Category Archives: Asia

Operation Asia: Done!

Well folks, we are officially home (for a while) after a successful Phase Two of our world travels: six months in Asia! It was a crazy/exciting/breathtaking/adventure filled/at times scary/thrilling blur (as is somewhat evident from the approximately 500 photos I selected in the below slideshow as a “few” of my favorites).

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Let’s take a look at the stats:

Countries Visited: 15 (Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, Singapore, Brunei, Philippines, Nepal, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, China).

Continents Visited: Asia and a teeny tiny bit of Europe with our visit to Istanbul.

Time Away: 5 months 22 days (Dec 3 – May 25).

Number of Border Crossings: 20 (re-entered a few countries like Malaysia (4 times), Thailand (2 times), and Uzbekistan (2 times)).

Most Epic Border Crossing(s): All of them to/from Uzbekistan… I think Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan was a record 9 passports checks and about 2 hours, including an approximately 1 mile walk through the desert no-mans land. The worst, though, was Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan given the character of the border patrolmen. Highest, longest and most beautiful was Kyrgyzstan to China through the Torugart Pass at about 12,000 feet and something like 70km between the border and the final border check in China. Thankfully we didn’t have to walk this one. 😉

Number of Flights Taken: 31.

Helicopter Rides: 1 (From Namche Bazaar to Kathmandu).

Miles flown: 35,822.

Longest Amount of Time Spent in One Country: Had Jenni not gotten sick in Malaysian Borneo it would have been a tie between India and the Philippines at 25 nights, but as a result of having to cut down our visit to the Philippines and extend our stay in Malaysia, it ended up being Malaysia at a total of 32 nights.

Shortest Amount of Time Spent in One Country: Brunei (1 night).

Locations We Laid Our Weary Heads to Rest: 78. Is it clear now why  we’re so sick of packing (and unpacking) our bags!?!

Number of Cities/Towns/Villages Stayed In: 63 (Hong Kong; Negombo, Anuradhapura, Sigiriya, Kandy, Adam’s Peak, and Mirissa, Sri Lanka; Kochi, Thuravoor, Munnar, Madurai, Mumbai, Agra, Delhi, and Varanasi, India; Railay, Koh Lipe, and Chiang Mai, Thailand; Langkawi, Penang, Kuching, Lemanak, Kota Kinabalu, Kota Kinabalu National Park, Tuaran, and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, and Vientienne, Laos; Singapore; Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei; Sabang, Port Barton, El Nido, and Coron, Philippines; Kathmandu, Phakding, Namche Bazaar, Dhole, Macchermo, Gokyo, Thangnag, Dzongla, Lobuche, Gorak Shep, and Pheriche, Nepal; Istanbul, Turkey; Tashkent, Khiva, Bukhara, Aidarkul Yurt Village, and Samarkand, Uzbekistan; Darvaza and Ashgabat, Turkmenistan; Bishkek, Karakol, Bokonbayevo, Temir-Kanat, Kochkor, and Naryn, Kyrgyzstan; Kashgar, Xian, and Beijing, China).

Largest Country Visited: In Population: China. In Size: China.

Smallest Country Visited: In Population: Brunei. In Size: Singapore.

Richest Country Visited (Highest GDP Per Capita): Singapore.

Poorest Country Visited (Lowest GDP Per Capita): Nepal.

Countries With No McDonald’s Visited: 5 (Laos, Nepal, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan).

Highest Elevation Reached: 18,200 feet (5,545 meters) at the summit of Kala Phatthar on our trek to Everest Base Camp.

Visas Obtained in Advance: 3 (China, India, and Uzbekistan).

Award for Country with Most Frustrating Visa Application Process: Uzbekistan. It also took the cake for worst border crossing experiences, so if you visit be prepared for loads o’ border shenanigans.

Award for Overall Most Frustrating Travel Experience: India. The ‘Stans  probably take second place.

Number of Boat Rides Taken: 46.

Best Public Transportation System: Tough call, but we were very impressed by Hong Kong’s, Singapore’s and Beijing’s.

Cheapest Accommodation: BeeBee Guesthouse in Vang Vieng, Laos at $15 a night for the deluxe room.

Best Value Accommodation: White Beach in Port Barton, Philippines or Pitiusas in Koh Lipe, Thailand.

Best View from a Room: White Beach in Port Barton, Philippines.

Best View From a Room On a Budget: BeeBee Guesthouse in Vang Vieng, Laos.

Craziest Accommodation: Camping alongside a giant burning gas crater in the middle of the Turkmenistan desert.

Coolest In Theory, Not Actuality Accommodation: The Tubotel (hotel rooms built out of concrete pipes) in Langkawi, Malaysia.

Favorite Beach Location: White Beach, Port Barton, Philippines. Very Honorable Mention to Pitiusas in Koh Lipe, Thailand. We also loved Phra Nang Beach a short walk from our stay in Railay, Thailand.

Worst Accommodation: The shittiest hotel in Agra, India. This gem in Madurai, India was pretty impressively gross too. And the rats didn’t help the case of our spot in Sabang, Philippines.

Best Accommodation: While we often joke that our hotel – er – hospital in Borneo was fabulous with its bedside bell service, I think our one big splurge (post-hospital release) had to have been the best on this journey. Shangri-La Rasa Ria was a wonderful place to recuperate.

Most Relaxing Spot: Sleeping on a punted boat in the Kerala backwaters.

Times Jenni Faced Her Fears: *Note that we did not say “tackled” her fears or even “handled her fears well.”* Too many to count! Fear of heights faced on numerous occasions, perhaps most notably on the aerial tram in Langkawi, trekking in Nepal (especially the Hillary Bridge and crossing the Cho-La Pass), the treetop canopy walk we crossed in Borneo… The arachnophobia was brought to light in far too many hairy spider situations. Honorable mentions: tarantula like things on our Lao hill trek and the giant spiders in the outhouses at the Iban longhouse (and a special shout-out to Eric for protecting me from them!). Luckily she was spared from some of her more obscure fears like water slides and catching frisbees.

Scariest Experience: Toss up between Jenni contracting meningitis in Borneo and getting cursed out publicly by an angry anti-American Kyrgyz in the Osh airport.

Best Sunsets: The amazing beach sunsets at Rasa Ria, Borneo and Railay, Thailand. Of course our spot in Port Barton, Philippines. The illuminated skyline of Istanbul, Turkey is pretty tough to beat. A hilltop view of the big ball drop in Luang Prabang, Laos. Pretty consistent was Langkawi, Malaysia. El Nido, Philippines had some lovely island views to ogle at while the sky changed. And the relaxation couldn’t be topped while watching the sunsets in the backwaters of Kerala, India. Runners up include: Vang Vieng, Laos and Munnar, India.

Best Sunrises: Is it really possible to beat a sunrise that comes up from behind the world’s tallest peak? If any sunrise could come close to topping that one on the peak of Kala Patthar, Nepal, it was Adam’s Peak, Sri Lanka, another mountain top reward. Varanasi, India proved to be some stiff competition as well.

Money Spent on Bottled Water: Lots.

Weirdest Teeth Brushing Companions: A pig, a duck, a puppy and a village boy in Lao hill country. But best views while brushing our teeth were definitely while trekking in Nepal (great teeth brushing view shots in here and here)!

Accidents: A few fender benders in India (unavoidable in the traffic), 1 (totally avoidable) fender bender in Kyrgyzstan, 1 flat tire on the road in Kyrgyzstan.

Number of times we got food poisoning: Trust me, you don’t want to know. Honorable mention to the time we were both sick in Kathmandu.

Average Rate of Showers Per Week: Let’s just say it’s not quite 7.

Number of Books Read: Alan: 18. Jenni: 26.

Number of Haircuts: Alan: 2. Jenni: 0.

Grossest Sighting: Probably a tie between an eagle eating a rabbit head in Kyrgyzstan and the toilets in China. (That is, if we’re throwing out all spider incidents.)

Items Lost: Narrowly avoided having our pocket knife confiscated by security in Laos (major props to the security guards who let us retrieve our checked baggage to save the knife); Alan lost and later retrieved his hat and gloves from a bus in China; and we lost our snack collection, a pair of iPhone headphones and Alan’s backpack got some holes in it by some hungry rats in our room in Sabang, Philippines. And we intentionally ditched a number of items deemed unnecessary along the way. So, all in all, we did much better on this leg of the trip!

Family Members Visited: 4. We visited Jenni’s aunt Gül and cousin Şans in Istanbul, and later Alan’s father Ron and his wife Linda met us in Central Asia.

Friends Visited (e.g. people we knew before the trip): 4. 1 friend (whom we met in the Galapagos Islands) now living in Hong Kong, 1 college friend of Jenni’s living in Delhi, India, and 1 college friend (who normally resides in Japan) and 1 former colleague of Alan’s while we were visiting Singapore.

Most Random Encounter: College friend of Alan’s in Kuching, Borneo.

