BORDER TO OSH
The Tajikistan border guards tried every trick in the book to get us to part with some money. We had time, and were blocking the road and it wasn`t long before all laughed, and we were allowed to go. After 20km driving through no-man`s land we arrived at the Kyrgyzstan border, friendly, helpful guards and very easy. (NO VISA REQUIRED)
Our first stop was a small town Sary Tash, located at the crossroads to Tajikistan, China and Osh. It has been named the major hub for smugglers trafficking opium and marijuana. From here it is an easy 100 or so km to the border with China, right on top of the Irkeshtam Pass. This post only opened to international traffic in 2002. We continued north towards the town of Osh. After Sary Tash we had to cross the 3615-meter-high Taldyk Pass. 3615 meters did not sound that high anymore after the mountains in Tajikistan. That night we camped for the first time since a few weeks below 3000 meters. In fact, it was just 1610 meters next to a perfect mountain stream. Osh is Kyrgyzstan`s second largest city. It has a history that dates back to the 5th century BC. We were warned not to visit Osh. Due to racial tension, which resulted in bloody riots in June 2010 killing over 1000 people (official figures only 172) over 200.000 people were displaced; most of them fled to Uzbekistan. During the riots most of the city centre was burned down. After more than 3 weeks bush camping it was nice to be back in civilization. We went for dinner (Shaslik), did shopping at the amazing bazaar, purchased a data card so we had internet, and drove around town on our scooter visiting the touristy sites. Our truck was parked close to the city centre outside the gate of Tess Guesthouse as we would not fit under the water pipes. After a few days R&R the appeal of a large city had disappeared, and it was time to explore Kyrgyzstan`s highlands.
OSH to BISHKEK
We passed Jalal Abad which during the Soviet era had a large health resort mainly for officers and family. Our plan was to visit Arslanbob which has a large walnut forest, but we missed the turnoff. Next was the old mining town of Tashkomur. The slag heaps around the town give away the collapse of the coal mining industry. We now started to climb again. At Kara Kol we were hoping to see the 200-meter-high and 150-meter-wide dam which we are told holds back Lake Togokul what measures 20 billion cubic meters of water. But NJET; we were not allowed entry. Downhill from here we started the drive around Lake Togokul. This was pretty and while coming down from Kara Kol we found some very nice camp spots. From the lake the climb up into the highlands started. Kyrgyzstan is maybe small, but roads and infrastructure appear better then in neighbouring countries. It is Central Asia`s most accessible country, hence the many tourists and motor homes we see compared with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. We even encountered a Toll road (60USD! for our truck) at the beginning of the Tor Ashuu Pass. Nomadic traditions are alive and kicking in Kyrgyzstan and after a few nights on the highlands at around 3000 meters it was time to head towards Bishkek. Good roads got us to Bishkek in no-time and we decided to park our truck outside Asia Mountain Guest house where we were welcomed by 2 trucks from Dragoman Overland with 20 passengers each, one truck from China enroute to Istanbul the other from Istanbul to China. Bishkek is Kyrgyzstan’s capital with wide streets and nice city markets and the largest Auto Bazaar I have ever seen.
Nearly all cars are driven from Europe and sold here. Shopping and locating offices is not that easy, shops are not clearly advertised, and it is easy to stroll straight past even one specifically aimed at the passing tourist. This is a throwback to Soviet times when shopping was restricted to GUM stores and kiosks littering the sidewalk. The same applies for tourist office, post office and other attractions. Also, a throwback to these days is the number of monuments and buildings bearing the hammer and sickle motif as well as men on huge horses. But we are here for one very important reason. We need our China Visa. And from reports from other overlanders this is an erratic Embassy. Well how right they were.
Important information for obtaining China Visa. We were fore-warned: be there on Monday morning 9am in line. At 12.15pm all paperwork was filled out and checked 3 times by various embassy staff. Sorry sir, your photo is incorrect! But this is the photo we used last year for our China Visa. Please come back on Wednesday with a correct photo. (Please note we carry around 10 different types of passport photos).Wednesday after 3 hours in line, yes, our turn. All good BUT we are not sure re your LOI (letter of Introduction), let`s check? No all okay. Please go to our Bank and pay fee. 30 USD for 7 days or 60USD for urgent 2-day service. As we would like to leave Bishkek we went for the 2-day urgent service. Please come back on Friday and your visa will be ready. Friday in line again (2 hrs) our turn. Your Letter of Introduction is not valid NO VISA. WHAT? This is issued by our travel company in China! Could you please call them? No sir, Sorry? What is wrong with this LOI? Your company is not recognized. But we used them last year with no issues? No sir Sorry. Please give me this in writing, NO SIR SORRY. I obviously wasted my time; we had to use an agency in Bishkek. As it happens an agent was at the embassy. We handed him our passports, no need for any other paperwork as required by the embassy on Monday! Paid him an extra 75USD, the LOI was approved and so was our Visa.
