Hanoi and Cat Ba

Some of the most obnoxious people I’ve ever met love Southeast Asia, and this has always put me off from the region. The lowest dregs of hippie trash society seem to congregate on the beaches of southern Thailand in a hazy mix of illegal substances, to which local authorities turn a blind eye in the hopes of maintaining the flow of hard currency. “I spent six months in Phuket and found myself,” a white dude with dreadlocks once told me. “You just wouldn’t understand.”

But I have a job and a stable source of income, which sets me out from the vast majority of hippie trash finding themselves in the Eat, Pray, Love style, and I’ve heard so many wonderful reports from friends about Vietnam. So I gave it a try, and had a great time! My entire trip including food, accommodation, flights, evisa, and transportation cost less than $700, and here’s how I did it:

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Hanoi old town, my first stop.

The 70th anniversary of Chairman Mao’s founding of the People’s Republic of China was celebrated with massive military parades in Beijing and seven days of paid holiday. As a measure of China’s immense scale, one out of every 15 people on the planet decided to travel during this time. Travel in China is a nightmare during this time, so back in May I bought round trip tickets on China Eastern Air from Shanghai to Hanoi for about $400.

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 Vietnamese egg coffee! It looked crazy but was actually delicious. Because dairy products were in short supply after the 1975 American embargo, whisked egg yolk started to be used in the cafes of Hanoi to sweeten the incredibly strong Vietnamese coffee. 

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Hanging out on a tiny balcony in tiny chairs in a back alley Hanoi coffee shop. The cafe scene in in the capital is phenomenal. Coffees run from 75 cents to $1.75 per cup, and there are countless options where locals go to chat or hang out with a book. Although there may not always be an English menu, there was usually at least one younger barista who spoke some English and was able to help me. Not that there were many options. Usually you just got an espresso with condensed milk, which was delicious (and packed with 180mg of caffeine in a tiny cup!). Overall, getting by with English in northern Vietnam was very easy.

I booked a loft on Airbnb in a nice district of central Hanoi for $20 a night including all fees. The owner was an incredibly helpful woman who spoke excellent English and gave me heaps of recommendations on where to try various local dishes in the old town. She also arranged for a driver to stand at arrivals with my name on a sign and drive me to the apartment, all for about $15.

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I spent two full days wandering around Hanoi, which I think was a good amount of time. A meal like this with a beer would run about $2 at a street stall. The workers at the stalls spoke some English, and I’d usually just point to whatever looked good that another patron was eating because I can’t read Vietnamese menus.

The winding streets of Hanoi’s old town are filled with pho shops and cafes where you can sit, order an iced coffee with condensed milk, and watch the ceaseless traffic. I worried about Hanoi coming across as too touristy, and that I’d feel like I was in some Asian Gatlinburg (before it caught on fire). Although there were a lot of foreigners traveling Vietnam, I never really felt like I was in a tourist trap. Maybe that’s because I was going in with low expectations, or because everything was so damn cheap and high quality that I didn’t ever get the feeling I was being excessively ripped off. Vietnam is just pleasant and easy.

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Walking along the sea on Cat Ba Island. I used Cat Ba Express to book a bus to the sea, connecting to a 5 minute boat ride to the island, and finally a 40 minute bus to Cat Ba Town. Cat Ba is the largest island in an archipelago, just south of the major tourist attraction of Ha Long Bay. The most common way to visit picturesque Ha Long Bay is to take a 2.5 hour bus from Hanoi to the sea, cruise the islands for a few hours, then take another 2.5 hour bus back to Hanoi. A quieter option recommended to me, which I did, was to spend some nights on Cat Ba Island and arrange an all day boat tour to see more.

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Cruising along the islands of Lan Ha Bay. I booked an eight hour kayaking and boat trip for $23, and there were seven other people on board. I was hesitant to do a cruise, but it was a lot of fun! 

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Lan Ha Bay is populated by chunks of rock sticking out of the sea. 

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Some floating homes and fish farms we passed by and stopped at.

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When I arrived at Cat Ba Town, I quickly found that the hotel I’d booked was closed. I found a different place with good reviews on booking.com, went there, and asked the owner if I could get the last minute reservation price. He said yes, as long as I paid in cash. My two bed, air conditioned room with hot water cost $8.65 a night. 

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Floating village in Lan Ha Bay.

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Looking across the water.

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It was cloudy in the morning, but by the afternoon it had cleared up and we had great views across the bay. 

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Iced coffee with condensed milk from a street side cafe in Cat Ba Town. It was shoulder season on the island, but pretty much all the restaurants were open. And the food was pretty good! Even at the places that were frequented mainly by tourists, meals were still only about $3 or so.

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Crossing the street could be difficult in Hanoi, but I just linked up with elderly locals who had no fear.

Taxis around Hanoi generally averaged about $1 for a 12 minute ride. I used a ride hailing app called Grab which is popular across SE Asia and basically the same as Uber.

My evisa cost $26. After uploading my info plus a photo, two days later I downloaded from the government website a PDF of my visa. I printed that out, showed it to officials upon arrival at the Hanoi airport, and the whole immigration process including waiting in line took about four minutes.

Overall, I really enjoyed Vietnam and would love to go back. Even as a non-beach person who abhors the party circuit of Southeast Asia, I had a blast.

 

 

 

Shanghai to Svaneti

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The mountain views from Georgian cafes are “Georgeous.”

Last summer, while on a two month overland trip from Shanghai to the Caspian Sea along the old Silk Road, I made a stopover in Urumqi. It’s a weird Han colony in the far northwest of China in the midst of Muslim nomads who have been under Chinese occupation off and on for centuries. Urumqi is emerging as a Central Asian transit hub, the main reason I have now visited this provincial capital three times. The first time was by rail, squeezing the narrow strip between the Gobi Desert and Tibet; the second on my way from the Azeri port of Baku back to Shanghai by air; and now returning to the Caucusus.

A China Southern Airlines attendant tells me I need to wait in a room in the domestic arrivals terminal for four hours, and then she will tell me how to get to international departures for my connection to Tbilisi, Georgia. But a year and a half in the Middle Kingdom has taught me that most officials are full of shit, and I haven’t eaten in 20 hours, so I walk outside acting like I know where I’m going. That, coupled with being white, lets me get to KFC and wait there with a greasy set of food and something-that-might-or-might-not-be-coffee until it’s time to ask around about where the flight to Tbilisi is boarding.

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Western tourist mode.

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This is a Tbilisi metro map. I can’t read Georgian. 

It cost $23 for an airport hotel plus a driver holding my name on a sign at arrivals, ready to take me to my room, and 45 minutes after stepping off the plane I’m in bed. In the morning I walk to the highway, break some larger bills in a roadside store, and flag the first bus heading towards downtown Tbilisi.

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Georgia is known for having the best food in the former Soviet Union, and Georgian restaurants are popular throughout the old republics. Being so close to the Silk Road, Georgia has had over a thousand years to experiment with various spices from the East. The local cuisine is heavy on walnuts, spices, stews, cheese, and lamb. A meal in a high quality restaurant in downtown Tbilisi, like above, totals about $8.

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Georgia has been producing wine for over 8000 years, and this is supposedly where the practice began. At the suggestion of a friend, I tried and became addicted to Saperavi. Saperavi wines are Georgia’s most famous alcoholic export, and popular in Eastern Europe. They’re made from a type of grape that grows in the higher elevation mountains of Georgia, and make a sour red wine. There are wine bars everywhere in Tbilisi, and a glass at a nice joint will cost about $3.30 each. 

Getting a SIM card in Tbilisi set me back only about $5 for 5 GB, and took around five minutes to set up in a telecoms shop near my hostel. Taxis are dirt cheap, about $1.30 for a 15 minute ride, but I ended up taking buses or the metro everywhere.

