Tag Archives: kyrgyzstan

Kebabs in Fergana

“Crossing from Tajikistan was no problem at all”, remarked a fellow backpacker as he slung his ancient backpack on the rock-hard beds in Osh Guesthouse. “This is Kyrgyzstan. It’s nothing like the hassle we had getting into Uzbekistan”.

A helpful warning from this Antipodean. At least I wasn’t being turned back though. A few weeks ago the border was closed to all those heading west to Uzbekistan, and nobody had been able to give me a straight answer over the past two weeks as to whether I’d be able to make it or not. It seems ludicruous and all blamed on Kyrgyz muslim extremists. For those who have ever been to Kyrgyzstan, the whole concept seems ridiculous. Most Kyrgyz i had met were more than happy to chill around the yurt all day and too much organised religion simply made them nervous.

The cab drivers in the bazaar were convinced I’d be able to make it through however – of course – and all ‘actively encouraged’ me to sling my bag in the back of their Lada and whizz off to the border. Fine.

Except the first taxi driver was clearly on auto-pilot, and took me to the airport instead.

“Bishkek, da?”
“Nyet, pal” I countered. “Now take me to the border right now, my man, and don’t think you’re getting any more som out of me than we’d already discussed” was what I would have said had my command of the local lingo been a little more than the first two words. Instead I went for the more direct “Uzbekistan! Granitsa! Davai!” which seemed to do the trick.

The Kyrgyz seemed genuinely sorry to see me go through the gates at Dostyk. “Send dollars!” the driver (half-) joked as I turned and perfected my Central Asian semi-bow with right hand on heart by means of a farewell. Continue reading

Sweltering in the Valley

Big Friday Night: Getting the kebabs in with the boys

Big Friday Night: Getting the kebabs in with the boys

Well, this was more the sort of climate that I was expecting when I set out on this trip. Blue, blue skies, sweating by 8.30am and the hotel advertisements for hot water become far less attractive.

A good time to pack away my trekking kit, perhaps – my attractive skin-tight thermals and thick walking socks – but alas these have already become casualties along The Rhoute. Yes people, I have been the victim of crime. Back in Karakol, when I dared entrust my threads with the rabid Russians who run the Yak Tours backpacker crash pad. The clothes made it out the river alright, but clearly they were far too enticing to ignore as they hung there, drying in the afternoon sun.

Wallets, iPods, fancy maps, jewellery, passports, small netbook computers – all of these I can understand people wanting to shift, but seriously, used trekking kit!? And from the washing line!? Neanderthals, these people.

No doubt it has fallen into the hands of some undeserving individual, likely one of those unwashed backpacker types with zip-on, zip-off trouser legs. Harrumph.

Anyhow, tantrum over. No need for all of that here in Osh, where a constant stream of perspiration trickles down my back as I peruse the junk in the bazaar for which this town is famous. A traders’ mecca for centuries – the standard chat from the locals is the claim that Osh is older than Rome– the city certainly feels far older than many of the new Soviet towns I’ve been making my way through thus far. Electronics, knives, all sorts of breads, fruits, meats, furniture, ill-fitting suits, colourful silks, full-length Kyrgyz boots, ethnic hats – there’s quite literally everything here, a bona fine predecessor to Wal-Mart sprawled along the Ak-Buura river.

In a moment of foolish pride, I elected not to bring a map with me, thinking that I couldn’t possibly lose my bearings given the bare, jagged rock that looms over the city, known as Solomon’s Throne.

After an hour or three of sifting through the tat, and being unable to stomach any more huge cherries, I was entirely lost in the back streets of the town, clambering over railway lines, across canals and down dusty back streets. Now and then I would come across children playing with old tyres, a bright flash from an Uzbek girl’s dress, or men in skullcaps sauntering off to the mosque. It really was quite a charming afternoon – if only it wasn’t close to 40C, and indeed, that I knew how on earth I was going to make it back to my hostel that evening.

Swallowing my pride, I admitted defeat and sought out a taxi driver outside one of the seemingly hundreds of bazaars.

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Entering Fergana

About halfway: Toktogul Reservoir

About halfway: Toktogul Reservoir

When you ask those in the know how they might describe the Fergana Valley, the lush lowland basin split between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, they would generally agree on one word – ‘volatile‘.

Thankfully, I am neither in the know, not have I seen any evidence of all that so far, thus my adjective of choice would likely be nothing more ominous than hot‘.

It’s a different world here down south. So different, in fact, that it’s hard to believe you’re still in the same country. The various mountain ranges that criss-cross this beautiful country certainly succeed in lending a fearsome photogenic backdrop to pretty much any photo you take, but quite how you’d go about keeping these two halves of the country on the same track is quite beyond me.

