When we crossed the border at Irkeshtam Pass, night had already fallen by the time we got to customs (which was literally just a tired guy stamping our passports). We asked him about a place to stay in Irkeshtam, which was far from ideal as that meant sharing a shipping container with drunk truckers, or for a way to get to Sary-Tash. The issue, of course, was that it was 10:00 PM and Sary-Tash is an hour’s drive through the mountains from Irkeshtam.
The guy basically shrugged and told us to try our luck with some guys hanging around the gate, or to post up in the rickety hostel next-door. We were basically resigned to staying in Irkeshtam, but there were two guys sitting in their car by the road. I approached and asked if they could take us to Sary-Tash, and if they would accept our Chinese yuan because we didn’t have any Krygyz Som yet. They nodded, and the negotiation via the minimally-English-speaking border guard nearby ensued. They showed us a calculator app with a 400 on it, and the guard cheerfully said, “400 dollar!” in a thick Kyrgyz accent (which sounds very Russian). Then he laughed and shook his head. “Nyet, nyet, 4-0-0 yuan.”
It was definitely too much but the guys knew they were the only option and refused to lower it even a little bit. But anywhere would be better than Irkeshtam, so we agreed and grumbled our way to the car.
I slept for most of the drive, but whenever I did wake, I saw snow on the road and heard sleet on the windshield. Very few cars were driving at that point. When we arrived in Sary-Tash, we were brought to a guest house we had booked and went inside, where a young Kyrgyz guy brought us some bread. We were happy even for that as we had had a long day, but then he came out with potatoes and fried eggs as well, and so the four of us feasted as we celebrated our exit from China.
When the food was finished, we thanked our host and went to bed, still totally in the dark on what Kyrgyzstan looked like.
Good Morning Kyrgyzstan
I awoke to the sun on my eyes, and slowly rolled over to pull the curtains. But my eyes adjusted and I could clearly see what laid just outside — mountains and mountains and mountains. The Pamir Mountains, to be exact. The ones that separate Kyrgyzstan from Tajikistan. I woke up everyone else in my group and grabbed my camera to head outside into the cold. Sary-Tash is at 3,100m of elevation (10,000+ft), so it’s definitely not a warm place. Treks in the Nepali Himalayas go to lower altitudes than this. Nonetheless, the view made us all happy we made the extra effort to get away from Irkeshtam.
We went back inside to have breakfast with our host, who explained a little about himself. A meteorologist by summer and ski guide by winter, he runs the place with his family. His mother makes all the food (in case you didn’t know, all the best food in these places comes from kitchens at home, not restaurants). There was a French couple there as well, who had been trekking around the mountains in the area.
We discussed our plans as we ate. The mysterious Spaniard was bound for a mountain called Lenin Peak, somewhere in the Pamirs to the south. The rest of us were going to find a ride to Osh, the major city of southern Kyrgyzstan. Beyond that, I had no plan. I was three days ahead of when I intended to enter Kyrgyzstan, so I decided to use those extra days to do some exploring. What I’d explore, or where I’d go, however, remained undecided and unknown. For the time being, I was happy with the day.
We decided to go off on a hike and explore Sary-Tash for a little while before finding a ride to Osh. We exchanged money at the gas station in the center of town and I found an ATM tucked away that took visas and actually worked.
After that, we walked the road until we were outside of the town, jumped off, and started walking. The good thing about Kyrgyzstan is that there are very little restrictions, if any, concerning where you can and can’t go. If you wanna hike up some random mountain, you can do that. If you wanna pitch a tent in a field by the river along the road, you can do that too. Certain mountainous areas require permits to access for safety reasons, so unless you’re in Kyrgyzstan for alpinism, there’s really nowhere you can’t go.
So we just hiked up a mountain, because why not? All the restrictions imposed on travelers in China were gone. And Kyrgyzstan has these rolling green hills that lead up to jagged mountains that just invite you to come hike them. In the distance, groups of horses run and bright-orange-furred muskrats run from hole to hole. It only took five minutes for Sary-Tash to be completely out of sight. Just mountains close, and the Pamirs in the distance across the huge plain.
We chilled up there for an hour before deciding it was time to find a ride to Osh. We went back to our hostel, booked an AirBnB with a Kyrgyz family there, packed our bags, then set off down the main road.
Hitchhiking the Kyrgyz Pamir Highway
There’s a famous road in Central Asia, officially called the M41. Unofficially, it’s the Pamir Highway. It’s a road that — you guessed it — traverses the Pamir Mountains and makes its way through Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.
You can see where we started. In the south of Kyrgyzstan, on the road that runs between China and Tajikistan. The spot where the Pamir Highway crosses that southern road is Sary-Tash, the crossroads of the south. We wanted to go to Osh, a major city right on the Uzbek border.
It’s not hard to find rides in Kyrgyzstan. Without robust public transit connecting each of its remote cities, hitchhiking (or avtostop in Russian) is the way to get around. Other blogs talk a lot about buses and shared taxis that wander the countryside, but I haven’t seen a lot on hitchhiking, so there’s gonna be a lot in the coming posts.
We sat by the side of the road on the north side of Sary-Tash, waving to any car that went by. A taxi driver approached us and offered a ride to Osh for a mere 5,000 som (71.71 USD). Let that be lesson one. Anyone who approaches you and offers a ride is usually not your friend. They’ve got some exorbitant price in mind, hoping you won’t know enough to realize they’re ripping you off.
We said thanks but no thanks and kept waiting. Sure enough, a trucker pulled over for us. He asked for 500 som, which is much more reasonable. We threw our bags into the bed of the truck (as evidenced by the motor oil that got on everything, that was a bad idea), climbed in front with him, and we were off. The drive to Osh from Sary-Tash takes about two hours, so we relaxed and took some photos on the way. We had bought some bread from a kid running the local store and shared it with our driver, who was driving up to Bishkek, the capital city of Kyrgyzstan.
I spent the majority of the time taking photos. Lemme tell you now, Kyrgyzstan is insane. There’s not really another word for it. Instead of flipping through my thesaurus to string together some line of multi-syllabled adjectives, I’ll just show you.
We stopped at one point to cover our bags from the rain, but it wasn’t much longer before we reached Osh. The driver dropped us off more or less on the outskirts, and we took a several-hour walk through the heat to find our homestay. I’ll write more about Osh later, but for now, it’s kind of a weird city. More on that to come.
For now, happy to be in Kyrgyzstan.