Seven weeks on the Silk Road - Spring 2007
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Silkroad Trip May and June 2007



Silk road

Uzbekistan Kyrgyzstan


For months now I have been hearing rumors about possible lay-offs. To me it does not sound too bad; I will leave the company with a couple of months pay. Just what I need to fund my long planned Silk Road trip, or should I do the Alexander route to India? Never mind, eastwards it will be for sure. What is not so sure is when I will be made redundant. I see my colleagues leave one by one...but I have to stay onboard.

uzbeki ladiesSo I boldly tell my boss that I need at least 7 weeks off to do my thing, surprisingly he agrees. So I am ready for a mini Silk Road trip on which I will see Alexander’s footsteps several times.

I pick a part of the Silk Road that we have not yet traveled. From Uzbekistan to Kashgar in China and from there down to Pakistan to end in India. Crossing the Pamirs, Karakoram, along the Hindukush and into the Himalayas.

The planning of the trip keeps me busy for months. It is not easy to get the necessary visas in a timely manner. One country issues visas that are valid from a certain date, other visas expire after a certain date and some are valid for a certain date. I need an excel sheet to plan the dates the visas need to be issued. Luckily Brussels has all the embassies and I am only a 30-minute drive away from there. Still, a serious amount of money is spent on visas (233 euro per person).

That was the easy part, now I have to find a ticket to Uzbekistan and back from India at a price that allows me to still have some money to travel. Finally I find what I need. Not by an Internet search engine, but thanks to a travel agent I find an open jaw from Brussels to Istanbul, then Istanbul to Tashkent and returning from New Delhi to Istanbul and back to Brussels for 671 euro. I accept.
Then 2 more domestic flights: Tashkent - Khiva 60 USD and Leh-New Delhi 80 euro finish the overall planning.

So on the map, this is what I will do: Fly to Tashkent and fly onwards to Urgench, by road to Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand. Go overland to Kyrgyzstan via de Ferghana Valley and cross the Pamirs to enter China. From there I will take the Karakoram highway to Pakistan where I will cross the Wagah border to India. And in India I will travel back up north to almost finish the loop I started in Kashgar, before I fly out from New Delhi.


The Silk Road

Traveling along the Silk Road had been at the back of my mind for a long time. Images of camel convoys laden with all kinds of exotics goods & spices, an evocation of men traversing scorching deserts and climbing over freezing mountain passes.

nr 1 In 2005 we were in Venice, Italy at the Campo dei Mori (the Arab quarter), admiring the freeze of man and his camel ready to embark on a trip to the mythical land Cathay. Yes, we were ready to do a similar trip. Time and money were the only constraints. Not having the necessary time and money an armchair travel was begun instead.

Sure, we had visited some caravanserais in Turkey (saray, meaning mansion) and Iran (Sarai) before, but now we started to realize that these serais were at one time linking Byzantium with Cathay. One could travel safely from Turkey to China under the protection of the local rulers. The Silk Road was not a single route stretching east to west - from China to the Mediterranean. In fact the Silk Road is a simple name for a complex network. The name Silk Road was given by the German geographer Ferdinand Von Richthoven in approx. 1870.

The history of the Silk Road goes back for millennia. Trade already existed as Jade from Yarkand, Lapis Lazuli from the Pamir mountains and of course the Silk from China were already much sought after, even before Alexander the Macedonian went on a pillage tour to India. Marco Polo did it in a more modest way and Benedict de Goes did it under the cloak of an Armenian trader. The 19th century western explorers like Sven Hedin and Marc Aurel Stein did it for the science. The region was about to give its last secrets away….

Interesting reads are “the great game” by Peter Hopkirk and  “mission to Tashkent” by F.M Bailey, a spy in the secret service of her majesty. Both give an excellent account about the clash of the two world powers of that time, Imperial England and Tsarist Russia. England was afraid of a Russian invasion in their jewel of the Empire India, and both wanted to control China. Imperialism at its peak!

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Khiva, outside the city walls



Samarkand, Bukhara, Tashkent and Kokand were once prosperous cities along the Silk Road. Now they just are exotic names from far away places. For decades they were hidden behind the iron curtain of the USSR and since a couple of years one can visit them freely again.

On the 6th of may 2007 we set off for some long and many times uncomfortable travel. Brussels to Istanbul and another flight 6 hours later to Tashkent. We arrive at 2 in the morning and have to wait till seven in the morning to take the domestic flight to Urgench. From here we have to take a taxi to Khiva (10 USD). 24 hours of travel. We are exhausted, but we have done in 1 day what the ancient Silk Road traders would have taken months to accomplish!
It is no surprise that Turkish airlines dominate these routes. We will be able to use Turkish words and numbers all the way to Xinjiang in China. The plane to Tashkent is full of Turkish traders carrying their trade to Central Asia as they have done for eons, but know they come for the oil, gas and minerals.



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In Khiva we check in at the hotel Lolita @ 30 USD for a double room. Nice enough. Sleep!

nr 4 Khiva is a small desert city. In its heyday it became rich with the slave trade (Persian, Kurdish, Russian…). Getting to Khiva involved a journey across desserts, trying to evade the Turk tribesman of the steppes and surviving the thieves, pirates and murderers lurking around town.
In 1717, a Russian army of 4.000 men were treacherously slain by the Khan. The Prince Bekovich was flayed alive and his skin stretched over a drum. In 1839 General Perovsky failed again to take Khiva with his 5.000 men and 10.000 camels. Defeated by the harsh winter conditions, not a shot was fired. Only by 1873 were the Russians able to take control of Khiva.

Today, Khiva is a beautifully albeit “over” restored museum city that allows you see how the city looked in the good old days. The city walls are impressive, the palace has become a museum and one of the madrassas has even been converted into a hotel. Tourism seems to be the present day income. They can’t be making a lot of money as we only meet few other tourists.







nr 5Since 1967 Khiva has the status of a museum city. The inner city or old city is called Ichan Kala. Only 2.000 of the 40.000 or so inhabitants of Khiva live in this area. Islam and vodka seems to go peacefully hand in hand here. There are no muezzins calling for prayer, and most madrrassas have been converted to museums. No need to remove your shoes. We leave with a positive impression that it is a friendly, yet commercial place. We stayed 2 days, which is enough to see the place.

Wednesday, 9 may 2007. The day of victory over fascism! There is not a lot around Khiva that shows it commemorates this day. Our taxi driver, a Tajik from Bukhara, has kept the USSR save for 2 years at the German border. I will meet many more like that. We bond immediately as we find out that it was around the same time that I did my tour of duty. He is very proud of his soldier days, were I was just counting of the days. I guess the Russians did not want the Tajiks fighting in Afghanistan against their brothers, so they were shipped to the other side of the empire.





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On the way from Khiva to Bukhara we stop at the Amu Darya river, or “Oxus” river as it is better known from the Alexander tales. The Sogdians lived between the Oxus and the Jaxartes (Syr Darya). Sogdiana (Airyana Vaeja, Land of the Aryans) was a satrapy of the Persian Empire already in 500 BC.

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For lunch we stop at a road restaurant for lagman and shashlik. I really do not like the Uzbek food. It is greasy, oily, and filled with chunks of undefined meat. I will not have a decent meal until we arrive in Xinjiang. I start to understand why they drink vodka with their food.



 In the afternoon we arrive in Bukhara. We stay at the Norodir hotel for 30 USD a double. Rita thinks it is one on the nicest rooms we ever stayed in on our travels.
The city of Bukhara has been around for a long time. Already in the 6th century BC the Persian Achaemenids were here, and so was Alexander in 329 BC, eager to relieve the inhabitants of their livelihood. Until 709 it was a fire-worshipping city, when it fell under the Arab invasion.
In 1220 it was time for the Mongols to raze the city to the ground. Apparently Genghis Khan called himself the Scourge of God: “If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me”
The 19th century saw no greater madman as Nasrullah. Already as a young man, to secure his succession, he ordered 28 of his close relatives murdered, and 3 of his younger brothers to be beheaded on the banks of the Oxus. Even on his deathbed he only passed away after having his wife and 3 daughters executed to ensure their continued chastity in his absence.

The Ark Fortress is nice to look at from the outside, but on the inside much everything is in ruins. The exhibitions are old and dusty. It seems to attract only school kids.

In June of 1842, Colonel Charles Stoddart and Captain Arthur Conolly were forced to dig their own grave in front of the Ark and were consequently beheaded. After the retreat from Kabul, Nasrullah believed the British to be a second rate power. The British Government chose to drop the matter. Their bodies still lay somewhere under the Registan. (See the great game by Hopkirk). In 1920 The Bolsheviks bombarded and destroyed most of the Ark, and only an estimated 25% of the building is left over

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The Ismael Samani Mausoleum (10th century) is one of the oldest structures in town.
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 This building is from a much earlier date than most other building in Bukhara. Unlike the majolica and mosaic decorated buildings, this building is completely made with terracotta bricks. These bricks are placed in such an order that it creates a relief. The colors of the building change during the day and with a full moon it would seem that the building is made out of silver.

