My Silk Road Trip, June 1996

With thanks to the University of Texas Map Collection

7 June

Left LHR on time, uneventful flight to Moscow Sheremetyevo. Took two hours to get through immigration! We were really pushed for time, so only had time for a quick meal (Russian "fast food" - interesting!), then a look round Red Square, and a Metro station. Then out to Domodedovo Airport (so-called "domestic" airport!) for the flight to Tashkent, scheduled to depart at 2300.

8 June

Flight didn't get away til 0500, just as the sun was rising! Got into Tashkent about 1100, had breakfast, crashed out for a couple of hours, then had a tour of the city. Quite a nice place, but very few old buildings. A lot of parks and greenery (fountains too - where do they get the water from?); quite a relaxing place. The Uzbek people are very Asian looking, but mostly wear western clothing, except that the women tend to dress in much brighter colours than you would normally see in Europe. For a nominally Islamic country, alcohol is very easily available, and cheap! One US dollar for a bottle of vodka!

9-10 June

Flew down to Bokhara, still in Uzbekistan - uneventful flight. Bokhara is wonderful! Spent lots of time walking around, admiring all the mosques and madrases (Islamic teaching colleges), all decorated with glazed mosaics. In the evening, we went to an Uzbek "cultural evening"... lots of music, singing and dancing. Lots of photos here too!

11 June

Spent the morning in Bokhara, then drove to Samarkand. Saw camels grazing in the fields, on the edge of the desert along the roadside. I bought a little glazed bowl at a pottery where we stopped en route. In Samarkand, we had dinner in a private house, where they had set aside one room as a restaurant... apparently this is quite common here. I don't think much of Uzbek food though... very boring, and I got a dose of the runs!

12-13 June

Sight-seeing in Samarkand. It's a lot like Bokhara, but less enjoyable because everything is under scaffolding at the moment. They're in the middle of a huge restoration project, which is supposed to be finished later this year in time for the 500th (?) anniversary of the death of the great Uzbek hero Tamur Leng, but I don't believe it!

14 June

Drove on eastwards to Fergana - a long drive, including a brief transit through the neighbouring country of Tadzhikistan, which is in the middle of a war, but we didn't have any problems. It was interesting to see rows of guided missiles lined up along the roadside, though! Fergana is nothing special - just a place to stop for the night.

15 June

Onwards into Kirghizstan. The route we were supposed to be following had changed, because the Irkestan pass into China was closed. So from Osh, we got a flight up to Bishkek, the Kirghiz capital, and spent the night there. This is a really nice place! Like Tashkent, there are very few old buildings, but lots of parks to relax in. We found a fun-fair, and went on the ferris-wheel, the little train, and the hall of mirrors. We had a couple of local guides with us, and I'm sure they thought we were all completely barmy!

16 June

We left Bishkek, and started heading south, towards China. Unlike the scenery in Uzbekistan, it was quite spectacular here - a bit like Scotland, in fact, but much higher - we were up to 3000m asl. We stopped for the night in Naryn - the middle of nowhere, really. We slept in yurts - the animal-skin huts used by the nomads. A bit basic, but comfortable enough! Actually, the yurt was a Mongolian invention, and the Kirghiz people do look very Mongolian.

17 June

On across the Chinese border to Kashgar. This is where the weather changed, and it started raining. Lots of forms to fill in, but the customs people didn't give us any hassle. We did have a bit of hassle though, on the road. There had been some landslides, and there were rocks all over the road. As we went over one of the rocks, we heard a loud thud... the battery had fallen out of the bus and smashed all over the road! We had to take the battery out of the luggage truck, and then tow it into Kashgar. This is also where the food started getting better. Real Chinese food! Most of the people around here are Uyghurs - Islamic nomads, very like the Kirghiz. Our guide told us that there are 20% Han Chinese in the area, but I didn't believe her - I would say no more than 5%.

18 June

Still raining! Spent most of the day exploring Kashgar in the rain... everything had turned to red mud, and my clothes got filthy. I'm sure I would have liked the place better if it had been sunny! Another "cultural evening".

19 June

Off down the Karakoram Highway to Tashkurgan. Still raining, still rocks all over the road; we got two punctures on the way. Stopped for lunch at the Kara Kul lake, 3800m asl - a beautiful spot, even in the rain! Not much in Tashkurgan - just another stopping-off place. I bought a little jade camel in the hotel here.

