Category Archives: Kyrgyzstan

AK47’s On the Afghan Border!

Our first evening at Nomad’s Home was spent enjoying a few tasty beverages with some of the other travellers whom were in habitation. One character in particular had us looking wide-eyed as he told us some of his travel experiences! German George hadn’t been resident in his homeland for many years.  He is currently approaching the end of his fourth year solo travelling the world and his only real plan was to make it to 5 years and see what happens. Germany held no tether in any shape or form for George as he had escaped East Germany during the dark days after spending 4 years in a gulag from the age of 18 for his outspokenness regarding the East German regime.

German George!

German George!

Nomads Home

Nomads Home 

The morning of Jen’s birthday arrived and with George taking the lead we headed off to a local restaurant for the required celebration, 3 tasty plates of local treats arrived promptly and with cold Ice Tea we toasted Jen’s slide that little further into the abyss!  I decided to shout the table as it seemed to be the thing to do and $8.50 lighter, the bill was settled and we were on our way into Bishkek!

An interesting enough City with the usual smells and sights associated with Asia, monuments and plenty of Police mixed with absolutely chaotic traffic. It was quite hot and we wandered for many km’s around the city center ticking off sights and the like as we went. Before we knew it the day was ending and we once again found ourselves back at the rear of Nomads attempting to help with the collection of aluminum for recycling.

The following morning we headed off to the Uzbekistan Embassy and found ourselves on time and outside with a group of around 25 others. What a farce this process turned out to be! We knew what to expect as pretty well anyone that has enjoyed the experience of obtaining this visa in Bishkek is more than animated in either telling you first hand or plastering it on the web! Anyway this surly young woman eventually emerges from a door in the front of the embassy with a piece of paper and starts reading names from it at a volume that would require you to be within inches of her mouth on a windless day inside an eggshell lined room in order to stand any chance of hearing her. Now we are 15 feet away behind a steel fence with traffic behind us and water running along a storm drain! Anyway I won’t go on other than to say that a few hours passed accompanied by lots of the usual cue jumping but we did eventually obtain our visas.

The only enjoyable part of the process was chatting to another in the cue who turned out to be an ex Australian Surveyor General.  Our own clever Australian Government had decided that his passport alone wasn’t proof enough that he’d spent 2 years in Uzbekistan and wanted a letter from the Uzbek embassy to back it up before he returned to Australia permanently.

We had lunch with George once again at the establishment of the previous day and after goodbyes and a quick resupply of food and fuel, we left Bishkek in the rear view mirror.

Goodbye Bishkek

Goodbye Bishkek 

The drive was excellent and the black top was for the most part in really good condition for a change. I was expecting the high pass that we encountered but was taken a little aback by just how beautiful the scenery was.  The rough hewn traffic tunnels caught me a little off guard however with no lighting, full of exhaust fumes and with just enough room for you and the oncoming Semi – Trailers whom of course do all they can to make sure you have enough room! (sarcasm for those who missed it) The steeper sections of the highway were engineered with the now familiar switchbacks and second gear was often in use to make life a little easier on the Patrol as the weather was very hot and hence quite hard on the vehicle. It was good to see the locals sticking to the same ethos as always – get there as quick as possible without any real concern for the car! The circus continued as time and time again an old Mercedes or Audi would scream past us before slamming on the brakes at the next switch back and then on the gas up the mountain. I couldn’t understand why we ended up passing nearly every one of them as we approached the highest section of the pass! Apparently they all needed to stop and lift their bonnets for an engine inspection and some appeared to be running on steam as that was generally the cloud being emitted from under the bonnets!!!!

Tunnel

Tunnel 

We travelled a little later than expected as we had some trouble finding a suitable campsite.  There were yurt camps littered along the highway and in between them steep valleys that didn’t really provide us any suitable options. Eventually we found a steep disused track down to a lovely but very fast flowing and noisy alpine creek and although close to the road, we were completely out of sight to passing traffic.

Beautiful Campsite

Beautiful Campsite 

Right next to our chosen location was a little rickety footbridge that was obviously receiving some intermittent use and I was sure we weren’t far from a yurt camp but nothing could be seen.  A relaxing nights sleep was had, upon waking in the morning Jen exited the camper for the morning nature call and relayed back to me that the loo shovel was missing! We keep a small shovel handy for it’s convenience of size and it’s the only thing we ever leave out at night. Fortunately we had stuck to our ritual of locking all external compartments and the cab for it would seem that with the noisy creek providing cover, a local herders sticky fingers had found our toilet shovel too alluring to pass up.

It was all that had been touched but it did remind us of the need to be vigilant.

As we continued south the temperature went north, we were now descending from the mountains and into the Fergana valley. You could see the haze associated with the heat for many km’s before it struck and intermittent touching of the windscreen went from cold fingers to cooked fingers in a very short space of time.

The town of Arslanbob was to be our only real detour enroute to the border, believed to be the location walnuts were first discovered with natural forests of these trees remaining to this day and still being harvested.

We hoped to be able to camp somewhere near the town, which lies nestled amongst yet another vista of eye catching snow capped mountains.

Upon arrival I was immediately struck by the hustle and bustle in the central square market mixed with the aroma of spices and the like, the place was a buzz!

Wonderful Spices

Wonderful Spices 

It was late afternoon at this point so we headed a little out of town in the hope of gaining a campsite but weren’t having a great deal of luck, retreating to the town square with the intention of perusing the map again and coming up with a plan.

A local appeared at my window and introduced himself as Ibrahim – a CBT representative (Community Based Tourism) and would you believe we’d just read about him in our guidebook! After telling him we were looking for a camp for the night, he promptly gave us instructions to the local animal market, which is only used on Wednesdays so we were in luck. It was all of 200m from the center of the village and with walnut trees to camp beneath and a gated area for the Patrol it was exactly what we needed.

Animal Market Camp

Animal Market Camp

Animal Market Camp

Animal Market Camp

We spent the late afternoon wandering up to a small 25mtr waterfall at the back of the village and knew we were on the right path when it became lined with vendors.  Quite pretty and as luck would have it we departed at just the right time as we managed to grab a lift in a UAZ back to our camp   Luckily it was all down hill as the UAZ would only run for a couple of minutes at a time so down hill billy cart style was the order!

