Xinjiang, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan:
notes of a July 2000 trip, by Claire Barnes

Accompanying photos may be found at by typing in my Malaysian e-mail, Xinjiang pictures were posted first; the Kyrgyz photos will be added.

Overall impressions: this trip was fascinating, above all because of the lifestyle of the various nomadic tribes. I wonder how long this will persist. A surprise to me was how lush the pastureland and agriculture can be, and consequently how good the food can be. (I feared we would be subsisting on mutton-fat stews, or something verminous and intolerable as on a previous expedition to remoter parts of Tibet). The carpets of flowers were a delight, as was the variety. (Unfortunately botany is not my strong suit, so relatively few species were identified. We searched unsuccessfully for a book.) The geological formations were in some places spectacular - especially between Dragon Lakes and Kizil; photos cannot do justice here (although one could certainly make a better attempt than mine). The Buddhist frescoes at Kizil and the caravanserai at Tash Rabat were expected pleasures, and the Ozgon mausolea were a highlight although Uzbekistan is richer in Islamic monuments. I was intrigued by the extent and potential of other archaeological material - huge sites such as Burana, devastated by Genghis Khan; extraordinary remnants of earlier civilisations, poorly-explained, such as the Golden Man; the sunken sites at Issyk-kul; burial sites yielding treasures removed to Russia, and the petroglyphs. If, over time, I find more information on these subjects, I may add links to this page.

The notes which follow were taken day by day on a Palm V. I have posted them with minimal editing, giving preference to speed over literary merit, so please read leniently.


Fri 7th: we first spoke to the Kazakh embassy about my planned trip four months ago, when AIMS needed other visas re the Kazakhstan Investment Fund which it manages. Not convenient for the consul then, so we started again two months ago. He needed to see the ticket before issuing - and routing could not be finalised until nearer the time - so we started again two weeks ago. Consul out at a conference most of the week - but this week should be fine. So we submitted the final application and passport first thing on Monday. They are going down to the wire, but do this every time, so we are not unduly phased. Two days to go, we told the Kazakhs that if they cannot issue, we will just take back passport and forget visa. Tomorrow, they say. Once we get the passport back, the Kyrgyz are on standby to issue the correction to a double entry visa originally requested (much palaver with Bishkek, but they are trying to obey their nonsensical bureaucratic procedures while being fundamentally helpful). Marina heads off in the morning to collect. Consul out, back in the afternoon. He isn't. Panic sets in at about 4pm. The consul is AWOL, and so is his wife. Vodka is apparently unlikely; speculation turns to road accidents. The Kazakh ambassador joins the hunt. The Kyrgyz consul says no problem, he will come back into the office after supper; please call him there at 8.30. Kazakh embassy undertakes to stay open until consul materialises. It doesn't - but we now have the consul's home number. No answer. At 8.30, call Kyrgyz consul, apologize, tell him we may be able to have lunch next week if whole trip cancelled. He gives me his home number, and tells me to call later. Just after 9pm, Marina tracks down the Kazakh. He will go to his office immediately (5 minutes for him, more for me). I get there. No answer. Call the house. Drunken non-English speaking persons. And again. Finally get through to wife. Clueless. At 9.45, after I have been standing outside the embassy door ringing the bell and making calls for 20 minutes, the consul suddenly opens the door. He was on the phone and could not be bothered before. To his office. Huff, puff, he is being put to much trouble. 30 minutes later, passport and inflexible visa in hand, I escape. Call Kyrgyz consul; he will stand outside his apartment and wait for my car. Pick him up at 10.30, go to Kyrgyz embassy, unlock all their security gates and doors, settle in while consul sorts out the requisite chops and paperwork, which takes another half-hour. Drop him home at 11.15; arrive home at 11.45 to organise and pack - for this trip which will take us from furnace temperatures in the Taklamakan up to nights in the snow and ice, and for which we are required to be fully equipped, but to travel light. Packing takes a while. 2.5 hours sleep.

