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Archive for the ‘Kyrgyzstan’ Category

Since departing Turkey 15 days ago, our rate of progress has been such, that we are experiencing the rare overland phenomenon of bus lag.  It would seem that every country in Central Asia must have its own unique time zone. We find ourselves going to bed well after midnight in spite of long days on the road.

There is some sense of relief when I wake in our room. I say some… as we no longer require the immediate issue of any visas, but we still have two border crossings over high mountain passes to consider before reaching Pakistan. Both are in sensitive areas and can be closed without warning. Transport is limited and soon the holy month of Ramadan will be ending, adding further complications.

Despite the curtains being drawn, our room is filled with sunlight. The small air-conditioner that sits in the corner has been fighting a losing battle with the heat all night. As if with anticipation of its failings, the manager of the hotel has also provided a fan which unlike the curtains is performing admirably. It creaks as it swivels from side to side. I lie in bed watching its pendulum journey with anticipation; offering respite every 10 seconds.

Osh bazaar

Osh bazaar

As far as I can see in our wonderings, the streets of Osh contain none of the central Asian gems found in Uzbekistan. The architecture is mainly limited to Soviet era apartment blocks. Only the central bazaar offers an echo of this once historical city along the Silk Route. While the buildings of Osh are a little bland, the same cannot be said of its inhabitants and the surrounding landscapes. Most of the men are adorned in traditional felt hats called Kalpaks and clasp onto strings of colourful worry beads.

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From a linguistic point of view travelling through central Asia is proving difficult. The Uzbeks were speaking Tajik. The Kyrgyz in Osh are speaking Uzbek. Some can speak Russian, none can speak English. Our enquiries for onward transport are limited to stating our destination and then writing the price on dusty taxi windows. Being two is also confusing as we never know if the agreed price is for one or both of us. This is normally resolved by holding up the number of fingers and placing it above each of our heads. I vow next time to learn Russian for… How much per person?

The road from Osh to Bishkek starts along patchwork hills of golden wheat and green corn. As we round a bend on a small crest, I get a glimpse of the Pamir Mountains to the south in Tajikistan but today we are heading north east to the Kyrgyz capital. The road continues past a series of dark emerald lakes trapped in deep canyons. The strata in the walls are twisted into psychedelic patterns by the movement of the earth.

Osh to Bishkek

Osh to Bishkek

Overtaking in precarious situations is something we have become accustomed to, but today we have the extra disadvantage of the steering wheel being on the wrong side of the car. Our driver is in the running as the worst we have encountered on our journey so far. His slows down to shout into his phone only to accelerate in short bursts between calls to compensate for his loss of speed.

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We eventually escape the canyons and drive along the shores of an ice blue lake framed by dry hills and fields of sun flowers. The road starts to climb, but our driver is trapped behind trucks unable to see if he can overtake. We develop an understanding where I hold up a finger to wait and then wave to overtake. At the top of the pass the mountains are turning green. We find ourselves on the edge of a vast broad valley. The road straightens and stretches out of sight. Rocky outcrops to our left and right still cling to winter snows. We pass by traditional yurts and fine looking horses of all colours running wild. This is a magical place. The sun is now low in the sky behind us, shining the way forward. Our driver has stopped taking calls and seems transformed by this beautiful setting. On such a long journey you encounter moments of special beauty, this is one of those moments.

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By the time we reach Bishkek and drop off the other passengers it is nearly 10pm. The journey has taken nearly 12 hours, but had we driven with consistency and not had such long food stops, it could have taken 8. Our driver has become exhausted by his many phone calls and lost the will to find our hotel. He passes us off (despite some feeble protests) to a local taxi who is better acquainted with the dark streets of Bishkek.

After a small struggle, we find the Alpinist hotel but the rooms are grossly overpriced at $75.00 USD. I try to negotiate with the girl at the desk but they won’t budge on the price. Despite being very tired we try up the road but the next hotel is over $200.00 USD. I don’t even bother to look at the room. I walk back to the taxi dejected and resigned to going back to the Alpinist. Our taxi driver is perplexed so I rub my fingers together to indicate money and then shake my head. The person from the second hotel who can speak some English offers assistance and translates for us. It would appear he can take us to some cheap lodgings, but it is made clear that it is not a hotel. I assume it’s a guesthouse. A phone call is made and we are driven around the corner, down a dark street and stop outside an apartment block. It sounds menacing but our driver is a kind and thoughtful soul and we feel no danger.

I am a little confused as it looks to be a private residence. I go up the stairs while Emma waits in the taxi. Our driver accompanies me into someone’s apartment. My confusion is now turning into intrigue. A lady is sitting on a chair watching TV. She stands up and shows me around, then commences negotiations with the aid of a pocket calculator. The unit only has one bedroom and I begin to wonder if we will be sleeping on the couch. Neither can speak English, so we all play a late night game of charades. I place my head on my hands and then point to the couch. She shakes her head and points to the bedroom. I now wonder if she knows I am married and wether the negotiations are for something else. I point at her and then point at the couch. They both laugh and point out the door indicating she will not be staying here. We agree to $25.00 USD. She then points at 10 on a clock and waves out the door, which I take to mean she wants us out by 10am. I nod my head in agreement and go down to get Emma. I feel a sense of adventure and fiscal achievement. An unusual ending to a wonderful day.

The apartment in Bishkek

The apartment in Bishkek

There is no time to linger in Bishkek and the next morning our taxi driver returns to collect us. We have by sheer luck found an upmarket café nearby and indulge in ice coffees and porridge with fruit for breakfast.

Central Asian transport seems restricted to share taxis and our journey to the resort town of Cholpan Ata on Lake Issyk Kol is no exception. The drivers in Kyrgyzstan are however more subdued than their Uzbek counterparts and normally with patience we manage to pay close to the correct amount. Most journeys of about 5 hours incurs a fee of around 6 to 8 USD per person.

