some English and helped me to find an Internet cafe, which otherwise would be an impossible task. From Burching I took a 12 hour $12 bus ride to Urumqi through Dzhungaria. Roerich and Przhevalki both went the same route, but it took them many weeks.
So now I am in Urumqi, the most remote place from the ocean on Earth and tomorrow will go to Turpan, the hottest place in China
June 20 2005
PS: I have pictures for this part, but I still cannot find an Internet cafe capable to unload pictures from the digital camera
These pictures are related to my previous report: "Travel Notes from free country-- China"
They are mostly taken in Hanas National Park
My childhood dream is fulfilled (mechta idiota ososhestvilas). I crossed Takla Makan and spent night in the middle of it. You can see pictures related to this story at:
I never dreamed of being on the North or South Poles, but Takla Makan was always on my mind. Takla Makan is a unique geographical phenomenon. It is a gigantic crack in the Earth's surface, which is deeper then Marian Depression near Japan. But unlike Marian Depression which is filled with water, Takla Makan is filled with the sand. Many rivers flow to the desert from the the surrounding tall mountains but no one river flow out of TM. All sink through the sand and form a gigantic underground lake at the depth of about 5 km. Unlike Sahara or Arabian peninsula Talka Makan does not have any oasises in the middle of it. This is why TM was crossed by a human for the first time only in the beginning of 20 century.Five years ago, the Chinese built the road across the TM. When I learned about it I decided that I have to cross TM using this road.
I arrived on the sleeping bus at 3 am at the small town Luntai where the road across Takla Makan started. I spent night in the hotel and next morning started to look for the road to TM. It was difficult, nobody speaks English, nobody understand what I want and I decide to take any road to South and ride bike until I will see the desert. Fortunately at this moment I met two young Chinese people whom I met before in Turfan. I am not sure if it was the result of my propaganda campaign or not, but they also came to Luntai to cross TM. With them everything became much easier.
We found a minibus which took us 70 km down South to the village of Tarim on the shore of Tarim river, where the desert actually start. There was no public transportation South of Tarim so we started hitchhiking. Felix, Chinese fellow, never did it before but he turned out to be a very talented hitchhiker. So soon a small passenger car took three of us and drove the first 100 km, then people who gave us a ride turned to their oil well and Felix stopped next car which drove us another 200 km to the middle of the desert. As we exited the car the time was already close to sunset and it was not so hot anymore.
We walked away from the road and soon found ourselves surrounded by huge dunes. Road was not visible and it was nothing around us except for the dunes, no trees, no bushes or grass. You cannot walk strait through the dunes. You have to follow their sophisticated, wind generated patter and soon you are completely lost. Fortunately with compass we always were able to find our way back to the road. My Chinese companions were concern how they will sleep without a tent. But what tent do you need in a place where rain never happens. Also, drivers tried to scare them by telling the stories of sand storms which buried people alive. A sand storm actually happened next day, but with road so close we were out of danger.
At sunset we put our sleeping bags on the sand and went to sleep. I went to sleep away from my companions to be alone with the desert. Nothing can be compared with the silence of desert at night under the stars. There is no better place than the middle of Takla Makan desert for those who like to meditate in the high energy places. Surprisingly nobody organizes tours to TM yet like it is in Sahara.
My sleep on the soft sand under the huge sky was very fulfilling. By the morning it was even slightly cold, so I have to zip my sleeping bag.I wake up slightly before the sunrise. The best time in desert is sunrise and sunset. Soon after the sunrise the wind started and soon it became pretty strong. So we have to rush to the road. We stopped a car which brought us to the pumping station. Every 4 km there is a pumping station, which pumps artesian water to water the strip of bushes which Chinese try to grow along the road to protect road from the moving sand.
Lady in charge of that pump station made a breakfast for us and we start to hitchhike farther to South. Constant sandblasting quickly wears out your endurance, so one of us in turn tried to stop a car while others wait inside the pumping station. This day we were not so lucky and it took about two hours until we stopped a car which brought us to the Hotan, famous point on the Silk road.
Takla Makan Desert crossing, by far, was the most interesting thing I did so far in my trip.
Trans Desert Hwy allows the ordinary person to visit a place which was one of the most difficult place to reach on Earth. Before the road was built it was much less people in the middle of Takla Makan than on the Mount Everest.
Because of this I would like to provide a short description for these who may be willing to repeat it. I would prefer to spent two nights in the desert, but because of sand storm, it was not possible.
