The early morning sun shone on the Tien Shan over our shoulders as we sat in our open air dining room eating our breakfast of rice porridge and pancakes with home made apricot jam. Local tea was in, coffee was out.
We were on the road as usual at 0800. The battery in Burgundy (Tony’s car) had failed the evening before, 100m from the home stay. Like most of the things that are failing on the trip, it had been replaced for the trip. The team mechanics wired in one of the portable power packs that we are all carrying to give the car power. We were not sure whether it would make the distance to Osh, the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan where we were stopping for lunch and the crossing the border to Uzbekistan. In any case we had plenty to swap if it drained.
The cattle, sheep and horses were on the road before us as we headed back down the hill to the highway. It seems as though you either drive a car, or ride a horse in Kyrgyzstan. The horses areyounger than the cars and certainly more plentiful. A means of transport, a work animal and a source of food. The Kyrgyz are known as the horsemen from the mountains, so it was with some surprise that we were passing rice paddies, wheat, other varied grains and vegetables as we headed for Osh.
On the way in Jalala Bad Tony found a roadside battery shop where he managed to buy one nearly small enough (it did after some minor rearranging of the panels surrounding the under seat battery box) to fit in the car.
Shortly after I was stopped by police again for overtaking one of the other team cars when there was a single unbroken line. We had not crossed the centre line, but overtaking was verboten. I have found that obfuscation is the best method of dealing with the police when you can’t understand each other. They ask a question, you rummage and produce a new piece of paper or shrug and talk about the weather or what a lovely country this is. So far they have all given up at this stage. In this case they managed to find a senior policeman who did speak some English, so I showed him where we had been and were going. He let us proceed without fine.
Osh has stood at the crossroads of major transport routes for over 3000 years. To the north is the route we have followed over the mountains. To the east is the route into Kashgar in Xingjiang. To the south is what is now called the Pamir Highway which runs down through Tajikistan along the Afgan border with further southern links into Pakistan and eventually India. And to the west, the route we are following along the main branch of the Silk Road through the Ferghana Valley to Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara.
Despite this formidable history, there is very little to see for it, no pyramids, hanging gardens or ancient Buddhas. A rock hill dedicated to Suliman, a past hero and some Soviet tack. We had an hour and a half to explore the city and have lunch. It felt like a speed dating exercise. With Tony, Simon, TV Simon and Loris we raced up the hill, down through the old Islamic cemetary to the cities central park where an old Russian Yak passenger jet has been inconveniently parked. Then back to the museum, $1 for locals and $3 for foreigners. For this price we persuaded the reluctant attendants to turn on the lights. After 30 minutes we were back to the cars to have a quick bite before we headed off to tackle the formidable Uzbekistan border.
We expected to be waived through the Kyrgyz side, but took longer as some piece of paper was missing. It actually had never been issued, so we had to pay 1000 cum per car “environmental levy”. We scavenged for the currency as we all had been ridding ourselves of it, because of its lack of convertibility. With every coin and note we managed 5000 cum and persuaded the Customs to accept the balance in USD. When asked for a receipt we were told, no problem wait by this machine for 4 hours and it will appear. We headed for Uzbekistan after letting the officials drive the cars around the compound.
We waited at the Kyrgyz gate for 45 minutes watching a number of trucks stuck in no mans land between the two gate. Our Uzbeck guide had managed to cross into the Uzbeck Immigration and was talking to them, while Simon who spoke some Russian also managed to wander across and have a discussion with the officials. Eventually they were persuaded to open the gates for us an let us in for processing.
After the early setback, and having our guide to organise the Immigration and then Customs officials all went smoothly. Much better than we had expected. At Customs we had to declare all our electronic items, drugs and money and then have the searched and X-rayed. The process was pretty thorough, except for the fact that the male Customs guy would not search Loris’s bags, only mine. Not sure if this was a cultural issue or a practical one that only males smuggled.
It was then a 120k drive to our hotel in the town of Ferghana. We were getting tired and the 2 hour drive was a drain. The roads were better. In fact it was like when we left China, but in reverse. The whole visual experience was of a place that was substantially more prosperous than the last.
But the driving tactics were unchanged. The most interesting was when we were overtaken by a semi trailer who crossed double unbroken lines and then wove about for about 500m on the wrong side of the road at high speed, scattering oncoming traffic. We were pleased to reach our hotel.
As we pulled into the car park, we realised that we may have company. A number of large tourist buses occupied a considerable part of the available space. They were from Germany doing a 35 day cross country run north of the Caspian and Aral Seas down then down across the Silk Route to Xi’an and Beijing. As we entered the hotel we realised we had not seen so many Europeans in one place since Beijing. AS they had already taken all the seats in the hotel dining room, we wandered off down the road to a small local restaurant. Cold beers and skewers laced with large slabs of beef, mutton (with bones) or chicken were the order of the night.