Category Archives: Central Asia 2010


Having arrived back in China, we flew back to Khotan and the Taklamakan Desert. We were close to here in late September, when we took buses from Kashgar to Yarkand and Karghilik, but we didn’t have enough time to go the five more hours to Khotan. Now we would pick up where we left off and continue overland on the Chinese Silk Road.

Khotan is legendary as the place where the earliest ancient city excavations were made. Around 1900, following up on local reports of cities buried in the sand, Sven Hedin and Aurel Stein discovered and excavated a series of early Buddhist ruins. Most of these are now reburied or off-limits, but we were able to visit a few.

One of the most impressive was the 3rd-century stupa at Rawak. Although technically off-limits, it is possible to visit it by paying a substantial fee. The 9 meter (30 foot) structure now sits in the middle of the desert with sand dunes washing over it, but 1700 years ago it was the center of a thriving Buddhist community. The 100 fragile Buddha statues that Aurel Stein unearthed are shattered and gone, however, victims of treasure hunters looking for gold.

Another impressive ruin was Melikawat, a huge city that was the capital of the Yutian kingdom about 2000 years ago. Although most of the structures have melted back into the desert, it was astonishing to think of a 2000-year-old desert city that covered an area of 10 kilometers by 2 kilometers.

Next to this ruin was the White Jade River. Khotan has been the source of China’s jade for over 2000 years, most of it found in rivers such as this. The deposits are now scarce, but some people still make a living looking for it.

Khotan is also a center for silk making and carpet weaving. The manual process was the same as what we saw in Margilon, but we were able to see some different steps, such as these people untying the bundles of silk after dyeing. A child slept in the local equivalent to a daycare center.

Khotan has a wonderful Sunday market that hasn’t been turned over to tourists. Although we were not there on the largest day, the market was still lively with sales of textiles, hardware, and sheep. A store attached to the bazaar had the town’s display of major appliances. There were few other stores in town.

Donkey carts still shared space with cars in the street.

Bakers on the street made bread in tandoor ovens.

A local version of a chain restaurant displayed its menu with downloaded photos, watermarks still visible.

A slow train to China

We knew that it was going to be a long train trip crossing the border from Kazakhstan to China. The books warned that it would take 32 hours to cover the roughly 1300 kilometers (800 miles) from Almaty to Urumqi, China, and the border formalities in the middle would take hours while the train’s toilets were locked.

It took all night and most of the next afternoon to reach the border. I doubt those Kazakh tracks were ever good, and they surely have seen little maintenance since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Even at speeds of under 50 kilometers per hour (30 mph), the train often lurched over bumps. In some places, it slowed to a crawl.

We emptied our bladders as we approached the border.

The first step was to change the train’s bogies (wheel assemblies). The Soviet Union used a track gauge 85 millimeters (3 inches) wider than China, which uses the “standard” gauge also used in the US and most of Europe. To do this, they moved the train cars into a special track with jacks that actually lifted each car about a meter in the air. They could then roll out the old bogies and roll in the new, set the train back down and screw everything back together. This took about two toiletless hours.

Next came the Kazakhstan customs and immigration inspectors, who asked a few questions and took our passports to their office, probably to write numbers in their books that no one will ever look at. Two and a half more hours.

The minute the train started its 20-minute journey across the no-man’s land, everyone raced for the toilets. They were locked again once we reached the Chinese border station.

The Chinese were far more careful, making us open all of our bags. Satisfied that we weren’t smuggling any drugs or subversive literature, they let us repack and took our passports into their computerized offices. While we waited, one of the policemen spotted my iPhone and came over to show off his, which he said he had cost him over $1000. We admired the cute pictures of his two-year-old son to pass the two hours we sat there.

It was after midnight when the Chinese inspectors came back with our passports and declared the train ready to proceed. The whole process had taken almost eight hours start to finish.

The Chinese tracks were much better, and the train moved quickly and smoothly. We slept soundly while the train covered the remaining half of the distance in less than eight hours. We had made it to Urumqi, an almost-first-world Chinese city that is the capital of the Xinjiang region we will explore in the coming week.

It was an experience, but next time we’ll fly.

