Between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan there’s a long 20km of no-man’s-land. Unsuprisingly there’s not much going on in there but one family, it turned out, had a tea house right in the middle. It was getting late in the day when I exited Tajikistan and I was over the moon to find some civilisation. After struggling through the recent nights’ tempertatures way below freezing I was still desperate to avoid a night in my tent so I asked if I could stay the night there.
It was fortunate that I could – despite the amount I’d already descended it had still snowed during the night and the morning was freezing. It was a little strange to have slept in between two countries (I’d been stamped out of Tajikistan the day before) but my first ever stateless sleep was as good as any!
I arrived at the lonely Kyrgyz border and greeted the guards who looked both cold and bored. There didn’t seem to be more than a couple of staff around, but there probably didn’t need to be – I hadn’t seen a single car on the road that morning. My passport was flicked through and I was stamped in – the first country since Armenia that I haven’t needed a visa for. Kyrgyzstan I like you already!
I cycled over to the far end of the control zone but found the exit gate closed. Confused, I went back to the first guards to ask where I should go – thinking I’d missed another check point. With a clear mime he showed that I was just supposed to let myself out the other end, so I went across again, removed the padlock from the large gate and let myself into the country…
The ride down from the mountains was sublime – wide plains welcomed me to Kyrgyzstan but it was the views looking backwards that really gave me goosebumps. The range from which I’d descended was a white wall jutting out from the fields at their feet.
Would you believe it – I was sick again. My month of illness continued and I had to stop for a couple of hours to lie down and wait out the severe stomach cramps from which I was suffering. I’ve had enough of being ill. I constantly felt sick in Tajikistan – whatever I ate messed me up. I never felt like I had the right amount of energy in me for the mountains and I’ve lost too much weight recently as a result.
After a long break I felt I could continue and I rode through the village Sary Tash. A man in a shiny black suit and a foot long white top hat was chasing his cow down the street throwing rocks at hit.
Welcome to another strange country. In fact, it’s country number 25 now…
I was going to stop in Sary Tash for the night to try and recover a little but all I wanted to do was reach Osh – the first proper town in more than a fortnight and only a couple of days away from me. I was buzzing about being in another new and beautiful country but the mountains, cold and illness had really worn me out. I decided to push on, the quicker the better I figured – I just wanted to get to a proper town where I could rest and treat myself.
The only bad thing was that I had to climb a big pass straight after Sary Tash. Nothing in altitude compared to where I’d been recently, by the mountain passes in Kyrgyzstan are nasty. Straight up and straight down workouts.
I camped on the other side. Finally I’d descended enough to be comfortable at night back in my tent (I hoped). It was still freezing – but at least I could sleep! In the morning I was woken up by wild horses running around my tent as I cooked my porridge.
//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.jsIt was nice to camp next to trees again – I haven’t seen many of them recently! Slowly the landscape became greener and people began to appear selling fruit and veg from their gardens. Hallelujah! I’ve missed fruit so much. Up in the Pamirs it was just potatoes and fatty meat soup. I bought a kilo of delicious apples from the first seller I saw – the bag cost about 30p.
Eventually I rolled into Osh. Words can’t describe how happy I was to be in a town again. Clean clothes, proper coffee, supermarkets – and best of all, restaurants serving western food! I love exploring local food in the countries I travel but a) everything in Central Asia seems to make me sick and b) I’m really bored of the dishes they do here.
I went out for dinner with some other cyclists – ate a burger, checked my emails and had an espresso. Cost me about £2. I would have paid a tenner for that!
I stayed in Osh for four days. On the third I went to the bazaar to get some supplies and was surprised when the granny I bought my veg from handed them to me in a Morisons bag! I suddenly started noticing Morrisons bags everywhere in the market. There’s always a few plastic bag sellers in these bazaars and when I looked at their stalls I saw wads of these bags reading: ‘keep Briton tidy’. How on earth they all ended up here I don’t know – but Kyrgyzstan is literally covered in Morissons bags.
