Category Archives: Kyrgyzstan

Osh to Kashgar 2-9 October 2012

Goodbye Kyrgyzstan, hello China!

We’ve had a week of highs and lows.  On the high side we’ve experienced:

  • our highest pass so far (3777m)
  • our fastest descent (100kph/62mph)
  • spectacular scenery
  • interesting conversation at the English language conversation class in Osh
  • the formation of the Impromptu International  Bike Club at the Kyrgyz-Chinese border
  • seeing free-range camels
  • delicious Chinese cuisine

In contrast, on the low side:

  • our coldest night (-4C inside the tent)
  • numerous children pulling on the solar panel as we ride slowly uphill
  • adults (who should know better) unashamedly twisting the gripshifts and messing up the gears, or pulling the bike off the stand then looking surprised when it falls over, or plonking their fat backsides on the front seat with a total disregard for the stand’s ability to cope
  • drivers running us onto the gravel in their bid to get a closer look at us
  • an ongoing national obsession with our marital status and reproductive decisions (not everyone wants children – get over it!)
  • a bumpy four hour truck journey at the insistence of the Chinese border guards who will not let cyclists ride the 140km of unfinished road between passport control and immigration inspection – thankfully the tandem survived, but Keith’s helmet didn’t and our bags look like they’ve been flung around in a large tumble-dryer along with a bag of dirt, which in effect they have
  • the continued attention of the God of Small Pointy Things

Five months of travelling is starting to get to us.  Minor irritations (like the inability of people to look at the bike without fiddling with it) which I’m sure we used to deal with quite calmly once upon a time, are now becoming the straw that’s breaking these camels’ backs.  In the last week it feels like not only have more people been unable to keep their fingers to themselves, but they also seem more intent on causing damage to the bike, and have been quite surprised and even indignant when asked not to do it.  We’re devising new strategies for protecting the bike like putting my helmet on the front seat and then putting the seat cover over it so that it doesn’t look like such an attractive perch.  Simply placing the helmet on the seat doesn’t work as people just pick it up and put it on their head (er, hello!  It doesn’t belong to you, you haven’t even made eye contact with me yet let alone said hello, but you think it’s OK to just try my gear on????).  Even with one of us standing next to the bike it’s impossible to keep it safe as you end up being distracted answering the questions of one person and whilst your back is turned some idiot decides to tug on the pedals until the bike rolls forwards off the stand.  Someone even started turning the handlebars whilst Keith was trying to pump up the front wheel, a task which, surprise, surprise, was not made easier by the wheel wagging back and forth.  People here seem to have no regard for the consequences of their actions.  We’re used to people questioning us from car windows, but were less than amused when one man drew up alongside us and then swerved  close towards us, causing us to take evasive action onto the gravel hard shoulder, whilst he gaily enquired “Hello, where are you from?”.  We gave him a fairly frank assessment of his driving skills and he left in a hurry.

Whilst we can’t begin to comprehend this culture of disregard for other people’s belongings, Keith did at least begin to get more of an understanding of why the third question we invariably get asked (after “Where are you from?” and “Are you married?”) is “How many children do you have?”

Whilst I was blogging in our Osh hotel, Keith had been on a mission to print out some photos to send to the teahouse owner who’d let us camp in his back garden (see previous blog entry), and whilst out and about he was approached by a man who, on the pretext of asking the time, struck up conversation with him in pretty good English.  It transpired that Keith’s new friend, Talen, was on his way to an English conversation class in the Centre for American Studies and invited Keith to join him.  The discussion turned to the cultural differences between the UK and Kyrgyzstan (in Kyrgyzstan there is no tooth fairy, instead you wrap your tooth in a piece of bread and feed it to a dog) and Keith took the opportunity to ask why so many people feel it’s OK to question why we don’t have children.  It’s a question I would skirt around in the UK for fear of upsetting people (for instance they might desperately want children but be unable to have them) but here, we get asked it all the time and are looked at with incredulity when we say we are childless.

The people in the conversation class (a mix of men and women ranging in age from late teens to forties) were all baffled by the idea that people might choose not to have children, and when asked what would they do if they or their partner were infertile, they immediately said they’d adopt, which suggests that the adoption process in Kyrgyzstan is somewhat less tortuous than that in the UK.

Personally I find it hard to believe that the entire populace share the exact same view.  It’s just so improbable. There must be some Kyrgyz people who don’t actually like children very much and would prefer not to have any.

The next interesting point that came out was about marriage.  Given the seemingly universal and inexhaustible desire to procreate, Keith asked what happened if a couple had a child out of wedlock.  This caused a ripple of horror around the room.  It would shame your family far too much.  You just couldn’t do it.  Interestingly though, on further questioning, it came out that it was only the woman’s behaviour that was shameful, not the man’s.  Even the young people, of both sexes, shared this view.  I wish I had been there to understand more as to me it doesn’t make any sense.  In an act that takes two how is the outcome more the responsibility of one than the other?  To answer that question more fully you need to know what access there is to contraception in Kyrgyzstan.  Do women have easy access to the pill?  And how are terminations viewed?  So many unanswered questions.  Actually, I think Keith was quite relieved I was not there.

He did invite me along the next day though, but instead of conversation class it was debate class and we had to debate whether politicians should be allowed to own media companies….which kind of went on a bit with no real resolution, and ended up being more a debate about politics rather than their influence on the media….but Keith enjoyed it as he loves talking politics.

