A Travellerspoint blog

March 2014

Trans-Siberian Journeys: The Buryat of Ulan Ude, Siberia

Visiting the modern descendents of Mongol and Siberian Tribes

sunny -25 °F


After my goodbyes to Ulan Bator, Mongolia I embarked on the Trans Mongolian to hook up with the Trans-Siberian train that would arrive from Vladivostok to Ulan Ude, Siberian Russia. The train ride was an adventure in itself since it was a local train heated by hot water with the conductor shoveling coal into the furnace of each compartment. Most of the travelers were ethnic Mongolian Buryat who were either living in Mongolia or in Russian Mongolia. Since Mongolia was under the Soviet sphere, families were spread between the two lands.
The rickety train was packed with heavy set people and I was in the company of 3 Vodka drinking Buryat women with additional visitors coming into the third class coach to share sausage and Vodka with a very popular lady travellng with me who spoke good English. One of the women was selling soaps and toiletries from South Korea to her other buddies probably from the seized bounty of her customs officer son who came to wish her good bye at the border. The first Buryat tradition I learnt on this trip was to dip ones ring finger in Vodka and spray it in three directions to say cheers and as a thanks. It was Vodka shower all night.

The trains going from China to Mongolia have to change track gauges. The complete retrofit of each coach, wherein the entire coach is lifted hydraulically 10 feet from the ground and the wheels removed and replaced with a new set. This transforms the narrow gauge Chinese Railroad to the broad Gauge Mongolian/Russian Railroads ; an unforgettable experience that merits an entire article on its own.

This exchange happened in the border town of Zamyn-Üüd/Erenhot at temperatures sinking to -20 F. The Mongolian customs and immigration officers collected all our passports and returned them two hours later after the train’s tracks were changed over and the entire train relocated to the Trans-Siberian tracks of Ernhot. On the Russian side customs and immigration were managed efficiently by smartly dressed female officers who used electronic scanners to get the job done instantaneously; this was helpful since we could disembark and wait and stroll about for the Trans-siberian Train to arrive from Vladivostok an hour later. The Russian side looked like the first world after traveling through Mongolia. The Station was clean, there were pay toilets with attendants (since I did not have rubles the Slavic lady kindly winked me in) and small food items sold were being hawked by Babushka clad women from the border town of Naushki; mainly Periogies and homemade sausages. My heavyset Buriyat friends purchased them for me.

I have been interested in native peoples for a long time and was always aware that Stalin had destroyed the Shamanistic cultures of Mongolia. Colin Thubron’s “Siberia” which I was reading on Kindle en route was informative. From Shamans to Stalin’s Gulags to modern research labs of the Soviet Union this book exposed the tumultous history of Siberia. If one sees old pictures of the ancient Sioux and the Dakota Plains Indians, one can see the similarity of cultures that was spread to the North America by the natives of Siberia through the Bering Strait. Ironically the Russians ended the Shamanistic culture around 1930 while we had eliminated it much earlier.


The Buryat people are descended from various Siberian and Mongolic peoples that inhabited the Lake Baikal Region. It is believed that , Jochi, eldest son of Genghis Khan, marched north to subjugate the Buryats in 1207. The territory of current Buryat Republic was part of the Mongolic Xianbei state (93-234), Rouran Khaganate( Turkic –Mongol /330-555), Mongol Empire (Genghis Khan and his descendants/1206-1368) and Northern Yuan (1368-1691) until 1691. Yuan Dynasty was the Chinese Dynasty whose famous emperor Kublai Khan another Mongolian welcomed Marco Polo into his court and saw his grandmother convert to Christianity. My travels through these areas revealed the superiority of medieval Mongolians in the areas of warfare, craftsmanship and statecraft.
The Buryats lived along the Angara River near modern day Irkutsk and its tributaries in the 1500s. When the Tsarist Russians expanded into Transbaikalia (eastern Siberia) in 1609 in search of fur and minerals, the Cossacks( Outcast /bandit horsemen of the Steppes who challenged the rule of Tsars but were subsequently used by the Tsars to explore and brutalize new colonies) found only a small core of tribal groups speaking a Mongol dialect called Buryat and paying tribute to the Mongolian Khalkhas- descendents of Genghis Khan. The ancestors of most modern Buryats were speaking a variety of Turkic-Tungusic dialects at that time. Eventually with the help of Buryat translators the territory and several local peoples like Samoyed, Kan and Kalymk were formally annexed to the Russian state by treaties in 1689 and 1727.


