Kyrgyzstan Bishkek - Issyk Kul Lake
Blue - colour of the sea and sky.
July 7th, 2018. Second attempt..our trip starts with a few hiccups. On our way to Belgium, our plane was delayed in London and my luggage took a trip alone, arriving in Brussels one day later. After reconnecting briefly with family, we left for Kyrgystan, Byshkek on July 12. Flights and transfer are smooth, and a driver picked us up in Byshkek. Our Airbnb is great. Helena, the mother of our host Alena, welcomes us in her absence and we already feel the kindness and hospitality of the Kyrgyz people. The annex of the main house is ideal for us. It even has AC, which we appreciate with temperatures of 35C. We set-up our bikes and buy the last few things we need. Everything you want/need can be purchased in Byshkek. There is even a great outdoor store selling technical gear called ‘Sport Expert’...and is even cheaper than Canada. A monthly rechargeable sim card with 35 GB DATA and 75 min calling is available for CAD $12. It feels like we get ripped off by the phone companies in Canada when we hear the price! Getting around in the city is easy, streets are in a grid system, and you can either walk from our Airbnb to downtown Byshkek within 10 min or take a taxi/minibus. Kyrgystan is known to have the cheapest taxis and bus system in the world. Byshkek - Issyk Kul lake can be done in a mini bus for 270 som (170 km for CAD $5). Getting used to the language is the most challenging for both of us. A few words are already memorized: da, nyet, spasiba (yes, no, thank you) ...and tualet.
We leave a few days later. Frank had worked out a ‘bucolic’ first day ride. Bucolic definitely had an evil connotation (Lisa, you must be smiling when you read this) when we hit a washed out dirt road and the bushwhacking started. We should have listened to a local who told us not to go this way...lesson learned: always listen to local intel! Boiling hot, I am not a happy camper. For the next two hours, I am thinking I won’t be able to do this for 8 months. Eventually, we arrive at an abandoned village where we are able to cross the river safely and are back on a decent dirt road. First stop after pushing our bikes through many ‘V’s (V = water crossings), we find a small store by asking where we can buy Limonad. Without help, we would not have found the store, no sign, just a blue door. Both of us drink a bottle of coke and get our first food offered. Apricots not bigger than a walnut and cucumbers.. We must have looked very tired. The Russian bikers, also in front of the store, did not receive anything. We continue along the water canal and set camp along the water irrigation system, not far from a herd of cows and Kyrgyz cowboys. Heaven! All the fields we biked along, are crossed with an exceptional irrigation system. No field or farm is without water.
Next day, we get up at 5:30 am to beat the heat. First tears for me. Disappointed with myself and how hard each pedal on my bike feels. I think Frank is a bit scared that I am already emotional knowing that the hardest part is still ahead. We stop in a small village where gas is sold in 1 or 2 liter water bottles at the grocery’s store. More coke and a cake/cookie...by the way, we eat tons of crap food. A villager invites us for a cup of tea and some ‘airan’ (freshly made yoghurt). Delicious! Satisfied, we continue our route to Burana tower. A nicely restored minaret from around 1000 AC, where we buy some postcards and a hat for our living room from the director of the site. She is originally from Kemin and studied History in Moscow. We push our trip further with multiple coca cola stops, and another invite for food. Abdullah, a father of 5 children, invites us to his home, where we eat delicious naan, airan, samsy and drink choy (tea in Kyrgyz). We share food and tea with all of them. Abdullah’s son speaks already a great English, and we have our first real conversation since we started biking. He wants to be a dentist in Switzerland or US and study in Moscow. Arrived in Kemin, we eat and get invited by a man to stay at his house. His mother and sister are a bit overwhelmed when we arrive, but warm up after a few minutes. It turns out, that the director of the the Burana tower is their aunt...even here the world is small.
