Balykchy ( Issyk Kul) to Osh July 21-Aug 7
Red - colour of fire and blood, also associated with energy, power, war and danger
July 21 - we leave Balykchy and our comfortable hotel room. We make our way along the south side of Issyk Kul Lake. My first tourista of the trip starts the same morning. Pepto Bismol seems to do the trick for now. The two days we bike along the lake are very different from the more popular North side of the lake. The south side has less traffic and more ecological diversity. Very dry, hot and windy, we bike our way up the lake to Tossor village passing small villages where people live mostly from farming. Camp spots with water sources and shade are rare but we manage somehow to find something nice each time, except for the one morning where we wake up in a small pool of water. We did not see the manually made small irrigation canal the night before that got filled with water during the night. Luckily, our tent, heavy but strong...and waterproof, did not leak. Thank you Hilleberg!
Rhythm of life is quite different here, and even though we are not the first tourists on a bike crossing their villages, people look at us like we are a curiosity...and we do the same with them. It feels like we are sitting in a bus with no windows absorbing all the colours and smells of Kyrgystan. They think we are bizarre...definitely. Akuda? Is one of the most common questions: where do you come from. Canada?! Ah....
We meet Swiss and French bikers on the road. Lots. And there is always time for a chat to get some intel or just a welcomed break. After two days of biking, we are at the road taking us to Tossor pass: 3,950 m high. We climb the mountain in two days, with a lot of bike pushing. Friendly nomads offer us tea, food and a camping spot. We feel very privileged when we can share family time with our new hosts, Gulmira and her three children.
On the way up, we meet ‘bike tourists’, they get dropped off at the top of the mountain and just need to bike downhill. Big smiles on their faces when they cross us on the dirt road. No luggage, just some water and a snack. It seems to be a very enjoyable way to discover Kyrgystan: enjoying the mountains but it’s not too tiring. Do I sound envious now? One thing is for sure, I won’t forget how difficult the last 2 km of the pass were. At the end, the slope is so steep that my bike and me are at times moving backwards... My trick to keep moving forward, when walking and pushing my bike, is to count 25 double steps before pausing. When it becomes steeper I would lower the count to 10, or even 5. The reward of the climb is amazing, the valley in front of us is gorgeous and we have not enough eyes to take it all in. On our way down into the valley, we meet again the same group of Russian bikers we met on our first day biking. It feels good to see people enjoying the same passion for biking and nature.
We cross many Vs (water-crossings). Frank often bikes through them, but I chicken out and walk most of them. One big V has washed out the road. Careful, I decide to cross further down where the river seems less strong. Frank, instead, tries to bike through the river closer to the previous road and falls into the water. He is completely drenched, and we have to quickly find a camping spot to dry all his stuff. “Ouf”, all the electronics stayed dry. It is so windy and sunny that everything dries in no time, 2 hours tops. On the way to Saji Bulak, my legs are tired, we face serious headwind and I’m hangry. Luckily, on our way to the next stop, we have lunch in a yurt and I have Kemis (mare milk) for the first time. Brrr...not my favourite. I think it doesn’t help my tourista either!
On one of the nights, we run out of water, We are rescued by a Canadian from Toronto who shipped his SUV to Hamburg and drove all the way to Kyrgyzstan. Long live Canada! After a two nights of reasonable rest in a small village, Saji Bukal, we start our way to Song Kul Lake. On the way up, we meet three French people. One couple on a tandem, plus one solo biker guy. Would it be the first tandem going up to the Lake?
Lunch break with another familiar encounter: Instagram friends from Switzerland, Ivo & Brigitte and Gerry from Boulder, Colorado. The climb to Song Kul seems ok until we hit the last km. I’m totally out of energy and sit down on the edge of the dirt road. Even a Snickers doesn’t help me to get back on my feet. Tears come only when Frank starts to set-up the tent. After a good Chinese Noodle soup with sausage and a cookie for dessert, I am ready for bed. There’s a big thunderstorm during the night and we have frost on our tent the next morning. To our surprise, we are surrounded by yaks, horses and cows. Magical! And we haven’t even seen Song Kul Lake.
