Field Guide to the Street Names of Central Cairo


-From AUC Press 2018 Spring Catalogue

After three years of intense research that was like putting a 1000 piece puzzle together – patience, organisation, identification,  the Field Guide is OUT and available at AUC Press, Oxford University Press, and Amazon. Information about the book launch will be posted within the  week.

This book is a comprehensive study of the history in naming streets of Central Cairo, including Zamalek (Gezira Island). It is the first of its kind. Thank you to all who generously contributed time, information and the ever sought after clue that helped unravel stories of nearly 800 street names.

Tibet, Friendship Highway and more…

5104CC2D-4562-41D9-B124-682CB8F4D89AThe last 8 days of this five week exploration of the lesser routes of the Silk Road in Central Asia and China was spent in the Tibet Autonomous region. Though Tibet is not an official route of the Silk Road, movement between Central Asia, Tibet, India, and China is well documented. Through Central Asia going eastward, one comes in contact with  remnants of the Buddhist religion left from monks and pilgrims crisscrossing the land. So to continue to understand the movement of material culture associated with the migration of peoples, I returned to Tibet Autonomous region to have a broader understanding; however, the region’s history, religion, and culture is rich and complex, this journey and humble post only serves as a grain of sand in this ancient land. 


Map of Tibet Autonomous Region by Chinese Government

Diverse cultures and traditions are fading fast with global homogenisation favouring technology, so it is personally important to experience traditions, culture, food, and languages in a local context rather than in a museum (though I do love collections) or a theme park, (the latter seems to becoming a trend.) Furthermore, last year when traveling through China and Kyrgyzstan my guide/translators became my friends, so I was keen to re-connect in person with Tenzin in Lhasa as I did in Kyrgyzstan with Farhod, and Helen in Xining. 

In this high mountain region of Tibet, arriving at Lhasa Airport at 2.5 miles above sea level was the lowest elevation this week. 


Climbing to the ‘roof of the world’

Fortunately,  the altitude doesn’t bother me, except, I will admit to having Tenzin carry all my things and stopping often to catch my breathe! We head out of the airport to the city of Tsetang. We drive along the muddy, flooding Brahmaputra River also named Yarlung Tsangpo River (flows to the Bay of Bengal) that, this year, has damaged roads and bridges to the high volume of rain. 

If one is to begin at the beginning of Tibetan Buddhism, a visit to Tsetang is vital as it is known as the cradle Tibetan’s civilisation. Tsetang is the capital of ancient emperors of Tibet as Xi’an is the first royal capital to the Han Chinese. Tsetang is overlooked by Mount Gongbori one of the 4 holy mountain in Tibetan Buddhism. One of three caves in the mountainside is said to be the birthplace of the Tibetan people who resulted from the mating of a monkey and a beautiful ‘she devil’ or monster ogress.


One of three caves in the mountainside is said to be the birthplace of the Tibetan people In Tsetang

There were many firsts on this trip. The first monastery, Samye, built in 779 CE; the earliest geomantic temple, Tradruk, built in 7th century; the oldest palace, Yumbulagang, built in 7th century; the first time to eat a rose cake in the present. 

Samye, Tibet’s first monastery, is located only 30 km from Tsetang and was founded in 779 CE by King Trisong Detsen.02A4EB38-8564-4FEA-B6BF-AF6CECEA43EE Samye Monastery was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but has been restored to its former glory. The main temple is the only surviving structure. Reconstruction however incorporated the three different styles of Buddhist symbolism: Tibetan, Indian, Chinese. The monetary complex is dedicated to the Indian teachers, Padmasambhava and Santarakshita, whose stupas are located on a nearby mountain.


Padmasambhava and Santarakshita, whose stupas are located on a nearby mountain.


This original painting demonstrates the complex representation of the Buddhist cosmological order at Samye Monastery

Close to the Samye Monastery are the Chimpu hermitage mountain and San-ngag Zimchen Nunnery. Centred around the cave where Indian Buddhist teachers, Guru Rinpoche (8th century) meditated and taught his disciples.  This mountains is one of the few remaining hermitage centres in Tibet where monks and nuns seclude themselves in years of solitary meditation. 


Chimpu hermitage mountain


San-ngag Zimchen Nunnery

The Tradruk Temple on this rainy morning exudes a feeling of tranquility  even though the history of its construction is gruesome as it is said to be built over a seven headed ogress-dragon. 


Inside Tradruk Temple

About 5 kilometers from Tsetang, Yumbulagang Palace is located high on a mountain edge, looking down into the valley one can see a marker in the field that denotes the spot that the monkey turned into a human:992592AA-647D-4929-8D00-94B96C0FB26AYumbulagang Palace served at the first Tibetan palace for Nvatri Tsanpo who descended from the heavens by a ladder and the people built this palace for him. It was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution but reconstructed to its original beauty. 


Shotun Festival 

Last year, my visit to Tibet centred around the sights of Lhasa and the  Shotun Festival or Yogurt Banquet Festival. Read about it here. This year as last year, I walked shoulder to shoulder with thousands of Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims who chant mantras, thumb prayer beads and spin prayer wheels for the blessing to witness a huge Thangka displayed on the hillside near Drepung Monastery.70695346-792F-4AA3-81B7-E24C01A98C75

It is now time to hit the Friendship Highway, an 830 kilometre highway from Lhasa to Kathmandu passing Mt. Everest. The Friendship Highway connects Lhasa with the Nepal border at the Sino-Nepal Friendship Bridge. My travels took me a half way to Nepal. Maybe one day I will return and finish the entire route to Kathmandu. 