In March 1220, Genghis Khan and his Mongols arrived in front of the gates of Bukhara. The city razed to the ground, those that were not slaughtered were used as human shields for the Samarkand attack. Luckily he missed this one, as by that time it already lay hidden under the sand. It was only rediscovered and excavated at the beginning of the 20th century.


Chor Minor means 4 Minarets (char in Hindi) nr 10






Behind the ark is the Zindon (jail). This is were Stoddart and Conolly met their gruesome fate in the black pit.

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nr 12The Kalon Minaret towers over the city with its 48 meters. The 47 meter high tower was built in 1127 and has 10 meters of foundation, this making it earthquake proof. Kalan means big and it must have been the tallest building of Central Asia at that time. Impressed by it’s seize, it was spared by Genghis. The 105 steps up can be climbed for a small fee. In earlier days it was used as watchtower, beacon and to through off convicted criminals at market days.

 Friday the 11th of May ‘07. We spend the entire morning chasing banks so we can change euros to SUM. 125 euros is all that is available for exchange in the whole of Bukhara, and we had to visit 3 banks before we get this kind of money gathered.  The bank tellers look at us as if we are robbing them of their last fortunes.


Mir-I-Arab (prince of Arabs) Madrassah

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We then decide to take a stroll that takes us to the jewelers market. In Uzbekistan getting married is a big thing. We had already seen lots of wedding dress stores, and here on the gold market it is all about wedding presents. The women, who gladly pose for us on the photos, warmly greet us.
The same thing happens at the fruit and veggie market. Nobody refuses to have their photo taken. We are greeted with the warmth and curiosity. We love these people.

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The clothes market                                          The gold market

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The fruit market                                          The spice market




Saturday, 12 may ’07. The same taxi driver will now take us to Samarkand. He seems a bit worried when he drops us of at B&B Bahodir. Surely, this is no place for such distinguished people like us! We love it! Room costs 9 USD a person and 1 USD buys a dinner that is absolutely fantastic. Most of the other guests seem to be overlanders with bikes, motorbikes, jeeps and trucks. This is where they can recharge their batteries.

The mirror of the world, the garden of the soul; the jewel of Islam, the pearl of the East, the centre of the universe…
The city proper claims equity with Rome and Babylon, for archeologists date urban settlement at least to the sixth century BC.
Most of Samarkand’s attractions are from the time of Timur and his grandson Ulugbek. Timur chose Samarkand as capital of his empire in 1370 and employed many architects and artists to create the many buildings adorned with gold and azure blue colors. Many of these artists came to Samarkand unwillingly as they were captured during the expansion of his empire that stretched all to way from Istanbul to China.

The Registan

The Registan is what most people have in mind when they think about Samarkand or even Uzbekistan. And a awesome sight it is. The Registan is restored to its original splendor and the majolica and azure mosaics make this one of the wonders of the Islamic world. The Registan is surrounded on three sides by enormous madrassas (Islamic school and University). The oldest one (Ulugh Bek) is situated on the west side and was built in 1420. The Sher Dor is located on the east side and dates from 1636, and the middle one is the Tilla Kari, which dates from around 1660.

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For 3000 sum a policeman allows me to take the stairs all the way to the top for a great view of the city.
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    Islam forbids depicting animals                               View from the minaret 

Bibi Khanym Mosque

Flush with the plunder from the sack of Delhi in 1398, Timur wanted to create a mosque without parallel. The best slave-artisans in the realm labored to realize the emperor’s plan. 95 elephants imported from India hauled wagons laden with marble.

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According to legend, Bibi Khanym, Timur Chinese wife, ordered the building of the mosque as a surprise during his absence. The architect fell madly in love with her and refused to finish the job unless he could give her a kiss. Alas, the ardour of his passion left a mark on her; Timur executed the architect and ordered all women to wear a veil as not to tempt other men.

Shah-I-Zinda (The living King)

The holiest site in Samarkand is a necropolis of mausoleums. The amount of ceramic art used here is simply astounding!
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The legend of the living king was probably used by the Arab invaders to establish Kussam-ibn-abbas, a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, by adapting a pre-Islamic mythical ruler, reigning beyond death beneath the earth. Thus converting the fire worshipping Sogdians to Islam.
The Timurid aristocracy continued the tradition of building mausoleums near the secret site.


Gur Emir Mausoleum

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Should the sky disappear, the dome will replace it.

The inside of the mausoleum is the resting place of Timur, two of his sons, and two grandsons, including Ulugbhek. Especially the inside of the mausoleum is impressive, the dome above the graves is gold plated and shows a surreal view with the spots directed on them.


 Ancient Samarkand (Afrosiab)

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Much of the Markanda (old samarkand) site is left to the elements. From the sixth century BC to 1220 AD the Sogdians lived here as go-betweens of East-West commercial and religious relations
At the time of Alexander the III. Markanda had 7 km of city walls. From here on he traveled north to cross the Jaxartes to outdo the Persians. He could now claim to have traveled beyond the Persian borders. His men were not too happy. This was considered to be the border with the Gods, the end of the world! Cyrus was killed here in 530 BC and Darius had very little success in 514 BC.
More than a few skirmishes with the Scythians (Saka in Persian) he could not accomplish. An army cannot fight against nomads who have no city to defend. So he contended himself by creating Alexander Eschaté (the furthest) at the mouth of the Ferghana valley, grab all the lapis lazuli he could carry and moved on to bug the Indians. Actually, he first had to put down a Sogdian rebellion by the ruler Spitames that used the Zoroaster religion as a way to unite against the invaders.

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It took Alexander 2 years to put down the rebellion. He ended up having to marry Roxana, the daughter of a Sogdian leader to ease local dissent. Later she bore his only son.
The museum holds some 7th century murals about the live on the Silk Road.
Some leftovers from Alexander’s visit include silver coins, swords and knives





Ferghana Valley

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Monday, 14th of May ‘07. Today will be entirely spent on traveling.
At 06.55 AM our train leaves to Tashkent, costing 5500 Sum, or 3 euro and 43 cents for 5 hours on the train in a second class. This buys a very comfortable seat and breakfast of tea, coffee and a sausage sandwich.
We leave the Bahodir hotel with regrets, and a 2-euro taxi ride takes us to the station. A good sleep on the train makes the trip very short and at 12 noon we arrive in Tashkent. We immediately charter a taxi, and for 35 euro we go onwards to Ferghana city.  Entering the Ferghana valley is very impressive. So far we have seen the dry part of Uzbekistan, but now we enter a fertile valley. Apparently, we are also entering a danger zone. Several military checks along the way, but our driver seems unconcerned.
The Ferghana valley is more conservative than the rest of Uzbekistan and is a hotbed for terrorism. The president Islam Karimov (in nomen est omen) is caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand he needs to control the Taliban terrorist coming into the Ferghana valley from the border with Afghanistan and on the other hand Uzbekistan is Internationally condemned for human rights abuse in dealing with the Islamic fundamentalists. This leads to economic sanctions against Uzbekistan, which hurts the economy, which in turn drives impoverished people into the hands of the fundamentalist. A catch 22!

We have a stopover at Kokand to visit the Kokand palace, and arrive late in the evening in Ferghana to find that all the hotels are full. A conversation between the driver and a hotel clerk gets us to an unimpressive B&B. For 20 USD a person we do not argue. 1 night will suffice as we wish to travel onwards to Kyrgyzstan. Anyway, by luck we find a Turkish restaurant and a Kebab with Ayran (sour milk) lifts our spirit again.

nr 28Tuesday, 15th of May’07. We get up at 8 and enjoy a rather good breakfast of pancakes and some sort of pastries.
Then we have to wait till 10, the owner has agreed to bring us with his Lexus to the border for 22 USD, with a stop at the Margilan silk factory.
We seem to have spent to much time over there because he looks very unhappy when we get back at the car. An additional 5-dollar makes him happy again. And off to the border we go.
When I friendly ask the tour guide of the silk factory if they sell some nice silk men shirts he acts surprised and says that the Koran forbids men to wear silk clothes. Okay, no sale then. This reminds me that the Roman Senate issued several edicts as well to prohibit the wearing of silk. The import of Chinese silk caused a huge outflow of gold and also wearing silk was supposed to be decadent and immoral. (Seneca the younger in Declamations complaining about clothes that do not hide the body)

One more thing I want to mention that I heard in Uzbekistan: The women in Uzbekistan smell at a rose in the morning, so after this smell the whole day will be nice.





