Archive for the ‘The Silk Road’ Category

A few hundred years old minaret in the old city of Khiva.

Here are some shots from my last year’s Central Asia trip, on the magically medieval-looking ancient towns in Uzbekistan. If you stare hard enough, you might just spot flying carpet among the minarets 🙂

Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva – these names invoke images of the 1001 Arabian Night in my mind. Islamic architecture is one of the wonders in these ancient towns, but after visiting a few of these historical cities, I regretted to have sticking to the well-trodden famous cities tour route, they all somehow look and feel rather alike – welcome to the reconstructed glory cities, in a film-set mode….

Uzbek traditional hats hanging for sale on the old city wall of Khiva.


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The currency of Uzbekistan named Sum.

Who wants to be an “instant” millionaire? Well, pay a visit to Uzbekistan and you are very likely to become one, without having to answer tough questions on world history or pop culture.

This is not some dodgy advertisement that comes through your cell phone; I am a living example of Uzbekistan-made millionaire, having stacks of cash that can’t fit into my wallet, instead, I have to store the Uzbek notes named “Sum” in a plastic bag and hide them in the bottom of my backpack.

Thanks to the black money market in Uzbekistan, I gain instant wealth by changing 500USD into local currency at an exchange rate of 1USD to 2170 Sum, as a result, I own 1,085,000 Sum – half of it in 1000 Sum notes (over 500 pieces), and the other half in 500 Sum notes (over 1000 pieces). (more…)

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State-Sponsored Travels?

A portrait of Przewalski in the museum; in photographs, he always appeared in military wear..

“Is your country giving you money to travel?” this is one of the most frequently asked questions directed to me in Kyrgyzstan, apart from the usual “where are you from?”, “how old are you?”, and “are you married?”.

Initially I could not understand why the Kyrgyz believe that a government would actually provide financial assistance to travelers, not until I visited a museum dedicated to the 19th century Russian explorer Nikolai Mikhailovich Przewalski.

Przewalski was a Russian army officer, who made four expeditions to Central Asia under the patronage of the Tsar government between 1870 and 1885. During those trips, he mapped the region of Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet, and brought home samples of rare plants and animals.

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The National Ballet Theater in Bishkek is hosting various political rally this summer.

The National Ballet Theater in Bishkek – the capital of Kyrgyzstan – is not hosting any prestigious ballet troupe from Russia this summer; instead, it becomes the venue for local political parties to rally for support.

Since the bloodily put down protest in April that overturned the government, sending former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev fleeing to Belarus, the country has been hanging in balance under an interim government while waiting for a general election in October.

I have arrived in Bishkek two months ahead of the election, when various political parties – mind you, Kyrgyzstan has 148 parties, though only a handful are active – are vying for supporters by throwing free luncheons and cultural shows. The National Ballet Theater is the choice venue for these activities. (more…)

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The yurt - National House of Kyrgyzstan - in the jailoo (grassland).

The Kyrgyz people like to refer to anything of local origin as “National”, for example, they call the nomadic dwelling yurt as the National House. They also have National Food, National Drink, National Game, National Costume, National Literature, and of course, National Language.

Having gained independence less than 20 years ago in 1991, Kyrgyzstan is a new nation eager to assert its own identity, and shedding the Soviet-Russian legacy.

Though the country with five million inhabitants has 80 ethnic groups, the culture deemed “national” is that of the Kyrgyz ethnic, who made up 70% of the population. Other major ethnics include the Uzbek (14%) and the Russian (10%), and the rest are Uygur, Kazakh, Tajik, Belarusian, Ukrainian, Dungan, etc.

I notice that although the local people are enthusiastic in promoting their “national” culture, another set of “official” culture from the old Soviet days remains ingrained in their daily life. (more…)

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A Karaoke joint in Tazhong that provides extra services.

“Conquering the Sea of Death” – a slogan on the archway that welcomed me into Tazhong announced.  

After traveling for hundreds of kilometers through a barren desert highway and arriving in Tazhong at two o’clock in the morning, I was surprised by its liveliness.

Though the tiny settlement in the heart of the Taklamakan Desert only has one street, with one row of shop houses lasting for less than a kilometer, it looks like a sleepless town.

Neon lights adorned all the shops, barbecue stalls lined the street, girls in bare-back tops and short skirts scattered all over the places, and loud music from the karaoke rooms floating through the still air.