Towards the end of the debate, the conversation turned once more to Kyrgyz-UK differences and we were asked what we’d seen in Kyrgyzstan that we hadn’t seen before.  This was a great question but one that really stumped us for a while.  We came up with kymyz, kurut and kalpak (respectively the fermented mare’s milk drink, dried milk balls and tall felt hats which are a Kyrgyz tradition) but our questioner said we couldn’t include traditional things…and this is where we got stuck.  All the things we could think of that were different to the UK and Europe were things we’d also come across in Russia and other former soviet countries.  It was only after we left the class with the question still bouncing around in our heads that we thought of the answers.  For posterity here they are:

  • The 3 som coin.  All other currencies we’ve encountered use denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100.  In Kyrgyzstan the currency runs 1, 3, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100.
  • Three-wheeled tractors. We suspect these are also available elsewhere, but we don’t think we’ve seen them outside Kyrgyzstan.
  • Cotton plants. OK, we know these are found in lots of other places, but Kyrgyzstan was the first place where we saw them.
  • Outdoor billiards.  Not so much in the north, but in the south of Kyrgyzstan we’ve passed loads of billiards tables outside roadside bars and cafes.

Kyrgyz Billiards

From Osh, which is at an altitude of around 900m, the road rises gently through numerous small villages and then more steeply over the 2400m Chyyyrchyk Pass (three y’s is not a typo!) before descending 700m to the small town of Gulcho where we stocked up on fruit, veg and bread at the market to see us through the sparsely populated road to Sary Tash and Irkeshtam and into China.  This is a popular cycling route and the kids all seem to be keen ‘bike-spotters’, shrieking variations on a theme of “Tourist! Hello! Goodbye!” as we trundle into view.

Hello Tourist!

It’s quite nice when they’re running alongside giggling and waving, and even I manage a pretty good impersonation of a child-loving individual, but we’re not so keen when then hang onto our fragile solar panel or pretend to hi-five but then cling to Keith’s hand to see if they can unseat him.  More than once we had to stop the bike and scatter them with an enraged roar.

The scenery became more dramatic, passing through red sandstone gorges and strange bulbous rock formations as the road rose gently but steadily upwards and the kilometres ticked away under our wheels.

We’d left Osh mid-afternoon and camped the first evening just before the main climb to the summit of the Chyyyrchyk pass and on the second day, after reaching Gulcho, we took advantage of the gentle gradient to crank out a 90km day giving us less to do the following day on what we knew would be a tough finish to the climb to Sary Tash.

Looking back on the switchbacks leading up to Taldyk Pass

As expected, some serious altitude had to be gained before Sary Tash and the road rose steeply in a series of switchbacks which saw us slow to around 5kph and stop frequently to recover our breath in the hypoxic heights between 3000 and 3600m.  Hour by hour the kilometres were slowly covered and at last we reached the top at 3615m. There was a lot of cloud cover on our side of the mountain and it was too cold to linger so we layered up, took a couple of quick photos, and then set off down what promised to be an exhilarating descent.

The top! 3615m

To our utter outrage, the descent lasted for just a couple of kilometres before turning upwards again to a second pass…and so our speed slowed from 70-80kph to 5-6kph, and the height we’d just lost in a few fast minutes was slowly and painfully clawed back again.  As we neared the second summit (which was thankfully slightly lower than the main one) a flat-bed truck stopped and offered us a lift.  We asked him whether the road now descended to Sary Tash or if there was much more climbing to do.  He said it was all downhill, but still couldn’t understand why we turned down his lift.  He was convinced it would be far better for us in his cab, but having worked so hard to gain the height there was no way we were missing out on the descent.  And it turned out to be absolutely the right decision.  As we’ve come to expect in Kyrgyzstan, the tarmac was pristine and the bends were wide and swooping.  We reached a new max speed of 91kph so easily that we thought the speedo was mis-reading.  The scenery was as spectacular as ever with high grey peaks to either side and the small town of Sary Tash just appearing down in the valley.  Then, as we swooshed round another glorious bend with the Pino banked right over and big grins on our faces, the valley opened out.  Spread before us, stretching east-west as far as the eye could see, was a huge, snow-cloaked range of mountains with some flat grass land before it and the small town of Sary Tash nestled in the foreground.  It was just beautiful.  I can’t begin to explain.  We were at over 3000m above sea level (Ben Nevis, for comparison, is little more than 1400m) and here were mountains rising the same height again right before our eyes.  I guess if you’ve been to the Himalayas or some other great mountain ranges this’ll be old news….but for us, and even for Keith who’s done a fair bit of Alpine climbing, this was something else, and an absolute joy to see.

Descending to Sary Tash…..the photo doesn’t even come close to the spectacle we saw in real life as the snowy peaks stretched into the distance left and right as far as the eye could see.

Sary Tash itself is an extraordinary place.  There are only three main roads: the one we descended, which then, on entering Sary Tash, forks in two.  The right hand road heads to Tajikistan and the left hand one leads to China.  Ahead are the imposing white walls of countless jagged 6000+m peaks, behind are grey walls of 4000+m.  A dry, tawny grassland stretches between these barriers, and in the middle sits Sary Tash; just a small cluster of buildings, surrounded by high piles of hay and straw to keep their livestock through the unimaginable winter.  A bitter wind was blowing and Keith and I were bundled up in as many layers as we could practicably wear but still shivered if we stood still for too long, and yet old men were happily watching the world go by sitting on benches outside their homes, and countless children were playing out in the street, wearing just jumpers and a woolly hat, and squealing “Tourist! Tourist!” as we passed.  The language that the kids have picked up is quite funny.  A lot of them don’t seem to know the difference between hello and goodbye and shout either indiscriminately (at least we hope it’s not intentional).  Keith wasn’t quite sure what to think when he went into one of the four small shops we saw and was confronted by a little boy shouting “Tourist, goodbye!”.

Sary Tash family

Turn right for Tajikistan or follow the cow heading left towards China.

After picking up some biscuits and yoghurts from the scant provisions on offer in Sary Tash’s shops we rode out of town towards the breathtakingly beautiful white peaks stretched before us.  There were still a couple of hours of daylight and 70km and another high pass to cover before reaching Irkeshtam, which was our goal for the following day, but instead of using those two hours to get some more kilometres done we decided to camp just outside Sary Tash and soak up the spectacular view for at least as long as we could bear in the freezing wind.

