Over the Border - Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan

My ANZAC tour of The Silk Road, with guide Surat, continues over the border from Uzbekistan into Kyrgyzstan. (It's taken me a long time to learn to spell that properly.)

The crossing Uzbekistan into Kyrgyzstan is extremely tedious. Passports are checked at four different places before I am allowed an exit stamp. We are also enjoined to keep the registration document from each hotel we have stayed at. Guards need to look at them and other Uzbek hotels will not be allowed to register us unless they have seen these. The customs officers are bored and rifle through everything in my bag before spending ten minutes looking at all the pictures on my iPad and asking who everyone is. They are bewildered because I don't speak Russian. All foreigners speak Russian.

A Brief History of Kyrgyzstan

  • For much of the time Kyrgyzstan's has remained isolated and buffered by its mountains. But it is still on a silk Road crossroads, so the area has been subsumed by various other empires over the years.
  • The lands have been subjugated most notably by the Turkic nomads, the Mongols and the Dzungar and Kokand Khanates. In 1876, Kyrgyzstan became part of the Russian Empire, and, consequently in 1936, part of the Soviet Union, as the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic. In 1991, Kyrgyzstan declared independence from the USSR and a democratic government was established. But there has been ongoing ethnic and political conflict. The so called Tulip revolution in 2005 took the country some way towards democracy and leader Akayev coined the term to signify peaceful protest, aligned with other peaceful 'flower revolutions'.

Osh, the Capital of South Kyrgyzstan

Another minivan and another driver and Osh, Osh is both ancient (It is the oldest city in the country, estimated at more than 3000 years old) and the second town in Kyrgyzstan. There's a bustling, fascinating and friendly bazaar and another mosque, before we return to find yet another driver. The last one has been taken sick. I hope it's not an omen. We don't get lunch, as it takes so long to get through the border, so dinner is fairly early. Traditional rice plov, (pilaff) eaten on a blanket covered wooden verandah that is built out over a swift flowing river. There is a little water wheel turning to one side.

It is immediately obvious that Kyrgyzstan is much poorer and more liberal than Uzbekistan. Lenin is in favour here again, but otherwise there is little in the way of buildings or monuments to admire. The roads are decrepit, and structures are low build and crumbling with corrugated tin roofs. Most of the cars on the road are Japanese. These are cheaper when the steering wheel is on the left so fifty percent of the cars in the country are left hand drive and fifty percent right hand. There are a lot of accidents - the government, we are told, is going to take steps. There are also flies everywhere.

We are in a homestay tonight. I have been allocated the dining room and I am sleeping on a sofa bed. There is a shared bathroom and very hard toilet paper. But at least there is some. I don't think it's a good idea to inspect anything too closely. There is a huge dining table and a large flat screen TV and an extension lead with sockets. The latter might possibly have been an advantage except that there are no batteries in the remote control and the lead fuses with a loud bang when I plug in my phone. There is no WiFi. This is a residential area and outside there is nothing but trees, houses and shrieking children. It looks like an early night, Except that there are glass doors to my dining room and  no curtains or blinds.

Facts and Factoids

  • 'Kyrgy' is thought to be derived from the Turkic word for 'forty' – a reference to the 40 clans, united by the legendary hero Manas. So the country’s flag features a 40-ray sun.
  • Kyrgyzstan is most definitely landlocked. It's farther from the sea than any other individual countr.
  • The Tian Shan (Heavenly) Mountains cover over 80% of the country. with the average peak coming in at over 2000 metres. It's yet another Switzerland - "the Switzerland of Central Asia" - as a result.
  • This is one of the least densely populated countries in the world, but here, many of the five million or so population live in the mountains or countryside. Only 36% live in the cities.
  • The main income generator here, surprisingly, is gold is really king here. It accounts for 43 per cent of Kyrgyzstan’s exports. It's hidden beneath the Tian Shan Mountains.
  • The second highest export is dried legumes.

Solomon's Throne

A climb up Solomon's Mountain (Sulayman Too). This is possibly Kyrgyzstan's biggest claim to a tourist trap and the only UNESCO site wholly in the country. Sulayman is a prophet in the Qur'an and this mountain is important to Muslim pilgrims, the most important sacred mountain in Central Asia. The trees and bushes on the mountain are draped with numerous "prayer flags". There are seven caves in the interior. One houses a historical museum with some wax figures.

At the top, there's a shrine which supposedly marks Solomon's grave. Women who crawl though an opening across the holy rock will, according to legend, give birth to healthy children. As if that wasn't enough, if you slide down a slippy piece of slope on the rock three times then all your back problems are cured. I try it, but it's difficult to stop without jarring your spine, so I suspect that more problems are generated than are actually cured. There's also a fifteenth-century house built by Babur (Tamerlane's descendant and the founder of the Mughal Empire), a mosque with a cemetery and a viewpoint. There's a great panoramic view of the city and the valley beyond the mountains beckoning in the distance.