It was time to get moving. I started packing my bags and noticed that the German cyclist staying in my hostel was doing the same. He’d barely said a word to me during the four days we’d both been sleeping next to each other. I’m a sociable person (I have to be these days if I don’t want to go crazy during my more solitude stints) and tried to force conversation with him a few times, but soon gave up – he was socially inept. I asked him where he was going – there were only two likely routes from Osh and I prayed it wasn’t going to be the same as me.
Unfortunately it was. I couldn’t bare the idea of being stuck cycling with him so I put my bags down, read my book for a couple of hours and left when I thought he’d had enough of a head start.
I ended up giving him even more time as I accidentally took the direct road that now goes straight through a chunk of Uzbekistan. Whoops! I got all the way to the border before I realised my mistake. I’ve been cycling along just one road for so long I’ve forgotten to look at maps properly! Those silly Soviet drawn-up borders make no sense sometimes.
I headed back towards the detour road and cycled around the border along with the rest of the traffic. It was a rubbish road – boring and busy. The Kyrgyz are some of the worst drivers I’ve come across in a long time. They can’t drive properly and they are completely inconsiderate. A terrible combination.
The next morning I was filling up my water bottles when I noticed another loaded bicycle catching up with me. I waited to see who it was – happy to maybe have some good company. Guess who? The German. Nightmare.
We made some awkward small talk and left together. Luckily he had to detour into the next town to get cash so I could shake him for a short while. I paused for lunch and he caught up with me again. Again I tried to find some life in him but failed miserably. We cycled a little together but I went deliberately slowly – stopping every five minutes to pee/fill water/buy a chocolate bars and eventually he got bored of waiting and just carried on at his own pace.
The roadside was busy so I had to have a little patience finding a good campsite. There were lots of villages around and almost all the land was being farmed on. I thought I found a perfect spot up on a ledge above the road but as I started looking for a flat bit of land some locals called out to me. I looked down the other side and saw a bunch of Kyrgyz standing around a car, parked at the side of a dirt road. It was pretty clear what was going on – a good old fashioned piss up in a field. As you do…
I was called over (of course – they were pretty excited about having ‘found’ a tourist) and I was given a monster glass of vodka. They were all battered. I normally try and avoid drunk groups – I like a drink but they normally just become a pain in the arse after 5 minutes and pissed people seem unable to comprehend that I can’t speak every language under the sun. But on this occasion I was surprised to find a mixed group of men and women for once and I was curious to see what one of their ‘vodka sessions’ would look like.
I’ve drunk so much vodka in the ex-Soviet countries I’ve cycled through – but always with men. These women were a real curve-ball to what I was used to seeing in a largely conservative and Muslim part of the world. They came straight over to put arms around me and pose for photos. Then they got a little more cheeky – I didn’t quite get it but the words ‘sex’ pointing at me and them and motioning to get in the car. Then they started rubbing their fingers together and saying ‘dengi’ (Russian for money) and ‘skolka’ (how much). I think you’d have to pay me a lot for that pleasure…
When drunk people finally realise I don’t understand what they’re saying, they’ll often resort to sign language assuming that all gestures are a mutual language. They’re not, but I can forgive them for thinking so – I didn’t realise how many signs mean different things around the world. It’s something I find really interesting.
Let me give a couple of examples: Here the women were doing an action where they bang an open hand onto their other closed fist – meaning sex here. Then the guys would flick their neck with a finger laughing at them – that gesture means drunk. When they show ‘drink’ they do a thumbs-up movement with the thumb towards their mouth, where as in the UK you would make the movement holding an imaginary cup.
These signs can also cause confusion or worse, for example – a thumbs-up is a rude gesture in Iran (I wish I’d known that from the start). In Turkey I thought I’d learned the gesture for something being broken so I tried it out in a mosque and the guys I was with were in hysterics – apparently it was a pretty crude way of making the point and most definitely not appropriate in a mosque.
