Four times today I have been pleased to be in a car.
1. Leaving Bishkek – the heat, roadworks and traffic combination – it was 38 plus at least another 5 coming off the broken tarmac.
2. On the very steep sections of the climb up to Tor Ashuu pass (about 4000m) though it was breathtaking.
3. Driving through a dark, fume filled tunnel with incredibly poor visibility and no hard shoulder.
4. Coming over the second pass of the day when the hail started.
There were many more times that I wished I was on my bike.
Winding alongside the Kara Balta river, with steep rocky slopes alongside.
Stopping and seeing families picnicking along the river – on my bike I would have stopped for longer. Even so – as I go for a stroll I am invited to join a group of friends having a picnic
Watching the the river wind it’s way around the mountains and under the road.
Seeing a cyclist sleeping under a tree in the heat of the middle of the day
Seeing the steep rocky hillside melt into rolling green hills
Mostly however, it is the moments – seeing the flowers swaying in the breeze, the birds, hoopoes, rollers, finches – I don’t see them or perhaps just don’t notice them as we fly along in the car. I miss the children rushing across the field to be roadside to say hello or high five me as I ride by.
By car or by bike it’s a stunning landscape – Kyrgyz people it seems are also great outdoors people. All along the river are family and friends picnicking, having barbecues, swimming and playing. The scenes ooze joy. The downside of people everywhere is rubbish everywhere. Like the families it too lines the river edges.
Tonight I am in my tent again. We have found a spot by lake Toktogul – a quiet clean spot. It’s very hot and before long i am in the water. About 500m from where we’ve camped is a busy swimming spot – like many swimming spots men and boys are all in their underwear and the women are fully clothed. I am hot and so don’t bother changing into my bathers so I follow the local trend and step in full clothed. This is not a tourist spot. I am on the only non Kyrgyz person about so attract a good deal of curiosity. Charades is in full swing as there is no shared spoken language between any of us.
I’m told to stay in the shallows and wonder why. They are all in the shallows. Then I see one person a bit further out. So I swim and then I realise no one is swimming and many people – adults and children are using flotation rings. Perhaps they can’t swim and expect I can’t either, so that’s why they confine themselves to the shallows.
Once I have set up from tent and made dinner – Musleem and Maliabek head into Toktogul. They inform me they need to eat meat and clearly my lentil and vegetable soup doesn’t inspire their palate. I use the time to sit in the quiet, watching the sun down. The only sounds are the distant sounds of cars leaving the beach and birds catching the evening insects. My bike is resting by the tent – tomorrow I will climb aboard.
I sleep deep in my cave but wake early with the morning light. There are no sounds from the car where the others are sleeping. I wander off around the lake to find a quiet swim spot. There is no one about. I take the opportunity for a morning swim – just me and lake. It is bliss. Maliabek and Musleem are just rising when I get back and soon they too are heading to the lake.
Today is bike day, I am both nervous and excited. I have looked at the map – from Toktogul to Sary Chelek to see which section may be best to ride. It’s stunning scenery – rolling green hills, a clean stream and not too much traffic. The roads are not busy but still there are constant trucks either doo g mi or road works or carrying something to its next home.
Long before we get to my chosen start point I decide it is time to start. The road is flat, it’s not yet too hot and I have a clear view of the lake. I organise to meet the others in 20km.
I am riding along the edge of the Lake, Toktogul is bigger than I have imagined, riding, riding, riding and I dont seem to be getting very far. Peri is pannier free. – I hardly recognise her – though she thankfully recognises me and makes me feel completely at home. The lake it stunning as are the mountains on the other side. I love being able to stop when I want to take pictures or just have a more detailed look, chatting to people along the way. roadside.
Before long it starts to get hot and with though I am by the lake, the road starts to climb – just small hills. I look at my odometer, 14 km – 6 km to go. That will go quickly. At 18km I see a big hill in the distance – I am hopeful it is more than 2km away. At 19.5 I am climbing the hill and I see the car in the distance parked under a tree. They have stopped at exactly 20km and I am very pleased to see them. That’s enough today. My body is tired but no it too sore for its first outing. Being on the bike is more comfortable than sitting for long periods in the car. Though we stop often.