As with Uzbekistan, the most interesting aspect of town visiting is people watching. The Kyrgyzs are slightly more reserved than the Uzbeks, but still friendly, and there is some great headgear. Most notable are tall felt embroidered hats for men.

Leaving Kyrgyzstan - The Irkeshtam Pass

A very well travelled lady, I met in the Philippines, told me that the dramatic scenery here on the Silk Road was the best thing she ever saw. So I have high hopes. Over the Irkeshtam Pass mountain pass, three thousand metres up. a deep gorge where the southern flank of the Tian Shan mountains meet the Pamir Mountains. The views are not undersold. It's stunning, the colour palette sublime .There are sprinklings of gers (now called yurts) and goats, horses and donkeys meander onto the twisting roads.

Sary Tash

We end today's journey in another homestay, at Sary Tash, the seven thousand metre peaks of Tajikistan painting a picture before us. I'm not looking forward to tonight. There are six of us crammed into one room - sleeping on blankets on the floor. The temperature outside is around zero degrees as the sun sets. There are two long drop toilets (grade 2 out of ten) fifty yards away. The smell is indescribable. And it's even harder to hold your breath and go to the toilet at the same time. All I've had to drink at dinner is vodka. I'm hoping it will put me to sleep and I won't have to go the toilet too often.

A diabolical night's sleep. There is a chorus of snoring all night and the ground is hard and cold. It is just about compensated for by the unfolding mountain vistas as we climb higher and higher: velvety green folds backed by white blanketed peaks and azure skies. There are no other cars on the road. Shangri-La is punctuated by stops at border crossings for more passport checks as we inch closer to China. There is the pre-border check in Kyrgyzstan, then the stamp the passport Kyrgyzstan stop, then into No Man's Land and five checks spread over 140 kilometres in China before we actually officially arrive there - in Kashgar.

The Chinese Border

On the road again, returning from our excursion to Kashgar. Back through the rocky border zone, but not so far this time, turning off over the Torugart Pass towards northern Kyrgyzstan and the Tien Shan Mountains. Border procedures are less onerous, but still irksome. However, the road is single track and not nearly as well maintained. Chinese trucks tear in the opposite direction, taking the middle of the road on the hairpin bends and causing our happy driver to shriek. There are also landslides and wash out from rivers to contend with

The Torugart Port of Entry where travellers must clear for customs, is about 70 miles from the pass itself. Several miles before the border proper there is a broken down lorry stuck in one of the wash outs. Some trucks attempt to manoeuvre round it, wobbling precariously in the mud, but there is a long queue of traffic at a standstill for 20 minutes. After much reversing we are on our way again, the scent of chamomile in the air. The truck drivers continue to be a menace; one misses us by a millimetre. I'm trying to concentrate on the peaks, which are now snow capped again, but it's difficult with all the bumping and Chinese swearing. We ascend once more to well over three thousand metres, snow lying along the side of the road.

Back to Kyrgyzstan - The Torugart Pass

There is another minibus waiting at the very top, on the border. This one has so many cracks in the wind screen it looks like a spider's web. Heaven knows how the driver can see. As we enter Kyrgyzstan the pass follows a long wide valley with the iridescent Lake of Chatyr-Kul off to one side. The highest peak in the Tian Shan is Jengish Chokusu (also called Victory Peak) on the border with China. At 7,439 metres, it is also the highest point in Kyrgyzstan Eventually, we turn off into a gorge that gradually narrows. This road, stretching for some 250 miles to Bishkek, is often impassable in winter, due to heavy snowfall and frequent avalanches.

Tash Rabat

At the end of the gorge is Tash Rabat, a famous stone caravanserai, a stone domed resting place for Silk Road travellers. Or a temple. Or a fortress. Take your pick. We drive the seven kilometres to have a look and I walk back savouring the crisp mountain air and the dinosaur like rock formations. There are little yellow and sapphire alpine flowers. It's picture postcard perfect.

Tonight, we are doing the tourist thing and staying in a yurt. The decent ones are made out of layers of felt, supported by wooden beams. Some of them, however, are plastic covered with steel poles. The locals call these Chinese yurts. There are several yurt camps set along the little stream that tumbles through the gorge. Naturally, ours is the most fleabitten. Tonight all seven of us are crammed into one tent, so I'm not going to escape the snoring. At least we have beds this time.