Stalin was born in Gori, a 45 minute van ride from Tbilisi. I took a marshrutka, Russian for large van, to a bizarre museum and shrine that venerates him and somehow neglects to mention all the atrocities he committed. It was more than a little off putting to see him showcased as the “local boy who went on to do great things.”

Hiking in Svaneti

One of the main draws to Georgia is the mountain hiking, and one of the best places to do that is in Upper Svaneti in the Greater Caucusus along the Russian border. Although Georgia is about half the size of my home state of Ohio, or roughly the same size of the Republic of Ireland, the mountains can make travel long.

I hopped on a night train from Tbilisi to Zugdidi, a town in the northwest. There were many other backpackers on that route, and a comfortable bed cost around $7 for the eight hour ride. Upon arrival early in the morning at Zugdidi, there were numerous marshrutka waiting to ferry passengers four hours along windy roads up to Mestia (elevation 1500m/4920ft) in the mountains.

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Walking along the streets of Mestia towards the mountains and hiking trails. Mestia’s claim to fame is being the highest year round inhabited settlement in “Europe” (most Europeans I met were adamant Georgia is not Europe). The Caucusus are in this weird place of not quite Europe, not quite Asia.

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I took this ski lift up the mountain to start my hike, and it was absolutely terrifying. I held onto my backpack while suspended high above the ground, and attendants yelled in Georgian while I tried to scramble off at the end.

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This is the ski lift I took up one of the mountains. There are many trails in the area around Mestia, with options for day hikes or overnight treks.

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A cafe at the top of the ski lift. I got a latte and enjoyed the view before setting off on a three night hike.

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Most people took a ski lift to the top and walked around for a few hours, enjoying the cafe before and after the hike. You could also keep walking as far as you wanted through various villages, which offered homestays for about $17 a night including dinner and breakfast. I camped each night in my tent.

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The trail started off along a two track road.

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I had paper maps and GPS tracks on my phone. Even without cell service, my phone could show me where I was on a map accurate up to about 10 meters.

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Views along the first few hours of the first day.

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Clear skies and green are not things I see much in Shanghai, whose unofficial population is pushing 35 million.

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Skirting the edges of mountains.

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Every few hours I’d walk through a village. You could get meals and a bed for the night in the villages.

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Walking through a village.

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Water in a village trough. You can actually drink the tap water in Georgia, it’s known throughout the former USSR for having clean water.

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I walked through this weird semi abandoned ski station, with dark storm clouds forming above me. Looking at the map, I was concerned about finding a place to camp after this, and although I was at 2200m/7200ft and had spend the previous night at 770m/2230ft I decided it was safest to sleep here.

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I walked above the ski station along some random road, ran up into the bushes where I thought there would be a clearing, and found a great tent site. 

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I was awoken at 2am by flashing lights and the booming of thunder, so I assumed the lightning crouch position so I wouldn’t die of electrocution in case I got struck. Me and my things stayed dry, and it was definitely not my first time in a high elevation thunderstorm but still was freaky.

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Passing through another village. I would see a few hikers each day at the height of the busy season. Because I camped each night and didn’t stay in villages, my walking didn’t really ever match up with others’. Georgian villages and towns often have these characteristic watch towers seen above.

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A bridge in Svaneti, Georgia.

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This trail was very easy to follow.

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Though it did involve some stream crossings!

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Heading inexorably onwards.

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Rise with the sun, go to sleep at dusk.

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A Georgian village early in the morning.

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A homestay sign in Hebrew, which says “welcome.” In South America, Central Asia, and Georgia I’d see signs in Hebrew from Israeli backpackers recommending various restaurants and hotels.

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I took this trail too fast and didn’t allow enough time to acclimate. But I ended up being fine and was just short of breath on the incredibly steep climbs. Here’s where I spent my final night of the hike at 2380m/7800ft. A German family later came up and joined me. There are cheap flights from continental Europe, and increasingly budget flights from Germany and France direct to the central Georgian city of Kutaisi. The vast majority of travelers I met were from Germany, France, and Israel. I didn’t meet a single other American or Canadian on my trip.

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Hiking amidst the clouds on my last day. It was cold and wet, but felt great to be back on trail.

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My hike ended in a village on an unpaved road, population around 25. A man who had an uncanny resemblance to my late grandfather put me up in a room in his home for $17, and this was the dinner he provided (my real grandfather would never have been able to cook something like this).  The guy let me shower and called some other guy to arrange a ride for me back to the regular Georgian transit network.

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A seat on the 6:30am marshrutka to Kutaisi in central Georgia, where I caught a very nice van back to Tbilisi for a day of rest. The seven hour van ride to Tbilisi in total cost me about $10.

 

 

Onward to Georgia

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Next destination: Georgia!

Last summer I ended my Silk Road trip in the Azeri capital and port city of Baku. I began my travels with stepping out of my apartment in Hangzhou, catching a bullet train to Shanghai, and then working my way over the course of two months to the Caspian Sea along ancient trading routes connecting China to the Mediterranean.

Baku wasn’t on my original itinerary for that journey, but it was a lot cheaper to fly from Azerbaijan back to China than from the small, bizarre Kazakh port of Aktau (where I saw elderly ladies walking raccoons on leashes in the park). The backpackers at the hostel in Baku were vagabonding around the Caucusus, and I kept hearing rave reviews about Georgia.

So almost a year later I have plane tickets to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.

Why travel to Georgia?

When I arrived at the Mexican border, five months after having set off from Canada on a 2800+ mile foot journey through the Rocky Mountains along the Continental Divide, I was really fucking done with hiking and camping. But two years on, I miss being on trail and want to dip my toes back in for a bit.

Georgia is small, a little more than half the size of my home state of Ohio. But it’s beautiful, with gorgeous mountain scenery and stellar hiking. Almost 30 years after independence from the Soviet Union, it’s still quite poor and struggling with democracy (though with a reputation for the best food in the former USSR!).

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Georgian food! Georgia is famous in the former Soviet Union for its cuisine.

 

Logistics

Georgia is a comparatively cheap country. A bunk in a higher end hostel is $7 to $10 a night, while a centrally located comfortable hotel is around $30. I expect to spend a fair chunk of nights in my tent, and camping is free in the mountains. There will also be opportunities to spend the night or get meals in villages while on my hikes. A dinner at a very nice restaurant in the capital should cost around $9. A bed on a night train is $5.50, and road travel by public transit costs around $1 an hour.

My Charles Schwab card has zero foreign transaction fees along with refunds of fees from any ATM in the world, so I’ll be using that to withdraw cash. Georgia’s currency is called the lari, which is equal to about 35 US cents.

Citizens of developed countries don’t need a visa to visit Georgia. I purchased travel medical insurance for $42, which will cover me for my 18 days in country plus a week in Belarus following Georgia.

I fly on China Southern Air from Hongqiao International, a small airport close to downtown Shanghai with mainly domestic flights. It’s five hours to Urumqi, a growing Central Asia transit hub in the far west of China. Then I have a six hour layover, during which I’ll get stamped out of China, and another five hours to Tbilisi. I should arrive around 9:30pm Georgia time, and have arranged for a driver to take me to my hotel near the airport. The next morning I will get up, take the metro downtown, and check in to a hotel in the heart of the old town (Tbilisi has been continuously inhabited for over 5000 years).

Then I’ll look at the weather forecast and decide where to go from Tbilisi.

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Everything I’m bringing with me to go hiking.

I will eventually go into more detail about the things I bring with me on my hiking trips. Here are some of the big ones:

Tent = TarpTent Protrail. 26 ounces, 740 grams. A single walled tent that I have spent around 150 nights in. Uses my trekking poles as support.

Sleeping bag = Zpacks 10 degree Fahrenheit down bag. 15 ounces, 425 grams. It’s definitely lost some of its warmth, and I would likely not get a Zpacks bag again. But it’ll do, and I’m bringing a liner for extra warmth. It doesn’t warm up my legs as much as it used to, but I am bringing some extra thick long underwear. It’s kept me alive in temps going down to 13 degrees F (-10.5C). I’ve spent 210+ nights in this bag and will buy a new one the next time I’m in the US.