After a night of no sleep for me, we hit the road at 7:15 am. Not feeling great...I had to force myself to eat. After a few minutes, I feel better and we bike part of the old and new highway to Issyk Kul. Many police officers on the road are writing speeding tickets. The speeding drivers are definitely not stressed when they talk to the police, some drivers even don’t stop when asked. This is also very different from Canada. Mini bus drivers get stopped at the entrance of the Balykchy and pay some cash money to the police. Taxes for the government or cash for the police? We arrive at Balykchy around 4pm and decide to stay at the hotel Azymut. We now have to learn Kyrgyz mostly spoken around Issyk Kul. Next day is a rest day. I have decided to send home some items: my beloved blue hat (daughter’s gift), a pair of underwear and bra, which leaves me with three underwear and two bras, one CoolLite long sleeve Icebreaker, a thermos, gaiters, one facial cream - I hope I won’t look like a crepe in eight months, liquid for the tubeless tires (Frank has some), and some other small items. 2 kg in total. Not sure it will really make a difference but it makes room for water and food. Finding a post office is the challenge of the day. It takes us two hours. The post office clerks are not very happy when they see us just before closing time but warmed up after a few minutes. Frank used his unique Belgian charm to make them smile. 2946 som poorer, and two kilo lighter, we go for dinner to Mycas cafe. Excellent local food. We try for the first time the famous fermented Nomad drink Maksym Sohro sort of weird salty and sparkly drink.
- Recipe for 10 liters:
- 200g animal fat, 200g of wheat flour
- 0.5 kg of talkan (splintered barley)
- 10 liters of water
- 20g yeast
The flour is cooked in animal fat until it goes light brown. After that cover with water. When it starts boiling, add talkan to the water and boil for 30 minutes on low heat.
Cool to 30C. Mix 100 g of flour and yeast, and melt in salt water. Mix together mixture.
The mixture should stand for 12 hours in a covered dish. Keep in fridge for 12 hours, stir well before drinking cold.
Second night in Balykchy, we meet a Canadian couple, Andrea and Clayton, on their bike ride honey moon. We talk briefly and relate quite well to their tiredness. Looking for a camp spot, they decided eventually for a hotel room instead. They were still asleep when we left at 9am for Cholpon Ata. We take a taksy/minibus to the touristy coast town 82 km from Balykchy for 2x 200 som (55 som is 1$). Our driver broke all the speed limits, and I swear he could have won all car rally’s in Europe... I was scared to hell.
At the moment both of us are sitting on the beach and enjoy the moment with Kyrgyz and Russian tourists. The sky is blue with just enough clouds to make it look interesting and not too hot. Life is good, and I can’t wait to get back on my bike and enjoy the challenges of the trail. Kyrgystan is a beautiful country, great people and easy to travel. If you are looking for a place off the grid, not expensive with awesome people, than Kyrgystan should be on top of the list. Even though still poor, it challenges the so called first world countries by being clean, friendly and beautiful.
I’ve had mainly, if not only, bad experiences in the past with Aeroflot, one of the main airline companies offering plenty of connections between Europe and Asia /Central Asia.
Our red eye flight from Brussels to Bishkek with a 4h connection stop over in Moscow was actually the smoothest process possible. All flights took off on time, arrived earlier than scheduled and landed right behind the custom gate. After we got our 60 days visa stamp at the Bishkek airport customs, our 2 cardboard bike boxes were standing in the middle of the hall. A few minutes later our 2 backpacks appeared on the carrousel and we were leading the passenger crowd to step out on the Kyrgyz Republic ground and the 6 million Kyrgyz . Well, at least few of them.
No time to kiss the floor before Jaidar our driver waved us. I guess the 2 big boxes were a hint.
Alena, our Airbnb host, kindly organized a pick up at the airport so in no time we landed in our Bishkek “pied a terre”.
Located in a quiet residential area but within walking distances of all the needs ( coffee place, restaurants, shopping mall) the guest house is a jewel in a green backyard. The bonus is a huge porch where we were able to build up our bikes under the 34c temps.
A few errands to complete our preparation, some wandering to discover the city and the 2 days spent there passed by really fast.
Bishkek, one million people, capital of the independent (1991) Kyrgyz Republic, is one of these former Soviet Union cities, full of contrast. Lack of maintenance in general but everything is clean, very clean. Wealthy people, luxurious shopping malls with high brand flag stores and a lower social class finding solutions to make a living.
Alarm set up: 5 AM
To beat the heat, we took off around 6AM. The plan is to reach Issuk Kul Lake off the big Hwy and its summer tourist flow. Issyk Kul is a huge salty lake at an elevation of 1600m. A major summer destination for all the inhabitants of Bishkek keen to find some cooler air.
At 6 in the morning, the traffic is sparse. We navigated through the huge wide boulevards, a stop at a gas station to fill up our multi fuel stove canister and quickly we left the city behind us.