Eventually I got away – but not before the ‘willy snatcher’ (episode 1 in above pic) had her way with me for a photo. I tried to be a good sport when she went in for the grab but despite it being the closest female action I’ve had in a while I can’t say it was anything but very uncomfortable. And so, let me present the strangest picture from my tour so far…
They stumbled back into the car and went to the shop to get more vodka. I’d promised to stay put but as soon as they were out of sight I made a quick getaway and camped around the corner.
The next morning the road began to weave into the mountains. I stopped for a quick snack and guess who showed up? Yup… The German. I couldn’t believe my misfortune and made a mental note to take a very long lie-in the next day. We exchanged the usually small talk, he told me off for not having a perfectly straight front wheel and we cycled on together. I cycled nice and slowly whilst he sped away and after the first couple of hills he rode off at his own pace and I stopped for a deliberately long lunch, wondering how long we’d keep playing this silly game of cat and mouse.
I ate by a tunnel and watched with amusement as a herd of horses were marched down the road by some shepherds.
All day I passed herds of cows, sheep and horses being driven down from the mountains. Winter is coming and the nomadic herders are moving down for the season.
In late afternoon I passed a village and spotted a couple of bicycle’s parked in someone’s garden. They belonged to an English couple who were cycling the opposite direction. I’d planned to cycle on another hour or so, but one sentence from them ended my day abruptly: ‘Perhaps you’ve met the German guy up ahead? He’s camped 4km down the road…’
And that was that, I asked the owner if I could also intrude on his land and joined the Brits for the night.
They’re cycling from New Zealand back to Cumbria (and they’ve got a blog like everyone else – you can check it out here: 180degreesfromhome.com). The guy who’s land it was was also a top bloke. He invited us in for tea and delivered some eggs for dinner. He whipped out his traditional hat for us to model. Everyone where’s these here, along with their shiny suits. They look comical to me, but I wouldn’t say that to a local!
He had one of the trendier baseball-cap versions (look below), which I think are the adapted style for the younger generation so they can still maintain a patriotic identity whilst looking ‘street’.
The road was gorgeous – completely breathtaking at times. In one place the road crossed the reservoir and I paused to take a photo. Looking back I could see the flock of horses that had just passed me – they were at least 50 and there was no human babysitters anywhere near them. They were just marching themselves down the road.
As I stopped on the bridge to take my picture I heard some shouting and whistling from behind me. I ignored it while I fiddled with my camera, imaging it would just be some local kids but when I finally turned around I saw a couple of army guys waving that I should get off the bridge. They didn’t look too happy.
One of them held his gun up at me which I thought was a slightly unnecessary gesture – I’d got the message and was already getting back on my bike. Around the corner I realised why there were military around. A huge damn stuck out across the gorge like a sore thumb. A long tunnel cut into the mountain around it but trying to get through it was total chaos – a huge flock of sheep were being herded through causing a huge traffic jam.
It was one of those sights that remind me why I love travelling here: to my left was a high tech damn that must have cost millions to build and maintain but to my right was a hundred sheep being marched by guys in tattered clothes down the mountain. It’s the kind of juxtaposition that I find so intriguing – modern vs traditional, expensive vs cheap, order vs chaos.
I passed one of the craziest things I’ve seen in a while – a truck hanging precariously off the edge of the road. God knows how it was still hanging there – it was straight out of a movie, reminiscent of that scene in Italian Job. Assuming the driver survived, they got very lucky that day.
I camped beside a picturesque river while a storm passed at night. A deep grey hung over the mountains the next day as I climbed higher and higher.
Once I was over the pass I could roll down to lake Toktogul, but first I had some more drinking to do. I’d paused for a wee and a car pulled in next to me. Before I’d even finished peeing the guys had hoped out with a bottle of vodka. I let out an inward sigh and put on a brave smile while they poured a round of shots for all.
As if this has become such a normal occasion to me now! It’s a strange world. Or rather – there are some strange countries in this world.
