We are now in China! After an epic border crossing, we finally reached our first Chinese city, Kashgar, and took a couple of days to catch up on washing, shopping and Internet as Kyrgyzstan has amazing mountains and trekking but is not too hot on the Internet or washing front. It has been a busy couple of weeks…
As mentioned in our previous post, the trouble in the south of Kyrgyzstan necessitated us altering our route slightly and detouring via Kazakhstan to enter Kyrgyzstan from the north rather than driving through the Ferghana Valley and the cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad in the south. Sadly a small troubled area of this fantastic country has been media hyped to the extent that the world considers the whole country at war. Very sad when you think that a large number of the local people earn their living from tourism, thanks to the likes of the BBC and CNN their tourist industry has been knocked back years for a couple of headlines and the same pictures of a couple of burnt out houses. So off to get Kazakh visas. Obtaining a Kazakh visa in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, should be a straightforward process taking only 24-48 hours, however it was not to prove so in our case. Firstly Pete had been to the embassy at 5am in the morning and put his name on the list which is rather fiercely protected by the other people in the queue. Then, after waiting till about 11am, he was able to submit our applications. Luckily he had not forewarned the others in the queue that he would be submitting 22 applications, or it is pretty certain that he would never have gained entry! With the applications submitted he was told to come back the following day to collect the visas. All going well so far… By the next day we had all joined him in Tashkent and were eagerly awaiting the visas… but it was not to be as we went to the embassy to pick them up only to be informed “no visas today, come back tomorrow at 10am”. In typical Central Asian fashion there was no explanation given. So we returned to the hotel and made plans to go back to the embassy the next day. The next day, we again queued, and were told, once again, no visas today. As it was Thursday by now, and our Uzbek visas expired on the Saturday we appealed to the guard at the gate to be let in to get our passports back in order to apply for Uzbek visa extensions. After finally gaining entry we were told that it would be no problem to return our visas until someone worked out that our passports, considered to be high value passports, were locked in the Consol’s safe, and he had the keys with him in Kyrgyzstan where he was assisting in the evacuation of Kazakh nationals from Osh. The lady at the embassy shrugged her shoulders and said he might be back the next day and we should come back at 10am on Friday morning. So we now had no passports and still no visas. Time for another night in the hotel in Tashkent. Friday rolled around and we headed to the embassy at 10am. And again at 12pm. And again at 3pm. We finally received our passports back at 4.30pm on the Friday afternoon, complete with Kazakh visas (the only ones issued in Tashkent that week, thanks only to Pete’s patience at the embassy, other travellers who jumped up and down and yelled at the staff weren’t so lucky!) and we loaded up the truck and headed for the border. But the fun didn’t stop there.
We had been told by the Kazakh embassy that we could use the border post closest to Tashkent which had only just re-opened, however when we arrived there we were advised that the border was not open to foreigners or to vehicles. So we headed 60km back down the road towards Samarkand to cross at a border that was more foreigner and vehicle friendly. We had again been told that the border was open on the Uzbek side until 8pm, and on the Kazakh side until 9pm. So we managed to get through the Uzbek side in record time, only taking about an hour and two cans of beer, and then we crossed the short no-mans land to the Kazakh side. Which was locked. What they had not mentioned when telling us the closing times of the borders is that they were using local time for both and there is a 1 hour time difference between the two countries. And so it was that we found ourselves camping in no-mans land between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan accompanied only by a couple of long distance truckers and some bemused border guards. All part of the fun and we made the most of the situation and had a lovely beef stir fry and an early night to await the border opening in the morning…
The Kazakh border finally opened at 7am the next day and we were processed through quite quickly again, this time the only cost was a couple of soft-drinks and a tennis ball for the sniffer dog.
Kazakhstan is one of the best known of the Stan countries, perhaps only thanks to Borat, although it is also the 9th largest country in the world. In previous years we have also visited Kazakhstan as a detour – the nature of our trans-continental journey means that our itinerary can, and does, change. Unfortunately we have never been that enamoured of Kazakhstan and after a road rage incident and being hit up for a rather large bribe, our opinion hasn’t changed much, and we were keen to get through as quickly as possible and into Kyrgyzstan. We spent only one night in Kazakhstan, camping in a field next to a surprisingly busy railway line, and then we were up early to head for the Kyrgyzstan border, where our guide Erkin was awaiting us.
Kyrgyzstan is often named as people’s favourite country at the end of the expedition, and it is looking a safe bet again this year. Amazing mountains, friendly locals, some interesting food, fermented mares milk comes to mind and just so much else to offer. Our first night in Kyrgyzstan was spent in Bishkek. The city has several monuments and museums to visit, but the highlight for many is the Metro Bar which serves western food, has a pool table and shows the football on the TV. And so we whiled away our evening there, chatting to expats and fellow travellers, and getting beaten at pool by some ladies who were rather interested in selling their wares to Neill much to his horror or so he says, but fortunately he was rescued by his “wife” (for the night) Lesley.
