Eastcapades

The Story

Posts in Kyrgyzstan
Osh, Kyrgyzstan - Kashgar, China  Aug 11 - Sept 4
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challenge

+8293m/-8011m

ROUTE

767.6km

    TIME

      79:23

off road

312km

SYLVIA

Man sieht nur, was man weiss (Goethe)

Aug 11 - Frank and I are alone again. Our friends from Belgium have departed for Bishkek and it leaves me with a bit of homesickness. We’re on the road for 1 month now, and I realize how spoiled my life in general is, and that I miss it. Family, friends, good health (with some hiccups), financial security, fun things to do, and Frank, of course, are my happiness. I realize that all these good things in my life make me also lethargic, scared to move out of my comfort zone. Being on the road in Central Asia has definitely moved me out of this zone, and I try to prove Goethe’s saying at the beginning of my story wrong - we only see, what we know. I want to see.

On the first day going to Sary Tash, we bike through the food supply of Kyrgystan. The first 50 km are full of fruit and vegetable fields. It is very hot and we try to leave very early in the morning to avoid the peak of the heat and we rest during lunch time. Finding a quiet spot for a short nap or a camping spot becomes almost impossible, kids spot us from far away and they must have a communication system to inform all kids in the next village that we’re on our way. One night, Frank had to chase them away, to discover an hour later they were hanging around our tents and bikes when we wanted to fall asleep. 

We stay one night in a guesthouse in Gulcha, a little town, with a busy bazaar and an active community. People stay their whole life where they are born, and young women & men come back to their home town once they have completed their degree.

And we’re again surprised by the kindness of everyone.  While we’re waiting in front of a guesthouse for the owner, a young woman helps us to find the phone number and calls her. Five minutes later, the owner shows up. After Gulcha, the environment changes dramatically and becomes more mountainous and desert like. The mountains have different shades of yellow brown and orange. When the sun goes down, it looks like they are on fire.We keep our routine to leave early in the morning and try to get close to the next pass. You might think the biking is getting easier since we started but it doesn’t seem to be that way. Although, I think I get more resistant to the effort, and the changing beautiful landscape helps me to overcome the fatigue. On the road, we meet again fellow travellers, Thomas and Judith from Switzerland, and chat a bit. It feels like meeting old friends on the road, even though we met only once before.

Shy little girl on the way to Sary Tash

After the pass, we arrive in Sary Tash, where we stay one night in a very bad guesthouse, most likely the worst so far. The old owner talks me into staying, my bad. Next day we move to Muras guesthouse, where Ainura und Gulzat, two sisters, run the business. It is a great place with a real shower & toilet, and great food. Gulzat is the chef of the place, and Ainura runs the business and is cleaning everything multiple times a day. Sheets are clean, and blankets are aired in the sun. 

The same evening, I catch a very bad stomach bug that leaves me completely dehydrated. My stomach can’t keep anything down, and I’m in agony the entire night. Next day, Ainura drives us to the hospital for an IV and to bring my 40 C fever down. Thanks to the good care of Frank, who was a bit scared to see me that sick, Vera and Teresa, my preferred Doctors, and both sisters, I am feeling better after 48 hours. We stay another 2 days to recover and start the way to the boarder of Tajikistan. One thing that should be noted, we had nice paved road from Osh to Sary Tash. Being remote on dirt roads is really nice, but a good paved road feels really good to our butts.

Before moving forward to Tajikistan, there are a few things that marked me in Kyrgystan:

  • Kyrgyz people love their family time. Tea, bread and Kaymak (creamy dairy product similar to butter) are shared almost every two hours in the day. Apparently, eating and drinking small quantities helps with altitude sickness. When they prepare their table, bread is abundant everywhere on the table, candies, sugar. A table has to look full.

  • A lot of Kyrgyz people have golden teeth. White ceramic teeth replacement must be difficult to find or more expensive.

  • Farmers and herders rarely have a tractor. Somehow, old Audi 100's (25-30 years old) do the trick.

  • Osh is a more beautiful city than Bishkek. There are more flowers, laughing children in the streets and parks, and even though the city is old everything is very clean and buildings nicely painted.

  • The Mal Bazaar (Animal-bazaar for sheep, goat, horses, cows and steers) is fascinating. Dusty, smelly and loud. It is a lot of fun to observe the negotiations between the herder and the buyer with the final handshake and money exchange.

  • Most important business in Kyrgyzstan? Organizing weddings or washing cars.

  • Women love to dress up and like vibrant colours. Men wear blue suits at weddings.

