After exploring the western province of Mangistau in August, we now crossed the border into Eastern Kazachstan. The old Kazach capital Almaty was well worth a quick visit; we marvelled at a richly decorated orthodox church and wandered around the huge Green Bazar, browsing all the different meet counters and cheese stalls. We even found something very much resembling old Dutch cheese!
We continued to the Charyn Canyon in the southeast of Kazachstan. We didn’t have very high expectations but it was a little paradise! The Charyn river once found its way on the plain steppes and carved out this pretty canyon. After a steep slope and manouvering under a bridge of rocks, we found a riverside BBQ space; perfect.
Once more discovering how huge Kazachstan actually is, we spent a few days in the car heading north. We felt a bit sad because we knew we would have to give the Altai mountains a miss due to lack of time. The sunshine soon made way for rain and icy cold wind. The changing weather provided some excellent photogenic scenery. Eventually, we reached the city of Semey. This place has a bit of a dubious past; it used to be a nuclear testing playground in the old Soviet days. The hot bath (yes!) water in the hotel (luxury!) looked pretty clear though.
We had to sacrifice one shock absorber on the appalingly bad roads of Kazachstan. The part of the car frame where the left back absorber had been attached, broke off. Fingers crossed for better roads in Russia...
After having a surprisingly delicious breakfast in a trucker’s cafe in Sary Tash, we headed towards the base camp of Pik Lenin. This is the second highest peak of the Pamir mountains and sits right on the Tajik and Kyrgyz border. We passed a magical mountain lake, hidden between the roling hills at the base of the range. After following the tiny curvy roads we found a perfect spot to camp, on the edge of a canyon with the snowy top of Pik Lenin in full view.
We spent a few days in Osh where we had a little reunion with Sebastian and Hamida, the German tandem couple. It was good to be able to get some fresh things at the bazar again, after these weeks in the mountains. Tajikistan had taken its toll on the car, so we looked for a place where we could get some cracks welded. We ended up at this garage / butcher place, where yaks were walking around and a pick-up full of intestines wobbled by while you heard the welding machine in the background. Interesting.
We met up with the other German couple Heike and Julian and their Mercedes van in Arslanbob, the world’s biggest walnut forest. It was so nice to be in a forest again after seeing so much dry landscape without many trees. And it was the best time to come here; harvest time! There was a little downside to our hilltop parking spot; the front breakline broke on the way there...So Tomek was trying to find a solution to plug something in the breakline so the fluid wouldn't squirt out straight away when pushing the brake pedal. This way we could disable the broken brake and still use the other three brakes. He somehow managed after numerous attempts, and we got to the bottom of the hill safely. Applause!
After eating lots of walnuts, and a stop over at the Jalal Abad mechanics to get the breakline properly fixed, we headed for Bishkek to start the Russian visa adventure. We found out we needed to get a Kyrgyz visa before we would be able to apply for a Russian one. The thing is, Europeans don’t need a Kyrgyz visa to enter the country. So the immigration office was not too pleased to make an effort to arrange a Kyrgyz visa for us. After sitting out the lunch hour, visiting many different ‘kabinets’ in the building, we managed to get hold of the ‘director’. She understood our situation and started the process. We got the Kyrgyz visa stickers in our passport and made it to the Russian embassy just before closing time. Application complete, please come and pick it up next week. Alright.
The short cut and the close call
From Bishkek we drove through the Kegeti canyon, just to have an adventurous short cut to the Sang Kul lake. It was a beautiful valley with a steep climb to a 3805 meter pass just before the turn off to the main road. It looked like a pretty good road on the map. Getting to the pass involved some rock-moving and getting out of the car for serious risk assessment but we reached it without too many problems. After a few windy look-out and picture-taking moments, we descended about 100 meters when we noticed that the rest of the way down looked pretty steep, narrow, blocked or non-existent...So we had no choice but to back up to the pass on the tiny stone and gravel covered path. This involved placing rocks in front of the wheels and slowly reversing about two to three meters at a time. Eventually we managed to get back up the pass, turn the car around and drive back down again.
After a big detour back through the valley we reached Sang Kul. A lovely lake surrounded by horses, cows, sheep and lots of yurts. We were told that this would be the last week that the yurts were there, as snow would be coming soon. After a cold and very windy night, we woke up and saw signs of frost the next morning. But the sun was out and we went for a tea at one of the yurt camps. The ladies there were great and dressed us up in traditional costumes for a big laugh.
The yurts are so beautifully constructed. The women spend a lot of time embroidering and felting the so-called shyrdaks; the carpets for the floor and walls. We found a few really pretty ones in a local workshop, so a little bit of Kyrgystan is coming home with us.
We drove back to Bishkek through the Suusamyr Valley. Partly because of the name of course, but mainly because we were told there would be some nice fishing spots alongside the Kokomeren river in that valley. No fish dinner in the end but plenty of wonderful spots next to the emerald colored river.
