A road cutting through the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Photo: blickwinkel/Alamy
These were the Central Asian plains where two of the greatest conquerors roamed with their rampaging armies. Between them, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane covered vast expanses of Asia, entering Europe to bring other mighty powers to heel. And it took a chaotic Delhi airport for me to discover these surreal lands these men presided over.
About four months ago, I walked into Delhi airport, rushed as ever, checking emails on the phone, and stumbled up to a wrong counter. It was there I discovered a city called Bishkek. (I must admit, up until then, I’d never heard of a country called Kyrgyzstan). When I punched it up on the Internet, it sent back stunning photographs of hills, rivers and valleys. This country was calling me.
And so I was on a plane to Central Asia. The ruse: a friend’s biking expedition—a 5,000km journey across Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan in 14 days. I would be part of a support team, travelling in 4x4s.
Earlier, an unusually forgetful me had arrived at Delhi airport without a passport thus ensuring I lost almost a day of the trip. I had to catch a flight from Almaty into Shymkent to catch up with my rider friends who had already begun the 680km leg eight hours earlier. I caught up with them as the sun slipped away from the horizon.
Shymkent was a night stop on this amazing journey, and it was an early morning start for Samarkand, Uzbekistan. We had to leave very early to reach the Uzbek-Kazak border, where paperwork and vehicle checks would eat up five hours. Now, border crossings in these parts are quite an experience. You can feel touches of erstwhile USSR, with a whiff of the Cold War. The scanners, the stern, heavily-armed security guards and their dogs, and the pause in life when you walk across the “no man’s land” is electrifying and surreal. The entire experience, which ends with massive iron gates opening to let you into Uzbekistan, makes you understand The Shawshank Redemption better.
The road to Samarkand is both historic and breathtaking. The flatlands, flower fields, fruit gardens and the road that was the mainstay of the Silk Route for over two thousand years has to be experienced. This was the Internet highway of the past. I was ecstatic when we reached our place for the night, the famous yet humble Emir B&B. We were right next to Gur-e-Amir, the tomb of Tamerlane.
Samarkand is beautiful, it was the New York of the old world. With magnificent ancient buildings, especially the Registan Square, it was built to shock and awe those who came into this city. This was Temur’s city. A hundred years after his death, his grandson would lose it in battle, and embark upon a journey to set up another mighty empire. That grandson would be Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur.
Registan Square, Samarkand, at night. Photo: image broker / Alamy
Less than 36 hours later, we were on our way to cross the Uzbek border again, to get into Tajikistan. We got into Khujand (pronounced “who-Jand”), the second biggest city of Tajikistan, which was fortified by Alexander the Great. In a place with perhaps the harshest climate in the region, we met some of the most warmest people ever. I would’ve stayed longer, but the expedition demanded we move on.
We rumbled towards Dushanbe on treacherous roads through the stunning Fann Mountains. We braved through the Shahriston Pass and arrived at the the famous Anzob Tunnel. The 5km tunnel cuts the journey by a whopping six hours. But the wait to enter the tunnel and the drive through the dark, cold belly of the mountain was an adventure of a lifetime.
It’s already day 7, as we head from Dushanbe to Kalaikhumb onto the southern side of Gomo-Badakhshan Autonomous Province. Another magnificent moment awaits when you see the roaring Panj River, with Afghanistan sprawling across the other bank. This sight and the drive alone made this entire trip worth all the madness. The river and Afghanistan would stay with us for the next two days as we journey through some fascinating topography.
As we moved from Kalaikhumb, we reach the notorious Pamir Highway, considered the most forbidden terrain in the world. It’s a highway with barely any tarmac. In all fairness though, they are now trying to lay a road with much help from the Chinese. The terrain is spectacular and the people even more heartwarming.
Day 9, 10, and 11 take us through Khorough-Murghab and AK Baital Pass, which at 4655m, is the highest mountain pass in Central Asia. We drive through the Badakhshan National Park, over flat, boundless plains to reach the Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan Border. On the other side, we begin a totally unexpected journey. No one told me Kyrgyzstan has been hiding away a prettier Switzerland right here in Central Asia!
Afghanistan border across the Panj River. Photo: Theodore Kaye / Alamy Stock Photo
We were not getting into a modern, but ancient city Osh, bang in the middle of the Fergana Valley. After the drive through Pamir, this felt like paradise—great roads, beautiful green mountains, and amazing sights to behold. We stayed the night by the famous Toktogul Lake. The lake is surrounded by marijuana plants and I’ll leave it to you to figure that joyful experience. Our evening here by the lake will remain one of my most favorite memories. Lots of beer, fresh fish from the lake, just the right chill in the air, and an amazing bunch of friends to hang around with.
The next day, we set off for Bishkek. Driving through the Tian Shan mountains, we cross the Kyrgyz ridge, the Too-Ashuu Tunnel and other stunning sights. I couldn’t help but think how what was adventure for us may have been a regular day at work Gengis Khan and Tamerlane.
We leave Bishkek on day 13 to head to the “Pearl of Central Asia”—the Issyk-Kul Lake. Call it the Lake Como of Central Asia: it’s as pretty as anything in the world, and almost untouched. It’s the 7th deepest lake in the world, with over a 100 rivers flow in and a total of zero rivers flowing out! Obviously, we didn’t sleep the night, staying awake under the full moon.
On day 14, we cross borders and leave behind the beautiful Kyrgyzstan, not before making multiple stops for the delicious “Honey Beer”. (That’s correct—beer made from fermented honey, all cultivated and brewed by the local villagers, in one of the most beautiful places on earth!).
Lake Como? Not realy. That’s the Issyk Kul Lake. Photo: Marina Pissarova / Alamy
We get into Kazakhstan and go right down to the bottom of the Charyn Canyon, also known as the brother of the Grand Canyon, and it looks deceptively similar. We managed to stay the night in the middle of the canyon by the gushing river, even as some unseasonal rain left us in shivers. But nothing could taint the 15 days of magic, as we woke up to a bright sun reminding of a wonderful fortnight.
I felt one with the ancient world that morning, and extremely blessed. I truly believe there is so much more beauty for me to discover. I have travelled extensively all over the world, but Central Asia made me feel like a child in diapers. Make the time to visit this part of Earth, and start anywhere you wish. It’s not a easy journey, but yes it is a safe journey. And it is a very personal journey. Your life will never be the same again.
Article: Praveen Kenneth on December 15, 2016.
Copyrights: Condé Nast Traveller, India
Original story, here.