Ngaire Phillips

I'm an environmental scientist with a passion for exploring.
Living in: Hamilton, New Zealand
  • Day25

    Suusumyr Valley

    June 9 in Kyrgyzstan ⋅ 🌫 15 °C

    We had prepared ourselves for another long day in the bus, as we progressed towards the Uzbekistan border crossing just put of Osh. While Kyrgyzstan is not a big country (around 200,000 sq km compared with 268,000 sq km for New Zealand), the combination of mostly poor roads, wandering livestock and inclement weather means that travel can be quite slow. But there is much to observe and photo and toilet stops offer diversion. Travel by cycle or motorbike definitely has definite appeal as an alternative.

    Shortly after our departure from Kyzyl Oi we came upon an unusual yurt which turned out to be a memorial to a previous village leader, who'd been killed during the Stalin era (as did 100s of 1000s more). Apparently this fellow was around 7 foot tall, became the village leader at 20 and was very strong. One story goes that when his horse became lame, he threw the animal across his shoulders and carried it home! The yurt was built in his memory. Although our guide Nastacia is only 23, the devastation to her country from the Stalin era is clearly still raw. The loss of life was even greater from World War 2.

    One of the major exports from Kyrgyzstan is water - either in its raw form or as electricity from a number of large hydroelectric reservoirs. The breakup of the Soviet Union and resultant independence of the "stans" meant Kyrgyzstan now sells water to Uzbekistan, even though they share the same river!

    Suusamyr Valley lies at 2,000-2,500 meters above the sea level and is part of the Tian-Shan mountains that we'd been following since Western China. The highest point in this range is found in Kyrgyzstan (Jengish Chokusu, 7439m, near the Chines border), though our highest point today would be just under 3200m. The Suusamyr River flows through the area, with numerous tributaries formed largely from snow melt. It appeared that a large wetland area formed a central part of the valley, though the word wetland proved a bit of a challenge to our guide (her English vocabulary was excellent). The valley is predominantly used as alpine summer pastures, with colourful herbs and wild flowers carpeting the valley floor. Once again we were treated to the sight of yurts, caravans and livestock grazing in the lush pastures. An assortment of roadside stalls lined the road, all selling the dried cheese balls that we'd learned to avoid (they were definitely an acquired taste!).

    Kyrgyz people are, for the most part, very friendly and our stop to purchase dried cheese balls turned into a photo session with the family. We were even invited into their yurt.

    As we neared our destination for the evening, we came across yet another statue of Manas, the beloved leader and focus of the Kyrgyz epic. After some wonderful guest house and home stay experiences, it felt a bit flat to be spending a night in a rather ordinary hotel. A walk along the shoreline revealed not only interested rocks, but sadly, a diversity of plastic items. In fact, we could see plastic bottles tied together to form markers for fish farms. Innovative use of plastic but not a great long term solution.
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  • Day24

    Kyzyl Oi

    June 8 in Kyrgyzstan ⋅ 🌫 14 °C

    I was reluctant to leave the beautiful Son Kol and indeed the snow had complicated our departure a little. But leave we must. Vitaly, our fabulous driver, negotiated the challenging conditions with great skill and professionalism. A brief stop at the top for snow games and, before we knew it, we were back in Kochkor and setting a path for our next destination- Kyzyl Oi.

    We'd been fortunate during our time in Kyrgyzstan to stay in guest houses and home stays that are part of the Community Based Tourism (CBT) network. Introduced in 2003 with Swiss assistance, it provides more remote communities with the opportunity to improve living conditions through the development of small-scale ecotourism opportunities. This means we get to stay in local houses, eat local food and get the opportunity to experience first hand some of the amazing skills of the local people.

    With a population of just 800, Kyzyl Oi's main attraction is its setting. Squeezed between mountains and with the powerful Kekemeren River running beside it, this is definitely a place for contemplation and reflection (it would make for great whitewater rafting and kayaking too!). It was my favorite town of the entire Kyrgyzstan tour.

    Our guest house had only opened the night before, and our generous hosts provided a demonstration of the art of making boorsok, the tiny fried bread pillows we'd been enjoying since our arrival in Kyrgyzstan. Fresh is definitely best and these simple yet delicious offerings, with lashings of butter and/or jam, filled the gap till dinner.

