Monthly Archives: April 2017

Along the Afghan Border – Tajikistan

Although we didn’t get to bed until after 1am in Khorog, we were up early the next morning to head off for another long day of driving.  It was going to take 2 days to get to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, and given the roads we had driven on until now – no doubt it would take every second of those 2 days to arrive!

From Khorog, we basically followed the Panj River, which forms the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, for most of the next 2 days.    This fast-flowing river and the mountains on either side make a very impressive barrier – so quite obvious why it has become a national border.

Panj River - Tajikistan

Tajikistan on the right, Afghanistan on the left

Fortunately, I sat on the correct side of the truck for most of the awesome views, and I whiled away many, many hours of back-breaking roads just watching the scenery pass by and trying to take photos.   Turns out – it is INCREDIBLY difficult to take photos out of a moving vehicle on terrible roads!

Spectacular scenery - Tajikistan

This is another really beautiful stretch of “highway” – if you can stand the bone jarring and the precarious drops of extremely narrow, elevated roads!   I kept telling myself that if the articulated trucks we’d seen coming the other direction had made it … so could we!

Steep dropoffs on the road from Khorog to Dushanbe - Tajikistan

This is quite a wide corner. There were some that I was sure at least one wheel was at least half off the edge!

Obviously, we were driving along a road on the Tajik side of the river, there was an equivalent that ran all along the Afghan side as well.    Well, almost all the way along.  We came across places where they were still building it … the hard way!

Building roads the hard way in Afghanistan - Tajikistan

Drilling through solid rock. Can you see the 2 ends of the road in the middle panel – here’s hoping they meet up in the end!

And the fascinating thing is that there were all these people just walking along it, in the middle of nowhere, miles from anywhere – sometimes with animals and sometimes with just themselves.

The view across to Afghanistan - people in the middle of nowhere - from Tajikistan

On the Tajik side, we passed through several small villages  and almost everyone who saw us either waved to us and/or openly stared at us in disbelief.   It was quite funny actually, and really interesting to see that the faces have definitely changed from more Asian-like features to Afghan/Turkic features.   i.e.  The Tajiks look completely different to the Kyrgyz and Kazakh people.

After almost 11 hours of being lost in my own world watching the scenery go by, my travel companions started to get restless as the sun dipped towards the horizon and we drove past a couple of (rare in this area) potential camping sites.   We eventually settled for quite a lovely place, right beside some more abandoned buildings (it seems to be a theme for our campsites).   And it was warm!   A welcome change after our last 5 days in the cold 😊

Campsite near Afghan border - Tajikistan

Another early start to complete the last several hundred kms to Dushanbe along unknown roads. 

Tajikistan - Pakistan border - Tajikistan

We were told to turn off the “main road” that we were on, into what was shown as a secondary road on the map, based on instructions from the group that did the trip last year.    Much to our surprise, after about a couple of hours – we finally hit a great bitumen road!   It was heaven after 4 days of bouncing around in the back of the truck at 20km/hr!

Bitumen road finally! - Tajikistan

Tajikistan is a country full of checkpoints , and we passed through what must have been our 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th checkpoint on the way to the capital.  Some of them are quick, some them are anal about the paperwork and insist on seeing everyone’s passport and visa so they can transcribe the details into their ledger.

Checkpoint - Tajikistan

Barrier at yet another Tajik checkpoint

We finally hit a large town, had a quick lunch, and continued on into completely different scenery.   Gone were the incredible mountains and the river, and instead the views were filled with rolling green hills and tilled fields as far as the eye could see.

Rolling green hills near Dushanbe - Tajikistan

So, after 5 days of staring out the window in silence, and given the now-less-than-spectacular scenery, I finally put in my earphones and music 😊



Kyrgyzstan – Tajikistan via Pamir Highway – Part 2

Late start this morning after a night that was still below zero, but not quite as cold the night before.   Was lovely to be able to eat breakfast in the sunshine and enjoy the view 😊

Pamir Highway - Kyrgyzstan

Then, with 20 sets of fingers and toes crossed, we headed back up the road to see if we could make it to Tajikistan.   James gave a couple of hoots of victory as we passed beyond our obstacle from yesterday, and the road did seem clearer, thanks to the passing of a few vehicles over the previous hours. 

Pamir Highway - Kyrgyzstan

It was pretty precarious going at times, and we all actually got off the truck a couple of times so that James could just fang it through the mud, but we finally reached the Kyrgyz border successfully.

Pamir Highway - Kyrgyzstan

My fellow travelers seemed to have limited concern for their safety standing where they were!

After completing the paperwork, it was out into no-man’s land, where the slight concern was that if we got stuck, who would help rescue us given we weren’t officially in Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan…  

Pamir Highway - no-mans-land between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

We are going to be in trouble if this gets worse!

But it turns out it wasn’t us who got stuck!   Instead, we came came up behind a truck that had cut the corner too close and was blocking the road.  

