The next section of cycle touring out of Bishkek and around Issyk Kul lake did the impossible and out scenery’d the first part of Kyrgyzstan!
I knew it was going to be a nice ride and it is more popular with cycle tourers but yet again it exceeded my expectations! The shot below is just one of the beautifully located Muslim cemeteries that add to the scenery.
So carrying on from my last post I had just visited the China travel agent, who told us it was a public holiday in China so there was no visa application for two weeks! Then, given the protests in Hong Kong and the recent attacks in western China, visas will be further delayed or entry just stopped, either way the best case scenario was two weeks. (Writing this 10 days later I have heard the border with Kazakhstan has indeed temporarily closed for foreigners.)
The various plan B options were discussed with Rob a fellow English cycle tourer in a similar situation, I say cycle tourer but maybe bike packer is a better word after he unfortunately managed just four days on the bike in the last three months. I was not hanging about in Bishkek for two weeks life is just too short, nor given the snowy cold weather was I going to cycle up into the high mountains for an adventure as I had contemplated.
After speaking to Marion my plan B was finally confirmed. I would cycle northeast to the Kazakhstan border then instead of turning east to Urumchi I would ride west into Kazakhstan, booking flights from Almaty and flying to Kathmandu direct, missing out China entirely. It was sad but in hindsight given the weather with the later to come tent disaster in a storm it was a good decision
In total I spent three days in Bishkek, sleeping, eating, writing and chatting to Rob, Hugh an Australian hiker and a German guy who has been hiking some remote spots too. We are all sat around waiting for visas or flights and the owner is super friendly too discussing some interesting parts of Kyrgyz culture and the impact of Soviet rule. The point she made that left an impression was about the empowerment of women under soviet regime, in traditional Muslim based Kyrgyz society it is unlikely she would be as well educated and free to be running her own business.
This friendly and comfortable atmosphere combined with my exhaustion made leaving a huge challenge. Bishkek itself is a funny place, it feels too small to be a capital city and at 900,000 population it must be one of the smaller capital cities I have visited. It still has a massively soviet influence and feel to it with statues, concrete tower blocks, flags flying next to utilitarian civil offices. There are a couple of large markets in the city, Osh and Dordoi, selling mainly Chinese tat or fresh food, neither were as great as one might hope. Dordoi I passed, seeing it as I rode into town, it is made up of old containers and apparently 100,000 people work there! Osh is just a maze of tumbled down buildings, where I bought some more warm wool socks.
Finally, after picking up some new winter ski gloves, I left on Friday 2nd October and headed out at about 2pm, I was ambitiously hoping to get vaguely near lake Issyk Kul. However at 180km it was further than I thought and it was pretty late in the day, then to add to my over ambition, the heavens opened above me and it just didn’t stop raining.
There was just village after village from Kant to Tokmok, none of much interest nor pleasant in the rain. Sodden to the core I reached the final stretch before the mountains and I got a puncture. It was right next to a small mosque with the lights on. I waited outside until prayers were done and approached the handful of attendees to ask about staying the night. The main man in full robes was happy for me to sleep in a cozy mat and blanket filled side room of the mosque. They even carried my bike up the stairs into the hall refusing any help! An electric heater was fetched so I could warm up and dry my sodden stuff. The panniers had reached saturation point and were a bit wet at the bottom and even my Apidura bags were wet inside, my supermarket liner plastic bags weren’t doing much!
It was now all very cosy and I nodded off very content in my sleeping bag. I was then woken by a late call to prayer being sang by a guy standing at a microphone right next to me. He refused to let me sleep in the mosque insisting I come to his house for tea. I reluctantly accepted and packed everything up again and walked with his brother down the street in the rain. He had a nice house that he shared with his mum, where we had tea with a great spread of sweet treats including jam, honey and the popular here, flavoured crystals to mix into your tea plus biscuits.
I was given a bed to sleep in after watching the news on the TV, they were all shaking their heads at what looked like ISIS in Syria, I think they were all saying these people are not Muslim from what I understood.
Next morning I inevitably had a big breakfast prepared of more sweet stuff and three fried eggs direct from the chickens, i knew because the goats escaped when he was collecting them and we had to chase them back in while avoiding the angry chained up guard dog that hated me by all accounts!
I set about fixing my puncture and discovered about 25 thorns in both tyres. The guy above was amazing and helped pull them all out with tweezers, while I patched just two holes in the front and remarkably just one in the back, now that’s why I love Continental tyres!
Finally I was on the road and soon in the canyon leading up into the mountains to cycle tour around Issyk Kul the worlds second largest alpine lake don’t you know! The rock was an amazing selection of colours like this shows:
The road was scenic as it twisted gently uphill in a steep gorge. I stopped to cook lunch of porridge about a third of the way up. Sadly the fresh milk I bought turned out to be yogurt, hungry I just cooked it with oats, it went very odd, beyond just curdled and into some odd cottage cheese variant with oats in, so I added jam and ate it anyway!