Breathtaking views but a bit too chilly to sit out

Sadly it was too cold to sit out for long so we cooked and ate inside the tent, and then wriggled into our sleeping bags wearing most of our clothes.  It was going to be a cold night in our 2-season bags.  In the morning we awoke, having really only half-slept, to find a shimmering dusting of snow on the inside of the tent where our breath had frozen to the fabric.  Keith’s all-singing-all-dancing watch informed him that the temperature inside the tent was -4C (at seven in the morning), and it was no doubt colder still outside.  Outside the tent was just as silvered as the inside, as was the tarp on the bike.  But oh it was worth the discomfort to open the tent and drink in the view of those mountains.

We took our time getting up, waiting for the sun to rise and breathe life back into our cold joints.  As the world defrosted around us we breakfasted and slowly packed up our kit.

Water straight from the fridge

The ride from Sary Tash was spectacular.  For 40 kilometres the mountain range stretched white and unbroken beside us.  After an hour or so we bumped into three French guys: Arnaud and Jean Baptiste, who were riding together, and Elie, who had met the others earlier in their respective trips and had now bumped into them again.  We swapped stories and rode together for a while, but the trio soon pulled away as the road climbed, and we also stopped to make use of a loo we spotted next to an abandoned building.  (It was a quite splendid pit toilet, if you’re interested, with one of the most lovely views I’ve ever enjoyed from such a modest facility).

Not far to the top now

The French guys gallantly waited for us at the top of the next pass: the highest one of our trip to date at 3777m.  Our map had led us to expect the pass to top out at a little over 3500m so we’d been perplexed when Keith’s altimeter clicked over to 3600 and then 3700, but looking across the hill we could see an older, poorly maintained road leading down to the left so assumed our map referred to that one.

3777m – the high point of our trip to date – with Elie, Jean-Baptiste & Arnaud

At the top we found the French trio waiting for us.  It was too cold to stop for a proper lunch break so after layering up with clothes and gobbling down a couple of sugared buns we set off on the descent.  We’ve enjoyed some absolutely brilliant descents in Kyrgyzstan but this one was the mother of them all.  The tarmac was not quite as good as on other roads and Keith had to concentrate on avoiding the odd pot-hole that sucked at our spinning wheels, but the road was wide, there was very little traffic, visibility was excellent, we had a tailwind and the weight of us, the bike and our luggage; all the ingredients were there for a fast and fabulous descent.

The reward after the climb

For kilometre after kilometre we sped downwards.  Sometimes the gradient relaxed and we’d enjoy the unfolding panorama at 40-50kph, at other times the road dropped away in front of us and our grins grew as the freezing wind whipped our faces and the roadside barriers blurred as the speedo ticked faster and faster and faster.  80kph….85….90…95…99….whooooooo!  We were now officially going pretty damn fast.  I wasn’t sure whether to be scared or exhilarated.  We were both tucked down low and aerodynamic.  Keith can’t see the speedo from his seat, but if I unclench my knees for a moment and peek through I can.  99kph felt pretty damn quick.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to go much faster but couldn’t face confessing to Keith if I sat up and slowed the bike knowing how close we were to the magic 100.  So I hung on a second more and tick…there it was….100.5kph (62mph)…and quite enough excitement for one day.  I sat up and the speed eased a little, then Keith braked and slowed us a little more until we could shout to each other over the wind.  We both agreed that that had felt plenty fast enough…and in any case Keith can’t enjoy the scenery when he’s concentrating with every fibre on the rushing tarmac so he was happy to go at a more sedate 70 for the rest of the ride.  Down and down we sped until we came to an unexpected barrier across the road where some uniformed, armed men in a small hut wanted to see our passports despite still being some distance from the actual border.  It was several minutes before Elie, Jean-Baptiste and Arnaud joined us.  They’d also clocked new max speeds but without the additional weight had been unable to match the flying Pino.

Our new top speed

Sadly, that was the descending over with and we had to strip off several layers of clothes a few moments later as the road rounded a bend and began to climb again.  A few small ups and downs later and we dropped into Nura, an odd little encampment of identical blue-roofed houses, much more in the Chinese style of town-building than the Kyrgyz.  An easy handful of kilometres after Nura was Irkeshtam, with a long, long, queue of trucks snaking along the road for over a kilometre, waiting for the border to open the next morning after the week-long Chinese holiday.  Just before the lorry queue was a small encampment of other cyclists who the French guys were expecting to see there having made tentative arrangements earlier in their respective Central Asian journeys.  We agreed to join them later after checking out the cafe in Irkeshtam.

Looking for somewhere to eat in Irkeshtam (Elie in distance, Arnaud in foreground)

After threading our way past the trucks we came to Irkeshtam itself, which is little more than a collection of metal huts next to the border post.  The first two cafes were closed but we were eventually directed to a smoke filled brick building where lagman (noodles) were being served.  The five of us ate our noodles and celebrated the end of our Kyrgyzstan journey, but couldn’t really relax as the men outside the cafe just could not leave our kit alone.  On more than one occasion Keith had to go out and ask people not to sit on the bike.  As the Pino can be adapted for disabled stokers who might find it easier to mount the bike with assistance whilst it’s on the stand our bike stand is an exceptionally strong one designed to hold 100kg.  But as our four panniers hold a considerable amount of weight there’s not so much leeway left for larger people to plonk themselves unceremoniously (and usually without even asking permission) onto the saddle.  We don’t mind children sitting on the front (if they’ve had the courtesy to ask first), but if adults want their photo taken then we roll the bike off the stand and hold it upright for them.  This also means they can’t press on the pedals and roll the bike off the stand.  I don’t think this is unreasonable of us, but for some reason the people in Irkeshtam think we’re mental for being concerned about the welfare of our bike stand and appear utterly amazed that we get upset when they bounce up and down on it.

