On the silk road in Central Asia part #1
In this post I write about:
- Why Central Asia?
- First impressions a reunion and forging out plans
- Getting full “Sovjet” in a UAZ Hunter
- Around Lake Issyk Kul
- Naryn and its surroundings
The last stage in Kyrgyzstan Let’s go to Tajikistan and the Pamir mountains First morning, first problems Along the Pamir highway The Wakhan valley – a stone’s throw away from Afghanistan “Final stop” Dushanbe and visa issues Experience the local life of tajik people
Why Central Asia?
Where to go after the Philippines? That was exactly what I was thinking… But instead visiting South East Asia where I have been several times already it was time to go back to the region where I travelled solo for the first time –> Central Asia.
Back in 2011 I explored Mongolia after arriving with the Trans-Siberian railway. It is still one of the most stunning countries I’ve ever been in my life. For sure there are heaps of places still to visit but Mongolia was/is so untouched, it was simply incredible. Like Colombia, Mongolia is on the Lonely Planet’s list of places to visit in 2017. They are building new roads already, where I had to travel cross country, so to get the “real” experience, you have to go soon :-p.
Here some impressions from my trip back in 2011.
I remember where we had to travel cross country out of a sudden. We left the capital, Ulan Bator, and at some point there were no more paved – what I am saying – not even unpaved roads.
Me: “Where do we drive, there is no path”
Driver: “The country is ours, we can drive anywhere now, no more roads to follow we do it freestyle”
So that was basically the reason why this country was so remarkable and led me to the decision to visit Central Asia again. Instead of going to Mongolia for the 2nd time, I focused more on the silk road. So Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were the chosen ones. One advantage was the visa free entry to Kyrgyzstan. But what was pleasant here, turned out worse in Tajikistan, of which more later ;-).
Bangkok – Dubai – Bishkek, welcome to Kyrgyzstan.
First impressions, a reunion and forging out plans
There are better things in the world than arriving at 04:00 in a foreign country. Smart as I am I forgot to check the currency exchange rate for Kyrgyz “Som”. So I changed some US Dollars into Som but was so tired that I didn’t check the rate. There were no busses to the city center and almost all people from my flight disappeared already. So I was like a big fat piece of meat which was thrown into a river full of piranhas, with the fact the the piranhas were the taxi drivers. Arriving in front of my hostel the driver asked for 2000 Som. Nice, I had no clue how much that was, so expected to be ripped off I asked for 1000. Long story short I paid 1100 thought that I made a good deal. Only to find out from the hostel staff, that 500 would be the regular price. What ever I was happy to arrive ;-).
The first days I was busy exploring the capital city of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek. It had some nice green areas but also the common “sovjet” buildings. Some areas looked like if a former Tetris world champion had outlined the layout. Not to forget the big plazas with their statues.
I arrived in Kyrgyzstan in the beginning of the main season so my goal was to find fellow travellers for an adventurous round trip. Mission almost impossible, most tourists here where just in Bishkek to get some visas or visiting the countryside for just 2-3 days. Instead of wasting time, I decided to visit the near by national park “Ala Archa”. Anyway here in Kyrgyzstan I felt myself the first time as a really tourist. First of all I looked very different here and because there are not many tourists you get a lot of attention, especially with long hair as a guy 🙂 And the first time there was a huge language barrier. Not many Kyrgyz spoke English and unfortunately my Kyrgyz and Russian is a bit rusty 😉
Eventually, already back in the capital, I got a message from Anna. Anna studied together with me in Bern business information systems/technology. She was travelling with her husband Chris and they were presumably visiting Kyrgyzstan soonish. Perfect, travelling with people you know is always fun and they were arriving just some days later. To spend the time usefully, just not to hang around like a lazy potato bag, I decided to travel to Kazakhstan for 3 days. Lucky me there is the Expo 2017 in Astana so visa free entry for some certain nationalities including Swiss citizens. I managed my way without getting ripped of to my hostel. But of course they tried. There was one free seat next to mine in the shared taxi from the border to the city of Almaty. At some point the driver asked me to pay for the free extra seat without any reason. When I said “no” he was just laughing, probably thinking “at least I tried”. Because he asked in Russian other passengers could understand him. One guy was at the very least nice enough to complain that he (the driver) should stop to rip off tourists :-).
