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Kazarman (pop. 15,000) has a reputation for being a rough town, probably partly due to its isolation (it is often inaccessible by road during the winter) and partly because of the nearby gold mine and ore processing plant. Certainly it has a bit of a Wild West feel about it;  its people seem a little more reserved towards strangers than elsewhere in Kyrgyzstan. In a low, flat plain about 1,250 metres above sea level, approximately half way between Naryn and Osh, Kazarman gets the worst of both their climates, with temperatures almost as low as Naryn's in winter and almost as high as Osh's in summer. The dusty town has no restaurants and only one teahouse.

The town - or more accurately, village - is extremely isolated, even for Kyrgyzstan, and is virtually cut-off during the winter months when the roads south to Jalal-Abad and east to Naryn are closed by snowfall. There is a small airport but currently no flights. Even in summer, Kazarman is not a cheerful place and so it is hard to imagine just how dispiriting the village must be during the long, and very cold, winter months; it is hardly any wonder that many locals turn to vodka for escape.

Kazarman is the kind of town that begs to be bypassed. Even the main road (Kadykulov) from Naryn to Jalal-Abad sweeps by on the southern outskirts of town. However it's not all bad; raw, untamed Kazarman's redemption lies in the nearby petroglyphs of Sailmaluu Tash. The town exists to serve the open-cast Makhmal gold mine about an hour to the east, and the nearby ore-processing plant, but not much of the wealth has trickled down into local hands.

Getting There & Away - Buses depart Kazarman for Naryn on Wednesday and Saturday at around 8am (eight hours). At other times shared taxis and 4WDs congregate next to the bus parking lot on Jeenaliev and leave if and when they fill up. A seat in a shared taxi to Naryn costs 800som (5,5 hours), Bishkek 1200som, and 600som per seat in 4WDs bound for Jalal-Abad (four to six hours). Occasional minibuses also depart from here to Bishkek (800som). Because of the very real possibility that there will be no one to share your taxi, budget for the worst-case scenario – having to fork out for all four seats.

Naryn to Kazarman

The 217-kilometre road between Naryn to Kazarman (288 kilometres if you go via Baetov), is certainly a rough seven- or eight-hour ride by bus and only a couple of hours less by taxi, but it is perfectly manageable, at least between early June and September. The route tracks the Naryn river through a succession of fertile valleys, crosses several passes and descends into steep-sided gorges along the way. The reasons to take this rough road are to visit the rock carvings at Siymaliytash (a UNESCO World Heritage site) or to get from Osh to Naryn or Torugart without having to backtrack all the way to Bishkek.

The most dramatic ascent of the route comes just after the village of Kok Jar, when you climb 50 corkscrew turns to the 3,500-metre Kara-Guu pass. The superb views reveal a lunar landscape, in which the softly moulded mountains are delicately tinted in red and beige stripes. At the top, wrapped tightly against the bitter wind and a thin layer of cloud, people dart forward shouting 'koumys, koumys' at passing cars. Ironically, this chilly point marks the transition from Naryn to the generally much warmer oblast of Jalal-Abad.

Kazarman to Jalal-Abad - This is the toughest part of the difficult but spectacular route taken by travellers who wish to reach Jalal-Abad from Naryn to the east without backtracking through Bishkek. This stretch, an uncomfortable, 160km-long rollcrcoaster ride up and over the Fergana range, is considerably tougher. Unlike the major north-south trunk roads that go from Bishkek to Osh and from Bishkek to Naryn, this road is not maintained in the winter months and it is usually only open between April and October. In some years it may be closed as late as May and as early as September because of heavy snow fall.

As a destination in its own right, Kazarman has little to hold even the most enthusiastic of travellers, but the village serves as a necessary base for a visit to one of Kyrgyzstan's most intriguing and inaccessible sights - the petroglyph galleries at Saimaluu-Tash. Public transport between Kazarman and Jalal-Abad is very rare: there is little habitation along the route and consequently little demand. It is also a demanding road that is only really suitable for robust vehicles like 4x4s, although there is reputed to be an occasional minibus; most ordinary taxis usually refuse to travel-this route because of the quality of the road surface. Some improvement work was carried out on the road in 2003 but it remains a difficult drive.

Leaving Kazarman, the road is slow but serviceable at first as it twists west through the village of Aral and past the turn-off for Saimaluu-Tash. It starts to deteriorate further after about 25km, as it climbs up to over 3,000m to top the Kaldama Pass in the Fergana range. From the top of the pass there are superb views of the valley south towards Jalal-Abad and the switchback gravel-surfaced road snaking down to the Urut-Bashi River. Descending the pass, the sudden change of scenery is abrupt and almost shocking as the vast green expanse of the Fergana Valley edges into view for the first time.

Eventually, after descending to flatter terrain, the fertility of the valley becomes a reality: the fields are full of tall sunflowers and maize in summer and in late August and early September the road itself is used for drying vast heaps of sunflower heads. There is a tangible feeling that another world has suddenly been entered, not just physically but culturally too, as the figures along the roadside are no longer the Kyrgyz herders predominant on the far side of the pass but, instead, farming Uzbeks busying themselves with their crops. A line has been crossed and this is Kyrgyzstan's south: an almost alien world for many northern Kyrgyz highlanders, but perhaps less of a culture shock to those visitors familiar with the lowland fanning areas of southern Europe.

From Dmitrievka it is a further 40km to Jalal-Abad through fertile farmland along a relatively good road. Just to the north of Dmitrievka, in a large area of walnut and fruit-tree forest similar to that found in the Arslanbob region, is the village of Ortok.

There are no scheduled buses to Jalal-Abad, only when and if they fill up will Nivas and Russian 4WDs depart. The road begins benignly enough, but the asphalt soon splutters out leaving a degraded dirt road, long overdue for some serious attention. Parts have been gouged away by rainwater run-off and the views down into the ravines from the crumbling track will have you reaching for your nonexistent seat belt.

The road finally crests a 3100m summit at a spot commemorated by a statue of an eagle and a row of ugly pylons. From the scenery on the Fergana side you can see why the area is referred to as Central Asia’s breadbasket. All going well the trip finishes sometime between four and six hours later at Jalal-Abad bazaar.