Our main mission for Almaty was to check in to a cheap hostel whilst trying to track down a mechanic to fix our rapidly failing alternator. Things didn’t quite turn out that way. We expected that this second stint into Kazakhstan would be a 1400km dash north, with hours upon hours of driving through flat nothingness, with limited habitation or civilisation. Almaty truly proved how wrong we were. After spending one night in a budget hotel (still relative luxury in our easily pleased eyes), we got in contact with someone on air bnb, and set off to unload the Landie prior to finding a garage. At $100 per night (for all of us), the photos and claims on the website seemed a fraction unrealistic, but the sleek silver Mercedes that met us at a nearby petrol station gave us an inkling of things to come. Secure parking (which we didn’t need!), balconies, patio, rose garden, two enormous double rooms, dish washer, washing machine, 3 bathrooms… You get the idea. Oh, I nearly forgot, and the home cinema room and the sauna. Did I mention the sauna?
With the Land Rover empty and the washing machine on the first of many cycles (let’s be honest, everything needed a good clean), we set off for Caspian Motors, an official Land Rover dealership on the road to the airport in the north east of the city. We had heard of it on caravanistan, and rightly so, it came highly recommended.
Neither Jon nor I would describe ourselves as particularly pro big corporate companies, but Jaguar Land Rover in Almaty did not disappoint. Within moments of arriving, we had coffee in hand and were explaining our situation to the Technical Manager, Vlad, who spoke flawless English (he was stumped briefly by callipers – not that we have them anyway..). After about two hours of his time, he gave us his personal mobile number, called us a (free) taxi home, and quoted us a ludicrously cheap price to fix her. The hardest part of the whole process was inputting our very old vehicle details onto the very new Land Rover computer system… Turns out our VIN number was so old that it was 5 characters too short!
Waiting for the new alternator to turn up, and a number of additional mechanical problems to get fixed took a bit longer than intended, and by this stage we had decided to get the dates of our Russia visas changed. This was actually pretty easy to achieve, although not cheap. We used the same company that we used the first time (Real Russia – highly recommended) to get another Letter of Invitation sent out to us (DHL courier from Moscow as the Russian embassy didn’t accept our print outs). After filling in and printing out the lengthy online application form, we went to the Russian embassy (open 0930-1230 Tuesday and Fridays), paid 52,500 Tenge each for a double entry, urgent 3 day visa. More expensive than we had hoped for, but worth it when we had our passports back on the Friday (collections 1500-1700).
10 days flew past in a blaze of art galleries and Rachmaninov concerts (Jon and Coby), sleeping and late breakfasts (Tom and Kat), and much, much kit shopping (all). Almaty has the finest selection of kit shops outside of Surrey (with the exception of waterproofs, which, in a mainly desert country, isn’t perhaps that surprising). Limpopo sports is the best for personal clothing (we spent a lot…), and Robinsons is the place to go if you need to kit out a private military company. This shop stocked everything from argocats to RIBs, assault rifles to blowpipes, and, luckily for us, some more thermos flasks to add to our collection.
Fully kitted out, we collected the Beaut (with new alternator fitted, exhaust welded on, timing tuned, brakes serviced and hole in diff checked – less than £63 for the lot!), and headed north. Destination – Semey!
Having spent one fleeting night in Osh (Bosh), following our crossing of the Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan border, the first place on the list for our brief foray into Kyrgyzstan was Arslanbob. Described by the guide book as one of the highlights of the whole Central Asian region, we had also heard from one of Jon’s friends, Hugh, that it was well worth a visit. This desire was only enhanced when we realised that we would be visiting in walnut harvesting season, which is rather a big deal when you consider that Aslanbob has the oldest and largest walnut forests in the world.
Despite best intentions, once again we arrived in failing light with nowhere to stay. Some gentle off-roading around the village trying to find the CBT (Community based tourism) office eventually paid off, and we walked in on a bit of a party! Having returned from an expedition of their own the CBT guys were mid celebration and insisted we join them in some welcoming shots of Vodka (Even the driver was expected to partake, well done Jon for stealthily swallowing Toms shot) Explaining that we were looking for a homestay, the CBT found us a host already in the room and happily we gave ‘Boris the bee-keeper’ a lift to his home, where we were invited to spend the night. (NB Boris was sadly not actually called Boris, his real name was, to our shame, unpronounceable and immediately forgotten, therefore we christened him Boris, which was close enough!).
