Aug 12

Kochkor Village to Son Kul Lake

We left Kochkor Village early in the morning and after about 40 km we turned off the main road and onto a narrow dirt one that wound it’s way up the side of a mountain. The beauty was breathtaking and at the top of the first pass we saw a man and woman on touring mountain bikes laboring up the hill from the opposite direction. Stopping to greet us, the man introduced himself as Rudy. He and his girlfriend had ridden 5000 km from their home in Switzerland. They were mere wisps, thinned and toughened by their long journey and heavily laden bikes. I asked if they were camping along the road ” oh yes, and the people are wonderful, they come out to greet you and bring you food.” We laughed about the heat of the deserts, I couldn’t imagine crossing them by bicycle! After several minutes of chatting, we bid them safe voyage to Kochkor and they were off.

Son Kul Lake is one of the larger alpine lakes of Kyrgyzstan. At 3000 meters the landscape was cold and barren of bushes and trees. Herds of horses and sheep ran freely or grazed on the stubby grass. Our yurt camp was owned and operated by nomads. As soon as we arrived, Christy and myself were corralled by a pair of women and taken aside. They carried a plastic bag between them and pulled out bits of dry bread, a greasy joint of lamb and a bottle of vodka. Feeling obligated by our new hosts we ate, drank, then joined in a traditional blessing of their children.

Heading over to the kitchen yurt, we met mountaineer Ted Fairhurst. Ted was climbing the “Seven Summits” and had just completed Mt. Elbrus. He was a terrific guy, full of good stories and great advice. After tea, a hike took us high above our yurt camp looking through the rocky outcroppings for petroglyphs. We found three of long horn sheep just as we had seen in a museum. These petroglyphs were at least three thousand years old and were early examples of the long running theme in nomadic art of rams horns.

The night was cold and my warm weather clothing wasn’t much help. In our effort to travel light, I had neglected to anticipate the needs of our two mountain camps. Ted kindly sold us his spare headlamp which he had taken up Everest, Elbrus, Kilimanjaro and many other mountains so we could see in the pitch black camp.

Breakfast was a bowl of hot oatmeal. I noted that a nomad man sat across from me wearing a tall felt hat. He was scraping the flesh from the base of a boiled sheep’s head with his pocket knife and putting it into his toothless mouth. I watched in horror and fascination for several minutes as he turned it this way and that to get at the meat. The sheep’s ears still look pliable and soft. I glanced guilty back at my oatmeal, feeling like an intruder. A short while later Christy, Sasha, Ivan and myself climbed into the car and journeyed to Tash Rabat by way of the “33 Parrots!”

33 Parrots Pass

33 Parrots Pass by Curious Lizard

One of the passes through the Pamir Mountains.

Aug 12

Bishkek to Kochkor Village

Outside Bishkek, the roads are mostly gravel, usually two lanes, sometimes one. Our Land Cruiser eats them up and we arrive at our Kochkor Village guest house to a warm greeting and hot tea. The remarkable thing I have found about these remote villages is that you cannot judge the interior of a home by the exterior. In this case a single lane paved road led to a deeply pockmarked dirt road off the main highway into a neighborhood of low houses with flat fronts and small windows. A hole in the wall of one house is plugged poorly with a pillow. Driveways are blocked by solid gates that blend with the house giving them a generic monotone somewhat fortified look. In this case the gate opened onto a courtyard with the home surrounding two sides. A vegetable garden was off to one side and flowers dotted the yard. The home was spotless, and the wooden floors and walls were covered in carpets of the nomadic and Persian styles.

