Journeys Without a Map

Projects and Expeditions… Any Which Way

Archive for ‘March, 2013’

I can be quite negative at times, it´s in my character.  But I´m an optimist at heart so it´s never for very long, unless there are extenuating circumstances.  Like now, for example.

What a hole this part of the world is.  I should have left it in those books I used to read. Why did I have to try  to replicate some of the experiences of those men, who journeyed here all those years ago?  They were better men than I.  They must have been to have coped with this.S1360001  We haven´t been able to see for more than a few miles for almost 3 weeks, even in the hills.  The sun is like a feeble, energy-saving bulb until 10am and after 4pm.  Everything and everywhere is the colour of dust. It´s underfoot and foot deep, like walking through flour.  It´s in and on everything.  You don´t realise how thick it is in the air until you switch a torch on at night.  And just as thick around us are the local authorities.  We are feted by some then hounded and impounded by the next.  Even in small rural communities there are flash cameras mounted on gantries above the road.  We escape notice only until our second night.  The local populace stands in gangs about us in every village and town, not unfriendly but not welcoming either, simply non-plussed.  One or two will invariably call the police as if it´s all they know to do.  Not more than one in several hundred will venture a ´hello´ until we do; they are content to stare silently, or snigger nervously. And even in those serene moments when we are miles from anybody we seem to fight more over a single choice of route than we have done in four years of marriage.  Then when we have to make it to a big town with a hotel we must show a marriage certificate to the dismissive A-hole at the front desk to have even a twin room together. Unless you relish hard travel just for the sake of it I will unhesitatingly recommend anywhere else in the world to go to – except Chad which I´ve heard is horrendous – rather than the modern day incarnation of the southern Silk Road.

S1380002And yet these two days we have been fighting to have more time here.  It´s visa extension time and we are in Khotan to try our luck.  At moments, my resolve wobbling, I have wondered why we should persevere?  Physical barriers are one of the attractions of an expedition; human barriers are no fun at all.  Then I remember what we are trying to do and that it´s difficult simply because it´s not done.  Every day brings the unexpected so we must live on our wits and that was what we were after from then start.  We are achieving something unique and the experience is only lacking the visual feast that normally serves to counter-balance the discomforts of such a venture, and a more complete freedom to do what we want.   And regarding the latter it seems things may henceforth get better.  We are now fully visible to the police but have found a sympathetic, high-ranking Han Chinese officer who speaks English and likes us to call him Jackson.  He wasn´t at first sympathetic when we walked from the mountains into his prefecture and had us held in Khalia police station for a night.  Upon meeting him the next day, however, he proved a little more malleable.  Not entirely so, however, for whilst not closing us down completely as at first was threatened he ordered us to change our route and not stray far from the larger towns and oasises further north.

“It´s for your own safety.” He intoned, glancing wistfully and for the hundredth time at the dust on his previouslyS1380005 impeccable city shoes.  We had to break the trip around now to get our visa extension in Khotan in any case so were happy to comply for a while, show willing to relax his gaze, but then he had us tailed to the extent that we must have appeared as criminals to the local populace.  After two long and dusty days marching into a strong wind, back out of the hills and into the desert we then found that all our attempts to find someone to look after our camel for a few days were scuppered by the immediate arrival of up to ten vacant looking officers all chewing sunflower seeds and doing little else but gawp. We called Jackson repeatedly to complain and finally persuaded him to drive his precious new 4×4 out of his urban comfort zone in Pishan for a second meeting, 40kms to his south in a town called Koshtaga.  There, in a pavement eatery, with the light blotted out by half the town´s menfolk gathered around we S1380008 (1024x576)fought for our trip as I tucked into a local speciality called Soghman which has poisoned me for four days now.  We flatly refused to travel on the roads and were theatrically surprised he could even think of putting us in so much danger.  On his map we pinpointed the villages we wanted to visit, each chosen only for it´s being at the top of a valley.  “But there are no roads between these!” He whined.  “It´s too dangerous!”  “Of course there are roads, just not asphalt ones.” We could now respond confidently after feeling our way for four days and over four passes between the villages of Usheke-Pech and Khalia, guided only by shepherds helping us to scratch impromptu maps into the ground.  “How do you think people used to get between these places before motorbikes came along and made it easier to go around?”  He looked to the local police chief on my left for support but when our English was translated into Uighur there was a murmur of approval around the crowd.  The older ones knew there were routes there: yol eshek (donkey trails).  Jackson was wavering when Ayelen, thankfully only toying with her bowl of botulism, her hair plastered with two week´s worth of airborne particulate and sticking up at odd angles like an eighties punk just out of bed, played her trump.  Jackson looked down at the table sheepS1380006ishly and I pushed the bacteria around my plate uneasily as she laid into him at length for wrecking her honeymoon.  I hadn´t agreed with her that this was going to be a winning argument but perhaps it was after all, for at this point Jackson folded.

