Onwards and upwards

The Pamir Highway is one of the world’s most famous roads, stretching for over 1200km between Osh and Dushanbe. It is the second highest highway in the world (after the Karakoram), rising to over 4600m, and traverses the whole of the mountainous country of Tajikistan, 93% of which sits at over 3000m. It is the focal point for many travellers in Central Asia, but is not for the faint-hearted. A particularly challenge is the altitude, especially driving from the east. The road rises rapidly from less than 1000m at Osh to the Pamir plateau at 3700m, which can be easily reached in a day. Anyone who has spent any time at altitude will know this is not ideal, and so we broke the journey at the Peak Lenin basecamp at around 3200m. This also gave the antibiotics I was taking a chance to fix whatever bug had taken up residence in my insides.

Entering Tajikistan!

The more remote the border crossing, the greater the chance of corruption, or so seems to be the rule. The 4200m crossing into Tajikistan is particularly renowned for their vehicle “disinfection fee”, with no actual disinfection ever forthcoming. Sure enough, after a jovial 20 minutes with the genuine border guards a bloke appeared from a hut outside the gates demanding payment. We refused, and he told us to go back to Kyrgyzstan… We stood our ground, and after half an hour of friendly but firm refusals the guards were forced to open the gate for a local taxi (the locals it seems are either oblivious to the fact they are paying a bribe, or have given up arguing). We promptly followed the taxi through before they could close the gate, told them we definitely weren’t paying a bribe now they’d let us into the country anyway, and toddled off down the road into Tajikistan stopping briefly for a chat with a Romanian couple heading for the border.

The eastern Pamir region is high and desolate. Four and five thousand metre peaks look like minor hills next to the road, and sand storms blow up and engulf everything unlucky enough to be in their path. It felt like being back in the desert, but with slightly smaller lungs. Above 4000m we were all noticeably short of breath. Engines don’t work so well at this altitude, so Giles’ slight loss of power was to be expected. But other than that, he didn’t miss a beat. After getting over the high point of the Pamir Highway, the 4655m Ak-Baital pass, we wound our way down past old caravanserais (travellers lodges) to find a nice sheltered corner of the plain, already containing both German and Swiss overlanding couples. It is very much the “overland season” now, and we see one or two vehicles a day, usually going in the opposite direction, and mostly German. It’s always nice to swap stories, though their advice that we shouldn’t bother with the Wakhan Valley, a reputedly stunning offshoot of the main highway that follows the border with Afghanistan, thankfully fell on deaf ears.

Bleak

The road continues through Murghab, possibly the bleakest town either of us have seen (and we’ve seen some bleak ones…), and winds it’s rough and uncomfortable way over another 4000m pass, through a of couple of military checkpoints (you require an easily obtainable provincial permit, as well as your visa, to travel here), and along some unlikely looking cliff faces perched high above the Pamir river. Meeting a truck on some sections would involve some very interesting manoeuvring… Fortunately the only other traffic on this section were the tour parties from Osh, hammering every inch of the springs on their long suffering Land Cruisers. Eventually, after an overnight camp from which we could have waded across the river to Afghanistan, the road dropped down a series of narrow switchbacks to the village of Langar, an oasis of green sat next to the confluence of the Pamir and Wakhan rivers, from where the mighty Panj River became our constant companion for the next 600km.

Russian road building at its best
Casualty of the Pamir Highway

The Wakhan corridor is a narrow strip of Afghanistan bordered by Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south and China at the eastern end. During Victorian-era political chess-playing known as the Great Game this then-unclaimed strip of the Pamir region formed a barrier between the empires of Russia to the north, and British India to the south. Until it’s official amalgamation into Afghanistan in the 1890’s it provided a virtually unguarded route through which Russia could attack India, much to the consternation of the governments in both London and Calcutta. Fortunately its remoteness meant such an invasion never materialised (for anyone interested, The Great Game – on secret service in high Asia by Peter Hopkirk gives an excellent account of the geopolitics of the whole region). Today, the Wakhan is considered one of the safer parts of Afghanistan, although the long Afghan-Tajik border provides an almost un-policeable conduit for the Silk Road’s modern iteration, opium.

