The Fellowship became The Three Wise Men for a day as we followed Steve’s idea to get each other some bizarre presents. And so we did, while we admired the biggest wild walnut forest in the world.
When technology makes things worse
Let’s use Uch-Kurgan, it is a quieter and easier border
Quieter maybe. Not quicker though. After much deliberation, the convoy decided to avoid the Ferghana Valley in south-west Uzbekistan and head to what on paper was a much easier crossing, just outside the town of Uch-Kurgan. What followed was the most surreal border crossing to date. The convoy split into 4 different groups, each one with its own version of the story:
The passengers. As usual, passengers had to cross the border by foot. Following a quick passport check and after filling in a few forms, all the passengers had gone through customs within half an hour. Without knowing whether the cars had made it through, they were asked to leave the premises and cross into no man’s land. That was not too bad, except that 1 hour later, there were no signs of the cars, and it was getting dark. Not to mention the mosquitoes and the cold.
The cautious passengers. But not all passengers made it to no man’s land. Two of them cunningly stayed behind, ignoring the officials’ call to cross the gate, just in case there was an issue getting the cars across. For more than 3 hours they waited patiently until they became almost invisible to the guards.
The first driver. Enrique (together with Lola) was the first driver to enter the border. Much to his surprise, the ledgers had been replaced with a few cameras, which the border officials were using to scan number plates. However, due to some electrical problems, the cameras were not working. 3 hours later, and after trying all cameras in the compound, cleaning the number plate and even removing it from the frame, still no luck. “Would it not be better to just write the number down in a book, like in the previous border?!” – “No! camera is quicker!”. Right.
The lucky ones. Meanwhile, the other two drivers were waiting before the border. Alone? No, they were joined by a couple of great guys from the village down the road who kindly brought them food and cold drinks for everyone. 3 hours they spent chatting about nothing and everything. What a world we leave in!
All in all, it was almost 22.00h by the time all three vehicles went inside the compound and, according to the officials, all number plates had been recorded by the cameras. I seriously doubt that very much. Surprisingly though, the customs official still had some energy left to go through each and every car, before finally letting everyone off. Long day, and we were not in Kyrgyzstan yet!
Kyrgyzstan, first impressions
The Kyrgyzstan border was just a simple barrier and a couple of old barracks, sign that this was indeed a quiet one. Specially at night. In fact, so quiet that most of the officials were asleep. One by one they woke up, although I am sure many thought they were still dreaming when they saw two ambulances and an ex-postal van trying to cross the border. Once everything was sorted out, exhausted, we left the border post and camped a few miles down the road. It was 1.00am.
Next morning, with just a few drops of diesel in the tank, we set off to find a petrol station, local currency and the gifts. Yes, inspired by Top Gear, Steve suggested we should all buy each other the most extravagant present we could find for $10 and carry it in our vehicles. A few hours later, we found it, a lovely wedding dress that had seen better days and after some negotiation using Google Translate, it was ours, within budget!
The roads were not too bad and it was all a bit dry and boring but everything was about to change, as we headed into the wild.
The biggest walnut forest in the world
Arslanbob is an incredibly busy village in central Kyrgyzstan home to the biggest wild walnut forest in the world. The legend has it that it was Prophet Mohamed who sent the walnut seeds to a disciple of him who was on a trip to find paradise on Earth. Such a mystic place was the perfect spot to exchange the gold, frankincense and myrrh… or whatever it was that we had bought for each other.
A helpful man from the tourist office showed us the best places to set up our camp and the local market served as a good source of fresh vegetables for tonight’s family stew. After our first river crossing of the rally (just a small one to start with) we were ready to chill and open our presents.
The scenery was truly beautiful, an huge green field facing the walnut forest at about 1600 metres. Despite the freezing cold water, a few of us went for a quick dip in the nearby river to get rid of all the dust collected in the road and as the sun was starting to hide behind the mountains we exchanged our presents: a wedding dress, a mannequin half-man half-woman and a baby walker. We were definitely going to attract some attention now.
Off to Son Kol, or not
There are a few ways to get to Kazakhstan from Arslanbob and the convoy decided to cut through the country using a secondary road that would lead us to Son Kol, which at more than 3000 metres, is one of the main attractions of Kyrgyzstan. It was only a few hundred kilometres away and, judging by the map, it was definitely doable the next day. Once again, wrong.
The secondary road turned out to be a dirt track with our top speed roughly 45 kph. The heat and the rotten road were taking a toll on our enthusiasm. And then we saw it, an enormous mountain pass that laughs at the Transfagarasan Highway (Romania) that would take us as high as 3100 metres. Slowly, we made our way up, dealing with every corner at no more than 20 kph, having to use first gear a few times. But once at the summit, we realised it was all worth it.
There was no chance we would make it to the lake that day on these roads and as soon as we crossed the pass it was time to find a camping spot, start a fire and rest. We treated our fellow ralliers with our first Spanish omelette of the trip and to top it all of, there was cold beer and marshmallows for everyone. It was not Son Kol, but life was good.
Will we make it to Son Kol? How will the roads be? Find out in our next blog post 🙂