He has now granted us permission to follow our chosen route through the foothills of the Kunlun Shan but we still, until just moments ago, couldn´t be certain that he wasn´t simply keeping us sweet while all the time making sure our visa extension would be refused.  One of his henchmen was here in Khotan to observe us getting off the bus yesterday and this morning any hopes we had that police and immigration aren´t very good at communicating with one another were dashed when it was immediately clear that the Officer for Foreign Affairs was very much expecting us.   But to our surprise we have just been granted another month to play with and rather than the usual five day turn around it´s taken just one.  I am flabbergasted, frankly.  I was certain our only chance of success lay in having as low a profile as possible where police in the main towns were concerned.  The moment we were impounded by police in Khalia and I first heard Jackson´s voice on the phone telling me we must come to Pishan at once and check into a hotel like good tourists, I considered the game all but up.  Well somehow it´s not and it´s just as well;  we can´t stop now, there´s one very important reason waiting for us 190kms away in Koshtaga.

Kashi – the ancient name for Kashgar – is a five year old Bactrian camel and is the most amazing animal I have ever owned.  This is not remarkable in itself as in fact she´s the only animal I´ve ever owned.  She carries our 80-100kgs of baggage, food and water uncomplainingly over pretty much any terrain and makes no noise as she does so on her cushioned pads.  She eats bushes covered in thorns that would put a hole in your welly and picks up her bowlS1360002 and looks at us when it´s time for the good stuff.  She has a third eyelid to eject dust and sand and the most ridiculously thick woolly coat complete with knicker-bockers, beard and a quiff.  She loves a good hug in the morning and now makes a peculiar sound to show her appreciation.  She can be obstinate when faced with an unfamiliar obstacle and has even galloped all the way back down a 1000m hillside, dispensing our kit along the way, apparently on a sudden whim to be with some other camels she´d met at the bottom.   Otherwise she is as sweet natured and compliant as we could have wished for.  I´ve wanted to travel again with an animal ever since dog-sledding in Greenland and it´s every bit as rewarding an experience again. But part of that reward, of course, comes from the fact that she herself is an extra challenge to be overcome, bringing the weight of responsibility towards a team member whose capabilities, and needs, are still a somewhat grey area to us.  We have been in two situations already where a wrong turn has left us at altitude uncomfortably late in the day and the route to the valley floor below is unclear.  It´s never been a danger for Ayelen and me for we know we could, if need be, pick our way down the stony slopes.  Kashi, though, is no goat and finding the right spur to take her all the way to the bottom and not into some fatal cul-de-sac between impassable ravines has at times caused stress levels to soar.  More often than not I find myself worrying about her food, water and general well-being but this is lessening as I become more familiar with her needs and abilities.  She is quite simply remarkable and when we are alone with her in some unihabited valley, camped next to a river, dry or otherwise, and happily eating our respective suppers by the fire this trip is almost as I dared imagine it.  Even Ayelen, with so much more of a robust attitude to the animal kingdom than I, has found a bond with Kashi.  If, along with an end to police harrassment, we can only find a bit of colour to the landscape and some clear air around us we´ll be in an expedition paradise.

