Monthly Archives: October 2013

Living life dangerously in Tajikistan

There are countless majestic valleys in the Pamir region and we wanted to explore at least one of them a little bit before leaving this beautiful region. We had read about homestay options in Geisev, a miniscule village in a small side valley of the Bartang Valley. To get there you must cross the wide, raging river on a pulley ‘bridge’ and then hike for 2-3 hours as there are no roads to the village itself. That sounded great.

Jizev Valley (seen from the Bartang Valley)

Geisev Valley (seen from the Bartang Valley)

But after we had parked the car and took a closer look at the pulley ‘bridge’ we realised that the last person who used it had also gone in the direction of Geisev and the little cabin was parked on the other side of the river. The only thing remaining on this side was a crude construction made of some wires slung around the cable with a few branches as a very uncomfortable make-shift seat. We have to cross the river on that?!

Jon wasn’t getting anywhere near the thing, so Jude decided to give it a go. Sitting on the ‘seat’ you need to heave your full weight along the 80m cable, shuffling the wire a few centimeters at the time. Pretty hard on the first half of the crossing, and almost impossible once you are already exhausted on the second half when the sag of the cable means you are pulling yourself uphill. Shaking from exhaustion and covered in bruises on arms and legs from the wire, Jude finally managed to crawl into the little pulley-driven cabin after about an hour, and Jon was hoarse from shouting encouragements over the raging river.

the very comfortable and secure way to cross a river...

the very comfortable and secure way to cross a river…

slightly going up makes it even harder on the second half

slightly going up makes it even harder on the second half

After recovering, Jude climbed into the little cabin and wound it back to Jon and the 2 bags. The cabin was big enough to carry everything, and we finally all crossed to start our hike. It was a short and beautiful hike, and a few hours later we walked into Geisev where we were invited to stay with Lola in her traditional Pamiri home. We enjoyed dinner underneath the big apricot tree and sat there drinking tea with the locals until long after the stars had come out. Then the party moved inside and the vodka came out. We managed to get away with drinking only a few cups before crashing onto our multiple matrasses that had come out from a pile in the corner. Thick blankets were added to make sure we had a perfect night’s sleep.

hiking up the Jizev Valley

hiking up the Jizev Valley

our homestay in the background, this was where we had tea, dinner and breakfast

our homestay in the background, this was where we had tea, dinner and breakfast

After breakfast the next day we walked around the tiny village and explored the local lake. It was interesting to see the villages preparing to hibernate for the long winter, stacking up the hay for the animals and preserving fruits. After saying our farewells, we headed back down the valley to the river to find yet again the little cabin was on the other side of the river! But luckily we had a trolley on a second cable that could be pulled across. Jon was the lucky one this time, and as it had wheels it took him only 5 minutes to haul himself across to safety.

Jon's turn to pick up the cabin, note the comfortable seat and wheels on his trolley

Jon’s turn to pick up the cabin, note the comfortable seat and wheels on his trolley

From the Bartang Valley it takes 2 days to drive to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, due to the bad roads. Our mission in Dushanbe was to pick up our last visa for the trip at the Turkmenistan embassy. First they told us it wasn’t open that day, but after some insisting (it was open according to their sign), we were allowed in. They still wouldn’t help us, but after some further negotiating they did tell us where the bank was we would have to use the next day to pay for our visas, saving us valuable time the next day. We returned in the morning, filled out yet more paperwork, waited, then we were finally given the receipt needed to go to the bank, battled traffic across the city, paid at the bank, drove back to the embassy all before it closed at midday… We were now the proud owners of all visas required to drive our originally planned route.

breakfast visitors, this time a bunch of kids spotted us before they had to go to school

breakfast visitors, this time a bunch of kids spotted us before they had to go to school

the road to Dushanbe from Khorog

the road to Dushanbe from Khorog

overtaking on the road to Dushanbe was a bit of a challenge

overtaking on the road to Dushanbe was a bit of a challenge

Afghans walking on the amazing trail, often hacked out in the rocks

Afghans walking on the amazing trail, often hacked out in the rocks

can you spot the hiking trail on the Afghan side?

can you spot the hiking trail on the Afghan side?

cool rock formations for the geologists amongst you

cool rock formations for the geologists amongst you

our last visas needed for the trip! (we think)

our last visas needed for the trip! (we think)

