We left our host’s home in Osh around 11:00. Our group had been reduced to three after leaving Sary-Tash; the Spaniard had gone to Lenin Peak, wherever that was. One more left for Uzbekistan, and then there were two of us.
We thanked our hosts and hiked out into the hot sun, aiming to find a ride as far north as we could for the day. Our goal was a city called Toktogul, north of a big lake right in the middle of Kyrgyzstan. To get there, we’d have to go around the Andijan region of Uzbekistan that nearly cuts Kyrgyzstan in two between it and China.
There’s an entrance to Osh, a large gate adorned with a metal eagle above a statue of a man on a horse. It’s there that all the domestic traffic flows in and out of the city; the opposite gate is the outlet and inlet for those coming and going from Uzbekistan. As such, there’s quite a lot of cars to choose from. I had never hitchhiked before but my friend had, so I followed their lead.
We waited on the side of the road, our thumbs stuck out. After an hour, we wrote on a plastic folder with paper inside “Джалалабад” (Jalalabad), the next major city around the bend that Uzbekistan creates. Some cars honked. Some taxi drivers stopped and asked for several thousand som, to which we laughed and waved them along. In time, a man driving an unmarked taxi rolled up and asked for 400 som. Without knowing if we’d get a better price when still in the city, we agreed and off we went.
The drive was only an hour and a half — Kyrgyzstan is pretty small. For much of it, the road hugged the Uzbek border so closely that we were sure it was just over the first hill. Traditional Kyrgyz vocals laid over EDM beats strained the speakers, but the driver kept the music up high the whole way. He dropped us on the side of the road outside Jalalabad, not quite in the city, which was good — it’s much easier to find rides on country roads than in cities. We had fried noodles and tea at a roadside restaurant across the street, then wrote a new sign: “Таш-Кумыр” (Tash-Komur).
A few truckers went by, giving exaggerated shrugs or pointing to the ground to say that they had no room or were stopping in Jalalabad. Some taxis stopped and asked exorbitant rates. Another stopped 15 meters down the road and let us jog up to talk before speeding off and kicking up gravel in our faces.
After some time, I don’t know how long, a small Soviet-era sedan groaned to a halt and a man gestured to us to get inside. He wasn’t going to Tash-Komur but he was getting pretty close, so we joined him. He turned out to be a professor of history at the State University of Osh, and was on his way to visit his parents. He spoke minimal English, but enough that we had conversation for the two-odd hours we were in his car. He explained the traditional hat of Kyrgyzstan, the калпак (kalpak), to us before departing.
The shape of the hat is the mountains, the stripes the waterfalls, and the cuff at the bottom the lakes. The design is something traditional to Kyrgyzstan.
He left us at the point where he turned off the main road, and we set off again to look for another ride.
Almost immediately, an older Kyrgyz couple on their way to Bishkek stopped for us. They weren’t going all the way, as we found out, but another two hours down the road was as good as we were going to get.
They alternated between Russian EDM and a movie about the Russian space program, swinging on 5 to 10 minute intervals. The road wound on through the mountains, which narrowed until we were in a steep valley above a large river. They slowed down and wove through the remains of recent landslides, pointing and making falling motions with their hands to show us the danger.
We came to a small town eventually, one that stretched for several miles as the only flat land was quite narrow. They motioned for us to get out and then disappeared, leaving us in the town of Kara-Kel, our first stop. Most of it was crumbling and neglected, but still people sat in the parks and rode bikes down the street. We went into a small market to buy bread, cheese, and vodka. Inside, a woman approached us and asked, “Parlez-vous Français?” We both spoke French but took a double and triple-take at the Kyrgyz woman in this small town that did as well. She gave us a small tour of the store, telling us what was best and what her favorite vodka was before we continued on our way for several miles down the road, looking for a spot to pitch a tent.
We eventually found a flat area, away from the buildings, next to a graveyard at the foot of a large hill. No one was around, so we decided it was as good a place as any and pitched camp. It was getting dark anyway. We had our bread and cheese and drank vodka to stay warm before going to sleep under a starry sky. The sunrise woke us early, and it was time to start again.
I left to find bread, and my friend went and got a gas station clerk to turn on a hose so we could refill our water. Then we crossed the street and started again.
We began with a sign for Токтогул (Toktogul), which was our original goal for the day before. It didn’t take long for a guy to pick us up. We waited maybe 30 minutes. The drive was close to another two hours as we had to drive around the big lake to the other side. I slept the majority of the drive, until the lake came into view. The landscape of Kyrgyzstan is full of rolling hills that run right up to jagged mountains, and down to lakes and rivers. The road followed the slopes in a winding way around, until our driver stopped and announced, Toktogul! We got out, went to a cafe with wifi to recharge our phones and plan the next route.
After a couple hours and a few cups of coffee, we were off again, trying to find a ride to a town high up in the mountains called Манас (Manas). At first, we just tried to find rides. But a Kyrgyz guy came up and took our sign, trying to piggyback off our efforts so he could score a ride to Bishkek. He didn’t speak English, but kept repeating Bishkek, Bishkek over and over. Whenever a car stopped for us, we’d start on the negotiations for Manas before our unhelpful guardian angle would wedge between us and start asking about Bishkek instead, invariably driving away our potential rides. At one point, a man who offered us a free ride rescinded his offer when our new “friend” convinced him to charge us a thousand som. We picked up our bags and left, followed closely by the other guy until he gave up and left.
Further down the road, an off-duty taxi picked us up. Two young guys were in the front and took selfies with us, then dropped us off at a police checkpoint 15 minutes later. Some truckers were stopped there as well, so I went to ask if we could ride with them, and into the cab we went.
These guys were from Uzbekistan, and drove so slowly that I wondered if I could outpace them on foot. But they were very friendly and, despite the language barrier, we had a good time with them for the nearly five hours we spent together.
Three or four hours into the drive, the road sloped upwards as we went over Ala-Bel Pass, capping at over 3,100m. The guys stopped to get out and take photos as they were new to such terrain as well. The sun was starting to get low in the sky but we spent an hour on the pass, taking in the sight of everything.
We got back in the truck after some time and continued on. I asked about the Uzbek money and passports on the dashboard, and we all exchanged our passports and IDs from our respective countries. I explained that my driver’s license from the US only allowed me to drive cars and not the huge trucks these guys had, which they thought was funny.
Manas wasn’t much farther, and when we arrived, we jumped out and shook their hands. The town was only a few hotels and restaurants; a truck stop. And it was cold. We went into a restaurant where the girl asked if we spoke German. We didn’t, and English got us through. I had some potato soup and then we left to set up our tent across the river once again.
We had more vodka to stay warm, but the night was too cold for me to sleep and I listened to music and podcasts until 7 in the morning. When we exited the tent, a huge flock of sheep was around us and a young guy on a horse drove them up the mountain with the help of several dogs.
We packed up the tent and got ready for more hitchhiking as we prepared to split for our respective destinations.