The 'Switzerland' of Central Asia
The Tajikistan situation caused us to re-route through the Urals in Russia, missing out both Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and the Pamir Highway - which was a bit annoying as we spend £259 on visas which are now redundant. We still however planned to drive through Kyrgyzstan. (Although the Tajikistan borders are now apparently open - the Pamir Highway region still isnt). When we arrived at the Kyrgyzstan border, the guard took our passports and before stamping them asked: “Why you have visa? you not need visa to enter our country!”. Apparently the Kyrgy-UK regulations have recently changed... another £160 of redundant visas... great...
The Kyrgyzstan language - Kyrgyz - is a turkish style language, written in cyrillic. The country is occasionally referred to as: “the Switzerland of Central Asia”, mainly due to the fact that 80% of it is covered in mountains. However unlike IN SWITZERLAND, Kyrgyzstan lease their land to foreign military. The US Military use Kyrgyzstan as a transit stop for their Middle-Eastern operations - paying the Kyrgyzstan government ~$20 million USD for the privilege... (their contract came up for renewal in 2007, and Kyrgyzstan upped their price to ~$60 million USD! get in!). Obviously the Russians didn't like this and felt left out, so they opened a base here as well...
Our first stop in Kyrgyzstan was the capital Bishkek. On route we somehow managed to lose our Central Asia Lonely Planet... So feeling a bit gutted, we arrived in Bishkek and eventually managed to find a hotel - although they wanted $72 USD a person!!!! The hotel obviously wasn't full, and the receptionists were most likely bitter about working the night shift... So after some battering by Simon, we managed to reduce the price to $22 USD a person, cash in hand - with an 8am checkout.
We paid and were told to go to the 7th floor, where we would be shown our room. We took the lift and arrived at a very dated floor, where the only light in a corridor of ~40 rooms was that of the elevator foyer. We waited aimlessly for a good five minutes, and just as Scott said “I think we have been conned” a rather large Kyrgyz woman appeared out of the darkness and beckoned us to follow her.
We followed her to the end of the corridor where she opened 3 separate rooms from her large bunch of “master keys”, each time detaching the key and giving it to us. She then silently walked off - walking past a fuse box on the way, flipping some jumpers and turning on the corridor lights.
The whole event was definitely off the books, the management probably didn't know we were staying there, and the reception didn't take any details off us... So when the phone rang at 1am both Simon and Scott ignored it, while Sean - thinking it was probably Simon having worked out how to use the internal phones answered:
- Sean: Hello?
- Female Borat Voice: Hello! would you like a massage?
- Sean: No!
- Female Borat Voice: OK! Good night! [hang up]
The next day we drove around lake Ysyk-Kol, and wild camped along its shores. The lake itself is at 1600m and is surrounded by mountains - some of which exceed 5000m. There is a circular mountain road which leads through these peaks. The road (in our opinion) was more challenging and exciting than the Romanian Transfăgărășan Highway, where after climbing up to the mountain pass, you reach a valley at 4000m - where the air temperature is <10 degrees and the snow line is 500m above you. The landscape was absolutely stunning!
Although we had wanted to drive the complete circular road, we were forced to turn around after reaching a private gold mine - although this was probably a good idea as Simon had suddenly become silent, appearing ‘drugged’ from the altitude...
The following day, although we tried to leave Kyrgyzstan through their North-Eastern border with Kazakhstan, the border guards said “no”, so we had to drive back to the the nearest border crossing near Bishkek. As it was late, we stopped over in Bishkek, staying in the same hotel. The same receptionist recognized us, instantly giving us three rooms with the same conditions as before - but this time on the slightly more ‘luxurious’ 6th floor...
So these are some things we have observed in Kyrgyzstan:
- Kyrgyzstan and particularly Bishkek has the most foreigners we have seen since Hungary. On our drive around the lake we passed dozens of foreign cyclists
- Cows, sheep & horses roam freely, and are often found standing in the middle of the roads blocking traffic
- The country seems to be a bottleneck for the Mongol Rally, with teams following the Central and Southern routes converging before driving onwards to mongolia. Since being here we have seen 6 different teams
- The english here is significantly better than Russia or Kazakhstan, although we haven't ventured far from the capital
- All hills are apparently 12% gradient regardless - they definitely just bought a bulk number of road signs
- The petrol generally comes in lower quality octane levels (80/92/93), which we have noticed has given our car considerably less power - particularly when combined with the thin air of higher altitudes...
- We have seen our first chinese trucks
Simon, Scott & Sean