I was told by the Chinese Embassy in Uzbekistan to apply for a visa in Bishkek as it was the country I would enter China through. That meant cycling the entire length of the country including three mountain passes over three thousand metres.
The picture above shows the road to Sary Tash and the Arka Alaj mountain range - the border between the Tajikistan Pamir and Kyrgyzstan. The mountain range includes the Kuh-I Garmo mountain, formerly known as Peak Lenin. At 7134 metres it was the tallest mountain in the USSR.
I was heading to Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city, situated in the Fergana valley. Historically an Uzbek area, but incorporated into Kyrgyz territory under the Soviets in order to keep the Central Asian ‘stans divided and under control. Uzbeks and Kyrgyz seem to mingle with each other in the streets and bazaars harmoniously enough, but as recently as 2010 there have been rioting and killings the result of perceived economic disparity between the two ethnic groups.
On the road I crossed paths with a Scottish cyclist, with a pair of his boxers on his handlebars. “Why have you got a pair of boxers on your handlebars; are they for luck?”
“Nah, I’m just drying them.”
At 3170 metres Sary Tash was cold, but the benefit of high altitude was the short climb to the first mountain pass at 3615m. The climb to the pass starts almost as soon as you leave Sary Tash
After the initial climb, the road to Osh slopped gently down to Osh and I remained above 20kph for most of the time. Coming the other way would have been a lot harder and I met several cyclists slogging their way to Sary Tash.
A solo Slovakian cyclist told me he had been bitten by a drunk man in the town up ahead.
Using a dry wall to shield me from the road I pitched my tent in a field by a small river. I cooked pasta on my stove, added some salami, smoked two cigarettes and climbed into my sleeping bag as the light faded.
On the third day out from Sary Tash the mountains turned to hills which in turn sank into the Fergana Valley.
In the afternoon haze I could make out a rocky hill - the Dom Babur. The centre of Osh straddles the Ak-Buura river just below Dom Babur – a site of pilgrimage for many Muslims.
I drank with a group of Polish motorcyclists that night who were also staying at the Taj Mahal guesthouse. I made my excuses early and headed off to bed just as they were warming up. I was very sick on the floor of the dormitory.
An Israeli backpacker, Uri, the only other backpacker in the dormitory had arranged to dine with a Kyrgyz man he had met the previous night and kindly invited me to join them.
Chinngis bought two friends with him to the Chinese restaurant. Smiling and friendly Chinngis referred to his two friends as ‘Amazonians’.
To show what he meant by ‘Amazonian’ he placed a shot of vodka on the floor. The more limber of the two Amazonians performed the splits; inching slowly down until her mouth touched the glass; she recovered, and shot the vodka without using her hands.
After dinner we drank more vodka in the hotel room of Yuri, a Russian commercial pilot due to fly to Afghanistan in the next few days. His co-pilot was matching him toast for toast but the flight mechanic lay face down asleep on one of the room’s beds.
It turned out Chinngis was a veteran of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Yuri, had been a military pilot flying big Antonov cargo and passenger planes during ‘Russia’s Vietnam’.
After several more toasts the two became very misty eyed when Yuri found a Youtube video of Alexander Rozembaums song ‘black tulip’', the name given to the aeroplane that repatriated fallen Russian soldiers.
Picture above shows the entrance to the giant bazaar with Dom Babur in the background.
The next day I was accosted by a drunk on the street signaling we should drink together by flicking a finger against his neck.
After drinking vodka in a park he insisted we climb to the top of Dom Babur where there is a little mosque. I had to practically carry him up. We were both a bit worse for wear. I was embarrassed. “Is he with you?" a pilgrim asked me.
“Yeah, he’s my droog.”
I had to give him money to get rid of him.
I left Osh after four nights. Two days out from Osh I joined a group of Kyrgyz men enjoying some vodka in the afternoon sun outside their ‘Rancho’.
I woke mid morning the following day in my tent pitched in the yard of the ‘Rancho’ with a hangover. I also found grazes on my knees and elbows from a wrestling match I had with a local in a back street of the nearby town. Quite a crowd formed to watch him put me on my back three times.
That night I camped in a peach orchard. The fruit had been picked, so there was little chance of visitors.
I caught up with a Dutch cyclist called Timon laid up by the side of the road with stomach problems.
I gave him some water and after drinking he decided to give cycling a go.
We stopped at a lake between Tas-Komur and Kara-Kol and took a dip in the refreshing mountain waters.
We clambered down from the road to camp closer to the Naryn river, but we soon had to move as the river started to rise as we ate dinner.
Whilst moving our bikes and gear back onto the road the next morning another cycle-tourist stopped.
Nic from Belgium was on a month long tour around Kyrgyzstan. You could tell his trip was relatively short because he didn’t have ridiculous tan lines on his arms, legs and feet like the rest of us.
We cycled briskly all day when we stopped to camp I felt a little dehydrated. I also notice the sides of my vision were a little blurry.
I was ill in the night and in the morning decided to stay put, imploring Nic and Timon to go on without me.
Nic suggested a little food and some Imodium would help. Timon gave me a sachet of rehydration powder to mix with water and I decided to head on with them. It was a bit of a struggle, but I felt stronger as the day progressed.
Timon’s concern for my well-being is evident in the picture above.
The road shadowed the river for most of the way so we never had problems finding a good place to pitch our tents and always had a source of good running water.
Lake Toktogul seen from the main road that tiringly climbs and falls continuously around the southern side.
After the town of Toktogul we had only 260 kilometres to cycle but two mountain passes over 3,000 metres to climb.
Nic cruised up these mountains and at first I would be in front of Timon, but with greater stamina Timon would slowly creep past leaving me trailing behind
I would blame my slowness on illness, or the extra weight of the bike and luggage or even not eating enough food. Bullshit; they were just fitter than me.