Pamir Highway - no-mans-land between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

Armed with shovels and crowbars, we helped dig them out of that predicament and tried to get them to back up into the wide corner so we could overtake them (they had an overladen 2WD vehicle with no snow chains on this road!).   

Pamir Highway - no-mans-land between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

They weren’t having a bar of it and took off ahead of us.  About 20 minutes later, we come up behind them again – “stuck” because they couldn’t get up a part of the road due to wheel ruts and ice.   Gayle and James went to talk to them to, once again, try and get them to pull off to the left and let us past.  

Pamir Highway - no-mans-land between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

Which they did, kind of, after about ½ hour.    Unfortunately, they didn’t pull off far enough and they were on quite a lean, so when we went to go around them, the back of their truck took out the rear 2 windows of our truck!

oops - Pamir Highway

The 3rd rear window broke as we extricated our truck from theirs and then the real frustration started.   We pulled out our crowbars and shovels and set about trying to help them re-make the road to their satisfaction – but all they did was a lot of standing around and looking at the predicament – not actually doing anything.    And they refused to back up more to let us around.   It was a complete stalemate.

During this time, most of our group actually walked over the top of the hill to the Tajik border post (we were literally 500m short of the border!) and an hour later, when Gayle and Lauren and I decided there really was nothing we could do to get these idiots to move, we headed there as well. 

Pamir Highway - no-mans-land between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

The group starts the walk up and over the hill to the Tajik border post

Over the top of the pass, we ran into 3 of our guys coming the other way … with 2 Tajik guys in camo!    We do love our guys in camo 😊   We kept going to the border to see how everyone was holding up – not great it turns out – even though the Tajik border guards had turned on the hospitality and everyone was sitting in a nice warm room with tea.    

Tajik Border Post - Pamir Highway

Given we were waiting anyway, we decided to at least get all the passports processed, but a few people had left their stuff on the truck.   So, Gayle and Jose and I walked back to the truck to collect the paperwork, and see how the truck was getting on as well.

The good news, was that the truck had moved!   Apparently, our friends in camo basically told the other driver to stop being a dick and move out of the way so we could get around them.    Unfortunately, we were now having trouble getting up a short icy patch, even with snow chains on ☹

Gayle and I collected the paperwork and started walking back to the Tajik border post.   We got over the pass and were ½ way down the hill when we heard a couple of victory hoots from James and the yellow beast came over the rise 😊    Soooooooooo glad to see the truck!

They picked us up (that would be right, after we’d walked the hard bit over the 5000m pass again) and we rolled into the border post with less fanfare than I was expecting.   I guess everyone was too nice and warm and busy sipping tea…

Then the next saga – 2 of the passengers didn’t have a paper copy, nor a downloaded electronic copy of their Tajik visa.   They thought they would have internet access so they could show the border guards … um, no.   This is a very remote border with very, very little traffic.  

Another hour or so passed while they tried to figure out with the border guards how they could get into the country.  Finally, after concocting an elaborate plan in which one of the 2 passengers with the visa issue would stay at the border, while one of the border guards come with us to the nearest town so that the other passenger with the visa issue could log onto the internet and save a copy of the visas, then return with a taxi to drop off the border guard and pick up the first guy, and then return to us again … In the end, it was all sorted in 2 minutes with a “quiet chat” behind closed doors and the exchange of US$300.

We drove about 100m to then be confronted with the customs checkpoint for Tajikistan!   Everybody’s passports and visas collected again to be transcribed into yet another book by hand…  By this time, the sun had set behind the mountains and it was getting very cold, despite having taped a tarp over the smashed windows (we were at ~5,000m after all). 

About 45 minutes later, we were on our way finally – down a dodgy road in the dark after a very trying day.   We were aiming for the town of Karakul and a guesthouse, which we eventually arrived at a very cold 1.5 hours later.    Kudos to James for delivering us safely – I’m sure the last thing in the world he wanted to do was drive down an unknown, crappy mountain road in the dark.

The guesthouse was awesome – with rugs on the walls and tons of rugs for the floor and doonas to cover us.   I also had my sleeping bag with me – it was sooooo nice to have a warm night!

Guesthouse - Lake Karakul - Tajikistan

Got up early the next morning to discover we were right beside Lake Karakol, one of the biggest lakes in Tajikistan.   Stunning morning and absolutely glorious setting!

Lake Karakol - Tajikistan

The guesthouse provided bread and eggs, and after a wonderful breakfast of fried eggs, and after doing our best to do a proper tape-up job where the windows were, we were off again – this time down the Tajik side of the Pamir highway.    

Driving this road was actually of the key reasons I decided to do this trip with Madventure.   Most other overland trips don’t drive the Pamir highway, but it is something I’ve wanted to do ever since I first heard about it. 

One of the immediately obvious things was this very impressive fence that we followed for a very, very long time.   I’m assuming it marked the start of no-man’s-land with China, given how close to the border we were.

Chinese Border - Kyrgyzstan

Lots of beautiful frozen scenery, and having blue skies was an absolute bonus!

