Day 100: Got to get in to get out

Sary-Tash Travel Blog

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The views from the Kyzyl-Art pass

Thanks to the people I met here and/or travelled with: Tim & Wim (Belgium), Phil (France), Tadej (Slovenia)

The mosquitoes and the expensive home stay weren't the only reason why I was a bit grumpy yesterday. To my big shock I had discovered that I could not cross the border into Kyrgyzstan yet. When I applied for my visas for Central Asia I made sure all of them overlapped at least a week, in case I wanted to shorten or extend my stay in any of the countries. However, because I left Uzbekistan earlier than planned and I had travelled through Tajikistan in two days less than planned, I was now way ahead of schedule. And my Kyrgyz visa would not be valid until July 16th, so two days from now.

Had I discovered it earlier I would have stayed in Murghab and done something like a trekking of some kind for two days, but when I discovered we had already arrived in Karakul.

The Tajik-Kyrgyz border, with maps of both countries on either side
I didn't want to stay two more days on my own in this mosquito infested place. Serge was going to try to get all the way back to Khorog today, so I couldn't hang out with him. And there seemed no point going back to Murghab and then travel back via Karakul to the border the next day, that would be crossing the  Ak-Baital two more times. It didn't make any sense. No, I decided to travel with Tim and Wim to the border and see what happened. I could show them my itinerary and explain that I was heading straight out of Kyrgyzstan again to get to Kashgar in China. Worst case scenario I would have to pay some money for a transit visa or something. Or perhaps spend the night at the border post. Either way, it would be cheaper than travelling up and down to Murghab by taxi.
The public facilities at the border crossing were a bit windy...

So to explain my plan. Originally I had planned to travel through Kyrgyzstan into China, to the Silk Road city of Kashgar. Then a few days later I would head back to Kyrgyzstan and continue my trip there. With the civil war that broke out in Kyrgyzstan having a Chinese visa proved very valuable. If needed I can travel via China to Kazakhstan and bypass Kyrgyzstan completely if it turns out to be unsafe. So my plan was to get to Kashgar first and then decide whether I would stick to my original plan, or if plan B would come into effect (or plan C for that matter)

Phil, the French guy we met in Murghab travelled with us to Sary-Tash today. He had arranged a taxi from Murghab, which Serge could take back to Murghab again. Talking about efficient travel.
Phil impersonating a driver
We said goodbye to Serge and headed off.
The trip started out well enough. We made slow progress, but progress indeed. The slowness was partially caused by the combination of low oxygen/poor diesel/steep gradient, but more so by the great views and every five to ten minutes someone in the car shouting out: “Stop! Photo time!”

We reached the Tajik border without any issues. There were three checks here, one for narcotics, one for customs and one for the passports (in that order). The customs guard told us we had to pay the equivalent of $5 departure tax. Even though we could show we had paid for the road tax when we entered the country, he was adamant we had to pay to leave the country as well. Obviously there was no official documentation showing these prices, nor did we obtain a receipt, but as I would later find out this kind of bribery is so common practice, you could almost call it official.
The views from the Kyzyl-Art pass
Every car or truck passing any border crossing in this region pays a little something to the border officials for speedy process.

The passport control took a bit longer than I was used to. I was afraid they wouldn't let me leave without a valid Kyrgyz visa, but they seemed more interested in Phil. He had been on a three-week side-trip to Afghanistan which was a bit suspicious of course (not to mention the large collection of visas for Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan he amassed in recent years).

Eventually they let us out of the country though. We were stopped at the last barrier because the captain of customs still had to give his approval, but it seemed he had his lunch break and couldn't be bothered to come out, so we were let through without a customs check.
The Tajik-Kyrgyz border

Tim and Wim told me that so far Azerbaijan had been the only country where customs had bothered to check the car for contraband, for the rest they could have smuggled as much drugs and weapons as they'd wanted.

From the Tajik border post we had to pass the 4282m Kyzyl-Art pass - a piece of cake for the car by this stage - and then drive 20 km downhill to the Kyrgyz border post. Well, at least I was in the no-man's land between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, so far so good.