Friends Made: Lots! We met people from all over the world. A few Americans, a handful of Canadians, some Aussies, lots of Brits, possibly even more Germans, even a couple that originally hail from Kazakhstan and Romania and now reside in Hong Kong and that we bumped into in the Philippines. Not to mention the many locals along the way!

Most Outlandish Character Met: Budong, our thirsty boatman at the Iban Longhouse. Our driver there, Paul, was pretty awesome too (ba-na-na-na!). Come to think of it, our driver (and world’s hippest grandpa) in Turkmenistan was also pretty cool. And who could forget the bong-smoking Lao man who randomly started following us on our Lao trek.

Place Where We Felt the Least Safe: Kyrgyzstan takes the cake, with Osh being the worst (angry anti-American ranter), and Bishkek the second.

Serious Injuries: 0.

Infectious Diseases Contracted: 1 (yuck, meningitis). Though it’s possibly 2 if we’re counting Alan’s mysterious armpit disease (lucky for our friends and family this has been cured).

Hospital Visits: Technically 2. A three night stay for Jenni’s bout of meningitis, and once to drop off a woman on the way down from the Himalayas.

World “Wonders” Visited (According to Wikipedia’s Wonders of the World): 5 (Taj Mahal, Great WallMount Everest, Hagia Sophia, and Puerto Princesa Underground River).

Places Visited That Locals Called the “8th” Wonder of the World: More than 5.

Number of Times We Drove Ourselves: Once (in Langkawi)!

Mosquito Bites: Millions.

Craziest Party: Tubing in Vang Vieng. Honorable mention to our night at the Iban longhouse.

Favorite Night: Ooh-ha-ing with the Iban!!!

Favorite Day: Our first day at White Beach, celebrating with rum and cokes and the most perfect view.

Favorite New Songs Discovered: Cham Cham. Honorable mention to the Bollywood hit, Whistle Baja (actually discovered from an MTV type show playing while we were in Kathmandu). Also to Wind of Change by the Scorpions, which seemed to be a weirdly recurring theme throughout the trip, most notably when our guide in Turkmenistan told us it’s one of his favorites.

Biggest Surprise: Country: China (not saying it was our favorite country, but it most exceeded our expectations). City: Penang, Malaysia (super enjoyable experience in this city that we’d heard mixed reviews on, we wished we stayed longer).

Biggest Letdown: Country: Brunei (we may be biased since Jenni was suffering from what turned out to be meningitis during our visit, but… there’s not all that much to do there. And this feeling despite that we had two royal sightings whilst visiting). City: Langkawi (I mean, it’s cool, but definitely an underwhelming beach destination when you’re coming from the Thai Islands!).

Memorable Dishes/Meals: The thali plate in Madurai, India, everything on the boat in the Kerala backwaters, and paratha EVERYWHERE in India!!! (but a special mention of the mint paratha we tried in Mumbai), the string hoppers for breakfast in Mirissa, Sri Lanka, all things street food in Chiang Mai, Thailand (street sushi, cold noodles, fried chicken and of course mango with sticky rice sticking out the most), pancakes in Railay, Thailand, everything in Istanbul (but highlights included a home cooked meal at Jenni’s aunt’s home and the iskender at Kebapçı İskender), and of course the time we found saltines in the Philippines. The food scene in Penang, Malaysia deserves a shout out as well.

Strangest Foods Consumed: Clearly Alan is the more adventurous eater because he tried: chicken feet and chicken ass in Borneo, balut (a hard boiled fertilized duck egg… in other words: duck fetus) in the Philippines, buffalo blood in Laos, and horse meat in Uzbekistan. We both (and Ron!) tried camel’s milk in Turkmenistan. And Jenni got guilted into eating buffalo skin in Laos.

Country With Overall Best Eats: India, with Turkey a very close second.

Most Beautiful Spot: The islands and lagoons in Coron, Philippines.

Best Holiday Experience: Christmas in Munnar, India.

Worst Holiday Experience: New Years in Agra, India.

Favorite Word Discovered: Neekodee (means “whatever” in the Iban dialect).

Things Most Missed While Away: Toilets with a flushing mechanism, seat and/or toilet paper; paved roads; our electric toothbrushes (and brushing with tap water!); iced coffee; Mexican food; buffalo wings (with blue cheese, obvi); Maine lobstah; bagels; free bread baskets; a general respect for traffic laws; good internet; not having to pay for public restrooms (that have no flushing mechanism, seat and/or toilet paper); and of course friends and family!

Weird Habits Acquired: Carrying toilet paper with me everywhere in constant fear of lack of access to adequate facilities.

Coolest Animal Sighting: There were so many, it’s really hard to pick a favorite… Highlights include: the proboscis monkeys and the pit viper snake at Bako National Park in Borneo, the orangutans in Borneo, the monitor lizards and the water snake spotted in an underwater cave in Sabang, Philippines, the animal markets in Karakol, Kyrgyzstan and Kashgar, China, the child on a donkey and the man on a horse with a puppy in a satchel at Djety Oguz in Kyrgyzstan, the puppies and monkeys (and feeding elephants!) in Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle, mountain goats and marmots while hiking in Kyrgyzstan, the rabbit-hunting eagle in Kyrgyzstan, the sweater-wearing goats and other animals keeping warm in the ashes in Varanasi, India (and the cavial at the local zoo!), the kingfishers and lizards in the Kerala backwaters, the monkey pool in Kathmandu, the yaks and the tahrs and crazy birds in the Himalayas, the mudskippers (and the cat cafe!) in Penang, Malaysia.

Best Snorkeling: The house reef at Balinsasayaw Resort in Coron, Philippines.

Neatest Spot Discovered on a Stranger’s Recommendation: Shipton’s Arch, outside of Kashgar, China. And we didn’t end up going, but the overwater cabins in Khao Sok National Park, Thailand sound awesome, and it’s now on our list.

Stray Dogs Jenni Pet: Countless.

Place More Developed Than Expected: Borneo (and this was much appreciated when we discovered that the development extended to their first rate hospitals. Shout out to KPJ Medical and the awesome staff that treated Jenni!).

Place Less Developed Than Expected: Philippines.

Country Most Run Like A Business: Singapore.

Country Least Run Like A Business: Uzbekistan.

Countries Visited Where Jenni Got Shamed For Her Lack of Knowledge of the Turkish Language: 5 (Turkey (obvi), Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and even China!).

Times We Regretted Quitting Our Jobs to See the World: A big. fat. zero.

Update re Jenni & Alan see the world: We recently booked our departure tickets for the last leg of our journey: Europe and Africa!  We depart LA for Dublin, Ireland on July 22.  Our tentative plan is to visit Ireland, England and Scotland for late July and August. We will be in Amsterdam August 30-September 2. From there we meet up with Kenny and fly to Italy, where we will explore Rome and the wine and food country for a couple weeks before the two of us head to Cassis, France for Ms. Pickett’s wedding! With a brief TBD spot for our second anniversary on the way, we’ll make our way up to Munich where we’re meeting a friend for Oktoberfest (woot! woot!). We’ll check out Berlin for a few days as well, then we have a week or so up in the air. Thinking maybe Prague? Budapest? In October we’ll head to Africa, where our plan is to do some combination of Botswana, Namibia and South Africa, potentially also Kenya. If you have any thoughts or advice, please come with it!

In the meantime, we’ve been busy catching up with friends in Cali, visiting family on the East Coast, attending a couple weddings in California, and eating lots of our old favorite foods. We’ll be hopping around the US until late July, including making a brief stop to check out Paso Robles for the first time (so get at us with any vineyard recs!). We’ll give you a brief update on all things America before we head out for our third and “final” phase! Thanks for reading, friends.

We Have Reached Our Final (Asian) Destination

This is it! The last stop of many on our six-month tour of Asia. We arrived in style, taking the high-speed train from Xian. Thing is fast, people! And we stayed in the ritzy part of town, (sort of by accident) surrounded by stores selling Ferraris, Aston Martins, Gucci and Rolex. This was one of the best value hotels we stayed at during our whole trip, maybe the best in my opinion. For around $110 a night we had a great location, classy lobby, super helpful staff, really nice room, uber comfy bed…My only complaint was the WiFi wasn’t very strong, but we’d highly recommend this hotel. It was a great way to round out the trip.

Another perk of the Park Plaza hotel is its proximity to the Donghuamen Night Market. This crazy night market is lined with stalls selling a mix of delicious and creepy items: everything from skewers of meat and seafood, dumplings, noodles and caramelized sugar covered fruit, to (for the more adventurous eaters) starfish, sea horse, sea urchins, lamb kidneys, sheep balls, worms, snakes, scorpions, even spiders.

And among these crazy foods, Alan also found a Chinese Giants fan. So, it was definitely a success.

It feels fitting that we could wrap up the trip with one of the most bucket list-y, iconic tourist experiences there is: The Great Stairmaster. More commonly known as the Great Wall. Or the umpteenth “eighth” wonder of the world. 😉 We visited Jinshanling, where the walk along the wall is a bit more of a hike than other spots (so I’m told). We picked this area because it’s supposed to feel a bit more remote, a little less touristy, and give you more of a feel for the natural beauty of the area.