  • The Lenin Square in Osh is still blocked for traffic since the revolution in 2010. Chinese do and pay for street markings on the Lenin Square for an upcoming event. What do they want in return?

  • It is refreshing to see that youth is like everywhere in the world, their heads down and focused on their cellphones, on their horses and donkeys, and even when moving the cattle to the field in the morning.

  • There are still 1300 Kyrgyz nomads living in Afghanistan with no Identity and abandoned by the Afghan and Kyrgyz government. If you are interested, watch the short movie for more info: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=eQ48kW3yMbU

In short, we loved Kyrgystan. 

Aug 22 - we leave Sary Tash for Tajikistan. For the first time, we’re bothered by quite aggressive children on donkeys asking for candies and chocolate. When we say we don’t have any, they try to take items of our bikes, like water bottles. Frank has to yell a bit before they let us go. Crossing the Kyrgyz boarder is very quick and we’re in no man’s land for 20 km. We meet Kyrgyz soldiers on foot and in cars along the road. Apparently, the Kyrgyz government increased military presence along the boarder since the attack in Tajikistan. We’re now biking at much higher altitude, and the next pass we climb is ‘Kyzyl Art Pass’ 4280 m. Strong head wind, air is getting rare and we are very slow. It takes us longer to cross the Tajik boarder than the Kyrgyz boarder, first checkpoint it takes about 45 minutes before it is our turn to show our Passport and VBAO visa (special Visa allowing us to be in the boarder areas of Tajikistan). The next checkpoint is 50 m further down the road, we have to wait another 1H30 just to show our papers again. Some cash hidden in the Passport would most likely speed up the process. While waiting, we chat with a Polish person who organizes motorbike trips in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. He is now also operating in BC, so we might reconnect next year. When we tell him we want to camp right after the Tajik boarder, he tells it is impossible because it is too windy and there is no water. He gives us three litres of water and recommends for us to push to Karakul.

Once we’re in the valley, we understand what he meant. I put on my long pants, gloves and warm jacket to feel slightly comfortable. Luckily, we have tailwind and we fly on the paved road. The area has a very unfriendly climate, but the views are stunning. It is a moon-like landscape with the Chinese boarder on our left. There are hundreds of kilometres of uninterrupted barbed wired fences in wide open areas with the mountains behind. Even though, there is no conflict between both countries now, you can imagine how it was while Tajikistan was still part of the Soviet Union. Eventually, we decide to camp 20 km before Karakul which we can see in the far distance. Prior, I am so tired tears are running down my cheeks (remember, it is the first day back on my bike after my gastrointestinal issue). Frank can see I’m tired but we can not stop because there is no shelter from the wind. It is almost like in Alaska, just less cold. The wind is blowing so hard, that I have to lay on the tent so Frank can pitch the pegs. We are both freezing and take refuge very quickly in the tent. We are so tired that we decide just to have some leftover Samsy (little pockets of mutton, onions in dough, baked in a tandoori) from Ainura’s mother and some dried food for dinner before falling asleep with the wind howling around us. Next morning, it is like the wind storm never existed, and we have a nice breakfast in the warmth of the sun. Karakul - Karakul, Qarokul is a 25 km diameter lake within a 52 km impact crater, located in the Tajik National Park in the Pamir Mountains - is glittering in different blues from afar. There is one village at the lake also called Karakul. There are already many differences between the Kyrgyz and Tajik villages to be observed, even though the population is also Kyrgyz. Roofs are flat, and houses are white, mostly with blue doors. Children are a bit more shy and they are not waiting for you on the road. People in general are kind and more reserved. After a bottle of Fanta, some bread and cheese in Karakul, we hit the road again to bike along the lake. We’re pretty much alone on the road with maybe some Chinese in the far observing us from the other side of the barbed wire. We bike another 20 km of paved road and we decide to camp before we hit the dirt road a bit further down the next morning. 

The area we bike now is even more bare than before. Almost nobody lives here, except a few nomads every 10 km. Headwinds are already blowing which doesn’t make the climb to Ak Baitat Pass (4753 m) easier. Surprisingly, we can almost bike the last 4 km of the pass. Are my legs getting stronger, at last?!

And then 70 km downhill to Murghab on a paved road. Heaven!

Murghab is the capital of Murghob District in the Pamir Mountains of Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, Tajikistan. With a population of 4,000, Murghab is about the only significant town the eastern half of Gorno-Badakhshan. The little town is without electricity since the Russians left in 1991. Inhabitants who are a bit more wealthy have small solar panels on their roof, but the population is in general poor. While we bike through downtown, we discover that administration buildings are being renovated and painted, and wonder why.

