Asia’s Wildest Road Trip

A Kyrgyz woman stands in the middle of a herd of horses on the Suu-Samyr plateau on the ancient Great Silk Road from Bishkek to Osh.
A Kyrgyz woman stands in the middle of a herd of horses on the Suu-Samyr plateau on the ancient Great Silk Road from Bishkek to Osh. Vyacheslav Oseledko / AFP / Getty Images

The journey from Kyrgyzstan’s capital to its second city looks quick and easy on a map, some 190 miles as the crow files. But Kyrgyzstan straddles the incredibly rugged Tien-Shan mountain range, which cover more than 80 percent of the nation’s topography. Even for a wealthy nation, paving a path through the valleys that run parallel and diagonal all the way from the northern capital of Bishkek to the southern plains of the Fergana Valley near Osh would pose a substantial challenge. And Kyrgyzstan is not a wealthy country. What this means for adventurers is that traveling the roads and the detours through Uzbeki enclaves and along crumbling bridges is not only frustrating, but extraordinarily rewarding. There are no crowds milling around the vistas.

In-the-know travelers bent on voyaging over the mountains rent old, Russian Ladas in Bishkek and follow buses full of migrant workers out of the city. Drivers quickly arrive at the Kara Kalta River, which runs along the base of the Tien-Shan range and begin the climb into the fog. Eventually, wispy clouds mingled with snow packs and mountain valleys reveal themselves beneath rays of sunlight. Rivers, fed by snowmelt, rush into twisting rapids then stand still, offering teal-tinged reflections of stony peaks and mountain flowers.

The road runs at elevation past little chaikhanas (teahouses) with wooden porches and cushion seats, where men eat meat and balls of hard kurt cheese, before descending toward the Fergana Valley, which was once home to Babur the Conqueror, India’s first Moghul emperor. Fields dotted with clusters of walnut and apricot trees spread out between watermelon stands manned by gold-toothed men in traditional ak kalpak hats.

The trip only takes a day. But that day is memorable enough to warrant the trip to Bishkek, itself a worthy if unsung destination. The capital offers travelers access to the lakes and forests of the north, and Osh, known for its religious sites, boasts massive markets full of gems and livestock. Though Kyrgyzstan is so poor the government sometimes fails to pay the gas bill for its Eternal Flame monument to WWII, the country is full of well-educated people eager to try out some English phrases and offer directions when travelers wander off course.

More information: Turkish Airlines flies regularly to Bishkek from Istanbul.

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