BORDER CROSSING DETAILS:
After a friendly goodbye wave from a solitary Chinese guard we reach the solitary Kyrgyzstan guard 10metres further on.
A quick check of our passports, more through curiosity and a chance to chat than anything else, and we charge down the mountain reaching the main border point 20 minutes later -only to find the gates closed. DAMN. It is 2pm in Kyrgyz time and we think we’ve missed the border until a young guard comes over and gestures that it will open in 10 minutes once the staff have had a break! Sure enough, 10 minutes later, the gates open and we drive to the customs building. Now– our guide book warns that, ‘You should be prepared to start with a bribe offer of $20 and work your way up as your car gets strip searched in the customs shed.’ We are understandably nervous.Turns out you couldn’t meet a nicer bunch of officials– everyone was friendly, helpful and chatty! The guards spot a problem with our visa’s– the Malaysian embassy wrote the date of issue as November 2008 instead of 2007– fortunately they were understandable and laughed about it. It could have invalidated our visa’s and then we would have been really stuck!
VERY IMPORTANT: You must fill out two customs forms, one for you , one for customs– get it stamped and fill in your vehicle details. Kyrgyzstan does not accept carnet and you may have problems getting out of the country without this customs slip.
Forty five minutes later we wave goodbye and drive down hill on a ‘road’ that is three times worse than the Chinese road– we didn’t think it was possible! We reach a final check point where our passports are checked again and then we are free.
The weather is closing, there are black ominous clouds on the plateau behind us and we push hard to get down to an elevation of under 10,000 feet. The scenery is stunning– vast steppe of stubby grassland backed by snow capped mountains. Everywhere you look there are marmots bounding across the land, large herds of horse, sheep, goat and yak are being gathered by chabana’s (Kyrgyz cowboys) and yurts dot the landscape.
We reach the Tash Rabat turn off at 5.30pm and decide we’ve had enough- we turn down the track, drive through the river and into a sheltered valley that hides an ancient caravanserai from the silk route. There’s an entrance fee to the valley of 50som per person and it’s at the gate we meet Zoya– she has a yurt further up the valley and we can stay for $5 per person. It’s a lot more expensive than China but the thought of a night in a yurt convinces us and we drive deeper into the valley to find our overnight accommodation.
ARRIVAL DATE: 28th MAY 2008
65 Som = £1.00
The welcome we get from Yuri and Ashat is fantastic- we are taken into their caravan for tea and biscuits. It’s like a time warp– something you would have found 50 to 60 years ago- floral wallpaper, a large battered tea pot sits on a stove and a Coca Cola tray takes pride of place. It has to be the most welcoming place ever. Later we take a short drive to Tash Rabat caravanseri– it’s a beautiful valley full of yak and marmots. We return to our yurt to be TOLD we must eat with everyone– Zoya announces that I will need binoculars to find Rose and we are man- handled, in the nicest way possible, onto a stool and fed homemade soup followed by plov. It was absolutely delicious– just what we need after a hard days drive.(17 hour day!) A superb sleep in our yurt made of matted camel, sheep and goat hair and warmed by a wood burning stove completed the day. What a fantastic first day in a country.
I get up to make breakfast while Rose refuses to get out of her comfy bed and a local chabana rides over to welcome me– it’s such a great place we could stay here a while but we need to get to the capital to start applying for onward visa’s.
After a delicious breakfast of home made pancakes– Zoya refused to believe we’d already had breakfast– we reluctantly leave.
TASH RABAT YURT STAY— best ‘ first day’ in any country with Yuri and Zoya.
Vodka breakfast and a well trained donkey help this chabana! Stunning azure waters of Lake Issyk Kol and a working ‘home’ for GPS surveyors Micha and Sergai.
It rained heavily last night and the ‘road’ is even worse– fortunately we reach a sealed section at At– Bashy– but it’s still bumpy as hell. The scenery is gorgeous and by 11am we’ve reached Naryn where the road gets a little better– it’s not until Kochkor that we stop bouncing all over the place and see some smooth sections. We have spent most of the day passing trucks loaded with yurt building materials and tractors towing ancient caravans– all heading up to the high valleys for summer. We enter the Lake Issyk Kol region and have to pay an entrance fee of 500som. Lake Issyk Kol is the worlds second largest alpine lake and is gorgeous– blue water edged by beaches, forest and grass lands, surrounded by mountains. We find a spot near the lake and settle in for the night.
It’s during the night that some local kids steal our rubbish bag– that’s a first. Didn’t think used toilet paper had any value!! All the local herds men come over to say hello and shake hands– hand shaking is a very important part of the culture here.
We decide to move on and only get a short distance before arriving at a lovely beach– we stop and settle down for the day getting some laundry done in a nearby stream. We see a large truck on top of a nearby ridge and take a drive up to see what it is– Micha and Sergai two Kyrgyz GPS surveyors– great job!
Further along the lake we turn off by Jeti-Oghuz and find a lovely area beside ‘Broken Heart’. It’s after some time that Dave expresses some concerns about staying here for the night– we are right beside a fast river that drowns out other noise and he has a ‘gut feeling’. We pack up and drive further up the mountain to flower meadow and find a lovely place on the large meadow– everyone is friendly and we settle in for the rest of the day. It’s the next morning that a British tourist walks over to chat and happens to mention that a young American tourist in her group was badly beaten and robbed yesterday at Broken Heart! Dave’s ‘radar’ is obviously working well. It’s so beautiful up here that we decide to stay another night– just as well because we were amazed to see 6 British landrovers pull over to say hello some time later! They are the Go 60 team who are attempting to drive from Britain to Singapore in celebration of 60 years of Landrover– only to be denied entry to China. They had camped further up the mountain last night– it was great to meet them and chat about the cars and their journey. The weather closes in badly and we decide to leave the mountain and drive down to the lake– we get all the way to Karakol with a storm continuing to chase us and decide to book into a guesthouse.