UAZ Transport

UAZ Transport

Waterfall

Waterfall

Vendors

Vendors

Into the bazaar the next morning for a wander and a little shopping before we hit the road southwards. The Fergana valley slid by and we soon found ourselves in the main street of Osh and after finding our way to Jayma Bazaar, we managed to change some $US into Tajik Somoni as we needed some cash before crossing the border.

A fairly modern city centre greeted us and we spent a little time looking around town before heading off in search of a home for the night. About 30km’s from the border we found a great little spot up a side valley off the highway and although receiving one lone visitor in a Daewoo we were able to enjoy some isolation.

Onward to the border and the Kyrgyz side was quite simple and painless. The Tajik Side, which involved quite a steep climb up to 4280m where the crossing is situated, was like something out of the 40’s!  Nothing here has been updated for a very long time other than some solar power!

GBAO Zone

GBAO Zone

Tajikistan Kyrgyzstan Border pass 4280mtrs

Tajikistan Kyrgyzstan Border pass 4280mtrs 

The formalities were easy enough but the price gouging was a little offensive – US$60 to have our tyres sprayed with some chemicals from 2 weed sprayers (that I might add has cost little more than a dollar at every other border!), followed by fee’s for this and that. US$105 later and we were free, well sort of! We were only given 15 days validity for the Patrol to remain in Tajikistan, don’t really know why and it didn’t really matter as we figured that would be enough.

It was really exciting to finally be on the Pamir Hwy!

Pamir Highway

Pamir Highway

We pushed on and descended to Lake Kara-Kul, which we found very uninspiring. We stopped and chatted with a lone cyclist from Germany for a while and topped up his water but with the mosquitoes in plague proportions we continued a little further and with some perseverance found a reasonable camp about 5km off the main road and out of sight at 4060m.

Camped on the moon!

Camped on the moon!

It was our highest camp and quite a jump in elevation – I’m really respectful of altitude sickness and as such had ensured that over the previous couple of weeks we’d been spending time at camps around the 3000m mark. We both experienced very mild headaches that night but that was about it.

Next morning saw us crest the highest pass on the Pamir Hwy and the trip at 4655m. It was spartan and in some ways quite an ugly pass and the scenery along the Pamir so far hasn’t been all that inspiring but given the altitude it wasn’t really a surprise.  I’d also heard that the Wakhan Valley and Western Pamir region is where the eye candy is so we were content for now!

4655 mtrs!

Selfie at 4655 mtrs! 

On to the town of Murgab and mud brick homes emerge from the ground and seemingly disintegrate back into it just as easily. I can’t think of a tougher place to live with dust and nothing green in any direction and yet there seems to be no shortage of residents.

Murgab

Murgab

Murgab

Murgab 

We managed to pick up 20litres of diesel from an old dilapidated service station and after decanting it into a jerry can and funneling it through an old rag into the tank we were on our way.

Diesel available here?

Diesel available here? 

Just west of the turn off to the Wakhan Valley, we made our way 20 or so km to the north of the Pamir Hwy to Yashil Kul Lake. The description we’d read of turquoise blue water with stunning ochre coloured cliffs surrounding the lake was, well, very exaggerated! I don’t want to talk it down however as it’s a beautiful location and served us very well as our home for the evening. A hidden campsite was difficult to find as there is no vegetation but luckily we were able to navigate our way down to the shoreline and find a spot completely out of sight.

Yashil Kul

Yashil Kul

We headed back to the Pamir and then onto the Wakhan Valley road and immediately back to the joy of very heavily corrugated track! About 20 minutes into the drive we passed 3 Hilux’s going in the opposite direction, each a dual cab ute with a large gun turret mounted to the rear tray and loaded with Tajik soldiers. Each soldier was attempting to cover his face to avoid inhaling the plumes of dust being emitted by their very fast transit! It seriously looked like something you would expect to see on CNN in Somalia or the like…

Anyway we looked at each other and figured they were there for our protection so we should feel safe in that knowledge….?

Some time later we descended down to Khargush and the Pamir River which forms the Tajikistan/Afghanistan border.  Here there is another passport check and we spent some time waiting to have our information laboriously hand written into a ledger before being able to proceed. The soldiers manning the station were quite friendly and allowed us to check the ledger and see if there were any other tourists ahead of us, it appeared there was one vehicle a couple of days prior which gave us some faith that we weren’t alone!

Khargush Border Post

Khargush Border Post

Khargush Border Post

Khargush Border Post

We were now driving along the Afghanistan border and spending most of our time looking into Afghanistan, the Tajik side is generally quite steep next to the track and therefore your eye is inevitably drawn across the river. After a few kms and numerous stops for photo’s we found a fast flowing creek of lovely snow melt water and stopped to fill our water tanks. Out of the car only minutes, we were greeted by a local herder who promptly invited us up to his house for the now familiar milk tea! Upon arrival we were met by his wife and with the usual Central Asian hospitality, out came a large assortment of food.

Tajik Family Visit

Tajik Family Visit 

Central Asian Hospitality

Central Asian Hospitality

First was milk tea and then bread with butter that they had churned themselves, yoghurt and a very strong flavored goat(?) cheese biscuit thing! 2 of their 3 daughters arrived home from herding the goats and joined us for our discussion of life in Tajikistan. It was a great visit and we found out that they sometimes host bicycle tourists in need of accommodation, which is a great boost to their income.

Getting out of sight for the night was again a challenge especially when we had seen an Afghan gentleman in a flak jacket running for no apparent reason on the opposite side of the river but we managed to hide behind some small hills on an old paddock, which served us well. Views across to Afghanistan and the 7000m+ mountains of Pakistan beyond were astounding and we spent some time just soaking up the vista and trying to come to terms with the fact that we were finally camped in this location after all of our planning!

Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan!

Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan! 

The next day the Wakhan valley began to come alive with fantastic driving mixed with awe inspiring scenery that took your breathe away!