    A local kamachi maker had offered us the opportunity to see them being made first hand. We'd seen these short hand whips being used during the horse games. As with the shyrdac demonstration, the time and skill involved in producing an individual piece was not reflected in the asking price. From purchasing and preparing the wild goat skin, to trimming and detailing the final work, each step requires knowledge and skill.

    An early rise gave me the opportunity to spend only the second hour without Richard in more than 3 weeks away! A great opportunity to take in the scenery and the locals.
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  • Day23


    June 7 in Kyrgyzstan ⋅ ⛅ 8 °C

    The rain from the previous evening had dissolved into a sunny morning and with that, our trek to the beautiful Sun-Kol lake was confirmed. At 3013m altitude, the potential risks from snow and ice on the long windy road are real. One of the largest lakes in Kyrgyzstan, this remote location is also the go-to place for herders bringing their flocks to graze on the lush pastures between June and August.

    After stocking up on fresh lepyoshka (a wonderful tandori-baked bread), we set out on our long journey into the mountains. As we began our ascent, the snow line edged closer and before we knew it, we were right amongst it. So glad we'd packed those winter woolies! It was also hard to believe we'd been in 35 degrees only a week before!

    As we began our descent to the lake the valley opened out, with yurts scattered across the grassy steppe. Horses, sheep, goats and donkeys grazed and frolicked happily in the cool sunshine.

    Finally arriving at our yurt camp we spent time settling in to our accommodation, before a slightly wet lunch in a somewhat leaky yurt. As expected, the unpredictability of mountain weather meant we were treated to stunning clear skies and sunshine, interspersed with dark clouds and thunderstorms.

    The yurts proved to be highly civilised - we even had proper beds and enough bedding for us to snuggle under as the temperature dipped to zero (or lower).

    An invigorating walk to the site of several petroglyphs (rock drawings) also provided sweeping views of the lake and surrounding mountains. Snow melt no doubt generates significant flow along gravelly streams but the site of an aluminum boat part way up a dry stream bed still seemed a bit odd!

    It's hard to imagine how this experience could have been more perfect, but next morning's snow really was the icing on the cake (literally). It didn't deter Richard from his morning shave however! This was definitely a highlight of our Kyrgyzstan visit.
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  • Day22

    Horsing around

    June 6 in Kyrgyzstan ⋅ ⛅ 19 °C

    Getting anywhere in Kyrgyzstan takes time. While the main "highway" is in reasonably good condition, many of the roads are pot-holed, narrow, unsealed, frequented by slow drivers or large trucks, slippery from rain or snow - or all of the above.

    We farewelled the hotel moggie and canine and headed out with the intention of firstly visiting the 11th century Burana tower. However a change of plan to meet our schedule saw us arrive at a roadside field decked out with viewing platform. We were soon treated to a demonstration of 4 horse-based games that are part of a suite of sports played at the Nomad Games, a biennial event that attracts sports folk from around the world.

    The highly skilled horsemen introduced us to:
    1) tiyin-enish - where the rider tries to pick up tiny bags of coins from the ground while riding at full gallop;
    2) odarysh - where 2 riders on horses try to wrestle each other off their horses;
    3) koko buru (or buzkashi) - a game with 2 teams of 5 or 6 in which a headless dead male goat is snatched from the ground, with the rider then racing to a circular pit, hurling the goat in to score a goal, all the while trying to fend off opposition defenders who surround the riders horse;
    4) horse races - at full gallop.

    The skills of the horsemen were most impressive and even the goat-polo was enthralling (once you got over the squeamishness of the dead goat tossing). Apparently after the game the goat is cooked and is considered the best of meals!

    The horses are certainly put through their paces and were probably appreciative of the sedate pace they kept as we enjoyed a short ride. The horsemen were buzzing and any exchange of words was unnecessary to see the enjoyment they got from these activities.

    Burana Tower was of some interest, the stone totems even more so, but the rain dampened our enthusiasm for anything but lunch. By now we'd got used to the guest house meals - tables piled high with bread, jam and sweets. Salad, soup and a meat and vege dish - more than a usual Kyrgyz lunch or dinner and a bit too much for us also. But tasty and made with aroha.