Clear air has been the driving force behind us trying to head as deep as possible into the Kunlun Shan and not only for our sanity but for our film as well. S1330008 (1024x576)At the moment every sequence is brown and certain bits of the camera packed up on day one.  We had a taste of what might be on the drive from the Kyrgyz border to Kashgar weeks ago: outrageously beautiful ochre valleys topped by snow-capped peaks and dotted with the adobe winter homesteads of the Uighurs.  But we were still at around 2000m when we drove into the wall of dust.  I couldn´t take any photographs as it was a military zone for 140kms and we sped through without stopping.  Still, we thought that altitude must surely be our saviour here also.    It took us four days to walk from Yarkand to the start of the hills we knew lay to the south and almost from the start we were potentially in trouble.  When the poplar-lined, powdery lanes of the oasis eventually petered out on day two there was nothing but a flat stony desert ahead, stretching into the earthy murk.  Here we blundered past indechipherable red signs straight into a military zone.  I had thought the distant machines sprouting vast clouds of dust were earth-movers until Ayelen exclaimed, “Look!  Isn´t that a tank?”  Almost simultaneously there was a rattle of machine gun fire from just ahead and we executed a neat ´About turn!´. Later, amidst more habitation, we began to learn of the intricacies of getting a camel along the banks of an oasis lined river, across the inummerable irrigation ditches and between the arrow straight poplar trunks spaced as little as 50cms apart.  Our second experience of locals just calling the cops on us led to a slap up lunch of pilau, albeit eaten alone and outside in the dirt while every one of our hosts retired inside the police station to eat theirs.  The law against entertaining foreigners mustn’t be broken!  Further south Ayelen jumped on a bus to get to a market up ahead because Kashi and I were taking too long to cover the miles and in her absence I was hi-jacked by a wedding.  They put me in a corner of the kitchen and made me eat a bucketful of rice while all the guests filed in to stare.  I knew the southern branch of the ancient Silk Road is by far the least visited these days.  A guide book in the hostel we stayed at in Kashgar stated that to travel here is to enter the Uighur heartland.  It was talking only about jumping between the larger towns along the main arterial road that skirts the Taklamakan but I still wasn´t really expecting the reception we have had in these wayside towns.  Everyone has a TV now so it´s not as if they haven´t seen our like before but what in the name of Allah are we doing here??  And it´s a not a bad question.

Yarkand, on the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert and the Tarim Basin, once an important junction between the southern Silk Road and the trail south to Ladakh and British India is now Yarkand, China, a small city of some 800,000 mainly Uighur people. It has little to recommend it but for the Sunday farmers´market.  At the moment it sits in a fog of dust so thick that visibility is at best a mile.  When we arrived 5 days ago it was just a few hundred metres and many of the population were wearing dust masks.  Tourism is not big here and it took us several hours to find a hotel that was allowed to have foreigners.  There are mountains on one side and desert on the other but the only sight to penetrate the gloom is the sun, dulled to a 40w bulb above us.  The only sound reaching our 7th floor room is of car horns; a constant, unpunctuated blare that rests only in the early hours.  They must have the death penalty here for minor traffic accidents or something because even in an otherwise empty road, a driver will carpet-bomb a solitary pedestrian with sound from hundreds of metres away until he is safely past. It´s a kind of torture.  Our room, so badly tar-stained that my throat constricts to an asthmatic´s wheeze the moment the door swings open, is an oasis.  After a minute we can  no longer smell it, the bed is comfortable, the bathroom clean and there´s internet.

Perhaps we are the first western travellers since the early 1900s to stay in Yarkand for more than one night.  Certainly, if we were currently under the wing of some tour operator I would sue the sonofabitch for substantial damages.  I am definitely the only westerner ever to bring his wife here on a honeymoon though and, well, a first is a first!  Under a thick layer of dust somewhere lies an important mausoleum in blue and white tiles but that´s it.  The only reason anyone comes here is to mount some camels and head into the desert on an organised overnight trip.  I can´t even get that right. S1250013

We came here to find a camel market closer to the Kunlun Shan mountains than that of Kashgar, and further away from any sensitive areas around the Pakistan border.  Under a briefly blue sky there weren´t so many camels on display at Yarkand´s wonderful Sunday market but we befriended one seller, called Mohammed, and have been trying to spend our camel budget ever since. Yarkand´s bleating, choking heart of concrete and night time neon wears a wafer thin mantle of low brick houses and then, quite suddenly, you step out into the oasis to which it owes its existence.  Bearded old men in tall hats steer their donkey carts along the narrow lanes between fields of cotton, wheat and corn, beneath what must in summer be a green tunnel of poplars.  The slender trees are everywhere: springing like bamboo from the banks of the irrigation network that delivers melt water from the Yarkand river, lining the fields and standing in thickets before every doorway.  It must be pretty when all are in leaf but there´s the dust, you see.  It´s so bad my all singing and dancing camera starts to suffer badly.  These stills are all captured from what little film footage we could risk.

