With a sigh of relief we passed into the no-mans land between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and with a bellow of excitement we took in the incredible scenery that was this no-mans land. No men, just mountains. And gophers.
Between the two countries lies 20 miles of gorgeous mountain scenery. Behind you tower the snow-capped peaks of Tajikistan, waving you goodbye, and ahead rose the rainbow mountains and cold spring rivers Kyrgyzstan. It was one of the most beautiful sights we’d seen and it wasn’t even in a country.
Crossing through the Kyrgyz border, we entered another breathtaking landscape. This time, a gigantic open field, several miles wide in all directions, ending in snow-capped peaks every way you looked. The greenest grass faded into hazy purple mountains faded into sky blue sky. You don’t get this kind of stuff in New York.
After filming what had to be an hours worth of footage in this short stretch of scenery we headed off to Osh, the largest city in southern Kyrgyzstan, but not before being dragged into several photos with local Kyrgyz who wanted to make sure we were enjoying their country.
Arriving late at night, and as usual starving, we decided to head into the first restaurant we saw. Sitting cross-legged at a dinner table, drinking tea, staring at a menu we couldn’t understand, we were all suddenly ripped out of the moment into another. A moment of sudden clarity in which the strangeness of the situation took complete hold of our consciousness.
Looking around, we instantly became aware of how far we’d traveled and how different we’d become. We were deep in Central Asia, 15,000 miles from home, casually traversing a city we knew nothing about, communicating in a language we didn’t speak, looking to fill ourselves up on cuisine we had never heard of. And yet we walked in, sat down, ordered tea and a meal just as if we were at home. We felt completely natural, and continued to feel this way for the rest of our trip. And yet for a moment it all felt completely alien. A brief encounter with the absurd, if you will.
Making it to our hostel we connected to the internet and found out that our old friends the Breaking Khans were in the same city. After setting a meeting time and location for the next day, we passed out, excited for things to come. When morning came we hopped into the AG and headed for the Lenin Statue, a massive statue of Lenin several stories tall in the middle of town. Upon arrival we didn’t see the Khans, but we did see a huge parade / training session full of small school children, which Eric decided to get involved with.
Time passed, but we didn’t lose hope. With our walkie-talkie in hand, we continued to yell “AUSFAHRT” hoping for a response, but instead, we were just yelling Ausfahrt to no one.
But lo and behold! some static began to come through the walkie-talkie, and then …. “AUSFAHRT!!!!!!!”
The Khans had arrived.
We quickly made plans to head to a beautiful lake where we could ride horses, sleep in yurts, and go swimming (aka shower), and then hit the road. But first we bought these hats.
The funny thing about the Khans is that they don’t use maps, they just ask for directions. Typically this works for them. Although the Goulets had more maps than we could ever possibly use, we let the Khans take the lead. We drove towards the lake, stopping every few minutes to ask for directions, getting closer and closer to our destination.
As we got closer and closer, the road got crappier and crappier. From paved road to gravel, to dirt, to … boulders. But before we reached the boulders a local stopped to warn us about proceeding any further as the roads were no good (gestured using a big X with his arms, the international sign for “no good”). With the ignorant confidence of a drunk man doing karaoke, we pushed on. The AG went from bumping around washboard roads to slamming around foot high boulders. Every few feet a new boulder took a crack at the AG. We cringed at the sounds of rocks scraping the belly of our car, and held on for dear life as boulders launched our car to the left and right. The AG started to cry, but we pushed on. Out of nowhere, another local stopped to tell us to turn back, the roads were “no good”’. And once again, we ignored them.
When a third local told us no good, we knew whatever lay ahead was bad news bears. If it was any worse than what we had just come in through, we were done for. As we deliberated, two beautiful horses sprinted down a mountainside just up ahead. They disappeared from view, and then suddenly emerged through a bush onto the road right in front of our car. Some playful nibbling between the two got us excited at the prospect of seeing some horsey love. But playful nibbling quickly turned not so playful, and then all of a sudden, BAM, one horse kicked the other in the chest and they were off in a dead sprint… right at our cars!