Sat 8th: to Beijing, which has a bright white new airport, and thence to Urumqi. Met the rest of the party & celebrated briefly with local beer and kebabs before catching the permitted four hours' sleep.

Sun 9th: 13hrs driving. First a 6hr drive westwards, inspecting the local art of petrol station design. Our favourite was disguised as an aeroplane, the designs of the big firms are more corporate but all different; diversity and number (pairs of stations every few hundred yards) suggest a titanic struggle. Near the oil town of Kuytun, delicious fried noodles with chili & aubergine & crisp string beans; the waitress here knows that platform shoes are "in". Then southwards, through a "No Foreigners" sign. An army checkpoint enquires incredulously whether we did not see this sign, and tells us to go back despite our special permit, but our Uyghur guide Tash charmed us through. First Kazakh yurt is occupied by a friendly family whom we watch milking mares. Did not get as far as hoped, stopped at a yurt hotel.

Mon 10th: to Swan Lake - supposedly one of the world's major breeding grounds but no swans there now. Anyway v  beautiful, and we saw ground squirrel, horseherds rounding up runaways, & a Mongol yurt camp tending yaks & horses. Slaughter scenes becoming familiar. Lunch & supper in the cowboy town of Bayanbulak, both accompanied by the movie True Lives, starring Schwarzneger, Jamie Lee Curtis & the Harrier jump-jet. Stayed in a compound with incongruous Swiss chalet & Mickey Mouse curtains. Bambi is the establishment pet - the men say they found it in the hills, with mother nowhere to be seen, but look sheepish, & we suspect they shot her.

Tues 11th: through fabulous pastureland, horse heaven, where we saw large herds of yak & horses (several hundred head, one horseherd) & over a high pass (where Peter bought a felt rug & a wooden bowl, & the rest of us some delicious goat cheeses) into Karakoram-stark scenery & a steep descent to Dragon Lakes. Stop for lunch, with naan fresh from an open-air oven, a lady sitting on top & alternately kneading, spinning flat, stamping with patterns, & placing in brick furnace-oven with big tongs. Spectacular rock formations downstream - crimson, pink, amazing colours. Old-fashioned coal-mines, with shafts 1-2 men wide & rickety pit props; coal beds burning into charcoal. On to Kizil, stopping for a deafening crunch under bonnet: fan cowling had collapsed into fan, no longer aerodynamic. Kizil cave paintings C4-7th, astonishingly bright blue (lapis lazuli), aquamarine & in some places russet (mostly oxidised to black) & gold leaf (mostly scratched off). Some figures v lively - musician with pipa, eagle-beaked monkey, Buddha encoiled by snake, winged angel-figures - & some ceilings with lively abstract paintings. Delightful shady grove below, with delicious creamy-coloured mulberries.

Wed 12th: Visited the ruined city of Subashi ("head of the river") = old Kucha - peak prosperity under Eastern Han C4th - the ruins very distantly visible on opposite side of river were all part of the same settlement (river bridged then, not now) so it was very extensive. Then a 15hr drive, during which both jeeps broke down, so we limped slowly into Kashgar at 3am.

Thurs 13th: breakfast in the older buildings of the Russian consulate, where we have been staying. A quick visit to the C15th mosque with its shady garden courtyard, in the main square of the old town, full of colourful characters and with a very Central Asian feel. Then off to the Torugart Pass, through multiple checkpoints and 5 Chinese passport inspections and 100 miles of no-man's land to the top of the pass where our Kyrgyz escorts awaited us - passing some French travellers stuck there for 3 days due to non-appearance of their Chinese escort, & a cyclist who had pedalled solo from Germany & just encountered the same predicament. He later arrived at the Kyrgyz border post as we were awaiting the afternoon opening, firmly rejected by China despite a valid visa and his own transport. We passed smoothly through, the officers barely glancing at the fiendishly detailed customs declarations thanks to the beer brought by Andrei & Oleg that morning. Stopped at a spring of delicious sparkling mineral water, & watched marmots scurrying down burrows. The Dragon's Back, a spectacular rock formation, represents one Chinese invasion repelled by Kyrgyz hero. Tash Rabat, a C10-13th caravanserai, has horse & camel stabling, cosy guest rooms for travelling merchants, a 250m escape tunnel, and two 8m pits about 1.5m diameter for confining prisoners, up to 5 in a pit. Also some arches in the domed central chamber which have led to speculation on origins as an Armenian orthodox church. Stayed in a yurt by a sparkling mountain river (finger-numbing to wash in), with a delightful family. Grandpa was proudly wearing a Soviet campaign medal from WWII, and six year old Geoffrey showed off his English, learned at boarding school (Sept-May, with 2 weeks New Year holiday & 1 week in the autumn) from an American volunteer. Johan suffered from altitude sickness, was given oxygen for an hour or so but failed to recover and was taken on to Naryn (2800m v our current 3500m).