The trip from the capital, Bishkek, to the second city, Osh, is an incredible ride that gives you an overview of the whole country in less than 12 hours. [Or, indeed, less than ten hours if you do not fear for your safety nor that of others, as you repeatedly overtake on blind bends and inside tunnels on a mission to make it to Osh before nightfall.]

It really is an amazing trip – it comfortably nestles in my Top Five Road Trips of All Time (and we all need our Top Fives, n’est-ce pas?) – and it simply cries out for you to spend a good few days soaking up the stunning scenery, instead of getting mere snatches of it here and there through the cracked windscreen of a spluttering 1987 Mercedes.

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Admin and goodbyes

I’ve now made it back to sunny Bishkek after three days up in the Tian Shan staying in yet more large, circular felt houses. It has been fairly exhausting – plenty of trekking, taming wild equine beasts and swimming/paddling in freezing lakes.

I can’t say enough good things about this country. Kyrgyzstan is absolutely stunning. From huge, wide-open grasslands to sheer, icy drops, it is raw nature all in one place. Haute cuisine there is not, but you do start to develop an appreciation for boiled mutton.

The clock is ticking and my time in Kyrgyzstan is drawing to a close. Tomorrow I will largely be couped up in a shared taxi for 14 hours en route to the second city, Osh, which is rumoured to be older than Rome itself. That’s more trivia for you, folks.

After that, it’s time to keep my fingers crossed that the border in the Fergana Valley is open (there were some fundamentalist shenanigans going on a while back, but I hear that’s all over now… so no need to fret, mother).

In terms of admin, it’s still a waiting game for how the rest of my rhoute will pan out. The Iranians have still not made any kind of decision about whether they’d like me to drop by in July (perhaps not such a bad thing given current events), and Turkmenistan has only just started processing applications for letters of invitation (they wouldn’t touch anything until they knew what was going on with swine flu – not all that helpful for those already on the road).

If all goes well I should be able to pick up my visa for Azerbaijan in Tashkent next week, and then, suddenly, getting to Georgia we’re almost into the Schengen Zone so I can throw away my passport. Maybe.

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Weirdo on the bus

This, it appears, is an international phenomenon.

Whenever one is traveling alone by public transport, there is an apparent guarantee whereby the sole empty seat on the bus will be located next to the flaming exhibitionist, the spaced-out drunkard, or the mind-numbing bore.

Through some remarkably serendipitous turn of events, I was seated next to two men, united in their uncommon weirdness, as I made the trip along the southern bank of Issyk-Kul.

The clouds had finally relieved themselves of the rain that had been plaguing my stay in the mountains, and it took real dedication to the rhubarb cause to jump on a mashrutka whilst the sun shone in the cloudless sky.

‘Just the two hours’, the resident Swiss expert told me that it would take to make it to Balykchy, where I would need to get off and start negotiations with the collective taxi sharks at the bus station. And let me tell you, dear readers, it is one hell of a feeding frenzy when a foreigner, complete with dusty backpack, steps off a bus with the unmistakable expression of being entirely lost.

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Weather Strops

Although the Russians only make up around ten percent of the population of Kyrgyzstan, it seems the whole place would fall apart if they weren’t here. Every guesthouse, cafe or mashrutka minibus I’ve fallen into has been run by Russians, who, seemingly without exception fall into two camps:

  • incredibly friendly, warmhearted and surrogate mother-types; or
  • dour, stony faced and unfathomably unhelpful

Here I sit, once again, in a sub-par internet cafe, this time whilst waiting for my washing to dry – yes, it’s that time of the fortnight. Instead of opting for the labour-intensive handwashing technique, I opted to splash out a whole two dollars for “someone’s daughter” to have a go. Sad but true: it appears six years living in China has made me incapable of doing my own washing.

Anyhow, the two dollars clearly only included the washing part – after hours of nagging in pidgin Russian, I was handed back a plastic bag full of sopping wet clothes. Right, erm, I guess I’ll dry them myself then.

It’s a beautiful day here in Karakol – a wonderful change from the last few days.

“The weather in Kyrgyzstan, she is like a woman”, claimed our chain-smoking, leather-cheeked guide Valentin, “five minutes, she smiles. Five minutes, she cries. Five minutes, she fights. Five minutes, she smiling again!”

Well, we clearly came across one stroppy teenage girl yesterday halfway up the mountain, encountering the full range of meterological emotions, climaxing in one almighty hissy-fit of a hailstorm.