BISHKEK to CHOLPON ATA
After a hectic but also very sociable week in Bishkek it was time to go back bush. First stop was an eagle Festival in Bokonbaev around 300KM south east of Bishkek right on the shores of Lake Issy Kul. Mark and Sheryl had given us the GPS co-ordinates and we finished up on a perfect spot right on the beach.
In Kyrgyzstan an Eagle Festival brings the region`s best hunting dogs, eagle and falcon hunters together from all over the country. But the reasons locals arrive, is the final event: the gruesome battle between the wolves and the Eagle. Wolves are considered a menace in rural Kyrgyzstan, responsible for killing many horses, sheep and cows. The wolves are chained in an open field. Being the hunter and never the prey all he can do now is wait until the eagle swoops back in for the kill, with its razor-sharp talons.
Our expectations were high, until we realized that this was a show set up to cater for tourists, some of which arrived for the day from Bishkek. In our case we saw eagles kill a bird held on a string (however one escaped) and we saw the eagle kill and eat a rabbit. This to the disgust of some tourist who complained about the treatment? (WHY COME AND WATCH?) When in Rome do as the Romans do. The rest of the day we enjoyed local dances, Kyrgyzstan`s national games i.e. horse wrestling and horse racing.
Traditionally, wild baby eagles are taken from the nest to be trained as hunting birds, the training of a hunting bird is long and complex. A golden Eagle holds a wolve by its mouth. The secrets of taming a golden Eagle are passed on from generation to generation down dynasties. From father to son or sometimes grandson. It is said this bird will never be a slave to its owner, but only a partner in hunting. We enjoyed a few more days at this perfect camp spot. We enjoyed our time with Mark and Sheryl and Christiana who arrived a few days later. Lake Issy Kul stands for warm water. Due to its depht, it never freezes. With its length of 170KM and up to 70KM wide it is the second largest Alpine lake in the world (After Lake Titicaca). We are told the Russians secretly tested torpedo`s here, as westerners were not allowed in this region until 1992. Nuclear waste could be present in the lake. So, who knows I may light up tonight?
Reluctantly did we leave our very nice and private beach in Bokonbaev but we knew we would return after Lake Song Kul. Roads are good in Kyrgyzstan and dirt roads are in decent shape. We climbed the mountains after we turned off the main road just past Sara Bulak where we climbed to Lake Song Kul. Song Kul is a high alpine lake in the Tian Shan Mountains of Kyrgyzstan. It is the second largest lake in Kyrgyzstan after Issyk kul. It was cold and raining/sleet upon our arrival. We found a perfect campsite right on the lake about half way along on the north side, away from all the yurts. Song-Kul is a lake at 3000 meters and overnight the temperature dropped to 1 degree Celsius. Other than a walk by the lakeshore and a horse ride through the grassland, there’s absolutely nothing else to do. The 100-km lake circumference is very scenic, surrounded by spectacular mountains and animals. The scarce semi-nomadic families settle in these months with their yurts and their flocks (the famous Marco Polo sheep, horses, and cows.), Yurts are scattered around, and some of these families have established small yurt camps where travellers can stay a few nights. We backtracked the same route to Lake Issy Kul. Issyk-Kul means ‘warm lake’. The water is cold, but it never freezes up in winter. That is partly because it is a bit salty, and partly because some underground thermal activity. It is one of the biggest alpine lakes in the world: it has a length of 170 kilometres, a width of 70 kilometres and a maximum depth of 700 meters. Our next stop was Jeti Oghuz. 25km to the west of Karakul is the Jeti-Oghuz Valley. Its unique feature is red sandstone rock at the entrance of the valley. Also at the entrance is a sanatorium for medical rehabilitation and a simple town of wooden houses with large concrete dilapidated soviet-style buildings. We continued a dirt track into the Jeti-Oghuz Valley. Like most of our experiences in Kyrgyzstan, we were invited to drink some home brewed honey wine, were handed watermelon slices, and asked all sorts of questions about our origins. While waiting for the drunken beekeeper to fill a PET bottle with 1kg of honey, the entire family gathered for a photo with us, their foreign guests – now friends. That night we found a perfect bush camp near a nice mountain stream.