We decided to push on, as Dushanbe is not really a city to linger in, despite our excellent camp-site at the 5-star Serena Inn. We stopped at the market and replaced the bits which had been stolen in Murgab, stocked-up on food and drove straight out to the Hissar fortress. The fort, the medrassas and the old bathhouse were very impressive and looked stunning with the last rays of sunshine on them. But being there at this beautiful time of the day also meant we were leaving as it was getting dark. That, plus a chaotic traffic jam meant we were trying to find a campsite amongst the lavish mansions of the rich in the Varzob Valley just north of Dushanbe in the dark. Not the best time and place to look for a campsite… We found one in the end on a little side road, next to a fast-flowing stream that drowned the sound of trucks and buses thundering past through the night. Their headlights just reached the tent when passing, so we had a complete sound and light show.

gate of the old fort, one of the medrassas and the old bathhouse in the background

gate of the old fort, one of the medrassas and the old bathhouse in the background

traffic jam Tajik style - it was utter chaos!

traffic jam Tajik style – it was utter chaos!

In contrast to the road into Dushanbe, this road is brand new, built by the Chinese and paid for by the Germans, and we were flying along when we got to a tunnel. This tunnel had been built so vehicles wouldn’t have to go over the dangerous 3,372m Anzob pass anymore. But we would take the pass any time. Oh My God, this is no doubt the most dangerous tunnel in the world. It’s about 6-7km long, without lights, reflectors or fans. Its surface has completely disintegrated, with massive potholes everywhere and has flooded in most areas making the potholes invisible under a layer of water… It’s just wide enough for 2 vehicles, but they planted 2 massive – but not working – fans in the middle of the road. Then, to top it all off, part of the ceiling had collapsed in one area, leaving a ginormous piece of rock blocking one of the lanes too.

the start of the tunnel of death - looks like any other tunnel

the start of the tunnel of death – looks like any other tunnel

until you get inside! (can you see the taillights of the car in front of us?!)

until you get inside! (can you see the taillights of the car in front of us?!)

Due to the lack of ventilation and the clouds of fumes coming out of ancient trucks you can imagine the visibility and quality of air. About halfway through we were getting nauseous and were feeling light-headed. And then we spotted one little reflector which turned out to be 2 men sitting next to an enormous puddle. Their job? Helping people safely through the submerged potholes…

We’ve never been so happy to see the light at the end of a tunnel, which by the way only became visible about 200m before we popped out into the fresh air so thick is the cloud of smoke hanging in the tunnel.

Soon we were sitting next to vibrant blue Iskander Kul lake, enjoying fresh air, lunch, a wash, watching a large bird of prey circling the rocks and some reading. It felt like a little holiday, until it was time to continue our journey to Penjakent and the Fan Mountains. Unfortunately this also meant turning off the smooth main road and turning onto yet another severely potholed dirt road. Jon was not happy.

Iskander Kul lake - the colour is just amazing

Iskander Kul lake – the colour is just amazing

huge bird of prey circling the rocks

huge bird of prey circling the rocks

When we finally reached Penjakent, we had to look after Lara again. Over the past few days we had seen she was leaking a little bit from the diesel tank and with the bad roads continuing plus the fact there is hardly any diesel for sale in Uzbekistan, we wanted to fix it now. We found a garage with the help of the fantastic tourist information centre and they were soon removing the tank to have it welded. They also noticed the rear brake pads were virtually worn out and needed replacement, contrary to advice received by Land Rover in Almaty… We would need to find new pads somewhere, as they don’t sell Land Rovers in Tajikistan, or any other countries we were going to visit until Turkey.

We left Lara and took the bikes out for a spin to the ruins of ancient Penjakent, which we decided would make a perfect campsite for that night We had dinner in a great local shashlyk restaurant where they showed us all the salad dishes they had on a big plate so we could choose – perfect for Jude – and Jon was invited up to the shashlyk bbq to make his selection. When we had finished dinner we rode back to the garage and still had to wait another hour before they were finished. Again the garage had to stay open late for us, but that night we had our non-leaky Lara back, ready for Uzbekistan.

wheel-sized breads - delicious

wheel-sized breads – delicious

melon anyone?

melon anyone?

camping in the middle of the ruins of ancient Penjakent

camping in the middle of the ruins of ancient Penjakent

We drove further towards the closed Uzbek border the next day as we were told there were some more ruins 15km west of Penjakent. Sarazm didn’t disappoint. The ruins of houses, shops, workshops and graves here are 5500 years old. Yep, that’s right, that is older than the Egyptian pyramids and nobody has ever heard of them. In fact, they don’t even get a mention in the Lonely Planet! They even found a mummy – ‘the queen of Sarazm’ – in one of the graves, complete with jewelry and pottery by her side. She is of course no longer there, but the sight was nonetheless very impressive.