Backpack = ULA Circuit. 40 ounces, 1.13 kilograms. My old backpack died the day before I reached the Mexican border on the Continental Divide Trail, and this is the replacement. I’ve taken it with me on lots of trips all over Asia, including hiking in the Tianshan Mountains of Kyrgyzstan.

Electronics = I’m bringing a 10,000mAh Xiaomi battery pack to charge my phone on the trail. I use my phone for navigation, podcasts, music, and photos. In Tbilisi I’ll get a Georgian SIM card with a cheap data plan (~$10, more than the $1.30 a month I pay to China Unicom). I’ll also have my Kindle. I’m in the process of downloading tons of Chinese romantic comedies to my phone through my Tencent Video subscription to watch on the plane. My addiction to Chinese rom coms is beyond ridiculous.

Manchuria in Winter

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Harbin in northeast China, AKA Manchuria. Map taken from http://www.chinahighlights.com

“This train is heading to Manchuria. If you are not going to Manchuria, you need to immediately disembark,” a no nonsense voice drones repeatedly in Mandarin.  Obviously somebody has accidentally gone to Chinese Siberia, and I really wish I knew the story behind the announcement. There’s a daily high speed train departing from Shanghai to Harbin, capital of China’s northernmost province, leaving around around 10am for the 12 hour journey.

Chinese trains are comfortable, and I arrange on the phone for a meal to be delivered to my seat from a restaurant at one of the stops. The journey is uneventful, and we arrive at Harbin West Station a few minutes early. There’s always a steady stream of taxis at Chinese railway stations, and the 20 minute ride to my downtown hostel is only $3.75. A free Mandarin lesson is included, but takes me a few minutes before I somewhat get the hang of the driver’s accent. The better my Chinese gets, the better I am at understanding people from the provinces…but it can be almost impossible with the elderly whose schooling was interrupted by wars or the Cultural Revolution.

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It got down to -14C/7F in Harbin. I bundled up and never really got cold.

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Harbin is close to the Russian border in Siberia, and the Russian influence is pretty obvious after a few minutes of walking around downtown.

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The real star of Harbin is the annual ice sculpture festival. There are dozens of buildings made of ice and lit up in bright colors.

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Buying a ticket the week after Chinese New Year is pretty easy, with no lines. Tickets are $50, but I don’t have kids and can afford it.

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I went in the afternoon to see the sculptures in both daylight and lit up at night. Here’s some Chinese kid holding a fox.

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Walking around the ice buildings in the end of afternoon with the sun low in the sky, around 3:30pm.

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It’s pretty damn cold once the Manchurian sun goes down at around 4:30pm, but there are plenty of toasty warming huts. I’d generally go outside for 40 minutes at a time, then return inside to warm back up.

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I’ve never done psychedelics but I imagine it’s something like this.

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Knowing Chinese construction habits it wouldn’t surprise me if the ice sculptures collapsed without warning, so I didn’t go under them.

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The grounds of the ice festival were massive, and I spent 5 hours just wandering around.

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By Chinese standards there really weren’t a ton of people.

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Lots of bright, flashing colors.

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I’m printing out this photo and taking to school to tell the kindergarteners this is where I live.

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The area with the sculptures was massive. After five hours I was ready to be done, but there was so much to see.

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Definitely better at night.

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A bored woman sells lamb kebabs. There’s so much more to do in Harbin than just see the ice festival, even if the latter is spectacular. I expected the city to be soulless, as so many Chinese cities are, but there was a cool pedestrian area with lots of Manchurian barbecue. One of my Shanghai friends grew up near here, and told me I had to try the local sausages with peppers. The lamb kebabs everywhere were delicious, too.

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Sausages and lamb kebabs grilled at a street stall in Harbin’s main pedestrian area.

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Local signs were in Chinese and Russian.

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There used to be about 20,000 Jews living here in Harbin in the beginning of the 20th century, and one of the old synagogues has been turned into a museum. You can still see Jewish symbols and the Star of David on various buildings around town.

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Walking around downtown Harbin. There were many coffee shops and bookstores to escape the cold, as well as a large underground area similar to that in Montreal.

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Above: The imperial tombs of an emperor from 450 years ago. Two and a half days in Harbin were plenty. Afterwards I took a high speed train down to Shenyang, capital of Liaoning province. Shenyang is 110km from the North Korean border, and there’s a large Korean population there. It’s a pleasant city about 4.5 hours by bullet train from Beijing, with the nicest hostel I’ve found in all my travels in China.

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A woman takes a photo of some tombs. Those blue skies are rare further south in the more industrialized parts of China! It was weird to look out the window on the trains in Manchuria and see vast emptiness. From Beijing south to Hong Kong and west to Xi’an is almost solid humanity, packed with 1.4 billion people. 400 million people live along the Yangtze River.

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My hostel is located around the corner from here, near a busy bus stop. I took the bus everywhere in Shenyang, as the network was both cheap and extensive. Public transit in China is usually wonderful in the cities, and traffic here wasn’t bad. The hostel had its own cafe, expansive bathrooms, and phenomenal heating. The heat systems I encountered in Manchuria were great.

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Shenyang is only 110km from North Korea, and there are regular trains to Pyongyang. I took advantage of its proximity to the border to get some terrific Korean food, such as at this restaurant. Shortly after I took this photo it became standing room only.

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I asked for a beer and they brought out this imported North Korean brand.

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I’m a little obsessed with Korean food, and the bibimbap in Koreatown was amazing. Bibimbap is rice, vegetables, pork, egg, and a spicy sauce cooked in a stone bowl. Often served with a side of seaweed.

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While looking for a different restaurant, I stumbled across this “grill your own food” buffet in a Shenyang suburb. There was a lot of buzz about a foreigner entering the joint, and the waitresses were all super patient in explaining to me how it worked. I just picked up various meats and vegetables, grilled them at my table, and got some pineapple soda pop to go with it. 

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I spent one night in Beijing on the way back to Shanghai, rather than do the 10 hour train ride from Shenyang all at once. My hostel was by Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, pictured above. Tiananmen Square was closed with a heavy police presence when I took this photo. I got into Beijing in the evening and left the next morning at 10am. 

Unsurprisingly, it was very easy to get accommodation booked in Manchuria in the middle of winter. Train tickets were also simple to arrange, as there isn’t much demand to go north in winter. Beds at the nicest hostels in town were about $10 a night, though if you don’t speak or read Chinese it could be difficult.

 

 

 

Afghanistan to Uzbekistan

Back in the Kyrgyzstani city of Osh a Westerner had told me a young woman, fluent in English, runs an excellent homestay in this town on the Afghanistan border. I leave my Pamir Highway companions while they’re trying desperately to get a SIM card for internet access on their phones. “I haven’t checked Instagram in days, isn’t that awful?!” one whines. I don’t have the patience for this bullshit, so I slip our driver my remaining Kyrgyz colorful banknotes as a tip and head out.

Afghanistan is just across the river a few hundred meters away, the tall craggy spires of the Hindu Kush rising up against the cloudless sky. Soviet and American-led coalition troops invaded Afghanistan from this small town. There’s no sign of life on the brown Afghan side, but in Tajikistan the town is bustling. I’d written down directions to the recommended homestay, and with my backpack on my shoulders I navigate the Cyrillic signs bearing Persian street names.

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One of the last glimpses of Afghanistan, on the right side of the river.

A young woman with an infant show me to my room, and she lights up when I tell her I’m from Ohio. “I did a year abroad studying in Akron!” $15 a night (“please pay in US dollars,” nobody in Central Asia wants their own currency) includes breakfast, prepared by a friendly Persian woman who doesn’t speak English. There are multiple generations living in this house, and it feels lively.

