Samarqand to Bishkek

After our lovely time in Samarkand with Aziza and her family, we hit the road north to Kazakhstan. We blew through Tashkent around lunch time and made it to the border mid-afternoon. We met up there with two Italian ralliers in a Fiat Panda that we’ve seen a few times (first on the boat to Turkmenistan, then in Bukhara). They made it through the Kazakh border well ahead of us and we agreed to meet up with them and a Spanish team in an ambulance to camp that night. We said we’d just find them along the road somewhere near Shimkent.

Aziza, in her bridal best, shows us Gelin Selam

Aziza, in her bridal best, shows us Gelin Selam

A few hours later after getting through the border and driving maybe 100km in the dark, we found them asleep in their car in a gas station parking lot. Although it would have been nice to stay together, we opted to continue on for a bit and find a proper place to set up our tent. Kazakhstan is pretty empty so we didn’t have much trouble, even in the dark. As we pitched the tent, we kept hearing thunder in the distance. Throughout the night it would rain for maybe 20 seconds at a time.

First Kazakh Campsite

First Kazakh Campsite

In the morning we awoke to an audience of curious policemen across the the highway who were running a checkpoint. They watched us pack up and leave but didn’t seem too interested in our roadside campsite otherwise.

Looking around in the light of day it was clear we were in a different landscape from Uzbekistan. For the CBPG, Kazakhstan was characterized by huge flat expanses of small brush, interupted occasionally by low rocky hills that didn’t take more than a few minutes to cross. Where the road had been carved in to the hills you could see that the ground was hard rock covered in only the thinest veneer of soil. I credit this foundation for the excellent roads we encountered in almost all of Kazakhstan, with the exception of about 50km of truly terrible road near Semey. Although these low hills were the largest feature we encountered on the highway, we could frequently see tall snow-capped mountains rising sharply from the plains off to the right of the highway (between south and east depending on where we were), part of the Tian Shen range.

Rolling plains of Kazakhstan

Rolling plains of Kazakhstan

That day we stuck close to the border and crossed in to Kyrgyzstan near Bishkek in the afternoon. It’s frequently been the case during this trip that a border crossing has corresponded with a sudden change in landscape, and again this was the case in Kyrgyzstan. The moment we crossed the border the open dry plains were gone and replaced by trees and green all around, almost jungle-like. When the Soviets divided the USSR to form the Stans one of the goals was to create resource imbalances that would require the countries to work together (with Russia acting as broker). To this end, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are rich in oil and gas but have no water, while Kyrgyzstan has plenty of water but no energy (only from hydro power during snowmelt).  I mention it because I thought it was interesting, and also because it was clear just looking around that Kyrgyzstan was much more lush and green than any of the other Stans so far.

Just as we were getting in to Bishkek and wondering where we should park, a man in a green Mercedes next to us started waving and offering us apples with a hilarious but evocative biting pantomime. As we pulled over to talk to him, a nearby policeman took exception and demanded Andrew’s driver’s licence. No sooner had he given it over than the man from the Mercedes showed up, showed the officer his own ID and took back Andrew’s license and shepherded him away.

Ernest and the Apples

Ernest and the Apples

As we introduced ourselves to our new friend Ernest (Russian name Nimitz) and received our bag of apples, he told us that he was a police detective in training and had told the previous officer that we were his guests. What a guy! We asked if he could recommend a place for dinner and invited him along.

Cafe Jalalabat with Ernest and Ajana

Cafe Jalalabat with Ernest and Aijan

Sitting on the tapchan eating plov, shashlik, and manti, we struggled with our very limited overlap of English/Russian/Kyrgyz until his sister Aijan showed up to join us. Aijan speaks good English and works at a bank in Bishkek. After we ate, the two of them took us on a walking tour of the central square area of town. They were proud both of Bishkek and of Issiq-kul where their family home is, and rightly so. We thought Bishkek at sunset was really pretty. There’s a large, newly completed (re-done?) open square in the middle of town with fountains and statues. The locals seemed to enjoy strolling around the square as much as we did– it was a lively and fun place. We snapped pictures galore.

Square in central Bishkek

Square in central Bishkek

We next walked over to the park where there are a few carnival rides, and rode the Ferris wheel to get another great perspective on the city. Afterward we were pretty tired, so Ernest and Aijan helped us find a hotel room! Their warmth and openness was really remarkable. It was wonderful for us to have met them and spent the few hours with them that we did. Even if only for them, I will have fond memories of Kyrgyzstan.

At points along the way the CBPG has discussed the idea that being open and receptive to positive experiences will bring more positive experiences to you, and vice versa. We’ve met a couple other rally teams who have seemed concerned to a point of paranoia about being ripped off, robbed, exploited, extorted or otherwise wronged at every step. By assuming the best intentions among the people we’ve met along the way, we think we’ve had some really special experiences like the one in Bishkek. Conversely, assuming the worst intentions can color any benign interaction and turn it negative. As a traveller, it’s largely up to you to set a tone of cooperation or contention when you interact with locals.

Not to say it always works out. We’ve twice so far been extorted for 20 undeserved dollars, first on the boat and later by a cop in Almaty. Occasionally people are nasty and there’s nothing you can do about it. You have to ask yourself how much you would pay to avoid an hour of argument that may or may not (often the latter) change anything.


  1. Ron Cole says:

    Great reading about your last few days. That Kasakh campsite photo is cool with the sunlight coming thru the clouds. Good luck finding a copilot.
    We attended a dinner party tonight and the adventures of the CBPG were the main topic of the evening. Others are living vicariously.
    Di and Ron

  2. Claudia Sammis says:

    Congratulations on your entry into Mongolia. Wow! We have our globe out on the kitchen counter here in Morgan, UT and have been following your adventures and tweets.

    How did the CV joint get repaired so quickly?

    Yes, we too are living vicariously. Claudia, Mary, Mont, and Kylee

  3. Hammer says:

    Just back in the world of the internet after a couple weeks, and catching up on the adventures. I second your dad on the photo of the campsite with clouds. It is stunning. I’m glad that CBPG has taken the stance of positivity throughout the whole experience, because I HATE travelers that just complain all the time. (Aren’t we SO lucky to be able to do what we do?!)

    On another note…I am going to KILL you when I see you. Driving across Mongolia solo? Even I think that’s insanity…and I’m way crazier than you are. 🙂

    Good luck finishing,

  4. Tracy says:

    The picture of Aziza is amazing, as is the philosophy espoused in the second-to-last paragraph. I have really enjoyed vicariously enjoying your adventures. Thank you.