As we leave the Lake we join the Naryn River, it follows us or we follow it. I am mesmerised by the colour. It is so iridescent it doesnt look real. For a long while I dont see anyone swimming in it and I wonder if there is something wrong with the river – but then there are lots of people. As we leave the river we turn of to Sary Chelek – a lake in the mountains. I’m checking out the road with cyclist eyes. I’m planning on an early ride down to miss the heat of the day.
The road is full of pot and very windy. It will be a stunning morning ride. Despite feeling like the this is an isolated spot, when we arrive there are people, families everywhere. Swimming, picnicking, milling about.
No one is camping but it seems you can. There is one designated area – it couldn’t be better.
I swim again fully clothed – and am completely dry in less than half an hour. M and M also swim. It’s too hot to cook so I make salad. They have tinned meat – but dont have a can opener. I lend them mine but they dont know how to use it. After I have opened the tin for them – I wish I hadn’t – it looks and smells dreadful. If the speed at which they eat is any indication of enjoyment – they love it!
I sit watching the sun go down, listening to people leave and the constant hum of people almost cease. Amit wandered over earlier to say hello and now he is back – with his wife – who speaks more English. They want to welcome me to Kyrgyzstan and have Brough me plov and salad. I know it is futile to say I have eaten, to say I dont eat meat – so instead I graciously accept their generous gift.
Though I have eaten the flavours wafting up from the food are amazing. I eat the salad then taste the plov – it is the best plov I have ever tried. Spices and chick peas and almost no meat and certainly no meat flavour. But I am full so cant eat much. M and M are grateful for the addition to their evenings meal.
I wake not long after the sun has risen – it is almost cold. No-one else is awake, no-one else is around. I make the most of the time alone and head to the water – it’s refreshingly cold. Two days in a row – what a treat.
By seven thirty I am packed up and on Peri. M and M will wait an hour then head off after me. No one else is on the road. It’s a winding road down to the small lake, past bee hives, flowers and grasses blowing gently in the morning breeze.
Magic doesnt begin to describe my joy. A swim and a ride in a stunning location – it couldn’t be a better start. In an hour I am down the mountain and out the park. I am on a roll. Riding along the river, passing small clusters of yurts, children playing, men and woman already at work. I am hoping it will take the car some time to catch me.
I keep riding along the valley floor. There are rock formations that look like fairytale castles on my left and large mountains on my right. It’s Saturday, Market day. This will buy me some time – riding through Sary Chelek market I am confident I am at least twice as fast as a car. Trucks and cars are backed up – delivering or picking up good or people. Everyone is at a standstill, horns are beeping and I keep going windy my way carefully through the chaos.
Then I’m through it and back on the open road. It’s now 10am – two and half hours since I left. I check my phone – 5 missed calls from Maliabek. Oops. He is wondering where I am. He asked the checkpoint guard and he hadn’t seen me – so M is waiting just past Sary Chelek. Once he realises I am quite a way ahead he relaxes and is on his way. Once again the car seems to sense the incline and meets me as I start to ascend. It has been a spectacular ride – a little over 3 hours and 50km. I am feeling really good though am happy to stop before that changes.
We are on our way to Arslanbob – waterfalls and walnut forests and rocks, lots of rocks and people, lots of them too. The walk to first waterfall is very crowded – and there are stalls all along the way – it is far from my ideal place but the waterfall itself is cool and refreshing – the spray sending out a cooling shower to all those in the vicinity.
We then drive to the big waterfall – there are many small roads (rocky paths and it’s hard to work out which one we should be on). There is also a potential campsite near by. The road is really rocky – I am glad I am in a four wheel drive and I am not glad. We are gradually climbing, the road is uneven, the car is tipped at and angle. My knuckles are white. I am gripping the door and the seat. We are going very slowly, carefully and I hate it. Just as I decide I cant go any further we stop – we are at the parking spot for the big waterfall.
