Kyrgyzstanding our Ground

Last week, Yugyeong and I visited two polarising cities at each end of the Kazakh steppe. This week, we enter our second ‘Stan’, and begin the journey South towards the highest, and toughest, part of the expedition: crossing the Pamir Mountains.

Day 36 – Almaty, Kazakhstan to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Our time in Kazakhstan was almost at an end. But before we could leave, we were obligated to stand in awe of a statue of Nursultan Nazarbayev (president of Kazakhstan since 1991), who recently won a ‘fairly-contested-election’ with 98% of the vote from the Kazakh public. Now that’s popular, Mr. Corbyn.

We arrived at the Kyrgyz border earlier than planned and discussed the merits of crossing under the cover of darkness, or waiting until the morn. Having driven passed five Mongol Rallyers, who must have navigated the border that day, we decided to get the pain over and done with and headed towards the queue – preparing for the inevitable three-hour wait. But there wasn’t one. No queue, no interrogation, no extortion, and we were stamped and hurried into our next nation. Their leader may be the most corrupt man this side of Slobodan Milosevic, but not all their border guards are. Welcome to Kyrgyzstan.

Day 37 – Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

The only things I knew about Kyrgyzstan before entering was the colour of its flag, its connection to the Soviet Union, and that it gives you a very high score in Scrabble. Also, pronouncing the name (and spelling it for that matter) is anything but straightforward. Keergeejstan, as the locals tell us, is as close as any foreigner will get. The capital Bishkek is only twenty kilometres from the Kazakh border, and after arriving late last night, we woke up ready to explore the joys of the city.

We took a stroll around the main square which, unsurprisingly, has an enormous Kyrgyz flag at one end, and war memorials sprinkled around like confetti at the other. It was also very quiet, and we soon discovered why. Every Bishkek man, woman, and small child was selling or buying wares at the nearby bazaar. It was actually a great deal of fun getting lost in the myriad of alleyways, trading floors and covered-halls. It was an overdose for the senses and, after being coerced to buy our own pointless tourist artifacts, we fled to Toby and took a few deep breaths.

Day 38 – Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to Toktogul, Kyrgyzstan

I’m not quite sure where to begin, today has been a struggle of epic proportions! It started with us trying to find a printing shop in Bishkek where we could print out some visa documents to take to the Turkmen embassy – not an easy task in itself. What didn’t help was being pulled over by a policeman after I ‘failed to stop’ for a pedestrian. The crossing had no signals, and the man was a good five feet from it, but that didn’t matter. Having heard several dramatic tales of Kyrgyz Police extortion tactics, we had an idea of what was to come. I was taken to his car where he confiscated my driving license, and threateningly demanded two thousand Kyrgyz Som for its return. After ten minutes of pleading dumb (and stating we had no local currency as we were heading to the border), he begrudgingly gave up, forcibly shook my hand, and sent us on our way. Despite our toils, the Turkmen embassy was closed: ‘for the foreseeable future’.

We left Bishkek with a sour taste in our mouths, ate lunch in a small village, and began the six-hundred-kilometre journey through the spectacular Kirghiz-Mountain-Range to Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second city. Almost the instant we reached the foothills of the first climb, we passed through a police checkpoint and were summoned to the side of the road once more. The officer came over and started pulling on the drivers-side curtain, which was tightly rolled back at the time. He eventually managed to open it and pulled it across the window, at which moment he began taking photos. I was then taken to small wooden cabin, and into a back room about the size of a bathtub – which contained a miniscule window, dirt to the ceilings, and a wooden bench in the middle. So, began interrogation number two. For driving with our curtains drawn, which he had done himself moments earlier, “you must pay two thousand Som”. This time, he did not give up so easily. He slammed the door, played with his gun holster, and rang several of his friends to threaten me in English. But, after more intense ignorance, he forcibly shook my hand, and sent us on our way. A pattern was emerging.

The Kyrgyz mountains are jagged, rocky, and stunningly steep. So much so that Toby has really been struggling on some of the ascents. On a normal day, that would have been the focus of our worry, but (believe it or not) on the final climb of the afternoon, we got pulled again. This time for having the headlights on (despite the fact it is illegal to drive with them off). It really doesn’t matter what you do. They will charge you for any offence they fancy making up at the time. On this occasion, I was put in the police car with three officers, each doing their best to extort any form of currency I had. By this point, the whole routine was starting to get to me, but I stayed stupid. After twenty minutes, I got the forcible handshake (and a pat on the back this time) and sent off into the rickety-looking-passage through the mountain.

As you can see, for those worried about our safety, this ACT is what they do day-in, day-out – and if we were to pay them every time they asked, we would be broke before Tajikistan! Of course, if things do get a little frisky, we will obviously pay them off with our ‘all-the-money-we-have-left’ envelope (otherwise known as our bribery slush fund) hidden under the seat. Anyway, down the other side of the mountain, Toby not sounding great, with more police and the you-know-what-mountains looming large – I will not refer to them just yet as their mere name instils unease!