Prior to dinner, we went to a nomadic felt making demonstration and were welcomed by a lovely woman. I asked her if I could video the demonstration. In response she disappeared only to reappear 15 minutes later in her full tribal regalia, grinning ear to ear. I was expecting to film a ten minute demonstration but after that amount of time had passed she turned on loud rhythmic music and began to dance the “felt making dance.” This lasted another fifteen minutes. As soon as that ended the rest of the family sauntered in wearing traditional costume. They played music known as the “sound of the steppes” and chanted from the national epic poem of Manaz. I watched as a mother taught her toddler in a stroller the hand motions to accompany the dance. The child mirrored them back. The climax of the evening came when an ornately covered box was brought before the musicians. When the cover came off there were two toy goats standing on top. Nothing prepared me for what happened next. The music started and the goats began to dance. What a joyous festival.

We returned to our guest house for a dinner of traditional nomadic food and watermelon.

Morning at Son Kul Lake

Morning at Son Kul Lake

Morning at Son Kul Lake

Aug 12

Across the Pamirs

We completed our three day crossing of the Pamir Mountians to China by way of the Torugart Pass. Two days were spent in high altitude yurt camps. I have a detailed account coming as well as more photos. There’s no youtube here so I won’t be able to upload more video for a while.

Yesterday we visited the first Buddhist temple in China, built in the 2nd century AD in the ancient pre-Islamic city of old Kashgar. I have video, in fact I have several vids and photos ready to go but I can’t seem to upload anything here. I’m going to see how it goes. More updates should be up soon.

Yikes! edited for typos.

Aug 12

Crossing Kyrgyzstan, Closer to China

We arrived in Kyrgyzstan yesterday and it was a remarkable change from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Gone is the sweltering heat of the black and red sand deserts. Gone too are the soaring domes and spires of lapis and turquoise. Mountains surround the city of Bishkek and the streets are full of cars and commerce. Statues of Lenin, Marx and Engles stand proudly near the teetering carcasses of Soviet apartment blocks and the faces of the people tell us that we are much closer to China. We stop at a small neighborhood shop and the woman behind the counter uses an abacus to calculate the correct ammount. Small bits of cloth tied to pine boughs flutter in the wind for good fortune.

I came to Central Asia to trace what I could of the Silk Road and to try to understand this part of the world better. At first it felt like an alien land but I think I understand it a little better now. Central Asia is a land at a crossroads with a history of invasion after invasion, conquest after conquest. Hellenes, Romans, Parthians, Persians, Arabs, Seljuk Turks, Ghengis Khan, Tamerlane and even the Chinese have all left their indelible marks and blood in the sand. Pagans, Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Buddhists and Moslems have all called it home. This is a place where desert sands, winter snows and the wind have always shifted and will continue to do so.

Today we begin our three day overland journey across the Pamir Mountains to Kashgar. I don’t know when I’ll be able to post again, it may be several days. In the meantime please enjoy the narrative, photos and video. Until next time.

Aug 12

Samarkand Paper Mill

We visited the historic Samarkand Paper mill as part of our Silk Road expedition. It lies on the outskirts of modern Samarkand, beyond the opulent Registan Square of Timur. It can be found among the long stretches of old mounded earth, all that remains of the storied mud brick Samarkand leveled by Ghengis Khan.

The site was idyllic with clear running streams turning small water wheels and buoying a pair of lovely white geese. Yellow and golden flowers accented the manicured lawn, and pottery, artfully arranged, gushed water from an unseen source. In this very location, paper burst forth into the western world, a secret learned from the Chinese by Arabs in the 8th century AD.

The materials and methods used today remain the same as those used in that time and I was told that due to the unique qualities of mulberry bark, Samarkand paper will last 2000 years. I was fortunate enough to handle the pages of a 400 year old book written in Arabic on Samarkand paper and the pages felt as crisp and fresh as those that had just been pressed. The ink used in these beautiful books was lampblack, a carbon black ink created from the soot of the oil lamps burned in mosques.


Aug 12

Puppet Theater in Central Asia

While traveling through Central Asia on our Silk Road expedition, I noticed there were many shops and buildings dedicated to Puppet Theater. Archaeologist, Bekhruz Kurbanov explains.