When? July/August 2014, A Steppe too Far, coming from Tashkent, a side trip to Kashgar in China and back to Tashkent
How? Overland in buses and local planes
Who? Group Tour
The border crossing is extremely tedious. Passports are checked at four different places before I am allowed an exit stamp. We are also enjoined to keep the registration document from each hotel we have stayed at. Guards need to look at them and other Uzbek hotels will not be allowed to register us unless they have seen these. The customs officers are bored and rifle through everything in my bag before spending ten minutes looking at all the pictures on my iPad and asking who everyone is. They are bewildered because I don’t speak Russian. All foreigners speak Russian.
Another minivan and another driver and a very short tour of Osh, the ancient second town in Kyrgyzstan. It is immediately obvious that Kyrgyzstan is much poorer and more liberal than Uzbekistan. Lenin is in favour here again, but otherwise there is little in the way of buildings or monuments to admire. The roads are decrepit, and structures are low build and crumbling with corrugated tin roofs. Most of the cars here are Japanese. These are cheaper when the steering wheel is on the left so fifty percent of the cars in the country are left hand drive and fifty percent right hand. There are a lot of accidents – the government , we are told, is going to take steps. There are also flies everywhere. Dramatic scenery is promised to compensate – this country is 95% mountainous, with the average peak coming in at over 2000 metres. When we come back from the mandatory mosque visit we find yet another driver. The last one has been taken sick. I hope it’s not an omen.
We don’t get lunch as it takes so long to get through the border, so dinner is fairly early. Traditional rice plov, (pilaff) eaten on a blanket covered wooden verandah that is built out over a swift flowing river. There is a little water wheel turning to one side.
We are in a homestay tonight. I have been allocated the dining room and I am sleeping on a sofa bed. There is a shared bathroom and very hard toilet paper. But at least there is some. I don’t think it’s a good idea to inspect anything too closely. There is a huge dining table and a large flat screen TV and an extension lead with sockets. The latter might possibly have been an advantage except that there are no batteries in the remote control and the lead fuses with a loud bang when I plug in my phone. There is no WiFi. This is a residential area and outside there is nothing but trees, houses and shrieking children. It looks like an early night, Except that there are glass doors to my dining room and no curtains or blinds.
A climb up Solomon’s Mountain to see a museum in a cave. If you slide down a slope at the top three times then all your back problems are cured. I try it, but it’s difficult to stop without jarring your spine so I suspect that more problems are generated than are actually cured. There’s a great panoramic view of the city and the valley beyond the mountains beckoning in the distance. Then into the bazaar. As with Uzbekistan, the most interesting aspect of the town visit is people watching. They are slightly more reserved than the Uzbeks, but still friendly, and there is some great headgear. Most notable are tall felt embroidered hats for men.
Then into the Pamir Mountains, over a mountain pass that is three thousand metres up. There are sprinklings of gers (now called yurts) and the views are stunning. Goats, horses and donkeys meander onto the mountain roads. We end today’s journey in another homestay, the seven thousand metre peaks of Tajikistan painting a picture before us. I’m not looking forward to tonight. There are six of us crammed into one room – sleeping on blankets on the floor. The temperature outside is around zero degrees as the sun sets. There are two long drop toilets (grade 2 out of ten) fifty yards away. The smell is indescribable. And it’s even harder to hold your breath and go to the toilet at the same time. All I’ve had to drink at dinner is vodka. I’m hoping it will put me to sleep and I won’t have to go the toilet too often.
A diabolical night’s sleep. There is a chorus of snoring all night and the ground is hard and cold. It is just about compensated for by the unfolding mountain vistas as we climb higher and higher: velvety green folds backed by white blanketed peaks and azure skies. There are no other cars on the road.
Shangri-La is punctuated by stops at border crossings for more passport checks as we inch closer to China. There is the pre-border check in Kyrgyzstan, then the stamp the passport Kyrgyzstan stop, then into No Man’s Land and five checks spread over 140 kilometres in China before we actually officially arrive there.
On the road again. I’ve noticed that all the petrol stations in Central Asia have gates. Entry is controlled by little men at desks. Back through the rocky border zone, but not so far this time, turning off over the Torugart Pass towards northern Kyrgyzstan. Border procedures are less onerous, but still irksome. However, the road is single track and not nearly as well maintained. Chinese trucks tear in the opposite direction taking the middle of the road on the hairpin bends and causing our happy driver to shriek. There are also landslides and wash out from rivers to contend with. Ten kilometres before the border there is a broken down lorry stuck in one of the wash outs. Some trucks attempt to manoeuvre round it, wobbling precariously in the mud, but there is a long queue of traffic at a standstill for 20 minutes. After much reversing we are on our way again, the scent of chamomile in the air. The truck drivers continue to be a menace; one misses us by a millimetre. I’m trying concentrate on the peaks, which are now snow capped again, but it’s difficult with all the bumping and Chinese swearing. We ascend once more to well over three thousand metres, snow lying along the side of the road.