After Buryatia was incorporated into Russia, it was exposed to two traditions – Buddhist and Christian. Buryats west of Lake Baikal and Olkhon (Irkut Buryats), are more "russified", and they soon abandoned nomadism for agriculture, whereas the eastern (Transbaikal) Buryats are closer to the Khalkha(Mongols), may live in yurts and are mostly Buddhists. In 1741, the Tibetan branch of Buddhism was recognized as one of the official religions in Russia, and the first Buryat datsan (Buddhist monastery) was built. This article mainly. deals with the Buddhist Buryats east of Lake Baikal, where Ulan Ude is located.
The arrival of the Trans-Siberian train was received with great joy since our rail coach had been removed from the main track and shunted to a siding. We were attached and we were off to Ulan Ude.

On a cold Siberian evening, I was received by my guide and I was off to another new adventure tried only twice before in Tajikistan; Homestay. I was taken to a soviet style block apartment where I stayed with a fine couple Sergei and Elena. Sergei was a truck mechanic who has lately been driving a tourist taxi between Ulan Ude and Lake Baikal. Elena was a speech therapist in a local school.They had packed off their 8 year old son to Grandmas to house me in their kid’s room which was also the living room of the apartment. Since they receive foriegn guests such as I , the room was clean, warm and adequate despite the Russian looking Mickey Mouse and Donald Ducks that adorned the room. After a hot shower , dinner and small talk I slept soundly after a noisy train ride with 3 women.

The next morning we were off to visit the oldest Buddhist monastery in Buritya built in 1945, The Ivoginski Datsan. Located 30 km outside the city, the tranquility and spirituality found there was a truly Asian experience 3500 miles east of Moscow. The locals were dressed in traditional Buryat costumes and were excited to see an Indian, a symbolic progenitor of Buddhism from India. A group of 16 pilgrims traveling from various parts of Buritya was very excited to see me and to be photographed with me. After seeing the complex I met some of them in the compound, who through my interpreter expressed their desire to invite me for lunch and asking me to give a congratulatory speech on the auspicious occasion of Sagaalgan, their New Year ’s Day. Since I’ve never experienced anything like this I readily agreed. Toasts after toasts with Vodka were followed by their leader respecting me by adorning me with a silken scarf. I spoke about our great countries, our people bounded by similar religion and values even though I was not quite sure where the similarity began. I was like a living representative of Buddha that afternoon. Steamed dumplings were brought to my table while everyone videotaped and photographed me like I had just emerged after 500 years of mediation. It was certainly Nirvana to me!


Setting Buddha aside, I wish to report that Ulan Ude has the largest Lenin’s head in the World. Every year the locals build beautiful ice sculptures and caves in front of the plaza with Lenin staring down rather benevolently these days. That evening I bought some local Vodka and partied with my local hosts.
The next day my program consisted of visiting an Old Believers village. Old Believers are descendants of a group that rejected Russian Orthodox Church reforms enacted in 1654 to reconcile differences between Russian and Greek Orthodox texts. They broke away from the Orthodox Church because it objected to changes in Russian Orthodox traditions, such as ceremonies, icon painting, and book writing. Shortly after the schism, the Old Believers were persecuted; some were imprisoned and others were burned alive. Many Old Believers fled to remote villages in northern Russia or to Siberian wastelands and established tiny settlements.
Since I am focusing on the Burayats, I will try to elaborate about this amazing community in a future article. It was the Burayats who helped the hungry Europeans who fled from all over Poland, Baltic States and European Russia. Siberia was a waste land of no interest at that time. The two communities lived not too far from each other and even to this day the relationship has been synergistic.


The second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century was a time of growth for the Buryat Buddhist church (48 datsans in Buryatia in 1914). Because of their skills in horsemanship and mounted combat, many were enlisted into the Tsar's Amur Cossacks brigade. During the Russian Civil War most of the Buryats sided with the White forces against the Bolshevik Red army of Lenin. After the Revolution, most of the lamas became loyal to the Soviet power. In 1925, a battle against religion and church in Buryatia began during Stalin’s period. Datsans were gradually closed down and the activity of the church was curtailed. Consequently, in the late 1930s the Buddhist church ceased to exist and thousands of cultural treasures were destroyed.
In 1923, the Buryat-Mongol Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was formed and included Baikal province with Russian population. The Buryats rebelled against the communist rule and collectivization of their herds in 1929. The rebellion was quickly crushed by the Red Army with loss of 35,000 Buryats.[ The Buryat refugees fled to Mongolia and resettled there. Fearing Buryat nationalism, Joseph Stalin had more than 10,000 Buryats killed. Moreover, Stalinist purge of Buryats spread into Mongolia, known as the incident of Lhumbee.