The area after the pass reminds Frank of Mongolia. Wide open, the lake is shimmering in the far and there are lots of nomads. The area is more touristy but it doesn’t spoil it for us. Around one corner on the trail, we meet Baja again, one of the Kyrgyz mountain bike tourist guides we’ve met on Tossor pass who invites us for lunch together with his Italian customers. Hard-boiled eggs, coffee :)) and grapes. We love you Baja. We spend the night at a yurt camp, invited by a German couple, Ingrid and Hartmut, for a glass of wine, the first since we left Belgium. At the end of the evening, we’re a total of 8 bikers. A good crowd to share dinner and chat about the trail, but also about the terrorist attack in Tajikistan which made everyone feel uncomfortable and sad. However, we all bounce back quickly after the conversation. Eventually guests and our Kyrgyz hosts play volleyball together with Song Kul lake shimmering just a few meters from the playing field. Surreal.
The downhill after Song Kul is breath-taking, scary and provides us with huge adrenalin kicks. The beauty of the landscape blows us away.
We stay for one night at Nomad’s valley yurt, cappuccino, homemade dinner and a good night of sleep restore our energy. Kazarman is our next goal. This part is a bit less glorious...4km before the pass, we catch a ride on a utilitarian Pick-up. When we arrive at the top, everyone gets out of the car and we have vodka, kemis, apricots and chocolat. Typical Kyrgyz picnic. When we want to take off our bikes, they insist to take us down to the valley. Luckily, we listened, 45 km headwind and no water on the trail would have killed us. Before they drop us off in a small village 50km before Kazarman, more vodka, although we would have preferred water. The area starts to be really dry, and we can’t find a stream to filter water. With the help of the kids of the village, we find the store where we can only buy sparkling water for cooking. Grocery stores are not always clearly marked, sometimes it’s just a window, or a garage behind a house. The store owner lets us sleep on her property but it’s not a restful night. By now, I am really sick and start to take antibiotics. It rains the whole night, and the youngsters of the village check out our tent, talking loud and listening to music. We are the curiosity of the village.
When we arrive in Kazarman, we find a nice guest house and spend two nights to recover. Highlights of the stay: a cold beer and chatting with the other guests. My favourite guests are two Korean brothers and their Kazakh guide. They are visiting the area to see the Petroglyphs. The area is renowned for its Petroglyphs on Samailuu Tash. There have been found more than 10,000 Petroglyphs. More info on Wikipedia: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saimaluu_Tash
The next destination is Jalal Abad, but first we have to climb another pass: Kugart Pass. Because the area is really dry and hot, we go to bed early and get up at 5 am and bike for about 6 hours until the sun is too strong. Less and less yurts and farmers, we barely meet people. Some farmers picking up hay in their fields and a few beekeepers. A creepy thing happened to us while camping on the way. One morning, we wake up with at least 20 spiders in our tent...brrrrr. Obviously we did not close the zipper of our tent properly.
We arrive in Jalal-Abad around 10 am after 25 km of beautiful paved road. There, we decide to take a Taksy (taxi) to Osh (Cost: 1,500 som for 110 km, or the equivalent of CAD $27) to meet our friend Fred, and his two buddies, Jean-Philippe and Matthieu. They rode their bikes through Tajikistan and had a great time despite the terrorist attack. We spend two days with them in a four star Spa hotel. We have a lot of food, laughters and a private harmonica concert. Thank you Fred.
Foldable chair, Kindle and mini iPad - a nice treat to sit comfortably at the end of the day and read a book, even if it weighs together 1kg.
MSX biking shorts, Salawe t-shirt, Iceberg bra and Columbia shirt. I try to rinse them everyday in a creek, they dry quickly and don’t smell too badly.
Of course, my Thermarest full length and Mec pillow
MSR water filter
Frame bags of my bike - thank you George!
Keen sandals for the Vs and when we’re in a hotel or guesthouse
Bracelet (feels like my kids are always a little bit with me) and watch (to see how far we have biked, and still have to go)
Sony camera - compact and easy to use
What I could (doesn’t mean I will) get rid off:
Hairbrush - my hair is an incredible mess anyway
Hammock - we have used it once
Body cream - even though it should be under the essentials, I barely used it
My bike - a car would be nice
What I miss:
My favourite blue toque I’ve sent home from Balykchy
A big thermos
Legging and a light shirt with long sleeves for hot areas (for conservative Muslim areas)
And my people
An ocean at 1600m
The North shore of the 170Km long Issyk Kul salty lake is the Russians and locals favourite side. A couple of towns along the road circling the lake offer enough resorts and tourist attractions to be a summer destination for wealthy Russian and Kazakstan families. The Bishkek crowd drives the 200km to find cooler air at 1600m and enjoy the pleasure of lake beaches.