Fri 14th: drove past a decommissioned Soviet nuclear missile site. Watched hawks & swifts over the ruins of a 7-800yr old fort at Albashi. We gave a lift to two ladies from the yurt, and with their help tracked down a world-famous felt maker/designer, Jangyl Alibyekova, and saw the wool being beaten to tenderise it. We all bought or ordered something; then bowls of yogurt were produced, and a "Kyrgish cream tea", bread with clotted cream and home-made raspberry compote. At Naryn, we saw a wooden water mill built by the Tsarist army, then hot showers & lunch in Celestial's guesthouse, & off to Son-kul (kul = lake) by a wondefully scenic mountain road - opened recently for short-cut summer access to a coal mine. Carpets of flowers - inc clover, dandelion, edelweiss, forget-me-not, poppies and thistle, but many others less familiar - arnica included. Stopped to watch a small boy with a hawk; his sister had a Nintendo game. Stayed in a yurt by a river, and rode one of their horses - but they understandably gave me a steady & stubborn old beast which I could not persuade into more than a trot. Over a trout supper, Andrei told us that most nomad marriages are by kidnapping. Looked very warily at the two unknown horsemen who rode up in the moonlight.

Sat 15th: morning ablutions in a hailstorm; subsequent snow, and then brighter weather as we descended to the startlingly blue Issyk-Kul, a lake warmed by underwater volcanic action. Visited a felt cooperative, where several of us bought the unsewn felts. Roadside apricots and walnuts, and a climb to a beautiful waterfall, before driving into Karakol and the hospitality of Valentin. 9 bottles of Russian champagne were consumed before dinner...

Sun 16th: visited Karakol's Sunday livestock market and general market. Some of the Russians are morose & hostile - but ladies selling hats of marmot & water rat & wolf fur were jolly. Pickpockets hover visibly, but a lost earring of no value was returned to me with a smile. Karakol has wooden houses with decorated eaves & windows, but generally ill-maintained. A great contrast to the yurt-proud & hospitable nomads. Valentin advises us not to go to other restaurants, for fear of mugging, and we are to stick together even in daylight. (We don't, but take note.) The Chinese mosque, built early C20th by Chinese moslems who had fled persecution, is an interesting stylistic mix, but appears lightly attended given that the Kyrgyz are nominally moslem. The religion is overlaid on a more evident shamanist base. The main Russian orthodox church has a green wooden body and golden onion domes. The Przhevalsky museum is a splendid memorial to the explorer, with maps and diaries and excellent drawings. The torpedo-testing base nearby now has rusting hulks of small naval vessels. Vodka night.

Mon 17th: up to Altyn-Arashan in ex-Soviet jeep & ex-German army truck, stopping for wild strawberries. Grade 2/3 white water all the way - wonderful canoeing, and a natural for commercial rafting. A short walk by meadows and forest paths full of flowers leads to a hot spring, dammed for bathing. An afternoon walk up the valley in pouring rain, then an evening drying out with the last of the malt whisky in front of  a log fire.

