Landcruiser mended up to the standards of Central Asia, we set off towards the town of Osh. Knowing that we wouldn’t make it there in one day, we took our sweet time getting ready in the morning…checking wifi, drinking coffee, blogging and being lazy around the hostel. The warm August air of Bishkek puts you in a relaxed mood, the cool nights lull you to deep sleep and the sunrise gently awakes you.
It seems like Bishkek, although the capital of Kyrgyzstan, remains chill throughout time. Of course there are people bustling and hustling on the street, but it all seems in good fun and relaxed. No one is out to get you, there is enough time for everything and food for everyone.
Osh is not that far away, but everyone kept mentioning that it takes at least a full day, maybe two to get there. Only 400 miles separate the two biggest cities in this little Central Asia heaven of a country.
By our US standards that would be a 6-7 hour drive without traffic, lets not forget that this is not California or Texas. If people say it takes a while, there is probably a good reason.
Soon after leaving Bishkek, we discovered that the road to Osh has to go through a mountain range, with shitty pavement, dangerous tunnels and millions of old German trucks. A little sidestep here, it seems that Kyrgyzstan is a country-wide recycling yard for old German cars and trucks. Audis, Mercedez, Volkswagens…you name it, all can be spotted here. These car manufacturers owe their success to the people of this ex-Soviet republic for the large market share, without them the old cars would have nowhere to go and no new ones would be sold…that’s my in-depth economic analysis.
Back to our drive to Osh, after passing a crazy 2.5 mile long tunnel that seemed to be carved out of the mountain with hand tools and held together by prayer alone, we found ourselves among the mountain range that surrounds Bishkek. Afraid of the strong, cold wind in the valley we found a flat spot relatively clear of horse and cow manure and set up our little ground tent.
Here, i’m looking like a little proud school boy for string out the tent so nicely. Its August, but the mountains still have some snow and the wind coming through with every blow makes your utter the infamous “winter is coming”.
Woken up by a beast rummaging next to our tent, i quickly got out of the tent thinking that it would be a horse trying to nib on our tent cover, only to be greeted by the cutest little baby calf. More scared of me than the other way around, the calf hastily made its retreat to the safety of the nearby herd.
Quick breakfast of honey, pancakes and farmer’s cheese…yes we are fancy, even in the middle of nowhere.
The road from Bishkek to Osh is about as long as the drive from San Diego to Bay Area and quite opposite in everything else. As you drive through you get to see the snowy mountains, beautiful deserts, amazing lakes, vineyards, rainbow colored hills and rocks…hm, so its sort of like the California drive, just much more exaggerated.
In the morning we drove by the Toktogul Lake/Reservoir…describing it as a beautiful lake is like calling da Vinci “one of the ninja turtles”…its just plain wrong.
The cold, humid atmosphere of the previous night is replaced by the deafeningly hot air of the dessert.
After coming down from the mountains to see Toktogul Lake the road takes you back up and along the river that flows out. As you drive along one of the banks that the river has carved out of soil and sometimes pure rock, your visual receptors get a full work out on the whole range of your color perceptions. The bluest-greenest water makes your eyes water as they dart from the red and browns of the surrounding mountains.
For the next couple of hours, its hard to concentrate on the road, as all you want to do is look outside your window and contemplate on how awesome it would be to jump into this river.
All of the three photos are of the same river in different places, you can see the variations in color depending on the location, but most importantly on the sunlight. The brilliance of the water is revealed by the sunshine…only to be driven into complete obscurity by a cloud.
And on this road, you have to keep your eyes peeled on the pavement. The road surface is top notch, but the constant curves, tunnels and never ending traffic call for full attention at all times.
There is also another thing that requires constant attention – rozzers, po-po, black and white, the guardians of peace…pigs…aka the policia. If you thought that we are law abiding citizen then you have been wrong…very wrong. So what is it that makes us afraid of the men in blue? Is it a kilo of cocaine hidden away in our car, or maybe some marijuana that we picked up in Kazakhstan? Could it be illegal salami that we have crossed the border with?