Kyrgyzstan was once the land of the Saka (Saka in Persian, called Scythians by the Greek ) who ruled the land from about the 6 century BC to the fifth century AD. They were proud warriors that were not a bit impressed by Alexander’s army. He was never able to defeat the nomadic Saka, as there were no cities to defend.  Rich bronze and silver relics have been recovered from Scythian burial mounds at lake Issyk-Kul and in southern Kazakhstan.

Islam came with the Turkic tribes from the 10th centuries and the Russians started coming closer at the end of the 19th Century.

Today Kyrgyzstan is an independent state but the link with Russia still shows. Russian is still the lingua franca and Russians are still very much loved. So is the Vodka, and alcoholism is a real problem. I saw several people lying past out on the street.


kirgiz 1

Osh is the second biggest city of Kyrgyzstan located in the Ferghana Valley in the south of the country and often referred to as the “capital of the south”. It is notorious in the Russian-speaking world for the bloody interethnic riots of 1990. It was a conflict between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. What started as a land allocation conflict ended with 300 people killed and over a thousand of wounded.

Tuesday, 15th of May ‘07. At the Uzbek border I am being hassled to give some baksheesh. They want me to show all my money. I hate that, but I do as asked. They seem impressed by the 3.000-euro cash and ask if I will not give them 100 euro. No way I say and immediately put my money back. I ask if there is anything else. No, I can go…
The Kyrgyz border is being run by military. Here the passport is triple checked but they return the passports with a smile. A taxi takes us to Osh.

There we find a restaurant, but it only has a Russian menu card. I manage to say in Russian “what do you suggest”, the waitress smiles and comes back with a lovely plate of chips and a meat stew. Much to her surprise we order the dish twice because we find the portions to small. Then we hurry back to the hotel, it is getting dark and I am not sure the streets are save. No streetlights and drunks everywhere.

Sary Tash

Wednesday, 16th of May ‘07. We get up early at 7 AM and without breakfast we hurry to the bus/taxi station to find transport to Sary Tash. There are no jeeps available but a friendly crook with an ancient Volga is willing to take us there for 30 euro. 4 seats at 8 euro, so we take the whole taxi and can leave at once.

The road is one on the worst I have ever seen. Hardly no surfaced road and littered with potholes. As the car has no suspension, you can imagine the fun we have. But things might improve soon. Everywhere along the road we see Chinese laborers at work to make an asphalted road. I guess no Kyrgyz wants to be seen death doing this job.

kirgiz 2
As bad as the road may be, the scenery is absolutely one of the prettiest I have ever seen. The countryside is dotted with yurts, the Kyrgyz use their horse like we would use a tractor. I see a man pick up something from the ground without getting of his horse. These are the true descendents of Genghis Khan.




Kirgiz 3Sary Tash is only 185 kilometers from Osh, but we only arrive in the afternoon, with just a short break for lunch. It is just a one-road hamlet in the middle of nowhere. Strange as the place gets mentioned on all the maps of this area. We decide that it is to late to get to the border and decide to spend the night here.





Kirgiz 4

We immediately have a bedroom. The local chaikana (pub) owners give us their bedroom for 1 euro a person. We accept and the people start to take out their stuff to sleep in the other room of the two-room shack.
There isn’t a lot to do. We are the attraction. I have to make a photo of everybody and show the result on my camera display. This is going to cost me a lot to send all these pictures. Anyway is good way to pass the time. By nine we are already in bed. It is freezing cold and we hear the locals getting drunk in the pub. Then we discover the horror of the village…the communal loo! After some time we discover that there is only one dunny (outdoor toilet) for the whole village and it does not even have a door. We have to walk 1 km to the field behind the houses, which is full of dung to get to the toilet while in full view of the village! Not for the squeamish.


Kirgiz 5

Thursday, 17th May ‘07. We are already up by six and decide to make it to the border. It does not take long to get a ride. The first Kamaz truck that comes by picks us up. Plenty of space for us and our bags. Then a 90 km road of torture begins. Now I understand that the Volga driver did not want to take us to the border. If we thought the road was bad coming to Sary Tash, we have another thing coming. This is really off-road. And again the scenery makes up for the discomfort. The Pamirs are beautiful in spring. Parts of the road are huge mud- puddles, so the surrounding meadows are used to create a new road.
Kirgiz 6
Slowly the green mountains turn into barrenness. I guess we are coming to the alpine altitude. Still it is very hot, even at this altitude.

The Kyrgyz border militias are surprised to see us. “Are you diplomats” they ask us? I guess not to many people enter China using this road. My Homework “Russian for idiots” pays off. I can reply on the basic questions as where are you from, what is your profession and do you speak Russian (Njet). Satisfied by the answers I get a stamp in the passports. I will have to show the passports at least another 5 times to curious border police. Then we are pushed into a new truck and driven to the Chinese border a few kilometers further (we think)….
We are sorry we did not stay longer in Kyrgyzstan. The countryside is a beautiful place to explore. I would say horseback is the preferred way, but by bike it would be equally nice.

Kirgiz 7
The Irkeshtam pass was opened in 2002 for international traffic. No permit is required 




At the Chinese border there is a huge traffic jam. We get out of the Kamaz and walk further on foot.
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The Chinese call the Pamirs “Tian Shan” (heavenly mountains)

We see a Chinese border post and walk to it. The guard makes signs that we have to walk further. A bit further is an empty, derelict building. I do not understand his gesture. Where can we have our passports stamped? It is hot and at 6.000 meters it is no fun to hang around. I go back and forth for about an hour. I give up and we wait beside the road. Our water is almost finished. We are just about to get ready to walk further down the road when a huge jeep arrives with to soldiers inside. The passengers’ door opens and a soldier hands me a mobile phone. O boy I think, my Chinese consists of the numbers at a Chinese restaurant. But a Chinese voice tells me in English to please step in the car.

We are happy to get into the AC jeep and off we go to the real Chinese borders at least 10 kilometers further. We would never have been able to walk this far! Compliments of the Chinese border police fro the free ride! Thank you very much!
When we arrive at the border it is lunchtime. We have to hand in our passports but are allowed to walk into town with our luggage. So we are on Chinese territory but cannot go further without our passports.

At 14.00 hrs a military music blasts through the speakers. Then a parade takes place and everybody seems to go back to its station. We enter to have our passports back. Again we get a VIP treatment. We are given chairs to sit on, as opposed to the Kirghiz visitors. Still we are not done yet. There is no Internet connection with Beijing. We have to wait until 16.00 hrs before we are handed our passports. No, still we cannot go! Now the bags need to be checked. But we took them already into town!! They search the bags thoroughly. Especially the books are being looked at. The pages are turned and all loose pages are looked at. Then they see my image tank. Now that is a gadget they find interesting! They guy takes it to his friends to show the gadget. We are finely told we can go.

Kirgiz 9
We hop into a taxi for the 280 km drive to Kashgar. The road is in perfect condition. Three hours later when we arrive it is already dark. We are exhausted. But the hotel Chinibagh (Chinese garden) gives us a discount without us asking. For 30 euros we have a superb double room in the new building. I decide to have a burger, beer and fries first at the caravan cafe next door. After a lovely (hot) shower we lay ourselves down onto the soft bed. It has been a very long and tiring day.



The northwest region of Xinjiang (=new dominion) occupies over 1.6 million square kilometers or one-sixth of China’s territory. This is about the seize of Alaska or three time the seize of France.
In 1862-1873 a Muslim rebellion took place against Chinese domination lead by Yakub Beg. This was at the highlight of the great game. Russian and British spies, soldiers and diplomats were having a ball in this remote area. From 1911 until 1949 it was a lawless area run by warlords, before it was finally “liberated” by the Chinese in 1955.
The largest minority in Xinjiang are the Uygurs, a Turkic-speaking people who number about 6 million.


Kashgar (Kashi)

Kirgiz 10Kashgar still has a lively, medieval city and is famous for its Sunday animal market. It is also the largest oasis in Chinese Central Asia and is strategically located at the foot of the Pamir Mountains. Although it is encircled by Russian style buildings form the 50ties and sixties, one can still step back in time into an ancient Central Asian Khanate.


An 18 meter high statue of chairman Mao still dominates the main street of the city.




Kirgiz 11

kashgar moskee

The heart of the city is the Idkah Mosque

kash 1Friday, 18th may ’07. After a wonderful night in a comfy bed we feel reborn. The breakfast buffet consists mainly of Chinese stuff like cabbages and beans. The continental part is just a bit of cakes and marmalade. No worries, the Caravan café next door has an excellent menu. So we take the opportunity of some serious munching. Alas, after having little else but cookies and water for days, Rita gets indigestion of the Chinese food.

