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Monday, July 9, 2018

FROM MOUNTAIN YURTS TO THE STEPPES

We have very fond memories of the gorgeous mountain scenery in Kyrgyzstan and it does not disappoint. As soon as we head down down down from the mountain pass with Tajikistan we are surrounded by glistening snow capped peaks, velvet green meadows and yurts dotted everywhere. Here in the warmer months the locals still pack up their yurts & head to the hills with their horses & sheep.  Kids play in streams, ride horses and generally have a great time. The men are busy moving their animals to fresh pastures, the women are milking the mares & selling the fermented milk & yoghurt balls. Truly a real holiday feel for all the families making it a magical drive.
We head up through more mountains & down yet more river valleys. It is so lovely we stop early, find a spot in the river bed and just enjoy it. Osh (the big smoke) can wait until tomorrow. We wake to drizzle, so head off along the gorge and down through the fertile Fergana Valley to Osh. We have a few chores to do in Osh – mainly to find a camera. We park & trudge the streets, eventually settling for a mediocre camera. The best we can do sadly. The rest of our chores done we are glad to leave. It is hot and town is busy. The road we follow skirts the edge of Uzbekistan, so lots more fences. It is one very crazy border- all very twisty. We wind through acres of fields & lots of little towns, finally ending up beside a huge lake for the night. The local lads are swimming & yahooing but leave soon after dark.
Again, more fields and villages before we start to follow a huge emerald green river through gorges, past dams and on up in to the mountains. Lovely! Before we get too high (altitude wise) we find a spot tucked well off the road beside the river. Amazingly someone has beaten us here. There is a small German motorhome already here. More magic driving follows – up to a high mountain pass surrounded by snowy peaks, then down through more of those emerald pastures dotted with 100’s of yurts. Simply stunning. Then we turn off the main road to Bishkek and head towards Ssuusamyr on the gravel road. We are now definitely well off the beaten track. Stop and explore little villages and drive for magic mile after mile finally stopping beside a pretty burbling creek on lovely green grass for the night.
On through more velvet mountains, up and over another pass and down to meet the main road, where we head to Kochkor. The markets are on so we stock up on delicious apricots & nectarines. Then we head towards Loke Song Kul, which we visited in 2005, along the road that heads to the Chinese border at the Tourgat Pass. The road is so good and the weather so perfect we decide to carry on all the way to Naryn near the Chinese border. At Naryn we see signs to the lake, so we head that way along a huge valley.  The final part of the drive is made up of numerous tight hairpins up a huge mountain. The lake itself is set in a huge high-altitude bowel surrounded by towering peaks. We head on in to the bowel and find a spot for the night. What a view. There are already heaps of yurts set up & contented animals grazing.
A late start as it is cold & grey, making it tempting to stay in bed. But when the sun comes out we head off around the lake. Perhaps GR2 didn’t like the late start, but she dies with a hiss & splutter. After a few attempts John finally isolates the problem (caused by water in the diesel) and we are off. Thank goodness John knows what to do as we really are in the middle of nowhere. Although I guess at a pinch there are a few trucks around dropping off yurts & various stuff. We follow the dirt track around the lake & head out the same way we came in many years ago.  We follow the dirt track up over a snow-covered mountain pass, back down to the main road and on down to Kochkor. Tomorrow is the Saturday animal market so we head out of town to camp beside an aqua lake ready to return early for the markets.
Despite rain in the night, the markets are still on. We squelch in through mud & animal poop to gawk at the sheep, goats, cows, horses, yaks on display. It is totally chaotic and very smelly. Finally, time to move on towards Lake Issyk-Kul. Follow the southern side of the lake to Karakul where there are more animal markets tomorrow. We visited them in 2005 so have decided to see how they have changed.  They are bigger than ever with a huge roofed area and now they have cars for sale too, but they don’t have the same Wow as in 2005.
