When the wheels come off

May 16, 2013

Hitchhiking is best done alone. Despite the challenge of doing so with four men, we all wanted a testosterone laced episode because Max’s stories of improvised overland border crossings were so seductive that you couldn’t help but begin to compose the story of the journey. Well, at least it was true for me. Sjoerd was keen to avoid taxi drivers and save some money, as a consequence. Max craved a trip defining challenge that would add to his collection of stories. Takayuki agreed with us, but his motives were tucked behind that charming smile of his.

As we waited, this shepherd brought his flock into town.

As we waited, this shepherd brought his flock into town.

Takayuki in photo mode.

Takayuki in photo mode.

The novelty hadn't worn off, yet.

The novelty hadn’t worn off, yet.

Just as before, success would depend on an early start and lots of luck and like the day before, I was the only one up at 6AM. My rustling and movement in and out of the room weren’t enough to move anyone else, including the owner of the house. Once I woke the rest of the group, our host woke up and started to cook breakfast. Much like dinner the night before, the preparation was agonizingly slow and we didn’t get out of the house until just before 8AM. I’m getting nervous about our chances of getting rides, and we nearly came to our senses and hired a vehicle that would take us to the border, but solidarity got in the way. Sjoerd wouldn’t participate and we talked ourselves out of it saying that it wasn’t good value for the money. So, we finished the walk to the highway and sat. A few vehicles passed us, but either they were full or weren’t going to the border. So, we entertained ourselves by reading and taking pictures for a while, then we got our first vehicle to stop. It was an old Russian UAZ 4X4 and they claimed they could fit all 4 of us in the vehicle AND get us all the way to Osh for the unbelievably good price of $20. There was clearly only room for one. Anyone else would have to wedge in and roll themselves into a ball for hours. Takayuki had picked up on the fragile group dynamic and couldn’t afford to be delayed, with the end of his trip nearest. So when it was agreed he take the only seat available, he didn’t hesitate. He told us where he planned to stay in Osh and he disappeared into the distance.

If there was grass to watch grow, I would have done so.

If there was grass to watch grow, I would have done so.

Green with envy, we waited in silence. At 11AM we all agreed that if we didn’t have a ride, then we would go crawling back to the driver in town and ask if he would honor his original price. He did, but with one less person to split the cost, the price effectively went up. Without papers to enter Kyrgyzstan, he would have to drop us at the Tajikistani side of the border.

At this point, I am near furious. I am in no mood to talk to either Sjoerd or Max. Sjoerd because of his penny-wise/pound-poor approach to transportation, and Max because he sold all of us on the idea, but showed no leadership in getting up early and pressing to get out to the road earlier. I was also mad at myself because I had seen all of this coming, did nothing about it, and went over the cliff like a lemming. At the border, I shot out of the car to be the first to be processed and start walking through 20km of no-man’s-land between the two border posts. I didn’t want to sleep rough in the cold, high altitude night and I figured that I would arrive at the Kyrgyz border post near sundown. I had to get going.

It was really this futile.

It was really this futile.

After having our belongings and documents inspected, Max asked us if we were going to hitchhike from there. I knew there was little chance anyone would come from the west and even less chance there would be room for us, so I said I would walk. It was the only bit of control I had left on the day and I was going to exercise it. Sjoerd must have reached a similar conclusion because he was going to walk, as well. So, we went together.

Before we could get out of the checkpoint, we were stopped again. Being in the fine mood I was in, I was did not take kindly to being asked for my papers again by someone in plain clothes. I had just done that and I wasn’t going to pay a bribe. However, the message was clear. We were not going to be allowed to leave. After sharing my finest English and being escorted to another office, it was clear that we hadn’t had our passports stamped. Hehe. Oops. By this time, Max was present again and all three of us sat awkwardly in that small, two bunk-bedded room as we were served tea and watched the soldier record our information in a log before he stamped our passports. Before Sjoerd and I walked off, I briefly explained to Max that I was walking because I didn’t want to get stuck sleeping rough at 12,000+ft, but that he may have the last laugh, anyway, and we were gone.