There is another minibus waiting at the very top, on the border. This one has so many cracks in the wind screen it looks like a spider’s web. Heaven knows how the driver can see. As we enter Kyrgyzstan the pass follows a long wide valley with an iridescent lake off to one side. Eventually we turn off into a gorge that gradually narrows.Tonight we are doing the tourist thing and staying in a yurt. The decent ones are made out of layers of felt supported by wooden beams. Some of them, however, are plastic covered with steel poles. The locals call these Chinese yurts. There are several yurt camps set along the little stream that tumbles through the gorge. Naturally, ours is the most fleabitten. Tonight all seven of us are crammed into one tent, so I’m not going to escape the snoring. At least we have beds this time.
At the end of the gorge is Tash Rabat, a famous stone caravanserai, a stone domed resting place for Silk Road travellers. Or a temple. Or a fortress. Take your pick. We drive the seven kilometres to have a look and I walk back savouring the crisp mountain air and the dinosaur like rock formations. There are little yellow and sapphire alpine flowers. It’s picture postcard perfect.
The snoring was considerably diminished last night. Possibly because no alcohol was consumed at last nights yurt feast of cabbage and potato with microscopic chunks of meat. Fat marmots posture and then scurry back to their burrows as we head back down the gorge. I’m sitting up front next to the driver. There are a few perks associated with being a The Spare Part. His name is Reynard and he has the usual gold teeth (until recently these were regarded as a sign of wealth). He is driving with one bare foot and one foot in shoe and sock. I’m sure there is a good reason. I have accused him of aspiring to be English as he spends most of his time driving on the wrong (left hand side) of the road and listening to bad eighties music, like Village People. He thinks I’m being funny.
There is very little traffic (fortunately) on our route through more wide valleys and high passes. For most of the way the road surface is very poor. No-one has done much to the highways since Kyrgyzstan left the Soviet Union and the old Russian roads have disintegrated badly. The Chinese have begun to reconstruct the roads on this side of the country too but there is little tar-macadam in evidence yet, just a lot of piled up rocks, some concrete piping and a swarm of bulldozers. Nevertheless, the scenery is still magnificent. The mountains vary between rolling brown and green, herds of goats and horses roam (it’s still foaling season) and there are snow tipped peaks visible still for most of the time. The roadside stalls here are touting apricots and the trees in the orchards are laden with the fruit.
Kyrzgstan is landlocked and mountainous so there is no seaside. Right? Our destination today is Issyk Kul (Warm Lake), the second highest lake in the world after Titicaca. The sandy beach here is thronged with sunbathers, bright umbrellas and bouncy castles, not to mention donkey and camel rides. The water is heaving with intrepid swimmers (at 17 degrees I wouldn’t exactly describe it as warm, but the lake is so named because it never freezes) . A row of white capped mountains form the scenic backdrop. Around the lake the apricot stalls are supplemented with racks of smoked fish.
Tonight’s accommodation is another homestay. Yet again I’m in one of the sitting rooms with no curtains. The toilet and shower are at the bottom of the garden.
We detour along the lake to admire petroglyphs that are nearly three thousand years old. These are of interest, but the field of rocks, seemingly the remains of a moraine, is a more enjoyable experience, another great view in both directions, towards the mountains and back across the lake. A visit to the twelfth century Burana Tower follows.
Yesterday the seaside, today Hawaii. Lunch is at a restaurant on a lagoon full of fountains and floating pavilions and bedecked with plastic palm trees in yellow and red. There are all manner of bizarre statues. The highlight is probably the blue horse.
Then on to Bishkek, nipping through the bottom most finger of Kazakhstan, surrounded by barbed wire. At first glance the capital of Kyrgyzstan could rival Cuzco or Kathmandu for scenic city views of snowy peaks. However, it is a haphazard sprawl of residential and industrial buildings. I can’t see any signposts, but people seem to know where they are going. I’m not sure it has a centre, but there is a square with a statue and government buildings, with soldiers goose-stepping to change the guard this time. Here are also a couple of impressive museums, one with a collection of soviet era statues and tableaux, mostly featuring Lenin.
It’s been roasting hot today and a few of us are displaying symptoms of heatstroke. I have compounded the situation as I have been drinking very little to avoid midnight trips to the longdrops. Early bed with some dioralyte. Surat, the local, is red eyed and looks worse than me. He’s got even more confused as the trip wears on and he lives up to the depressed Soviet stereotype. He’s called both of us Sues, Susie, the whole trip so far. tomorrow we fly back to Tashkent.