Crossing the border to Kyrgyzstan reminded me the crossing from Vietnam to China, it had the same magical sensation of entering a totally different world. Of course, there had been earlier signs of this big change in China, as I entered the province of Xinjiang and the wonderful city of Kashgar. It is there that I first discovered the busy athmosphere of the bazaars, that kebabs and nans replaced the Chinese rice and pork. In Kashgar I had my first taste of Central Asia, but it was only an appetizer.
The first sign that things would be different in Central Asia occured when I applied for my Kyrgyz visa in Urumqi. I naively asked if a same-day procedure would be possible and, instead of telling me it wasn’t, the official replied: “It is too expensive”. A big change from the more radical Chinese “Meio” I described in the previous post and a first introduction to corruption in Central Asia.
To enter Kyrgyzstan we had to make complicated arrangements to cross the border post located on the Torugart Pass at 3800 meters altitude. I rented a jeep with British Tom and another 4×4 was waiting for us at the kyrgyz side of the border. The Chinese side was a pain, the hords of guards at the empty border post stared at us for about 2.5 hours befored they finally decided to ask for our passports. During that time, they clearly demonstrated that they had nothing to do: they were smoking, joking and even tapping their feets while looking at us. They didn’t want to make this a pleasant experience for us.
But as soon as we entered Kyrgyzstan, the atmosphere changed. Our driver walked to us with a big smile: “Welcome to Kyrgyzstan, here you can take photos again: we are a free country!”. The Kyrgyz border officials luckily were much more cooperative too. The landscape also changed dramatically, the Chinese side was dusty and arid, while the Kyrgyz side miraculously became green and fertile!
Other changes became apparent when we arrived at the town of Naryn; the remains of the Russian occupation were everywhere: abandonned bus stops, glacial and depressingly identical housing buildings, vodka and perhaps most importantly: the Russian language! A new challenge for me after 2 months of Chinese.
I nearly had to skip Kyrgyzstan entirely because of the revolution that occured just before I arrived. But thankfully I decided to come anyways and have not regretted it. The situation in Bishkek was absolutely normal and only some burned buildings that belonged to family and friends of the president reminded me that a revolution had happened there a few days earlier.
The advantage was that there were only a handful of tourists in the country and I met several really interesting people. Most notably two geo-archeologists, Renato and Jean-Marc, with whom me and my travel buddy Etienne spent a memorable night in Bishkek. Halfway between geniuses and madmen, these two ex-hippies entertained us with detailed stories about the fascinating history of the region mixed with some of the least politically correct cultural generalisations like (read with strong italian accent): “Russians are superior beings, if they weren’t drunk all the time, they would rule the world” or “all French people are morons. Did you ever notice that they always travel in couples? There are more than three billion women on the planet, why do they need to travel with their girlfriends?” and so on!
The end of my trip is slowly approaching, but Central Asia promises to be a last fantastic adventure and my morale is still high. In fact many people ask me if I never feel lonely or bored. To my own surprise, I have to say that I am not at all. Every day on the road is different and not one goes by without some totally unexpected surprise. I meet so many interesting people that it would be impossible to introduce each of them on this blog. The scenery I’ve crossed all along is ever-changing and breath-taking. And travelling overland slowly allows me to understand how many things fit together in this world. So to reassure everyone: this is without a doubt the most enriching experience I’ve had in my life and I’m enjoying every minute of it!
More pictures of Kyrgyzstan in the gallery.