There and away – Driving through the ‘Stans.

As I sat scribbling this post on my notepad, on the plane back home, it occurred to me that the past two car journeys had been the first ones, in Central Asia, where we hadn’t been serenaded non-stop by some Russian hardbass compilation. That was probably why I had Metallica playing in the in-seat entertainment ever since we boarded. Call it, if you will, noise withdrawal syndrome.
We had hired a driver, we were told, who’d be driving a Toyota pick-up and be speaking English. Aibek turned up bang-on time at Bishkek Manas airport at the wheel of a Ford Galaxy embellished by bootleg Audi alloys. He bore such as resemblance with Star Wars’ Admiral Ackbar that I was soon aching to hear him say “It’s a trap!”, if only he spoke English.
Still, soon we were out of the airport and on the road, cruising with the sun on our faces, the windows down and the deafening whine of a V-belt on its very last legs. It wasn’t, then, at all surprising when Aibek turned off the motorway – itself a surprise – and announced that he’d stopped “Dva minute” to get it checked at a repair shop.
I should probably describe this place. To call it simply ‘repair shop’ would do it no justice whatsoever, much in the same way as a 10-car pile-up isn’t a minor bodywork scratch. Imagine a citadel of workshops, stores selling everything from air filters to bonnets, a scrapyard and the obligatory buffet serving shashliks: a grid of roads made of pebbles and dust, whipped by the wind, with mountains shimmering far away in the haze. It’s also right to point out that the entire citadel, even those ‘buildings’ rising up to two stories, was made of corrugated sheets of metal and, preferably, re-used shipping containers. Admittedly, Central Asia as a whole has a thing for shipping containers, but this unknown corner of the outskirts of Bishkek was the veritable hotspot. If I were anyone at CMA-CGM trying to figure out where all their boxes had ended, I wouldn’t look any further.
Men wearing the combo Adidas slippers-socks-dirty overalls moved around, fags perennially lit, throwing themselves into the innards of cars at various stages of destruction with gay abandon. One such fellow, a feral Russian with a mop of hair worthy of a young George Harrison, squatted besides our stricken Galaxy, wedged his head (and fag) underneath the wheel arc and proceeded to dismantle the offending piece of equipment. Aibek was dispatched to source a spare, whilst we did what everyone else was doing, that was waiting in the shade, looking at a burping dog and trying not to fall asleep. Our mechanic had to resort to hydraulic jacks to haul the car up in order to fix the new V-belt, something that evidently hurt his feelings, but in little more than an hour and a bit we were ready to bid farewell to him and the burping dog.
The Pamir Highway felt as if it belonged to another continent as we glided down towards lake Issyk Kul, in the east of Kyrgyzstan. The motorway we were cruising on was a dual-carriageway affair of smooth tarmac, with a sturdy central reservation and relatively little traffic. We averaged 130 km/h with no issues.
Even the environment was different. So far, in Central Asia, I’d seen Kazakh steppes, Tajik high-altitude deserts, Uzbek flatlands and Kyrgyz Alpine meadows. The mountains we saw reminded me of Oman: cliffs of nude rock darting towards a sky blurred by a heat haze, wispy brushes, sun-burnt grass.
Then, out of this expanse of golden-browns, the blue enormity of Lake Issyk Kul popped out like a Jack-in-the-box. The opposite shore lied, invisible, behind the thick haze, giving us the illusion of being on the shore of a sea much further to the west. In fact, had the white-washed houses of Santorini appeared, nestled on the flank of a hill, I wouldn’t have been surprised.
– § –
Fast forward a couple of days, and Aibek was again on our doorstep, his Galaxy at the ready. Worryingly enough, he’d added a spare wheel on the roof. Yet, we threw worries to the wind and drove east, coasting yet again the lake. We were passing through a chain of small villages of izbas – metal roofs, wobbly fences, fading blue-and-white paintwork – where kids in uniform marched with a sense of purpose towards school, the building itself one of the only two public constructions in each hamlet, together with the mosque. It was satisfying to see that it was the school the one in better nick, cared for and embellished with a sense of pride.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
There were a few reminders of the Soviet past of this bucolic idyll besides the poplars, the imprinting of the very villages we were going through and, here and there, the gutted ruins of collective farms that had must’ve been looted the day after the dissolution of the USSR. Somewhere the legacy was stronger, such as in Frunze. The village had retained its Bolshevik name, unlike the capital that had shredded it off as soon as it could and, midtown, a bus station still sported a large hammer and sickle.
A little after the village of Ak-Bulak our fellowship with the lake ended; its shores swerved to the right, towards Karakol and the Tien Shan mountains, whilst we took a road leading left, aiming for Kensu and the Kazakh border. We journeyed through a valley that lacked in the cinematic beauty of a jagged row of Himalayan peaks but that made up for it with serene, unspoilt harmony.
Traffic was sparse and, as soon as the road surface degraded from smooth to rough gravel, it fell to almost nothing: a couple of Russian bikers and a cyclist, Polish flag waving in the breeze. The nature was gorgeous. Thick larch woods ran up the hills, trading places with meadows where flocks of animals, when they weren’t busy crossing the road, were growing fat on the good grass. A gurgling torrent snaked, silvery, through the valley, feeding small clusters of brushes. Here and there, in the thickets, we could spot clumps of birches, their foliage already turning yellow.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
A series of false cols finally gave way to a limitless plateau, dug through the eons by an unimaginable glacier. On our near side, the hamlet of Kensu, Kyrgyzstan. On the other the town of Kegen, Kazakhstan. In the middle was a solitary yurt and the border fence.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
America’s immigration controls are designed to intimidate. Britain’s, especially at most London airports, to infuriate. Kyrgyz and Kazakh border guards would start out grim and severe and, by the time your passport is stamped and all is said and done, you’d be cracking jokes and trading smiles about long-lost Hungarian cousins and Italian football. Yet again I failed to win a border patrolman of the superiority of Torino FC over other Serie A teams.
Barely into Kazakhstan and everything changed again. All was bigger, drier, dustier, sparser. Towns were few and far inbetween, all with a distinct frontier feeling about them. Yet, Aibek rubbed his hands with glee at the sight of how cheap petrol was (30p for a litre) and filled up at the first occasion. We drove through long straights and into a series of exhilarating hairpins as the road snaked through a series of barren hills, emerging at the margins of a wide plain. But for a few wrinkles, we knew that it was all flat from here to the Urals.
We were on the final stretch, but the road had yet one last spectacle to give. Aibek turned right at an unmarked junction, gliding along a ribbon of black asphalt so new that squads of workers were still building its hard shoulder. We stopped at a guard post, standing watch over the nothingness. A little while further, Aibek parked the Galaxy and emphatically announced “Charinskaya Canyon”, pointing ahead.