View from 12th Century Yamchun Fort

GBAO checkpoint

The villages on both sides of the river are green, vibrant and beautiful. They fill any non-vertical sections of valley with a mix of modern and traditional adobe houses, surrounded by terraced pastures and fields supplied by intricate irrigation channels from high, unseen mountain springs. The contrast between bare rock and lush grazing is startling, and you really feel little has changed for hundreds of years. There are homestays and other trappings of tourism, but this feels like the least visited place we have been so far, and the local people are warm, friendly and genuinely interested in our travels. Our arms got tired each day from so much waving. Independent travel here is basic, and often challenging, so we gladly picked up Sonja and Alberto, a couple of Spanish hitchhikers in need of a ride. This interesting and entertaining couple seem to spend more time on the road than at home, and reminded us how much of a barrier a vehicle can be in really interacting with a place and its people. Alberto also managed to kidnap a small goat, enabling Cas to fulfil her main trip goal of cuddling one. And so, after spending a night at a homestay near Ishkashim, the most southern point of our trip, the four of us headed back north towards the regional capital, Khorog.

A goat!

Trying to catch dinner…

Thanks to: the happy wavy people (especially children) of the Pamirs; Alberto and Sonja for great company on the road; the Van Diesner family for reversing up the road for a chat!

A little bit of chaOsh

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 awesome climb to Song Kul

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.

Song Kul

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.

Ok ok! We get it…!

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…

Wildflowers in full bloom!

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.

We three trucks of Central Asia…

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!

The kurut lady of Osh market!

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!

Visas at last yippeeeeeee!

Colourful Kyrgyzstan

We woke the next morning to an absolute cacophony of birdsong. In the space of minutes we had seen or heard collared doves, wood pigeons, gulls, cuckoos, woodpeckers, sparrows, ducks, geese, warblers, choughs and, of course various, ever-present birds of prey circling high above. Central Asia features on a lot of birds’ migratory routes, and it’s spring for the local residents, so I guess that’s why all the excitement. The whole way we’ve also noticed significantly greater numbers of beetles, bugs and butterflies than we’re used to – also great for the birds (but maybe less so for the windscreen…).

We headed around the lake to Karakol with a plan to do a bit of shopping and get some information about local mountain biking, but only once we’d stopped at the Fat Cat Cafe – home to proper coffee, a variety of excellent cakes and, miraculously, a book on mountain biking in Kyrgyzstan! This had resulted from a joint effort by USAID and Destination Karakol, the fantastically helpful community based tourism venture, and explained why we’d found bike routes on Trailforks.

Buoyed up with cheesecake and some route ideas we drove along a terrible track and up into the hills past the ski area where we put the bikes together to the sound of distant thunder. We’d found a pretty short but high and steep ride which promised views to the Tien Shan and back down to the lake. I think we probably cycled the first kilometre and a few stretches in the middle, but snowmelt and animal traffic had combined to turn the track into a quagmire. We carried on regardless, pushing the bikes and their increasing cargo of mud and sitting out a brief hailstorm under the shelter of some fir trees. The scenery was stunning in spite of the conditions – steep snow capped mountains, forested hillsides and alpine meadows in full spring flower (where they hadn’t been churned to mush). After 2 hours of essentially taking the bikes for a walk we reached the top, breathing hard and wondering if we were going to have to walk the whole way down as well… luckily not! Super steep, ridiculously slippy and definitely not pretty the descent was well worth the effort. The climb had taken us over two and a half hours but we were back at Giles grinning ear to ear and head to toe filthy within 30 minutes.

Mucky pups

Herein lies a slight drawback of combining overlanding with mountain biking: we were filthy, our bikes were filthy, our water supply is limited and access to washing and drying facilities is random at best. After hosing the worst of it off we headed back to town to find a hostel. Luckily for us, there’s a regular overlanders’ haunt in Karakol who are used to requests of all sorts and rapidly furnished us with a pressure washer for the bikes and hot showers for ourselves.

We continued west along the lake the next day, looping back up into the hills from a town called Bokonbaevo to reach a jailoo (high mountain pasture) where we started a bike vs truck game of cat and mouse, switching halfway down for fairness though equally delighted to be doing either (apart from a slightly hair-raising moment where a couple of angry dogs decided to join the chase and very nearly caught the mouse).

Deep calm magical Issyk Kul

Arriving back at the shore of the lake we found a quiet shingle beach complete with a stack of firewood to make our camp for the night. We’d just got the chairs out and popped the tent when a grinning cyclist pulled up. ‘This is soooooooo nice!!!’ he said, before jumping into the lake. Valentin had cycled there from Europe and been on the road for 8 months, sometimes with companions and sometimes solo (but always, I suspect, smiling). He joined us for dinner and a beer and even a song around the fire (he’s carrying a guitalele the whole way…) and we chatted life on the road.

