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17 October 2008

Did you know – There are many traditional Kyrgyz sports.  Two of these are Kok Boru and Kyz-Kumay (Kiss the girl).  Kok Boru is a game played on horseback with teams trying to wrestle a headless goat from other teams and get it to their ‘goal’ area.  It is a very brutal game and the riders are extremely skillful.  Kyz-Kumay is a game between a man and a woman, both on horseback.  The woman gets the faster horse and normally gets a head start too.  The man then has to catch her and kiss her while still on the horse.  If she wins, then she gets to chase and whip him.

First of all, some good news.  We eventually got our indicator to work.  All it needed was another new relay, the previous one we bought in Ulaan Bataar was at melting point, and didn’t work properly.  Fingers crossed that this is the end of that dilemma.

We also made it to Kyrgyzstan and are currently just outside Bishkek after applying for our second visa for Kazakhstan earlier today (see the visa pages for info on the process).  Thankfully, this is our last visa until we get to the Africa part of our trip.  The border crossing was also one of the easiest so far.  We crossed at the main border to Bishkek, approximately 25km north of Bishkek.  This is a very busy border crossing, but it goes really quickly.  99% of the people using it are locals, and I don’t think there is any paperwork involved for them to cross, even with their vehicles.  We arrived there just after 1pm and spent about 45min there in total.  We thought we would’ve had a problem when leaving Kazakh, because we never registered our visa.  The Lonely Planet is a bit ambiguous about the registration and we never checked either.  We spoke to David at Stantours and he said that we might have some problems when leaving.  You apparently need to have 2 stamps on your immigration card and we only had 1.  This turned out not to be a problem though.  The immigration officer never asked anything and just stamped our passports.  The car paperwork for Kyrgyzstan was also straightforward.  All we did was complete the normal declaration for temporary importation.  We asked the customs officer re insurance and he said we didn’t need it.  I’m not sure if we need any though, I’m hoping he understood what we were trying to ask.  The only cost was after you enter Kyrgyz.  This was a road tax, which was US$15 per vehicle.  I think this is a legitimate charge, because a few local people also came in to pay the fees.

Generally, I think the Kyrgyz people might be a bit friendlier than Kazakhs.  There also seems to be more people who can speak English, in Bishkek that is…There are always exceptions though, and the exception in this case is the squillion policemen on the streets.  We got pulled over 5 times on our first day, and they already tried to give is a fine of some sort.  Playing dumb really helps and being friendly and sticking to English.  Never give any indication that you understand anything they say, because it will be ‘tickets’ for you then.

That’s it for now; it’s time to have dinner.  We’re a bit lazy today.  We were going to have some spaghetti, but decided to have some of the lovely nans they make here instead with some exceptional honey we bought in Almaty.  I’m not sure what they do with the honey, but it just melts in your mouth…almost like melted fudge, mmmmmm!!!
25 October 2008

Did you know – Issyk-Kol lake is Kyrgyzstan's largest Lake and is about 180 km long, 70 km wide and 668 meters deep at the deepest point, (the average depth is about 300 meters).  It is the world's second largest mountain lake – and the fifth deepest lake in the world.  The lake apparently doesn’t freeze over in the winter due to its high salinity.

We finally got our last visa for Kazakhstan.  We’re both glad about that.  Not only does it takes so long, and you waste time in the cities hanging around, but also the cost of the visa.  Luckily, this one wasn’t too bad.  I think it was US$30 per person.

We also managed to meet up with a guy called Marcus (he’s from America) with whom we made contact with through horizonsunlimited.com (see our links page for details on horizons).  He is doing a similar trip to ours, also starting in Eastern Russia, going west.  He rides one of the older BMW and hopes to finish in Cape Town next year.  Hopefully we’ll catch up again somewhere, who knows.

