Stage 3 – Kyrgyzstan: The Tien Shan
The small, mountainous state of Kyrgyzstan is something of a strange entity as in independent country. Physically, the country has three regions; the fertile northern plains close to the Chuy River where Kyrgyz have settled alongside many Slavic (Russian and Ukrainian) immigrants; the eastern edge of the Fergana Valley, where the Kyrgyz have settled the fertile, low-lying farmland amidst ethnic Uzbeks (and where the two nations occasionally indulge in some ugly ethnic violence); and finally the western Tien Shan mountains (the eastern parts being in Xinjiang). It is in the high, grassy meadows, or jailoos, of this range, nestled between the Pamirs and Lake Issyk Kul, that the Kyrgyz still practice their traditional nomadic ways. Yet only a small proportion of the country’s population live in such a manner, with the majority living settled lives alongside the Slavs and the Uzbeks. Perhaps because of this, the country seems to lack a particularly clear identity when compared to its neighbours. Lacking also the natural resources of Kazakhstan, or the infrastructure of Uzbekistan, it is a poor and isolated place. Tourism has been promoted as a key industry, and in a bid to attract foreign tourists, the Kyrgyz authorities have simplified visa procedures and abolished the old Soviet requirement of registration. As well as being less bureaucratic (from a foreigner’s point of view at least) it’s also more democratic than its neighbours. In 2005, there was the fairly peaceful ‘Tulip Revolution’, and three years after my 2007 visit another, less peaceful revolution which coincided with more deadly ethnic violence in those regions of Kyrgyzstan which lie in the ethnic jigsaw of the Fergana Valley. This troubled mountains state does however provide easy access to the knot of mountains in Central Asia, which were the main attraction for visiting.
I enter Kyrgyzstan on the 12th August 2007. Leaving Uzbekistani customs, I drive a few hundred metres through a field, until I reach a simple road junction on the main M41 highway which leads to the capital, Bishkek. There is no official looking building of any sort, and the border guard is sitting at a desk in the back of an old Russian Kamaz army truck with deflated tyres. He glances at my passport, writes my name and licence plate in a tattered ledger, and waves me through. Dismayed – it had taken hours to enter Russia and Uzbekistan – I prepare to drive off but stop immediately when I realise he’s not stamped my passport. Imagining all sorts of trouble for having no proof of legally entering the country, I stop and ask the officer to place a stamp on my visa. He shakes his head and dismisses the idea with a wave. I ask again, then indicate that I shan’t move until the stamp has been made. Finally, he tells me that he doesn’t have a stamp, smiles, and says: “Kyrgyzstan. Tourist. I love you”. This experience speaks volumes about the country.
Heading out of the Fergana Valley, onto the winding M41 which crosses the mountains to the capital, the contrasts with Uzbekistan are immediately apparent; rough, desolate but beautiful mountains in shades of red, brown and grey replace the cotton fields of Uzbekistan’s monotonous plains. Absent are the crowds of people and the almost continuous string of small towns and villages. Here only the occasional grimy roadside café breaks the distances between the tumbledown villages along the road. After spending the night on the freezing 3184-metre Ala Bel pass, I descend slowly in the early morning into the wide, beautiful Suusamyr valley as the sun starts to rise, colouring the surrounding grasslands golden-green in the cold morning air. The descent is gentle and continuous, through beautiful jailoos dotted with Kyrgyz yurts which sell kymyz (fermented mare’s milk). After an hour or so, the road climbs steeply once again, plunging through a steep mountainside in the dark, smoky Too Ashuu tunnel at 3200 metres. North of the tunnel the road descends in long switchbacks to the broad, fertile Chuy valley, from where it’s a short drive to the capital, Bishkek.
Bishkek, formerly Frunze (after the Red Army commander) is like a smaller, slightly shabbier and less ostentatious version of Almaty, with oak-lined streets arranged in a grid plan, all set against a gorgeous backdrop of soaring, snow-capped peaks to the south. The city is full of remnant Soviet architecture, but doesn’t have the slightly oppressive, authoritarian atmosphere of Tashkent; rather, there is a worldly, free-market atmosphere, despite the apparent poverty. Days are stingingly hot, but the nights cool and convivial and I while away a relaxing week in the Nomad’s Home Guesthouse, meeting other travellers and swapping stories. One traveller I meet is Oliver, an Austrian who is travelling with his dog Socks, and has driven his Hiace from India through Afghanistan to get here. Having just given up my dream of driving into Afghanistan due to a recent deterioration in security, it’s tantalising to meet someone who has had the courage to do it.
