Central Asia is fast becoming one of the ‘go to’ destinations for many overlanders, more specifically overlanders are heading east to drive the infamous Pamir Highway and it’s slightly bigger brother the Karakoram Highway in China.
For us the holy grail of Central Asia was the notorious Pamir Highway. The M41, as it is officially known, is the world’s second highest international highway and travels through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan reaching an altitude of 4,655 metres. Just to put that into context the highest mountain in the UK, Ben Nevis ‘peaks’ at a mere 1,344 metres.
The area is notorious for landslides, rock-falls, earthquakes, floods, high winds and frequent political unrest; all these factors rate it quite highly on the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Roads’ list. Traditionally the road formed part of the ancient Silk Road route linking trade routes from China to Europe.
The area is stunning and remote, so remote in fact that buying and carrying enough diesel for the entire route can be problematic. The beautiful Wakhan Corridor offers 220-miles of spectacular driving along the bank of the Pamir River, literally a stones throw across the water is Afghanistan.
During our 2 weeks on the Pamir Highway we heard machine gun fire, experienced an earthquake and narrowly missed mudslides and flash flooding. Just two days after leaving the M41 behind us the Tajikistan government declared the whole area a natural disaster zone after glacial snow melt had flooded 3 villages, many valleys and destroyed large sections of the road leaving the local population without electricity. A truly wild place.
Getting stopped by ‘The Fuzz’ has become part of our daily routine as we travel east. Our running total has now reached more than 40 times in the last 12 months alone.
In most Eastern European countries the police have a bad reputation for stopping tourists and collecting bribes. This can be incredibly frustrating when so much bad driving is going on around you unpunished. Emma and I have a strict rule that we will never pay a bribe, and up until now we have stuck to this and not parted with a penny! This kind of low-level corruption should never be encouraged; paying backhanders only makes the police expect subsequent payments from your fellow overlanders. Obviously this is for ‘made-up’ charges and false accusations, if you actually do the crime you should pay the legal fine.
Surprisingly Russia wasn’t the worst offender, as we’d heard, we were pulled over at least 10 times but never actually asked for any money. On the one occasion they actually stopped us legitimately, I was made to sit in the back of the smokey police Lada, and much to my surprise the officer showed me a photograph on a laptop of our car travelling at 72kph in an apparent 50kph zone 5km back down the road. Once he learnt we were heading to Mongolia he called us crazy and sent us on our way.
Checkpoints are a fairly regular occurrence in foreign countries; we had them in Morocco, Russia, Ukraine and all the ‘Stans. Most of the time they have police control buildings at the side of the road, normally located just after a succession of decreasing speed limit signs crammed into a 50m stretch, making it virtually impossible to slow down in time. In the Ukraine we got stopped by a rather over-zealous speed gun operator stood next to the speed limit sign (90km down to 30km). He wanted to see all my original documents and took me into his little room where he placed his gun on the table and basically tried to get me to pay $200. After playing the dumb tourist (which Emma thinks I’ve mastered), a long wait and a refusal to get into his police car to take us to the nearest ATM, we left without paying a thing!
The secret to avoid getting stopped at checkpoints is to avoid making eye contact, helped enormously by a right-hand drive vehicle! That tactic worked up until Kazakhstan where the police stopped us a whopping 17 times. On one occasion I apparently broke 4 laws in the space of about 30 metres when I pulled out from a petrol station. Most of the time the police, waving large orange sticks and whistle blowing excessively, are generally just curious about Bee-bee and her number plate. Again, this discrimination is incredibly frustrating when complete lunacy is going on all around you in cars that are totally unfit for the road.
In the former Soviet countries the police are generally pretty useless at patrolling bad driving, ironically the ‘sleeping policemen’ are more effective at controlling the traffic. The permanent farcical wooden police car cut-outs are also a poor deterrent to discourage bad driving. The police do however like inspecting paperwork. Being tourists you do have the advantage that most of the officers have no idea what they are looking at when you hand over documents. Give them colour photocopies in the first instance unless they strongly insist otherwise- once they have the originals the bribing ball’s in their court!
Much to our amusement most of the police we encountered looked like the comical sculpture we spotted in Finland 4 years earlier, only the police in the ‘Stans having disproportionately larger hats. We soon learnt that if we stopped far enough down the road past the typically portly police in their elasticated-waist uniforms, their laziness would prompt them to wave us on rather than walk to our car.