We piled out of the van and walked in the direction he’d indicated. A crevasse, tens of meters deep, opened the flat land. A fissure of biblical proportion had cut through the strata of rock, exposing the layers in delicate towers of stone. We followed with our eyes as it descended, growing deeper towards another, even larger, gorge that ran from right to left towards the horizon. But for a handful of people and some semi-invisible desert rodents we had this Kazakh Grand Canyon all to ourselves.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
It’s embarrassing to admit it, especially for somebody born and raised in the mountains, but I suffer from vertigo. It’s not a constant issue; in facts, it’s sneaky and unpredictable, raising its ugly head when I least expect it. I might be walking on a gangway made of wire metal, tens of meters high up above the concrete floor of a hangar, with not even the faintest sense of malaise, but the sight of the gentle incline that then abruptly gave way to the abyss of Charyn… well, that was another story. Guts knotted in a lump of dread and legs that had assumed the consistency of Jell-O, all I could do was to just loiter a few meters away from the edge, unable to savour it all. And it was with a mixture of disappointment and joy, relief and guilt that I turned back, once we had finished, to the waiting Galaxy.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
The last stretch of the road was a civilised affair, straight through a motorway into the bumper-to-bumper traffic of Almaty’s rush hour. As we drove around the grid of roads that made up down town I struggled to reconcile what I was seeing with the city I’d grown to love under a snowfall in the winter of 2016. That, though, was all to come; for now all there was to do was to stop, offload our packs, salute Aibek, mix-up currencies and in so doing give him an extraordinarily lavish tip and, finally, check into our hotel. Somewhere in Almaty, a Kyrgyz man who looked like Admiral Ackbar would be out partying.
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19 Responses to There and away – Driving through the ‘Stans.

  1. richandalice says:

    Loved the Admiral Akhbar image but it made me want to see a picture of him (the driver, not the admiral)!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Anna says:

    I love a good road trip…. Preferably in a merc or Audi but it usually ends up being an old bunky ford when I travel too. Lol. A road trip through the stans must be amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dave Ply says:

    I get a sense similar to driving across the American great plains, only bigger and more foreign. Really big sky country.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I so enjoyed reading this, and your photos! What a journey you went on. Not being vertigo prone I’d have loved the canyon, and all the rest of it!
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What incredible landscapes. I am really enjoying this trip. It is so different from most places I’ve travelled.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. lexklein says:

    You can likely imagine my envy of your road trip. Just being in Central Asia would thrill me, but doing a nice, long car trip would be tops. What amazed me here was the middle part – the giving way of all the sandy/rocky flats near the lake to the lush larch woods and the hills, and then the return to dry plateaus and the canyon. I’m always strangely attracted to the kind of austere beauty you saw so much of in the ‘Stans. Wonder of I’ll ever get there …

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Hi Lexi! Yeah, I figured this would’ve been something you’d enjoyed reading about. I have to say, road tripping in Central Asia can also be boring, mind-numbingly hard (roads can and are shockingly bad), painfully hard (e.g. bribing 7 roadblocks in Tajikistan) or uncomfortable. But the views, especially in that piece of land where Kyrgyzstan, Taj, Kazakhstan all crash into Turkestan, is a marvel. The real hassle for you guys in America is the air fare: but if you have enough United miles, and I’m told you can get a lot through credit cards, you can easily redeem flights on Turkish Airlines, and it’s all there.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh yes, Fabrizio, you did it again, put me right there above that canyon that would gave me the vertigo too, and made me wish I’d grow fat on that good grass. What beautiful greens that Stans have! Two peculiar Slovenian references: “dva” is two in Slovenian too, and “izba” is a room in a farmstead, or sometimes the entire farm. Slavs unite!

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Slav brotherhood indeed! I was chatting once with a Polish cyclist, and she was mentioning how her native language was good enough to communicate with almost anyone, from Tajik patrolmen to Altai farmers. Pretty impressive stuff. Thanks for the kind words!!!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. J.D. Riso says:

    You are the king of Central Asia road trips, Fabrizio. You definitely planned well to bring your Metallica rather than deal with that sadistic Russian electro torture. I’ve heard of that canyon, but your photos are the first I’ve seen of it. I have bouts of vertigo, too. Sometimes I’m ok, but then one will sneak up on me unexpectedly. Very unsettling.

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Hi Julie!! So nice to hear from you, and thanks for the title of King of Central Asian Road Trips, I shall go on Amazon and see if they’ve got an ermine coat on sale! Russian disco can be funny, in small doses, but anything more than an hour is definitely too much.

      Like

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