The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

Astana is Kazakhstan’s new post-Soviet capital, in the Northern steppes.  The faces on the streets seem mostly Central Asian, so it seems to have succeeded in attracting a large ethnic Kazakh population into what was formerly an ethnic-Russian part of the country.  That may not have been President Nazarbayev’s sole goal, but it has certainly helped to cement a Kazakh identity in the North.

I hiked around the large, dazzling, new government area.  This is like a Pudong on the Steppes, struggling on a smaller scale to represent a bold new City of the Future.  I love it.  While the buildings are individually smaller than the giants of Dubai or Pudong, the overall architectural style is even more aggressive, bold and dashing.  And yes, genuinely futuristic.

Baiterek Tower

105 meters tall and purely for fun.

Presidential Palace

A rather bland Presidential Palace, which is ably defended by two giant Golden Daleks, and backed up by a giant pyramid.

"Palace Of Peace and Concord" + Independence Column

Nominally intended for meetings of world religious leaders, it doubles as a conference center and has a large concert hall in the basement.

"Transport Tower"

32 stories tall. Locally nicknamed the “Cigarette Lighter”.

Inside the Peace pyramid, looking up at the apex.

Astana Circus

A flying saucer, unconvincingly pretending to be a circus.

With only a few exceptions, the former Soviet Republics inherited a mix of either very bland 1930s style official buildings or mostly very dull “modern” concrete boxes. So it’s good to see an outbreak of genuinely creative architecture. I do wonder how well some of these buildings, with their bright metallic sheathings, will age. They look like they will require significant maintenance, which is often harder to find money for than the first brash conception. But all the same, I’m happy to see them! Hurrah!

Hong Kong’s Dark Tower is one of my favourite buildings.

It is officially called “2 International Finance Center”, but that seems very poor camouflage for such a mighty command post, obviously destined for World Dominion.  I find it both wonderfully elegant and distinctly sinister.  I particularly love the claw-like fingers gently cupping over its peak.

I suspect it is from the same architects who designed Orthanc.

Kashgar, April 30th 2008

The only road between China and Pakistan is the Karakoram Highway (KKH) which goes over the 4730 m (15,500 ft) Khunjerab pass at the border.    It is a spectacular journey, over a wild road, across the Western edges of the Himalayas.

The pass is closed in winter and nominally reopens on May 1st each year. I was duly in Kashgar on April 30th, hoping to catch either a jeep or the two-day cross-border bus via Tashkurgan (China) to Sost (Pakistan) the following morning.  But at the Chini Bagh Hotel, I learned from the redoubtable Ali Tash of UighurTour that there were problems crossing to Pakistan.  First, the bus company was unclear about whether they would start the bus service tomorrow or not.  It is the multi-day Chinese May 1st holiday and there was a natural lack of enthusiasm for starting the bus service on the holiday.  Sigh.  Second, the Chinese authorities have changed the regulations so that any independent jeep drivers going across the border now need a passport, not simply their Chinese ID and right now there aren’t any drivers available who have all the needed paperwork.

Kashgar to Tashkurgan, May 1st 2008

Early next morning I check at the bus station and learn there “probably” won’t be a bus through to Pakistan until May 5th.  Sigh.   Back at the Chini Bagh, I arrange a car for the initial hop to Tashkurgan, via one of Ali Tash’s capable henchmen.

View at Kara Kul

We made a fast (under five hour) trip down to Tashkurgan.  The road was through spiky mountains, with some snow caps.  We made a brief stop at lake Kara Kul.  It’s pleasant and scenic, but there is much better scenery elsewhere on the KKH.

At Tashkurgan I checked into the spartan but adequate Jiao Tong (“Transport”) Hotel, which is convenient for buses and customs.   After several strolls through town, I confirmed that the local jeep drivers don’t have passports and thus can’t go into Pakistan and that no jeeps had come in from Pakistan.  Sigh.

Tashkurgan, May 2nd 2008

The Border is Open, but you cannot cross.”

Tashkurgan is at 10,000+ ft and is pleasantly cold after Kashgar’s heat, with clear clean  mountain air.  There are a number of hotels in town catering to Chinese tourists, who come out here to China’s far West to enjoy the scenic views of the Western Himalayas.

At reception, I learned that a bus had come over from Sost the night before and the reception clerk assured me that this meant the bus would go back to Pakistan today and I could catch it “at immigration”.

After a great deal of confused searching, I finally located the “bus station”, actually a ticket counter cunningly hidden in the middle of the custom and immigrations area.  But after hanging out for over an hour, I am officially informed that (a) the border is open and (b) there will be no bus to Sost today.  However, I am assured there will be a bus tomorrow.  Hmm.  We’ll see.

Tashkurgan to Sost, May 3rd 2008

By the following morning several other travelers have straggled in, and seven of us show up at the bus station desk at immigration on May 3rd.  Apparently we now have a quorum, and they duly arrange two vehicles for us, a land cruiser and a small minibus.

A little later a squad of a dozen or so smartly uniformed Chinese frontier police march up in neat formation and then disperse to chat and slowly boot up the immigration PCs.

The frontier police appear to have recently conducted some kind of team self-improvement project on how to improve customer service and they provide a helpful leaflet, in Chinese, Uighur and English, charmingly labeled  “The propaganda“.

