Time is what we have lots of and not enough of. Thirty days to ride across a country – to have side adventures, to mountains, to lakes, to canyons (to allow for bike repairs,) – perhaps it sounds like a lot but even on my most creative days in maths class – I would have known this wouldn’t add up.
We didnt really want to leave Kazakhstan but time was running out. Our trip with Igor meant a rethink of our plans. There was a solution – an out and back west to Bishkek in Kyrgystan – not overly appealing – a 6 hour bus trip each way – but a solution nevertheless. Of course with every challenge there is more than one solution. Adrienne flipped the plan – we could head east instead – get closer to the border – to give us the time we needed to ride across the border.
The night before we left, we met Shynar – who had crossed paths a couple of years ago with Matt, my nephew/friend. Chatting deeply in your own language but learning about the country you are in, having the chance to ask all the questions that have been on your mind is indeed a treat. And in true Central Asia form – Shynar not only had dinner with us but appeared again at 7am the following morning to help us secure a lift to Kegen, the last major town in Kazakhstan before crossing the Kazakh/Kyrgyz border.
Goodbyes we have many – though we are both keen not to let go. Farewelling Zuhkra and Aliyah from DA hostel was special – both very late night owls – had risen at 6am to farewell us. Zuhkra worked at DA, worked hard, with warmth and ease and great light in her spirit, Aliyah lived there – my body and limbs benefitted greatly from her magic hands the the energy she so willingly shared as she massaged away the tightness in my muscles.
Plan A was of course to get a bus and put our bikes on the bus. Plan B was what we went with. We found the bus station (though it seemed more of a bus stop than station. Shynar found us. Then we found Aga and Aga – (not the coveted stoves) but instead two energetic Polish woman backpacking and heading in our general direction.With Shynar’s help and just an ockey/stretchy strap or two or six we secured the bikes on to a car and we were off. Much to Adrienne’s delight it was one of the most sedate trips in a car we have had since arriving in early May.
We’d been through Bayseit before, with Igor, he said it was a good place to stop and we did. Gathering supplies at the market – and then trying a local delicacy – clay! Three different types – Adrienne and Aga tried them out – with surprising enjoyment.
Finally in Kegen we offloaded the bikes and said farewell. A cafe for lunch and we met a French film maker Alain Beaudouard – who now lives in Bali. He’s an ethnographer and documentary maker who has some very interesting films on YouTube. He’s on his way from France back to Bali – gathering information on people within Central Asia as he goes.
Despite being close to the border we decide to stay in Kazakhstan just one more night – that and knowing the border crossing shuts in the next couple of hours and unsure of what roads and terrain lies before us. The road is rough, very rough. Construction of the new road is underway – in the next few years this will be a very different place. A border crossing that has only recently been open to tourists and is only open in summer will soon be a major thoroughfare.
We find a campsite – it meets both our needs – close to water and private, tucked away. Like many of the beautiful places we see it is marred by rubbish, plastic bottles, glass (though here at least mostly whole bottles rather than broken glass). Still with a minor clean up it looks good and we make camp – it has the benefit of a deep hole we can set up the stove out of the wind.
As we head off in the morning, local construction workers come to drain more water from the shrinking river, to use in the road construction – mostly just to keep the dust down. This is great – in theory – though as the gravel and dust is wet it becomes clay and sticks to our wheels as we head off. Thankfully they are only going one way so we ride on the other side of the road and stay out of the mud.
It’s a quiet road, a broken down car sits lonely on the edge of a bend and looks like it has been there a while. We share some water with the driver/boy waiting in the vehicle then head off again. There are loose stones, sharp stones, potholes, bumps, ridges – its a very slow bumpy noisy trip, the road is uneven enough to cause one or more of our panniers to partly come off more than once.
Before we know it we are at the border. Before we know it we are across the border and in Kyrgyzstan! The whole process takes 10 minutes. Stamps and smiles on both sides and we are done. Almost immediately it feels like we are in a different place, soft green rolling hills, rivers and creeks but still a very rough road.
We are heading for a campsite listed on iOverlander – a great app Adrienne discovered before we left then rediscovered when reminded by other travellers in Almaty. It sounds great. We are yet to change money – we dont really need any yet – though we do need water – soon, very soon. Next village we ask and are pointed into the village – we hope we are not being directed to a shop. No – its the village spring – at first we dont see it – there are horses all around it then as we approach they wander off. It’s our first Kyrgyz village.
Not long after that – I have the chance to overcome a small anxiety. A puncture in my back tyre. It’s a new bike, a new set up, a Rohloff hub and I’m not sure if there’s anything unusual about taking the wheel off. But the anxiety is wasted, it is very straightforward and goes very well with Adrienne’s assistance. Before long we are back on the road again. The road doesnt improve. It’s very slow but the scenery is spectacular.
Just before we arrive at our campsite, Adrienne has a brief but unpleasant interaction – it’s our first unpleasant experience – so a little unsettling. But once we are settled in, tucked away by the river, eating good food the calm returns. Like previous campsites there is rubbish about – but here at least it is almost all together in a big pit – largely hidden away.
