This post about cycle touring across Kyrgyzstan took some time because it covers possibly the best riding and some of the most interesting and enjoyable experiences of the whole trip and I wanted to do it justice!
After I cycled across the border into Kyrgyzstan from Taraz in Kazakhstan it immediately felt quite different and combined with me feeling dazed I freaked out a bit. I couldn’t change money at the border exchanges, for some unknown reason they just all seemed uninterested but I knew Google said Pokrovka 10km away had an ATM! I headed there to find a hotel and the ATM, however it was a much smaller place with most of the shops being opened lorry containers, I really struggled to find the ATM and still no banks would change my dollars nor would they accept visa cards, I started to panic a bit more!
Finally I got directed to the last bank and it has the ATM!! I am sorted for cash and maybe a lesson was learnt in preparedness. One thing is clear, there was no hotel for me to rest up in, I asked around in the hope somewhere might be hiding away where I could stay rather than camping feeling sick but there’s nowhere. Finally a shop keeper and his son stopped me on the way back and invited me into his home for the night. I kindly accepted and another kid, who spoke a bit of English, was his grandson despite being the same age as his son(?!!!!?), took me to their house. I had a smile to myself as in my head started ringing the FCO travel advice “be aware of excessive offers of generosity” and the last words from Kazakhstan “trust no one it’s like Afghanistan without the guns”. Below is the friendly kid who ironically given this picture never stopped smiling!
It is a reasonable place, the grandmother is busy cutting vegetables and preserving them for winter over a big fire. This was the kitchen alongside my MSR stove.
The kid talks in broken English about football for what feels like forever, he loves America too and despite me being from England this doesn’t stop him asking me about everything, finally I am shown where I can sleep. I explain I feel sick, I hoped he might finally leave me alone, but he sits to watch as i get changed and set up my air bed. I finally raise my voice a bit and say I am fine and he leaves I feel bad but he was getting creepy, I sleep well for three hours. Then I wake up to straightaway watch WWF videos on his phone and we listen to rap music that he recites word for word blissfully unaware of how offensive the words are!
I eat rice and peas that I cook on my stove, because sadly I still can’t stomach their richer food, I totally offend them and decline all but chai. It was odd because the boy asked me if I was having spaghetti, I said “er no rice”, given I have a pack of spaghetti in my bag it was too random a coincidence so I assume he must have been through my bags when I slept and seen my spaghetti, nothing was missing though. I also filter their water from the well because the bucket has a rusty spanner inside to weigh it down and they also all drink straight from it…..
I sit and drink tea while they eat lamb stew/soup then I sleep well all night and feel a bit better.
I lie in until the kid runs in, “get up get up”. He is going to school so wants to say good bye. I even manage to have a bracing cold shower after they left. I took a picture of their mum who liked the bike.
I Pay 100 som or $2 which seems fair as the guy asked for 50 som I think the day before. I ride on towards the town of Talas climbing up steeply to a reservoir that is empty but has great views. There is a rather bizarre gigantic concrete head in side of the main dam building, I take a few sneaky pics away from two policemen. If you look to the left you can see the side profile of the giant face!
The view around the corner is stunning it has the lake then the plains lead to epic snow capped peaks.
The road winds around but it is smooth and scenic. I pass through village after village where the potatoes are ready to harvest so there are lots of people are in the fields or kids skipping school to help.
Sheep, goat or cow herders on horseback are everywhere but mainly bunging up the main road for angry drivers hooting and threatening to run things over. I stop in a bigger village and it has a pretty good shop so I buy sweets, butter, bread, eggs and a fruit stall has oranges and bananas! I get the standard tomato’s and onions too.
There are lots of people hanging about, some just staring at me, but all seem friendly enough, I chat to two men selling a rancid smelling pair of sheep skins all full of seed head burrels and dried blood.
I ride on where it’s still flat but I am tired again so I go slowly, I also pass my first yurts, but they don’t count because they are used for restaurants!