We spend the afternoon visiting the Idkah Mosque. As it is Friday, the area around the mosque is afloat with by beggars, reminding the people of their Islamic duties. The mosque has some beautiful shaded gardens, hidden from the street behind a brick wall. The mosque and its garden have room for about 20.000 people and is one of the biggest mosques in China. The building dates from 1442, and was seriously damaged during the Cultural Revolution, but is now restored. We slowly stroll back to the hotel. A day is over before you know it when you take things slowly.
Still, we have some time for dinner at the Caravan café and call it an early night. Then around 10 at night a heavy wind comes up and becomes a real sandstorm. The storm is so strong that sand particles somehow get into the room.

kash 2Saturday, 19th May ’07. Today we sleep out again; it is difficult to get out of the soft bed. Rita feels worse than yesterday. After breakfast we buy a jade necklace and matching earrings for 100 euro. I have absolutely no idea what the real value could be.
By lunchtime Rita feels well enough to visit the old town. Soon we step from the modern city into the old city of Kashgar. It does have an authentic feel about it. Here the women are still wearing a brown kind of burqa. Seems like purdah (the practice of keeping women separate behind a screen) is still a way of life.






Kash 3

Afterwards we end up in the “people’s park”. This is where the local “Uyghurs” come to sit it the shade, drink beer, play music and chat with friends. Indeed, it is very cool in the shaddow. We pick a bench and when in Rome…





Kash 4After some refreshments we have the strength to continue to the Abakh Hoja Mausoleum further down the road. The Khojas were a family of religious leaders and local rulers of Kashgar, under the authority of the Emperor, during the Qing dynasty. It is a 17th century building with similarities of the Taj Mahal. I am not willing to pay the 6euro entrance fee and another 10euro photo fee, so we only have a look at it from the outside.




We walk back to the hotel to have a nap before dinner. I dare the Sichuan plate and Rita has a simple egg. Afterwards I have some whiskies to swallow the chili peppers and we are off to bed. Tomorrow is the reason why we stay so long in Kashgar.


The Kasghar Sunday market


Kash 5

Sunday, 20th of May ’07. Today is D-day in Kashgar. People from all the surrounding area will come to the animal market today. We get up at six to beat the crowd. The Sichuan plate of yesterday is burning a whole in my stomach and I think about the burning map at the opening scene of Bonanza when I visit the loo. No time to waste, no brekkie, we will find something to eat at the market.

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We immediately find a taxi outside the hotel and for a euro fifty we get to the animal market. A visit to the animal market is well worth it, but the earlier the better. We watch a steady stream of donkey-carts laden with all sorts of stuff, as well as horse carts, vans, cars, motorcycles and of course bicycles. The guidebook was right. This is a photographer’s paradise. The people are so engaged in their wheeling and dealing that they do not see this firangi shooting 150 photos in 2 hours time. I am exhausted and it has become too dusty and crowded to continue. So around 9 o’clock we have had it. The market is at full strength and is overflowing from the animal compound onto the adjoining streets.





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There is also an ordinary market next to the animal one selling the usual household stuff, fruit and vegetables, furniture, cloths, spices, wood, and whatnot. We cannot be bothered. We decide to go back to the hotel for breakfast, (toast nutella at the Caravan) and a little nap.

Kash 8We spend the afternoon buying some food for tomorrow’s trip and wander a bit aimlessly through Kashgar. It has been from 1989 that I was in China and I am surprised at how modern it has become. This is supposed to be the outback of China, but it has a huge amount of shopping malls and loads of people that speak English. Still the place has a laid back attitude. People enjoy a walk in the park, a chat with their neighbors, a game of chess. We spend our last night in Kashgar watching a Chinese film and try to guess what the “over” acting is all about.





tash 1Monday, 21st of May’07.  It is our last day in Kashgar. We pack our bags and head to the bus-station a bit further up the road. It is easy to find the right bus and by 8.30 we are allowed to enter. Slowly the bus fills, but not completely. Our fellow travelers are from the UK, Germany, a couple of kiwi’s and a group of elderly Americans who are guided buy a young British girl. When we leave the bus-station the bus is not nearly half full. This allows us to use both sides of the bus to view the scenery.





The Karakoram Highway

The Karakoram highway links Islamabad with Kashgar by 1.284 kilometers of roadway through some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world. This is where the Himalayas meets the Karakoram Mountains and the Kunlun mountains and also where the Hindukush rubs shoulders with the Pamir Mountains. It is at the junction of 5 of the worlds major mountain ranges.

It is also a place where 4 superpowers with atomic weapons border all come within 250 km of each other (China, Russia, India and Pakistan). Nothing but rocks, but they each want their piece of the rocks.

The highway began in 1967 by a team of Chinese engineers, and follows the ancient Silk Road. More than 400 people lost their lives building this road.
The Chinese part of the highway is in excellent condition. It has an asphalted 2-lane road. The Pakistani side is still a bit of a mess, but we saw hundreds of Chinese trucks driving by to seal the highway all the way to Karachi. Thus ensuring the Chinese excellent and fast access to the Indian Ocean and the oil rich Persian Gulf. Still it is not going to be an easy job, with all the landslides continuously wiping away parts of the road.

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South of Kashgar the plane gives way to foothills. We get in the middle of a sandstorm on this part.
Visibility is zero, but I guess the bus driver has radar vision and just continues to drive.

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Then it ascends to an altitude of 3.600 meters by the shores of the Karakul lake (Kara Kul is Uyghur for black lake), 200 kilometers of Kashgar. It is the highest lake of the Pamir plateau, near the junction of the Pamir Mountains, Tian Shan and the Kunlun Shan mountain ranges, and it is the land of the Kyrgyz. The views are stunning, and every corner reveals a postcard view. We start to climb and by 6 we arrive in Tashkurgan.


Ptolemy mentions Tashkurgan in his “Geographia” in the second century AD as the extreme western emporium of the land of the Seres (Serica, modern Xinjiang, meaning land where the silk comes from). This was the trade route to the ancient Buddhist kingdoms of Taxila and Gandhara (more in about this in the Pakistan section). Today it is a small border town of about 5.000 residents.

Tash 4Tashkurgan is Tajik for “stone city” and it is here that the Tajik autonomous region lies. Tajikistan is just around the corner and so is the Afghan Wakhan corridor.
The Chinese exit formalities are at Tashkurgan.
The Karakoram (Turkish for crumbling rock) gets 4.733 meters high at the Khunjerab Pass.

We get a room for 12 euro and have dinner with two globetrotters from New Zealand. We spend a nice evening finishing the J. Daniels Bottle and a couple of beers. Tomorrow we are in a Pakistan and we will not have the chance for alcohol until we arrive in India in three weeks from now.


Tuesday, 22nd of May ’07. After a breakfast we hurry back on the bus and drive to the Chinese border. Handling the documents takes about 2 or 3 hours. The service of the Chinese customs is excellent. Very friendly and all smile, they even have KPI (Key Performance Indicators) charts hanging on the wall. Now the “real” Karakoram starts as we drive through no man’s land towards Pakistan. Gone are the comfortable roads. Potholes start to appear. By noon we arrive at the Shandur pas.



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At the Khunjerab pass (4730 meter) there are two Pakistani policemen who’s only duty seems to be posing for the photo. They patiently smile as each of us take turns to get on the photo with them. This pas was opened to travelers in 1986, 20 years after the initial work on the road started. This is reputed to be the highest road in the word, but we will compare it with the Khardung la Pass from Leh to the Nubra Valley.
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From the Khunjerab pass to Sost we drive through the Khunjerab National Park. Khunjerab is thought to be Wahki for “valley of the khan” The park comprises of 2.270 sq km of land. It is the home of some of the rarest wildlife in the world, including the Marco Polo sheep, Himalayan ibex, snow leopards and more. Then we have a flat tire that keeps the bus driver busy for an hour.
Then in Sost we run into trouble. This is where the Pakistani Border police are stationed and just today they have received new computers to register the people entering and exiting Pakistan. It is a complete chaos, they do not know how to use a mouse, they are not familiar with the software and they do not find the letters on the keyboard. It takes 3 man to handle the computer and many more to look at the proceedings.
It is the most sophisticated system I have ever seen. Imagine this at the end of the world. It works as follows: the passport is scanned and a photo is taken by webcam. This gets all digitalized on a Dell PC with flat screen, where the two photos are compared. If ever I saw high-tech border control. I wonder how long all this delicate equipment will continue to work in such a dusty environment.
Anyway, with this “high T” intermezzo we lose about 20 minutes per person, so we are stuck for more than 3 hours in the customs office. We are all hungry; we did not have any food since this morning except some cookies. The kiwi’s who got before us come back to ask if we want to share a taxi to Passu. This sounds much better the spending the night at this border town. 5 euro buy’s us a double-room and 2,50 euro buy’s Dahl, veggie’s, rice, chapatti’s, tea and cola for 2. Pakistan promises to be cheap.
Wednesday, 23rd May ’07. We get up real early. The minibus leaves for Karimabad at 5.30. It seems to be the normal way of travel. Most buses leave at an unchristian hour an by 7 we already arrive in Karimabad downtown. We walk the 3 km uphill with our backpack. Good exercise!