After driving up the steep muddy track (more on that to come) we arrived at his beautiful home buried in the walnut forests to be welcomed by his wife Louisa who after rebuffing his amorous advances, set about making us a delicious meal, as well as insisting that Boris opened a bottle of excellent Cognac whilst we waited..! Despite some language barriers, we managed through the medium of mime to establish that they kept bees for a living, that Louisa was a language teacher and that Boris was a Soviet Afghan War veteran and less through the use of mime that Boris was likely to outdrink us all that evening.
When indeed ‘out drunk’ and heading for bed Boris delayed us to show us the beehives in the trees. We were delighted although confused when he explained that when the bees got cold they went into the barn. When awoken at 0500 by an obnoxious cockerel and looking into the trees we discovered that the beehives were in fact daring chickens – you have to love the amusing mistranslations of a good language barrier!
Emerging the following morning to torrential rain (the start of a theme for Kyrgyzstan) and excited for the horse trek we had arranged with our drunken friends the evening before, the first challenge of the day was to tackle the slippery death trap that had been the muddy track the evening before.
Tom conducted the decent admirably and thankfully he and the land rover remained in one piece, so over to him to pen the finer details…..
The Muddy Flume:
When just doing a three point turn in the drive (with 4WD engaged!) still ended in a skid and considerable wheel spin, we realised we may be facing a challenge. Eventually pointing down the hill, we had about 100 yards of muddy track to negotiate before the road, with one 90 degree corner on a steep slope causing us all to have slight palpitations in anticipation. Inching forward in low range, we immediately slid sideways off the track into Boris’ gate. Not a great start!! Fortunately, only minimal damage was done, and we continued on. Despite trying my hardest, I was unable to prevent the Land Rover from sliding on the mud just before the steep corner, and then proceeded to do exactly the wrong thing – BRAKE (and emit an involuntary high pitched scream!). We were now teetering at an angle, facing horizontally across the track, and ready to roll. With an exasperated shake of his head, Boris (still wearing brogues!), followed swiftly by his son-in-law and Jon, hung on the side of the roof rack to weigh us down in an effort to stop us rolling over whilst I regained my composure, grew some balls, and revved her successfully down the hill leaving a trail of bodies who had dismounted with varying levels of elegance in my wake.
Safe and on the road at last, we were late for our 0900 departure on horseback. No matter, it appeared that arranging a horse trek late at night with our none too sober facilitator was not the wisest of plans! The beasts and our somewhat enigmatic guide arrived for us at 1200. Happily this had given us the morning to get the Beaut into a garage to fix the results of a bump in Osh.
Precariously installed onto our ponies and informed of the words for stop and go (immediately forgotten by most) we were off for a trek to the waterfalls and amongst the walnut forests. Happily the rain had stopped ……well eased ……well it fluctuated from torrential, to showers, to brief pauses for the rest of the afternoon (mad dogs and Englishmen and all that).
The walnut forests made for beautiful scenery though the waterfall, lined with the unoccupied stalls and cafes that are clearly full of life in high season were a somewhat forlorn scene. The main event for our merry band was really the novelty of being on horseback, the first real time for Coby and Kat, although Tom dazzled us all with hitherto unsuspected talent, breaking into trots and canters that the rest of us could only watch as we tried to urge our own steeds to stop eating the grass and go in the direction we desired rather than their own meandering paths.
When we had all gotten a little more used to the controls (or lack thereof) and Jon had swopped his stubbornly slow mule with the wild grey of the guide, the afternoon was filled with laughter over the loud and putrid smells being made by various horses. Inevitably, competitive natures reared their heads, races were run and playful locals with sticks spurred our horses onto speeds that we weren’t altogether comfortable with.
None of us unsaddled and thoroughly pleased with the days events we returned to our friendly bee keeper for ‘Plov Thursday’ and as the boys were not offered the fat to drink, we each slept soundly in our single beds!
The Taj – Kyrgyz Boarder was fairly uneventful. The Gents were asked for several contributions to the boarder guards’ cognac fund (presented with convincingly fake “Compulsory” Vetinary Declaration Forms) which were met with a jovial but firm “jog on sunshine”. Otherwise we had made it to Kyrgyzstan! To make up for our early start and lack of breakfast, we stopped, Peak Lenin in the background, to made eggy bread and butter fried Stroop Waffles. Arteries straining, we bombed down the road to Osh, Kat getting the stunning stretch of down hill switch backs. (Jezzer Clarkson – eat your heart out). Kyrgystan boasted road, actual tarmac with markings that denoted the diffrent lanes. Moral was high!
