BACK IN BISHKEK
Flying over the deserts of Uzbekistan into the fertile Chui Valley, as the sun rises in the east, to land at Manas airport at dawn, is the perfect return to Kyrgyzstan. Following the unfortunate end to our last group ride, this was to be a private tour, ‘tailor-made’. I had managed to persuade two friends to come with me. Sue and Nicola, whom I had known for thirty years. Putting my money where my mouth had been I had insisted that Jonny and Marat led us again. Two years of persuasion, chivvying and planning had come to fruition.
Other than a few herders driving their animals to the Sunday Karakoi animal market, the roads were empty. Returning to the Asia Mountains Hotel, where we had spent a short night in 2013, the streets became familiar. Jaded hookers drifted out of the brothel on the corner of the block and one of the endlessly long goods trains was still rumbling past at walking pace, but the old babushka was no longer living in the litter bin at the end of the road. Perhaps there had been one sub-zero winter night too many.
The hotel is a favourite of European trekkers of all persuasions. Cycles were leaned against walls, rucksacks were stacked in the hall and breakfast was already laid out. Too excited to catch-up on sleep I swam in the chillingly invigorating pool and looked up. Despite the early hour of a Sunday morning, men were hard at work high up on the carcass of a new multi-story. It dwarfed the Asia Mountains’ garden shed with its weather vane that still faced the wrong way. Soon it wouldn’t matter that the sun rose in the West and set in the East, as it would be blocked out anyway.
Bishkek is an abandoned Russian outpost. It is saved from the most depressing aspects of Soviet Realism by the many avenues of trees and little parks. They are nourished by snowmelt from the always visible Ala-Too mountains that is carried down by the Ala-Archa river. There reputedly are more trees per person than in any other Central Asian city.
By mid-morning we were ready to hit town. In deference to Nicola who hadn’t been before, we drove along these avenues past the perceived places of interest, suggesting that she should tell us if she wanted to have a closer look or take photographs. We passed The White House, from where government snipers had picked off seven protesters in 2010; the Fine Arts Museum; the State Historical Museum and the vast statue of Manas that replaced that of Lenin. Perhaps persuaded by our lack of encouragement to stop, she took our descriptions as read. Soon we were walking with the crowds across the incongruously named Mahatma Gandhi street, hitherto known as Molodaya Gvardia in honour of The Young Guard – a group of Russians who carried out anti-German sabotage until they were caught and executed in 1943. Earlier in the month Narenda Modi, prime minister of India, had unveiled a statue of Mahatma Gandhi. Loyalties were changing. We headed for Osh Bazaar, declining the many mamushkas’ offers of the use of their bathroom scales in exchange even for so few som. It was humbling to see their attempts to augment their pensions.
Osh Bazaar is not pretty. The clothes area is a jumble of narrow, partially covered alleys randomly contained by scaffolding poles and black plastic sheets. There are free-span open-sided halls for comestibles and two storey concrete malls for white goods, tacky jewellery and gaudy clocks. It occupies a large block. Not all of it is as colourful as the area with traditional clothes and furnishings for yurts; not all is as fragrant at the stalls of spices and herbs. The area selling meat is certainly not as mouthwatering as that selling freshly baked bread or soft fruit, but as an appetizer to lure one into the countryside and see so much of the produce growing and artefacts in use, there is nowhere better than this bazaar.
Prosaically we were only in search of an alarm clock for Sue; a sun-hat for Nicola; a heavy-duty waterproof for Jonny and some spare camera batteries. Sue bought an alarm clock that spoke to her in Chinese twice in the middle of every night for the rest of the trip. We never discovered how to turn it off or what it was trying to tell her. Nicola’s broad brimmed bushwhackers’ hat did the trick although she felt able to leave it behind at the end of the ride. For some reason there was a dearth of surplus Russian army waterproofs and none in Jonny’s size. None of the available batteries fitted Nicola’s brand new camera.
That evening we were re-united with Marat who had just returned from taking dozens of Japanese walking in Naryn oblast. Besides other courtesies they had required him to take the blood pressure of each of them at the start of every day. Pleased to be together again, we sank into deep leather sofas under umbrellas outside a Georgian restaurant, ate a Kyrgyz take on Georgian food, drank much delicious Georgian red and later, slept very well indeed.