We left Bishkek early Wednesday morning after getting our Kazakh visa on Tuesday, to head east to Issyk-Kol lake and the eastern town of Karakol.  It’s about 400km from Bishkek.  We spent one of our nights in a local village on the north shore of the lake.  It really can’t get too much driving in, because the sun only comes up at 7ish in the morning, and sunset is just before 6pm.  So if you want to cook while it’s still light, then you really need to have a spot by 5.  Anyway, we did eventually find a nice spot.  We were however woken up for the first time by someone knocking on the window.  Luckily it was in the morning and not too early.  It was an old man and maybe his son.  They just didn’t want to go away until I got out of the car.  After a little bit of chitchat, it became clear why they wanted me to come out.  The conversation moved to one of their favourite things, vodka.  As well as being curios, they just wanted money for vodka, and this at 7 in the morning.  After pretending that I don’t understand what they wanted, even after he drew a picture of a vodka bottle on the bonnet, they decided that they’ve had enough, and left…not even saying good-bye.  I’m sure the first thing they think of when they see foreigners is money.  Yes, westerners might have more money than them, but it doesn’t mean they all waste it at every opportunity.  What they don’t think of or can’t understand is that a westerner’s living expenses are probably 10 times more than his.

We left there after our little episode and headed to Karakol.  It’s a small town, about 60,000 people.  Not all that much going on there, so we decided to get a few things at the market and head off to some hot springs.  We’ve tried before to get to some hot springs, but haven’t managed to find any.  These seemed a bit more promising though.  It’s about 30 SE of Karakol, and it’s suppose to be popular in the summer.  Only problem though, it’s not really summer anymore.  We soon got to the end of the ‘normal’ road, and the rest of the 14km is more of a muddy, rocky (some massive ones) track.  It took at least 2 hours to do the 14km.  The only other sign of vehicles we saw was one Russian trucks with a lot of clearance.  Two hours later, and after some very careful driving, only hitting rocks a couple of times, and making Mandy cry for the 3rd time (I’m beginning to think it might be my driving, but she assures me she’s just a bit scared of the terrain), we made it to the hot springs.  It all looked deserted when we got there, but we managed to find the person who has the key for the springs.  It cost us 200 Som per person, which wasn’t bad at all.  We spent a lazy hour soaking inn the springs in the afternoon, and then again another hour or so the next morning.  The only downside is that it really stinks of sulpher.  We also experienced our coldest night so far.  We were about 2500m above sea level.  Our temperature gauge said the minimum in the car was 4.6 degrees.  Not to bad, because there was a lot of ice and frost outside.  Some icicles started to form from a hosepipe with running water through the night. They must’ve been at least 10cm long.  I think it must’ve been at least –3 degrees outside.  A good test for the car as well, but everything was ok.  Just a little bit of white smoke again for 10 or so seconds and a bit of rough running for 30 seconds, and all was fine.

Again, it was time to tackle the difficult road.  All I can say is that it’s a good thing it didn’t rain overnight, and I’m glad we had the diff lock in the rear.  I’m sure it would’ve been fine without it, but it did make some of the terrain a little easier.  We spent that night right next to the lake and managed to make a nice fire and a very good veggie stew in our dutch oven.  I think we were lucky though, because as soon as we retired to our bedroom to watch a movie, it started to rain with some strong winds and also a bit of hale.  Mandy got a bit nervous with the wind and was worried we might get blown away.  Safe to say, we managed to stay in one spot that night despite the strong winds.

We are now back in Bishkek.  We thought we would try and make it back in time for the Currie Cup final (that’s rugby union for those who don’t know) between the Blue Bulls (from Pretoria) and the Sharks (from Durban).  We found a pub here with DSTV (the same satellite service they use in South Africa).  The only thing though, there seems to be something wrong with the signal at the moment.  The owner (an English guy) said that someone is on their way to try and fix it.  We still have 2 or 3 hours before kick-off, so we might still be able to watch it.

01 November 2008

Did you know – Kyrgyzstan (in particular the town of Arslanbob) has the biggest walnut grove (which is part of an even bigger walnut forest of approximately 60,000 hectares) in the world.  The walnut grove is approximately 11,000 hectares.  According to our guide, a walnut tree can grow more than 500 years old.  The bigger walnut trees can produce about 300 – 400 kg of nuts in a good harvest.

