From Shymkent, whim took me detouring off into Kyrgyzstan. I had found out that I wouldn’t need a visa to visit, and was ready for an abrupt change in landscape. In the words of Bilbo Baggins, ‘I want to see mountains again, Gandalf, mountains‘. Kyrgyzstan purportedly derives its name from Turkic ‘We are 40’ – referring to a confederations of 40 regional clans united in the 9th Century AD against the Uyghurs.
Heading east, finally without a headwind, I made rapid time to Taraz – travelling 90 miles the first day depsite a late start, and crossing into Kyrgyzstan the following morning. The border crossing was thankfully easy and fast – as a Russian-style blini I had eaten for lunch was attempting a re-visit in full force. Having passed over I sped into a nearby squat-job, not caring in the slightest that I was over charged, and regained my dignity.
Climbing from the border the road soon begins to climb – passing the imposing concrete edifice of the Soviet-era Kirov Dam. The Dam is apparently used for water supply for agriculture in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Another larger dam which I would later pass-by, the Toktogul Dam, was constructed in the 1980s and provides for the majority of Kyrgyzstan’s power supply, as well as water supply for agriculture. Both dam’s were pivotal in the demise of the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan.
From there, views over an admittedly stunning reservoir basin open out; with banded geology showing the variable water levels, and lush green growth, juxtaposed starkly with arid rockland and dusty mountain slopes, running along river and stream courses, following the main road away east towards Talas.
Passing Talas, rolling through largely unremarkable farmland constituting a wide river valley, I reached the start of the real climbing – a 1600m ascent over 28km, summiting the Otmok Pass at 3326m. The climb wends upwards, fairly unrelenting due to a seeming dislike for switchbacks, through a timeless landscape of pastures dotted with yurts, horses, cattle, and goats.
In hindsight, such a climb is best not saved for the end of another 90 mile day, but the chill air and exhilaration of topping out as the sun set behind me soon reinvigorated me. As did an elating fast descent on the opposing side, sweeping beneath snow-capped peaks, to camp amongst yurts beside a burbling stream.
From there I climbed over southward toward the Toktogul reservoir, cheating slightly towards the end of the climb by clasping onto the rear of a slow-moving lorry.
At the top of the pass I was called over to a yurt, and treated to bread, a thick cream, and tea. Apparently bread is very important within Kyrgyz hospitality, being always offered to a guest, no matter how passing a visit. Alec, the man who had invited me in, encouraged me to follow him as he milked his horses, and assisted a neighbour to preserve a recently butchered calf – involving the splitting of bones and salting of the flesh and marrow.
Leaving Alec and his wife to handle a knife salesman who appeared towards the end of the meat-curing process, I descended some 1000m through a steep wooded valley. Slowly changing geology and increasing temperature saw the woodland giving way to an arid red-rock landscape akin to the setting of a Spaghetti Western, and eventually an other worldly terrain of dune-like hills, ravines, and shark-toothed mountains, abstractly coloured in tones of golds, yellows, reds, and browns, offset by the aquamarine-blue of the reservoir beyond. I camped and swam, and watched an army of ants erode one of my chocolate biscuits with a voracious patience.
I was then presented with a choice, a 280km route following the main road along a river valley, or what my mapping indicated to be a direct road up and over a mountain range, to Jalal-Abad. Feeling adventurous, I figured I may as well attempt the up and over – two steep unpaved climbs of 1000m, before a long downhill to the city. 300m short of the first peak I thought better of the plan – the roughness of the track, large gravel metalling and rockfall, necessitating a good amount of old-fashioned bike pushing, had already cost me nearly 5 hours, and I was running low on water in the intense heat. The foray wasn’t a waste of time however, the views were fantastic, the riding amusing, and the copious wild marijuana growing along the track explained the relaxed nature of some of the locals.
I turned back, popped my helmet on, and hurtled back down the mountain track. Returning to the open hillside below I quickly approached a cheerful old man in one of the fantastic tall traditional Kyrgyz hats (Kalpaks). The man requested a ride down the mountain on my panier rack, to which I could only acquiesce. A kilometre on my already damaged rear tyre, with its much patched inner tube, decided the extra weight was quite enough, thank you very much, and popped. The old man continued on while I set about repairing the puncture. Passing the old man again he gave some kind words (I presume), and suggested the main road might be better than the route I had been attempting. A short while later a similar experience occured, albeit with a youth, who needed a lift home further down the hillside. On he hopped, and on we rolled. Dropping him home I continued my descent, soon popping the rear inner tube again. I swapped the tube out for another slightly-less patched one, and continued on. Again I got a puncture. The high heat, it seems, was softening the patches, which were then being plaster free when the bike impacted rocks on the track. I pushed the bike the last few kilometres to the road and then hitched a few further, in an onion filled van, to Kara-Kul.
I hoped to stay in a hotel there and do some fixing, but the hotel was closed. Instead I sat in the shade and sewed my true together, covering the seam with a patch, and removing the rubber ‘boot’ I had previously fitted. I then used my last patches resealing the inner tube. I simultaneously managed to politely deter the local drunk who was attempting to threated me and demand money… Following which a group of local kids came to hang out and watch me work – in return I sent them to fill my water bottles.
I leapt back on my bike, riding past to Toktogul dam, and into a stunning rugged river gorge, navigated by and undulating road, and cutting through some of the most scarily pitch-black tunnels imaginable (fortunately short ones). In the gorge the heat ramped up again, as I descended into a general area of flatter farmland which runs along the border of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan all the way to Osh. A couple of long days riding through less inspiring landscape bought me to Osh. The only real excitement being that I had another puncture, and was forced to use my pliers to ‘drill’ a larger opening into my rims to accommodate a too-wide inner tube I’d acquired in Shymkent, and had kept (just incase). The butchery worked. I also tried one of the Kyrgyz national drinks – Jarma; a fermented drink, served chilled, of flour, yeast, salt, animal fat, and bits of barley. It is better than it sounds, though reminiscent of sour pancake batter with chewy lumps.
In Osh I visited the bazaar – a sprawling maze of shops forming the largest market in Central Asia – purchasing some questionable Chinese-made inner tubes. The bazaar has historic precedent owing the it’s situation at the mid-point of the former Silk Road. I then visited the pictographs and caves of the Sulayman Mountain (a series of four rock pinnacles).
Two and a half days of hard riding and my two highest passes (3615m and 3712m) bought me, via Saray-Tash to the Chinese border at Irkeshtam. The route was stunning, very cold, and well traveled by cyclists heading in the opposite direction having completed the Pamir Highway. The Highway runs through Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.
A long and tedious, though otherwise painless, border crossing followed, including a compulsory taxi ride from the Kyrgyz border to the ‘official’ Chinese customs some 140km further east at Uluquat. While waiting for the taxi I met other cyclists and travelers who had also been forced to endure the long tedium of the border crossing – including two Swedish cyclists (Kim and Karin) whom I joined that evening, when finally across, for a first Chinese feast, and a night-time hunt for a camp spot; the highway, along the entirety of its length into Kashgar is lined with barbed-wire fencing and steep embankments. Eventually we found a slightly flattened section sandwiched between highway and fence, kipping a few hours, before rolling along a gloriously paved downhill all the way to Kashgar; where I presently reside (and battle it out with internet censorship and access issues – uploading photos was a chore, hence an odd mix of photos, not particularly the best or most appropriate, but the ones that actually managed to overcome the internet hurdles and make it to cyberspace).