These last three mornings we have hitchhiked and walked the 6kms out to Mohammed´s ´barn´ and the eight camels therein.  We were, until this morning, negotiating for a four year female with a wonderfully placid temperament but she doesn´t want to come with us.  A successful transaction is dependent on my being ablS1270001e to control her and today was supposed to be my training day.  It was soon clear, however, that it is she who needs lessons.  She has never been trained to carry anything and lacks even the traditional nose-piercing that would allow my 65kgs a modicum of control over her 450+kgs.  When even two farmhands cannot get her to kneel without lassooing her forelegs and tripping her up it´s clear she´s not what we´re looking for.  We try another one, more expensive, and this time I am putting her up and down like a pro almost immediately, and even riding around on her.  But Ayelen is unable to lower the price sufficiently and we are back to square one.  Negotiations are cumbersome in Uighur tongue.  We scan our notebooks for the right word and then mispronounce it.  A young girl called Aynor, whose family run a restaurant just where blaring taxis racing past the end of a tranquil country lane signal the abrupt start of the city, is one of only three people we have met who speak any English.  Behind the restaurant´s till, where she spends her days longing for permission to study in Turkey, her phone rings constantly with either Ayelen or me on the other end.

Mohammed has more camels, he says, but they are some 35kms – or is that 3.5 hrs? – out of town, towards the mountains and he doesn´t want to go there.  To us it sounds ideal – our biggest headache once the cash and camel change hands is going to be getting ourselves into the hills without being stopped by police – but he is reluctant for some reason.  Perhaps his other animals don´t exist.  Another two contenders from somebody else will be in the barn at 8am tomorrow morning for inspection.  If they are no good we´ll head for the hills anyway.  We´ve got to get out of this town and into the sticks and if we end up with a couple of donkeys instead of a camel we´ll get over any disappointment quickly.  We knew all this was a tall order in the first place but it´s all is taking too long and even our staying in Yarkand more than the usual 30 minutes might soon attract unwanted attention. S1260002

China likes her visitors to be nicely visible.  Ideally you should enter obediantly at the main hubs of Beijing, Hong Kong, etc and henceforth be carted from one state-sanctioned hotel to the next by a registered tour operator. Very few hotels outside these main centres have a licence to accommodate foreigners, you need special permits to go to many places, Facebook is illegal, so too is Twitter, YouTube and even this website, my own blog.  This last problem can be circumvented by paying for and downloading a proxy server but, as if to further control the populace, internet speed is never fast and regularly plunges to nothing.  You can´t hire a car without a driver and wouldn´t be allowed to drive it if you could.  Staying with any local is technically illegal – as it is in Morocco incidentally, although not enforced – and camping, well, you can camp in the grounds of those hotels if you realy want to.  And in this part of the country, Xinjiang, everything is further exacerbated by the authorities distrust of the indigenous, and occasionally rebellious, Uighur population.  Why would anybody wish to stay more than 10 minutes in Yarkand unless they are up to some mischief?

Thus on first, second and third sights Xinjiang is absolutely the last place anyone would come to buy a camel and attempt a journey through the country side, staying with locals wherever possible.  But foreign cyclists are not uncommon here and they do seem to get away with camping along the wayside so clearly the rules are not unbendable.   Our contact in Kashgar, a tour operator no less, reckons what we want to do is possible as long as, ironically, we do not take a guide with us.  A guide will only be a target for police angst and will get into a lot of trouble.  If we are on our own the police simply won´t know what to do with us and will let us go.  And if we follow the Southern Silk Road that skirts around the bottom of the Taklamakan we oughtn´t to have too much police contact in any case.  Conversely, the Northern Silk Road has too many restricted areas and is much more developed.  But how far we´ll get, nobody will hazard a guess.  To visit the famous Kashgar Sunday market and practice haggling for a camel is recommended by every guidebook but nobody has heard of any foreigners actually buying one.  In fact though, I now know of an Englishman who bought some near the Pakistan border not so long ago and, with a camel guide, set off for Beijing.  After just a hundred or so kilometres he became embroiled in a local uprising right here in Yarkand and was forced by the authorities to sell them and get out.