The following day I visited the Charyn Canyon together with a guy from Singapore. The journey to get there took 4h very boring hours but was worth it. The canyon was not well-frequented, not like hordes of tourists on some mediterranean island occupying sun chairs :-p.
On the way back to Bishkek I got a ride from a Kyrgyz business man and learned some lessons for my future road trip here. If the police stops you just try to talk to their boss and in most cases they leave you be. 😉
Finally I met Anna and Chris and I enjoyed the fact to talk in bernese german for the next almost two weeks. 🙂
Getting full “Sovjet” in a UAZ Hunter
We wanted to explore Kyrgyzstan for around 10 days with a rental car. We found a rental company but they just had one model left, an UAZ Hunter 4×4. When we looked at the car we thought it is from 1945 or so but no it was the 2013 model :). After spotting that car Chris’ and my opinion were irrelevant because Anna just said “this car” or “no car”. Actually we liked to have this super old school vehicle. It had no extras, not at all. There were maybe 3 buttons that’s it. No electronic extras as well. At this part of our trip we were laughing but the laughter drained from our faces after the trip, you will see :-p
Ah I almost forgot, we named it “Goat” according to a special goat game we would take a passive part in.
After we got our translated driver licences we could hit the road. It took exactly 1h and we already were stopped by a stationary police checkpoint. Apparently we (I) was driving 75km/h instead of 60km/h. We thought in this part of the world it shouldn’t be a problem to negotiate that sort of a problem. After glimpsing into the scale of penalties for speeding and google live translating into English we weren’t smarter. They wanted to charge us 5000 Som which is the equivalent of 73 US Dollars. This can’t be the penalty for speeding 15km/h to much. I wasn’t even sure if we were speeding so I drove back 300m to check the sign. There was a sign but just a town sign. Anyway the average wage in Kyrgyzstan is 222 US Dollar a month, 73 would ruin local people. We talked with them for at least 30min mentioned our POV and explained that we are (dumb) tourists and have no clue. We could even talk to a guy on the phone who understood English. After briskly negotiations they let us go with a warning. 🙂
After driving several hours between the lake Issyk Kul and a mountain range on our left we arrived in Grigoryevka. It was my day of driving and so far everything was fine with the car. We stayed at a nice homestay and enjoyed some beers and good food.
Around Lake Issyk Kul
From Grigoryevka we made our first “detour” to drive into a nice valley. But also with the warning from our host mother not to drive further than the third lake. The Kazak military would be there and we would get into some troubles. The valley had the very imaginative name “Grigoryevka valley”.
Today it was Anna’s turn to drive, Inschallah! A new Sébastien Loeb was born. In the very best rally manner we flew up the mountain and our “goat” was tested the first time. Anna did in in style but Chris and I had to breathe a bit. Let’s say it was unexpected even tho I know her since several years :-p
The planned side trip was a good decision. Now we knew why Kyrgyzstan is called “little Switzerland” or “Switzerland of Central Asia” but check the pictures yourself 😉
We were literally blown away from the beauty the country revealed us today. The mountains were embedded in green hills and plains. There were flowers which covered the whole lot of the grass fields. Not to forget all the animals. There were heaps of cows with the whole variety of sizes. From small calfs to big bulls. Further more Kyrgyzstan (and for sure Mongolia) would be the absolute dream country for horse lovers. They are everywhere and they are not fenced, the horses can/could basically go everywhere.
