The new day broke, but I was delayed. It was Monday and I was prepared to leave China and traverse through the Tian Shan mountain range to wander into Kyrgyzstan. My pockets were empty and I had little cash on me. The bank back in Australia had messed up a transaction and my money was stuck somewhere between two accounts. The transportation costs were going to suck the life out of me if I did not find people to share the ride with towards the border. This was all thanks to the Chinese government ban on hitch hiking to the Kyrgyz border. There was no reason for the ban as the iron fist of the police state had come down on the region. Wandering through each guesthouse in the ancient city of Kashgar I came across two German girls who had plans to leave Friday. I had no choice but to take them up on the offer.
Kashgar was dusty and full of smoke from the sashlyk stands that numbered in the thousands. Each alley way had a stand selling oily meat on a stick. For less than 40 cents they kept me alive. I had already been here for four days and craved an escape from the urban chaos. I plotted a route that would take me to the Pakistan border for next four days. The Karokaram Highway, one of the most scenic roads on the planet was next door, the temptation was too great. I left. At the local bus station I picked up a ticket to go to Lake Karkul, after I would hitch hike to Tashkorgan and to the border and make my way back up to meet the Germans.
The real journey my mind was so bent on had not begun. Swimming naked in a freezing glacial lake didn’t quite make the cut. I was playing a waiting game with myself and I slept and dreamt about the world I was about to enter. The Central Asian republics, old Soviet ‘model states’, which more or less kept their dictatorships going after the fall of the hammer and sickle.
The days faded and the sleepless high altitude nights passed and I was back in Kashgar after fighting with a Chinese driver who picked me up on the way back and tried to rip me off. I awoke to a dark and misty Xinjiang morning with the desert sunrise hours away. Kashgar and the rest of the Xinjiang province worked on Beijing time, which saw sunsets at 9 PM and sunrises at 9 AM. Just another clueless Chinese control measure. I was with the German girls as we found a shared taxi to what would be dozens of military checkpoints. This was China.
Bureaucracy echoed the empty hall of a newly erected military building. Five different people checked my passport five times at five different tables. I was still 150 kilometers away from the actual border. We found another shared Jeep to take us the rest of the way. Our driver had no military approved permit. Barren landscapes that were shaped by hills colored by red and brown soils carved by non-existent water channels followed the road towards the Kyrgyz border. The roads were rough – a new was being built right next to us, but was under heavy guard by Chinese forces.
Six hours past and 15 military check points later we arrived at the last border post. It was lonely, neglected and characterless. The half ripped Chinese flag proudly placed on the top of the building flapped in the wind. Grass grew all over the former courtyard. Passports were once again checked the guards made me put my bag on the roof of the car as we crossed. I was perplexed. The driver would go no further, it was no mans land. The German girls and I parted ways; they found a truck driver willing to take them to Osh, the first city in Kyrgyzstan from the border. It had been days since I had gone to the toilet and a rush went through my bowls. Running behind a large bolder I let it rip. Shitting it seemed was my last memory and goodbye to China.
I looked over at the snowcapped peaks of Kyrgyzstan in the distance. I was here. I felt alive as wanderlust took over. Trekking down a freshly tarmacked road towards a Soviet styled army base where every single aspect of it was locked in a period in the past. Compared to the built up security of China it was a welcoming sight. The half Russian-Kyrgyz commander greeted me with a thick and husky accent, “Hello, welcome to Kyrgyzstan. Passport please.” He smiled as he checked my details and stamped me in. “First time Kyrgyzstan?” he asked, “yes, it is my first time,” I said with a hint of satisfaction.
No forms, no body and bag scanners, no metal detectors and no scrutinizing. Just warm smiles and AK-47’s. I made my first steps into the Central Asian republic. Old train carriages converted into homes and shops scattered the border crossing. Their outer shells of steel rusting away and stripping the old Soviet colored paint with it. I strolled past fascinated by this distinct and recycled architecture, which was so foreign to me. “Hello, Hello!” an old lady yelled while poking her head out of a nearby window. She gestured that I come in and join her. The walls were painted and filled with old flower designs that were accompanied with a matching ageless blood red carpet. Mattresses that were used for sleeping were stacked in a corner against boarded up and smashed windows. She fed me bread and I drunk enough tea to satisfy every tea grower in nearby China. Local Kyrgyz truck drivers were inside and I joined them.
Our conversations were limited to my ripped up Central Asia Lonely Planet phrase book, “Keldim Australia,” I said, translating to “I come from Australia” While this proved futile our gaps in understanding were filled with laughter and smiles. One of the drivers used his arms to signal that he was leaving soon, “Osh,” were the only words I understood. But I knew what he was saying offering me a ride. We then discussed a fair price for me hopping into his truck. Farah, was his name and he was an honest man.
An hour into our drive, he stopped and signaled for me to leave the truck. A village made up of the same old train carriages dotted a hillside. Old rusting satellite dishes were seemingly out of place as well as the old defunct Soviet air missile defense rockets launchers. Farah’s wife and son greeted us. His son spoke a spot of English and they invited me into their modest home. Farah's son told me that Farah is bringing goods in his truck from China and taking them to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital city. “Pay is not good, but I go to school in Osh, now holidays, so he keep working,” said Abdullah, the son. The small living area was decorated with a poster of the Russian alphabet stuck to the white walls. Curd was poured into the bowls, bread was broken, butter and jam accompanied it all and tea flowed from the Russian styled teapot. We sat joyfully eating together. Children from nearby homes curiously popped their heads into the room, but were too shy, screams of “Hello! Hello!” erupted as they ran away in excitement. I candidly smiled at the moment.
“Rakhmat,” I said, thank you in Kyrgyz, to Farah’s wife who had provided the food. We left with cheerful goodbyes and both our stomachs were filled for the journey ahead. It was a small, but nevertheless a special moment. I sat in back in the truck seat looking out over the horizon, the sun now slowing descending over the Pamir mountains in the distance. Moments like those are what makes all the rough, tough and sometimes frustrating moments of travel all worth it. You gain a sense of appreciation through the generosity of strangers. An odd feeling and concept that would never occur on home turf.
We drove towards Osh in the twilight hours of the day on a perfectly sealed road. The Pamir's that divided Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan rose up in front of us. The rolling green hills met heavily glaciered and ice packed peaks that towered up to 7500m. Kyrgyz nomadic yurts glowed from their nearby fires that dotted the landscape. Yaks, sheep and goats grazed nearby and resembled ants on a mighty plane. Money couldn’t buy these moments, it was pure blissfulness and I was humbled to the simplest degree. Nothing was left but love. It was perfect. The introduction to Kyrgyzstan is one that I will never forget. I felt at peace and my thoughts were as crystal clear as the water that melted from the nearby glaciers. This was what made life worth living.