Tues 18th: walked down the valley, stopping for wild blueberries (sour), then drove on  anti-clockwise round Issyk-kul. Stopped to inspect the entrance to a 15km tunnel/cave complex, said to have been used by C4-5th Armenian Christians escaping persecutors. Anatoly, living for the summer in a caravan, keeping bees amongst meadows full of flowers (and marijuana), invited us in for fresh peppermint tea and large chunks of honey, cut from a comb which he took from the hive just for us. In Cholpon-Ata, saw some of the 1300 petroglyphs in the area, boulder carvings and paintings of goats, men on horses, etc, said to be 2000-2500 years old, and possibly moved by  glaciers. Thence to the Cholpon-Ata sanitorium, a Soviet treat for the elite, still nominally state-owned, with a private retreat for the President at its heart, and now open to paying guests - but the occupants of the ministerial limos apparently do not pay, and the fruits of ownership (possibly substantial, as prices are by local standards high) are said to be siphoned away. This is a strange, rather run-down, eerily empty establishment - but the grounds are pleasant, the beach clean, the lake clear and refreshing, and the views of snow-topped mountains above fir-lined lake quite memorable. Only after we leave do we discover that it is also famously radioactive.

Wed 19th: inspected the limited visible remains on shore of some sunken cities, on which Andrei has dived, but he knows little of their history. The Kyrgyz archaeology department exists, but apparently does little, for lack of impetus and money, while collaboration with foreigners is taboo after some bad experience with treasure-hunters. A shame; the potential is clearly huge. Visited the Burana tower, with ruins of a fort & major city destroyed by Genghis Khan after he cut off the water supply. A small museum there has clay pipes which carried water from the glaciers. We stopped by the roadside and bought one bucket of plums and one of apricots for US$1.20 - without the buckets, so there was a scramble to fill all available bags and pockets. In Bishkek we visited the Orthodox church, with fine architecture and icons, the history museum with monumental revolutionary scenes sculpted in greater-than-life-size bronze (or sometimes gilded plaster) and corresponding painted ceilings, and the art museum with some remarkably good paintings and sculptures of nomadic life.  Ian Claytor of Celestial, the travel company which we used, arranged a traditional dinner for us in a Kyrgyz house. Fortunately the sheep had already been slaughtered by the time we arrived.

Thurs 20th: a morning walk to the waterfall of Tash Bulak for an exhilarating shower of fine cold spray from a great height, followed by a picnic with excellent free-range chicken and multiple salads. Back in Bishkek, the others went off to buy carpets and rugs, while I headed for the gallery selling the petroglyph-ornamented ceramics of Jumagul Tashiev, and bought a vase and jug. We invited Andrei & Oleg to dinner with their wives, Olga and Galina, and they took us to an open-air restaurant in a leafy street.

Fri 21st: a long drive through lightly-populated areas to the run-down and mostly depopulated uranium mining town of Min Kush. The Chevy gearbox passed out in Bishkek so we now have one Mitsubishi and one Isuzu jeep. We found petrol for the one, measured out by the bucket from a tanker and poured in with a funnel, but diesel for the other is more problematic. Stopped to see a monument to a 2.7m giant and strongman who died of gunshot wounds in 1964 at the age of 66. He and his even stronger father were said to be descendants of the legendary national hero, Manas. Stayed the night at a yurt hotel in the Suusamyr valley; this one purpose-made, as opposed to the guest-yurts of nomad families in which we have stayed before. It is nevertheless very comfortable, with beds and lights in the yurts and a dining tent in which a magnificent dinner is laid out, and accompanied by champagne and vodka.

Sat 22nd: stopped for goulash and salad of home-grown tomatoes and onions at a roadside cafe run by a friendly family, then at the Toktogul hydroelectric dam, the first of several on the Naryn river. The dam is huge, capable of supplying all Kyrgyzstan; our engineer escort tells us that the 3km access tunnel is one of many, on multiple levels, and that 1500 workers per shift are on duty inside. Into the Fergana valley, with mulberry bushes on one side for the silk industry (ailing apparently in the last 7 years due to diseases, with low quality product), cotton on the other, and roadside vendors selling huge melons (several types) and luscious peaches. Heading up a valley to the mountain resort of Arslan Bob, tobacco predominates. The resort is Soviet-decrepit, and very popular with the locals, whose carousing keeps some members of the party awake into the small hours. I barricade my unlockable door, ignore occasional thumping thereon, and sleep like a log.

