We carried on west following a route recommended by Andre of the excellent hostel in Karakol. We were heading for a lake called Song Kul – tucked into a ring of mountain tops at 3000m and only accessible once the snow has melted. Andre’s route to the lake was absolutely stunning and a really fun drive too – all vistas and steep switchbacks and drop offs. Of course we reached the top and met a clapped out old Lada but that didn’t diminish our happiness.
The Kyrgyz people are semi nomadic shepherds, spending their summers in the high green jailoos living in yurts, and many of these were now being set up around the edge of the lake. Kyrgyz yurts differ from Mongolian gers having a more steeply pitched roof, a chimney emerging from the edge rather than the middle, and instead of the Mongolian orange, green or blue decorative wooden door there’s a thick woven mat which is rolled up during the day like a blind. They are still gorgeous: beautifully decorated inside with embroidered wall hangings and wonderfully warm on account of being mostly made of felt. They were also mostly not built yet so we found a tiny cove to tuck into where mike could have a fish (unsuccessful) whilst I cooked dinner.
The next day we walked up to the peak behind us to test our lungs and help us acclimatise to the altitude. Then we looped around the lake and found the road heading south towards Osh. This was another heartstoppingly phenomenal track carved into the mountainside and only occasionally showing signs of falling off it. We descended from the high alpine through a landscape which pitched from dry canyon to verdant green valley in a moment, the latter with tidy villages of wood or adobe houses, immaculately (hand) cultivated fields and boundaries of poplar trees. It sometimes felt like Mars and sometimes Tuscany.
A fabulous few hundred km and a couple more high mountain passes later and we reached Osh, where we hoped to quickly resupply before heading on to Tajikistan – Visa’s still pending… We are completely sold on Kyrgyzstan and wish we’d had more time to relax and explore and get to know it. If anyone is in the market for novel holiday ideas then ski touring in the north east is one or else just hire a Rusky bus (mashrutka) and drive around…
Consulting iOverlander led us to the Apple hostel (or at least near to it – it keeps itself fairly well hidden and is only identifiable by a mongol rally sticker on the huge gates) – another place with plenty of outside space for campers and folk who prefer to sleep in their cars… which is lucky because we opened the gate and were met by Ramon, a Ford Ranger, and his people Oliver and Dagmar. They were also recently arrived and busy with the necessary household chores of checking and fixing and cleaning. We did the same which resulted in much toing and froing between the vehicles to compare this or ask about that or generally admire. It’s geeky but we love it. we started very early in the ‘season’ and are travelling the opposite way to most other overlanders which means our encounters are usually brief. Apart from the enforced rest, a huge benefit of waiting for our visas was getting a chance to hang out and share stories with Oliver and Dagmar.
With the weekend ahead all we could do was sit tight, tighten some bolts and grease some joints and generally try and be patient. Although it’s ancient Osh doesn’t have much in the way of sights to see – a big hill in the middle of the city reminiscent of Arthur’s seat, and a market. But you should never underestimate the allure of the Asian marketplace. The jaymar bazaar stretches so far along the banks of the river and around and under its bridges that there are maps to help you not get lost. Although I’m convinced getting lost in a bazaar like this is half the point. I’m a lover of markets and supermarkets the world over – partly, yes, it’s the food but partly it’s seeing how differently each country goes about the mundane task of shopping and selling. Asian markets are especially fun – busy and seemingly chaotic but actually very structured. Here’s the clothes section which segways into fabrics and onto alterations and repairs. There’s fresh veg, then fresh fruit, then meat, spices, nuts, auto spares, bike repairs, riding tackle and furniture. And in each section a multitude of stalls and sellers each with their unique pitch or style of presentation and all vying for business. We spent hours wondering around finding everything from Sichuan pepper to Kurut to felt souvenirs. We even ended up with a 3L bucket of raspberries for less than £2 including the bucket!
With baited breath and a degree of apprehension we checked our emails on Monday morning to find – huzzah! – two visas to Tajikistan complete with permits for the GBAO region, meaning: we’re off to drive the Pamir highway!
Happy birthday to Dave – we’re sorry we missed it!
Thanks to: Oliver and Dagmar for your excellent company and parting gifts; the Tajik foreign ministry for letting us in, and awesome Osh for fresh samosas and kebabs and our favourite market so far!