I’m unable to buy a ticket on the Tajik Air propeller plane through the Afghan Hindu Kush. It’s supposed to be a spectacular flight to the capital city Dushanbe, through the Hindu Kush rather than over them because of their height. But because of those hazards flights can only happen during perfect weather. With last week’s storms, there’s a backlog that even a bribe can’t overcome. So it’s a 13 hour shared taxi ride on bumpy unpaved Tajik highways, packed close with an assortment of extremely friendly Tajiks who have never met an Amerikansk before. An exhausted mother passes out in the front seat, and her baby is handed around and taken care of by strangers. I take a turn holding and passing around the newborn, which seems a lot of trust to put in some random foreigner you just met, but there seems to be a lot of trust in strangers.

Taxi drivers are the scum of the Earth, and they seem particularly bad in Central Asia. But it’s late, I’m in a foreign city, and some random guy on the street offers to take me to my Dushanbe hostel for $2. I take him up on it, and within 15 minutes I’m reading the notice on the hostel door from the Tajik government that “the terrorist threat has been eliminated.” A reference to an attack by fundamentalist Tajik separatists a couple weeks prior in which a car drove into a group of Western cyclists, killing four. The government retaliated by shooting a bunch of people that may or may not have been involved and then paraded their bodies on television. Authoritarian regimes in places that depend on foreign tourist dollars tend to quickly dispose of anyone who harms a tourist.

“What’s there to do in Dushanbe?” I ask an American-Israeli couple with whom I share the hostel bunk room. They started off on the trans-Siberian in Russia and have slowly been making their way through Central Asia.

“We’ve been here two days and we’re not really sure. The cafes are nice, though,” the American replies. After being on the road for most of seven days in the poorest and least developed of the former Soviet Union, I’m totally down for hanging out in European cafes and chatting with others in the hostel. Most of the hostel denizens in Central Asia are young locals from neighboring countries, here for work or study. This hostel in Dushanbe has some foreigners that speak English, along with comfortable common rooms to pass the hours chatting while my laundry dries in the sun. A couple of the backpackers have just come in from Uzbekistan, my next stop, and I trade information on the Pamir Highway and Kyrgyzstan for some help with my last and most anticipated Stan.

Uzbekistan, although not as bad as before, has restrictive currency controls with no ATMs connected to the international financial network. Usually I just use my Charles Schwab debit card to withdraw small amounts of cash as needed, since the card has zero foreign transaction costs and refunds all ATM fees (I got back $750 in ATM fees during my six months in South America). That won’t fly in Uzbekistan, where you need to bring in all money for your trip in hard currency. Dollars are by far the easiest to trade, but some exchange bureaus also take euros, pounds, and Japanese yen. I’ve been hearing horror stories of backpackers hoping to rely on using a debit card to withdraw cash and running out of foreign currency while their embassy can’t do anything to help.

Some of the ATMs in Dushanbe spit out $100 bills, which is what everyone here uses for their savings. I plan to splurge on luxury in Uzbekistan, so I bring with me about $600 to last two weeks. Which would normally be extreme overkill, but I’m tired of staying in hostels and want my own room for a while. And I want a break from plov, the bland local staple of rice with a bit of meat and vegetables. After some months in China I’ve become spoiled when it comes to food.

The cafes of Dushanbe are nice, and one waiter tells me in halting English that my blue eyes are beautiful. I’m out of Persia and back in Turkish Asia, where everyone has brown eyes. I’m getting closer to Europe and the people are starting to look the part more than they did further east, with the facial features and skin color changing gradually as I progress farther on the Silk Road from Xi’an and get ever closer to Istanbul.

The Dushanbe hostel workers are all friendly and speak excellent English. They help me get a taxi to the “bus station.” Here the station is an open piece of land full of parked cars and drivers trying to get passengers to split the fuel costs of wherever they’re going. When they see me, an obvious foreigner, I get swarmed with offers. I already know the going rate for the five hour drive to Khujand, an old Persian Silk Road town by the Uzbek border, but I agree to pay $1 more to get a good seat in a car that’s about to leave (otherwise you might have to wait 45 minutes). I refuse to be one of those foreigners that haggles over 10 cents, especially here where everything is already dirt cheap.

One of the elderly women in the carpool to Khujand practically adopts me, calling up my hostel for directions and making sure I get to the door safely. Maybe I look particularly helpless, but whenever I travel off the beaten path the locals really go out of their way to make sure things go well for me. That’s been true in rural Montana, obscure corners of the Peruvian Andes, and especially Central Asia.

Sitting in cars on those bumpy old Soviet roads isn’t quite relaxing, and all I want to do in the Khujand hostel is lay on cushions and drink green tea. A Japanese backpacker, the only other foreigner, joins me. We pull out our notebooks and trade info on Kyrgyzstan, which I just visited and he’s heading to next, and I get info on Uzbekistan, which he just left. I also swap my leftover Kyrgyz cash for some Japanese yen, which I’ve heard I can trade for local currency at the Tashkent train station in Uzbekistan.

The central market in Khujand is interesting for an hour or so, but there’s not a ton else to do in town so I just wander around. A day and a half is plenty.

A Russian dude at my hostel uses sign language to tell me to accompany him, and I pick up that somehow I’ll get to Uzbekistan if I go with him. I’ve heard rumors of a direct bus to the capital city of Tashkent, and after a 12 cent minibus ride weaving through the morning traffic we reach the outskirts of the city and arrive at what looks like a bus terminal. I have enough basic Russian to know that the ticket office is selling seats for the 8am departure to Uzbekistan, so I buy a ticket and then go stand with the vendors outside until a crowd gathers around what I think is my bus.

Uzbekistan is an authoritarian police state which has a reputation for widespread corruption, economic dysfunction, and overzealous morality police. The latter can be bad at borders, and I’ve heard of officials going through foreigners’ phones looking for blasphemous material. I downloaded an app which helps me hide any files I think might offend the border guards, though I’ve heard that recently border formalities have gotten much easier.

Leaving Tajikistan is the worst border crossing I have yet to experience. It’s a mob of humanity crowding against a tiny window, everyone shoving their passport in the guard’s face to try to get out of that humid, overheated nightmare. A babushka tries to use her grandkids to push to the front, and in the process slams her granddaughter’s face into my elbow. I refuse to budge, and the child starts sobbing on the floor while her grandmother just pushes ahead to try to get an exit stamp.

Eventually I get my coveted stamp and vow never to return. Everyone gets back on the bus, exit control having taken an hour and a half, and we drive three minutes to the Uzbek entry building. It’s much more calm and organized here, with a real line. Two weeks ago Uzbekistan started allowing foreigners to acquire a visa online, which included a three day wait and $30 (previously $160!). The border guard seems surprised to see an American passport, and picks up his phone to make calls. Nobody seems to pick up so he just tells me that he loves American pro wrestling, stamps my passport, and tells me to love his country.

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Liya and I met at a board game club in Hangzhou, where I currently live and work. She’s a student at a university just a couple blocks away from where I work, and I got to visit her in her hometown of Tashkent, Uzbekistan. This photo was taken at a phenomenal Italian ice cream shop in downtown Tashkent. She was morbidly curious about what it was like to travel overland all the way from Hangzhou to her hometown. Like most Russian speakers, she wants to leave for Russia one day.

The bus drops me off in some random corner of Tashkent, the capital city. It’s horridly hot and I go looking without success for a bank to exchange dollars to local cash. The 25 minute taxi ride to my hostel should cost $2 to $3, but the smallest bill I have is $5. The driver’s face lights up when I give it to him, and he looks like he’s about to start crying. The whole spectacle is a little off putting, so I just grab my bag and head into the hostel. Beds are $4 each, and I’m so ready to have my own room that I just buy all four beds in a dorm room. The owner acts like I’m some super rich big spender and I start to get an idea of how cheap Uzbekistan is.

Pamir Highway to Afghanistan

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The route of the Pamir Highway on a map of Central Asia. I went from Osh, Kyrgyzstan to Dushanbe, Tajikistan though the reverse is perfectly manageable, too. Image taken from Wikipedia.