Sarazm - nearly 5000 year old ruins

Sarazm – 5500 year old ruins

Jon and Jude find the real Shangri-La

After we left the Pamir Highway we drove south into the Wakhan Valley, straight down to the Pamir River. After another passport check at a remote army post the gate was opened and we were now driving next to Afghanistan, with just the river separating the 2 countries.

remote border post making sure no drugs cross from Afghanistan into Tajikistan

remote Tajik army post trying to stop drugs cross the border from Afghanistan into Tajikistan

A little further we spotted some Bactrian camels on the Afghan side and decided it would make a great place to camp, an early stop for a change. Of course with Afghanistan only a river crossing away we got out the walking poles and headed across. The clear water was freezing, fast-flowing and deep in a few spots, but it definitely made it a birthday never to forget for Jude. We prepared a nice curry, uncorked a bottle of Vasse Felix cab sav (which had cellared pretty well in the back of Lara for 7 months) and celebrated whilst gazing at the stars.

camels on the Afghan side of the Wakhan Valley

camels on the Afghan side of the Wakhan Valley

wading across the Pamir river

wading across the Pamir river

getting the corkscrew out to celebrate, aging goes really well for 7 months in the back of a Land Rover

getting the corkscrew out to celebrate, 7 months of bouncing around in the back of Lara seems to help the aging process

This area is so remote we didn’t see another car during the entire afternoon, evening and next morning until we reached the small settlement of Ratm where Jon walked to an old fort. Jude stayed with the car to protect it from thieves.

amazing scenery

the beautiful Wakhan Valley

It’s hard to describe how beautiful the Wakhan Valley is. Life is tough for the people living here, but those living in the small, nicely kept villages who grow their own crops appear to have everything they need. The pace of life is low, people have time for a chat, a smile and of course a handshake. Harvesting is a very social affair and, although hard work as most things are done by hand, is done by young and old together. Grandfathers working next to their grandchildren and every age in between.

harvest time in Langar

harvest time in Langar

Houses are immaculately kept, gardens blooming with all sorts of flowers, perfectly made rock walls divide gardens and line the roads, trees everywhere providing much needed shade and the abundant mountain streams are freezing cold and crystal clear. And on top of this visual paradise, the people here are extremely friendly, always wanting to help you with nothing in return except for a smile, a handshake and a ‘cologh’ (thank you).

where there is water there is life...

where there is water there is life…

sensational, on the right Tajikistan, on the left Afghanistan

sensational, on the right Tajikistan, on the left Afghanistan only 20m apart

filling the tanks with water from the local pump

filling the tanks with water from the local pump

We were told to park our car inside somebody’s garden when we visited the amazing petroglyphs of Langar, we were given potatoes and apples when camping next to a village, and were not allowed to pay for the bread we were given after we asked for some in a shop (the shop didn’t have any, but the owner did and he wouldn’t except any money for it) and so on, and so on.

petroglyphs at Langar

petroglyphs at Langar

Everywhere we went we were given smiles, enthusiastic waves and right hands were moved to the heart area with a nod when we drove past (a polite way of saying ‘asalam aleykum’ or hello). We felt so welcome here and we were very happy to tell them about our journey, time and time again, using the map on our car. The map made it so easy to tell the story, and after hearing it, they all wanted to know if we liked the Pamirs and the Wakhan Valley, how many kilometers we had driven so far, where we were going and how long we had been on our way.

camping in a village means visitors for breakfast, they loved our chairs

camping in a village means visitors for breakfast, they loved our chairs

The Bibi Fatima hot springs and the Yamchun fort are right next to each other and are reached via a 6km steep and narrow track straight up the mountain. We ran around the fort for a while, built in the 12th century but also used during the Great Game in the 19th century when the British Empire and the Russians were involved in a regional struggle for power and land. This is the reason the Wakhan corridor was created, as it served as a neutral strip of land between the British Empire in the south and the Russians in the north. Both sides of the Wakhan Valley have ruins of forts remaining from that era.

yamchun fort - spectacular location

12th century Yamchun Fort with a spectacular setting

When we came back from the fort we saw another car parked behind ours, another Defender it turned out! They were the first overlanders we meet in a Defender. We sat down for lunch and a long chat. Linda and Silvan were heading the other way with their Swiss poptop Defender (looked great), so we exchanged information about the countries we had been to and were going to, before we had to say our goodbyes. Our next stop was the Bibi Fatima hot springs.

