Kunming is known in China as the eternal Spring city due to its nice weather all year long, so we headed there hoping for sunny and warm weather after being in permanent cold since Mashhad in Iran. Well, what we found in Kunming was rain, even colder weather than in the Stans and a freezing cold hostel, so the visit to the city was reduced from 2 days to a single one. Please, Kunming should be known as the Winter city!
We told the staff at Chengdu's hostel that we were heading for Kunming. "Oh, they have a beautiful weather, there!", they told us. So we happily got on the train, which after 20 hours took us to the eternal Spring city.
Like in Iran, the Internet connection in China didn't allow for much. Everything is blocked and the speed is slow, so not the best conditions to keep a blog. Anyway, after being through all the Stans in Central Asia, we jumped into China for a taste of real Asia!
To be honest, we were quite looking forward to leave the Stans and enter China. The Stans are nice, especially Uzbekistan, but they look too much like Europe (especially Kazakhstan), so after spending a couple of weeks there we were feeling like having a radical change and get deep into Asia.
5 days spent in the former Kazakh capital which could have been easily spent in any European city without noticing the change. Almaty has everything a European (or Western) big city has: shopping streets, fancy restaurants and cafés, big avenues, good cars... and expensive prices. Anyway, we have had a taste of Kazakhstan and some fun ice-skating in the highest ice-rink in the world.
We arrived in Almaty after a 5-hour marshrutka ride from Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan). The trip was quite pleasant as the road was good and the border crossing presented no problems at all.
When you get into Kazakhstan you don't notice many changes from Kyrgyzstan in terms of landscape, probably a bit less mountanious, but that's all. but you do notice when you get to Almaty. The city is huge, modern, with tall and new buildings, good cars on the streets... it feels like you are back in Europe instead of deeper into Central Asia.
After spending almost a week in Bishkek, it was time to get the backpack on again and head towards Karakol, the main town in the Issyk-Kul region, east of Kyrgyzstan. We spent 4 days there, where we were able to see a wonderful mountain landscape, the huge Issyk-Kul lake and heve some small New Year's celebration.
We took our backpack and went to Bishkek's bus station. After almost a week without carrying it, we were back on the road! At the station, after checking different prices, we jumped into a marshrutka which, for 300 soms, would take us to Karakol, the capital of the Issyk-Kul region, probably the most visited in Kyrgyzstan. The most visited in the summer, definitely not in the winter, as we were the only tourists there.
We spent almost one week in Bishkek doing nothing but updating the website, applying for the visa to Kazakhstan and going to a banya. In between, a one-day trip to the nearby Ala Archa National Park for a small trekking and superb views of Kyrgyz mountain landscape and some small Christmas celebration.
After the two days spent in Osh the plan was to spend at least 5 days in Bishkek just doing practically nothing. It was the first country with cheap enough accomodation to be able to spend days updating the website, writing the missing posts and just resting. Besides, Christmas day was going to be soon, so we just booked a nice apartment and stayed there for almost one week, finally.
After a few relaxing days in Khujand, we crossed into Kyrgyzstan and spent 2 days in Osh before heading north towards Bishkek, the capital. An animal bazar and meeting a nice old man there were the highlights of the town, as the man spent almost all day with us showing us around, giving explanations... really good first impression of Kyrgyz people. It felt like Iran!
As you don't need visa to enter Kyrgyzstan, the border crossing from Tajikistan was the easiest one. No checkings, just a small stamp on the passport and you are free to spend a couple of months in the country. It should be like this everywhere!
Arriving in Tajikistan after the hectic week in both Turkmenistan and especially Uzbekistan due to the visa restrictions, was like a breath of fresh air. For the first time since probably Turkey, we didn't have to rush anywhere and we could just rest and update the web a bit. We only stayed in the city of Khujand, although the most important thing Tajikistan has to offer its visitors are the Pamir mountains. But as it is winter, the access is quite complicated, expensive and time-consuming. Besides, we're supposed to go to Nepal in a few months, so we'll have plenty of mountains there!
After the bus from Tashkent dropped us by the border with Tajikistan, we entered the building to come accross a small problem: to leave Uzbekistan you have to hand out a copy of the customs declaration we filled in when we entered Uzbekistan. Problem: we didn't have the copy. The border guards in Olot probably forgot to give us a copy of it. Great.
Unfortunately we only got a 3-day transit visa in Uzbekistan. A really shame, as at least this country deserves 10 days, probably more. We visited the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand to be able to assure that Uzbekistan is the Silk Road as you always imagined it: palaces, medressas, mosques, minarets, squares, narrow streets... you are transferred to ancient times and only the camels and merchants are missing. A totally recommendable country to visit, but spend at least 10 days or 2 weeks in it.
After the 5 days spent in the prison-like Turkmenistan, we were really looking forward to crossing into Uzbekistan. It would be the first country after Armenia with no restrictions: free internet, free alcohol, no stupid laws... but unfortunately we could only spend 3 days in the country as we only got a transit visa (a 30-day visa was time-consuming and expensive to get because you need a letter of invitation). This meant we had to skip some places to visit and we would have to rush everywhere to make the most of the visit. We chose to go first to Bukhara and then to Samarkand, the two nicest places in Uzbekistan, according to the reserach we did. And we proved ourselves right, although that meant leaving important places behind like, for example, Khiva. Next time!
Turkmenistan is a big shock. Especially coming from Iran. At first you feel like you are entering a country of the future, but later you realize this is one of the least tourist-friendly countries in the world, where everything is forbidden and where people are even scared of going out from home. The capital, Ashgabat, is mostly a pile of white marble buildings with no people on the street, whereas Turkmenabat has no appeal at all. The only feeling after spending 5 days in the country is just being sorry for the people living there. However, it has been interesting experiencing a totalitarian country similar to North Korea, if just to feel lucky not being Turkmen.
The taxi from Quchan dropped us on the Iranian side of the border. After a painless passport control and getting the stamp out of Iran, we crossed to the Turkmen side. Only 10 meters but you already felt you were entering Central Asia, as the police officers were all with Asian features. On the Iranian side there were no people at all, but on the Turkmen one quite a lot of people were waiting to cross as all the procedure was stopped due to some unknown reason. Anyway, after some 2 hours everything got normal, we payed 11 USD as an entrance tax (yes, besides the 55 USD you pay for your 5-day transit visa you still have to pay more at the border), we went through the gate and got a Turkmen stamp on the passport.
Mashhad, the holiest city in Iran and the place where millions of people come every year in pilgrimage, was our last destination in Iran before heading North to Turkmenistan. A visit to the shrine and picking up our Turkmen visa was all we did in this 100% religious city.
The 13-hour overnight bus ride from Kerman to Mashhad was quite pleasant. Again a VIP bus with soft and big seats, room for legs... the only disturbance was that, as we were driving all the time along the border with Afghanistan, only a few kilometers from there, there were a lot of police checkpoints. In one of them, I was woken up around 6 or 7 in the morning by a policeman who got on the bus: "Tourist? Telephone, telephone, go, go!!" Those were the only words that idiot knew in English. I was half asleep and gave him my telephone and got off the bus with him.
Born in Barcelona and raised in Olot, I've been interested in travelling since I was a child, when every Summer I crossed Spain from coast to coast with my parents. Listening to my siblings' stories about their trips all over the world also helped, as well as watching Around the World with Willy Fog on TV :)
As I grew up, and while I was still studying... read more