The drivers here are crazy I keep putting my arm out exasperated, not aggressively as I am not sure how that would go down. On one occasion the driver behind sees me put my arm out but decides to cut as close as possible to be stupid, he has an AK47 sticker on back so clearly has some issues. Lots of mini vans drive especially badly, they’re called Stepwagons and I suspect they are imports from Japan as right hand drive, they all have various bizarre stickers like adidas/Honda hybrid logos on back, with lots of hooting and not pulling out being a theme from them.
I reach Talas, Dexas and see signs for the infamous Derden palace hotel but its too fancy and expensive with a conference room, that seems rather out of place. It seems to be the only one in town so I carry on to make more progress, but the houses lining the road never end and villages merge into one meaning no camp spot. I then also get a flat tyre on the back. This seems a good chance to switch the worn out WTB one onto the front, its so thin now and the thread casing is literally disintegrating. A small crowd of kids gathers, one boy on a horse with a foal in tow! Another couple are on bikes. They talk to me but I have no idea what about. They keep poking bits of the bike, just out of interest but I am so tired and annoyed about my puncture that I really struggle to tolerate them. They all then disappear but quickly return with ice creams it was just the interval at the theatre, as they call over more kids for the grand finale.
Finally I pump up the front and back and head off, the show was over for the kids. I now feel super frazzled, the bottle of coke didn’t seem to sit well either for a change!
I decide it is time to start asking people for camping, the first couple I ask are sitting outside a big house that looks like a b&b, they say no beds and aren’t too friendly. The guy has one of those tall funky Kyrgyz hats that are common here, they have muslim looking decoration but tall and in an oddly Texan style almost!
Some wear similarly ornate white and gold baseball caps which are pretty unusual too.
The next couple I ask are sitting holding hands looking friendly as they wave me over. It turns out to be two drunk men, they offer vodka but I refuse, they get quite forceful and one guy grabs my arm. I say sternly I will go and he let’s go, they’re just wasted.
So its getting well into dusk and I feel a bit desperate, I stop at a big building that is a cafe and shop. I ask for a bed and they say no, then after smiling at the two ladies in my best sad puppy face they agree to sort something out. While I wait lots of men on horse back arrive fresh from herding their stock back into the village, they open a billiards room and buy vodka, all of them politely shake my hand and say hello. They all wear fur hats and skins with big leather boots, I feel like I am in a movie as the outfits are so geniune.
I wander into the room hoping to play a game with them, but the vodka is open and with my stomach still bad I’m not keen to start drinking. Just in time one of the ladies calls me over as she has prepared some food. I ask about washing my grubby hands from changing tyres and get pointed to a sink, but the water tank is empty so the lady runs over to the drain by the street and fills it up, erm isn’t that just full of animal effluent?
I wash my hands as it’s better than the black tyre gunk on them. The hygiene standards weren’t high again! I drink chai hoping it has been boiling nicely. The food is soup freshly microwaved and some mixed veg, stewed like ratatouille but its stone cold so I worry a bit. I try to avoid contact with plate as assume drain water is used for washing up too!
There’s some tasty fresh bread but I don’t eat much as think my stomach issue might be gluten based from bread overdosing!
Finally a kid comes in and eats the same stuff, he is a bit afraid to talk back so we sit in silence then he leaves. I pile my left overs onto his plate like a naughty child! I then finally get led to where I can sleep, luckily it’s not next to the rowdy billiard room. We walk for ages down a dark track until we come to a large metal gate with abandoned farm machinery. It feels a bit sketchy, she goes inside the building, its her home and pretty nice. Her husband and two kids return with cows and we shake hands, as usual they are a friendly bunch so I relax.
The stairs up to my room are on the outside and pretty loose, with no hand rail in the pitch black. The room is awesome, it has fancy brand new sofas and she pulls out the sofa bed for me.
I lock up my bike like the guy says to and load my bags up the rickety stair case. She follows up asking for money, we agree on 300som or 6usd with the food.
I sleep pretty well and the stars are amazing when I get up. The sunrise is cool behind the snowcapped mountains.
I pack up and ride, the guy seems to be waiting so i don’t stop to cook porridge, instead I stop by a fresh looking stream, filter then boil the water because lots of herders walk by with 1000s of animals. Some chat as I eat my oats with sultanas.
The ride on towards the last village before the big mountains is great because the sun is out and the mountains are breathtaking.
