This regional summary covers our journey from the heart of Kyrgyzstan, in the regional capital of Naryn, as we made our way west to the city of Osh, home of Central Asia's largest bazaar and the border of the next country in our path. Like the northern parts of Kyrgyzstan we walked through, this area did not lack in mountainous terrain, majestic beauty, enveloping dust, generous hospitality, disjunct travel plans, and the constant, albeit slight, changes of each new ridge as we watched the world change under our feet with each passing week. But first, this region started with a border run in Bishkek.
We said good-bye to Conor—our traveling companion of the last two weeks or so. We did our border run. Bishkek did what Bishkek does, challenged us as to which part of our lives is the normal part—the residing or the walking. Eventually, we made our way back to Naryn via marshrutka (local minibus) and immediately hitched a ride further still to where our trailers awaited, collecting dust in a little café's backroom for well over a week now, in a town which was NOT called Zhany Talap. You can imagine how we worked that one out with the locals, and the consternation that we all felt as the communication breakdown happened. I can't capture each of these interactions in this regional summary. (We'd be here a long time.) But this is the best thing about traveling. This is also the scariest thing about traveling, to me. The interacting. The figuring-it-out, together. But we did it, we figured out how to connect. Anyway, from Not-Zhany-Talap we headed west.
The road was as wash-boarded and dusty as any we had yet experienced. Towns were the only places we found reprieve from the rugged roads. Their main streets sporting generations-old pavement while the roads leading in and out are in the process of getting their virgin layer installed. I relish these short stretches of smoothness as much as I find them awkward. Gliding so effortlessly, all of a sudden, reminds me of that moment when you get off a trampoline and have to convince yourself that the ground has always been this firm. My trailer, no longer being steadily forced over every inch of uneven surface, starts to roll as if it's trying to get away from me. I find myself almost missing the old familiarity of the rough road—almost. Everywhere has been the same. Apparently, Kyrgyzstan's road development strategy is to start in the hubs and expand outward until all the spokes connect. Although arhythmic and unforgiving, these tracks provide more than just a connection between towns. Almost all of the other travelers we've met, regardless of their mode of transport, have been rattled by the roads. We connected with this one motorcyclist over his broken saddlebag mounts and our broken handles. We offered him a length of p-cord (parachute cord—lightweight, strong rope) to help secure his mounts, which were only getting worse, before parting ways. This was not the first, nor the last, bit of bonding caused by the roads in this region.
Over the next few days, we made our way up a windy road that brought us over a mountain and down into a narrow valley. The side we ascended was carpeted in grass and pocked with rocky projections that the winding road meandered around on the ridges and in little valleys that wrinkled the lower part of the greater mountain. The top, one kilometer up, was surprisingly flat, just as grassy, and with a single trailer house. This Jai-loo (summer home) had its very own picket fence enclosing a small front yard, which was comical to me because of the vast sprawl of green grass that spread out past their animal corrals, dried poop-patty towers, and herd that was grazing in front of a commanding view of lowland foothills that rolled out as far as the eye could see. The moment we crossed over the summit and began our descent, we entered a valley of rock and abrupt slopes that were various brownish colors from light yellows to deep reds. They seemed too big to look directly at, my eyes failing to comprehend their scale and magnitude. Like looking at an optical illusion, I couldn't figure out how near or far the peaks actually were. There was little growing anywhere except on the edges of the road and in the odd crack of the cliffs where seemingly dead bushes grew and were apt to become the next tumbleweed to roam these parts any day now. At the bottom of the valley, we found a stream with trees and shade and flat ground. It was too much to pass up, and so it was our home for the night. The map called it Paradise Campsite, and I tended to agree. Other campers seemed less impressed.
From here, Paul split and went ahead to Kazarman on his own, walking 65 kilometers in a single day! It took Timb and me two days to reach Kazarman, but it wasn't as smooth a journey as just an extra day might sound. This area was almost all agricultural land, contained to what flat spaces could be farmed amongst the sprawl of intertwining mountain valleys, used for growing hay and corn for livestock feed to see them through the winter. Our dirt track wound its way up and down and side to side like a long, slow, bumpy rollercoaster with dust and pollen that washed over us in the wake of every passing vehicle. One bump, that didn't seem any different from the rest, jolted Timb's trailer just right. It broke his trailer frame clean in two. Luckily, we carry duct tape on our water bottles and p-cord in our packs. So, we improvised a traction splint by tying the trailer to itself nice and tight and then duct-taping the heck out of it. Then we hoped and prayed to the trailer and duct-tape gods alike that it would hold until we could figure out a more permanent fix. Our logistics-master, Timb, came through with a win as he placed an order of all the new parts we needed to be delivered to Osh, where it would wait for us.