The next stop on our road trip was Karakol. Over there we stayed in an brand new hostel. I had my own dorm and a lot of space. Anna got again the shit end of the stick after we had our meals, it wasn’t the first time so far ;-). In this region we wanted to hike in the Altyn Arashan area. There were several options, the best one included hiking up to an mountain lake. Due to heavy snow fall this year, the path was still covered meter high in snow, so unfortunately we couldn’t hike up to the lake. Anyway we drove our “sovjet machina” up as far as possible. The road was terrible, I wouldn’t have drive there if we hadn’t “goat”. It was nothing short to a miracle that we didn’t suffer a flat tyre. After a while we reached a dead end. Thanks to an earlier avalanche this year, we had to stop our car. Prepared we strolled up the valley on a nice path next to a river. We saw again many horses, some sheep and 3 super slow Italian hikers with the same destination we had. 😉
We had the information that the families up the valley should have their yurt camps set up. We were lucky. There were no yurt camps yet, but one family was building the first yurt at the very moment we arrived. So the owner told his workers to hurry up that the stupid tourist can sleep in the surprisingly warm yurt. 🙂
This region is frequented pretty well in summer time by tourists, so to have the “real” experience a lot of them, including us, want to sleep in traditional yurts, which are a bit different to the ones I saw in Mongolia.
The weather wasn’t on our side. The bad weather program was bathing in the natural hot springs they have here. So we jumped in, warmed ourselves up, ate dinner, and went to bed pretty early.
Because Chris isn’t the biggest fan of horse back riding, Anna and me went alone. In 30min our horses should be ready. Not a bit of it! We have Kyrgyz time here, so after 1h more our horses were saddled. The guide we supposedly should have, asked us if we can ride by ourselves… I mean I did ride a horse maybe 5 times in my life but this won’t qualify me as a olympic horse jumper or the local dressage champion of my home village. Anyway he asked us if we need a guide. Both of us just said “no”. I really don’t know why we said that, but who gives a s*** over there. :-p
We rode off without a guide, with brief instructions where to go. My horse was a douche and couldn’t lead, probably because of me. Not that Anna’s horse was a tiny wee bit better, but it could lead. After 20min we got the knack of it more or less and continued slowly but steadily upwards. We reached the grass plateau and could see plenty animals. Mostly Cows, Sheep and other horses. We even shooed some sheep across the fields and could divide them into group. Even well trained shepherd dogs couldn’t have done it better than we did.
Now it is probably obvious why a horse is the best means of transport here in Kyrgyzstan. 😉
The descend resembled a mayhem. Our mounts simply didn’t want to strode down. It took a while until we reached our yurt camp again. But what a nice day. Overe here I was fully aware that not to buy a horse was the best decision. I couldn’t ride a horse for 3 months straight. :-p
The next day we went back to our car which was still there in one piece. But oh dear the problems with our ride just started. The petrol injection system was damaged. So when we put the pedal to the metal we lost all power. So we had to release the accelerator pedal and then step on it very carefully, but imagine how annoying that was… >_<
Now we reached the south coast of the lake Issyk Kul. Before we would witness the dead goat polo we wanted to see the seven bulls, a special rock formation. Due to heavy rain this was actually not worth to mention. But of course there were some more issues with our “goat”. The warning signs every car have, even ours, were blinking like a pinball machine from the 80’s. We stopped the car and called our rental company. They just provided us the information that this happens always with that car and that we shouldn’t consider the signs, it should be a disfunction from the manufacturer. The other problem with the petrol injection system was well known and he wasn’t pleased to hear that the issue appeared yet again. He wasn’t please? Well… we weren’t jumping around in circles too.
To be sure we let the car be checked from some Kyrgyz guys next to the main road. We couldn’t even open the engine bonnet electronically because it conked out. Fortunately especially because this car was so old school, you can fix everything by using force 🙂 We couldn’t find anything and continued our journey until it began to smell like crazy and out of a sudden there was smoke coming out of the bonnet…. It was just the hose which wasn’t attached properly to the oil tank. We arrived in Tamga in one piece at least 🙂
The day had finally come…. we would witness a dead goat polo game… it is morally one of the most questionable things I saw. Why dead goat polo. So it is a traditional sport in Kyrgyzstan. The players or one of them decapitate a goat. After it is bled out they remove the extremities and place the goat at the ground. They play on horses one team against another one. The goal is to grab the goat and to heave it up. Then they have to score a “goal”. That means they have to throw the dead goat into a kind of stone pit. They run basically into each other with the horses, they suffer as well quite a bit I reckon. There exist definitely animal friendlier games like ice-skating, pole vault or chess, even though you can “kill” knights while playing chess :-p.