We got to Osh and the couples divided. Kat and Tom headed to a homestay while Jon and I lowered the tone by checking into the dirtiest hotel the town has to offer. Lowering the tone further we enjoyed beer and two dill (why must everything have dill on it?) infested pizzas at the local Hookka Bar.
Osh, Kyrgystan’s second biggest city, is backed by Suleiman Too (Soloman’s Throne) a craggy mountain. Our morning began with a jaunt up said hill, Jon and I disappointed by how much our legs complained despite the altitude training we had completed in Taj. We were rewarded by a peek in the Dom Babura (prayer house) and a spectacular view of Osh and the surrounding relief. We then headed to the infamous Osh Bazaar. It did not disappoint. Every item known to man must be housed under these patchy roofs. We came away with some fleece lined, over the elbow marigolds, 1/2 kilo of dried apricots and an akwardly long cuddle from a gorgeous Babushka.
The team pilled in the car and started the drive out of Osh towards Arslanbob. And then it happened. “BOSH” We had survided the aggressive Albanians, the gently incompetent Georgians and the lackadaisical Uzbecks. We did not survive the downright drunk Kyrgyzs. On a narrowish lane we meet a truck. The driver displayed as much spacial awareness as a yummy mummy picking up Antigone from fencing practice and, scraping past us, he took one of our rear door hinges with him. Much to our dismay our gappy door was even gappier and no longer really working as a door. Despite a half hearted rant at the offending driver we were aware there was little we could do so we got back on the road. Next stop – a large walnut forest. And maybe a welder.
This was the one, the big Kahuna, the “piece de resistance” (sic): The highest driving point of the entire trip! Tom had the con as he deftly steered the beaut from switchback to switchback, attempting to retain as much forward momentum as humanly possibly. Slowly, surely, the altitude reading on the Delorme inched up and up and up. To our rear, a stunning scene of mountain and road which required a photo.. Bugger – we had stopped and now only by the grace of British Leyland would we ever get going again up this monstrously steep track. But he did it, Tom nailed the hill start and within the blink of an eye we were there.
We switched off the engine and calmly (read smugly) watched a lorry completely fail to make it up the hill behind us. The air up here is excruciatingly thin, every movement seems to result in huffing and puffing, and our SPO2 readings dropped as low as 65% (norms 96-100%). Under the characteristically casual eye of our chief medic we told to stop worrying (man-up) and take some deep breaths. We proceeded to then do the most obvious thing… Don deck shoes, have a snowball fight and then walk up the nearby hill to see how high we could get. Turns out we got to about 4800 m and were rewarded with stunning views of the Tajik national park to our north.
It was here that we saw the road ahead of us, if anything, steeper than that that we had just ascended. And there, a mere speck upon that agonising stretch of asphalt, was a lone cyclist. The figure was doggedly persevering along a stretch of road which must have been lifted straight out of Dis itself. When they had reached the pass we let go a mighty cheer and ran (literally, in Jon and Tom’s cases) to meet them. The lone cyclist (Anne) had taken refuge from the wind in front of the beaut, so we said hello and proceeded to proffer congratulations, cups of coffee and a snickers bar. Very impressed with her effort we all felt slightly guilty for taking the lazier option of driving this arduous route. Anne informed us that the road ahead was ok but that the nights got very cold indeed.
Thus forewarned, we started off to see if we could make it to the shores of The Black Lake (Karakul), as we had spied a lovely little sugar loaf like mountain on the map, perhaps a chance to ‘easily’ schnurrgle our way past the 5000m mark. The maps started to lie to us at this point, but we eventually found a track leading toward the shore of the lake and the mountain in question. In the failing light we crept around the hill and parked ourselves in a glorious little valley and had a genuine home cooked Yak stew, delicious.
The next morning, we had one thing on our minds – to get to 5000m. An un-named peak loomed above us, and at 5048m seemed just about perfect. The ascent of ‘Mount Bridget’ was on…
I’d like to say it was easy – I mean, we were at about 4000m anyway to start with.. but it wasn’t. The altitude was brutal, and not helped at all by the fact that none of us had done any exercise of note in the past 3 (or 12… ) months. Navigating on a map with a completely inappropriate scale (we just went ‘up’ really…), we picked our route and kept on going. The total human population in the area was one lone shepherd and his family, although he did have a lot of dogs for company! The reason for the necessity for dogs became clear a few k’s up the track… a number of large scrapings and holes in the ground, with a number of very large paw pad prints in the loose earth around them. Our first wolf den…?
