Osh, Kyrgyzstan to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
August 29th – September 19th
It was time for Pete and I to leave Osh. We had been there for 10 days in a lovely hostel and were far too comfortable. We had seen other travellers come and go and it had been very sociable and a group of them came to wave us off.
Lots of hugs and promises to meet again and off we went through the gate. Unfortunately, almost immediately both bikes began to make ominous noises and creaked and groaned their way up the road. We had to stop, but looking at the bikes didn’t help and they weren’t able to tell us what was wrong. Perhaps they too were sad to leave Osh. “After that dramatic send off we can’t go back” I wailed. “It would be too embarrassing”. But the problem sounded serious and could not be ignored so back we went tails between panniers, 10 minutes after leaving. Of course we were welcomed back with great hilarity and of course everyone then helped to diagnose our problem which was that we had put a new chain on worn sprockets. I think Pete was a bit embarrassed. Both front and back sprockets were totally worn out. The solution was simple, just turn the sprockets round and put them back on. This however took quite a while and with the added problem of being forced into drinking lots more tea, it became too late to leave so we booked in for another night. 11 days in Osh -a record.
We managed to leave successfully the next day and had a choice. We were heading for Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan where we hoped to be picking up our new Chinese visas- if we were succesful in getting them. We could take a beautiful but very tough road with high passes and what sounded like atrocious road surfaces or we could go along the main road -the M41 which we had been on most of the way from Dushanbe. This apparently had a good road surface all the way and lovely scenery but busier traffic. With memories of the Pamirs and the difficult road surfaces still very fresh in our minds we chose the main road. It would be 630 kms to Bishkek and the thought of asphalt all the way was very attractive. That was our first mistake. The traffic was awful. Heavy, with lots of lorries. Fast, furious and very fumey. For the first 3 days of our journey we considered going back or just giving up and getting a lift. We passed through many towns and villages often with strange names like Progress, Fix It, Massy and Moggy, where the traffic was even more chaotic and we felt vulnerable on a narrow ish road with no hard shoulder.
We decided to give it a bit longer, musing that relationships often take a bit of working at and on the fourth day things did improve. The road widened, the scenery opened up and did indeed become very beautiful.
There was now a gravel shoulder which was reassuring and good for throwing yourself onto when life became too scary. There were still lots of lorries and crazy driving particularly overtaking, treating us cyclists as if we were invisible.
Gone were the times when one could escape into a dream world and just listen to the swish of your tyres on the road, cycling now required 100% concentration. We camped one night with Christine, a German cyclist who had a theory that the friendlier a country is, the worse the driving. She had cycled in Iran where hospitality and friendliness are second to none but she says that the driving there is worse than anywhere she has ever been. I can see what Christine is saying but can’t see the logic in it and the subject obviously needs a lot more research. I suspect that many of us change our personalities when we get behind the wheel of a car. Often someone would be heading straight for us using their car to say “get out of my way because I’m not going to do anything to avoid you” only for them then to give us a cheery wave and a smile as they sped by.
Kyrgyzstan is stunningly beautiful and has the added distinction of being the only Stan that we can’t spell.
The Kyrgyz are traditionally nomadic herders and in the summer months head up into the hills and their summer pastures so that their herds of sheep, goats, cows and horses can feed on the rich, green grass. We frequently saw large herds of animals always being shepherded by men on horseback. In fact at one of our camp sites we woke up to a herd of sheep travelling by, our tent acting like a rock in a river with sheep going either side of us. The shepherd frequently cracked a long thick whip which seemed to scare us more than the sheep who I’m sure were probably used to feeling it on their backs.
Because of the time of year most people now are heading back to their winter homes in towns and villages down in the lower lands and valleys. We saw yurts being packed up and loaded on to the backs of pick ups. We saw open backed vehicles with cows and horses standing in the back and we saw the evidence of where yurts had been. We saw huge herds of animals rather terrifyingly being herded along the main road. We once cycled through a herd of around 100 horses and everything was going well until impatient drivers decided that the best way to get through was to make as much noise as possible with their horns. 100 calm and beautiful horses changed to 100 frightened and agitated horses and causing far more difficulties than they had in the first place.