Later that afternoon after visiting yet another Buddhist monastery, I visited a nearby spirit shrine built on a hill where Shamans over the millennium had offered their prayers to the elements. It was a powerful moment. En route I climbed onto a snowy bluff to see the panoramic view of the Selenga river valley, a 900 mile river that feeds into Lake Baikal. As a part of my “Homestay” program put together by Monkey Shrine Tour Operators of Beijing ( but run by Aussies and Belgians), I spent a few hours with a farmer and his wife. Sergei and Lyudmila were wonderful hosts who were well in their 70s. She was the local school Librarian and a part time seamstress. He served in the army and drove a milk truck for several years.
She made us tea and some sweet bread with berry jams that her husband had canned in summer. It was a traditional home showing the lifestyle of a traditional Buryat family. They had several grandchildren in town that dropped by and played video games in a very old computer. The reader must understand that visitors like me have added to their comfort level. I played a “board” game with the family and the game tokens were vertebras of goats. The house was very traditional with the 75 year old man chopping wood to feed the furnace on a regular basis.


I concluded the wonderful visit to Ulan Ude by spending a lovely and fortunate evening at sunset on Mount Lysaya which offers a spectacular view of the city. On the ground where Buryat tribes once held their pagan Sabbaths, there now stands the Rimpoche Baghsha Buddhist Center. Here for Sagaalgan, Festival of the white month, harbinger of spring and the Buryat New year a magic ritual of an evening bonfire “Dugzhuba” was held. It is a ritual of purification from bad thoughts and diseases. Believers and their family members after wiping their bodies with pieces of fabric or paper, pieces of dough take them to Dugzhuba and burn in the fire to get rid of past year's disease, problems, sins, and offenses and to gather inspiration to perform good deeds in the coming year.


With great thoughts, happy moments, improved knowledge and new friendships I left this wonderful land to reach the western reaches of Lake Baikal by train later that night. The End
emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)


Posted by Ramdas Iyer 15:04 Archived in Russia Tagged buddhism trans-siberian trans-mongolian siberia ulan mongol ude buryat salgaalgan Comments (4)

Kashgar, Crossroads of the Silk Road, Xinjiang, China

Pictorial essay and record of a historic City slated for destruction..........Ramdas Iyer

sunny 34 °F


The joy of a traveler looking for historic sites is the reward of seeing wonderful monuments and learning interesting stories of a bygone history. With an internal revolt on hand the Chinese Government has kept a tight rein on Kashgar, the spiritual home of the Islamic Turkic-Mongol Uighur people who populate Xinjiang Province of Northwestern China. In 2006 when I made this trip it was clear that the Chinese were intent on destroying the ancient city and slowly moving its population to concrete communist style dwellings. The problems for Kashgar were further excercebated when the Chinese refused to give it a UNESCO World heritage status. They believed that the dismantling of Kashgar would break the spirit of the Uyghur. So I went to see and photograph Kashgar. Here I wish to offer the reader a comprehensive history and visual record of a place condemned to the abyss of Silk Road history.

The Silk Road has always held an allure in my heart. The more I read about its history the more I felt the desire to travel it. You may have read from my previous blogs about sections of my travels through this fabled route in Central Asia and China. Kashgar however is very special. For two millenniums or more, Kashgar was the greatest market city on one of the major trade routes of ancient times. Caravans of a thousand camels each traveled along it, transporting silk, spices, gold and gemstones between Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) and the central Chinese city of Xian, then the capital. Kashgar—where the bone-dry Taklimakan Desert meets the Tian Shan Mountains was a key city along the Silk Road, the 7,000-mile trade route that connected cultures of the China’s Yellow River Valley with India and the Mediterranean. In the ninth century, Uighur forebears, traders traveling from Mongolia in camel caravans, settled in oasis towns around the desert. Originally Buddhists, they began converting to Islam about 300 years later. For the past 1,000 years, Kashgar has thrived, languished—and been ruthlessly suppressed by occupiers. The Italian adventurer Marco Polo reported passing through around 1273, about 70 years after it was seized by Genghis Khan. He called it “the largest and most important” city in “a province of many towns and castles.” Tamerlane the Great, the despot from what is now Uzbekistan, sacked the city in 1390. Three imperial Chinese dynasties conquered and reconquered Kashgar and its environs.Still, its mosques and madrassahs drew scholars from all over Central Asia. Its caravansaries, or inns, provided refuge to traders bearing glass, gold, silver, spices and gems from the West along with silks and porcelain from the East. Its labyrinthine alleys teemed with blacksmiths, cotton-spinners, book-binders and other craftsmen.