Sun 23rd: a 3hr walk up to waterfall before a breakfast of honeydew melon, crepes, yogurt and the famous local walnuts. Stopped in Ozgon to see three Islamic mausolea and a minaret, the patterning entirely by positioning of the clay bricks. The mosque was destroyed and Moslems persecuted in the 30's, under Stalin. Much jewellery was buried in the grounds for safety, and recovered only recently by archaeologists. Ozgon bazaar has entrance towers of coloured tile, Samarkand style, some 300yrs old. The stallholders are very friendly; I was diffident about photographing here but many asked to be taken, just for the fun. "Tourist?" they ask, nodding at the exoticism. On to Osh, where we climb Sulaiman's mount in the pouring rain, conclude that the city's 3000th anniversary celebrations scheduled for October may yet be ready in 2001, inspect the unimpressive tail-end of the legendary Osh bazaar, listen reluctantly to a concert by local singers who turn out to be remarkably good, fail to find any supper but shashlik in the park, and repair to a garden bar for a valedictory vodka.

Mon Jul 24th: our Intourist hotel finally has both lights and water - and even a decent breakfast. Osh airport is clean, efficiently run by friendly ladies, and has deep plush sofas in the sitting room. The flight to Bishkek, on a 27-seat Russian aircraft, is roughly on time, and driver Oleg from Almaty is there to meet me. Once in Almaty, things start to deviate from plan, but in the end I manage to see my two priority museums, with the exhumed "Golden Man" and some impressive bronzes, and the two Russian orthodox cathedrals (both built  in the first decade of the C20th so I am unclear why two, but anyway picturesque, and both - on a late Mon afternoon - with ongoing corner services and a flow of individual devotees, three quarters ladies, to specific icons.) Dinara of Almaty Land shows me our properties. Like Bishkek, the city is architecturally attractive and pleasantly leafy, with a closer mountain backdrop. Rarely would I be enthusiastic about a war memorial, but Almaty's is imposing, fearsome, huge, and effective; both the monument and the attractive park commemorate the "Panfilov heroes", 28 infantry soldiers who died fighting Nazi tanks outside Moscow. I dine with Alzhan, discussing everything from the antiquity of the petroglyphs to modern great gaming and the drug trade, then leave for the airport and a supposedly overnight flight to Bangkok. Fortunately I meet the FD of Central Asia Cement, two other Malaysian businessmen, and a Singaporean auditor from KPMG, who provide congenial company, plus business and passport horror stories, for the eventual 8-hour delay. Information flow is minimal, and sometimes conflicting (we are told at one point that the once-a-week flight is "cancelled", and I start planning escape via Beijing), so we stay in the one crowded waiting room, with no food or water. When the flight is finally called, hopes that compassion might moderate the expected customs shakedown prove optimistic, but a combination of obstinacy, feigned bewilderment and linguistic incompetence get me through harried but unscathed, with some mutterings about the British, while tolls are exacted from those who have been audibly and visibly preparing to pay. The plane, once materialised, is a comfortable Airbus; at last there is tea, and a pleasant surprise, small bars of good chocolate. Loud cheers on landing. A charming & efficient Thai lady manages just in time to find all of us seats on the last KL flight of the day, and to relocate all our bags from Kazakhstan's non-standard consignment system. Home.

Co-travellers: Joanne Wood, the organiser, David Ruiz, Ursula Daniel, Peter Ostwald, Rob and Diana Collins (Xinjiang), Eva and Johan Karlberg (Kyrgyzstan). Sadly missed: Rupert McCowan, caught for the CDL Hotels restructuring. Our key guides: Tashpulat (Xinjiang), Andrei (Kyrgyzstan).