The lake itself is vast and serene but the same cannot be said of the developments along it shores. The main strip is a collection of unattractive buildings with unreadable signs in Russian and Kyrgyz script. We look for the Angelina Guesthouse but it’s impossible to locate. Among this sea of unrecognisable words we spot a sign in English for the Green Pub and decide to rest and take lunch. The sign outside may be in English but the menus inside most certainly are not. Our meal is yet again restricted to pointing at what others diners are eating. In this case a tomato and cucumber salad accompanied by bread.

Lake Issk Kol

Lake Issk Kol

It’s easy to ask for Coca Cola but difficult to receive cold. Who drinks warm Coca Cola for heaven’s sake? We have become accustomed to holding the bottle and then wrapping our arms around ourselves and shivering in an imaginary blizzard to indicate cold. The message is understood and the cokes are taken away never to be replaced with chilled versions.

Further attempts at locating the Guesthouse Angelina are futile, but a friendly shop assistant directs me around a corner and up a street to a blue gate; behind which lies a lovely garden and rooms overlooking the mountains to the north. The room is elevated on the first floor and has the luxury of windows on both sides affording much needed cross ventilation. The garden below is filled with wild flowers and a rustic day bed. A single wire is strung between two trees and I instantly think about much needed washing. A large watermelon sits in a bath of cold water chilling.

The mountain peaks are obscured by dark gloomy clouds. We lie on our bed relaxing. The breeze is now strengthening and carries the cool fragrance of a storm. In the distance we hear the deep rumble of thunder. It is a welcome sound after so many weeks in hot dry conditions.

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Later that night we return to the Green Pub for another round of Guess that meal. Emma is relishing the opportunity to play more charades and orders a Laghman which is a stew made from meat and noodles. This can come in the form of Chicken, Beef or Horse. She holds up 1 finger and states Laghman. Our waitress nods. Emma then enquires about the choice of meat but our waitress is not familiar with chicken, cow or beef and looks confused. Emma holds two fingers to her head and moos while extending her neck in a bovine arc. It is a confidant and accurate representation. In between laughter and nods, she then holds her elbows to her side and flaps them while making unmistakable chicken noises. The waitress understands and replicates the flapping wings of a chicken. Needless to say the other diners are in fits of laughter but Emma has secured her meal with no chance of horse appearing in her stew.

The next day we drive around to the southern side of the lake to the town of Karakol. While the town itself is not overly attractive the mountains and valleys 10km to the south are of outstanding beauty. We are compelled (despite our short time left) to spend at least a couple of days trekking in Kyrgyzstan. The upper valleys of Altyn Arashan are filled with Pine forests, waterfalls and green meadows covered in alpine flowers. Our tent is unwrapped and still covered in dust from Kenya. It feels good to use it again… it reminds us of Africa.

Camping in Kyrgyzstan

Camping in Kyrgyzstan

The temperature drops rapidly as the sun sets. A cold wind is descending down the side of the valley. For the first time on our journey we unfold both sleeping bags. The lions and buffalo are gone but the Altyn Arashan area is apparently home to some 20 snow leopards. For a rare animal this seems an extraordinarily high number. Later that night I hear movement outside our tent. I peer cautiously outside but it’s only an inquisitive goat. Still the opportunity and the surroundings provide an exciting night.

It is time to cross the first of the mountain passes from Kyrgyzstan into China. The Torugart Pass is a restricted area, unless of course you pay for a special permit and are met by a driver at the top of the pass. We have travelled from Karakol to the town of Naryn which is the starting point in Kyrgyzstan when making the crossing to Kashgar in China. All foreigners must have registered and have paperwork in order with both Kyrgyz and Chinese drivers. The daily bus which costs a fraction of the price is strictly forbidden.

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Unlike the western side of the country the land here is a high altitude desert, but it is no less beautiful. Huge white mountains rise out of the brown landscape. We pass through the outer checkpoint without any issues. The inner checkpoint is where we are stamped out of Kyrgyzstan. The building is empty apart from ourselves, a French couple and a French family. For some reason the driver for the French feels there is a rush and pushes in front of us. It seems a pointless exercise, as we all have to wait for about an hour at the top of the pass before our Chinese drivers arrive.  I feel a sense of justice when the first vehicle appears and the driver calls out Australia. There are two checkpoints on the Chinese side to negotiate, the second is where we are stamped into China.

Torugart Pass

Torugart Pass

It feels so strange to be here. Two weeks ago it felt such a long way in front of us. I look out to the east. China is a massive land. The largest country we will encounter on our travels. Despite its size we are forced to move the clock forward by three hours to Beijing time. China is not interested in the curvature of the earth and time zones, but the local people in Kashgar still refer to local time which is now 1 hour ahead of Kyrgyzstan; all very confusing.

Crossing the Torugart Pass

Crossing the Torugart Pass

The last time we entered the city of Kashgar we had driven for 12 days across the Tibetan plateau from the east. Now 4 years later we are coming from the relative luxury of Kyrgyzstan in the west. We ask the driver to take us to the Sahar hotel where we stayed last time. When I inspect the room I am left with little doubt that the last time we travelled, we must have been much harder than we are today. The rooms are disgusting but cheap at 80 RNB about $12.00 USD. The sheets appear clean-ish, but the state of the floor has me considering how to pole vault into bed. I cross the road to the Seman hotel, and inspect a room which is grim, but relatively palatial when compared to the Sahar. The price is almost double at 150RNB but he takes it down to 100 and an easy choice is made.

All that stand between us now and Pakistan, is an irregular bus service over the Kunjerab Pass, the highest border crossing in the world…

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