Testing the mountains

Tashkent, 29.06.2019

Driving south, after crossing the Tian Shan mountain range, several wonderful mountain ranges lied ahead. The road quality around here varied wildly from one moment to the other, and of course the most beautiful spots were connected by the worst roads. The further up, the more remote and wild, the more difficult to reach. The tiny, old and low lying Mini wasn’t made for this terrain. And yet, once I reached this area, 18.000km from Barcelona, it was time to check how far I could push the limits. Having in mind the part of the front right wheel that according to the BMW center in Astana was damaged, and their recommendation to drive no further than 500km on perfect roads (!?!), I was extremely careful to see how far I could go, and ready to turn around at any time. There were a few places ahead that I really wanted to see, so I couldn’t destroy the car right now. Also, if the Mini broke now, there was no service center within reach to help, maybe not even a tow car to get me out of wherever I was.

That said, leaving Karakol in the early morning, I had to fuel up, and to do that first I had to get cash, as in Kirgizstan credit card payment was not that omnipresent like in all countries previously crossed. Also, I stopped at a police station a few villages later to check on the security situation, and if camping in the mountains was safe. The Google translate conversation with the most senior officer available told me that it would be better to stay close to other people in more remote areas further up. From there, several hours of a lovely drive along the deep blue and turquoise Issyk Kul lake came next. There were many spots that I felt like I was driving around a Greek island, with the heat, the yellow sand and green trees and blue water on the side. Only the snow covered mountains on the other side of the lake reminded me of where I really was. People were sunbathing on the shores of the lake, families taking their children for a bath. I did a lunch stop in a small forest on the lake, and did some drone flying tests, at some point almost losing the drone.

Towards the western end of the lake the road lead into the mountains, along a reservoir that was low on water at this time. Memories from the last time I drove long here came up, I recognized a lot of spots along the road. About an hour an a half into the mountains on an impeccable stretch of road, an untarred track lead towards the Song Kul lake, where in 2013 I had witnessed a spectacular view of a “fight” between good and bad weather at sundown over the lake. I remembered the road would not be easy, and it wasn’t. A gravel track with lots of stones and potholes lead though a valley, and at the end a mud road serpentine got me up to 3.400m of altitude over a pass with patches of snow. First groups of yaks grazed along few cows and lots of horses. There were no foreign cars, and also no foreign tourists it seemed. After fighting up to the pass mostly in first gear, crossing a few water flows, mud puddles and plenty of rocks, an hour of bumpy and rocky road around the northern shore of the lake followed. There were yurts of the local shepherds every few hills, and yurt “hotels”. As the day was getting to an end I thought about pitching my tent with some shepherds or if to stay at a yurt camp. Then the road divided, one side leading towards another pass I had to cross the next day, and the other one along the lake – unpassable for the Mini, as a river had swept away the track and too many big rocks blocked the passage. Time to rest, and the choice went for a yurt camp nearby. As I drove over the grass towards the camp, I spotted three Enduro bikes and some European faces between the yurts. 1.500 Som (20 EUR) for the hight incl. dinner and breakfast, and a tiny yurt all for myself seemed a very good deal. As I parked the Mini several people asked me where I came from, and when my answer was “Barcelona” they seemed impressed, with that tiny car. I went to wash the dust of the day off in the lake, and switched shorts-tshirt-light shoes for long warm pants-layers of sweaters and all down jackets I found-my only remaining pair of boots. At dinner I was invited to a table of Italians from Turin, 2 couples in their 70s with their Russian tour guide. I was impressed that at their age they would take a week off to come out here. I also met one of the bikers, from Austria, that gave me an update on several roads that lay ahead of me in the coming weeks and he had jst crossed. Unfortunately bad news for a lot of places.

The next morning I woke up shortly after sunrise at 5.30. The night had started well in a warm yurt with the coal oven on, and ended in a cold morning wake up. I went to wash myself in the lake, and my bare feet froze as I ran the few hundred meters on the ice cold grass towards the lake, that was not that cold, and back to the yurt. Nobody was up, and I made coffee on the roof of the Mini. I opened the yurt’s door to let the sunshine in and did a session of yoga, looking over the valley, drinking coffee in between vinyasas. A great start of the day. Breakfast was simple but filling to start the day, and after saying farewell to the people I had met I took off at 7.30. Half an hour later I crossed a pass at 3.200m to fly the drone again, and then spent about two hours downhill, in first gear, testing my brakes, through a beautiful alpine landscape I remembered from 2013. The road was horrible, and once I reached the main road in the valley, the Mini was thoroughly covered in dust, and also inside there was a thin layer of it everywhere. From that point there were three ways out. The first I tried was over the mountain range on the other side of the road. It should have lead me to an old caravanserail in the next valley, on the road to the Chinese border that would have been very good. According to Google maps there was a “road” to get over the mountains. That “road” got worse and worse, and at some points the two thin tracks over a field stopped abruptly in front of a gorge. No more road. I had to turn around. On my way back I met a shepherd on a bike that led a few horses and sheep somewhere. He told me I had to take another road on the next plateau, across a river. I gave him a bottle of water when he asked for it and we shook hands. I tried to find the river crossing, but at some point a canal had broken in an area where I was driving on sand tracks. The water had flooded the road, converting the ground into mud. I almost got stuck in it with the Mini, that now was covered with mud on the entire right side, and had to drive over a 10m field of big rocks, very very slowly. I was surprised it didn’t get hit a single time. The nightmare of a flat tyre around here followed me on every meter. But we survived. 1,5h later I was at the same main road I had left in the morning, a total of 3h lost. I tried option 2, following the main road westwards towards Jalal-Abad. After a few km on bad roads that converted into gravel track and potholes I gave up. Jalal-Abad was too far away to reach it on these roads. The last chance was to drive almost back to Issyk Kul lake, taking an endless detour on a very bad road. It was the least worst option, and actually the only one I had. It was painful. When I finally reached the better main road about 1,5 later, my spirits were very low. I decided to stay the night in Bishkek, as there was no other option to camp outside and I didn’t feel like it. I reached Bishkek at about 20.00. The grey Soviet industrial town was so different from the city I had seen in 2013. And my hotel was pretty bad, I had booked it on the road, between potholes, overtaking trucks and avoiding the omnipresent police stops. But I just needed a shower and a bed for the night.

