2nd – 10th May
After the revolution
On April 7th, after months of mounting tension fuelled by increasingly blatant presidential corruption, Kyrgyzstan suffered a(nother) bloody political coup, leaving 85 people dead in the capital, the president ousted, the interior minister fighting for his life and the country in a brief state of chaos.
In Kazakhstan it’s tricky to get accurate details about the coup and current state of affairs, especially from locals, who thrive on exaggerated stories of chaos in their neighbouring country. Reliability comes from Mike, the British Honorary Consul in Bishkek – who says all is now calm although only the principle Almaty–Bishkek border crossing is open.
Closed – or open?
From the Charyn Canyon in eastern Kazakhstan it’s a days drive back to the principal border, whilst we’re only a few hours from the smaller, remote and supposedly closed border post at Karkara. It’s worth a gamble.
Today the Karkara valley, usually a beautiful, sweeping plain between the Ketpen Jotasi and northern Tien Shan mountain ranges, is a misty, windswept and bitter plain and a thoroughly miserable place to cross a border.
It’s certainly basic. The Kyrgyz border post is only 30 metres beyond the Kazakh outpost, there’s no border fence of any description and there isn’t another car in sight.
The Kazakh customs officials are a cheery bunch and soon have the car signed out of the country, amidst much frivolity about the state of the supposedly war-torn country we’re about to enter. The burly but friendly passport chaps say they need to check that the Kyrgyz will let us in before they let us out – very sensible in these visa-dominated countries.
A Russian-Kyrgyz border guard wanders over; they’re evidently all on good terms – you’d have to be, stuck out here in the middle of nowhere with no-one else to talk to… It transpires the right Kyrgyz officials aren’t here yet, but if we hang around for a couple of hours they should turn up and will probably let us through. It’s not a straight “no” which is promising.
We take refuge from the relentless wind in the car, until the young Kazakh official in a tracksuit asks if we’d mind taking him to the local shop back in Karkara? We’ve nothing else to do so we agree; he hops in the front. It’s a half hour trip to do the day’s bread and fag run, but the border staff are appreciative. Before we know it, we’re invited to join them for lunch in their mess (good hearty stew, no idea who cooked it), Nina’s being chatted up and Charlie’s being persuaded to leave her here forever.
We’re invited to spend the night, watch TV, everything except leave the country… Luckily, when we gently remind them that we’re here to cross the border, they jump to and go and chat to their (vodka fuelled) Kyrgyz counterparts. Charlie’s called over to show them we’ve already got visas, and amazingly, all seems good…
The actual border process takes less than 45 minutes and not a single bribe asked for or offered. Sometimes, it seems, to cross a closed border all you need is a little patience and good humour…
The foul weather gets worse on the Kyrgyz side, then abruptly brightens up as we enter a long, alpine valley towards Lake Issyk-Kol. We’d forgotten just how unpredictable the weather in this country can be.
We plan to camp by Lake Issyk-Kol, a beautiful, bright blue 200km long alpine lake; the second largest in the world. Along the north shore, we admire the chiaroscuro of blues that betray the lakes immense depth and the glistening, snow shrouded peaks of the central Tien Shan that rear up dramatically beyond the southern shore.
Camping options aren’t innumerable, though – eventually we turn off down a dusty farm track, weaving between freshly ploughed fields, hoping to find a nice patch of grassland, or even the shore, and a local farmer to legitimise ourselves with.
The track leads to a small adobe farmhouse where a kindly Kyrgyz lady in a colourful shawl point us down another track, towards some scrubland near the lake where she’s happy for us to camp.
Closer to the lake, the road gets progressively muddier so we decide not to push our luck, plumping for a sheltered piece of grassland, surrounded by thorny scrub and inhabited by a dozen or so mares and foals and a few inquisitive cattle. Birds are singing and the sun is shining. Despite no lake view, it’s a perfect spot. We enjoy a well earned G&T, pat ourselves on the back for such a successful border crossing, cook some tasty supper and settle in for an early bed at 9.30.
At midnight, we hear something we’ve dreaded hearing every night we’ve camped on this trip. A persistent “tap tap tap” on the window, accompanied by inquisitive torchlight, peering into the front of the car.
Charlie leans forward, pulls back the curtain and shines a torch, trying to get a look at our unexpected late night visitor. A few words in Russian reveal that it’s his land (apparently) but he’s friendly enough – so we decide the best option is to get up and chat to him. After all, if it is his land, we can’t ignore him…
By the time Charlie’s dressed and out of the car, our visitor has already found our table and laid it up – with a bottles of vodka and cognac, a carton of apricot juice, a single plastic cup and two bars of Turkish chocolate - and is now busy collecting firewood!
There’s nothing for it but to help him get a good fire going, thank him for his hospitality and accept his generously offered (large) shots of vodka and cognac and get stuck into various in-depth discussions on Kyrgyz politics, history, the former USSR and the Great Game. Somehow, large quantities of neat vodka and cognac seem to improve our Russian.