Opera in Almaty

We only visited a small corner of Kazakhstan, which has nothing to do with the movie Borat (Sacha Cohen is Jewish and speaks Hebrew despite the anti-Semitic jokes). The ninth-largest country by area, Kazakhstan is roughly the size of Western Europe, but it has only 16 million people. Large parts of the country are steppe or desert. With weather getting cold and time running out, we decided to hit only a few places along the southern frontier: Shymkent, Turkistan, and Almaty, the second-largest city in Central Asia.

Although it is no longer the capital of Kazakhstan, Almaty is a thoroughly delightful, cosmopolitan city. Trees line the streets and even the soviet-era architecture is interesting. A wide variety of coffee shops and excellent restaurants offer everything from French to Korean food. On the south edge of town are the Zailiysky Alatau mountains, which form the border with Kyrgyzstan. Just the other side is Lake Issyk-Kol, the huge lake that we drove around before and after our September trek in the central Tian Shan.

Almaty is a Russian city, and it has several lovely Orthodox churches. This brightly colored one was built entirely of wood in 1904 and is one of the few buildings to have survived an earthquake that hit a few years later.

A small wedding took place while we were there. Just as in Uzbekistan, the party had to visit several places for filming. But this time the religion was Russian Orthodox.

A service was in progess when we visited another cathedral across town, with the haunting polyphony of Russian Orthodox singing. The service was still in progress when we left almost two hours later.

One of our adventures was registering with the migration police. Kazakhstan follows the soviet tradition of requiring registration of any foreigners who stay longer than five days. We probably could have ignored it, because we expected to leave just a few hours before the end of our fifth day. But if we were delayed for any reason, we would be subject to a huge fine or other problems leaving the country. So we went to the police office, filled out forms in Russian, paid a small fee to the cashier, and joined a huge swarm of people leaving passports for the day. At 5pm, we went back and picked up our passports and certificates in an equally large scrum. I was proud of Marcia, who pushed her way to the front of the crowd to get our documents.

On our second day, we took a cablecar up a hill south of town, which had a number of attractions for local visitors, including a Beatles memorial.

Our hotel was across the street from the Almaty Opera House, and we decided to go to a performance on our last night in Central Asia. On this Saturday night, they were playing Tschaikovsky’s last opera, a one-act work called Iolanta. Buying tickets was no problem, and the best orchestra seats cost $12. The opera house itself was a nice theatre seating about 800. Only a third of the seats were full this night, but Swan Lake was sold out the next day. It wasn’t the San Francisco Opera, but the performance was probably as professional as any western opera company between here and Tokyo.

In a few hours, we will board a very slow train to leave Almaty and cross the border into China. This two-night journey will be the end of our time in “wugesitan” (the “five stans” of Central Asia) and the start of our return to China and more language study in Kunming. But we still have two weeks along the Silk Road across the desert of Xinjiang, the “new frontier” of western China. Stay tuned!

Southern Kazakhstan

After crossing the border north of Tashkent, we spent the night in a pleasant mid-sized city called Shymkent. Although it has some history as a stop on the Silk Road, Shymkent was so fully destroyed in Mongol times that it is now just a faceless soviet town.

Our real goal was the town of Turkistan two hours to the northwest. This sleepy town has been a great pilgrimage center since the early days of Islam in Central Asia, when Kozha Akhmed Yasaui made the religion accessible by translating the core texts into local languages. Local people insist that three pilgrimages to Turkistan equals one to Mecca.

When Timur conquered the area in the late 14th century, he left his mark with a monumental mausoleum. Although the structure’s facade was never completed, its 40-meter (130 foot) arch and dome were the largest in Central Asia. The original structures are still intact with relatively little restoration.

Like most Timurid structures, the walls are covered with tessellated patterns, which are in fact Arabic writing, repeating the names of Allah and his prophet Mohammed across the whole structure. Hidden in the center is the ancient swastika pattern, perhaps a throwback to early Hinduism or Buddhism.

A local guide explained that when viewed from the side, the structure itself is shaped like the Arabic writing of the name “Allah”: ﷲ

Surrounding the mausoleum were the remains of the old town. One interesting structure was an underground mosque, built no doubt to shield worshippers from the hot summer and cold winter weather.

After a few hours, we returned to Shymkent and caught an overnight train to Almaty, the largest city of Kazakhstan.

Uzbek weddings

Weddings are a serious business in Uzbekistan.

On our first day in Samarkand, the owner of our small hotel invited us to a wedding banquet. It turned out that her nephew had been married that afternoon, and they were having a feast at a restaurant. We protested that we had no decent clothes, but the proud aunt said that would be no problem. So we agreed to come for an hour or two.