It’s a big climb and it’s very hot. M and M stay in the shade. The ground is steep and there are lots of sections of loose stones so I go very carefully – assessing whether I can successfully make it down. After what seems like ages I make it to the top – there is a barb wire fence stopping me from getting close the waterfall. I rest in the shade – this was not my best idea. Going down is a challenge – a mental challenge but I use the time to decide I do not want to camp here. The campsite requires further driving in a steep rocky area. I feel much better when I decide I don’t need any more challenges today.
Instead I find a lake, closer to our final destination, Osh. Another lake, another swim or paddle or splash.
I’m glad there is water because all around the lake is very very fine powdery dust, but the ground is even and there are no rocks, here is feels good. Families are playing in the water and there is a summer holiday atmosphere.
The holidayers leave and as the sun goes down the sky starts to light up. Lightening and thunder put on a show to be remembered. It goes on for hours, an amazing light show, wind, thunder and almost no rain. The wind whips around the tent, but I feel safe and cosy. It seems there are not many hours between the storm stopping and morning.
We have all had a fairly disturbed night and so are happy to get on the road early. The road today is full of dust and roadworks – so I don’t ride. I will have just one more ride – across my final border – Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan.
Here lots of people seems to eat out and its hard for me to tell whether its breakfast lunch or dinner based on what’s on the table There is always bread and tea and salad and then one or more meat dishes. We stop in Jalal-Abad for a late breakfast and wander.
Before I know it we are rolling into Osh. I’d heard about it for so long but still dont really know what to expect. The streets are wide, there are flowers everywhere – a bit like Bishkek and many relics of the Soviet era, mosaics and other public art.
I wheel my bike into the hostel – feeling a bit like a fraud, having arrived by car, but also happy to claim my cycle tourer status. Here is a jumping off point for the Pamir Highway – many people are heading in that direction. I decide I will be back in two years and tackle the Pamir by bike then.
Osh is hot – but somehow wandering the city, the bazaar is relaxed and enjoyable despite the heat. I like it here. The bazaar is bigger than any other one I have been too in Central Asia.
While most of the connections I have been on the trip have been with locals, occasionally there are also other travellers that you form a special connection with. At Park Hostel I meet Janine, she is very easy and interesting company, we share food and stories and time and decide perhaps we will meet again in two years – though I’m not sure she is keen on a bike ride across the Pamirs 🙂
I am conscious I am only days away from crossing back into Uzbekistan, heading back to Tashkent – my arrival and departure city. I am working on staying present – eking our the last days of this amazing adventure.
I wander the streets happily – climb Sulaiman Too – the rocky crags in the centre of the city – it’s ridiculously hot but I climb in search of petroglyphs. I find them in one tiny spot – inside the museum. The cave I climbed up to – again testing my fears on rocky ground – contained nothing but graffiti.
I am keen to go the art museum but when I get there it is closed. It is Sunday so maybe they don’t open Sundays. I stand there for no more than a moment and Nurasma comes running over. Yes yes it is closed but if I want she will open for me.
I wander through the park on the way home. There are many parks across the city. I hear park and think trees, green open space – not so here. Trees yes but then think theme park Ferris wheels, bumper cars, thrill seeking rides. Then in the quiet spaces are men playing chess. I am invited to join them but the 378 losses in a row as a girl to my brother Brian have put me off chess.
I’ve always been fascinated with blacksmithing – particularly the making of knives. Here in Osh there’s a fellow Zaidov – who has been making knives from old car parts, suspension, pistons, other bits I don’t recognise. It is obvious he loves his craft.
I’m feeling a bit freer about carrying a few souvenirs home. This is the place. The market is full of interesting things and there are some great small art shops around but still I only have my panniers and some things are better to just admire and leave where they are!
So tomorrow I’m off on my bike – to my final border crossing back into Uzbekistan – that we left months ago. So much has happened since.
In one week I’ll be boarding a plane home… it’s so hard to believe.