Oliver and I drive east out of Bishkek, in search of the iconic Central Asia of nomads on high grasslands. Just before reaching Issyk Kul Lake, we turn south and then off the road, onto a dirt track which climbs high into the mountains, to one of Kyrgyzstan’s most idyllic spots. Song Kul is a freshwater lake at 3000 metres in a broad bowl of 4000-metre mountains, surrounded on its shores by wonderful green jailoos; lush green grasslands dotted with Kyrgyz yurts and grazed by sheep, cattle and horses. Away from the immediate shore the land starts to rise into grassy ridges which stretch up to a horizon of low, distant mountains. The water is an enticing deep blue, with dappled horses drinking from one of the pebbled beaches; an absolutely magical scene.
Here the Kyrgyz come up from winter residences in towns at lower elevations to graze animals during the short summer, in a way which remains largely unchanged since the time of Chinggis Khan, and which has survived the horror of collectivisation which has all but wiped it out in neighbouring Kazakhstan. For the first time I feel the full measure of independence the cars give us; we circle the lake on rough tracks at our own pace, stopping to cook meals and sleep wherever we want in this quintessential Central Asian landscape. After two days, we descend from the southeast side of the lake through territory which seems absolutely uninhabited, through soft, rounded hills whose sparse cover of vegetation give them the appearance of velvet from afar. In the rather rough and grim town of Naryn we split, and I head towards the Chinese border.
The road south crosses another dusty mountain pass, which is pounded by huge Chinese-made lorries ferrying goods either way across the border, a modern-day remnant of the ancient Siilk Road. Beyond the pass, the road draws up alongside the At Bashy range, a line of sharp, snowcapped peaks which run roughly parallel to the Chinese border. This is true big-sky country, with banks of windswept cloud creeping over the peaks from the east. Sadly, the Chinese government do not permit foreigners to freely drive around China, but it’s tantalising to be so close to Xinjiang, Chinese Turkestan, the place where I first encountered Central Asia in 2003.
Kyrgyzstan is largely devoid of noteworthy architecture – nomads don’t build temples or palaces – but nestled in the green hills in the southeast of the country, not far from the Chinese border, lies an intriguing relic of the Silk Road. As merchants plodded along these braided trade arteries which passed through vast tracts of desolate and unpopulated terrain, they naturally needed places to rest. These medieval motels, known as caravanserais served that purpose, and can be seen from the Levant all the way to China. Tash Rabat caravanserai is a neat, stone-walled structure built into a hillside, with a cavernous interior chamber topped by a simple stone dome. While the building doesn’t have the architectural merit of those in Samarkand, or Bukhara, its location at 3100 metres in a remote valley surrounded by peaks is what impresses. How harsh conditions must have been in those days, the days when Marco Polo made his voyage along this route, to Cathay (China).
Backtracking to the north, I reach Issyk Kul (‘warm lake’, thus named as it never freezes), a large, deep alpine lake which sits between two ranges of the Tien Shan. I drive east along the southern shore of the lake, which is dotted with small villages, some Kyrgyz, and some Slavic. The Slavic villages have an almost Germanic air, with shuttered, pastel-coloured wooden cottages and prim kitchen gardens. It’s strange to see quaint European villages of blond-haired, blue-eyed farmers here, so deep inside Asia.
At the far eastern end of the lake, I reach the town of Karakol, where I camp in the garden of a guesthouse run by a friendly Ukrainian family, where I am re-introduced to the delights of Ukrainian cuisine each evening, when meals are served in the kitchen, which looks to be straight out of a Bavarian Gasthaus. A long-standing Slavic community is evidenced here by the large, wooden Russian Orthodox Trinity Cathedral; a large, ornate and entirely wooden structure. Dungans, Han Chinese Muslims (known in China as Hui) have also settled in Karakol (fleeing persecution in China in the 1880s) and their highly stylised mosque is one of the most striking I’ve ever seen. Built by Chinese artisans in the early 20th Century, the wooden mosque is a fusion of Arab and Chinese architecture, with an up-swept, pagoda-style roof and wooden pillars running all around the building. Like the Cathedral, the Dungan mosque is said to be made entirely without the use of nails.
Karakol is notable for its Sunday animal market, which is second in size in Central Asia perhaps only to that of Kashgar. As well as a place of commerce, it’s a meeting point for the semi-nomadic Kyrgyz, and a fascinating place to people-watch. Over two large fields, thousands of sheep, goats, cows, horses and donkeys are being groped at and eyed-up by prospective buyers; mostly tough-looking Kyrgyz from the surrounding mountain villages, though the odd soft, Slavic face mixes into the crowd. Though it’s not much past 08:00, many people are already swigging beer, and there is lively banter and deep, gold-toothed laughs. The sky, which has been getting darker, then breaks into gentle but steady rain, and the market becomes a quagmire of mud and manure. On my way out of the market I see the day’s purchases being led off; sheep bleating from the half-closed boots of old Zhigulis and Volgas, their legs bound in string.
