We’re back on the road again, hurrah! After waiting and waiting in Bishkek for our Chinese visas, we realised that whatever the ‘problem’ was, it wasn’t getting sorted out any time soon and so decided to go on a trip across the border to Almaty to try our luck there instead. It turns out the problem is confined to Kyrgyzstan and after ten more days of waiting in Kazakhstan we were staring at the visas pasted into our passports in disbelief, checking they were real. It was a pretty enjoyable wait as well- we stayed with a couple of different couch surfing and warm showers hosts, one of whom took us hiking/scrambling up the mountains around the city.
With the elusive Chinese visas firmly in hand, we went back to Bishkek for a few days to get ready for the next leg of our trip. This isn’t actually directly to China, as if we entered straight away we’d hit South East Asia at the height of the monsoon season, which doesn’t sound fun on a bike. First, we decided to have an adventure in the southern part of Kyrgyzstan, and then on to the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan (the second highest road in the world)! We persuaded two French cyclists, Nico and Vienne, who we met in Almaty to come with us, along with our friend Jonas, a hardcore solo Swiss cyclist who was also sitting out the winter with us in Bishkek. After a stress-free day getting the Tajik visa (thank you Tajik embassy), we found ourselves gathered in the rain the next morning in the middle of the city, waiting to leave it for the very last time…ever. It was a good feeling.
We lost Jonas on the first day. He wanted to try an ingenious ‘shortcut’ over the mountains on a dirt track through the snow over 3000m high (I mentionned he was hardcore) so we agreed to meet up with him again at lake Song Köl, if he made it to the other side alive. For the time being at least, we’d be taking the main road towards Naryn. The first few days were repetition for me and Joe, as we’d already ridden to lake Issy Kul the previous month, so it was exciting to turn off to the south on day three into new territory, with the whole of the previously inaccessible (due to snow) south of the country laid out ahead of us. It felt like summer had finally arrived as we got into the relaxing rhythm of camping again, and in a group every evening was more of an occasion- campfires, radio, cooling off in lakes and rivers after hot days of riding, congnac (I blame the French)… On Nico’s birthday, Vienne even baked a pretty decent birthday cake on the fire! I didn’t know that was possible. Wild camping is so easy in Kyrgyzstan- nobody seems surprised to find you, and often the local shepherds will join you for a chat in the morning.
We never actually made it to lake Song Köl. After struggling with the rocky track leading up to it for a few hours and making slow progress, Jonas called to tell us the road was closed further up due to a huge blockage of ice. He’d had to turn back from his crazy path for the same reason and had checked with the CBT about getting to the lake. It was hard to believe it was still winter up there when we’d spent the past few days baking and trying not to burn in the sun. So that was a demoralising day, especially as the call came just after we’d enjoyed a steep downhill section, which we then had to crawl our way back up. The day continued with rain, headwind and a puncture for Nico, so by early afternoon we were sheltered under a roof doing bike repairs and drinking tea and biscuits, without much enthusiasm for getting back out there. Luckily for us, that’s when we were found by a local old man who addressed us all as ‘sportsmen’ (I like this term) and instructed us to spend the rest of the day and night with him and his wife in their house. We didn’t need to think twice about it. A few hours later we were almost delirious with the luxury of being able to use their ‘banya’- basically a stone room with a scalding hot water tap on one side and an ice cold one on the other, with buckets to throw it over your head. On a rainy day and after washing in rivers and lakes all week, it was heaven.
Our experience of warm local hospitality continued the next afternoon after climbing the 3000m mountain pass leading towards Naryn (no snow at the top of this one). Halfway through the stunning descent, we stopped for a second on the outskirts of a small village to debate having some lunch, when a boy appeared and, in really impressive English, invited us to come and be guests at his village picnic to celebrate Victory Day. We turned to see a long table laid out on the grass, with about forty people sat around it, beckoning us over. The next few hours were spent feasting on homemade bread and salads, drinking tea that magically refilled the second you put down your cup, and talking with the villagers through our young interpreter. This was followed by a scary adaptation of volleyball, where some unfortunate soul has to crouch down in the middle of the circle and try to avoid being knocked out by the ball. As soon as Joe got the camera out, it was a mad rush as everybody wanted to have their picture taken. One of the most enjoyable lunchtimes of the whole trip.
This kid liked the camera…a lot.
To get to Osh, which is where the Pamir Highway starts, we’d already decided to avoid the main route from Bishkek, as we’d already cycled a lot of that road when we arrived in the country in November and wanted to see a different area of Kyrgyzstan. This meant that we’d be spending the next week on what our map described as a minor road, taking us across from Naryn. The asphalt disappeared on the second day, and we immediately realised it was going to be very slow progress. Nobody minded however, as it was clear as soon as we turned onto this route that we were now travelling through a part of the country where very few people venture. I could count the number of cars that passed us each day on one hand; there were more people on horseback than in vehicles. The landscape amazed us every day, from the deep crevices in the land around the river Naryn (which looked completely insane from our viewpoint as we climbed switchback after switchback to get over the mountains) to the rich green valleys in between snowy mountains.
