- Border — Osh
- Osh — Jalal Abad Field
- Jalal Abad Field — Naryn
- Naryn — Lake Issyk Kul
- Lake Issyk Kul — Bishkek
- Bishkek — Border
The more east, and the deeper we travel into places in Central Asia which aren’t known primarily as tourist destinations the more evident the communication barrier is becoming. It’s okay in cities but in small towns it gets difficult. When you put three people who haven’t a notion of Russian and speak with an Irish twang in these situations communication is bound to be difficult. Border control was a breeze though in comparison to what we were used to, we were out in just over a half hour which is more like it! The guards even noted that the length that some borders keep travellers for was ridiculous.
Osh is the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan and was on the border, it took us 10mins to get to city centre to change our currency. We needed a plan so we needed to find wifi, we also needed to check as to whether the Russian embassy in Ireland got back to us regarding our visas as we wanted to enter on the 13th but they only became valid on the 15th. We stopped off in a respectable place and a young man recommended a dish for us to try, we ordered three! It was a tasty traditional dish and comprised of meat, onions and garlic — I think it was Shashlick but I’m not entirely sure, feel free to correct me!
No good news came from the embassy but we still planned on getting through Kyrgyzstan quickly, Nelly picked a scenic route to take us east to Lake Issyk Kul before going to the Kazakhstan border just north of Bishkek, the largest city in the country. We planned to get just a little further than Jalal-Abad that night and set up camp early! We passed through quite a few small towns and the people were all friendly and helped to point us in the right direction.
We found a track into a field so we decided we’d camp there, simple as that, we were about 400m from the edge of a mountain and there were crickets everywhere but the view was incredible. The sun was starting to go down so we needed to be relatively quick setting up. Just when we sat down we saw someone on a horse coming towards us from the herd of cattle at the very far edge of the field, we really hoped we didn’t have to move as we had just gotten comfortable.
When the horse got closer we realised it was a young boy, he didn’t speak any english but quickly dismounted his horse and through his body language insisted that we get up on his trusty steed. Feargal and I had a go and after we gave the boy some water he was on his way. He quickly came back though, but this time on a small donkey and Feargal got up for a quick runaround before giving him some sweets to thank him for his kindness. It was a strange experience but it was enlightening at the same time, unfortunately we couldn’t get the boys name in the end but we felt safe and were happy going to bed — Nelly says it was our first ‘real’ experience and I’d probably agree.
We figured we didn’t need to set alarms to wake us up as the sunrise should do that for us, however it turns out that Kyrgyzstan has a much milder climate and just because the sun has risen it doesn’t mean the heat is blistering straight away. We were on our way at about 9am but we couldn’t have prepared for the day we were about to have.
We did 150miles in 11hours and we had to take five pit-stops in order to cool the car down and prevent it from overheating. There were barely any good patches of road so for the day in it we averaged at 14mph. It was BLEAK, I’m not going to lie. I think this was the first day that we tasted homesickness properly.
The sights were spectacular but the novelty of gravely uphill winding roads wore off a little too quickly as we got onto our second two hour shifts of driving. It was the most mentally tough day we’ve come across as the road was never ending and the car kept on overheating so we had to drive in 1st gear at 1,500 revs in order to cool it down. To think we laughed when locals looked surprised at our route, we thought they were looking at the distance but they didn’t communicate the difficulty we’d go through. It actually felt like we were in a washing maching full of rocks on some stretches — we had to make sure to adjust our seatbelts before the bumps hit into full swing because we literally couldn’t move as they tightened so much! The pros of being on the mountains were the sights and the cool fresh air which made it a little bit more bearable. We had no radio for the majority of the day as it was full of dust and it was too bumpy. We more than likely wouldn’t have been able to hear it anyways and the silence may have aided us in maintaining our sanity.
In the more rural parts we saw lots of yurts along the road, kids ran out laughing and smiling and we gave them sweets if we could go past slow enough. The sun went down and we coulfn’t make it any further than Naryn that night, we couldn’t chance the roads as you never know what they could have in store. There didn’t seem to be hotels on the main road even though people had told us all along that there was. When we stopped at a set of lights a guy asked were we looking for somewhere to stay, cautiously we pulled over behind them and sent Nelly to investigate.
We followed them through town and out to a residential area, it was off the main beating track so we did become a little nervous to say the least but hoped for the best, how bad could it go? Nelly followed one of the men in through a gate and came back bearing good news. There was a lady ready to rent us a two bedroom apartment with a kitchenette and bathroom, we couldn’t say no, we needed to shower the 4inches of dirt and dust of ourselves from the road.