Pamir Highway - Tajikistan

The Tajik border guards had told us that the Tajik side of the Pamir highway was much better than the Kyrgyz side of it, but I think they may have been talking things up a bit…  Yes, it was paved … kind of.   But for much of the day we averaged between 20km/hr – 30km/hr because of the potholes and the fact it would descend into a seriously corrugated dirt road on occasion!

Pamir Highway - Tajikistan

We eventually made it to Murghab where we stopped for lunch and to get more diesel.  I decided to try the Samsa for lunch – basically a meat and onion and fat “pie” or “empanada” – which was very tasty, but I did pick the globs of fat out before eating!

Samsa - Tajikistan

Then it was back on the highway and desperately trying to make it to Khorog as quickly as possible.    We had to go over two more high passes, and unfortunately, due to the super-bad roads, this took much longer than hoped.  That being said – I really appreciated the extended amount of time we had to enjoy the scenery 🙂

Pamir Highway - Tajikistan

In the end, we watched a gorgeous sunset, and drove in the dark for quite a long way, praying that James could see where he was going!   There was some concern at one point when James chucked at 13-point-turn having ended up on a bad road that didn’t seem correct.   Then chucked another 7-point-turn when he turned around again to deliberate on which way to go.   We ended up going the same way as we were originally headed given that we had seen 2 trucks come from that direction, and fortunately it turned out to be correct – just a very, very poorly signposted detour!

Sunset on Pamir Highway - Tajikistan

Fortunately, it was getting warmer as we descended, so I didn’t mind sitting back and watching the snowy mountains slide by under the light of the half-moon.  It was absolutely beautiful, and my thoughts were half a world away!

Looking out the window at Kyrgyzstan

The way I’m traveling at the minute is not my typical style. Usually I spend a fair amount of time in a place before moving onto the next, and I rarely have a set schedule for doing so – if I like a place, I’ll stay longer.  If I don’t like a place, then I’ll move on.

So I’ve had to really change the way I think in order to deal with the rapid pace and set schedule of the current trip.    I actually chose to do an overland tour precisely because I wanted to travel along the Silk Road, and that is how I’ve come to think of it – I’m on my “mechanical camel” plodding (the roads have been really bad for much of it, and even on the rare occasion they have been decent we are speed limited to 90km/hr) along the Silk Road.   It’s not about the destinations so much (they are an added bonus), it is about the journey.

Which means that I spend a heck of a lot of time sitting in the overland truck staring out the window.

Staring out the window - Turkmenistan

And I’m loving it!

One thing these endless hours of quiet contemplation reveals is patterns within the country we are traveling through.  I don’t often know the reason behind some of these things – lacking a person to ask – and I don’t have a picture for all of them (it’s unbelievably difficult to take pictures out of a moving truck when you are being bounced around like you are on a kid’s jumping castle), but here they are anyway 🙂

Kyrgyzstan is a land of:

  • Mountains

mountains kyrgyzstan

  • Transformers at ground level

transformer - kyrgyzstan

  • Blue  painted decorative windows

blue windows - kyrgyzstan

  • Decorative woodwork

blue windows - Kyrgyzstan

  • This fence

Fence - Kyrgyzstan

  • Re-purposed rail cars

repurposed railcars - kyrgyzstan

  • Cherry blossoms

cherry blossoms - Kyrgyzstan

  • Abandoned buildings
  • Half finished buildings that don’t look like they will ever be completed 

Kyrgyzstan – Tajikistan via Pamir Highway – Part 1

Leaving Bishkek for the last time, we had 2 long drive days to the Tajikistan border via Osh.  Aigol from the Green Apple hostel wished us luck with a juniper burning ceremony, and off we headed. 

Juniper ceremony - Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan is most definitely a land of mountains – with over 90% of the country actually classified as such.   We started up and over the first mountain range during the morning of the first day – gorgeous scenery of course!


We passed under several avalanche/rockfalls protectors – obviously, some vehicles were a little higher than they should have been!

Kyrgyzstan avalanche tunnels

And ultimately passed through a 2.5km long tunnel to emerge on the other side.

Kyrgyz tunnels

From there it was down into a stunning valley


And into a canyon,


where we found our campsite for the night just off the side of the road.  The guy who owned the abandoned building to the left came and said hello to us and even helped some of our group pitch their tents inside!

Bush Camp - Kyrgyzstan

The next day we were up and out of there fairly early for another full day on the road.   

We stopped just before Osh to finally fill our 800L water tank to the brim at a local tap (first time it has been full since I joined the trip), which took about 45 minutes.   One does wonder why they have to put barbed wire around the tap?!

Filling up - with water

My cook group was on duty for the next 24 hours, so when we finally got to Osh at about 1:30pm – we headed straight to the market to buy what we needed for dinner and breakfast for 20 people.   I’d taken the lead in my group and wanted to cook something “local” as I figured it would be simple to find the ingredients.   To this end, I’d downloaded a recipe for Lagman while in Bishkek and that’s what we were shopping for.