On the few occasions they did make it to the window (normally the passenger side) we used our over-the-top, non-stop friendly English accents and diversion tactics like showing them the shower and solar panel to charm them/confuse them into letting us go. If you are calm, polite, patient and show them you have all the time in the world to wait they normally get bored of you and can’t be bothered with the hassle of continuing to extort money from you. Even if you can speak the local language, stick to your own because they don’t have the patience for this either.
The natural beauty of Kyrgyzstan is simply overwhelming- varying altitudes create a huge diversity of landscapes, with alpine valleys, flower meadows, snowy mountains, fertile pasturelands and fast-flowing clear rivers vying for your adventure attention. For us, one of our lasting memories will be the aquatic gems which lie amongst its mountains, notably our three favourite lakes; Issyk Kul, Song Kul and Sary Chelek.
Beach. Serene. Relax.
Meaning ‘Hot Lake’ in Kyrgyz, Issyk Kul is the world’s tenth largest lake (by volume) yet never freezes, despite the shores reaching sub-zero temperatures in winter. Wash your car in the water (as we foolishly did!) and the white, oily sheen left over the entire surface reveals its anti-freeze secret- a low level of salinity. In fact, it’s the second largest saline water body in the world, after the Caspian Sea. Only two and a half hours drive from the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, this is the perfect escape from the city and in the summer is visited by thousands of Kyrgyz holidaymakers and Kazakhs from across the nearby border.
Your personality dictates your shore preference- on the North you can pedalo and party with fluorescent beach resorts pumping out distorted Russian pop amidst the lingering smell of mutton shashlik and Baltika beer. Meander along the south and you can find entire, sedate beaches to yourself or wander into the quiet backdrop of mountains into Swiss-like scenery with crystal clear rivers and lush green valleys. At times, driving along the South coast the blue waters and sheltered rocky coves and beaches are reminiscent of an azure Adriatic coastline.
We visited alluring Issyk Kul three times, driving a complete lap on our first jaunt, diverting into several valleys with mineral springs, glacial rivers and grassland plateaus and visiting the charming market town of Karakol. Our second stop-off, on route back from southern Kyrgyzstan escapades, was more relaxed with a few days camped on a quiet stretch of the northern shore, swimming and watching the sun set across the water over the Tian Sian in the distance.
Finally, when prolonged visa delays in the capital became too much, it was to the southern shore of Issyk Kul that we fled, the lapping waves bringing instant calm and lazy beach days rejuvenating our stressed souls from permits and paperwork.
Remote. Wild. Elemental.
The loftiest of the lakes at just over 3,000m, Song Kul leaves all the beachgoers and picnickers at the foot of its perilous road and high-pass precipitous approach, almost an initiation for those worthy enough to make the effort and reap the rewards of time spent in this incredible location. This is true wilderness; a remote and barren place where the weather changes in an instant and the sky is a rolling, dramatic aerial dome of colours and clouds. A lap of this far-flung lake is an off-road expedition on steep sand tracks, through boggy margins and stony beaches, passing isolated yurt camps and windswept plains. During our summer visit, the northeast part of the lake was home to nomadic grazers; their numerous sheep, goats, yak and horses dotting the rich grassland. Friendly nomads called at our camp, joining us for tea or breakfast and insisting we ride their horse in return. Young, pink-cheeked children practise herding, bouncing around on donkey-back and giggling as they stop to let their mini-steeds drink from the lake edge.
Verdant. Lush. Picture-perfect.
A diversion into western Kyrgyzstan and a bumpy climb through the lush forests of Jalal-Abad Province is rewarded with the picture-perfect sight of Sary Chelek Lake. Nestled between vertical forested slopes of the Chatkal Mountains, the colossal snow-covered peaks of the Tian Shan loom in the distance, reflected enchantingly on the still surface of the water. A relatively small lake compared to its mightier cousins, at just 1.5km at its widest point and 7.5 km long, Sary Chelek translates literally to ‘yellow bucket’ after its appearance amidst golden trees in autumn. In contrast, our summer visit was a green vision of verdant beauty. Winding steeply along the approach road, an occasional peek of the vivid blue lake is glimpsed between the dense, overgrown vegetation and woodland. The inaccessibility of the lake protects its pristine relict fruit and nut forest edges, we settled for a camp on the shores of a nearby lower lake connected by shallow cascades. This is a shared paradise with many other visitors but we managed a quiet afternoon paddling in the cool edges, watching shoals of fish darting in the shallows and relaxing in the lakeside meadow.