Most people who wish to really head into one of the many deserts or outback regions in this part of the world choose the Outer Mongolian part of the Gobi or the endless steppe to its north. Outer Mongolia was part of the Soviet Union and is as such now free.  John Hare crossed the Gashun Gobi in China in the 1990s but as part of a Chinese state-sanctioned expedition to survey and protect the last surviving wild Bactrian camels.  And foreigners have crossed the Taklamakan on camels since then, but I believe all have engaged a local tour operator to organise the logistics and facilitate the paperwork and all have employed a local guide.  We don´t want to cross anything.  We haven´t the money to fund the requisite number of animals, guide to find water holes, permits and the profit margins of others.  We simply want to get right off the beaten track, we have only these months to do it in and this place has always had my interest.  There have been times when I´ve wondered why we couldn´t have just gone to Mongolia like everybody else but Ayelen soon sets me right again.

Through all this I marvel at my good fortune, not just for the childhood and myriad freedoms thereafter available to me – in contrast to people living here – but for my wife.  Ayelen takes everything in her stride and has unfailing faith in our Guardian Angels´ ability to deliver from all this dust a fantastic and beautiful journey. There have been a few moments recently where my own conviction in this has wavered.  If I were here on my own it wouldn´t be the case, but now of course I feel a responsibility.  This destination was my idea and this is our honeymoon.  I feel a pressure to deliver what I promised, the weeks are slipping by and we need an animal soon.  We cannot make this walk without one.  But Ayelen is the perfect travelling companion, strong where I am weak and boundlessly optimistic.  The only thing she struggles with is the state of every bathroom here, as in Kyrgyzstan.  I don´t want to describe them.  You simply have to try to imagine the worst possible scenario and then have a dozen more people come in and shit all over it.  If somebody has the affrontery to charge her a fee for the pleasure they either get an earful or have to dig her coin out of a turd.

Tomorrow we´ll head for the hills, with ot without a camel and I´ll have no internet for a few weeks.  I have a feeling we can just find everything we need in a small rural community and then simply set off into the distance.  At any rate we´ll be out of this dust…or perhaps not!

We didn´t like Jalalabad.  Then it snowed and the road to Naryn was closed again.  So we retraced our steps and thanks to the wrong bus found ourselves in an amazing little grassy valley near some place called Mali Sye.  Two different goat herds found us the following day – as they inevitably do, I´ve found.  One later returned with bread and bagfuls of nuts and dried fruit, and at long last I discovered what it is that  goat herders do with all that time (main image).  He had a more precise back flip for display but this deformed cartwheel made the better shot.S1220001 (1024x576) The next day´s hitch hiking went without a hitch as we scored ride after ride without having to wait for more than a few minutes.  Despite heavy snow over the passes we were back in Bishkek in time for ´bar opening´ in the apartment of our friend Devendra Pal Singh.  Dev is an ex Indian Airforce pilot who after retiral set off around Central Asia and Russia in search of the next challenge.  He is now a co-ordinator and head teacher of English, Hindi and Sanskrit at the Manas University.  His command of the idiosyncracies of English put me to shame on more than one occasion and we have now spent a total of six very entertaining nights with him and his friends.  We met Dev through, a brilliant site that introduces instant contacts, free accommodation and potential friends in foreign countries.  If you dislike the hotel perspective of a strange land, as we do, I recommend it.