The next section seemed to funneling the wind down into a brutal barrier pushing me back downhill. It was tough and i made super slow progress. Just as it seemed I was almost stationary a van pulls up and a friendly guy offers me a lift! I gave in and rolled the bike into the back and jumped in! Literally 2km up the road we overtook another cycle tourer, by the time I had communicated to stop we had passed a corner, but I quickly jumped out of the van and waited for him so we could ride together. He never appeared though, he must have stopped out of sight or in a cafe for lunch so I gave up waiting dismissing this motivational mirage and set off into the wind again, mostly pleased I hadn’t succumbed to a lift!
Finally the road left the canyon and started direct towards the lake and after another 20km I was in Balykchy on the shores. I bought some food and petrol for the stove and set off on the more isolated southern edge of the vast lake. The views were now awesome with fresh snow covered mountains emerging from the cloud in all directions.
I rode on along the quieter road bumping into a German motorbiker who told me the snow line was now much lower and it had turned him back from my original aim – lake Song Kul. He also said a Dutch couple were slowly cycling on ahead of me by about 5km, this spurred me on as it would be nice to camp with some fellow tourers. Finally after some great sunsetting colours and countless cows being herded along the road I found the Dutchies camped by the road. It wouldn’t be my choice of camp spots but nevertheless I pulled up and had a chat before putting up my tent next to them. In true Dutch style they had unusual bikes – belt driven rolhoff internal geared hub bikes, a good choice for the intense dusty and sandy landscapes that had destroyed my transmission.
I had a good nights sleep under a bright moon then later a sky full of stars. In the morning the inside of the tent was very wet with heavy condensation, then the patter of rain started outside. I rushed to pack up before it got heavy, cooking water porridge at the same time, I was good to go just after the Dutch had left and blissfully the rain still hadn’t got serious. I even stumbled upon another pass that I wasn’t expecting although at just 2500m it wasn’t much!
In fact the rain never did arrive, dark clouds were all around but I rode under a bright sky all day. It was a bit like I had a forcefield keeping blue sky above me, I figured someone up there was happy with me! The road was again simply fantastic to ride, the landscape and views exceeded my expectations in both scale and variation. Sadly the full breadth of peaks was never fully uncovered from the cloud but it was still breathtaking from the brief, snatched glimpses of the high 7000m+ peaks.
The lake shore had many unexpected perfect sandy beaches that looked like some idyllic stretch of untouched coastline. It was too cold for swimming today so on the beach, I cooked a feast of buttery scrambled eggs, onions, tomatoes, peppers and smoked cheese to eat on a fresh round of traditional Krgysztan bread, yum yum yum.
I also ate 9 small snickers bars, some fruit jelly sweets, a banana, 12 small muffins and some biscuits. Despite a fast 110km ridden, I don’t think today was a calorie deficit day. This was the yurt on the beach where I cooked my lunch!
After yet more remarkable landscapes in the form of red eroded sandstone canyons and cliffs I reached Tamga and its very nice friendly guesthouse run by two older mountaineers. Finishing at 3.30 it was a short day but the sky was black and the rain was just spitting again so a bed and a roof was very appealing!
The guesthouse had a garden of fresh apples, grapes and apricots that I enjoyed with hot tea and cakes, it felt like paradise! The supposed mountain views were nowhere to be seen so I dried out my kit and relaxed. The Dutch couple never showed up so I hope they found a guesthouse as it rained a lot during the night.
On a walk around the village I passed 6 Russian mountain bike tourers (I asked why the hurry they said can’t stop moscow) they all had matching rear panniers with covers on, they all looked lost and not one of them returned my hello I think they were above this bearded local!
I passed a few friendly kids playing football and got back in time to see the owners back from their daily swim in the lake. Apparently the water stays quite warm and it never freezes despite being pretty high up. I still wasn’t tempted to join them!
I cooked up rice, walnuts I crack by hand and onions which tasted pretty good fried with butter. Their son arrived later who was a Swiss trained mountain guide, he did ski touring in winter here, apparently the snowfall is less than Switzerland at about 1m, this put me off the idea of skiing here. It does vary and at the east end of the lake there’s quite a bit more. Still despite the scenery I am not sure I will return in winter given my deep powder obsession.
I had tasty breakfast and rode off under daunting skies. To my relief it cleared up and even got a decent but quick look at the high peaks in the village, the other side of the lake was pretty clear all day just flanked by a New Zealandesque long white cloud. It was a great day riding past more stunning wild beaches and it even got hot in the sun. I had my first ice cream in a while, life was good!
I was also wearing my Morvelo 1985 Lycra shorts uncovered for first time in Kyrgyzstan, it’s fair to say they got mixed reviews, some abuse shouted and quite a few laughs! One small step for mankind but one giant leap for sports apparel in Kyrgyzstan!