We stay in a nice guesthouse called Sarykul Lodge. The owner, Nurzat speaks English and welcomes us with a nice cup of tea and light lunch. I guess we think people are nice and welcoming when they serve us drinks and food as we are always hungry. Nurzat explains us that Rhamon, President of Tajikistan, will visit Murghab to inaugurate a small new power plant around September 5 that will provide electricity to the whole town. Everyone seems to be very happy to have power in their homes.

With Nurzat’s help, we book her brother Kanat, a tourist guide, for two days and drive to Zorkul. It is a lake in the Pamir Mountains that runs along the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. It extends east to west for about 25 km. On the way to Zorkul, we drive off-road through wild and remote areas. He doesn’t speak a lot of English but he masters driving his old Russian SUV through rivers and mountains.

On the way out to Zorkul, we visited his wife’s family, ate Marco Polo liver and fresh bread. Delicious. At Zorkul, we slept in a nomad yurte and next day we returned to Murghab. The more time I spend with people in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the closer I feel and the more I want to help.  Nurzat’s son f.eg. had to go the hospital because he was in terrible pain. It turns out that his front teeth are rotten and the dentist is unable to pull them out. The only treatment are painkillers. Many young children in both countries have rotten teeth at a very young age. I am not sure if it is due to the lack of calcium or too many candies.

What I liked about Tajikistan:

  • Tajik people. A little bit more reserved than in Kyrgyzstan, but same strong hospitality.

  • Wide open spaces and some solitude.

  • Marco Polo liver. It almost tastes like chocolate.

  • Being invited to a wedding without knowing anybody. We were just passing by, and the father of the bride invited us to share food and tea with the party.

 After our two day excursion, Kanat drove us from Murghab to Kulma Pass to cross the boarder to China. Crossing the Tajik boarder was easy, but once arrived on the Chinese side, we had to unpack all our bags, all our belongings got screened three times, us included. And Frank’s phone got hacked by the Chinese boarder agents. China is definitely a different world, and I promise never to complain again about US boarder control. We even have to put our bikes in a Tajik truck to drive through a 20 km highly secured area before being checked for the third time. However, the Muztgagh Ata mountain view makes up for all the bad feelings I can have about Chinese boarder control. It is the second highest of the mountains which form the northern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. It is sometimes regarded as being part of the Kunlun Shan, although physically it is more closely connected to the Pamirs.

The road connecting Kashgar to Pakistan is in a wonderful smooth pavement. For security, or better said oppression, reasons there are cameras everywhere. Military and police are omnipresent. When we want to pitch our tent, we are interrupted within 10 minutes and have to bike another 15 km with a military pick-up truck following us to make sure we don’t stop before. The rule is to report to a police office and they then force you to go to a guesthouse. Obviously, we didn’t do that. There is surveillance everywhere on the road to Kashgar and they are cameras every 100 m, and cameras point even into small dirt roads. 

For more information about what is going on in Xinjiang Province , read the following article: https://www.businessinsider.com/xianjiang-province-china-police-state-surveillance-2018-7

Frank doesn’t recognize Kashi (Kashgar) anymore. Almost all the adobe houses have been destroyed and rebuilt new. It now looks like a Disneyland Chinese Tourist attraction. The Uyghur population has to carry an ID card, and depending on their status, they can enter an area or not. As Westerners, we never had to show our ID or bags. It must be terrible for them to be considered as a second class citizen. Even the malbazaar (animal bazaar) feels sad compared to Osh’s bazaar. There is no ‘joie de vivre’ in Kashgar and we decide to move on and fly to Lanzhou.

So even though I try to see, I might not be able to understand the political situation in Xinjiang with my spoiled white nose mentality. For now, the well established mentality to pay bribes in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan seems so much more acceptable to me than the police state in Xinjiang. 

A few more short notes before I go:

  • as you can read, I did not get rid of my diarrhea.

  • I don’t take the picture if I have to get off my bike. It is too tiring. Frank, however, can be found on many photographs, standing, kneeling or laying on the ground. Search for Waldo :)

  • We saw many cars participating in the Mongul rally. 400 vehicles start in Prague and drive 10,000 km all the way to Mongolia without support in small cars. Young people from all over Europe participate and try to collect 1000 Euro for a good cause of their choice. Just before Karakul, we also met a Belgian team with 4 young people squeezed in a small car, looking tired but having fun.