There were over 400 people in the banquet hall. We sat at a table in the corner with the young men, most of whom were already quite drunk. (As a foreign woman, Marcia is considered an honorary male.) Loud music blared and the dance floor was full, including a couple professional dancers clothed in red hired to liven up the act. A professional video photographer was running a camera on a boom that circled the room and sent its feed to displays on the walls.

When we visited Shakhrisabz two days later, we came across another part of the wedding tradition. There is a monumental statue of Timur in the park around the ruins of his huge castle. On that morning (and probably every morning) there were at least fifty couples in wedding dress having their pictures taken in front of the statue. It was like an assembly line, with trumpets blaring and video cameras rolling for each new limousine that pulled up. Each party consisted of the bride and groom and about twenty family members and friends. One after another they would move into position and pose for their pictures. It says a lot for the Uzbek government’s nationalist marketing that people would want to have their wedding pictures taken in front of one of the great mass murderers of all time.

We learned that this was not the only popular place for wedding pictures. Time and again, we would see wedding parties wandering through historic sites, often mausoleums honoring a famous religious or political figure. Some seemed to be doing a tour of the country to have their pictures taken in all the proper places.

We particularly liked the more traditional spots where brides wore traditionally colorful clothing.

But most of the brides were dressed in white, with the local touches being the glitter and the frilly lace.

In some cases, children also got to go on the video tour in their finest dedication dresses.

We didn’t actually see a wedding ceremony, but we saw some of the lead-up.

One day in Bukhara we heard a lot of loud music near our hotel. We followed the sound through twisty lanes until we came upon a courtyard where musicians were playing and a team of boys were dancing on stilts. They seemed to be a hired team, because we saw the dancers packing up and getting in a car a few minutes later.

On to the next wedding.


We saved the big city for last.

Tashkent is a thoroughly Russian creation. It was only a small town when the Tsarist forces first invaded, but it grew quickly with the arrival of the railroad. During the Bolshevik revolution, Tashkent was the most loyal to the communist cause, and the soviet government quickly established it as the capital of its holdings in Central Asia.

Independence left Tashkent as the capital of Uzbekistan, even though it is in one isolated corner of the country. The Uzbek government added a few monumental structures of its own, and the city now counts 2 million inhabitants, the largest in Central Asia.

With so little history, we allotted only a day and a half to Tashkent. Despite rainy weather, we walked around a lot, first to a disappointing history museum, then to the more interesting old town that still occupies a small section around the pre-soviet bazaar.

On the edge of the old town is the one really unique site, Khast Imom, the Islamic center of Uzbekistan. The huge mosque is new, but nearby is a 16th-century Timurid madrassa and a mausoleum of an early Islamic scholar.

But the most remarkable thing is a small building that holds a huge Koran reputed to be one of the five that Uthman, the third caliph, made to standardize and preserve the text in 651 AD. Most of the copies have been lost, but it is believed that this one fell into the hands of Timur during one of his 14th-century campaigns. The giant book then came to Samarkand, and after a brief interlude in St. Petersburg, it was finally sent to Tashkent. Although its authenticity as the oldest surviving Koran cannot be verified, it is clearly a very ancient copy, written on parchment in Kufic script without vowel markings. Photos were not allowed, but you can see fairly good pictures of the book and its text near the bottom of this external page.

On the morning of our second day, we visited a mildly interesting art museum, then took a taxi to the Kazakh border. This was the last border we needed to cross on foot, and we had no problems once I convinced the guard that our traveler’s cheques were not really money. We had made it through Uzbekistan without a single bribe.


Our other stop in the Fergana was Kokand. Although quite old, Kokand rose to prominence in the nineteenth century when its khanate rivaled Bukhara and Khiva. The khan built himself a lovely palace with a big harem of forty-three “brides” he could marry for one-night stands, getting around the Islamic limit of four wives at a time. He finished the palace only three years before the Russians gave him the boot.

And no, this isn’t a scene from Mamma Mia. As we entered the palace, a group of nurses came out. They all wanted to have their pictures taken with us.

Several other mosques, madrassas and tombs line the streets of Kokand. Most are empty now, shut down by the government as hotbeds of Islamic radicalism. The government is doing massive restorations (reconstructions) everywhere to make Kokand as spiffy and sanitized as Samarkand.

