Kyrgyzstan is beautiful. One of the most beautiful countries I have ever seen. The road in from China is just simply stunning.
We left Kashgar and followed the river valley the 90 km to the Chinese border post at Ulugqat. The valley was lush and green and heavily cultivated. The road also had very little traffic and was probably the most pleasant ride we had in the whole of Xinjiang. We climbed higher and higher towards the snow-capped peaks in the distance. Crossing the border takes a full day so we camped around 30 km short of our target.
The border opens at 10:30 but we didn’t get there until after 12. I was a little worried that we were too late but it turned out just prefect. The actual border itself is another 150 km from the border control and you can’t cycle you have to take a taxi. Everyone else had been waiting for over an hour but we only had to wait 15 minutes or so and then we were matched up with another 2 people our bikes piled into the back of the ute and we were off. There were 2 Kyrgyz guys who were chatting away with Kim in Chinese. I was left in peace to enjoy the view. We followed the valley up with the snow topped Pamir mountains to our left.
The border was closed for lunch so we had some food too. The Kyrgyz guys helped me change the last of my Yuan at one of the shops on the Chinese side of the border and got a lot better rate than I got in Kashgar or that I saw in Osh. The official rate was 9.5 I got 8.3 in Kashgar and at the border it was 10 so it seems like the border is the best option. If you are with locals anyway.
Just before 4pm we got back into the ute, drove 200 m round the corner and then it was everyone out. We unloaded the bikes put all the bags on and cycled the 3 km across no man’s land. At the border itself the broad perfectly maintained Chinese road changed abruptly to the somewhat narrower and rather less well maintained Kyrgyz road and a fence with stars on it continued up the valley.
At the customs post further down the road at Irkeshtam my passport was stamped without much fuss and then the officer pondered what to do with Kim. I guess they don’t get too many Vietnamese passing through. Vietnamese don’t actually require a visa to visit Kyrgyzstan a legacy from the days when it was part of the Soviet Union. This guy clearly wasn’t aware of that and went off to check with his superiors. Eventually be came back stamped her passport and we were free to enter country number 3 of our journey.
And what a change it was from the barren featureless desert we had spent the last 2 weeks traversing. As we moved further into the valley the gravel and dust gave way to lush pastures bright green with the new spring growth. Herds of sheep and cattle grazing hungrily. Although there was a herd of camels to remind us of where we had just come from.
But if course with lush greenery comes the mountains that create it. Even though we were following the valley there were still a fair few stiff climbs. We’d got around 7 km from the border and Kim decided she had had enough. There was a strong wind blowing and the only place we could find that had any shelter was right next to the road. It was the only time we had camped in full view of the road, something we would bitterly regret a few short hours later.
We’d finished dinner and had both retired into the tent to escape the chill of the approaching night when a car pulled up and a kid in his early twenties got out and came up to the tent. “I’m border guard you are in border zone you can’t camp here.” he told us. “you must pass final checkpoint in 11 km then you can camp”
“but it will be dark in 30 minutes ” I tried to explain.
But he was having none of it. Even though there was no problem in us being there. We were in a field, next to a village more than 5 km from the border. Actually it was far more dangerous (for us at least) to be riding our bicycles in the dark through a twisty mountain road frequented by big trucks coming to and from China. He was just one of those arseholes who like to throw their power around. His final words were. “I will return in 1 hour if you are still here you will be in big trouble”.