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  • In Kashgar, we saw people walking around in orange safety vests and wooden sticks. You will find out why in the above article.

  • The declination of the roads are precisely indicated.

  • As soon as we leave Xinjiang province for Gansu District, people are lovely even though we don’t understand a word.

  • I love my bike mechanic!

FRANK

OSH

Fred, Jean Phil and Matthieu, our Belgian friends left us. It was pure chance we were able to meet with them in Osh as they were ending their cycle Tajikistan trip. It was a real Belgian couple of days. Sharing stories from the road, making fun of our weight loss and of course talking about the terrorist attack that happened a few days before on their itinerary. The attack has shocked all the cycletouring community - 4 cyclists randomly targeted, among them a couple who had been on the road already for 4 years. That episode has to be added to the 2 Germans cyclists killed and robbed only few weeks earlier in Mexico. Quickly claimed by Daesh, the Tajik attack, is more a concern for us at the moment. Cyclists are easy prey. Slow, wild camping most of the time, there is not much chance of a quick escape.

The M41, also known as the Pamir Hwy, links Dushanbe in Tajikistan to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan. Recently open to foreigners, the road quickly became a must for many cycle tourists and motorcyclists looking for adventure and remote Himalaya valleys. A challenging itinerary with many passes above 4000m and unpaved roads.

Rumors of another possible attack is spreading out quickly. Cyclists are perfect targets. We are like pearls on a string...a roughly 1000km unique string through deep valleys in a mineral environment with no real exit.

The general feeling expressed by cyclists met on our way in Kyrgyzstan is positive. Most of the inhabitants are Ismai’li, it was a unique tragic incident. A message sent to Rahmon, the Tajik president, shaking the country with new laws and rules. Obviously not appreciated by some of the inhabitants. The attack occurred in his hometown. Point has been made. Period.

Decision taken

We are leaving Osh with the sun on our face. South instead of West as initially thought. Compromise found and done between us. Team decision. It will be the western side of Tajikistan. Anyway,  we were less keen to cycle along the Uzbekistan border as initially planned. Still 34c in Osh and the itinerary to Dushanbe would have been in that heat for few more days. A couple of cyclists met were not too enthusiast by that road cycled either.

By heading straight to Murghab, we may miss the Wakhan corridor but still discover a very nice section of the Pamir. The original idea to cross the Kulma pass that gives access to still China remains, though. The pass has been open to foreigner since September 2017, linking the Pamir with the Karakoram. When I was cycling the Karakoram on the way to Pakistan 25 years ago I promised myself to come back for the Pamir one day, when the pass would be accessible.  

200km of mountains from Osh to Sary Tash, last village before the Tajik border but also an unbelievable lookout to the entire Pamir massif and the Lenin peak, a 7100m summit. We easily managed the heavy traffic out of Osh. Never had any real problem with Kyrgyz drivers. Trucks and cars show respect to the cyclists. Slowly but surely we climbed the first “pass leaving the 1000m elevation of Osh to the 2450m of the Chyrchyk Pass. The road crossed fields and ends up in a green alpine environment. We are surprised to discover many yurts at the pass, places to eat and to re-hydrate. A very  

enjoyable 20km of downhill brought us back to a much lower elevation in Gulcha. From green landscapes we are back to dry and hot mineral scenery. Gulcha is the gateway to a fantastic Alay region. We may have missed the info but it seems that the area deserves much more attention and probably requires, by itself, a lot of time to be explored. It has been a real “coup de cœur”. Arriving around noon, we thought we could find some food for a lunch. We’ve finally spent the night in a guesthouse and wandered in that little town full of life with a nice bazar. We knew the next pass would be more of a challenge. Known to be a “ double head” pass we left Gulcha right before sunrise. Beating the heat for few hours. A light headwind forced us to stay  steady, saving the energy for later.

The 3615m Taldyk Pass could have been a piece of cake with the strong tailwind that finally showed up around noon when the deep valley heats up and creates that airflow from hot to cold. Captivated by so many varieties in the scenery and all the little villages we went through we multiplied the stops for rest or for pictures. As usual, snacking or camping in a village or too close to it brings a lot of attention. Especially from the kids. From curiosity at first, to source a of entertainment. To be honest, it is fun for us too....for a while. 