Ian Botham, the English cricket legend about Pakistan: "I wouldn't even send my mother-in-law there"

P.A.K.I.S.T.A.N (Punjab – Afghania – Kashmir – Indus – Sind or Stan). The name Pakistan runs fear in most people and evocates images of gun toting religious fanatics, nuclear bombs, a country constantly on the brink of war with its neighbor India, tribal area’s with sharia law and the only economy that seems to be successful is the army run on American aid. It is true that Pakistan is a safe country. Question is for whom?

We will hear all kinds of crazy stories while traveling through Pakistan, so I mention the better ones already here:

  1. We are walking downwards a steep mountain trail. Behind us a local catches up with us and I politely say please go ahead. No he says. I cannot, you are our guests.
  2. A labourer earns 100Rs or 1,25 euro a day. The smallest sheep costs 5.000Rs, so if you work a whole month you cannot even buy a small sheep.
  3. How often did we hear this: what beautiful country are you from sir?
  4. A French traveller who had already been in the country for three months: I was walking on the road when a naked man came on to the street. At the same time a woman without a scarf drove by in a car. To my surprise I found myself, like everybody else, turning my head towards the woman driving the car.

Here Rita and my experiences seem to be different. I see a grey, colorless country with poor food and no booze (compared to my lovely India) Rita finds herself the only woman on the street and the constant point of attention of the sex crazed male population. Men make a detour to be able to accidentally touch her.



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In Karimabad we find a nice hotel with a beautiful view for 7,50 euro. Because it is drizzling outside we catch some zzz’s.

More than 95% of the population of Karimabad belongs to the Ismaili religion. In the 8th century there was a split among the Shiites, who disagreed on which son of the sixth imam should succeed him which gave rise to the Ismaili branch of Islam

In the afternoon we head up to the Baltit fort. Located on a large rocky outcrop at the base of the Ultar Nala, this palace dominates Karimabad. The views from here of the Hunza  and Nagar valleys are superb. The fort was built some 800 years ago. The main section was built in the 17th century as part of a dowry accompanying a Baltistan princess who came to marry the Mir, with the architecture reflecting Baltistan ancient links with Tibet. It is primarily built of mud, plaster, stone and timber beams. The fort remained the official residence of the Mir of Hunza until the 1960’s.

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 When we walk back from the fort we buy some Pakistani clothes (shalwar kameez), which are loose fitting clothes. We will wear these kind clothes during our whole trip in Pakistan. It helps blend in a bit…

Walking down hill is nice and we continue to walk to Haldeikush were some ancient rock carvings can be seen. Then we have to do the walk back up, but halfway up a Land rover stops to give us a lift for free, we did not even ask. “Welcome to our valley” they say. Then we have a nice warm shower, dinner and tomorrow we will continue to Gilgit.




Thursday, 24 may ’07. After breakfast we walk down the mountain again. When we are down we understand that the bus to Gilgit leaves from Alibad, which is about 5 km further down the road. We decide to get there by walking but it seems a long 5 km and along the way we accept the offer of a jeep to bring us to the bus station for 50 eurocents. Three hours later we are in Gilgit. A 60 eurocents taxi brings us to the hotel. We stay at the Marinda hotel and the owner; Mr. Yacoub decides to take us under his wings. This lovely man will give us one of the best experiences we have in Pakistan. After mandatory tea, he takes us to town to buy fabrics and then we go to a tailor for a made to measure shalwar kameez. Afterwards he takes us around the city a bid. It is not a really nice city, a bit to busy for us. When I try to make a photo of a bridge a crowd of curious people gather within a minute.

Paki 3Mr. Yacoub on the left side


Friday, 25th May ’07. Today we have nothing really planned. In fact we were supposed to travel further along the Hindukush, but as Mr. Yacoub is such a nice person to have a conversation with, we decide to stay a day longer. We enjoy the breakfast of pancakes with marmalade and bananas. Afterwards we have a long conversation with Mr. Yacoub about Pakistan. We cover a wide range of social, economical, historical, and religious issues. For a self-taught man he sure is able to make some profound analyses. I am glad I did some reading about Pakistan so I am able to say something intelligent occasionally. We chat till the afternoon and then we continue to talk to other travelers. It is one of those travelers hangouts were info is exchanged. In the late afternoon we decide to do another walk around town, have dinner in a restaurant and return to our room to relax and start packing for tomorrow. We have booked a jeep for three days and two nights to take us to Chitral along the Hindukush (Indian killer). This sets us back 150 euros, but I am really excited to travel along “the less traveled roads”.



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Saturday, 26 may ’07. We are sorry to leave the nice hotel owner, but the scenery soon distracts our minds. We follow a gravel road next to the river. A 4wheel drive is no luxury around here. We will see very little traffic for the next two days.


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We pass the beautiful Khalti lake where we have lunch of trout at the Government guesthouse and afterwards we stroll a bit around the lake. We then continue for a couple of hours more to stop for overnight at Phandur. We spend the evening in the PTDC motel overlooking the valley. When walking around the village, we are “friendly” requested by some military to have tea with them and show the photos we have made so far. Luckily I did not photograph their huge antennas and satellite dishes. We chat for more than an hour and go back to the guesthouse.

The PTDC Motel at Phandur on the crest of the hill with view of valley.

Sunday the 27th of May ’07. The road we are traveling through today is in a really bad state. We meet very few other vehicles. We seem to leave civilization behind and are alone amidst the vast nature. When we stop for lunch at a small house a Punjabi asks if he can drive along with us. The driver is not very happy with it saying we should not suffer discomfort, but I agree to take the guy along, as his house is only 10 km further. He insists on tea, but we want to continue. This is bad behavior, we know. Then he asks us to wait a bit while he goes to his house, and when he comes back he gives us a jar of honey as present. Friends forever!
We will enjoy the honey for a long time as it makes an excellent meal with fresh chapattis.



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Now we start to climb, it is getting colder and we see snow on the mountains. There are even glacier ice blocks on the road. The road stops being a road and we drive through what we think is the road.

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A battle against the landslides

We meet some men with an excavator repairing the road from the frequent landslides. We drive trough small path while balancing on the edge of the abyss.
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The polo ground at the Shandur Pass 3.735 meter, home of  the most spectacular polo event in the world.

Finally we arrive at the Shandur Pass, which is famous for the annual polo game, which has been running since 1936 between Gilgit and Chitral. Michael Palin filmed the game his documentary “Himalayas”.


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The lovely jeep that drove us from Gilgit to Chitral along one of the wildest parts in the world

The plan was to stay overnight in Mastuj, but we ask the driver to continue to Chitral. He is confused; we paid for three days and want to do it in two. When he realizes we do not want a refund for the third day he relaxes and by nighttime we arrive in Chitral.



Monday, 28th of May ’07. In the morning we go to the Police station to get a permit to visit the Kalash valley. The permit is free, but foreigners are not allowed to enter the valley without one. Also the time allowed to visit the valley is restricted to two weeks.

After the permit we head to the bus stand and hop on a local bus to Bumburet.

Kalash valley


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The Kalash, numbering approximately 3500, are the smallest group among the religious minorities in Pakistan. Unlike the other minorities, they live exclusively in the three valleys of Birir, Bumburet and Rumbur in the Hindu Kush between the Afghan border and the Chitral valley. Muslims label the Kalash “kafirs” (non-believers) and their area Kafirstan.
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As with all minorities they are hard pressed to convert to Islam, and slowly their culture seems to be disappearing. Outsiders are buying up land to build hotels, and the area becomes a theme park to watch the unveiled Kalash women.

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We were a bit afraid to be looked upon as zoo watchers, but we easily made contact with a Kalash family living next to a Kalash temple we were visiting.
We were given some walnuts and were able to get a good conversation in English. The great-grandmother of 80+ was also intrigued by our presence. She could not place Belgium on her “world map”. When her son told her it was even further than “mythical” Peshawar she told her son to let us rest for a while. For sure we must be very tired after such a long journey.

