Home Sweet Home

Exiting the port south of Baku proved almost as convoluted as entering on the Kazakh side, but we managed to rapidly wear down any resistance from the three customs officials searching the car… The first was unfortunate enough to open and sniff the jar of chilli just as a gust of wind came through, blowing a good dusting into his eye. He retreated to the bathroom to wash it out, and a second was sent by his superior to check on him when he failed to return. The superior, having declined our offer of a consolatory sweet, then decided to try the kurrut, which have become increasingly salty as they have dried out. After biting enthusiastically into a whole one (we mostly nibble bits off) and looking quite surprised at the taste, he then foamed at the mouth for a couple of minutes before waving us through lest we despatch any more of his team.

Beautiful Georgia
Kazbegi National Park

We’re sure Azerbaijan has a lot to offer the traveller, but for us the most poignant feature was the most consistently smooth tarmac we had seen since China. So we headed west as fast as we legally could. At least mostly legally, as we couldn’t find anywhere to buy the mandatory third party car insurance, and decided we weren’t going to waste time hunting. It took us less than 24 hours to get across the country and in to Georgia, where we had hoped to spend a week mountain biking. We now reckoned we could spare just a day and plotted a route to Kazbegi National Park. We were a little hindered by Georgia’s picturesque wine region, but eventually prised ourselves away from a delicious vineyard lunch and, after a couple of mountain passes, some epic thunderstorms, and a steep and rough river crossing, found a campsite amongst the region’s fabled and beautiful wild flowers. We managed a short ride from Juta the following day, making a note to come back to this easily accessible outdoor playground, with so much potential for both summer and winter fun.

Leaving Georgia, we met with the most obstructive border guards of our whole trip: surprising given the ease of entry and friendly welcome when we arrived. Not happy with Giles’ West Australian paperwork the guards initially refused us exit from the country. When we protested the ridiculousness of this they took our paperwork to the Turkish side to drum up support for their stance. The Turks evidently had no such worries, as our paperwork was then processed without further comment or delay and we passed through the Turkish side without difficulty.

Eastern Turkey
Bulgarian turkey

The east of Turkey has to be one of the great surprises of the trip. Expecting dry and arid hills, we initially drove through high and open bright green pastures, feeling like the Yorkshire dales at 2000m, before diving down through alpine villages into deep gorges and ravines where the road snakes along the river edge overlooked by ancient castles and keeps. A big mountain landscape then took us past the Derince Reservoir before we joined the main road west, following the shore of the Black Sea most of the way to Istanbul. Once again, we made a mental note to return.

Istanbul was, as expected, busy and stunning. We stopped briefly on the way in to finally replace the cracked windscreen from Kazakhstan, which had been worsened by some slightly over-zealous cleaning by a gas station attendant, and squeezed through the narrow streets to our hotel. Arriving in the afternoon we managed a quick tour of the Blue Mosque before it closed to the public for prayers, and then wound our way down to the huge bazaar, hunting for spices to take home. The market is a vibrant blend of European, Middle Eastern and Asian produce and culture, with everything from Dysons to diamonds hidden down narrow alleys and under stairwells. It is vast, and warrants a day spent here alone. I eventually managed to extract Cas, but not before she had three bottles of pomegranate molasses clinking around in her bag.

Garage number 4…?
Ferry from Asia to Europe
The Blue Mosque

The final few days of our adventure are a bit of a blur. We covered the 3000km from Istanbul to Calais in four days, winding through Bulgaria, Romania (including the fabled Transfagarasan, Top Gears’ “best road in the world”, on a sunny Sunday afternoon with apparently everyone else in Romania…), Hungary, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and finally into France. Our final night was spent in a campsite bar watching the women’s football World Cup semi final, drinking local Belgian craft beer, and feeling a very very long way from the Mongolian steppe.

Final campsite
Familiar cliffs

We expected a slow customs process in the morning, bringing a foreign car into the U.K., but we rolled on to the ferry without even a nod to the unusual number plate, joined a few caravans and bus loads of excited French school children, and waved goodbye to a remarkable journey that has covered 20,000km on some of the highest, toughest and remotest roads in the world. We didn’t really know what to expect on setting out from China, and many of the places we’ve been through we couldn’t have placed on a map before we started. Our world geography has improved if nothing else. The mental strain of this trip – worrying about the vehicle, frequent changes of country and culture, and the pressure of driving to a deadline – has been far greater than we had anticipated, and we would have loved to have longer. But it’s been an incredible privilege to be able to squeeze this journey through such vibrant, friendly and diverse cultures and landscapes into a chink of time between two jobs, and a fantastic way to come home.