But I did think of reducing some weight on my bike. I pulled a kilo of salt I had bought in Tajikistan out of a front pannier. it had cost me almost nothing, but I was too tight to dispose of the majority.
“Why do you have so much salt?” Timon asked.
“To balance the weight of all the tools I carry in the other front pannier.”
“That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard. Put that in the river.”
Talking of weight, this French cyclist going the other way had only a small backpack and his guitar.
Nic was doing a loop of Kyrgyzstan that had started in Bishkek. When we would stop to rest and smoke he would wax lyrical about modern Bishkek. He talked enthusiastically about one place in particular: Café Man - “with the cleanest toilets in all of Central Asia” - as well as a fast internet connection and excellent coffee. Talk of future indulgences kept our spirits high.
On the first pass of Ala-Bel’ at 3184 my legs almost gave up. Had I been on my own I would have stopped for the night near the top, but company – and possibly a small amount of male rivalry – pushed us to the top and over.
At the top we posed for posterity.
We camped on the cold plateau between Ala-Bel’ Pass and the last pass at Too-Asuu.
Yurts dotted the side of the road, the seasonal home of herders and their families. There are many horses in Kyrgyzstan, the mares milk is fermented to produce a mildly alcoholic drink called Kummz.
At the top of the last pass before Bishkek is a tunnel. We had to wait while extractor fans were switched on to remove exhaust fumes, which we could see billowing out of the entrance. There had been recent deaths in the tunnel due to carbon monoxide poisoning so the authorities were not taking any chances.
And then we were on the flat home stretch – it was already dark when we stopped to camp in a field by the road, cook pasta and drink beer.
The next day we were following Nic through congested lanes of Bishkek traffic to Nomad’s Home Hostel.
At Café Man we sank into giant leather sofas and Nic bought us freshly ground coffee. When I went to use the toilets I got a bit emotional at the sight of flushing water.
Nomad’s Home, the hostel near the centre of Bishkek was full of cyclists with more turning up every day; a lot of people knew each other.
It got crowded with people fixing their bikes and waiting on visas; At one point we counted 20 bicycles and almost as many tents.
I had a wait of over a week until my Chinese visa arrived back from the embassy, but I like Bishkek: tree lined boulevards, coffee shops and lots of stores selling electrical goods.
Seven kilometres out of Bishkek is Dordoy Bazaar, a city of cargo containers each one it’s own shop.
I bought a knife to cut food.
My plan was to head back to Sary Tash and the Chinese border via a different road than the one I had taken to reach Bishkek that would take me past the second highest alpine lake in the world, Song Kol.
I reached the gigantic lake of Ysyk-Kol where Kyrgyz take their holidays and met two American girls on a cycle tour. We decided to have tea and then as it rained we had lunch. I accidentally ordered three huge plates of meat and potatoes – much to the amusement of Callie and Kara. After my big lunch I got a lift from a passing truck and staid at the drivers house for the night in the town of Kochkor.
He fed me a sheep's head for breakfast. I quite liked the eyeballs.
The nearer I got to Song Kol the more beautiful the landscape.
I woke one morning to discover fresh snow had fallen on the mountains above me. It was getting colder.
I had to stop frequently to tighten my crank: the bolt just did not want to stay put.
I took the turning for Song Kol and the road became a track. I passed Kyrgyz cowboys herding their sheep and goats down from the high grazing pastures to lower winter ones.
Annoyed with my crank, I got out my multi tool and tightened the bolt as much as I could. I hopped back on my bike, and tried to move off but the pedals would not spin.
The travel gods saw I was in trouble and delivered my salvation in the form of an English couple and there daughter in a 4x4 who kindly offered to take me and the bike the remainder of the way to Song Kol.
On the way we crammed a young backpacker from Denmark into the 4x4. There was no room for him - we said as much; “but I can see some room in the back there.” Before we knew it Adam had contorted himself between me and Harri. He’d hustled lifts in cars and lorries all the way from Europe and had obviously picked up a few hitching skills along the way.
The few yurts that remained would shortly be dissembled, the owners moving to a warmer altitude.
We ate fish caught from the lake for dinner and slept the night in a yurt.
I rode a horse.
We rode horses. Here I am on the flighty one. So much so an old lady popped her head out of a yurt flap when she heard me screaming for the nag to stop.
Adam had only a few hairs left on his bow…
…So I harvested some more for him. Half way through hacking at it’s tail, I stopped and asked aloud: “What the hell am I doing?!”
The next day I woke early and watched the sun rise above the mountains.
I got dropped off at a guesthouse in Kochkor, the owner’s husband had a good stab at fixing my bike but a few kilometres down the rode it seized again and I pushed it back to Kochkor. On the way I came across Timon, cycling with an English guy called Mark. Mark suggested I leave all my gear at the guesthouse and hitch a lift with just the bike back to Bishkek. “Two hours to get there, another two to fix the bike two hours back here; you could be cycling again by the afternoon. Easy.”
Timon and Mark – wearing a Miley Cyrus t-shirt?!
I took his advice and started to hitch. A small crowd gathered to watch. After thirty minutes I had a ride back to Bishkek in an old yellow van.
I had to pay, like the locals, who you see flagging down private cars all the time. I probably paid too much as the driver, and his mate, treated me to lunch. Then vodka.
On the approach to Bishkek the driver’s mate and me put our arms round each other’s shoulders and sang along to Status Quo on the radio. Possibly because of the vodka.
I got back to Nomad’s home late and a little worse for wear.
It was while I was in Bishkek for the second time that a Canadian backpacker convinced me I should got to Afghanistan.