With herds of sheep. goats and yak on the surrounding hillsides, and eagles soaring in the air above (well.. an eagle anyway…!), we continued our slow progress up the mountain. We were all feeling it by this stage, with Kat starting to show the signs of altitude, but we all soldiered on – determined to get past that 5000m point! Ditching our bags for the final push, we picked our way through boulders and shale, paused briefly to look down on an eagle gliding in the winds as we passed 5000m, and made it to the summit! We unfurled the Union flag and finally used the selfie stick in a way that in which Tom approved! SUCCESS!!! Now, which way is down…?
They always say that the descent is the most challenging part, and sure enough, with limited food and poor water admin (we just didn’t drink enough), we made it tough for ourselves. Choosing a steeper route down to try and help the slight feeling of nausea, we scrambled down a scree slope and into the valley. Choosing a different route back ended up being a brilliant decision, as we stumbled upon one of the highlights of the trip – a huge intact skull and horns of a Marco Polo sheep. Wow.
The descent seemed to last forever, but, in fading light, we made it back to the Beaut, and spend most of the evening trying to rehydrate ourselves, and thumb in as much pasta as possible! The feeling of elation could wait until the morning!!
Leaving Khorog and the strikingly familiar “First Car to Cross” statue (it looks like a Land Rover series two !) behind us we set about crossing the Roof of the World. The initial drive up out of town will stay with me as one of the most picturesque drives of my life, following the gorgeous glacial blue River Gunt (not the most romantic name) amongst a narrow strip of golden trees up a winding valley. The sun was out, the beaut performing flawlessly and with the glaciers glinting in the distance- we were in road trip heaven. We even found a ridiculously perilous rope bridge on which to play silly buggers and pose…
We made camp at a small homestead between Morj and Dzhilyandy (the soviet spa of Jelandy) which we had been reliably informed was a small hot spring. Well, it didn’t disappoint. We parked up on a flat above the houses and immediately saw the spring, following the steaming pipes down to the houses we were invited in and shown the facilities. In the courtyard two bath houses had been built, one for the ladies and one for the men (mostly hairy truckers). We said we were just going to have a spot of dinner then return for a soak. We headed back to the car, donned the furry hats and downies and switched on the sound system whilst Kat prepared a stunning stew alongside, most astonishingly of all, genuine Coffee and Walnut Cup Cakes! The Coleman oven had come into its own and the evening was made.
After gorging down this feast whilst shivering (this being our first taste of slight cold after months of 30’C) we made a beeline straight for the baths. These baths are rustic, but absolutely perfect. The temperature is just right and the bathhouses are warm and dark, a truly relaxing and unexpected experience. Followed up with a screening of Despicable Me Two!
Throughly refreshed we started the second day, wondering how the old girl (and ourselves!) might do on the first major altitude test; the 4272 m Koi-Tezek pass. She performed admirably, cranking up the shoddy dirt switchbacks like a true mountaineer. We all started to feel some altitude affects, generally light headaches and lower blood oxygen levels (loving that pulse-Oximeter Cobes brought along). These were immediately forgotten (by the boys, at least) upon sighting our first Eagles of the trip. Casually soaring level with us in the adjacent valley, Jon spent a good fifteen minutes pretending he was Bill Oddie (and still got no decent pictures!) we did establish that they were perhaps White Tailed Eagles, but any birding fanatics please do feel free to refute this!
The remainder of the route to Murghab was beautiful and uneventful, the road quality is varied, but we averaged about 30kph I would think (distinctly better than the road to Khorog). We did, at one point, pass a distinctly submerged village, which showed us only the tops of a few houses and a now very defunct power line…
Murghab. For me this was a mixed bag. This Kyrgz town (note the abundance of giant felt hats) is principally a military outpost, but there are numerous homestays in which to spend a night or two. These are not overly easy to find in the failing light as the town is somewhat of grey maze. We eventually opted for the Erali homestay, just to the left of the main road heading slightly out of town if you come in from the Khorog direction. This place had two of the loveliest hosts you could meet, and felt homely and colourful in its basic nature. After a good nights sleep and showing a group of fellow travellers round the Beaut, the team split up. Cobes and Kat headed for the intriguing Bazaar (made entirely of shipping containers) and Jon and Tom endeavoured to find decent petrol and do some maintenance. All loaded up we started out, knowing full well that today was the day for the true test of Pamirs, the mighty Ak-Baital pass (alt. 4655m)…
Driving the Pamir highway is described by many people as “a challenge”. The route is one of the greatest possible road trips. To drive to the Roof of the World (or so the region is called) one must travel through winding and steep sided river valleys, along roads that, if anything, are perhaps improved when the inevitable landslide hits them in the wet summer months. Through villages and towns full of immensely freindly people and along a border (the mighty River Panj) across which you see people going about their lives in an entirely different culture, in a country as intriguing as it is (in the UK at least) infamous; Afghanistan. To top (litterally) this all off, you will find yourself dragging your slightly tired 33 year old Land Rover up to the whopping altitude of 4600 m.