We have discovered that we can cross the border down this end of the lake rather than driving all the way to Bishkek, so we are heading that way despite the threat of a bad road. On through fertile valleys towards Kazakhstan. And yes, the road is rough. Sadly, we get yet another blowout just before the border. The crossing is very simple, and we head on to Charyn Canyon. We missed it on our last visit and have heard great reports. So, it is there we head for our first night. And it is truly worth the visit. It is amazing – Grand Canyon USA on a smaller scale. 4x4’s can drive right through the canyon, but we cannot. So, we camp on the edge & gaze in. The next morning, we walk its entire length and can see why we couldn’t drive in – there is a very low rocky arch we definitely would not fit under.  We say our goodbyes to our new camp buddy from Italy and head out and on to Almaty.
Our first chore before we encounter any police is to find insurance as there was nothing at the border. At the first decent sized town we stop and John asks the police for help. We end up at an insurance office. The guy has not a word of English so with the help of Google translate and lots of time we end up with our much-needed piece of paper and are invited for chai which actually ends up as lunch. Day nearly gone we head in to the city to start on our list of chores. Most importantly a tyre shop. Our second attempt is successful. We have to return tomorrow to get all sorted. By now it is late & we head to where we stayed many years ago, but alas this city has grown enormously and we can’t camp there, so we head up the hills towards the ski slopes to find a spot up there.
It is amazing how long it takes to do anything here. Every chore takes hours. Not to mention the traffic. The city is jampacked with cars all day long. We overnight beside the tyre shop and continue chores. We purchase a much better camera to stop me moaning, Mongolian visas, new tyres…the list goes on. Another night spent just outside the city so that we can come back in to collect our visas, before we head off. Actually, quite a relief to leave the traffic and get back on the road and out on the steppe. The only aggravation is the very annoying policeman who wants to check all our paperwork, look inside GR2, breathalyse John and inform him he is over the limit! John gets decidedly cranky, grabs his paperwork & stalks off! No bribes for this policeman today.
We are driving along flatness – at dusk we simply drive well off the road for the night. And so, the miles fly by, as do countless trucks. We meander through some nearly deserted towns and finally reach the edge of Lake Balkash – an immense aqua lake. We trail it for miles until we reach the town of the same name. After exploring we find our own lovely beach for the night. Perfect for swimming. It is way too nice to leave early, so we stay to swim. Then the drive resumes and we head on in to the city of Karagandy where we find yet another lakeside spot for the night. This lake has been made from an old coal mine. Here we meet lots of locals as it is Saturday night and they are out picnicking & swimming. The very helpful Colonel we meet returns in the morning to check we are OK.
The recommended thing to do here is visit the Gulag Museum just outside the city – so we head off there. It is certainly worth the visit. We get an English-speaking guide as most of the signage is not in English, and she is great. We come away with our heads chock full of facts about the terrible life in the gulags. Not a good thing to get on the wrong side of Stalin! (And what an understatement that is). Back to the city for a quick explore before hitting the road to Astana – the Capital city. We are now on very fertile steppe land indeed. This is where those poor people in the gulags were forced to work 14 hours a day every day for years & years!
We arrive in Astana late in the afternoon (Sunday – so not too much traffic) park and explore. All budding architects should come to admire the amazing buildings. Money has been poured in to this city (almost as obscenely as in to Ashgabat). We wander for a few hours, stop for dinner & then try to find a spot by the lake. It proves to be too muddy or too built up so we simply stop at the end of a street for the night.
In the morning time for a grease & oil change, this time done for free at a bus depot, before heading out. We have one more sight to see before we cross in to Russia. It is the National Park at Lake Burabay that is dubbed a mini–Switzerland. Hopefully we can camp there. But no – it is way too busy, carparks are full & side tracks are muddy from the heavy rain we had today. After exploring we head out and finally find a river spot for the night.