One night we camped at an ex yurt camp knowing that we were where the yurt had been by the circle of dead earth it had left behind. We lit a fire in their fireplace and thought it very romantic but then realised what a tough life they must lead, dependent on the weather and the health of their animals in what is really a stark and tough environment.
Despite the driving, we still met with immense friendliness along the road and had gifts of apples and juice given to us from passing motorists, offers of lifts – one man with his little daughter in his car offered to take us all the way to Bishkek which at that point was still over 500km way. When we had a puncture (only our fourth of the whole trip!) we received a lot of advice from some men who I am not sure had ever even repaired a bicycle puncture before.
The melon sellers were very jolly and sliced our huge, yellow melon into eating sized pieces and didn’t seem to mind while we gorged and sloberred our way through it dripping juice down our chins and making a bit of a mess. When we put our skins and seeds into a waste bag one of the ladies quickly came over and retrieved the seeds, ready to be replanted in the spring I’m sure. Melons were everywhere and it was good to be able to gorge on something so good.
We saw children returning to school looking incredibly smart and proud in their uniforms. All of the girls wore large, white pom poms in their hair. We really would have liked a photograph of some of the groups of children but our request was always met with lots of giggling and a shake of the head. We took this pic rather sneakily.
It was at this point of our journey that we received the joyous news that we have been granted our Chinese visas. We celebrated with tea and then both went rather quiet as we absorbed the news. I think we had almost given up hope of getting them and had a string of plans A, B and C’s. Now we had to re-think our plans and think about where we would enter China and go in search of that Wall.
Time as usual seemed to pass us by and I could never understand how the days went by so quickly. One day we stopped at a hotel. At first glance it looked rather unattractive but as it was time for second breakfast we thought it was worth investigation. We were shown round to the back of the building where there was the most beautiful flower garden with stunning views over Toktogul reservoir.
I analysed later that this is where time goes. At least 30 minutes was spent eating fried eggs, bread, honey and drinking 2 large pots of tea. 20 minutes were spent watching this beautiful butterfly dancing on some flowers.
An unknown amount of time was spent gazing at the view.
Just before we left, one of the very large number of hens caught a baby snake and we had 10 minutes of grizzly entertainment while all the other hens chased her round the garden wanting their share. We emerged from the motel feeling rather guilty that we had stayed so long but having really enjoyed the break. So that’s where the time goes…
We cycled through the gorge of the Naryn valley with its river a deep and glorious turquoise.
One night we camped by the river at a “bivouac” site marked on our map. We were with Christine our German friend and imagine our disappointment when we arrived at the site and all 3 of us stood looking at a pile of stones designed to block the entrance and tell us that the site was closed. We looked down to the river and the temptingly flat, green ground and the river just waiting for us to swim in it. We decided that a bit of trespass was in order.
We managed with some difficulty to scale the pile of rocks, descended to the river and before we did anything else threw ourselves into the river and washed away 6 days of sticky sweat and dirt. Glorious. When we were well ensconced with tents erected and supper on the go we heard a shout from the roadside and then a torch coming down the track towards us. We couldn’t see who it was because it was dusk but the outline was very large and the ground seemed to shake with every footstep. We were nervous. He looked a bit like one of those shot putters at the Olympics. He shone his torch into our faces and we really were like rabbits in the headlights wondering what might happen next. He spoke to us in Russian. Christine understood but pretended not to. ” Ah, tourists, no problem, no problem “. Sighs of relief, hand shakes all round and forced laughter. He told us he owned the site but we were OK to be there. One wonders what he would have done had we not been tourists.
One of the compensations for the horrible traffic on this stretch of our journey was that we always had lovely campsites in lovely situations, by rivers and lakes, bouldery canyons and open spaces with magnificent views. The nomadic life once again seemed very attractive.
After the reservoir we knew we had two large passes to cross before we reached Bishkek. We weren’t too daunted as the Pamir Highway was still pretty fresh and our muscles hadn’t got too floppy. We steadily made our way up the prettily named Alabel pass and started to notice dark clouds forming. This was a novelty after months of sunny skies and we got quite excited by the thought of rain. It did start to rain but then rather alarmingly the rain did get a bit white and then we had full blown snow which was settling onto our panniers . When we were within about 1 km of the top of the pass people stopped to offer us lifts but we declined feeling that as we had been ascending for so long we didn’t want to miss the excitement of reaching the summit. One car stopped and the driver who was Australian asked us where we were from. When we told him we were British he said “that figures” and drove off. What could he have possibly meant?