If I’m being totally honest, it still kind of is just a wall, but I think going in with the expectation of it having been too hyped sort of prepared me and made it less underwhelming in actuality. We did really enjoy our walk here. The scenery is quite beautiful, and the wall, though in a state of disrepair in certain areas, is a pretty remarkable architectural feat, snaking along the crests and valleys of these lush and rolling hills.

I’ve got to say, we underestimated that wall. I mean, it’s a wall, how hard can it be? But that thing is pretty steep! We definitely got a workout traversing it.

After our Great Wall excursion we got dropped off in perhaps the most well-known hutong area and set off to explore. This part of town is filled with tight alleyways bustling with activity and tons of quaint shops and restaurants. It was so crowded, in fact, that I got run over by a bicyclist. Oops.

We had a fantastic Italian dinner here at a tiny restaurant called Mercante. The chef was from Emilia-Romagna and he hooked us up with some solid Sicilian pecorino and walk-in seats in this cozy and packed little restaurant. Afterwards we walked a short way to the Houhai Lake area. We adored this part of town. It’s waterside and absolutely bumping with bars and live music. We stopped into one (we may or may not have picked it because it had a puppy! Eeee!) with a wonderful singer cooing some American classics alongside an acoustic guitar.

Another day we braved the heat to check out the Forbidden City. We were blown away by how big it is, and also very taken by the traditional pagoda style palaces.

We opted for no guide, and were honestly so overloaded on history that we probably didn’t do as in-depth an exploration of this as many tourists would, but it’s easy to appreciate in a 50,000 feet above way with a quick walk through. To be sure there are countless tour options for those more interested in the history. Beware though, there are what feels like millions of tourists out exploring this city. And you sort of have to fight your way through massive groups of Chinese tour buses to get a peek at times.

What was most certainly not worth braving the heat for was Tiananmen Square. We hereby give you permission to skip this tourist “must-see” on your visit to Beijing. We’re not trying to short-change the historical importance of this square, but as something to physically see while on vacation, well…it’s just a square. So, we did what any self respecting tourists would do in this situation: we took a selfie and left.

I literally took a picture of these decorative shrubs in a phallic shape just to make our pictures of Tiananmen a little more exciting.

We loved Beijing even more than we thought we would. It’s super easy to get around (despite the language barrier, the metro is astoundingly easy to figure out…this coming from someone severely lacking in directional skills). And we kept finding that this mastery of common sense pervades the culture. Things were just so sensible and helpful. For instance, while over the top and often off the mark (as covered in all of our China posts), the Chinese are big on signage. (Side note: we think part of why China has so many signs is because it modernizes at a centrally planned pace and not in steps or organically. So people are sometimes placed in modernized situations they are not prepared for, and have signage to guide them. Thoughts?) But they have some really brilliant ideas when it comes to this. For instance, if your Do Not Disturb light is on in your hotel room when the housekeeping staff comes by, they leave a card under your door telling you to call if you’d like them to come back. And the hotels provide you with little business cards that say in English and Mandarin “Please take me to…” with a list of popular tourist destinations. It also lists “Please take me back to…” with the name of the hotel. Brilliant, and so simple!

Other strange observations on China…the hotels have a 13th floor, but no 4th or 14th! People often sit in the front seat of cabs, in lieu of taking the back, or splitting the group up with one up front and one in back. If you’re a female, be prepared to be addressed solely as “lady.”

::hey lady::
::hey lady::

To celebrate a vacation of epic proportions we splurged on a special dinner, and an acrobat show. The duck at renowned Da Dong was legit. It’s all in the skin. I don’t know what they do to get it this way, but the skin is supremely crispy and thin and it’s as if it melts in your mouth. It’s served with crepes and various accouterments like onion, sugar, and garlic. A solid meal indeed. The acrobatics show was really fun. Parts of the act were weirdly sloppy in a way that made me wonder if they were intentionally not dancing in sync or screwing up on minor acrobatic moves so as to increase the fear factor when they did the really dangerous ones. The grand finale involved a guy driving a motorcycle inside of a giant metal spherical cage. And then another motorcyclist joined him. And another…And another. After the fifth I was cringing and covering my eyes. I leaned over to Alan and whispered, “This has to stop.”That’s when they put three more in! Thank goodness nobody died on stage. Sorry, no pictures. The last thing I wanted to do was risk even further injury by distracting anyone with a camera flash.

Before heading out to the airport our final night we ordered room service and reminisced about all our adventures. Well, in reality Alan watched Sly Stallone’s classic Cobra, and I bounced around in out of control excitement for our arrival in America the next day!

We are so thrilled to be back in America for a little bit! The only thing better than traveling the world is coming home to the friends and family you missed so dearly. But I’m not going to lie, there was a little jet lag to get through! (I’m embarrassed to share this picture from our taxi ride out of LAX, but Alan thought the world deserved to see just how dedicated this blogger can be).

::well hello jet lag::
::well hello jet lag::

Practical Info

Transportation: We arrived on a day-time high speed train from Xian. See our Xian post for details. From Beijing West train station, we took an unofficial taxi for 90 CNY to the Park Plaza. You could take the subway, or an official taxi would have cost much less had we known and been patient.

The subway system is great for getting around the city. It works well and is easy to understand with English on the maps and machines. A ride costs 2 CNY. You can walk a bit, but there’s some of that Vegas thing where big blocks take a long time to cover.

We departed on a flight to the US!!! Our hotel provided a car for 180 CNY, it took a little over half an hour at 8:30 am on a Sunday. The airport is quite nice, though you cannot bring water through the initial security and then as you board the plane they take any beverages you purchased inside the terminal. This seemed undisclosed and sub-optimal as we spent our remaining yuan on waters and Sprite.

Accommodation: We stayed at the Park Plaza Wangfujing, and we highly recommend it (at ~$110/night). It is billed as a very nice and far cheaper alternative to its neighboring 5-star properties, and we agree. The service was great, our room reasonably spacious and nicely appointed, and the location is very good. It is within spitting distance of the Peninsula and the Waldorf, and next door to the Ferrari and Aston Martin dealerships. So you’re not in the hood. Our only complaint is the WiFi was sub-par. But this hotel is so much nicer than almost everywhere else we’ve stayed, that we are willing to tolerate this flaw.

We had wanted to book a room at Beijing Downtown Backpackers (in large part for its location) but there were no privates available. It is located on Nan Luo Go Xiang, in the heart of the active and charming hutong district and very close to Houhai Lake. This is a better location in terms of character and nightlife. After nearly six months on the road, we were very happy to retire to our cocoon of moderate luxury at the Park Plaza. The subway system is so good that moving between these neighborhoods was a piece of cake. Another place we considered is Courtyard 7. Opposite House is said to be nice and hip.

Food and Drinks: There is tons of it. Our first night we visited the Donghuamen night market. The set up is very orderly, with a line of stalls on one side of the street for a few hundred yards. Options include lots of protein skewers and noodles etc., plus sheep balls, snake, scorpions, spiders, worms, starfish, sea horse, sea urchin, lamb kidney, etc. There are a couple informal carts in the area selling beers.

Beijing is famous for its Peking duck. The debate rages on over whose is the best. We tried one contender’s version over dinner at Da Dong (multiple branches, we went to the one in the mall across from the Park Plaza). The chef/owner’s claim to fame is that he makes crispy-skinned duck that is less fatty, and I support his claim. The skin melts in your mouth, and is all the more delicious when coated with a little sugar. It is a fancy place and on the pricy side, but worth it. The service was so-so, and my biggest complaint is that the drink pours were laughable. I don’t think I even got 30ml of scotch. Our tab was a little under 700 CNY, including two drinks.

Mercante is a charming slice of Italy in an old hutong alleyway. The owner hails from Emilia-Romagna and happily explained in detail the intricacies of the menu and nuances of a pecorino from Sicily vs. Tuscany. Our meal cost 698 CNY, including a bottle of dolcetto that accounted for more than half the total.

Lei Garden offers very tasty dim sum. But we had to diminish our rating substantially during the second half of the meal. They ran out of our favorite dish (steamed BBQ pork dumpling with oyster sauce), and then told us there is a charge if you do not order tea, and the little waters are way overpriced. I’ve known worse offenses, but we ended up paying $13 for two small bottles of non-special brand water and the tea charge, which was more than two orders of dumplings (3 per order) costs.

Consistent with our style on this trip, we did not really explore the nightlife. One night we had a drink at Moodle by Houhai Lake, where we enjoyed a guitar/singer duo, an adorable puppy, and of course badminton on the tube. The lake is lined with bars and restaurants and was quite an impressive scene. I am told the rowdier nightlife takes place in Sanlitun.

Activities: One day we visited the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. The former costs 60 CNY each and is enormous. We were not with a guide and we spent minimal time learning about the history as we just couldn’t take any more after Central Asia. But the place is well-organized and well-marked. There are some beautiful buildings and we enjoyed the Imperial Garden. Certain ticket lines accept credit cards. Note that they have instituted a south to north traffic flow rule, so you can only enter and exit at certain gates.

