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Published: September 21st 2010
Alexander the Great is said to have dreamed to reach the Eastern Ocean. Only a few days ago I achieved his dream. The only difference is that Alex wore a shiny helmet, and of course he didn’t make it!
I completed my trans-Eurasian crossing at Shanhaiguan, where the Great Wall meets the sea. The water was slightly choppy but the sand is of good quality and I sit and watch the swell rise and fall with the sounds of donkeys ee-aw-ing in the background. (a touch like Blackpool, don't you think?)
This is however a sidenote to a series of three blog on the theme of obstacles of the modern traveller.
There are those obstacles that have existed throughout the ages, physical barriers of passage. I have crossed the High Pamir and Tian Shan Mountain Ranges, crossed The Gobi, Takalaman and Palmyran Deserts and sailed across the Caspian Sea, not discounting so many great rivers such as the Syr- and Amu-Darya and the Forests of Armenia and Plains of Central Asia. Many of the passes and passages and routes and bridges through, over and around these have now well been explored but they are still not without difficulty in continual
persuasion of drivers and guides and animal owners to help and show you the way whilst bargaining a reasonable price.
Here is the story of one such excursion across the vast mountains of the Kyrgyz. It was in the depths of winter and when I began the trip in the sheltered Fergana Valley the weather was fair, by my good luck and some quick witted mathematics (which I probably owe to Mr Saul) I had bargained my ride to half the going rate for being jammed in between two rather larger specimens of the Kyrgyz stock.
By the time we had travelled to the rising lands at the edge of this great Valley, the elements had sent their forebodings... a great sea of fog descended, giving a 5-10m visibility. But unlike Europeans such weather conditions do not affect these bold and brave nomad folk who simply laugh and push on. We begin our ascent but the recent rains have loosened many rocks which must be avoided, collision would put an end to the thin metal cladding of our Lada Riva. One such rockfall was so extensive that the road no longer existed except at 3m below ground level,
tailgating a far more appropriate vehicle, a 4x4 Lada Niva, we coast up and over the scree almost stalling midway.
Continuing our upward zig-zags the fog is left behind for a snow like no other, a blizzard no less that has turned all that was grey to white. As the snow waxes the light wanes, until the contrast of black sky and white snow is all that is discernable ahead. The driving slows but there is no return now. There are no houses at these high altitudes at this time of year, the last one sat in the wet of the fog, the next across the pass above, in the semi-protected Suusamyr Valley. To stop, of course, is fatal, first your engine cools to a point were it is so cold that it is impossible to restart, then as the passengers feel the need to relieve themselves the icy air creeps into the car until the passengers must huddle together for the warmth that they can share. One’s only hope is that by morning the blizzard is not continuing to rage and that another car, of suitable size to help, firstly comes and secondly stops!
A hundred metres
from the summit black ice has formed from other vehicles that have compressed this dangerous track into a deadly one. We look out of our overweight vehicle down to the raging river below at the bottom of the precipice through the swirling patterns of the descending snow. The man to my left grabs my chest and pushes me into my seat, I look forward to see the road disappear to be replaced by the sheer face of the cliff wall and then the road down from where we came. As we continue to spin, an eerie silence descends on the car, the wheels make no sound and neither do the passengers as we consider the reasons to why we have embarked on our journey. The car faces the precipice, the headlights shine out into the sky reflected on the snow flakes which are unperturbed by our rotations. Eventually the car becomes stationary facing downhill, the left wing mirror hanging over the edge, the tyres a hair’s breadth from crumbling cliff face below.
The driver pulls out a bottle of vodka a takes a gulp, and passes it on. A carefully executed three point turn and another mouthful of vodka
and we are at the peak of our journey. The Suusamyr Valley stretches out before us in a white serenity. The going is slow, avoiding the snow drifts, but after our escape there is much merriment in the car as some sort of ecstasy passes through us, lifted by a little vodka.
We pass through the mile stretch of tunnel that makes up the second of the passes, even in the pitch black it is a relief for the driver and all to have no snow and only concrete to drive along. On the other side a strong wind is blowing us off the mountain toward our goal, Bishkek, at the bottom of a huge series of hairpin turns.
We arrive, 10 hours later than expected and much relieved. I slept well that night.
Here are some unrelated photos of some of China...
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