Well this is the end of the road for us unfortunately, after 12 countries, 6 weeks, 2 continents and 3 breakdowns we have had to throw in the towel and give up on our adventure. It is an immensely sad and yet at the same time quite a relieving feeling to be done with it. Jeff and I especially got quiet emotional on that day that we cleaned out the car, gave her one last (and first) wash and said our goodbyes. Blue Suze was stripped of her banners, her roof racks were removed and her boot emptied of the endless amount of camping crap that we had brought along. Sitting there in our B&B’s driveway she looked empty, a mere shell of the car that had been the fourth and most dear member of our team. And yet at the same time, she looked reborn, brand new, happy and almost smiling, finally have settled down to a quiet life in the capital of Kyrgyzstan.
But before I get us to this point in our journey, one confession to make. We’re back home in London now. We could’ve written this blog whilst waiting in Bishkek but most days were spent doing import/export/selling paperwork and the evening were spent celebrating/commiserating/just plain partying. Bishkek is a really interesting town and we had a really good time there. So, when reading this, pretend that your reading this a few days ago and then everything will be current and fresh.
So we left Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, after staying at perhaps the nicest hotel of the entire trip. A late breakfast, a quick dip in the indoor pool (with mirrored roof) and last minute shower, we entered the unbearable Uzbek heat. Uzbekistan is a hot country, an incredibly hot country, so hot that our poor car was overheating at the slightest drop in air rushing over if radiator. This lead us to a curious situation. We found that there was an optimal speed at which to travel. The faster we went, the harder the engine had to work, yet at about 80-90 kph the flow of hot air into the cooling system would negate the heat produced by the car. No problem… except when we had to slow down when entering towns; stop to ask for directions or fill up on petrol or supplies. Of course we also had to do some emergency braking and stop for the ever present traffic cops on the highway. Sometime shortly after Tashkent, Jeff was trying to keep our speed up/heat down as well as gain momentum for the mountain pass up ahead when a Uzbek police man, waving the ubiquitous orange baton, flagged us down. “Quick, enter happy-confusion mode!”. Happy-confusion mode is where we push the boundaries of our stupidity while at the same bombard the official with our friendly smiles and, if possible, vigorous handshakes. And it worked yet again. After getting the officer to explain for the sixth time what the speed limit was, showing him a multitude of international documents he’s never seen before and commenting on how Uzbekistan is the best country we’ve visited and Iran was the worst (there was a football game between these two that week) he let us go with a smile and a wave.
After that, momentum lost, we tackled our first serious mountain pass. Climbing to 2 kilometers, Blue Suze did amazingly well coming very close to doing the pass in one go when right at the top, in what was to be a very familiar scenery, she over heated and we had to lift the bonnet, wait to cool down, add more water, do a little pray and drive on. We did manage to do this at a militarily sensitive location, moments before entering the only tunnel through the mountains which meant that we were once again surrounded by army men with large guns. They were for the most part friendly but started getting a little agitated the longer we waited, eventually waving us through the tunnel and out of their hair. We found a decent hotel in a town called Pap a few hours later and called it a night.
“Why all the hotels guys, thought this was supposed to be an adventure not a pleasure cruise?” I hear you ask. Unfortunately in Uzbekistan, all foreigners are supposed to register with a hotel each night that they spend there. Each hotel registers you, then gives you this meaningless piece of paper which you have to show to officials at any point in your journey. This all means that camping or sleeping rough is not possible.
Next morning was all about getting into Kyrgyzstan. A moderately cool day, low 30s, meant a pleasant drive through the vast cotton fields of Uzbekistan towards the border (see Aral Sea for details on the incredible environment disaster Uzbek cotton field have caused). The border post we enter was very obscure (we seemed to choice the less travelled routes over conventional ones) and the guards extremely bored which meant are car and contents got a very thorough inspection. Everything from the manly (camping equipment, car tools), to the not so manly (face cream, indigestion tablets and fluffy car toys) was examined and discussed by the two military men before letting us through and out of Uzbekistan. Goodbye Uzbekistan, thank you for the cheap vodka, the ancient cities and the friendly people, police and military. We do however unthank you for stealing our GoPro camera, doing an incredibly dodgy repair job on Blue Suze and giving us headaches whenever we had to use your count out your stupid currency (see previous post).