You can start your trip across the desert from ever direction from North or South. In the middle of desert at 336 km marker, the Chinese built a little village where you can buy some food and water. It would be a good idea to spend the night in the desert a few kilometers before this village. Then, come to the village and spend a day in the village. As night approach you can hitchhike or walk to a few kilometers behind the village and spent another night in the desert. And in next day you may continue your trip in the same direction. During the day it is very hot and it would be torture to be in the desert. So it is better to spend the middle of the day in a village.
For complete description of entire road look at Janne Corax description of Crossing Takla Makan at: http://www3.utsidan.se/corax-e/ He crossed it on bicycle in winter however.
My impressions from the other sites along the Silk Road are bleak compared with my impression from Takla Makan. However I have seen all the sites which tourist supposed to see here:
I have seen the mummies of people of Indo-European race in Urumqi museum. These people lived in this area 2000 years ago. I have visited ruins of ancient city Gaochang near the Turfan. And I visited so called thousand Buddhas caves.
I will not describe them. There is so much written about these places, but surprisingly not much about Takla Makan Desert.
Sunrise in the Takla Makan Desert
Hitchhiking during sand storm in Takla Makan
Brompton in the middle of Takla Makan
June 29 2005 2pm
My dear readers, friends and family
I am in town Karimabad, Pakistan, 150 Km from China boarder by Karakorum Hwy. Internet is terrible here, so please excuse me for not answering your letters. But please continue to write me. It will be better Internet places down the road. New subscribers please keep in mind that most of my Notes are available at the site of American Folding Bicycles Dealer Channell Wasson at: http://www.foldabikes.com/CurrentEvents/Story/TravelStories.html As always these who want to be removed from my mailing list please let me know. These who knows somebody who wanted to be added, please advice them to do it by themselves by subscribing to Yahoo Group "AlexTravel". This is how to do it:
As you may remember, after crossing the Takla Makan Desert I came to Kashgar. Kashgar is an interesting place. Like Ulan Bator in Mongolia it is a major crossing point between East and West. So you can meet here the most hard core travelers. I met 4 groups of remarkable bicyclists:
From Kashgar, the Karakorum Hwy goes through the Kunjerab Pass (4,934 meters), which makes it the highest automobile road in the world. There are interesting places around Kunjerab Pass, near the border of China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
Vladimir Dinets recently illegally crossed to Afghanistan from Chitral and returned back to Pakistan. See "Ramadan in Pakistan" at his home page: http://dinets.travel.ru/
So, returning to my trip; from Kashgar I went toward the Pakistan border crossing. I camped under the magnificent Mustag Ata Mountain, see picture. From Tashkurgan Chinese authority does not allow to bike so I took a bus. Karakorum Highway sometimes do not fit to the name of highway. Several times passengers have to exit and push the bus through the mud, see picture.
In first village in Pakistan was Sost. People are very friendly and hospitable there. I told them I am from America and I never had a negative reaction. Also, they do not have a tendency to overcharge foreigners, so common practice in other places.
However, soon I noticed something strange. It was no women on the streets. It were no waitress, hairdressers, salesladies, nobody. For three days I stay in Sost I did not see a single women. So they are even more strict than Taliban. These at least allow women to go to the streets. In next village Passu, there are plenty of women in the streets and they even say "hello" to me, the infidel. I read that villages in North Western Frontier Province of Pakistan were very isolated and people even speak different languages there, but I do not expect that it is to such extend.
In Sost it was a completely male society. There were plenty of man in the street, walking in groups, sitting in restaurants and watching TV, but never eating there. I also did not eat in restaurants there. First, restaurants are almost full, second nobody eat, and third hygiene was terrible. So I prepare my own food in hotel room using electrical spiral.
On the next day I hitchhiked from the Sost back to the Kunjerab Pass and start riding bike down the highway. At one place the road was covered with fallen stones and bulldozer pushed them to the river. I stopped in the middle of that area and start to make pictures. Soon I heard RUN, RUN and saw people running out of this area. I take a look up and saw many stones rolling directly to where I stand, with very high steed. It was like stone avalanche. I did not have enough time to run out of affected area. So, I run toward the protective wall and stand right under the wall, in hope that stones will fly by inertia and will fell directly down to me, see picture. It was scary. When stone falling stopped I run to unaffected area and talk with people. They told me that stones fall every time. One man shown me a fresh wound on his leg.