We triumphantly reached the summit but didn’t have time to celebrate as the snow was now falling heavily.
We knew we had a 17 km descent to the nearest village where we should find a tea shop. 17 km downhill didn’t seem too far and we set off optimistically. It was only after about 10 minutes that I felt my bike wobbling rather strangely and thought I might have a puncture. When I looked down and saw that I hadn’t got a puncture I realised that I was shaking with cold and this was being transmitted to the bike. We had to carry on and we both got increasingly cold , our fingers and feet completely numb. Our mistake was that we hadn’t taken the time on the summit to don overshoes and over gloves and make sure we were warm before setting off down. Very foolish and a lesson learnt. By the time we reached the village we were desperately cold. The wind was bitter and we were wet. The village was grey, dreary and quiet and we had trouble finding a tea room but when we did we found out that it was also a hotel so thankfully we were able to stay. It was a grim place however and cold but at least it was dry and we quickly had tea and some soup. It took a long time for me to stop shaking and I was surprised at what seemed like quite an extreme reaction to the cold and can only think that we have got so used to hot weather and have lost our Cumbrian resistance to cold and damp. That night I went to bed fully clothed, in my sleeping bag with a duvet over the top and only then started to warm up.
Thankfully the sun was shining the next day and we rescued the bikes from a shed where they had spent the night underneath a sort of washing line draped with animal innards and large “sheets”of fat.
The next pass was a cinch and we enjoyed a long and steady trundle up with ever expanding views behind us.
We got a lift through a Tunnel of Doom where in the past people have been known to have died of carbon monoxide poisoning so cycling through it was definitely not recommended. The driver would have been quite happy to take us on to Bishkek and I was tempted but Pete looked so unhappy as I know he was very much looking forward to the 70 or so km descent that we now had in store and felt we had earned.
It was sort of fun and the scenery was dramatic and beautiful but once again the driving around us seemed particularly bonkers and then we hit a strong headwind which meant that we actually were pedalling hard to go downhill.
Bishkek has been interesting with its neobrutalist architecture. I had to look that up and I think it’s another word for ‘rather ugly”.
But there are lots of parks and tree lined avenues, shiny shopping malls and thankfully an outdoor shop where I was able to buy a good pair of shoes to replace my rather worn ones that have been in constant and rough use for nearly a year. It will be hard to say goodbye to these old friends.
One memory of Bishkek which I hope will continue to make us laugh is of our journey into town on a marshrutka or mini bus which was packed with about 35 people and we had to stand. We needed to see where we were going in order to know when to get off but couldn’t see through the low windows.I was busy inspecting people’s armpits but Pete managed to stick his head out of the skylight and had a great view of the road ahead. I think it must have looked very funny from the outside. Getting off the bus was really difficult and I was hysterically shouting “we need to get off” while heaving my way to the front. We fell out onto the pavement with great relief and amazingly were exactly where we needed to be.
What’s the weather like? Well it is important! It’s been near perfect! I think Chris would prefer it a little cooler but certainly, for me, probably for the last 4 weeks or so, the weather has been, well, perfect.
When we descended from the Pamirs there was one morning when we had to break the frost off the fly sheet before packing it away but since then the sun has been shining in a cloudless sky and the temperature has been a very pleasant 25 to 28 degrees centigrade during the day dropping to about 10 degrees at night. With one rather severe exception. We had to cross a pass of 3200 meters. Unusually clouds were hanging over the hills. The clouds got a little darker. We climbed higher and a drizzle made us pull our rainwear out. The drizzle got a little worse and as we climbed, it turned to snow.
No real problem as we were pushing and cycling uphill and keeping warm. We even turned down two lifts! Well, we were close to the top. It was the downhill that was the problem. Snow in our eyes, brakes on and no peddling to do. We got very cold.
On the second pass the following day though, the weather was back to its sunny self. All we had to contend with was a fierce valley wind battering us head on as we snaked down the narrow gorge.