Furthermore, during the last mountain crossing, Paul's solar panel stopped working. We thought it might just be that time of the expedition when all of our stuff starts to break down, but luckily, we were able to find an electronics dude in Kazarman who re-soldered the wire connection that wiggled loose, free of charge. And just like that, we were back up to two solar panels. It's amazing how much of a morale boost little victories can be.
Before leaving Kazarman, where we had stayed longer than we originally planned—but, hey, what else is new—we restocked our consumables and also cut out a heap of gear that we no longer felt like carrying. The main reason was for the sake of our trailers and the beating they have been taking. Besides, after you haul something up and over a few mountains you really start to consider its necessity in your life. We trimmed our winter layers and parted ways with the extras that offered only variety in our lives. I must have gotten rid of six pairs of socks! I cut up a dark-colored shirt and sewed it to the underside of my light-colored hat that had been reflecting light in just the right way to evenly burn my face—enough was enough and that shirt had a further purpose to serve. We said goodbye to secondary fuel bottles we'd been carrying in case we needed to switch our fuel type from compressed gas to non-compressed. We found things buried in our trailers we hadn't seen since we packed them two months ago. We continued the elimination process within our repair and medical kits to get rid of the things we thought would come in handy, but, in lieu of solutions like duct tape and cement pills (you know, when you just need to harden up), we haven't used them. We tossed books and maps in favor of electronic versions, swallowing the fact that we had them just because we like the idea of physical copies. We offered all of this to the other guests and to our hosts to pick through, much to their amusement at just how much stuff we were carrying. After very little was taken, we finally asked what they would like us to do with it. Our host said they would ask around the town to find homes for the rest. Little did we know this was not a final goodbye with this gear.
Okay. This is where this regional summary takes a bit of a twist before we can get back to the walking portion, but it leads to one of the most memorable moments of the trip so far.
One day out of Kazarman I felt I needed to let Paul and Timb know I had been feeling odd for the past seven to nine days. I was light-headed, a bit dizzy, and had moments of confusion about what was going on. I felt distant and foggy and didn't know why. When this started, I thought I was just dehydrated, so I started drinking more and more water until I was up to about six liters per day, but still, I felt odd. There were no aches or anything, just the floating feeling of not quite being grounded. My salt intake has been elevated since Kazakhstan, but with the walking and the amount of water I was drinking, I thought that shouldn't be the issue. My sugars also probably weren't the cause because no amount of snickers or ice cream seemed to make it better. After another day of this, and now with Timb and Paul weighing in on the matter, it seemed concerning enough to get a hospital check sooner rather than waiting to arrive in Jalal-Abad, still over a week away.
Paul and Timb waved down a truck that could accommodate us and our trailers while I continued to feel dizzy and confused sitting in the shade. We loaded the trailers into the back with the three preexisting inhabitants, a little goat, an average-sized sheep, and a large male sheep with a territorial disposition (luckily, this was aimed at the other animals and not us). We climbed up into the, thankfully dry, manure-filled back end, and held on for dear life as we were driven up and over a windy mountain pass and down an equally windy and bumpy valley to Jalal-Abad. This ride was quicker than we expected, only four hours! We stood through most of it to limit the amount of dust we had to deal with—whether from the road or the dried manure all around us, we didn't know. But when the driver told us to sit, due to being in town or on particularly windy parts of the mountain road, we were cramped and scrunched tightly next to the big sheep who rammed his head relentlessly into the other two while they tried to use us as shields. At one point, the big one started to pee... and pee. And pee. Timb had to straight-arm him just to keep out of splatter distance, but it didn't stifle the flow that continued for over a minute. Again, we were grateful for the dryness of the manure-covered truck bed. A few times the driver stopped to drink from the mountain streams. We used these moments to push our trailers back into place as they kept shifting forward with each bump in the downhill section of the road. Our trailers, laid down in a prone position, were getting a wicked bit of torque in the handles, exacerbating the breakage. When we finally stopped and got out, we were all thoroughly covered in a layer of poo-dust. We dusted ourselves off as best we could, but it didn't do much to rid us of the filth nor did it stop us from going to a restaurant to eat.