20 June

This is where the REAL excitement started! On down the Karakoram Highway, still pouring with rain. The petrol we had bought in Tashkurgan turned out to be contaminated, and we had to stop every few minutes for the driver to unblock the fuel filter! Eventually, he gave up and drained the tank... I'm not sure what happened next, but it was OK from then on. Except that there were still boulders all over the road, and this driver was rather fond of going as fast as possible over them! As we approached the Khunjerab pass, and the border with Pakistan, 4870m asl, the rain turned to snow... We stopped for photos at the summit, but didn't stay long. Then we switched over to the left hand side of the road, and continued into Pakistan. The landslides got worse and worse! The plan was to drive down to Hunza that day, but in the event, it was to be another 2 days before we got that far. First we had to keep stopping, and get out to move boulders out of the way. Then we came to a huge boulder which we couldn't move, and the bus couldn't get past. It was late in the day, and we were close to the Pakistani security post at Dih, so the police and army put us up for the night, on the floor of the police station!

21 June

More fun with landslides. At last it had stopped raining, and the sun was shining - but this was to prove a problem too! First we got some help from the army to move the boulder, and were able to continue on our way. But only for 20km or so... we came to a huge landslide, which would take days to clear, and the bus couldn't get round it. A couple of guys went on ahead, and reported back that there was an even bigger landslide a couple of km further on! Well, we reckoned we could walk a couple of km without too much trouble, so we arranged for some jeeps to meet us on the other side of the landslide, and walked on til we came to the second landslide. When we saw it, we just stood there with our mouths open... not only was the road completely submerged in the mountain for a distance of 100m, but there were still boulders the size of cars crashing down from thousands of metres above every few seconds! There was no way we could get across safely, and I think John, our (Irish) Exodus guide nearly shat himself. So we sat down and watched the landslide from a safe distance for a few hours. Better than TV! We reckoned that when the sun went off the glacier, it would freeze again, and stop sending boulders down, and that theory turned out to be right, So we were finally able to walk across as quickly as possible, all the time keeping an eye open for more falling boulders! When we all got across safely, the sense of relief was incredible. John went round hugging everyone! We all got in the jeeps, and continued to the Pakistani immigration post at Sust. (I should have said that all this technically happened in no-man's land... we had taken almost 2 days to get from the Chinese customs post to the Pakistani one!)

22 June

A rather more relaxing day! As we were now 2 days behind schedule, we unfortunately had to miss out our stop in the Hunza valley, making for a long day's driving. The sun was shining, and we were passing some incredible Karakoram peaks, including Rakaposhi (7788m), which was in view for most of the day. We had lunch in the Hunza valley, and visited Karimabad and the fort at Baltit, before carrying on to Gilgit for the night. As we approached Gilgit, it was obvious that something was happening. There were army check-points every few km, and we were stopped and searched several times. When we got to the hotel, we were warned on no account to leave the grounds before morning! Apparently, what had happened was that there had been a selection board for a crack military unit. One of the unsuccessful applicants was a bit pissed off, and had run amok with a gun, killing the commanding officer, and sparking off a major riot. The administration building burned down while we slept, safe behind an army cordon, in the hotel!

23 June

Although we were ready to leave at 0800, it was 90 minutes later when the army finally gave us permission to leave. There was also a German group staying at the hotel, and the army provided us all with an escort out of town. We then had a spectacular, but thankfully uneventful, drive following first the Hunza river, then the Indus, to Beshum. We got a brief glimpse of Nanga Parbat - at over 8000m, one of the highest peaks in the world. It was very hot in Beshum - in the 40s.

24 June

On down to Rawalpindi. Another uneventful day. The mountains gradually got lower, and we left the Indus to drive across the plain. We had time in Rawalpindi for a bit of shopping and sight-seeing - it's a garrison town, and the signs of the British Raj were unmistakeable. Cricket on the green, colonial style houses on wide boulevards... Toyota car parts stores everywhere... well, I guess the Japanese have taken over now! I bought an onyx chess set here for about £12... It would have cost at least 10 times that in the UK!

25 June

Up early for the short drive to Islamabad and the flight home. We heard that there had been rioting here during the night... apparently the government had just announced higher taxes, and people weren't very pleased... Imagine if we reacted like that when our governments increase taxes! A long, boring flight home, landing at Manchester first to let off all the Pakistanis... I was completely shattered, but I wouldn't have missed a minute of it!

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