In many areas Karakoram Hwy cut directly through the glaciers, in others it is washed out by the rivers. So, the nature constantly is fighting with people. Riding bike is the best way to travel here. Every turn of road uncovered new mountain landscape, and the fantasy of nature is inexhaustible. It will be more pictures at Yahoo Photos later
Near village Passu I stopped to camp near beautiful lake at the end of Batura Glasier. Before dawn, the group of young man found me. They were very friendly and asked do I need anything? Usually I do not like to be noticed when I camp, but it was too late to move so I stay, and in fact nothing happened.
Karimabad, where I stay now is backpacker's Mecca. It is popular with tourists, but not overwhelmed with them. I stay in LP recommended hotel "Old Hunza Inn" My room with hot water and good view cost $2. Also they have communal and pretty good dinners for $0.90. Hygiene is OK here. About 20 backpackers stay here and exchange sometimes incredible stories during the dinner. Many people stay here for a long time. But I am not a person who can enjoy the same things for a long. I will bike to Gilgit in a coupe days and then take a bus to Islamabad.
Pakistan is good country for all sorts of addicts.
July 14 2005 6pm
Camping under Mustag Ata
Under Batura glacier
Here are more pictures from KKH: http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/mumzhiu/album?.dir=/8df9&.src=ph&.tok=phFafTDBtsiFkmN1
I have some physiological problem with staying in Muslim countries. I grew up in the North and I better tolerate cold than heat. I can survive hot weather also, but I have to remove as much clothes as possible to allow the normal process of perspiration to take care of heat exchange. In Muslim countries you cannot undress. Allah hates to see human flesh. All tour-books specially warn: "No short sleeve shirts, no shorts!"
LP warns about danger of heat strokes for bicyclists below Gilgit and in fact it was very hot there. So I decided to try to wear short sleeve shirt and shorts. Nothing terrible happened. I got about 30% less "Hello" than before, one man stared at my bare legs and made evil face and one old lady also showed her disgust. I even risked removing my shorts (it is really taboo), but I did it when I rested away from the highway.
Unlike Karimabad, Gilgit is not a nice place and also it is incredibly dirty. I got awful diarrhea there. Gilgit has history of sectarian fights. Sunny, Shiites and Islamists resolve their differences in the interpretation of Koran with guns. A day before my departure three people were killed. Usually it has terrible traffic. The morning I left, there was no other transportation except for military trucks with soldiers in combat uniforms and my bike.
The bus ride to Islamabad took 17 hours. There were no other foreigners on the bus. There were three veiled unknown age women, escorted by a man in the bus. Women are not allowed to be unescorted in public in Gilgit. As I said before, the different towns have different rules of behavior. We made two food/toilet and two pray stops, and I had a chance to observe Muslim men's behavior. They are very friendly to each other. While they were obviously not related, they behave like family. They are very well organized: all go to pray, all load/unload luggage, eat in large group and eat from each others plates with bare hands. They do not use spoons or forks. The more I observed them, the more I got the feeling that it reminds me something. Oh yes, it was the unity of Soviet people in the best years of USSR. Both knew that their ideology was best. Both wanted the others to accept it, for their own good. In this sense, the standard question "Are you Muslim" sounds like "Are you Komsomolets (Member of Young Communists League)"
Islam ideology as well as socialistic ideology is very good at organizing every aspect of human life, from birth to death. Most people love it. You do not have to think about making a decisions. Life is easy and strait-forward. Islam out-lived Soviet Socialism but Islam has some instruments of influence on humans, which Bolsheviks even did not dream of: People pray in public They pray 5 times per day, Mullahs starts their propaganda through loud speakers at 3:30 am.
Ancestors of the people who live in Pakistan were forcefully transferred to Islam. But history does not know examples of opposite move. If you get to Islam you stay. Muslims loves their religion and do not change it.
After a long and exhausting bus ride I went to a campground for foreigners located in Rose and Lawanda Garden of Islamabad. This garden is such a contrast to smelly, dirty and dusty streets; and smell of flowers was so pleasant there. I put up tent, made tea and life had become beautiful again.