Why do it?

It’s an awesome road trip through spectacular scenery alongside some of the world’s highest mountains. There are stunning glimpses of the Hindu Kush, and this is arguably the best way to see some of Afghanistan (albeit from the outside). A large chunk of the route travels along the Afghan border, separated only by a small river and a few dozen meters.

Route History

As an old Silk Road link, the Pamir Highway has served as a trade route for thousands of years. After centuries of fading into relative obscurity, nowadays its more lucrative commercial activity revolves around smuggling heroin from Afghanistan. Hence the route’s nickname as the Heroin Highway. My Central Asia guidebook claims that a large majority of Tajikistan’s economy is rooted in heroin, with much of the rest coming from Tajiks performing unskilled labor in Russia and sending small sums back to family.

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A clear day in the Hindu Kush. I took this photo in Tajikistan, but the mountains across the river are all in Afghanistan.

Nestled among the world’s highest mountains, this has historically not been the easiest place to visit. Traversing the poorest part of the poorest Soviet republic, this region is still extremely underdeveloped. After ties with Moscow were severed, Tajikistan plunged into civil war for much of the 90s. Gorno-Badakhshan, the region of the Pamir Highway, tried to separate with the help of the neighboring Taliban. People bearing ID cards from the region were publicly executed on the streets of Dushanbe, the capital city.

The separatists lost the war, and the current regime has brutally maintained order. Coalition forces entered Afghanistan from the Pamir Highway in late 2001.

Is it safe?

Yes. Right before I did this trip some Islamic fundamentalists drove a car into a group of Western cyclists, killing four. It seems to have been an isolated incident with people connected to the separatists from the Tajikistani Civil War of the 90s. The government immediately and without trial executed a number of locals who may or may not have been linked to the murders, parading their bodies on television. In these kinds of places, anybody who could possibly threaten tourist dollars entering the country is quickly killed.

The New York Times posted an article the same day about 66 shooting victims in a single weekend in Chicago with no arrests. Statistically, you’re much safer in Tajikistan than in the United States. Which, as my non-American friends would counter, doesn’t really say much.

Visas

It’s gotten much easier over the past few years to visit Central Asia. Most people from developed countries can enter Kyrgyzstan without a visa. The Tajik e-visa is easy to obtain. Online I uploaded a scan of my passport’s bio page, a photo of my lovely face, and paid the $50 fee via credit card. The e-visa was in my inbox within 36 hours. You need an extra permit to visit the Pamir Highway, which costs $20 and nowadays just involves checking an extra box during the e-visa application process.

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Checkpoint near Afghanistan. We had to stop every couple of hours for passport and visa inspections along the Afghan border.

Cost and Logistics

The cost of driver with car plus fuel for 4 days cost $744, split three ways. So, I paid $248 for my share. You can have more people in your car, but it wouldn’t be that comfortable. Food and lodging came to an extra $20 per day. Meals and lodging were all at homestays. The drivers know where to go, and probably get kickbacks. The people in this region are Persian, like across the border in next door Afghanistan, and it’s a great way to experience Persian life for a bit.

The most common way to do this trip is to rent car plus driver for 4 to 6 days. You can start in either Osh or Dushanbe. From what I heard the best place for organizing the trip is the Osh Guesthouse, and in the summer months there are departures every couple of days. There’s a signup board with names and contact info for people who are looking for others to help split the cost. I contacted a guy from the signup board, but I got bad vibes from him and instead ended up posting my Kyrgyz phone number at caravanistan.com (the best website for travel details in Central Asia). A couple of guys from Romania contacted me within a couple hours, and the three of us organized the trip through the Guesthouse. The driver picked me up at my hotel in Osh early the morning of day one.

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The beginning of the route on the Kyrgyz side is mostly paved, but once you get into Tajikistan it’s rough dirt road. Stalin had the highway built in the 30s to help with troop movement.

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The village of Sary Tash, near the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. We stopped for lunch here at a local hole in the wall. All the meals were pretty much the same: black or green tea, with some kind of pasta accompanied by a chunk of meat.

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The first night we stopped at a yurt camp populated by Kyrgyz nomads. They let me set up my tent in their pastures. It got below freezing that night, and I’d wished I’d stayed in one of the yurts with a fire.

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Closer photo of the yurt camp. The Kyrgyz herders bring their sheep up here during the summer months. Lenin Peak, the tallest mountain in the former Soviet Union at 7,100m/23,400ft, rises in the background. I’m not sure exactly which peak it was… The herders asked for a couple of dollars for a hot dinner.

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At the beginning there were a couple of other of cars, mostly French guys. Here’s a stop where we got out of the car to stretch our legs along with some others.

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This is one of the Romanian guys with whom I rented the car plus driver. He didn’t really speak English but his friend, who was closer to my age, used to live in the US and was fluent. The highest point on the Pamir Highway was here at Ak-Baital Pass, 4655m (15,270 ft.). 

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Going from Osh to Dushanbe over the course of 6 days gave me time to do some side trips, like this solo hike I took for about an hour off the main route.

Early on day two we entered Tajikistan, which was a pretty painless border crossing. I noticed our driver slipped the Tajik border guards some cash, which probably played a big role in how quickly we were able to get through the formalities. I never had to pay a bribe at any other border crossing in Central Asia.

Ever since leaving central China, all the locals I’d encountered had been dark skinned, dark eyed descendants of Turkic nomads. The Tajiks looked very different and much more European. The high prevalence of blue eyes was a bit of a shock to see after all my months in Asia.

Tajik means “not Arab, not Turkish.” Ethnically they’re Persian, and they speak Persian. Most Tajiks live in Afghanistan but during the Great Game, when the Russian and British Empires of the 19th century carved up Asia, some of the Persians were given to the Czar (in present day Tajikistan) and the rest were dumped into the newly created buffer state of Afghanistan, where lots of completely different peoples were forced together into one bizarre amalgamation.

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Sometimes the Pamir Highway wasn’t as developed as in other places.

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I still have no idea what this car was doing. We saw some guys doing the Mongol Rally, which is an annual event in which people drive from London to Mongolia. They don’t really spend any time in the countries they visit, but rather just drive.

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Across the river is Afghanistan. We spied a couple of small villages there, but I only saw somebody on the other side once: a man on a horse. The Afghan side of the river was even more underdeveloped than Tajikistan.

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A typical sight along the Pamir Highway.

There are no ATMs on the Pamir Highway. Instead, you must bring all cash you will need for the trip. Although each Stan has its own currency of dubious value, the local economies are focused on the US dollar. You can get $100 bills out of the ATMs in Kyrgyzstan, or you can buy them from ubiquitous money change kiosks that offer very close to the online bank rate. Fun fact: I didn’t know what $100 bills looked like from my own currency, so I had to study the images online to make sure I wasn’t being given counterfeits. I never use cash in the US, especially not $100 bills.

It’s also possible to buy Tajik somoni, the Tajikistani currency, in the Kyrgyz city of Osh. I brought about $50 worth of somoni and $250 in US dollars. In Khorog, a Tajik town we spent the night in, we went to the “market” to exchange dollars into somoni. The market ended up being a semi-deserted sea of shipping containers, out of which emerged an elderly woman whose teeth were all gold.

She didn’t speak, but rather just used a calculator to tell us the rate, which was pretty decent. We weren’t sure how much she’d be able to exchange, this being a very poor country, but she was eager to get our dollars. Us plus another group ended up converting somewhere around $700 into the local currency, and once she’d gotten all she wanted she found more elderly locals who wanted to buy dollars.

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By the end I was as exhausted as I look here, with Afghanistan in the background. Oftentimes there would be electricity for only a few hours a day in the places we stayed at. The homestays were quite nice! They’d usually have a big room with bedrolls on the floor, with Persian carpets covering the walls and floor.

