Kyrgyzstan - Naryn to Osh
On a map the route looks like the scribbles of a young child given a pen and a piece of paper! Only by driving it would we discover this to be a delightful route through remote Kyrgyzstan countryside, with villages seemingly from a bygone era.
I couldn’t find much online when researching this route, other than some comments to the effect that it was a 'rough route, impassable in the winter'. It’s a desirable route to take however, as the only alternative passage between Naryn and Osh would involve a very long stretch via Bishkek; Kyrgyzstan’s capital. On a map the route looks like the scribbles of a young child given a pen and a piece of paper!
The map to the left shows one of several ascents to a high mountain pass, via many switchbacks. It really doesn’t matter to us that the route is rough, dirt and rock most of the way – and in Kyrgyzstan we found we could travel much quicker off the main roads than on them. How can this be?
It comes down to Kyrgyzstan’s highly unusual and strictly enforced road laws. Frequently in Kyrgyzstan we found ourselves on some of the very best quality roads we’ve experienced in Central Asia – sometimes two lanes each side, with crash barriers for safety – yet the speed limit was just 40km/hr, and in some cases as low as 20km/hr! This unfathomable combination of excellent roads and oddly low speed limits is a Kyrgyz policeman’s dream come true.
We’ve seen teams of police ‘policing’ these speed limits (sometimes with speed measuring equipment), resulting in a queue of stopped vehicles lined up. These ‘offenders’ might have been doing 50 to 60km/hr on roads that most would agree were designed to be perfectly safe to at least 90km/hr. It’s the perfect recipe for what I ended up terming a ‘police bribe-fest’!
But on rough and rocky routes, like that which we took from Naryn nearly as far as Jalal-Abad, there’s not a policeman to be seen anywhere, and our well-equipped Pajero is unfazed by dirt and rocks anyway. Add to this that in developing countries there’s typically much more to see and experience away from main roads and you have a recipe for true exploration. I should note however, that developing such an aversion to seeing a police car can tend to make one feel like an outlaw!
The first few photos in the following set of images are from Lake Song Kol, which is considered one of Kyrgyzstan's finest tourist destinations.
A very pleasant encounter with locals in an isolated village
The homes in this little village don’t have running water. Consequently they have neither showers, nor taps over their sinks. In this context, word of a car with a ‘douche’ (shower), a heated one no less, spreads rapidly and is worthy of a trek across the village to come see!
You can see these little villages long before you reach them. It's not the houses that you first see in the distance, but the green of the trees amidst the otherwise tree-less surrounds. We ventured into this particular village seeking to fill the Pajero’s water tank. Villages like these typically have road-side water sources where the houses don’t have running water. Seemingly untouched by time and seldom visited by foreigners, we first discovered what gems these little villages can be to visit in Albania a few years ago.
While we collected water from the roadside well an old woman ventured out of her nearby house, armed with her kettle to fill. Her real reasons for coming to the well precisely at that time were about as transparent as Boris Johnson's recent proroguing of the UK parliament. She was clearly interested in coming to investigate the foreigners at the well. This turned into a very pleasant encounter, not only with the old woman, but her neighbours too, who soon all gathered around. Although they spoke only Kyrgyz, many words are shared with the Russian language – not that I’ll pretend this helps me at all, but it did assist Sylwia in communicating with the locals. They were interested to see inside the back of the well setup Pajero, and as usual the heated shower (‘douche’ in Russian/Kyrgyz) was held in awe. 'Douche' is one of the few Russian words I recognise, so when another local arrived on the scene, who it seems had heard through the village grapevine (that was quick wasn’t it!?) that a car with a ‘douche’ was down at the well, I knew where to point her. Until then she had been going along the side of the Pajero, looking high and low, until I heard her say ‘douche’ and then knew what she was looking for. This might seem odd to many readers, but it’s worth pausing to consider the things we take for granted every day. Given the homes in this little village have no water supply, the inference is that they don’t have showers, or running water over their sinks. In this context a car having a douche, a heated one no less, is worth a trek across the village to come see!
The old woman whom we'd initially met brought two dishes to us; one filled with fresh cream and the other filled with kefir, which is essentially a traditionally and simply produced yoghurt. She showed us how they mix it all together with some sugar to form a delicious creamy yoghurt. Sylwia was able to translate some of what the old woman was saying. In essence, as she gestured towards the surrounding mountains, she was explaining that everything they produce is 100% natural. It came across very clearly that she was extremely proud of their traditional and simple little village and way of life. Such a simple encounter around a village well with local Kyrgyz people living by traditional values, and I couldn't even converse with them, but nonetheless this is now another great memory from our travels.
This is a sizeable town with a big lively market, where we stopped for lunch and replenished supplies. The central boulevard filled with flowers was a nice touch... but ultimately there were just too many cops about and we had to skip town to avoid the 'heat'. Just kidding, though as previously eluded to, I was extra careful here to ensure I displayed meticulous adherence to road rules whenever police were about.
I hadn't been aware that Kyrgyzstan was such a major producer and exporter of walnuts, most of which are harvested from natural walnut forests surrounding the mountainside village of Arslanbob. This turned out to be a fantastic place to visit, though a 4wd is needed to get the most out of it. The village centre was filled with old Soviet era 4x4’s, which I gather would take tourists up one of the many rough, dusty and steep tracks that ascend directly from the village into the mountain walnut forests. Once up on the mountainside there are many hilltop clearings to choose from to set up a fantastic campsite.
And just look at our view the following morning!