We jumped into and onto our cars for protection as these majestic beasts sprinted by, kicking each other, bleeding from their faces. They chased each other up and down the road, kicking and biting until they began to race around a barn about 15 feet away. Around and around they went until one finally caught up to the other. They fought each other to the ground in what increasingly looked like a death match. Blood poured from their wounds as the battle raged on. Eventually one horse was able to stand up, and with one swift kick of its hind legs to the face of the other horse, it was able to get a second of freedom to escape. The wounded horse shook its head in shock, regained its sense of direction, and went off after the first.
By now the locals had gotten wind of what was going on, and as the two horses passed an older women, she yelled at them, hit them with a broom, and split them up. That was that. Story over. Pretty hardcore.
Regaining our own senses after witnessing such epic battle, we turned our cars around and headed back the way we came. Uphill. On boulders. We bumped, cracked, and scraped our way along the road until we heard a shout from the Khans over the walkies. Jumping out of the car we found the bumper of the Auto Goulet sitting on the floor, leaving the bare ass of the Auto Goulet exposed for the world to see. She was a modest girl, but the situation was not one that allowed for modesty.
The road had been too much and the bumper fell right off. Hoping this was more of an aesthetic issue than a functional one, we tied the bumper to our roof rack and pressed on.
Making it back to the paved road, we decided to get food and camp out as the sun was setting. We found a nice little restaurant where we could eat in yurts, order some food, and pop open a couple brewskis. A couple brewskis turned into a couple more brewskis, and suddenly we were too drunk and too lazy to find a camping spot. In a flash of brilliance and idiocy, we decided we were going to sleep in the exact yurt we were eating in. Our plan was to clear the table, get our sleeping bags in the yurt, lie down and pass out. At first our waitress was not too keen on the idea, but after some professional grade begging by Alex (pleeeeassseeee) they acquiesced and let us stay.
The next morning we hit the road, giving up hopes of making it to the lake, and instead decided to gun it towards Bishkek, the capital of the country, which sat close to Kazakhstan, our next country of passage. The drive through this mountainous country was unlike any other we’ve done. Snow capped mountains gave way to grassy green mountains which gave way to rich red mountains, then grey and then purple. We chose to drive this blasting Wake Up by Arcade Fire (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9zdNdjF-htY).
Along the way we came across a swimming reservoir, which we jumped into for a chance to cool off and get some laundry done.
After our swim we took off, but after driving by a gorgeous lake at sunset we had to pull over again. We spent some time taking pictures and relaxing, when the owner of the land we were one pulled us over. “Right over there,” he pointed over his shoulder “Is a field of cannabis.”
Seemingly having no issue with us checking it out, the man showed us around for a second and then let us explore on our own. It was a several acre cannabis field. Right there. In plain sight. How does this shit happen? (Well, apparently it grows naturally in Kyrgyzstan and is legal if growing naturally, but illegal to sell).
As we were exploring the fields, a man in a bulldozer came by right as we took out our video camera. Terrified, Alex hid the camera and spoke to the driver. The driver didn’t speak but instead beckoned for Alex to jump in. And that he did. For the next 20 minutes this bulldozer driver took Alex around the field in the shovel of the bulldozer for no apparent reason at all. Seriously though, how does this shit happen??
Anyway, we had our fun and then took of once again. The smooth roads of Kyrgyzstan allowed us to make great progress, and we eventually settled down in a motel for the night.
While at the motel, one of our Khan friends, Ida, realized that she had a very tight visa deadline coming up, and the slow game of the Goulets wouldn’t be good for her. When we decided to pull over to get some driving shots of the AG the following day, the Khans decided to press on. We said a quick goodbye, expecting to see them later that night in Bishkek.