With the help of Google translate (into Russian) and lots of pointing, we managed to get everything we needed, though finding mutton was surprisingly difficult!   We did get some, but decided to get some other “mystery meat” as well (I suspect it was horse – it was quite dark and gamey) to bulk out the meat content of the dish.   I also bought a heap of pistachios, honeyed peanuts with sesame seeds on them, dried dates and halva to combine together into a “mix-platter” for a local dessert. 

Had just enough time after that to find a shashlik on the street for lunch (oh my god it was good!  I should have ordered 2!), to change my Kyrgyz money into Tajik money, and buy a bottle of coke (it was the first bottle of full-strength coke I’ve drunk since Coke Zero came out … I actually prefer Coke Zero!) before it was back on the overland truck to continue our journey.

From Osh – we joined the famous Pamir Highway (one of the highlights of the trip for me), and we headed up another stunning pass in the late afternoon


and, once over the top, found ourselves another abandoned building with an area for the truck to set up camp for the night.    Trust me to be on the cook group that is cooking in the snow!

Bush camp - Kyrgyzstan

Fortunately, the cooking kept my hands warm, though my feet slowly froze through 2 pairs of socks and my hiking boots.   Unfortunately, there are no images of the cooking process, nor the outcome – I was too cold and too distracted to think of it!   But – judging from the comments of my fellow travelers and the number of people who came back seeking out seconds – the Lagman was a huge success 😊    As was the desert!   I think several people were surprised to hear that it was all locally inspired.

Filled up my coke bottle with boiling water before heading to bed as soon as everything was packed up.   Yes – the “hot water bottle” trick I discovered last year on the Huayhuash trek is back, and the real reason I bought the Coke in the first place at lunch 😊    

In summary, the night was COLD!  Thank God for the Coke-hot-water-bottle, as I did manage to warm my feet up before falling asleep.   It turns out that whatever the temperature was overnight, I was just warm enough with my sleeping bag and tent.    Of course, had to get up and go to the loo twice during the night.   Tried to make both times quick as possible, but even that short view of the stars was magic.

It was well below zero overnight, because when our cook group got up at 6:15am to start breakfast, we were confronted with a frozen hose from the water tank!  Hmmmm…. Didn’t think of that!    Managed to unfreeze it and put the kettles on for a brekkie of potato/sausage/onion/egg stirfry + tea/coffee + bread.   Everyone else stayed warm for as long as they could and only emerged when breakfast was ready.  My hands were so cold that they’d gone beyond pain and into complete numbness.   Made it very had to pull down my ½-frozen tent!

Back in the (unheated) truck and rugged up with my refilled Coke-hot-water-bottle and my sleeping bag until I defrosted.  I think there were several others in the group who wished they had done Coke-hot-water-bottle thing last night and this morning as well!

On the truck

Up and over yet another stunning pass

Gorgeous scenery along Pamir Highway - Kyrgyzstan

and we were finally approaching the border with Tajikistan.    Unfortunately, we were only 30kms away when we were confronted with this:

Snow on Pamir Highway - Kyrgyzstan

Snow chains went on

Time for snow chains - Kyrgyzstan

And we plunged forward, only to be turned back about 500m further up the road – we just couldn’t get traction.    We stopped an old Russian van (those things really can go anywhere) to ask about the road ahead, but they said that it was completely snowy on the Kyrgyz side, but clear on the Tajik side.   So, no go for us.   

The decision was then made to try the other border that was about an hour or so away … though we’d heard that it was not for international tourists.   It was a lovely drive up a valley to be confronted with a small, padlocked barrier.

Border Crossing - Kyrgyzstan

Gayle and James went to see what they could arrange with the border guards, who explained that that border crossing was only for locals under a treaty with the Tajik government.   However, they were extremely helpful and called Bishkek to see if we could get special permission to cross.  They also called the main pass that we’d tried earlier and told them to send the snow plow down to clear the road.  

Unfortunately, Bishkek said “no” and we headed back up the valley to the main pass to await the snow plough to do its thing.   We ended up camping at the intersection, given it wasn’t clear how long it would take to clear 30kms of snow and it was going to be better to camp at 3000m rather than somewhere along an unknown mountain pass where there probably wasn’t anywhere to camp anyway.    Cook group 6 did a great job – was very yummy.   Then time for an early bed.   Couldn’t beat the view either!

Kyrgyzstan - camping on the Pamir Highway

My tent is the one on the far left in the middle image

Kyrgyz Food

The first day in Bishkek, a group of us went on a walking tour with the amazing Aigol from the Green Apple Hostel to learn a little about the city.  I mentioned to her that I was really interested in the traditional food of the countries I visit and asked her to let me know if we came across anything very typical of Kyrgyzstan.