Lara and the Swiss poptop Defender

Lara and the Swiss Defender

Jon went inside as the men were in the springs when we arrived and Jude joined the ladies waiting outside, chatting to Donahoss who spoke perfect English, how lucky. Jon emerged very clean and with a red face and then it was Jude’s turn. As this is a place where women come who have problems having children, it is mostly a hot springs for women. It is probably one of the most interesting of the hot springs we have ever seen, with the hot water pouring straight out of the stalactites and holes in the beautiful natural walls. It’s small, only 6-8 people can fit, and it has an even smaller cave where women climb in and say their prayers for babies. They dig up a grain of sand from the bottom and some even eat it for, probably, more babies. It was fantastic to be completely clean again after all the dust in the past days.

natural hot springs, hot water pouring straight from the stalactites

Bibi Fatima natural hot springs, with hot water pouring straight from the stalactites

A little further on, in another tiny village called Vrang, we stopped to look at an ancient Buddhist stupa and some of the meditation caves around it, when we bumped into 16 year old Ruslan who again spoke perfect English. He invited us into his traditional Pamir house where his mum made us tea and we admired the inside of these fascinating houses. The main room is built around 5 pillars which is symbolic for the 5 pillars of islam, the skylight has 4 concentric levels representing (from top to bottom) air, fire, water and earth (there are no windows in the room). Around the walls are permanent platforms where you sit, eat and sleep. Both the walls and platforms are covered in colourful cloths. We loved the colourful smaller sitting mats which look like long, thin mattresses.

buddhist stupa in Vrang

4th century buddhist stupa in Vrang

Ruslan then showed us his grandparents’ house around the corner, much bigger but still built according to the same principals. He even gave us a performance on the rubob, a 2-stringed instrument played like a guitar. We’d already walked to the waterfall in the village, but on our way back to the car he showed us the communal waterwheel mills, in full swing during harvest time, and Jon got to dig out some potatoes so an old lady could have a break. Ruslan was really keen for a book in English and as we had finished one we gave it to him, good practice for him.

inside a large traditional Pamir home with Ruslan and his grandmother

inside a large traditional Pamiri home with Ruslan and his grandmother

the waterwheel mill in full swing

the waterwheel powered mill in full swing during harvest time

Jon digging out potatoes

Jon digging out potatoes

Every night in the Wakhan Valley we had a fantastic campsite, sometimes in the middle of nowhere, sometimes in the middle of a village and once, at the end of the Wakhan Valley in Khorog, in the gardens of a 5-star resort called Serena Inn. This hotel was built by the Aga Khan foundation, the Aga Khan being the spiritual leader of the Ismailis who live in this area. They are Shiite muslims, but don’t use a mosque to pray and don’t have a specific religious day of the week. Instead they use a ‘jamoat khana’ which is also used as a community hall, and both men and women pray together. Women on the left as the Qoran says the women came from the men’s left knee. They also value education a lot, including for women. We only discovered a little about this religion, and certainly liked what we learned.

relaxing in the gardens of Serena Inn

hard at work in the gardens of Serena Inn

In Khorog we had one main job: getting an original form for the car import papers, instead of the blank piece of paper we were given on entry. This became a classical run-around town scenario. Officials in each government department we visited sending us on to another building, usually right on the other side of town of course. We drove up and down the main drag a few times, sometimes accompanied by a police officer, sometimes on our own, until we were sent even further out of town to the actual border control post with Afghanistan (right next to the Serena Inn where we had stayed, of course!).

And that’s where we were finally given an original form, of course he wanted his reward for handing over an original form and we parted with $5. We were just happy we finally had the correct paperwork for the car with the right dates on it so we could continue our journey through Tajikistan…

this is where we needed to be, very obvious isn't it?

this is where we needed to be, obvious isn’t it?

The Pamir Highway

The Pamir Highway covers 750 km from Osh (in Kyrgyzstan) to Khorog in Tajikistan. This was another part of the trip we were both very much looking forward to. The plan was to partly drive the Pamir Highway, as we were keen to drive through the Wakhan Valley which borders Afghanistan along the Pamir and Gunt Rivers, and for that we had to detour south from the Pamir Highway at some point.

The Pamir Highway was built by the Russian military in the 1930’s to facilitate troop movements in the furthest reaches of their empire. We were surprised it was pretty much all tarmac (asfalt) in good condition, but didn’t mind when driving over the highest pass on our trip at 4655m. A test Lara passed easily, we were struggling a bit due to the rapid altitude gain in the last few hours.

highest point on the trip at 4655m!

highest point of the trip at 4655m!

This road has only recently been opened up to foreigners and last year it was even closed due to some unrest in Khorog. We were very lucky to be able to drive it.