After leaving the city of Lhasa,  we drive southeast along the Kyi Chu River, a tributary of the Yarlung Tsangpo River (Tibet name for Brahmaputra). We are headed for the city of Gyantse, 280 kilometres from Lhasa. Before arriving, we will have crossed 3 mountain passes. The first, Kambala Pass at 4700 meters, the vibrant turquoise lake, Yamdrok, comes into view. However the Notion Kangtsang peak of 7191 meters is shrouded in clouds on this very rainy day. Descending from the Kambala Pass, we stop at a small town, the road follows alongside Yamdrok Lake to the small town of Nakartse, for lunch in a lightless local eatery with a picture of Mao  staring down over our table, but it didn’t stop us from slurping up a superb yak noodle soup with ground nuts. 

Villagers along the highway take advantage of the onslaught of Chinese tourists during the summer months. Take a picture with a well-groomed goat or yak or sit next to a giant Tibetan Mastiff for a fee, of course, by why not? There are tourist traps all over the world and why not on the roof of the world? So we stop and enjoy a Tibetan tourist trap: 

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Driving onto the second and highest pass at Kharola Pass, elevation 5600 meters lies under the glacier of over 7000 metres high. Continuing on to the last pass, Semingla Pass at 4800 meters where prayer flags flutter high over the emerald green, man-made lake.

From here it is all down hill and we enter Gyantse town just in time to get permits to visit Pelkhor Chode Monastery the next day. The town is located on the ancient trade routes and the Gyantse Dzong fortress constructed in 1390 guards any approach. (Its walls were the site of a four months siege by the British Invasion in 1904.)


Pelkhor Chode Monastery

—Gyantse Dzong fortress

The Pelkhor Chode Monastery was founded in the 15th century with three Buddhist sects, two of which were Gelugpa and Sakyapa, living compatibly within the complex. Today, only the Gelugpa sect remains at the monastery. The Kumbum Stupa meaning ‘place of a 1000 images’ is one of the largest and highest, 35 metres, found in Tibet. 

Driving on to Shigatse passes through fertile plains of barley and rapeseed fields are near harvest time. We stop at a local farmers house to talk about his success in greenhouse farming. Their warm hospitality lays out masala tea and barley kernels that taste like dried popcorn. 

We have seen nothing but rain since leaving Lhasa so the landscape views have been veiled by low hanging dark clouds. As we arrive in Shigatse and before heading to visit the Tashilhunpo Monastery, we decided to stop at a local bakery and try some egg bread. 0C193A43-0AE5-4AD0-A4AD-9B0D6160FA8E

Shigatse or Xikazi, the Tibetan spelling,  is an ancient city and means ‘a manor for the most fertile soil.’ The main attraction is Tashilhunpo Monastery which is the seat of the Panchen Lama, the second most important spiritual leader of Tibet. The monastery was founded by  the first Dalai Lama, Genshuzhuba, in 1477 at the foot of Nima Mountain, which laid the foundation for a development of the settlement, Shigatse. The monastery contains the tombs of the Panchen Lamas, most notably the 10th Panchen Lama whose 1989 stupa used 547kilograms of gold. Tashilhumpo’s best known monument is it 80 foot statue of the seated Maitrya Buddha, regarded as the future Buddha of the world. 


Tashilhunpo Monastery

The next day we begin the last leg of my journey in Tibet, a 7 hour drive back to Lhasa. We stopped in at the home of an incense-maker who supplies all the many stores around the country with incense for the daily consumption that is needed for offerings. While we were there, the owner was bundling cartons of incense sticks for people to offer at the monastery.

I asked the owner how he makes the incense, and through Tenzin, my translator, he explained, that from juniper berries that he gathers from the mountains, he makes a paste and adds Tibetan medicine and sandalwood. Then he puts the paste in a hollowed out yaks horn and squeezes out sticks that are left to dry. 

An hour out of Lhasa, our car pulls into the obligatory police security line and out of nowhere a car rams into us. On my last day and visions of being taken to a nearby hospital was not in the itinerary! But fortunately for us, the car was all that was damaged though an ambulance was called for a passenger in the other car.

Last sweet bite for a sweet journey…rose petal cake:28271AF7-ACF0-4E3E-ABF0-893A70258083



(all rights reserved, copyright 2018 .To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required)




Festivals, Minorities and Landforms in Qinghai and Gansu Provences


Black lines indicate places travelled in Qinghai and Gansu Province

This week was spent with my good friend, Helen. Last year she guided me through Qinghai Provence. This year Helen took me on an 8-day trip through Qinghai Provence and the western Gansu Province to visit ethnic minorities, Huzhu Tu  and Yugur, as well as to attend Tibetan mountain god festivals, Shaman, in three villages around Tongren.  I can’t leave out  the stunning Zhangye Danxia National Geological Park! Much more was on our agenda but this post offers these highlights.