The snoring was considerably diminished last night. Possibly because no alcohol was consumed at last night's yurt feast of cabbage and potato with microscopic chunks of meat. Fat marmots posture and then scurry back to their burrows, as we head back down the gorge. I'm sitting up front next to the driver. There are a few perks associated with being a The Spare Part. His name is Reynard and he has the usual gold teeth (until recently these were regarded as a sign of wealth). He is driving with one bare foot and one foot in shoe and sock. I'm sure there is a good reason. I have accused him of aspiring to be English, as he spends most of his time driving on the wrong (left hand side) of the road and listening to bad eighties music, like Village People. He thinks I'm being funny.

On the Road, in Kyrgyzstan

There is very little traffic (fortunately) on our route through more wide valleys and high passes. For most of the way the road surface is very poor. No-one has done much to the highways since Kyrgyzstan left the Soviet Union and the old Russian roads have disintegrated badly. The Chinese have begun to reconstruct the roads on this side of the country too, but there is little tar-macadam in evidence yet, just plenty of piled up rocks, some concrete piping and a swarm of bulldozers. As with much of Central Asia, any car is a potential taxi. You just have to get the price right.

And, the scenery is still magnificent. The mountains vary between rolling brown and green, herds of goats and horses roam (it's still foaling season) and there are snow tipped peaks visible still for most of the time. The roadside stalls here are touting apricots and the trees in the orchards are laden with the fruit.

Issyk Kul

Kyrzgstan is landlocked and mountainous so there is no seaside. Right? Our destination today is Issyk Kul (Warm Lake). It's also known as Karakol and is the second highest lake in the world, after Titicaca, (there are nearly 2000 lakes here.) The sandy beach here is thronged with sunbathers, bright umbrellas and bouncy castles, not to mention donkey and camel rides. The water is heaving with intrepid swimmers (at 17 degrees I wouldn't exactly describe it as warm, but the lake is so named because it never freezes, because of hot springs in the depths) . A row of white capped mountains form the scenic backdrop. Around the lake, the apricot stalls are supplemented with racks of smoked fish.

Tonight's accommodation is another homestay. Yet again I'm in one of the sitting rooms with no curtains. The toilet and shower are at the bottom of the garden.

We detour along the lake to admire petroglyphs that are nearly three thousand years old. These are of interest, but the field of rocks, seemingly the remains of a moraine, is a more enjoyable experience, another great view in both directions, towards the mountains and back across the lake.

A visit to the eleventh century Burana Tower follows. It is all that remains of the ancient (ninth century) Karakhanid city of Balasagun. As with so many of these Central Asian towers, its height has been reduced by earthquakes over the centuries. This one was originally 45 metres high. and it's now only 25 metres. The whole site, including some mausoleums, is a museum and you can climb to the top of the tower, if you are feeling energetic.

As is also often the case, there's a legend associated with the tower. It says that a fortune tellers told a powerful khan that his baby daughter would die from a spider bite on her sixteenth birthday. To protect her, the khan built this tall tower for her to live in Food was thoroughly inspected and delivered in a basket via a ladder. On her sixteenth birthday the khan himself took her fruit in basket. A spider was hiding inside.

Yesterday the seaside, today Hawaii. Lunch is at a restaurant, on a lagoon full of fountains and floating pavilions and bedecked with plastic palm trees in yellow and red. There are all manner of bizarre statues. The highlight is probably the blue horse.

Bishkek, the Capital of Kyrgyzstan

Then on to Bishkek, nipping through the bottom most finger of Kazakhstan, barricaded with barbed wire. Bishkek evolved from a Russian fortress on the Silk Road called Pishpek. At first glance, the capital of Kyrgyzstan could rival Cuzco or Kathmandu for scenic city views of snowy peaks. However, it is a haphazard sprawl of residential and industrial buildings. There are wide boulevards and marble-faced public buildings, combined with numerous Soviet-style apartment blocks. I can't see any signposts, but people seem to know where they are going. I'm not sure it has a centre, although there is a square, with a statue and government buildings, with soldiers goose-stepping to change the guard this time. Here are also a couple of impressive museums, one with a collection of soviet era statues and tableaux, mostly featuring Lenin.

It's been roasting hot today and a few of us are displaying symptoms of heatstroke. (Temperatures here range from 40 degrees in Summer to minus thirty in winter.)I have compounded the situation as I have been drinking very little to avoid midnight trips to the longdrops. Early bed, with some dioralyte. Surat, the local, is red eyed and looks worse than me. He's got even more confused as the trip wears on and he lives up to the depressed Soviet stereotype. He's called both of us Sues, Susie, the whole trip so far. Tomorrow we fly back to Tashkent, to pick up The Silk Road again.

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