I soon find out that over 80% of the businesses in Tazhong are related to the flesh trade, be it the barber shops without a single scissor or hairdryer in them, the massage parlors that offer foot massage and more, the karaoke joints, the “recreation” centers, or the only hotel in town.

It was no surprise that when I failed to secure a room in the only hotel in Tazhong, I ended up in a brothel, the only place I could have a soft bed and a roof over my head, and the luxury of getting a bath in the middle of the desert. (more…)

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Taking a walk in the neighborhood of the old city of Kucha, one is likely to be invited by friendly locals for a drink in their home.


The first mistake I made upon arriving in Kucha, a small town in central Xinjiang, was to approach a policeman for direction. 

The second mistake that followed was asking the same policeman if there were cheap guesthouses around the old city of Kucha. 

The third mistake was to reveal to the policeman that I am a foreign tourist. I should have known better, from then on, I was marked. 

Barely half an hour after welcoming me into his family run guesthouse at the edge of the old city, Yusof had to come to me and said apologetically: “I am sorry, I have just been informed and reminded by the police that my guesthouse cannot host foreigners.” (more…)

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Today, I defied the advice of many concerned friends and went to a Uygur neighborhood in Urumqi on the anniversary of last year’s ethnic riots; but I must admit, after learning more about the racial tension in Xinjiang, I walked around with some apprehension.

I exhibited my tourist identity – a camera hanging down my neck, spotting a colorful tubular buff as headwear, and speaking in limited Uygur language that I picked up in the past week. But what difference would that make? In the eyes of the locals, I would be a Han Chinese tourist from another province.

Oddly enough, when I walked down a lane with many roadside stalls and stopped to buy some cookies from a Uygur vendor, the middle-aged woman asked if I was a journalist. Perhaps, no Han would have any business to stroll down a street full of Uygur, and with security forces in every corner.

Apparently, quite some tourists who owned a SLR camera have been mistaken as a “professional” and asked the same question. A few days ago, I met a tourist from Thailand, who claimed to have been detained by the police for some two hours, as he was being suspected a journalist. (more…)

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Armed personnel patrol the streets of Urumqi diligently.


Instead of taking me to a restaurant that served Xinjiang signature dishes like roasted whole lamb, grill meat or pulou rice, a few acquaintances in Urumqi treated me to Sichuan hot pot yesterday.  

Initially I thought they were trying to please my Malaysian taste bud that preferred the hot and spicy southern Chinese cuisine, but later I was startled to learn of the real reason.    

“We are not treating you to typical Xinjiang food, because after last year’s incident, we have quit going to Uygur restaurant or eating Uygur food,” said Wang, a Han ethnic who is born and bred in Urumqi.  

I have arrived in the provincial capital of Xinjiang Uygur Minority Autonomous Region, Urumqi, just ahead of the anniversary of last year’s July 5 bloody ethnic riots, which left 197 dead and some 1,700 injured, according to official figure.  

Last year, what started as a street protest demanding investigations into a Uygur-Han brawl at a factory in southern China, had instead turned violent in Urumqi. The Turkic-speaking Muslim Uygur attacked and killed the Han, who is the biggest ethnic group in China, and eventually led to a bloody crackdown.  

Since then, like Wang, many Han locals in Urumqi have boycotted Uygur businesses – from restaurants, grocery shops to department stores. The deadly riots have further strained the already difficult race relations in Xinjiang. (more…)

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The hills in Gansu Province’s Nantai Village are painted in a myriad of colors. Column of red, orange, yellow, white, pink, and purple lines zigzag across the uneven earth. After rain, the colors would turn more vivid than usual, as if the earth is grateful for the rare shower in this part of China.

For years, local farmer Lei Xingyi thought the colorful hills in his backyard was how all hills should look like. Not until in his mid-thirties, when he was elected a village head that he had a chance to travel outside for study trips and realized the multi-hued rocks were unique.    

When I met Lei, he has already relinquished official post a long time ago. He is now running a guesthouse cum guide service for photography enthusiasts and tourists in awe with the landscape right behind his home.

“I’d rather be a herder than remaining an official,” he told me he quit the village head post before his term was up in 1998. Disillusioned with officialdom – which he said was curry favor for the big shots by exploiting the common people – he resigned and bought 100 sheep to become a shepherd.

He roamed the colorful but barren hills from one end to the other, in search of a small patch of grassland for his herd. It was during those shepherding days that he learned the routes around the hills by heart, and by chance he met a photographer who changed the course of his life. (more…)

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