Driving to China (ish) - Day 21

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May 21st 2015
Published: May 28th 2015
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Day 21 - Almaty to Karakol:

On Day 21 we basically completed the challenge, and the scenery..... the scenery was just ridiculous. Words and pictures aren't enough, but I'll try.

On leaving the hostel we picked up some shopping for lunch then set out east towards the Chinese border. As I mentioned in a previous post the plan was to turn south before the Chinese border and cross into Kyrgystan via the remote Karkara Valley.

As a special bonus the Charyn Canyon lay on the elbow of that southward turn and is one of the main attractions in the region. Often dubbed the 'mini-grand canyon', its castles, red strata and steep sides bear a strong resemblance to its more famous American namesake. A 3km trail follows a dry riverbed down to the main river valley. It was a gorgeous walk, but we were glad that we had taken extra water; even in late May temperatures were 95 degrees F. We had a picnic lunch by the river shaded by trees but bothered by a few gigantic hornets, and then took the long dry walk back to the car at the top of the valley. We edged the car along a ridge to get a better view of the canyon from the top, and realised we could easily see the Dzungarian Alatau mountain range that forms a boundary with China.

From where the first photo in this post was taken, China was about 45 miles away. Considering that by this point we had covered about 5600 miles, we were quite happy to regard the challenge of Driving to China (ish) as complete. There are more photos of the canyon, and one of the whole team (meercats included) at the bottom of this page.

Before we could cross into Kyrgystan however, we had the Kazak part of T.L.C.E.P to finish. As you'll see from one of the pics, Hole 10 was a 245 yard par-lots with an undulating fairway pock marked with several hundred lizard-holes approaching a target green bin. John tried his best to either hit the car or lose his ball in the canyon (hard to tell which), and Dave and I shared the spoils. Running scores: DP - 19, DF - 22, JR - 23.

By this time it was after 3pm, and we still had a border to cross, if it was even open yet this year. It hit us that the border officials might leave for the night too, so we pushed hard. We couldn't stop to take photos of the fields covered in bright yellow flowers, and sat nav took us down the wrong road at the final village; in a feat of unbelievable timing, it's corrective course wanted to take us down a track across a field that - less than 15 minutes beforehand - had been plowed by a tractor. A big furrow cut the track in two, so back to the village we went.

The 10 km road from the last village to the border was no more than a wide track; dusty, rutted and better suited to army vehicles or tractors. Or Mondeo's, it seems. We got to the tiny border post at about 5:20pm. It was open!! (He who dares, etc etc)

On the Kazakh side the lone customs official was unhappy that we had no customs form from entering the country (non was given to us at the Russian border, even though we asked about it), but waived us on regardless. Kazakh passport control was quick too, but the four soldiers standing nearby wanted to search the whole car, including our rucksacks. It was done in a friendly way, mind, and seemed to us to be out of boredom rather than security or suspicion. They happily accepted £1 coins from us as souvenirs.

On the Kyrgyz side, the passport control soldier delighted in making no more than a cursory glance at the car to show that in his country, things were done differently. Sadly his mate in customs, 5 yards down the road, did not share his confidence and went through the whole car and bags too. But we were still done quickly - as with Kazakhstan, no visas are needed for Brits in Kyrgystan - and we set off on another dusty track into the truly stunning Karkara Valley.

The valley is untouched. Emerald green natural pastures extend on either side for miles, gentle rolling then sloping up to the wall of purple rock and snow that is the Tian Shan. Wild horses graze freely next to you, casting long shadows in the setting sun. That's all there is around you; green, mountains, horses, peace. A gentle stream widens into a shallow river lower down the valley, with deciduous saplings on the banks and conifers on the higher slopes. Eventually, miles down the valley, you see the first structure - a lone yurt inside a wide meander. We three count ourselves as fairly well traveled, but none of us have seen anything like it (and I include Yosemite).

Being in that valley at that moment seemed like a just reward for all our planning, stamina and sense of adventure. Everything from now on was icing on the cake.

With slightly daft, contented smiles on our faces, and in the knowledge that we had just come to within 20 miles of China, we followed the valley south and then west into Kyrgystan. More structures and villages appeared, the road gained a smooth surface, and we made our way to the town of Karakol for the night. Teskey Hostel was open for lodgers despite our 9pm arrival with no booking, and even the fact that Spinx (!) dumped all of her coolant out of the reservoir on the side of the road couldn't dampen our spirits.

After eating out we returned to the hostel to find three Indian gentleman sitting at the outside table. Working in the tourism industry, they were in Karakol to organise tours for Indians coming to Kyrgystan. They generously shared their drinks with us and we all spent several happy hours till bedtime discussing the world's most beautiful places.


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