Helen and I at Tongren Museum

China has 55 ethnic minorities and the area in which they live are recognised as autonomous regions, allowing for a certain leeway for local rules and traditions to be observed. So far in this trip, I have visited the Uyghur, Tu, Yugur and Tibetan Autonomous areas in China.

Traveling from Xining to Tongren, we begin to see stupas protrude from the greenery and notice prayer flags on high mountain ridges. We pass one village that is Buddhist and then the next is a Muslim village with minarets raising high above the homes. From one village to another the architecture and lifestyle changes noticeably.

Tongren is home to the Rebgong art which is an important genre of Tibetan Buddhist art. This school consists of Thangka paintings, embossed embroidery, architecture coloured painting, sculptures (see: Xiahe to Xining ). From Tongren, we branch to three villages on a very wet and cold day. We are not sure the if the Shaman festivals will be cancelled or not because of rain…8D279A64-9CAE-4AFE-98B1-26CBA093C45D

The annual Shaman Festival observed by both Tu and Tibetan ethnic minorities express their thanks to the Mountain god who protects them from evil. Through an ancient dance to the god, they pray that the god(s) bless the land with an abundant harvest. The three villages observed three different types of dances. (The following is what I was told about the reasons for the festivals, through an interpreter,  so if this information is wrong, please be so kind as to let me know.)

At the first village, Wu Tun, and although it rained heavily, a solemn dance with unmarried men and women, and children began. Here, they thanked the mountain god for sending the Roc bird (in the story,  flew from India) to protect the people from wild animals and evil.  In Tibetan language this bird is called xia qiong. Also, the dance is for  xia qiong to bless the water, wind, and 5 grains of the Tu and Tibetan villages along the 12 kilometre of the river. 3812AAC3-9947-46C3-8CE6-1572FBC650A235B3CFB9-9B5F-4D1B-9977-EBF65BBF3C616C4735E8-0C3A-4AD3-BFE5-4F8AC6754FB0


At the second village, Lanj Jia, dancing commemorated the war between  Tang Dynasty and Tibet. It is a celebration of  peace between them.  Also a Tubo sacrifice to local gods. This is a military and dragon dance and for men only.



Lawa at Lanj Jia village

In the third village, Ma Ha Ba Tu, celebrations are to commemorate the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, a mixed army of Mongolian and Han Chinese  accepted to enlist in Ming Dynasty in the LuWu valley. The dance celebrates peace and tranquility and to pray for ancestors, life and food. Here I met an 8 year-old girl, Do Jie Zhuo Ma, meaning smart or knowledgeable girl, who stayed with me most of the afternoon until her mother called her to dress for the festival. She asked me, “If you are a grandmother, why do you wear lipstick? Grandmothers don’t wear lipstick.”

Some rituals for the Shaman is to insert steel needles into the cheeks or back of males from 8-45 years. This ritual is usually a one time requirement.


Photo courtesy of Helen, my guide

Each village has a human, named lawa, that goes into a trance and is said to open to the gods and becomes a vessel with the mountain god.Below is a picture of the lawa in the village of Ma Ha Ba Tu, being prepared for his transformation and a video of the ceremony where he becomes a vessel for the mountain god.


The lawa in the village of Ma Ha Ba Tu

People from the villages:

The rich land of Sunan Yugur Autonoumous Prefecture is located in Hexi Corridor,  (see Lanzhou to Dunhuang) at the northern foot of the Qilian Mountains in Gansu Province. There are more than 30,000people living in Sunan, a third of whom are the Yugur people. Throughout history and today, although the Yugur (not to be confused with Uyghur) group is relatively small, they have been deeply committed to their traditions. 

The Yugur people story begins during the Han Dynasty (206BCE-220CE), the nomadic tribe migrated from Siberian over the Tien Shan Mountains in search for grass and water, then to the Mongolian Plateau during the end of the first century. This tribe separated and migrated to the Qilian Mountains, assimilated with locals to form the Huihe people, forefathers of the Yugur ethnic group. For nearly 300 years , the Tang Dynasty preserved fundamental peace with the Hiuhu and during this time the Yugur tribe emerged. The Qilian Mountains, natural cover for defence, gave them control of transportation through the Silk Road and they made connection with Central Asia between the 9th and 11th century, and they established the Ganzhou Uyghur Khanate near Zhangye. But it was destroyed and the tribe left the Hexi Corridor. During the 16th century tribes began to migrate eastward, and merged with a branch  Eventually through intermarriage, war, and migration the Yugur ethnic group emerged. 

In Chinese, “Yugur” means wealth and stability. Animal husbandry is the major industry of the Yugur people. The Yugur people believe in the Yellow Sect of Lamaism, their customs and habits are similar to the Tibetans. Only one meal is eaten every day of which their staple foods are primarily rice, wheat and some mixed grain.  Yugur people usually eat beef, mutton, and pork, as well as chicken and camel meat, to which they add some garlic, soy sauce and vinegar.

The Yugur people are renowned for their hospitality. No matter when guests arrive, they will give them a feast. Fragrant tea or milk tea will be immediately presented that lets each guest feel the Yugur people’s friendliness. 

My appointment with Mrs. Ke Cuiling, keeper of Yugur traditions and culture, lived up to the Yugur’s notorious warm welcome and generous hospitality.