Left with little choice we packed up the tent as quickly as we could and peddled off into the rapidly gathering gloom. Within half an hour it was completely dark and we still had a number of stiff climbs ahead of us. Then we rounded a bend and saw some bright lights and vehicles ahead. That must be it we are nearly there only for the road to turn away following the river valley almost back in the direction we had come from. It was almost another half an hour before we eventually reached the checkpoint. It was right at the base of a 3,800 m pass and there is no way I fancied even starting that in the dark so we asked were we could put up the tent. He indicated a bare desolate patch of ground that the chill wind was whistling over. I suggested it was a bit windy and he was just going to scout out a more pleasant campsite when a car pulled up and the arsehole got out. The soldier we had been talking to didn’t even talk to him before informing me “bad news”. Clearly he wasn’t just an arsehole to passing bicycle tourists. We had no choice but camp on the windswept place they had first indicated. Which on closer inspection proved even more unpleasant. It was covered in broken glass and animal shit. Looking up it was beautiful though. The ring of snow-capped mountains gleamed in the moonlight with the milky way glittering in the clear mountain air. A clear night at 2,800m means cold temperatures and we spent an uncomfortable night trying to get warm. Kim in particular was feeling the chill and as soon as the dawn broke she couldn’t bare it an more and roused me from my fitful slumber into the frigid morning air
We faced the biggest the biggest challenge of our whole journey. The Tongmurun pass rising over 3,800 metres. It was brutal from the start 12% and steeper stretching over 18 kilometres and just to make it more unpleasant there was a strong headwind. But it was achingly beautiful. Surrounded on all sides by jagged snow-capped peaks, the occasional herdsman wandering past on horseback. It seemed to go on for ever. You’d reach one rise think it was the top and then spot a truck traversing the road which snaked off across a distant hillside. As we neared the top we began to feel the effects of the altitude. The thinner air made it hard to breathe. The rest stops became more frequent and longer. Within a few metres of setting off I was already breathless and struggled on for 500m more up the vicious gradient. Got to make the next post or sign or barrier before pausing again to catch my breath and then going back down the hill to help Kim who was usually pushing her bike by that stage. I’d push her bike a few hundred metres past mine and she’d ride for a bit whilst I returned to my bike. Then I’d pass her and repeat the whole process again. Slowly slowly getting higher. We reached snow and Kim got to touch it for the first time. Much to her disappointment -“it was just like ice from the freezer”. At lunch time we took shelter from the fierce winds at the side of the road and just as we finished our noodles it started to snow. Dark clouds seemed to be rushing in from the mountains so we packed up quickly and we continued our slow and painful progress to the top. Fortunately it was just a brief flurry but the wind continued. It was so strong and the road was so steep that in my tired state I was forced to push my bike for a few hundred metres. And then we were up the top. It flattened out to a gently rounded snowy expanse. I looked suspiciously around for a distant rise, the tell-tale signs of trucks in the distance above us. But no there was nothing but down. We really had made it to the top. It was cold. There was snow all around and the wind was even fiercer up here. A car had just arrived and the occupants were keen to get a photo with the crazy cyclists. After the photo op it was straight down the hill. And what a descent it was. First we curved and turned down steeply and then it opened up into a wide valley with a broad shallow river running down the middle and a long and very straight road to one side which we were flying down.
It seems like each valley in Kyrgyzstan has its own microclimate and in this one the wind was blowing from behind so even when the incline levelled off we were still bowling at a fair pace. It didn’t last though as we turned towards Sary Tash, our destination for the day, the wind was whistling down the valley directly towards us. It was so strong that we could hardly make progress against it. Even though it was flat Kim had to get off and push at one stage. Finally exhausted and cold we crawled into town. Although to be fair it was more of a village. A scattering of houses where the roads heading to China and Tajikistan split. It was a beautifully situated. Surrounded on all sides by snow covered mountains rising up to over 7,000 m in places. Lower down the rolling hills were verdant green with fresh spring grass. But there was a chill in the air despite the sunshine and bright blue skies and you could tell that it would be a pleasant place in the depths of winter. The piles of coal beside every house testament to that.
All the houses were pretty primitive looking Including the accommodation we found. Clean but basic rooms with an outside toilet and shower which was unfortunate as both of us were feeling under the weather. My stomach was feeling decidedly dodgy and I’d been forced to scramble hurriedly into the bushes by unexpected movements on a couple of occasions during the trip from Kashgar. Which was fine until we ran out of bushes or indeed anything else to provide some privacy on the barren featureless pass. Fortunately there was no traffic passing at the time otherwise they would have been treated to the sight of my pearly white arse glittering like a patch of ice in the bright spring sunshine.