Along the way, we found this lady selling traditional Kyrgyz drinks in one of the many parks in Bishkek.  The options were: Shoro – a wheat drink, Tan – a salty yoghurt drink, or juice.   Aigol ordered the Tan and I had a sip of that – definitely not my thing.   So, I ordered the Shoro – oh my God – absolutely not my thing either.  I had to surreptitiously pour it out in the garden – I really couldn’t drink it!     Lesson learned – I don’t like traditional Kyrgyz drinks!

Traditional Kyrgyz drinks - Shoro and Tan - Bishkek

A little later on, everyone was up for the suggestion of Aigol that we finish the walking tour with lunch at a Kyrgyz restaurant.   It was quite a fancy place with an extensive menu … difficult to decide what to have!

I ended up ordering the most typical Kyrgyz version of “Beshbarmak on – Naryn”: horsemeat, long noodles, onion.  Yeah – not the tastiest thing I’ve eaten … I think I’m done with Beshbarmaks now 😊

Kyrgyz food - Beshbarmak on – Naryn - Bishkek

I also ordered a couple of traditional breads to go with it – Boorsok is a fried dough that is quite plain, but would be awesome with some sort of sauce or yoghurt to dip into. 

Kyrgyz food - Boorsok - Bishkek

And Kattama – fried layered pastry dough with spring onion – which was very tasty, and went down very well cold the next day for lunch as well!

Kyrgyz food - Kattama - Bishkek

Had a great lunch with Aigol and really appreciate her taking extra hours out to introduce us to some of the food of Kyrgyzstan!

We had another opportunity to try a very famous Kyrgyz dish when we visited the town of Karakol on our 3-day trip around Issyk Kul.   Our driver took us to what looked like a hole-in-the-wall place (but one that was very, very popular with the locals) so we could try Ashlyan-fu, the specialty of the town.

Ashlyan-fu restaurant - Karakol - Kyrgyzstan

Ashlyan-fu is a dish of cold, vinegary noodles with fish.   I didn’t find any actual fish in mine, so maybe “fishy bits” might be a more accurate description!   It was really delicious and had a bit of a kick to it as well (which was a really lovely surprise) – perhaps due to its origins as a Dungan dish imported from China.   This was served with a bread stuffed with potatoes, which was a nice counterpart to the spicy dish.

Ashlyan-fu - Karakol - Kyrgyzstan

Then, when we stayed in the yurt camp, I had the opportunity to try Kyrgyz Plov.  Very similar to Kazakh Plov, and just as tasty.  I do really like this dish 😊

Plov - Kyrgyzstan

So, very happy to have the opportunity to try several Kyrgyz dishes, and I reckon I’ll be back to visit this amazing country in the future!

No longer stuck in the mud!

An update …

After 5 days, James did eventually get out of the mud in Kazakhstan with the help of the firemen, the army and this surprisingly small-looking, but obviously bad-ass truck!   Apparently it had an anchor to keep it stable while it pulled the truck out… 

Rescued from the mud - Kazakhstan

Welcome back James!

Issyk Kul – Kyrgyzstan

While we were waiting for James to un-stick the truck from the Tamgaly petroglyph mud with the help of his fireman and Army friends, we hired a mini-van and headed off from Bishkek for a 3-day tour around Issyk Kul – the second largest mountain lake in the world (behind Lake Titicaca).

Around Issyk Kul - Kyrgyzstan

It turned out that it is a bloody long way around this lake, so there was a lot of hours spent in the minivan driving.   But we did get to the following sites:

Burana Archaeological Complex

This complex is actually the remains of an ancient (X-XIV century) settlement, the most prominent feature of which is the Burana Tower – a minaret from the XI century and one of the first known in Central Asia.    These minarets were typically built around morgues to call the faithful to prayer and to also serve as watchtowers.  At 24m tall, it is only about half its original height (the top part has been destroyed) and is adorned by “ornamental belts” and other decorations.

Burana Tower and Archaeological Complex - Kyrgyzstan

The interior staircase is not for the claustrophobic, and is made out of bricks.  It is a one-way street only so timing your ascent/descent when others are around can be challenging!

Buruna Tower - Kyrgyzstan

Although the tower is what draws visitors to the site, there are other areas to explore as well.   There were many examples of petroglyphs on display.

Petroglyphs - Buruna Tower - Kyrgyzstan

As well as stone sculptures and monuments from the Turkic nomads.  These sculptures typically include features such as hats, clothing, ornaments and weapons, and some are depicted holding a vessel in their right hand.

stone sculptures and monuments from the Turkic nomads - Buruna Tower - Kyrgyzstan

Then there were the giant millstones, used in water mills along the Burana River for grinding the grains the population cultivated.

Giant millstones - Buruna Tower - Kyrgyzstan

And stone columns with different writing systems – including Turkic and Sogdian scripts.

Differnet writings - Buruna Tower - Kyrgyzstan

Unfortunately, we only had an hour at the site, which was nowhere near enough time to explore it properly.   The whole Burana Archaeological Complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site – yes, still finding them everywhere 😊

Petroglyphs at Cholpon Ata

Because you can never see too many petroglyphs, several hours later we stopped at a very large petroglyph field at Cholpon Ata.   This was basically a huge field full of boulders and scattered rocks, and although there was a map of where to find things at the entrance, it really didn’t help at all!