Mrs. Me Cuiling in her ethnology museum and showing the woman’s Yugur dress

We were served a feast of Yugur delicacies and at the end the offering of finger glass of traditional barley liquor accompanied with the flicking of liquor to appease the gods and bring blessings to ourselves. 

Like many traditional crafts that are passed down over generations, Mrs. Ke learned the skills from her mother and elder sister from an early age. She worked for many years in the local museum before beginning her own local cultural center. Despite her tight schedule, Mrs. Ke still manages to train young Yugurs in tailoring of traditional clothing, embroidery, and culture during her spare time. Ke Cuiling faces the same problem as traditional artisans face throughout the world that technology and consumerism will erase local and traditional handicrafts. But she is doing something about it by opening opportunities for tourism and summer programs for youth. ( Read: Keeping Yugur Ethnic costume alive.)

Zhangye, meaning extending the arm, is a city in the centre of the Hexi Corridor. Fifty minutes drive and we are in Zhangye National Geopark is located in Sunan and Linze counties in the Quilain Mountain range within the prefecture-level city of Zhangye, in Gansu Provence. Zhangye Danxia is known for the unusual colours of the rocks, which are smooth, sharp and several hundred meters tall. 0E421BB8-B305-47A9-9F0E-577DC480392198465943-458C-4AE6-AC97-02C7DEEC5A4F5B5C5EB0-DB8E-4C14-8295-49646BD6C6E5B597B171-4289-46E8-867B-2CBE1AF6D40DThey are the result of deposits of sandstone and other minerals that occurred over 24 million years. The result, similar to a layer cake, is connected to the action of the same tectonic plates responsible for creating parts of the Himalayan mountains.

Wind, rain, and time sculpted extraordinary shapes, including towers, pillars, and ravines, with varying colours, patterns, and sizes. (Information from Wikipedia)

Of course, one must leave a wish before saying farewell to this awesome geological wonder:DBAE65C1-08B6-4240-859D-E99AD5E0A1AF














(all rights reserved, copyright 2018 .To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required)

Hotan, the Taklamakan and Walnuts

On the train again…a 5am train ride from Kashgar to Hotan that skirts the Taklamakan Desert deposits me after 6 hours in this Uyghur city on a chilly rainy day. BE48A65C-1B1B-4D9D-92FC-9FB4D7DE117DThe driver said it was most unusual weather as the summer is hot and dry. I wondered from where this cool air came but had no luck with my inquiries so I just accepted the fluke of weather conditions was to my advantage and enjoyed the cool day, particularly as I was headed into the Taklamakan Desert (tark, “to abandon” + makan, “place”)to visit Rawak Vihara, a ruined Buddhist stupa (a commemorative monument representing the passing of the Buddha) and monastery complex c. between the 3rd-4th centuries CE located northeast of Hotan.


. According to the archeological accounts, sand covered the temple and entire area.


“Rawak means “high building” or “steep house” in Uyghur, and vihara is the Sanskrit term for “monastery.” *



In Stein’s accounts, “the stupa walls were completely covered with sculptures of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, life-sized or a little larger. The coloring of the sculptures was of a deep red.” *


Reconstruction of what the original stupa might have been. It was covered in sand when Stein began excavating.

Between 1901 and 1906 Aurel Stein excavated this and wrote about his remarkable finds at this temple on his first trip to China. He found relics that showed the influence of Buddhist religion and Indian cultures. He hid his findings to one day return and when he did return most of what he hid had been stolen. (Read: Foreign Devils on the Silk Road for more information about the excavations of Stein. *Above information from

Hotan is the modern city within the ancient Kingdom of Khotan that is on the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert in the Tarim Basin of modern Xinjiang Provence. C39803BF-3A56-4A5F-929C-805FF1290FC1Kingdom of Khotan was one of the many small states found in the Tarim Basin that included Yarkand, Turfan (see Foiled at the Finish), Kashgar. To the west were Central Asian kingdoms of Sogdiana and Bactria ( see Sogdians and Soviets). China and Tibet were powerful neighbours. In antiquity, and especially before the rise of Islam in the 9th-10th centuries CE, the region of Khotan was Buddhist for over 1000 years and mainly populated by East-Iranian-speaking Saka tribes until it was conquered by Muslim Kara-Khanid Khanate in 1006. (Read more at

Built on an oasis, Hotan mulberry groves allowed the production and export of silk, in addition to the city’s other major products such as its famous jade from the White Jade River.


White Jade River where most of China’s jade comes from over centuries

Hotan was once famous for its silk  production. Unfortunately, sericulture is no longer a lucrative business for traditional techniques of making silk textiles. In Xinjiang Provence preparation of silk for weaving is called ‘atlas’. This technique is used throughout Central Asia. The textile design is called  ‘ikat’ which is when  cotton and silk threads are combined the material is called ‘adras’. If the textile is purely silk, most often, the name is ‘atlas’. Ikat adras and atlas have been practiced throughout Central Asia for a 1000 years. It is an expression of material cultures that spread from (modern-day) Uzbekistan to Xīnjiāng Provence. The inspiration of the designs is from the shapes of flowers, leaves, and fruits, pomegranate the most revered. The process in Hotan silk factory is the same as explained in the Obelisque article : The Ikat of Uzbekistan

The 1300 year-old walnut tree attests to walnut cultivation over millennia. Here, walnuts are revered for not only health benefits but also walnuts were used as trader-travelers moved across trade routes from China to the Mediterranean Sea.