First UK stop: Pembrokeshire, West Wales
A pretty good welcome home

We are delighted to be home and are now settling back into life in Edinburgh, where normal service has resumed – I am collecting in and playing with my various lent-out toys, and Cas is destroying the garden in the knowledge that I will then be forced to help put it back together how she wants it. She has also started work as a consultant paediatric anaesthetist, of which I am extremely proud.

And so here we end. Thank you to everyone who has read, contributed to and shared this blog over the last three months. We’ve enjoyed writing it, and hope that it has inspired some of you to visit this vast, fascinating and maybe misrepresented region of our planet. We’re sure you’ll be warmly welcomed, wherever and however you go.

Goodbye Central Asia

We had originally planned to drive around the north end of the Caspian Sea and down through Russia into Georgia, but various sources had told us the road was pretty bad and we were better off taking the ferry. Only a friendly Russian told us (probably accurately) that the drive down through Dagestan and the Russian Caucasus was more scenic. But we opted for the ferry, which connects Kazakhstan with Azerbaijan and takes around 30 hours. That is, when it arrives. It is mainly for rail and road freight, not passengers, so runs to no particular schedule and leaves when full. This can mean a wait of anything up to 5 days, and arriving at the port we discovered we’d missed the last one by less than 12 hours. Given our now tight time schedule for getting home, this caused more than a little anxiety and we re-considered the 2000km drive round.

But we got lucky. After some bizarrely heated exchanges with a lady in the ticket office (she seemed cross with us as soon as we walked in the door) we established there was another ferry leaving at 7am the next morning. We bought our tickets and left, somewhat perplexed, and never understanding what the issue was.

As we drove away we spotted a couple of exhausted looking cyclists sat on the kerb. Guy and Kamilla from Illinois and cycling from south east Asia to Europe, also had tickets for the ferry. But at 3 in the afternoon, and 40 degrees, they were contemplating how to get to the port, 90km away. The first taxi they called had turned around and driven off on seeing them… Enter Giles, once again. By stacking their bikes on top of the spare tyre and cramming all the bags inside, they were able to get a taxi whilst we drove gingerly down the highway with all their worldly possessions.

After two months in Central Asia we expected the ferry port processes to be convoluted and they didn’t let us down. With nothing happening we made more apricot jam, drank some beers and went to bed. Half an hour later a man in a hard-hat woke us and we went, with the three Turkish truckers (the only other vehicle passengers) to collect a clutch of stamped forms. With nothing else apparently happening, we went to be once more. At 1am the same man returned and ushered us through customs to another empty car park, making a cursory check of the vehicle in the moonlight, before disappearing once more, and we were finally allowed some peace, until a new hard hatted attendant came and muttered something about the bank. Taken in tow by our new and equally bemused Turkish friends I toddled over to pay the port fees which were, perhaps for the first time in central Asian history, half what we were expecting. Another slow morning unfolded, eventually ending in the sniffer dog looking delighted with our present of a tennis ball and us trundling on to the ferry. We finally left at 3.30pm.

The Caspian is the world’s largest inland body of water covering 371,000 square kilometres. It contains 3.5 times more water than all of America’s Great Lakes combined, but is not a freshwater lake. The northern portion is closer to freshwater, with most of the inflow being here, whilst the salinity increases markedly further south. There is no outflow other than evaporation. It’s levels change rapidly, largely in response to the discharge of the Volga, in Russia, and its waters are dotted with oil refineries, some surrounded by floating towns of supporting accommodation and other infrastructure. But for us it was a pleasant little voyage and a nice break from driving, with some interesting fellow passengers. Other than those already mentioned another cyclist had arrived at 6am, having set off from Aktau at 2am. David Hayles is 77 years old and cycling around the world on an electric bike. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind being described as an eccentric old bugger, who had a laryngectomy around 10 years ago and is definitely not letting it hold him back.