We hereby offer moral support should you choose to skip Tiananmen Square. We figured it would be a check-the-box experience that you feel obligated to see but won’t love. It is really OK to skip it. We should have visited Jingshan and Beihai Parks, instead.

The Chinese acrobat show at Chaoyang Theater was slightly error-laden but highly entertaining. We bought tickets through our hotel and paid 280 CNY per ticket instead of 380 CNY for VIP. Our seats on Level 1, Row 16 (#8&10) were great and paying more would have been a waste.

The Temple of Heaven is a popular attraction, but by our last day we were so templed out and it was gray and rainy. The Summer Palace is on the outskirts of the city, and is also very popular.

There are lots of options for visiting the Great Wall, in terms of location, exertion level, private or public, etc. We opted for the Jinshanling to Simatai hike via the activities arm of Beijing Downtown Backpackers (cost 280 CNY each): Our group numbered perhaps 25, so we took a bus, which made the drive 3-3.5 hours each way. I think in a private car it takes 2-2.5 hours. The scenery is pretty and the hike is fairly challenging, with a lot of up and down and some very steep, narrow stairs. It is more of a transport and chaperone concept than a guided tour. The info conveyed was simply that this section of the wall was built about 500 years ago by the Ming Dynasty.

I had read that the most touristy section of the wall near Beijing is Badaling, so that was out. We also considered Mutianyu and Jiankou. In addition to day trips from Beijing, you can visit the wall on a day trip from other places or do a multi-day hiking/camping trip.

May 21-25, 2014 (Wednesday-Sunday)


Before I get into the Terra Cotta Warriors, let me briefly address a different kind of warrior: she who braves the Chinese public toilet. I swear, every single time I emerged from a public restroom in China, I had a new story to share. It’s amazing. From a little game of what’s behind Door #1, #2 and #3 (spoiler alert: it’s shit. the answer is shit. behind all of them), to extremely loud and unabashed grunters, to the fact that in many restrooms more women leave the stall door open than those who actually close the door…It’s fascinating really, the etiquette of the Chinese bathroom. And this despite all that Chinese signage. For example:

And, just for good measure, here are a few more entertaining examples of the excessive and often strange Chinese signage:

Now that I’ve sufficiently alienated half of you, let’s get to the good stuff. Xian is of course famous for its Terra Cotta Warriors, so we made the drive out to see these bad boys in person.

The meticulously detailed clay soldiers were built way back in the 3rd century BC, and sat underground until they were discovered in the mid-1970s by some local peasants. Imagine digging those up in your backyard, huh? In fact, the “first” guy to have found them is still living out his fifteen minutes (or forty years, whatever) of fame and signing autographs on sight.

These several thousand (larger than) life size soldiers were built by a whopping 700,000 workers under the direction of the then Emperor Qin Shi Huang to be buried with him as protection in the afterlife. Thankfully this decision was chosen in lieu of his first idea to just bury thousands of real live soldiers with him. Nearby is a large mound believed to cover the Emperor’s mausoleum, though it has not yet been excavated.

The soldiers are lined up in pits, with different areas for different military functions. Within the pits are corridors that helped to support a ceiling under which they were eventually buried. Nowadays there are large hangar-like buildings built above the pits to protect them from the elements. Within the corridors the warriors are lined up, mostly facing the same direction, save for the three rows on each edge that face outwards. Apparently, as in real life, these front-row soldiers had no armor. They were prisoners, told that they must fight sans apparati, and if they somehow were able to survive then they would have gained freedom.

All of the statues were destroyed and looted (many of the soldiers once held nice bronze weaponry) by Xiang Yu in an act of revenge not so long after the Emperor’s death, and so the scene you view today is that of the warriors that have already been reconstructed from the leftover fragments. Archeologists are still working to restore these, and you can see the entire process while meandering through the pits: archeologists digging for buried bits…rows of mixed up, mashed up body parts…soldiers pieced together but not yet completed…and, of course, the final product.

The detail is extraordinary, and they have displayed a few of the better-preserved warriors for up-close viewing. Each soldier is different, from facial expressions, to their hand positions, to their hairstyles. Many have curled hands now empty as their weapons were stolen. The differing clothes, shoes, and even waist sizes help you determine their rank.

Originally these were all painted colorfully, but the colors faded quickly once they met oxygen after all these years. Luckily, there were photos on display of what some of these colors looked like upon excavation.

In a slightly more miniature form, there are some unearthed horses and chariots made of bronze. Impressive. Also splendid is the Chinese claim that they were using chrome plating 2,200 years ago, while Germans and Americans only discovered this method in 1937 and 1950, respectively.

But the warriors aren’t all Xian has to offer, and we really enjoyed our time within the city walls, and on them. The old city is walled in, and the wall is so large (and wide) that you can rent bikes and literally ride atop them. All nine miles around. This was so much fun, and a wonderfully easy way to get some spectacular vantage points of the city itself. Please also note that we are the only people wearing helmets. We’re risk-takers enough to quit our jobs to travel the world, keep going after contracting a potentially fatal disease, and visit countries nobody’s heard of, but it’s all about calculated risk-taking folks. Helmets save lives 😉

In the center of town we visited the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, which has been standing a colossal 1300 years.

Within it are several ornately decorated rooms, including this particularly impressive one full of murals made entirely of carved jade.

We grabbed lunch at the Tangdi Boutique Hotel and our kung pao chicken and pork with potato noodles were absolutely scrumptious! We got to sample some ridiculously expensive tea. It was tasty, though I doubt I will ever know enough about tea to know when it’s worth a fistful of Benjamins. But the Chinese know their chai. I found it fascinating, too, that lots of locals walk around China with Nalgene bottles, but unlike in America, they are not filled with water but rather loaded up with tea. They even have strainers in them to keep the tealeaves separate.

Last but not least we visited the Muslim quarter, which felt a bit like going home after our three-week stint in Central Asia, with its usual assortment of dried fruits and nuts and goats’ feet. But it was all very rich with Chinese flavor; hence the area had far more neon than any other Muslim quarter we’ve seen. There was also a surfeit of souvenirs and knick-knacks.

A funny observation about Mandarin, or maybe this is just a cultural difference in how people address each other, but I can’t count the number of times we heard people talking, and turned around to see what all the fuss was about because it sounded like they were yelling or fighting with each other, but then… they’re just talking. They are so animated!

Practical Info 

Xian anchored the eastern end of the famous Silk Road and served as China’s capital for several dynasties. Today it is a mid-sized city with a mere eight million residents. In addition to tourism, I believe there is a bit of high tech and aerospace industry, plus some universities. We liked the vibe here.

Transportation: We arrived on a China Southern flight from Kashgar via Urumqi. I purchased two separate one-way flights (i.e. to Urumqi and then to Xian) on Ctrip’s English site and saved $500+ vs. the cheapest tickets I saw on several other websites over the course of several weeks. This meant we had to collect our luggage in Urumqi, but it could not have been a simpler nor smoother process. Because both legs were on China Southern, we simply had to move our bags about 15 feet from the baggage claim to the China Southern transfer desk, check in again and then go through a special security line. Which was not the only airport security in China where they put the metal detector wand to our bare feet.

Our hostel picked us up in a comfortable, private car for 150 CNY from the Xian airport to Han Tang Inn. The ride took about 45 minutes, starting at 8 pm. I think there is an airport shuttle bus to the middle of the city, which is probably a lot cheaper.

We had a private car to visit the Terra Cotta Warriors and other city sights. I’m pretty sure you could take public transportation.

We departed on a day-time high speed train to Beijing. A popular option is to take the sleeper, which is actually cheaper and saves you a night of accommodation. But we thought it’d be nice to see more of the country and get a better night of sleep. From our hostel we took the metro to Xian North train station (at Bei Ke Zhan). It was painless, and the tickets cost 3 CNY each. There is a machine in the metro station with an English language option. It took us about 45 minutes door to door. I think the sleeper trains leave from Xian central station, which would be more convenient.

I bought our high speed train tickets on the Travel China Guide website. I read that some trains fill up and thus wanted to buy tickets in advance. This is not so easy without a Chinese ID. Various agencies sell train tickets to foreigners for an additional fee. There is also no such thing as an e-ticket. So we paid $83/ticket plus $10/ticket service fee and $8 total for delivery. Then I couldn’t figure out an option for payment other than PayPal, which took the $194 total to $201. I also had to upload passport photos/copies to the website. It was neither easy nor cheap, but the tickets were delivered on time to our hostel. We had second class seats, which reclined and were fairly spacious with lots of legroom. I don’t recall having a choice, but our train car configuration was three seats on one side and two on the other. So if you are traveling as a twosome, you’d rather have the two side, which was seats D&F. The train departed Xian on time and arrived at Beijing West station exactly 4.5 hours later, at 5:45 pm.

