It’s been too long since I’ve posted an update on our journey. A lot has happened. Since we’ve completed the Pamir Highway, we have crossed the countries with a K. These are Kyrgystan and Kazachstan. Yes, we are fully in the “Stans”. We have travelled through countries that I could not point out on a map half a year ago. Well, except maybe Kazachstan because it’s so large it is hard to miss, even when I try. It’s the 9th largest country on earth, and about 5 times the size of France. But with only 17 million people in it.
Lake Kara-Kul, on our way to the Kyrgystan border
What strikes me every time again is when we cross a border, everything changes. Landscapes, faces, people, roads, money. We crossed from Uzbekistan into Tadjikistan and suddenly there were mountains. It is as if the Uzbeks said to the Tajiks: “We don’t want no stinkin’ mountains, you can have them”. Tajikistan has nothing but mountains, and very little green. In the valleys along the river there are oasis-like places, and that’s where the villages are. The rest is mountains, dry, barren, rock, sand, dust. But stunningly beautiful.
Road to the border crossing
Tadjikistan has the most amazing border crossing I have ever seen. At 4200m altitude, on the top of the Kizil-Art pass there is a shack where 3 border officials live. Two are on duty while you can see the third one lying in his bunk bed behind a curtain. When we were there (at the end of June) it was about 6 degrees Celcius, there was light snow and a very strong, cold wind. But the border officials were very friendly and were making jokes with us. They signed us out of the country without any issues, and we had left Tajikistan. Then a 20 km long descent through no mans land towards Kyrgystan began, and the road continued to be very bad. We were happy it had not rained for a while, because we could tell it had been very muddy before. And mud is not our favourite road surface. We like it about as much as sand.
Once we reached the Kyrgyzstan border control posts, the landscape had changed again. Suddenly it was green, there were still mountains but not as dry and barren as in Tajikistan. Kyrgystan is called the Switzerland of Central Asia. It has green mountains, beautiful forests, lakes, good roads (both paved and gravel) and is about twice the size of Switzerland. It has two major cities, Bishkek (the capital) and Osh. We spent a few days in Osh, relaxing after the Pamir Highway, doing some motorcycle maintenance and overdue laundry, and enjoying walking instead of riding.
The Switzerland of Central Asia
Sunday pastimes in Osh, Kyrgystan
From Osh we went in a north-east direction, through Jalal-Abad to Kazarman, where we crossed the Kaldamo pass. On our way up we met fellow bikers from Russia, one of who had a flat tire and could not get the tire back on the rim. Fortunately I had tools with me and we could help him. On a side note, I do have a lot of tools with me, I have everything I need to disassemble the bike and put it back together. And some more. But it pleases me to say that by now I have been able to help others with them more than I needed the tools myself so far (except for the tire change). Even the jumpstart cables have seen some use, I have helped a biker from France to start his bike.
Russian bikers with a flat tire.
On the way up to the Kaldamo pass we were invited by a Kyrgyz shepherd and his son for lunch. He offered his pan of lagman – pasta with potatoes and onions to us, and we shared his meal. We do not speak Kyrgyz and he does not speak English, so we sat comfortably in silence. It was a great experience.
Shepherd and his son in Kyrgystan
The Kaldamo pass was very beautiful, and at the summit there was still a large snow wall. But fortunately the snowmelt water and the resulting mud had largely dried up, except for a few patches on the north side. Did I mention that we don’t like mud?
The Kaldamo pass summit
After spending the night in Kazarman we left for Son-Kul, a lake at 3200m altitude on a plateau in Kyrgystan. We arrived there in the afternoon, and found a yurt camp where we could stay the night. A yurt is a round tent, made from felt and looks like this:
And since it was my 50th birthday, Paul had arranged a special birthday meal for me. I got a special Kyrgyz hat, which I had to wear of course. They even baked a cake, and there was vodka and beer and the ladies of the camp joined us for dinner. It was a very special night at a magical place. I wish my family and my friends could have been there to share it with me.
From Son-Kul we decided to head into Kazachstan, and spend a few nights in Almaty. Remembering our first Kazachstan border crossing experience, where we spent about 6 hours in customs to get everything arranged before we would be let into the country, we prepared for the worst. How different was it now – crossing from Kyrgystan into Kazachstan took mere 15 minutes. Fill in a form, the border official enters stuff into a computer and you’re done. Go figure….
And again, crossing from Kyrgystan to Kazachstan completely changed everything. Kazachstan is hot, mostly flat, and endless steppe and desert. As soon as you cross the border, you are immersed and the nothingness surrounds you. Until you reach Almaty, or Alma Ata as it used to be called.
Almaty is a city with a square street plan, almost like an American city. It consists of wide, rectangular streets, lots of cars and green, and it is hard to make out a real city center. We went out on Friday night and had a great time. Kazach people are incredibly generous, and we were immediately invited at the table of a birthday party, and food and drinks were shared with us. This is something we noticed all the time while travelling in Kazachstan – Kazach people are very open and forthcoming, want to know everything about you, want to take selfies with you, invite you for drinks, dinner, and they do not take no for an answer easily.
After Almaty, we headed up north, but not before we visited Charyn Canyon.
Paul will tell you about that.
Time to leave Kazachstan – we found out suddenly we had to hurry to make it into Mongolia in time, which ment crossing Kazachstan, getting into Russia, getting our tires changed and head for the Mongolian border. But this is for another post.