In the mid-19th century, Kashgar again became prominent when Britain and Russia struggled for influence over Central Asia in the intrigues and espionage known as the "Great Game”. (A book written in the same name by Peter Hopkirk has been my inspiration for these travels). Peter Hopkirk in a related book “Foreign Devils on the Silk Road” writes at length about the visitors to the Russian consulate in Kashgar which then regularly hosted British adversaries as fellow European diplomats in a both climatically and politically hostile area of Central Asia, then know as the Sinkiang Province of China. At that time the Peking based Qing Dynasty had a very loose grip on this area allowing Britain and Russia to meddle in the affairs of this area.
This once famous Russian consulate now became my home during my three days stay in the area. Today it is a hotel, considered the best, yet somewhere between a two star and three star rated hotel. I was perhaps the only guest at the hotel in December, 2006 when very few travelers reach Xinjiang Province. During my first night there prostitutes drummed on my door almost every 10 minutes seeking patronage. It was scary, given the location of my room in a remote corner of this dark hotel which turns off all lights in the absence of guests and I had no way of communicating with the Chinese speaking desk clerk of my travails, while trapped inside my room. Upon the intervention of my guide the following day everything settled down.

Today, Kashgar -- now officially called Kashi -- has less the texture of Chinese cities like Shanghai than of old Central Asian cities like Samarkand, Uzbekistan, or even of Arab cities like Fez, Morocco. Almost 80 percent of Kashgar's population of 300,000 is non-Chinese, the overwhelming majority constituted by Islamic Turkic Uighar. Its closest borders are with the former Soviet republics of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and it also has close links with nearby Pakistan. But for its entire Arabian Nights atmosphere, Kashgar also contains such 20th-century Chinese Communist emblems as gray socialist concrete buildings and a 55-foot-high statue of Chairman Mao.
Surrounded by the Tian Shan Mountains, the Pamir range and the vast Taklimakan Desert, Kashgar has never been easy to get to. Kashgar was the northerly route for traders headed to Xian from Kabul while skirting the Taklimakan. Other daring merchants took the shorter but dangerous southern route through Hotan to Urumqi further east of Kashgar where the two routes converge to form another fabled city. From Beijing, I flew to Urumqi (6hrs), the capital of Xinjiang, the "autonomous region" and another 1.5 hours to Kashgar.


Expressions like "Silk Road" suggest luxury and comfort, so it's important to remember that the route could just as well have been called the Pothole Road. Kashgar today has few luxuries to offer visitors, for taxis are mostly donkey carts, restaurants are longer on grime than service, and none of the hotels comes close to meeting international standards. Hot water occasionally emerges from the taps, but so do cockroaches, and the interesting pattern on the wallpaper turns out, on closer examination, to be the result of accumulated stains.
Yet what a magical place it is! The city is an oasis, and water gushes through canals that run along the main streets and nourish the trees that provide a pleasant canopy. Even in the broiling summer heat, the lakes and canals keep Kashgar relatively green and cool. Delightful alleys wind between mud-walled houses, little boys fish in tree-lined lakes, and traffic on main boulevards is slowed by herdsmen driving flocks of fat-tailed sheep in the canals as the donkey carts rolled by.

The population of Kashgar consists 80% of Turkic-Mongolian Uyghur. They are being diluted by a huge influx of Han Chinese similar to that of Tibet to quell frequent bursts of violence while demanding independence from China.The Uyghur’s have experienced tastes of independence. In 1933, they declared the East Turkestan Republic, from the Tian Shan Mountains south to the Kunlun Mountains, which lasted until a Chinese warlord came to power the next year. Then, in 1944, as the nationalist Chinese government neared collapse during World War II, the Uyghur established the Second East Turkestan Republic, which ended in 1949, after Mao Zedong took over China. Six years after Mao’s victory, China created the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, similar to a province but with greater local control; the Uighur Muslims are its largest ethnic group.
It was early morning and I was exploring the back streets of Kashgar, with my guide who was a young Muslim from the neighboring province of Qinghai which lies east of the Tibetan plateau.