Believe it or not, we met some South Africans living in Bishkek when we eventually got to watch the Currie Cup final.  Leon and Mariana have been living in Bishkek for a while now and Leon works for one of the gold mines in the area.  Really nice people and we had a good chat, and enjoyed the rugby.  Just a pity about the result.

We left Bishkek for the last time on the Sunday morning following the final.  We also got our first taste of one of the higher passes.  We had to cross a pass of 3,200 meters (our highest up to that point).  It was quite cold, and it was snowing a bit the day before, so there was a bit of icy stretches on the road.  Not a bad introduction for someone with not a lot of snow/ice driving experience.  We coped with the conditions without any problems though.  Some of the cars and especially the big trucks had to put on snow chains to get up the pass.  We spent the night at the road workers lodge who keep the roads clear.

The road from Bishkek to Osh is really very nice.  Very dramatic scenery driving on the steep edges of the mountains.  Luckily the roads are very good and all tarmac.  We stopped at Arslanbob, which is also a very nice town.  It is amazing how the people live.  The only running water they have is from the rivers.  Luckily there are a lot of natural springs in the area and a lot of the houses have springs on the land.  According to our guide for the morning, a piece of land of maybe 1,000 sq meters will cost between US $ 1,500 – 2,000.  Not a lot of money for most westerners, but a lot for the locals.  Children normally stay with their parents until they are about 30 or so.  When they get married, they will still live with their parents.  They will also stay there after they have a child.  They will only leave once the child is about 2 or 3 years old.  This helps both the new parents and the ‘old’ parents a bit.

After a nice day in the walnut forests, we headed to Osh, the second biggest town in Kyrgyzstan.  Osh was also a major town on the Silk route.  The whole town revolves around the big daily market (or bazaar).  You can find anything from hardware to fruit and veg, clothing, meat (even trotters) and household goods.  The market is about 1km long.  The town itself is not the greatest.  Not much to see and do except for the market.  The place does have a bit of a dodgy feel at night though.  We made sure we were safely tucked in bed after 9.  The other thing about the town is that there is hardly any hot water or electricity.  Not so good if you need to have a shower.  We were there for a couple of days and we never saw any electricity during the days.  It is rumoured to come on after 6pm every day, but not sure if this actually happens.

We left Osh yesterday, after speaking to a few locals about the road conditions on the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan.  According to them the roads are still good and no heavy snow yet.  We are now at the last Kyrgyz town, Sary-Tash, before the border and we spent our first night above 3000 meters.  We found our spot for the night, and it wasn’t long before a few guys approached us.  They turned out to work at the local border and they invited us to eat with them at their barracks.  Pleasant enough guys though.  It must however be so hard to live and work here.  I’m not sure why anyone would want to live here.  There is nothing to do, and the weather is not the greatest either, even in the summer.  The air is so dry and the water so cold!!!  We also spent our coldest night in Pumbaa II so far.  The min temp was 2.2 degrees, and we had a lot of frost on the inside of the windows.  We were very cosy though, with our 15-tog duvet and the use of one of our 3 thick blankets.  We didn’t even have all our thermals on yet.  The only cold part was our noses!!!  We’ll have to bury them under the blankets soon.  We think it must have been between –5 to –10 outside.  Pumbaa II wasn’t very happy this morning.  Fingers crossed he’ll be ok.  We fitted a mini ‘bra’ in front of the radiator today to try and reduce the cold airflow.

Tomorrow is the big day.  We will have our first real test when we cross the high passes of 4,200 and 4,600 meters of the Pamir Highway when we head into Tajikistan and to the town of Murghab.  There were a few dark clouds over the mountains this afternoon.  Not sure it was snow clouds though.  We’ll have to wait and see.

Until next time…

Kyrgyzstan likes and dislikes.

- We liked the hot springs on the eastern side of Lake Issyk-Kol and the nice scenery on the way to Osh.

- We disliked the ‘no streetlights policy’ in Bishkek – it is a very dark city at night and the constant smell of burning coal in all the towns.

- We liked the filo pastries filled with baked and mash potato with a sesame seed topping and also some of the mutton shashlik and also the nan breads.

- We disliked the fat-filled meat samsa (type of samoosa) – some were not too bad but most had a very high fat content.