The leaflet notes their goals and their key self-improvement resolutions. These include basics such as  “Don’t play, chat or smoke” , the encouraging “Don’t treat passangar coldly, strongly and arrogantly“, the sterner “Don’t ask and accept money“, the slightly worrying “Don’t scold, beat and punish the suspicious criminals” and ends with the wise “Don’t revenge the people who have complained.”  I am very happy to learn of all these fine resolutions.

After the PCs booted, we were carefully and politely processed through.

View at Khunjerab pass

I took the minibus with an Irish couple.  Two Chinese frontier police joined us, carrying supplies for their colleagues nearer the pass.  Alas, our little minibus proved prone to overheating.  We made several stops so the driver could pour icy stream water into the overheated engine.  At one point the engine actually died and we had to push it a short way until it could roll downhill to the nearest stream and get some cold water.

As we drove, I was delighted to see a golden marmot run across the road in front of us.  He was big and plump and very golden.  Later we saw many others off in the distance.

Scotsman at Khunjerab

We stopped briefly at various checkpoints along the way, both Chinese and Pakistani.

The actual border point is at the top of the Khunjerab Pass (4730 meters) with suitable markers.  Like everyone else, we stopped for photos, the clock change, and the change to the left of the road.

The road on the Chinese side of the border was easy and well maintained, but it immediately became much rougher on the Pakistani side.  There were often steep drops on the side of the road. But the mountains are also steeper and more scenic.  We passed many frozen rivers and one major glacier near Passau.

In the Khunjerab National Park we saw World Wildlife Fund signs.  We saw a small group of ibex fording a small river.  We dutifully paid our 35 Yuan park entry fee at the park exit.

We saw no freight traffic and only a few jeeps going the other way.  However at the Pakistani border post there is a notice recording that about 5700 Pakistanis and 8500 foreigners came south in 2006, with similar outgoings.  That’s still fairly light traffic for a major cross-border route.

At Pakistani immigration at Sost we confirm that we were the first foreigners to come south through the pass this year.  Ha!

After some haggling over who went where in what, I shared a taxi with an English couple to Karimabad.   Our driver turned out to be an Ismaili  who among other things was learning Japanese.  He explained vigorously how he was very proud to be Ismaili, because they didn’t hurt anyone!  We applauded this fine sentiment!

The Mud Volcanos of Qobustan

Mud Volcano, Qobustan

One of the Great Mud Volcanoes, in full eruption.

I took a car and guide from Baku to the famed Mud Volcanoes of Qobustan (Gobustan).

Despite their splendid name, they are actually only about 6 feet tall.  They gently burp forth mud and methane from deep mud reservoirs.  Sporadic trickles of mud run down from the small cones.  If they are lucky the craters occasionally manage to spit up a baseball size lump of mud a foot or so.  It all seems very small scale, but remember this is a geologic process that has been running gently for millennia and, yes, the big hilly area the volcanoes stand on has probably been slowly built up from the burped mud.

They are a little goofy,  but good fun, and well worth a short visit.

Ascending the mighty Mud Volcano

Ascending the mighty Mud Volcano

After the rather touristy Baku Atashgah, I took a taxi out to see a more modest, but more authentic natural flame, at “Yanar Dag” (Fire Mountain).

The story is that several decades ago a wandering shepherd accidentally set light to a small natural vent.  And to general amazement, that small vent has kept steadily burning ever since, apparently fed by some tiny natural leak from Baku’s vast gas fields far below.

Steps have now been built around the site, but the site itself seemed convincingly natural.  And no one was asking for money, which is also a good sign.

Despite its grand name, it is a fairly modest.  The flames run intermittently over a length of about 10-12 feet, with erratic flames varying from little 1-2 inch flickers to occasional 1-2 foot spurts.  However across the entire length it was generating a lot of heat.  Despite its small size, I found it genuinely impressive and a delightful example of the occasional oddities of nature.  I surprised my taxi driver by laughing with simple joy when I first saw it.   I can well understand why some pious traveler, on discovering such a strange natural vent, might have venerated it and made it a temple site (as probably happened at the Baku Ateshga).

After failing to find a suitable bus, train, or marshrutska, I eventually  took a taxi out to the Baku Atashgah (Fire Temple).  The taxi driver chatted with me in weak English.  He complained about government corruption and how there should be lots of money in Azerbaijan but it didn’t make it down to the people.  He also complained that California’s Gubernator Schwartzenegger was far too sympathetic to the wicked Armenians.  (Not an accusation I had previously heard!)

The Baku Atashgah or Fire Temple is a much larger complex than the Atashgah in Tbilisi, with a large courtyard surrounded by cells for visiting pilgrims.  The central building, which houses the scared flame, is surprisingly similar in shape and dimensions to the Tbilisi Ateshga.  However, here all four walls have open archways, rather than the closed archways of Tbilisi.  There is also a small crematorium pit to the side.

It is sometimes asserted that the site originated as a Zoroastrian temple which was destroyed by the Arabs, but apparently modern scholarship rejects this.  In any event, the current structure was built in the early 17th c. by Indians with a strong emphasis on Vishnu, with his trident.  (Which is a pity as the original Zoroastrian religious vision seemed much simpler and less superstitious.)  The scared flame was originally fed by a natural gas vent, which, alas, expired in 1882, so it is now run off the municipal gas mains.

Nowadays the site has been restored purely as a tourist attraction, with waxworks figures in the pilgrim’s cells.  The central flame was initially out, but after I paid my admission fee, the attendant discreetly turned on the gas .