Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to Zharkent, Kazakhstan.
September 19th – October 12th, 2018
Bishkek . The capital of Kyrgyzstan. There was lots to do and lots happening.We met Charlene and Damien again, we discussed outdoor shops, bikes and routes. My tummy was still playing up and Chris diagnosed giardia. I got obsessed about cleaning the jet of our stove using a bicycle pump . All I needed was an old inner tube with the valve removed, an old gas cylinder and a length of rubber tubing . All of which I found either in a bin or by the side of the road . It didn’t actually work that well. I think I shall have to try making my own adaptor when I get home .
We set off from Bishkek following a maps ME route on the computer. Yes, we should have known better but we really didn’t want the main road with the thunderous traffic.
The tarmac soon turned to a track and the track to a building site . The suburbs of Bishkek were spreading outwards. We bumped across the site and a builder pointed the way out which soon lead us to pile of sand . Once past that we were back on track – literally and metaphorically . But it was very slow going . After bumping over huge ridges and negotiating boulders and puddles for an hour we stopped for tea . And decided to hit the tarmac . And the traffic. Once we reached the road the surface was poor and with just two lanes and we often had to dive off onto the stony verge . I was feeling lethargic and could hardly turn the pedals . Chris decided that the little giardia parasites were sucking my strength and prescribed a hotel for the night . We found a possible on the computer – whatever did we do before we had these machines – and made the Grand Hotel our day’s goal . The Grand was situated between the main road and the highway next to a large artificial lake . There was a large restaurant built on a peninsula that jutted out into the lake, there were little islands in the lake with tables where small groups could dine in isolated splendour, to which the food was presumably brought by boat, and weaving sedately through the water there were both real live swans and pedello versions . We pushed our bikes around the lake and passed at least three wedding parties all having their photos taken complete with fountains, real swans and pedallo swans in the background . It was all a little surreal .
I’ll let Chris describe the hotel itself:
“We were looking forward to leaving Bishkek as we had stayed longer than intended as Pete had been a bit poorly. We left in an optimistic frame of mind but it soon became obvious that we should have waited a bit longer. I knew something was wrong when I was cycling faster than Pete and had to keep stopping to wait for him. He also had no appetite which made it seem like a medical emergency. After about 30 km we decided that camping wasn’t such a good idea and we would look for a hotel. The only place within reach was rather posh and was even called The Grand, but this was no time to be picky so we arrived at its golden gates at the same time as a robe be-decked Sheikh. Our bikes were stored in solitary splendour in a cavernous underground car park and we were shown to our room which held a bed as big as a small football pitch. In fact a whole football team would have fitted in the shower and with all the lotions and potions in there would have all been able to cleanse, moisturise, condition, pluck and shave to their hearts content. There was even an iron in the room with board to press their kit. But the real luxury for us was the kettle and we drank oodles of tea and sat on the bed trying to work out how to use the telly. The bed was amazing and probably the most comfortable we have slept on for a nearly a year. It seemed such a waste to go to sleep on it and I wanted to stay awake all night as I sank into its luxurious depths and laid my head on the feather filled pillows which felt very different from a pile of clothes rolled up in a tee shirt. I did fall asleep and woke in the morning and was relieved that when I eventually found Pete, on the other side of the bed, he felt slightly better. We left reluctantly after paying the same as a night at a good B&B in Hallbankgate”.
When we checked in we were told we could either opt for a 12 or 24-hour stay . 12 hours would mean no breakfast and leaving just before dawn. Chris wasn’t happy about that. I still wasn’t feeling too bright, so we opted for the 24-hour stay which meant that we could loll around our room, use up the hotel’s hot water supply and catch up with emails and computer things for most of the following day.
We set off around lunchtime into slightly darkening skies. The rain hit around tea time and for the first time for several months we had to find a campsite and put up the tent in the rain and wind . Fortunately the next morning dawned warm and dry again with a newly washed sky revealing mountains with snow icing all around us. I think we would have been very despondent if we’d woken up to more rain. One day of rain is easy to cope with but to stay cheerful after two days is not so easy .
We stocked up our panniers in the supermarket at the end of Lake Issyk Kul, the second largest alpine lake in the world . So large that our granddaughter could see it on a globe . For us the mountains on the other side started in haze and were topped with snow . We found a track out onto a peninsula, pitched the tent in a wild and lonely spot and decided to stay for the day.
We had fuel for a little fire – cow poo and horse poo, we had plenty of food and a whole lakeful of water. That is, until we tried to make a cup of tea with it. It was salty! We’d read ‘alpine lake’ and assumed it was freshwater. It wasn’t. Not quite as saline as the sea but not drinkable. We had to go fairly easy on the tea after that.