Sjoerd seemed to enjoy the freedom away from Max’s specific needs as much as I did, and we chatted a bit while walking. Sjoerd, who had been trying to photograph a marmot for some time, was thrilled with the abundance and relative nonchalance of those around us and got pictures that satisfied him. We were nearly to the long downhill portion of the road to the border of Kyrgyzstan when a red Lada passed us heading toward Kyrgyzstan. I had seen the car minutes earlier heading the opposite direction, so I knew Max was in that car. The question was whether he would stop for either of us. Time slowed down as I watched for brake lights. They went on and the car came to a stop about 50 yards ahead. Sjoerd was ahead because I wanted to photograph the moment, but I didn’t rush. If Max wanted to leave me behind, that was his prerogative. I had it coming, anyway.

At the top of Kyzyl-Art Pass. Sjoerd walks towards the stopped Lada.

At the top of Kyzyl-Art Pass. Sjoerd walks towards the stopped Lada.

At the car, Max explained that he had convinced the driver (by paying him, of course) to turn around and drive to the Kyrgyz border post. It was our choice to get in and split the cost or not. I’m sure Sjoerd was seething at the thought of spending more money, but the situation had made him a realist and we both got in the car. There wasn’t much to say, but in a dysfunctional way, we were glad to be together and to have another piece of the journey sorted out. The journey down the switchbacks from the Kyzyl-Art Pass (4282m or 14,130 ft) was peaceful, but like almost all car journeys, there was an unexpected break. The driver lives in the this no-man-land and owns some yaks. So, we were treated to tea, bread, and yak butter. Yaks, being the hairy, mountain cows that they are, produce wonderfully flavored butter, and we delighted at breaking off chunks and smashing them on our bread.

The ride through no-man's-land

The ride through no-man’s-land

At the border, we noticed the only vehicles were those owned by guards, who were all to eager to charge us an obscene price to get to Sary Tash. We tried to negotiate with the guards to have our driver take us, but he didn’t have the papers needed. We eventually got a guard to agree to the price our driver would have charged, and we had another 35-40km piece of the journey figured out. As we left the border post, the landscape got greener by the mile and we all felt as if we had been transported to the oasis we sorely needed. There was grass! There were trees! It was as if we had forgotten they existed. The mountains, too, were completely different on the other side. Here, in Kyrgyzstan, all of the mountains had a thick sugar crusted appearance, not just those 6000m or more. We had all been looking forward to getting back to civilization, but this was beyond our expectations!

Ahhhh.... Sary Tash!

Ahhhh…. Sary Tash! The view from our hitching spot.

Sary Tash sits at the crossroads where Chinese truck drivers either go north to Biskek, Almaty, and beyond, or west to Dushanbe, Uzbekistan, Iran, etc. This makes it an ideal place to hitchhike. While Max was content to stay overnight in Sary Tash, I decided to join Sjoerd, who had made a sign displaying our destination. We hadn’t stood out there for more than 5 minutes when a 20+ year old Mercedes cargo van pulled up and agreed to take us. Sjoerd and I joined the driver in the front seat, but behind were two rows of seat filled with two Kyrgyz families. One was extended and numbered 8 or so. They were a nomadic family traveling to their summer house, and we stopped there to unload their belongings from the cargo hold before continuing on to Osh.

Unloading their belonging at the summer house.

Unloading their belonging at the summer house.

As we wound our way through the lush green rolling hills that were golf-course-perfectly grazed by horses, cows, sheep, and goats, our smiles grew larger. This was gorgeous like Alpine Switzerland is gorgeous. What was really surprising was the quality of the road we were on. The Kyrgyz government, was smart enough to have the Chinese construct their roads, and what a difference that makes! Sjoerd was so pleased with our ride, that despite not asking for any money, we both gave the driver $10.

We found the Osh Guesthouse, chose beds, and then Takayuki appeared! It was as if we hadn’t seen him in years! Despite our journey being completely disjointed, Takayuki had only arrived an hour or so before us. His 4×4 overheated multiple times, but he knew he had transportation for the whole journey and spent about 1/2 what we did.

It was time for a meal and drinks to celebrate the return to civilization! We went to a BYOB restaurant and treated ourselves to local beer and a king’s meal of kebabs, lagman, and manti. What a day!

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