I leave town one afternoon, heading south on a track which climbs up into the mountains to an area of hot springs set in a gorgeous alpine valley known as Altyn Arashan. The low evening sun casts a soft, golden glow along the pine-clad flanks of the valley, illuminating the brilliant white triangle of Mt. Palatka, a 4500-metre peak which presides over the end of the valley. It’s a fairytale scene without so much as a telephone line or a car horn to spoil the views and therapeutic tranquillity. In the morning I set out with seven others for a short day-trek. We head up the Arashan valley and separate as we find our own pace to walk at. The forest makes a wonderful change from the endless plains, deserts and barren mountains of Central Asia, with its wonderful fragrant pines and damp spongy, moss-covered ground, tranquil but for the burbling of mountain streams. I start to climb too early however, and end up having to wade through two leg-numbing roaring mountain streams before finding the right track which leads above the treeline to a large, barren amphitheatre. I move past the others in the group who are uncertain of how to proceed, as we are at the foot of near-vertical 200-metre high scree-slope. The ascent is arduous, treading gravel for an eternity, at times on all-fours, but at the summit of the 3900-metre ridge I am rewarded with a mind-bending view of Ala Kul, a milky, turquoise lake which sits in a rent in the Earth almost 400 metres below me, fed by deeply incised glacial streams. To the south is a 180º panorama of twisting, interlocking peaks of the Tien Shan, the western edge of a great range of mountains which run far into China.
I return to Karakol, and then to Bishkek via the northern shore of Issyk Kul, settling back in the Nomad’s Home Guesthouse. I need to collect a few visas and plan the next leg of the journey into Tajikistan and then on through Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to Iran. I spend three weeks in the capital attending to these tasks, and enjoying a rest from travelling, as well as the company of the many travellers who pass through the guesthouse. One such character is Miguel, perhaps the most eccentric of all the people I met on the entire trip. A Catalan from Barcelona, Miguel is 32, well-built, and has the full, glossy black beard of a Greek Orthodox priest. Having studied Kabballic Judaism in Jerusalem as part of a PhD in philosophy, he set out on a journey from his native Barcelona in 2002, and has been on the road ever since. Despite being a Roman Catholic, Miguel wears a black handkerchief over his clean-shaven head, a kippah (Jewish skullcap), and tops it off with a splendid €300 Hungarian-made black Jewish Hat. The hat was given to him for protection by his professor in Israel, and is only taken off when he sleeps, and on days that he travels. One might be tempted scoff at this, though considering that he has travelled through some of the most unsettled and lawless places in the world, such as Mogadishu in anarchic and war-torn Somalia, or Taliban-held Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, the fact that he has never been robbed, kidnapped, killed, or even fallen seriously ill in five years might cause one to consider more than mere chance was involved.
Miguel is also a self-confessed alcoholic; having fallen for cheap spirits in China and the former Soviet Republics, he claims to drink two to three bottles of vodka per day. As for his five years of travel, he has plenty of wild and outrageous stories, which fished from the muddiness of his vodka-addled memory and related in his hard-clipped Iberian accent, reduce me to fits of uncontrollable laughter. Miguel was arrested and imprisoned for being drunk in Georgia and Moldova (in his own words, he “fell down in the garden”, a term which actually meant he passed out inebriated in a public park). In China, whilst drunk, he climbed into an unmanned police shack at a traffic intersection, and began directing the traffic with his whistle and umbrella. Also in China, where people would “stare at me like I come from Plutonia”, Miguel would hit staring Chinese with his umbrella, and part crowds of unruly passengers at train station ticket kiosks using the same whistle. Miguel and I passed a lot of time in Bishkek, where I would build up my tolerance to his favourite Ukrainian vodka and laugh at his quirky behaviour; patting random strangers on the head as we walked round the city, and fondling the ladies’ underwear hung out to dry at the grotty brothel near the guesthouse. Miguel subsequently moved to Ukraine to be close to his favourite vodka, but has visited his native Spain several times since 2007.