The two of us followed narrow passageways bathed in sunlight or obscured by shadows. We encountered faces that testified to Kashgar’s role as a crossroads of Central Asia on the route linking China, India and the Mediterranean. Narrow-eyed, white-bearded elders wearing embroidered skullcaps chatted in front of a 500-year-old mosque. We passed pale-complexioned men in black felt hats; broad-faced, olive-skinned men who could have passed for Bengalis; green-eyed women draped in head scarves and chadors; and the occasional burqa-clad figure who might have come straight from Afghanistan. It was a scene witnessed in the early 1900s by Catherine Theodora Macartney, wife of the British consul in Kashgar when it was a listening post in the Great Game, the strategic Russia-Britain conflict for control of Central Asia. “One could hardly say what the real Kashgar type was,” she wrote in a 1931 memoir, An English Lady in Chinese Turkestan, “for it has become so mixed by the invasion of other people in the past.”
We walked deep into the alleys of this historical mud built city, now repaired in places. Many wealthy families have bigger homes in town but yet keep their tradition by coming back to the smaller ancestral homes on weekends. The alleys were bustling with economic activity similar to that seen in small villages. Vendors manufacturing and hawking small tools, roadside butcheries, vegetable sellers, hat makers to name a few. I took particular joy in eating the oven baked “samosa” filled with lamb meat and melon. Sumptuous meat dumplings available for less than a dollar more than sufficed for lunch. The locals were very pleasant and welcoming. The kids were playing in the streets inside the old quarter without worrying about safety or traffic. The hamam method of communal bathing was very much evident inside the old town.


In some corners of the town young men were playing billiards under trees while a washing machine repair stall doubled as a game parlor. Taxis inside the town were nonexistent but the roads outside the old town were bustling with buses, cars, motorcycles and motorbike drawn taxis. Horse carts were not uncommon which until the 80s were the main source of local transportation.
The Aidkah Mosque dominates the central square. Originally built in 1442 but renovated many times since then, the mosque is as much a public garden as a place to pray. A yellow-tiled building with square lines that give way to a dome, the mosque contains an area the size of a large city block -- filled with trees, ponds and walking paths. I was told that the entire area outside the mosque was a large city park with beautiful poplar trees which the Chinese cleared for “security reasons” leaving behind a cobblestoned plaza which can still accommodate 20000 worshipers. I saw a similar clearing of space in front of the great Jhokang Temple (617-650 CE) in Lhasa complete with police in riot gear. Since my visit to Kashgar a lot of major uprisings have happened in Urumqi and Kashgar. I recommend reading “ Resentment and Rebellion Fester on the Silk Road, by Terry MacCarthy for Time Inc.(http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2054438,00.html)


There were plenty of handcrafted souvenirs surrounding the mosque. Of particular interest to me were the finely handcrafted Yingsar daggers with bejeweled handles. This purchase would have been in jeopardy had I not known about the serious security checks one encounters in Xinjiang Railway stations since I intended to back track the 4000 km distance from Kashgar to Beijing by rail. Intending to stop in several Silk Road towns along the way, a pair of daggers in my possession was a serious concern. The merchant put my concern at ease by shutting down his shop and giving me a ride in his motorbike to the Post office. It was a very efficient operation; there was a packaging counter that would wrap items for a small fee and international mailing facilities which for under $10 shipped my daggers to the USA. It arrived still neatly packed after 60 days complete with beautiful postage stamps.

Another famous site, the Mausoleum of Abak Hoja, 5 km from Kashgar is perhaps the finest example of Islamic architecture in Xinjiang. A large dome of 56 ft is at the center surrounded by four corner minarets with stripes and arabesque floral patterns. The tomb contains the remains of Abak Hoja, a 17th-century ruler of Kashgar and a Naksbandhi Sufi saint. 72 relatives of Abak Hoja are interred in the burial ground adjacent to the mosque. The locals visit these tombs on a regular basis which is typical of Sufi saint worship. The Chinese have been threatening to move the cemetery to a different part of town claiming eminent domain, to build a road.