Cholpon Ata - Kyrgyzstan

Hmmm… which ones have petroglyphs?

But, wandering around, I managed to find several of the petroglyphs – a few of which were really, really impressive!

Petroglyphs at Cholpon Ata - Kyrgyzstan

There were also a handful of examples of the Turkic nomad sculptures

Turkic nomad sculpture - Cholpon Ata - Kyrgyzstan

And beautiful views of both the mountains and the lake.

Cholpon Ata and Lake Issyk Kul - Kyrgyzstan

Again, we had an hour here, but perhaps 1.5 hours would be better

Dungan Mosque

Once we reached Karakol – one of the biggest towns on the lake – we visited a couple of specific buildings.  The first was the Dungan Mosque – a very ornate building which was apparently built without a single nail (the wooden sticks are curved in special way to create a stable building without nails).   If it seems to be Chinese in style – it is!  The Dungans were Chinese muslims who left China due to their religion, and this particular mosque was built by a Chinese architect and several artisans between 1907 and 1910 for the Dungan community in Karakol.

Dungan Mosque - Karakol - Kyrgyzstan

Pravoslavik Church

The second location we visited in Karakol was a very intricately decorated Russian Orthodox church built entirely of wood!  Unfortunately, no photos were allowed – so this was the only one I could sneak while sitting in the grass eating a banana.  It was really a spectacular building!

Pravoslavik Church - Karakol - Kyrgyzstan

Jeti Oguz

Leaving Karakol, we headed back out into nature to visit Jeti Oguz – the “valley of the 7 bulls”.  This is a geological protected area, and I have to admit I was puzzled about how they came up with 7 bulls from the formation.  No matter which way I dice it, I don’t get 7.   Would have been great to have had more time here to do some hiking, some of the pictures I’ve seen of the surrounding area are gorgeous!

Jeti Oguz - Kyrgyzstan

Fairytale Canyon

Then it was on to the Fairytale Canyon, which features eroded and multi-coloured rocky formations.

Fairytale Canyon - Kyrgyzstan

Before spending our second night right on the lakeside at the Bokonbaevo yurt camp.

Bokonbaevo yurt camp - Kyrgyzstan

Issyk Ata

Our last day around the lake dawned overcast and rainy.   This was OK though since we really just had a long drive back to Bishkek with only one stop at the waterfall and hot springs at Issyk Ata.   Given it was cold and I hadn’t had a proper shower for a few days, my original plan was to hit the hot springs.  But when we got there, these turned out to be essentially a swimming pool – ie not very natural.

So, I decided to chase after Gayle who decided to hike to the waterfall instead.   It was snowing and absolutely freezing cold, and I never did catch up to Gayle (turned out I went right when I should have kept going straight to find the waterfall), but my quick hike up the valley above the river was very pretty, even if my face froze on the way back as I walked into the wind and snow.

Issyk Ata - Kyrgyzstan


Issyk Kul Lake is one of the key tourist attractions of Kyrgyzstan.  And although it was nice, I didn’t find it all that spectacular to be honest.   It’s a very big lake and if I were to choose a side – I would say the southern side is prettier (and more remote) than the northern side, which seems to have a string of towns run into each other along the road.  

Not sure if my opinion would change with a different itinerary – and perhaps there are ways to do hiking around the lake with amazing views (I will need to look this up for next time),  so although it was great to get out of Bishkek and see new places, I would explore other areas of Kyrgyzstan before returning here.


Ala-Archa National Park – Kygyzstan

One of the days we had in Bishkek we decided to head out to the nearby Ala-Archa National Park for some hiking. Archa means “many groups of Juniper trees” of which there are 4 types within the park. It is only 40km away and it was absolutely perfect weather to enjoy the scenery and get some exercise.

Decided to do the Waterfall Track (2hrs one way) with the possibility of continuing to the glacier, depending on ice/snow. The information panel at the entrance to the park pegged it as a low-medium demand hike, so off we set expecting a nice, not-too-strenuous walk.

Or not!

It’s actually a fairly steep hike up to the waterfall. Perhaps the low-medium rating was more relevant to the mountain climbers who originally used the area as an alpinist camp and training ground.

That said, it was really beautiful – with gorgeous views up the Ala-Archa river valley initially.

Ala-Archa National Park - Kygyzstan

Followed by even more gorgeous views up the other valley leading to the waterfall and glacier.

Ala-Archa National Park - Kygyzstan

We came across some Eurasian Lynx on the way up

Eurasian Lynx - Ala-Archa National Park - Kygyzstan

But unfortunately, the only snow leopard we found was this concrete guy at the entrance.

