Within two minutes of being in the country we are flagged down by a policeman. He asks Martin to follow him to his car where he pulls out a piece of paper with Russian-English translations on it. The most important one according to him is ‘You must pay a fine’. He points down a long list of violations including speeding and illegal manoeuvres to which Martin replies ‘no, no, no! ’
Entering Kyrgyzstan, was very simple, no insurance, no car papers, just a stamp in our passports.
We get to the capital, Bishkek and drive around looking for a hotel within our budget. Prices are high in the city so we take a room at the Hotel Alpinist and have a basic meal for which we are charged$10 each- our most expensive meal in the region so far!
29th October Ala-bel pass
We go to the local shops and stock up on food and drink for our trip. We’re not sure where we will stay this evening or even how far we will make it through the mountains. As we leave Bishkek and with the rain continuing to pour down, we consider turning back and staying for another evening. The last thing we want is to be stuck up in the mountains with snow and ice everywhere!
The roads out of town are lined with tens of police carrying out speed checks. We are stopped by one who seems intent on fining us, wanting to see every bit of paper we had. He doesn’t seem too happy standing out in the rain, but he can’t find anything and lets us go. It is a slow progress with the traffic chugging along at 30kph.
As we reach the mountains the sun breaks through the clouds and it finally stops raining.
Driving through the mountains, it is beautiful, with a blanket of snow cover, then onto a smooth main road, with white peaks contrasted against clear blue skies. At 2000m it starts to snow! We wind up the mountain until we hit 3100m where we enter a 2km long tunnel. As we emerge, there is deep snow and long queues of trucks and cars.
We see a car slide into another on the ice. An old man with his family pulls to the side to attach snow chains. However as he breaks, the wheels lock and he starts to slide, bumping the car in front that has its wheels jacked up. The car skids forward and luckily a couple of men are able to stop the car from sliding further. At this point we begin to wish we had stopped to buy some snow chains!
When we descend to 2400m, we come to a large open valley surrounded by snow capped mountains, where the sun come out and warms us up.
We ascend again over the Ala-bel pass which is beautiful and snow covered. We descend and find a small hotel for the evening.
30th October Osh
We set off early driving through stunning mountains, some colossal, close to 4000m, mirror-like turquoise lakes, rolling hills and colourful trees on a smooth road. Spotting two huts with people fishing in a lake at the foot of a huge mountain, we wonder why anyone would chose to live there, cut off from everyone else. We pass about 50 locals on horses and wonder if there is a festival on today.
As we drive towards Osh, we see no less than 20 marriage parties, racing through the streets in their decorated cars… we wonder whether this is a special day for marriage or are there always this many!?
We arrive in Osh and our first sight is of armed military guards. It is the country’s second biggest city, although 40% of the population are Uzbek. The locals claim that Osh is even older than Rome and believe King Solomon or Alexander The Great were the founders of the city. It has been a major hub on the Silk Road for many centuries.
There seem to be army throughout the town and even some small tanks. We drive around looking for some suitable accommodation and eventually decide on Tes guesthouse, in a comfortable enough room. On our way, we pass by the bazaar in the darkness, piles of rubbish on fire by the side of the road with a policeman standing guard.
The killing of 3000 people a couple of months ago had caused tension in the area, and with the election results due to be announced in the next couple days, we and even the local people we speak to fear there may be more. We pick someone up to give us directions to the hotel and he warns us ‘don’t go outside at night’ and points out all the burnt out restaurants and shops. This is all on our first night here!
We have to head out to eat conscious of our surroundings and return quickly.
Have breakfast and set off for the bazaar (Central Asia’s largest) . There are burnt out buildings everywhere, but especially around this area, just their burnt shells left behind. However the Bazaar is full of people and bustling. There are separate areas within for food, fresh produce, meat, nuts, electronics, clothing and even pants!
In the early evening, we ask the owner where to go for dinner…’There were a couple down the road but they have all been burnt down now’ said as if this was the most normal thing in the world. Looking for a restaurant, we end up in the local park where there are several cafes. The main square in the park has an area which feels like an open air discotheque and soon the square is filled with two wedding parties all partying and dancing to the cheesy music. We have a few language difficulties so opt for burgers instead!
We head back to the bazaar and check into a more central hotel. Buy a mink blanket for roughly $15 and have a spicy laghman for dinner in a local café which is tasty.
We leave Osh tomorrow for our biggest challenge to date, crossing the Irkeshtam pass into China, where we join the Karakoram Highway (KKH) & cross the Khunjerab pass (4730m) to Pakistan. The KKH (1200km long) passes the highest concentration of soaring peaks and glaciers in the world. If we are lucky we may even have sight of K2 the second highest mountain in the world!!
2nd November Sary Tash
Today we must make the 112 mile journey to Sary Tash. We drive in the early morning sunshine, with cattle and men riding donkeys on the road, passing row upon row of burnt out buildings on the roadside. We weave in and out of the shadows passing green valleys and tiny mountain villages. The temperature fluctuates between 6 and 16 degrees within minutes. 50 miles into our journey, the once smooth road has now turned into a dirt track.
When we get to Sary Tash, we are at an altitude of 3000m and have views of Lenin peak at 7127m high. We find a home stay, a basic room with a concrete pipe wrapped in wire attached to two exposed wires providing the heating!
Sary Tash is known to be a haven for drug traffickers smuggling opium and cannabis from Afghanistan. However, we see no signs of this. It just seems to be a desolate sleepy town.
That night we find we can’t sleep and have banging headaches, caused either by the high altitude or by the fumes coming from our makeshift heater.
We wake up early to temperatures of -10, the ground and any water around is frozen. As we drive off towards the Chinese border the sun starts to rise over the mountains.
We reach the first checkpoint, with two lonely guards in a freezing hut, eating breakfast, making us feel very hungry.
We reach the main border post where is a long queue of trucks so we drive around them. We have the car checked and are made to wait for about 30minutes before being allowed to move on to immigration and customs. The border guard stamps our passports and we head towards the Chinese border…
Martin & Nicole