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It is here that we meet up with Alexander again. The Kalash have an oral tradition, which tells that the Kalash are descended from Alexander the Great’s general Shalak Shah of Tsiam (thought to be near Yarkand), to whom Alexander gave the Chitral valley as a reward.
Fact is that Alexander founded many cities (Alexandria’s) where his wounded or disabled soldiers could marry the local belles and thus become a loyal part of the empire. The Romans would do the same with their soldiers, giving them frontier land after their service, thus ensuring that conquered land was going to be defended by men who knew how to handle a sword.
The Greek government has built a museum in Bumburet to turn the myth into fact. However, gene examination has shown that the specific Greek haplogroups (e.g. haplogroup 21) is missing and that the Kalash have more in common with the central/South Asian population. But of course stories are more fun.

Tuesday, 29th May ’07. In the morning we walk to the next valley Rumbur, which is a lot quieter. The hotels have not yet reached this valley yet, and neither have the Pepsi billboards. We stay with a family that runs a guesthouse “Engineer Khan’s kalash home guest house” in the village Grome. They are very friendly, she makes excellent food and he is a teacher in the local school. We very much enjoy our stay and are sorry we cannot stay longer.

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The lady of the house – Guesthouse in the village Grome.

Wednesday, 30th may ’07. Alas, we have to leave the Kalash people to continue our trip. We walk all the way to the checkpoint at the entry of the valleys and wait for a truck to take us back to Chitral.  In Chitral we go to the polo ground to watch a test game. This is not a game for pussies, not even the test match. The horses gallop and the players sway a large stick around to hit the ball on the ground.

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Chitral is a small, friendly place compared to Gilgit, but he Kalash valley was the main reason for us to come here.

Thursday, 31st may ’07. Today is a day I shall never forget in my live. Let this be a warning for all those penny pinchers out there. We had decided not to spend 50usd per person on the 30 minute flight from Chitral to Peshawar but to take a minibus instead. This was an absolute Mistake! A 12-hour lasting horror trip! The road is in a bad condition, the minivan is stuffed to the top, and ones the van hits the plains around Peshawar the heat becomes unbearable. On top of all this invisible arms constantly touch Rita. But we only had to pay 5 euro each for this pleasure.


Peshawar is the capital of the Northwest Frontier. About 25% of NWFP is tribal area where internal affairs are dealt with according to tradition. A political agent does the liaison with the Pakistan government.


The Pathan tribes that dominate NWFP have for centuries exploited its rugged terrain and thrived on banditry and guerrilla warfare, eluding the attempts of invading powers to control and pacify them. During the colonial period this frontier region grew in strategic importance and the British establishes their “forward policy”, struggling to control it as a buffer zone against Russian expansion. Despite the Durand line of 1893 (which today forms the border with Afghanistan), they never gained full control. Even today nearly a third of the region is designated as ‘tribal areas’, with internal autonomy from Pakistani law. (Footprint, Northern Pakistan)

Friday, 1st June ’07. We were drawn to Peshawar for two reasons: a visit to the Museum and a trip to the Khyber Pass. We settle in at the rose hotel and go for an air-con room. After all our time spent in the mountains the 40 C° heat of the plains wear us down.


So in the morning we go to the Peshawar museum to visit the Gandhara collection. The museum was built in 1905 in the typical colonial style. There are very few other visitors and we are greeted by friendly, but curious looks. The pieces on display however are excellent. I find many evidence of Greek and Persian influences in the artifacts of the region. In the ethnographic section there is also woodcarvings from the Kalash valley.


In the afternoon we take a taxi to Takht-e-Bhai. This is one of the best preserved and most complete of all Gandhara’s ruins. It is a Buddhist monastery that dates from the 1st to the 7th century AD. In the afternoon heat it is quite a steep climb up, but the view is rewarding.


On the way back to Peshawar we see a camel convoy doing the same it has been doing for centuries, plying their trade along the Silk Road.


In the evening we decide to treat ourselves with an all you can eat buffet at the Pearl Continental. For 10 euros you have an unlimited supply of salads, pastas, grilled meat and a dozen different kinds of cakes and sweets.
Getting in the Pearl Continental seemed overkill on security. The taxi was not allowed up the driveway so we had to walk all the way. Then we had to show our bag outside to the security agents and again on the inside, in the lobby of the hotel.
So we really were amazed when we heard about the bomb blast in June 2009 as we considered this hotel impregnable.


PESH 6Saturday, June 2nd ’07. In the morning we go the tourist information office and book a tour to the Khyber pas. A bit expensive at 45 euros, but this gives us an AC car, driver and a police escort. We also organize our bus trip to Rawalpindi for tomorrow.


An abandoned Hindu temple serves as a reminder of the partition between India and Pakistan.


After we have organized our onward travel we walk aimlessly through the bazaars. It must be one of the biggest I have ever seen. It sure is one of the busiest! Again I am unable to make good photos. The instant we stop people want to ask us where we are from and to say welcome to Pakistan us. Within 5 minutes a crowd has gathered around us and gone is the nice photo opportunity. After a few hours we are fed up to walk through the busy streets and head back to the hotel for some yummy, warm chapattis with honey.

Sunday, 3rd June ’07. Today we will visit the Khyber Pass. The taxi takes us to the Political agent for the area. There we are given an armed escort and we drive through the tribal area. Here we see shops along the road openly selling AK47’s. According to the driver all kinds of drugs are also for sale. We decide not to shop around; the places do not look very inviting.


 Peter Hopkirk tells in horrifying detail about the disastrous British retreat from Kabul and their humiliating slaughter on the Khyber Pass:

At the first light on January 6th, 1842, to the sound of bugles and drums, the once proud Army of the Indus marched ingloriously out of the cantonments. Its destination was Jalalabad, the nearest British garrison, which lay more than eighty miles across the snow-covered mountains to the east…..
So it was, on that icily cold winter’s morning, that the long column of British and Indian troops, wives, children, nannies, grooms, cooks, servants and assorted hangers-on -16.000 in all –set out through the snow towards the first of the passes….
Dr. William Byrdon, a Physician survived to tell the tale…
The Afghan horsemen rode in among the troops, slaughtering and plundering, and driving of the baggage animals. Nor were the unarmed  and helpless camp followers spared. Soon the snow was crimson with blood, while the trailed was lined with the dead and dying…..
As soon as the main body had reached the end of the (khyber) Pass the tribesman descended from their positions and set about butchering the stragglers. Some 3.000 of the garrison, including many women and children, were left dead in the Pass that day, their frozen corpses stripped of precious clothing by friend and foe alike…


It is not the view but the idea of the place that attracts most people to the Khyber Pass. (LP, Pakistan)

It is not so much arriving at the Michni checkpoint (the end of the line for those not proceeding to Afghanistan) that is exciting, but the entire trip starting at Peshawar. The anticipation as you collect your permit and armed escort from the Khyber Political Agent, the nervous excitement as you enter the Tribal Areas and pass the fortress-like Afridi homes, Buddhist ruins and old fortresses, and the remarkable railway all combine to make it a trip not to be missed. (Lonely Planet, Pakistan and the Karakoram Highway)


At the Kyber Pass monument our armed escorts panics. Rita and I split up and he does not know whom to follow. After a few moments he decides to follow me, so I guess I am more valuable.


The view of Afghanistan from the Khyber Pass.

Monday, 4th of June ’07. The bus that takes us from Peshawar to Rawalpindi is really comfortable. Even get some orange juice and biscuits. The road is in perfect condition, so with AC on the bus the trip is very comfortable compared to our prior experiences.


Islamabad and Rawalpindi are so-called twin cities. Both are sprawling towards each other at a fast rate, yet both have very different and distinct identities. Islamabad is a neatly planned; 20th century capital with broad lanes, straight lines and right angles. Home to the Pakistani government, foreign embassies and is the most modern city in Pakistan.
Rawalpindi, or Pindi, grew from a small village to a major hub on the 19th century Grand Trunk Road. It is a chaotic, crowded, congested, typically South Asian city with the usual old bazaars.

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The Shah Faisal Mosque can house 10.000 worshippers, while the courtyards and verandas can accommodate another estimated 64.000. The 50 million USD was a gift from King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, hence the name.

We come here because it is a good base from which we can explore the archaeological digs of the Gandharan city of Taxila. There we will see how the Graeco-Buddhist art fused, evolved and flourished. We base ourselves in Rawalpindi, but we would stay in Islamabad next time as it has far better restaurants.


From the ancient Neolithic tumulus of Saraikala to the ramparts of Sirkap (2nd century B.C.) and the city of Sirsukh (1st century A.D.), Taxila illustrates the different stages in the development of a city on the Indus that was alternately influenced by Persia, Greece and Central Asia and which, from the 5th century B.C. to the 2nd century A.D., was an important Buddhist centre of learning.

The Greeks knew the town as Taxila (Ταξiλα), which the Romans rendered as Taxilla; the Chinese called it Chu Ch'a-shi-lo. The ruins are some 30 kilometres northwest of modern Islamabad.