In Jalal-Abad we found a guest house and had some of the most needed showers of our lives. Timb slowly became ill and remained so for the better part of a week. My fugue state persisted. Paul maintained his unaffectable state. We took a taxi to Bishkek the next day, cutting up through Krygyzstan's northwestern region, a drive that took roughly 12 hours to cover 570 km (~356 miles) and cost less than 45 USD. Twelve hours to go 350 miles might seem absurd, but here the drives are broken up by half-hour breaks, some lasting longer, and the route is rarely straight to accommodate the mountainous terrain. They twist and wind in a way that I could again use the rollercoaster analogy, and this time it would be more accurate due to the speed and quick swerves that shift you in your seat to lean heavily on the person next to you then quickly switch and throw you against the person or door on your other side. But with our new-found perspective on just how bad rides can be, we enjoyed the scenic mountain overlooks. The rivers flowing in each valley carried turquoise glacial water so fully saturated with minerals that in the depths it took on a milky hue. The sky was blue. The clouds were puffy and white. But as scenic as this route was, we were all glad that we walked a different path. The traffic was crazy, and the shoulder was almost nonexistent.
The reason we came back to Bishkek is that it's the capital and biggest city, and therefore, has the best hospitals with the most western influence. In fact, my doctor was from Michigan. Over the next three days, they ran a series of blood tests and went through a list of possible causes, checking them off on their hunt for the cause of my fugue. The doc said my white blood cell count indicated a minor bacterial infection, which was completely normal for travelers being exposed to new parts of the world, new foods, different pollens, et cetera, and probably wasn't the cause of my symptoms. The final result was inconclusive with a prescription to generic antibiotics that could be bought over the counter. Ugh! After all that! The total bill of all the visits and tests was about 100 USD.
To get back to where we left off walking, we first hopped a ride back to Jalal-Abad with a couple of nice dudes who drove better and treated us to some pleasant hospitality along the way. We drove through a winter wonderland that covered everything in a brilliant white blanket including the horses and their riders who ranged the hillsides gathering their herds. The snow gave way to the sparse vegetation of the lower elevations, and was replaced by the sheer, rocky valley slopes that were in turn replaced by the sprawling farmlands of Jalal-Abad on the edge of the Fergana Valley. We quickly repacked our stuff into a single trailer for the ease of finding transportation and because a single mountain crossing would bring us back to Jalal-Abad from where we left off, so we figured we wouldn't need all of our stuff. Oh, how wrong we were. This ride was greatly improved from the last time by comfortable seating and no sheep. The driver was very confused, understandably, by the obscure destination, but dropped us off right where we had been picked up just over a week ago. And just like that, we'd seen the pass and valleys on either side twice now, and were eager to finally experience it by foot.
It rained the following day. It grew gustier, and the temperature dropped as we neared the base of the mountain. We sought refuge from the growing storm, around noon or a little after, in an abandoned building that appeared to be used for just such occasions by the local shepherds. One of the cement block rooms was devoid of animal droppings and had a beat-up, rusty stove in it and a broom propped in the corner. We removed our saturated layers for new warm ones and began to wait out the storm. The storm was indifferent. The wind grew stronger, the gusts howled through the open-ended brick building. The rain came down sideways, turned to sleet, and melted into a muddy, slushy consistency as soon as it hit the ground. We decided to stay the night instead of climbing into colder regions while getting soaked. We settled in. When I was cooking dinner, Paul noticed a pickup-camper parked nearby. Excited to have neighbors, Paul and Timb went to introduce themselves. Frank and Marion were a nice German couple touring in their Range Rover, with a camper on the back, and offered us morning coffee from their espresso maker if we were awake before they left. The next morning, however, they were still there while the upper half of every mountain around us had disappeared under a blanket of snow that dissolved into the turbulent clouds still raging last night's storm. They told us of their early morning attempt to cross the pass, and of their failure at less than halfway up as they were forced to turn around when the road ceased to be discernible from the slope of the mountain. We all agreed it was a very wise call, especially since their Range Rover had a cracked frame with a temporary brace holding it together—just another example of the damage Kyrgyz roads cause.
