Crashing Into Central Asia

Posted by on Aug 11, 2006 in Kyrgyzstan, Western China | 6 Comments
Crashing Into Central Asia

There are two passes through the mountains separating Western China and Kyrgyzstan. After a lot of research I decided to take the Southern route from Kashgar, China to Sary Tash (and eventually Osh), Kyrgyzstan. This route gave me the opportunity to see the Southern, less Russian, part of Kyrgyzstan. It’s also a lot cheaper and less complicated, the Northern pass requires permits and expensive pre-arranged transport.

After looking around Kashgar for travel partners I finally found two German girls who had already paid for a ride to the Chinese border. Despite the horrible deal they had negotiated I decided to join them because no one else was heading that was any time soon. With my negotiating skills I could have arranged an entire cab to myself for less than I was paying to join them but I figured it was safer to travel through this remote area with two other people. They agreed to share transport all the way to Sary Tash, a small town at the junction of the only roads leading between China, Tajikistan and Osh.

We left Kashgar before sunrise and stopped along the way to take pictures of the beautiful glowing canyons. When we arrived the Chinese border post was deserted. I popped my head in three rooms before finding an official to help us—apparently they don’t get too much foot traffic coming through. We weren’t allowed to walk to the Kyrgyz border, quiet a far distance. Instead, a border guard stopped the next truck passing through and made him give us a ride. The young Kyrgyz driver didn’t seem overly excited about sharing his cab with us and sat behind the wheel staring vacantly ahead. We crept along the winding mountain road behind a long line of trucks. Once we got to the first Kyrgyz checkpoint the guards informed us they were shutting down for lunch. One of the German girls spoke fluent Russian and managed to persuade him to let us through. We grabbed our bags and jumped into another truck which took us to the immigration and customs checkpoint and border post.

Despite the remote location, the Chinese buildings we left were typically sterile and covered in tile. The Kyrgyz buildings, on the other hand, were small trailers and brick halls covered with rusting tin roofs. Beyond the complex’s chain link fence was a group of thirty dilapidated trailers, spare tires and colorful washing lines. Where the Chinese side had been lifeless and sterile the Kyrgyz side had grown a small village around the border. A man waited just beyond the customs doors with his minivan ready for us. There weren’t many people crossing that day and he wanted to get going. Because of the remoteness and lack of passengers we agreed on $50 to Osh. The other two had a ride meeting them in Sary Tash to take them into Tajikistan so they would only go half way with me. At first the girls wanted me to pay more to make up for them, because they weren’t going as far, but I was having none of that. Whenever I try to travel with people like this I always end up in frustrating situations.

Megan in a truck between the two border checkpoints The two Germans who abandoned me - if you see them punch them in the face for me Hanging out at the Kyrgyz border post

We set off and didn’t make it more than five minutes before the minivan broke down. The owner and male passengers stood around looking at the engine while I enjoyed the beautiful mountain scenery. Someone even shared their bananas with me. It as decided that a part was needed so while the men tied the van to a truck with a thin rope I walked down the road to go to the bathroom. I’m at the point where going outside is preferable to any public toilet I will find. When I got back the Germans ran up to me to say they had managed to get a ride with a passing truck. “Great!” I exclaimed, and then they told me there was no room for me. She assured me that the man had just bought the minivan and was a jeweler, so he was probably good at fixing things and I shouldn’t worry. I asked if, with their Russian, could help me find a ride but they ran off before I could recover from the shock.

Back at the border the men hanging around started taking apart the minivan and carried out one of the benches for me to sit on. Despite the major inconvenience they were very nice people and even spread a towel over the seat so I wouldn’t get dirty. So I sat and read A People’s History of The United States while little kids stared at me and men congregated around the van pretending to know what they were doing. No one spoke English and could tell me how long it would take or what was actually wrong. After some time I began to wander around the shantytown taking photos of the mismatched trailers and colorful characters loitering about. Most people were very excited to have their photo taken and posed proudly for me.