Bye Valentin!

Southeast Splendour

Driving east from Almaty the road traces a line along the northern edge of the Zailiysky Alatau, a spur of the beautiful Tian Shan mountains, which form the border with Kyrgyzstan. This range rises to well over 4000m, but is largely still covered in snow at this time of year so didn’t provide us with the mountain biking playground we were hoping for. Instead we headed to the Kolsai Lakes region and found a quiet riverside camp spot for the night. We were surprised the next morning to find a dozen tents and a whole bunch of mountain bikers camped in the next glade on our way out! They had not been there the night before, but had left Almaty in the early hours and arrived at 6am. They seemed to be a semi-organised tour group, and we felt sad that we couldn’t accept their kind invitation to join them for the day. They did however give us some useful tips, and so after a brief visit to the lowest Kolsai Lake we rode the 10km up a 4wd track to Kaiyndy Lake, formed in the early 20th century by an earthquake and containing a hundred or so drowned spruces, their subsurface branches perfectly preserved by the cold glacial water.

Kaiyndy Lake

Next stop, and campsite for the night, was the 300m deep Charyn Canyon. The main attraction, the Valley of the Castles, contains a series of striking sandstone rock stacks and formations, which glowed red in the evening sun. Whilst debating where to camp for the night we came across a custom-built (actually home built) Iveco truck conversion sitting subtly in the corner of the car park. Volcker and Stephanie, and their 11 and 13 year old boys, are spending six months touring Central Asia from Munich, heading in the opposite direction to us. We got chatting, set up camp, drank some whisky, and exchanged stories and advice for the road ahead. Volcker is a BMW engineer, and we are not, so we’re not sure the exchange of useful information was entirely equal…

This corner of Kazakhstan is a little crazy. The landscape changes from steppe to canyon country, and from desert to mountains in the blink of an eye. It is the most lush and fertile part of the country that we have seen, and the drive to the border passed quickly. For once, so did the border crossing. The officials were friendly and jovial, with jokes about ammunition, narcotics, and not letting my wife leave the country (!). Vehicle checks were minimal, and we were on our way into Kyrgyzstan in 25 minutes, shortly after which it started raining.

With the rain continuing to fall, and the road surface akin to the craters of Kazakhstan, the game of pothole roulette was re-commenced. Giles consistently has the worst hand. Around 100km, some spine jarring thumps, and a little-too-close-for-comfort brush with the off-camber slippy road edge later, we navigated our way through a village of cows (not actually, but it was market day and we’re not sure who was in charge) and headed to a campsite on the edge of 170km long Issyk-Köl (“hot lake”), so called because it never freezes despite lying at 1600m (it is both very deep, and slightly salty). Some of our campsites on this trip have been taken from the iOverlander app (yes, there is even an app for overlanding!), and this was called “best view ever” owing to the Kazakh mountains now to the north, and the central Tian Shan to the south. The rain and clouds had other ideas, but it was still an atmospheric spot, punctuated by plenty of bird life, shepherds on horseback, and the occasional thump of a sub-woofer straining the windows and rear springs of a typically beaten up Lada.

Local fisherman in Issyk-Köl

Thanks to: the most jovial border guards to date.

Almaty

It had been such a good start! The border crossing was comparatively easy, friendly lorry drivers reminded us to put our lights on, the warmest welcome from Edil and family, and almost every car that passed us on the road gave a friendly wave. Well. What followed was 700km of the worst road conditions we have encountered so far. Potholes so big they deserved a name and a postcode, endless unsigned diversions and parallel tracks around roadworks, repairs often just as bad as the potholes they were hiding, and plenty of vehicles all swerving and jostling to avoid the worst of it. The abiding rule of the road is: avoid craters as a priority, even if it means facing down the oncoming traffic. And so even if we happened to have the good side of the road we would still quite often have to scream to a halt to allow a lorry or coach through and past. For 700km. It took 2 camps and 3 more days driving from the farm to reach Almaty, during which time we cracked the windscreen, broke a strut on our awning in a sudden squall, and had to emergency relocate our camp in the middle of the night due to gale force winds. Better yet, on the morning of the third day it rained continuously so that we could no longer tell which potholes to avoid. Mike dubbed this section ‘pothole roulette’. Our relief at reaching fresh tarmac 100km from Almaty was only slightly dampened by the fact that we still couldn’t go much faster due to the sheets of rain pouring down…

Our first stop had to be a garage to fix the windscreen and see about replacing or fudging some kind of repair for the awning. Imagine our amazement when we discovered that Kazakhstan has ARB, and that it is based in Almaty! We were greeted by Dmitriy who spoke excellent English and who, once we’d explained where we’d come from and what we needed, sat us down with a cup of tea. We expected a long wait. Three minutes later he returned holding the part we required for the awning, but apologising that the windscreen repair man they used may take up to two hours to arrive. Less than an hour later we were shaking hands with the team and heading off, Giles all fixed. We are still amazed.