A popular resource for train travel is

Accommodation: We stayed at Han Tang Inn, a hostel inside the old city walls. The location is great, and the staff speak English well and are helpful. Our en suite, private double was small and the shower was of your typical non-enclosed variety, but the AC worked well and the bed was pretty comfy. WiFi is good in the lobby and so-so in the room. Meals here were OK but not great, and breakfast is not included. We had also considered staying at the Citadines Apartment Hotel.

Food: Lunch at Tangdi Boutique Hotel next to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda was very good. The space is lovely and we enjoyed both entrees (45 CNY each). Breakfast at Hantang House was also very good. It cost 87 CNY for two large muffins and two iced coffee drinks. There are tons of options, including endless street food around our hostel and especially throughout the Muslim Quarter. We were excited to be back in the land of Starbucks, just note you may need a local mobile number to get a WiFi code.

Activities: Our full day tour was organized through Cycle China. We visited the Terra Cotta Warriors in the morning, followed by the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, cycling on the old city walls and then a tour of the Muslim Quarter. We chose this outfit, in part, because it was one of the only operators we found offering a one-day tour that included both the Terra Cotta Warriors and city highlights. It was quite expensive, but we were very pleased. We had a private vehicle, a great guide, and the pace allowed us to see lots of things without feeling rushed.

The drive from our hostel to the Terra Cotta Warriors took about an hour. We arrived around 9 am, when I think the sight opens. You are strongly advised to arrive early as the crowds increased massively during the two hours we were there (which we felt was a perfect amount of time).

Big Wild Goose Pagoda is a nice complex with various rooms housing jade or wood carvings etc. We opted not to enter the pagoda itself and climb to the top, which I think costs 30 CNY extra. There are water and light shows here.

Cycling the city walls was included in our tour, but you could very easily do it on your own. There are bike rental shops (mountain bikes since you’re riding on worn and uneven brick) atop the walls at each of the four (directional) gates. 120 minutes costs 45 CNY for a single or 90 CNY for a tandem, and helmets are included. It took us 1 hour 10 minutes to complete the nine mile square. Just about everyone goes in a clockwise direction.

The Muslim quarter has your typical narrow alleys and usual assortment of dried fruits and nuts plus souvenir knick knacks but all with a Chinese flavor, so the food includes items like goats’ feet and there is more neon than I’ve ever seen in a Muslim quarter.

A highly recommended attraction that we skipped is the Tomb of Emperor Jingdi. Some also visit the Bell Tower and/or Drum Tower.

May 19-21, 2014 (Monday-Wednesday)


After our final border crossing of the trip – and our last border crossing until going home to America! – we began our tour of the last country on our six month Asian expedition: China! While China is technically not part of Central Asia, the city of Kashgar is still along the Silk Road, and it’s actually closer to Tehran than Beijing, ethnically more Uighur (with some Kyrgyz, Kazakh, etc.) and predominantly Muslim, so it felt a lot different from other Chinese cities like Beijing.

While there was obvious influence from China (including a giant Mao statue, some Mandarin speakers, and lots of proper Chinese food), the Uighur culture is definitely prevalent. We couldn’t decide if it felt more like a Chinese Central Asia, or a Central Asian China, finding instead that it fills some sort of nice hybrid space. The neon signs at the traffic lights would scroll right to left with Mandarin, and then switch direction for Uighur, which felt kind of like a metaphor for Kashgar itself. The city can’t even pick a side when it comes to the time zone. While all of mainland China is technically in the same time zone (kind of crazy when you realize that it’s thousands of miles wide), there are two times used in Kashgar (local time and Beijing. Meaning that if you follow Beijing time, it stays light out super super late).

While we came here almost exclusively for the animal market (so awesome it will be covered in its own separate post, coming right up), we were surprised by how much we enjoyed the rest of the city. It’s chock full of developing nation style markets, great old guys with crazy long white beards and our personal favorite attribute: super friendly people! As soon as we crossed over the border from Kyrgyzstan to China we noticed a marked increase in friendliness (no offense to the Kyrgyz). If you’ve been following our posts on Central Asia you know we’ve had some unpleasant experiences at the borders, but the Chinese border patrol employees were stellar. I legit got into a conversation with one sweet lady about pandas. I had to restrain myself from hugging her, lest it be construed as aggressive. So, we were off to a great start with China.

Once we hit the open Chinese road, the scenery changed from that in Kyrgyzstan, but it certainly did not decrease in splendor. We passed through a deep gorge, and the rocks were a beautiful red color. And the roads. Oh, the roads. We have never been so ecstatic to see a nicely paved, smooth, divided highway. (For those who haven’t followed our posts on the previous several weeks in Central Asia, know that we spent more time in cars on the most impressively poor roads than I ever thought I would in my life). But this was still Chinastan, so the division didn’t stop the occasional scooter driver from heading down the wrong side of the road.

The views from the plane on our way out were equally impressive.

We got our first taste of Chinese food while here, though it was surprisingly difficult to order given that our guide and the wait staff did not speak the same language. We basically got as far as “chicken” or “soup” on a menu with about 100 items listed. Nonetheless, it was pretty tasty.

Kashgar is a dusty place. In fact, I pulled up the weather on my iPhone one day and the forecast was literally “dust.” I had no idea that was one of the options. I guess that’s a result of the sandy deserts all around, but it results in one strange and eye irritating condition.

::dusty with no chance of meatballs::

And here I thought the smog in Beijing would be suffocating, turns out Kashgar was the place we needed a gas mask. And, funny enough, they do place gas masks in the hotel rooms for purchase! China is crazy, man.

We had planned on a visit to Lake Karakol as a little day trip, but when we discovered that such a “little” day trip would entail about thirteen hours of driving and less than two hours of actually being at the lake (unfortunately there was some construction on the roads), we did some quick research to find an alternate option. Shipton’s Arch fit the bill, and we were quite pleased to be backed into the activity since it turned out to be really stunning. This arch is supposedly the largest freestanding arch in the world.

The drive in takes you through, basically, the middle of nowhere, though there is a nice brand new road leading up through the desert. And the drive affords some pretty neat views, scraggly camel sightings included.

We also saw this awesome lady prepping a giant pig’s head for what’s sure to be a feast.

Once at the parking lot for Shipton’s Arch, it’s a little hike to get to the base of the arch, and a pretty steep climb up a number of switchbacks to get the money shot. They’re busy building a staircase, and what appears to be the beginnings of a viewing deck, but for now it’s au naturel. The pictures barely convey the depth of this thing. It’s a spectacular view. I’ve not been to Arches National Park yet (seriously need to do that soon!), but I imagine this rivals it in scale if nothing else.

Sunday was obviously our day to check out the famed animal market, but since it was so great, and we have so many lovely photos (and video!) to share, we’ll be covering that in a separate post. We had the rest of the day to explore Kashgar’s other sights and so we did. The first, Abakh Hoja tomb, was definitely worth the visit, if only for the beautiful rose garden. The tomb itself was maybe not as impressive as others we’d seen in the ‘Stans, but the coloring was more green than blue and a lovely change of pace from the ones we’d been checking out over weeks past.

What we most adored about Kashgar was the old town. It really feels like you are stepping into the olden times. Where else can you see someone’s fat-tailed sheep tied up next to their Beemer?

We wandered into a blacksmiths’ shop and admired the men with remarkable aim and tolerance for heat. We meandered into a few other shops where locals sold their wares, ranging from lots of metal and copper products, to ceramics and woodwork.

The streets feel almost like India here, with crowds and activity buzzing everywhere.

We also checked out the Central Asian Bazaar, which was quite the market. It seemed to go on for miles, lined with stalls selling furs, carpets, shoes, spices, nuts, instruments, snake oils (literally)… you name it.

Also, how cute is this man?

We tried our best to get a photo of these hilarious assless pants the kids wear (I assume in lieu of diapers though it strikes me as an odd choice ripe for even less fortunate accidents), but there’s only so many attempts you can make to capture a shot of a baby’s ass without looking/feeling like a total creeper. Among other interesting baby accessories: they put their babes in these beds that are essentially long cradles with a hole. In the hole they place a ceramic pot, and the babies just go (as in using the toilet) into the pots. Fascinating, right? I’ve never heard of anything like that!

Craft street was lined with beautiful copper wares, and also some really good Turkish style ice cream. FYI, this is apparently where they filmed the Kite Runner.

Our last stop was the Id Kah Mosque. While the mosque itself wasn’t particularly mindblowing from an architectural point of view, it felt like a nice park inside with lots of trees. We also got a kick out of the propaganda on the signage.

And we started to see some of the awesome signage that proved to a be a theme throughout our stay in China. It seems like they have signs warning you about everything. I mean, there was a sign in the hotel shower warning that it could be wet, and hence slippery. Are there many people unfamiliar with the fact that showers get wet? Exhibit A (and do stay tuned for Xian and Beijing signs, because believe you me, they just keep getting better!):

Practical Info

Our Kashgar visit was coordinated through the same agency as our Central Asia travels. However, since this is our first post on China, I will cover the “can you travel in China independently” topic here. We went on to visit Xian and Beijing, and it was a tough decision whether to work with an agent or go it alone. We opted to go it alone.