Interesting Driving!

Interesting Driving! 

We were now driving along roads that have been cut into the faces of the mountains with, at times, hundreds of meters of very steep scree slope between us and the river. Much of the terrain the road is carved through is conglomerate and looking up at massive rocks that seem only to be held in place by a little mud smattered around them is very disconcerting! I know they come down regularly as you can see them strewn all over the place but I guess you’d have to be unlucky….??!!

Rocky Overhangs!

Rocky Overhangs! 

Slowly the valley thickens with inhabitants and townships, lots of home stay signs and the odd small shop. The people of the Wakhan are amazingly friendly; you actually end up with a sore arm from waving back at all the locals!

Friendly Locals

Friendly Locals

Our day consisted once again of many stops for photo’s and relaxation and included a fantastic detour up a very steep and quite narrow track encompassing many tight switchbacks to ancient Yamchun Fort – certainly the best to be seen in the valley with remnant watchtowers and an incredible cliff top location. A rapid gain in elevation provided stunning views of the valley and if not for the wind we’d probably have camped up there.

Yamchun Fort

Yamchun Fort

Yamchun Fort

Yamchun Fort

Campsites were again a little tricky and we settled on a low spot along the river amongst some shrubs, which left us just visible to the road. Just settled in for dinner and the Tajik army spotted us and informed us that it wasn’t safe as we were too close to Afghanistan and should move on and stay in one of the towns. They were looking out for our safety I guess but to put you in perspective there isn’t anything on the other side of the river except very steep mountains and hardly any settlements of any sort. We finished dinner and began packing up, Jen said did you hear that and my response was “Yep – that was a high-powered rifle!,” followed closely by 2 more rounds sailing off somewhere into the valley! 

We packed up with a little more purpose at this point and pulled back onto to the road and as we did the Tajik army were on there way back to make sure we’d moved on. Anyway it was probably just a farmer letting a few rounds go, I imagine if it had been cross border action there would have been more than 3 rounds but it still put the wind up us a little. It was now dark and after about 10km the next town appeared and we parked in someone’s yard behind a bus stop! No one bothered us and that was the end of the excitement.

Bus Stop Camp

Bus Stop Camp 

Majestic mountains are the backdrop of the Wakhan -Afghanistan and Pakistan look equally inviting as you travel along the river, it’s hard not to be inspired by the view.

Afghan Village

Afghan Village

The last stretch of the Wakhan and we were now heading toward Ishkashim and Khorog and to date we hadn’t seen another overlander! However after rounding a bend we came head to head with the Turtle Expedition.

Turtle V

Turtle V

Turtle Expedition

Turtle Expedition

If you have experienced overland travel or are thinking about it and have been spending some time perusing the net then you more than likely have come across these guys. Anyway if you haven’t then here is their website – take a look!

www.turtleexpedition.com

Being familiar with Gary and Monika’s travel history and their current journey meant meeting them was a real bonus for us as they are a wealth of information.

We ended up spending a couple of hours on the side of the road with them sharing stories, discussing our vehicle setup and swapping suggestions regarding our respective itineraries and hope to see them again. Maybe in the US at Overland Expo!

Gary and Monika had given us some great advice regarding Khorog such as where we could park, get internet and the like – we take this info when we can as it can be a challenge finding these things on your own! Back on the road toward Khorog and another passport check came into view but this one turned out to be a little ugly.  I exited the Patrol with passports in hand as I always do and was greeted with some locals sitting around the office obviously insulting me in the local dialect, no problem I just insulted them in my dialect and all was Ok! Whilst I was in the office with the first unfriendly Tajik I’d met, Jen was in the car and unbeknown to me a camouflage wearing individual and then a local in his usual goat herding attire were attempting to get her to open up the camper, she could see them making gestures to others behind the vehicle in the rear view camera and they were watching to see that I was still inside the office. Jen knew they didn’t have any right to look inside the vehicle and when they became quite aggressive she gave them a firm NO and proceeded to ignore them until they gave up! I didn’t know about this until I was back in the Patrol and by then they’d all scurried off.

Only a couple of hours earlier Gary and Monika had told us that Monika always does any type of paperwork check whilst Gary locks the doors and stays in the truck, the local men aren’t as comfortable dealing with women and are less likely to become difficult, so our strategy has now changed and we follow theirs!  So far the new strategy is working a charm!

It was late afternoon by the time we made it to Khorog so we decided to camp and head into town the next day for a look around.

We drove up the Pamir Hwy back to the east for about 40km as we wanted to have a taste of this section of the Pamir Hwy as well and figured we’d had enough of camping on the Afghanistan border….

It was looking a little tricky until I noticed a rough and ready soccer pitch as we passed through a small town, a track leading in was found and camp set. A few locals wandered by during the afternoon, they had an assortment of farm animals tethered around the ground for the day and were in the process of retrieving them as evening approached.

Khorog is the location where most of the violence seems to occur between different local clan’s and is the area that has the most direct bearing on whether the GBAO permit is suspended. Due to the publicity, which is always negative around this town, we were expecting a war zone. The plan had been to get in, get fuel and get out!

To say we were wrong would be a big understatement, Khorog turned out to be as friendly as the Wakhan, laid out with lovely parks and cafe’s, a public swimming area teaming with families cooling off in the mid day sun and generally a warm and welcoming vibe! There is however no doubt this town has suffered its share of bloodshed even as recently as mid June and probably will again.  The tranquility we encountered makes you realize just how fast things can change.

Khorog

Khorog

Khorog

Khorog 

Continuing toward Dushanbe we enjoyed the now spoilt feeling of having too much lovely scenery, an easy day resulting in camp being found up the Bartang Valley and about 10km from the Afghanistan border.

We were hoping to continue toward Dushanbe along the Pamir Hwy (the M41) but had been told that the road was closed and we’d need to travel a longer route to the south on the newer all year road. We were disappointed at this news, as I’d been led to believe some of the best scenery lies along the main Pamir Hwy. Disappointment was short-lived however as we found the road had been reopened and although in poor condition we would be allowed to traverse it!