Sometimes surrounded by 15 kids staring at you. Commenting the big fat tires, begging to have some kind of souvenirs from the bike....insisting to have that red carabiners that has its purpose with our gear on the bike. After a while they lose their interest for about everything, us included. Yet, they stick  around. Our camp spot becomes their playground. So we watch them playing, running around our bikes, our tent, ....we wait, .....we watch. We know that soon we will  take the stove out and start cooking we will be that magnet again and go back to scratch. So we hold on with the fragile hope that eventually they will go. It is getting late, we are hungry. Are the parents not concerned their kids have been gone for sooooooo long?

Yes! ...Here they are. 

Hi! ... we are from Canada

You have nice beautiful kids. We trust it is time for them to go back home and have dinner, right ?!

Ah, ok, first they want to know who we are, how much the bikes cost, if we are married, how many kids we have - please Sylvia, do not take your iPad to show the pictures of the kids and grand kids, please ....don’t ....NO!

She did it !

When they have answers to most of their questions they - the parents- leave back home. Satisfied and happy to know that their kids can stay playing around our camp spot safely...we  are nice polite Canadians.

Maybe the darkness after the sunset will be our last chance.
It is  .... sometimes.

The real climb to the double head pass can not be missed. We switched from our soft 3% grade to a good 10%. We switched from spinning the legs type of effort to a hike the bike on that bloody uphill. Why are we complaining? We have been through this more than once and this time the road is paved the wind is helping. Well 10% is ok for a while but here it seems endless. The road switchbacks can be seen far above our heads. Sylvia starts to count in German (you must have read the previous story to understand ), I can hear her drop from 25 double steps down to 20....a quick look at my gps Garmin watch, another 6km to the pass, another 300m of elevation gain. Sounds totally doable. We have done much harder. There is a kind of exercise happening in your brain. You try to figure out what 6km is like back home. Ok, it is like 15 laps on the track. Well, when I am on the track, it is at sea level, I am not pushing a heavily loaded bike and I try to avoid being there at the warmest time of the day. Does not help.

We were not over our surprises. Soon we dropped to the other side, a

I quick look over my shoulder, Sylvia is still there not far behind, moving.... stopping....bending over her handlebar to get a short rest...sometimes only for few seconds then back in motion. Leading in a switchback I can discreetly observe her as she progresses to the turn. Checking and counting her step #’s.  Huh! I need to double check that. I counted only 15 double steps. Yup, confirmed. I need to find something quickly to avoid trouble. Not that she ever complained in the past. Really,  she always shows a positive attitude even when it was really tough. I guess her past long distance race experiences helps.

Another 5km, I need to find some kind of reward or mental support/ distraction/ diversion other than naively claim “almost there”. She has a problem with the word “ almost”.

In a cloud of dark smoke a little pickup truck overtook Sylvia and slowed down at my level. No clue what the passenger says but it sounds like he asks if we want a ride..... to the top. I can not see Sylvia hidden by the road switchback but this could be “my” reward.

When she showed up she can see me loading the bike on the pick up truck. Will she be endlessly appeciative to understand that I dropped my body in the middle of the road to stop the truck? Not sure of her reaction, quickly I know it will be fine. From 15 double steps she went to a full “jog the bike” pace and joined us out of breath with a big smile on her face. I am such a good guy.

Sary Tash and survive

A quick snack at the pass and we have only few km downhill to Sary Tash. Once again unbelievable scenery. So different from the other side. We can see the village, the huge wide valley and the white peaks of the Pamir. Really intimidating barriers of some 7000m summits. We ended up in a nice, very nice, guesthouse. Muras guesthouse is owned by a family from Osh. Our thoughts were to have a rest day before heading to Tajikistan and some very high passes to cross. A sitting toilet and real hot shower.... real luxuries for us after many days of cold river water and squats.

Wandering in the village, a very picturesque place, clouds are almost all gone. The Pamir mountains are majestic.

We rarely stay in a guesthouse. If we do it is to break the camp routine, wash our clothes, hopefully have a WiFi. It is also an opportunity to meet other cyclists/motor-bikers - both very present in what seems to be a trendy loop now. We trade between us the local currency, everyone emptying pockets to get rid of their last notes or coins to exchange them with those traveling to the opposite direction.

As always these are friendly moments with people from all around the world sharing the same passion.

Bug

Sylvia has been dealing, almost from day one, with some stomach issue.

We followed the rules but hard to not sometimes eat and drink in a nomad yurt. Altitude, drought climate, and the  effort force us to drink a lot...and often. The rivers, creeks, streams are not always running. Many are dry this time of the year. Local rain storms turn the clear rivers into muddy brown sources of water and damaging our water filter. As soon as we find some water to filter we try to stock up at least 4liters each. Still, that does not cover the needs. 

