Kyrgyzstan: big water, big danger, big car problem

Posted by on Aug 6, 2013 in blog | 6 comments

Kyrgyzstan: big water, big danger, big car problem

Sunday Aug. 4

At 1am, there was a knock on the van window. It had stormed up in the mountains where we had camped in northeast Kyrgyzstan and our makeshift tarp tore off, sending us into the vans for sleep. I was curled up in front, wrapped in blankets, Yoav in the middle and Dean in the back. The wind had finally calmed.

Five Kyrzys from the nearby yurts huddled in the cold outside, flashlights bobbing. They looked worried. Solaire, the spokeswoman said, “Big water. Big danger. My babies. Water in yurt. Bad water. Go village.” I jumped out and followed a hulk of a man in a camouflage jacket to the stream running down from the mountain behind our car. He pointed at it with his flashlight but there was no need. I could hear it raging.

I banged on the sleeping Bandits’ van and we rushed to pack up our strewn belongings. Three women appeared with an infant and two toddlers wrapped in thick blankets and climbed into our van. The bandits tried to start theirs. The battery was dead.

Water was turning the soft ground into mud under our feet. We maneuvered around boulders to position for a jump, the van barely moving through the sludge. The water was getting louder. After a few tries, the jump worked. We drove down to the main road out but the bridge was gone, the road washed out. We couldn’t leave.

The water was coming up fast so we made for a small hill, the highest spot we could see in the dark. Our van didn’t have enough power, the tires spinning in the mud. All the passengers got out, and Owen and Yoav pushed from behind, the van scraping up over the rocks. The women and children climbed back inside. Water surrounded us but it seemed to have stopped rising. As long as it didn’t rain anymore, we felt safe enough.

Dean, Yoav and I crammed into the front seat. We chatted with Solare in the back. Owen made tea. With nine people in our van, we feel asleep sitting up in a row.

At 5:30am the sun was up and the women vanished, leaving behind a dirty baby blanket. The river behind our van was also gone, just an empty bed, and an entirely new river ran along our other side. Apparently, a pileup of rocks had created a dam, diverting the water directly into our camp and cutting us off from the road. The new river was too deep to cross. We were trapped.

So, in what appears to be a running theme, we waited. Various bulldozers arrived and did not much of anything. The road is owned by Kumtor Gold Company, a Canadian company that runs an open-pit gold mine here at 14,000 feet, and they were responsible for fixing it, Solaire had said.

At 1pm, I was sitting in a camp chair in the sun under a glacier topped mountain looking down on the shenanigans. Over and over, cars tried to cross the new river and got stuck. A Jeep Cherokee attempted to tow a huge bright orange truck with two sheep in the back using a tiny tow rope that, of course, snapped, leaving the truck lodged nose down in the water. Another truck made it across to our side and put up two orange traffic cones. Someone said they were building a bridge.

Later in the afternoon, no bridge, or any sign of a possible bridge, had materialized so we decided to drive down closer to the action. The Bandits battery was dead again. And now our van wouldn’t run. We popped the hood and started fiddling around, checking for diesel, looking at filters. A group of Kyrgyz men, who had somehow crossed the river on foot, appeared and jumped in excitedly, taking vodka shots and shouting as they took things apart. It started to rain and the sky went black.

The idea of spending another night with two dead cars trapped by an unpredictable river with a storm coming and no one to help but some drunk, incomprehensible men was too much, so the Bandits found a tractor to tow us both across the rushing, muddy river for a few dollars. We wrapped the tow rope around the Caterpillar’s bucket and it managed to pull us through, the water reaching to the door. I rode in front waving at everyone on the bank.

Once across the river, the gang of vodka-chugging Kyrgyz “mechanics” had finished all their booze and descended on us in a flurry. There seemed to be a fight over who was going to help. One red-faced, dazed-eyed man in a hat jumped in the van with me and pantomimed something for at least 10 minutes involving rabbit ears, the number four, his house, a head scarf and death. Another man gave us a small plastic bag of food that looked like a few pieces of smushed bread and some sausage and then another man came and took it back. A boy came over and said the man in the hat wanted money and then he asked for money for translating that.  Finally, when they realized we were going nowhere with them and weren’t going to give them money, they dispersed in a huff.

On our own again, we swapped batteries and the Bandit’s van started. Another obstacle down. We hooked up the tow rope I bought last minute in London and we were off at a few miles an hour to the nearest town on the map, Yoav pumping the brake to keep to keep from running into the back of the Bandit’s van. With no battery, there were no windshield wipers and no hazard lights in the rain and dusk.

The nearest town ended up being one sparse store selling some onions and a few cans of food next to a few ramshackle houses. We kept going and pulled into a closed service station shed for $2 after negotiating with a man in the house next door. The Bandits are excellent chuck-wagon cooks and after a hot dinner of pasta from Alex and Narmy, we were immediately asleep. The next morning, some more men materialized and Dean translated the car problem using his basic Russian. There was a tense moment when one of the man demanded more than $2 and threatened us with a stick but isoon we were off again.

I am now sitting outside a mechanic shop in Karakol on the east side of Lake Issyk Kul near the Tian Shan mountain range looking at my engine in pieces on the ground. The bracket for the generator sheared off and destroyed some other parts I can’t name because they aren’t in my Russian dictionary. The mechanic has welded something back together for $13. And there is some sort of engine valve that is broken and he has to make a 5-hour trip to Bishkek for parts. Maybe it will be ready tomorrow and maybe it will be very expensive.

In the meantime, the rain has stopped, the sun is out and we are going looking for a guesthouse. It will be the first bed I’ve slept in since last week.  Kyrgyzstan is stunningly beautiful. Alpine mountains covered in pine trees and topped with glaciers, green valleys, glowing blue lakes and clear running rivers. There are worse places to be stuck.

photo 4


Campsite before the flood

photo 5

Campsite after the flood


This is the crossing we eventually got towed across


Drunk “mechanics” trying to help



Getting towed by the Bandits


The shed we camped in



Taking the engine apart. The metal is sheared off that thing in the middle.



  1. Wow!! Quite an adventure. and the people you meet!!! 🙂

    • Hi DeeDee,
      I have not heard from you in ages. I hope all is well.
      Yes, it is quite an adventure. Jamie and Wardlaw got back about 9 days ago. Lots of stories.

  2. Hey guys! I don’t know whether to be envious of you or not. But it’s a lot of fun keeping up with your adventure. Stay safe.

    Dean… Russian? Nice skill to have with you. Are you using 3G to get net access? How’s the coverage when you’re far from anything?

    • Haven’t been able to get 3G since Turkey. Just getting wifi from coffee shops when we can.

  3. Dear Robin and Dean.

    Seems like you’re having great fun. Wish I had come with you.

    Good luck.


    • it is definitely an adventure, CK. Next trip!

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