Anyhow, dinner over we rolled back to the campsite and were introduced to Mikhail (also French) and Laura and Ash (two Aussies on a ‘Bike Friday’ tandem).  A fire was lit and a fun evening was had swapping tales and frustrations (Ash also has to turf people off their tandem and they’ve already had two broken stands).

The Impromptu International Bike Club’s campsite at Irkeshtam

The next morning we were joined by Dutch couple Kim and Danny on solo traditional and  recumbent bikes respectively and who had met the others earlier in their trip, and so by the time we arrived at the border there was quite a little crowd of us.

The Kyrgyz side of things was pretty straight forward.  We went into a little room, had our passports stamped, went back outside, showed them to a man who checked the stamp, went to another window and had them looked at again, and then again by someone else, and then we were free to pedal the five or so kilometres of unsurfaced road to the start of the long and tedious Chinese side of the process.

First of all we had to take our passports into a building and leave them with the official there.  Then we had to get one of the guards to check our bags.  At previous crossings we’ve unzipped a couple of bags and people have been happy enough to take a quick glance inside, ask us if we’re carrying guns or narcotics, and then let us go.  The Chinese wanted to look through everything.  Cameras, computers and e-readers had to be switched on.  Paper books were flicked through.  Photos were examined and pretty much everything in our panniers and trailer had to be accounted for.  Then we had to go to the waiting truck drivers and try to find one who would be happy to take us and our bike the 140km from the border to their new immigration inspection centre in Wuqia.  This turned into a rather protracted and frustrating process as the Chinese guards kept telling us only one passenger could go in each truck, whereas we knew that the Dutch couple and two of the French guys had secured places in trucks that would take two people.  Then the Aussies managed to get their lift sorted and somehow Keith and I were the only ones that the border guards insisted had to go separately.

We were luckier though than a Spanish couple who had also met the others previously and who joined us all as we waited at the Chinese border.  They hadn’t realised the border would be closed for the holiday until the 8th of October and their visa was only valid for entry by the 5th of October.  They had arrived before the 5th to find the border closed and so were now back, hoping that the guards would let them through.  It was not to be.  Their visa was deemed invalid and they were turned away.  We don’t know what their plan B was we were busy with our own problems by then.

Eventually we were sorted with a truck that the guards were happy for us both to travel in, our passports were released and we were hustled to the back of the truck and encouraged to load the Pino as quickly as possible.  We’d kept our rope and spare bungees to hand to secure the bike, but the back of the van was completely bare of any fixing points, so in the end we had to be satisfied with lying the Pino on its side and packing the panniers and trailer around it.  This was scant protection though for a four hour journey on an unsurfaced road that criss-crossed the building site that is at some point going to be a nice new road.

China….viewed from the cab of a lorry

Free-range camel

We bounced and lurched and at every bump Keith cursed and groaned in sympathy for the Pino. It was a long four hours, the only plus points of which were the continuing spectacular rocky scenery and the introduction of free-range camels to the herds of horses, sheep, goats and cows that we’ve enjoyed throughout Kyrgyzstan.  Both of these would have been even better seen from the seat of the Pino rather than peering through the window of a truck.

Upon arrival in Wuqia we thanked our driver and with trepidation made our way to the back of the truck to find out how our kit had fared.  Amazingly, the Pino had survived relatively unscathed.  We’d lost the magnet for my speedo and everything was caked in the fine dust that the lorries send up in great clouds and which gets through the slightest opening, but aside from that it seemed to be in working order.  Apart from being filthy (the dust even got through the zips in our panniers and into all our belongings) the bags and trailer were unscathed too.  The only serious casualty was Keith’s helmet, which was discovered in pieces underneath the trailer.

Elie, Arnaud and Jean-Baptiste arrived at a similar time to us but managed to get into the immigration building ahead of us and the two coachloads who appeared as we were reassembling our belongings.  The border guards insisted that we binned our vegetables thus leaving us with a fairly limited dinner that evening, and after waiting for all the coach passengers to be processed we were the last people in line.  We then had to go through a ridiculous process of showing our passport and having the details carefully recorded by five different people in the space of about 20 metres, all in sight of each other.  “Welcome to China!” we thought, somewhat grumpily.

At last though, we were free to go.  The French guys were long gone and we set off on our own wondering how far ahead the others were.  We’d made tentative arrangements to regroup that evening and whoever was through first would locate a campsite, but it would be pot luck really whether they’d been able to find somewhere suitable for so many cyclists, and in any case when wild camping you normally try to camp in places where you can’t be seen, particularly near cities.  But our luck was definitely turning because as we rolled out of town we caught sight of Danny and Kim with their bikes and Ash, waving madly at us from the other side of a field of date trees.  It was a good campsite: visible enough if you’re looking for it, but not so visible to passing traffic because of the trees.

The other three French guys had gone into Wuqia in search of an ATM and a restaurant, and made their camp elsewhere, but the seven of us in the date grove had a relaxing and convivial evening.

Half of the convoy

The next morning we set off in a convoy and were joined by Elie along the way.  We split naturally with different speeds but regrouped at hilltops and junctions, until Keith and I realised our front tyre was going soft.  We pumped it up but it didn’t last long so we told Kim we’d try and catch up later and set to work on the wheel….aided and abetted by a couple of locals.  We found a sliver of wire that had worked its way through the tyre carcass and, as the puncture in the tube was obvious and corresponded with the sharp wire we’d found, we decided to take the time to patch the tube there and then so the job was done rather than just putting a new tube in and doing the repair later.  It took us maybe 15-20 minutes as I spent most of my time trying to distract the ‘helpful’ locals because funnily enough it doesn’t make the job easier if the front wheel is being waggled from side to side whilst you’re pumping it.

