Hello and welcome.
As you know, Nicola and I have resigned from our jobs and are about to grow our hair long and go travelling on a bus for 13 weeks through a number of ‘off the beaten track’ countries from Beijing to Istanbul (following one strand of the Silk Route).
We have chosen to record some of our experiences in this blog, and hope to provide an entertaining little summary of our saga, using photos, social observations, and the odd video to detail the impressive historical architecture, the fantastic fauna (living in our beards), the many surprises of plov, and the thousands of colourful yet rustic trucker toilets that dot the countryside, like acne on a teenage chess player’s chin, all along our route.
Nicola and I signed on to do the 2016 Madventure Beijing to Istanbul Silk Road overland trip about a year ago. Now, with the 24th of March departure date now finally looming, (the very same date that the Turco-Mongol emperor Timur sacked Damascus – you knew that already, of course), we release this visual diary of our adventure out into the world, and we hope you enjoy it.
For your information, we will not be able to access the site (or Facebook and Gmail for that matter) whilst in China (click here to see just how many web sites are forbidden in the Land of the Dragon), so after Thursday the 24th of March, we’ll be compiling stories and saving them for when we cross into Kazakhstan, the world’s ninth largest country, and home to Borat, Vladimir Klitschko, fermented mare’s milk, and the petroglyphs of Tamgal.
In the meantime, here’s the planned itinerary for the trip, as featured on the Madventure web site. Wish us luck – hope to see you either in England or Aussie when we return.
DAY 1 – 22, CHINA
Our Madventure overland expedition begins in Beijing where our first couple of days is spent visiting Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and of course the iconic Great Wall. We continue to the well-preserved ancient walled city of Pingyao where we spend a day exploring the atmospheric cobbled streets of this typically Chinese town. In Xian you have the opportunity to visit the famous Terracotta Warriors and see the archaeologists at work uncovering new finds.
In Tianshui we visit the Maiji caves where thousands of statues and frescoes remain within the grotto. At Bingling Si we discover a series of Buddhist sculptures carved into caves within a canyon along the Yellow River where a precarious wooden walkway allows you to get close to some of the hidden cliff-face caves and the giant Maitreya Buddah. In Tongren we get a taste of Tibetan culture before we continue along the Silk Road visiting natural sites such as the Kanbula National Park and Qinghai Lake, beautiful mountain and grassland scenery.
We continue into the Gobi Desert and visit the western end of the Great Wall in Jiayuguan. In Dunhuang you have the chance to visit the Buddhist caves of Mogao where a few hours can be enjoyed marveling at hundreds of giant statues of Buddha, vibrant murals and multi-tiered temples. Turpan was an important stop on the Silk Road and the ancient mud-brick garrison city of Jiaohe is an impressive remnant of this. Here we can also visit a traditional Uighur village for an insight into the traditional way of life here in Xinjiang Province.
Our last stop in China is at the Silk Road trading town of Kashgar where you have the opportunity to explore the bustling markets and get a last taste of China before heading for Kyrgyzstan.
DAY 23 – 31, KAZAKHSTAN & KYRGYZSTAN
These are lands of magnificent mountains and ice-blue lakes and our first stop is in a beautiful valley at an interesting old Caravanserai where Silk Road traders would overnight on their travels.
Next, bizarre Bishkek is the capital where you can sing Karaoke at a street stall, beat yourself with a birch branch at the local baths and do vodka shots at the expats bar.
We now head for the beautiful lake Issyk-Kol, the world’s second largest alpine lake. Working our way around the lake we spend a couple of days at Jeti Orghuz where you have the option of trekking into the lush surrounding mountains to explore the area’s natural beauty. A winding dirt track takes us up to the alpine lake Song-Kol where we camp on the green pastures surrounding the lake. Yurt-stays are also possible here and horse riding, hiking and fishing are popular activities.
We now travel through some of the country’s best scenery and visit the ancient town of Osh where we get to visit the bustling Jayma bazaar and Solomon’s Throne, an important place of Muslim pilgrimage.
DAY 32 – 40, TAJIKISTAN
Our Madventure Overland Silk Road journey now takes us to an area that has been off-limits to travellers until recently – the Pamir Highway. Regarded as one of the world’s most scenic drives we now wind our way along this extremely remote high-altitude road and take in the mountain scenery of a region populated by yurts and yaks and studded with deep-blue lakes. This is wild-camping at its best!
The town of Khorog symbolises the end of the Pamir Highway and is a good place to rest for a night and soak up some of the local atmosphere.
Hugging the Afghanistan border we continue to the capital, Dushanbe. With a cool backdrop of mountains, lazy tree-lined avenues and pastel-hued neoclassical buildings this is Central Asia’s best-looking capital.
Our Madventure journey towards Uzbekistan takes us through fantastic mountain scenery and the 2 long distance tunnels we travel through will make you feel like you are travelling to the centre of the earth!
DAY 41 – 47, UZBEKISTAN
The Silk Route city of Samarkand is a great introduction into this historical land. This city of domes and minarets has some fantastic attractions including the beautiful Registan, Guri Amir Mausoleum and Bibi-Khanym Mosque. Bukhara is Central Asia’s holiest city where it is possible to get a glimpse into the past by viewing the architectural preserve of the royal fortress and vast market complex.
Our Madventure overland journey now takes us through the Kyzylkum (red sand) desert where we have a chance of spotting the Uzbek nomads before arriving in the perfectly preserved world heritage town of Khiva where we have time to explore ancient mosques, mausoleums, palaces, minarets and bazaars that make this town a highlight.