It was another 180km and 2 big passes to the next big town. I was happy to wait a day to recover before continuing but Kim was really feeling the cold and so we decided to get a lift to Osh. It’s probably a good idea that we did as it took nearly 4 days for me to recover fully. But the road was stunningly beautiful and I felt a few pangs of regret as we waved up the passes in our taxi. The lift had proved rather difficult to obtain. We presented ourselves at the bus stop at around 11 and waited and waited and waited. There was not much traffic and what cars that did pass were packed to the rafters their drivers shrugging as they drove past my outstretched hand. A couple of trucks stopped but they didn’t have enough room for 2 people and 2 bikes. Whilst we were waiting a couple of French cyclists Simon and Vincent went past. They had just completed the Pamir highway and were raving about how awesome it was. Finally just after 3 a taxi pulled up and who should be on it but Oliver the crazy French guy who we’d met in Kashgar that was doing a zero carbon world trip. It was great catching up with him and finding out more about his trip and it certainly made the 4 hour journey pass more quickly. He’d managed to ride to the border on his bicycle thus keeping to his zero carbon principles. Although still had to hitch a ride back to the checkpoint to be stamped out. Now he’d left his bike on the Kyrgyzstan side and was heading to Bishkek to get his Tajikistan visa.
We stayed in Osh for 5 days whilst we recuperated. There are no real sights and there are a few too many blocks of soviet era concrete flats to make it pretty but it’s not unpleasant. It’s very green and leafy, with a jumble of architectural styles and lots of comfortable places to sit by the river and drink tea or beer. It was a pleasant change from the soulless homogeneity of the Chinese towns we’d been experiencing for the last 2 months.
Rested and refreshed we set out on the 600 km journey to Bishkek the capital where we could obtain visas for the next stage of our journey. It took is two days to reach Jalal-Abad the road was undulating rather than mountainous. At first we passed through rich fertile land with stalls alongside the road laden with evidence of the horticultural bounty. Then as it became more hilly rich green pastures. Kim still wasn’t feeling great so we had another rest day in Jalal-Abad. Again nothing of great note just lots tree lined streets.
The road continued with lots of agriculture and was heavily populated so there wasn’t any suitable places to surreptitiously pitch a tent. We would have to ask if it was alright to camp. We spotted a freshly cut hay field which looked like a prefect camping spot and I went off to ask the family if we could camp there. It took a fair bit of sign language and pointing at the tent but they eventually worked out what we were trying to communicate. They said yes but that we should sleep in their house. They were so lovely. Giving us a bucket of hot water to shower with and plying us with tea and bread and cream before cooking us dinner. We managed to communicate somehow and it was humbling to experience such hospitality from those that had so little. Next day was more food and lots of photos and they very reluctantly accepted some money for our stay.
The original road constructed during Soviet times was now bisected by the Uzbekistan border necessitating a diversion to be built up on the hillside. We followed the border for around 20 km a wide stretch of land with a double fence and a ditch cutting through prime agricultural land where just over 20 years ago there was nothing but fields. I reflected how strange it is that we draw these imaginary lines upon the map, later making them more concrete with lines of razor wire and how much trouble they cause. Although they didn’t seem to be causing any trouble for the cows that were happily grazing in no man’s land. Later that morning we exited the flat and wide valley that we’d been in since Osh and followed the Narin river up its narrow valley. The river had been dammed during Soviet times and the water was an amazing bright blue colour. The road rose and fell with the shape of the valley and some of the climbs were pretty steep. At the top of one of the climb we met a very tired looking Australian cycling the other way. He was part of a group riding the other way. Gradually the other members of their party arrived as they informed us about the conditions of the road ahead. They told us about a spot about 10km were we could swim in the lake and that we could camp in. In our hot and sticky state it sounded perfect.