The road back to Tashkent was unnecessarily long because it had to skirt Khojand and its thumb of Tajikistan that juts up into the Ferghana Valley. Stalin’s divide-and-conquer tactics left the region a patchwork of national boundaries that force highways to take circuitous routes across mountain passes.

Silk making

Although the Chinese guarded the state secret of silk making carefully, a Tang-era (7th century) woman smuggled the secret and some silkworms to Central Asia. From that point on, the Silk Road became a factory as well, with production facilities in the Fergana Valley.

Most silk factories are now mechanized, but we were able to visit one in Margilon that is dedicated to keeping alive the traditional methods. The process is done without electricity, much as it has been done for 1300 years.

Women first boil the cocoons, each of which are wound with a kilometer of fine thread. Once soft, the threads are gathered and spun.

The next step is to dye the threads. Men gather bundles of thread and mark the pattern. They then tie strings and ribbons around the places where the dye should not reach. They then dip the bundles are in large vats of natural pigments including sakura blossoms imported from Japan. Once dry, the bundles can be separated into the fine threads that make the pattern on each loom.

The looms are high-speed machines powered by women’s hands and feet. Several times per second, the operator pulls a cord that shoots the shuttle across the loom. Between each stroke, they switch pedals to reverse the threads. Repetitive-stress injuries are no doubt common.

Other workers manually weave and cut the threads of the velvet-like carpets and fabrics that cannot be automated. It can take a day to produce one centimeter, 18 months to make a full rug.

The market at Margilon

After Termiz, we flew back to Tashkent long enough to drop our bags, then flew on to the Fergana Valley that stretches to the east between flanks of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. From the plane, we could see the peaks of the Tajik Pamirs that we had visited a month earlier. As the crow flies, it was only about 160 kilometers (100 miles) back to Sary-Tash, the small Kyrgyz town where we had begun our trip across the Pamir Highway. Because of recent unrest, we had skipped Osh, which lies just across the Kyrgyz border at the east end of the Fergana Valley.

The Fergana valley is the breadbasket and industrial heart of Uzbekistan. Half of the country’s population lives here, and it is well irrigated by the Syr-Darya (Jaxartes) River that flows down from the Tian Shan. It is also the most conservative area, with strong Islamic traditions that have fueled rebellions from time to time. More people were wearing skullcaps and headscarves than we had seen anywhere else.

Our first stop was the historic silk-making town of Margilon. When we landed, we went immediately to the Kumtepa Bazaar, which takes place only twice a week on a huge lot five kilometers west of town. Although it sells everything from housewares to auto parts, the market is best known for its rows and rows of vendors selling bright-colored cloths. Sewing machines nearby were ready to turn them into the fantastic dresses that people wear the streets of Central Asia.


Out of the way and without major tourist sites, Termiz is skipped by most visitors unless they are trying to cross the bridge over the Amu Darya (Oxus) River into Afghanistan. We weren’t going to do that, but we wanted to visit anyway because of a museum and a handful of historical sites in the area.

Termiz was as close to ancient Bactria as we were going to get. Bactria’s center was Balkh 100 kilometers (60 miles) to the south across the rolling fields of northern Afghanistan. But it was not safe and probably not very interesting anyway, because Balkh has apparently been ruined even more than ancient Merv.

Our first stop was the town’s historical museum, which had a few interesting artifacts from the stone age through the present. The most interesting were from the Kushan period of the first through fourth centuries CE. This was a Buddhist culture that spilled over the mountains from India, and it was obviously a melting pot of Indian and European cultures and ethnicities.

This was all the more obvious at the ruins of Fayoz-Tepe. A large Buddhist complex on the edge of the ruined Old Termiz, the temple had a remarkable early Buddhist stupa preserved under a dome that approximated one that might have been there in the past. Nearby, a UNESCO-supported museum contained a copy of a complete Buddha sculpture, which still showed signs of Greek influence in the flowing robe that covered the body. Buddhist iconography would not be codified until several centuries later when the religion reached China.

There was a much larger Buddhist stupa in a field a few kilometers away. This one may have been over 2000 years old and it stood 20 meters (65 feet) tall.

Termiz also has some more recent monuments. A mausoleum to the 9th-century Sufi philosopher Al-Hakim al-Termizi drew brightly clad pilgrims.

Another 12th-century mausoleum contained some interesting brickwork in the corner arches.

A medieval castle lay crumbling nearby.