This gave us a lot to ponder. Even with the beta knowledge from Frank and Marion, we were unsure of what to expect further toward the top and whether we were well-enough equipped to responsibly take on the challenge. So what? Now what? Cross a blizzardy mountain pass, even without proper socks, and hope that traversing by foot would give us the advantage over the numerous vehicles we had been watching go up and, after a while, come back down defeated? Or wait for conditions to improve? Considering our food, we could only wait another three days before we'd have to start rationing just to get us to the next village. Call it? Let this final barrier stop us after we'd already stopped the walk once due to snowy mountains? Go around? The only option was a very, very long way around—drive east to Naryn, north to Bishkek, and then, again, south to Jalal-Abad. Ugh. An all-around bummer of a situation. Then, several hours into weighing our options, it dawned on us. We cut a small Salvation Army's worth of gear not that long ago just down the road in Kazarman. Maybe it was still there. If not, maybe Kazarman would have what we needed to outfit ourselves for crossing the pass. So we hitched a ride with one of the defeated drivers on their way back to Kazarman. As luck would have it, they were Chinese dudes, part of the crew working on the roads near Kazarman and building the tunnel that would make this mountain route a thing of the past. They were scouting the pass for their trucks delivering the asphalt and tar they needed for the road. Very excited that Paul and I spoke Chinese, they were happy to tell us that they had a plow to keep the road open. Huzzah! Any other year this seasonal pass would have been closed until spring. In Kazarman, we were welcomed back at the same hostel. Here, we received more good news, our most vital gear, like Timb's Neos (over-shoe boots), were still unclaimed. The socks we left were gone, but the lady managing the hostel gave us some others, telling us, "It's winter now. You can't be walking around without socks," looking at Timb when she said it. The following day we met more German travelers headed for the pass and were immediately accommodated along for the ride back to our abandoned building.
We found the road plowed, just like the Chinese guys said it would be. And we were thankful for it, too, as we passed thigh-high drifts in some places. Other sections were plowed corridors with snow that rose up chest-high on either side of us. We ended up not needing the gear that we reabsorbed, but were grateful for the safety-net feeling they provided. Mountains are an interesting place. One way is in their ability to alter the weather as it is forced up and over or pushed to the side. The suddenness of these changes gives mountains their unpredictable nature—as we had just experienced. But if you are lucky enough to summit one during clear skies, the views are unparalleled. The scale of what you can see is baffling. And when we summited this final mountain that lay in our path, we were lucky indeed. Traversing the land by foot has given me a new perspective for vista-viewing. Having watched the landscape change as I passed through, updating my place in it on my mental map as I went, I looked out from this mountain top and read the minute wrinkles in the land and remembered that it took me eight hours to climb that wrinkle over there. That it took fifteen days to arrive here from the village that, although out of sight, I knew was behind that one particularly rocky outcrop over there. I remembered the snowy mountain top that dominated the skyline when we were in that village, but now, instead of looking up at that snowy mountain top, I was looking at it from the side. The magnitude of mountains is awesome. I thought of the people we had met between here and there, and of the lives and generations that have contented themselves on the small piece of earth that lay before me, knowing that even the terrain extending out past the haze was still but a small piece.
The far side of the mountain looked out over the valley that opened up to the Fergana Valley and some of the most fertile lands of Central Asia. The road brought us down a series of meandering switch-backs, dug out of the mountain's crumbling rock walls, to the valley floor where we met a large group of shepherds herding their way toward town for the winter. The valley was filled with trees, maple, elm, walnut, cottonwood, ash, and several other leafy beauties that commanded our attention as we hadn't seen forests like this for a very long time.
A few things happened in Jalal-Abad. We started interviewing each other for our next video project, to capture our thoughts and experiences of our time in Kyrgyzstan. During these interviews, a guy named Daniel listened in since he spoke English and was intrigued to know what travelers thought of his country. He ended up being a huge help, making our mission of picking up replacement trailer parts in Osh his mission too. He brought Timb to his home to eat food before their journey and to tell his wife where he was going. Then to Osh where they tracked down the post office holding our parts, arriving just before they closed. And then back again to J-Bad all in one day. We switched out the parts and made our trailers road-ready once again. We also found time to explore. Paul and Timb, who are always looking for better food than the few local dishes, found a group of Pakistani and Indian students who brought them to a local kitchen where they too sought refuge from the bland local fare for the taste of home. Another time, Paul and I found a different group of students who we immediately made a connection with because they had just returned from studying Chinese near Qingdao.
Jalal-Abad was noticeably different from the rest of Kyrgyzstan. The style of food changed a bit, the same dishes were prepared a little differently. The influences of Islam have grown stronger. The informal greeting "Salaam" has been replaced completely by the formal "As Salaam Alaykum" (peace be unto you) and reciprocated by saying "Wa Alaykum As Salaam". There's more people dressing conservatively as well as the level of conservative dress running a bit deeper. In this region, even young women wearing hijabs, and their long flowing dresses, are more common than other parts of Kyrgyzstan. The men, while almost always wearing the local hat that identifies them with one cultural group or another, can also be seen wearing the simple Islamic skullcaps, bigger than a Jewish Yamaka to cover the whole top of the head but not as big as a winter beanie.