Less than an hour later we passed a big banner that said lunch swim sleep with a track leading down to the inviting, oh so blue waters. There was a row of those metal and wood almost bed like structures that people use to sit on in these parts. The couple that ran the place were lovely. He spoke pretty good English and they us camp for free although we have them $5 for the use of the facilities. It was easily the most beautiful campsite we had stayed in. Ringed on all sides by mountains. As soon as we arrived I plunged straight into the wonderfully refreshing waters.
The road continued up the valley constantly climbing and descending with some nasty 12% gradients and we were exhausted by the time we pulled into Kara-kol and booked into a crumbling Soviet era hotel. Dinner was at a restaurant beside a lake and we discovered the pitfalls of ordering using the pictures on the menu. We pointed at a picture of some kind of meat accompanied with chips and vegetables and topped with a fried egg. Perhaps the waitresses eyesight wasn’t quite 20:20 because all we got was the fried egg and some bread. Lucky in the meantime a wedding party had arrived and the so sight of their toasting and dancing distracted us from our rather miserable dinner.
We had another pass to tackle so planned on a shorter day. The road to the foot of the climb followed a stream up a delightful wooded valley. The incline was gradual and it wasn’t too hot. In short perfect cycling. The pass when we got to it was short but sharp and it didn’t take us long before we zooming down the other side heading for the beautiful azure waters of Lake Toktugal the biggest reservoir in Central Asia. We found another perfect camp spot and were treated to one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen. Storm clouds raced down from the mountains and breaks in the clouds glittered gold and orange. Then just as night fell the clouds reached us and we sheltered in the tent as the thunder and lightning raged around it.
The lake is so big that it took us another full day to ride round half of it. It looks beautiful but is the cause of an ongoing dispute with Uzbekistan. The two neighbours have had a fractious relationship ever since their formation. As well as providing a significant portion of Kyrgyzstan’s electricity the lake also provides irrigation water for the Fergana valley, Uzbekistan’s agricultural heartland. Kyrgyzstan needs the electricity during its harsh winter whereas Uzbekistan wants the water during the summer. The IMF and World Bank are working on a compromise whereby Kyrgyzstan will generate power in the summer and sell it to Pakistan, Uzbekistan will get its water and Kyrgyzstan can buy electricity during the winter.
We reached the town of Toktugal where we decided to take a rest day. We stayed at the nicest homestay we’d found in Kyrgyzstan run by a lovely family. With delicious home cooking and an endless supply of food. On our day off the son was heading off to take pictures of some walking routes to offer for future customers and he invited us to come along. It was a welcome change to be zooming along effortlessly at around 4 times our usual speed and it didn’t take us long to reach our destination and set off waking up a picturesque valley crossing a stream in spate using a fallen tree. Unfortunately slightly higher the path again crossed the same stream except this time there was no tree and the water was to deep and fast flowing to ford safely. We had to turn back although that was probably no bad thing given that we were supposed to be taking a rest.
Next up was the Alabel pass, and this one was altogether more serious rising up to 3100 metres. It wasn’t steep but it was spread over 65km so we decided to split it into 2 days. The first part we had covered the day before by car but it was amazing how much more we could see from the bicycles. It was a wooded river valley and the road was lined with bee keeper’s camps with brightly coloured hives and jars of the amber liquid for sale. Whilst we were stopped for lunch a couple of cyclists hove into view. Much to my surprise it was Simon and Vincent the cyclists we had met in Sary Tash. After our numerous rest days and leisurely pace I thought they would be far in front of us we had a chat and they continued on their way. A little higher and we reached the summer pastures. Gangs of happy children ran among the yurts and herds of animals wandered up the sides of the valley. In one of the camps we found a spot for our tent and settled down to cook dinner whilst the sun sunk behind the valley. As the sun descended so did the temperature and we retreated into the tent to keep warm.