The road didn’t let us down and did provide some of the most amazing scenery whilst affording us a respite from the rising temperatures as we were able to camp at around 3000m again and enjoy some cool night air!

Wildflowers everywhere!

Wildflowers everywhere!

Eventually the road improved and as we got closer to Dushanbe the traffic became fast and furious as it does in this part of the world! We had our first of 2 police stops along this road as, aside from the frequent passport checks, to date we hadn’t even drawn a Police officers eye in Tajikistan. The first stop ended as abruptly as it began – as soon as he realised we were tourists he just waved us on!

The second was a little different, Jen jumped out as per our new strategy and after a brief discussion he wouldn’t deal with her and made his way to my window, beginning with the usual handshake he then proceeded to point to the speedo suggesting I’d been speeding! I pointed to the in-car camera and said your on it and that was the end of that, he slithered back across the road to his patrol car and we departed!

I didn’t find the city overly inspiring and it was very hot which probably didn’t help so we pretty much made a transit and continued toward Uzbekistan. We fuelled up as close to the border as we could and made camp around 20km from the crossing. Jen gets credit here as she found a road up a valley and located us a great camp on a fast flowing creek between some villages and completely out of sight.

Overloaded maybe?

Overloaded maybe?

You can never have too many watermelons!

You can never have too many watermelons!

Local Road Sense

Local Road Sense

More local chaos

More local chaos

Hidden Camp

Hidden Camp 

Crossing into Uzbekistan was very efficient and consisted of a lot of paperwork. The Patrol received a full X-ray scan followed by sniffer dogs and a physical search! You have to list all foreign currency you are in possession of and should you try and leave the country with more than that declared it will be confiscated!

The rules go on and on and there was a moment when I wondered if it was worth the hassle?

Depends who is interpreting the rules but to stay on the safe side you are not allowed to camp and must hotel it every night and receive a registration stamp from the Hotel!

It’s a shame that these rules are in place as we passed many great campsites in the first 200km of the border crossing and I’ve no doubt we would have spent a lot more time and money here had we had a little more freedom! Driving toward Qarshi where we hoped to find some accommodation was like being in hell! Dead flat whitish landscape with mid 40 degree temperatures and the land sporadically peppered with large chimneys emitting the flame associated with gas production, it was very eerie!  As Uzbekistan has large reserves of gas most vehicles are or have been converted to gas powered and hence diesel and even petrol can be hard to find with many travellers having to resort to buying it from roadside vendors selling it in recycled plastic water bottles!

Our information for Qarshi was non existent so we drove around a little looking for somewhere to stay and eventually found a local hotel but unfortunately the establishment also has to be registered in order to accept foreigners so we were out of luck!  Jen met a restaurant owner whom in realizing our needs insisted on piling into the Patrol with us (yep 3 in the cab again!) and proceeded to direct us to some Hotels, quick goodbye’s and he was on his way!! How nice was that!

The heat and flat terrain persisted and then we were treated to strong wind squalls laden with dust.  Bukhara came into view and with it the terrain relaxed back into friendly surrounds with trees and greenery.

Desert Driving

Desert Driving 

I don’t know how we managed it but we ended up parking 100m from the accommodation we’d booked before deciding we were in the wrong place and moving a little further away, Jen asked a local shop owner for directions and yep you guessed it! She locked up her shop and there were 3 in the Patrol again, she directed us right back to where we’d previously been parked! We located the Salom Inn Hotel on foot and after parking the Patrol in a secure parking lot settled down to a cold beverage and a wander around this very old and interesting city. Dinner was had at Minzifa rooftop restaurant with the sun fading to a red hue as it dipped below the desert and the hassle of entering Uzbekistan seemed to be a distant memory!

Trading Domes

Trading Domes

Lyabi Hauz

Lyabi Hauz

Kalon Minaret

Kalon Minaret 

Beautiful architecture

Beautiful architecture

We had a great couple of nights in Bukhara and wandering around the old city was absolutely sensational, I’d be lying if I didn’t mention the fact that it’s definitely been tricked up to encourage the tourist dollar but the atmosphere was absolutely warm and welcoming and the detour to this ancient city was well justified.

We are now in Samarkand staying at the Emir B&B and have spent the day looking around this more modern city. I’m a little Mosqued out to be honest and tonight will include some cold drinks and a relax. Tomorrow we head for Tashkent and then back into Kazakhstan and no doubt the next experience with the Police Academy cadets! Looking forward to that….

Shahi Zindra

Shahi Zindra

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome to Kazakhstan

After our indulgent evening with like-minded cohorts Stephen and Caroline, the morning greeted us a little too early along with the slight reminder of the previous nights drinking habits.

Anyway we packed and headed for a supermarket which proved OK to locate but a real mission to find a way into, however once inside we stocked up and enjoyed lunch before departing!

I was in the camper loading the fridge when I heard a woman outside the car enquire, “Are you Australian?” to which I replied “yes and it sounds like you are too!”

Her reply was – “What the hell are you doing here??!!”

“We are on a leisurely drive around the world!”

Turns out she’s an expat working in Almaty and we had a discussion about Kazakhstan from her point of view! Needless to say, backward was mentioned!

Now there isn’t a car on the road at this point in any direction and it’s dual lanes each way! So we turned left across the non-existent traffic and immediately a Police car sprang from behind a parked bus with lights and batons, dollar signs in their eyes! So we pulled over – what’s the problem? It’s explained to me that you can’t turn left but only to the right! Turns out there’s a little dodgy sign under a tree near the car park with a little white arrow on it! It’s obvious to me at this point that this is their local income subsidy spot!

Give me your car registration, driver’s license and passport (in broken English of-course)

As usual we just play the goat! Anyway the next thing out of his mouth is – “You ring to consulate. You no drive in Kazakhstan!”

I enlighten him to the fact there isn’t an Australian consulate in Kazakhstan but I’m apparently wrong!

Seriously you’d think we’d run over a crosswalk loaded with disabled children in wheel chairs!

At this point a crowd is assembling and a couple of young guys catch Jens eye, she say’s we don’t even know what the problem is and one of them smiles and say’s in his best English – Welcome to Kazakhstan!