The Taxila excavation are about 8 km from town and are spread over 25sq. km


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Remains of an Ionian column at Jandial

Taxila was the ancient capital of the eastern Punjab, the country between the rivers Indus and Hydaspes (Jhelum). The town commanded the Indian 'royal road' which connected to the kingdom of Magadha in the Ganges. Another important route was the Indus River from Kashmir in the north to the Indian Ocean in the south. It must be noted that the Khunjerab Pass between Kashmir and Xinjiang -the current Karakoram highway- could already be crossed in Antiquity; therefore, Taxila was also connected to the Silk Road between Babylonia in the far west and China in the far east.



lahore 3Taxila was the capital of a kingdom that was called Hindus (or Indus-country) and consisted of the western half of the Punjab. It was added to the Achaemenid Empire under king Darius I, but the Persian occupation did not last long
When Alexander occupied the Punjab in 326 BC; the Indian kingdoms had already regained their independence. King Ambhi of Taxila had invited Alexander in 329 BC, because he needed support against king Porus whose kingdom that was situated in the eastern Punjab. Alexander defeated Porus on the banks of the river Hydaspes. However, he unexpectedly allied himself to Porus, and forced Ambhi and Porus to reconcile themselves.

The eagle stupa at Sirkap shows graeco influences.





Tuesday the 5th of June ’07. Back in Islamabad we spend some time strolling along the long avenues and kill some time in an Italian restaurant feasting op pasta’s and cappuccinos. The diplomats have a good life here. Also we notice a lot of women that do not were headscarves. Remembering what the French traveler told me in Gilgit I try not to stare.



Lahore may not be the capital city of Pakistan, but is sure is the cultural, artistic and intellectual  centre of Pakistanl.

We are here for the qawwali (Islamic devotional songs) and Sufism (my web name meaning Islamic mysticism). We are also here for the Lahore museum where we want to visit for the Gandharan collection.

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Wednesday the 6th of June ’07. We hop on the bus to Lahore. The 6 hours trip between the two major cities is uneventful, but very comfortable in an AC bus. In Lahore we will stay in the Regale Internet Inn. This is again one of those backpacker’s places you normally do not want to stay, but the owner and other special character travelers make it worthwhile. The hotel itself is a dump, bed sheets have not been changed in ages, there in no AC, no private bathroom, the walls are made of cardboard, yet this is a place where a lot of people hang out for weeks and even months. We meet a German who has been traveling for 7 years, and is hesitant to go home. We also meet an Englishmen who has been staying here for months “studying” Indian music. A very special place indeed, and after the way we have traveled the last few weeks, we cannot be bothered with a bit of less luxury.

The Lahore Museum

The Lahore museum is a 15 minutes walk far from the Regale Inn, and it has even more pieces on display than the Peshawar museum. This is Pakistan’s best museum!
The Gandharan pieces are abundant with Greek influences. Apparently Alexander’s heritage was not all bad.

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A beautiful fusion of Buddhism and graeco(Corinthian) column

Poseidon, the God of the oceans?

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The round eyes suggest European features. ...................................

.A Greek Bacchanal party? a symposium? They sure were not shy….

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Thursday, Qawwali day

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Thursday, 7th of June ’07. Today is qawwali day. This is the main reason why we came to Lahore, and also the main reason why we stay in the Regale Internet Inn. The hotel-owner is a patron for these qawwali activities. We will see very different performances today. The day qawwali is the clean version, while the night qawwali goes back to the roots of Sufism that involves drug use and whirling.

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In the early afternoon we are taken to a mosque, and there in the basement, a podium is set up for the artists. We are given a garland of flowers and are taken to an honorary place in the front that gives us the best view of the artists. Soon we discover why, as every so often a person come along to take the donations of the ecstatic crowd. 10 Rs (0,17 eurocents) is peanuts, so we are not bothered. When we run out of small change we give a 100 Rupees note and are given 10 rupee notes back.

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The music is great; the atmosphere in the air-conditioned basement is peaceful and relaxed. The only thing I am corrected on is not to give the donations with my left hand. We have the time of our live, but after some time the cross-legged position is causing us a lot of discomfort. This is the place where Nusrath Ali Khan performed until his death in 1997. At home I have many of his albums, but this is the first time that I see a performance in its real setting, rather than the out of character performance in a cultural centre at home.

Wagah border

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At the Wagah border: Pakistani military in the black uniforms. Both sides act like a bit like the rooster in a henhouse.


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Around 6 o’in the evening we go to the indi-Paki border for a show that is best described as “Monty Python meets Rambo” and is a show that should not be missed. It is a daily show that gets the crowd as excited as a cricket match between the two counties. We get ushered to the front so I can make photos of the happening. Some flag wavers, trying to create an atmosphere, are warming up the crowds on both sides of the border. “Pakistan Zindabad” (long live Pakistan in Urdu) cries fill the air. The border military have been carefully picked. They could all join a basketball team, and are wearing high heels to be taller than the other side. The show last for about 40 minutes and ends with the closing of the gates.

We go back to the hotel to get ready for the night qawwali…






The night qawwali:

We are taken by auto rickshaw to a place deep into the belly of Lahore. This place is not on the tourist map. In fact we are being told to be as inconspicuous as possible. No to talk and if a questioned just to answer “student” on all questions, be it about country, age or whatever.

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The place is an open courtyard with some tombs of fakirs or sufi saints. The smell of marijuana, or charras as it is called in Pakistan is overwhelming. We are taken to a corner place and the hotel guide tries to block us as much as possible from the crowd.

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The drums beat continuously and all the while people are chanting "Ash hadu anla ila ha illallah" (I bear witness that there is none worthy of worship but Allah). It will remain in our head for days. We are not allowed to make photos and when a camera-idiot next to me uses his flash we are the centre of attention. Still I am able to get some shots with a high ISO and small aperture. Thank God for the reflex camera.

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The later it gets on the evening, the more frenzied people start chanting, swaying and vigorously shaking their head. This is how the whirling Sufis were in the past. None of the clean-cut performers we see in Turkey theses days. Whirling Sufis were drunks, drug users and wanderers, outcasts of society. “My name is red” from Orhan Pamuk give a good description of their lifestyle a few centuries ago. Also in Uzbekistan they are portrayed as vagabonds. I bought a photo in Bukhara which shows a ragtag of Sufis from around the start of the 20th century.

I guess nowadays it only exists in this form in Lahore. In other places around the Islamic world it has just become a form of entertainment (like the Sufis of the Al Ghouri complex in Cairo, Egypt, where the show resembles more like a Chinese circus act, or in restaurants in Turkey where they entertain between the meal courses)


Around midnight we leave the place, slightly intoxicated from the air, but the dancing and chanting is till growing into a climax. Recommended!


Friday, 8th of June’07. It is time for us to leave Pakistan and go to our beloved India. Two French druggies want to share a taxi to the border with us, but we politely refuse, blaming it on our excess luggage. A good thing we did as the customs go through our bags with a toothcomb.





The Indian customs are also on their guard. I correctly fill in that I have 600 Indian Rupees in my possession. The customs officer says politely that it is not allowed to bring Indian currency in the country and asks me again if I have any Indian currency to declare. No currency I reply. "Very well" he says and we can enter India.

The first thing we do is have a couple of cold beers and some samosas. We meet an enterprising Indian at the border who claims he can prepare anything we could wish for in his restaurant. We decide to put him to the test. The difference between the two countries is striking. Again we see the other, female half of the population on the street, and everything seems more relaxed, much less strict than in Pakistan.

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In Amristar, we decide to stay in an upscale hotel opposite the temple to make up for the previous days. We have another few bottles of beer. After nearly 3 weeks without alcohol we feel the effect quickly.

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After a soothing siesta we make a visit to the Golden Temple. When I was in India in 1987 it was considered to dangerous to visit the temple, and since then I have not had the opportunity to visit this place.


Ind 11The place feels great. Very Bhakti! People make us feel very welcome. We are constantly given Prasad (food offerings) by the kids. Food and drinks are for free in this temple. In fact every day several thousands of free meals are prepared. Also the accommodation is for free. We enjoy the temple very much and are charmed by the friendly Sikhs. The men look warlike with their beard and even women seem to wear a small knife, still they are the most hospitable people I have met so far. It is so calm and relaxing that we could stay here for several days. Alas, time is not on our side…








Saturday, 8th of June’07. We take an early bus to Jammu from where we want to continue onwards to Kashmir. We stay a few hours in Jammu deciding if we will take the cheap bus option or the more expensive jeep drive. After a haircut and a nice thali in the bus station we go for the shared jeep. By the time we arrive in Srinagar it is nighttime. We are brutally stopped a couple of times by the military. We feel the tension. This is not a save place as we will find out over the next two days.