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Tash Rabat Yurt stay with Yuri and Zoya
Steppe scenery from border to Naryn
Lake Issyk Kol (south shore)
Flower meadow by Jeti Oghuz
Bishkek– very expensive and rather unfriendly.
THOUGHTS ON KYRGYZSTAN:
A beautiful country full of stunning scenery and ideal for adventure/ trekking holidays BUT you will not be overwhelmed with hospitality, it’s very overpriced for what you get, especially after China, and the hassle factor for visa’s leaves you with the impression that it’s just not worth it. A great shame. If you want to come here do it driving from Europe with all your visa’s in place– every backpacker we met had to spend an average of 3 weeks per capital city of each Central Asian country trying to source visa’s.
FUEL: 33 som/ litre diesel. We filled up in a very modern and popular garage in Bishkek– which we discovered had a very high water content. It was later on that we met other overlanders who were panicking over ‘major engine problems’- turned out to be the fuel quality! It seems the modern computer engines just can’t handle a dodgy fill up– another good reason to have a 300tdi Landrover!!
SHOPPING: Very good– small towns have good selection of Russian foods and Bishkek has superb choice of mainly Turkish owned supermarkets whose shelves are bulging with western goodies.
WATER: Readily available, good quality.
ROADS: It took 3+ hours to drive from the border checkpoint to Tash Rabat along a dreadful road– full of bumps, corrugations and unsurfaced, then a further 2 hours to Naryn and good roads. The roads elsewhere are surfaced and good quality, it’s only if you venture off the main routes that you can find yourself ‘bouldering’ up a track!
POLICE: Clearly corrupt but easily avoidable in the countryside– we just didn’t stop and reverted to our ‘Indian’ tactics for avoidance.
SAFETY: This is a hard one to answer– there is clearly a large drug and alcohol abuse problem in the country. You will see cowboys falling off their horses at breakfast time, overcome by vodka, and you will be regularly offered drugs by the cowboys. We are used to this in cities but in a isolated countryside setting– it makes you a little nervous. Bush camping is beautiful here and should not be missed– just use your common sense, camp near a yurt or hide. See our story at ‘Broken Heart’ for details of assault.
LANDY: We were unable to buy insurance on the border– the driving standards are not too bad so we didn’t bother to source it in the city either. We know it can be easily purchased and if you intend driving in Bishkek we would recommend getting some as the police will seriously bribe you for not having it. No Landrover garages in Bishkek but a good selection of mechanics if needed.
Our sources of sanity- Christine and Terry. We would sit every night with a beer and cry with laughter at the utter hell of visa chasing. Sharing misery really can bring joy– thanks guys!!
‘Asia’- our adopted filthy, tick ridden, starving baby kitten– it’s amazing what 18 days of food and love can do.
(Dave even considered smuggling her back!)
The following day we push hard and drive all the way to Bishkek– the capital city, passing by green fields and towns that edge the northern shore of the lake. It takes 2 hours of searching before we finally find a place to camp– Asia Mountain. Tomorrow is Monday and we need to start applying for our visa’s.
It’s at this point we would like to say that the Lonely Planet’s information on visa’s and embassy locations is utterly useless. Things change so quickly here that it is impossible to keep things up to date. Our first stop is the Kazakhstan Embassy– LP states it’s a 3-5 day process. OH NO IT’S NOT!!! We have to hand in a photocopy of our passports and are told to come back on Thursday to collect our application forms! Bloody Hell. We start to get that horrible sinking feeling– it’s a premonition of what’s to come.
Our plans had been to drive through Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan then catch the ferry across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan and Georgia before reaching Turkey. We look at our options– China is closed, Iran has stopped issuing visa’s for transit and tourist, Uzbekistan has the reputation of being very ’difficult’ to westerners whose countries do not agree with Uzbek government policies and every tourist we meet that has come through there has pretty negative stories to tell of a police state that’s unfriendly and corrupt. What’s complicating matters is that Rose needs a new passport and the nearest embassy is in Kazakhstan. AND we have just heard that Azerbaijan does not allow right hand vehicles entry to the country!! Within 2 days we come to the realisation that we have put ourselves into a tight spot. Central Asia has a fierce reputation for being very difficult to source onward visa’s. We’ve been stupid and focused so much on getting into China that we didn’t think too much about anything thereafter.
Thursday comes and we arrive at the Kazakhstan Embassy only to be told they’ve ‘lost’ our photocopies! Nightmare. It took 11 days to get our visa and that was the average time it took for everyone, unless your Japanese– then you get it next day! Meantime we had been trying for our Russian visa and were delighted to find a helpful embassy member who was prepared to overlook the fact that we should have a 3 month Kyrgyzstan visa, an onward ticket and an original document LOI. We are assured we ‘can come back any day and get our visa that same day’.
So we turn up with multiple copies of everything and forms completed only to be told, by the same member of staff, NO! It’s at this point we would like to say this is what Central Asia is like– be warned– do not come here from China without all your visa’s in place. We begin to suspect that Olga, the ‘friendly’ Russian visa lady is actually leading us down a dead end, so we call David from STAN TOURS and seek his advice– it’s not good and he strongly urges us to come to Kazakhstan. Within the hour we are crossing the border praying we are not stepping deeper into a hole!
LAND ROVER GO 60 TEAM