1300 year old walnut tree!

6E4F6C48-8448-4A1B-A3AB-7CDFD55D571F21B4B1ED-F4E9-4E6E-B89E-D53253094388Along these routes travelers planted the nutritious and portable walnut. Hotan climate, water resource and fertile land was ideal to grow walnut trees. 

Hotan night market topped off my stay in Hotan with sweet tangzaza (sticky rice with syrup and yoghurt). Some night market delights:6483EC37-9F0A-4269-BB34-6F2CFF0F98D9

In the video, the song asks, “What makes you happy?” The refrain, “The night market makes us happy.”

Want more information on Uyghurs and Xinjiang Province in China, go to Josh Summers: Far West China. It is excellent!

(all rights reserved, copyright 2018 .To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required)

Kashgar, China…15 years too late

E2AA32C2-9DC7-4279-999D-8284E5F101BDLast year my plan was to end my China trip in Kashgar, go over the border into Kyrgyzstan by way of the Torugart Pass (elevation 3,752 m (12,310 ft) , then onto Tash Rabat, Naryn… But at the last minute the border was closed and I rerouted the trip by plane from Urumchi, China to Bishkek. But this year, I was able to cross the Torugart Pass and enter Xinjiang Provence. But not before, I fell and broke my professional camera…so pictures from now will be from my IPhone 😦



Western China, the Xinjiang Provence is a fascinating area not only because of the northern and southern Silk Road routes that skirted the Taklamakan Desert but also that much of the Great Game was played out with Kashgar as the pivot point for explorers and adventurers. Xinjiang Provence borders with countries – Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and India. This area of China is Central Asia with customs, food, traditions, religion, and language similar with its neighbours. It is the convergent point of varying cultures and empires, Chinese, Turkic, Mongol, and Tibetan empires; furthermore, it is home to the majority of the world’s Uyghur population. 

Kashgar, officially known as Kashi is the regional capital of this Xinjiang Provence. The Prefecture of Kashgar borders with Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan and is China’s western most city which lies on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert.  Kashgar is a city of great ethnic diversity, including the Uyghur, Han Chinese, Kazakhs, Hui, Tajiks, Kyrgyz, Mongols and Russians. The city has 2000 years of history and is located where trade routes met and continued to China, the Middle East, and Europe. 

I had expected to find Kashgar a maze of adobe houses, city walls, fortresses, mud walls and narrow alleyways with a vibrant, traditions of the Uyghur community. But those days are gone. I was told I was 15 years too late. (Read Tony Steward’s Kashgar Sunday Market 1995 for what Sunday Market once was.) The Chinese government concerned about potential earthquakes and unsafe structures began to remove all traditional housing and provide new housing for each family in high-rise , earthquake-proof apartment complexes. Some areas were renovated to the original look of the old city that give an idea of how these areas once looked.

Old Kashi town:



Renovated old town:




But the streets take on an eerie silence with much of the traditional workshops selling tourist trinkets from Taiwan and Pakistan rather than authentic working/living areas.  Though disappointed that did not stop me finding lots to do and see! 

Some must see sites: the British Consulate and Russian Consulate, two Kashgar institutions where diplomatic intrigue of the Great Game of the 19th and early 20th century was played out. After reading  “Foreign Devils of the Silk Road”, I first asked my guide if there was anything left of the two embassies. Though they are both hidden: the British residence behind a hotel and converted into a Chinese restaurant and the Russian Consulate still maintaining the atmosphere in a quiet courtyard is a boutique hotel. Both consulates  were built in 1890 and in operation until 1949 when the People Republic of China took control. Within these walls, the consuls  were listening posts of the Great Game by expanding routes, military and political manoeuvres. Explorers and archaeologist used these two consulates to take breaks from their conquests and discoveries of the Silk Road. 

Remains of British Consulate:



Sir George Macartney (1867-1945) British consul-general in Kashgar founded the British Consul in 1890. He and his wife, Catherine Borland, remained in Kashgar until 1918.  The Consulate became a place to rest for adventurers like Aurel Stein, Paul Pelion and Sven Hedin. After WWII the Consulate- General was revoked and transferred to British India  and was changed into “India-Pakistan Consulate”. Pictures of Sir George Macartney and Lady Macartney and family remain at the entrance of the residence. Lady Macartney turned the British consulate:

“into an island of European civility, with cuttings from English gardens, exotic flowers and pear and apple trees. Ping pong tables were set up indoors and tennis courts were built nearby. Brahms records provided melodious lullabies and eventually a piano was shipped over the mountain passes”.

She also was known to have assisted the archaeologists who found the library at Dunhuang.

The Russian consulate, in the spring of 1893 according to a treaty between China and Russia signed in 1881, started architectural work in the old town of Kashgar to build a consulate. This consulate covered an area of 15,000 meters. In the compound, houses were built in conformity in Russian old architectural style. At the end of 1918, China and Russia broke diplomatic relations, its staff escaping to Russia or other countries. In 1925, China and Soviets resumed diplomatic relations but in 1956, the Soviet Union consulate in Kashgar was cancelled. 