One assertive little girl followed me around, showing me interesting things and gathering people for me to photograph. Her sidekick was a small girl with a plastic bag over her head who was bashful but curious. I asked her to take a photo of me and, despite her size, she wielded me heavy camera with ease. She asked to take more pictures so I placed the strap around her neck and smiled. We walked through the dark alleyways formed by the trailers until we reached a small courtyard. The girl motioned for me to follow her inside up the stack of old tires that formed her house’s front steps. It was dark inside but I could make out two women sitting on the floor with bright headscarves covering the tops of their heads. My new friend cried out “mama!” and snapped the shutter. I was invited in for tea but declined, worried that the car might leave without me. Tea can take a long time when you have to first gather something to burn and then wait for the water to boil. I shouldn’t have worried because the car wasn’t fixed but we did manage to leave before dusk. The five hours I spent at that border post were a surprisingly good introduction to the hospitality of the Kyrgyz people. When I traveled back through the pass two months later I brought prints of the photos for those kids—a small gesture that probably meant more than I can imagine to them.

Towing the minivan back to the border Me and my new friend waiting for the minivan to be fixed Kids living at the border post shantytown

After an hour of driving we came upon another military checkpoint where we all got out and presented our passports to a soldier inside of a small shack. It was already getting quite cold and I was dismayed when the soldier looked at me and then picked up a heavy black phone right out of WWII to talk to his supervisors. We were eventually waved on and headed back out. It wasn’t much longer before the van slowed and we all got out again. The van was broken again. The owner and his friend were already upset about losing the two Germans earlier in the day and the other paying customers quickly found rides with infrequently passing trucks.

By now it was dark, cold and we couldn’t hope for much traffic to pass by. My attempts to pantomime myself into another ride weren’t working out and the others decided to start pushing the van. At first I rode in my seat next to the open door but we weren’t getting far with only one man pushing while the owner drove. I got out to help and we made some progress, but pushing a minivan up a mountain in the freezing night air without a coat wasn’t easy. Once we got to the top of a hill we would run alongside the van and jump in for the ride down. It was fun to try to catch up and jump in, especially negotiating among the seats which weren’t actually bolted down to the floor. Sometimes the van would go too fast and we would give up and walk quietly toward the van breathing the crisp air and taking in the incredibly bright stars illuminating the mountains.

That’s the last thing I remember.

I woke up the next morning inside the cab of a Chinese truck. It was a bright morning and I lifted my head to see that I was surrounded by snowy peaks. I felt tired and my neck was sore—I could barely move it—but my only thought was “this must be Sary Tash. I should take a picture.” My bags and camera were beside me and I took a few photos. Checking he exposure in the LCD I came upon a photo I didn’t recognize—a crashed minivan. Putting two and two together I realized that was my minivan and I must have been in that crash. I couldn’t remember much of the previous day at all after leaving the border and trying to connect the dots made my head hurt.

Looking around I noticed a man sleeping in the back of the cab. It wasn’t long before he woke up and showed me an outhouse and a small home where I could eat breakfast. I was still confused and my head was throbbing to the point that I could barely concentrate on walking in a straight line. The rest of my body was fine apart from a few scrapes on my hands and legs. The blood on my jacket wasn’t my own. I passed on breakfast because I only had Chinese and American currency. Someone in the middle of rural Kyrgyzstan wouldn’t have change for a twenty dollar bill.

My savior turned out to be a Uighur from Urumqi, China so we were able to communicate with my bare bones Chinese vocabulary. He showed me the long trail of China Aid trucks we were a part of and I watched while he talked to other truckers and motioned toward me, telling a story I would soon become familiar with. During the story he made a rolling motion with his hands and said something about a “machina”—the Russian word for car. Once the caravan was ready we climbed into the cab, he handed me half of his traditional bread smuggled from China and we started toward Osh.

Fixing the minivan at the border The minivan after the accident The cab of the truck I woke up in

The ride was slow through the mountains but I had great views of the countryside from the cab. We passed green valleys dotted with white yurts and men in traditional white felt hats riding tiny donkeys beside the road. When we passed through small towns the locals ran out to watch the procession. Some even threw flowers down in front of the trucks full of shinning red tractors. Most farmers in this part of the world till the land by hand or with small animals so tractors are a great luxury.

