The high road out of Kyrgyzstan
- Categorized in: June 2011
With my time in the Kyrgyz capital coming to an end, I turned my attention to the task in hand. From Bishkek to Tashkent was my next leg – a 700km meander over high mountain passes and down through verdant green valleys before spilling out onto the edge of the Kazakh steppe, and the lowland hills around the Uzbek capital of Tashkent.
The first three days were tough riding – turning south off the main road to Kazakhstan to begin the ascent over the Too-Ashuu pass, starting at an altitude of only 600m in Kara-Balta and eventually passing through the tunnel at the top of the pass at 3,330m only 50km later. The first night I camped at the foot of the final 20km assault on this literal wall of rock, where I was disturbed by a continuing psychosomatic sensation of itchiness that I had felt on my skin in bed since the “tick infestation”. I was also awoken to find I was being raided inside my tent by a particularly audacious mouse, which had chewed through the side of the tent and alternatively eaten and left droppings on my food.
The road starts heading up for the Too-Ashuu pass - at 3,350m above sea level
The climb the next morning was agonising – a 12% gradient that went on for two and a half solid hours. There were times when I would gaze in wonder over the edge of the road at a patch of road I had only passed some minutes before, yet already was hundreds of metres below me.
Looking back down the pass - you can just make out
the asphalt of the road in the valley bottom where I started that morning.
Eventually I reached the top where a tunnel cuts through the final 2km or so onto the other valley. At the top I met a couple of Frenchmen who’d come through from the other direction on their way to Bishkek in a battered old Citroen “Deux-Cheveux”. They’d nursed this machine all the way from Paris through Turkey, the Middle East and Iran into Uzbekistan and now Kyrgyzstan, and were intending to head back to Europe via Kazakhstan and then Russia. I was quite impressed by them – very smart fellas and managing to survive on less than US$5 a day. How they do this I have no idea since I need to eat at least three times this every day.
The tunnel at the Too-Ashuu Pass, and the Frenchmen (and their 2CV)
The next couple of days that took me as far as the Kazakh border continued in the same vein as earlier riding in Kyrgyzstan. Gorgeous open valleys, filled with nomadic life: little enclaves of huts and yurts spread along each side of the road, all selling Kemez and the little “Mai Tokoch” balls of dried horse’s milk, and surrounded by their tranquil herds of horses and cattle and sometimes sheep.
View from the other side of the Too-Ashuu Pass
If reincarnation were a reality (which I wholeheartedly doubt), one could do far worse than come back as a Kyrgyz horse. A more amenable life it would be hard to find…
…until it’s time to be eaten of course.
My road took me over one more considerably gentler pass, at the top of which I was curious as to what the popping noises that periodically went off might be. The answer soon became apparent. I approached a handful of men peering up the steep slope to the right. I followed their gaze and saw a fourth man lying prostrate on the ground with a rifle lined parallel to his body, and then a small “pop” and a puff of smoke told me he’d fired at something. Looking higher up the slope, I saw a little orange creature bounding away from the rock it had just been sat behind, and then scurry into a little gulley out of sight.
It was a marmot. Asking the hunters whether they’d had any luck that day, they produced from a sack a freshly killed marmot with a gun-shot passing through its body, just behind its front legs. They said I should take a picture of it, but were in too much of a rush to stay and chat. At a word from the apparent leader, they all leapt in the car and continued up the hill.
Holding someone else's trophy - a surprisingly heavy marmot
After that pass, the road dropped down and down all afternoon until eventually I drew into the last main town in Kyrgyzstan, called Talas.
Although there is not much to Talas itself, again it is a pleasant place to be, with tree-lined avenues on the approach and through the little town, irrigation channels roaring with an abundance of flowing water, and scattered fruit orchards and fields of vegetables and occasional barley fields filling in the space around the town.
Avenues leading into the town of Talas
Talas’ reputation is secured through by its association with the most famous of figures in Kyrgyz folklore – the heroic warrior Manas.
Statue of Manas not far from his alleged resting-place
Manas was the legendary leader of the earliest days of the Kyrgyz people, who it is believed carved out a people and a land and a place in history from which the nation of Kyrgyzstan derives its origins and identity today. The legend arises from an epic poem of oral tradition that was finally put to paper in the 19th century, and stretches to half a million lines long. By many measures, this is the longest poem ever written and the Kyrgyz are fiercely proud of this gem of national and world cultural heritage.
It tells the story – basically – of a gifted boy that grows up into a noble warrior who has many battles and struggles with various other tribes and armies, but eventually emerges victorious and secures the beautiful rolling pastures, mountains and lakes of Kyrgyzstan as a homeland for his people. All this goes on in the 10th century AD – so the popular rendition goes. Indeed, there were considerable celebrations marking the millennium of Manas’ epic story quite recently.
The story goes that he ended his days in Talas, where his wife buried him but put her own name on his mausoleum, in an effort to confuse his existing enemies whom she feared might desecrate his grave.
However, literary and historical scholars have put a bit of a dampener on all the hype about Manas and the legendary creation of the Kyrgyz people and their land. Some say there was no Manas at all – that he never existed. Rather he was the creation of imaginative nationalists who came up with the epic tale to create artificially an identity and an origin myth for the Kyrgyz people. It is said that the stories closely resemble historical events that actually took place in the 17th century, and that if there is any historical truth to be drawn from the poem, it is likely to be far later than the populist date of over a thousand years ago.
Who knows? What’s sure is that the poem in all its 500,000 lined glory exists and (I’m told) makes a cracking good yarn. Even today there are people called Manaschi who are modern-day bards, able to commit the entire poem to memory and recite portions of it at least to popular audience and acclaim. The Kyrgyz believe a person is born with this gift (and destiny) of telling, and that they must gradually discover their calling to this role in life, a bit like a priest or an iman I suppose.
It was a hot and increasingly dusty day, on the final day I was to leave Kyrgyzstan. As I passed further and further out of the mountains, the green started to fade a little, and the yellower and browner earth seemed to sound a note of prelude to the dry and dusty desert wilderness I will have to face again in western Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
Blue waters but browner earth - leaving Kyrgyzstan's green pastures behind
By the time I spied the border control barrier looming a kilometre or so off in the distance through the shimmering heat off the road, I was quite sad to be saying goodbye to Kyrgyzstan, with its calm looking animals, soft grasses, magnificent peaks and rosy-faced folk.
Still, I suppose I can go back one day.
I think you should go too.
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