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Another shot of the Hindu Kush, closer to Murghab. Murghab is across a bridge from Afghanistan, though I don’t think anybody really crosses there. There used to be a Saturday market in the area where you gave your passport to a border guard, and could walk into Afghanistan for a couple of hours and peruse the sales. Now that the Taliban control this area on the Afghan side, the market no longer happens. In Murghab I parted ways with the Romanians, stayed a day, and then caught a 13 hour cramped shared taxi to the Tajik capital of Dushanbe. I stayed in a great homestay with a woman who did a semester abroad in college in Akron, Ohio not far from where I grew up. She was so excited to have an Ohioan stay with her, and talked to me a ton about her year in Ohio. The other members of her family sharing the large house with her didn’t speak English, but they were quite friendly. I knew some very basic Persian/Russian words and phrases, which helped. Most people in Central Asia speak Russian as their second language because of the Soviet Union, though many of the younger generation also speaks at least some English.

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An old Silk Road fort that’s seen better days.

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Tajikistan and especially Kyrgyzstan have some great hiking opportunities. Many people told me Kyrgyzstan was known as the Switzerland of Central Asia back in the Soviet days, and that Tajikistan is where the Soviet mountaineers trained. Kyrgyzstan does seem a lot like Switzerland, except much cheaper and with friendlier people.

The 13 hour shared taxi from Murghab to Dushanbe, the end of the Pamir Highway and close to Uzbekistan, was definitely not something I would want to do again. There’s a semi-regular flight in a small propeller plane through the Afghan Hindu Kush to Dushanbe, but I wasn’t able to get tickets because of a backlog due to recent storms. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Nobody in my car spoke English, but they seemed fascinated by the foreigner. There was a new mother who looked exhausted, and spent most of the bumpy ride in a deep coma from which she only emerged for ice cream and bathroom breaks. Her baby was passed around from person to person, and at one rest stop a guy motioned for me to pass him the baby from the backseat. I’d just met these people and they were already asking me to hold their baby and carry it briefly.

I only did the Pamir Highway because getting a visa to the isolated bizarre Turkmenistan proved overly tedious (don’t know what else you can expect from a country whose president renamed months of the calendar after his family), but overall I was glad I did it. I’d highly recommend it to anyone else doing a jaunt through the Stans of Central Asia.

 

Trekking the Kyrgyz Tianshan: Jeti Oguz to Kyzyl Suu

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Map of Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia, with the village of Karakol in the northeast of the country to the east of the large alpine Lake Ysyk Kol. Taken from Wikipedia.

Karakol is the trekking capital of Kyrgyzstan, the country which boasts to be the Switzerland of Central Asia (minus the economic and political stability). Marshrutkas, the Russian name for passenger van, leave from the chaotic Bishkek West Bus Station when full for Karakol. Wait times in July seem to be 2 to 20 minutes, and tickets are bought directly from the counter with large letters proclaiming Касси. Ignore the touts out front and follow the crowds of locals into the large, open-air terminal. Tickets should be about $5.50 for the five and a half hour journey, which parallels the mountainous Kazakh border much of the way to Karakol. The babushkas on board seem to have built a heat tolerance in the depths of hell, and will ask you to shut all windows if the temperature dips below 90F/32C.

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You don’t go to Kyrgyzstan to see the towns. You go to the towns to springboard into the surrounding countryside.

Pretty much all of the backpackers in Karakol stay at Duet Hostel, which is one of the nicest joints I’ve stayed at in the 48 countries I’ve visited. The price is pretty typical for this part of the world at $5 or $6 a night for a bunk in the dorms, and the young Kyrgyz woman with flawless English running everything has plastered trekking maps, detailed step by step instructions on how to get to each trailhead, and contact info for tour organizers all over the walls of the adjacent cafe (which she also runs, and serves great milkshakes, pizzas, sandwiches, and tea).

Taxis from the Karakol bus station to the hostel should cost no more than $1.50, but you’re highly unlikely to get that price. It only costs 15 cents to ride on a marshrutka from the station to within a 5 minute walk of the hostel (which would probably be a 35 minute walk with no vehicle). Just tell the driver a-stan-ah-VEE-tyeh, which I think means stop in Russian, when you want to get off.

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Duet Hostel in Karakol, photo taken directly from their website.

One of the more popular hikes in the region is Kyzyl Suu to Jeti Oguz. By Kyrgyz standards of popularity this means that over the course of 72 hours I saw two other groups of hikers on trail, both within a few hours of each other. I hiked the route in reverse, but I’d recommend doing the standard Kyzyl Suu to Jeti Oguz direction because it’s way easier and less steep of an ascent.

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You can hitch a ride pretty easily from the road through the Jeti Oguz gorge, which pretty much everyone does to skip about 20km, but I found it to be a pleasant walk along rivers and Kyrgyz summer yurt camps.

Marshrutkas leave about every hour starting at 10am from the Karakol bazaar. You’ll know you’re in the right place when taxi drivers start telling you the bus service has been discontinued and you can only go by taxi. Duet Hostel has little pieces of paper with maps and detailed walking instructions that will take you to the exact spot to pick up transport to Jeti Oguz, which is about a 20 minute drive and should cost around 40 cents.

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The river crossings are all done by bridge, which don’t look stable but seemed fine. I took this photo while standing on one of those bridges.

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I saw this while walking from the tiny village of Jeti Oguz along the only dirt road heading towards the mountains.

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A bit different from the road walks on the Continental Divide Trail. But the scenery was actually pretty similar.

I was a bit surprised how much of the hike was along a road, which has a decent amount of traffic coming out of Jeti Oguz for the first 15km. Multiple cars stopped to offer a ride, but I was enjoying myself and just walked. There’s one touristy spot where the gravel road ends and a rough dirt road begins, and this is where you’ll stop seeing people. At 6:30pm I’d already covered 22km since noon, and with a storm coming I set up my tent by the river the road parallels. You could set up your tent next to a yurt camp for about $1.50, just ask the owners permission, and a hot dinner would probably be inexpensive. I never took advantage of that option so I can’t comment on it. The locals don’t seem to care if you camp in the forest and clean up after yourself.

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Because it’s so full of sediment and murky, the river looks way deeper and more treacherous than it actually is (in person it looked way worse than in the photo). You can pay a local man with a horse $1.50 to cross on horseback, which honestly is probably the way to do it. Stream crossings are the most dangerous part of all my hikes (not bears or murderers in the woods!).

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Navigation is pretty easy when you just have to follow a river upstream.

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Looking back downstream as storm clouds gather. The weather changes fast.

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The river I followed got smaller and smaller as I reached its source.

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Snowcapped huge mountains everywhere in the distance!

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Eventually I got high enough to be level with the snow. Basically I just ascended a valley from 6k feet to 12.8k feet (1800m to 3900m).

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I was below the only pass of the trip when it started hailing. I set up my tent and waited it out. Within 45 minutes, the intense storm had vanished and been replaced by clear, sunny skies. So I packed everything back up and booked it to the top. After ascending a couple thousand meters since the morning, and going at a very steep incline, I wasn’t walking very quickly.

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The pass is up there somewhere. It was a tough scramble, and there were parts that were very unstable. Cairns marked the best route, which wasn’t obvious looking at it from a distance. There were multiple parts where I just didn’t look down. At 6pm a group of Germans with insanely huge packs told me there was no way I’d get over the pass and be able to camp by nightfall. Within an hour, 7pm, I was in my tent. It gets dark around 9pm in late July.

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The pass, Archa Tor, was beautiful. But the weather had soured by the time I literally hauled myself up a snow bank and onto the pass, so I took some photos and then hurried down.

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Proof that I made it to the top!