We lose weight - food is not the best thing we find in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan- probably around 8kgs each since the beginning and we are always on the edge of being dehydrated.

Literally, within few minutes Sylvia shifted from upbeat to really, really sick.

All night she will have deep spasms and vomit every 20 minutes. No fluid can stay in the stomach. She is vomiting on a totally empty stomach. In the morning she has 40c fever. Not a good place to deal with this.

Lucky us, Ainura and her sister who own the guesthouse were a good support. They helped us by feeding Sylvia with appropriate food and introduced us to the local nurse/doctor. The clinic is a regular building not much different than any other house in the village. 

After a face time with Belgium and Sylvia’s sister-in-law and niece, both in the medical field, it has been decided to find the possibility of an IV. Easy to decide...not that easy to find in this remote area.

The nurse we meet says it is ok to make one from scratch. Many needles, thinner and thinner will be needed as she could not find a good vein.  Dehydrated and at 3200m, the veins are not very easy to find and to reach. 

A shot in the butt to calm the abdomen spasms and only 250ml from the 500ml will be injected. We stopped the bloody mess then. Returning to the guesthouse, I will force Sylvia to drink one sip of electrolyte every 15-20’ for 36 hours.  

3 days later we hit the gravel roads to the Tajik border, still a little bit weak but in the mood to move. We will do an easy first day bike to monitor her and assess how well she is.

90km and 2 passes above 4000m

The first 25km are on a sort of pavement. Crossing the wide bottom flat valley. We left early as usual. Light breeze, great light, the mountains get closer. We discover slowly the narrow valley given access between these colossal mountains. Gravel replaced asphalt and we reach the Kyrgyz border. Quick formalities done we are now in a 20km stretch of nomansland. Few army patrols met reminded us the fragile politic situation of such places. A little short of breath and obviously not in a great condition, Sylvia is moving well. The beauty of the place keeps us  distracted and entertained. Then become the first pass reality. We did it slowly but in a good

time. We keep in mind that another one follows just after ....the highest one, 4650m, is planned  to be done in 2 days, so we did not put any pressure and expectation on our aims.

A little drop and we reach the Tajik border. Not as fast and smooth than the Kyrgyz. A group of motocyclistes from Poland passed us on the climb. We caught them up and get stuck with  them. They need to register one by one their motorcycles. We will waste over 2h there but made new friends. The leaders and guides for the groups are from Poland and Australia. They have been organizing trips in the regions for years , they know every little corner of it. 

Big black clouds are coming up....wind is picking up, temperatures is dropping...not good signs at 4000m.

The owner of the adventure company tells us - no chance to bivy beyond the pass as we planned, no water either between the 2 passes. 

All formalities done we shake hands, even hug each other, if I remember well and they took off leaving us with another 3liters of their water supply. 

We flew downhill, tricky as the gravel road is full of gravel traps. First sights of the Chinese advance security barbed wire fence that marks the entire border in Tajikistan. An amazing work done for an illusion of security. But I guess the point has to be made.

Very unwelcoming area, blowing wind, clouds of dust, landscape looks like those pictures of planet Mars.  Fantastic but really not a place to pitch a tent.

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We will half circumnavigate the lake by its East side, and end our day in So momentum and wind helping we decided to cross over the next pass. Did it. Getting dark  and now really cold. Noless wind on the other side. Still tailwind. We can barely hear talking to each other. So we keep moving. Headlamps ready in case it is getting too dark. We can vaguely see Karakul lake...maybe another 20km to the village. It was supposed to be an easy first day after Sylvia’s stomach problems. We ended up in a gravel ravine on the edge of the now paved road, covered by with dust, shivering, trying to pitch a tent willing to play with the wind instead of helping us to build up our shelter for the night.

It will be a cold snack for dinner, as we warm up in our solid bombproof Hilleberg tent. The short day concluded with over 80km, 2 passes above 4200m. We are tired but well. At midnight the wind calmed down.

Closer to the sky

We stopped in karakul for a lunch, we left later than usual. Superb scenery, superb morning light. Glaciers, the salty Karakul lake created in a meteorite crater, sand dunes (yes, sand dunes at 3500m) and the peaceful village houses made with Adobe and with their white walls and blue doors. A taste of Greece, in Tajikistan. Another night in a dusty ravine and we hit the highlight of the Pamir circuit. The 4650m Ak-Baital Pass is the second highest road pass in the world - that is what they claim ....definitely the highest in the Pamir.

