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Published: August 6th 2013
My dream of travelling by road from Dushanbe in Tajikistan to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan looked increasingly unlikely. Protestors in Jalal-abad in Kyrgyzstan had blocked the highway linking Osh to Bishkek, and the government threatened to declare a state of emergency in the area so my passage was problematic. After advice from my guide, Saidali, and my hotel host in Bishkek, I reluctantly made the decision to terminate my road journey in Osh. After two weeks of a most incredible road trip, the end now lay only two days away.
I have been blessed by the weather this entire journey, and under cloudless skies we left Murgab bound for the expansive mountain lake of Kara-Kul in Tajikistan. We travelled along generally good roads that included the highest point of the Pamir Highway, the 4655 metre Ak-Baital pass. Not content with that height, I scrambled up the side of the cutting to reach 4675 metres. A further stop allowed an exploration of a 19th
century Russian military post, now crumbling beneath the brilliant sun and snowy peaks. Much of the day’s travel saw us skirt within metres of the irregularly shaped Chinese border. Most of the border fence was solid, but there
Pamir Highway near Kara-Kul - Tajikistan
Note the irregularly shaped Chinese border on the left.
were gaps in some parts, thus allowing easy access into China if one was daring enough to do so without a visa.
Kara-Kul was a beautiful lake and I spent the final night of my road trip talking to Ben from Israel, and Vladimir from Slovakia. Each of us was in a transitional phase of life – whether in-between a change in career, relationship or life purpose. It was cathartic to stand by the lake and share our experiences whilst being buffeted by the ubiquitous strong Westerly wind as the skies around us darkened.
Unfortunately, a dense haze the following morning prevented me from seeing the vividly coloured waters of Kara-Kul in full glory. We continued to the Tajik border checkpoint, which included a passport, vehicle and contraband check. Bureaucracy in Central Asia is usually tedious, and crossing this border was no exception - we waited a while before being allowed to proceed. Interestingly, the Kyrgyz border checkpoint was a further 20 kilometres along the road, so this was a particularly large gap between border control points.
Shortly after leaving the Tajik checkpoint we crossed the physical border – identified by some rather incongruous monuments. It was
on crossing here that I succumbed to some sadness for I would be entering a new country without my original travel mascot, Blu the Travel ‘Roo (as in kangaroo), who was discovered missing a few days earlier. We rang every guesthouse I had stayed and he was not to be found. I am utterly mystified how he disappeared as my mascots are always secured in the safest of places. Little Blu’ had travelled with me on every overseas journey since 2002 through 51 countries, but now he was gone. Due to his increasingly dishevelled appearance I was thinking of retiring him from travel, but was procrastinating on this matter. That decision has now been made for me.
Before reaching the Kyrgyz checkpoint, I was afforded one more spectacular vista of the Pamirs, which I lazily absorbed for it may be some time before I witness such tremendous mountains that embrace you with their grandness. We continued our journey, and after passing the Kyrgyz checkpoint (necessitating another period of waiting) we proceeded though the town of Sarry-Tash. From there, the road conditions were excellent – smooth, broad, marked highways with wide shoulders. Round white yurts dotted the lush green landscape
scattered with trees – such a contrast to the barren environment of the Pamirs.
We quickly descended from 4000 metres to 2000 metres along the sometimes serpentine road, and this steep descent dissuades many travellers from heading in the opposite direction – for the rapid ascent is more likely to cause altitude sickness, whereas the gentler climb from the west avoids this problem. The only issue I had with the altitude was the slower time it takes to heal wounds. Though it did not feel hot, the high altitude gives the sun a potency missing at lower levels and it caused my lips to be burnt and bleed badly. Regardless of creams or bandages over many days, the wound refused to heal. However, as Saidali correctly forecast, my lips healed within 24 hours of leaving the mountains.