The first part of our trip along the Pamir Highway involved us making our way from the capital, Dushanbe, to the town of Khorog on the Afghan Border. One can choose either the Northern route (which follows the original route of the M41) or to take a slightly longer but much smoother southern option, via the town of Kulob. After chatting to loads of tried and tested overlanders at the Green House Hostel, we decided to go the southern route. This was mainly due to the quality of the M41 being disastrously poor in this section.
The route was pretty easy to navigate and we managed to get from Dushanbe to the Afghan border in one day. The road is in pretty great nick up until the point where you start climbing the steep long valley out of Kulob. If you get chance, stop at the massive lake half way between Dush and Kulob, it’s quite picturesque.
We made camp just before the turn north and the Border, on the edge of a sheer cliff looking 1000m down to a tributary of the Panj- it was a stunning first mountain camp site.
The road by this point had started to crack and become less asphalt based, but generally it was smooth going up until Darwaz (Aka Khalaikhum), the Gateway to the Pamirs. This small town had been described to us a mere stopping point, a place where everyone passes through but no one stays. In our short time here we parked up next to a massive gig in the towns stadium, waded through thousands of people heading to and from it (mainly school kids with crazy large Pom poms in their hair) and got given two gigantic pomegranates by a great petrol station owner. We also stopped in a chaikhana overlooking the fast flowing river that runs through the town and had a good bit of soup- good place for contemplation of life, the mountains and what we could expect for the next few days.
Upon leaving Darwaz our optimistic expectations about reaching Khorog that afternoon were roundly dismissed by some of the worst “road” quality I have ever seen. Words can’t really do this justice so I will leave it to photos. As a wise overlanders on Dushanbe told us before we attempted this; “Don’t underestimate the stretch from Darwaz to Khorog.”
In the end it took us a solid day and a half of driving, mainly going at 15kmh to try to ensure that the Beaut didn’t shake herself to pieces. We didn’t get stuck once, though there were several occasions where we had to use low range to drag her 3.5 tonne derrière over some pretty fruity and narrow dirt track – mainly at the points where the recent landslides had all but demolished the roads. We did however take heart from what we saw late that evening, which was a gigantic lorry negotiating the difficult stretches of road we knew we had to face in the morning, whilst towing another gigantic lorry behind him!
The main events which transpired during this tricky stretch require a bit of background. We had always been aware of the slightly delicate security situation along the Afghan Border, mainly due to it being where a ridiculous percentage of the worlds heroin is smuggled through to the north and west. However, two weeks prior to us attempting this stretch we found out that the Taliban had taken an opportunity to take control of the Afghan Province adjacent to us by mounting a raid on the town of Kunduz. We found this slightly unsettling but were assured that no security issues existed along the Pamir highway, so went ahead…
Cue our first night on the Afghan border, deserted road litterally a stones throw away from an abandoned Afghan farm house. We set up camp only to find that we are being stared at intently by three people on the roof. Now, these people were undeniable curious farmers, but having spent the day worried about the frequent men dressed solely in black just across the river, I’m not ashamed to say we were spooked. We moved on under cover of darkness to a place 5 km down the road and slept soundly… Until approximately 1am when we were woken by a car pulling up abruptly next to our camp site, shouting voices and frantic activity. Convinced of our impending abduction we were gently relieved when we heard the voice of a small child desperate for a pee, and the slightly stressed banter common to people all over the world who are trying to change a tyre at 1 in the moorning.
Enter stage left a large Tajikistan Army OP just past Rushan, at a very narrow stretch of the Panj river border. These guys looked like they meant business; all APCs, RPGs and other assorted three letter acronyms of death. Again, gently unsettled, we drove past. Only to hear and see a genuine, no holes barred explosion two hundred meters behind us and across the river. Wasting no time, I promtly shat myself and yelled to Tom; “Drive, Just Drive!”. Five minutes later, slightly more composed, we saw the groups of men working to clear a land slide and the rocket attack transformed into harmeless blasting to clear debris (we think).
Somwhat shaken, we entered into Khorog feeling like we had started to get a feeling for the Pamir Highway, and impatient to see what the next stage had in store for us.