Kyrgyzstan was a country that I’d been looking forward to arriving at for a while. It did not disappoint. We hear very little of Kyrgyzstan at home, which has lead to my ignorance of pretty much every aspect of the country. I had no idea what to expect, which is something that I enjoy when going to place that I haven’t been before. So it was with a blank canvas that we descended the muddy upper reaches of the Torugart Pass towards the Kyrgz side of the border.
Upon arriving, we were greeted with a sweeping vista of an open valley, framed by snowy peaks, brown grass, and the expansive lake Chatyr-Kul- on the other side of a barbed-wire fence. The gates were shut, and there wasn’t really a soul in sight to welcome us with open arms. We were all in high spirits (we were still travelling in our group from China) except me, who was fantasising about a magnificent porcelain facility, with ample supply of soft white paper and- you get the idea.
With nobody coming to meet us after around 15 minutes, despite our gentle shouts and horn beeps, Arran decided to take matters into his own hands by climbing through a gap in the fence. It might not have been what the security staff were after, but it got us action. Almost immediately, a guard was present to chastise us for breaching their secure fence, and demand that we repair the damage that has been present before our arrival.
We were waved into a big shed and led to passport control, which took all of 20 seconds each, and I (having turned green by this stage) was pointed to the outhouse. It was both the worst and best toilet I’d ever used, and I was fighting fit again having utilised its rudimentary appointments (a slot in a concrete floor, no paper).
Upon leaving the border compound, we embarked on our trip along the continuation of the Torugart Pass, and were in for a bit of a rough ride for the next couple of hours. The road sees enough traffic to make it pockmarked and riddled with with potholes, but not enough to earn it the maintenance it deserves. With this in mind, we kept one eye on picking our lines, and the other surveying our magnificent surroundings.
There was a real sense of isolation out there, with the temperature helping to underline this feeling. It was down to around 6 degrees, and while this wasn’t deathly cold, the howling wind helped to brisken things.
Arran coming to make sure we hadn’t come to grief.
Our progress along the ‘rustic’ road was marked by changes in landscapes, with yurts appearing on the plains, the odd farmer making their way upon a donkey, and the larger mountains slowly making way for smaller ones. Fertile pastures abound in Kyrgyzstan, and with them, herds of horses, goats, donkeys and sheep roam the landscape, flourishing in the presence of summer feed.
Eventually, after a few stops for Ben’s bike to have a ‘rest’, we made it into the not-so-sprawling metropolis of Naryn, the capital of its province. Here, we found a homely night’s accommodation with a deliciously hot shower after a chilly ride. Though bestowed with only a few words of English, the staff here were very helpful, and a pleasant night was had.
Bright and early the next morning, the weather looked like it might be cold for our way to Bishkek. We donned the cold weather gear and made our way out of town. The local hills had received a dusting of snow overnight, and as our way began to climb, it became clear that the snow hadn’t just been confined to the night. Cold weather gear turned out to be a fluke in good judgement as the snow went from being a novelty to relatively heavy. Unbeknownst to us, our route took us over the Dolon Pass, which was in the grips of a once-in-ten-year summer snow shower. The mercury dropped to around 3 degrees below 0, which again, isn’t that cold, but being on the bike in that temperature has the potential to become pretty uncomfortable. Luckily our gear was better in the cold than it was in the wet, and we remained relatively comfortable, and dry.
As we descended from the range, the temperature climbed, and the bikes shed their layers of ice. Ben’s bike added a rest stop for us, and it was while we were pulling his bike apart that we met a trio of overland cyclists from Belgium and Germany. Raf is the real deal, riding all the way from Brussels to Mongolia! His googley translateable blog can be found HERE.
Kyrgyzstan seems to be home to a real concentration of overland cyclists and motorcyclists, we saw at least one group pretty much every day we were there. We reckon this phenomenon is down to the fact that it’s so easily accessible (no visa needed), and that it’s the geographic funnel for traffic heading both to and from Europe.
We made it to Bishkek after an otherwise uneventful trip and spent our final night with the rest of the group, parting ways the following day.
Our time in Bishkek was spent applying for our Kazakhstan visas (obtained with no problem), making use of a proper internet connection to update the blog, and haunting a local coffee shop. Bishkek was our first real taste of modernity for a while, where we found a definite western flavour added to the mix. It felt altogether more refined than Kashgar, with some scenes possibly mistakable for areas in Melbourne.
We had an opportune few days to spend out of the city while we waited for the Kazakh consul to make his mark in our passports, so we headed for the hills to camp. After finding a likely spot in a pretty secluded valley, we asked a local group of locals if they would mind awfully if we camped nearby. They didn’t, and we chatted (gestured) over a cup of fermented mare’s milk (smokey, sour and gritty). It was nice to get the tents up and remove any little doubts that they might have been damaged by the rigours of being strapped down onto the bikes in our packs for the last couple of months.
These guys graciously provided us with some shish kebabs after setting up for a picnic nearby.
Heading across town the next day for a change of scenery, we ran into one of Kyrgyzstan’s reputed features: its corrupt boys in blue. We were merrily sailing along an inbound city road, when we were overtaken by the Kyrgz rozzers and flagged down. It seemed that the road we’d chosen to accommodate was off-limits to scooter riders. Dad was whisked off in the back of the police cruiser to be shown the sign that we had failed to glimpse, while I was questioned on whether I preferred to drink beer or vodka, and implored to try a particular brand of Kyrgz vodka. All allusions were made to us providing the fellas with a bribe, but we were reluctant to cough up. We countered with the request for a receipt to be produced, so we could verify it with the embassy before paying (we were talking more crap than the cops) the fine. Eventually, they got bored when they realised they weren’t going to get anything out of us, and took off yelling “Australia – Kyrgyzstan peacepeace!”.
We spent our second night out of the city south of Bishkek, by another river, but with mare’s milk in shorter supply, we were forced to make do with water.
Having finished our jobs in Bishkek, we struck out in an easterly direction, bound for the tenth largest lake in the world by volume, and the second largest saline lake after the Caspian sea. Still haven’t guessed? Ok, it’s Lake Issyk Kul. We spent our final two nights on the lake’s shores in our tents, reading books and wishing we’d brought some form of device for sitting upon.
Shortly before testing our tents’ waterproof-ness
Lunch on our penultimate day in Kyrgyzstan was a pleasant experience. Stopping in a small village on our way around the lake, we were approached by a friendly Kyrgz bloke by the name of Sam. He lives in Bishkek, but escapes the heat over summer by living by the lake. He invited us back to his place for lunch and a hangout with his wife and daughter. He was extremely accommodating, and insisted upon us staying the night there. Unfortunately we had to move on, as we needed to enter Kazakhstan the following day.
Sam’s wife and daughter. In my uselessness, I didn’t get a snap of Sam.
Again with the baby-napping.
Parked-up at Sam’s.
Our time in Kyrgyzstan (yes, I’m sick of typing that name) was most enjoyable, and enlightening. It’s an easy place to be, and smothered in natural beauty, with a hugely friendly population. I can definitely see it growing in the future to one of the ‘intrepid traveller well-trodden-backpacker-path’ destinations for all the right reasons. Just make sure you can bullshit the bullshitting cops and you’ll be fine.