The Long and Winding Road- Osh to Bishkek 'Highway'

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Asia » Kyrgyzstan
April 17th 2015
Published: April 17th 2015
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There is a road. This road connects the two cities of Kyrgyzstan: the Osh-Bishkek road. It is famed for it’s mountain passes, terrifying tunnels, and the fact that it takes 12 hours start to finish, on a good day. I was invited to ride the road with a friend, an RPCV from Azerbaijan Micah, and to avoid the hefty plane ticket cost, I said ‘Sure, I like road trips!’ Plus, this road is a must do, but the thought of doing it in a marshrutka is somewhat nauseating.

We left Osh on a sunny April day, with snacks, tunes, and hope in our hearts. Quickly, we noticed two things: signage along the ‘highways’ of Kyrgyzstan is rare at best, and there were a lot of tire repair shops. The first of these became poignant as we approached a four way roundabout outside of Jalal-Abad City with no guidance of which road to take. Asking baikes “Bishkeke?” we were pointed in all kinds of directions (including back to Osh), and we spent a lovely 30 minutes circumnavigating the thriving oblast capital. The scenic route. When we found ourselves back at that original roundabout, we tried another way out, which turned out to be correct this time!

After J-Bad city, the road gets, well, treacherous to say the least. The potholes are oceanic and the other vehicles’ fumes were ominous. Would we too end up like that? Talk turned to reminiscing about the classic computer game The Oregon Trail, the many ways that game foiled us as children, and the spooky parallels we were finding while driving through Kyrgyzstan. Save for typhoid, we were dealing with the exact same things: cows, terrain, the constant threat of dysentery, and don’t forget broken axels! But the scenery was gorgeous, and really, idyllic rolling hills and the vibrant aqua blue of the Naryn River can make up for all kinds of ails.

After a bifstek and chai at a roadside truck stop, we approached Toktogul, and I texted fellow volunteer Emma to let her know I waved to her while we passed through her village. We figured we had about 4 hours left. The Subaru station wagon was doing great and the weather was clear and spectacular.

We pulled over at the first pass going north, to take some awesome and very cheesy pictures in the snow at 3100m (10, 170feet). I asked Micah if I looked like a snow leopard. He said yes.

We passed Manas guarding Talas, and drove through snow covered jailoo, and then started winding up towards the second pass. This is when the road gets zig zaggy, and you climb really fast. As a point of detail, the road was covered in a thick sweeping mist, meaning the driver couldn’t see the actual pavement. As I was filming this bizarre phenomenon, Micah said, “It looks cool, but I can’t see the potholes”…10 seconds later the car slammed into a pothole the size of Jupiter and both left hand tires were instantly flat. And like most cars, there was only one spare in the trunk. Our 12-hour trip just got longer.

We got one wheel off, and the spare on. But then found that the other wheel was held on by different sized lugnuts than the wrench we had. Classic. I was assigned to flag down helpful passersby. Three different cars of very friendly jigeets stopped (while the van full of white people sped right by us, just sayin’…) and eventually we found a proper wrench. Some friendly Talasians gave us and our two dead wheels a ride to a tire repair shop 10km back, where we were highly overcharged to have two inner tubes put into the tires, since the rims were dented badly from it’s trauma. We hitched another ride back to the car, with some more Talasians (friendly people those children of Manas!) and got the fresh wheels on the car, just as it was starting to snow. Time to get to that tunnel!

If you haven't been through the ‘tunnel’ do it. It’s at 3800m, is 2.6 km long, and reminds you of the boat scene in Willy Wonka. It takes you straight through the mountain and the passing trucks make you reevaluate your concept of space. Every time a truck passed I cowered towards the window, as if that would help. Video of tunnel here:

Once we emerged from the tunnel and we wound down the other side of the pass, it was a straight shot to Bishkek, but with every pothole, I reactively covered my eyes. We did make it, and Tori and Stephanie welcomed me with vodka and Burger House.

Impressive feats of engineering, phenomenal scenery, and many wonderfully helpful Kyrgyz folk made this road trip an unlikely success. 14 hours. 602km. 2 mountain passes. 2 busted wheels. 2 bifsteks. And a possible snow leopard sighting.


* Disclaimer, I never drove the car. Ever.

**Double disclaimer, as always, the content of this blog is purely my own and does not represent the Peace Corps or the United States of America.

***This post has been re-published at my new travel blog site:

Additional photos below
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19th April 2015

What a (bumpy) adventure!
I think I would have been quietly freaking out on the inside! And I love the landscape photos - they look like paintings...
20th April 2015

Very Good
Beautiful pictures!
21st April 2015

"I like road trips"
Oh careful next time you say that. Moral of the story...never travel without a couple of spare tires. The things we world travelers are willing to do for beautiful scenery. Life is grand and you are living it well.

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