Remains of Russian Consulate:



The tomb of Yusuf Khass Hajib Balasaguni (1019-1085)offers respite from tourists in the gardens and mausoleum of this Uyghur poet, philosopher, statesman, and vizier. He was born in Balasagun in modern day Kyrgyzstan but moved to Kashgar around 1069, there he wrote the book Kutadkau Bilig – Wisdom of Happiness, which explains social, cultural and political lives of the Uyghurs during that time. 



I was invited to spend an evening with an Uyghur family who opens their home to travelers. The dinner is in a traditional Uyghur dining room that is only used for guests and for the family at festival times. The three most important food to welcome a guest are two types of rock sugar and semsa, a fried bread. After that, dumpling soup and plov (pilaf) are main course. The table is decorated with colorful china, fruits, nuts, sweets as everything a family has is put on the table to welcome the guest.



5809369B-00D3-4447-8A52-03F1CC081687The evening is complimented with a chapter or story of Dolan muqam music played by masters who have traveled over 100 kilometers to perform this evening, special permission had to be obtained so this is one of the most unique performances that one can see these days in Kashgar.






Dolan muqam is a 1000 year old  artistic form of the Uyghur’s expression integrating music, literature, dance, drama characterised by unrestrained singing that reflects their ancestors hunting lives and culture. The accompanying musical instruments include satar, tambur, dutar, rawap, kalun, tambourine. There are various themes, and rich tones, the story telling and songs are passionate. The music was designated by UNESCO a part of the intangible heritage of Uyghurs. This group has performed in Europe on several occasions. The oldest of the group says, “old people in Europe look the same.”

In Kashgar, it is obligatory to visit Id Kah Mosque built in ca. 1442 by Saqsiz Mirza but other structures were built from 996 CE. It is the largest mosque in China and is reported that up to 20,000 worshippers come to the mosques on days of the feast. If you read on any site that women are not allowed, when I arrived, everyone was allowed to visit except during Friday prayers. 166BF7DE-AB15-42DB-8638-FA85B2895EE4

Afaq Khoja Mausoleum is a complex built by the Khoja family from 1640 with halls, madrasah and mosque later added. Within the mausoleum are the remains of Yūsuf and many of the Khoja family are interned there. The Khoja family  arrived from Uzbekistan and the family ruled the region in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was told to me that Muslim families who could not go to Mecca for the Haji could receive the same benefits if they made a pilgrimage to this spot 8 times. (I don’t know if this information is true or not.)




The tiles are mostly original and made by different artisan families. The Islamic architecture is beautiful and the rose gardens and cemetery allows for peaceful contemplation.  Read more at:

If you have ever heard of Kashgar, it is most likely because of its renowned Sunday Market. There are some fabulous photographs and descriptions about this market on the Internet but, unfortunately, the market’s glory days  has passed. It has been reduced to a simple livestock market where farmers hope to sell their sheep, goats, horses, donkeys, yaks and yattles (breed of 50-50 yak and beef)


A yattle

There are reasons for the reduction of activity in the market but I won’t get into that here. However…good news…I went to find the men who pull dough to make noodles … and I was not disappointed.



Below are various pictures from the Kashgar market and around the town:



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Want more information on Uyghurs and Xinjiang Province in China, go to Josh Summers: Far West China. It is excellent!

(all rights reserved, copyright 2018 .To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required)

Kyrgyzstan: Keeping it Real 2018


Kyrgyzstan flag is symbol of yurt and sun


Neighbourhood in Kochkor

There is something about this country, Kyrgyzstan, that pulls me to it. Maybe it’s the  magnificient mountian scenery or the superlative welcoming people or the nomadic culture or the dedication to the preservation of their heritage. My answer: all of the above.

In 2017, the plan was to arrive in Kyrgyzstan from Kashgar, China over the Torugart Pass but that plan was foiled by the unexpected closure of the border. So in a quick reversal, I took a plane from Urumchi, China to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and explored the north-eastern and western part of Kyrgyzstan. In 2018, I’m back! And, to explore southern Kyrgyzstan and attempt the border crossing to Kashgar. Along the journey, I have had the opportunity to participate in cultural events and Kyrgyz heritage.

I visited Chon (big) Kemin Valley, the valley runs parallel to the border of Kazakhstan between two mountain ranges. There I was invited to participate with women in wrapping a traditional white Kyrgyz female turban, Ak Elechek, made of many layers of a single piece of cloth. The material (silk, wool, or cotton), number of turban layers, and its model depend on the age, social, and marital status of women. The length of the material serves another purpose as well, in case of emergency, the material can be used at births, for wounds, to wrap the deceased, or as a table cloth. In ancient times women would hid their jewellery in the folds for safe keeping.


I returned to visit Guljamal, center in pink headscarf. Last year she taught me how to make felt Kulpak, see Kyrgyzstan Art of Felt

And joined in at Tushoo kesuu ceremony held when a child first starts to walk. The baby’s legs are tied with a black and white lambs wool, symbolizing good and evil. Children of the village compete in races, and the winner gets to cut the rope from the baby’s legs signifying that the baby is ready to walk. 


tushoo kesuu ceremony


Sharing a community lunch

Horseshoe maker and farrier of horses have a special place in the nomadic life style in Kyrgyzstan for centuries. Horses have to be shoed every other month. The farrier makes cleated horseshoes for climbing mountains.