The driving was, well driving me mad, so many close overtaking and a total lack of respect. They just don’t understand, one came really close after hooting constantly and I lost my cool making a rude gesture at them in return I got a non ironic but ignorant wave back!
Finally I left the lake shore and headed towards Karakol the biggest city near the lake. I felt super fit for some reason and pumped the pedals like Chris Hoy to make rapid progress. It must have been a strong tail wind, either way I was in Karakol at lunch time. I stayed at the Jamilya guesthouse signposted soon after you enter town. I relished a hot shower and a lie down. I also took a sneaky pear from the overhanging neighbours tree, which was so juicy and a fantastic treat! The guest house offered me two rooms, as a single male I felt it was a loaded question:
Or this one?
I called into town for a late lunch eating pastry things and looking in a nice locally made craft shop. There were lots of great felt products including pictures of the landscape that looked really cool.
I then had a second lunch in a fancy looking restaurant with greasy chicken and mashed potatoes!
Back at the hostel I discovered the tea room which was like charlie and the chocolate factory, piled high with sweets, slightly stale biscuits, preserved fruit and jams. The jam or fruit in syrup is stirred into tea, it seems like a fun concept but it does make tea taste surprisingly odd.
I had potato dumplings with a nice dark beer for dinner it all felt like a holiday and quite pleasant!
Next morning at breakfast I met the German owner of the other bike. A 21 year old guy who had ridden, surprise surprise, the Danube route, he like all the others was quite uninspired by it, then he rode Iran into Uzbekistan then into the Pamirs, a great route that sadly us Brits can’t do anymore after Iran closed for independent travel.
We chatted for ages over breakfast sharing travelling stories from on the road, he was a really refreshing cycle tourer, not competitive about how far or extreme his trip was just enjoying the riding. He had met so many people doing his route that he had many funny or scary stories to share, like a couple getting shot at in Turkey, mistaken for being Syrian thief’s or hitch hiking in a van loaded with skinned dead animals then when unavoidably eating brain and various intestines when staying in peoples homes.
Finally we both heard from the lady that the remote Kazakhstan – Kyrgyzstan border crossing at Kegen was still open. In fact this summer it is open a month later than last year, it is opening until 20th October 2014.
We unspokenly agreed we would travel at different speeds so I set off straight away intent on making inroads into the 400km left to Almaty. The German guy went back to bed for a bit I think! I was delayed by cleaning off the huge amount of pigeon faeces that had appeared overnight all over my bike, it was disgusting: did they like the bike and want to perch on it or were they disgusted by it so they showed there dissatisfaction in the only way they know!
I took some superb ripe apples off a tree for the road and set off. On the map I took the direct looking southern route to the border from Karakol. I again had a tail wind and rode fast admiring the slightly less cloudy mountains as I went. I passed lots of kids digging potatoes, given it was a school day I found this quite depressing.
I was raced by kids in a couple of different villages on both bikes and donkeys!
I retraced my tracks getting off for an emergency toilet stop on the way and started up the hill when two farm dogs attacked me. I quickly stopped searched for stones and just raising my arm was enough to let them know I meant business and off they shrank. No dog killing for me today.
The track/main road was tough going on loose rocks and gravel but it wound through the remote hills and away from the herders and their villages making it a welcome change.
At one point I started to worry I was horribly lost, this clearly wasn’t the main road on Google maps and if it was it had been abandoned and surely the bridge can’t still be there. After a full on MTB descent I was glad to cross the river and picked up the mainer main road….
It was incredibly straight but better surfaced gravel under a dark sky. It was so quiet I only saw one rather depressing village, it was all so bleak nothing for miles.
A car passed then stopped, a few weeks ago this would have concerned me but I knew they stopped to take photos, they were one of only four cars I saw to border. After all nine had emptied out of the estate car we took some selfies!
The border felt further away than expected but gravel just slows your progress. Finally at 4.30pm the border is on the horizon at the end of the longest straightest road yet and it’s open. ( FYI it as open until 6pm they are open until 20th October 2014) I passed through quick, they weren’t busy and certainly no guns were needed here, in fact the Kazakhstan guy needed fetching from somewhere!
After passing through it hit me just what an amazing spot I was in, the clouds were lifting revealing the Tian Shan mountains in all their glory. It was one of those moments that the sheer scale of my bike ride sank in, a landscape so perfect and unique, it presented itself like a film or a photo, only when I steppe back does it sink in. This is the location and view I cycled for, those snow capped peaks represented the Chinese border, some would be Chinese, even a few eagles whistled mandarin at me. This felt enough and I was satisfied and even emotional that this view and the trip itself had not only met my high expectations bit also exceeded them all.
I had just a few more kilometres east to cycle before heading west and a few final fun adventures were just around the corned, quite literally!