After an enjoyable 24 hours on board we docked just south of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, and played another game of challenge Anika, running around paying fees and obtaining permits before heading west. We were now on borrowed time, having promised to be back in the U.K. on July 3rd, giving us 10 days, and 5000km…

Our travels through Central Asia have been an unforgettable experience. We will miss the warm and friendly people, the wide open steppe, the majestic mountains and the brutal plains. And we will remember the appalling toilets, the questionable water, the lamentable driving and the astonished looks at seeing Cas at the wheel. It has been joyful and stressful, hopefully not in quite equal measures, and our trusty Giles has chugged along relentlessly and made possible some unusual and unlikely exploration. We hope we’ll have the chance to return to some of these places in the future, with more time, but for now it’s a lightning-tour of Asia Minor and Europe…


We’d been told that Uzbekistan was hot, and it didn’t disappoint. Arriving in Samarkand, the first city on our whirlwind three-stop Silk Road city tour, the thermometer hit 38C. It reached this, or more, every day in the country, quite a shock after the pleasant warmth and cool nights of the mountains.

Ulughbek Medressa, Registan, Samarkand

Samarkand, the jewel of Timur’s central asian empire, is the postcard city of the Silk Road with its colourfully restored medressas, minarets and mausoleums. The scale of the brightly tiled 15th and 16th century arches, towers and domes is stunning, with many leaning at unlikely angles due to earthquake damage, giving a slightly Escher-esque appearance. Much of the impressive restoration was done by the Russians during Soviet days, though they took the odd liberty including the addition of a dome where none had existed originally. Though the city centre is openly set up for tourism, with overpriced souvenir shops sadly occupying many of the old student bedrooms within the medressas and electric buses transporting sightseers along the otherwise pedestrian promenade between the main sights, the steps overlooking the Registan fill with locals after dark, socialising under the floodlit attractions. We wandered around by night, and again the next morning, taking in the Registan, Bibi-Khanym Mosque, Shah-i-Zinda and Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum before the heat got the better of us.

The trompe l’oeil ceiling in the Tilla-Kori Medressa

An unpleasant four hour drive took us to Bokhara. I say unpleasant, because whilst the drivers throughout Central Asia have been unpredictable and erratic, in Uzbekistan they are also openly aggressive. Their main aim appears to be run whoever is in front of them off the road, and we witnessed some horrendous near misses. Whilst people have been interested in us and the car in previous countries, a quick smile and wave has been met with enthusiastic waves and toots. Not so here, where the drivers enjoy boxing you in behind a truck or tractor, whilst staring unpleasantly then turning away or accelerating past when you smile or wave. We were glad to reach our accommodation in Bokhara, an old Jewish town house run by a very friendly if slightly disorganised local family.

Kalon Mineret, Bokhara. Even Chinggis Khan couldn’t bring himself to destroy it!
Inside and outside the Ark

Bokhara is much more intimate than Samarkand, and the buildings have been less dramatically renovated. The city centre feels more ‘lived-in’ and genuine, with the narrow dusty streets of the old town running right off the main square and housing plenty of local families, shops and bakeries, as well as many guest houses. New hotels are being built everywhere however, apparently for an expected influx of Chinese tourists in coming years, so the city is set to change dramatically. As well as strolling through the streets, taking in the tiled medressas, stunning Kalon Minaret and the Ark (a royal enclave within the town) we paid a quick visit to the jail, or Zindon, scene of the brutal imprisonment and execution of British officers Stoddart and Connelly in Great Game days.

Navigating Bokhara’s narrow streets
The walls of the Inchon-Qala, Khiva

Our final city stop was Khiva, famed in the 19th century for its slave trade fuelled by Turkmen tribes that attacked lonely caravans travelling across the steppe. It is the smallest of the three cities, with its Inchon-Qala (inner walled city) and imposing mud walls, though felt the most like a museum-city, with little local activity other than the hawkers. We have to confess, we felt like we’d seen enough tiles and turrets and after one night and a wander around the city and the top of the wall we decided to move on. We also felt we’d had enough of being used, something we hadn’t experienced before on this trip. Uzbekistan has clearly embraced tourism wholeheartedly and it is an important industry for the country, as with all the others we have passed through. But whilst on our travels thus far we have felt genuinely welcomed, here we have felt like a commodity, to be extorted and abused at every opportunity. It has made it our least favourite country, a feeling shared by other travellers we have met, though we have only visited cities and have rushed through so we may be being unfair. Regardless, we were glad to be heading through the flat and largely empty (though much friendlier!) district of Karakalpakstan, past the turn off to the ever-shrinking south Aral Sea, drained of water by the soviets for cotton farming, and on to west Kazakhstan where we were aiming for Aktau and the ferry across the Caspian Sea.