Chris practised her tightrope walking skills and we both had a bracing swim/wash.
We continued around the lake shore camping sometimes in the hills and sometimes on the beach, on one campsite – complete with beach umbrellas!
The weather now was noticeably cooler. The sun still shone but the air was cooler and on some mornings we woke up to a heavy frost and frozen water bottles. Why is it my sleeping bag feels so thin these days?
The fields we passed were now almost all close cropped, the trucks and carts were removing the hay ready for the cold winter months . Potatoes were being collected, partly by tractor, which I think brought them to the surface and then gathered by hand. Often whole families or perhaps villages seemed to be working together .
We arrived in Karakol, the main town on the south shore of the lake. Aimed mostly towards trekking and mountain tourism . The northern shore of the lake apparently is a glitzy Costa del Sol for Russians and the wealthy of Bishkek . Karakol, though was quiet and had a distinctly end of season feel.
From Karakol we headed northeast again towards the Chinese border . We decided though, to make a small diversion up into the mountains . It was really alpine.
Or the mountains were . The villages were perhaps not quite as picturesque as a Swiss alpine village . The houses were a little more rough and ready and the village shop reminded me of the corner shop where I grew up around about 45 years ago . The proprietor was virtually blind and although he did have an electronic calculator he seemed to use his abacus for most of his calculating .
We bought tomatoes, onions, oil and tinned sweetcorn ready to set off up into the mountain valleys where we thought we would spend a day by a stream soaking up the autumn sunshine . But God laughs at those who make plans . Our stove had disappeared! It simply wasn’t in the pannier pocket where it should be . We re-played the last 24 hours . We had brewed up by the side of the road the day before about 14 kilometres back . It had been left behind.Our stove, our Polaris Optimus that had succoured us for nearly a year was gone! We raced back down the mountain road searching the verges and returned to our picnic site . Maybe it would be in the long grass. It wasn’t . We searched along the side of the road in case it had fallen off but it was lost . We’ve got a pressurized fuel bottle . Someone else has a stove . We still miss it . It was a friend! Alright, I know, move on, get a life . But still . Maybe there would be a positive side? Now we had to cook on a camp fire. Playing with poo fires by the side of the lake was history . Now we had to do it for real.
We crossed the border back into Kazakhstan. We actually passed through Kazakhstan back in June but that was one side of it , now we were on the other side . Kazakhstan is huge .
That night we camped beside the road, a panorama of the Tian Shen mountains as a backdrop , horses grazing nearby and felt very small pitching our tent on those vast plains. The shepherd or herdsman came to say hello .
We admired and patted his horse and dearly wished we could speak to him in something other than sign language .
Chris wanted to describe the following day: – “ The day started off well with bright sunshine and a gentle road. I was feeling a bit rough with a bad head cold and lots of sneezing but reckoned if we took it slow I would be fine. We stopped in a friendly town for lunch, stocked up on supplies and headed off on what we felt would be our last stretch to the Chinese border.
Kazakhstan was looking magnificent and we reached a huge plain surrounded by hills and dotted with herds of cows and horses, shepherds on horseback giving the scene a rather wild west air.
Our road stretched ahead, completely straight and heading off into the far distant hills. It was the sort of road that can be thrilling and exciting and horribly depressing all at the same time.
Today it became depressing because the 30 mph wind which would have been wonderful had it been behind us, was in our faces and making every pedal stroke a massive effort. Our mood changed or at least mine did especially when I got out the toilet roll that I was using to mop my streaming nose and it unravelled and blew away in the wind. I chased it like an overgrown and not very pretty Andrex puppy and thought how strange I must have looked to passing motorists. It’s at times like this that Pete and I keep a good distance between us and our thoughts to ourselves and we just wallow in our own tortuous misery.
We met up eventually at a bus stop the first shelter for miles and we sat on one side of it protected from the wind, eating apples and surrounded by broken glass. We decided we would stop early and find somewhere sheltered to camp but knew that this was going to be difficult as we were on wide open steppe and the hills were still some distance. While we were moving away a huge, black, sleek 4×4 pulled up, it’s windows sliding down silently. “Where are you going?”, it’s driver asked. Despite my cold I could almost smell the luxurious interior of that vehicle and its leather seats, the smart drivers aftershave, a big contrast to us, not having washed for a few days, our hair wild with the wind and me with a very red nose. “China” we replied in unison. “But you’re going the wrong way, China is that way” he said pointing back down the road we had just come down. We both looked at one another , fear on our faces. Had we got the wrong road? Had all our hours of pouring over maps and researching our route been a waste of time and were we really going the wrong way ? “But we are going to Khorgas and it’s this way surely?” “Aaah, you are going to Khorgas, I was thinking of the other gate”. Gate, gate, what gate? We hadn’t seen any gates pointing to China, but with that comment the windows slid back closed and the driver re-entered his own world of comfort and confusion as I’m sure he didn’t really know where China was and thought we looked as if we didn’t know where it was either.”