Welcome to Kazakhstan!

Welcome to Kazakhstan!

Anyway I point out the fact that the Police harassment of tourists isn’t making his country particularly inviting!

His response is to look at my passport and recite my name in full in an extremely slow version of phonetics whilst looking to the heavens and making a clicking noise with his tongue! I have to say that was becoming quite hilarious after about 10 minutes of repetition.

Anyway all the while he is filling in a piece of paper that I assume will be my fine! It’s not carbon triplicate or the like, only the top slip that looks like he removed it from his pocket and unscrewed it! So one letter at a time whilst clicking his tongue and looking to the heavens it’s obvious this will be a game of endurance!

After about 15 minutes I was starting to wonder whether it was just worth giving him a few dollars to piss off but if you do that the next punter gets hit harder not to mention encouraging the practice.  As we have time on our hands, we decided no money would be changing hands without proper paperwork. At that moment one of the young local guys intervened and asked if we needed any help in perfect English? Absolutely yes please was our response! After a discussion between the two and the slow but steady increase in bystander numbers it all got to hard! My documents were handed back to my new best friend and no eye contact made with me at all! Very professional conduct wouldn’t you say, and the Police car disappeared as fast as it had arrived, no doubt off to the next hot spot.

After all lunch was approaching and someone has to pay for it!

Our Police Intervention Team

Our Police Intervention Team

We thanked our intervening friend and with smiles and nods and made our way out of Almaty!

An English guy by the name of Craig we’d met in a Land Rover and on the web under Bermuda Rover also had the fortunate experience of 4 Police stops whilst here in Kazakhstan. Seems it’s an unavoidable fact of traversing this country. It did slightly taint the experience for me though as you stop enjoying the travelling and have to concentrate on not making the slightest mistake whilst driving, doesn’t matter that you were just passed in a 50km’h zone by a banged up old Mercedes with no number plates and bald tires doing 100km’h, the foreigner will be the target! Unfortunately we still have some considerable km’s to transit through this country once en route to Moscow, hopefully the experience improves!

A quick note though.  The Kazakh people were lovely and we thoroughly enjoyed our time amongst them. It’s important not to tarnish a complete memory with some small aspect!

So onward ho and east we go heading toward Charyn Canyon. We stopped about 20km short as darkness was nearly upon us and found a great campsite up a small valley. The next morning we arrived at the canyon, which is quite impressive. I guess it’s a miniature version of the Grand Canyon. If you have a 4×4 and pay a little extra you are able to drive down into the canyon and along a stretch of lovely scenic cliffs for about 6km’s to a nice flat area with a river running through it. There is a really tight rock arch about 300m from the end and we were unable to get under it by about 2 inches due to the camper body but the drive saved us the walk! I mention the walk because in true Kazakh style, (that is to say no idea!) a coach load of tourists were dropped at the top of the gorge and walked the 6km down and 6km back in above 30 degree heat whilst their tour coach driver slept in the vehicle. I am not exaggerating when I say I’m surprised they all made it back and would not be surprised had some sported extreme sunburn and dehydration from their day out! Unbelievable….

Charyn Canyon

Charyn Canyon

Road at bottom of Canyon

Road at bottom of Canyon

Us

Us

Just a bit too tight

Just a bit too tight

We had considered spending a couple of nights here as we have quite a bit of time on our side before we need to be in Bishkek to apply for our Uzbekistan visa’s. I probably should elaborate a little here…

Our original yet rough plan was to head south from Kyrgyzstan into Tajikistan and drive the Pamir Hwy before heading across Uzbekistan into Kazakhstan.  This route would only require a transit visa for Uzbek! But whilst in Almaty it would seem there has been some inter-clan violence and some shootings in one of the towns along the route, hence the required GBAO permit is currently not available. This happens from time to time in the area; apparently it generally resolves itself within a few weeks. If the visas/permits are not available it really effects the tourism dollar injection into the area of the Pamir.

So we decided that as a backup plan, should the Pamir be off the table, we would apply for 30 day visa’s for Uzbekistan instead, this however requires the all too expensive letter of invitation! Basically a money making scam. So whilst in Almaty we applied for out letters through Stan Tours, it takes a couple of weeks so there in lies the reason that we have some spare time. Once in Bishkek we will try and get the GBAO permit and see how we go. I know other vehicles, motorbikes and bicycles have made the crossing this season so we are still hopeful.

We spent only the one night at Charyn Canyon as although interesting it wasn’t overly exciting. After leaving the Canyon we only traveled 20 km’s before descending into the Charyn river valley, which was quite spectacular and from our vantage point on the highway as we crossed the bridge we spotted a vehicle camped below and decided to investigate. After locating a track down we found a fantastic campsite below a cliff right on the rivers edge and relatively well hidden, that was it for the day and camp was set!

Charyn River Camp

Charyn River Camp

The Kyrgyzstan border came into view the following morning and we were delighted to find it open as it is a seasonal crossing and generally opens around mid May.

This border crossing turned out to be a great and friendly experience, camper roof up and piles of interested officials inspecting our comfortable little home.

They did offer to swap us a UAZ van for the Patrol, an offer we had trouble declining!

Thumbs up and 20m to the Kyrgyz side, the whole experience repeated including the customs official who wanted to know where our visas were! When we said we didn’t need one for Kyrgyzstan! He started laughing and said, “just checking!!”

45 minutes and we were in Kyrgyzstan!  To contrast how border experiences can go. Our drinking buddies from Almaty, Stephen and Caroline, crossed from Almaty to Bishkek and were ushered into a room without cameras whilst being asked indirectly for money! They withstood the game plan and although it cost them some time they eventually made it across in something like 3 hours. The harassment was only on the Kazakh side, the Kyrgyzstan border was, as with our experience, not a problem!

Toward Lake Issyk-Kul and a few km’s down the rough gravel road we came to a Police checkpoint, just recording passport and vehicle details as we are still within the border control zone.

