Hello from the Siberian plain! Nick here. We’ve made it to Barnaul, Russia, having successfully navigated the famous Kyrgyz peaks and the infamous Kazakh steppe. Since it’s been a while since we’ve treated you to a full update (Tashkent methinks), let’s backtrack a bit to fill you in. Unfortunately, Russia has blacklisted our website (we can’t imagine why…), and so we’re using a proxy service to post this. As a result, we can’t upload any photos. We’ll add them as soon as possible.
There are several segments of this journey that I expected to be beautiful—the Croatian coast, Istanbul, and Bukhara to name a few. Then there are those moments that catch you totally by surprise. The landscapes and cities that we’d overlooked and subsequently took our breath away. These moments are what the Rally is all about. And the drive into the Fergana Valley was one of those moments.
Mostly known as a bastion of Islamic fundamentalism and for the tragic massacre of 2005, we were traversing the Fergana simply as a means to get between Tashkent and Osh, gateway to Kyrgyzstan and the towering Tian Shan mountains. Entering the valley from Tashkent required several police checkpoints and one massive mountain pass. Keshav Pothole chugged up and up and up until we finally got a glance behind us and were met with a stunning vista of the valley behind us.
Working our way through the pass, we stumbled upon a traditional mountainside teahouse and spread out on the carpeted benches to nibble on shashlyk and enjoy the mountain air. Cooper taught Benjie and me the traditional way to pour tea—which was not, as I had hoped, onto Cooper’s head. Our bellies full, we descended into the valley and sped our way towards Osh, making it to the border just before it closed for the evening.
We had just checked in to our bazaar-adjacent hotel and were retrieving our bags while chatting with a local family who had parked by us. Next thing we know, we were sitting in their nearby apartment, having been invited to dinner. We had experienced some pretty exceptional Central Asian hospitality—local people going way out of their way to help us out and welcome us to their towns—but this took the cake. Cooper was beyond ecstatic, presumably realizing that he would soon spend a full year immersed in the pervasive generosity and kindness that are central tenants of Kyrgyz culture.
The reason for our invitation was an upcoming test. The younger son was taking English in university and was unprepared for a major exam, two weeks away. We like to think our conversation helped give him a little more comfort with the language, but my mind was on the delicious potatoes and watermelon we slowly polished away as we talked. What a way to be welcomed to a new country.
Cooper and Benjie took to the bazaar the next morning while I took advantage of the finally cool weather to go for a run. We said goodbye to Osh just before noon and pushed headword into the mountains, stopping to link up with a few more Ralliers, one of whom graciously noted that a lug nut on our front wheel was missing. Thanks for the heads up!
Several hours of progressively higher foothills brought us to an emerald blue reservoir with a swimming area and café. Needless to say, we stopped for a couple hours of swimming and eating, which culminated in the loquacious owner bringing forth a bottle of vodka to drink with us. The non-drivers toasted with him as we endured detailed descriptions of his business plan and the tourism industry (Allen family—picture a Kyrgyz Sharky).
We left the reservoir and wound our way up the side of a deep and narrow canyon before darkness set and the three teams set up camp in the backyard of a roadside café, where we were quickly joined by a fourth team who had spotted our ubiquitous Mongol Rally stickers from the highway.
The mountains on the next day’s drive cannot, should not, and will not be described in words. Cooper’s pictures will surely tell a better story (our update from Almaty had a sneak peek—peak?—as well).
We thoroughly enjoyed the stunning scenery and good road, taking pictures, whipping out the drone for a thin-air flight, and mostly just staring out the windows in wonder. We descended into Bishkek early enough to stock up on camping supplies, grab a meal and push across the Kazakh border to Almaty.
It felt weird spending so little time in the city that Cooper is two weeks away from calling home, but it was early in the day and we had heard bad things about the roads in Kazakhstan so we wanted a head start. Also Cooper will be spending enough time there soon enough—all’s fair in love and rallying.
From Almaty we gritted our teeth and trekked north, ready for the 1,100km of potholed roads we had heard so much about. Suburbs quickly gave way to vast nothingness—just the rolling hills and massive grass plain of the steppe—and the roads were indeed bad. In typical Central Asian fashion, a brand new but not-quite –open highway paralleled our route as we bumped and rattled along before the highway disappeared all together and the roads got…better? They weren’t good by any standards, but they were better than we expected and by the time the sun was setting, we had made surprisingly good progress.
We pulled off onto a dirt track and found a creek-side grove of trees in which to pitch our tent. As the sky turned orange, we meandered out of the grove to watch the sun set over an endless ocean of grass—the horizon line perfectly straight, as if over an actual sea.
We awoke early the next day and traversed the tranquil steppe on surprisingly ok roads (with the occasional nasty surprise) until, just as we had started to look for places to camp, we were passed by none other than our Austrian friends, Team Adventureland! This was our fifth time running into Alexander and Niklas and the first since Bukhara, where we had had dinner with them a week before.
So we went to the next town, picked up some necessities (water and beer) and pulled off to camp in a field a few hundred kilometers from the highway. But we cooked, and we drank our beers, and we happily chatted until the late hour of 9:30, when we retreated to our tents to prepare for one last day of Kazakhstan.
We said goodbye to the Austrians at the campsite—they were off to see the Polygon, a defunct nuclear testing zone from the Soviet era where the leftover radiation still plagues the residents of nearby Semey.
We were also going through Semey and were met with 150km of almost-finished highway. In the starkest road quality contrast of the entire rally to date, we alternated between spanking new tarmac and a horrible concoction of rocks-that are-a-little-too-big-to-be-considered-gravel and sneaky, vicious pot holes.
So overall we made decently good time, and worked our way to the Russian border, where getting out of Kazakhstan turned out to be a much bigger pain than getting into Russia. So long Central Asia!
I write to you now from the backseat as we speed our way up first-rate Russian highways to Barnaul, where we hope to post this update, but not before getting a much-needed shower.
Thanks for indulging us by reading, writing and following our GPS map! Can’t wait to update you from Mongolia itself—aiming to reach the border tomorrow! It feels like the true rally is just beginning.