The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

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 .

On my third try, after much searching, I finally found Tbilis’s Atashgah, or Fire Temple.  The two LonelyPlanet maps show slightly different locations for the Atashgah, both of which are close but slightly too far East.  You can’t access the Atashgah from the path to the Narikala fortress; rather you must come to it by going up into the nameless little streets South-East of the Jvaris Mama church, then taking the steps up to the Meheti church, then going 100 m East.

I finally spotted the Atashgah because I noticed a self-congratulatory sign listing various worthy groups that were funding some restoration program.  But of what?  Then I realized  the rather dull looking redbrick building matched the descriptions I’d read, so I checked with a workman and yes, this was it!

Atashgah interior + wandering Scotsman

It is a strange structure: roughly a 20ft sided cube, under active restoration both inside and out.  There is an entrance doorway, and arched sides but no windows.  The roof is gone and there is a tree growing inside.  There is what seems to be a fire pit in the center. I paid my respects, and gently asked the Lord of Fire to be kind to California (currently plagued by wildfires).

This is believed to an authentic Zoroastrian Fire Temple, established during the short-lived Persian occupation of Tbilisi in the 6th c AD.   The Zoroastrians venerated fire as a pure element and would use the temple flame as a focus (or direction) to worship Ahura Mazda, the one universal god.

[ See also Tbilisi Ateshgah Revisited in 2010].

Gori: Stalin's Home Town

Stalin, Gori.Most relics of Stalin were swept from public view in the USSR in the years after Khruschev’s 1956 denunciation. But not in Gori, Georgia.

This small provincial town is Stalin’s birthplace.  I suspect that Stalin is pretty much the only interesting thing ever to have happened here, so, despite everything, he is still commemorated as the local boy who went on to Great Things.  His statue, birthplace and museum are all still preserved, if no longer explicitly venerated.

After my 70 minute marshrutka ride from Tbilisi, I was dropped off in the Gori’s main town square.  This is dominated by a tall and imposing statue of a mustached figure in a military greatcoat.  There is no inscription.  Back in the day, none was needed.

Heading North from the square, I spotted what initially appeared like a smallish Greek temple.  But no.  This is the site of the modest house where Stalin was born and raised.  That modest  two room brick building has been lovingly preserved and, to protect it from the elements, a temple like outer structure has been erected over it.  On the North side is a second, smaller statue of Stalin, this time in a softer, more relaxed pose.

The Stalin Museum itself lies just to the North of the preserved house.  The museum has a wide array of Stalin paraphernalia, including reproductions of early photographs of the young “Soso”, a copy of Stalin’s first police mugshot, his first desk in the Kremlin, historical exhibits from WWII and Yalta, an array of his favorite pipes, gifts received from foreign governments, and finally his bronze death mask.

My favorite piece is definitely the Tsarist police mugshot.  It casts such a different light on Stalin: as the wild young revolutionary, rather than the  smug middle-aged dictator.

A guide took me inside Stalin’s armored railway carriage and we tiptoed nervously past the compartments where the great man had slept and worked.

The Museum presents its artifacts without commentary: neither praising nor denouncing.  But of course the choice of exhibits is itself significant: we are shown Nazi banners being flung at Stalin’s feet during the great Soviet WWII victory parade, but we are not shown any hints of the Gulag, let alone of the Great Terror.  In an unintentional piece of symbolism, the elegant clock outside the museum is stopped: permanently frozen at the High Noon of the Soviet Empire.

As background reading on Stalin’s Georgian youth, I’d strongly recommend Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “Young Stalin” which paints a very vivid picture of Stalin’s time in Georgia, showing his different roles as a seminary student, a star choirboy, a proud Georgian poet, a rabble-rousing Marxist, a ruthless underground Bolshevik leader, and an organizer of daring bank robberies, supplying badly needed cash to Lenin’s headquarters.