Influenced by some chatter and readings, we just want to have a look before heading to the south side. We take a local “bus”. More like a van where 12 passengers squeeze in, sharing sweat in the 34c.
We spent the day at Cholpon-Ata. Walking on the beach, through private beaches and public beaches, using our tourist ignorance and Russian/Kyrgyz sterile vocabulary to explain our presence among wealthier tanning bodies. These have paid a fee not be harassed by the smoke fish sellers or young guys carrying big eagles for a classic local picture, all who wander the busy coastline to make some Kyrgyz Som, the local money.
Nothing fancy in any structures or tourist developments, more old Russian style. Still, jet-skis, hang gliders being towed by power boats are present, adding some interesting contrast between the different social classes. The atmosphere is relax, families are on vacation. The white peaks surrounding the lake offer a very nice background for some women posing for pictures that are definitely not taken to end up in any family album but more on some Online dating website. Fun to observe and be part of it but happy we will get back to our accommodation by the end of the day and tomorrow ride our bikes on the South side- more quiet and more scenic.
Dry, hot, the end of our warm up phase
The South road is definitely less busy, sometimes no cars for a while. The heat starts to have a toll on us so we decide to be packed up and leave around 7am. On the way, we cross our first Muslim cemetery. So picturesque, they add history to a dry, sandy and hilly landscape.
The road is rarely right on the shore of the lake but when it is, it gives easy access to the water. Not many trees to create shade which is annoying for us in a quest to get some rest away from that sun. The sun does not stop people from pitching umbrellas and having fun feet in the lake.
The best spots for us to pitch the tent are those far enough from the road. No broken bottles of Vodka, no garbage. Not much shade either so it is always in late afternoon that we scout promising places before pushing our bikes through bushes and sand.
We explored the south coast for about 3 days, passing villages of different sizes and importance. Most of them not showing any warm welcome explaining the lack of visitors not interested in a non touristy developed area.
We are leaving the fairly rolling lakeshore road roughly mid way to the far eastern side of the lake. Right before a little village called TOSOR, the same name of the 4000m pass waiting for us. Enjoying the relatively smooth tarmac of the main road we almost miss the turn off. No sign and an insignificant narrow gravel road is our “trailhead” to go deeper South and into the TIAN SHAN area. Our first ascensions, our first gravel, our first surprise.
Soaking in the reality of our trip
With food for 5 days bought in the last decent sized village offering a variety in terms of...noodles, onions, garlic, carrots, smoked cheese ( our daily main meal); oatmeal, dry fruit and nuts ( our daily breakfast) and the classic Snickers and Cookies (our treats for the spirit and to add some calories during the day).
It starts hard right away. Really rough gravel road, loose rocks, some sections very sandy, and a real rollercoaster. We desperately try to find a place in the shade to rest and maybe snooze with the intention of moving on later when the heat won’t be as bad.
Unfortunately, the river we were counting on to refill our containers is lower in the gorge and not accessible most of the way. Lucky we have some little streams coming higher up that cross the dirt road. Hats and T-shirts dipped in the cold water work as an AC on our boiling bodies and allow us to keep moving up.
An isolated little farm and some big trees finally offer us a perfect spot to open the tarp and nap for about 2h. We are both wondering what to expect from the rest of the road to the pass. Both probably slightly concerned but nothing said.
Another couple hours later we emerge out of a narrow canyon to a wide open green alpine scenery. The last few days were in a kind of very dry, almost desert, and sandy rock formation type of landscape. We got used to it, thinking that it may stay like that for a while. So the surprise was actually a boost for the spirit and we did not even care about the big black clouds gently but surely hiding the blue sky.
The tent pitched, we “jumped” ( actually more “carefully immersed” ) in the freezing cold stream to erase all trace of dust and sweat from our bodies. It always gives you a big kick and it is with a lot of energy that we prepared our noodles and peeled our onion and carrot.
Less than one hour later we collapsed in our sleeping bags not even bothered by the big storm and thunderstorm that lasted most of the night.
We camped at 2000m. Only 400m of elevation gain since Issyk Kul Lake. The pass is another 1900m higher and the topo map showing numerous switch backs is not encouraging.
It is in a very green valley where some rare white dots ( Yurts) offered hope to find some tea and treats that we progressed through for the next 2 days. Short days distance wise but big days riding and hiking the bikes to gain, step by step, some altitude.