In the village of Koctkor, I met Fatima Ayipova, felt, kurak and saima master. (kurak meaning patchwork and saima meaning embroidery).

Kurak patchwork on first look is a typical pattern used by quilters around the world but in Central Asia small scraps of fabrics are used as talismans that give protective power. In Central Asia people tie scraps of fabric to branches or shrines to ward off evil like scene at Konya Urenchi, Turkmenistan.


From 2017 trip in Turkmenistan, example of using scraps of fabric at shrines

The Kurak patchwork or pieces of fabric take on a protective quality by confusing evil and thus wards off negative consequences. Particularly, repeat triangles hold special power and appear often on a variety of household textiles. Thus patchwork’s ability to protect people from evil gives the craft value.4BE6C4C5-F7D1-4241-B56B-CF0E79D27944

Saima, the Kyrgyz embroidery, is used to decorated caps, bags, clothing  and elaborate wall hangings or tush-kiyiz. Even though the nomads of Kyrgyzstan never maintaining fixed homes, decorated and adorned their dwellings with the same care as settled people.  Saima was used to decorate all wall hangings that were gifts by newly. Married brides to her husband’s household .  Mothers often began these wall hangings when their daughters were babies. Kyrgyz women developed symbols that reflected life on the steppes, plant and animal motifs and sky, sun, and earth motifs.  As sheep hoarding people they had an abundance of wool thread to use as embroidery. In the 19th century and trade with China and Russian Empire velvet and silk were incorporate. But the most common embroidery is wool thread on cotton textile. 249EF379-C28A-4371-AB48-92D52E15AC6D

Before crossing Torugart Pass, a crossing between Kyrgyzstan and China in the Tian Shan mountain range, elevation 3,752 m (12,310 ft). 

Torugart Pass was used since antiquity by caravans but not at the exact point of the modern point.  Russia and China first established entry at the pass in 1881. 

7242BAAE-C44A-4343-BD95-6C506B440C43We spend the night Naryn for the purpose of meeting 8 families of Afghan Pamir Kyrgyz. The week before, I had passed through the Wakhan Corridor in Tajikistan (Afghanistan is across the river, see last post)  so it was a special opportunity to meet these families. 7017CA9B-A66D-42BD-AE86-F763FC3296EE



Fried, multi-layered sugar bread called katama, made for guest

The Pamir Kyrgyz nomads have known many homelands. Fleeing Russian occupation in Kyrgyzstan in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, they settled in the Pamir Mountains, spanning eastern Afghanistan and western China. In 1978, fearing the new communist regime in Afghanistan, many Pamir Kyrgyz took refuge in Pakistan and later in eastern Turkey.  In 2017 the Kyrgyz government accepted 33 ethnic Kyrgyz repatriated from the Afghan Pamir. Here is an excerpt from a recent newspaper article:

In fall last year, a group of 33 Kyrgyz nomads from Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan’s far northern province of Badakhshan moved to Kyrgyzstan to attend school. Both adults and children, including a pregnant woman, from the Small and Great Pamirs, which lie at an altitude of over 4,300 meters, waited for months for their passports to come through in Faizabad city in Badakhshan.Once they had received their documents they traveled overland to Tajikistan – many on horseback. This journey to the border town of Eshkashim took them several days. This was in late September last year and after waiting a week at the border they were finally allowed to cross into Tajikistan where they were met by Kyrgyzstan officials. From there they traveled via Murghab Kyrgyz district of Tajikstan’s Gorny Badakhshan Autonomous Region of Tajikistan before reaching Osh, a town in south Kyrgyzstan. -

The night before I would cross into China was spent in a yurt camp near the 15th century stone caravanerai, Tash Rabat. Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences concluded that Tash Rabat was originally built as a Nestorian monastery in the 10th century.54A37C0B-61A7-464C-A54C-E8CB0863870844F386F1-0B19-4FF2-805F-FFEDE74375AF17FBD532-9941-4651-B424-9F371586B831


Sleeping chambers of royalty, the arrow shows a doorway where royals could secretly escape in case of being attacked

As we ascend the pass , the scenic Lake of Chatyr-Kul appears and no-mans land. 


Micheal, the driver, is Russian Orthodox, a minority in Kyrgyzstan.  The wall of mountains that separate Kyrgyzstan and China

I arrive…10 hours later, in Kashgar, China.


Kyrgyz Afghan Pamir :

For an introduction to Kyrgyzstan’s history and country read last year’s post Kyrgyzstan Keeping It Real.

(all rights reserved, copyright 2018 .To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required)

Pamirs : Tajikistan to Kyrgyzstan

B8D6E02D-A991-4780-9687-2A05DFFB6264Three days out of Khorog, capital of the eastern Pamir, we continue traveling through the Badakhshan Valley hemmed in by the Panj River and Afghanistan always to the right.