I set up my tent in a clearing about 300m below the pass, down another steep scramble. The hail started again, not as intense as before, shortly after I climbed inside my sleeping bag. My socks were soaked, and my sleeping bag had gotten a bit wet during the previous hailstorm. Since it’s a down sleeping bag and has gotten over 300 nights of use, the warmth and loft aren’t what they used to be. It was a bitterly cold night because of that, and it didn’t help that at 9pm a herd of cows graced me with their presence. I seriously don’t have any clue why cows would decide to chill out at night at 3600m on a mountain, but they shit and pissed wonderful smells all around my tent. They also tripped over the guylines supporting my tent all night, and one managed to get inside my food bag to eat my chocolate bar. I got around 1.5 to 2 hours of sleep that night and developed a cold, which was not ideal.

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The next morning was gorgeous, with clear skies and awesome vistas.

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Damn cows everywhere on the mountain.

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A cow path tracing its way around the mountain. I wonder if they ever fall off the edge. Sometimes I hoped so.

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At one point you cross the river for the final time on a cart with pulleys operated by two young Kyrgyz boys who charge a whopping $1.50 per trip.

I ended up road walking from the end of the trail to Kyzyl Suu, camping behind some bushes by the road along the way. I wasn’t feeling very well by that point, having caught a cold from lack of sleep and the wet, sub-freezing temps the night before, and passed out for 8 hours straight in my tent. It was glorious, and the next morning I had a 2.5 hour walk to the highway.

I’m sure there’s a marshrutka or something from Kyzyl Suu back to Karakol, but I was able to hitch a ride within seconds once I reached the highway. The local driver asked for $1.50 to take me on the 35 minute ride, and picked up some others along the way. Hitchhiking is common and safe here.

I was back at Duet Hostel by 10am, and spent the rest of the day chatting with other foreigners, eating, and drinking iced tea.

 

The Chinese Silk Road

The police came to the Xi’an hostel looking for someone, but move on when they couldn’t find him. It was a bit strange to see the state police trying to find a presumably foreign national while Taylor Swift blared in the hostel common room, but China is a weird place. They weren’t after me, and that’s all that really matters for these kinds of things.

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A map of the various Silk Road routes leading from Xi’an west. There wasn’t a single universal path, but rather a variety of different routes meandering towards the Middle East. For various reasons I’ll discuss later, I chose the northernmost route on this map. Image taken from China Tour Guides.

The older Chinese train stations tend to be downtown, like in Europe and America, but high speed rail needs a separate, new set of tracks. Since these specialized tracks were largely built in the last 10 years, bullet train stations around the world tend to be well outside the center of the city. Xi’an North Station is no exception, but because Chinese infrastructure is amazing it’s only a 25 minute subway ride from downtown.

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A typical Chinese train ticket. Tickets must be printed at the station, and foreigners have to queue to retrieve tickets. Because I can read and write Chinese, and have a local bank account, I can purchase tickets using Alipay on my phone. I then get a text message containing the number, which I present along with my passport to a clerk who prints my ticket. Station security is usually pretty quick and easy.

My first stop was Lanzhou, capital of Gansu province on the western edge of China proper. Hemmed in by mountains to the north and south, Lanzhou sprawls for miles to the east and west along a river. There’s very little of interest to a traveler, but because it’s the region’s transit capital most Silk Road backpackers stop here to change trains. It’s also a jumping off point to explore a little visited part of Tibet.

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This is a map of Tibet in southwest China and surrounding countries. The cultural boundaries of Tibet are much larger than just the Chinese province of the same name. Xizang is the Mandarin name for the province of Tibet, but translates to West Tibet in English. India, Bhutan, and Nepal also are home to the Tibetan people.

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In Lanzhou I ordered a taxi on my phone, and this beautiful plot of land is where he picked me up. He took me to my hotel, and on the drive I couldn’t figure out how the hell he had a perfect five star rating on the Uber-type app considering his terrible driving skills. He wouldn’t let me out of the car until I gave him a five star perfect rating on my phone, so I’m guessing that’s how he’s managed it.

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Hotels in China must have a license to host foreigners. These restrictions are especially felt in the west, and Lanzhou has a serious lack of reasonably priced hotels that can accept ghost men like me. This hotel, which I reserved online and was very nice, cost $30 including tax. The walk-in rates posted were almost twice that, but I don’t think anybody ever really pays those. Reserving and paying online gets you the cheapest rates.

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From Lanzhou I took a four hour bus to Labrang, a village in the Amdo region of Tibet. Labrang is home to a monastery, which was a cool place to wander around for a day. I stayed in a very nice hostel run by a Dutch woman, and had the entire men’s dorm to myself. This was high season, and shows these places don’t really get that many foreign tourists.

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Prayer wheels at the monastery.

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The sign for Labrang Monastery. It rained off and on while I was there.

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The monastery was at about 10,000 feet (3000m) elevation, and I definitely felt the abrupt change in altitude when going up the three flights of stairs in my hostel.

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The bus ticket from Lanzhou to Labrang, called Xiahe (“Summer River”) in Mandarin. The ticket cost about $11, and the ride was on well paved roads in a decently comfortable bus. We stopped halfway through for a bathroom break.

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I was told this goat, who lives at the monastery, will charge.

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Lanzhou is known across China for its spicy beef noodle soup, pictured above. I love Lanzhou beef noodles, so I had to try it at its source. Well worth the $3 for the meal. Chinese noodle bowls generally come with some bak choy and chunks of meat, and you can add eggs, more veggies, and meats for a few more cents.

After returning to Lanzhou for a night, I caught an afternoon bullet train a few hours to Jiayuguan. Situated at a mountain pass controlling travel between China and Central Asia, the Chinese built the western terminus of the Great Wall here. Nowadays it’s a popular tourist destination for domestic travelers. There’s not much to the actual town of Jiayuguan, but the Great Wall fortress was well worth the visit.

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Guarding the entrance to China from Central Asia, people exiled from China in historical periods were thrown out the gates to the west. Very few returned.

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Jiayuguan was built where the Tibetan Plateau meets the Gobi Desert.

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By the end of the Cultural Revolution this, like many of China’s historical relics, was totally destroyed. It was rebuilt in the 80s.

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The dirt rampart in the center is the Great Wall, which extends from here all the way to what is today Pyongyang, North Korea. To the left is the oasis which has fed people for thousands of years, and to the right is the inhospitable Gobi Desert and Central Asia.

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A map of Gansu province in western China. Dunhuang, my stop after Jiayuguan, was an important oasis town and resupply stop on the Silk Road. Today it’s somewhat obscure, and there’s nothing of significance in the town itself nowadays, but I stopped there for an afternoon.

A high speed rail line connecting Lanzhou to Urumqi in the far northwest Xinjiang province was completed a few years ago, but Dunhuang is on a spur line 180km away from the main artery of the bullet train corridor. Jiayuguan has a daily departure at 7:16am to Dunhuang, with a ticket in regular seating being $8. Also called “hard seat,” this is the lowest cost seat (other than standing) on Chinese slow trains, which go “only” 70mph. The train I took started two days prior in Beijing, and was surprisingly clean, air conditioned, and not bad. I wouldn’t want to do hard seat for much longer than the six hours it takes to get to Dunhuang, but it was fine.

One of the best and worst parts of being on the Chinese slow trains is that you’re traveling with a bunch of locals that are instantly your best friend and want to know everything about your life from birth to the moment of conversation. The scenery was outstanding with the Tibetan plateau to our left and the Gobi Desert to our right, and I spent a few hours chatting with some older Han from Xinjiang and Qinghai provinces. The woman I spent the most time talking with was born and raised in Xinjiang province’s city of Aksu, and had made a vacation with her husband out of going to visit her son in Lanzhou. She had a lot to say about growing up in the far west of China in the 60s.

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It was a two hour bus ride from Dunhuang to the closest high speed rail station in Liuyuan, which is the only way to head west.

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This is the view from the high speed rail station in Liuyuan, in the middle of nowhere in the Gobi Desert. I caught a bullet train from here six hours to Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang province.

Xi’an

Sometimes life doesn’t go as planned. Which resulted in me trying to figure out how to get from Shanghai to Xi’an with a sudden surge in demand for tickets.

