For this instalment of our relatively regular ‘Dispatches’ feature, friend-of-the-shop and All Night Flight record hunter Tom Houghton tells us about a bold and magnanimous voyage to somewhere called Kyrgyzstan. Definitely not your normal holiday this one...
Fuelled by a love of obscure long distance rail travel and the desire to avoid an impending 30th birthday by fleeing to a remote country most people have never heard of, a plan was made to take the train through the former Soviet Union to Kyrgyzstan.
Extortion and corruption is the backbone of the train, with very few passengers purchasing tickets and instead bribing the carriage attendant for their place. Decreasing cost in air travel continues to affect rail passengers and the border guards increasingly rely on bribes to supplement their small income.
The whole thing plays out like a game of cat and mouse with Kazakh and Tajik traders regularly having to grease the palms of the customs officials for goods smuggled across the border.
Bishkek, the nation's capital city, contains some interesting architectural artifacts from the Soviet Union, like this Banya (Russian Sauna) that looks like a nuclear bunker. The city also hosts a Sunday flea market on the outskirts of the city where old USSR curios can be found at low prices.
Leaving the comforts of the city behind and heading towards the Tian-Shan mountain range that provides a natural land border with the far-western edge of China.
The trekking opportunities in Kyrgyzstan are world-class and still relatively untapped, although they are becoming more popular. Despite having zero amenities such as running water, phone signal or flushing toilets, it more than compensates with outstanding natural beauty and solitude – which is why you’d come, right?
Accommodation options are a toss-up between pitching your own tent, or hiking to the next yurt and hand-gesturing your wish to spend the night inside (along with a few Kyrgyz Soms for their trouble).
Buzkashi – the national sport of Central Asia where men on horse back wrestle over the corpse of a headless goat.
Tamga Sanatorium – famous for being the place where Yuri Gagarin (the first man in space) was sent for some state-sponsored R&R once returning to earth. Much of the sanatorium remains unchanged since the collapse of the Soviet Union and you’re free to explore at will.
Heading further south, it gets seriously remote, but there’s one last stop – the ancient Silk Road caravanserai of Tash Rabat.
A key stop on the ancient silk route that linked trade between east and west, cloaked in mystery, Tash Rabat is also rumored to be an Nestorian temple dating back as early as the 10th century.
One week before the final yurt packs down for the winter (despite already reaching -10 at night), I’m the last tourist in town.
Days are spent hiking the surrounding area or making a dent in a 12-month reading backlog. The days are warm and the nights are cold, I dread the meat-heavy food but relish the isolation.
So that’s about it from the wonderful land of Kyrgyzstan, plan your trip there soon to avoid the inevitable tourism boom.