Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia
It's early morning at Horgas, the Chinese border post with Kazakhstan. We've negotiated the mob of moneychangers, waving their wads of currencies like monopoly money. A surge of beefy Kazak women, dyed hair permed into submission, determinedly barge their way forward, laden with crates of steam cookers and cutlery. Russian forms deciphered and acrylic stamps in our visa, we exit customs. A soundtrack of Julio Iglesias and the sight of locals sipping vodka is our surreal welcome to the former Soviet Union. Then it's just us, the Ladas and the open road.
We arrive in Kazakhstan's new capital, Almaty, bustling with luxury traffic, open air cafes and well heeled Kazaks - faces a curious and beautiful meld of European and Asiatic features. Although Lenin idols have vanished and its tree lined streets renamed since independence, clues to Almaty's former life abound. Towering mosaics depict floating cosmonauts and other historic triumphs. In Panfilov Park, a startling statue nails the eye. Fifteen soldiers leap forward to form a map of the former USSR; each chiselled face represents a republic, protected by the embrace of one mighty Russian. Juxtaposed against these Soviet trademarks, the city centre now glitters with the jewel of Capitalism, the mall, brimming with designer labels, colourful cell phones and imported food.
Sadly, beneath this affluent veneer, the profusion of Russians selling their last belongings tell a different story. Odd shoes, old watches, tired faces. The collapse of communism has reduced many older folk to poverty and an excellent education system has left an overqualified workforce; we meet a doctor running a market stall and a pilot driving a taxi. Others are struggling to fulfill their dreams, however eccentric they may seem. A peculiar looking man accosts me on his bicycle. 'I am Victor. Victor the inventor!' he announces in a thick Russian accent and a warm smile, as I marvel at his amazing bicycle designed to carry a whole family.
I ride to the mountain resort of Medeu with Vadim, an unemployed professional triathlete. Like the colossal ice-rink we see there, Vadim belongs to a Soviet era that could afford these sporting luxuries. Sport is Health! Announces the communist slogan of a peeling billboard, as a wedding party dances to tecno, waving vodka bottles with abandon before it. Further into the mountains lies Bolshoe Almatinskoe, a turquoise lake nestling in a steep valley carpeted with flowers. In these frugal times, locals are picking wild mushrooms, their Ladas abandoned on the rocky trail below. Perched on the hillside, a space observatory looms against the skyline, lying in rusty ruins. I gaze at these surreal statues and disused telescopes that point fruitlessly beyond the clouds; an eerie, almost voyeuristic insight into this decaying empire.
Leaving the polished boulevards of Almaty behind, a highway links us between capitals to Bishkek, in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. Less zealous in erasing Soviet history, we stop before the city's statue of Lenin, arms outstretched ferverishly, to an awesome backdrop of crumpled mountains, as the sun sets poignantly into a blood red cloud. Change is encapsulated by a group of breakdancers who contort at his feet and a soundtrack of Bryan Adams blasting from an outdoor speaker. We zone in on Osh Bazaar, a heaving complex of stalls and entrepreneurs, where women with beehive hair sell naan bread sprinkled with sesame seeds, slices of honey melon and home-made cake. We lose ourselves in wonderment amongst the corridors of Tsum, the government shopping centre, offering an eclectic assortment of kitchy gifts, time-warped Russian clothes and Polish cosmetics.
Yet for all the surreal intrigue of these post-Soviet cities, it's the emptiness of the high pastures and rolling steppe of Central Asia that I long for. Sharing the road with donkeys and carts, timeworn buses and omnipresent Ladas, we leave the city and make for the mountains. Lining the roadside, groups of rotund women gossip cheerfully, presiding over enticing bottles of fresh blueberries and buckets of plums and apricots, while other home-made stalls specialise in vodka, the perfect compliment to roadside picnics. Climbing steadily, we stop in the market town of Kochkora, where a scraggly group of bystanders soon gather; kids with toothy smiles, astride both tiny donkeys and majestic horses. Joined by a few old men - white felt top hat, long trenchcoat and tapering beard their uniform - we find ourselves a local home for the night and sleep on shyrdaks, a Kyrgyz felt futon embellished with swirls of colour.
The ascent continues as we leave the luxury of bitumen, onto a track that spirals ever onwards into the distant hills. A storm throws a filtered tinge across the plains and a torrent of rain ousts the blue sky. Slipping and sliding our way forwards, we stop for tea and fresh bread, de-icing our frozen fingers in friendly homes. Here, horses rule the land and our bicycles are a source of bemusement; one young Kyrgyz rider even swaps steeds with Rosal. Cresting the mountain pass together, a local family pile out from their mud splattered Lada, and celebrate this peculiar sight by force-feeding us with tomatoes and vodka. At almost three and a half thousand metres, the lake of Son-Kol shimmers before us, reflecting the sunlight like a giant mirror, enveloped by a ribbon of snow capped peaks.
A plume of smoke marks a distant yurt, the summer abode of these pastoral farmers and our home for the night. Boiled sheep is on the menu. As guests in this traditional land, we're proffered the finest morsels. Smiling bravely at the feast that confronts us - head, tongue and lung - we begin this culinary ordeal, washed down with kumus, the national drink of fermented mare's milk. Outside, temperatures drop and we huddle closer in our fur skin blankets. Horsemen gallop across the plains, silhouetted on the horizon against a dark, cloud layered sky, their long coats flapping wildly in the wind.
This is the Middle Asia I dreamt of, home to nomadic people who sweep across borders like the morning tide. More than ever, I'm aware of this moment in time; gathered around a smouldering fire, listening to the gentle strumming of a four stringed guitar, lost amongst the high pastures of Kyrgyzstan.
Cass was the guest of a shepherd family set up through the fledgling program, Shepherds Life. A scheme to provide adventurous travellers and tourists the means to see the daily life of shepherds and farmers in Central Kyrgyzstan. It also provides local families with a means to earn extra income. It is a great way for travellers to glimpse the real life in Kyrgyzstan.