From what I could gather these guys were on a road trip to lake Karakol, stopping at every scenic view point to get out, take some selfies and drink some vodka. It was about midday and they were already pissed (Kyrgyzstan has a lot of view points). I humoured them for a couple of shots and then continued my descent to the lake. I didn’t get very far before the same car over took me again and pulled over. I tried not to stop but they jumped out and desperately flagged me down. The bottle of vodka was out again and so was a new guy who hadn’t been in the car 5 minutes ago. I have no idea where he came from, but he was clearly upset about not having had a toast with the Englush cyclist so we were both poured a drink.
I tried to refuse but he looked so desperate I couldn’t be bothered to argue it. Shot down, a tomato to eat as chaser and then another round for everyone (including me). Then they put their hands together by their chin, motioning that I should do the same and we pulled them over our faces. That’s what the Muslims do here after they’ve eaten or drunk. If only the Iranians knew they just had to do this little gesture and then it was all OK to drink as much alcohol as you want all day!
They got back into the car and drove off, and I was left wondering what Allah would say about all this drink driving in Kyrgyzstan…
When you read about Central Asia the word ‘alcoholism’ is often thrown around. As a mere passer-by I never feel qualified to call out a nation as a bunch of alcoholics but the vodka guzzling does seem to be a little step too far in this country. Even when I find a remote village shop I can be sure that they’ll have a full wall of different vodka bottle available – they might not even be selling anything else. The liter bottle the guys in the above pic whipped out had a price tag marking £2.30 on it. That’s a fancy bottle! I saw shops stocking liters of vodka for as little as 60p. No wonder everyone’s smashing it!
I’ve never seen so much vodka in my life. You know those small disposable cups you get at parties? You can get those in shops with a foil lid over (a little like some soft drinks you could get when I was little in the 90s) and they’re filled with about 200ml. I saw a bloke sitting on a park bench making his way through one of these cups along with his ice cream. That’s a normal sight here.
I stopped in Toktogul to buy supplies. Life in these small towns seems to revolve entirely around the bazaar. The towns are centered around them. The Kyrgyz bazaars lack the charm of the Middle-Eastern markets but they’re still colourful and bustling places to explore and pretty much the only place you can get a selection of fruit and veg. I bought 2 aubergines, 2 peppers, some onions and tomatoes for 15p. Then I bought a banana that cost 20p. (Note to self – don’t by anything imported!)
From there I had to start climbing towards the next big pass at over 3,000m. The ride was gorgeous – the road hugging tight to a fast flowing river whilst trees hung over the sides dropping yellow and red autumn leaves.
The day that I was wanted to conquer the pass was horrible. I woke up in the rain, waited a while to see if it would stop but then decided to get on it with it or I’d never make it over the top.
The worst part was the dogs. My canine enemies have been fairly well behaved the last few countries but in Kyrgyzstan they’re nothing but trouble. Bee-keepers’ farms lined the side of the road and all of them had a feisty guard dog that would come running out snapping at my ankles.
I felt like I was running the gauntlet in Gladiators with all these stupid dogs. That and the pouring rain was enough to put me in a pretty foul mood.
One bee-keeper walked over to me with his brolly up to give me a bottle of honey. He pointed to my chest/heart and did a ‘makes you strong’ gesture. It’s gonna take me a while to get through all that…
When you need them the most, the good people turn up.
After a few hours I reached the altitude where rain turned to snow. I was soaked through (my waterproofs aren’t that waterproof) and freezing. I didn’t want to change clothes so that I’d have something dry to sleep in and more importantly – I didn’t have time to stop, I needed to get down the other side so I could camp on the plateau.
But things got worse at the top. On the other side of the pass there was a strong headwind blowing the heavy snow straight into my face. I couldn’t see a thing – my eyes were stinging and my front was turning white as the snow settled on my clothes and bags. I tried to descend out of the snow line as quick as possible but my body was starting to shake from the cold. It wasn’t fun at – one of those awful days that I try not to remember.
