Hitchhiking and hitches on the road in Kyrgyzstan
Today is one of those days when you wonder: why don’t we go on normal holidays and do fun stuff, instead of hanging around bus stations in the back of beyond?
Our mission was to get from Chayek to Aslanbob, a distance of 604km, which is a long way in a country without trains or bus timetables. And when half of the roads are unpaved and you’re in a battered Lada with cracks in the windscreen, which we often are. (After almost a week here, I have a new love: tarmac. How had I never appreciated how gloriously smooth it is, how fast!)
The challenging bit is getting going. You have three options: a very cheap marshrutka (minibus), a cheap shared taxi or an expensive (by Kyrgyz standards) private taxi. The first two only leave when they’re full – eco-friendly but not ideal if you don’t want to spend all morning waiting to leave.
Even when you give in and negotiate a private taxi, things are rarely straightforward when your Kyrgz is limited to “hello”, “yes”, “no”, “thank you”, “how much”, “expensive” and “the food is delicious”. And yes, maybe we should have heeded the Lonely Planet’s warning not to take the Kochkor-Suusamyr backroad because “the minimal public transport becomes entirely non-existent”.
Private taxi it is then…
Taxi 1: The non-starter
Which brings us to Chayek, a workaday town off the tourist trail in Central Kyrgyzstan. After an hour of scribbling numbers on scraps of paper, we agree a price with a taxi driver. He heads off in the wrong direction – he needs petrol – then back to the taxi rank. He types out “12" on his mobile and skips off to the barber. Midday comes and goes, our newly shorn driver returns – still no movement. We retrieve our rucksacks and stomp off.
Taxi 2: The tour guide
The second taxi driver also heads off in the wrong direction – he too needs petrol. Only then do I realise I’ve left my water flask, notebook and guidebook in the first car; Matt realises he’s lost his phone. Our new driver watches with concern as we have a meltdown, then drives us back to the taxi rank. The first car has gone…
But just as we give up it reappears! With all our stuff! So 5 hours in and still 558km away from our destination, we’re finally back on the road.
10 minutes later, our driver stops to pick up a mate who just seems to be along for the ride, then to drop off some peppers, then to buy two bottles of pop – he gives us one and introduces himself as Alkali (I’m not sure of the spelling – he’s on the left below).
The backroad turns out to be a bumpy but scenic dirt road that follows a fierce river through craggy terracotta mountains. Alkali is keen to show us the sights and stops at a graffitied statue of a goat (Matt claims it was a Marco Polo sheep) and some kind of fertility hut so we can take pictures.
I start to resemble a dusty scarecrow (suncream and clouds of dust are not an attractive combo), so the men wind up their windows and I instantly pass out in the stifling heat.
Taxi 3: The family man
Alkali won’t take us further than the village of Suusamyr, where we’re immediately accosted by another taxi driver who says it’ll cost 1000 som to drive us to the highway.
We walk away until he lowers the price to 300 (£3.40). As soon as we climb in, he does a u-turn and heads in the wrong direction, down a maze of road and parks up: granny, mum and three kids pile in. 15 minutes later (and still 470km from our destination), we’re back where we started and our driver stops again: two teenagers waiting by the side of the road squeeze in. No one else pays so we’re probably subsidising everyone’s fare, which we’re happy to do but it is getting a little crowded. I have an attack of the giggles while Matt and the toddler stare at me solemnly.
Taxi 4: The freebie
From the ridiculous to the sublime: now we’re cruising along the Bishkek-Osh highway (so smooth! So fast!) in a 4x4 with air-conditioning. From here on we might just hitchhike as it appears to be a hell of a lot quicker. Within two minutes of Matt sticking his thumb out, a businessman calked Aybek picked us up in an enormous Toyota. (After years of shaking my fist at the Chelsea tractors that hog West London’s roads on my cycle to work, I’m now in thrall to them.)
I was mildly concerned when Aybek flashed a petrol tanker and stopped to have a fag with the driver. But it turned out his job is something to do with petrol. Then he got stopped for speeding, but cheerfully bribed the police officer by slipping a 200 som note in his driving licence (£2.30).
Now Matt is teaching him the English for “sheep”, “river” and “bribe” as the highway snakes past more mighty mountains – a sheer gorge this time, which drops into a pure blue lake.
When Aybek drops us off at the turn-off, we’ll be a mere 50k away from Aslanbob. We just need a marshrutka with space for two. It’s nearly 9pm and the guidebook says they finish at 6pm, but hopefully it’s wrong this time…
No. of cars: 6
Hours: 14 1/2
Cost: 4000 som (£45)
Quarrels: 1 3/4
*We did make it to Aslanbob but in a private taxi. There are no hotels, so we gave thanks to Maps.me which plots a few homestays. The first gate was locked with no bell. The second was down a dark, damp lane that didn’t appear on the map, but the gate opened. We knocked tentatively at the door. “How did you find us?” marvelled our hostess, then kindly fixed us a supper of homemade bread, jam and honey, a bowl of walnuts (Aslanbob is surrounded by the world’s biggest walnut forest) and a pot of green tea.