We arrived in the town of Karakol on the eastern end of Lake Issyk-Kul and managed to get some Internet coverage at a tourist bureau!  Stephen and Caroline were also in town so a quick catch up was enjoyed before we did a little shopping and headed off in search of a campsite.

There is some very pretty country around the lake with high mountains ringing it along with lovely valleys heading from the shoreline up into the high mountains with waterfalls and stark rock formations of red’s and greys that provide stunning scenery.  Shorts and T-shirts along the lakeside with warm temperatures and then 20km up these picturesque valleys and it’s thermals and snow! A day trip to the snow followed by a cold beer and a swim in the afternoon, sensational!

We found a beach camp on the lake’s edge and parted with 30 som for the privilege, which is about 70 cents!

Wandering along the lake the following day we headed up another valley to a beautiful waterfall and found locals in mass enjoying the scenery and cooking their various treats. At the site of the waterfall there is a bust of Yuri Gagarin made of concrete.  It has absolutely nothing to do with this location but apparently Yuri had a holiday in the town of Tamga about 20km away after the first manned space flight! What ever gets the punters in I guess?

Yuri Gagarin #1

Yuri Gagarin #1

Yuri Gagarin #2

Yuri Gagarin #2

Up this valley a further 20 or so km’s is the massive Kumtor gold mine run by a Canadian company. The locals seem to have mixed views about it – of course it provides jobs and some wealth for the economy but the 2 tones of cyanide that ended up in the magnificent little stream flowing down the valley after a truck rolled over seems to have taken the shine of the enterprise! Oh by the way it was a local truck driver employed by the mine with a few arkhi’s (vodka) under his belt that lost control! Doesn’t that open a plethora of discussion that could be had regarding how to operate in far away places! Anyway the show must go on!!

Apricot Orchard Camp

Apricot Orchard Camp

Back along the lakeside and we found a great campsite on the edge of an apricot orchard with plenty of locals around who were enjoying the warm afternoon and clear waters. Generally the road along the lake is quite close to the water so it’s not all that easy to find a concealed location. After a couple of hours the farmer that owns the land wandered by in pursuit of one of his cows and we spent some time chatting with him.  Upon his departure, he invited us to his house the following morning. As agreed at 9am he arrived at our camp and we all piled into the Patrol for the short drive to his home. We were greeted by his wife Buroo and their neighbour’s 6 year old daughter Amina! Tulant ushered us inside and a fantastic spread of treats was delivered. We had milk tea and then home made bread with apricot and black berry preserves from their land followed by a form of fermented milk, which took a little getting used too! Just as we thought the meal was over Buroo retrieved what I’ll describe as a batch of freshly baked pasties filled with onion, potato and mutton locally known as hashaan and they were absolutely delicious!

Kyrgyz Feast

Kyrgyz Feast

Kyrgyz Family Visit

Kyrgyz Family Visit

We retired to the garden and relaxed for a while whilst snapping photo’s and chatting as best we were able. A few hours later we said our goodbyes and were promptly given some jars of preserves along with a traditional Kyrgyz felt hat for myself and a lovely headscarf for Jen. Once again it felt like leaving old friends from whom generosity knew no bounds.

With 3 home visits to date we are feeling very fortunate and have enjoyed them all very much! I think the fact we camp in the car and avoid where possible tourist campgrounds enhances our chances of such invites. We are more approachable to the locals in such areas I think.

Sometimes however we are too approachable and you crave a little solitude.

Continuing west along the southern shore of the lake at a slow pace we soaked up the warm weather with frequent stops, some of which included a quick dip in the aqua blue water of the second largest alpine lake in the world. It was bloody freezing although Jen seemed to manage the temperature far more easily than I! After a lazy morning we found another reasonable campsite although once again not far from the passing parade of traffic. Being camped by lunch time turned out to be fortunate for as the day warmed and the allure of the lake was too much it wasn’t long before the locals once again started to show and no doubt we’d not have enjoyed the use of the camp we were in had we arrived much later.

Jen Swimming!

Jen Swimming!

Awesome Camp!

Awesome Camp!

A similar trend the following day with a fantastic diversion along the western end of the lake, the main road diverts further south from the water giving up a nice little gap of around 5km by 30km where there is no infrastructure. We drove through a small village until we found a track out in the direction we wished to travel and it turned out to be a gem! 10km which included 5km’s of stunning driving at the base of a small river canyon. The track continued along the shoreline as we’d hoped and revelled a few locals camped sporadically. We travelled past the last camp which no doubt consisted of some sore necks that evening (the rate at which heads turn when your off the tourist trail is quite astounding) and found a great spot including something we’d been missing lately – isolation! A campfire and apricot chicken hot pot were in order!

Rainbow Colours

Rainbow Colours

River Canyon

River Canyon

Camp Fire

Camp Fire

After leaving the lake, we began the journey south along the highway, a pleasant change except for a really long and very rough section over a high mountain pass, which is under construction. The drive was nice but as usual you have to deal with the locals as they try and become carrion!

Fuelled up in the town of Kochkor and subsequently found the reserve fuel tank electrics had failed.  Anyone with a Patrol will know this is a common complaint. It really makes me wonder why manufacturers do some of the things they do? For me personally, when I look at different vehicles I can usually come up with something I like and something that makes me shake my head. For instance the Toyota sub fuel system is far superior to the Nissan and much simpler, so why go the way Nissan went! But then Cruiser Ute’s are 100mm out of track front to rear – what the? Wouldn’t it be nice if they just got together and got it right!!

Anyway as I was aware of the sub fuel tank issues I was ready for it and so it was only the time required to enjoy one beer at camp that that saw the system sorted. The ute now has 170000 km on the odometer though so I guess it’s taken a while for this fault to appear!

Nissan Repairs

Nissan Repairs

Camp was close to, but hidden from, the road near an abandoned farm house.

 

Farmhouse ruins

Farmhouse ruins

Continuing south and now back on rarely experienced smooth black top and whack! A large black raven like bird sprang up and went between the camper and the cab roof!!!! Jen could see him out the back window between the camper and the cab rail, how the hell are we going to get him out of there? Coming to a stop and luckily the unfortunate creature had somehow extricated itself from it’s enclosure and as I exited the vehicle with euthanasia on my mind, it stood up looking a little dazed before flying away!