Off the Hwy, a delightful itinerary
At the foothills and between the huge and already impressive Kyrgyz Ala-too range in the South and the Zailiysky Ala-too range that forms the boarder with Kazakstan in the North, the vast plain is mainly agricultural. A complex network of irrigation channels provide the valley with water coming from the numerous glaciers.
It is by following the gravel roads along those channels that we will stay away from the traffic and discover the country side. Winding between fields, these gravel roads are in a good shape and, unlike the paved Hwy, they force us to pace ourselves and move at a leisurely speed.
Kyrgyz cowboys, farmers waving us on our way and forcing some interactions that always become some sort of intuitive body language adding some more heart beats and sweat that we do not really need under a strong sun. Talking, assuming we can hold a conversation in Kyrgyz, would have not been much easier. With 34c and 15% of humidity our mouths are so dry that talking is painful. Few trees along our path offered good spots to take a break from the sun and break the pedal routine.
These long straight channels make the orientation relatively easy. Easy enough to fall into a sort of blind confidence. So when a glance at the map showed that we should actually be on the other side of the channel, my role is to explain to Sylvia that it is not a bearing mistake but a sort of short cut. The particularity of those channels is that for kilometers there is no way to cross them. If you are on the wrong side....you will stay there for a long way. Interesting to notice that it is only on the wrong side that the gravel road curves out and takes you in a totally different direction.
Let’s stick to the argument that it will be a short cut because the general direction is ...still...ok.
The Kyrgyz gods are not with me. Our “wrong side of the channel, heading the wrong direction road” ends up in a huge wash out. No more gravel. Just rocks in a river bed. But some tracks encouraged us to pursue.
It is a - personal- good feeling to see how much trust Sylvia has in me.
Many times we try to get out of the river bed to merge on a possible path vaguely marked on my digital map. A progression that would have pleased our “Icelandic team members” ( inside joke). It always ended up in a sort of Bush-wacking with our heavy donkeys and more fords to cross. And for those who knows Sylvia, you know the high appreciation she has to bush-wacking. She usually allows a couple each year when we hike with compass in our home mountains. I think for 2018 we reached the quota.
I think Sylvia, despite her smily face, realized that the 3h spent in the the river bed helped us to cover barely 10Km and...took us somewhat off our planned route.
Everything ended well
Around 4pm our relationship and accessories (my life) were saved by a gorgeous camp spot. Huge tresses providing plenty of shade, a narrow irrigation channel and a grassy level surface. We can get rid of the sweat and dust, relax and have a good night sleep in our tent.
Next day same scenario....
Except that, lesson learned, we carefully remained on the good sides of each channels. Eventually paved country side roads brought us through little villages in a quest for drinkable sources of fluids. Typically in all the Eastern countries, you can always find someone selling something. We just need to find the location.
It helps when you have a sign...sometimes. Some of these “convenient stores” are also some sort of gas stations. Soda bottles are recycled filled up with gas. Not sure how far a driver expects to be able to go with the equivalent of 1.5l of what used to be the content of a Coca-Cola bottle.
Probably enough to the next village. Anyway, take a bottle, empty it in your tank, bring back the bottle for a future new use and leave the 45 Kyrgyz Som (70c US) in the cart
We do not need excuses to justify a break, a pause. Overwhelmed by the kind and friendly hospitality. Past visits in Central Asia always left me with that feeling of a degree of hospitality rarely reached in our country despite the abundance of everything. However, it is difficult to maintain a reasonable pace and keep our bikes light enough to ride when apples, bread, vegetables, cookies....find their places in our already really too full paniers.
A cultural visit to an old minaret ( Burana Tower) and a last encounter with a family on the road will give us the opportunity of a night in a bed.
First real climbs
Leaving the valley we have no other choice than to hop on the Hwy. It is the only access to Issuk Kul through the narrow Boom valley. Roughly every 10km we find stands providing food, hot teas, and cold drinks. Again liters of fluids and still no real Pee stops.
Leaving Bishkek 200Km behind us, the canyon widens and the scenery opens to Issyk Kul Lake well deserved after that long climb with headwind. We are at 1600m and feel like on the shore of an ocean. Wind, cooler air ( but still hot). Let us have a look around for some time and blend into the summer tourists visiting the North shore of the lake. The popular side. The South side with our first high elevation passes can wait for us a couple more days.