Sadly, i wish we had a kilo of coke…then we wouldn’t need to worry about financing our trip. Think of the profit margin of getting it straight from Amazonas in Peru and delivering it here?
Our actual crime is being afraid of the sun…specifically front tinted windows. Only a month ago tinted windows were outlawed and the police is striking down any offenders with a zest of a mother bear protecting her cubs (does that analogy even make sense?).
We were warned by our friends, by family and pretty much anyone we met on the road – beware of the Police in Russia, Kazakhstan and especially Kyrgyzstan. In Russia, although we drove thousands of kilometers, we were stopped a few times but mostly for checking our papers…no real hassles. Within an hour of being in Kazakhstan we got pulled over and interrogated about the tinted windows. We employed the already familiar tactic of not speaking any Russian and the two officers buggered off in less than a minute, without even checking our paperwork. Again near Almaty, I managed to get pulled over but refusing to negotiate a bribe i got out of the car and kindly asked the officer to write us a ticket that we would fight in court. Remember, we are still pretending not to speak Russian and now imagine how you “charade” a judge. When the guy told his partner they both laughed, offered me some sunflower seeds and let me go. So far, so good!
Now we come to Kyrgyzstan, many blogs write about the notoriously corrupt Kyrgyz police. Break any….ANY rule and you will be pulled over and fined.
We are driving from Bishkek to Osh, probably the busiest route in all of Kyrgyzstan with police stationed at almost every village. On the whole route there is probably 20-25 police checkpoints, that pull over about half of the passing cars. Somewhere closer to Osh, we drove in a beautiful valley, enjoying the warm air and good music. As soon as we saw them we started lowering the front windows but it was too late, they spotted us and decided to pull us over.
The first officer comes over and ask for our documents. We say hello, give him the copies and wait. He lives and brings his superior, the guy in the white shirt in the photo above, lets call him Kublai. Kublai doesnt speak English and we dont speak Russian.
Kublai: “Hi my name is Kublai, and i have the biggest belly of all these assholes…so i’m their superior”
Me: “okay…i see your belly and respect it”
Kublai turns to Hyein and asks her if she is a translator, annoyed she responds that “for the love of everything that is holly, I’M KOREAN!”
Kublai: “let me see that window…”
Me: “I dont understand”
Kublai starts getting pissed and reaches into our car to raise the window…which i consider an act of war. How dare he invade the border of our sovereign state, this car is our home…our California and this fool just used force to enter our precious lands. This should probably be considered an act of war against United States, Russia and South Korea. This guys just messed with the wrong people…Khan or not.
We go in seige mode, close all the windows and doors…sit there collecting our thoughts. In the meantime Kublai is getting madder than a hatter, decided that he will jail us and is walking around throwing hashtag signs at us. Then he decided that its better to take off our license plate…never stand in front of Land Cruiser when its beeping. I’ve didn’t expect such a plump man to move so fast…but fear and adrenaline make us do strange things. Kublai then came over, realizing that we gave him copies, demanded that we give him originals…yeah and i was born yesterday. You will only see those at the police station. We all know why he wanted the originals, right?
Kublai: “Thats it get out, i’m arresting you we will go to the police station”
Me: “Perfect, i will give you the actual documents there and you can write me a ticket there”
Kublai keeps repeating the story and realizing that he is not going to get anywhere with us just leaves to his car with the copies of our documents. At this point we can just leave and make more copies, but thats a hassle…what if they start chasing us and then it would get worse. We cool down in the car for a few minutes, then Hyein goes out by herself to talk to them.
All i see five minutes later is Hyein hugging Kublai and the lesser Khans, taking a picture with them and then walking back to the car. She gets in and excitedly explains that she just told them that we write about countries and this will be on the internet…do they really want to see their face with the words BRIBE next to them? They realized that they are not being very welcoming and let us go.
What is the lesson that we learned here? Never argue or escalate your interaction with the police, things will go over much smoother. Never bribe them…always give copies and explain that you will give real documents in the police station.
