Riding in Kyrgyzstan in cars

Kyrgyz drivers are terrifying. Sitting in the back seat it’s possible to ignore the stupid manoeuvres and near misses but in the front it’s difficult to tear your eyes away – looking out the window is a test of nerve.

I’ve had several experiences with almost-asleep drivers, mad ones who treat their clapped out mashrutkas (minibuses) and Ladas like race cars, and those who seem to think car maintenance is for nancy-boys; but so far I’ve only had two breakdowns – one on a diabolically steep pass that was eating all kinds of vehicles for breakfast and the other because the driver was an idiot who didn’t believe in braking.

The first was in a shared taxi from Arslanbob to Bishkek. It was a nice little Rav4 and fully loaded with three in the back and me in the front.

It was supposed to be a ten hour drive. The scenery was impressive, especially as we started winding higher into the jailoos (high country summer pastures). Temporary villages of three or four yurts would pop up on the roadside selling kymyz (fermented mare’s milk – it tastes like vomit), fizzy drinks, and little yoghurt balls called suzma that taste like salty off yoghurt.

As we passed trucks and cars with bonnets up and dejected passengers sitting outside, I thought to myself, “How lucky are we to have a comfortable, well-looked after car to go up this very steep road to the pass.”

Not long afterwards the comfortable, well-looked after car stopped, the starter motor dead. We passengers escaped the barren region by van an hour or two later, leaving the driver worrying over the engine; 12 hours after setting out, we arrived in Bishkek.

My second incident was on the way down from Song Kul lake. I hitched a lift with some Dutch bird watchers to the main road and found an almost-full share taxi heading back to the nearest town, Kochkor. The driver, being of the, now well-known, sleazy type, made sure I sat in the front.

The car wasn’t in a good state. The boot wouldn’t open, and the driver blamed a horse for the lack of window on his side and a bird for the massive spiral crack in the windshield. Judging by the way he drove through stock on the narrow, winding gravel road – horn blaring and at speed – I suspect the horse and bird were innocent victims and not the malevolent beasts of his story.

Crack! Clonk! Half way down from the pass he finally learned where the brake was, but alas, it was too late.

The engine made some weird noises and stopped. The driver repeatedly tried to restart the car but the engine spluttered and seized, sounding suspiciously like he’d cracked the oil sump. The car wheezed into life long enough to trundle to the bottom of the valley before the final oil was squeezed out and it was all over.

We had four and a half hours of waiting in temperatures close to zero. The other passengers and the driver walked the hillsides trying to find a spot with cell phone reception to call a rescuer, before eventually realising it was futile and huddled in the car. The driver and an inquisitive farmer squatted down out the wind and got stuck into some left over kymyz (fermented mare’s milk) and the remains of a bottle of vodka.

Eventually a van came down the hill. A kindly face looked out and agreed to take me to Kochkor. He had the heater on, a mostly working vehicle, and a horse in the back.

A fully grown horse trussed up with a car tyre arond its neck to weigh it down.

It had a cold and he was taking it to the vet in Kochkor. As such, this guy was a good driver – he had to be, you don’t tie a horse up, shove it in the back of a van and take it two hours to the nearest town for shots just to hurt it by going too fast around the corners. I wondered why they didn’t just drive the vet up to Song Kul.

Unfortunately, the van was just as sick as the horse. It got us to Kochkor in the end, but it was nerve wracking watching the driver have to pump the brakes before they slid into operation.

I’m still alive, no thanks to the efforts of Kyrgyz roadsters, and mystified as to how anyone survives so much as a trip to the corner store in this country.

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