Ayelen holds the purse strings on this trip, as she does in our life together, and I am extremely happy that she does.  It´s not that I´ve ever been a spend thrift.  Any non-essential purchase of over a hundred quid has me in throes of agonising indecision; a Scottish thing perhaps but I want my money to be there for doing fun things.  I´ve never spent more than 2k on a car for example.  But while the pounds stay put the pennies seem to drop away as if through a hole and I´ve never had the patience to try to account for it all.  Ayelen is more disciplined where the pennies are concerned so, as the saying goes, the pounds look after themselves.  She also, indisputably, gets a better price where any haggling is to be done.  So I have willingly handed over those particular reins.  But it does mean I am destined to walk over these sodding mountains to get to China on the other side. S1220002 (1024x576) If my trousers in this relationship didn´t have little pink frilly bits on them we´d be hopping in a taxi and budget be damned.  Hitching has been good so far but the next bit is 200+kms over a snow swept pass of over 3500m, then a 12km no-man´s land between the borders – for which you may read mountain peaks – and then another 300kms to Kashgar.  It´ll be Baltic cold with precious little traffic but for heavy trucks whose drivers, in my male experience at least, rarely feel like a bit of extra company to break the monotony of their routine.  And there´ll be naff all in the way of shelter but for our tent when nobody does pick us up.  My God she´s stubborn and sometimes it´s just easier to go with the flow.

Two days pass and the pass draws nearer.  The scenery has been gobsmacking, when I haven´t been staring at the ground in front of my feet, weighed down by not just my load but part of hers as well. S1150002 - Copy (1024x576) We´ve had some lifts but there´s been a lot of walking too.  It´s looking like tent time again when two shifty looking dudes in a beaten up Audi pick us up and take us some 40kms and before veering off the road suddenly and across an undulating, pie-bald plain of dead grass and snow-filled hollows.  Instinctively I check the whereabouts of my puny pocket knife and try to envisage a flurry of martial arts and the valiant saving of the day.  But then we arrive at a tiny little house of mud bricks in the lee of a low hill.  As ever the mountains rear up in the background and a young man with impossibly ruddy cheeks, as if rouged, is steering the last of a very big flock of sheep and goats into a pen adjoining the house.  His name is Lorbek.  Then others arrive in another beaten up car with a trailer.  While Ayelen goes inside to make friends with Lorbek´s very pretty wife I help the men pick out the ten fattest sheep from the flock.  This is done by grabbing a likely, and already fleeing contender by a back leg, manouvering the animal between one´s legs and, once stable, feeling through the wool for the ribs.  S1160004 (1024x576)The men try to teach me the difference between those of one destined for the trailer of doom and one given a reprieve but the grass is sparse at this time of year and miles have to be covered for a nibble. To my mind, none have any meat on them.

The men and doomed sheep leave and Lorbeck fetches his horse.  We have to go and round up stragglers he explains, thrusting the reins into my hands and then disappearing inside.  I am a bit nervous about riding right now.  I haven´t done very much of it, the saddle looks insecure and I am as cold as the ground.  I feel as if every bone in my body will simply shatter if I come off but I don´t want him to see the pink frilly bits on my trousers so by the time he comes out in a thick coat I am mounted. As the sun sets we head straight up an adjacent hill, Lorbek at a run, but after an initial trot my steed slows to a begrudging plod and it´s clear I´m going to slow him down.  He takes over and lashing left and right with the long reins, his legs splayed out in what looks like a fertility-compromising position, bounces to the top in a few seconds.  By the time I get there he is in the middle distance: man, horse and dog working as an ancient team in this astounding place.  I feel a pang of envy and it won´t be the last of the evening.  When he returns it is with all the cattle and I help him close up for the night.  There´s one cow that´s not well and she goes under cover.  So too does a ewe with a late season lamb.  The horse and donkey get hay and the dog gets the frozen heart of whatever it was that was last slaughtered here.

Lorbeck and Samira, both 24, spend the winter here with their 2 year old son, snug in their mud home of two rooms and a hallway.  The windows are glazed with two sheets of thick plastic sheet which works surprisingly well; there´s almost no condensation despite the intense heat given off the home-made dung stove and the view into the breath-fogged sheep pen is clear.  On the whitewashed kitchen wall is a gawdy poster of a Beckham-esque style mansion and the contrast could hardly be greater.  I nod quizzically towards it and they both laugh, and as the evening progresses it becomes increasingly clear that both are wise enough to know they are better off here.  They talk animatedly of the summer decamp to pastures above 3000m where they set up their yurt by a lake.  “We have 400 sheep and goats and forty cattle.¨ Says Samira, who studied law in Bishkek for two years before returning to her childhood sweetheart.  ¨When we need to buy something we sell a few.  When we need meat we kill one. S1170002 (1024x576) We have friends around and we help one another.¨ After a supper of meat and potatoes in a spicy soup, eaten cross-legged around the low table, Samira lays out thick cotton-stuffed mats for us to sleep on and under and we drop into the sleep of the dead.  In the morning they beg us to stay longer and refuse Ayelen´s offer of some money for food and board.  We put it on the window sill.  They have a lot of livestock but it´s still a tough life and they don´t allow themselves much in the way of luxuries.