Admittedly, there were plenty of tickets on the 21 hour slow train if you wanted to stand. But I decided to wait a few days with 35 million of my closest friends at the world’s busiest port instead. Above is the flag of the People’s Republic with the Shanghai skyline in the background as a storm rolls in from the Pacific.

There’s not a whole lot for a tourist to do in Shanghai, but I like to go there to eat western food, speak English, and get a break from the constant stares you receive for being visibly foreign in China. I told one of my hostel roommates that Shanghai felt like being in the West to me, and he said I’ve probably been here too long. Maybe that’s true. He also seemed fairly perturbed by how blasé I was about censorship and the government’s efforts to “achieve a peaceful and harmonious society.”

China has some pretty good facial recognition software. There are cameras on the streets and in most public places that identify you based on your gait and face. You have to submit face photos upon entering China, and the government constantly tracks the movements of all citizens and visitors. In some restaurants you can pay via the facial recognition cameras if your bank account is linked to your government ID info. If you jaywalk in some places, the cameras identify you and post your government ID photo and personal contact info on digital public notice boards to shame you. I took this photo of the public shaming board in Xi’an.

“Be back in my office on the 8th of September, okay?” my boss told me after I signed the university paperwork certifying my students’ grades.

Xi’an is pretty lit at night.

Xi’an is my first stop on my journey west. As the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, boasting status as a former Chinese capital, and home to a vibrant Muslim community, it’s definitely on the tourist circuit. The 7.5 hour bullet train here ($100) was smooth, and the Chinese countryside rolled along outside at 200mph. The urban behemoth of the Yangtze River delta slowly gives way to farms and villages. Almost the whole train disembarke at Luoyang, an obscure city in Henan province I’d never heard of before.

Xi’an has a Muslim quarter with amazing street food.

I definitely got multiple meals in the Muslim quarter, with lots of restaurants run by people from the Hui minority.

Most of the foreigners I met in Xi’an had come direct from Beijing, and were heading to Chengdu or Shanghai afterwards. The Terracotta Army is the city’s biggest tourist draw, and was discovered by chance with the help of some farmers in the 70s.

Most foreigners head to the Terracotta Army by private tour, which is easy to arrange. It’s also not that difficult to reach by public bus, which takes around an hour and 15 minutes. The cost is $1, and leaves from the east parking lot of Xi’an Rail Station every few minutes. If you don’t read or speak Chinese it could be a little difficult, but is definitely manageable.

There are three main excavation pits housing the approximately 8000 soldiers, each of which is unique.

The tables in the photo are used for archeological research purposes.

The main pit is massive and sheltered in a building the size of an aircraft hangar, but the other pits are smaller. Albeit still quite large.

It’s pretty amazing what has survived in the 2000 years since the Army was made. But there’s a lot more to Xi’an than the Terracotta Army.

The Great Mosque of Xi’an is hidden in the curving, narrow alleys of the Goat Market. It was interesting to see the flowing calligraphy in Arabic and Chinese.

A hot pot joint I found downtown while walking around.

Everywhere I go in the world they say foreigners can’t eat spicy food, and then I order the hottest dishes and survive.

Planning for the Silk Road

It’s about three weeks until I set out on my overland trip from the Pacific to Uzbekistan along the Silk Road. Here are some common things people ask about my trips:

Isn’t it dangerous?

Short answer: probably not.

Long answer: Despite what American cable news says, the world probably isn’t as dangerous as most think. I’ll keep an eye on the news, but at the moment things look good for the Chinese provinces and former Soviet republics I’ll be visiting. In the past I’ve had to change travel plans because of protesters storming and burning government buildings in Paraguay, floods in Albania, and the like. I’ll adapt if need be, though I don’t think I’ll need to.

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What most Americans think the outside world looks like.

Even the US Department of State travel advisory page says the areas I’ll be visiting are safe. They’re extremely overcautious and I’m not that concerned. Cumulatively I’ve spent years abroad in 45 different countries, and I think I’ll be fine. The most dangerous and violent place I’ve ever been is the United States.

How much will it cost?

Short answer: comparatively not that much.

Long answer: I don’t expect this trip to be that expensive. Hostels should be $8 to $10 a night. Chinese train tickets are pretty reasonably priced ($10 to $15 an hour for high speed lines, $4 an hour and up for slower night trains with a bed). Transportation in the Central Asian republics will be by van and train, and should be cheaper than in China. Local cuisine is about $2 to $3 a meal in China, and I don’t expect my food costs to be high in the Stans.

Typically, visas are a major cost and headache for Silk Road trips. I’ll explore that later in this post, but I expect to spend around $250 on visas. At the end of my journey I’ll likely fly from some capital city in Central Asia back to Shanghai on a Chinese airline. There are many daily flights between the Stans and Shanghai, with connection in northwest China’s Urumqi, running about $300 one way.

How will access your money?

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The merchant can scan a code on your phone to pay with AliPay or WeChat Pay.

Nobody in Han China uses cash anymore, instead opting for AliPay or WeChat Pay. My phone reads my fingerprint, which unlocks a QR code (see photo above). The merchant then scans the code on my phone, and within about two seconds it’s finished. These smartphone apps are pretty useful, also allowing you to buy train tickets and order taxis, and draw funds directly from my Chinese debit card. That card is linked to my account at the China Construction Bank, which has offices and ATMs all over the country. If I need cash I should be able to withdraw yuan at their ATMs as I go without cost. I don’t know if electronic payment systems will be common in the non-Han areas of Tibet and Xinjiang province (I suspect not, since they require some knowledge of how to read Chinese).

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan all have their own currency. In these places I’ll use my Charles Schwab debit card, which has zero foreign conversion costs and refunds all ATM fees at the end of the month. This card refunded me about $750 in ATM fees in South America. I expect the Stans to be cash-based economies, and that I’ll be using my card to withdraw cash a lot in the former Soviet Union.

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Cash exchange listing in Transnistria.

Back in the Balkans, where you drive two hours and enter a new country with a totally different currency, faith in the local money was pretty low and so were conversion costs for cash. Changing from local currency to the more stable euro was commonplace, and there was a lot of competition for these services. You’d typically lose around 1% of the value of the cash to convert something like Serbian dinar or Albanian lek to euros, which could be used to pay hostel bills in every country (accommodation was always priced in euros, but hostels would let you pay in local currency at good rates too). Those euros could also be used to buy local funny money in the next country at good rates (definitely NOT the case in the more advanced economies of Western Europe). Substitute the US dollar for euros, and from what I’ve heard it should be very similar in the Stans.

Visas

Central Asia traditionally hasn’t been the easiest place to visit. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Stans maintained restrictive entrance and travel policies for foreigners. Although it can still be a bureaucratic nightmare, it’s become much easier over the past two years to do this trip.

China

Usually a pain in the ass. But I have a multiple entry work visa valid through January of 2019, so I shouldn’t have issues.

Kazakhstan

No visa needed.

Kyrgyzstan

No visa needed.

Tajikistan

I’ll have to apply for an eVisa online, which basically entails paying $50 and uploading a scan of my passport’s bio information page. It should take around three days to get the eVisa.

Uzbekistan

Supposedly Uzbekistan is launching an eVisa program similar to Tajikistan starting July 1st, but I’ll believe it when I see it. If I make a reservation and get a letter of invitation from a hostel in Uzbekistan, then I should be able to get a visa within a few hours from the embassy in Almaty, Kazakhstan or Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The visa fee for American citizens is $160.

Language

I speak conversational Chinese, which should serve me well until I leave Urumqi in the northwestern Xinjiang province. Urumqi has a large Han population, but outside of this provincial capital people likely won’t speak Chinese or English. Instead, it’ll be a language related to Turkish. They’ll speak Turkic languages in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, while Tajikistan speaks a relative of Persian. Russian is likely the main lingua franca of this region, owing to the days of the Soviet Union, but maybe the younger generation will speak some English? I can read Cyrillic and should be fine.