Although harvest was over, the kids managed to get a few remaining walnuts from the trees.
Lake Sary Chelek
Another beautiful Kyrgyz mountain lake. Although this is more on the tourist route and accessible compared with some of the places we manage to get to, we were nonetheless alone up here, likely reflecting that it was getting late in the season.
Osh - the end point for this route
The cold (sub-zero overnight) environments that you saw us camped in in the previous blog post had more to do with the 3,000 to 3,500 metre altitude we were exploring at than the calendar end of the northern hemisphere summer. Jalal-Abad and Osh are situated at around 900 metres elevation, which is about as low as it gets in Kyrgyzstan, and we experienced very warm and sunny weather there. Initially we experienced 30+ degree days on our arrival in Osh, although after a day of rain the sunshine resumed with slightly lower temperatures in the low to mid 20’s – still very pleasant for early October.
Osh is the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan, though still not too big, with a population below 300,000. Osh is known for having one of the biggest bazaars in all of Central Asia and a vibrant food scene. I like Osh! So much so that we ended up staying a bit long – 11 days!
In Osh we certainly enjoyed eating out far more than we would ordinarily. We enjoyed ample and delicious food, with the total bill for the whole family costing as little as NZ$15, to as much as NZ$23, including drinks and deserts. It just seemed worthwhile making the most of it, and with our family room at a pleasant local hostel costing just NZ$32 per night, we were well within budget.
Our stop in Osh also seemed the right time to attend to some maintenance on the Pajero ahead of tackling Tajikistan's Pamirs. It’s covered over 17,000 kilometres to date on this trip, much of it off-road (mud, sand & rivers), or on terrible ‘on-roads’, so it was due some attention.
I could see (and hear) that the lower front strut bushes needed replacing. I removed the front suspension outside our hostel – one side of the vehicle supported by a folding/travel axle stand that I carry, and the other supported by a nearby log that just happened to be the right size. The story with the large photo above is that some friendly locals decided to step and give me a hand. It was quickly apparent to me that the fellow in the photo above knew his way around a vehicle mechanically, and so I was surprised by his answer when I asked what he did in Osh - he's a local dentist! We've noticed that people from the Russian Far East through Central Asia seem to have wide ranging skill sets, likely stemming from their need to be far more self-sufficient than people living in developed countries have typically become.
With the suspension struts removed from the Pajero the new bushes needed to be pressed in with a powerful machine. An old local man with a very old fashioned engineering workshop tucked away behind the hostel took care of this aspect, and though I fully intended to pay for his efforts he refused to accept anything from me! The dentist explained that this was a gift from Kyrgyz people, who he said were very kind people. It was then clarified that such Kyrgyz kindness did not extend to Kyrgyz Police.
A collection of photos from around Osh:
Not only is the local bread in Kyrgyzstan the most visually and artistically appealing that we’ve discovered so far on our travels through Central Asia, but it tastes pretty good too.
Where are we now and what's next:
We've moved well on from Kyrgyzstan's Osh and are currently in the small Tajikistan town of Khorog, deep in the Pamir mountains. There's much to tell about our journey from Osh to this point, including our crossing into Tajikistan at a military checkpoint on a dark and snowy night at 4,282 metres. We've crossed the highest point on our route at 4,655 metres and have spent considerable time touring above 4,000 metres, which has led to some unexpected challenges. There's much to tell in the next blog post and many stunning images to display from our high altitude route.
A further collection of photos relevant to the route described in this post:
KYRGYZSTAN - WHAT TO EXPECT • people who are genuinely proud of their country and its natural beauty • 400 som (NZ$9) will get you a SIM card with 50 gb mobile data • children aged 8 and above are charged in full for accommodation be it a hostel, home stay or hotel • an encounter with Kyrgyz police. They have been known to stop drivers for having a car that is 'too dirty'. In order to give them no opportunity to extort a bribe then you'll need to follow the road rules to the letter. Ordinarily this sounds perfectly reasonable, but in Kyrgyzstan this means having the patience to drive as slow as 20km/hr on a road clearly safe for much higher speeds, or not passing a very slow truck for countless miles, even where it would be perfectly safe to do so. We found it much faster to take off-road routes, or back-country gravel roads that aren't usually policed • young children walking to school all by themselves • home stays, guest houses & yurt camps usually include breakfast • Kyrgyz nan bread baked in a traditional, stone oven can be found just about anywhere costing 15-20 som. It was a huge hit with our kids, especially when we managed to get one freshly baked and still warm. • Shashlyk (skewer) - not to miss! You can find them anywhere with any kind of meat: lamb, beef, chicken, mince. They typically cost 80 som for a generously proportioned skewer (that's less than $2 NZ!) and come with sliced raw onion • a dentist fixing his own car! People are still very much jack of all trades.
KYRGYZSTAN - WHAT NOT TO EXPECT • supermarkets in places other than bigger towns like Osh, though there are many small shops. A great place to do your shopping is the local market/bazaar, where fruit & veges and meat are all available. • easily find a public toilet, even at a cafe or petrol station. It didn't mean there isn't one nearby, they are just hard to spot to the untrained eye.The best place to look for one is a bazaar. • showers and/or flushing toilets in yurt camps and remote home stays • many drivers to follow road rules. We saw some of the most atrocious driving in Kyrgyzstan, including cars of questionable road worthiness. Police will stop you for driving without your headlights on, but don't mind if your brakes don't work. • fees to national parks/natural beauty attractions. The only exception is Sary-Chelek, which seemed rather pricey.