We arrived at the location of Tash Rabat, believed to have been accommodation used by wealthy travellers as they made their way along the Silk Road. Thought to have been constructed as early as the tenth century it’s an extremely interesting site set at around 3200m altitude up a lovely valley, only accessible a few months of the year due to snow and descending temperatures.

Tash Rabat

Tash Rabat

 

Tash Rabat

Tash Rabat

We spoke to a tour operator here regarding a track marked due north that would eventually get us to Lake Song Kol.  Whilst he hadn’t personally driven the route he knew of 4×4 tour groups using it and believed it was in good condition. So we headed off and the next couple of days delivered without doubt the best scenery we have had to date! The first section of the road gained in altitude quite quickly, massive grey clouds were assembling as we ascended and looked more than ominous. Sure enough they soon provided lightning and very heavy rainfall, just to add a level of slippery to the clay surface. To sum it up, high mountain passes with switchback after switchback before descents into heavily watered and eroded valleys of stark and stunning scenery. Campsites easily found and hardly anyone to be seen! Apart from the wrong turn that we endured for a few km’s resulting in a rather uncomfortable U turn in a less than optimal location along a steep track, the drive only really required 4×4 due to the rainfall and lack of traction, when dry it wouldn’t be an issue!  Some sections were quite muddy and when your looking out of the window and it’s a few hundred feet down to an uncomfortable ending it’s less than pleasant when traction becomes an issue and Isaac Newton takes over! Just as we approached the high pass of 3400mtr we came across a poor young lad that was having trouble convincing his donkey to move despite the deteriorating weather.  Jen got out and gave him a little gift to try and brighten his day!

Poor Little Fella!

Poor Little Fella!

A couple of days later and we were at the northern most section of this traverse, a long winding switchback descended into the valley bellow! From our vantage point we were again spoilt with post card scenery. From wet and snow spattered mountain passes, we were now looking down on a dry and yet stunning landscape of beautifully coloured and heavily eroded ranges. Reaching the town of Baetov we continued north and onto one of the more well used roads that provide access to Lake Song Kol. We were keen to top up with water and had been on the lookout for a while now.  To date we have obtained almost all of our water from creeks and snowmelt but with the amount of rain over the last few days the creeks had been laden with mud and debris and hence not really suitable. We have 120 liters and another 10-liter container and whilst only around half way through our capacity I like to get water whenever I see it! As luck would have it a crystal clear fast flowing creek appeared and we were able to give the Patrol a well-deserved wash whilst topping up. The location was too good to pass up so camp was promptly set and clothes washed and showers had!

Pamirs Bridge Camp

Pamirs Bridge Camp

The following drive was again stunning as we ascended toward Lake Song Kol which sit’s at around 3000m. The road, which ascends toward the lake, is really spectacular with a long section of switchbacks that provide magnificent views back down the valley. The road is in good condition and is no barrier to normal passenger vehicles hence allowing for a little more traffic.

Switchbacks

Switchbacks

 

Spot the Nissan!

Spot the Nissan!

After around 50km we arrived at the western end of the lake and headed east along the southern shore line passing a smattering of tourist Yurt camps as we went.

Just before arriving I’d been thinking- “it’s lunch time and we are both hungry but we should look for a campsite.  If we can’t find anything soon we’ll stop for a bite and pursue a site after a snack!” The following situation removed lunch from the menu completely!

Hmmm those 2 people on the side of the track look like westerners with back packs! She is flagging us down…. Do you speak English from an obviously distressed tourist – yep what’s up?

Christoff and Stephanie from Germany (who have asked that their photos not be published) were on a 2 week Kyrgyzstan hitch-hiking holiday and had unfortunately found themselves stuck here at Song Kol for the last few days! They needed to be in Osh to catch a flight home the following morning with check in at 4am!!!! There is no regular transport to Song Kol and definitely none to Osh, which lies a couple of hundred km’s away as the crow flies! That crow would need oxygen and jet propulsion to get there however as it’s mountain pass after mountain pass in that direction and would take us the best part of 2 or 3 days consistent driving.

The only possible way they had of making it, as far as we could see, was a long loop that would require some 600km’s of driving.  It was mostly on the highway though and that would be their best shot of getting transport/hitching!

Story cut short, we promptly loaded their gear into the camper and with now 4 people in the cab began the drive north from the lake the 60 or so km’s to the nearest town where we thought they had a chance of hitching a lift!

Their cards and cash had been stolen adding a layer of distress to their situation and with only a few dollars on them, they were really up against it! A few uncomfortable hours later we reached the town of Chaek and dropped them on the outskirts of town where they thought they had the best chance of obtaining a ride. We made them some sandwiches and topped up their water. They had been living on bread the last couple of days and Jen gave them a little cash to hopefully get them through! These guys were really in a bad situation.

Whilst parked with them, the locals seemed to think that we were in some kind of difficulty and one local in particular stopped to see if we were ok….

Do you need help?

Do you need help?

IMG_2510

We agreed to come back to where we’d dropped them off in half an hour in case they were still there!  After leaving them we talked about our options and whether we could get them to a better location, but realistically we couldn’t do a lot more. Osh was a 1000km detour for us and as it was we were 120km off track. They did get a ride out of town however and we didn’t see them again, I hope they made their flight but it was always going to be a struggle to get there.

We stocked up with a few supplies and weren’t really sure about how to proceed, we had only seen Song Kol for about 20 minutes! Jen found a track on the map that would hopefully lead us to the northern shore of the lake and so that became the plan.

Heading east and then finding our way onto the track took some time and when we eventually turned onto the track we were met with a Sangyong 4×4 full of locals stuck on a rock the size of a jerry can! You do have to wonder if they actually look out the windscreen!! Anyway with a shovel we managed to extricate the stricken vehicle and no sooner had the task been completed some horse riding locals appeared and once again the Patrol became the centre of attention. Fortunately however the locals were able to provide us with some directions to the lake and that there was indeed around 10km to go! They didn’t mention it was 10km straight up, I knew we were going to have to gain some altitude really soon as the lake sits at 3000m and the pass is at 3400m whilst we were currently at around 1500m.