From Bishkek we headed away from cities for a while and camped for a night on the shores of Lake Issyk Kol, the second largest alpine lake in the world after Lake Titicaca in South America. We set up camp right on the shores and made ourselves at home. A couple of braver souls went for a swim, Mike made sure that Heather was one of them. Issyk Kol was the first of the many fishing competitions between Neill and Erkin, with Neill invariably “second winning” as Ben would call it. Fortunately we were able to buy some smoked lake trout and weren’t relying on them to bring home the dinner! Falling asleep to the lapping of the waves against the shore it was great to be back camping in a stunning location.
From Issyk Kol we headed up into the spectacular Diety Orgus gorge. This spectacular gorge offers some of Kyrgyzstans premium trekking and horse riding, with walks and rides to suit everybody. As we were to be here for four nights of bushcamping we set up the camp with a shower tent, kitchen tent and the rest of the tents spread around the grassy field by the river. Fortunately the rain held off until we had all set up, but then it bucketed down, and while we sat in the truck playing cards or under the awning debating whether the rain could get any heavier (the answer is yes, it could!) we didn’t notice that a small lake had formed with Mike’s tent as an island in the middle! A quick dash out into the rain and we dragged the tent to safety on slightly higher ground, and amazingly everything inside was still dry. We love our new tents!
The group divided up for trekking and the hardcore trekkers set off the next morning with Erkin our trekking guide for a epic trek to an alpine lake well above the snow line where the lake was only just beginning to thaw, hard going but everybody who did the trek came back with rave reviews. Others did smaller treks anything from one hour to half days. This is such great trekking that even folks who were not big walkers said they could have happily spent another day. As for the horse riders there were mixed experiences. Simon and Alice were eventually seen walking home after having a number of issues with their horses which were just not prepared to turn around and head back, but all agreed that even someone who had never ridden a horse could have a go and have a blast.
After Diety Orgus we thought it was time to treat everyone to a hotel and so we headed down to Karakol and a lovely homestay, after a quick visit to Kochkor, home to a fantastic felt shop selling locally made felt products, and a statue of Lenin to add to our Russian statue photo collection.
Karakol gave us time to get washing done and spend a bit of time in a hot shower. It also seemed like the right time to sit in the shade with a chilled Georgian white wine, or two, or three. Much silliness ensued, and a great night was had by all as we wandered into the town to eat in one of the many local cafes, some of us even found ourselves guided to a restaurant by a man on a tractor after the one we were aiming to go to was closed! It is the random things like this that happen along the way that make the journey so unforgettable!
From Karakol we headed back into the Kyrgyz countryside and up to Lake Song Kol. Frozen during the long winter, the fertile plains around Song Kol are used as summer grazing for herds of goats, sheep, cattle, yaks and horses that are brought up from the lowlands. Families bring their yurts on the back of trucks in flat-pack form, it apparently only takes 20 minutes to put them together.
Camping on the plains surrounded by snow-capped mountains and herds of grazing animals tended by children as young as 5 who are as comfortable on a horse (or in some cases more comfortable) as they are on their own feet, this is another magical place, and we spend three nights bushcamping, giving everyone plenty of time to wander the hills, visit a yurt and sample fermented mare’s milk and go horse riding.
Song Kol is also the place where we organise a game of Ulan Tuk, the traditional Kyrgyz game involving incredible horsemanship and a goat carcass. We had invited some other travellers to join us for the game, and the players brought their friends, wives and children, and the crowd cheered for their chosen team. With no field of play designated, some of the group chose the top of the truck as the safest place to observe, while others enjoyed the thrill of running out of the way of galloping horses. In the end it was a 4-1 victory (or was that the England score?), and the winning team took home the goat (very much tenderised) and the prize money.
Another highlight for the group was watching Roberta out-gallop two of the men from the local yurts in a game of “catch and kiss” Kyrgyz style which they had been sure they would win easily (should we have mentioned her jockey past? Nah, more fun not to!). It was hilarious to watch, although we were a bit concerned when the game continued off over the hills as her pursuers desperately tried to catch her, but she returned safe and victorious.
We then settled down to a fantastic lamb potjie (a South African stew which is cooked by layering ingredients in a cast iron pot and cooked slowly over a fire for hours), with many proclaiming it to be the best meal of the trip so far (and there have been some amazing meals to choose from!). While some of the group played card games on the truck (it can be a bit chilly at 3,000+ metres even in June), Ben and Erkin headed off to the yurt of the winning team to enjoy the many dishes cooked from the goat, washed down with a bit of vodka of course!
Our last night up at Lake Song Kol seemed like as good a time as any for a bit of a fancy dress party. After pulling names out of a hat, we had all been shopping in the market in Karakol for clothes which the locals might not consider to be fancy dress, but we did! When the time came, we gathered around our host for the evening, Pete, and watched with nervous excitement (or is that terror?) as the bags were distributed…
Kyrgyzstan is a country of incredible landscapes and some of the friendliest people we come across on our journey of 27,000km. It was with some sadness that we headed down from Song Kol and towards the Chinese border. We had one final bushcamp on the way to the border before an early start to another border crossing day of “hurry up and wait”. With two checkpoints on the Kyrgyzstan side and three on the Chinese side, it took us a full day to gain entry to China! We are here for the next 6 weeks, and with so much to see and do while we are here it is going to be another busy time!