It is common to eat the goat after the game so we got invited for lunch. The goat was surprisingly good after receiving some decent tramples. The best part was before the game anyway. A local guy was leading us to another hot spring. Over there, it was already Ramadan, was a Krygyz family having quality time. Which means drinking a lot of alcohol. Of course we got invited by them and had to taste all the local “stuff” they had. There are two local drinks which are very popular. One is made out of crops and the even more popular one is fermented horse milk. When I realised what it was, it was over with laughing. I had this kind of stuff already in Mongolia and yes it is non essential in this world like as well tomato juice. :-p Well we aren’t uncultivated tourists, so we gave it a try. There are some nice videos which I didn’t came across my harddisk 😉 We drank way to much considering the time of the day 10:00 in the morning. But on the other hand it was a fun experience with those local people. The “broth” went around the circle like a joint. But if you like weed you are looking forward to get the joint but we didn’t look forward when it was our turn to drink the fermented horse milk again :-p. On the other hand we were celebrating when the vodka made its way to us instead of the other things 😀
Back in Tamga we started to play Yatzy and some other games which would be part of our daily ritual form now on 🙂 Ah I almost forgot, we came into our second police check. They checked our licences and car permits and everything. It seemed to me that they were looking for the smallest violation of the law. Fortunately they couldn’t find anything.
It was time to leave the massive lake Issyk Kul behind us and explore new territories. It took us 300km on bumpy roads, except the town of “Ton” which had 100x better roads than the rest of the country. Who knows why… The landscape changed and in the late afternoon we arrived in Naryn. BTW our little bitch of a car had more issues. It started to rain, no big deal right? But then it started to drip through the roof, great. Further more we had issues with the wind screen wipers. It really started to be troublesome…
Naryn and its surroundings
In Naryn we went directly to the tourist office. The city itself… oh well… not a hidden gem but a good location to start several nice side tours. Actually we wanted to reach Naryn via the beautiful Tosor pass road. But since the already mentioned winter, it was still closed. We hoped to drive up the pass from the other side. But the nice lady from the tourist office had some other good destination for us. Thanks to her we saw one of the most beautiful places I have been on my trip around the world, the area around Kol-Suu lake. But first we got company from the tourist office to show us a nice Shashlik place. The guy was pretty funny and another guy who worked at the place joined us. It was a nice experience to see that all guys (and for sure also girls) are similar in the world. Kyrgyzstan is mainly an islamic country. It was interesting to hear the stories from those guys that they have to be careful when they smoke, drink alcohol or taking snus, because they would get into some trouble with their parents if they would find out. So no difference to our teenage years :D.
The next day we got our special entry permits for the area of the lake. Due to its proximity to China it is necessary to show a permit at a military checkpoint on the way. We had company for our 4-5h ride in person from a girl who will working in the yurt camp during the summer months close to the lake. Apparently we were some of the first tourists this season to visit that area and there are not many cars/tours driving there, so she was lucky to join us to reach that place. For us there won’t be a yurt camp yet but we can stay with a local family which adds a lot to the over all experience. 🙂
Our car, with the usual and some new issues made slowly its way on the terrible roads up and down the mountains. We were literally in the middle of nowhere. The last time I was at such a remote place was in the Chilean highlands in the very north of Chile. The landscapes left us breathless, the views over the mountain range and the endless grass plains and hills were magnificent. We took so many pictures like a 15 year old teenager takes selfies in a dressing room. :-p
There were only 2 trucks we saw on the road other than ours. At the military checkpoint they checked our passports. After 20min everything was fine and we continued our way. Even maps.me had some roads but it was very hard to navigate. Lucky us we had this Kyrgyz girl with us. But then she fell asleep and we drove of course in the wrong direction, twice! Eventually we found our path which leads to the small settlement in this remote region.