Driving down from Osh we bumped into Christine and Guillaume in their Land Cruiser. We had met them in Mongolia and spent an hour or so catching up on news alongside the road to the border with magnificent views of the Tajik Mountains in the background. Given they were heading in the opposite direction we exchanged notes and currencies.

driving towards Tajikistan, Pamir Highway here we come!

driving towards Tajikistan, already on the Pamir Highway!

A little later we left the plains of Kyrgyzstan and entered the Pamir Mountains with our climb towards the border (you can read about the Kyrgyzstan – Tajikistan border on the Tajikistan page), followed by more climbing until we finally reached Lake Karakol at 4000m altitude. It was late and we decided to camp there, admiring the sunset over the lake as we set up the tent. We had to quickly add layers of clothing, as the temperature plummeted as soon as the sun dropped behind the horizon. Beanies, gloves, thermals and even the sleeping bags all got a good workout that night. Perhaps a taste of what awaits us in Europe in a few months?

full moon at our campsite next to Lake Karakol at 3938m

full moon at our campsite next to Lake Karakol at 3938m

breakfast at Lake Karakol

breakfast at Lake Karakol

The next morning Lara refused to start at the first attempt for the first time on the trip, today she took 2 or 3 goes before she started purring. Her temperature gauge read ‘less than zero’ and gave an error message before she slowly warmed up. Our water pump and water bottle up in the tent had also frozen solid during the night. Luckily we had some bottles of water in the fridge we could use for our cuppa! (kopje thee)

poor Lara was struggling with the temperatures (and so were we)

poor Lara was struggling with the temperatures (and so were we)

As soon as the sun reached us from behind the mountains it warmed up quickly, and we couldn’t resist getting our kayak out for a paddle on the lake. It’s not often you can paddle on a crystal-clear high-altitude lake, surrounded by snow-capped mountains. The water along the edge was still frozen when we launched, but on the water it was gorgeous.

kayaking on Lake Karakol

kayaking on Lake Karakol

As you drive through the Pamirs, surrounded by towering peaks, you soon forget you are driving at over 3,500m altitude. Instead, you notice how dry and desolate this place is, essentially a high-altitude desert. Nothing grows here, and the locals appear to eek out a living with goat herding.

filling up with diesel on the Pamir Highway, this was our change...

filling up with diesel on the Pamir Highway, this was our change…

yaks on the plains of the Pamir Highway

yaks on the plains of the Pamir Highway

the Pamir Highway, tarmac almost everywhere but not always in good condition

the Pamir Highway, tarmac almost everywhere but not always in good condition

just beautiful!

just beautiful!

Lara cruisin' on the Pamir Highway

Lara cruisin’ on the Pamir Highway

moonrise over Shor-Kul lake, another awesome caampsite

moonrise over Shor-Kul lake, another awesome campsite

The next day, after camping at another pretty lake overnight, we arrived in Murghab, the main town in the eastern Pamirs. The Tajik border guards had run-out of vehicle import forms, so had scribbled our details on a blank piece of paper, and added their stamp at the bottom for a bit of official-ness. This meant we needed to have this transcribed onto an official form, and also apply to extend our car import papers (we were given 30 days at the border, but for some unknown reason cars only get 15 days). No such luck in Murghab. The customs official did scribble a new exit date on our blank bit of paper, but we think he said he was also out of original forms and didn’t have a stamp. We’ll have to try again in Khorog…

Our confidence in people and our security received a bit of a dent when we returned to our car from the customs office: they had stolen our ‘blind spot’ mirrors and 3 of the 4 valve caps off the car (had we interrupted them or is 4 an unlucky number for thieves?) in the 20 minutes or so we had left her alone, in front of the information office in the middle of town.

It wasn’t so much the value of the things they had taken, it was the loss of our feeling of security that hit hardest. Leaving Lara anywhere had turned from a routine matter (which we never even thought about) to a worry. What if they break in and take more valuable things? It was a thought that crept into our heads, but luckily we were in the Pamirs now. The people in this region are incredibly open and welcoming to strangers. And soon we were confident to leave Lara again wherever we wanted and started to enjoy the hospitality of this amazing region again.

It wasn’t far from Murghab (which we had left in a bit of an angry hurry) to our turn-off point and soon we were driving towards Yashil-Kul lake. It was already getting late, but as it was Jude’s birthday the next day we wanted to push on to the lake before dark. We failed miserably as track after track turned out to be dead-ends and we were getting pretty frustrated. Soon we were driving in the dark, wondering if we were ever going to find this lake, when we bumped into a tiny little sign for a geyser (the nearest village is probably more than hundred kilometers away, so this sign was quite remarkable). That would do for the night. We parked up and quickly prepared dinner in the dark.

losing daylight rapidly in this remote valley with lots of dead-end tracks

losing daylight rapidly in this remote valley with lots of dead-end tracks

The next day we quickly covered the remaining kilometers to the lake and headed for the ancient stone circles on the north shore. Archeologists have not yet discovered what they are for and why they are there, but some think it is a sort of primitive Stonehenge. For us it was a fantastic birthday morning tea stop, and a great 4WD track to get there too.