He plays Kyrgyz music on his phone; when that dies we try to appease his musical tastes from our iPod (but we don’t have any Michael Bolton… how can Michael Bolton be popular in Kyrgyzstan??). Arm-wrestling is followed by dancing, always more shots, endless cigarettes pilfered.
At 3am, after a surprisingly enjoyably but increasingly drunken night, we manage to say goodbye, having convinced our host that we do not want any shashlik now, but yes we’d love to meet his family tomorrow and have shashlik for lunch at his house. Tomorrow! Not now! Goodnight!
No peace for the wicked
And so to bed, good timing as it starts to rain, quite heavily. But then, having finally dozed off into a drunken stupor, there’s more knocking at the window… It’s now 4.30am, he’s back, more drunk – it appears he’s drunk the bottle of Mongolian vodka we gave him as a present – how naïve of us…
His tapping gets more insistent, whispered calls of “Shashlik Shashlik!” Finally, Charlie leans forward and opens the front door. Whereupon a chunk of raw, cold meat is thrust uncompromisingly into his hand “Here! Shashlik, we cook now!”
“For the love of God man! It’s four f*cking thirty in the morning and there’s a hailstorm outside; you’ve just shoved a slab of raw sodding meat into my hand, all we want to do is get some sleep, will you please just bugger off and leave us alone!” is what Charlie diplomatically manages to stifle. Instead, he groans “OK, OK... Two minutes”.
Nina very sensibly is having none of it and stays in bed, whilst Charlie’s confronted with the most unusual sight: our host, wearing one of our fold-up chairs as an umbrella, trying to skewer a raggedy lump of meat with a twig, whilst simultaneously blowing on the embers of the fire, trying not to drop the torch he’s got in his mouth…
Typically we then can’t get rid of him – his home, so close earlier, apparently is now miles away… Evidently an argument with his wife or similar, but he’s staying, and he wants to sleep in the car. We forcibly stop him climbing in the back with a mightily disgruntled Nina and let him sleep on the front seat, once we’ve hastily removed anything of value that he might break…
And so, finally, ends our first day back in Kyrgyzstan. No sign of political tension…
Exhausted, we spend a day recovering in a friendly gostinitzia (guesthouse) 50km up the road the following day, before heading to Bishkek the day after, where we need to arrange and collect our Uzbek visas.
Bishkek hasn’t changed much, still the green, pleasant city it was last year – except for the presidential palace. Broken windows, bullet-ridden gates and huge floral and photographic tributes to those who died outside its gates are all moving reminders of the carnage that briefly enveloped the city a month ago.
But besides a handful of other burnt-out buildings, there’s little to suggest such a violent uprising so recently – it’s still a thoroughly nice place to relax for three days.
From Bishkek we head south, partially retracing our steps, towards Sary-Tash and Tajikistan beyond. What has changed since our last visit is the hugely increased traffic police presence, coupled with similarly huge increases in corruption levels. Last time around, in 9 days in Kyrgyzstan, we were pulled once and never fined.
This time we are pulled, on average, twice a day – including five times on the road into Bishkek. Whether it’s linked to the current political instability or just a systemic increase is hard to say. Certainly, no-one in the civil service knows when their next meagre pay-cheque is coming and hence every policeman is out for hard cash – the offence is immaterial.
Charlie is particularly targeted, especially at checkpoints, where a new ‘double stop’ routine seems to have been employed as the new cash cow. At one, outside the currently highly sensitive Uzbek city of Osh, we’re waved through by one policeman, only to be stopped by another and fined for having proceeded without authority. Grrr…
The fines are small but tedious. Finally and possibly too late, we try a new tactic – for Nina to do all the driving. This works wonders – although we’re still pulled, the militzia are unwilling to threaten her like they are Charlie. We should have realised this driving into Bishkek, where Nina was stopped four times (three for plausible offences) and not fined once! Too little, too late…
Crazy Kyrgyz camping
Our final few nights in Kyrgyzstan remind us that camping is never uneventful in this country. At Lake Toktogul, we’re enveloped by a friendly family of Kyrgyz sheep farmers and coerced into drinking gallons of their freshly made sheep’s milk yoghurt, whilst in Arslanbob the following night we’re surrounded by inquisitive Uzbek children determined to play with everything in the car and watch Nina undress as we get into bed.
Our final night’s camping before reaching Sary-Tash, in a café car-park in the remote town of Gulcha, earns us another dreaded late-night knock on the window, although it’s not so friendly this time.
Alarmingly, it’s the militzia (who we’ve just about had enough of), informing us we can’t spend the night here as it’s a dangerous drug-running outpost. They order us (they say they’re being helpful) to move from the car-park to some rough ground by the river, 30 metres away, where we’re marginally more hidden from the road.
This, apparently, will be 100% safe. Needless to say, it’s a pretty sleepless night…