We only had 17 kilometres to go it still took us all morning to reach the top of the pass although we did discover why Simon and Vincent were only travelling around 50-60 km a day. We rounded a bend and saw them just finishing off their breakfast despite it being around 10 am. It seems they also like an extended lunch so aren’t actually riding that many hours in the day. As we rose higher we encountered more Yurt camps and stalls selling Kurut the strongly flavoured hard balls of cheese that are so popular. I like them but Kim is not a fan. Simon and Vincent caught up with us as we neared the top of the pass. It was steeper here and I was helping Kim push her bike so they waited for us at the top. I discovered I had a puncture and we were hungry so stopped for lunch whilst they pushed on to find a shop to buy some food. The herders are pretty self-sufficient so shops are few and far between at this height. There wasn’t one for another 20km.
After the rigors of the morning it was downhill the whole afternoon all 65 km and it was nice and gradual no braking required so your full attention could be devoted to taking in the magnificent landscape. That night we camped at the foot of the final pass before Bishkek. Kim decided she had had enough of climbing mountains so I left her at the foot of the pass with her thumb out. She passed me when I was only a quarter of the way up waving cheerily as I struggled up the steep incline. It was 13 km in all as the road snaked up to the top of the pass or at least to the tunnel at 3,100m
It was tough. As I traversed a serious of switch back loops it was rather disconcerting to see a paraglider appear at the same height as me. But the views were gorgeous, the sky was blue and my legs were fresh. A couple of hours later I’d reached the tunnel at the top. I’d heard conflicting reports about it. Some said the guards would stop cyclists riding through others said it was possible to ride through all however agreed that it was 2.6km long, narrow, full of potholes and unlit. I opted for the easy option. Parked my bike at the side of the road and stuck my thumb out. The first truck that went by stopped, helped me load my bike and a few minutes later I was reunited with Kim who was waiting at the other side.
The view at the other side was amazing. The sides of the mountain just dropped away almost sheer to the valley below. It took me a while to work out which way the road went, twisting away to one side to avoid the steepest section. Kim remarked that her brakes were a little slack and I asked if she wanted me to adjust them. “no they’ll be ok” came the reply. Big mistake. I bumped off down the steep incline hard on the brakes and found a spot for lunch deep in the valley below. I prepared the food and then waited for Kim to arrive. And waited and waited. Eventually she replied to my worried text messages to say that the brakes had failed completely and she was pushing her bike down the hill. I was just trying to find a place to hide my bike and hitch back up the hill when she came plodding round the corner. In the meantime dark clouds were beginning to gather ominously around the peaks above and the first few spots of rain began to fall as I hurriedly adjusted Kim’s brakes. We’d only got a few hundred metres before it started to rain in earnest. Fortunately it wasn’t as steep as higher up the pass otherwise it could have been dangerous but it was still unpleasant and cold. Kim even got to experience her first hailstones.. The incline was steep enough to allow us to outrun the storm, but although it had stopped raining we were being buffeted along by an incredibly strong tail wind. At the base of the valley although it was nearly flat we were still flying along at nearly 60km propelled by the force of the storm. It felt almost apocalyptical, dark brooding clouds and dust and leaves and tree branches scattered across the road as people scurried into their houses to seek shelter. We did too, retreating into a hotel we spotted using google maps. It was a strange place, looking more like a university dormitory than a hotel although it was the cheapest place we stayed at in Kyrgyzstan. Like many hotels in the country there was no sign outside and we had to ask if it was the right place. From the outside it looked more like a block of flats and the rooms were very basic. It had a toilet but no shower and when we enquired as to the whereabouts of the shower we were directed outside to the public bathhouse across the street. The woman was just locking up but she opened up again for us. Inside was dark and lined with wood. It obviously hadn’t changed for more than 50 years. We undressed in a room lined with metal lockers and then made our way into the bathhouse itself. It was pleasantly warm huge pipes came down from the wall and there were wooden tables lined with plastic arranged around the room. I pictured a strapping masseur pummelling away at their unfortunate victim followed up with a thrashing from some birch twigs. We filled buckets from the endless supply of warm water and blissfully scrubbed away the sweat and dirt acquired over 3 days of cycling.
Next day we arrived in Bishkek after an uneventful but rather boring ride on flat but busy roads and our trek across Kyrgyzstan was completed. Our next task was to obtain the visas we required for the next stage of our journey.