We arrived into Dushanbe with little more planned than to get Giles cleaned and serviced with new oil and fuel filters and plenty of grease to his underbelly after the hardships of the Pamir. We’d had a recommendation for a garage who reportedly serviced the cars of all the embassies so that’s where we took him and where Mike and the young apprentice jointly checked him over. It’s been pretty customary in these areas to be invited to watch, if not contribute to and help with, the work which is nice!

As with most of the cities so far, Dushanbe has shiny new developments and colourfully planted roundabouts but the residential areas comprise narrow dirt streets edged by open drains and unpromising-looking walled and gated compounds. It’s one of my favourite things to sneak a peak through an open gate. Sometimes it’s hiding a gorgeous shady courtyard and huge family home, other times the entire space has been filled by a mishmash of additions and lean-tos and houses multiple generations of several families, complete with livestock and light industry. In the evenings the animals are usually brought in as the kids are thrown out into the streets where they play together till long after dark (far outlasting Mike and I).

Our accommodation was at the house of Zafar, or more accurately under his grape vines in the courtyard where he allowed us to pop the tent, but only once we’d agreed to join him and his family for dinner. This was, as usual, eaten on the Tapchan (raised bed-like platform) with legs crossed and feet increasingly numb (you really have to plan your departure well in advance), and consisted of tea, bread, salad and soup.

The next day we completed various bits of admin and left the city via the market (this is my probably second favourite thing…) and having stocked up on Kurut, fresh fruit and bread (to go with the litres of jam we had made) we continued north towards the Fann mountains – another exciting drive of high altitude hairpins and the delightfully named ‘tunnel of death’. Actually a series of tunnels on a narrow but busy stretch of road these (unsurprisingly) got their name after a multitude of fatal accidents oweing to the fact that they are long, winding, completely unlit and completely unventilated. This in mind, the locals respond the only way that’s sensible and get them over with as quickly as is humanly possible…

The Fann mountains are an astonishing range of 5000m peaks and glacial alpine lakes. We took a bumpy side trip through remote villages full of kids furiously waving and screaming their hellos, past the women working the fields, up to a stunning campsite by a fast flowing stream. The following morning we were finishing breakfast and putting the bikes together with a plan to ride the remaining few km up to a lake when two elderly men on donkeys stopped in to visit (donkeys and bicycles replaced horses and motorbikes as the main form of rural transport somewhere around Kyrgyzstan we reckon…). Smiling and gesturing they invited us to their home up the valley for some tea when we passed – tea being universally signed by raising a teacup and holding a saucer, even though in every country so far tea has been drunk from a bowl…

It’s funny the gestures you might take to be international, but which turn out not to be. Where a quick headlight flash at home might mean ‘please manoeuvre, no, do go ahead’ in Central Asia it means ‘I am coming and I will not stop!’. Along with a shaky knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet and hello, please and thank you in most central Asian languages we have now learnt to decipher the various formations of rocks on the road: several stacked = makeshift car jack; four laid out at the corners of a rectangle: had been holding down a carpet for scrubbing; spaced pairs of rocks at some distance from each other: our football pitch – do not disturb play!!

‘The best camp ever… if only there were fish in the river…’
This bridge was really very narrow…

Anyway… we headed up the track following the route of the donkeys and were soon greeted by a stream of tiny children running towards us. Rapidly shooed out the way by the elder, Pietrov, we were taken into his home for endless cups of tea, milk in various stages of production or ferment, fresh bread and a couple of hours of mime and meeting the family. It seems the elders and the youngest children move up into the hills for the 3 months of summer to graze the cows and yaks.