Next stop was to find somewhere to park up for a day so we could explore. As we found in Canada, cities are always a bit of a challenge when it comes to camping, but we had read about a hostel who allowed overlanders to park in their driveway and use the facilities. To the sharp eyed it looked like our track stopped at a fancy hotel but we were just in the tent as usual!

I’ve heard lots of cities referred to as a ‘melting pot’ but you’d be hard pushed to find one more like fondue than Almaty. Understandable, when the tides of tyrants and conquerors have swept back and forth across the land for millennia, and dynasties have been founded and floundered, each contributing a bit of their own culture, identity and genetic material… we spent the entire day just wandering about with a vague list of things to get or do but no real urgency to do any of them. Almaty promotes itself as the ‘city of a thousand colours’ but it could as easily be called the city of a thousand trees or city of a thousand extremely helpful people. One positive legacy of soviet rule is that all the streets are lined with huge trees and almost every other block is given over to park. It’s really lovely, and completely, uniquely Almaty.

The day started with coffee and pastries in a park, then a visit to the state museum (three rooms! Excellent!), followed by a glass of really good wine, a bit more wandering and chance arrival at the Soviet-erected war memorial (harrowing), the cathedral (gorgeous) and eventually the Green market (fabulous chaos). Once we’d stocked up on a range of spices we didn’t know we needed, dried fruit and snacks we definitely didn’t, and camel sausage (which was obviously essential) we headed up Green Hill/Kok Tobe for a beer and a view of the city.

The next morning we had a thorough sort out and check over of the vehicle whilst we waited for our host to get up so we could pay him. Giles was completely filthy – caked in a month’s worth of mud and silt and sand – and part of the front drive shaft had a slightly concerning wobble. After consulting Yoda we decided it would be best to get him checked at a garage, but also stopped for an opportunistic wash on the way (don’t worry, we tipped them well!). Toyota Almaty had Giles up on a lift in no time and the mechanic took even less time to pronounce him ‘like new’. Wanting more reassurance we explained our planned route to the service manager, during which time several other mechanics came over for a good look too. He staked Toyota Almaty’s reputation upon Giles being in perfect condition to continue so, a little later than planned, we departed this fabulous city with a determination to come back one day.

Thanks to: the team at ARB for such good service; Toyota Almaty for your reassurance!

Babushkas are the best!

The drive from the Russian border to Almaty, through 1500km of Kazakh steppe, takes reputedly one of the worst paved roads in Central Asia. But the first section, around the city of Semipalatinsk (Semey), is pretty good. We stopped briefly here, infamous worldwide as the site of covert testing of soviet nuclear weapons until 1989 (many of the unknowing population still suffer from the associated health problems), before heading south and preparing ourselves for the coming pothole onslaught. In miles upon miles of flat steppe there is little shelter for a campsite, so as usual we headed up a random track towards the only significant hill in the area. This is our standard approach to finding a campsite, and it usually works well. On this occasion however, the track stopped at a farm, where the slightly surprised looking farmer was unloading his car. We rapidly established that neither of us had any clue what the other was saying, and miming didn’t seem to be getting us very far. As we were wondering if we should turn back to the road, he gestured for us to follow him and so began one of the most delightful experiences we have had.

Edil runs the farm with his wife (sadly not present) and his 77 year old mother, Mai-Dan. The place is gorgeous, with thick whitewashed stone walls that reminded me of my own grandmothers old croft house house in Scotland. We were ushered into the living room and sat on the sofa from where we could enjoy Kazakh pop idol on the tv. Cas had a brief phone chat with Maidan’s granddaughter (who speaks good English), which required her virtually climbing into the fridge to get any kind of reception, and unfortunately still cut out at the crucial moment. Soon after, Edil disappeared off in the car and Mai-Dan busied herself in the kitchen and we sat in the sofa. Dinner was prepared and produced for us, with frequent rejections of help and shooings back to the sofa. It consisted of a delicious potato and egg hash type of dish, bread with cream, honey and both rhubarb and apple jams, tea with both milk and butter in, biscuit wafers and small compressed yogurt nuggets called Kurut which taste a little like feta and are extraordinarily addictive. Everything was home made and nearly all home grown too.