One night we camp next to a welcoming yurt of a herder family and we hit the final section to the pass. The last 3km were really steep and the gravel road was transformed to a rocky boulder road. Hard pushing motivated only by the close end of the climb and the superb view of all the valley we have ridden.
Sliding our way between 2 summit glaciers with the noise of rocks falling from higher up the pass, we meet a few French cyclists coming from the other side. WTF?! Empty bikes, big smiles contrasted with our heavy donkeys and tired faces. The TOSOR pass is one of the highlights for Adventure tour operators offering transport, meals and logistics on a 10 day bike tour where only downhills and rolling stretches are cycled.
Freshly dumped from their van at the pass they could not even confirm for us the presence of water on the other side. Nice chat with them though and quickly they flew down for their 2hour ride when it took us 2.5 days. Good for our ego.
No pain, no gain...time to gain
We were not over our surprises. Soon we dropped to the other side, a huge wide green valley bordered by mountain chains and glaciers will stay our scenery for the next 2 days. Light tailwind, good downhill grade (that we could not really enjoy at 100% because of the tricky surface of the dirt road), a few yurts pearling the landscape, horses, sheeps, cows and a comfy silence. The feeling is like watching a documentary without the sound. Few stops to take the time to savor the scenery, trying to increase our normal human sight angle to a wide angle. We do not talk, we just smile and our eye contacts mean more than words. Any comments would have been banalities in comparison to what was around us. The pain, the doubts and the fatigue of the last couple of days have vanished.
The next few days are just as stunning, it is like the regular ups and downs have become details in our progress ( well, Sylvia and I may not exactly share the same feeling ... but you know what I mean). We passed some hot springs, too hot to dip in it. We meet other cyclists going to the pass or another valleys annex. Opportunities to exchange info, tips. We learn about the weather pattern in this new micro climate. Every afternoon the wind is picking up hard mainly from West (great, we heading West!), cloud cover increases and early evenings are stormy.
A bridge too far
One night we made the mistake of aiming to have a bridge shown on the map as a goal. Bridge meaning water, water meaning tea and noodles for the end of the day. We pushed towards it while we should have stopped earlier in a so-so spot for camping. The hope for better was dominant. A last tiring climb before a downhill to the bridge. Head wind, dust, a plateau to cross and the bridge shows up. Not what we were expecting. The water is loaded with sediment, coming from the glaciers around, the wind is strong and the area is fairly exposed. We debated but the fatigue won and we spend some more energy trying to find a place somewhat out of the wind. Tent pitched, we tried to figure out how we were gonna cook our noodles with 2l, drink and have porridge in the morning.
It is late and at 3000m the evening starts to be coolish. We have not seen anyone for a few hours now. Far away we can spot a couple of buildings. Even if the landscape is not very encouraging I take my bike ( unloaded) and give it a try. No luck, abandoned houses that could be a good shelter if the weather keeps deteriorating but no water. Back to the tent, we even try to play survival science by filtering the water from the creek through our tea filter and Sylvia’s Bandanna. Not working. Then, just like someone above started to feel sorry for us, a 4WD Toyota showed up on the gravel road. I run to stop it and beg for one liter of water. A couple from Ontario on a trip through Central Asia. They left us with 2 more liters of sparkling water. Oh Canada !
The wind calms down, the night is chilly, the tent has frost in the morning. We discover later in an almost similar situation that by boiling the water rich in sediment and let it rest after, all the sediment quickly covers the bottom of the pot. We then just need to filter the clear water.
Deep into it
The following days go by with meeting a few more cyclists on the road, a few more encounters with herders, many more stops to take photos, and plenty of “how lucky we are to be here and experience this” feelings. Emotions of past bike touring experiences in different part of the world and certainly in Central Asia are re-born in exactly the same way. That mix of efforts+encounters+nature are the ingredients of a perfect status of freedom. You add silence and superb lights that highlight perfect scenery and you just wonder what could be missing.
At first, frankly, I was a little bit skeptical about SONG KUL. Described in every document about Kyrgyzstan, the high altitude lake is known to be a stop for some tour operators to offer Yurt experiences to their clients. There are 3 gravel roads given access to the lake perched above 3000m. Each access involves a high pass. The last few days brought us back to an altitude of roughly 2000m. It is another 3400m pass on our way to the lake. No surprise, the afternoon headwind and even a little hail will make the climb....more...let’s say...interesting. Sylvia develops a new technique. According to the grade she counts 10-15-25 double steps while pushing her bike. I can hear her counting if by chance I am behind her. If she is counting in French, all is fine. She is just working to maintain a steady pace. Counting in English and the situation get more difficult to manage. Counting in German and I should not be around, things become explosive. We camped less than 1km before the pass as the place was out of the wind and a creek provided water for all our needs.