Once across the pass the road deteriorated rapidly. Can roads even be worse than Tajik roads? Well, yes they can. Though Kyrgyzstan is a marginally richer country than Tajikistan, the political issues earlier this year have caused that the annual post-winter repair works on their roads didn't happen (yet?).
The road down from the Kyzyl-Art pass
Slowly we ascended the steep hairpin bends leading down the Bor Döbö valley.

A few kilometres we came across a large landslide which had blocked the road. It seemed recent, but not recent enough for traffic to pass already. We saw tracks running through the washout and people had even built some small dams to even out the ditches. We figured it was safe for us to cross. Big mistake.

Halfway through the washout the car got stuck in the mud. Different from any washout we had crossed so far, this one had actually been a large mud slide, and it had been recent enough for the mud to still be wet and sticky. The car slowly sank in the mud and it couldn't go back or forward anymore.

Well, we knew what to do by now. Get the jack, jack up the back of the car and build a dam of flat stones under the wheels.
Stuck in the mud
Only... there weren't that many flat stones in the area. It was all mud and we sank up to our ankles as soon as we got out of the car. There was no way we could lift the car using the jack, as the jack sank deep in the mud as well. So first we had to build a platform for the jack, then lift the car, then build the dam, then hope we could drive the car out and then find a way around the washout.

We had been working for about an hour when a truck passed. It was obvious the driver had been here before, as about 30 metres before the washout he turned left, off the road, and there was actually a track through the dry riverbed below. I ran over to ask if they could help us and pull us out of the mud. Luckily they agreed, but not before asking me for some money. I thought he made a joke, but later it turned out he was serious.
how are we ever going to get out of this one?

He drove the truck towards our car and we attached the towing cable the truck. Attempt one: the cable snapped. We fixed the cable, added a towing chain from the truck for extra strength and tried again. Attempt two: the pulling ring at the front of the car broke off completely. Right, so much for getting pulled out. During the second attempt it had become clear just how stuck the car was, and we feared that any new attempt could damage the steering-bars, so we figured it would be better to be pulled out backwards and try to drive across the track through the riverbed.

We asked the truck driver if he minded driving around again and pulling us out from the back. Again he started about money and this time he really meant it. He wanted the equivalent of $ 20 and would not help us for less.
Getting pulled out by a truck (this was before the pulling ring broke off)
We agreed to pay (shared between the four of us it is fine) but it left a bit of a bad taste in our mouths. We would have been happy to offer him money (or tea or food or our eternal gratefulness or whatever) but didn't like it that he started negotiating a price up front. And a pretty high price it was too. He said it was for petrol, fine, but 20 bucks buys you nearly 20 litres of diesel, even in Kyrgyzstan, where petrol is considered expensive (though much cheaper than in Tajikistan).

This was our first experience with Kyrgyz people. It was strange that they had immediately asked for money when we asked for help. Quite a difference with the times when we got stuck in Tajikistan, where there had always been people willing to help us.

The truck drove around, we connected the towing cable and chain to the back of the car and this time the car was pulled out.
The road to Sary-Tash
We were free again!
The incident had not gone without leaving its marks on the car. One of the brakes had been damaged by the mud and while driving they produced an awful noise. Slowly we drove on to the border post. 

This was the moment of truth. Would I be granted entrance to the country, or would they refuse me? We handed our passports over to an official and we were told to wait at the car. It seemed to take forever for them to process our passports and all the while I was getting rather nervous. What if they refused my entry? What would I do? I couldn't go back to Tajikistan either, so was I going to spend two nights here at this border post?

After about 20 minutes an official came out with our passports. “Van der Vorst?” he shouted.
Meeting some Belgian cyclists in the no-man's land
My heart sank, this was it, they wouldn't let me cross. “Da” I replied, looking as innocently as I could. He looked at me sternly. “Galandia?” he asked.
Yes, I am the Dutch guy, give me the bad news.
His stern face turned into a broad smile. “What happened with the World Cup final?” he asked, as he handed me my passport back. “How could you give that away to the Spanish?”