With little in the way of communication and feeling pretty shattered we, unfortunately, headed to our bed feeling extremely lucky and very very full. I say unfortunately, because unknown to us Edil had gone to fetch Mai-Dan’s granddaughters Guldana and Alua, who were able to translate! Fortunately they were able to stay around the next morning before the whole family were having a get together to celebrate the life of Mai-Dan’s late husband, whose 80th birthday it would have been (and several of who’s birthday treats we had eaten the night before). After a family breakfast of semolina porridge, bread cream and jam and perpetually replenished bowls of tea we visited to the neighbours farm to fill our water. This involved more food and a highly entertaining discussion of the heritage and history of Kazakhstan right through to modern issues: even the Kazakhs think Brexit is a bad idea, and we didn’t bring the subject up! We were invited to stay, Mike was offered a chance to go carp fishing, and our water was filled before we eventually headed back to Edil’s – but not without being given a huge slab of fresh homemade butter and a jar of honey first. Mai-Dan had similar ideas and when we left the farm we had also acquired a bag of Kurut. We continued on our way south, feeling incredibly lucky to have taken that turning off a farm track the previous night.

Thanks to: our fantastic Kazakh hosts…please get in touch with us soon so we have your contact details!

La-da Land

The Altai Republic forms a mountainous little corner of the largest country in the world. It is, like the corresponding areas of Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia, predominantly Kazakh, although my limited Russian remembered from a visit to the northern Caucasus many years ago seemed to be understood (“beer, thank you”). Unlike our alternative route choice to get to Kazakhstan, which was to go through Xinxiang Province in China, the predominantly Muslim population in these parts is not being systematically persecuted in a highly questionably “re-education” project. The Kazakhs here, and in Mongolia, are fantastically friendly, warm and welcoming, and produce some excellent food! After stuffing ourselves at a local restaurant we slept in the car park of the Kosh-Agach Hostel and chatted to some twitchers here on holiday, whilst paying less than a fiver to use the facilities. A hot shower was most welcomed (by us and we suspect the other guests).

Kosh-Agach
Altai, through the filthy windscreen

Unknown to us when planning this route the Chuyskiy Tract, the road connecting the border with the city of Barnaul, forms one of Russia’s most picturesque drives. Winding down through the mountains the steep sides and immense rivers were a marked contrast to the wide open spaces of the Mongolian steppe. Small high mountain villages, constructed from gorgeous dark timber huts and houses with cheerful blue roofs, are interspersed with single room holiday chalets and Russian saunas (banya). Roadside stalls sell local honey and vegetables, and ring-bound bunches of birch cuttings for the customary self-flagellation. The valley has a very alpine atmosphere and is certainly worthy of more exploration than we were able to give. It is also, true to that most Russian of stereotypes, kept alive by a continual stream of Ladas in varying states of rusting decay. Ladas ploughing fields, Ladas towing huge bales of hay, Ladas overtaking us on blind bends and summits, and Ladas sat on bricks awaiting new springs, engines, or possibly even chassis. We don’t think they are ever allowed to die.

Our new favourite car, excluding Giles

Knowing that the landscape outside the Altai Republic changes to flat agricultural plains, we set about searching for a campsite for the night. After one aborted detour into a local rubbish tip we stumbled upon a picnic site by a river which looked promising. Closer inspection found another vehicle already parked up, and even closer scrutiny found it to be another Hilux, fully kitted out for overlanding, from Germany. Steffi and Frank were, we think, as surprised as we were to meet other Europeans in this remote area and immediately invited us to camp next to them and offered to cook us dinner. They have been driving from Germany for two months, taking almost the exact reverse of the route we are planning. We shared stories and beers around our first camp fire of the trip whilst thoroughly scrutinising each other’s rigs (overlanding vehicle setup, before you ask Gill…). Turns out they also have two VW campers, giving us plenty of ideas for Muddle’s (Cas’s T25) future when we get home. We enjoyed a good Scottish breakfast before parting the next morning, though we’re not sure Frank is completely sold on porridge.

Barnaul is a small city in the Altai Territory, north of the Republic. After the limited supply choices up until now, the more western shops and organised streets were welcome relief. Modelled on St Petersburg, Barnaul has a very European feel with wide boulevard streets lined with trees and baroque buildings. For the first time since leaving home we almost cleared the shopping list, finding herbs, actual liquid milk and canisters for the windburner stove which should keep us in ready tea and coffee til the end of the trip, much to Cas’s delight. Mike was just saying it was nearly a clean sweep, but for the lamentable lack of whisky, when we passed Drink King. We didn’t hold out much hope to be honest, but were soon happily wending our way towards the border ‘fully’ resupplied.