The village is in an amazingly scenic spot, anywhere else in the world this would be ruined by tourists with tours offered everywhere. I buy snacks and noodles etc. and ride on weighted down with 2.5 days food.
Then the climbing starts steepening, it just follows the valley up and up. I stop for lunch and watch the countless herders driving stock back down valley. With the first snows on the tops they are rapidly retreating from their yurts for winter. It is simply amazing to watch in such a cool vast setting, it’s just as you imagine!
A few hairpins appear and I gain height, a real struggle as I am feeling ill still, but I keep pushing. Finally after dodging countless flocks of sheep on the road, the pass appears.
The sign says 3330m which is pretty high and also about the snowline height. Its really cold up here, l put on thermals, fleece, jacket and waterproof pants, neck, hat, winter gloves and start the ride down.
It is a fairly spectacular section of road:
It’s a fun and fast descent past the remains of lot’s of yurts all packed up and gone for the brutal winter approaching just one is left preparing fuel and digging in for the snow.
Finally I reach the junction with the main road from Osh and more yurts form a cafe.
I see a golden eagle from about five metres away, it is a majestic sight, I have seen a few eagles in the mountains gliding along but this is closest. The picture below is a wide lens but you can see the eagle clearly!
I also see a dark feathered bird in an eagle shape that I failed to identify, the Pallid Harrier is pure white with a few black markings and is the pick for me. Many kestrels are hovering both those like in England and a redder chested larger variant. I camp down by the river in a good spot tucked away. Frustratingly my stomach is bad and I’m out all night it seems. I start taking antibiotics to see if it’s bacterial as I t has been getting persistent and worrying me a bit now as I am pretty weak. This picture shows my tent it also unfortunately has my shadow across it!
I ride off on what is a partly cloudy morning, after a lie in to recover from the sleepless night of diarrhoea. I lug my bike through the thorny bushes up to the road and I am still blown away by the view, every direction is stunning. I rideva short way before meet a fresh faced goat herder who speaks the odd word of English. He is 21 and after summer grazing he is taking the sheep up the 3300m pass I rode up then down into Talas for the winter, it is a long long way to walk for them. It is also earlier than some years as depends on first snowfall.
We shake hands again then go our separate ways, five metres down the road he shouts something at me, I ride back assuming I dropped something, but no he wants my mobile number in case I need help. It’s a super kind gesture but I don’t have one, I then ask optimistically about Facebook he says “yes yes”, so I give him my card, I can’t believe even nomads in Kyrgyzstan are on Facebook!
I ride through the most amazing open plains where there are still quite a few yurts. Most are a hive of activity being packed away into cars rather than onto horses. The more I look the more yurts I see up on the hills around, it seems each patch of hill is grazed down to a brown stubble.
I get stopped by another young herder who is in the process of packing his family yurt away. He again speaks a few words of English and is relishing this rare chance to practise! He says he has been here from May to September now he also heads up and over to Talas. He says it is fun up here in the summer as it’s sociable with all the herders up here, there are just so many it seems every 150m is another yurt or caravan wagon parked up. A few tourists must stop this way at the few yurt cafes but it is one of the more genuine areas of the country where herding is still totally the principle economy.
Eventually I pass a line of yurts selling fermented horse milk and the dry crumbly yoghurt cheese balls that taste pretty intense and contain more sketchy bacteria than any doner kebab ever has.
The yurts faded away with the odd house and then like an illusion a brand new shiny GazProm petrol station and large store appear. I was quite excited, buying an Aloe Vera drink to sooth my stomach, some caramel waffles and peanuts, after resigning myself to pasta for 2 days solid this was great.
Next a restaurant appeared, so I stopped for some Comca’s which are bread/pastry filled with onion or potato or meat or all three if you’re lucky!
After eating this stoge I felt pretty sick again, so I drank more water but I was really struggling. I rode on slowly and after a few more kilometres I saw the next climb appear, it literally went straight up a mountain side and looked ridiculous. I can’t remember seeing the height but I think it was about 3300m at the scary narrow and dark tunnel that cuts through the top of the mountain. The sun was out so I decided to have a siesta, I spread the tent footprint, used my fleece as a pillow and slept just off the side of the road! I felt my legs burning under the warmth and intensity of the sun despite being a fairly hazy sky.