The next morning it took me an hour to get out of Bishkek and it’s suburban area along the western road out of town. Traffic was bad, and I must say the Kirgiz are the worst, most reckless and selfish drivers I’ve met so far on this trip. I got stopped by the police for speeding (52 instead of 40 km/h!) but got away without a fine due to my “tourist from Europe” story. But the moment I passed to toll gate at Sosnovka, all was forgotten, as I drove up the mountains on a well tarred road in almost no traffic. The mountain landscape was amazing, the road climbed up pretty fast, and an hour later I reached the tunnel entrance to the pass. I remembered crossing that tunnel the other way around in 2013, and it was surprisingly short this time. Out on the other side, I took a break at 3.150m to enjoy the wonderful view on the surrounding mountain range, and the serpentine road down into the valley below, with plenty of trucks to overtake. The drive through the valley took about another hour through fields full of herds of horses, yurts everywhere, the peasants selling milk in all shapes and forms. Another pass at about 3.000m passed rather easily, and then came a long drive along the eastern shore of the Toktogul reservoir, in its icy light blue color. I passed by the site I camped at in 2013 and I immediately recognized it, as it would have been the one spot along the entire lake I would have camped also now, with no people around, a good view, protection from the noise of the road. Past the lake, the road leads through a valley with the flow of water out of the reservoir. The river was deep green here, with two dams at different heights building up lakes in the canyons. Along the road local farmers sold Med (honey) in big pots, and the roadside restaurants were firing up their grills for lunch shashlik.

The landscape changed when I reached 700m altitude. The valley got wider, and fields gave fruits that the peasants sold along the road. Big melons, were in season apparently, and the melon trade was in full swing, the trucks loading directly from the fields. I was very tempted to buy some fresh fruit. But there was a place I wanted to see in the next valley, Malisuu, one of the 10 most polluted places on the planet. I reached the village about an hour later, and an eerie feeling overcame me as I drove into this evidently Soviet mining town, that was falling to pieces now. Every person I passed stared at me, tourism isn’t a thing around here. There was not a lot to see quite frankly, apart from crumbling industry lots and a few old oil wells. I left happy to get out of the place.

So far this trip through the mountains had gone rather well. It was time to drive to Tashkent in Uzbekistan. Google maps showed a border crossing nearby so I drove there. But “there” was no border crossing, just a no mans land with soldiers patrolling between rows of barbed wire. I looked up the list of border crossings online and this was on no list, despite Google insisting I should drive through it no matter what destination I selected. I found one in a village nearby, and although I didn’t see a bride over the river separating the two countries I gave it a try. Nothing. I started to remember that also in 2013 there had been an issue with finding a border crossing for foreigners by car in Uzbekistan. So I drove to another crossing, at Izboskan. This one existed, but was open only to pedestrians. I checked with a local police station, and also with a police patrol that wanted to stop me for speeding (I avoided a “straf” again), and both confirmed: the only crossing was in Osh, about 2,5h drive from where I was. And it supposedly closed at 20.00, in about 1h. The policeman explained with hands and in Russian: drive to Osh, get some sleep, and cross the border at 08.00 when it opens. Not a good plan. I drove to Osh anyway, pretty frustrated. Often I drove just a few meters from the border, there were roads across it, but all closed. I’ll spare you my rant/thoughts on borders and bureaucracy. Anyway, I reached the border at Osh at about 22.00, and it was open. The Kirgiz side was done in 15 mins, and I had to wait to enter Uzbekistan in a line of trucks and cars. The border guard let me to the front of the line, and I washed hands and face at a water fountain while waiting in the night, then ate something. “No phone” the guard told me, and shouted the same to the flow of pedestrians that crossed in both ways. The Uzbeks asked a lot of questions on me, my car and its content, my destination. But between the many trucks, and shady cars around, at some point they just waved me through. At midnight I passed the border finally, and entered Uzbekistan at night.

On the Kirgiz side I had just spent hours racing with the crazy local drivers in the last light of the day on pretty bad roads, constantly overtaking old trucks. In Uzbekistan there were no truck, but a lot of mostly white cars. It seemed there were just three models on the road. Small (Daewoo Matiz), Sedan (some strange Daewoo/Chevrolet mid-range) and a few Chevrolet SUVs. Everybody had the same car, 90% of them white, and the Uzbek love the flashlights while driving a few cm behind the Mini. The road was perfect, and illuminated by lamps whose poles were decorated in the countries colors: green, white and light blue, shining in LEDs. I drove pretty fast for about 45 mins behind the only brown Mercedes sprinter I found and made sure he found all obstacles and cleared the way. At Andijan he left, and I switched to one of the white sedans for quite a while. And so I raced through the night in Uzbekistan, for 2h through a valley, then up the mountains. I stopped for a nap at some point, then continued. The technique of following the local cars made sure I ran into none of the spontaneous obstacles that appeared (concrete road separators, occasional potholes, rail crossings, small white minivans and small white trucks. The night seem to never end. The road led up to 2.200m, then down again as the first light of the next morning came up and the sky turned light blue again. At about 05.00 the sun appeared, and shortly after I reached the outskirts of Tashkent, after about 22h since I had left Bishkek the day before.

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