There were mass demonstrations in Islamabad protesting President Musharraf's decision to close radical madrases. In my opinion, Musharraf is the person on which the world stability depends most. He was capable so far to suppress natural passion of people of his country for radical Islam. He survived two associations attempts. If he fails then the nuclear arsenal of Pakistan easily can get into the wrong hands. It is not only in Pakistan where people are attracted to radical Islam. I was in many Muslim countries. Everywhere some proportion of population is attracted to these ideas. There was a time when Nazi and Socialistic ideas were attractive. Now the time has come for radical Islam to be attractive and there is nothing we can do about this.
Islamabad is a new town. It was built recently to be the capital of a new country - Islamic Republic of Pakistan. It is not much to do there. I spent one day and moved to Lahore.
Lahore is famous for its architecture. Beautiful buildings of Moghul and Victorian eras in Lahore rise through the piles of garbage. You should add to this the terrible noise, pollution and clouds of dust. Garbage is everywhere. They throw it on the streets and it gets rotten there. Sometimes it reminds me of Rudyard Kipling's story of the city which was abandoned by humans and occupied by monkeys.
After I wrote this I realized that I am not fair to Lahories. Every Indian and Pakistan city is like this. Lahore was just the first town I visited. Islamabad, the capital, is kept in better shape. It is terribly hot and humid here. When I came to my air conditioned hotel room after a few hours outside I drank liters of water with salt and fell asleep. I add salt because when you are outside you are sweating a lot. You have to replace lost salt.
As a conclusion on Pakistan I would like to describe one episode which was really touching. Like Russians used to be, Pakistanis are proud of their country and the people are trying to make the best impression on foreigners. Sometimes it takes on an annoying form. But my last interaction, before going to India was really pretty touching. The bus to the Indian border was terribly hot as always. I entered the bus with folded bike and a backpack. The bus was full, there were no seats, but one man quietly offered me his seat. Than he politely insisted on paying my fare. And he did not start the interview as other did: "How do you like this country, How do you like people" He just stood quietly. Later I found out that he is the owner of a hardware business, member of city consul, a respectable man. From Lahore I moved to Amlitsar, the capitol of Sikhs
July 29 2005
1. The only other bicyclists I met on KKH
2. In Lahore old town
3. Lahore Museum
4. In Lahore old town
5. Segregated bus in Lahore. Women supposed to ride in separate part of bus, where conductor is sitting now
Here is more photos from Lahore:
Photos from Sikh capitol Amritsar
In recent weeks I visited several highly spiritual places of different religions. Sometimes I felt like I was at a religions fair where different vendors ply their wares.
First was Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Muslims always wanted to spread their religion. Their best selling point, using marketing terminology, should be a low rate of return. Actually, there are no returns. After people become Muslims they do not change their religion. I will write more about this later.
Next was Amritsar, the capitol of Sikhs. Sikhism is a pretty progressive religion. Sikhs are against the casts. They are for equal rights for women. Their religion is monotheistic. They believe that the God is only one. So in practical terms they tell people of other religions: "You just don't understand. There is no Allah, Jehovah, or Christ. The god is one for all people." Could you imagine how believers react to such a statement. Bhai religion, newest version of Sikhism, corrected this point and states that there is one God but he presents himself to the people of different religions in different forms: Allah to Muslim, Christ to Christians and so on. I saw magnificent Bhai temple in Delhi.
After Amritsar I came to Dharamsala, home of the Dalay Lama, place of Tibetan Government in exile and center of Buddhism. Buddhism was the predominant religion of Asia in the first millennium. When Islam came Buddhists were forcefully transferred to Islam, under the sword point as Buddhists prefer to say. So Buddhism was saved only in places which Muslim warriors did not reach such as Tibet, China, Japan, Burma, Sri Lanka.
In very short terms Buddhism is associated with freedom of religion, democracy, being able to do what you want, and a little bit of general mess.
Islam is the discipline, order, and no individual freedom. Islam has kind of magic power over people's souls. It is interesting that even these former Buddhists transferred to Islam forcefully, did not return back to Buddhism when they could.
It is a known fact that teenagers feel better in so called "structured" environment. It looks like these people who get used to Islam discipline, also do not want to get back to a less structured environment.
In this sense Bush's favorite sentence "Freedom loving nations" really makes sense. Not all nations love freedom.
I was in Dharamsala in the middle of monsoon season, so I even did not see beautiful mountain scenery there. It was rain and fog all the time. Partially due to Buddhists non-violent nature, Dharamsala has become very commercialized with a myriad of souvenir shops, restaurants, guest houses, lots of cars, rickshaws, all sorts of crazy people... and monkeys, cows, dogs.