Srinagar, Kashmir


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I spent two lovely weeks in Kashmir in 1987, relaxing on a houseboat and some trekking in the mountains, so I have fond memories of the place. How it has changed!
Gone are the tranquil days on the houseboat. It has become a popular place for middle class Indians, whose noise level can be heard from across the lake. An incredible build up of hotels has taken place next to the Dal Lake. And a constant stream of cars makes it difficult to cross the road. We even see plastic bags floating in the lake. We give up trying to get into the Mughal gardens; the crowd of Indians pushing each other in front of the ticket office is discouraging.

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We decide on a houseboat on the Jelhum River. When we walk around Srinagar in daytime we see a city under siege. Everywhere are police (or military?) checkpoints. When we are walking down from the Shankaracharya hill we are stopped by a drunken policeman inviting us for a drink. I can imagine the horror the Kashmiri themselves must be in with such scum running the show. Our houseboat owner denies that there are problems in Srinagar. He says, “ We just want the European tourists back”. We do not like it very much and decide to leave for Ladakh the next day, after a visit to the floating market in the morning.

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Monday, the 11th of June ‘07. We are on the bus to Leh. This involves a two-day trip with a stopover in Kargil. We are unfortunate to have a backseat of the bus, so we feel every bumpon the Srinagar to Leh road, and as the bus is full there is no chance to switch seats. On top of that Rita has severe stomach problems…

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In the evening we reach Kargil, which is not much of a place where it not for the border proximity with Pakistan. In 1999 a war broke out between the two countires when Pakistan Special Forces, disguised as Kashmir militants crossed the Line of Control (LOC). The film “Lakshya” (=objective) tells the story of some Indian soldiers during this war and is worth seeing. Another great movie about this war is “LOC Kargil

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Leh, Ladakh


Leh was the capital of the kingdom of Ladakh and is now part of the Jammu Kashmir province. The town is still dominated by the now ruined Leh palace, former home of the royal family of Ladakh, built in the same style and about the same time as the Potala Palace.

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Tuesday, the 12th of June ’07. By the evening we arrive in Leh. Even after all our time spent in the mountains lately, we still feel the high altitude of 3.500 meters. We decide to take is easy for a few days. This is the last stretch of our travels. From here we will fly out to Delhi and back to Belgium.

We decide to hire a car and driver for a few days to drive us around the area. This works out around 25 euros a day. We are very lucky with our driver who is a very social and outward person who seems to know everybody in all the places we go to.

Monasteries in the Leh area


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Chemrey is 47 km southeast of Leh, and is one of the most attractive monasteries, located on top of an impressive hill on the way to Traktok.

The monastery presents a stunning sight. Sitting at the very summit of a steep-sided mountain, it dominates the surrounding fields and valley. Houses and buildings flow down the hill from here to a base cluttered by new and old chortens. It is administered from Hemis and is devoted to the Kagyu-pa sect.



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The Hemis Gompa is the biggest monastery in Ladakh, and is located 45 km to the southeast of Leh. It lies nestled in a valley hidden from view until the last minute, clinging to the side of the steep hillside.
The monastery, which was built in 1630 and houses monks of the Brokpa or Red Hat sect is definitely one of the prettiest. We are able to watch a praying and the place was abuzz with Ladakhi visiting the monastery to donate lamp oil.
The Hemis Gompa is famous for its annual Tse Chu Festival held in June-July, when around 50.000 visitors descend on Leh and which is characterized by colorful masked dances. The festival commemorates the anniversary of Padmasambhava, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism. Dancers wearing brightly colored masks that represent good and evil characters in Mahayana Buddhism, enact an age-old tale of the victory of good over evil.
Every 12 years a large thangka depicting Guru Rinpoche is unrolled and draped down the Dukhang (place of prayer) walls. Next time will be in 2016!


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Stakna is located 25 km southeast of Leh. Stag or stak means “tiger” and na means “nose” The 16th century monastery is of a smaller in seize, but it is in a good condition.


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Matho is located 25 km southeast of Leh and is situated on top of a small hill on the south side of the valley.

It was founded in the 15th century by the Tibetan Sakya scholar Dorje Plasang and it is the only Sakya-Pa monastery in Ladakh.

Ind 22It is known to outsiders for its annual Oracle Matho Nagran Festival, held on the 14th and 15th days of the first month of the Tibetan calendar. During this festival, the approximately 60 resident lamas elect two oracles, known as "Rongzam", to serve a three-year term. The purpose of these oracles is to attempt to predict the fortunes of the local village communities for the coming year. We were shown around by a friendly monk, and as a male I was allowed to go into one of the chambers were the monks meditate before making their prophecies. It was an eerie place I was glad to leave, let alone meditate there for three months!

We were also shown the masks worn during these activities. Spooky! The “Guide du routard” mentions that this is the monastery that Hergé used to base his cartoon “Tintin in Tibet” on, and that was the main reason for our visit.








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About 20 kms from Leh, Thiksey is an imposing monastery and one of the finest examples of Ladakhi architecture. This Gompa is situated on the top of the hill and forms part of Gelukpa order. Paldan Sherab nephew of Sherb Zangpo, founded Thiksey monastery.

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The 12 storey monastery complex contains numerous stupas, statues, thankas, wall paintings, swords and a large pillar engraved with the Buddha's teachings,there are sacred shrines and a many precious objects to be seen. The main prayer hall has a 15-meter high-seated Buddha figure. Here we were able to see a Puja (morning prayer) at 6 AM







Shey Gompa

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Situated on a hillock 15 km south of Leh, it was once the residence of the royal family and was constructed by the first king of Ladakh, Lhachen Palgyigon. According to tradition, it was the seat of power of the pre-Tibetan kings.


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Spituk Gompa is on the hilltop near Indus, around 18 Km from Leh. The Gompa was founded in 11th century and was named Spituk (exemplary) by Rinchen Zangpo, a translator came to that place and said that exemplary religious community would rise.

The terrifying face of Vajrabhairva is unveiled only at the annual festival in January


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Getting to Alci is a full daytrip from Leh, but we wanted to see the 11th century frescos. We had read that they show Byzantine influences, so we had to do this trip.
Below a photo that shows the same halo as the Byzantine artist would have used. So the Silk Road must have passed here.


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Located around 52 Kms from Leh, know as Klu-Kkhjil (water spirits) founded in the 11th century AD and was rededicated to another monastic order (the yellow sect) in the 15th century, its earlier gompa was destroyed in fire. The present gompa dates back to the 18th century and has a twenty-five foot tall gold-covered Buddha statue.
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When we arrived there; everybody was busy cleaning and decorating the building. Also the local people were busy cleaning the streets. Guru Rinpoche was expected to make a visit. We saw a lot of people waiting alon the road, wearing the Sunday best with flowers and presents for Rinpoche to arrive.


The Nubra valley

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To visit the Nubra valley a special permit is needed. A party of three is minimum, but being India, a travel agency applied a permit for us with a third “ghost” traveler.

North of Leh, the road to the Khardung La Pass claims to be the highest motorable road in the world. From the Khardung La, the road drops down into the fertile Nubra valley.

The road from Leh to the Nubra valley is a single road. Travel to the Nubra is in the morning, travel from the Nubra to Leh starts in the afternoon. Travel is done in a slow convoy style of jeeps, trucks and vans.

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On our way to the Khardung La the convoy is halted by a snowstorm. It is in the middle of June and the road is covered in a layer of snow. It also freezes, so the gravel road becomes an ice skate circuit. Rita freaks! Already uncomfortable by her fear of heights, she sees the van skate to the abyss; the worn-out tyres have no grip on the road. Besides that we do not have clothes for this kind of cold weather and the high altitude (we are near to the Pass) makes it difficult to breathe.

Some trucks and 4 wheel drives want to continue anyway, so there is a constant maneuvering of cars and trucks overtaking each other. I ask the driver for advice, turn back or continue. He says to wait for a bit, and indeed after an hour or so the sun comes through and the ice slowly starts to melt. We can, if slowly, continue through to the top.


Back on the silkroad

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The furthest place the permit allows us to visit in the valley is Panamik, the last settlement of any size before the Tibetan border.

Here we see sand dunes and the Bactrian camel again. Indeed, we are back to where we left the Silk Road several weeks ago. A bit further from here and we are back in China and the Karakoram is just around the corner.

Routes from Nubra to Baltistan or Yarkand, though historically important, have been closed since 1947 and 1950.This was very much part of the ancient Silk Road.

Still, we hope that one day we will be able to travel from here to Yarkand and onwards to Kashgar.

For us the circle is round and there is a plane waiting for us to take us via Delhi and Istanbul back to our place in Belgium

 We have travelled the Silk Road for 7 weeks and were only able to scratch a bit off the surface. More travel will be needed to cover the whole length. So to be continued….