We went over a 2564m pass and at the bottom of it the brakes stared acting funny. We were waved down at a checkpoint, but we simply couldn’t stop and drove straight through and had to do some sort of an emergency stop at the side of the road. The guard was not amused, but when Tomek explained the brake problem, he understandingly nodded at the pass we just came from and told us the next garage would be in 20 km. Now we were just like the locals; driving without functioning brakes...
So, the second new breakline in ten days was installed, carefully overseen by Tomek. I made it to the Russian embassy just in time for the visa pick up thanks to the marshrutka ride with Heike and Julian, thanks again guys!
After some nut and mushroom shopping at the big bazar in Bishkek, we set off to Lake Issyk Kul. This lake was created by a meteorite and apparently never freezes in winter because there is some thermal activity underneath it. So still kind of ok for swimming at the end of September.
The southern side of the lake is beautiful, with lots of little rocky beaches and the clearest water. We spotted a sign for the so-called fairy tale canyon. It revealed to be a mini Cappadocia! Fantastic.
Catch of the day
One big wish for us was to meet an eagle hunter and to experience his skills and tradition from up close. We went to the house of Ishenbek, Kyrgystan’s most famous eagle hunter. He met us with a friendly face and excused himself that he wouldn’t be able to take us hunting the next day. The reason being he had to go to Bishkek for a talkshow for national TV. We were happy to wait another day for this exciting event.
We gathered back at his house and got into Ishenbek’s car. His eagle and dog were in the back, the eagle eagerly responding to Ishenbek’s voice with excited shrieks. We drove to meet the hunter’s apprentice; Ruslan. We got onto our horses (yes, first time in 12 years...Wieb, Ellen, you guys would be proud of us). Mine seemed to want to do nothing else than stop to eat and drink all the time, but in the end I kind of got it to go in the direction of the eagle hunters. We followed Ishenbek and Ruslan to the best places on the surrounding hills to spot foxes. Ruslan was throwing small rocks from the top to see if animals would flee. Ishenbek sat with the blindfolded eagle, waiting for the right moment to take the eyecap off, so the eagle could spot and go after the prey. We spotted about five foxes but they all ran uphill. The eagles can only hunt downwards, so we had to make sure the fox would run downhill. We followed the hunters with the heavy eagles on their arms over the narrowest paths on the steepest slopes. I was quite impressed by the courage of my horse, I would have turned round to go back a few times already if it would have been just me! At one point we found a good spot and the hunter dog spotted a fox. The eagle went straight at it and had to put up a real fight to kill the fox. We got off our horses and ran towards the scene, just in time for the final kill. The eagle started with the lungs of the fox and nibbled his way through to the intestines and the front legs. We watched him from half a meter’s distance. It was amazing to see the strength of the claws of the animal holding down the fox’s body while tearing his flesh with its sharp beak. After having witnessed nature's ways from this close, we returned to Ruslan’s house for tea with jam and picked apples from his beautiful orchard. My horse even went off in a little gallop on his way home (without me playing an active part in getting it to do that, but it was good fun!).
Check out more eagle-in-action and bloody fox pictures here!
After a good night’s sleep we headed to the Ak Suu Valley in search of the Altyn Arashan hot springs. It was a pretty rough ride through the pine forests and we got to a point where we couldn't go any further by car. We packed our towels, walked the last part and had a rewarding soak in a hot mineral bath in a small wooden shed by the river.
We headed back to Karakol to stock up at the bazar and went off to explore yet one more of Kyrgystan's valleys. It was a beautiful, and almost equally rough drive as the previous day. We camped by the bridge from where we started the steep hike up to Ala Kol lake. It had snowed there already and the snow covered mountain tops were a pretty contrast with the amazing color of the lake.
With a little bit of muscle ache, we continued up to the north side of the Issyk Kul lake to meet with our German friends Heike and Julian for a goodbye dinner. The north side of the lake felt a lot more Russian, with lots of huge holiday resorts and broken vodka bottles. Time to go and explore the real Russia, via 1600km of Kazachstan that is....
We crossed the Kazakh border close to Bishkek but somehow they refused to let the car through customs. They told us to go to another border about 20km further on, but we already had our exit stamp for Kyrgystan. After about an hour or so, the boss intervened. The guy who couldn't be bothered to clear our car got told off and we got our stamp. Hello again Kazakhstan!
In the meantime...
We came across a cow rescue operation in the middle of a deserted valley. Two cows had fallen off a ledge and both had broken their legs. An old UAZ ambulance with seven men came to pick them up after they had been lying there for a day or so already. The men dragged the cows across to the road, squeezed them into the van and off to the slaughterhouse they went.
The Kyrgyz men do love their decorated felt hats. Especially in combination with some nice 1960s shades...
After having discovered that the border crossing east of Samarkand was closed (and had been for yeeeaaars, oops) we decided to cross at Buston. It was the easiest border crossing so far. When we got to the car search part, a bright blue eyed officer looked the car up and down and curiously asked “Do you have a shower?” After proudly showing him our bathroom options we were warmly welcomed into his great country.