Snow Leopard - Ala-Archa National Park - Kygyzstan

When we reached the waterfall, it turned out that it was too snowy/icy to actually climb up to the plunge pool (and hence waaaaaay too snowy/icy to head to the glacier without crampons etc), so we sat in the stand of pine trees at the base and ate lunch and explored the river in the immediate area.

Ala-Archa National Park - Kygyzstan

Took my time trekking back down, stopping off for about an hour at my favourite viewpoint to take it all in

Ala-Archa National Park - Kygyzstan

Then took a quick walk up the first part of the Ala-Archa river valley trail while waiting for our transport to leave at the agreed time.

Ala-Archa National Park - Kygyzstan

Have to admit, it wasn’t the most spectacular walk I’ve done in the past year or so, but it was a lovely day out and great to get some hiking in! Oh – and the sign translations were great too 😊

Ala-Archa National Park - Kygyzstan

Stuck in the mud – Kazakhstan

You may remember I left you yesterday with the Overland truck stuck in the mud and the tractor unable to pull it out.    It was a good thing we were meant to be bush camping that night anyway – so we had plenty of food and seting up our tents was what we were expecting to do anyway.   We just expected to do it a little closer to the Kyrgyzstan border.

So the drama continued today…

It had rained even more overnight and I am happy to report that my little Alps Mountaineering Lynx 1-person tent is an absolute winner!  However, more rain is not great when you are already stuck in the mud.   So after breakfast, Gayle, Jane and I headed off to see if we could find some more help.

Stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

Walking to get help along the abysmal roads of Kazakhstan

We started off by walking the ~4kms to the entrance to the park to wait for the Park Ranger to arrive.  There were no signs posted on when the park would open or anything, so we sat down to wait.   But then we decided we should split our efforts – so we flagged down passing cars and on our second attempt, we found some super-helpful chaps that agreed to give Gayle and Jane a lift into town (we really were in the middle of nowhere).

Asking for help near Tamgaly Petroglyphs - with Google Translate - Kazakhstan

So they headed in there while I waited for the Park Ranger.

About an hour later, 5 helicopters come thuk-thuk-thuking over the hills to land right near me.   I was most impressed that the girls had brought in the cavalry so quickly!

Stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

The calvary! Or not…

Unfortunately, it was not to be.   And when I went over to see if anyone could speak English so I could explain our predicament – it quickly became clear that they were just another group of (much richer) tourists come to see the petroglyphs.   The guy I found who did speak English said he wasn’t sure what they could do, but he would tell the leader about us.   Hmmm…..

About 1/2 hour after that, the Park Ranger arrived, but he was far more interested in collecting the entrance fee from the guys in the helicopters than he was at trying to decipher my charades explaining our tale of woe.     When I finally did get his attention and showed him the photos of our predicament on my phone – he just shrugged his shoulders, said “nyet”, and started going about his business.

I tried again, miming that perhaps he could call someone to help us.  Again, this suggestion was met with a disinterested “nyet”.   Hmmmm….

About 15 minutes later, a lady turned up and so I tried the same routine on her.   More shrugged shoulders and “nyets”, followed by the offer to read a book about the petroglyphs and to sit down and have tea and bread with them.    While that was lovely (and I did both), it was not helping.  So I gave up and walked back to the group and the truck, hoping against all hope that Gayle and Jane had had better luck!

Once I got back, James (the driver) and I walked over to the local farm to see if we could borrow their tractor again.  After much pleading, the answer was still “nyet” – so we headed back to see whether the girls were back.   

Fortunately they were, and not far behind them came a big roadworks truck with a bit of a load of gravel as well … and a dude in uniform on horseback.

Stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

We all got very excited as he managed to shift the truck slightly, but that quickly turned to disappointment as he, too, became stuck in the mud.

Stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

The good thing about this was that at least we had a local trapped with us now, so they couldn’t ignore us.  The Chief of Firemen had turned up in full dress uniform, and was not leaving either, and  plans were made to bring out a couple of firetrucks to join the fight against the mud.  So there was nothing for it but to cobble together something for dinner and settle in for another night – this time sleeping in the leaning truck.   Pretty sunset though 🙂 

Stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

Oh – and the two guys that gave Gayle and Jane the lift into town came to visit us to see how we were getting on 🙂

The next day dawned bright and sunny for a change.  Our Chief of Firemen was still with us, the story was that one of the firetrucks had become stuck in the mud further along the road – but the other one had turned up, along with an engineer and several other men.

Stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

The chief of fireman is in full dress uniform holding a shovel here

First step was to get the roadworks truck out of the mud.    So while they were busy working on that, we set about building a road out of stones.

Stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

I’m not sure what UNESCO would say about this — but we were on the opposite side of the hill to where the petroglyphs where so fingers crossed we didn’t destroy anything!   It was also every Australian’s worst nightmare – turning over stones that, quite often, had spiders (and in one case a snake) lurking underneath.    And that was how we spent most of the morning.   Building roads, rebuilding roads in slightly different places, and trying to do what we could to help the efforts to free us.