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Raining in Karakol

I felt just a little silly pulling out a bottle of sunscreen from my daysack, when prompted by a policeman with a ridiculously high-peaked cap to show him some kind of identification.

It has been raining all day – from the moment, I pulled back the wool door of my yurt, the entire time I trekked to the main road, and all throughout the journey to Karakol, having eventually flagged down a white minibus heading in that direction.

It was still chucking it down a moment ago when the chap wandered up to me and asked, somewhat nervously:

“Please, sirs, show me your passport”.

This was presumably one of those phrases that they taught you growing up in the Soviet Union – the ingrained knee-jerk reaction upon seeing a slightly out of place Westerner – or perhaps pick up from the Russian James Bondski films. (Clearly, language tuition catered more to stumbling across groups of people, as opposed to the solo traveller).

Sadly that was about all he could manage in the way of English, and after discovering that our language ability was about on a par, he quickly flicked through my passport, lingering briefly on my Kyrgyz visa, and handed it back.

“Thank you, Sirs”, he said, and trotted off.

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Finally, a Tick for Bishkek

What better way to commiserate with your water-starved compatriots down south?

What better way to commiserate with your water-starved compatriots down south?

There are certain cities you stumble across over the years in well-thumbed atlases or globes that you know, at some point in your life, you are just going to have to go and check out for yourself.

Bishkek was that city for me – lying amongst huge swathes of brown, white and purple to denote the altitude and glaciers of the various branches of the Tian Shan ranges. As the capital of the Kyrgyzstan, I am delighted to report that it also fares well in the city fountain count, and the lazy leafiness lends a provincial air to this old Soviet city.

The retro-glitz of Almaty appears to have been all but left up north however, and Bishkek does feel more Asian in character, inspired with a healthy dose of 1970s Tricolore French text books. Still plenty of Russians, of course, plus the occasional green-eyed Eurasian beauty – but there’s a far more liberal sprinkling of curious Central Asian felt hats, gamey smells of mutton and crumbling Soviet architecture.

Despite its apparent innocence, I’m informed that the jackals certainly come out once the sun goes down. Speeding from the Kazakh border with Zaid – a Kyrgyz taxi driver with whom I share the same birthday – the bus station looked a little threatening. So too thought the father of one young child, it seemed, as he held a handgun and an expression of protective concern.

Anyhow – it was decent of them to let me in, anyhow. It took three Kazakhs to confirm that it was in fact me in my passport photo.

“Turn your head, please. Neck down. Now look up…. Da, OK”. [anybody who has seen my ridiculous passport photo will understand why the positioning]

“And this? New?” the chap enquired, pointing at my amusing display of facial hair.
“Oh, erm, da”, I squirmed and pushed on through.

I appear to have located the slowest internet in the entire region however – the joys of public computers, plus an absence of data services on mobile networks has led me to a sweltering underground dungeon, apparently doubling as an internet cafe. Funny how days of dial-up connections can be forgotten quite so quickly – trying to read one email generally results in rapidly losing the will to live.

Photos will follow in due course, and they may even be followed by the full story of a piano recital at midnight by an 82-year old lady in plastic slippers.

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Visa Crush

Anyone who knows anything about Central Asia (which, admittedly, isn’t many) will know that the visas are hands down a complete and utter pain in the backside.

Clearly it was a prime feature of Communism back in the day to inconvenience any potential traveler to the region and keep out as many undesirables (and desirables as well, probably, just because they could) as feasibly possible. Indeed, China generally makes it impossible for people to come in at all (cf all the empty hotel rooms during the Olympics), and as I understand it, Russia asks for ridiculous information such as which hotels you’re going to stay at EVERY NIGHT, before they will even consider charging you an arm and a leg for their visa.

So, it was little surprise that the gloss of preparing to go to this part of the world quickly wore off when I began my visa trawl. I picked the most vowel-challenged country of the bunch – Kyrgyzstan, to begin with (incidentally, I am extremely proud my ability to spell the country without having to consult the oracle known as Wikipedia. I can also spell Kazakhstan, having finally learnt where that ‘h’ goes).

I’m not planning to go until early June, so getting things ready in early April should be no worries. I’m just not interested in picking up visas as I go along – I have better things to do in Tashkent than sit in a back rooms for hours at a time, being asked questions I don’t understand and encouraged to part with my dwindling dollars (however, quite what the plethora of activities that awaits me in Tashkent is, however, I’m not too certain). The organisational guru in me (which has, recently, remained somewhat dormant) kicked into overdrive.

So, I pick up the phone to check what the deal is.

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