This stage will lead us from Samarkand, the rock town in Uzbekistan, over the Chinese Kashgar to Golmud to Tibetans, Uighurs and Mongols. Up and down we go from 720 meters above sea level up to 1300 meters through the heartland of Asia.
From the huge fruit farms of Fergana to the fat silk worms in Margilan and the “green gold” in Hotan, better known as jade.
Sunday, October 15 - Christian Klemke, our author for the next stage until Golmud in China, will arrive tomorrow with a two-day delay. He needed to undergo last-minute dental surgery.
It got every one of us in some way or other in the meantime: Montezuma’s revenge, or whatever it is called here. An Uzbekistan friend had warned me before that Samarkand is the capitol of travelers’ diarrhea. We are on our way to Tashkent. It has become autumn and the hazy weather suits our mood perfectly. Most cotton fields have been harvested; little fires for the dry leaves are burning everywhere. I am sleeping most of the time, trying not to think about my upset stomach. There are quite a few roadside checks, but we can easily pass every one of them.
Tashkent is the undisputed center of Uzbekistan with its population of 2,5 million people. We pass huge rundown prefab panel housing settlements. Our first impression: What an ugly city! But the closer we get to the centre of the city, the prettier it gets. Our second impression: We are looking forward to our day off tomorrow in this beautiful city...
Tuesday, October 16 - Well-rested we begin a new day of shooting. In the morning, we visit the historical centre of Tashkent with its Koran schools and its great Mosque. Sadly, they are not as impressive as the madrasas in Bukhara and Samarkand. Spontaneously we decide to explore the surrounding streets and alleys. As soon as we carefully peek through the first entrance into a walled courtyard, we are invited in to have some tea. These walled courtyards with their rich vegetation often shelter sheep and goats and are the domestic focus of family life.
Thursday, October 18 - An early departure from the hotel. We use up the last fuel in our reserve canisters and hope that it will be enough to reach Kyrgyzstan. But first we will stop in Margilan near the city of Fergana to visit the silk production company Yodgorlik. Here, silk is produced, dyed and processed in the traditional way. The cocoons of the silk worms are cooked to remove the gummy material, than the silk threads are pulled out, up to 800 metres long from one single cocoon. Inoyat Akhunova sits in front of the large cooking pot in an almost meditative manner.
Only natural substances are used to dye the raw silk. The tanks contain mixtures of pomegranate, scale insects, nutshells, onions and many other substances. Most of the silk is dyed before being processed, so the thus created pattern will remain when it is woven. It is magnificent seeing the women at their hand weaving looms, and with what incredible speed they pull the boat shuttles between the single threads. We can see that they are all enjoying working here.
Saturday October 20 - Crossing the border to Kyrgyzstan at checkpoint "Dustlik" in Andijan. The customs officers of Uzbekistan are very strict compared to those of Kyrgyzstan, who are much more relaxed. Right behind the border is the city of Osh. The border, a remnant out of Soviet times, still cuts off the town rigorously from its surroundings. Kyrgyz-Uzbek family gatherings mean spending a long time waiting at the border.
Osh seems poorer than the other Uzbek cities we have been to. Today is Saturday, which means it is market day. And that means hardly getting through the streets of the various bazaars.
Our hotel is a solid Soviet middle class hotel. Everything here is still in its original state. A true paradise for Eastern Europe nostalgics (including horrific effects). Translated, the name is supposed to mean "Rays of Osh". We visit a street café with an endlessly long menu, but with only two dishes: soup and pastry. We should already be getting used to this. Our work, however, the filming, is going a lot easier. An NGO gave us the tip to find a mediator who is somewhat like the village elder or justice of the peace. We are curious as we meet Ashurbek with his big, multi-national family. Here, we experience and shoot our first evening in Kyrgyzstan, turning out to be real joyous.
In the evening, Peking duck is served for all. Every part of the duck is eaten, a high specialty being the detached fins with a kind of horseradish sauce. For pure health reasons alone we all drink the 56 % millet schnapps, since the Peking duck is quite rich. Everyone takes turns with the toasts. It is the last evening for our author Christian Klemke. For days he has been suffering from tooth ache and will thus head home ten days earlier.
Sunday, October 21 - After a hearty Russian breakfast we revisit our judge of the peace. The riots in this area happened not long ago, and the new beginning is visible everywhere. He tells us of cases in which he must mediate: One young woman was banished from her husband and his family because she cut off her hair without his permission. It is sheer impossible for us to understand. Old traditions and a strict patriarchal system regulate daily life here. Nice overview from the Sulayman Mountain: A bit hazy, so in the distance we can only imagine the high mountains we will visit the following days.