    The remainder of the day was spent travelling to our overnight destination of Kochkor, with the odd photo stop along the way. Another guest house, another meal.

    Despite the late hour we agreed to a demonstration at the Women's Felt Co-op of the art of making shyrdak - the felted wool mats that are a trademark of Kyrgyz handicraft. Used in particular in the insulating of yurts, the process is time-consuming and the outputs beautiful. We couldn't resist.
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  • Day21


    June 5 in Kyrgyzstan ⋅ 🌫 23 °C

    Bishkek is the capital of Kyrgyzstan. With a population of more than 1 million, it felt much smaller. This may have been due to our visit coinciding with Ramadan. The tree-lined streets, beautiful gardens, grand buildings and absence of high rises added to its overall charm. Bishkek's history is quite recent and indeed it only took on its current name after independence in 1991.

    We started the day with an exploration of the city, focusing on the 4 main squares. Each has it's own story and our guide provided an excellent commentary as we progressed our tour. First stop was Manas Square. Kyrgyz love their stories and perhaps the most famous of all is the Epic of Manas, a traditional poem of more than 500,000 lines, transmitted orally for hundreds of years. The text is key to Kyrgyz national identity, as it describes the unification of 7 tribes into a single people. There are quite a few versions and there is also no clear evidence this Manas fellow was real, but it makes for good story telling.

    As Nastacia was recounting this story, a uniformed man and 2 others in plain clothes approached us. Turns out they were tourist police- not to check up on us but to help us! Very friendly fellows and quite taken by our 2 younger females. Stories of bride-kidnapping came to mind!

    The remainder of the tour covered the Ala-Too square, with its change of guard; the Old Sqaure, with its beautiful stone sculptures and the Victory Square- the most modern. A yurt-inspired monument dominates the square, a female figure represents home and an eternal flame burns. The story of their efforts in World War 2 were told through this striking collection of works.

    Lunch at a local restaurant provided some respite from the heat, especially the spiced cherry lemonade- so good I ordered a second.

    A brief visit to the recently opened mosque (largest in Central Asia) provided another special experience. Beautifully decorated inside and out, the complex of white minarets and domes created a stunning picture.

    An equally brief visit to the local markets after a failed attempt at visiting the Fine arts museum and it was time for a rest before dinner. The rain that had threatened earlier bucketed down as we headed back to our hotel after dinner. A warning of says to come.
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  • Day20

    On the road to Bishkek

    June 4 in Kyrgyzstan ⋅ 🌫 15 °C

    Waking up to a cool morning, with the birds chirping and the river roaring, was pure bliss. After a tasty breakfast (and rather unusual music) we began the second day of travel that would lead us to Bishkek and the start of the Kyrgyzstan leg of our Silk Road trip.

    As we descended from the mountains, the valleys widened and the grasslands gradually replaced the steeper terrain, though the mountains continued their watch from afar. Yurts, caravans and food stalls dotted the landscape. Priority was clearly with horsemen and their stock, slowing passage and entertaining wide-eyed tourists. Tiny colourful mosques heralded the presence of a village or at least a gathering of sufficient numbers to justify the cost. Highly decorated Muslim cemeteries contrasted with the stark unnamed tombs we'd seen in Kashgar.

    "Would you like to stop for coffee?" Nastacia asked, much to our delight. A nearby petrol station offered half decent coffee and a shelf of vodka (if we were so inclined).

    Lunch was an interesting affair. We'd stopped at a hotel/restaurant/theme park, complete with a lake, old cars, sculptures made from car parts and tyres and sneaky white swans. The menu included horse meat, usually a speciality dish but clearly this place was targeted at the tourists.