Next morning we wake, after our first night inKyrgyzstan – having been lulled to sleep by the sound of a fast flowing river, we are well rested and can easily imagine staying here longer than one night. Enter – the local overly friendly shepherd. Friendliness is alway welcome – saying we have strong legs because we ride bikes is fine, a gentle squeeze of the thigh as we get on the horse is not. Nor is the almost headlock or body squeeze for our farewell photos. We are invited to stay as long as we like. We decide we have already done that! We head off straight after breakfast.
The road is still very rough. There are more cars today – the roughness of the road doesnt seem to change their speed or driving. When we can see and are not covered in a cloud of dust it is not unusual to look up to see a car seemingly heading straight for you – the road is there to share and it is immaterial that the right hand side of the road is for traffic heading in the same direction as you. The roads are mostly one lane each way – though it it not unusual to have two car going one way, one car and a bike going the other. Those moments – the road does seem a little narrow.
The ride today is full of joy, despite the dust and narrowness of the road. There are uphills and downhills and curves and continually emerging stunning landscapes. We stop for lunch in a park, we still dont have money and we still dont need it. Our picnic is interrupted. Jalil, a hostel owner in Karakol was driving by and noticed our bikes so has come down into the park to give us is card!
Not long after lunch we ride into Tyup – our first major town in Kyrgyzstan. It is a small town but it feels modern, not the buildings but instead the hairstyles of the women (short) and the clothes and just their demeanour. We get money and immediately decide to spend some. Food weighs a lot and our panniers have been getting lighter – I am keen not to fill them too much given we are only a day away from Karakol. I encourage Adrienne to only get essential provisions – a decision I will later regret!
As we leave Tyup the sky is getting dark and we can see a storm is brewing, before long we are riding in a full thunderstorm, lightening, thunder and burning rain – rain that is so cold and hard it burns your bare limbs. Just before I am totally drenched through (I left my good rain jacket at home – I thought I wouldn’t need it) we stop in a bus shelter and take cover while the storm rages.
We decide to make dinner then at least we will only have to set up tents and climb in when we arrive. We change in the (extremely limited) privacy of the bus shelter) and start cooking. The rain and thunder does nothing to quell our excitement at the site of cycle tourist. He comes over to say hello, Mustafa from Turkey, a mountaineer and more recently cycle tourist also heading to Karakol. Surprisingly he says no to the offer of hot food but does take directions to our planned campsite – best view ever apparently – and so we say farewell and will perhaps see him later.
Once the rain has stopped we head off – and soon are winding our way through small back lanes and then see Mustafa waving to us from the cliff top ahead. As we roll in the snow capped mountains surrounding the lights of Karakol greet us, as does the blue expanse of Issyk Kol – a beautiful lake below us. We are all very happy to see each other – despite the brief meeting earlier we have the shared camaraderie of cycle touring – a special and unique family that creates an almost instant bond.
Omarsh – a local 10 year old is on hand as we arrive he enthusiastically and very helpfully assist with the tents being set up. He is an absolute delight.
Mustafa offers to brew up a hot drink – an offer only surpassed by the biscuits that came out with the drink – by now it is quite cool and I am really wishing we had more provisions. In a short space of time the biscuits are vacuumed up as is our remaining food – other than what we have for breakfast. We are not far from Karakol so will be able to replenish supplies early tomorrow.
I wake early – very pleased with myself that I have woken before the rain… Nothing worse than packing up a wet tent, or trying to pack in the rain…. or is there? I am packed – everything is dry, the sky is black. I could ride into Karakol – but it will be a wild storm, so best not too. I am beginning to see the flaw in my over zealous plan.
Thankfully Adrienne is awake and takes pity on me – and packs up enough to make room for me. I have on my cycling gear – so nothing overly warm. I spend the next two hours huddled – at times curled in a ball staying warm as the wind howled, rain poured, thunder crashed and lightening flashed a new awakening across the sky and me.
After about two hours we started to hear the dogs barking then the roosters crowing, then the cows and sheep. Slowly the rain stopped, we packed up ready to roll down the hill and into Karakol before it struck again. But instead the sun came out and showed us where we were in all its beauty. It wasnt somewhere we really wanted to leave in a hurry – it was quite quite beautiful.
Mustafa emerged we chatted, we drank tea then we went for a wander. Adrienne ahead – as a New Zealander she was clearly more comfortable on the went muddy ground. Before long she was closer to the ground than she planned sliding her way down the muddy clay slope. Though it did mean she actually made it to the lake – I never got there.
We left a little regretfully and headed off repeating our ride of the night before back though the little lanes and out on to the road.
It was busy and up and down and then as we were stopped on the outskirts of Karakol a van stopped near us. It was Jalil again – telling us about his hostel – this time we asked questions – yes it has washing machine, kitchen, wifi – we were in! As we were stopped we also saw some girls riding – which has been a rare thing in Central Asia.
Of course by the time we rolled into town it was well after lunchtime – supplies had all but run out and I was hungry, very hungry. We found cafe – we had a feast – the food was clearly very different in a very welcome way!
After demolishing that feast we went to Jalils hostel, Snow leopard Hostel – where somehow we made room for chai and a fantastically tasty afternoon tea spread.
So now its time get clean, rest and relax and plan the next stage of the adventure.