There are more than 20 large scale bazaars in Kashgar, of which the one located at the East Gate of Kashgar City is the largest. This bazaar also named 'International Trade Market of Central and Western Asia' is the largest international trade market in Northwest China, It is the largest garden aggregate market of Kashgar City and in Xinjiang Province, taking up an area of 41 acres composed of 21 specialized markets including over 4,000 fixed booths and a food street. It was noted as 'the Largest Fair in Asia' in ancient times. As early as in 128 BC, when Zhang Qian ( Huang tseng , as we learnt in school,before the 1949 PIinyin transliteration methodology)was dispatched to the Western Regions by Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220), he was surprised to see the prosperous market here, full of dazzling goods and merchants coming from different countries. Unfortunately due to my winter travel schedule, I could only see it in a much reduced size.

There were merchants selling live snakes as health remedies complete with a booklet on how to utilize different parts, house cat skins stitched together to make shawls, apothecaries stuffed with dried snakes, lizards, turtles and a variety of herbs along with an attending physician. Uyghur medicine was alive and well! There was a plethora of dried fruits and nuts vendors, mountains of sweet pomegranates, carpet shops, and jewelers. One can also buy various things including general merchandise, handicrafts, livestock, local specialties, vegetables, coat, and second hand items as well as many other kinds of things from cattle and horses to needle and thread. Street barbers were busy attending to clients a scene that has not changed much since the invention of the chair. It had all the elements and characters befitting the experience of travelers on the ancient Silk road; not too dissimilar to travels on the the Grand Trunk Road from Dacca to Peshawar, both during the Raj and until the 1970s in India
The Karakoram highway, built by the Chinese from Xinjiang to Islamabad, Pakistan in the 1970s passes outside Kashgar. This road was built as a possible route for an Indian invasion by the People Liberation Army. I rode this beautiful highway cutting through the Karakoram ranges reaching the Khunjerab pass at 15000 ft altitude in the Pakistan border. Since the Khunjerab Pass was opened, a large number of foreign merchants have come with a great deal of goods. Thus, arts and crafts of Pakistan, scarves of Turkey, dry fruits of Saudi Arabia all can be bought at a reasonable price here. The Kashgar markets are loaded with Pakistani goods often with the faces of Bollywood actresses. I saw a 5 liter can of vegetable oil with the Indian starlet Aishwarya Rai adorned in Islamic outfit straight from the Arabian Nights. The prevalence of prostitution that I had mentioned earlier is primarily because of the international truck drivers and the Chinese officials who come to visit the area who are attracted to the Eurasian features of this Turkic people. Brothels advertise their trade as “Foot washing Stations”.

In the 1990s, the Chinese government built a railway to Kashgar and made cheap land available to Han Chinese, the nation’s majority. Between one million and two million Han settled in Xinjiang during the past two decades, though Kashgar and other towns on the southern edge of the Taklimakan Desert are still predominately Uighur. “Xinjiang has always been a source of anxiety for the central power in Beijing, as is Tibet and Taiwan,” Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based Uighur expert at Human Rights Watch told me. “Historically the response to that is to assimilate the territory, particularly through the immigration of Han Chinese.” The Han influx stirs resentment. “All construction and factory jobs around Kashgar have been taken by Han Chinese,” says British journalist Christian Tyler, author of “Wild West China: The Taming of Xinjiang.” “The people in charge are Han, and they recruit Han. Natural resources—oil and gases, precious metals—are being siphoned off for benefit of the Han.”
Now the Chinese government is doing to Kashgar’s Old City what a succession of conquerors failed to accomplish: leveling it. Early in 2009 the Chinese government announced a $500 million “Kashgar Dangerous House Reform” program: over the next several years, China plans to knock down mosques, markets and centuries-old houses—85 percent of the Old City. The 2007 movie “Kite Runner” based on a story in Kabul was actually shot in Kashgar, drawing parallels to two legendary Silk Road Towns.
Residents will be compensated, then moved—some temporarily, others permanently—to new cookie-cutter, concrete-block buildings now rising elsewhere in the city. In place of the ancient mud-brick houses will come modern apartment blocks and office complexes, some adorned with Islamic-style domes, arches and other flourishes meant to conjure up Kashgar’s glory days. The government plans to keep a small section of the Old City intact, to preserve “a museumized version of a living culture.
The destruction, some say, is business-as-usual for a government that values development over preservation of traditional architecture and culture.
In writing this piece, I have utilized several lines from an excellent early article, “Kashgar, on the Silk Road” written by Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times (1994) and by a detailed article” Demolishing Kashgar’s History” in the Smithsonian Magazine by Joshua Hammer in 2010. Their observations in 1994 and 2010 , laced with my comments from 2006 offers the reader a timeline of the destructive path that the city is undergoing.
The End

emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 15:25 Archived in China Tagged china highway road silk xinjiang uighur karakoram uyghur sinkiang Comments (1)