And so to Kyrgyzstan… and what an amazingly country it is. I do believe that I may never see a country so dramatically beautiful and rugged as Kyrgyzstan again. Fortunately though, while the country side is rugged, the Chinese have been in Kyrgyzstan since independence rebuilding their roads. And damn, what a great job they’ve done. Even through we were heading directly to what can only be described as a Mordor like mountain range, we were driving on pothole free, rock free, smooth and wide single lane highways. “Xie xie” China! Looking at our map we had two mountain passes (2.8 and 3.5 km high) to negotiate before hitting the capital Bishkek. Would Blue Suze make it? Would our strategy of 80-90 kph even be possible? Hmmmmmm…. it appears no. But she put up one hell of a fight and to her credit never suffered the humiliating experience of being towed into town. The first mountain pass required only one road side stop to cool the engine and replace the lost water. The second required many stops and one push start at the very top of the pass when she cut out possibly due to thin air. Each stop though wasn’t wasted as we would continue watching Monty Python’s Life of Brian with the final scene quiet rightly lifting the ol’ spirits.
That last stretch, sitting more than 3 kilometers high in Central Asian “nowheresvile” proved to be her undoing. With an over heating car that was cutting out, Jeff has to rev the engine, while simultaneously squeezing Blue Suze between trucks through a tunnel that looked like it had only recently been blasted through the mountain. It was without a doubt the scariest moment in the entire trip. Once through the tunnel though, the views from the other side were even more spectacular than anything we’d seen before. Absolutely incredible! No words can do the scenery justice, so I won’t even try… well, except to say, imagine mountain peaks surrounding you on all sides, snow covered caps, with purple, red and black rock falling down the impossibly steep sides. Now look down and you see wild Kyrgyz horses below you munching the sweet green alpine grass. Oh look, a few yurt tents dotted on the mountain sides, that must be where the local herdsmen/nomads live. And whats that? It looks like a giant silver snake before you – nope, it’s the only way down, a long, impossibly windy road that doubles back on itself many many times over attempting to get the traveler down to the valley floor. Oh and there are some blue mountain streams somewhere in that image too and Blue Suze panting and wheezing her last breathes nearby. There, I tried but probably failed, so go and check out Kyrgyzstan yourselves. You won’t be disappointed I promise.
So, we limped into Bishkek, the Russified capital city of Kyrgyzstan, hungry, tired and defeated. Most of the accommodation in Bishkek was fill as it was the end of Ramadan (big party) and possibly as the Kazakstan president was in town (we saw his motorcade whizz past us later in the week) for regional talks with other leaders. We found though a v. nice and homely B&B called The Radisson (the family’s only child’s name is Radic and he’s their son… hence) and spent the first night sleeping outside in their garden. The next few days were spent holed up in a two bedroom room, one person sleeping on the floor while we tried to sort out the car – arranging to import the car and attempting to find a buyer.
There are of course worse places to end up than the city of Bishkek. A hot but dry city made up of large Soviet style apartment blocks and modern western style malls. The roads are busy and unkept but clean with tree lined sides or shaded park avenues in-between the main streets, where the older crowd play ping-pong and chess while the youth skate and bmx in and around the large concrete plazas and monuments built during the Soviet days. All of this with an imposing mountain range as the backdrop to the south of the city. The people are an interesting bunch too. A mix of Russian and Kyrgyz ethnic people, living together as a result of Communist re-settlement policies, who were generally warm and friendly and best of all, rarely ever tried to extract “tourist” prices out of us. The place has a safe and pleasant vibe but there always seemed to be just a hint of a seedier underbelly lurking beneath – which we duly sort out of course. Jeff, Adam and I drowned our sorrows at one kitch night club, complete with extremely fat Kyrgyz mobster ordering girls to/from his table and bouncers trying to extract money from us (not successful); discovered a poker club, where Jeff cleaned up and walked out with $340 while I watched over our shoulders; and frequented the several British pubs and American style bars, where we drank the local Baltika Russia beer and had 50ml black vodka shots. Yes Bishkek was good to us, but we were very glad to leave it after spending 8 days there.
So that is that. The journey is over, the adventure through, the trip done. Mongola still remains unexplored, Kazakstan un-jagshemashed and our Russia visas unstamped. But, Blue Suze lives happily now with the Radisson B&B owners, we all got deep tans, learnt a few foreign words and got to say that we drove a quarter the way around the world, through deserts, over mountains, around lakes, into dry river beds and back out again via some of the most exotic, unpronounceable and interesting countries that we had never heard of before. So yeah, I think it evens itself out.
I kid of course. It was the road trip of a life time, with a damn fine crew in Adam and Jeff. I couldn’t have wanted it any other way, with any other people, in any other manner. It truly was awesome.
Thanks for reading. Goodbye.