Meanwhile – how were we communicating with our rescuers?  None of us spoke Russian or Kazakh and only one of them had a few words of English.   Why, by Google Translate of course 🙂

Stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

They eventually freed the white truck, and took the high road around to begin our rescue.

Stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

However, when they reached where we were stuck, they, too became stuck in the mud.

Stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

More digging and road-building ensued to free the firetruck, which then attempted to pull us forwards out of our bog.  

Stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

No joy!  And they actually broke off the anchor point from the front of the truck!

Time to go back and dig out the second firetruck from its bog to see if we would come out with two vehicles pulling.    For us, time for lunch!

Stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

An hour later they were back, this time attempting to pull us out backwards once they had charted a firmer base heading up the back of the hill with the petroglyphs.

Stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

You have probably already guessed how this ended up…

By this stage, we also had the mayor of the town out on site and a plan was made to move us on to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, while James (the driver) continued to work with the firemen to free the truck.  So, at 2pm we offloaded our bags from the overland truck into one of the Ladas that seem to be able to go absolutely anywhere for transport to the visitors centre in town, and we hiked the ~6km to join them.

Stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

The mayor of the town is in the top image wearing the black velvet jacket

The mayor had arranged for a minibus to come pick us up and take us to the Kyrgyzstan border – free of charge – so when that turned up a couple of hours later, we all piled in and headed off, saying goodbye and good luck to James and his new friends.   

On the way to the Kyrgyz border

We passed through the border at about 11pm with no hassles and were picked up by another minibus sent to collect us by the owner of the hostel we were staying in in Bishkek.  Our fingers are crossed that James gets out soon!

Oh – and we made the papers in Kazakhstan in the Society pages!  



Tamgaly Petroglyphs – Kazakhstan

First day on the overland truck started with a quick overview of the truck itself, where everything goes and how everything works.   Then it was loads of photos with the owners of the hostel and off down the tiny backstreets of Almaty in our humungous beast!

Madventures crew with our truck

Took forever to get out of Almaty, and then several hours to drive the 120km to the Tamgaly Petroglyphs – Kazakhstan’s roads are shockers!   We turned off a very bad paved road where the sign indicated, and headed down a very bad dirt road.  Which then deteriorated further into a very bad dirt track…  

on the way to Tamgaly petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

Are we absolutely certain this is the way to this major tourist site?

When we finally found the petroglyphs site – it turned out that we had come in the back way!

Madventures truck at Tamgaly Petroglyphs -Kazakhstan

Ah, no. This would be the back way. Oops.

Tamgaly is a UNESCO Heritage listed site consisting of around 5000 petroglyphs, many of which depict hunting scenes, animals and people.

Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

Animal Petroglyphs

Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

Hunting scenes

While others describe “sun-head” deities with a halo consisting of a circle, and many rays and points.  These are unlike anything I’ve seen before (very different to the petroglyphs at La Silla Observatory) and very cool.

“Sun-head” deities - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

“Sun-head” deities are very distinctive human figures with circular “halos”. There are 4 of them in this image, 2 on the rock on the left and 2 on the darker rock on the right, along with many dancers.

There is even one riding a bull!

“Sun-head” deities - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

The petroglyphs date from the Bronze Age (13th/14th Century) through to the 20th Century, with the earliest carvings also being the largest and the most deeply drawn – most likely with stone or metal tools.

Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

And while the petroglyphs were the highlight, there were also a burial ground consisting of stone cysts and boxes with adults and children buried on their left sides with their heads facing west.

Burial Site - Tamgaly petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

Unfortunately, we only had an hour to explore the site – I reckon 2hrs minimum for the main site would have been better.   But because it had taken us so long to get there, we had to push on for our bush camp near the Kyrgyzstan border.

We managed to get a couple of kilometres up a different road (recommended to us by the park ranger) when disaster struck, and we became seriously and hopelessly bogged.

stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

Stuck in the mud

As the time for our extraction lengthened, our tour leader set out for the main entrance to the petroglyphs to enlist the assistance of the park ranger.  Unfortunately, he’d already packed up for the day and gone home.  So we then they tried the locals at a farm we had passed on our way in.   Apparently they weren’t exactly enthusiastic about helping, but once they were shown the photos of our predicament, they agreed to drive their tractor and try to help pull us out.

Stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

Totally stuck in the mud – and, unfortunately the tractor didn’t help.

But the big beast was not budging!   After about 15 minutes of trying and what seemed like almost succeeding getting us out, they signaled that they had to go, and took their tractor and left us still stuck in the mud.   Given none of us speak Kazakh or Russian, it is unclear whether they were going to come back in the morning or not… Hmmmmm…

Unexpected dinner at Tamgaly petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

Unexpected dinner at Tamgaly Petroglyphs. Good thing we were meant to be bush camping further along the road, so were equipped with supplies!

So we resigned ourselves to camping where we were for the night.  Luckily we were ready for a bush camp, so we set up the tents, cooked dinner and retired for the evening just as the rain started. 

Welcome to Overlanding!


BTW – this link has more information on the petroglyphs.