BISHKEK TO ‘PARIS’
Keen to get going we were out early and were introduced to Shuhrat the trek cook, a wiry guy with an aquiline, Persian profile. In his mid twenties, when not cooking for treks, he sold white goods in Osh bazaar. For the next ten days he remained plugged into his i-Phone whether listening to music or taking selfies to send to the flirtatious looking girl on his screen-saver. With the minibus crammed with camping equipment, stoves, pots, kettle and food for a fortnight, not to mention our luggage and what we deemed to be enough vodka to see us through, we set off for Talas in the north west.
We passed one of the largest car markets in the world – Kudai Bergen. Quite quickly one realises that there are no car showrooms in Bishkek. Kudai Bergen is the place to go for a car and thousands of every condition, model and origin, whether with left or right hand drive, cover acres and acres – further than we could see from the road. From as far afield as Arabia and the US, many have dubious paper-work, if any at all. Mis-lay a car in Manhattan or Rome and it may well end up here. A few years earlier pundits had predicted a Kazakh rise in demand so the Kyrgyz had invested. Every family is thought to own two vehicles. There were aisles of people selling the supporting cornucopia of spare parts. With fewer than 5,000 miles of hard road but about 4,000,000 people of driving age, the wear and tear feeds an infinite market for spares. Men dodged the slowed traffic carrying everything from exhaust systems to tyres; batteries to steering wheels.
The winter road from Bishkek to Talas goes through Kazakhstan but being July we were able to miss the frontier and visa formalities by swinging south just after Belovodskoe, the scene of a short-lived anti-Bolshevik uprising in 1918. We drove through the Too-Ashuu tunnel. At over 10,000 feet this might have proved our first experience of altitude sickness but none of us succumbed and later we took the 10,900ft Otmok-Pass in our stride. We passed dangling ski lifts and dropped down hungrily for lunch to ‘Paris’, a strip of tin shacks and the iconic shipping containers used as dwellings; shops; road-side cafes and outlets for the lorry spares needed for the alpine switch-backs and altitude. The confidence in Paris’ future expansion was endorsed by the disproportionate size of the new mosque with a tin roof that sparkled in the hot sun.
We swung off the road and bumped to a stop in front of a seemingly unoccupied building of the alpine lodge school of architecture. It was our lunch stop. Through filthy polycarbonate windows on the ground floor we could see abandoned offices and the skeletons of shops. Shuhrat took the stairs to the first floor two at a time. We followed without much optimism. He opened a door for us and stood back. Noise spilled out. The place was buzzing. Other than the menu we might have been in a Tyrolean ski refuge; nearly everyone was speaking in German or Scandewegian tongues. Shuhrat ordered for us. While we waited for food I decided to go to the loo that was signed up at the far end of the restaurant. Once beyond the outer door I discovered that it was only the washbasin that was available. The loo door was firmly locked. Having primed my kidneys for a pee, alternative arrangements had become pressing and I went outside. I wandered to the back of the building blindly hoping for some sort of privacy but there was only an open rubbish tip overlooked by the kitchen windows and monitored by two chained dogs. Perhaps realising that I was not a threat and there was nothing I might steal, the dogs continued to snooze. During the afternoon Nicola and Sue decided to make the most of the ‘facilities’ offered in a shiny new petrol station where we stopped to refuel. They both voiced choking regret at not having taken my advice to use the dump.
I returned to find the best meal of the year starting to arrive. Dish after dish came which we all shared. Laghman (noodles with spicy soup, meat and veg); plov (pilau); manty (small minced lamb-filled dumplings); kuurdak (pan-fried meat with onions, garlic and chillis); carrot salad; tomato and onion salad and of course shashlyk and the delicious kalmata. It kept coming and we kept eating until we all ground to an embarrassingly stuffed halt. Shuhrat seemed heartened by our enthusiasm for his choices. We had eaten enough to last us for days but it was reassuringly obvious that Shuhrat was not going to let us starve.
Within minutes of hitting the road heads lolled against widows and breathing, intermittently audible above the engine’s whine, bore witness to our appetites.