It was time to start climbing, I rode quickly past the stalls selling yet more milk products and hit the first of several long steep hair pins. It was a hideous struggle, I just wasn’t fit to be climbing this high and this steep, all at altitude too. In the picture below you can see the climb zigzag up the mountain if you look carefully.
I searched for a flat hidden patch by a water source so I could stop for the night. Finally I reached a yurt footprint, vacated by herders and slightly raised above the road. Normally I wouldn’t camp when fully visible from the road but if a nomad survived all summer it can’t be bad! By now a storm was brewing and wind was flying in from the west. My Terra Nova Solar competition tent is super waterproof but struggles in the wind so I salvaged wood from the departed nomads stuff and built a solid wind break. I cooked up pasta under the watchful gaze of a horseman and his herd of horses high up in the swirling mist on the mountainside above. The horses were galloping between steep rocky outcrops as the sky darkened making a dramatic view.
Finally the first drops of rain started so I went inside and tried to sleep. I struggled due to the constant lights and trucks, however after I finally did nod off I was awoken by the oddest noise, a loud scraping noise coming from all sides of the tent, it was pitch black and my mind thought wolves, straight away. It was too delicate really but what else paws at the tent?
I debated the best approach, light on and aggressive or silent and hope they get bored. It was still going on when a car drove past below me, lighting up the tent, then I saw the chunks of heavy wet snow sliding down the tent!
It was a full on blizzard outside! Inside I was snug and warm, it was just not cold enough it seemed, I moved my kit onto high ground around the tent to ensure it stayed dry then went back to sleep.
In the morning the mist was swirling around as I put my head out the door it was all white, except for the giant horse with a man dressed in full furs from big hat to boots, behind him stood a huge wolf dog in silence. I slipped my shoes on and went over to shake his hand wearing just my thermals, he smiled a golden tooth filled smile and we discussed the usual where was I from, going to etc. He then rode off onto the mists of the mountain with his dog obediently in tow. I wish I got a photograph as I still can’t decide if it was just a dream!
I packed up the tent from inside as wetter snow started up again not really settling and melting the rest, I quickly got on my bike continuing up the climb, the clouds offers breaks showing the extent of whiteness that was all around.
I sheltered in a yurt halfway up then on the fifth or so switchback I saw the small dark tunnel entrance.
There was a queue of cars and a barrier down, I stopped wondering what was going on, then got waved into the tunnel on my own. The ventilation system in the gloom was so loud it sounded like trucks as approaching and generally felt like the depths of hell.
I then reached a herd of horses being herded through hence why it was closed, I was so lucky as when we exited the cars started drivng in complete carnage
The descent was 2800m of amazing switchbacks and unparalleled views of dark and freshly snowed on peaks all between whisks of cloud, it was all more lord of the ringsesque than New Zealand even.
The valley went on and on with a head wind meaning the descent was actually pretty slow. I followed a canyon with a crystal clear river running through it.
I reached the first town and cooked boiled eggs with mayo and sweet corn on a fresh rye bread loaf, it was fantastic!
Finally I hit the main road into Bishkek, turned right onto it and the next 65km were horrendous, fast cars, sketchy over taking, thick black clouds of pollution constantly in the air, dust whipped up and suffocating me. It went on and on taking years off my life no doubt, finally I hit a huge market made up of old containers, with literally 1000s of cars parked up, I wondered if they were for sale, the traffic was stationary now and I flew up the inside smugly passing the countless cars.
I hit the city centre in daylight still and found a cafe with free WiFi, I found a good looking hostel a bit out of the centre and ride out to it. Interhouse Bishkek is hard to find but a super friendly, comfortable place when you do get there.
I got myself clean and dry in a quiet room and looked forward to my first sleep in a bed for what felt like forever!
There was another cycle tourer called Rob who was planning on riding into the mountains but with all the snow I tried to warn him sandals were not a good idea! It was a fun place to stay, on Monday morning the two of us headed to a travel agent to get our Chinese visas in hopefully two days! The news we got was not good and required a total rethink of the entire route of the trip I had planned!