He didn't say a word about my visa. My passport had been stamped and I suppose I was free to enter the country.
The customs check went fairly quick. Once again no one was interested in checking the car, so ten minutes later we officially drove onto Kyrgyz soil.

We arrived at the tiny town of Sary-Tash a few hours later.
First glimpse of Kyrgyzstan
Sary-Tash has been described as a dump where you don't want to stay for too long. Well, after Murghab and Karakul Sary-Tash seemed like paradise to us. Not that there are many facilities here, but the setting in the middle of a huge green valley, surrounded by huge snowcapped mountains, is just absolutely gorgeous.

Phil knew a nice guesthouse where he had stayed before, so the four of us checked into a room. Very conveniently the guesthouse also had a small repair pit for the car and the owner knew someone who would be able to help the guys change the break pads.

Not being able to help much, Phil and I gave ourselves the task to buy some cold beers at a nearby store. We had deserved some after this arduous day.
There was another person staying at the hostel, a Slovenian guy names Tadej, who was able to give us some more information about the travel situation in Kyrgyzstan.
Car repairs
Basically the country is fine to travel in again, though public transport is completely disorganized. He had spent a small fortune getting from the town of Kochkor, via the affected cities of Osh and Jalal Abad, to Sary-Tash. This didn't sound all to promising for me, as I will have to do this trip in reverse order next week.

The five of us had a nice dinner in a tiny Sary-Tash restaurant. Lovely Manti (dumplings) with more cold beers. It was our last night together for Tim, Wim and me, and it was a bit of a strange farewell party. Well, not much of a party really, since Sary-Tash isn't much of a party town. Really weird that I will be on my own again after travelling with these guys for more than two weeks.
Tim hard at work replacing the brake pads

We agreed that once we're all back home again (they will be back in Belgium a few weeks before I return home) we should definitely meet up for a proper party.

Tadej says:
world is so small! we met in Sary-Tash and I'm the slovenian, who has traveled in oposite route like you... :)
Posted on: Mar 09, 2013
Biedjee says:
oh, sure, some people do, but it is far less popular as it is in Central Asia (or other, non-cricket playing areas in the world)
Posted on: Aug 26, 2010
cloggytim says:
Hmm well my Indian colleagues followed the whole world cup.
Posted on: Aug 25, 2010
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The views from the Kyzyl-Art pass
The views from the Kyzyl-Art pass
The Tajik-Kyrgyz border, with maps…
The Tajik-Kyrgyz border, with map…
The public facilities at the borde…
The public facilities at the bord…
Phil impersonating a driver
Phil impersonating a driver
The views from the Kyzyl-Art pass
The views from the Kyzyl-Art pass
The Tajik-Kyrgyz border
The Tajik-Kyrgyz border
The road down from the Kyzyl-Art p…
The road down from the Kyzyl-Art …
Stuck in the mud
Stuck in the mud
how are we ever going to get out o…
how are we ever going to get out …
Getting pulled out by a truck (thi…
Getting pulled out by a truck (th…
The road to Sary-Tash
The road to Sary-Tash
Meeting some Belgian cyclists in t…
Meeting some Belgian cyclists in …
First glimpse of Kyrgyzstan
First glimpse of Kyrgyzstan
Car repairs
Car repairs
Tim hard at work replacing the bra…
Tim hard at work replacing the br…
I looked in the mirror this mornin…
I looked in the mirror this morni…
The road down into Kyrgyzstan
The road down into Kyrgyzstan
Crossing the washout - this seemed…
Crossing the washout - this seeme…
Dont forget to look behind - this…
Don't forget to look behind - thi…
Several 6000+ metre peaks surround…
Several 6000+ metre peaks surroun…
The road to Sary-Tash
The road to Sary-Tash
The streets of Sary-Tash
The streets of Sary-Tash
The streets of Sary-Tash
The streets of Sary-Tash
The streets of Sary-Tash
The streets of Sary-Tash
Old man in Sary-Tash
Old man in Sary-Tash
photo by: Biedjee