First Low Pass

First Low Pass

Sunset Over First Low Pass

Sunset Over First Low Pass

We probably should have camped as twilight was washing down the valley but we really wanted to get back to the lake and spend a few nights relaxing in one location. So onward and most definitely upward, over an hour in first low on a reasonably well maintained track consisting of the now ever familiar switchback after switchback before cresting the pass at 3400m and in semi darkness. It was a little weird having been ascending for the last couple of hours and then only descending a few hundred meters to the lake.

A late camp was had on the lakeshore, but we were happy to have arrived. The following morning we moved a few hundred meters to a more protected location but only a hundred or so meters from a tourist yurt camp.

Tourist Yurt Camp

Tourist Yurt Camp

To put you in the picture, there isn’t really any location around the lake that provides secluded or protected camping as with the altitude comes the treeless scenery.

A few hours after moving camp and we have a consistent stream of locals passing within feet of our campsite and standing on a rock on the lake’s edge!! Would you believe they can apparently get phone coverage from this rock and no where else…. So with a hundred km’s of shoreline we camped next to what turned out to be a well used mobile hotspot!

Local Encounters

Local Encounters

Anyway it worked out OK as we met a lovely family who run the Tourist camp. One of their daughters spoke good English and we gleaned much information from her about their lives.

The only downside from our few days at the lake was that it was once again the beginning of what has since continued – the Kyrgyz men will come up to you and shake your hand whilst the only words leaving their mouths will be in the form of wanting Vodka! When you decline their request they generally about face and disappear.  You really have to wonder how often they get a result; I can’t imagine many tourists handing out vodka and cigarettes when requested. It’s all very low key however and I guess you just have to tolerate this behaviour as a trade-off to such beautiful scenery.

Whilst we were fortunate to experience lovely weather, two of the three nights spent at Song Kol were accompanied by thunderstorms of quite a spectacular nature although the worst of it was fortunately to skirt our location.  Strong wind squalls were accompanied by quite heavy rain at times, but fortunately not for prolonged periods of time. Sitting in bed watching the sky illuminated by such tremendous examples of power is always a reminder of just how insignificant we are.

10pm and that's lightning!

10pm and that’s lightning!

Whilst relaxing and overlooking the vista of the lake we were greeted by the appearance of a GU wagon with a Swiss couple on board. Christina and Giuseppe are in their third month having crossed Turkey, Iran, Turkmenistan and Usbek to arrive at Son Kol. A discussion ensued regarding our respective plans; they were heading for Kazakhstan and on to Russia before returning home. Giuseppe had heard of the problems with the Police in Kazakhstan and wasn’t looking forward to the drive ahead and I don’t think I did anything to relieve his skepticism. Diesel had been unavailable across Uzbek and they had to obtain it on the black market, always a challenge! Good advice for us as we will endeavor to have ample on board before entering the country. Goodbyes again and they headed off toward Issy Kol lake.

Swiss Couple

Swiss Couple

Back the hundred or so km’s to Kochkor and finally some Internet access. We hadn’t bothered with a local SIM card in this country and locating Internet cafe’s wasn’t all that easy.

When you do find one it’s either closed or not working.

We stocked up on some supplies and spent some time just absorbing the town atmosphere including watching a Mazda 121 cruise past us and the local Police on 3 tires and very impressive space saver in the form of a rim only!

With emails responded to we decided to head northwest toward Bishkek over a mountain pass that Jen and I spotted on the map! Keeping it short we found ourselves in heavy rain amongst the clouds slipping and sliding up muddy tracks that it appeared hadn’t seen anything other than hooves in recent history and we still had a 1000m of elevation to make the high pass, we had to call it!

Mountain Weather

Mountain Weather

We made our way back down and found a great camp bathed in sunshine and well hidden from view! In a normal days driving here you will go from running the air-con flat out to cranking the heater within minutes and back again.  Takes a little getting used too!

Back in Kochkor and a quick check of the email once again and our Letters of Invitation for Uzbekistan had arrived so we can now make our way toward Bishkek and the ever-enjoyable task of pigeon English and obtaining visas.

Having not been able to make it over the pass toward Bishkek, we followed the blacktop for a couple of hundred km’s back around the mountain ranges that effortlessly block any direct passage. (We later found out that even horses struggle with the pass we were heading toward.  Apparently it was in use during Soviet times and receiving maintenance but has been left to suffer land slides and the like, making it impassable since the demise of the Soviet Union) We decided to make our way up the other side of the pass toward the area that we would have arrived in, had we made it over the mountains, and we found a great little campsite on a grassy ledge above another picturesque mountain stream. It’s a popular area with locals and we certainly didn’t have it to ourselves during our stay but were again left undisturbed.

Kegeti Valley Camp

Kegeti Valley Camp

View from our window!

View from our window!

80 or so km’s and we deviated on the outskirts of Bishkek to the Tajikistan Embassy to hopefully obtain our GBAO permits. YES they are issuing them again and about half an hour later and $150 USD lighter we had our little stamps. A week or so in any direction in this area can define your passage, as it does seem visa suspension can happen at any moment.

We navigated the, as usual, ridiculous traffic and found our way to Nomads Home, a well-known overland hostel. There is only room for one 4×4 with a pop-top and fortunately we now fill that space. The family that run the hostel are more than friendly and have assisted us in making our appointments with the Uzbekistan Embassy which are now set for Wednesday morning in 2 days time.  All going well we hope to be on our way toward the second highest road in the world by Wednesday afternoon.

8th of July tomorrow and that date holds some significance for us as it’s Jen’s Birthday, so Bishkek will play host and I’m sure a great day will ensue!

Next post may be a little late as we aren’t expecting Internet for a few weeks so stay tuned!

Justin.

PS we’ve uploaded 2 short YouTube video’s of a couple of our campsites, you can view them at….

http://youtu.be/wGGAn2vG12o 

http://youtu.be/Thcc6oKMAv0