Day 39 – Toktogul, Kyrgyzstan to Osh, Kyrgyzstan

Having written enough about the corrupt Kyrgyz police (and not enough about the country), I will keep today’s encounter brief. Only pulled over the once, but this time probed for a record seven thousand Som. After a twenty-minute battle, we had to dip into our slush fund and pay the man five hundred. He was not happy, and neither particularly were we, but we are fighting well. Total value of fines requested = 13,200 Som (£150), total paid = 500 Som (£5.69).

On a different note, the road to Osh has been impressive. The tunnels are awful, drops perilous, and potholes constant, but the scenery is remarkable. In any fully-established country, we would be driving through a celebrated National Park, not an anonymous B-road between two cities. Having witnessed first-hand how poorly National Parks are tended to in America, this is a not a bad thing. We drove for hours through deep canyons and crimson gorges with the bluest of rivers running through the middle, and not a soul around to disturb us – apart from the odd Mongol Rallyer. Even Toby made appreciative sounds today.

Day 40 – Osh, Kyrgyzstan

A preparation day, as tomorrow (I must finally say their name) we start our journey through the fabled Pamir Mountains – more about the challenge that awaits us later. From morning to dusk, we zig-zagged around Osh: changing Toby’s oil, washing our pungent attire at the laundrette, changing several currencies on the ill-famed ‘exchange street’, buying supplies and a bucket-load of altitude pills for a week in the mountains, and taking yet more passport photos for later visas – Yugyeong with full head-scarf as she adopts the Iranian look. We are as ready as we’ll ever be.

The Pamir Highway (more tediously known as the M41) has been used for millennia as a Silk Road link between China, Central Asia and Europe, and it remains one of the few passable routes over the Pamir Mountains to this day. Its infamy has grown due to its unique rugged beauty, its height (it tops out at 4,655m, making it the second highest international highway in the world), and the challenge it poses to drivers, cyclists and hikers alike. The road is always susceptible to landslides (or avalanches in Winter) and its sheer remoteness make it a difficult to receive any assistance, should one become stranded. Hopefully, that will not happen – as we begin our ascent in the early morn!

Day 41 – Osh, Kyrgyzstan to Lake Karakul, Tajikistan

Our last morning in Kyrgyzstan, as we joined the germinal Pamir Highway out of Osh, and began the journey South to the border with Tajikistan. As the kilometres passed, the altitude rose, the snow-covered mountains appeared, and the road deteriorated. We arrived at Sary Tash (the last town in Kyrgyzstan), filled up with petrol, and took a deep breathe, knowing that once we left, we would be pinned on the Pamir Highway until the other side of the mountains – some thousand kilometres away.

The Pamir border in Tajikistan is one of the most remote in Asia. The Kyrgyz and Tajik border-posts are nestled either side of a mountain pass, with twenty kilometres of rugged, almost-impassable, no-man’s-land in between. The Tajik border guards also have an awful reputation, and given our experience of law enforcement in Kyrgyzstan, we prepared for the worst. However (the odd bribe and scam aside), the three-hour crossing was relatively painless – even receiving a watermelon for our troubles from a clearly-high Tajik guard as we crossed into their lands.

Astonishing lands they are too. With the sun setting, and our head’s aching from the four thousand metre altitude, the extra-terrestrial landscape began. We arrived at the eerie Lake Karakul, and found a small village on its shores that had a couple of ‘homestays’. Not fancying a night in piercing winds, bitter temperatures, alongside the darkest lake I have ever seen, we jumped at the chance of staying with a Tajik family and a few other haggard foreigners. After hearing tales of the road ahead, it was a wise choice.

Day 42 – Lake Karakul, Tajikistan to Rohinav, Tajikistan

With our heads still throbbing and dazed, I wasn’t sure if I was seeing snow outside our window or if it was the onset of glaucoma. Blizzards in August are apparently quite common here, but from the concerned looks and mumblings of the Tajik drivers that stayed with us last night, we needed to move – and quickly (I didn’t even have time to finish my Tajik porridge, crying shame). With other vehicles struggling to start, we were flabbergasted when Toby roared into life at the first attempt, hastening our crawl through the flurry.

The weather gods were kind in our direction as the snows swiftly rescinded, and we could attempt the mountain pass leading to the highest point of the highway. At 4,655 metres, it was the highest Yugyeong and I had ever ventured, and our bodies knew it. We ought not to complain, given the number of cyclists we saw gasping and struggling to the summit, but we will anyway. Wanting to descend as hastily as we could – only briefly stopping in the small ‘town’ of Murghab (obviously at another Lenin Square) – we made the onerous decision to break rule number one of driving on the Pamir Highway: don’t drive at night!

We didn’t take the decision lightly, but the blood in my legs felt like clotted cream and Yugyeong’s stomach couldn’t stomach another night at four thousand metres. So, we crawled through the mountain passes in twilight, without meeting a single car or soul for hours on end. Just before midnight, we finally began the steep descent, and instantly felt the relief that only oxygen brings. We’re now camped at a more managable height, drained, and wishing we could have seen more of our night-time surroundings on the way here (we’ll Google them later). But at least the hardest part is behind us, or maybe not…

Distance Travelled: 11,630km

J

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