Back on the road the tyre lasted about 3 minutes before going down again, whereupon we unpacked the trailer, shoved a new tube in, repacked the trailer and were back on the road in 10 mins flat, but now almost half an hour behind the slowest of the other riders.  We didn’t see much of China after that as it became a head-down ‘time-trial’ style effort to catch up before reaching Kashgar.   Thankfully the road was a slight downhill and we tanked along at 40kph overtaking scooters and weaving scarily around dawdling pedestrians in the towns we sped through.

40 minutes later we regrouped with Kim and Danny who were stopped at the side of the road and rode the rest of the way into Kashgar with them, whereupon we were hailed by Laura, Ash and co who were finishing their lunch at a cafe.

A day later, delayed by illness and punctures, Arnaud and Jean-Baptiste arrived, so the Impromptu International Bike Club members are all in Kashgar, spread across a hotel and a hostel (according to privacy preferences).  We’ve got different itineraries for crossing China but hopefully will see at least some of our new friends again on our travels.

Aussies Ash and Laura on their Bike Friday tandem

Recumbent Dutch Danny

And finally, here are a few scenes from Osh (the city where we started this blog entry) which didn’t really have a natural place within the text:

Solomon’s Throne in Osh, viewed from our hotel window. It looks vaguely like a reclining pregnant woman and couples apparently go there to pray for fecundity.

The James-Bond-esque Historical Cultural Museum, tunnelled into Solomon’s Throne in Osh

Osh viewed from Solomon’s Throne

Osh Bazaar – Kalpaks (tall felt hats)

Osh Bazaar – note the Morrison’s shopping bag – we saw loads of them in Kyrgyzstan but never found the supermarket
(for non-UK reader’s Morrison’s is a UK supermarket chain)

Osh Bazaar – cow’s head anyone?

Osh Bazaar

Osh Bazaar

Bishkek t’Osh 21 September – 1 October 2012

Kyrgyzstan!

We’ve laboured up mountain passes, camped in sub-zero temperatures on high plateaus, swapped saddles with herdsmen, tasted (with varying degrees of enjoyment) the local delicacies, whizzed gleefully down beautifully asphalted descents, pedalled through dry and desolate ‘moonscapes’, seen a baby donkey frolicking, camped in the garden of a retired truck-driver-cum-teahouse-owner, discovered what cotton plants look like, repeatedly failed to make ourselves understood when asking for a tin of tuna in the bazaars and been victim to the caprices of the God of Small Pointy Things, awaking as we did one morning to three deflated tyres.

Right, that’s the short version for the time-constrained amongst you. For those who are gluttons for punishment, here’s the long one:

We left Bishkek on a bit of a sour note after an argument with the support agency that had helped us obtain our Chinese visas. You may recall from our last post that the Chinese embassy only opens for visa business on a Wednesday and Friday morning and it usually takes five working days to process an application. So after our agency told us we’d missed the Friday morning deadline we’d agreed to pay an extra $40 for a fast-track service so that when our applications were submitted the following Wednesday we’d get the visas on the Friday instead of having to wait until the Wednesday after. At first all seemed to have gone well. We picked up our visas on the Friday and all appeared to be in order…and then Keith noticed that the issue date was actually several days earlier. In fact they were issued on the Tuesday, a day before they’d allegedly been submitted. We asked the agency lady what had happened; had there been a miscommunication between us and her, or between her and the embassy? Had the application been accepted the previous Friday after all? And why had no-one contacted us (she had our email address) to let us know the visas were ready early? We’d been kicking our heels at the guesthouse waiting for the visas. Sadly, the agency lady was not forthcoming with answers and tried various evasive and contradictory responses ranging from “You did not come here last Friday” (quickly countered by our production of a dated receipt) to “You should use your brains and should have realised that a fast-track service would mean they’d be ready on Wednesday”. It all got a bit unpleasant and in the end we managed to get $20 back to cover the extra two nights we’d spent at the guesthouse. It wasn’t a nice way to be leaving Bishkek, but at least we’d got our Chinese visas, unlike the French couple we’d met who were using the same agency and who had ended up with a visa for the husband but not for the wife. The last we saw of them they were heading directly to the Chinese embassy to see if they could get some kind of explanation as the agency lady had not been able to help them. For reference it was the Bai Ma agency that we used. Other travellers have reported favourably on their service but we wouldn’t necessarily recommend them.

Anyhow, we were back on the road and quick to put the sourness behind us. Mountain passes were looming large, and there’s nothing like a day and a half of climbing to help you work through any feelings of annoyance.

Mountains looming in the distance

After an afternoon rolling west along the flat road out of Bishkek, we camped close to the town of Kara Balta, where a turn to the left takes you south and the road starts to head skywards.

Most of Kyrgyzstan is mountainous. In the winter the country is effectively split into two as road links between Bishkek in the north and the other major cities in the south, are completely blocked by snow for months on end. Bishkek sits at around 800m above sea level and to reach Osh we would be crossing two passes of over 3000m and numerous smaller ones. This was unchartered territory for us; the only comparable climbs we’ve done in the past have been in the Alps and Pyrenees on road bikes unfettered by luggage. Climbing on a loaded Pino whilst towing a trailer is entirely different.

Our first 30km of climbing was gentle enough, the rise only noticeable in our slow pace as we headed across seemingly flat terrain towards the sharp line of mountains. From the town of Sosnovka we entered the mountains properly and followed a winding road through dramatic rock faces following the path of the Kara Balta river. The gradient was not too demanding and for a further 30km we toiled sedately upwards, generally keeping a pace of around 8-10km per hour.

Going up…

Horses coming down…and looking none too sure about sharing the road with a Pino

Still going up….

