Entering the first Caucasus country from the west will take you to the little known Republic of Azerbaijan, a mostly Muslim country with a lingering soviet past. Apart from its appearance as hosts for the 2012 Eurovision finals, the country is most known for its massive oil reserves under the Caspian sea, responsible for some impressive economic growth, and the transformation of the capital city of Baku where modern architecture now blends eloquently with the medieval old town, Icheri Sheher. The abundance of oil under the sea is evidenced on land, with hundreds of unusual baby mud volcanoes which expel mud bubbles of methane gases. These made world news in 2001 when they erupted in flames and burnt for several days. The country plans to make further headlines with an ambitious Dubai like $100B project, the artificial Khazar Islands, an archipelago of 55 islands and the world’s tallest building, Azerbaijan tower – at 1050m.
Still feeling the effects of its Soviet ruled past, don’t be surprised if while touring Kazakhstan, you are treated like a criminal. Constant passport checks by police, requests for bribes to avoid “problems”, and sometimes a need to register your location with police every five days rather than just once, can get you in sticky situations such as where a phone is handed to you with an English speaking Kazak sternly informing you that you require an “attorney and translator”. After a ridiculous amount of paper work, visits to a lawyer and the case decision formalised by a police chief, followed by payment of a fine to a government bank account, all because you did not register your accommodation a second time as you could not read the immigration card written in Kazak, you learn that there is no flexibility with the Law here, and that the safest thing to do is just get out of the country as soon as possible to avoid overstaying your visa – a crime that results in jail or deportation, and an even larger fine. Of course it is difficult to exit the country when the police hold onto your passport for days due to the horribly slow process of a simple administrative fine, while at the same time telling you that you must leave country to avoid overstaying. Do not expect common sense here.
With much time spent waiting for available transport across the country, days spent in the Migration Police offices, further days spent sorting out a visa for the proceeding country to enable escape, and searching for accommodation that is not four times more expensive that the rest of Asia, all the while eating mediocre food, it’s understandable why tourists who visit do not always have glowing reports (and why there are no good photographs to share). It’s not all that bad though, many of the locals can be extremely accommodating, and intriguingly Kazakhstan has some of the most beautiful women of any nation. Unfortunately there are no photos of beautiful women to post, so please accept this image as a summation of Kazakhstan, a Mercedes Benz mustering a herd of Kazakh horses (one of their most popular meats).
If you want to enjoy some of Kazakhstan for yourself, it’s safer, cheaper and easier to just rent a copy of Sacha Baron Cohen’s film “Borat”. It may not even be filmed in Kazakhstan, but it is suitably politically incorrect, and far more entertaining – and yes, bride kidnapping is still a reality here. Alternatively, visit beautifully rugged western Mongolia where many Kazakh people fled to during soviet rule, and as a result maintain a traditional Kazakh life with little soviet influence.
Heading west directly from Mongolia into Kazakhstan is not possible overland due to roughly 50km of a China-Russia border. A Russian transit visa to traverse the north side of this border would be the quickest route across, but heading through the recently opened (to tourists) border crossing into Xinjiang province takes to you an unusual part of China not often considered by most. A place of extremes, Xinjiang province is roughly the size of Alaska, contains the furthest point on earth to any ocean, has the second lowest depression in the world at 144m below sea level and consequently has the hottest temperatures in China. The province is culturally and ethnically characterised by the Uyghur people, a Turkic ethnic group, rather than the usual Han majority group. Instead of chow mein and dumplings, it’s mutton pilaf and kebabs.
As the world’s least densely populated country, Mongolia is a country of vast open spaces, nomads and mutton. At the countries center, along the Trans Mongolian railway lies the coldest capital city in the world, the rather bland Ulan Bator. Venturing out of the city is where you discover Mongolia’s rugged beauty and great hospitality. To the south lies Asia’s largest desert, the Gobi, which is constantly growing further into the north of China. Heading into Western Mongolia gives an immense sense of isolation. Here you find Kazakh nomads who fled Kazakhstan because of the “Russification” since 1920, and set up permanent residence in the Bayan-Ulgii province. To see the best of the country it’s suggested to tour the country using your own vehicle (or a guide), however attempting to master your own way around on public transport can be an experience in itself.
A month long tourist visa is barely enough to see even a fraction of Chinas many highlights. From its incredibly diverse cultures, amazing food, spectacular mountains and cities that sprawl seemingly endlessly in order to contain the world’s largest population as well as the second largest economy in the world, there’s a lot to enjoy. A fairly straight forward route when arriving from Vietnam can take you through the popular tourist region of Guilin, then onto some seriously stunning mountains and national parks, before heading to the modern Shanghai, the most populated city in the world, and then onward to the history and culture rich Beijing. From Beijing there is of course the mandatory trip out to the most iconic symbol of the country, the Great Wall.
To mix up the usual photo posts, here’s a video of some butterflies in Cuc Phuong National Park dancing to the unlikely sound of Drum ‘n Bass. A few minutes into the video you’ll see a slide show of some existing photos, with a few new ones thrown in as a hint of what’s to come. Enjoy.
Click HERE to watch in HD (720p)
While you may experience some lingering post war resentment as a westerner travelling through northern Vietnam, the countries raw beauty and established tourism industry help to put that all aside. Exploring the scenic karst formations by sea in Ha long bay or by land and river in Tam Coc, hiking through the mountains in the north such as the hill tribe regions around Sapa, or just cruising around the country by motorbike are great ways of experiencing the best of the countries landscapes as well as absorbing the various ways of Vietnamese life. Of course no visit to Vietnam is complete without indulging in the cheap bia hoi (draught beer) on street corners in the likable old quarter in the capital, Hanoi.