My peace and serenity has been shattered. Here I am ten miles down what is no more than a track off the main road to China from Bishkek, Kyrygyzstan, I am sixty miles from the nearest town, Narin. The closest house is some twenty miles away and as for a shop, unlikely might be the right word. I woke up early, with the sunrise and there was nobody around, just a couple of dogs, some cows, the herd of goats and me. Just what I was looking for. The morning stretched away, I read some, walked some, played with the local children, admired the scenery and generally reveled in my isolation. Lunch was served in the small shack adjoining the yurt camp and I dug into salad and soup, just me at a table for about twenty. Then it was all over. First my lunch was invaded by a multinational team of geologists who are staying in a village nearby studying the mountains all around us. They were all very pleasant in a sort of nerdy geologist way, they didn’t crack any geologist insider jokes but they were definitely from another world. But wait, what is this ruckus going on outside? Oh only fifteen RVs! What? Twenty-five assorted Europeans had been touring Russia, China, Mongolia for a few weeks/months in their Recreational Vehicles and chose today to cross the border, drive fifty miles and turn off to here to Tash-Rabat.
There goes the neighbourhood!
Taking a step back I arrived in Bishtek on Sunday with the goal of applying for my visa to China. This I accomplished on Monday at a hole in the wall travel agency at 100 Moscowskaya, great address, hard to find. The lady told me my passport photos were the wrong size so I went across the street and returned with new photos, non passport size ($1.00) submitted them and that was it. No horrendous forms, no signature, no nothing actually, just $100 and leave your passport here and pick it up on Friday. I see faces fall but fear not, this is the Rough Guide and other Guides advice so I went with it. But what to do until Friday, this being Monday. I had read about a remote Caravansary down near the Chinese border, which apparently is one of the most authentic relics of the Silk Road called Tash-Tabat. I called my friendly Advantour agent who seem to be one of the better agencies in all the ‘Stans, I used them successfully in Uzbekistan. No problem said the English speaking Zamira, that will be $730. Well, um, no, that is a little beyond my price range, any alternatives? If you get yourself to Narin, about two hundred miles South, I can have my driver pick you up, take you to Tash-Rabat where you will stay in a yurt for two nights and then be driven back to Narin for $130.00. Much better says I, lets do it.
Next morning I set off to the bus station where the shared taxis and marshrutkas (mini vans) ply their trade and was met by cries of “Narin, Narin, Narin”, ok, this has to be the place. Following previous marshrutka rides I first checked the tires, then the driver, seats and then the other passengers, if there are kids its probably safe ish. For approximately $12.00 I was on my way. Math wizards among you will be wondering how this could be. If it just been a driver, and me, in a reasonably smart car, the drive to Narin alone would have been $180. Not a problem, I will share my ride with six others and save $180, or $360 round trip, seems quite equitable. The two hundred mile drive to Narin did take five hours but I doubt a smarter car could have done it in less time. The roads were not good, awful in fact, but not as bad as the drive to Dushanbe through the Tunnel of Death. There was a newborn baby on board, she cried once, for ten seconds, so if she could do it, so could I. High in the mountains I was elated to see yurt dwellers doing exactly what yurt dwellers are supposed to do. Grazing their flocks and herds in the high pastures for the summer before returning to the lower slopes for the winter. Its not a myth, legend or folklore, they actually do it. With yurts.
I was met, as planned, and we sped off in aforementioned reasonably smart car, an Audi. Under an hour later I was at Tash-Rabat and it was magical. Set in a narrow valley with high hills or mountains on either side it was apparently built in the Sixth Century and was used as an overnight stop for the Silk Road caravans. Sitting outside it at sunset it was easy to imagine the camels and donkeys coming down from the high passes laden with their trade goods, the silks and spices of the East, heading for Europe. The shouts and whistles of the drovers as they approached their night’s rest, some hot tea and dinner. Tethering their animals on the small mesa in front and finding fodder. Yes, I got completely carried away.
Following the RV invasion I noticed that the Europeans kept pretty much to themselves in their wagons so, feeling the muse descend, headed to the shack to write this. Scribbling away a most unusual occurrence developed. People speaking English, with English accents, invaded the small shack! Whatever next I thought, head down, scribbling, first the geologists, then the RVers and now here come the Brits. It all worked well out very quickly as they were all extremely pleasant and I was introduced all round over tea, of course. There were people from Portsmouth, Guildford, Edmonton (I know, Canada) and all places in between. We had some huge laughs and they generously shared a beer at sunset behind the Caravansary. I joined them for dinner and found myself ordering the vegetarian option, which along with my solitary beer just goes to show, doesn’t it!
After another freezing night in the yurt I felt the slight cold I had during the previous evening had receded, thanks in part to the group leader feeding me medicine, generously. Breakfast and then back on the road to Narin, another marshrutka to Bishkek and here I am, power sockets for charging, A/C, BBC News, wifi, and all the other comforts definitely missing at Tash-Rabat.
Would I do it again?
In a heartbeat.