The 600,000-kilometre Mercedes

Day 22 – 21st August – Osh to Bishkek (669km – by car)

669 kilometres between the second biggest city in the country and the capital. Roughly the same distance that separates the second biggest city in Spain, Barcelona, and its capital, Madrid. Back home, you can do that journey by motorbike, car, bus, train and plane. Here, there was no bus and no train, there were no available seats on the next flights and the motorbike was out of the question. Back home, it takes six to seven hours to drive the road that connects the two main cities. Here, it took 12 to 13.

The taxi I had booked via CBT Osh rolled outside my hostel punctually at 8 o’clock in the morning. It was a black second generation E-Class Mercedes, the ones that cover astronomical mileages doing duty as taxis in Stuttgart, and judging by the mileage on this one, it may very well have been shipped to Kyrgyzstan after its driving duties in Germany were done. It received the usual local treatment: lots of blankets over the seats, a wooden bead seat cover for the driver and a poor tinted window job that had become translucent, almost completely blocking the view out of the back windows. The dashboard was lit like a Christmas tree with warning lights and error messages, there were unplugged bits of wiring loom hanging from below the passenger seat, the seatbelt buckles were missing and, needless to say, the aircon was long dead. Somewhere along the trip I caught a glimpse of the total mileage of the car at that moment: 618,739 kilometres.

 

The reason the journey to Bishkek took so long was not the car, though, but the road. Despite being the road that connects the two main cities, it was only better than the dirt tracks I had been riding on in that it was sealed, but it still only had two lanes, went across all towns and villages through the centre, had bumps and potholes everywhere, and tarmac could disappear without notice at any moment.

I had had time for my back, ribcage and shoulder to recover from the first fall a week ago, but hopping everywhere with a cast on my foot and now the constant shaking and violent jolts sent straight up my spine through the car seat every time the we hit a pothole sent my recovery down the drain.

I barely left the car every time the driver stopped for a pause, other than standing next to it and stretching my legs. I didn’t eat anything and only visited the toilet once. The only thing I could think of was the bed in the hotel room in Bishkek, the most comfortable, luxurious accommodation we had seen all trip.

With 40 kilometres to go, we entered the sprawling suburbs of Bishkek, and the tarmac disappeared once again. They were resurfacing the road, and traffic crawled at walking speed amidst a thick cloud of dust. I had got my hopes up that we would arrive in half an hour, but now it was clear it was going to take much, much longer.

The car was overheating again – it had already given signs of trouble climbing some mountain passes on the way – so the driver stopped for one last break with 10 kilometres to go at what looked like a marshrutka depot, where he knew other drivers. After having a cigarette and chatting to his friends while the car cooled down, he got on the driver’s seat again and twisted the key. And nothing happened. Absolutely nothing. Not a single noise.

He tried several times, but the car was dead. He was really embarrassed about it and apologised profusely. As a solution to get me to my destination, he walked out onto the main street, hailed a city taxi and paid him to take me to the hotel.

When I crawled into the reception area, the poor girl behind the desk must have thought the zombie apocalypse had started. It was clear that the high traffic season for motorbikes was at the beginning and at the end of the month, the hotel was deserted and there were only a handful of bikes outside, in contrast to the storm of activity that had taken over the courtyard when we arrived at the beginning of our trip. I dumped a lot of information on her –what had happened to me, that I wanted a room but needed a taxi to leave in three hours, that my bike was arriving the following morning but I’d be gone by then, that I had luggage stored somewhere in the hotel and needed it right away, and please could she send some food to my room.

A very nice German couple helped me get to my room and after a painful shower a pizza was delivered to my door. Half an hour later, the manager arrived and sorted everything for my bike to be unloaded and stored in the hotel the following day. Clean, fed, and with the bike transport sorted on this end, I lay in bed to try and get some sleep before the taxi to the airport picked me up in an hour.