We made it to the hills still without finding anywhere sheltered to camp . The wind was still strong and Chris was starting to flag. Quite suddenly a teahouse appeared . A teahouse which had a hot stove and tea . But the sign that caught our eye was “Hotel” .
There was hardly any discussion . We pulled in and learned that the three rooms were all vacant and any of them could be ours for about £6 . It was a little different to the Grand.
The beds were small there was no other running water and the junk outside did nothing for the ambience, but filled with tea and bread we were happy to have walls around us that night.
The following day after a breakfast of the usual very stale bread and some honey and of course, tea we pedalled on. Chris was feeling better, her cold was receding, the sun was shining and the road quiet. We rode into Zharkent, our last town before the Chinese border about an hour before dusk.
Our impressions of Kyrgyzstan has been a bit like the curate’s egg or maybe more like the little girl who when she was good she was very very good but when she was bad she was horrid.
There is no doubt that the people of Kyrgyzstan are warm and friendly and the country itself is stunningly beautiful. I think we caught it at a bad time. Winter is on its way and there is a lot for people to do before it sets in. Not just stocking up wood for the fire but bringing in the harvest, moving house to lower ground ,moving animals tortuously slowly down from the hills and a million and one other things that have been done for centuries at this time of year to ensure you survive a very cold and severe winter. The country seemed frenetic with activity and as we travelled the busy roads we sometimes felt overwhelmed with the rush, noise, fumes and furious driving.
It was in Georgia when I last felt a fear of the road and got the heebie-jeebies when setting out in the morning but it did happen again here. Adding to the fear was the knowledge that there is a high level of alcoholism in the country and drunk driving is common. We saw this first hand one day when , thankfully on a quiet road, a driver stopped to greet us, got out of his car and had to lean against my bike in order to stay upright. If you had lit a match I think we would have all exploded from the fumes he exuded. He invited us into his nearby house for schnapps but we politely declined and watched heart in mouth as he got back in his car and weaved his way ahead of us along the road.
We have got used to the risky overtaking and being treated as if we are not there but I felt very angry one day when Pete was ahead and I saw him veer off the road as a lorry came towards him overtaking another lorry. As the lorry passed him Pete looked at the driver and held out his arms with an exasperated expression. It’s tempting to make rude gestures but we think that’s not such a good idea here. Anyway as the driver passed me I saw him laughing with his mate and added to that they had left Pete coughing and spluttering in a cloud of thick, black smoke. It was hard to feel happy in Kyrgyzstan at that moment and it made me sad that we can treat one another with such disregard.
Seat belts are never used and children are not restrained. We would often see them standing in between the driver’s and passenger seats or with their noses pressed up against the windscreen. Beside them their father or at least the person responsible for them would be driving hunched over the wheel with his chin jutting out and a frantic look in his eyes that seemed to say his life (and not the child’s) depended on him getting to his destination at the speed of light and heaven forbid that anything should get in his way.
So with all this in mind I tried hard to stay positive on our journey through this lovely country and concentrate on all the beautiful things along the road that made my heart sing. A very large bird, maybe an eagle, slowly circling and rising above us, probably looking down and laughing. Buckets full of rosy red apples lining the road with colourfully dressed ladies inviting us over to buy. Herds of sleek, muscled horses galloping in adjacent fields, manes and tails streaming and running just for the sheer joy of it. Little girls holding hands on their way to school, pigtails at jaunty angles, giggling when they saw us and bravely shouting hello, hello, hello.
Homesickness unfortunately raised its unfriendly head at this time as well. I don’t know if we are just getting a bit tired or if it is because we are now nearing our destination but we both felt it. I had a sudden urge to do some knitting. Is that a symptom? I went out and bought some wool which was more trouble than it was worth.
Our little granddaughter Juniper had her first birthday and as we have been away for nearly a year we were aware of missing that time with her. So maybe our feelings were impacting on our impressions of this country but as we neared the end of our time here and headed up into the mountains and onto much quieter roads our spirits did lighten and I felt that rough roads with fewer cars trumped the asphalt any day!
It feels a long time ago that we were sat under apricot trees in Uzbekistan not only for their shade but to gorge on their fruit.Plucking them, warm from the sun and enjoying the juice dribbling down our chins I didn’t think I had ever tasted anything so wonderful. After that we would see the apricots by the roadside being dried. Any flat area would do and didn’t always seem very hygienic. You could smell the sweetness from a distance and so could the flies and ants but that’s the way it’s done and now we are seeing them all the time in the bazaars and even supermarkets where there are often big barrels of them and a scoop to dig for your own.