Again no words to describe the scenery, the ambiance, the loneliness. We have not seen anyone. All is just for us. We are pushing hard but feeling strong. Right before the real pass, a little plateau with a creek and a tiny stretch of grass along the creek. The rest is only minerals and rock. From faddish yellow to dark brown. So beautiful that we do not care too much about the washboard gravel road that makes any effort at that elevation a pain in the .... 

Photos at the pass. We did it ...instant of joy and emotion. Sylvia has recovered miraculously very well. Big smile on her face.

Stressed on the breaks, the downhill is even more spectacular. We need to stay focused on the road surface, though. Full of loose gravel, sand or big holes. Tricky.

And the wind is back in our favor. We have a quick sorry feeling for those who have done the pass northbound. 

45km before Murghab we found a paradise camp spot. All the needs, green thick grass (no dust), a creek (with clear water), and great surroundings. We keep the last 45km for tomorrow. It is all downhill anyway.

Murghab and the Sary Kol guesthouse

We avoid the classic Pamir lodge stop. Full of adventurers of all kinds. Rather we prefer a quiet family guesthouse at the end of the village. Nurzat and Kanak her brother are our host. Probably one of the best place we stayed with Muras lodge in Sary tash. Both extremely clean, with a good atmosphere and hosting by super friendly people. Nothing better than a family business. The Pamir lodge is running down and has no more to offer than our accommodation choice. There is no electricity anywhere in the village and water comes from the pumps and wells in the streets.

By chance we see a Swiss cyclist couple met already many times in different places. 

We feel like almost family. Hugging each other like we have been known for years.

Only few days in Tajikistan and we feel in love already. We want more. Kyrgyzstan has been so green, so magic in many aspects, we thought we could not be more surprised anymore. Tajikistan is so different, that we feel we are really in another country. Dry, dusty, minerals...tortured.

Ainura from the Muras guesthouse in Sary Tash is working for an organization that painfully tries to bring back isolated Kyrgyz stuck with no more identity above 4500m in a little corner of the Pamir near the Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, China unstable border. Pushed there by the war, the fear, different circumstances, they have been forgotten by the world. They are dying there not able to go anywhere.

The story of these 1200 souls is really heartbreaking. No real hope for them.

We made a deal with Kanak. He and his old Russian jeep will take us for a couple of days off the grid in some secret places to be discovered. He knows the area, sometimes totally off road, the jeep took us through places that can not be described properly. We went to some wrecked places, left behind by the Russians. Trucks, buildings falling apart, even an old observatory on a summit of a mountain. The Russian jeep took us everywhere beyond imagination. Kanak not only knows very well that little corner squeezed between 4 countries disputing their borders he is also a very skilled off road driver with a great sense of humor. We stopped and visited some nomad friends, spent nights with them in their yurt camp in a magic area. From all the trips done biking, hitchiking, or backpacking in the world I have never seen so much diversity, so much beauty in these both countries.

Back in Murghab, we repacked everything and Kanak insisted to give some ride towards the Chinese border to ease our day.

Kulma pass 4300m. I dreamed about it many time since ‘95 when I was cycling with a friend the Karakoram on my bike trip from Siberia through Mongolia, China, Pakistan, India, Nepal.

As expected the view when you approach the pass is stunning. Slowly as you climb the pass you discover the summit of Muztagh Ataon the Chinese side. A colossal mountain covered by a huge glaciers at 7500m. It is so big, so close that it seems we can almost touch it. Impressive.

Welcome to China

The process to cross the newly open border is...let’s say....very strict. The border has always been open to trucks exporting goods from China. But not to foreigners. Everything is new, security infrastructure at a level of a secret base. Cameras everywhere, army, police, multiple check points, building to go through. Empty our panniers, searching our cameras, iPads, devices, scrolling down all our photo libraries and folders.

When we thought it was over, it is starting again with other police or army guys. Then, we have been “asked” politely but firmly to load our bikes in the trailer of one of these trucks on their way back to China. Empty. China exports....doesn’t import. The truck driver has no choice but to accept to drop us at the bottom of the 14km downhill to ...the next check point. 

A final full inspection and we are free to hit the Karakorum highway with its very smooth asphalt. Leaving Pakistan (Tajikistan?) and the Kunjerab pass behind us we are heading North for the first time in our trip. No need of face sunscreen today. 