The other lesson? Fuck the police…from now on we drive with binoculars out to spot them before they can see our windows rolling down. Since implementing this technique we didn’t have any issues, except some vomit inducing nausea…but i’ll take that over arguing with Kublai again.
On a MUCH nicer note if you are in the area, I suggest you try the local meat-in-a-dough dish called samsa. If you are lucky, you can find a vendor that will make them fresh in a tandoori, or tandyr as they call it here. Don’t they look like little wasps, just waiting to hatch and sting the shit out of you?
Where are we going today? We didn’t spend much time in Osh, looked around some little museum, filled up on groceries and set out further south towards Pamir.
Just a few hours away from Osh is the village of Sary-Tash (GPS 39.730445, 73.245937).
And NO…those beautiful hills are not Pamir, but they do prepare you for the beauty you are about to witness.
The road itself is in perfect condition and if you get lucky with the weather, you can roll down your windows and just gently fly through the landscape. You leave most of the police checkpoints and truck traffic in Osh, barely any cars on the road and you can let your eyes relax, your shoulders drop and take in the beauty.
After you climb up a mountain pass, you make a turn and realize that you are in a valley that is surrounded by mountains bigger than you have ever seen in your life.
You are already at 10400 feet (3170 m) with you feet planted on the valley floor, so when you look up and see these humongous peaks scratching the sky…these are no hills…these are proper mountains, this is Pamir.
We pulled over by the side of the road and although half covered by the clouds the mountains were so impressive that we just had to take a few photos.
Once again our luck with officers of the law strikes. As we are about to drive off we see a guy in a military uniform madly pedaling towards us, screaming “devushka (lady)”.
Aaaah shit, what is it now? He demands to see our camera, looks through the photos and informs us that we stopped right next to a military base…just our luck.
Thank god we did not take any photos of the base, but he demands that we go inside and show the camera to his superior. So we drive up to the base, get out and go inside. Some dude looks at the photos and tells us that we are free to go. Think about it…if they are really concerned with security: one, why would they invite us inside the base; two, we have a total of 5 cameras and they only looked at one; three, you can just take photos by driving on the road without stopping. Madness and stupidity…or just plain curiosity.
Happy to be rid of the army, we drove back to the town to look for a place to sleep. Picked the first hotel and found our friends already there.
Do you guys recognize them? Well, we met Remco (right) and Youngjun (middle right) in Ulaanbatar, Mongolia. And Dusoo (middle left) and Anshil(left) at the Mongolia-Russia border. We planned to meetup at various parts of the trip, but road has a plan of its own and brought us here together to enjoy beautiful Pamir.
The weather was turning for the worst and it looked like it was about to snow. We asked if there is extra room for us inside the house…of course, if we dont mind sleeping on the floor. That evening we shared the hostel with a group of 20 Polish riders that were doing a two week tour of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. When we showed up they were already partying a little bit and were super excited to see us.
When they saw our car, more questions about where we came from and we had to to a little tour. I dont mind at all, especially to such a jolly group of tipsy Poles.
Back inside they continued partying.
Even the owner came out to join in with his accordion.
Bright and early in the morning, the clouds are still there but you can finally see the top of the mountains. The mountains are sooooo large that words other than Shakespeare’s will not do them justice.
Considering the amount of drinking the night before by the Polish group, i thought they would be sleeping in till noon. But by 9 am they were saddled up and warming up their engines.
Our plan was to check out the tallest mountain in the area – Peak Lenin. We were told that if we get there before 10 am, then we would have perfect visibility.
From Sary-Tash its only 70 miles, but half of that is off pavement. So it took us almost 2.5 hours to get there.
The road itself is not bad, just cant drive too fast on it.
Marmots are the only wildlife that we saw on the way to the peak.
There it is, the final climb and you get to the valley at the foot of the mountain. The basecamp is just beyond that lake, where the little buildings are.
The view is out of this world. If you thought the mountains are impressive when looking out at them from the valley floor…just imagine how they make you feel when you stand there in the sun, staring up into the sky at the snow covered peaks and edges.
Unfortunately we got there too late and did have a chance to take a photo of the actual Peak Lenin. It would be where Hyeins left hand is pointing.