I had received quotes from two agents for the Xian and Beijing portions, each of which included flights from Kashgar to Xian and the overnight train from Xian to Beijing (i.e. only five nights of hotels, not six as we chose in order to take the day train), plus transfers, hotels, and private guides. These quotes were both in the range of $1,900-2,500/person. This seemed shockingly high to me.

To make a long story short, we saved $2,000-3,000 by traveling independently. It was much easier than I expected. I will cover our flights from Kashgar to Xian and high speed train from Xian to Beijing in more detail in another post, but I purchased the air tickets on Ctrip’s English language site and the train tickets on the Travel China Guide website. We arranged a private full-day tour in Xian and a group Great Wall trip from Beijing. Locals were friendly. We took the subway in Xian and Beijing, and it was cheap and quite easy to figure out. Our hotel in Beijing had these neat little cards with top tourist sights written in English and Chinese, so you could hop in a cab and just point. Plus the hotel’s name and address were written in Chinese so you could get home, too!

Of course comparing a fully private guided tour with generally independent travel is apples to oranges. With the former you do not need to plan much nor worry about the details. But having just spent a few weeks with guides in Central Asia, we were really tired of all the history lessons and required interaction with relative strangers. So I would say we did not even want a fully guided tour in China, even leaving costs aside. Considering the thousands of dollars saved by going it alone, I am extremely happy we did China this way.

The exchange rate was 1 USD = 6.2 Chinese Yuan (CNY). Each place we stayed in China had electrical outlets that worked with US style plugs.

Transportation: We arrived from Kyrgyzstan via the Torugart Pass and covered that experience in more detail here. Since we worked with a travel agent, I never investigated the details of coordinating this. You can also cross the border from Kyrgyzstan to China via the Irkeshtam Pass. For onward travel, we flew to Xian via Urumqi. The airport was ~15 minutes from our hotel. There are some direct flights to a few cities, but most flights go through Urumqi.

Accommodation: We stayed at Tian Yuan Hotel. It seems pretty well-located, very near the Old Town and not too far from the Id Kah Mosque. Our room was spacious and nice. The WiFi did not really work, but it was great once they put a router in our room. The breakfast left a bit to be desired.

Food: At the markets and on the street there is quite a lot of food. We also ate at Karakoram Cafe, which serves a limited menu of Western food. The pizza was pretty good and the WiFi worked well. It cost ~120 CNY for a pizza to share (for two) plus a smoothie and soda. Dinner at the restaurant at the Chini (or Qini) Bagh Hotel was uninspiring (cost ~240 CNY for four of us). My dad and Linda ate at John’s Cafe and liked it.

Activities: The Sunday animal market is the biggest draw, and it is pretty impressive. Whether it is worth the effort required to visit Kashgar is another question. I would vote “yes,” because I rather liked Kashgar in general and the long journey here involved some wonderful scenery. For more information on the animal market, including a comparison vs. the Karakol (Kyrgyzstan) animal market, see our separate post here.

The Grand Bazaar (I think it’s also called the Central and West Asia International Trading Market, the Sunday Bazaar and other names, and it’s open every day but is most active on Sunday, when we visited) was fairly impressive. It is somewhat touristy, but mostly filled with Chinese tourists. There is a very large assortment of furs, shoes, spices (including exotics like dried snake, frog, lizard, etc.), nuts, carpets, instruments, toys, cloth, etc.

We didn’t see that much of Old Town and may have walked on a street restored for tourists. But it was pretty neat with blacksmiths, wood craftsmen, food carts, etc.

Abakh (or Apak) Hoja Tomb is a mausoleum along with a couple mosques. It cost 30 CNY each to enter. If you are coming from the ‘Stans and have seen glorious mosques and madrasas, you may be underwhelmed. Still, I thought it was nice and worth a visit.

Id Kah Mosque is in the center of town and any tour would probably visit here. It was OK but not terribly exciting or beautiful, at least compared to other things we’ve seen recently.

Our day trip to Shipton’s Arch was fun. The arch is a relatively unknown natural wonder, clocking in at 1,200 feet high by some measurements (it depends from which you side you view it and how you measure). It is very impressive. It took 1 hour 20 minutes driving from Kashgar, all on nice, paved roads. From there we walked on gravel plus some rocks and some metal staircases through slot canyons, culminating in a walk on dirt switchbacks up a steep hill to the arch. The round-trip hiking portion took us 2 hours 15 minutes, including some time at the top. They are doing a lot of work, so by the time you get here the path may be easier and there may be stairs all the way up to the arch. If you read about bad roads or rickety ladders, those articles are probably old…or possibly approaching from the other side??

We had intended to visit Lake Karakol but passed after our guide said it would take about six hours each way, partly on roads under construction. And this would have been the day after we spent nine hours in the car crossing the Torugart Pass. It is said to have wonderful mountain scenery, including multiple 7,000 meter peaks visible. There are options for multi-day treks in that area. We also considered a day trip to Davakul Lake, where I believe you can go camel trekking in the Taklamakan Desert.

May 16-19, 2014 (Friday-Monday)

Farm to Table: China Style

You may recall our recent post about the Karakol Animal Market in Kyrgyzstan. We were fortunate enough to hit back-to-back Central Asian Sunday animal markets, with the pièce de résistance being the well-known Kashgar Sunday Market in far western China.

Traders and vendors come from all over, and even driving up to the parking lot you pass people and animals making their way up the highway into the parking lot spilling out with motorcycles and their attendant humans and animals.

Once again, the parking lot rivaled the actual market in awesomeness. Watching a man tie a fat-tailed sheep to his motorcycle is probably one of the coolest things I’ve witnessed.

Like the last animal market, this is a market where people bring their animals to sell, or come to buy them. You can of course find your fat-tailed sheep, goats, cows, and horses, but the Kashgar market is both more abundant and varied, as you can often find donkeys and even camels and yaks (though we were sadly there on a day with no camels or yaks (womp womp)).

Again, like Karakol, it is pretty much madness, though in my opinion it was a bit more controlled chaos here as there seemed to be a little more in the way of organization, including lined rows where people posted their animals. But even with order, there is still animal excrement. And this time it went beyond the inevitable stepping in it. Alan and I were hit. Sprayed with animal poo by a passing vehicle full of cows or sheep, I don’t even know. I was in shock that I got shit-sprayed. If you look closely at the trucks they bring these guys in on, you’ll notice streams of dried crap. Lovely, I know.

Unlike the Karakol market, there were tons of prepared food stalls here. I realize transitioning from the shit-spray story to the part where we eat food here is kind of gross, but that’s part of the charm, the je-ne-sais-quoi appeal of these markets. There were some men kneading and tossing noodles with impressive skill, a few guys selling watermelon, some large vats of plov, and lots of people butchering and cooking up lamb meat and lots of tail fat. Alan tried a samsa (think Kashgar hot pockets), and I’m told they were quite tasty. I have to say, though, that the fat to meat ratio is much too out of whack for my taste.

The cows here were enormous. Way bigger than normal cows. I think they’re on ‘roids man. They had some serious ‘roid rage, too. We saw one get hit by a truck, and he was no happy camper. All I can say is, I’m glad I wasn’t responsible for pulling them off the trucks, like so:

The people watching rivals the animal viewing. The faces! And facial hair!

The fat tailed sheep are always a fan favorite. And for animal lovers like me, you can almost treat it like a gigantic petting zoo 😉

For some reason the goats seem to stick together in tight little packs. Every once in a while one would jump up and try to crowd surf. I don’t even care that this one almost broke my camera lens, he’s just that cute.

Of course, the donkey section was a highlight. For two main reasons. One: have you ever hung out in a crowd of asses screeching at one another? It’s epic. Exhibit One: this video. And if you listen closely at the very end, you’ll find out the second main reason this was a hilarious highlight.

Two: I’ve heard the expression “hung like a horse,” but it should really be “hung like an ass.” Good god, man.

This is by far the most famous animal market in Central Asia (and pretty much the main attraction of Kashgar), so there were definitely more tourists here than at the Karakol market, but we were still hugely outnumbered by locals (and animals). This was very much the real deal, and very much a highlight for us.

Practical Info

The animal market is now located several kilometers outside the city, so you will need transport. It takes place only on Sunday. We arrived at 11:30 am, and this seemed like good timing. The action starts much earlier, but it takes some attendees so long to reach the market from afar that we heard arriving early is ill-advised.

We had visited the Karakol (Kyrgyzstan) animal market the previous Sunday so can offer a comparison. Karakol is much smaller but actually felt more intense, in a way. We were the only tourists for most of our time there, and it is a bit less organized and more crowded. There were only sheep, goats, cows and horses, and the cows were not nearly as big as those in Kashgar. The scenery is certainly superior, as there are snow-covered mountains in the background. Though I’m not sure what the backdrop is like when there is less dust in Kashgar and you can see more than a mile away. The Kashgar grounds are bigger, and there were enormous cows plus way more sheep, goats, and some horses and donkeys. We were disappointed not to see any camels or yaks. I’m told these are present sometimes. Our guide thought perhaps the construction on the Karakoram Highway impeded animal flow.