    Finally arriving in Bishkek around 5 we were pleased to escape the confines of the bus. Meeting our group of 12 an hour later, the difference with our China tour group was evident, though not clearly definable. We were excited to take our next steps along the Silk Road.
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  • Day19

    Escape to Kyrgyzstan

    June 3 in Kyrgyzstan ⋅ 🌫 3 °C

    After saying our goodbyes, Richard and I, and Wendy and Les from Perth, boarded our oversized bus for the long trip across the border, accompanied by our escort Kazim. Kashgar soon disappeared and before long we'd arrived at the first of 6 (yes 6!) security checks we'd need to negotiate before the border. Generally these were straightforward, although invariably there was some waiting until whichever officials decided to open the door/gate and/or issue appropriate paperwork and/or check our passports/scan our bags. It was most definitely a lesson in patience.

    Immigration proved most interesting. There were no other "customers " when we arrived but progress was slow as it seemed like they'd just opened. In addition to bags being scanned, our phones, cameras and iPads were scrutinized for dodgy photos, our guide books were skimmed and Richard's phone activity was accessed via an app they downloaded. We'd heard stories from other tourists of books being confiscated because they didn't show Taiwan as being part of China, so we were sort of prepared, but it was still a relief to finally reach passport control.

    Finally getting our passports stamped and stepping into "no man's land", we were subsequently ordered back to immigration about 30 minutes later, as one of our passports hadn't scanned properly. So much for fancy technology !

    Other than acting as delivery bus for a load of goods (and a border guard) bound for a security checkpoint, it was smooth sailing to the border gate. Travelling through the stunning Torugart Pass to reach our exit point, the winter woolies we'd packed once again proved their worth. Unfortunately our delayed arrived meant the guard that had the key to the gate was on lunch!

    It was oddly liberating to finally walk through the gate and meet our guide Nastacia and driver Vitali. A couple more security checks with some very friendly Russian-speaking guards and we were on our way (after another recall for more paperwork).

    The scenery was stunning - towering snow-capped mountains, bubbling streams and even a herd of yaks. It was breathtaking and reminded us of our own beautiful country (except for the yaks of course). First stop was Tash Rabat, a 15th century stone caravanserai hidden in a side valley off the main road at an elevation of 3200m. Restored in the 1980s, the stone interior includes a mix of larger rooms and numerous smaller rooms. which presumably served as accommodation. Apparently there is still some debate about what the function of Tash Rabat.

    Athough we'd had lunch on the bus trip, we welcomed a second late lunch in a nearby yurt (out of the cold). It was a delight to have a sandwich after weeks of noodles, rice and chilli! And not a plastic bag in sight, with lunchboxes proving just as effective. Before long we were back on the road, heading towards Naryn, our destination for the night. The sunshine and rain played with colours and shapes, providing us with a spectacular introduction to this beautiful country.

    Naryn proved to be a delightful town of friendly locals set amongst majestic mountains, with a mighty river running though it and a statue of a deer standing guard. It was a relief to be away from the constant noise, as well as the dust and the smells of the big city.
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  • Day19

    Farewell my Concubine

    June 3 in China ⋅ ☁️ 3 °C

    As we left China behind us we made a list of the things that we thought had flavoured our experience of China, grouped into the serious stuff and the not-so-serious stuff. Overall, an amazing place on so many levels.

    The serious stuff
    1. It's a big country with big plans to accommodate its burgeoning population. We saw numerous large scale roading and infrastructure developments everywhere (and anywhere). Watch out America!
    2. Well managed tourist attractions, although perhaps a bit too managed!
    3. Constant noise - even in the middle of nowhere.
    4. Friendly and obliging people (for the most part).
    5. Police in riot gear and metal detectors in shops as a normal part of life (at least in the west).
    6. "Food is heaven" and the "starvation mentality"(eat as much as you can, while you can).
    7. Well-used public exercise facilities and a yet a constant stream of cigarette smoke as you wander down the street.
    8. Beautiful and well-thought out parks and gardens.
    9. Plastic - it's everywhere and there is certainly no obvious interest in reducing it.
    10. Poor planning and the encroachment of urban areas on farm land (displacement of people).

    The fun stuff
    1. Instant toileting solutions for babies and toddlers- pants slit front and back (saves on nappies)
    2. Bring on the bling. They don't do things by halves.
    3. Dodgy plumbing, hard beds.
    4. Humungous floral artworks.
    5. Crocheted, woven and lacy motorbike covers.
    6. Face mask labels.
    7. Piled high auto-rickshaws.