A bit hazy, so in the distance we can only imagine the high mountains we will visit the following days.
Tuesday, October 23 - The evening and the night were extremely cold. We spent the night on a cold floor in a small, poorly heated house in the small village of Sary-Tash, the last Kyrgyz village before the Chinese border. The high altitude is getting to us, as well. Every step is strenuous, and one must breathe very consciously. If you forget to take one breath, you will feel it. It is our first real high-altitude test, which we all hope to pass without any complications.
Passing the Chinese border is easier than we had expected. The Kyrgyz toll officer asks if we had a pleasant stay in Kyrgyzstan. We easily pass for a thumbs-up answer. Two kilometres up the road we have a big reception consisting of Dr. Jürgen Hafemann, our China-Specialist, Xu Shusheng, the official of the Ministry for Cultures, along with his translator and driver. We pass hundreds of waiting trucks at the border, and only 15 minutes later we enter the country.
As good as the condition of the Chinese built road was in Kyrgyzstan right up to the border, they now are the complete opposite. Over 200 kilometres of downhill, dusty, bumpy, sandy tracks. Thank God we had modified our VW buses. They cruise over potholes, as if they had never done anything else.
Wednesday, October 24 - Kashgar. Suddenly a big city again after so much nature. We are in a very comfortable hotel, “recommended” for journalists, and all of our technical gear was carried to our rooms for us. The size of our bags completely amazes the liftboys. After weeks of pastry and lamb soup we are really looking forward to the culinary variety in China. From the spicy fish soup to the classical sweet and sour pork. I already love the Peoples’ Republic.
Foreigners usually are not allowed to drive around with their own car. But our new team member for this stage, Dr. Jürgen Hafemann, attained a special permission. Our vans, “Maggi” and “Vasco”, get Chinese licence plates, and the drivers Chinese driver’s licences. Even a health check is mandatory, and a traffic police officer drives around with our companions. The mountain festival is tomorrow. With 10,000 kilometres having been accomplished, and having covered half the distance until Bangkok where we spend our Christmas holiday, that seems like a good reason to celebrate. We enjoy a true Chinese massage with sauna, body peeling and two hours of stretching, pressing and kneading. We are practically floating back to the hotel.
Thursday, October 25 - Party to celebrate the halfway stage and a day off in Kashgar. Sleeping long, hanging out and strolling through the town. The Muslim festival of sacrifice is tomorrow, and the bazaars are packed with people. A bit like the last days before Christmas. Sheep are sold everywhere. In almost every family, one will be slain tomorrow.
Friday, October 26 - The buildings of the old town of Kashgar are about 600 years old and the people almost live like in olden times. On almost every rooftop you still find animal stalls. We are visiting an Uighur potter. Today he is celebrating the sacrifice festival, the most important Muslim festival, with his family. Everything is prepared for the ritual of slaying the mutton. What seems gruesome and alien to us is everyday life here. It is slain on the terrace, and the children watch curiously.
Kashgar is a city of contradictions. We meet up with MC Mao Mao in the evening. He is DJ, cheerleader for heating up the crowd, and bouncer for one of the most in-clubs of the city. The young people enjoy listening insanely loud dance-floor and techno music. Everybody is dancing and drinking beer - a great atmosphere, and Mao Mao is right in the middle of it. He keeps heating up the crowd. It is a shame that we can't stay longer; we are really enjoying ourselves...
Tuesday, October 30 - We meet up with our jade distributor in Hotan. His story is almost a “from rags to riches” fairytale. He started as a simple jade hunter 20 years ago, then became a jade carver, and opened his own jade trading business in the end. His business is supposed to be the best in town. First, we visit his workshop in the backyard. The stone polishers work in small cellars in the prefab panel housing settlement. Apart from the usual Buddha motives, they carve trashy landscapes and animal motives into the jade. It is hard to imagine that a fortune worth millions is stored here.
While we are drinking tea with the master craftman, a Chinese couple buys stones en passant for 380,000 Euros. China is a very wealthy country, and jade is supposed to be a secure investment. The most precious jade costs up to 6,000 Euros per Gramm, thus many times more than gold. The Chinese character for jade is a combination of house and security. So with jade in the house, all is well.