In Bishkek now it’s a cloudless blue sky, t-shirts in the day with maybe a fleece in the evening.
But it’s changing. The trees are turning to yellow and gold and the corn and hay are being stacked for the cold months ahead.
The question in our minds is how long have we got before the cold? We’ve still to go a little bit further north and then it’s east with a tiny bit of south. Can we outrun the winter? The Taklamakan desert (translated as, he who goes in never comes out) is fiercely hot in the summer and very cold in winter. Cold as in minus 30°C. We need to get around this desert the “sea of death” before winter and preferably after summer. That should be straight forward enough…
I’ve been struggling a bit recently with why exactly, when we passed the border with China three weeks ago we’re still heading north. I don’t think it’s just because Chris has been in charge of the map reading… It’s all to do with visas and borders and mountains and deserts. We could have turned right at Murghab in mid August and crossed into China but we would not have seen the rest of the Pamirs. And we didn’t have a visa…We could have made a right hand turn in Sary-Tash a week later. But we didn’t have a visa… So we pushed on to Osh. Where we got down to some serious visa work. Then it was a case of heading north to Bishkek where we’d either get a visa, or, reluctantly, an aircraft…Actually when you look at our route as a whole it’s not too bad, a bit wiggly, but not that far off a straight line… And we’ve seen a lot more of Kyrgyzstan.
Our route now is east around the southern shore of Issyk-Kul lake to Karakol and then north into Kazakhstan to hopefully cross the border into China at Horgos.
One of my favourite subjects! Food. It’s definitely a little better. The bread is a little better. It’s still round and flatish but if you buy it after lunch then there’s a good chance that it’s been made that day and will be reasonably soft. Not so good of course if you want it for breakfast…
At the teahouses the menu is largely unchanged. There’s meat, or soup which is still a fatty liquid with a potato. I opted for the meat in one teahouse. It’s a pile of meat on a plate. A little bit like beef casserole without the casserole… It’s very popular.
Sashlik is another variation. That’s meat on a skewer cooked over hot coals.
I do find ‘grouping’ a little bizarre. A few kilometres short of Toktogul I thought we’d reached the outskirts of the town. But there were still 5km to go. We’d actually arrived at a village of teahouses. There must have been twenty teahouses! Lining both sides of the road. All selling the same things – the usual biscuits and sweets, a deep fried soggy sort of pancake with potatoes inside, hardboiled eggs and of course, tea. Strangely, the first one we went in didn’t have tea… But leaving that aside they were all the same! It was perhaps a bit like a motorway service area set up by twenty individuals. Without the motorway, obviously. Or the services. Just tea. Sometimes…
Yogurt balls. Just as the road started to climb up to the second major pass there were yogurt ball vendors. Probably about thirty stalls! All selling yogurt balls. Yogurt balls are small white balls about the size of a ping pong ball, of dried salty yogurt made from horse or cow’s milk. The occasional one or two I’ve no doubt, would make a delicious roadside snack. But there were a couple of kilos in the bag. And piles of twenty bags. And that was just one stall. The next stall was ten metres along the road. Why so many yogurt balls in the same place? I’ll never know the answer.
We’re trying to self cater a bit more. Rolled oats with dried apricots make a good breakfast – fresh apricots are finished now unfortunately. Rice and pasta are always in our panniers and tomatoes and onions are available just about everywhere. We’ve even tried making bread! Thin dough fried in oil is fantastic with jam or chocolate spread or even pieces of actual chocolate. We’ve tried ‘damper’ which is a sausage of dough twirled around a green stick and cooked over a fire. Not too successful that one.
We’ve even tried a bread roll which was dough risen with yeast and cooked in the pan on the edge of the fire. More successful, or at least it would have been if it was cooked a little longer…
We recently had a lovely picnic by a lake of rice cooked in stock with onions, sweet corn and dried apricots! We had to bash down the weeds a little to make a place to sit and it was only when we were leaving that I realised what the weed was that we had been sitting on…
We have our Chinese visas. All we have to do now is get there. It’s 900km to the border and then another 1800km to ‘The Wall’. China has seemed close recently. I can hardly believe we’ve still got two or three months more cycling. I think China is quite a big place…