Fifteen kilometres from the tunnel that marks the top of the climb things took a decided turn towards the vertical. We left the gently tumbling Kara Balta river and the road began to twist more aggressively in a series of switchbacks. We were straining to maintain 6kph and stopped frequently to ‘admire the view’ or, in reality, wait for our wracked and rapid breathing to return to the realms of normality.

Looking back down

By the time the sun dipped behind the dark peaks we’d made it to 2500m, with a further 10km and 600+m of climbing remaining. Realising we’d never make it to the top that evening we scrubbed our plans of camping on the plateau on the other side of the tunnel and instead hunkered down behind a concrete barrier right next to the road on the only remotely horizontal piece of ground we could see. Temperatures dropped to 3C in the tent overnight and even with my new down booties on inside my sleeping bag my toes were painfully cold.

Not the quietest night’s sleep, with lorries chugging past just the other side of the concrete barrier.

The next morning we continued our upwards journey and after two hours of sweating and swearing (particularly at the drivers who think it’s fun to lean on the horn as they come up behind you and you can’t tell if it’s meant as encouragement or abuse) we finally made it to the tunnel at about 3150m, giving the climb a total ascent of 2350m.

Almost at the top. Can you spot the yellow van?

Our legs and lungs were not the only things feeling the strain.

Fifteen minutes of ear-splitting, thunderous, fume-choked darkness later and we exited the tunnel whereupon our labours were rewarded by the jaw-dropping view of the Suusamyr plateau. Snow-capped peaks surround a flat, grassy plain dotted with yurts, horses, cattle, sheep and goats. The road swoops down on pristine tarmac and both the scenery and the rush of cold air take your breath away. Keith doesn’t like favouritism and refuses to be drawn on the topic, but I have to admit that the Suusamyr plateau is one of the highlights of the trip so far for me.

The view from the top looking across the Suusamyr plateau.

Despite the rumbling lorries belching their way up and down the climbs, the air up on the plateau was crisp and fresh in our nostrils, softened occasionally by the sweet musk scent of horses.  The above photo is misleading as the mountains appear hidden by haze, whereas in reality the air was crystal clear, unlike the air in the valleys on either side where the fumes from badly maintained engines and other pollutants leave a bitter-tasting smog in the air.  Above us was cloudless blue sky, to the right yellow-brown grass slopes, to the left dramatic snow-tipped jags of rock. The plain extended around us, golden with a brief flash of green where Suusamyr river runs through it.

Suusamyr river

We’d descended to about 2100m and then began a long, slow ride up the plateau into a headwind, towards a highpoint of the next pass at 3184m. After the morning’s exertion to reach the tunnel we treated ourselves to a leisurely lunch of hot pasta salad with tomatoes, peppers, cucumber, onion and kolbasa sausage, followed by post-prandial snooze in the hot sun. One of the curious things about high places is the way that they can feel hot and cold at the same time. The sun can be roasting your cheek whilst the wind is sliding icy fingers down your collar, and the air is cold and dry in your nostrils. Is there a word for this hot-coldness? If not, there should be. It’s a delicious contrast.

Livestock and herdsmen

Once more, we made it to around 2500m before calling it a day and setting up our tent on the wide open expanse of grassland. As the sun disappeared the temperature fell quickly, and far enough to put ice in our water bottles overnight. A new strategy of wearing all my clothes and keeping my socks on inside my down booties ensured a toasty night’s sleep though.

A short while before we went to bed we heard a whistling outside our tent. We unzipped to find an amiable looking man who squatted down and shook our hands in turn, and then continued to squat, staring into the tent and making no attempt whatsoever to speak to us. We said ‘hello’ in our best Russian but didn’t get much of a reply, and on further questioning it turned out he didn’t speak any Russian, only Kyrgyz (which we don’t speak at all). This was a novel situation for us and the first time in Central Asia that we’d come across someone over the age of ten (aside from other tourists) who couldn’t speak Russian. We waited to see what he wanted but he just kept staring at us in a comfortable manner that suggested he’d happily sit there all night. A freezing wind was howling in through the door and Keith and I both wore strained smiles as we tried to work out what to do next. We were half-tempted to invite him in to share some biscuits, but as he was making no attempt whatsoever to communicate and seemed happy to just squat and stare at us we felt quite perplexed by his behaviour and were worried that if we invited him in we wouldn’t be able to get rid of him. To our shame we decided to mime that we wanted to go to bed, at which point he promptly waved goodbye and left us. The next day we felt really bad. We should have invited him in even though we had no common language….and especially as people have been so hospitable to us.

Other people’s kindness towards us was amply demonstrated the next day when a herdsman rode up alongside us and chatted for a while. He then caught up with his comrade and a small group of horses, cattle and sheep, and then they both came cantering over to us. The second herdsman offered me his horse and so we swapped saddles: I herded and he rode the Pino. Later on another group of herdsmen stopped and did the same for Keith.

Tamar herding cattle

Keith and friends

Sharing the Pino experience

The herdsmen also gave us an old fanta bottle full of kymyz – fermented mare’s milk. Kymyz is a Kyrgyz speciality, sold by the bucketful by street vendors and at bazaars in the towns and cities, and in pretty much every roadside yurt up on in the mountains. Unfortunately we haven’t really developed a taste for this slightly fizzy, sour concoction, but after drinking a few obligatory mouthfuls with our new friends we did find a good use for the remainder. The part-drunk bottle was carried prominently for several days and proved to be a useful way to turn down further offers of kymyz without (hopefully) causing offence. “Oh, thank you, that’s really kind, but look, we already have some and don’t have space for any more on the bike.”

Another local delicacy is kurut, a strong-tasting , hard, little ball of dried cheese, quite possibly made from mare’s milk, but we think also from cow, goat or sheep’s milk too as they seem to come in different varieties. Again, this popular snack has a taste which we’re struggling to acquire.

