Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Crossing Kyrgyzstan

We've had some rain in Bishkek, which is fine as we don't ride. One night as we come back to our hotel we hear some heavy music coming from the nearby stadium; sure enough we head in this direction, and as soon as we approach the gates, a group of cops jump and propose us a ticket-free entry for 5$ each. We negociate at 2$ and enter the nearly-empty stadium, which is understandable after hearing the lousy tunes of the band, and the terrible quality of the sound reinforcement. We leave after half an hour and have dinner in a yurt where I play (and lose) a chess game against a half-drunk Kyrgyz.

We leave on a sunny morning, and of course the mood is up. We ride along the steep mountains range watching the nice snow that now caps those peaks.. knowing that our first pass is at 3500m. At the bottom of the pass we have a bet with Anders: he says the snow starts at 3301m, I say 3000m. We start our climb on a surprisingly excellent tarmac that would give the Gothard a run for its money. We were also looking forward to figuring how the engine would behave at that altitude, knowing that it was not breathing easily along lake Issyk-Kul at only 1600m. But we had cleaned up the air filter (boy, did it need it..) and also removed a piece of the air intake before the air box, put there to muffle the sound. That did the trick because we reached the pass with good power.
The top is actually at 3100m as there is now a tunnel that's not on my map. Which is OK for us because the snow was starting at 2800-2900m and at 3100m there were still some patches of snow thawing on the road. We stop in the cold air (but in the sun) as the tunnel is closed down; we find out 20 minutes later why, as a herd of horses comes out.. no reason they couldn't use the tunnel as well. We don't come down very low as we hit a high valley that we would follow on a very gentle slope to the next pass, 3100m as well. Some horses and sheeps are grazing through the snow, as the winter is not there yet.

The road to Osh then goes around a big lake, and is bordered by numerous people selling fish. We decide to set a camp soon as the sun goes down, so I stop to buy a trout-like fish to cook with tomato sauce and rice. The guy pulls it out of his freezer, which makes me more confident than one of those that the kids are waving in the sun all day long..It turns out to be very tasty.

Next day we have a long ride under a hot sun in the between the crop fields: women picking cotton and men harvesting the cereals. We have our first break in a Chaikhana, a tea house where people sit bare feeted on a raised platform to drink tea or eat lunch. The Fergana valley is actually shared by Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. It's probably one of the most absurd border in the world, inherited from some bizarre Soviet Union decision. The main road crosses over to Uzbekistan and back to Kyrgyzstan, which now makes it much more difficult to reach the southern part of the country without a multiple entry Uzbek and Kyrgyz visa (or risk a hefty fine in case you're caught). We gave up on the Uzbek visa so we're faced with a navigational challenge of sneaking around the border and between the Uzbek enclaves to reach Betken, the gateway to Tajikistan, on a road that doesn't exists on the maps.

The next day is much cooler, we lost 10-15 degrees overnight. Soon after leaving our camp that we shared with some horses, we run into a German NGO Landcruiser at a police check point, and as we discussed with the expat we find out he's heading in the same direction and facing the same problem (but with a Kyrgyz driver). He proposes to show us the way until the turn-off where we have to leave the main road. We almost lose him as Anders has to stop for yet another a bathroom break (you thought that traveling without women you would avoid these problems, but hey, everybody's got a feminine side to him, don't they Anders?).

We've been pretty lucky to have this guy showing us the way, because it is utterly impossible to find it.. it's a narrow, very bad gravel track that runs along an irrigation canal, next to the border. So close sometimes that we can see the Uzbek cars on the metalled road just 50 meters away. It's only 120 km but it takes us the good part of the afternoon. We ask for directions from time to time to be sure, until we're stopped by a custom officer who want to take our passport to his office a few km away. We're a bit reluctant, and try to explain that we don't want to go to Uzbekistan, which he answers is no problem. At least he would show us the way. He wants to climb on back of my bike as he has no vehicle, but I show him there's no room with all the baggage. So he flags down a passing car (driven by a drunkard) and we follow him to his office. He just writes down our names in his registry, but then asks for some money. With our best smile we firmly turn down the "offer", and we must have seem friendly enough because he gives up end even gives us some bread before showing us the way, an improbable gravel track in the hills.

Finally we reach Betken and from there the Tajik border, manned by heavily-armed militaries, a reminder that the country has freshly come out of civil war and in a sensitive situation near the Afghan border. The paperwork is promptly done, we pay 20$ for a dubious vehicle entrance fee (no receipt of course), but by that time it's getting cold and dark and we're exhausted, so we stop in Kanibadam, where we find quite possibly our worst soviet-style hotel (no running water at all in the hotel), but also nice people who accept our rubles (we had no Somani yet) and and let us park the bikes in the lobby.


Post a Comment

<< Home