In local museum there is an exhibition featuring Dalay Lama and Mahatma Gandhi, both famous advocates of non violence. I love Gandhi for his habit of not wearing a shirt. I also do not like to wear one. As for non-violence. It is interesting comparison between Dalay Lama's no-violent approach for Chinese occupation of Tibet and Chechen's approach, where all means of resistance are good. It looks like both approaches did not bring many results.
After Dharamsala I came to Naggar in Kully Valley, India, the home of Nicolas Roerich and family. Nicolas Roerich was not adherent of any established religion. His own philosophy incorporated elements of Buddhism, Hinduism, Russian orthodoxy and even the theory of relatively. I actually was very influenced by Nicolas Roerich. Not by his writing, which is difficult to comprehend, but by his paintings, which were first allowed to be exhibited the USSR in 1959. Roerich instantly became an idol of mountain climbers. Drinking and smoking mountain climbers were not those type of people who normally are considered "spiritual." But their spiritualism was in the form of love to mountains, and Roerich's paintings really uncovered the soul of mountains
I spent an entire day in his and his family's memorial complex, which is a big contrast to Dharamsala. There are not many people, its very quiet, good views and mainly, no rain.
Last night I spent in newly opened hotel in Roerich's compound. I was the only person in the hotel. During the night somebody locked my door from the outside. They use external lathes in India instead of internal locks. In the morning I woke up and could not open the door. Toilet and shower were located outside. My room was on the high second floor, so I started to tie bedsheets in order to escape through the window. I did not finish it because an Indian servant who hear my shootings came and unlocked me. He told me that it was a ghost. They all know of him and many have seen him.
Some related pictures are at:
Aug 10 2005 5pm
I am in Kunming, China, just arrived. I weighed myself on accurate airport scales and found that I lost 20 lbs and returned to my high school weight. I spent almost two months in Pakistan and India combined. Food is vegetarian there and pretty dull. Mostly rice with dal (kind of spicy bean sauce). But major factor in weight loss is not food itself but how they serve it. Here in China food is serviced usually by attractive, neatly dressed girls. In India/Pakistan it is always served by overworked boy, who looks dirty and put food on your plate with his bare hands even if a spoon is available. Passion for low sanitary food handling in these countries is very strong and unexplainable.
My latest impression was from the Delhi, to which I came by the train from the Northern Province of India - Laddakh. There is a well known fact from the biography of Buddha: When Buddha saw a bird eat a worm, he cried 7 days. He cried because he realized that there is no perfection in the world. If he took a train to Delhi he would have a heart attack. The train goes through miles and miles of garbage where people live. It was early morning and there were lots of people doing their number 2 and 1 on flat featureless ravines covered with garbage with some small ponds filled with liquid waste. What do these people drink or eat, not to mention how they wash themselves?
From Old Delhi Train Station I rode my bike to my hotel and at every stop I was
approached by many people who wanted to talk to me, sell me something and by very young
beggars, who prefer foreigners as more sure target. I spent my first day in Delhi in
my hotel room under the fan, pretty upset and angry. Its considered normal when people get
upset after visiting places like Nazi's death camps. But these Indian slums with millions
of people in them are not less depressing.
And there is nobody to blame - not American, not English imperialists are guilty. This is just side effect of Indian nonviolence and tolerance. India never took effective measures against uncontrolled population growth, like China did. India still produce every year population equal population of Australia. In almost completely deforested country they continue to burn their dead on wood. Cow and monkey continue to roam their polluted and jammed cities. Amount of pollution in Delhi's air equivalent to smoking 17 cigarettes per day. I read that some people after such massive assault on all their senses from noise, smell and pollution prefer to avoid Delhi and sometimes India altogether.
My Last report was from Naggar, the city where the Roerich's family mansion is located. After Naggar I visited Manali, Leh and Shimla. Manali and Leh are swarmed by hordes of tourists. In Manali even larger crowds of locals follow every tourist trying to sell him something. Leh is better because it is mostly Tibetan town and Tibetans are not as business oriented as Indians.
Shimla is nice. There is not many foreign tourists there, and also there is not much to do there.
Leh is known as little Tibet. There are many Tibetan monasteries here and Tibetan architecture (which is so close to my heart) prevails in the town. Why do I like Tibetan architecture so much? Because of Roerich! Many of his pictures of mountains contain little gompa or chorten so naturally fitting to the mountain landscapes. Tibetans live much better life in Leh than in Tibetan Autonomous Region of China, where they lives like second class citizens after Han and Hyi Chinese.