We arrived in Osh mid-afternoon and within my hotel room the simplest of pleasures awaited - a flushing toilet and hot water gushing from a shower. In the past 17 days, this was only the third time I had accessed a shower and only the second instance of a toilet that flushed. Usually my bathroom duties were completed via a series
of buckets used for washing one’s hand, pouring down the toilet or pouring over oneself. Standing underneath the shower and letting that wonderful warm water wash over my grimy body marked the end of the road. This seemed a particularly long 17 days travelling through Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan, but the more intense a place, the slower time passes – mostly due to the dense and diverse memories one accrues. By comparison, time moves quickly and memories are short when relaxing in the constant, comfortable environment of a luxurious beach resort.
Though I felt worn and weary after this adventure, it was simultaneously invigorating. The energy I derive from immersing myself in different environments along the road less travelled is increasingly becoming the most important motivator for travelling.
The next day I flew to Bishkek on my first EU banned airline – one simply named “Kyrgyzstan”. I can never recall a flight where the pilot made so many evasive manoeuvres to avoid the storms that hovered nearby. I was surprisingly calm throughout this, but the Kyrgyz gentleman sitting next to me was a very nervous flyer, so I had to regularly reassure him that the bumps and noises
Ak-Baital Pass - Tajikistan
The highest point on the Pamir Highway.
we were experiencing were a normal part of flying.
I spent the remainder of that day and the following one resting in my room, my first day of relaxation in weeks. The next morning I wandered around Bishkek, and as usual with any city, its wealth or otherwise soon becomes apparent. Some cities appear prosperous, others appear impoverished, but there are also those that were once wealthy in days past, but are now on the financial decline; this latter description applies to Bishkek. Formerly smooth pavements and tiles were cracked, warped and uneven, and the buildings were in various states of disrepair. Even the amusement rides in the park looked and sounded tired and worn, something reflected in the faces of the ride attendants, for it appeared that one of the criteria for being a ride attendant was to the ability to look as bored as possible. As if to highlight where its glory days lay, a statue of Vladimir Lenin proudly stood with an arm outstretched pointing toward the horizon – perhaps indicating bygone days of relative Soviet prosperity.
Further monuments lauding the achievements of Lenin lay within the State Historical Museum, which included dramatic sculptures and
ceiling paintings promoting the Communist ideal and denigrating the evils of Fascism and Capitalism. But like much else in Bishkek, the museum was failing into a worsening state of disrepair – the carpets were so worn as to appear black in places, and parts of some sculptures were held together with transparent masking tape. Still, it was a fascinating insight into the days when Kyrgyzstan fell under the auspices of the Soviet empire.
The food in Bishkek was easily the best in Central Asia, a welcome change from the bland offerings that dominate the rest of the region. The better cuisine is attributed to the spices introduced by the Chinese; especially evident in the delicious noodle dish, laghman
. All my meals were served by friendly and inquisitive staff keen to engage in conversation with me. Though tourists are more common here than Tajikistan, they are still a scarce sight.
Another morning was spent at the sprawling Dordoy Bazaar which held a cornucopia of items, especially those imported from neighbouring China. There were alleys upon alleys of goods, with the top level of each alley lined with metal shipping containers. My plan to explore the bazaar was limited to
a small section due to being constantly stopped by friendly shopkeepers wanting to know my origin and my opinion of Bishkek. Many people knew of Australia due to an apparently frequently seen video hosted by Hugh Jackman and Kylie Minogue. However, I did correct one young male who believed that Rhianna was also from Australia – definitely not, I assured him.
The following day I proceeded to the airport for my flight to Kazakhstan. After checking my luggage and collecting my boarding pass, I proceeded to security screening. To my surprise, the poster showing items to be screened separately included a photograph of the Indiana Jones hat I wear. I audibly laughed, which prompted a security official to wander over to query the reason for my mirth. When I identified my hat with the one on the poster (including the hat band and badge) he too laughed and soon each of the security staff came to compare my hat and the photograph for themselves. The room was full of laughter and the atmosphere most unexpected within a security screening point anywhere in the world, but this humorous conclusion to my Kyrgyzstan visit encapsulated the friendly and warm way I
had been treated during my brief stay within the country.
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