This bumpy road was also where we saw our first genuine yurts, which was exciting. We were invited inside one for a cup of kumus- possibly the most stomach-churning drink in existence, made from fermented horse milk. Even the smell is enough to make you turn green. I politely feigned an allergy. As the road continued, the yurts become more frequent than houses, and it was really interesting seeing whole nomad families driving in wagons with their dissembled yurts to new spots, ready to build them all over again.
The one worrying aspect to this amazing road was the fact that it ends in another 3000m pass to get from Kazarman to Jalalabad, but being a minor road, just like the one to Song Köl, we were beginning to have our nagging suspicions that it would be closed due to snow. People in villages further back had told us it would be no problem to cross, but as we got closer, the locals became less and less enthusiastic about our chances. Many people enforced their point with arms dramatically crossed in an ‘X’ sign across their chests, heads shaking furiously. Not too encouraging. We decided that we’d come this far, we might as well get to Kazarman and find out there, hitching a van back the long way round if it was closed (but we really, really hoped it wasn’t). Turning back would mean that in order to get to Jalalabad, which was only about 100km away, we would have to backtrack and then take a huge spiralling route for almost 1000km just to be able to get through the mountains! Luckily, our worries were ended when we met a man on a motorbike who gave us two pieces of good news: firstly, the pass was open as of a few days ago, and secondly, he’d ridden past Jonas earlier that morning- confirmation that he was still alive and well and not too far from catching us up!
With our route now definitely open, we battled our way towards the pass on a road that seemed to deteriorate with each new kilometre. It took all of our concentration just to stay on the bikes. By this point, it was just me and Joe again, as Nico had got sick so they decided to meet us in Osh. The road was so demoralising that (now that nobody was watching us) we contemplated just hitching over the pass, but we were given a fresh morale boost by a German couple who passed us in their 4WD having just driven that way. “Oh don’t worry at all, the road gets much better and it’s only 20k to the top. It’s not steep at all and yes maybe a bit muddy but on bikes it would be easy”.
They lied. (But they did give us a Snickers bar, so we forgive them). If I was making a new map of this area, I would mark this pass with a skull and crossbones. Due to crazy storms, we only reached the switchbacks by the following afternoon but, based on their positive assessment, assumed that we’d be at the top in no time. Two hours later, we found ourselves doing pushing relays with the bikes against the wind and the rain, on a road that now consisted of sticky mud and rivers running off the mountain. Every bend we turned revealed even more switchbacks, and the top of the pass seemed to get further and further away. There was absolutely nowhere to camp as the road was literally carved into the side of the mountain, and so by 4pm we were beginning to wonder whether we’d still be pushing into the night. It was pretty bleak. Even the arrival of an old man on horseback offering us schnapps through grinning gold teeth wasn’t much comfort.
As always happens in these situations, somebody arrived to save the day. As soon as we saw the big blue truck trundling its way up the snaking track towards us, we whooped with manic relief (we hadn’t seen a single vehicle all day) and were already waiting with our biggest pleading eyes by the side of the road when the friendly driver drew level with us. Moments later, we were warm and cosy in the front cabin, experiencing the Pass of Doom from behind a reassuring glass window. To be honest, it was still a pretty nail-biting experience doing it in the truck. The clouds were all around us so visibility was terrible, and in the slushiest parts, it took three of four attempts to get past certain sections of road. With the sharp bends and sheer drop on one side, we really hoped the driver had done this sort of thing before. The top was incredible, with a ten metre high wall of ice on each side of the road, and other parts that looked like they could avalanche at any moment. Whoever declared this pass ‘open’ seemed to have been using a very loose interpretation of the word.
Luckily the driver knew what he was doing and we made it to the other side in one piece, taking advantage of our warm ride through what was now torrential rain to get all the way to Jalalabad city and a relaxing guesthouse for the evening. From there it was a day’s ride to Osh, back on the main road through lively towns and green lowlands. We needed to fix our tent (yet again) as the zip had broken inside so I’d had to partially sew us in to avoid sleeping with the beatles. It was a good excuse to spend a day and a half in this lively city, with its sprawling bazar on either side of the river. In this bazar, it seems, anything can be fixed, and often using equipment that looks like it’s come straight out of the museum. After completing our fixing to-do list of: a tent, a bike wheel and a shoe, we indulged in Osh’s lively and inviting atmosphere for a couple of evenings. (After all, we were about to go into the ‘wild’ and spend the next month pushing ourselves at dizzying altitudes, so I think we were entitled to our little party wekend…). There are a lot of Uzbek people in this part of the country, and in Osh their liveliness is immediately striking in comparison with the much calmer, quieter nature of the Kyrgyz areas.
Now we have been reunited with the French and Jonas, and are ready to start our long ascent onto the Pamir Highway. I wonder who’ll be the first to get altitude sickness…