Where Kashgar has the clear edge is live animal quantity and food for immediate consumption. There were some snacks and a touch of grilling in Karakol, but Kashgar had a full-blown culinary scene. We saw countless vendors hand-kneading dough and pulling noodles for lagman; selling pieces of watermelon; boiling up meat; chopping sheep meat and combining it with fat to stuff inside a pastry and then bake in a clay oven. I tried one of these samsas (cost 2 CNY) and it was delicious, if you don’t mind a lot of fat. There are bagels too, moderately tasty if rock hard and filling at 1 CNY.

May 18, 2014 (Sunday)

Just Slip Out the Back, Jack. Make a New Plan, Stan. Seeya ‘Stans!

Ahh, our last few days in the ‘Stans. We checked out the yurts in Uzbekistan, but Kyrgyzstan’s nomadic culture just begged for some additional round accommodations. So, naturally, we drove out to the far side of Lake Issyk Kul to stay in a yurt for the night. This experience was much more rustic than our “fancy” yurt stay in Uzbekistan (as in no flushing toilets (though they weirdly had a Western style Porta Potty), no running water, no potable water, and certainly no showers). To be fair though, they provided lots of blankets and even a small space heater (much appreciated as it got COLD at night). It was also far quieter, as we were the only guests on the premises. So while we sadly missed out on the Russian serenading, we thoroughly enjoyed a little solitude among the peaks.

The best part, by far: the views! It was most certainly a yurt with a view. Though set back quite a ways from the lake, the yurts were nestled in a pretty phenomenal spot, with a view of the picturesque Lake Issyk Kul backed by snow capped mountains on one side, and more red stone mountains behind.

We walked down to the lake the first day and were pretty blown away. I’m definitely more of an ocean person than a lake person (speaking strictly for myself here, Alan goes both ways when it comes to bodies of water), but this lake was pretty awesome. It was a lovely turquoise color, had a sandy shoreline (with oddly reddish sand) and even had waves. While much too early in the season when we arrived, it’s rumored to be a very agreeable place to cool off from the hot summer heat.

After lunch at the yurt we explored Manjyly-Ata, a holy pilgrimage sight with sacred springs believed to cure a plethora of maladies. I think the Kyrgyz have been draining these dry though because we barely even saw trickles coming from them. Ah well, the views and the donkeys were worth it.

A few days later, on our drive out from the home stay, we stopped in a village to get an introduction to yurts (aka bozuy, in Kyrgyzstan) and how they’re made. We saw the intricacy and detail required to build the collapsible wooden frames, how they are hoisted together, and then covered in layers of felt and woven mats made from a tall grass called chiy. We even tried our hand at making some decorative chiy, and I’m disappointed to admit we were not as skilled as the masters (shocker, I know).

Our next stop was a village stay to get a feel for the rural Kyrgyz experience. While the accommodations were far from luxurious, we were really glad we got to witness this scene. The village we stayed in was tiny, maybe three or four blocks wide and a mile long (if that). You could see the whole place just by hiking up half an hour on the mountains nearby. And you’re more likely to see a horse than a car on the dirt road that runs through the center of “town.” Everything and everyone here comes from a radius of just a few miles. The family we stayed with are, like most of their neighbors, farmers. They farm potatoes, and at times carrots, beets, onions and garlic. They have their own horses, sheep, goats, chickens and cows. And these furry friends (mostly) live in the backyard.

Overall, the home had a fair number of modern comforts and conveniences (a television, DVD player, a dead fox on the wall… We got a kick out of the bedroom décor.), but the bathroom is rustic for sure. Getting there entails a foray through the animal pen to a small wooden outhouse with a tiny triangle cut out of the floor. I think it is uncommon to stay in homes like this, as most tourists visit later in the season and stay up the hillside in yurt camps (that were not yet set up for our visit). Clearly six months of travel through Asia has changed our standards a bit, as I was just excited that they had toilet paper.

We stopped in to visit the village school and were bombarded with cute kids. I mean, really.

We were even treated to a class rendition of the Kyrgyz national anthem (accompanied by the music teacher on accordion).

And a video for your listening pleasure…

The mother of our house cooked all our meals and we ate at the table pseudo-with her. (She speaks no English, so she kind of just watches you eat and then refills your teacup every few minutes). The food was actually pretty good, if you could get past the hairs in it (seriously, I think there was a hair in every item I touched. Woman needs some anti-hair-fall Pantene). But oh well, I suppose a few hairs are a necessary evil when all the food is so local it’s literally coming from the back yard. Lady made a mean chak chak (sticky sweet fried noodles). And as with many places we stayed in Kyrgyzstan, she provided some phenomenal jams, which we slathered on bread until the carb police had to pull us away.

To work off the lamb and jam we went on a really nice hike up the mountains behind the school. It was positively picturesque up there. Steep, rocky and craggy in parts, there were also wide valleys full of grazing sheep and their shepherd on horseback (who, by the way, was the only other person we passed on the trails). I loved that the local village has a carpool equivalent set up for their sheep: they take turns shepherding all the neighborhood sheep up the mountains to feed.

Up top (at perhaps 3,000 meters) we were afforded immense views of Lake Issyk Kul and behemoth mountains in seemingly every direction. Pretty incredible, especially once we realized some of these peaks were around 4,700 meters! That (almost) rivals the heights we reached trekking in the Himalayas!

I decided to hold down the home stay while Alan, Ron and Linda went horseback riding one morning. You know, my whole being afraid of everything, thing. Horses are such a prominent part of the Kyrgyz history and culture, and these were some well-trained steeds, so they enjoyed the outing.

In the hopes of finding a shower and a flushing toilet we moved to a different home stay the next night, this time in a town called Kochkor. The town was far more substantial, and the experience was more hotel-like than home stay, but trust me we were happy about the bathroom situation. And the dinner spread was impressive, complete with a tiered tray of desserts. No complaints here ☺

On the way out of Kyrgyzstan, we spent one uneventful night in the town of Naryn so that we could make the long drive across the Torugart Pass to China the following day. Naryn may have its charms, but I would not say they reveal themselves during a drive down the main drag. It’s in the mountains with a river running through it, but seems slightly more gritty than alpine cozy. We did little here other than get really excited at the thought of private flushing toilets in our room, only to be disappointed when the tank literally fell off the toilet and shattered in Ron and Linda’s room, which required shutting the water off in our adjoining room. To make matters worse, there was some confusion about whether our room bill was already paid or not. Yet another miscommunication by our tour operator, which fortunately we resolved without too much commotion. At least we got in a little excitement in Naryn, eh?

And, at long last, it was time to bid farewell to the ‘Stans. We (shocker) piled into the van for a long drive across the border, bracing ourselves for our old familiar and favorite (not) Central Asian pastime: overland border crossings. At first, the road was very smooth, and the scenery was quite beautiful. Then the road turned into dirt and while the ride was much less pleasant the view only increased in grandeur. It was remote, and beautiful, with nothing but pastures of sheep…

…stunning mountains…

…endless stretches of road surrounded by pastures of sheep and mountains…

…and a truck carrying a yurt. (Also lots of furry marmots running funnily. If you’ve never watched a marmot run, you’re missing out, man.)

It became impossible to hold out for toilets, so we used these lovely facilities:

And then we finally for once had a relatively smooth border crossing experience. I mean sort of…it still took hours, but this time mostly because checkpoints were as much as 70km apart. But by comparison, we had it good, since we picked up a poor stranded Dutch couple that had been waiting for their car from China for hours at the gate between Kyrgyzstan and China. And Torugart Pass is renowned as one of Asia’s most unpredictable borders, due to frequent logistically caused gridlock and weather related closures (it sits at an altitude of more than 12,300 feet!). Not to mention the lines of dozens of trucks sitting in a row on either side of the border. So I think we were pretty lucky.

Practical Info

Most of our time in Central Asia was arranged through a UK-based travel agent, but eco- and community based tourism are popular in Kyrgyzstan and thus we arranged a few nights of yurt and home stay lodging via Ecotour. This is the website: It is a good idea to bring drinking water or purification tools as potable water was not always available. And if you need your coffee, bring some instant grounds.

Kochkor is one of the centers for Kyrgyzstan’s budding community based tourism industry. Through outfits like CBT, Shepherd’s Life and others, you can arrange home stays, yurt stays, horse trekking, day trips to Song-Kul Lake, etc. When we altered some plans mid-trip, Ainura at Shepherd’s Life was very kind and helpful. To clarify here, we had arranged things through Ecotour, which has an office in Bishkek, and we were pleased with their services. But Shepherd’s Life got involved because they have an office in Kochkor, and so they coordinated the local changes.