We didn’t have enough money to give her in cash so we needed to find a bank, she didn’t have much English but she still organised for one of her friends to drive us into the bank and then get food. Of course there is a little hesitation every time something like this happens but to some extent you just have to go with it! You have to allow yourself to be a little naive in these situations, there are so many good people in the world and not everyone is out to get you.
Armena was waiting for us at the gate with her toddler when we got back and walked us up the road to her sisters restaurant. To us it was quirky but to locals it was normality and it consisted of chaikhana beds surrounding a garden, almost trailer park style with fairy lights dangling from everywhere. As the menus are generally all in Russian we get the waitress’s to recommend dishes for us. We got a side salad, three plates of chips and three plates of Beshbarmak — diced meat on a potato bed with onions and garlic, delicious!
Breakfast was served at 9am, we had bread, porridge and she even let us borrow her Hoover to do a make shift valet on ChaCha with the time we had. We don’t realise how dusty it was until we wiped the surfaces, it was probably now the cleanest car on the rally! I was first to drive and for the first half the roads were still a little inconsistent. I went into quite a big dip at one stage and a pile of dust landed on my arms and the steering wheel from a crevice on the inside of the drivers door. The roads really improved after that as did the view.
We made it to the lake in good time, we ate in Cholpon Ata where a woman with good English spotted us having difficulty was kind to order us three dishes and they were some of the best we have had, we had noodles! We drove around a bit and after deciding to stay out of the real resort towns we found a beach to camp and all went for a paddle in the water, the water was far warmer then we expected!
We left the lake at 6am, to try and make it to the Russian embassy in Bishkek as early as possible. Coming off a roundabout I was stopped for speeding but we played the ignorance card, the footage they had was blurry (even though you could clearly identify our ridiculous car) and the police man tried to show Feargal how the machine worked. He ended up catching another guy and let us off the hook, we were out of there as quick as we could be!
We had Russian visas which allowed us to enter on the 15th but due to the ground we had covered earlier in the trip we would prefer to enter on the 12th/ 13th to give us more time in Mongolia (just incase). It took us a good 10mins to figure out the story in the embassy, number one was how we should queue in the crowded room. After 20mins we were told to come back when the consular department was open the next day, something we couldn’t read on the website as it was all in Russian. They closed shortly after and we said we may as well try after lunch so we went back to the coffee shop, had breakfast burritos and set up camp for two hours. Unfortunately we had no luck at the embassy and decided to break for the border while it was still bright out.
The border was a little bit more chaotic then we were used too, there were people everywhere trading and bringing bags and packages across the border and a queue of unmoving traffic. We met an Irish lady at the border, She waved at us first and nelly said “they look European, in fact I think they are European” — it was Mary from Ballymahon, Longford. She was travelling with a friend for four weeks around Kyrg, Kazakh and Taijikistan. It was the first time we had met an Irish person since the Czech Out Party and the accent was like music to our ears!
We ended up queuing at the gate to enter the border for over an hour and it started to look a little like we would be staying in Bishkek for another night during the latter part. It was touch and go as to whether we would be able to enter border control at all because it was so busy, Nelly just had to keep on edging on forward in hope!
Our time to shine finally came and Feargal and I had to hop out of the car quickly at the top to jump into passport control as Nelly had the at checked. There was pushing, shouting and general unorganised madness at the door and even when we got in to the terminal there were queues everywhere we looked. We didn’t understand the signs and there were no staff filtering the crowd so we took a chance and said ‘what are the odds we are in the wrong place?’. Turns out we were but luckily we didn’t have to go into the queue, instead we went to the back of the booth.
When we got outside Nelly had already moved into ‘No Mans Land’ but we caught up quick as there didn’t seem to be any budge from the Kazakh gates at all. We were just lucky we weren’t pedestrians as they seemed to have it so much tougher. A walkway went the length of the road from the Kyrg — Kazakh border and people were trying to hop into it all the time, there was pushing and shoving and guards were shouting.
Every now and then one of the gates would open and everyone would run towards the gap, we hadn’t a clue what the process for the cars was so we just stayed put. At one stage when the gate opened a family seemed to push their youngest child in first before it closed again in an attempt to get through faster, it didn’t work though and there were piercing screams for a minute before the child calmed down.