After morning tea we drove back towards the Pamir Highway, to spend a few last kilometers on this amazing road as we were taking the alternate route to Khorog from here through the Wakhan Valley.

ancient stone circles near lake Yashil-Kul

ancient stone circles near lake Yashil-Kul

Panoramas of Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan

This time we have some panoramas for you from 2 countries, one of which is the 9th biggest in the world (Kazakhstan). We spent a total of 6 weeks here, about 3 in each.

The 2 nations are very different, and even within one country the scenery changes with every few hundred kilometers, making it fascinating areas to explore. As usual, our route changed as soon as we got there and started reading about the many interesting places we could go to.

Kazakhstan - Qorghalin

Kazakhstan – Qorghalin

The vastness of the Kazakh steppe in the north, some might think it boring country, we thought the emptiness mesmerizing.

Kazakhstan - Sauran

Kazakhstan – Sauran

First glimpses of the famous Silk Road, an ancient adobe caravan-serai. After 3 days driving to get here, we felt as happy arriving here as travelers must have been back in those days.

Kazakhstan - Sauran

Kazakhstan – Sauran

We stayed overnight inside the old carava-serai and were rewarded with a stunning sunset.

Kazakhstan – Aksu-Zabagyly National Park

Kazakhstan – Aksu-Zabagyly National Park

Kazakhstan – Aksu-Zabagyly National Park

Kazakhstan – Aksu-Zabagyly National Park

Horseriding through the mountains of this stunning national park was rewarded with some seriously sore bums (and amazing views).

Kazakhstan – Tamgaly petroglyphs

Kazakhstan – Tamgaly petroglyphs

We add another world heritage site from Unesco to our list when we visit the Tamgaly petroglyphs. More than 3000 petroglyphs from the bronze and early stone age can be found here, as well as burial mounds, graves and remains of settlements. You can see a party on the left, and just to the right of the middle you can see some sun gods.

Kazakhstan – Sharyn Canyon

Kazakhstan – Charyn Canyon

Kazakhstan – Sharyn Canyon

Kazakhstan – Charyn Canyon

The stunning, red rocks of the Charyn Canyon make it very impressive. We were treated to some serious gale force winds during our overnight stay, making us a little grumpy the next day due to lack of sleep.

Kazakhstan – Sharyn Canyon

Kazakhstan – Charyn Canyon

A little further the Charyn Canyon creates little oases along its icy waters, the contrast stunning (we think).

Kyrgyzstan – Karakol

Kyrgyzstan – Karakol

Every Sunday the locals gather to sell or buy livestock at this huge animal market. No reading descriptions, no checking out a photo, no entering of credit card details and no clicks with a mouse. Here they hand over real cash to buy their next sheep or walking hamburger after a bit of prodding, lifting, squeezing and serious negotiations about the price.

Kyrgyzstan – Karakol Glacier (gletsjer)

Kyrgyzstan – Karakol Glacier (gletsjer)

The Tian Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan provide plenty of opportunities to snap panoramas, it was hard to pick ‘the best ones’. This was the glacier at the top of the Uch Tor valley.

Kyrgyzstan – Karakol Glacier

Kyrgyzstan – Karakol Glacier

The view from (near) the top of the glacier, looking back down the Uch Tor valley.

Kyrgyzstan – Kul Tor Valley

Kyrgyzstan – Kul Tor Valley

Looking back up the Kul Tor Valley on the second day of our hike. We descended from the right, and the Karakol Glacier is on the other side of the snowcapped mountains, which we reached via the 4020m pass.

Kyrgyzstan – Karakol hike

Kyrgyzstan – Karakol hike

The final scree slope before we get to the beautiful blue Ala Kol lake for our campsite on day 4 of our hike. The waterfall comes straight from the lake.

Kyrgyzstan – Karakol hike

Kyrgyzstan – Karakol hike

The last day of the hike, on the final ascent up to the Ala Kol pass (directly above Jude’s head) where it was snowing. Then a long way down to the hot springs in the next valley.

Kyrgyzstan – Karakol hike

Kyrgyzstan – Karakol hike

View from the Ala Kol pass at 3860m. Just stunning isn’t it?

Kyrgyzstan – Lake Issy Kul

Kyrgyzstan – Lake Issy Kul

A wind-still evening on the shores of Lake Issy Kul with a gorgeous sunset. We had a swim and enjoyed reading our books until the natural light disappeared.