Eventually I reached a junction where there were some cafes . The owner looked pretty unimpressed when I bought puddles of water in with me but I didn’t care – I was desperate for some warm tea and some shelter. I looked out the window – light was starting to fade and it was still snowing. I did not want to camp at all.
I asked the lady if perhaps there was any spare room for me to sleep inside. It took her a minute to work out what I was saying but when she did she smiled and motioned for me to follow her. At the end of the cafe was a truckers sleeping dorm! A warm(ish) room with clean bedding and mattresses… Amazing!
It felt like nothing short of a miracle. There I was – wet, shaking from cold and totally miserable and suddenly I had somewhere warm to sleep just a corridor away from a cafe with hot soup. I didn’t even ask how much it cost – I would have paid anything. In the morning I had a big breakfast and when I paid for that and my night’s accommodation it came to £4.50 – not bad really!
I cycled along the plateau the next day. I’m sure it was gorgeous but low cloud was hanging over the mountains so I couldn’t see that much. I passed lots of circular dark patches on the ground where yurts had been pitched over summer. Everyone has migrated down to lower ground now, along with all the animals I’d been passing on my way up.
There was one more pass to cross before I could descened to Bishkek. It was a typically ruffless climb – sharp switchbacks bought me up into the snowline straight under the jagged peaks.
The pass was a slightly disappointing one: the top was a tunnel cutting through the top of the mountain. It was time for (drum roll please)… the ‘tunnel of death’!
I’d heard a few cyclists refer to it as this, so it’s clearly a ‘thing’. Basically it’s just a horrendous 2.5km tunnel. Not the longest in the world, but one of the most unappealing – full of potholes and uneven road, barely any lighting, no ventilation and horrible chemicals in the air. A cyclist died in there a couple of years ago and so most people hitch a ride through. The Brits I’d met a few days ago told me they’d tried to cycle through but the guard had stopped them and make them get a lift – apparently because they had no mask… (who carries a mask!?)
I’ve cycled every kilometer so far and I don’t want to spoil that record unless I have to. In my direction I’d be going downhill, so when I reached the tunnel I stopped to put on my gear and go for it. My Ikea high-vis jacket came out the bag, I turned on my powerful headtourch and pulled my buff up over half my face. A guard did come out, but he didn’t ask anything beyond where I was from.
I’ve done plenty of un-enjoyable tunnels around the world but this one was the worst by far – it was scary. I kept my eyes glued to the small patch in front of me illuminated by my torch and held on tight. The noise inside was deafening – huge machine roars trying to ventilate the tunnel drowned out the cars but still the air was foul inside.
When I finally reached light I was desperate to breath in some clean oxygen once again. Once through, I remembered I needed to tighten my brakes. They were barely working and I’d been putting off adjusting them, but now I really needed them for this descent in the snow. I opened my bag for my multi-tool, but it was nowhere to be found. Uh oh… I tried to remember where I last used it – I’d had it out when I was drinking with those local guys. Shit – a few shots of vodka and everything goes out the window.
I tried to cycle down but the brakes wouldn’t even bring me to a stop. It was way too dangerous to try and ride down. I was now in a sticky situation – light would soon fade and I was too high to camp. I could hitch a ride down but that was the last thing I wanted to do (especially after riding through the tunnel!) I went through every sharp object in my bags looking for something that would catch in the disk brake adjuster. Finally the scissor part of my fake swiss-army knife caught and I could just tighten them enough to get me down alive – hurray!
The descent was insane – cutting down the mountain and into a narrow gorge. No pics I’m afraid, I had to race down as fast as I could in the last of the light.
The next day I pushed off and continued free-rolling down along the river with my eyes on my speedometer, eager to see how far I’d get without pushing. Including the last part of yesterday, I managed 45km of descending without pedaling which was a new record (by miles too – I think my previous best was about 15km in Bulgaria).
Down in the valley I was in for a surprise, suddenly there were Russians everywhere! There’s no confusion between a Russian and a Kyrgyz person, and here there were white people all over the place.
