Entering Kyrgyzstan went pretty easy. Most European nationalities don’t need a visa if they intend to stay less than two months. The border guards of Kyrgyzstan were super friendly. They stamped our passport, we paid for the car insurance and gave them a sticker to put on their locker. They checked the car very briefly and wished us good luck for the rest of the Mongol Rally.
HIGH IN THE MOUNTAINS
Our first stop was Osh. The second biggest city of Kyrgyzstan and officially the end/beginning of the Pamir Highway. The landscape changed immediately. An hour ago, we saw nothing for miles, only huge mountains around us. Now, we were driving through villages and landscapes filled with yurts, the portable round tents that are used by the nomadic people. The first impression couldn’t be better! Once we arrived in Osh, the peaceful pace of the small farmer villages changed into the hecticness of the city. There were policemen on every corner, taking people out of the traffic. We don’t know why because it seemed that there were no rules when driving. We searched a hotel that we had found on our Maps.Me app. It was at that hotel where we saw Genghis Panda again, the Italian team we drove with in the Pamir. Unfortunately, they had to make up for the lost time, so they wanted to drive immediately to Bishkek the next day (a 14 hours drive). We didn’t want to do that, so we had to say goodbye.
They put a cell phone in my hands. There was a guy on the other side of the line that was threatening me in broken English. He said that I would need to go to jail and pay a lot more if I wouldn’t pay them now.
We went to visit the Jayma Bazaar in Osh, a huge market that stretches for several kilometers along the Ak-Bura riverside. The bazaar offers a lot of different things like clothes, food, toys, textiles, souvenirs and even animals. It’s a very chaotic but vibrant market because it’s always full of people, traders with trolleys that need to get through and vendors shouting all over the place. We strolled around a bit but had to move on because we wanted to get as far as we could. The next 7 hours we crossed a big part of Kyrgyzstan, through little mountain villages with yurts and gorgeous scenery until we reached Toktogul Reservoir. We stopped at a small dirt road that’s going towards the reservoir to see if this would be a good camping spot. It’s a lake with beautiful water, but with nothing else to see. The guys from Back 2 Yak saw us by coincidence and noticed right away that this wasn’t a regular lake. The shore was full of wild marijuana plants! We went a little further and found a more secluded place to have dinner and put our tent on an open spot between the plants.
The day after we had a quick swim in the lake and continued our journey to Bishkek. We passed several police checks with a stop sign but with nobody around. At the last one, the cars in front of us passed the stop sign really slowly, so Thomas thought it would be OK to go slowly too. He was wrong. Of course, who will they take out of traffic? Yep, the young couple with that strange number plate. They immediately asked for a bribe, but Thomas refused. He kept saying that he stopped in front of the stop sign. But unfortunately, they took him into the chief’s office to show him the camera footage of our car; that didn’t stop. He stood his ground and said that he had stopped but maybe too late, just after the stop sign out of sight of the camera. After a while, they put a cell phone in his hands. There was a guy on the other side of the line that was threatening him in broken English. He said that Thomas would need to go to jail and pay a lot more if he wouldn’t pay them now. Thomas responded that it didn’t matter because we had enough time and ended the phone call. To the officers, he kept saying that he didn’t understand them and that we didn’t have money because we are tourists. This game kept going for 20mins until they finally gave up, thrown Thomas’ driving license at his head and yelled that he could bugger off. So playing the dumb tourist and showing that you’ve all the time in the world helps!
In Bishkek, we stayed for two nights to relax a bit. The Kazakhstan border was not even an hour drive from Bishkek. This was the most chaotic border we had until now. Once again, we had to go separately through the whole process. Myrthe had to go through the line of the passengers which was overcrowded. People were pushing and shouting at each other. She even got pushed against the fence. After 2 hours, we were through customs and could go on to Almaty. We were a little bit worried about driving in Kazakhstan because we heard a lot of stories about the corrupt policemen. So we made sure not to do anything wrong in traffic. It became quickly apparent that Almaty is a huge city. It was the first time since long that we had a bit of a western feeling with a city, maybe it was because we saw a McDonald’s, Burger King & KFC since a long time.
There were two main routes to get to Russia and we doubted for a while which route was the best to take. The first one is the long route, it takes four days and is a bit of detour via Karaganda & Pavlodar, but the roads are in a much better condition. The other route is much shorter. It takes two days to get to Ust-Kamenogorsk (Oskemen) or even to the border of Russia. As you could already guess, this road is in a much worse state with a lot of potholes and bumps. But still, we took the shorter route because we heard that it was not that bad. The first 2 hours were indeed very good without any potholes or similar. But after that, it became worse! Almost all the way to Oskemen was very bumpy. There was a 60km long part with potholes as deep as the earth’s crust. Avoiding them was just impossible. Finding a place to sleep wasn’t easy because we were driving long stretches where there was just nothing to see. Most of the time it was just one long road, so we had to camp at the side of the road.
Once in Ust-Kamenogorsk (Oskemen), it was difficult to find a cheap but (semi-)good hotel. After asking three different hotels (we can’t believe that they were all fully booked), we found a bar with WiFi to book something on Booking.com. The next day we went towards the border close to Shemonaikha. We could also take the main border close to Semen, but that one is further and with a lot more passage. The border went relatively quick and easy. Now we were in Russia.
We had booked an apartment in Barnaul. When we arrived at the place, there was no one to see so we called the guy that should have been there. He couldn’t speak English, but he made quickly clear that the apartment was already gone. It was 11 pm, and we didn’t have a place to sleep yet. We went to the closest KFC and booked a cheap hotel on their free WiFi. – Did we already mentioned that we love free WiFi? – We arrived at Hotel Tourist and asked at the security guy downstairs where we could check-in. He led the way to the elevator, let us in and pushed the button to go to the 13th floor without saying anything. What a weird situation… It took 30mins to check-in, although we were alone at the front desk. But the rooms were alright for $15 though. The next day we went towards the Mongolian border at Tashanta. It was a long day of +12 hours driving through the Altai Mountains of Russia. What a beautiful region! We got stopped at a police check and were a bit concerned because some Russian cops are corrupt too. But the policeman was friendly and laughing out loud because we went to Mongolia with such an old car. He was even flirting with Myrthe a bit and asked her to marry him. She wasn’t interested because she doesn’t like guys with golden teeth. Lucky me.
We arrived at the Tashanta border at midnight. We just slept in the car (and had a cold night in the mountains) so we could enter Mongolia early in the morning.
Related articles you might like:
- Mongol Rally Part 5 – Pamir Highway Adventures
- Mongol Rally Final Part – We’ve Made It To Mongolia!
- 8 Awesome Things In Central Asia That Need To Be On Your Bucket List