Allotment houses leaving Barnaul…
…and approaching the border
Dust storms on the plains

On the way out of the city we passed what looked like huge areas of allotments with elaborate ‘sheds’. In fact, they were homes with intensively cultivated gardens as this is how much of the population lives. The landscape heading south from Barnaul is flat and largely given over to agriculture. Small communities, remnants of the Soviet collectifs, join forces to farm this windswept plain, and we tucked into the fields behind one of these villages to camp for the night. The border crossing, as my school reports used to say, “showed signs of improvement” for us, and we were through in two and a half hours and heading towards Almaty, a mere 1500km away.

Thanks to: our German overlanding friends for a great evening in the Altai!

In search of snow leopards

In case you’re wondering, we didn’t actually go searching for one of the world’s most elusive creatures, though we were now passing through territory in which they are known to live and breed. From Ulaangom we took a pass through the mountains to Üüreg Nuur, a mountain lake sat at 1425m surrounded by 3000m peaks. With the weather deteriorating and snow falling heavily as we crossed the pass we weren’t sure it would be worth the detour. But it surely was, with half the deep blue lake still frozen and golden rays of sunshine picking out the steep valleys and chasms piercing the wall of snow-covered peaks. We found the only Ger camp on the lake was, for once, open and so set ourselves up in their beautiful lodgings whilst the storm clouds bubbled and burst around us, making us slightly nervous about our planned route out the following day.

The next day dawned brighter, so we headed around the lake for a walk into the realm of the snow leopard, or at least to the edge of it. We were rewarded by two large herds of argali sheep with their huge horns, munching their way along below the snow line. The drive out proved as interesting as we expected, over the 2550m Bairam Davaa, which was heavy with fresh snow. After stopping for tea with a couple of local herders (and their hand-reared lamb) Giles made short work of the terrain and we were soon contemplating another large ovoo, complete with the almost obligatory crutch. The descent of the south side was easier going, and we were surprised to spot a lone cyclist picking her way up the road. Delphine is from Belgium and cycling solo from Ölgii to Ulaanbaatar, having just spent several months in South America. She gratefully accepted our offer of hot chocolate and we enjoyed a few minutes chatting before she headed on up the hill, hoping to find a local family with whom to spend the night. We continued downhill on a heavily rutted stoney road, justifying our under vehicle protection upgrade before leaving Australia.

After spending another cold night tucked into a small canyon just off the road we eventually reached Ölgii, the capital of the Bayaan-Ölgii aimag (province). This part of Mongolia is predominantly Kazakh and the place has a very different feel to the rest of the country. Things started well at Coffee & Book, a western style cafe serving good coffee and Kazakh food, whilst allowing us to swap some of our reading material. The local museum contained some interesting insights into the Kazakh culture, along with some truly atrocious taxidermy, and a quick scoot around the town allowed us a quick re-supply, including the mandatory fire extinguisher to be carried in Russia. Ölgii has a very friendly feel, and as with many frontier settlements a certain defiance and Wild West atmosphere. We liked it. It was also recently closed (only 10 days ago) due to an outbreak of bubonic plague. Turns out eating raw marmots, which carry the disease but are traditionally consumed by Mongolians for alleged health benefits, isn’t that healthy after all. However, a trip to a local butcher, and some interesting mime, scored us some tasty looking camel.

The drive to the Russian border is mostly paved and took a little over an hour the next morning. Having taken two days at our last border crossing we were hoping this would be a bit faster. Getting out of Mongolia was pretty simple – pay for road tax (asking for an official receipt almost halving the price…), wait for the customs officials to work out that yes, our visa is still valid, quick check of the vehicle and drive on through to no-mans-land. This consisted of 5km of snow and ice, with several jack-knifed lorries being dug out by their hardy looking Russian drivers. The Russian side was very friendly, even allowing us to light the stove and make coffee whilst awaiting passport inspection, but not fast. The import documents for Giles took an age to process, though the Mongolian drivers weren’t faring any better. Once through, we had to find third party insurance, mandatory in Russia, which was provided by what appeared to be a couple of kids logging on to the State system from a slow internet connection in their front room. After a total of six hours, we were free to drive on into Western Siberia for our quick transit to Kazakhstan.