We’ve been through a few sketchy overland border crossings before. Come to think it, many overland crossings can seem a bit dicey at times. Crossing from Kazakhstan into Kyrgyzstan was definitely one of those times. We had just met our driver Hasan, who spoke zero English, that morning in Almaty. The drive to the border was a couple of hours and took us through some remote and desolate pitstops on the way. When we got to the crossing point, Hasan gestured for us to venture out on foot while he brought the vehicle through. The scene was dusty and chaotic, with a few odd vendors and hustlers before being corralled into a caged area. I picked up a Kyrgyzstan SIM card from a guy with a stack of them for a few dollars. FYI: I was unable to burn through ~$3 of data over a couple of days, and I tried. After we got into the fenced in area, people were compressed into a line, which then spread out into chaos before a single person-sized opening with a guard letting people through. Once he starting letting a few people through the opening, everybody went nuts and started going over, under and through railing, running for a door to another building. One lady had a rolling suitcase she was loudly dragging sideways like her life depended on it. Well, “when in Rome” as they say, and all that, naturally we climbed under some railing and ran with the throng of people before the guard started yelling and stopped the hemorrhage of border-crossers from that area.
Once inside the next building, the disorder continued. People were pressed shoulder to shoulder yelling in Kazakh and Russian and who the hell knows. There were X-ray scanners that some people had bags scanned and other people just skipped. Martha took lead and just put her arms in front and shuffled through, shoving people out of the way. Greg and I saw the back of her backpack bouncing through groups of people before getting to the less densely packed back of the building. We made it back there eventually with a little shoving as well. After immigration, you go through another caged tunnel where a guy takes a stamped piece of paper that you sign, presumably because it wouldn’t be hard to slip through that chaos without getting your passport inspected. Greg left that paper on the counter and had to go back and shove some old ladies aside to get it back and catch up to us. After changing some money, we caught up with Hasan and were on our way. One more country down.
The chaotic, make-your-own-rules first impression carried over a bit into our experience in Bishkek as well. Not in a bad way, just that Kyrgyzstan seems to be quite a bit looser with the rules than Kazakhstan. For example, if you were to fly a drone in Almaty without a special permit, you might be going to jail. In Bishkek, I flew my drone, literally, over their White House (presidential building) as well as all over the city with no problem whatsoever. One time, when we were scouting for a nice clearing for takeoff and landing, we were scoping out a back parking lot near a sports stadium where some kind of event was taking place. A local that was checking us out assumed that our interest was in getting into the event and he gestured to us, offering to give us a boost over the fence. That’s the type of can-do attitude that colored my impression of the place.
Our itinerary has us moving through these first few countries pretty quickly. Our time in Kyrgyzstan had a similar pace to Kazakhstan. We spent a day or so touring the city, viewing museums, notable architecture and monuments, parks, etc. Remnants of the Soviet period seem more visible in Bishkek than Almaty. Broadly speaking, it seems slightly less developed and lower cost than Kazakhstan. We also spent a day outside of the city doing some light hiking at Ala Archa Gorge. This place was a secret retreat for Soviet VIPs and nowadays attracts foreign trekkers as well as large groups of schoolchildren taking field trips. It was a great spot to take the drone to some extreme limits and get some nice nature shots. Unfortunately, this was the last place we’ll have any drone footage for this trip. Rules about these things are rapidly evolving, but as of right now there is definitely an issue having it for any longer on this trip.
Many countries have rules, sometimes even strict rules, requiring special permits for how, when, and where to fly a drone. However, there are a few countries for which simply possessing a drone is against the law. Uzbekistan, the fourth country on this trip for us, is one such country. There are anecdotes of people having their drone confiscated and destroyed in front of them at border crossings into Uzbekistan, not to mention stories of arrests for flying them there. The laws are changing there, but that’s pretty much how it stands right now. Our next stop in Tajikistan would be another chance to use it, but there’s a different issue there: we wouldn’t be able to ship it home from Tajikistan. As of right now, Fedex, UPS, DHL, Pony Express, TNT… all third party parcel carriers have left Tajikistan. There is only the very unreliable government postal service. So Kyrgyzstan was our last opportunity to mail it home, which we did. In a small nondescript office a short drive from our hotel sits the only UPS contractor in the entire country. It was a production, but the little Mavic 2 is on it’s way back home and my pack is ever so slightly lighter.
The terrain between Bishkek and our next stop in Dushanbe, Tajikistan is mountainous and would be a very long drive. Our itinerary has us taking a one-hour morning flight and then hitting the ground running for the third “Stan” country. Greg and Martha seemed to both have a slight preference for Kazakhstan, but so far between the food and the relaxed pace of things, I have enjoyed Kyrgyzstan the most.