Tracking Chimpanzees in Kibale National Park, Uganda

Observing our nearest relatives in close proximity........................Ramdas Iyer

Chimpanzees, our nearest primate relatives have been a fascination for most of us. These amazing creatures were studied by Jane Goodall in the 60's at the insistence of Louis Leakey, who had unearthed the first hominid fossils, as a path to understanding the development and evolution of man. I had recently visited the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania where the first erect hominids, Homo habilis (1.9 million years ago) were unearthed by the Leakeys, Mary and Richard in the 1930s. Her pioneering work on the behaviour of chimpanzees have enabled us to appreciate the human like qualities of our closest DNA relative at 99% similarity. Goodall’s work was in the Gombe stream area of western Tanzania, even today a remote corner bordering Uganda. As a National Geographic subscriber since 1971 and a follower of Jane Goodall’s work, I desperately wanted to visit Gombe during my trip to TZ in 2013. But one had to take a chartered plane which only flew twice a week making it both very expensive and time consuming.

Instead I chose Kibale in Uganda which is a vast tropical rainforest over 700 sq.km in area at an altitude ranging from 3000-4500 ft. which runs into Queen Elizabeth National park, Uganda ( creating a 180 Km long Wildlife corridor) a much celebrated but much poached national park. Why Kibale?
Kibale National Forest has one of the highest diversity and concentration of primates in Africa. It is home to a large number of endangered chimpanzees, as well as the red colobus monkey and the rare L'Hoest’s monkey. The park is also home to over 325 species of birds, 13 species of primates, a total of a[/left]t least 60 other species of mammals, and over 250 tree species. The predominant ecosystem in Kibale is moist evergreen and semi-deciduous forest.)
Since the 1960s a team of Japanese scientists have been habituating chimpanzees to human presence at Kibale national park. In Serengeti, the animals are used to the safari vehicles and are as such “habituated” to their presence. In the tropical rain forest it is not possible. So scientists spend time and in the case of Kibale, up to 6 years to make some of the chimpanzee groups get accustomed to the presence of human beings. Jane Goodall was the first to do so (except if you think Tarzan was real) in Gombe stream and Diane Fossey with the Gorillas in Volcanoes Park, Rwanda. Akin to the gorillas in Bwindi, one can track chimpanzees in their natural habitat. For 600usd per day one can spend 12 hrs. : From the time they wake up till the time they build new nests and sleep. For $150 one can insert himself into the forest and catch them for an hour, either at 8:00AM or 2:00PM. Since chimps can be found in 19 African countries, they are not as exclusive as the gorillas. But this is the only place that I know of where there is a formal wildlife tracking program available, in a classical moist hardwood equatorial rainforest.


Kibale is 325 KM/ 6 hrs. from Kampala with the last hour on dirt roads leading to one of the most lush and beautiful forests in central Uganda. The community, Batooroo and Balinga tribes surrounding the park were once notorious for killing chimps for bush meat, but today
readily endorse international Eco tourism that supports local infrastructure. We, Pushpa and I, arrived at Chimps nest lodge by 6:00 pm and heard loud chattering noises from chimpanzees in the forest around us along with the sounds of grey cheeked Mangabeys and red Colobus monkeys. The air was cool, the surroundings forested and the noises classical Africa. Each cottage had solar lights, Eco toilets and a wood burning stove for hot water.We did night walks to spot Bush babies and Ganet cats and day walks around the camp for photographing primates. This gave me a chance to photograph non chimpanzee primates which I would otherwise not be doing once inside the national park.