Roadside yurts selling kymyz and kurut

We had guessed that shopping opportunities would be limited in the mountains and so had left Bishkek with a plentiful supply of vegetables, tins of tuna and other staple items, but the reality of life in the mountains still came as a shock. Water wasn’t a problem as the road ran alongside rivers for much of the time so it was easy to keep our bottles filled. There was also a plentiful scattering of yurts and metal huts along the roadside, many of which advertised themselves as shops, but on closer inspection the only things we could find to buy were kymyz, kurut, some biscuits, occasionally some bread (tasty round breads baked in a tandoor and called nan but looking nothing like the nan you’d get in your local Indian restaurant), a few chocolate bars, bottles of coke or fanta and some cartons of fruit juice….and that was pretty much it. We got quite excited for a while when we came across an incongruously located, modern, western-style petrol station in the middle of the plateau, complete with cafe, shop and porcelain sit-down toilet, but sadly the shop only sold crisps, chocolate and fizzy drinks.

Our map indicated a village called Otmok near a major road junction and we’d anticipated finding some better-stocked shops there, but when we arrived the village turned out to be just a collection of a dozen or so metal cabins clustered around a large statue of Manas, a legendary Kyrgyz figure who was allegedly born in the town down the road. In the ‘shop’ we bought two twix bars and a bottle of fanta, and then, since the shop doubled as a cafe our curiosity got the better of us and we decided to have an early lunch to find out what on earth people here eat aside from kymyz, kurut and biscuits.

After leaving our shoes at the door and washing our hands in the small sink, we clambered up onto a blanket-covered platform that filled one end of the cabin and upon which a low table was centred. We could either kneel, sit cross-legged or with our legs tucked beside us; not ideal for 40-something-year-old cycle-tourists’ knees. After some fidgeting we eventually settled on sitting with our legs straight out in front of us beneath the table.

Eschewing the now familiar pelmeni (small, steamed, meaty dumplings) we boldly ordered kuurdak and shorpa, which came served with a plentiful supply of nan bread and black tea. Keith’s kuurdak was a plateful of fried lamb topped with chopped raw onion. When it arrived Keith was concerned that it was more bone and gristle than meat so he hastily ordered some pelmeni just to be on the safe side, but in the event, whilst there was a lot of bone, there was also a huge quantity of meat hiding under the onions and the pelmeni, whilst very tasty, were somewhat surplus to requirements.

Shorpa – pretty tasty.

Shorpa turned out to be a greasy broth containing a boiled potato and an extremely fatty piece of lamb. Once I’d discarded the fat, the meat proved quite delicious, but we found out subsequently that the fattiest meat sells for much higher prices than lean meat in the markets so I hope the cafe owner wasn’t too offended by the carefully picked over fatty bits.

Our maps all said this pass was 3184m, but the sign only attributes 3175….dammit!

After the bare rocks of our first climb and the dry expanse the plateau, dropping down the descent from the Ala Bel pass was like being transported into another country. Golden yellows turned green and swathes of trees appeared on the slopes as we dropped into verdant fields. The descent was a cyclist’s dream. Wide bends and smooth tarmac meant we only needed to touch the brakes maybe four or five times in a descent that lasted for over 60 kilometres and took us back below 1000m above sea level again. Two or three times we slowed from in excess of 70kph to take a sharper bend at a more cautious pace, once we stopped to buy some woodland honey from one of the many roadside vendors, and the final touch of the brakes was to retrieve my pannier cover that had been whipped from the sagging elastic of its pouch by the wind (new elastic was duly purchased at the next bazaar and a repair effected).

Fields appeared out of the dry earth as we dropped down towards Toktogul.

Four days and about 280km (170 miles) after entering the mountains we finally arrived at what could be called a town. The bustle of Toktugul was a shock to the system after the peaceful emptiness of the mountains. After finally locating an ATM (and even then having to push aside the man who’d initially directed Keith to the ATM but had then for some reason decided that western cards shouldn’t be inserted into it and so had tried to forcibly block the card slot with his hand) we headed to the bazaar to stock up on provisions. Tins of tuna are always on standby in our trailer and had been readily available all through Russia and Kazakhstan and into Bishkek. We even know what it’s called in Russian (toonetz) and so can ask for it if it’s not obviously on display. But the further we’ve travelled from Russia, the more we’ve noticed regional variations in the pronunciation of what had previously been familiar words, and suddenly we found ourselves quite unable to communicate. At stall after stall we asked “Oo vas yest toonetz?” (Have you got some tuna?), only to be met with uncomprehending looks and shrugged shoulders. Keith tried variations on a theme: toonetz, toonyetz,tyoonetz, emphasing in turn the first and then second syllable, but to no avail. Occasionally recognition would dawn and the stall holder would say “Ah! Toonetz!” but we couldn’t for the life of us work out the difference between their pronunciation and ours, and in any case none of them had any in stock, only sardines or sprats. Eventually we gave up and bought some dried sausage.

From Toktogul the road detours around a large reservoir and in doing so once again begins to climb; not to the cold clear heights of previous days, but in short, sharp bursts across an arid landscape of myriad small earth pyramids in shades of grey and ochre. It was a strange place, quite eerie in its desolation.

Dramatic but slightly surreal scenery along the north side of Toktugul reservoir.

The southern side of the reservoir was, in complete contrast, flat and fertile (albeit through extensive irrigation) and busy from dawn to dusk with farmers in the full swing of harvest time.

Harvest time on the south shore, desolate moonscape on the north.

We soon found ourselves climbing again though and entered the dramatic red sandstone gorge of the river Naryn at Kara-Kol. A large dam at Kara-Kol means that what was the river in the gorge is now a still lake, but despite the abundance of water the terrain is barren, supporting just a few scrubby plants.

Red sandstone cliffs in the Naryn gorge.