You enter in Xinjiang and you change your watch. Not to the official time zone, though. Even at 4000km from Beijing everything is at Beijing time. We feel a little bit of bearing when we realize we are still cycling while our watch shows 7:30pm and the sun is still high in the sky. It is dark until 7:30am but sunny till 10pm. Disturbing. Even our Garmin watches showing the time based on our gps position are lost. Strangely our Gps positions are not accurate anymore. Our tracker is not working properly. We are in a different world, in a different dimension. 

Could have been confirmed  by the unexpected sight of camels along the road at 4000m. 

Maybe just the time to pitch the tent and recover from all the events of the day.

Rules...

Fences everywhere, it was not like that the last time I was here. We understand. Sensitive area. Too many borders around. Sometimes many rows of fences. We finally find a breach. We sneak in and hide behind a sort of a gravel dam. No one around, perfect and discreet. We have not even finished pitching the last peg than an army jeep showed up. 

Clearly, we are not welcome for the night here.

Repacking everything and being forced to move further for another 15km. The jeep will escort us 13km and disappears.

It is almost dark when we found a spot behind a sort of a tourist building made by a set of little booths. Based on the front doors they are stores selling food and tourist stuff.

The spot is definitely ugly but we need to sleep.

The next 2 days will be take us through canyons, deep gorges, surrounded by glaciers and very unstable terrain. Multiple landslide. The road has been greatly improved since 95. 

It is pay back time for us now. All the tailwind we had in Tajik while heading South is now headwind as we are heading North. So strong that we have to push hard on the pedals on downhill 6% grade. Oooops sorry, the sign says 5.9%. 

We really feeling we are leaving the mountains and heading to the desert and the flat part of Xinjiang.

The 245km from the border to Kashgar has been a smooth ride despite the headwind. We pushed to cover the last 120km in one stretch. We had no local money and been told by the police in a small town that we were not allowed to go in a bank before Kashgar to exchange 

some currency. So unfortunately no reason to stop anywhere on the way. Too bad. 

The entire 245km were also a good way to be educated to the local rules. Every km and when crossing some villages every 100m, an arch “straddles” the road with many cameras. A flash light confirms a picture has been taken of anything or anyone moving under the arch on the road. There must be plenty of us, more than 245, I hope they have at least one not blurry.

The Chinese are consistent. All Kashgar is under siege. Multiple check points, in the streets, for each hotel or store/mall entrance. Mainly for locals. The security is everywhere. An obsession. Tensions between the government, its interior politic, and the Uyghurs claiming their independence is sweating from everywhere. Everyone is suspicious but tourists are preserved from any check points. Their pictures taken everywhere and stored in, probably, gigantic computer hard drives seems to be enough. We stayed in one of those hotels allowed to take foreigners as clients. Kashgar is not the Kashgar I saw in the past. It is a huge big city now. High rises, traffic, not the desert sort of oasis from the past. Still touristically claims to be the capital of the Silk Road. All the old city made with mud brick houses is now 99% gone. A reproduction of some quarters is now a main tourist attraction and an opportunity for some Chinese entrepreneur from other provinces to run businesses. The Uyghurs are definitely now a minority, the famous Sunday animal market is sad compared with what it used to be and definitely not as animated as other Central Asia animal Markets. 

Kashgar being a milepost in our trip, it is time to wrap up the first segment of our route and to work on part 2. All will start again soon we find a way to move more East since Tibet remains closed for us. Rumors say the Chinese government may be ready to open the autonomous Tibet region to foreigners next year....

Balykchy ( Issyk Kul) to Osh July 21-Aug 7
eastcapades-graphics-4.jpg

challenge

+12868m/-13686m

ROUTE

737km

    TIME

      83:10

off road

571km

SYLVIA

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! 

Cooling off

Rhythm of life is quite different hereand 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. 

Daniel, Gulmira’s youngest son

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! 

Lunch time with nomad family

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. 

Volleyball game at Song Kul Lake

How to build a yurt

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.

Nomad’s valley guest house

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. 

Pizza with friends in Osh

Favourite Gear
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.
My glasses
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
My diarrhea

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

 

 

 

 

FRANK

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.

 

KyrgyzstanZenija Esmits
Kyrgyzstan Bishkek - Issyk Kul Lake
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challenge

+ 1758m/-734m

ROUTE

201km

    TIME

    18:24

off road

52km

SYLVIA

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. 

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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.

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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. 

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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)
  • Salt
  • 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.

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FRANK

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.

Short cut

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. 

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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.

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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

Hospitality

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.