We could drop our bags and of course we got s***loads of chai. Always tea tea and more tea, which is nice if you like tea :p. As well they offered the fermented horse milk, which we friendly declined. 😉 The locals drink it like water. The weather was perfect and we wanted to visit the lake. So we started our hike along a river over some hills until we ascended to the lake. At this time of the year the lake hadn’t its nice color. But my personal highlight were the plains at the bottom of the ascend with a perfect view, I reckon it was one of the best views from my journey around the world.
I almost forgot to mention the massive groundhogs and the ridiculous amount of those animals we saw on the way to the settlement. Uncountable numbers of them live in that place. Sometimes it really looked like Switzerland but the huge difference was, where we have villages everywhere and cable cars or trains to almost every mountain, Kyrgyzstan is so untouched, its unbelievable. That is exactly the reason why I fell in love with Central Asia at first sight when I was in Mongolia.
On the way back to our host family we were on the wrong side of the river system. So the family father had to rescue the dumb tourists by horse to cross the river dry :-p
When we had dinner the mother was very interested in us and our stories. It was nice that the girl who came with us could translate a bit. Among the first questions is always the one “Are you married?”, “Do you have children?”. For them its normal to marry between 18-21 and if you are 29 like me, you should have at least 3-5 children :-D. When they know that I or let’s say we don’t have any children, sometimes you got the response “Oh… I am so sorry for you”. Another couple told me later in Osh, that one local pointed between the boyfriends legs and just said “Problem? Need Viagra?” ;-). The family father was not super interested. When the mother asked Anna if she is married to Chris she shouted something into the “living room”, where the father was sitting. The response came back in an unhappy voice 🙂 Nothing to get here my dear :-p.
The journey back to Naryn was unpleasant, we had heavy snowfall and Anna was freaking out because the car was bitching around big time :-). Chris and I had to hold our breath when Anna started to go nuts with the car. #RallyModeOn :-p
There was one more stop on the way before we headed back to Bishkek. Song-Kul another lake in an almost symmetric perimeter up some hills. Before we drove there we spent an extra day in Naryn to check the car. The rental company could provide a mechanic and a translator. The results were terrifying. I don’t know how many issues the mechanics machine displayed but it couldn’t mean something good. After consulting the rental company we continued our way. As an extra for all problems which occurred on the way we didn’t have to pay for 2 days, at least…
Another ascent up the mountains we reached the very flat and super green plateau of the Song-Kul lake. Here we met way more tourists, still not a lot. But the yurt camps were ready, even with heating :-p. We played Yatzy and some card games and enjoyed our last night together in the countryside of Kyrgyzstan.
The way back to Bishkek was smooth until 10km before the city borders. First I thought I stepped on the wrong pedal, instead of stepping on the breaks I thought I was on the clutch. Anna was laughing and questioned my driving abilities. It was so awkward. At the gas station she was driving and she realised that it wasn’t my mistake previously. At the very end the cars breaks decided to cease their functionality. Oh my gosh! Imagine the breaks just stopped working. We were so super lucky that we just started the car again and on the big highway, so we could stop the car easily. But when we were thinking back to the moment we drove down the decline in ways of serpentines, imagine what would have happend if the breaks stopped to work over there… nevertheless we were lucky and only 10km away from the capital. We called the rental company and two guys picked us up. One was even driving our rental car back, which was the pretty much stupidest idea in that case. I mentioned that our UAZ Hunter was version 2013, we could get the ride in the new model from 2015. I can’t really explain it, but the versions differ like day and night. The 2015 model had all extras, big touchscreen, AC and all those little things.
What an end to our round trip in Kyrgyzstan. In Bishkek we will spend some more days and our ways will split. My way leads to the south of Kyrgyzstan and then to Tajikistan. Anna and Chris will continue to Kazakhstan. Our last nights we spent watching the Champions League final and visiting a karaoke bar 😀
So the second part of my Central Asia trip in the next post!