They have become our snack of choice and we are eating so many I am afraid we might turn orange. They seem different to dried apricots we have had at home and are very chewy. When you first put them into your mouth it’s a bit like chewing leather and you have to work at it before the sweetness bursts forth and despite fearing for your fillings it becomes a heavenly experience. I think Pete and I must look like two ruminating cows when we sit by the road chewing silently but we are very happy.
Everything is not always as it seems.
I always take a photo of our overnight stops, just for the record and this is one of them.
When I looked at what I had taken I thought, gosh that looks nice and of course it was but the camera can lie by omission. About 100 metres to the right of this picture was a busy Highway on which trucks had been travelling all night. Next to it and between us and the road was a railway line with the occasional goods trains trundling through. To add to all this movement and noise while we ate our breakfast, 6 Russian fighter jets flew over in formation. As we left our campsite occasional explosions made us jump and smoke would appear at the foot of the distant mountains, trucks went by full of soldiers and we could see swarms of helicopters crossing the distant lake Issyk-kul . It was time to consult BBC news and check that something catastrophic hadn’t happened while we had been sleeping. Nothing was reported so we looked at more local news and found out that Kyrgyzstan and Russia were holding a joint “anti terrorism exercise” due to what they called extremists entering the country from Afghanistan. It seemed a bit ironic to me. These extremists wouldn’t be entering the country with fighter jets but most likely in a beat up old Lada with a broken windscreen. It all looked expensive and ridiculous when the people living here don’t have running water to their houses or decent road surfaces to drive along. Thankfully the exercise didn’t last long and by midday we felt we had left the war zone behind and peace was restored.
We had seen him sitting astride his horse in Bishkek on a huge statue in a central square and knew a little about Manas and that he was an heroic warrior from the 8th century who had fought for Kyrgyzstan against the Chinese and saved them from occupation. The endless battles and skirmishes of this time are chronicled in Heroic Epic Manas, part history, part myth and up until 100 years ago not written down but committed to memory by ‘Manaschi’ who recite the epic in rapping style amazingly and supposedly, able to commit the whole epic of 500,000 lines to memory.
On our way to the lake we passed through the village of Darkhan and heard the recitation before we saw the celebrations taking place. The village was celebrating the 300th anniversary of the death of Kapta Ake a revered Manaschi who had founded the village. The epic was being relayed from a yurt with loudspeakers by Manaschi taking half hour turns and the whole epic would take 6 days to complete, 24 hours of each day.
We were invited into the celebrations and into a yurt with tables weighted down with food.
Unfortunately we had just had lunch but had to politely plough our way through plates of plov, fried bread, jam and sweets. People were very kind and we were invited into a yurt to listen to the epic which was like an ancient rap and the people present were listening intently to the words.
We of course couldn’t understand but it was hypnotic and almost musical and very impressive. Outside, yurts were being constructed with everyone helping and we were told that by the end of the 6 days there would be 100 yurts in the field to accommodate the many dignitaries and other Manaschi’s that would be arriving from all over the country to take part in the final celebration.
We felt very lucky to have passed through the village at this time and witnessed people coming together and working so hard to commemorate something so important to their sense of national identity.
Delusions of Grandeur.
It’s been hard to day-dream recently because of the crazy driving and bad road surfaces but since we got back into Kazakhstan it has been possible especially when we hit a long stretch of brand new highway that was almost completely deserted.
You can go anywhere with your dreams and I have recently been the first senior cyclist (and woman) to win the Tour de France. It was amazing but when I came back down to earth I realised it would have all been rather difficult especially the stopping every 10 kms for a wee. I also would have insisted that I knitted my own yellow jersey which may not have gone down too well.
I wonder if Pete dreams about being Captain Kirk on the Star Ship Enterprise and I think is sometimes disappointed that I am his only crew. I was bemoaning the fact recently that we were still heading north and he said with a completely straight face “don’t worry, we are still holding steady on the 42nd parallel”. I think he is often James Bond , weaving around and then diving for cover and I sometimes have to ask ‘permission to come on board’ when I get in the tent at night. It’s all a bit worrying but maybe normal when you have too much time on your hands or maybe the corrugated roads have addled our brains a bit.
So here we are in Zharkent, about 30km from the Chinese border. We are feeling excited, daunted and not a little amazed that we have got this far. We have carried our little Birdoswald keyring all the way and despite it looking a bit battered we will hand it over to someone when we reach the wall.
We hope we can post a blog there with maybe a triumphant photograph. We’ve now got about 1800km to go, the end of the wall is marked on the map and our loins are girded.