The guesthouse is situated at the east of town, in an insalubrious area just next to the East Bus Station, which is quite a seedy place; a couple of dirty cafés where the staff are drinking beer at 08:00 on a Monday monring, a grubby brothel with cackling, drunken six-dollar whores, and marijuana plants growing in bushes full of litter and the excrement of the numerous stray dogs which patrol the area. The centre of Bishkek is far smarter and more pleasant however, a gentle mix of modern and old Soviet. Uniquely in a Central Asian capital, Lenin is still present, though he now stands behind the National Museum rather than in front of it, with his back to the sun, perhaps emphasizing his place in the past, and his waning ideals. Now he faces some smart neo-classical government building, surrounded by perhaps the city’s densest conglomeration of luxury European limousines and black SUVs. It’s not quite what he’d envisaged. Still, he can be thankful to still be upright and in the city centre, albeit in a small, quiet park devoid of passers-by, but wonderfully fragrant with late-summer marigolds. Penniless old Russian babushkas shuffle past, the forgotten ones, pausing to pick-up and inspect pieces of litter, whilst Kyrgyz students, young and beautiful move past in pairs or trios; the new face of Kyrgyzstan. Both casually disregard Lenin; to one he represent the irretrievable, to the others the irrelevant. Next door to the government building is the American University of Central Asia, housed in what was once the residence of the Supreme Soviet; again, more irony and disillusionment for old Lenin on his plinth.
As autumn draws close, the nights become colder and the air clearer, causing the mountains to the south of the city to glow even more enticingly. I team up with Andi, a German traveller who has come to Bishkek by motorcycle, and we set off into Ala Archa National Park, just beyond the southern limits of the city. Reaching the mountain hut at Ratseka, I feel the effects of having climbed to 3300 metres in one day, and spend a sleepless night on a wooden bench bed, aching from head to toe in what I assume is altitude sickness, whilst mice scurry around on the floor beneath. Nevertheless, I feel slightly better in the morning and we both summit Mt Uchitel, a 4550 metre peak from which there are fantastic views of tongues of glacial ice cascading down into the valley. A good finish for my time in the Tien Shan.
During my time in Bishkek, I start to become familiar and fond of the city; its shady, tree-lined streets, its bustling air of commerce and free-trade, its ageing fleet of Soviet trolleybuses, and the pretty girls and posing young men outside TSUM, the old Soviet state-run department store. The guesthouse is a marvellous place to kill time; vodka flows and an ever-changing cast of travellers pass through, contributing to a considerable degree of inertia. The mid-September nights are however already becoming cold, and with new visas in hand my thoughts turn to the next leg of the journey, driving Central Asia’s most beautiful road, the Pamir Highway, through the desolate high plateaus of Tajikistan all the way to the Afghan border.
I finally leave Bishkek with Boštjan, a Slovenian whom I meet in the guesthouse. We drive west to Kara Balta, kilometre zero of the M41 which later becomes the Pamir Highway. I’m retracing the route which I took six weeks ago when I first entered the country, up the switchbacks and through the Too Ashuu tunnel, then down into the glorious Suusamyr valley where the trees have beautiful yellow-brown leaves, the yurts are gone, and the grass is a seared, dead-looking brown. We pass the stunning, mirror-like waters of Toktogul Reservoir, which is backed by heavily eroded, multicoloured barren hills which are reflected in the still, cerulean waters. Descending further, we enter Kyrgyzstan’s section of the Fergana valley, back to monotonous cotton fields and chaotic Uzbek towns. I’m suddenly struck by how divided the country is; there is little traffic on the road on which we’re driving, which is the only surfaced road to link this part of the country with Bishkek and the north, and I am in an area which feels culturally very different from the highlands.
Near the city of Osh, we turn east once more, onto a rough dirt road which is pounded by more Chinese lorries. The villages become poor and spaced-out as we leave the agricultural heartland of Fergana and climb back into the last ridges of the Tien Shan, crossing the 3615-metre Taldyk Pass, the highest of the trip so far, which takes us down into the broad Kyzyl Suu Valley. On the far side of the wide, grassy valley, where farmers are gathering hay, a huge wall of smoothed and sculpted glaciated rock looms; the Pamirs, looking very different from the Tien Shan, crowned here by the summit of 7134-metre Mt Lenin, which occasionally comes into view out of the swirling cloud.
We stay a final night in the rough and charmless town of Sary Tash, which is little more than a crossroads with roads leading both to China and Tajikistan. After a night which reaches -12ºC, I say goodbye to Boštjan (whom I’ll meet in India next year), and head for the towering mass of snow-covered rock. Somewhere in there is an international border crossing.
Kyrgyzstan represented a rewarding foray into the Tien Shan mountains, and a glimpse of the traditional transhumance of Central Asia. This young and divided country has yet to promote its own national identity, and is still filled with the physical baggage of the USSR, though free-market reforms and an open-doors policy to tourism give it a more welcoming atmosphere than other places in the region. Having been settled as recently as a century ago by the Soviets, Kyrgyz culture is still emerging and adjusting to new-found statehood, yet at the same time poverty fuels corruption, alcoholism and petty crime. Kyrgyzstan is certainly a destination I shall remember for its wonderful mountains, rather than for any settled culture.