The morning was bright and sunny. We were headed south over the 3600m Tor Ashuu Pass. Passage was slow as the two lane road was again pot holed. The locals were less concerned about these and oncoming traffic and overtook at any opportunity. Particular favourites were blind corners and crests. If there was an oncoming car, the over taker blasted their horn and flashed lights to get everyone to pull over.
Just after we started on the road south we passed a petro-chemical plant. I am not sure where the oil to fuel it comes from, but its not Kyrgyzstan. But it did mean that there were a lot of tankers on the road. Heading north to refill and south over the pass with a full load. There were also a number of burnt out wrecks on the roadside, reminding everyone that not all made the journey. These were not the Chinese, wrecked car mounted on a concrete plinth to remind you of the vagaries of speeding, but burned out wrecked trucks that had been pushed off the road and abandoned. There were also granite tomb stones, parked at a safe distance from the roadside, commemorating the departed.
The climb was long and slow. As we ascended we encountered more and more shepherds on horses driving their cattle, sheep or horses up the road (yes, it is the main highway going south, but in Kyrgyzstan, it’s there for everyone) to the high summer pastures. We generally wound our way slowly through each herd, so as to avoid contact and damage to the cars. The local method was generally one hand on the horn and a foot on the accelerator, and lights flashed at us if we were in the way, even though they were driving up the wrong side of the road. It was a colourful procession.
By the time we reached the summit via the numerous switchbacks, the day had turned grey, cold and it was snowing. Only lightly thankfully. The last part of the crossing is through a tunnel as it is well above the snow line. There is some form of red light system to regulate traffic, we were not sure how it worked. After waiting for 20 minutes, the queue of cars headed off on a red light, the trucks remained. Some cars, impatiently drove around the queue and raced in. The tunnel is unlit and unventilated. We soon realised that while the tunnel is barely comfortable for cars passing in opposite directions, cars and trucks uncomfortable and two trucks trying to pass would have been impossible.
Once through we had a short descent into the high altitude Suusamyr Basin. Ringed with snow capped mountains, the wide, flat grassland was dotted with yurts and herds of cattle, sheep and horses. Along the roadside, the locals were selling milk (cow and horse) in Fanta bottles, yogurt, cream, honey and these little white balls of delight about the size and appearance of a moth ball (for those who can remember them).
We stopped to watch a herdsman milking his horses. The foals, lying asleep, were tethered to a line pegged at both ends, while the mares stood by patiently to be milked. An old lady (on closer inspection she could have been in her 40s, 50s or 60s) invited us in to her yurt. It was made of felt (made from the wool of their sheep), stretched over a wooden frame and securely tied with rope, some of which was made from the horses manes. The yurt was warmed by a wooden stove andcolourfully decorated with carpets on the floor and walls. We were offered some bread and delightful cream accompanied by horse’s milk. I can only say that I now have a better appreciation of the reaction that some have when they try Vegemite for the first time. The taste of the milk was difficult to describe: bitter and acidic were two of the words that first come to mind. It was unlike anything I had previously tasted. The little moth balls were a concentrated version of this flavour having been made from fermented horses milk. The taste was positively awful, and I don’t say that lightly as one who has devoured crickets and circadas on this trip and managed to keep a straight face with everything the Japanese have thrown my way on business trips. But the locals love it and claim that the horses milk is very good for your health, despite my predictions that anything more than a mouthful would probably kill you.
The scenery was stunning. The sharpness of the contrasting colours, the rugged snow capped mountains and the age old summer migration. And the road conditions improved dramatically so that we could drive at a reasonable and consistent speed, enjoying the rises and dips and long sweeping curves.
After crossing the Ala Bel Ashuu pass at the southern end of the basin, we descended down to our night’s accommodation. A small guest house next to a raging river. Rustic, basic, but clean we were challeneged to get hot water in our room, so the showers were bracing.
There are time when things can get ugly. This evening could have gone that way. Our guide had challenged the team that men only drank vodka, women drank beer or wine. The vodka was the same price as the beer, and came in a very glamerous bottle. I think most of the production cost went into the bottle, not its contents. Some managed to restrain themselves, others less so. After a dinner of traditional Kyrgyz food, the music was turned up. There was a group of locals in the dining room and they were determined to show us how the Kyrgyz dance. After an hour or so of arm and leg thrashing, the effects of the vodka started to amerliorate and we realised we had to drive the next morning, so gracefully departed, much to the disappointment of the locals.