And cold it was, not just the water but also the night, even in mid-August. Most rivers in the Terskey Alatau Range are dense with glacier sediment. A water filter that can be cleaned in the field (like MSR) is preferable to water purification tablets. We decided not to fill up. Next was Karakol and our plan to visit the Karakul Valley to Altyn Arashan Valley but as we entered the region we were stopped by police and sent back. The whole area was in lock down (quarantine) as one boy had died from the Plague and 3 people where critical ill! Over 300 people and all Hospital staff in Karakul and surrounding hospitals were also forced to stay inside and the hospitals were closed for all visitors. So, for us this was no Ak Suu, No Hot springs. Instead we decided to leave Karakul the next morning and
drive to Cholpon Ata, also called the Riviera of Kyrgyzstan. We found a perfect spot just outside Cholpon Ata in the car park on the beach of Hotel 3 Crowns. Unlike most of the dilapidated hotels/sanatoriums/guesthouses this place looked European run and was in very good condition with very friendly staff.
CHOLPON ATA to TIBET BORDER
After spending days lazing on the beach in Cholpon Ata (Lake Issy Kul) it was time to pick up our parcel in Bishkek and do a car service. Impressions of Bishkek vary considerably when you speak to an overlander arriving from Europe or those arriving from China. Those arriving from Europe find Bishkek to be a small uninteresting city that’s like those in Central Europe. Overlanders arriving from China find Bishkek to be a refreshing change. Supermarket inventory is European – one can buy fresh bread, cheese, olive oil, and other foods lacking in China. With exception of the Chinese visa most other visa are pretty easy to get here, hence it attracts many overlanders. Bishkek is a city of parks. Acres upon acres of trimmed shrubs, weeded flower gardens, stone statues, running fountains and benches for lovers sprawl the city. Kyrgyz soldiers with large-brimmed hats stand guard at a Kyrgyz flagpole. Watch the flag lowering ceremony at 21:00 complete with 7 marching guards and the national anthem. After exploring the city a little more, we spent a day at the pool and enjoyed the company of other overlanders in the Car park of Asia Mountain Guest House. This resulted in too much beer-grappa-wine and food and a large exchange of GPS locations of the various surrounding countries. A day late we left for the Chinese border stopping over along the way in Naryn, 185KM from the Chinese border catching up with Julian and Ally who have been travelling from Australia for the last 16 months in a Mitsubishi Fuso. Like many other Central Asian cities, Naryn emerged as a small fortification on the trade routes that ran from the East Turkestan (Kashgar city) to Central Asia. Naryn is the coldest city of Kyrgyzstan. The temperature sometimes reaches – 40 degrees Celsius here. And cold it was that night. After a dinner in a local restaurant we said goodbye to Julian and Ally who were going to cross the border to China the next day. We had one more day, so we included Tash Rabat. The road from Naryn up the Kyzyl Bel Pass is bad but past the pass the road is superb. At an altitude of about 3300m above sea level is the ancient caravanserai of Tash Rabat. This is probably the best-preserved Silk Road site you will find and “no other retains as much of its original atmosphere”. The Caravanserai was occupied in the 10th century. The road in was corrugated but it leads up a small, beautiful valley in the foothills of the Tian Shan, embedded against the hillside. We camped 1 kilometre away from the Caravanserai next to a small creek enjoying a warm afternoon but very cold night. OUR LAST NIGHT IN KYRGYZSTAN. Tomorrow we travel up the Torugart Pass.
From Kyrgyzstan to go to China, there are some obstacles in your way. The most obvious of these obstacles are the Tien Shan Mountains, which are very high. The Torugart Pass is one of the few routes through these mountains. Past the Kyrgyzstan check point (border post) the road is very bad – dust and stones – there is a lot of traffic: Chinese trucks with containers and Kyrgyz trucks with chequered plastic over the loads going both ways. The border has a reputation of closing whenever someone feels like it. So, when one of your minibuses is not working properly, or there is a snow storm (this happens at any time of the year) you know the border will close the next day or maybe for a week. Also because of a Festival Week, closures are normal. We are nervous as our entry visa expires in 2 days. Another obstacle in the pass is the border posts. You must cross four of them, the first post 180 kilometres away from the last.