If you remember, my initial plan was to travel from Kashgar to Lhasa through Tibetan plateau, also known as Cheng Tang. However the stories of travelers died from the high altitude sickness on the 5000m plus mountain passes, and from freezing in tents at high altitudes scared me off.
I travel between Manali and Leh by bus. It is a 2 day trip with one night spent in the middle of the trip. I used this trips to check how really dangerous Cheng Tang is.
I rode a bus from Manali to Leh, filled mostly with young backpackers. I exited the bus at Tanglang La Pass on the 5360 meters (17582 Ft) and unfolded my bike. All the people exited the bus, they were very excited, they shook my hand and wished me luck. In Leh I constantly met these people, my former co-riders, and they continued to express their excitement. After exiting the bus I rode bike down from the pass to the nearest flat place and put my tent at an altitude still close to 5000 meters. There was no forest there, but I found on the road a couple pieces of ribbon from old tires, which helped me to boil water for noodle soup. I did not feel any symptoms of high altitude sickness. However walking uphill was difficult. It also was comfortable in my tent during the night.
From Leh I went to even higher pass: Khardung La 5600 m (18380 ft). It is one kilometer higher than Mount Blank. Absolute difference the altitudes with Leh is 2000 m. It was like hili biking. Not all of my readers probably know what the heli biking is. It is the same as heli skiing, but instead of skiers, the helicopter takes bicyclists. Normally heli biking costs hundreds of dollars. But I got to Khardung pass by public bus. The bus was full and the driver initially did not let me in. But when he realized what I am going to do, he found place for me. The bus was full of typical terrorists, men with black beards and mustaches and eyebrows joined together. It goes to the Pakistani boarder in Nubra valley, where the majority of people are Muslims. Driver also was looking like terrorist. But every man has an inner child. He was very exited by my idea to ride funny looking small bike from this high pass to the Leh. Third thing I did to familiarize myself with Cheng Tang - I took a tour to Pangon Lake located on border with China in the middle of typical Chang Tang landscape. Lake is beautiful. Water is slightly salted and absolutely clear. It is cold, but I swim in lake with French guy from our group, see picture.
So, now I am ready for Cheng Tang and I will go there sooner or later.
Aug 28 2005 11pm
You may see some pictures at: http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/mumzhiu/album?.dir=/1eb1&.src=ph&.tok=phEBIiDBjea1XVDF
1. At highest motorable road
2. Young Tibetan monks
Some readers found my previous report on India a little bit depressing. It reflected my feeling upon arriving in Delhi. Everybody get upset when came to Delhi. Below some more pictures from India:
Most of them do not need explanation. But some do:
1. Street scene, Delhi
2. Delegation of Indian velo handicapped people and me
PS: I am in Lijiang, Yunnan, China Today I will start my way back home, I will fly to Chendu.
Sept 16 2005
My dear readers,
My trip is finished. I am at home. It was my longest trip, 161 days. I started at Almaty, Kazakhstan (see attached map), went to Kyrgyzstan, circled around Issyk-Kul Lake and continued to NE corner of Kazakhstan, where I crossed the border to Xinjiang province of China. I visited remarkable Hanas Lake National Reserve near the border of China with Kazakhstan and Russia, where Chinese saved large piece of beautiful Altai taiga (forest). Then I went to Urumqi, than to Turfan and eventually crossed Takla Makan Desert. Than by southern portion of Silk Road I reached Kashgar.
This part of my trip was influenced by great Russian explorers Przhevalskii and Roerich. Dzungaria, Kashgaria, Takla Makan Desert, Kun-lun and Karakoram were their favorite playgrounds. Not much has been saved here from their times, except for Takla Makan Desert. Crossing Takla Makan, was the main highlight of my entire trip, despite the fact that it was done not by camel, but by car.
After Kashgar I went to Pakistan along Karakorum Highway. A 300 km bike ride from the Kunjerab Pass to Gilgit was the most enjoyable part of my trip. Unfortunately these places are now ravaged by earthquake.
From Islamabad, Pakistan I went to Lahore and then to the Amritsar, the holy city of the Sikhs and then to Dharamsala, the residence of the Dalai Lama. Both places are very spiritually charged ones.
After this I visited Roerich mansion at Naggar in Kulu valley. Roerich was a famous Russian painter, explorer and mystic. I visited most of the places which he traveled through during his Central Asian expeditions.
