The white snow-capped mountains towered above us as we rumbled up Altyn-Arashan Gorge in the old Soviet 4×4 van we affectionately called Ole’ Burly. A local shepherd had told us that there were natural hot springs somewhere up this winding valley road, and we were determined to find them. Our muscles ached from the past month of ski-touring and ice climbing our way through northern Kyrgyzstan. The idea of a high mountain picnic while soaking in pleasantly heated pools sounded like a welcome respite from long days climbing and skiing beautiful, but remote mountains, far from the general comforts of city life. After passing through a quaint Kyrgyz village, the road suddenly worsened. The tiny mountain road had been eroded by snow melt and covered with ice throughout the winter. We knew we would have to hit the gap in the road with some speed to make it any further. The hot springs beckoned, I revved the car, and my passengers cheered. Then, with a decisive thump, both sets of wheels settled into the deep ditch and slid sideways to become totally fixed behind two boulders. We spent the next thirty minutes digging, pushing and cursing under our breaths. Then all at once, the engine died, the starter malfunctioned and the gas pump refused to do it’s only job. Unsure whether to laugh or cry, we were left wondering how we were going to overcome this new hurdle.
Ole Burly is an UAZ “Buhanka”, which is Russian for “loaf of bread.” Kyrgyz locals gave this car that nickname when Kyrgyzstan was still under Soviet rule in the 1980’s because of its resemblance to a giant bumbling loaf of bread on wheels. The Ulyanovsk Automobile Plant began production of the UAZ Buhanka in 1965 and it’s rumored that the design hasn’t been changed or improved since.
We bought Ole’ Burly so that we could see the “real” Kyrgyzstan while backcountry skiing and climbing alpine ice this winter. We put a bed in the back, and decorated the inside like a yurt to reflect the nomadic way we would traverse Kyrgyzstan, looking for the best snow and ice that the mountains had to offer. With it’s 4×4 capabilities, we imagined that we would explore Kyrgyzstan’s backroads and remote mountain valleys with ease. We even bought a tea set, so that when we picked up unfortunate Kyrgyz hitchhikers, we could host them in style. We wanted authentic connection with the local culture, and pristine wilderness untainted by tourism.
As it turns out, Ole’ Burly may be one of the most unreliable cars on the planet. In the beginning it was frustrating. We broke down at gas stations, in the middle of intersections, and on the sides of long abandoned roads. We were stranded in remote mountain valleys and had to change countless plans because of a faulty starter, electrical short or transmission failure. We learned more about fixing cars than anyone in our group had bargained for. And then, we became stuck on a windy mountain road in Altyn Arashan gorge, with seemingly no hope of rescue, and certainly no hope of making it to the hot springs.
As we began to pull out our tools and take stock of our situation, a Kyrgyz shepherd and his friend wandered up to our car. He observed our frantic movements for a moment through his hardened gaze and then, looking straight at me, he said “The problem is not the car….it’s the driver.” As I stared in disbelief, his weather hardened face softened and began to contort into a smile. Our whole group burst into laughter and we did as you always do in Kyrgyzstan, we shared a cup of tea to lighten the mood. Within an hour, the man and his friend had helped us pull apart our engine, piece by piece, offering the sage advice of someone who had grown up in an age of scarcity and resourcefulness. Over the phone, he invited neighbors and friends to come help the hapless Americans, and I suspect, to enjoy the show. Soon our car had people of all ages crawling in, out and under to offer their advice. It seems that everyone in this little village had some story to tell about this car. The Buhanka party culminated in an eighty year old man towing the car backwards as we clutch started her back to life. Together we laughed, cursed our common enemy, drank tea and shook hands, with a steady stream of thank you’s coming from our mouths. We said our farewells and began the beautiful trek to the magnificent, and may I say, well-earned, piping hot riverside pools.
As I sat in the hot springs at the end of the road that day, I began to think about what actually brings people together. How do you build authentic connections and relationships as you travel? Through this experience, I realized camaraderie comes from common goals, and being able to laugh at yourself. It comes from sharing experiences and being willing to learn from each other.
The older generation in Kyrgyzstan are masters of overcoming hardship. The country rocketed out of a nomadic past with the help of the Soviet Union’s centrally planned economic system, yet was caught within it’s confining rules, regulations and lack of resources. Since Kyrgyzstan gained independence in 1991, they have been through two revolutions and suffered immense corruption in their political leadership.
Although we don’t pretend to fully understand what it is like to live through such a tumultuous history, we realized that even a simple cup of tea and a broken down Buhanka can break cultural barriers that otherwise keep each party at an arm’s length. In the following months, we laughed a lot, cursed a lot, and had countless authentic moments with farmers, shepherds, mechanics, teachers, drivers and many others, that helped to give us more insight and understanding of life in Kyrgyzstan. Without our big bumbling loaf of bread on wheels, we would have had a great trip skiing and climbing, but it would have been far away from the “real” Kyrgyzstan. Ole Burly made us slow down and take each problem as an opportunity to drink tea, connect with locals, and learn new skills. Thank you Buhanka, and I never want to see you again.