Our last city is Petropavolsk where we stock up on food & diesel. It is a very Russian city with a gorgeous Orthodox Cathedral & rows of cute, if somewhat dilapidated, gingerbread houses. By the end of the day we reach the border. All incredibly easy – and we are in Russia with insurance as well! The landscape is flat & wet. So marshy in fact that there are zillions of mosquitos. When we stop for the night we are forced inside by hordes of them zooming at us. As you know mozzies are one of Johns pet hates! He wakes early after hearing buzzing noises & getting bites. How do they get in. We head off and drive…no stopping anywhere. Finally, we reach the huge city of Omsk and head straight to the centre. Somehow, we manage to arrive at rush hour, so in we crawl, easily find a carpark and explore this surprisingly lovely city. As we head out of town and on to more flatlands we realise everywhere is still wet with lots of ponds, lakes & marshes: meaning mozzies. So, when we stop tonight we are again kept inside by those ferocious beasts!
More driving. It is so scintillating that we start counting trucks. In the first hour we meet 150, then a few hours later 350!  Head in to our next city – Novosibirsk, and again head to the centre to park. This one looks a bit harder as there are cars everywhere, but we score a spot and head off to explore. We include a Russian lunch in our visit before heading out. Suburbia goes for miles following a river. By the time we reach Berdsk (now an outer suburb) the river has become a huge lake & we see people swimming. We can’t resist stopping – swim – see a few great camp spots and stay. YAY No mozzies! John goes to meet our neighbours in a little tent and we end up staying for dinner. Blini’s, sausages & salad all washed down with a generous splash of vodka. No English spoken by them & no Russian by us! John discusses driving routes & we are told the best way to Lake Teletskoe where we are headed next.
Should have been a perfect night shouldn’t it! BUT no. At some unearthly hour a group of younger people arrive to put up their tent, drink beer, laugh, sing & generally be loud & raucous all of half a metre from GR2 and despite there been heaps of empty spots. When it starts to drizzle we hope it will pour down. Perversely it doesn’t. In the end we get up and head out extra early for the day.
Today we head to Barnaul. As usual drive through the central streets and explore the cathedral. Finally, back to the main road, reaching our turn off before Biysk. Now it is a long slow bumpy drive. Surely this isn’t the good road. Wonder what the bad road is like. Too late to change our minds as we are well on our way. We discover later that our vodka drinking friend misinformed us (maybe too much vodka!) No way will we make it to the lake today. We find a perfect spot- all green & grassy on the edge of a gorgeous river. The sunset is superb, but we are forced to watch it from inside GR2. Yes, those mozzies have struck again!
So, we head on to the Lake and the town of Artybash. – and it is definitely worth a visit. It is stunning. Rather like the fjords in Norway or Milford Sound in NZ. The thing to do here is take a boat trip down the lake, so we check out the boats. It looks as if they go when they have a reasonable boat load. We wait! Dimitri talks into his phone & his phone talks to us in English. He has a few people due. When they don’t arrive, we go up to his hotel to fill up with water. There we meet Anton a great Russian guy who works for Porsche and speaks great English who also wants a trip, so the 3 of us split the costs and have a great time. We return to the marina at 9pm so pull out onto a spit nearby for the night. What a postcard picture spot for the night.
It is Sunday and we need an auto electrician in the next town, so no rush today. Our taillights are not going. So, we enjoy the view & John gives GR2 another much needed wash. Mid-afternoon we head out of town on the very pretty drive to Gorno-Altish. When we stop for coffee beside a pretty stream we decide to stay on for the night. Even though we are right beside a village no one hassles us – in fact they ignore us completely.
We head in to Gorno-Altish & it doesn’t find too long to find an auto electrician. A few hours later, plus a phone call to SLR (just a broken wire) & we are on our way after filling with diesel & more food (Horsemeat sausages anyone!).  Our drive continues through some glorious river valleys in the Altai area. Lots of local tourists, heaps of accommodation & tourist activities. There are countless places to camp beside the river. We find a great spot & have a fire (not a mozzie in sight). We are currently driving the 400 km Chuysky Trakt – a favourite Russian road trip. It is a magic drive with rivers, snow-capped peaks and wide-open vistas. At the last town we top up with diesel & water before we get to the border. Less than an hour to get out of Russia. Drive 28km to the Mongolian border…….. what a long queue. Wonder how long this will take!
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