By now it´s Saturday.  After four hour´s walk uphill not a single truck has passed us and it´s becoming clear the border might be closed at the weekend and we are the only ones not to know about it.  We are  wishing we´d stayed with our gracious hosts when an old Russian army jeep grinds its way up the twisting road and stops.  Two of the three occupants fall out of the passenger side and then embrace and fumigate us in equal measure.  They are absolutely twatted.  The jeep is full of engine parts and drums of diesel with multiple leaks.  The driver is sober and looking wholly cheesed off with everything about his day so far.  He maintains a motionless silence at the wheel, staring fixedly through the cracked windscreen as we try to get ourselves and packs in without absorbing too much of the fuel swilling around the floor. Tolkonbek is repetitive when drunk and Kachyr soon turns into an aggressive drunk.  Kadyrbek the driver remains mute.  When the tarmac ends the jeep becomes airborne at times and I break my neck against the roof.  Diesel is slurping out of the drums, Tolkonbek is still repeatedly asking where we are from and Kachyr is pawing Ayelens arm and slurring at us, ¨Money, money, money!¨  But hey, a lift is a lift.

Their destination is 25kms inside a militarised buffer zone, a large wooden building surrounded by ancient snow and earth-moving machinery.  These are the men responsible for keeping the passes clear and smooth enough to avoid broken necks.  To Ayelen´s relief a woman is there and beckons us in but by her side is another man clutching another bottle of vodka and we want to press on.  The road climbs on and on though, we are at almost 3500m, it´s mid afternoon and a very chill wind threatens an ugly night, so we settle for the drunks.  S1170009 (1024x576) After more vodka, astonishingly they all move outside to try to get the only new-ish snowplough working.  Within minutes they manage to break the front grill and then decide to remove the perfectly good starter motor when the batteries are clearly flat.  Once the only decent bit of kit in their arsenal – a gift from the People of Japan, stickers all over it proclaim – has been thoroughly degraded they retire inside for a drink.  I wonder how old the rest of the machinery really is.

When a breakdown team crawls down from the pass towing a depressed looking Russian in his truck, Kachyr, the aggressive drunk hitches a lift back down the mountain and the mood inside our new lodgings lifts immediately.  When Tolkonbek falls asleep it actually becomes quite a pleasant evening and the food, as usual, is great.  I love the meat and potato variations of Kyrgyzstan.  Or maybe I´m just constantly relieved not be served a testicle in tripe.  Arslan and his wife Jamilla are grandparents looking after one of their progeny, a three year old girl who latches on to Ayelen immediately.  Jamilla initially refuses the endless Vodka shots passed her way, screwing up her face in disgust, but after a while she forgets appearances and gets stuck right in. They show us photos of themselves with children and it´s clear they´ve been in this isolated spot all their married lives.  I´d hit the bottle too.

In the morning Kadyrbek drives us and a gearbox to the final Kyrgyz checkpoint and the small hamlet of Torugart.  TS1180006 (1024x576)he latter is a row of trailer huts and two of these are operated as a sort of guesthouse by Sarabay – a solidly built man whose head is so vast he reminds me, appropriately enough, of Jabba the Hut – and his wife, whose name I fail to get the first time and whose expression of utter disinterest discourages me from ever asking again.  We walk a few hours to the frozen lake of Chatryr Kul and film mountains before returning to meat and potatoes.  Trucks have been stacking up against the border post all afternoon and two drivers join us for the meal while outside a ferocious wind sets in for the night.  It´s our last in Kyrgyzstan and apparently must be spent in an oven.  Stopping just short of physical violence I cannot deter Jabba from loading up the enormous coal burner in our tiny room.  We are forced by the heat to join the truckers in their room and watch episode after episode of a Russian mini series until the hero finally and tediously exacts his revenge and our room becomes tolerable.