They were fascinated by our journey and delighted by the pictures of our home in Scotland and canoeing in Canada that we’d brought with us. On discovering we were doctors various ailments suddenly materialised (together with more people) and we were soon promising to come back the next day with whatever medicines we had that we thought might be useful. These were well received and we wished we could have helped everyone else who turned up but we did eventually have to excuse ourselves to carry on towards Uzbekistan. Our plans for another ride in the mountains were kyboshed by the arrival of a spectacular thunderstorm which echoed around us so we made for the border and more number plate antics…

Lake Alaudin

Rough and Tumble

The road north of Khorog, the busy little capital of the Pamir region, is terrible. It was once glorious asphalt I’m sure, but years of being bombarded by rockfall and extreme weather means it’s now strewn with holes and rubble. Even the big trucks and rented Land Cruisers slow down for this bit. But we didn’t mind going slowly, because the views continued to be amazing.

I had to, didn’t I…
Don’t slip…
Incredible striated mountains

We dropped our new Spanish friends in Khorog to collect their belongings from their hostel and continue their own travels, and having resupplied and refuelled drove about 20km (one hour) out of town. Finding a nice little campsite by the river we were slightly alarmed when a military convoy drove past with lights flashing, but they weren’t there for us and we managed to relax and enjoy the view across the valley. I even managed a quick cast the next morning, but the fish proved elusive and it was porridge for breakfast once again. A bumpy morning drive took us to the Bartang Valley, an even more remote corner of the Pamirs which provides a rough, tough route all the way back to Lake Karakul near the border we had crossed from Kyrgyzstan. We were tempted to drive further up, but time didn’t permit and we stretched our legs hiking into the high village of Jizew for lunch. The forecast storm held off until we were halfway down again, at which point the heavens opened and we got soaked to the skin. A landslide 45 years ago filled the valley with rocks, so the powerful mountain river coming down from the lakes completely disappears underground for over a kilometre, reappearing in copper-blue streams and pools just before rejoining the main, cloudy torrent. The rivers here currently rise impressively from morning to evening as the snow melt increases through the day, falling again by a foot or more by the following morning. We had heard at our homestay south of Khorog that a local girl had just been found one week after throwing herself into the full-to-bursting Panj River, a sad reminder that some health issues are not so different the world over.

Hiking in the Bartang valley
Bartang camp
Casualty of the road…

The campsite in the Bartang was pretty special – an oasis of green grass nestled in the steep sided rocky valley, shaded by an ancient looking Mulberry tree under which we cooked dinner. Driving out the next day we saw plenty of new and significant rockfall from the previous night, making the narrow dirt road feel even smaller as we navigated around the sharp stones. A spectacular day of driving between massive rock peaks, along teetering riverside roads and past a German family of five in a 55 year old fire truck took us, eventually, to a small field by the road just south of Qalai Khumb. Whilst we set about making dinner and jam (having acquired around 2kg of fresh apricots from a boy by the road for around 50p!) the local farmer came for a chat and to collect his tax of one fresh cucumber from our fridge. Another military truck full to bursting with onions rumbled by, towing a second truck which had obviously found the road too hard going, and a toot of the horn and a hello and wave from the cab told us that we were ok for the night.

Lovely family, awesome truck

“Is there a bus coming soon…?”

Heavy rain greeted us the next morning as we drove through the small town of Qalai Khumb. Searching for a supermarket I misread the map and managed to navigate us to a school. The slightly surprised headmaster met us at the door, and after ascertaining we were not a threat invited us in for tea. Turning down his kind offer we continued on our way, keen to reach the fabled smooth tarmac which adorns the highway 20km out of town. It was indeed no myth – this section is brand new, with few potholes and huge concrete walls holding back the mountainside at high-risk areas. Though several of these immense walls have been completely destroyed by landslides, with the entire wall, road and everything downstream ending up in the Panj. Nature still very much has the upper hand. The super smooth road, with its 50kmh speed limit (we took the locals’ approach to this…) follows the river for another 100km before finally turning away from Afghanistan and heading north towards Dushanbe.

We were extremely sad to leave the Pamirs. It’s been the highlight of our trip, with its towering mountains, raging rivers and friendly people, welcoming and catering for tourism, but as yet unspoilt by it. And peeping across the river to Afghanistan has made us keen to also one day explore this wild and beautiful country…


Memorial to two cyclists who died here in 2018

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.


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!