Kyrgyzstan – Kokomoron River valley

Kyrgyzstan – Kokomoron River valley

On our way to Lake Song-Kol through another beautiful valley. The road followed the glacial river for dozens of kilometers. A little earlier we had met the hardcore Russian rafters paddling this grade 5 / 6 river.

Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan

A deserted track next to a little creek makes another perfect campsite. We haven’t had any problems finding great campsites in both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Our standards have definitely improved since China!

Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan

Driving from Tash Rabat (the historic caravan-serai) to Arslanbob (the biggest walnut forest in the world) we drove through this type of landscape for 2 days. The snow on top of the mountains is fresh. On the higher passes we had to plough through 10 cm of fresh snow.

Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan

Another issue caused by the terrible Mongolian roads or is it too late to blame those now? The back brake protection plate cracked and had to be removed. We had it welded in Osh a couple of days later for $5. This was the only rainy day during our 6 weeks in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan – the Pamirs

Kyrgyzstan – the Pamirs

Our first view of the Pamir mountains as we approach the border with Tajikistan. Peak Lenin at 7,150m is visible towards the right, and the Pamir Highway cuts through the middle of the chain. This was one of the most magnificent views of the trip so far.

Jon and Jude shake a tree

Normally we would have headed south from Bishkek, but we needed to go back to Almaty to pick up our visas. This meant crossing the border back into Kazakhstan and after doing all our jobs we drove straight back the way we came. Our objective was Tash Rabat, and we decided to cross central Kyrgyzstan on minor roads, firstly over the Tor-Ashuu pass with its dodgy tunnel (3,586m), through the Kokomoren River valley, past Lake Song-Kol and over another 2 mountain passes (both 3,000m+), finally crossing the main road to China from where it was only another 20km or so on a small road to Tash Rabat. Got it?!

at first we wondered if it was a one-way tunnel with potholes, but then realised it was just wide enough for 2 cars...

at first we wondered if it was a one-way tunnel with potholes, but then realised it was just wide enough for 2 cars…

It turned out to be a great decision to go this way, and not just because it avoided more police checks. The Kokomoren River valley was sensational with its incredible mountains and fast flowing bright blue glacial river. We bumped into a group of hardcore Russian rafters, using catamaran rafts to go down this grade 5-6 river. We had never seen the amount of protective gear they were wearing. We were very jealous.

check out the padding on the legs and the life-jackets

check out the padding on the legs and the life-jackets

campsite by the river

campsite by the river

We then found the perfect campsite at the bottom of a stunning red cliff, right next to the icy cold river, to top off another beautiful day. The next day was a bit colder and windier, and we drove on to lake Song-Kol where semi-nomadic families spend the summer with their cattle on the high-altitude pastures, called ‘jailoo’. Around October they start heading down the valleys to warmer pastures. We stopped at a single yurt with a row of foals attached to a line outside. This is a simple way to ensure the mares don’t stray very far and can be milked. We just happened to drive past as the lady was milking them.

milking one of the mares to make kumys (fermented mare's milk)

milking one of the mares to make kumys (fermented mare’s milk)

a yurt in Kyrgyzstan

a yurt in Kyrgyzstan

Whilst taking some photos and filming a bit, we were invited back to her yurt. Even though the yurt is used in different countries, there are some subtle differences between for example the Mongolian and the Kyrgyz yurt.

The Kyrgyz yurt doesn’t have a full door, only the bottom half has a solid door and a layer of felt is rolled up or left hanging depending on the need for warmth. It also doesn’t have a full floor, but only about ¾ is covered with sheepskin. The section near the entrance is left barren. This is where the oven / heater is and you also take your shoes off in this area.

The Kyrgyz nomads sleep on this sheepskin, take their meals on it and relax in that area. Also the frame of the yurt is slightly different. The Kyrgyz yurt doesn’t have central support beams. As it is a little smaller and has more roof beams connecting the latticework to the round window in the roof, it can do without the central pillars. The Mongolian roof beams are straight, whereas the Kyrgyz beams have a curve at the end, about 30cm long, which meets the latticework, making the yurt a little taller.

