Sunday 20 March
With the Chinese government being the capricious bastards that they are, there was little else to do but go off exploring this beautiful country, so partner in crime Alex and I loaded the wagon to trek part of the roof of the world to Kyrgyzstan’s second city. 620 KM away and taking TEN HOURS to get there – we set off on our road trip to Osh.
Accompanying us on this perilous journey is none other than Margot – ankle biting scourge of the Krygyz, feared near and far by the heartiest of men, the hammer of Central Asia. No bigger than a mutated rat, this harmless pooch nonetheless instills the deepest dread in all who cross her path, so much so that it’s getting utterly hilarious. You see dogs aren’t kept as pets here. Nobody has a dog. So when you take little Margot out for a trundle, I’ve seen large, grown men literally leap to get out of her way, yelping with fright. Girls have heart attacks if they catch sight of her as she nonchalantly skips past, unaware of the distress she’s causing. I’ve watched boys ten yards ahead spy the K9 catastrophe and run and hide behind a tree until she’s a safe distance away. They are mortally terrified of a tiny little thing with four legs.
Yet not so a bigger thing with four legs. Finally I’m lucky enough to catch a game of Kok-boru, a violently aggressive team sport played on horseback, and certainly one you won’t find at the Olympics anytime soon. Two teams of five players battle to drag a goat carcass into the opposing teams goal, with few rules to say how you manage to do it. Players punch and kick their opponents, riding horses hard, with the beasts seen to mount each other in the ensuing melee. Not surprisingly both rider and horse fall regularly, in a chaotic free-for-all dance kicking up dirt and dust, blood sweat and tears. The carcass itself weighs around 20 kg (apparently filled with rocks).
Meaning “blue wolf” in the Kyrgyz language, Kok-boru has its roots somewhere with shepherds chasing ravenous lupines from their helpless flocks. It’s been played for centuries in pretty much every Central Asian country, with top players hailing from countries like Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan, where it goes by the name of Buzkashi (literally “goat dragging” in Persian). Players are significantly weathered, with hands like tree roots often sporting more than a few missing fingers. Games can last for days, and the festivities also include wrestling, arm wrestling, and chasing women on horseback to get a kiss. With barely a member of the fairer sex in sight, it’s basically a day of men proving how fucking hard they are.
Until they meet Margot…
As entertaining as the sports are, it appears Alex and myself are something of an attraction too. We’re in a backwater town called Kara Kol around halfway between Bishkek and Osh, through the stunningly beautiful Naryn river valley, and it’s impossible to escape the attentions of the locals. We stick out like sore thumbs regardless of our cameras and killer mutt, and to be perfectly honest it grows a little uncomfortable. In particular this can be said for yours truly, who, obviously partnering Alex, is expecting any minute to be challenged to some kind of brawl for her affections. At one point indeed I feel the “playful” bounce of small stones hitting my back, accompanied by a gaggle of giggling. Mounted Kok-boru players awaiting their game stare inquisitively, grimy faces accentuate gold teeth flashing in the sunlight, while Alex has no fear in snapping portraits candidly and stealing souls. That’s because she’s not the one going to get pounded into the dirt in a murderous show of testosterone. I’ll take anyone in a thumb war.
Also taking an interest are the police. Or “cunts” as I like to call them. This is one of the three main reasons I do miss the UK, as apart from our health and postal service, our police are the best in the world. Of course my parents met in the force, so I use the word “cunts” specifically for those corrupt badges that seem to darken law enforcement all over the world. Not least here in former Soviet states, where it’s an art form to avoid getting stopped by them. Alex has already been collared for barely doing a tickle over the speed limit, and here again we’re hauled in front of some uniformed jobsworth to be given a grilling. Lucky enough these guys are just curious more than anything else – but it’s the slimy, lazy ass traffic cops you’ve got to watch out for. They linger at the side of a road waving a fluorescent traffic stick like it’s a mini lightsaber or an extension of their cock. Swinging it willy nilly and pointing at random, drivers have to pull over and pay a fine regardless of the offence. There’s no regulation, rhyme or reason – it’s just a cop cash machine.
On our return trip, I’m caught (well under the speed limit) and the officer shows me a still camera image of our car way back in the distance apparently doing 78 in a 60 zone. I was not a whisker over 55. Lying, cheating, scheming, chancing, dirty, filthy, corrupt fucking cunts. We stick hard to our guns this time however and he backs down, the two of us shaking our heads in utter disgust. Alex speaks to his commanding officer in her fluent Russian, and I’m just incredulously grinning and repeating “Nyet!” into the face of the scumbag that pulled me over. We get lucky this time though, as more often than not you don’t have leg to stand on however right you are. This is the way of life for people here – you just accept it, pay the fine, take it up the arse, and maintain the status quo. The powers that be rub their hands in glee.
Police abuse aside, the road to Osh is just beautiful and is a pleasure to drive, and cannot be spoiled by the occasional arsehole try as they might. It winds through rocky canyon and gorge, with rolling hills, brilliant snowfields, stunning turquoise rivers, epic vistas and cows. Oh the cows. Dodging them becomes as difficult as dodging the police. But the ever changing backdrop of incredible scenery is more than enough to make up for it. From mountain to glen, snow to grass, sea to shining…no wait…we’re landlocked. Anyway it’s like being on another planet, and it’s gorgeous.
Osh, much like Bishkek, is nothing to write home about. The Kyrgyz don’t do cities well – they are people from the wilds of the steppe. They are people that use the horse as their ally and nature their comrade, and concrete and cars are not so competent. Seriously – nobody here can drive for shit. This is mainly due to the fact that they buy their licence – AND – they can’t drive for shit. After having driven on the most dangerous roads in the world in Iran, I’m semi used to the lawlessness here. But much like Tehran – inner city driving isn’t for the faint of heart.
We visit a dodgy museum situated in “Solomon’s Throne”, Osh’s overlooking mountain that they’re pretty proud of. it includes a rocky outcrop shaped like a pregnant woman that superstitious local ladies come to slide down to improve fertility. The museum itself contains some outstandingly bad taxidermy my sister would adore. Margot terrorises residents once again, and we attend an interesting evening of karaoke, singing along to midi backing tracks that sound like a 2 year old playing their ‘my-first-keyboard’ they got for Christmas in 1985. We don’t sound much better while drinking a bottle of red at 6 in the morning.
Our adventure winds down with being the first to stay in a wonderful new guest-house one night, followed by roughing it on the way home in the back of the motor on a windswept hillside as we could drive no further. Driving at night is also extremely dangerous – and the reason for this might surprise you as much as it did me – it’s because they don’t have cats eyes. Trying to see the road without reflectors is a nightmare – especially snaking through steep passes with hairpin turns and sheer drops into blackness. As fun and educational as our adventure is, it was with a sigh of relief when I turned the engine off after pulling into home. It’s lovely to go, but it’s wonderful to return. And it’s astounding to return alive. Although I can’t say the same for my hair, as somewhere in the interim I’ve allowed a Kyrgyz village barber to shave it for less than 70 cents.
Safe and tucked up in familiar surroundings with nearest and dearest is a comforting feeling, and the memories of our adventure will live long. But solo adventures must continue, and continue they shall. Yet at the time of writing, China still isn’t issuing visas to anyone crossing land borders and you can get bent if you think I’m flying. If the situation doesn’t change in the next few weeks, I’m going to have to punt for plan B. Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. I wonder what their roads are like this time of year…?
Please enjoy the pictures from our adventures below dear readers, including more Kok-Boru madness, and shots from the remote village of Arslanbob. We will talk again soon.