The land of the Kyrgyz begins, as is so often the case in these Central Asian nomadic lands, not at the swirling Kyrgyz border (drawn up by Stalin, on Acid, chanting maniacally the ubiquitous Divide and Rule Mantra) but in the ‘Tajik’ Pamirs. Alichur, to be precise. A tiny village, famous for its fish, where the road along the Wakhan Corridor rejoins the Pamir Highway, as it begins to veer north towards Osh.
Here the hats and the faces lurking beneath them change. The colourful scull caps give way to tall, white, felty Kyrgyz hats – the taller the hat, the higher their local mountains. And the yurts begin to spring up too. Sleeping in a yurt is a truly magical experience. Surrounded by warm, colourful felty felt and whispering women and children. Aromatic herbs in the stove, delicious yak butter on the table (we had fallen into culinary delusions by this point) and gawping up at the stars through the rooftop before drifting off peacefully.
What better to add to this nomadic fairytale, than Ernest. Our very own Swiss moped rokenrollrevolutionary. Having set out from Khorog at around the same time, we had continued to pass each other on the roads and Ernest (a cyclist at heart rather than a motorbiker!) had saved our lives by giving us his spare swiss army knife when we desperately needed to get into a can of tuna.
Although we had been rumbling through Kyrgyz inhabited terrain for the last few hundred kilometres of Tajikistan, it was only after we crossed the border that the landscape changed. And suddenly too. On the other side of the mountain, immediately after the border post at the pass (4282m), we were greeted with green everywhere. Rolling meadows, beautiful white peaks and gushing brooks. No more filthy browns and sandy yellows of the dusty southern Pamiri Gorno-Badakhshan.
We were only flitting through the south-eastern tip of Kyrgyzstan to reach the Irkestam pass. Our gateway to Xinjiang Province in China and the East. The pretty alpine scenery of northern Kyrgystan was not for this trip.
Just a year ago, not far north of the corner that we cut, Osh was awash with brutal ethnic violence. But we, in soporific Sary-Tash, remained blissfully unaware of what legacy or repercussions there may have been. Our focus was on getting clean. We were finally able to have a five-star hot shower after days and days (and days) of wild camping and inadequate icy river washing. Now was also our chance to relax, after our mad dash to get out of Tajikistan before our visa ran out, to rest our limbs before heading to China and to be entertained by Ernest and stories of his rock and roll days.
Sary Tash is the consummate cross-roads town with its only highways ( with freshly minted Chinese asphalt) fanning out to each point of the compass, and each shop replete with “fake” Coca-Cola (Can you believe they even forge the stuff?!!!) and mounds of Snickers bars. And it was among this warehousing of bicycle calories that we noticed two familiar three-wheeled bicycles propped up lazily by the road-side. Happy days! After 2 weeks of separation in the windy Pamirs, fate had re-united us with our dear Portuguese and their broad clowning smiles. It was quickly agreed we would hit the trail again together this time to Kashgar in western China, for one final “stage” before our planned routes truly parted company, they to Pakistan and the Karakoram Highway to the South and us onwards and Eastwards.
Once again we found perfect spots to pitch our tents and idle away the evenings with the growing expectation for our next country to come. On our final night in Kyrgyzstan, a mere 15km from the frontier we resolved, “Let’s go to China tomorrow”. And we did. We swung down dipping bends at exhilarating speeds and dropped from 3800m to the Immigration controls at Irkestam through earth-quake affected little Nura with its post-Katrina-esque pre-fab homes.
As we neared the border crossing the density of SinoTruks became intense and the air was filled with expectant petrol fumes as eager truckers waited impatiently for the border to open, after its weekend repose, and to leave behind crumby roads and crappy cuisine. The four of us bubbled with excitement for what lay ahead.
Having now found a slightly better internet connection, there should be here the latest snaps from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.