Now that our time in yurts is over (forever?!), I could fully relax (well I still had to worry about bathroom breaks) and enjoy the rest of our journey around Kyrgyzstan. This country kept surprising me! The people were nice, the food was plentiful, the watermelon was given to me, the roads were in existence. Most of all, the landscape kept enthralling us with its extremely varied beauty. We still had a few more days driving with Sacha around Lake Issyk Kul and in small villages and towns before we landed in Bishkek, the big city capital. I liked the activities almost as much as I liked the fact that we had activities, but I started to get sick of the little villages. (Literally.) Hence my completely shocking personal revelation mentioned in the title.
After too many nights in freezing cold yurt camps, we started the next section of our Kyrgyzstan country tour, which would take us a little more towards civilization and, even better, into guest houses! We packed so much activity into these extremely active days and got to see so much of the country, which we grew to love. Maybe it's because I didn't have to pee outside anymore, maybe because I finally got to wash my hair, but I started having a swell old time.
If you've been a devoted reader of this here website, then you know that I ABSOLUTELY ADORE sleeping outside in the countryside and worrying 24/7 about bathroom access. Readers familiar with my simply outstanding time in Mongolia will be happy to know that there's more of that coming. That's right, our first night in Kyrgyzstan, discussed in the previous post about our entry into this country, was the first night of several back in the yurt camps of my youth. In addition to our first night booked with Kubat Tours, we had an eight-day tour of the country booked with the company NoviNomad, and I was so nervous that it would mirror our Mongolian adventure in more ways than the structure of our sleeping shelters. And while it did - it really did in a few ways - this experience was roughly 100 times better than that in Mongolia, so much so that we said many times "Kyrgyzstan is what Mongolia wishes it could be." Such a catchy catchphrase right?
After our six weeks in China, we planned to leave the western Xinjiang region of the country and enter Kyrgyzstan, one of the harder ‘stan names for me to remember in the past that would soon become my favorite one. But the journey from 'wait that's a real country' to 'this is my favorite stan' is a long one, one that doesn't resolve in this post or even the next one - first we have to cross a scary mountain pass to enter the country, and then we have more time in yurt camps! I know! Again! That's the next post; I know you can't wait to read more about how terrible I am in the outdoors. Today, let's talk about that mountain pass: the Torugart Pass, one of the lesser-known, lesser-traversed ways of going from Kyrgyzstan to China or vice versa.
So far on our Silk Road journey, the historical evidence of the oasis towns' roles in the past was there if you went looking amid the modernity - in Dunhuang if you went to the Mogao Caves; in Turpan if you went to the ruins; in Urumqi if you...closed your eyes and imagined it. In Kashgar, however, you're immediately transported to the ancient times of the Silk Road at its peak just by stepping foot in the city bounds. As soon as we got off the train, we knew this place was special, considered the pinnacle of a Silk Road exploration today for dern good reason. Given how dusty and old-fashioned and straight out of the history books it is, my fondness for Kashgar is surprising to say the least (I hate dust!). But when you see how unique a town it is, how deftly it combines the cultures that converge geographically at its location at the crossroads of central Asia, it's easy to understand why I loved it.
After our visit to Turpan, we took a super short train to Urumqi, which is the capital of the Xinjiang region. You know how state capitals are often not the best city in the state and usually not even in the top five? Like, Harrisburg you'd have to pay me to go back to. And Albany, I don't know anyone not in government who would ever want to go to Albany. I don't think anyone in government ever wants to go to Albany either but they have to. I still feel bad for my poor law school friends who were sent there to take the bar instead of the Javitts Center. Suuuucks. Anyway, same for Urumqi. It used to be a big deal on the Silk Road, as all these Xinjiang towns were because they had water and goods and people to help caravans and traders survive as they trekked through the desert. But now it's just, city. And not a particularly fun one, just...city.
Our next stop on our Silk Road journey was the city of Turpan (the English name) in the Xinjiang region of China. It's also known as Turfan and Tulufan (in Uighur and Chinese) while I, on the other hand, refer to it as Turpan Alley, because it is a bit of a hole. Turpan was a fertile little oasis town back in the day, and today (and probably back then too) is known as "China's Death Valley" because it's one of the few places below sea level and also because IT'S DUCKING HOT AS BALLS. It's so hot and sunny and dry that walking around the city would have been uncomfortable even if it wasn't a bit of a hole. Apparently, the Chinese like to say that Turpan is farther from the ocean than any other place in the world, which I don't doubt but that is a chitty thing to brag about. (I hate feeling landlocked! I love being near water! This trip is difficult for me.) The best part about Turpan (and Xinjiang) is that this climate grows some insane delicious watermelon.
It's unclear when exactly we should say we began our exploration of the ancient Silk Road, not one road so much as a cross-continental network of trade routes and passes from China, across most of central Asia, and possibly all the way to Rome. (Sea routes stretching from Indonesia to Africa were also part of it, but we didn't do any watersports; it's all desert from here on out.) Xi'an was considered a terminus of it, but today it's such a modern busy city that it didn't seem very 'Silk Road-y' to us when we were there; we were still in 'China' mindset and not 'incredible desert history' mindset. But there's no question that once we landed in Dunhuang, our journey through the Silk Road had begun. Dunhuang was one of the most important historical sites of the Silk Road both then and now, and it has provided tons of insight into the dealings and relationships among people, religious groups, and states from ancient times. If you go to Dunhuang, you are unquestionably there to go back in time and learn about its role in the Silk Road.