It was about 38 degrees and we were in desperate need of a dip in the river before we could continue towards Dushanbe. When we got to the Tajik capital, we found our missing car part in the first shop we stopped at! A little piece of luck.
From Dushanbe, you can take two routes towards the Pamirs. Known as the northern and the southern route. We decided on the longer, but more exciting looking southern route. We passed a beautiful man-made lake at sunrise, which gave it a spectacular and fairytale like haze. A long part of the southern route follows the Panj river which forms the natural border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. It felt somehow exciting and exotic to be peeping over to the villages on the other side of the river. Would the people of the villages on both sides ever meet? Do the little boys use mirrors to sign to eachother?
There is one place where the people from both sides can cross the border. This place is called Iskashim. This town has an island in the middle of the Panj river which is a neutral zone. Every Saturday Tajiks and Afghans come here to trade goods. Unfortunately, we couldn’t visit. We heard several stories why not, one of them being a cholera outbreak on the Afghan side. A reason to come back some other day, I suppose.
We spent a couple of days in Khorog and met a lot of nice people. Some of them other travellers and others people who are doing research projects or work for NGO’s. It’s amazing how many projects seem to be running here.
We met a great German couple on a self built tandem, and had some good laughs. We bumped into an Australian guy with the best dried fruits and muesli selection (thanks Phil!). We met Darek, a great Polish guy on an old Ukrainian bike (with only one city bike style handbrake - respect). And not just cycling is popular in the Pamirs, we met people in a driving house attached to a Unimog and even a couple in a campervan! It's a bit like "ter land ter zee en in de lucht"; everybody welds together their own means of transport and keeps their fingers crossed theirs will survive the rough roads.
After having done all the necessities, like ALL of our laundry, a big rest, an Indian curry and some research on internet, we left Khorog to follow the Panj river further south towards the Wakhan valley. The route was spectaculair with amazing views around every bend. We took a very remote mountain path, which involved crossing a particularly wonky looking bridge. But the views were fantastic and it was a beautiful way to reach the Shokhdara valley.
We stopped in a small village and had cay with a lovely family who took the opportunity to get out the musical instruments and family pictures.
We just finished our tea when their daughter came running in; 'jeep! jeep!' It was Darek, the Polish cyclist on the old bike that we bumped into a couple of days before. His bike was tied to the back of his friends car and they were heading towards the Bartang valley; a notoriously rugged valley with washed out roads and unbelievably tiny paths on steep slopes. We knew we wouldn't drive the Bartang on our own (it would be too risky) but now we found two other Polish 4WD cars to explore the valley with.
The rough roads of the Bartang valley did ruin our car a bit; the front frame broke right through and we spotted some cracks at the bottom of the front window...At one point we ended up halfway in the water (my half!) when we tried to find the washed away road in the quick flowing river. It was quite scary and at one point water got into the engine and it switched itself off. The only thing working was the annoying car alarm! Luckily the other guys managed to pull us out (and document every second of our little accident - we are still waiting for the pictures and films...will add as soon as we get them). All of our stuff got wet, but miraculously, the engine was still working. Thanks guys, for the help!
We exited the notorious Bartang Valley and went up to Karakul lake. You always read about these spectacular green and blue colors lakes can have. And it’s all true in the case of Karakul lake. But wind was picking up and we decided to head up to the border. We crossed it in the cold dark without any problems. The next morning we woke up with a spectucular view of the Kyrgiz side of the Pamir range.
Driving through Tajikistan feels like watching the National Geographic channel out of the car window, eating pomegranates instead of popcorn...People welcome you with the most sincere smiles, waves and handschakes with the left hand over the heart. It’s a fascinating place. You would think you’re all alone in this sometimes barren landscape. But even on the most remote backroads and mountains, you find little houses. Sheep and cow herders walk for miles and miles to find the best patch of grass for their cattle. And they are always up for a chat. It feels so good that we can have a little conversation in our tiny bit of made-up Russian.
In the meantime...
We discovered what altitude sickness feels like...It's like the biggest hangover you ever had (and I can tell you, we had a few bad ones). We went over the
Tomek donated his shoes to a herder. The guy put the purple Van’s on with the biggest smile on his face and walked away a new man.
We managed to drive through the Pamirs without actually driving much on the Pamir Highway itself. Who needs tarmac anyway. We picked up lots of local hitchhikers along the many side routes we took. Maximum capacity: six people. Three people in the front, two lying on the bed and one standing on the rear bumper, holding on to the roofrack extension. Good fun.
After our little water accident with the car we have to short circuit the car every time we want to start it. Funnily enough, nobody looks surprised when we do it. The radio got electrocuted, so now it comes down to singing. Which in our case is not an improvement. Other than that, all the oils need to be changed because some have water in them. So off to Osh to the next garage!