At lunch the driver refused to let me pay and made sure I got enough to eat. He even commiserated with me on how bad Kyrgyz food is through a combination of basic Chinese and facial expressions. When we started to get close to Osh we stopped and I saw him talking to another driver, making the “machina rolling” gestures and pointing at me. He was stopping for the night and put my bags into this other truck, which was going closer to town. The driver had taken care of me, fed me and found me further transportation but he wouldn’t take any money, not even Chinese Yuan, which he certainly could have used back home.

The convoy of China Aid trucks in Sary Tash The town of Sary Tash and its glorious mountains View of the road from the truck

My new truck driver immediately grabbed two large white balls of fermented cheese off his dashboard and offered me one. I tried a few small bites so he wouldn’t think I was rude. Fortunately I had already experienced the interesting flavor and texture of fermented cheese balls in Mongolia and didn’t throw up on the spot. We got closer to town as the sun dimmed when the driver found a local minivan bus to take me to the neighborhood I wanted to stay in. He shooed my money away and put my bags into the standing room-only van. The van stopped on a busy four lane street and the driver got out to talk to a cab driver. These buses barely stop to let passengers jump out but the driver parked the bus full of passengers to make sure I was taken care of. Finally, the cab driver looked down at the small slip of paper with my hostel’s address and took me to a phone kiosk. He paid for the phone call to get directions and carried my bags through the alleyway full of garbage and up three flights of stairs. I left two US dollars in his car and followed him up, only to find the hostel full. Although I was invited to stay on the living room floor I decided to get a real hotel room where I could look for any more injuries to myself and my electronics. Through the enormous generosity and caring of the local people I managed to travel across the width of Kyrgyzstan speaking no Russian or Kyrgyz and with a concussion for only two dollars. Sometimes it takes experiences like these to remind you of the inherent good in people.

Typical Russian car Local bread Yum! Posing for photos on the hill overlooking Osh

The next morning I returned to the hostel and sat in the living room deciding what to do with myself. Someone walked into the room and I felt them standing over me. Then I heard a voice say “Megan?” It was Sema, who I had met in Chengdu during Phase I! We had kept in touch over the past year and she was the one who had first planted the idea of visiting Central Asia in my head. It was truly fate that we had ran into each other at that moment and she spent the next three days taking care of me and introducing me to Kyrgyz culture.

Sema trying on hats in the market Woman dancing in market Baby Jesus or weeping Muslim girl for sale

Continued in Is There a Doctor in the House>


  1. dis
    September 17, 2007

    After seeing the picture of the crashed van, I am SO GLAD you’re back safe and sound. Scary!

  2. Megan
    September 17, 2007

    Maybe it’s good I don’t remember it. I hope whoever the blood belonged to was okay. I never saw those other guys again.

  3. Warden
    September 18, 2007

    The lesson to us all must be, daytime is dangerous night time
    is suicidal if your caught out, find a bolt-hole and wait till dawn. I have had too many frights in the dusk trying to get to the next town in this type of road-starved place were brakes are optional and lights a luxury.
    So, I follow the creed” never not never in the dark will I drive”
    Look on the bright side if it had been in the `windy city` would you still have your camera?

    All the best and well done, Warden

  4. Mike Pugh
    September 22, 2007

    Yikes! I worried a lot about accidents like this on my RTW trip.

    At home, folks are so concerned about the safety of traveling abroad. “Did anyone try to mug you?” “Did you get ripped off?” “Don’t they hate Americans there?”

    In fact, the biggest travel danger is just getting from point A to point B by car or truck. Or even crossing the street.

    Sounds like your experience could have been MUCH worse. So glad that it wasn’t.

  5. Megan
    September 23, 2007

    I usually don’t travel at night in most places. We would have arrived before dark if the car hadn’t broken down and taken 5 hours to fix. I guess I could have slept in someone’s trailer for the night. There was one “hotel” that had a few rooms but I’m pretty sure it was just for truckers/prostitutes.

    I try and point that out to all the nay-sayers in the US, often to deaf ears.

  6. Lucas
    September 26, 2007