The journey from Bishkek to Osh and Sary Tash and an attempt to cross the border into Tajikistan

As many of you will know Central Asia has been on and off the cards for a while now. For various reasons, it nearly didn’t happen this time but at the last minute we decided to go for it and from Urumqi in the far north-western corner of remote China we found ourselves in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan (which I still can’t spell without the aid of spellchecker). Despite all the horror stories you read about Central Asian capitals, Bishkek (the centre at least) is a pleasant city – lots of trees, plenty of grand Soviet-era style buildings and a bright blue sky. The guest house we stayed in was a different matter – one of the dirtiest we’ve stayed in for a long time, it reminded me of the “boys’ house” at college. On the streets of Bishkek, it was interesting to see so many ethnicities including many European looking faces. For the first time in our recent travels, it wasn’t possible to make an assumption about whether or not people were tourists or locals.

Lenin Statue Bishkek Kyrgyzstan-1-2Monument to Vladimir Lenin tucked away around the back of the State History Museum, Bishkek

Bishkek Kyrgyzstan 33Enjoying a local beer on a park bench in Bishkek!

Although Bishkek was more pleasant than expected, there’s still not a whole lot of sights to see and there was certainly no reason to hang around in that guest house. Our main mission was to obtain our visas for Tajikistan and we were able to collect these the day after we arrived. There were a couple of other travellers in the guest house also picking up Tajik visas and looking to head south (Ben from California and Eugene from Singapore – pictured above) so we decided to share transport. Public transport in the form of regular and reliable buses just don’t seem to exist in this country and, as a result, when people do need to travel they use shared taxis. We sometimes use shared taxis in other places in Asia which work on a system of leaving once full. Or rather, over full – it’s normal for 2 people to share the front passenger seat and a minimum of 4 to squeeze in the back: an arrangement that is definitely more comfortable for Asian-sized bottoms. Anyway, it’s not uncommon to have to wait a bit for the taxi to fill but here it seems it could be hours or even days, so having a group of 4 to hire the entire taxi is the best solution.

We arranged for a car to collect us at 8am but at 10 we were still getting excuses about the delay being due to “checking the tyres”, “bad traffic” and finally “no driver”. Frustrated we set off to the market and fairly swiftly managed to negotiate a better price than we were originally going to pay. The driver seemed jolly (retrospectively the only jolly driver we’ve encountered in this country so far) and after stops for petrol, fresh bread and apricot juice we were on our way. It was a long drive, 11 hours in total but it gave us the opportunity to see some of the countryside outside of the city. There’s no doubt it’s a beautiful country; they don’t call it the ‘Switzerland of Asia’ for nothing – and the mountain scenery helped the long-distance pass quickly. That, and the drivers 120 kilometres an hour average.

We were tired when we finally arrived in Osh and relieved to find the guest house was considerably better than its counterpart in Bishkek. It was straight out to find beer and kebab.

Kebabs and bread – the perfect accompaniment to beer!  

We spent a couple of days exploring Osh which is well-known for its large bazaar. A couple of years ago this region was at the centre of political violence which caused upheaval in the country but today everything is peaceful and friendly.

Osh bazaar

We seemed to have spent a lot of time in this country negotiating transport to our next port of call and soon we were back among the taxi drivers haggling over a fare on a piece of paper. None of us had mastered Kyrgyz and with only a few words of Russian between us, the process was based on the guy writing a figure down, us crossing it out and proposing a lower one, and so on. Finally, we reached an agreement and a fair price and were ready to set off. Well, WE were ready to set off – the driver had a few cigarettes to smoke and a cup of tea to drink before he was ready. The scenery on this leg of the journey was even more dramatic than the previous one and for much of the time we were surrounded by snow-covered mountains.

Osh to Sary Tash Kyrgyzstan 19rStunning views on the road from Osh to Sary Tash

We reached the settlement of Sary Tash in good time and found our lodging for the night – four rickety beds in a cold room with a “bathroom” across the field. The bathroom was a stinky hole in the ground in a tin shed. Actually, two stinky holes in the ground next to each other, twin-vanity-unit style. Nice. I call Sary Tash a settlement and not a town as there really isn’t very much there apart from a few houses, a petrol station and two small shops selling not much more than water, Snickers and beer. At least they had the essentials. After a walk around town, out of town and back to town again there wasn’t much to do but drink beer. Despite the surrounding snowy conditions, the sun was out and it was warm so everything was OK.

Sary Tash Kyrgyzstan 9Late afternoon beers in Sary Tash

Friendly locals in Sary Tash

The night wasn’t as cold as we’d anticipated and the next morning after the next round of vehicle negotiations we set off for the border with Tajikistan. There were no passing vehicles so we had no choice but to pay the over-inflated price offered. We were expecting the journey to take about 2½-3 hours so we were rather surprised when, less than 40 minutes later, we arrived at a couple of small buildings in the middle of nowhere. Apparently, this was the border – the Kyrgyzstan border. We had also been reassured we would easily be able to pick up another taxi on the other side of the border. But what we hadn’t been told was that the Tajikistan border was around 30 kilometres away and there was no transport between the two!! Done over would be a fair way to describe how we felt. We spent some time trying to find out if we had any options but the answer was no. While we did this, we had to make sure one of us was standing between our driver and his car door as he was all for dumping our bags in the snow and leaving us in the middle of nowhere. We’d passed no vehicles in either direction so we definitely didn’t want to let him leave without us. We had to concede we had no choice but to return to Sary Tash and then back to Osh. Very disheartening indeed.

Sary Tash Kyrgyzstan 15Trying to hitch a ride BACK to Osh

Back in Osh that evening we met up with some other travellers who were planning to leave the following morning for the border. They were planning on hiring a vehicle from Osh to take them all the way through to a town some distance on the other side – in retrospect, the only reliable option. They were already a party of three and we had the options of either finding a vehicle big enough to fit us all in or hire two vehicles and travel in convoy. Mark and I decided that as we (in theory) had time on our hands and were also fairly unenthusiastic about getting straight back on the same road again, we would wait it out for a couple of days and see if anyone else came through. Ben was on a tighter schedule and decided to go with them and Eugene who was running out of time decided he needed instead to head for the Chinese border. Consequently, the next morning the other half of our travelling gang left and we were left wondering if we’d made the right decision.

That evening it seemed clear we had made the right choice when one member of the party who had left that morning appeared back at our guesthouse at around 10pm. He was alone and the other three travellers were spending the night somewhere in the no man’s land between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan! Their original vehicle had abandoned them as the road was too bad to pass and they’d encountered a storm. Seeing as the stretch of land belongs to neither country, no one is responsible for maintaining it which creates a strange situation from either side but from our conversations with the border guards the previous day, it was clear there is no love lost between the two countries. They couldn’t go on as the road was impassable but they also couldn’t go back as having been stamped out of the country, they had no valid visa to return and the officials were adamant it wasn’t possible. The traveller who had returned was Russian and needed no visas to travel in this region but the American and Aussies weren’t so fortunate. At least they had warm shelter and food and his plan was to return today with another vehicle and try to continue and as I write this we are waiting to hear where they are. Although it would have given us a good story to tell, we were glad we had made the decision not to go. Could we have counted “No man’s land” as a country?!

If you enjoyed this post, the next instalment of this story involves hitching from Sary Tash in Kyrgyzstan on to Kashgar in western China.

Bishkek to Osh Kyrgyzstan 7En route from Bishkek to Osh


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