    And the consistently funniest....Eglish translations of Chinese instructions.
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  • Day17

    Islamic influences

    June 1 in China ⋅ ☀️ 29 °C

    A large statue of Chairman Mao dominates Kashgar's physical city centre. However, it would seem that the Ida Kah Mosque provides it's spiritual centre. One of the largest mosques in China, it was probably built in 1738 but apparently stands on the site of a smaller, 15th century mosque. With a definite Central Asian, rather than Chinese, architectural style, the mosque was badly damaged during the Cultural Revolution. Our visit was a reminder to me of the tragedy in Christchurch. The denigration of such a tranquil and contemplative place belies belief.

    According to our guide book, Islam arrived in China around the 9th century, about 200 years after Arab sailors landed in southern China. There are now more than 13 million Muslims in China, concentrated in the Xinjiang province in north western China (including Uighur, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Tatars and Uzbeks), as well as Chinese speaking Hui, who are scattered around the country. Islam became dominant in the Xinjiang region by the 15th century and Kashgar became an important Islamic centre.

    It was here that we also learnt from our guide that the entrance price for tourist attractions in China generally reflects the age of said attraction (price increases with age)!

    The Aba Khoja Mausoleum is another must-see on the Kashgar tourist trail. Considered one of the best examples of Islamic architecture in China, the mausoleum is the burial place of the family of Aba Khoja, a celebrated Islamic missionary. Built in the 17th century it retains much of its original tiling. Exquisite colours - blue, green, orange - adorn the exterior. Inside, blue-glazed tiles decorate the cradle-shaped tombs of family members. Tiny tombs tell sad stories of young ones lost.

    The mausoleum is also known as Xiangfei's Tomb. Xiangfei (or Ikparhan as she was known) was a descendant of Aba Khoja and had been forced to become the concubine of the Chinese Emperor. Depending on which story you believe, she refused to submit to the dastardly fellow and was either murdered or committed suicide. Or she may have lived to old age. Regardless, the story goes that after she died she continued to smell as sweetly fragrant as she did when alive, and so became known as the Fragrant Concubine. Two coffins were used to transport her from Bejing to her home in Kashgar, with one being constantly filled with fresh roses to maintain her perfumed state. Apparently it took 3 years for the journey. I feel sorry for the poor fellows charged with refreshing the roses around her rotting body!

    A nearby Friday (or Juma) mosque offered more insight into the Muslim world. Individually carved pillars detailed beautiful floral emblems and are considered amongst the finest examples of Uighur wood culture.

    Kashgar is a city of old and new and we spent time exploring the older parts of town that had undergone restoration to enhance their old world charm. A short distance from the main street and you entered a world of children playing in shared courtyards, old men and women sharing stories perched on tiny chairs, colorful doorways and ornate detailing. A wonderful contrast to the constant noise, the dusty air and the human shuffle.
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  • Day17

    Kashgar markets

    June 1 in China ⋅ ☀️ 29 °C

    As the meeting point of the northern and southern Silk Roads and the gateway to the west, Kashgar was once a place of great significance. Established as a Chinese garrison in AD 78, the city didn't become part of the Chinese empire until the 18th century. Entering this city felt very much like entering a new country and our poor Chinese group leader William struggled at times to communicate with the locals!

    Our prime reason for visiting Kashgar was to visit the bazaar and the now separately located livestock market.

    Packed with Uighur men (and the occasional woman), the livestock market buzzes with the sounds of humans and animals alike. Fat-tailed sheep, super cute goats, donkeys, horses and cattle compete for the attention of would-be buyers. You didn't need to understand the language to see when the relative merits of an animal (or herd) were being discussed or when deals were being made. A handshake, a quick smile - all done! Animals are transported on anything from serious cattle trucks to motor scooters and even the odd donkey cart. And of course as largely a food animal market, there are plenty of opportunities to sample the potential goods!

    In contrast, the bazaar is the place to buy just about anything else. From stockings to large pots to medicinal herbs to brocade curtains, this is where the locals shop. Mind you, other than watermelon to quench our thirst in the sweltering heat, we resisted the temptation to add to our souvenir collection, preferring instead to pace our purchasing across the 3 additional countries on our schedule.
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