Kyrgyz taxi mafia
Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), August 9th 2015

Travellers often make the joke that the first thief they usually encounter in a new destination is a cab driver. This profession has a bad reputation in most parts of the world. Not only foreigners are often the victims of these ‘thieves’, also local people must negotiate hard to get a reasonable price.

We are in the village Kazerman, a small village along the main road from Jalalabad to Naryn. In this remote part of Kyrgyzstan traffic is thin. If we have to make a prediction, we think that on average two cars per hour use this gravel road, which is by the way only open during the summer months. Most cars that use this road are so-called ‘shared taxis’. These are regular cars that are shared by passengers to cut costs. However, the drivers of these cars are real taxi drivers. Being a ‘shared taxi’ is their profession. Buses, even the small ones, aren’t profitable in these sparsely populated regions.

Local tourists in a Lada enjoy the road around Lake Song-Kul

We went earlier in the morning to the small field in in the centre of Kazerman where the shared taxis wait for passengers. The taxi only leaves when the car is full, unless passengers are willing to pay for more seats so they can leave quickly. However, we did not make a 'deal' that morning. We only want to go to Naryn (185 km from Kazerman), while the drivers want to charge you for the final destination, which is Bishkek (510 km from Kazerman). The drivers, and also the owner of the home stay where we spent the night, was trying to convince us that this is normal. But we know Kyrgyzstan well enough by now, to know that this is nonsense. This is what they like to tell tourists to beat some extra money from their pockets. But what can you do? Transportation alternatives are limited, so the monopoly works perfectly here. Not only the shared taxi drivers, but also the home stay owners are part of the scam.

However, we are lucky that morning. Another guest in the guesthouse is an Italian who speaks good Russian. He also wants to go to Naryn and he proposes to share a car with the three of us. Because we also like to visit the Song-Kul Lake ‘en route’, we decide to share a car. But it becomes clear that we do not have a chance to get a car for a reasonable price at the shared taxi station. The drivers stick to the monopoly agreement they keep asking for an exorbitant amount of local Soms. Our Italian travel companion (Eugenio), also an experienced hitchhiker, proposes to move to the main road and wait there for a car that has to go to Naryn anyway. So, that’s what we do.

Within a minute after we arrived at the main road, a man walks towards us. He is washing his car on the other side of the road at a small shop. He starts talking with Eugenio and soon it turns out that he goes to the same direction. Not to Naryn, but to Kochkor, which is also fine for us. He is also willing to ride via the Song-Kul Lake, and does not mind to occasionally stop for a picture. We agree on a price of 3000 Som for the entire car. That's about 43 Euro. The car is perfect for this route. It is a four-wheel drive Nissan Patrol.

A flat tyre between Kazerman and Ak-Tal on the way to Song-Kul

The jeep has a big blue siren on its roof. At first we think that we have arranged a ride with the local sheriff, but that is not the case. Our driver works for the security service of the local gold mine and for that reason this car is equipped with flashing blue lights. The driver needs some more time to wash his car, which gives us the possibility to do some shopping for the day at the small shop. If the car is shining again, we step in with the intention to leave. Between the front seats is a bottle of vodka which is already emptied for three-quarters. There is also a little shot glass. Also the driver gets in. He says that he first has to go to the gold mine to refuel the car. He is working for the gold mine, so that’s where he can get free fuel. The gold mine is about 10 kilometres in the other direction. Another man steps in and takes place on the passenger seat next to the driver. It seems that he is a friend of the driver. He is drunk and soon it turns out that he is the owner of the vodka bottle. We are relieved that it is not the driver who almost finished the whole bottle. The drunk man starts talking to both Eugenio and us, but the talks lead to nothing. He is too drunk to utter a sensible sentence, and his brain is affected too much so that he does not understand that we do not speak Russian. Once we get to the petrol station of the gold mine, the drunk guy is so annoying that we decide to step out again in Kazerman if it turns out that he is going to ride with us all day.

But we're lucky. When we arrive back at the centre of Kazerman, the drunk guy and his bottle of vodka leave the car. It is half past eleven in the morning and the journey can finally begin. Through the village of Ak-Tal and the Moldo Ashuu Pass, we drive to the Song Kul Lake where we arrive at the beginning of the evening. A flat tire, and repairing it, has cost us several hours. But the ride is spectacular and the lake is beautiful. Song Kul Lake is a popular tourist destination and at this time of year (summer), the area around the lake is characterized by dozens of tourists oriented nomad camps. Not only for foreign travellers, but also for local tourists. That makes the whole thing a bit of a circus. But if you can look through it, you cannot deny that it is a beautiful area.

An old Soviet style appartment block in Kazerman
A spectacular landscape between Kazerman and Ak-Tal
The tomb of Tailak Baatyr, a former Kyrgyzs independence fighter, at Ak-Tal
Nomads at Song-Kul Lake, with a tourist nomad camp in the background

Our driver asks for help to refill his tyre

© copyright - / 2015