MGBs on the Silk Road – Day 57 to Day 63

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, if I’ve had culture shock in recent years then these two countries have been the places that provided it. They simply were not at all like I expected, scenically or culturally. I was expecting deserts, I got the Swiss Alps. I was expecting the Middle East morphing into Asia, I got Europe or Russia. Constant surprises.

I’m in Bukhara in Uzbekistan on Day 70, but here are some glimpses of Days 57 to 63 in Kyrgyzstan, easily the biggest shock of this trip so far.

▲We crossed the border from Kazakhstan into Kyrgyzstan, both sides of the border the road was rough and potholed, as if neither country cared about people going between their two nations.

▲ But the scenery was green, lush and mountainous. We could easily have been in the Swiss Alps as we drove towards our overnight stop at Karakol.

◄ And Karakol was a glimpse of old Soviet Russia, in the centre of the town a statue of Lenin and in front of it a Russian Lada taxi.

▲ The Russian context underlined by the town’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral.

▲ We travelled in this Russian jeep-truck-bus up the terrible road to the Altyn Arashan Valley, a road which Lonely Planet had suggested could be the ‘World’s Worst Road’ and that ‘Russian military jeeps are the best in the world. So we had to make road dreadful enough to test them.’

▲ When we got up into the valley and stayed in a hot springs settlement the scenery could, once again, have been in the Swiss Alps. I’ve had Simon Calder, from The Independent in London, as my co-driver on this stage of the trip and we avoided that terrible road on the way back down by walking, it didn’t take much longer, it was way more comfortable and views were far better than being crammed in a Russian jeep-bus-truck.

▲ We continued west along the south coast of Lake Ysyk-Kol, passing this curious abandoned centre with its Silk Road themes. It was intended to be some sort of concert centre we were told.

▲ Bishkek was the biggest surprise with its European looking parks.

▲ Kids taking selfies with their smart phones in front of a park fountain.

▲ This cannot be Central Asia we thought as we lunched in a trendy outdoor café. And yet we were not that far north of Afghanistan and as far east as the eastern edge of Pakistan. It just wasn’t right!

▲ The parks and cafes may have been European but the Bishkek 2 Railway Station was definitely something from the old Soviet days and it still timetabled regular trains to Moscow.

◄ We climbed up to the tunnel at the top of the Tor Ashuu Pass, perhaps not as high as we’d driven in China, but still comfortably higher than any road pass in the Swiss Alps. The descent took us into ‘classic Kyrgyz grazing county’ complete with herds of cattle, goats and horses and plenty of yurts.

▲ Mountains, my MGB and a horseman as we drove along the Suusanmy Basin.

▲ So perhaps we were in Mongolia on that day, but it didn’t take us long to get to New Zealand, Lake Toktugul could easily stand in for Queenstown in New Zealand’s South Island.