The point at which we said goodbye was in front of a beautiful valley full of horses that we knew would make great footage. After taking a few drive by shots, Alex ran towards the horses to get a close up. Eric and Brian, confused, pulled over and followed. What unfolded was one of the more magical moments of the entire rally. As we got closer and closer to the animals, a lively scene emerged. These horses belonged to two herding families who had two beautiful white yurts in the valley. Those families also had herds of sheep, goats and cows which they were tending to as we entered onto their territory. Without really asking we got right into the mix taking pictures of the animals being herded, filming an old women churning butter, and capturing some horses galloping through the valley.
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, but one of the most amazing things about Central Asia is the over the top hospitality of the locals.
When the owners of these herds came up to us, it was not to shoo us off their land, but to invite us into their yurts for tea. For over an hour we met several families who lived in this area, having tea, snacks and a general good time. We also got some new cameramen!
The chief of the yurt could name a few snacks in english and also say C’mon, and so our conversation was a lot of: “Tea, C’mon!” “Bread, C’mon!” “Jam, C’mon!”
After wrapping up in the yurt, we headed out to take some more pictures when one of the young men of the group walked a horse up to us and beckoned us to get on. They say every Kyrgyz is born on a horse. Well every New Yorker… is not. Ranging from 0 experience to practically 0 experience, each of us took turns riding the horse around the valley. Somehow none of us died, and having had our fun, and the most authentic experience possible, we got back in the AG and headed for Bishkek.
Bishkek was a booming metropolis where we decided to slow down the pace a bit. We had equipment to charge and film to upload, and had been moving fast over the past few days. We deserved some R&R.
After a few days in Bishkek we were ready to leave, but not before we completed one of the dumbest activities of the entire rally.
A few days back, driving past a roadside watermelon stand, Alex noted that it would be hilarious if we filled up our entire car with watermelons. Brian and Eric agreed.
On the morning before our departure we completely emptied out the AG, filling up the garage of our hostel with our crap, and set off to find us some melons. Going stand to stand around the city, we slowly but surely filled up the AG, both inside and on top, with 5-15 lb watermelons. The car sank lower and lower, but we kept adding watermelon after watermelon. After filling it up with 48 watermelons (according to Brian) / 54 watermelons (according to Alex) / 55 watermelons (according to Eric), we realized we had no freakin’ clue what to do with them.
The obvious answer was, of course, to give them away. Although at first unsure of what people’s reactions would be, we quickly realized that people in Central Asia loved watermelons even more than we thought. With Brian on the roof and Eric behind the wheel, we took off around the city, handing out watermelons to everyone who’d have one. Sometimes it was to people on the street, sometimes it was to a driver next to us at a red light, but a surprising number of times, it was to the driver of a moving car who wanted a watermelon so bad that they were willing to let go of the wheel and reach out their window to bring one home.
The day was completely enjoyable except for two moments. First, when a guy punched Alex in the arm after we gave his friends a bunch of watermelons (we think we may have been a bit culturally insensitive with our Kyrgyz hats, but everyone else we met loved them so we’re not sure). The second was when we actually got pulled over by the police because Brian was sitting on top of our car. Apparently that’s not cool in a city. Regardless, after some sweet talking by Eric we escaped the situation.
Afterwards we gave away the last few watermelons in the car, repacked it with all of our crap, and headed to the border. All uneventful except for that we got pulled over once again, this time in an attempt at extortion. Usually we got away from these situations by pretending we didn’t have cash. But these weren’t no hillbilly Kyrgyz cops. These were high-tech robo cops who had debit card readers that you could swipe your Visa card into. But once again the wits of good ol’ Mess were too much for the cops, and we got away without paying a bribe.
At the border we were harassed by some guys promising they could cut us to the front of the line, *for a fee*, but we shooed them away by blasting and singing along to Creep by Radiohead and A Little Help from my Friends by the Beatles.
Another country down, 2 more to Mongolia.