Tajik and Afghan roads mirror one another

Before Khorog, the farms and villages on the Afghan side are many and flourishing while on the Tajik side, the rocky, stark mountains skirted the road. After Khorog, it was the opposite and the Tajik side is fertile, farm land with plenty of figs, apricot, apple, mulberry trees along the road. 


Sweet mulberry

The Badakshan Valley meets the Wakhan Corridor ( a long and narrow wedge between Tajikistan and Afghanistan and Pakistan that leads to China and India.)


Kindergarten school children walking along the road with Wakhan Corridor behind

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Wakhan Corridor

Along this corridor, the migration of people, goods and culture traveled over minor trade route. The corridor is a border division created by the Great Game, the competition between the British and Russians Empires for territory during 19th century. The evidence is the many fortresses along the way: 4th century CE ,Qahqaha Fortress built in the 3rd century BCE by Zoroastrians relic from the Kushan Era:


Outer walls of Qahqaha Fortress


Inner walls of Qahqaha Fortress

Yamchun Fortress is oldest monument of Wakhan Corridor on top of the cliff overlooking the valley for unobstructed observation, dating from 3-1st century BCE:


Yamchun Fortress. The distant, snow covered peaks are the Hindu Kush to the right. Straight ahead are peaks named for Karl Marx (6,723 m, 22,057 ft) and Friedrich Engels (6,180m, 20,275 ft). 


Yamchun Fortress


Road leading to Yamchun Fortress

Yamchun Fortress was situated so that any movement from below could be detected, a perfect place for a fortress on the Silk Road:IMG_20180716_101024_HDRIMG_20180716_100042

Panj fortress on Afghan side dates back to 2BCE-1CE:


Panj Fortress

Abreshim Qal’ai (Silk Fortress) dates to 3rd century BCE-1st CE:


Top of hill is (Silk Fortress)

Several of the fortresses have elements of Zoroastrianism ( the religion of Zarathustra), which was still prevalent here before Islam. Also Buddhist caves and stupa  and Buddhist monastery fences with stone walls.


At Vrang Village in Wakhan Corridor, stupa and monastery dating to 4th centuryCE.Looking out past the stupa is Panj River, Afghanistan on the left and Tajikistan on the right. 

The caretakers through the century of the monuments and fortresses have been the people of the Pamirs. We stayed with a Pamiri family who had added onto their traditional home a quarters for travellers something like a modern-day caravanserai. Traditional houses in the Pamirs are known as chid and built with strong symbolism to their Ismaili faith. In older homes, a main pillar represents the prophet Mohamed with five supporting pillars representing each member of their prophet Ali’s family, and four square layers in the ceiling, expressive of the Zoroastrian elements of fire, air, water and earth. The roofs are flat and yak or cow manure is dried there and used for fuel.

There, we ate with the family in the traditional Central Asian way of eating on low tables and sitting cross-legged on thick carpet. Home cooked meals, fresh from the surrounding farms and orchards.

At Yamj Villiage we stay with the family who are direct descendants of the Sufi Mubarak-i Wakhani who is a local Ismaili-Sufi scholar, poet, and traveller who died in 1910. The name of Mubarak-i Wakhani (1839-1903) , a Persian (Tajik) mystic poet, musician, astronomer and Ismaili religious scholar from Badakhshan Valley.  Mubarak has received little attention from modern scholars despite his importance to Ismaili esoteric thought and Ismaili traditions of the people of the Pamir Mountains.


Mubarak-i Wakhani Museum


Mubarak-i Wakhani shrine – grave

The Soviets discouraged the Pamiri Ismailis from building mosques and many homes are converted into prayer rooms or shrines. One evening the family came together to sing and dance. The men uncovered the instruments that have been passed down for generations and began singing ancient Pamir ballads while the children performed traditional dance. 

The Pamir road is only open from Khorog to Osh in the summer months as the winter is extreme thus people in these areas continue to be isolated though many young men find their way to Russia to work as labourers and remit money to their families. One young Tajik I met along the way said he worked in Moscow for 4 years and was able to save enough money to build a house for his family and now is rebuilding his barn/stable:D7DBCCD7-BFD0-4D99-9B1A-0983BDBA653A

Left over vehicles from Soviet times are till very much in use. 

Local petrol-station: 

1950-55 tractor still in use:9EFC70CE-780D-40F0-9558-6BE61957B30FI was invited to meet a neighbourhood ladies group who get together everyday in the afternoon to sew traditional Pamiri costumes. They explained that they make these articles for sale in shops and it gives them extra income plus a chance to share daily ups and downs. 665273A0-EFA5-44F4-ACBA-A0741C67213E

Leaving the Wakhan Corridor, we ascend over desert mountain landscape and come across struggling cyclists.

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Over the Ak-Baital Pass of 4655 meters:45A0D17E-3D12-4E99-8503-3BAEAF2EE76AThe last night in Tajikistan was spent at a dusty outpost and Tajikistans’s highest altitude town, Murghab, where petrol was scarce and air dry. It was time to move north and join the Tian Shan mountains along the Alay Valley of Kyrgyzstan.  The Pamir Highway over the border to Sary-Tash and the landscape changes drastically to green pastures and onto the 3000-year old city of Osh in Kyrgyzstan. D8A8843B-995D-41E9-9B3B-4B538609C3FA

(all rights reserved, copyright 2018 .To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required)