When the sun and emotion rise
In those early hours of the next morning we discovered what will stay for us as one of the nicest views of the trip so far. Perfect early morning light. Just magic. Nothing is missing. Even the gravel road is now a smooth dirt road. The short drop to the lake is exhilarating.
We will half circumnavigate the lake by its East side, and end our day in the mid afternoon in a yurt camp close to the lake shore, sharing the evening with a few more cyclists and a couple of tourists traveling in a rented 4WD. Everyone sharing their adventure and sometimes misfortunes in funny ways.
In the morning, the tent dismantled and repacking is now part of a well trained drill. We have become efficient, we have our tasks. Everything rolls smoothly. In less than 2 hours after we wake up, breakfast taken, we are back on our saddles. A small 300m of elevation gain to get out of the lake “cuvette” and we discover our major downhill. Feeling almost sorry for those who choose to climb it while we thought it would be peace of cake for us to fly down. It was indeed, despite sections full of traps that force us to stay focused on our riding and braking. The numerous switchbacks can be seen in many pictures posted by other travelers. They are scary.
Once again the scenery has changed in only a few km. We are now descending far in elevation. Kilometer after kilometer we are leaving one climate zone for another to eventually getting back to dry and hot surroundings. So dry, so hot that the next couple of passes will be hard work. Rivers and creeks dry, wind, 35c, frustrating up and down while we should only go up in order to reach the main pass. This is what is hard in Kyrgyzstan, we do not go as high as we go in Tajikistan but we in the Kyrgyz Republic we never stay in a constant elevation. What has been gained one day is gone the next day and everything has to be re-gained again.
6Km from one of the passes (that day we had 3 passes in the program, not a choice but a need, as the area has no water and we can carry only so much water ( usually 5L each) on top of a few days of food.). So as I said, 6Km from the pass, a pick up truck double cab carrying an entire herder family offered a lift to the pass. I clearly remember the smile on Sylvia’s face...I probably had the same actually :) Few minutes later we were at the pass. They wanted to celebrate it. Probably also because their truck made it. Vodka, Kumis (fermented mare milk), apricots, cookies....a party at 3200m in the wind, in the dust, in the cold but who cares...we all made it.
No discussion, we passed on the vodka and fermented milk test with all the honors so we could stay with our bikes on the pick up truck eating dust, fighting cold and getting wet by some sparse hail showers for another 40km to a more friendly area.
We spent the night in a really poor village a little bit knocked out by the couple of hours struggling outside on the pick-up truck. Barely able to swipe off all the dust on us as no water other than sparking water in 2 bottles found by chance in a private house that is also the village store. More a rustic, basic convenience store with the ultra minimum if you like chips and cookies.
Smoother and faster, Chinese treat
A bad night tenting in a sort of house back yard with rain all night. At 11am the rain stopped and we take off to Kazarman. Another depressing little town that used to be a prosperous mine town once. One rest day in a guesthouse to recover before another big big climb to get back above 3000m right before more gently rolling country that will bring us to Jalalabad with a surprising 30Km of smooth pavement ( thank you Chinese government for investing like you do in many other countries surrounding yours, whatever the real purpose of it is) and a tailwind. First pavement after more than 700km of gravel and dirt.
We get back to our lower elevation hot weather routine. Up at 5am, leaving at 6am to cover some distance before the heat. By 11am we are in Jalalabad, 3rd biggest city, a local snack and a pot of tea and we are heading to the bus terminal to negotiate a ride to Osh distant of 105Km. A long non interesting road with heavy traffic between the 2nd and 3rd city in Kyrgyzstan. Good advice from other cyclists.
We are now in Osh by chance right in time to meet friends from Belgium who are finishing 4 weeks of biking in Tajikistan. Celebrating their accomplishment and the beginning of a few rest days for us in what at first glance looks like a nice place to chill. We are now back under 1000m. We are gonna try to keep our red blood cell count high enough for what is waiting for us later. But first we need to talk about the plans.
The terrorist attack in Tajikistan that killed 4 cyclists few days ago has raised some concerns. But for now let’s enjoy the moment with our friends and share our stories.