With a fire under us to move on and begin the Uzbek section of our adventure, we walked out of J-Bad and were escorted by a guy named Timur as he rode his bike patiently next to us and talked for several kilometers until he bade us farewell at the edge of town. We gave him a sticker and, feeling compelled by the gift-giving culture, he gave us prayer-beads that he said came from Mecca and wished us a safe journey. We walked into the night until we found a little dirt road that led into the dark behind a brick factory where we were approached by the boss of the factory before we could even set up our tents. His name was Emil, and he invited us to stay in the office of the factory because camping may be hazardous due to the "little wolves and drunk people in the area". At the factory, we were immediately invited to go to a Banya—a local sauna-like spa. We picked up his English-speaking friend, Conorbek, on the way and arrived at the Banya around midnight. We spent the next few hours here going from sauna to dip pool, deep-scrubbing away the layers of dead skin and filth, and then back to the sauna to start the process over again. After a while, we went to drink tea and relax before leaving. It was around 4:00 AM when we got back to the brick factory and turned in for the night.
Over the next few days, we made our way eastward to a town called Uzgen before heading back westward again to our final destination in Kyrgyzstan, the city of Osh. We cruised this section quickly, only stopping briefly in Uzgen to see the minaret and mausoleum, which were underwhelming because I didn't bother learning anything about them before arriving. This made them appear to be just another old structure amidst the ancientness that fills this part of the world, and far less meaningful. It's hard finding connection and significance in everything we come across while traveling. Sometimes I feel like, "Neat. Ready to go?" That's how Uzgen felt.
Starting in Uzgen and continuing to Osh, it was clear the fall harvest was in full swing. Dozens of semi tractor-trailers filled with melons greeted us in Uzgen, and on the way to Osh, the roadsides were lined with people selling assortments of quashes along with the last of the season's fruits. Pomegranates are especially popular here. There's something about stall after stall of pumpkins and pomegranates that give me the feeling of festive coziness that kicks off the holiday season. Even here, looking back, we could see the snow-capped mountains we crossed that now seemed to signify more than just a transition of landscape but a whole new region, a shift in culture from nomadic to sedentary, and a change in the seasons, too.
The long-awaited city of Osh marked the end of Kyrgyzstan's chapter and the beginning of Uzbekistan's. But before we left Kyrgyzstan behind, we worked through Uzbekistan's new electronic visa application, which still has some kinks. We enjoyed daily showers, soft beds, and fast-food that consisted of pizzas, burgers, sushi (yeah, go figure), shwarmas, and some deeply missed Chinese food that we found while exploring Osh. Osh boasts Central Asia's largest bazaar and is host to the sacred mountain Sulaiman-Too, an alternative pilgrimage destination for those unable to go to Mecca. Osh felt like every other Kyrgyz city, except a lot bigger, and nothing at all like Bishkek's European/Russian-Colonialism vibes. The bazaar, in contrast to others, didn't really have a defined edge. The heart of the market spills out on both sides of the river that runs through town and spreads a considerable way before dribbling out into the normal line of shops and stalls on the streets, but every alleyway and side-street is its own micro-market, and they're everywhere. This made Osh feel more like a market crisscrossed by streets than a city with a market in it. Escaping the markets and flatness that is Osh, I also climbed Sulaiman-Too Mountain. It was filled with tourists, pilgrims, and locals alike, taking selfies, praying, relaxing, and sliding down the polished stones. Yeah, that's right, there are natural stone slides that old and young enjoy playing on. The rocks are insanely smooth solely from centuries of human touch. The marbly colors of red and black are truly something to behold when you look around at the other dirty, crumbling rocks in the area and think that it would all look like this with enough polishing.
Yvon Chouinard once said, “It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong.” This sentiment has resonated with us from the beginning of our trip, and although this has rung true throughout our journey so far, this section has certainly been unique. I’ve learned that plans are helpful, but they cannot accommodate the here and now. Knowing a bit of the language is always going to be recommended to get around easily and to make a deeper connection with people, but pantomiming is a whole lot of fun if you are OK being silly. And sometimes being comfortable enough to open up to people fosters a deeper connection than knowing the right words. Trying new foods or saying “Yes” to challenging situations may not lead to a new-found favorite, but it might. There is no correct way to travel, but that shouldn't stop you from finding your preferred method to see what life is like from others' perspectives and to roll with each bump that life throws at you.
Written by Patrick Exe