The Third Lane: Karakol Natural Park (Kyrgyzstan)

The Third Lane refers to an imaginary path in the center of a road between the two directions of opposing traffic. It is used by impatient drivers to pass cars even though they are overtaking vehicles on narrow mountain roads or blind corners.

Darren writes about some of our most memorable road experiences while in Asia.

We came to Kyrgyzstan for the mountains. Here, we expected to see 19,700 foot (6,000 meter) peaks, huge stands of pine trees and blooming wildflowers, as well as the nomadic people who still use the mountain pastures during the summer months when the temperatures rise and the snow melts. Our first stop was in Karakol Natural Park, in the eastern part of the country.

To reach Karakol Natural Park, we left from Karakol, a small town on the banks of Issyk-Kul Lake. Interestingly, we heard that this lake was used to test torpedoes during the Soviet era. The road from the town to the boundary of Karakol Natural Park was paved. Along the way, we could see small year-round villages at the foot of the Terskey Ala-Too range of the Tian Shan mountain system.

There were a few dwellings just over the park boundary – mostly small homes hoping to attract a few som (the currency of Kyrgyzstan) from tourists who visited the area in passenger cars. But, we were not in a passenger car. Instead we were in a Soviet-era vehicle which, we were told, was used for medical evacuation. It was a light weight van with four-wheel drive. It was painted a drab olive color with a few dents here and there. Listening to the engine struggle on the now dirt road, we became concerned as to whether our van was going to make it for the entire journey.

From our seat in the middle of the van, we could see our driver’s toothless smile in the rearview mirror. Now well past any civilization, he expertly negotiated the dirt roads with one hand, while using the other to emphasize his point as he debated with our guide, who was seated next to him. The driver was very passionate and seemed destined to be the winner. Unfortunately, we had no idea what they were talking about as the conversation was in Russian.

Soon, we noticed a bridge in the distance. The first bridge span was made of eight large logs aligned lengthwise (parallel to the wheels of the van). The second span was made of planks aligned crosswise. It looked strong enough for our vehicle, driver, guide, cook, our gear plus the two of us. But, we have to admit that we both breathed a sigh of relief once we had crossed over the raging Altyn-Arashan River below.

It had rained recently and as a result, the road was muddy and deeply rutted. Huge rocks often blocked our path. Our driver used the entire width of the single-track road, right up to the pine tree branches that marked its boundary. He switched into low gear several times to climb up steep hills, only to drop back down on the other side. We crossed a few more bridges. However, after a few miles, the bridges were gone and we we were forced to drive right through the streams that cut across our path. The water was deep – up to the center of the wheels. Steam rose from the side of the vehicle as the cold water touched the hot exhaust pipe. We had seen a few passenger cars prior to crossing the first bridge. But, it was clear now that this part of the road was for high clearance vehicles only.

We came upon a large herd of cows, just entering the park for the season to take advantage of the now tall green pastures. They took the entire road ahead of us. We tried to progress the best we could, but the cows would not let us through. Two times, we were surrounded by cows, but in both cases, we were forced to stop and give up the precious ground we had gained. Finally, there was a clearing up ahead. The nomads who rode on horses alongside the cows successfully coaxed a few cows at the front of the herd off the road.

As there were close to a hundred head, we still had to wait a long time before the road started to clear. Our driver aggressively pushed his vehicle forward. Finally, we were able to increase our speed. Shortly after this we arrived at our campsite for the next two nights. It had taken us 90 minutes to cover the 18 miles (30 kilometers) from Karakol.

At the end of our time in the forest, we loaded our gear into the van and mentally prepared ourselves for the long ride back to Karakol. The driver attempted to start the car several times but was unsuccessful. A few moments later, we noticed that he was out of the car and with his shirt off. Apparently, there was a problem with the engine. Before we knew it, the driver had taken off the engine cover and had removed what looked to be the carburetor. The entire cab smelled like gas. We decided that now would be a good time to take a short walk.

From a safe distance, we watched the driver tinker for about an hour. It was many miles back to civilization and there was not any cell service, so we were really pulling for him. The driver put both the cover and his shirt back on. We were pleased to hear the engine roar back to life. Our confidence with the driver returned. This, in fact, was the perfect car to bring to the mountains!

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