DAY 48 – 51, TURKMENISTAN
Once the centre of the Islamic world, the ruins of Konye-Urgench are an impressive reminder of the importance of this desolate outpost. Heading south into the blistering heat of the Karakum (black sand) desert we camp in the dunes and have the opportunity to take a 2 hour walk to the unusual Darvaza Gas Craters. More commonly referred to as the ‘Gates of Hell’ this burning crater makes for a surreal desert experience and is best viewed at night.
The capital city Ashgabat is our last stop where it seems the current president is using the country’s wealth to build an entire city out of white marble – you have to see it to believe it! Bring your sunglasses as exploring the city’s parks and palaces is a brilliant experience.
Close by and worth a visit is Geok-Depe, site of the Turkmen’s last stand against the Russians, and today home to the futuristic Saparmurat Hajji Mosque which also contains the mausoleum of the eccentric ex-president Niyazov.
DAY 52 – 63, IRAN
It is unlikely we will encounter a friendlier, more welcoming country on our journey but should you wish to bypass Iran or you can’t get a visa you can leave the group in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan and travel independently to meet us in Baku, Azerbaijan 12 days later.
Our first 2 days are spent camping in the desert before reaching the charming town of Yazd with its unique wind-towers and fabulous cake shops. The Zagros mountains provide a stunning backdrop on our trip to the intriguing ruins of Persepolis. Once the summer capital of the Persian Empire, this is the site where Alexander the Great famously conquered the Persian armies stronghold.
In Esfahan, Iran’s masterpiece, the impressive city square is full of intricately decorated mosaic Mosques, leisurely tea-shops and lavish carpet emporiums. Plenty of bargains can be found in the myriad of bazaars that lead off from the square and the city’s gorgeous bridges deserve all the time you can spare. We continue to the capital, Tehran, and have a day to explore the more modern side of the country with some great museums, parks and restaurants.
Further north we reach the Caspian Sea and climb into verdant green mountains to spend a couple of days in the quaint town of Masuleh from where it is possible to explore the area’s natural beauty on foot.
DAY 64 – 66, AZERBAIJAN
Close to the shore of the Caspian Sea we camp at the bizarre mud volcanoes which bubble and spurt away on a hilltop. Nearby we can also visit ancient petroglyphs depicting what life was like here hundreds of years ago. The cosmopolitan city of Baku is our next stop where we can enjoy a day exploring the city’s old town filled with mosques, museums, galleries and palaces.
Our last stop is at Sheki, a lovely town nestled into a beautifully forested valley. Famed for their silk production the town was an important stop on the ancient Silk Route and is also home to the beautiful Khan Palace and a wonderful old caravanserai which we call home for the night.
DAY 67 – 78, GEORGIA & ARMENIA
A trip to Georgia would not be complete without a trip up the Military Highway to the beautifully located town of Kazbegi situated within a stunning mountain range close to the Russian border. Hiking is the most popular activity here and the hour long trek up to the spectacular monastery is well worth the effort as too is the overnight trek to the glacier. Georgia’s capital city is Tbilisi and is the beating heart of the country where we have a couple of days to wander the cobbled streets of the old town, visit the numerous historical churches, museums and fortresses and of course indulge in the fine dining options on offer.
We now enter Armenia and wind our way north through lush canyons visiting numerous fabulously located monasteries before reaching the turquoise waters of Lake Sevan where we bush-camp on the lakeshore. We continue to the ancient monastery of Khor Virap with it’s wonderful location beneath Mt. Ararat before arriving in capital city Yerevan where we have a couple of days to explore the museums, churches, markets and restaurants that make Armenia such a delight.
Back in Georgia we visit the fabulous cave monastery site at Vardzia which gives us an insight into how people worshipped here a thousand years ago. We continue to Kutaisi, Georgia’s second city and one of the world’s most ancient, where you can explore the Bagrati Cathedral, the History Museum and the Old Jewish district. That night we bush-camp near to Sataplia Nature Reserve, home to magnificent caves and the world’s largest collection of dinosaur tracks.
Our last stop in Georgia is on the shores of the Black Sea at the almost completely intact Roman fortress of Gonio with its 18 magnificent towers and ancient bath-house.
DAY 79 – 91, TURKEY
Slightly inland from the Black Sea coast we get to visit the awe-inspiring Sumela Monastery and marvel at the Byzantine frescoes in an amazing cliff-face setting. Inland on the plateau we reach the fairy-tale wonderland of Cappadocia with spectacular canyons, ancient caves and underground cities carved into the geologically diverse land. Belly dancing is a big affair up here and so is the local drink ‘Raki’, be warned! Down on the Turquoise coast we find Olympos with it’s eternal flames glowing amidst the pine clad mountainsides that sweep down to its fine beaches. Here we stay in the tree-houses which have made this area so unique.
We continue north and visit the Roman baths of Pammukale before arriving the great Roman ruins of Ephesus. Here we camp on the beach and have a day to explore the ruins as well as enjoy the surf. Historic Troy is an interesting stop on our way to the battlefields of Gallipoli where we pay tribute to the thousands of Aussies, Kiwis, Brits and Turks who lost their lives here in 1915. A truly moving experience.
Istanbul, the city that separates Europe from Asia has it all, and you will revel in the history and culture it offers. Take a boat trip up the Bosphorous, marvel at the Aya Sofya and explore the opulent Topkapi Palace. At the end of the day soak your aches away in the Turkish baths and tantalise your taste buds with Turkish delights!
Much to see, and much to pack for…..
Turkey seems like a long way away at this point, but hey ho, let’s go….. goodbye Sydney, you crazy old town.