Chimpanzees are members of the family Hominidae, along with gorillas, humans, and orangutans. Chimpanzees split from the human branch of the family about four to six million years ago. Chimpanzees are the closest living relatives to humans, being members of the tribe Hominini (along with extinct species of subtribe Hominina). The male common chimp stands up to 5.6 ft high and weighs as much as 150lbs; the female is somewhat smaller.They typically live 40 years in the wild and about 60 in captivity. The common chimp’s long arms, when extended, span one and a half times the body’s height. A chimpanzee's arms are longer than its legs. Chimpanzees usually knuckle-walk, or walk on all fours, clenching their fists and supporting themselves on the knuckles thereof. Both the common chimpanzee and bonobo can walk upright on two legs when carrying objects with their hands and arms. The coat is dark; the face, fingers, palms of the hands, and soles of the feet, hairless; the chimp, tailless. The exposed skin of the face, hands and feet varies from pink to very dark in both species but is generally lighter in younger individuals, darkening as maturity is reached. Chimpanzee testicles are unusually large for their body size, with a combined weight of about 4 oz. (110 g) compared to a gorilla's 1 oz. (28 g) or a human's 1.5 ounces (43 g). This relatively great size is generally attributed to sperm competition due to the polyandrous nature of their mating behavior.

Our group of 4, led by an UWA( Ugandan Wildlife Authority) tracker started trekking into the forest crossing small streams, gigantic root systems, thick shrubbery and enormous old growth trees with moss on them. Within 45 min of trekking we came upon a large group of chimps, about 16 in all scattered in high branches on several trees. They are not calm animals, but constantly swing, jump, chatter and create a pandemonium especially after spotting us. The photographer in me was completely flabbergasted by multiple imagery, obstructions by foliage, poor lighting, loud sounds and fast movements. While my eyes caught them all around finding them in my scope was impossible. The chimps started moving and our tracker led us further into the forest where finally some of the members had settled on the ground. I soon determined that the only way to photograph them in such low light is to focus on just one animal at a time. As you can see in my images soon to be presented, they were squatting like humans looking at the sky , pondering over their next meal, sometime arms folded in deep reservation and at other times seriously concentrating on chewing fig fruits and other hard seeds. This group according to our tracker had over 150 members which broke up at day break into 5 or 6 extended troops in order to avoid competition for food. Occasionally these groups intersect with other foraging groups often resulting in loud attacks, scare tactics and sometimes maiming and killing rival members.


After an exciting first day (one hour of observation only) we asked to enroll in the next day’s trek. With great difficulty we arranged for an overflow trek at noon, just the two of us with a tracker. This day the offerings were fantastic. By now skilled at low light Chimpanzee photography, I found opportunities to approach them at very close quarters. 25 feet is recommended, 6 feet was all that separated an adult chimpanzee and us, which could easily maim and injure an onlooker in a horrible fashion. In one situation we observed a 30 year old male chewing fruit and leaves, spitting the pulp in its palms and rubbing it on a deep cut in its leg. Several minutes later we were blessed with a scene that even our tracker claimed to be rare. A serene looking young mother holding her 2 month old baby in its arms was sitting on a log with the right amount of light streaking on her. I snapped 20 plus pictures with every movement of the baby in its arms with the session culminating with with the mother and baby directly at me. It was a Hallelujah! moment.

After spending slightly more than an hour with these magnificent animals and while on the way out of the forest we were treated by a chimpanzee drumming the buttress of a strangler fig tree. Chimpanzees are extremely expressive in their communications with each other. They use hand gestures, facial expressions, they touch, hold hands and kiss. They drum on trees, make pant-hoots and loud calls often heard 3km away to indicate their presence and inform of ample food sources.


In conclusion, I wish to discuss the future of these lovely animals. There are thought to be about 175,000 chimpanzees remaining in the wild. Even though this sounds like a large number, many of these animals live in fragmented remnant populations that are separated from other chimpanzees by areas that are heavily cultivated. The chimpanzee is officially classified as an endangered species and protected by international law under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Habitat loss and commercial hunting for bush meat has become the most significant immediate threat to the future of chimpanzees in the wild. The demand from consumers in wealthy countries for tropical hardwoods means the west and central African forest habitat, that is home to wild chimpanzees is being destroyed at an alarming rate. Often whole chimpanzee families are butchered, leaving behind infants that are later exported to zoos and medical institutions or sold as exotic pets. Heavily traumatized, these infants are occasionally intercepted in transit by government authorities, whereupon sanctuaries are called upon to provide refuge. It is estimated that only one in four chimpanzees survive being taken from the wild as most die from disease, malnutrition and dehydration.
The End.
emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

Sources: The Godall Institute, Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Wikipedia, National Geographic Society

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 14:12 Archived in Uganda Tagged park africa national endangered species uganda chimpanzees goodall kibale Comments (1)

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