A popular attraction in this region is Song-Kul Lake, which we might have visited had it been later in the season and/or we had more time. We also skipped Tash Rabat on the drive from Naryn to the border because we were worried about getting to the border early enough on a Friday to minimize the risk of missing the cut off and getting stuck until Monday!

Transportation: We arranged our own transport from Green Yard Hotel in Karakol to Bokonbayevo, where we met our Ecotour team. The drive from Green Yard was two hours. We paid 3,500 KGS for a (very) small minivan. The other options were 2,500 for a sedan or 5,000 for a luxury SUV. Green Yard helped us arrange this. We could have taken a public bus for much less money.

From Bokonbayevo our transport through Ecotour was a white Mercedes minibus, of the sort seen all over Kyrgyzstan. It took only 15 minutes to reach the yurt camp near the lake shore. The drive from the yurt camp to our first home stay was perhaps 30-45 minutes. From the first home stay to the second in Kochkor, the drive was longer but I don’t recall details. From Kochkor to Naryn, we crossed the Dolon Pass at nearly 10,000 feet elevation. The road was pretty rough much of the time, and this took 2.5 hours.

Our last day in Kyrgyzstan involved a very long and rough drive over the Torugart Pass. This border crossing was more pleasant than some of the Uzbek gems, but it was at least as bizarre. We left Naryn at 7:20 am and two hours later reached the first passport checkpoint. We said goodbye to pavement and bumped along for two more hours until we reached the Kyrgyz customs and immigration station. Three passport checks at this spot. Then we continued ascending to the high point of the pass, where we said goodbye to Kyrgyzstan and walked through a gate to our next van on the China side. Then we drove several km down the hill to the first Chinese checkpoint, where again passports were inspected, along with every item in my father’s bag since he had to empty it on the table after passing through the mobile x-ray truck. Continuing on, there was another checkpoint before we finally reached the actual Chinese immigration station. And we must say that these government workers were extraordinarily nice and friendly. It was such a welcome change, Jenni wanted to hug the lady!

A few minutes later, we were driving on a perfectly paved, divided highway…and we were ecstatic. There was a full nine hours of actual driving time from Naryn, Kyrgyzstan to Kashgar, China. You can also cross the border at the Irkeshtam Pass, but we were coming from a different part of Kyrgyzstan. Should you decide to cross the Kyrgyz/China border by land, be very diligent in your research and plans because there are many rules and pitfalls for the unwary. Things like you may need to arrive at the border by noon, and you may not be allowed to proceed unless the Kyrgyz officials confirm there is transport awaiting you on the China side.

Note that local time in China is two hours later, since that entire country uses one time zone. Be sure you understand whether people are talking about official Beijing time or local Kashgar time, because both may be used.

Accommodation: Three of the four nights covered in this post were spent in a yurt or home stay, all arranged by Ecotour. In Naryn we stayed at the Khan Tengri Hotel. There were some mishaps (noted above) and a lack of WiFi, though the property was fine and the onsite restaurant was quite good. It is far enough outside town that you could walk in but might not want to do so.

Food: Almost all our meals were covered by the Ecotour package, but I’m including this section to mention two things. (1) we had a yummy stuffed and rolled pasta type dish called oromo, and (2) it’s a good idea to carry water and ample snacks for these long drives, especially crossing the Torugart Pass.

May 12-16, 2014 (Monday-Friday)

Farm to Table: Kyrgyz Style

The Karakol Animal Market deserves its own post, because it was just that cool.

I mean, this is probably my favorite photo of all times. Doesn’t this sheep cuddle make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside and make you want to nuzzle someone or some thing!?

And how awesome is this photo-bombing Kyrgyz man?!

Only 15-20 minutes outside the town of Karakol, this craziness takes place once a week, every week.

What is it? A market where people bring their animals to sell, or come to buy them. Everything from fat-tailed sheep, to goats, to cows, to horses.

And it is madness. People and animals EVERYWHERE. Oh, and with animals comes animal poo. Be thankful you weren’t our shoes this day. Be very thankful. And remember to roll up your pants should you ever find yourself at the Karakol Sunday Animal Market.

I found the horse section particularly frightening given the instruction we received never to walk behind a horse, and the fact that this is physically impossible when the horses are packed into a field facing every which way. And they did not always look so happy to have people prodding them, checking out their teeth and feet.

And because Kyrgyzstan is the vertically unchallenged beauty that she is, the whole scene is backed by this stunning snow-capped mountain view.

The parking lot alone was fascinating, as you get to see things like men napping with their calf tied to the car…

and people dragging their sheep by its front legs…

or people carrying piles of sheep…

If you’re wondering about the going rates for these animals, we were able to figure out that fat-tailed sheep go for about $100 to $150 a pop. The bigger the butt, the better. Or, as Aiperi put it, we appreciate these animals from behind. Here I am “appreciating” a sheep ass. Badunk…A-Dunk.

It’s not just animals here, but anything you could want for said animals, from grains to feed them, rocks for them to lick (I guess they like the salt?!), ropes to tie them up with and veggies to serve with them. Sorry vegetarians!

And since this is a Kyrgyz animal market, you can also get your vodka and cigarettes (at 7:30 am, and presumably for a while before we arrived). No former Soviet nation animal market is complete without a vodka and ciggie bar!

Almost as fun as the animals, was the people watching. We couldn’t get enough of the old men in the traditional Kyrygz hats. And their epic facial hair. While men were much more heavily represented, we did find some women in traditional garb checking out the goods.

This was undoubtedly one of the coolest experiences we had in Central Asia. Talk about a unique (and not super touristy) spectacle. We were lucky enough to witness not one, but two back to back Central Asian animal markets as we were in Kashgar, China the following Sunday. Stay tuned for that post, coming soon!

Practical Info

The animal market is held every Sunday. Timing is about your only decision here. I think the action starts in the wee hours of the morning. We left the Green Yard Hotel at 7 am and arrived at the market before 7:30 am. I think this timing was ideal, as it was late enough to be light out and not so cold, but early enough that we beat the tour bus which arrived as we departed. Allow 1-2 hours for your visit.

There were vendors selling liquor plus fresh fried dough, some grilled meats and roasted fava beans. We bought a satchel of the latter, and they were salty and yummy.

May 11, 2014 (Sunday)

You’re Like a Big Eagle, With Claws and Fangs, Mike

WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS GRAPHIC PHOTOS. AWESOME, CRAZY COOL, GRAPHIC PHOTOS, BUT GRAPHIC NONETHELESS. Special heads up to animal lovers to proceed with caution (but hey, I’m an animal lover, too, and I thought this was amazing).

So, this is a story about the one time we met a Kyrgyz eagle hunter at a random spot on the side of the road to watch his eagle catch, kill and eat a rabbit. (Has anyone caught the Swingers reference by now? “And she’s just like a little bunny…”) And it was as cool as an eight-year-old boy thinks that sounds.

These birds are incredible. They can live to around 80 years old! This one is quite young actually (only four years old and already impressive in size), and older eagles can grow to be twice the size and are able to kill a wolf. A bird killing a wolf!

Hunters catch them by trap and train them. Once trained, the eagle works as a team with its owner, to catch prey. And this lucky bird at least gets to eat what he kills (or most of it). He also gets a sweet hat to cover his eyes.

Here’s how it went down. The eagle hunter’s assistant walked down a big hill with a rabbit in hand, and released it in the field. The poor little fluffy bunny rabbit made a futile attempt to run. Then our eagle hunter removed the hat from the eagle’s eyes, and within seconds he was flying on down, hovering over the rabbit for a moment before going in for the kill. He caught it without struggle, tearing its neck open with his claws to kill it.

The hunter went down to retrieve the eagle and the rabbit remains, and brought them up close for our viewing pleasure. The two men then severed the bunny’s head so as to save the body for the hunter’s bigger eagle back home, and we watched in amused and captivated horror/delight as the eagle devoured all but the very last bits of its skull.

For brave readers, check out this video (and be sure to note our freak out when the eagle swallows an ear whole):

Like, he pulled off and swallowed whole ears, eyeballs and brains at a time. According to the eagle hunter, the bird will vomit out the fur and bones tomorrow.

Our eagle hunter subsists solely on this eagle hunting business (and a Taigan puppy breeding business on the side. I’m going to need to get in touch with him once we’re no longer homeless, and see about importing a Kyrgyz hunting dog). Of course, he also breeds rabbits to maintain a big enough supply for his eagle hunting demonstrations.

This man loves his eagles. You could tell he wasn’t just saying it. He said the eagle is like a son to him, and by the way he looking lovingly into his eyes, and stroked his feathers while the bird shook rabbit blood onto him, I know it to be true. In fact, the eagle hunter’s wife and children take the backseat of the car. The front seat is reserved for the bird.

Practical Info

This eagle hunting demonstration was an add-on to the three-night itinerary we did with Ecotour. I think we paid 40 GBP. We did this on the drive from the yurt by Lake Issyk Kul to our home stay in Temir-Kanat village.

May 12, 2014 (Monday)