We were given chai, kumiz (fermented mare’s milk – we still hadn’t ‘acquired the taste’ for it) and homemade bread and jam. A treat! We left them with some biscuits and a bag of crisps, the 2 older kids were very happy.

inside a Kyrgyz yurt, sitting on the sheepskin

inside a Kyrgyz yurt, sitting on the sheepskin

As the weather wasn’t great we didn’t linger around the barren lake for very long, instead deciding to continue driving over the pass into the next valley. The pass down was straight out of Top Gear, zigzagging back and forth down this steep mountain. It was a bit dodgy in a few areas, but we loved it. Again a bag of crisps was opened for us when we reached the higher altitude (straight up from 700m to 3200m), simply exploding under the decreasing pressure. This time the bottom had exploded out of the bag – a bit of a mess as you can imagine.

our zigzag road down the mountain, our campsite was at the bottom of the zigzags

our zigzag road down the mountain, our campsite was at the bottom of the zigzags

cruising down the zigzags

cruising down the zigzags

We finally made it to Tash Rabat at lunch time the next day. We weren’t the only ones there, as a school class of 30 boys were exploring the ancient caravan-serai too. Some spoke very good English so we were bombarded with questions whilst looking around. The historians aren’t sure if it was a caravan-serai, a fort or a monastery, but it was beautiful and unique and we enjoyed wandering through all its many rooms.

Tash Rabat

Tash Rabat

the entrance hall to Tash Rabat

the entrance hall to Tash Rabat

We then faced about 80km back on the same track back before we could turn west towards our next destination: Arslanbob – the world’s biggest walnut forest. To get there we had to cross the Kaldamo Pass, yet another high mountain pass. This time it started to snow a long way before we reached the top, and soon the rocky and narrow track became a pretty scary affair.

When we finally reached the top at 2985m, we were driving through 15cm of fresh snow and we had to rescue quite a few locals who were driving their small trucks and 2WDs. After pushing several cars out and even getting the shovel out for one who had managed to get himself seriously bogged, we very, very slowly continued through the snow with some apples, given to us by locals as our reward. It was a bit hairy at times, but Lara managed the snow and slipperiness like a pro.

fresh snow on the high passes

fresh snow on the high passes

As soon as we reached the valley below (in the sunshine) we found a field to camp. This time a sheepherder and his son came over for a ‘chat’. They gave us a freshly baked loaf of bread for our dinner, it tasted delicious.

local herdsman and his son come around for a visit, they gave us a delicious bread the night before

local herdsman and his son come around for a visit, they gave us a delicious bread the night before

We were now in a completely different Kyrgyzstan, one with a lot more people, villages and fruit and vegetables for sale everywhere along the roads. They were also drying plumbs after kids had pitted them. When we went for a look (we couldn’t work out what they were from the car) we were given a kilo of the best plumbs ever. Yet again when we tried to pay for them, the money was refused. Instead she added another couple of handfuls of plumbs to our bag…

fruit and veg for sale everywhere along the road

fruit and veg for sale everywhere along the road

brake protection plate broke off and had to be removed

brake protection plate broke off and had to be removed

getting water is a big job every day, every village has one or more wells where they collect their water

getting water is a big job every day, every village has one or more wells where they collect their water

harvest time and every vehicle is loaded to the max

harvest time and every vehicle is loaded to the max

ever played with thin mud and made castles? somebody had done it on a grand scale here!

ever played with thin mud and made castles? somebody had done it on a grand scale here!

this sheep was particularly interested in my sandwich

this sheep was particularly interested in my sandwich

fresh snow on the peaks

fresh snow on the peaks

In Arslanbob we hired a guide to show us around. Almaz told us everything about his village, the walnuts and his future plans. The harvest was about to start and some people had already moved to the forest, with animals and everything, to camp the coming 2 months in amongst their patch of walnut trees. On the 2 of October, everybody would start the harvest. Climbing trees and shaking each branch so the nuts would fall out. This is pretty dangerous as the trees are big and vigorous shaking can cause branches to break. Every year people are injured during harvest time, sometimes even fatal!

Almaz and Jon checking some walnuts

Almaz and Jon checking some walnuts

people have already set up camp in their patch of walnut trees, ready for the 2 month long harvest

people have already set up camp in their patch of walnut trees, ready for the 2 month long harvest

those trees are all full of walnuts, as far as you can see

those trees are all full of walnuts, as far as you can see

We were there as the first skins were bursting and managed to find some nuts, even climbed one tree to shake it (not much came out yet, but it was fun nonetheless). We ended up buying some walnuts from last year’s harvest – great for in our salads – and our guide also had a bottle of honey for sale we couldn’t resist.

climbing a walnut tree for some good shakin'

climbing a walnut tree for some good shakin’

Stocked up with goodies we camped by the river that night, very cold, but with amazing views of the freshly powdered mountains. Yes, we definitely loved Kyrgyzstan!

campsite under the stars and snowcapped mountains at Arslanbob

campsite under the stars and snowcapped mountains at Arslanbob