Four German cycle tourists hauling huge loads through the gorge

The gorge eventually opened out at Tashkomur onto more fertile plains where we saw tractors hauling loads of fluffy white cotton, and, stopping by the roadside to inspect the crops more closely, we realised that the white flowers we’d been seeing on unidentified bushes were in fact pom-poms of raw cotton.

Threewheeling!

A golf-ball sized bud bursts open to reveal a fluffy ball of raw cotton.

Village ran into village and every inch of land was in the throes of harvest. Finding somewhere to camp for the night was looking like it might take some time. We figured that the German tourists we’d met the previous evening and had passed again in the morning would not be far behind us, so at around 4pm we stopped at one of the frequent tea-stalls to wait for them. The tea-stall owner was most hospitable and immediately asked us if we’d like to camp in his garden so we parked the Pino in a prominent position beside the road and kept an eye out for the Germans. Sadly it appeared we’d left it too late in the day and we never saw them, but no matter, we enjoyed a great evening with Asan and his family, eating plov and salad, and sharing the melons we’d bought earlier at a roadside stall. He was in his early sixties and retired from his job as a truck driver, and now makes ends meet by running his roadside tea stall and selling samsa (meat filled pastries) cooked each day in his tandoor – a large clay oven with coals at the bottom and curved sides to which, as if by magic, the wet dough products, be they samsa or nan breads, somehow stick throughout the cooking process.

This side of the mountains feels a lot more rural and a lot poorer than the Bishkek side, and Asan’s spartan home was not untypical. It comprised a small mud-brick building of maybe two or three rooms which he and his wife shared with his children and grandchildren, a couple of mud-brick outhouses, a pit toilet and two metal-framed platforms surrounded by curtains and covered in blankets which served as multi-purpose eating, sleeping, socialising and food preparation areas. But his generosity was boundless. We overpaid him for the tea and also took lots of photos which Keith got printed in Osh and posted back to him as he has hosted a number of cyclists and enjoyed showing us photos of their time with him.

L-R: Three of Asan’s grandchildren, Keith, Raima, Asan.

We’d enjoyed surprisingly smooth tarmac from Bishkek to this point, but as we headed east at Kochkor-Ata (to avoid Uzbekistan for which we have no visas) the road became much narrower and the quality of the surface deteriorated. Annoyingly, as we were now riding through a string of villages and small towns, the deterioration in the road coincided with an increase in the amount of traffic. Aside from the large trucks rumbling their way across the country, the traffic seemed to fall into four broad categories: open trucks full of produce or livestock, loads of diminutive Daewoos, a mix of medium sized cars of varying brands, and then an eye-popping number of large Mercedes and stretch Hummers, predominantly in wedding convoys but also being privately driven. There was clearly money swilling around somewhere. Around this point we bumped into an American cyclist working for an NGO in Bishkek, who said with some rancour that most of the Mercedes and Hummers were owned or hired by politicians from a previous administration who, in his opinion, were a bunch of crooks.

We continued to bump along the rutted tarmac, past field after small field of sweetcorn, cotton and melons, all being harvested and loaded into cars, vans, trucks and donkey-carts. Once again we found ourselves running out of camping options and almost looking forward to some steeper ground where there would be less agriculture. We eventually found what we thought was an ideal spot next to a dried up lake….but in the morning three flat tyres suggested it had not been such an ideal spot after all. Spiky bushes had lined the side of the dirt-road we’d followed into the open grassy area we eventually camped on, and these spiky bushes had scattered their small pointy thorns far wider than we’d imagined. The morning quickly disappeared as we set to extracting multiple thorns from our tyres and mending multiple punctures. No doubt The God of Small Pointy Things was laughing mightily at us….git!

With wheels still slowly deflating despite our assiduous patching we limped into Jalal-Abad (no, not the one on you hear about on the telly, the other, less scary one, although they also don’t sell tuna) where we met some really helpful and pleasant schoolkids. Kazakh and Kyrgyz schools run 6 days a week, so despite it being a Saturday the boys were wearing their suits and looking very smart and respectful. One boy in particular, a 12 year old of Uzbek extraction, spoke the best English and was very helpful showing us the way to the town square where we gave up on the patches and put two new inner tubes into the bike tyres. He and his friend told us that at school they learn Kyrgyz, Russian, Uzbek, Turkish, English and Chinese. Not for the first time in our travels we were embarrassed by our paltry words of Russian. Oh to be multilingual! How can people hold so many languages in their heads?

A few kilometres out of Jalal-Abad and the road returned to its previous excellent condition. And a few more climbs took us around the eastern-most tip of Uzbekistan to Uzgen (no tuna!) and from there to Osh where we’re taking a couple of days rest before embarking on what may be the most arduous part of our journey to date: a long, long climb from Osh at around 900m above sea level over a 3600m pass to Sary Tash and then over a 3500m pass at Irkeshtam where we will cross into China.

Once in China it’ll be a race against the clock to get across the desert expanse of Xinjiang province to Jiayugung in Gansu province where we hope to get the first of our visa extensions. We’re not sure what sort of access we’ll have to the blog once we get behind the Great (fire) Wall of China so if we don’t post for a few weeks please forgive us.

This stately elder donkey was accompanied by a foal that frolicked and gambolled up the road in a most un-donkey-like manner. (Sadly too energetically for my feeble camera skills to keep up)

A serious card game at Asan’s teahouse

A typical mountain petrol station selling 93 octane benzene

Transporting the harvest

A cunning way of moving water to a more elevated irrigation channel.

Roadside melon sellers

Saddled up and ready to ride….

Meat market

Nan bread baking in a tandoor – ready in just 3-5 minutes.

Love the vaguely heart-shaped frame, and the funky handlebars with built-in speedometer just visible in the centre.

Muslim mountain cemetery

Drinking in the mountains