I’d reached Bishkek. Finally! Here I had just one job to fulfill – obtain a Chinese visa.
Fortunately I’d already started the application process with a travel agent in Osh, so here it shouldn’t take more than a few days. The day before I was supposed to go to the embassy I spoke with someone who was waiting for their visa. They explained a little about how it worked there and what to expect in the interview. ‘Wait a minute… interview!? What do they ask?’ ‘Oh nothing major, just a few questions about your submitted itinerary’.
Shit! I’d gone to the agent in Osh with three other cyclists and we’d just stuck our names down on the same made-up itinerary sheet to save time and effort. I hadn’t even looked at the itinerary we’d submitted with the applications! I didn’t have a clue where I was supposedly going and I didn’t have a copy. I tried to get hold of the others but they were cycling a different route in the mountains out of mobile-signal land.
In the morning I got a copy from the travel agent in Osh and glanced it over on my way to the embassy. The questions were short and straightforward, the only one that really surprised me was ‘what were you doing in Iran?’ As usual the bicycle is not mentioned anywhere. The Chinese authorities wouldn’t be into that.
I did some shopping while I waited for my visa to materialize. I was in dire need of some new winter gear so I went out to upgrade some bits and bobs. Shopping has never been a favorite pass time of mine. Try shopping among loads of miserable and unhelpful Russians and it becomes the most un-enjoyable thing ever. They just don’t understand customer service. In so many shops they’d look like they were being greatly inconvenienced at simply opening their till to give me change – after I’d bought something from them.
The Russian presence in Bishkek did a lot to fuel my stereotypes. I was walking with another cyclist to the bike shop when a battered Russian came over with a drunk ‘hello tourists!’ smile. (I don’t know how it’s possible that everyone singles me out as a tourist even among all the Russians but they always do). He was carrying a plastic bag with a bottle of vodka and a single apple. After a few words of God-knows-what he opened up the bottle (bare in mind it’s early afternoon and in a busy street) and helped it up my mouth. Thinking he was joking I humored him and opened up. Next thing I know I’m dribbling after having have the bottle poured in!
We escaped and reached the bike shop. I found the parts I wanted to replace (by chain and cassette have run more than 10,000km since the last change) and asked the miserable Russian behind the counter where I could get some cash out. Apparently there was an ATM around the corner but ‘be quick’ he warned. ‘I close at 6’. It was 5 bloody 30. If I was on the verge on making a super easy sale of almost £50 in England I’d be happy to stay open a little longer while my happy customer went out to get some money for me!
Long story cut short, a small piece that keeps the derailleurs in place broke off when I was looking at it with Nathan – my lovely Warmshowers host. We (or rather, he) managed to get hold of a spare part, filed it into the right width and drilled a small hole in it to fit on but when we tried to screw it back on the threading wore out on the hanger. Uh oh.
In the end we had to take it to some Russian blokes to wield the hanger onto the frame. Luckily Nathan had a much better grip on Russian than me. Not exactly perfect – but enough to show what the problem was. The guys understood immediately and set to work almost too quickly. ‘They don’t normally rush this much’ Nathan tells me, ‘I heard him say some something about ‘time’ and them ‘going somewhere’’.
Great. Now this tattooed Russian is leaning over the most important thing in my life and he’s in a rush to get off somewhere! He pulled the mask over his face and got too work when suddenly my gear cables burned bright red. ‘Woah!’ I hit him on the arm – pointed to the fried cables. The idiot hadn’t grounded properly. He moved a metal stick and carried on whilst I watched with my heart in my mouth.
It seemed to work! He didn’t charge (probably because he’d burnt my cable in half) and I cycled home stuck in one gear. I replaced the burnt cable and was back on the road again. I headed for Kazakhstan with my Chinese visa in hand, armed with a whole new bag of winter gear and a wonky (but working) bicycle.
Ready for the next chapter in this adventure…