No matter, being in the presence of these snowy giants is enough.
Very rarely we are give a chance to look at something so massive, to be able to appreciate and love our planet.
As someone who has actually done some mountaineering, legs and lungs were itching for a work out.
Lenin Peak somewhere to the left of Hyein’s head.
It took us so long to get to the basecamp that we decided to stay for a while and have lunch.
Nothing like a bit of delicious korean ramen after a night of drinking, wakes you up and replenishes all the lost nutrients.
Instead of watching water boil, we set out for an equally useless task…waiting for the clouds to clear to observe the top of Peak Lenin.
The local drivers and basecamp workers were super excited when we showed up in our own and later when we started washing dishes right in front of them. The dishwashing is what gets almost everyone…people have seen all kinds of sleeping arrangements in cars, but to have a water tank and heater…thats something special. I’m glad that everyone enjoys it, sure was a task to organize all of these things.
Hung around to digest the food for a bit, hoping and waiting for the clouds to clear for just a moment so we can see the peak. No, the gods were shy today. Driving down was a challenge of trying to keep your eyes on the road instead of looking into the mirror. It was such a good view that we even cleaned the mirrors for better visibility.
Back at the hotel our friends were waiting for us, we originally thought that we would stay together one more night…but the weather and border conditions dictate the trip.
The border was going to be open tonight till evening, but might close tomorrow. Not wanting to risk getting stuck here for longer than necessary, they packed and headed for the mountains of Tajikistan.
I’m sure the road is long and we will see them again. The people you meet on the road become your friends, they have suffered through the same ordeals, had more mosquito bites than they like to remember, you share the same passion for open borders, good roads, beautiful food and people. They are your brothers and sisters of the road, a badge that is not easily earned. We said good-bye for so long that i was worried about them passing the border in time. Hyein and I packed our car and went back to Osh.
This is not our last day in Kyrgyzstan, we still have to go back to Kazakhstan, but this is the right place to do a little summary for this amazing country.
People always ask us what is the best, most interesting, most beautiful place we visited. Thats a much harder question to answer than you would think. There are beautiful place in the world, truly amazing things created by people and nature. And it is so hard rank the places, what we should do instead is talk about the places that have exceeded our expectations. We knew of Machu Picchu in Peru and Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, we knew these places are unique and exceptional. Seeing them with your own eyes was an amazing and lucky experience for us, Salar de Uyuni even exceeded my expectations.
But Kyrgyzstan is a whole different ball game, we knew nothing about it. We did see a big lake on the map and thats about it. The country as a whole absolutely exceeded any and all expectations that we had, not by a little ….by a whole lot, blew everything out of the water. If you want to see a really cool place in a span of just a couple of weeks and feel accomplished, then Kyrgyzstan is THE place for you. You can fly into Bishkek, drive around or be driven around, see all the sights and fly out, all without breaking your bank.
There is of course the Issykul Lake, but i believe there are more interesting places to see than just sitting on the lake shore. Drop by Altyn Arashan valley to get a feel for the most beautiful valley we have seen, relax your tired, aching body in the hot springs and bring it back to life with a quick dip into the freezing waters of the mountain stream. Ride horses, eat mushrooms, sip tea and enjoy the Milky Way right from your hotel room. Visit Osh to get a feel for a more Islamic city with good people and even better food. In Karakol dont forget to visit the fresh markets and pick up berries and fruits by the bucket for less money than you spend on a bus ride.
Drive as far south as you can to Sary-Tash to gaze upon the majestic, snow covered mountains that are Pamir. What is the one thing to see in Kyrgyzstan – mountains. From small hills that surround Issykul Lake to the sharpest mountains of Pamir…this the country of Mountains, Lakes and Sky.
Plus, just between us ladies here…its dirt cheap here…for now. No visas required, but Visa accepted everywhere…this place will be booming in the next 10 years, dont miss your chance to see it before it fades into the touristy attraction and the people turn into Parisians.
Nomadic Year reporting from the amazing Kyrgyzstan.