From Naggar I went to the city of Leh in the Laddak province of India, the so called "Little Tibet". I would like to take a camping trip through real Tibet one day. But there are so many stories of travelers who died there from high altitude sickness and cold. So the trip to "Little Tibet" was kind of training in preparation for the trip to real Tibet. I crossed 5,600 meter passes and camped at high altitude and now I know first hand what to expect there.
From Laddak I went to Delhi, India and than flew to the city of Kunming in the Yunnan province of China. From Kunming I sent you my last Travel Notes.
While the decision to go to Xinjiang province of China was influenced by Roerich and Przhevalskii, the decision to go to Yunnan was solely influenced by Vladimir Dinets's Internet book "On a Wild Ass' Trail" http://dinets.travel.ru/epanda.htm
From Kunming I went down to the city of Jinghong the administrative center of the Xishuangbanna region of China, bordering Burma and Vietnam. Than I traveled to Ruili, the town right on the Chinese border with Burma. I had very high expectations for that area and may be because of that, I was a little bit disappointed. In-spite of its remoteness, this area has become pretty touristy. I will write a separate report on it.
From Ruili I took a long bus ride to Dali and Lijiang, the two most famous tourist sites in Yunnan. There I went through the Tiger Leaping Gorge and Jade Dragon Snow Mountains. I will write about them later.
From Lijiang I took a short flight to Chengdu. I spent a couple days in Chengdu and took a tour to Jiuzhaigou National Park with an entirely Chinese group. Report on this tour is almost ready and I will send it to you soon. From Chengdu I took a train to Urumqi and than bus to Almaty.
1. Map of my trip
2. Barbecued sheep at Burchin night market
3. Pushing bus over the Kunjerab Pass
4. Golden Temple, Amritsar
5. Corn harvest, Dali
6. Lijiang Park
7. In Jiuzhaigou Park
8. In Jiuzhaigou Park
Nov 13 2005 2pm
This is a long postponed note on China. I postponed them because my impressions from China were quite conflicting and not good for well organized logical presentation. I arrived at Kunming Aug 24, 2005. The city pleasantly surprised me with its cleanness and especially with hygienic food service. It was such a contrast with India. Kunming is quite "Disneyalized" as well as other popular China tourist destinations. However because Kunming is a large industrial city, the disneyalization was not as annoying as with other places which I visited later in my China trip. Below are pictures from Kunming. You can click on them to enlarge.
The district of Xishuangbanna in South Eastern corner of China, on the border with Burma and Laos always seems to me one of the most exotic place in the world. It has about 25 funny looking minorities, who live in strange houses. It has jungles with wild elephants and tigers and there are some volcanoes there.
Vladimir Dinets visited this place 13 years ago, and his remarkable diaries "On a Wild Ass Trail" added to this impression.
In reality it was a little bit disappointing. China with lighting speed is moving out of third world country status. They built state of the art infrastructure. I traveled to the South of Yunnan province along an American style freeway, indistinguishable from America's freeways.
Little town of Jinghong, capitol of the district Xishuangbanna has become a center of tourist industry. Thirteen years ago, the hotel owner offered to Vladimir, to spend a night with one of his daughters, according to the local tradition. Vladimir wrote that he refused for political reasons, see his: http://dinets.travel.ru/panda.htm.
In my hotel, at the reception desk, they offered me free tea. Like in every touristy place, there are several recommended sites here which see constant traffic of tourist buses. I went to Mengyang Jingle Park with wild elephants one hour North from Jinghong. On a path through jungle every two minutes I met groups of Chinese tourists following guide with megaphone.
Another day I traveled by bike and have seen off the main road some exotic villages of Dai people with traditional style houses and strange dressed local people. It was really interesting. I also visited famous Sunday market at Menghui and Menghun towns. All town names here seem very similar. This is the reason: Meng means town. So, Jamestown, Georgetown and Provincetown would be called here Townjames, Towngeorge and Townprovince. As for Sunday market, it was really interesting: All these different tribes wore their distinct clothes. It was a very colorful picture. I have seen hill tribes at Golden Triangle in Thailand. It was a sorrowful picture. Here, these tribes managed to preserve their national culture and their villages and they look really very exotic, like illustrations from children's books on exotic countries. Below are pictures from Xishuangbanna
McLean Va USA
Jan 12 2006
PS: It will be couple more reports from China