Kyrgyzstan: One of the most beautiful places that you’ve never heard of
From Kazakhstan into Kyrgyzstan
After exchanging the last of our Kazakhstan money (tenge) into Kyrgyzstan som, we set off into the morning glow of the sunrise towards the Korday border. We were greeted with smiles and got stamped through, making it the simplest and quickest border crossing ever possible.
Bishkek wasn’t far and here we decided to have a coffee at the Victory Monument and take a cycle tourist tour of the city, including Lenin waving to a happy future, Marx and Engels deep in conversation and the building of the Supreme Soviet. Here, we were also able to obtain our visas for Uzbekistan.
Bishkek to south Sosnovka
Our escape from the city took us along a bumpy and busy road with drivers racing along as if they were playing Mario Kart. It made my day, though, when a young boy on a bicycle joined us, showing off his ‘no hands needed’ cycling skills and darting around old ladies crossing the road with a cheeky grin.
After many kilometres of long, straight road, we turned south towards Osh where we were greeted by an old man with no teeth and an ‘eau de alcohol’ asking for a cigarette. A lady came to our rescue offering sweets and pastry, where we learnt that breaking open the pastry first is the best advice, when some nice green mould inside stopped Will from devouring it.
In the heat of the afternoon, we started to climb and the dry, arid, yellow banks of the hills made us feel thirsty and weary. When we saw a green patch of grass under some trees next to the river, we stopped to wash, filter water and make camp. It could have been a beautiful spot, had other visitors taken away their rubbish when they left.
Sosnovka camp to field
It took about 5 hours of glorious switchbacks to climb to 3100m, where, at each viewpoint, I was baffled looking down at where we had just come from. Even though the cycling was slow and steady, it was amazing how high we seemed.
At the top of the climb, a couple of lorries had stopped before a one-lane tunnel. We went to the front of the queue but were told we were not able to cycle through. Hm. Will disappeared and in a matter of minutes was gesturing me to go over to a truck who could take us through. With some help from locals, both us and the bikes were lifted into the back of an empty truck. For the first half-hour or so, we found it funny. Then we realised we weren’t actually going anywhere. No-one was coming out of the tunnel and no-one was going into it. The lorry driver popped his head over, “Problem” he said.
The police came…2 hours went by…the wind got cold and so did we. Vehicle engines grumbled alive, then were cut off as we waited some more. The sky turned grey, rain came and turned to hail. This open-air, back-of-the-truck experience had turned bitter! Changing into our waterproof clothes, we sat shivering until the growl of the engine came back and we jolted our way to the tunnel entrance like it was a race to the start. The 2km tunnel had suffocating fumes and many potholes, shaking us around like ragdolls in the back of the truck, but we were grateful just to be moving again.
By the time we got back on the bikes, the wind had turned menacing and dusk had arrived. With mountains in the distance, we dived into a field off the main road and made camp in the long grass. It was so nice to stop and get cosy in our nomad home.
Field to mountain pass
A beautiful morning, cycling along a mountain river with rolling hills, grassy wetlands, wild horses and jagged snow-capped peaks. The countryside was free from development, no power lines, just country.
As the day went on, the head wind grew fiercer and grey clouds swept over us. We hid from the hailstones and warmed ourselves with a coffee until the weather passed. We cycled back up to 3175m, our second big mountain pass over 2 days. Once over the top, the wind was dangerously strong and cycling became more about balancing. Not long after we found a secluded dip among the mountains, safe from the wind and happy to be somewhere so nice.
Mountain pass to Toktogul
The morning was cold, with an icy head wind up through the valley. The scenery was stunning and ever changing as we descended out of the mountains and into the warm sun of Toktogul. Today we stopped at a guesthouse for the necessities: a watermelon and a shower.
Toktogul to river camp
We got lots of waves and hellos from the school children as we cycled out of the town. The hills took us up and down and around Toktogul reservoir, which was an amazing turquoise lake set against the white face of the mountains. We very much wanted to swim in the inviting cold water but pushed on up and over more climbs – Kyrgyzstan is hilly! Before our last descent of the day, some merry men who seemed rather delighted to see us, took our photo and offered us vodka, adamant that the more they talked Russian, the more we would understand.
Later in the day, we spotted a dirt track down to a gorgeous bubbling river and made this our home for the night; we washed, cleaned our clothes, filtered water from the river and had the solar panel charging the phone – simple life.
River to Kyzyl-Alma
We cycled not far to Kara Kul where everything seemed to be braking! The sidewall of my back tyre shredded and the bolt in my pannier had been rattled loose by the bumpy roads, leaving my bag swinging around and clinging on for dear life as dogs chased after us for some morning exercise. After a long break, we set off only to find my back inner tube had a puncture. I shouldn’t complain though, I just huffed while Will got on with the job like a pro.
When my bike had received sufficient attention, we got back on the road, which carved its way around the edge of the mountains, following the beautiful turquoise of the Naryn river. Undulating is the word, and up and down we went with some steep sections along the way. On it went until we got nearer to a town called Tash-Komur, where the heat had sapped a lot of energy from us. Desperate for a swim in the river, we cycled down a dirt track, drawing the attention of 3 young boys on bikes who followed us all the way down to the river’s edge. We made the mistake of gesturing that we were going for a swim, and, shocked at how cold the water was, they hung around to watch. Hm. Not exactly what we had hoped.
In an attempt to stretch their boredom to the point of snapping so they would leave us to wash our pits and pitch the tent, we decided to do the most boring, repetitive task of filtering water…we had a lot of bottles to fill as well so this trick would definitely work! But these boys had buckets of patience and sat down with us. They said words we didn’t understand (probably rude!), which we repeated, resulting in lots of giggles, and when we thought they were leaving, they came back to give us blackberries. They were sweet kids, and did eventually leave as dusk set in.
Kyzyl-Alma to Bazar Korgon lake
We left the cows and gravel road to meet flat smooth road, where we sped along the scrubby landscape and alongside the fence marking the Uzbek border. Will even got a message on his phone welcoming him to Uzbekistan. Not just yet.
Both here and in Kazakhstan, you can’t help noticing the popularity of the huge Hummer limos, pimped up with an extended roof and beefy wheels. During our break, a driver of one of these limos came over for an internet-translated chat and bought us a fizzy drink for our efforts. He explained that his limo was for weddings, and there are a lot of weddings over here.
We headed to a reservoir to wash and camp, and where the water level had dropped, the mud bowl around it had dried and cracked into tough mud slabs. Walking to the water’s edge for a wash, however, was like walking into sloppy brown porridge; I guess I should be grateful – you usually have to pay for a mud bath.
As the sun set, we sat on a hill watching the birds dive into the water, and the local boys bring their herds of sheep and cows in for the night. Sounds all romantic, except these same little gits woke us up later with shouts, a torch and throwing stones at our tent. Once we shouted back, they ran off, thankfully.
Bazar Korgon lake to Uzgen
Just as one of Kyrgyzstan’s main branches of the Silk Road passed through Jalalabad, so did we, and we found a nice park with a fountain for our coffee break.
The best thing about today were the high-fives from the school kids, who lined up along the pavement as we past with their arms outstretched. This kept us happy all the way to our quite lovely, remote camp spot on the river bed.
Uzgen to Osh
With only 50km to Osh, we had a midway samsa snack and arrived in good time, definitely ready for a proper shower. Thought to be 3000 years old, Osh is Kyrgyzstan’s second biggest city, where we spotted lots of the tall white Kyrgyz hats called Kalpaks.