We set out knowing we were not going to be able to reach Arslanbob, a place name that has fascinated Keith since he heard of it. He thinks it sounds like a character ouT of The Simpsons…… Arslanbob’s main claim to fame is its large walnut forest, said to be the largest in the world – but this is to come. First we have to get there.
It took a long time to leave the suburbs of Bishkek behind us and it took even longer to run out of Manas statues as they kept appearing at the most unlikely locations along our route. For some time the roadside was lined by ribbon developments, some of them quite busy with shops, stalls, houses and vehicles all vying for space. Eventually these gave way to cornfields – much larger than we have seen before with large haystacks (why don’t we do haystacks anymore?) and wagons piled high with hay. As we got further away from the towns, the mountains – always in the background, became more prominent. The odd houses we passes sported fruit trees in their gardens. Apples and pears seem to be the main crop.
Poplar trees seem to very popular for lining the road, French style, and providing wind breaks to fields. We are back to very battered Russian cars and trucks, noticeably different to the sophisticated saloons of Bishkek! The scenery is like a kaleidoscope of ever changing vignettes – stockmen on horseback herding cattle, power stations, mosques, scrubland with sparsely scattered trees, the occasional checkpoint which often is not a checkpoint at all. We got through one in exchange for a bar of chocolate!
We then became aware of entering a steep canyon. Cliffs of rock towered above us as the road followed a twisting river. The water was totally clear with no sign of the glacier silt that has clouded other rivers and streams that we have come across. There were soaring areas of scree and others of sheer indomitable rock. The road twisted and turned. We have become connoisseurs of the road surface and this was was very smooth – apparently the road was built by the Russians and is maintained by The Turks. We were to become even more appreciative as the canyon grew wider and we zig zagged up the mountain. We continued climbing, passing any number of vehicles that had overheated or broken down, but Penelope growled her way up for many kilometres. When we reached just short of the top (over 3,500 metres) there is a three kilometre tunnel and we joined the queue of traffic waiting to enter. The cause of the hold up? A hard of sheep were walking through. It could only happen here! Some time later they came tripping out with a shepherd on horseback at front and rear and continued on their way down the mountainside!! Unbelievable!
When we reached the other end of the tunnel there was a bit of a delay while a toll was required and rejected (there is an on-going debate as to whether we are a truck or a bus!) and we started our descent into a vast, wide valley, one of the largest and coldest in Kyrgyzstan. In the winter the temperature can get down to -40 degrees because of the wind that cuts across the plain.
We stopped for lunch shortly after descending to the valley floor and then drove on through the afternoon. We played scrabble with the Girls and dozed and chatted. Late in the afternoon a large blue reservoir came into view. Like all things to do with water in Kyrgyzstan it covered a large area. The road towered above the water as we followed the contours of the lake at several kilometres distance. At about 5.30 we turned off the highway and descended onto the shingly scrubland between the road and the water’s edge.
Once again it was an amazing location for a bush amp site. We had arrived at our stop for the night. It was the Ritz to the fore and once again a wonderful view from our bed!
After an excellent chilli supper and a couple of tin cups of wine, we were given a briefing on what to expect from the Uzbekistan border, well known for being problematic. We are forewarned.
It is the halfway mark of our journey. We have travelled across two countries. In the time we have left we will travel through six more. Truly the journey of a lifetime!
On a less uplifting note, there was a strong breeze as I adjourned for the night and cleaned my teeth. The next morning was to reveal the liberal coating of toothpaste that I had successfully managed to spread about my person in the process. You can’t say that I am not thorough in all things!