Full Circle

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Peri is loaded, everything is where it should be, including me. I switch on my gps tracker and feel my smile widen as I click my shoes into the pedals. I am off- cycling towards the Kyrgyz Uzbek border. It is an immeasurable joy. I am back.

Today will be 41C so I’m heading off early – I’m planning to be at the border when it opens at 8am. I’m so pleased with myself riding across this final border I hardly notice the time or the scenery- in minutes it seems I am at the border.

The excitement at another border crossing means I arrive about 7.40. There are long lines of trucks waiting – I am waved past by the border officials, the truck drivers wave at me too. Then I see the big queues of people, a long colourful snake of people stretching back for well over a kilometre. It may take longer than I anticipate – hopefully it doesn’t get too hot too soon.

I forget I am a tourist, but of course I am obvious. Peri with her bright sunshine yellow panniers and me in cycling gear looking very much not like a Kyrgyz women or man and we stand out more the than I realise. The upside is there is a special queue for tourists. So half a dozen Uzbeks and I join the very short queue.

The short queue just over my shoulder

The others, standing waiting for ages in the long queue do not seem to mind that we are pushed to the front. Instead they are smiling and pointing and ask A kuda – where are you from, Scholka let? How old are you. Then wave me goodbye as I head inside.

So I wheel Peri across the nowhere zone back into Uzbekistan. My bags are xrayed. I’m asked if I have any medication and then I’m through. Full circle – I am very happy to be back at the beginning happy I could do that final border crossing under my own steam.

I’m back!

I am riding into the Fergana valley, a rich fertile valley, home of ikat silk weaving. Andijan is the capital of the region, a region known for its religious conservatism.

Before coming I had wondered how it would be riding through Muslim countries and what dress code would be appropriate – it has felt fine everywhere to be in my shorts. Today though I am wearing my longer shorts.

It’s 50km into Andijan – I have crossed the border and it’s only 7.15. I am done before I arrived. I’ve gained an hour. For a hot day loaded up it is yet another blessing.

The road is nothing special, the usual dust, lack of hard shoulder, but I can tell I am back in Uzbekistan- I am getting hello beeps and waves, people contorting themselves to lean half their body out the window and yell A kuda? I am happy.

It’s starting to get pretty hot as I hit Andijan. Luckily I have some Uzbek money so can stop for a drink before I change money. I also need to find the address of where I’ve booked to stay. I forget however to download the confirmation email and I no longer have a sim, so I need to find wifi too.

I stop. The cafe doesn’t have wifi but now it’s getting hot. I have the name of the hostel but they haven’t heard of it and can’t find it listed in the internet. Once again there is one extremely kind soul – I hotspot to his phone, find the location I am looking for. He calls them just to make sure all is okay with my booking. I wind my way through the small backstreets stopping twice for directions. Again someone calls for me then escorts me to the building.

Muktarov n me

Muktarov is there to greet me. I dont yet have a sense of what Andijan is but it doesn’t seem overly conservative or religious at first glance. I shower and cool off under the air conditioner. I am keen to see if I can see and maybe buy some of the ikat silk. Muktarov offer to go with me – so we head off Jahon bazaar but most stalls are closed on Mondays. Muktarov assures me he knows other places. We end up at a multi storey shopping mall, it is as overwhelming and underwhelming as shopping malls anyway. I don’t find what I am looking for and I’m not surprised.

I abandon thoughts of shopping and instead we go looking at the local buildings. That makes me feel at home.

The Registan is being redeveloped as an arts and cultural hub for the region.

We wander the streets and enjoy the beautiful buildings. None of this is on the guide book. The book only talks about history – Government’s brutal crackdown in 2005, resulting in a massacre, but there is no sense of that history out on the street.

Stunning ceiling

Muktarov n me
A very unusual decoration

The heat is keeping everywhere fairly quiet but still there are kids in bikes mostly small kids but not always small bikes. At times the wind themselves through the frames unable to reach the pedals over the cross bar. Nothing seems to big to ride.

He can only just reach the pedals at full stretch
Two or more on a bike is more common

Here I don’t see any women on bikes – it seems rare in Uzbekistan. Other than the kids the bike is very much just transport, no speeding along in Lycra (not here) thank goodness.

Even the streets are quiet

The day is getting very very hot.

So hot you need to take a fan with you wherever you go.

Muktarov is a good guide. He has just graduated from college and running the hostel is his first job. He cannot do enough for me. He keenly shows me around.

The patterns of the buildings are mesmerising or maybe it’s just the heat… no I’m really loving seeing this type of building again.

Tomorrow I’ll try my luck again searching for silk. Margilon has a silk factory.

I’m up early but Muktarov is not. There are three rooms at the hostel (including his) and he has successfully let them all out. He and his brother sleep at the kitchen table but don’t get much sleep.

His brother takes me to the mashrutka stop – and I wait until the van is full. It’s a small minibus, no air conditioning and jammed with people. I don’t see any other tourists about. The trip is nearly two hours but goes quickly with games of charades in addition to usual set of questions where are you from, how old are you and now, are you travelling alone?

Before the silk factory I just wander – the bazaar is in full swing. It’s colourful and full of energy. As I wander along I am given various things to try – a sweet soft fresh mellow yellow fig is my favourite. The halva which isn’t a halva I know (it’s milk based) is my least favourite.

The colour of the bazaar
The mellow yellow figs
Everything is very neatly presented

I see a silk shop and wander in – it isn’t the silk factory but that too is close. Most of the silk is mixed with cotton though there’s some pure silk too. There’s a young guide here – a schoolboy practicing his English. He has a group of French tourists under his wing. He invites me to join them for lunch. Why not?

Between the shop and the silk factory there is much to see

The factory is the first large group of tourists I have seen. I whole bus load of them! They help me choose a couple of scarves – which given the choices is incredibly helpful.

If tourists

Some designs are not so traditional

Then it’s back to the mashrutka stop. The day hasnt cooled at all. It’s hot, very hot – at least 42C. Everyone in the mashrutka is hot and tired. I am wedged between two mothers holding toddlers.

It’s not the coolest of places to be on a hot day

When I get back to the hostel I take a long cold shower. The sweat and the dirt take a while to wash off. It’s been a great day – I love being out there in the day soaking up (and in this case sweating out) whatever the day has on offer. I’m now ready for for my next challenge. Getting self and Peri to Tashkent. Back to my next family home Makhsuda, Nargiza and Hilola.

Muktarov comes up trumps again. He’s organised me a taxi – with a roofrack! – so once again Peri is travelling by car. Thee is no rope though – just my two ocky straps to hold her in place. Luckily they are very strong and the driver is happy to stop and check as we go.

We stop twice. Everything is rock solid. Apart from short breaks we keep up a good pace and by mid afternoon I’m back in Tashkent. It really is like coming home.

Makhsuda
Hilola

There are hugs all around when I arrive. This is my third visit and it already feels like we are old friends. I had so many plans for the afternoon – cleaning self, bike, clothes but instead I lie horizontal in the air conditioning and doze. There is always tomorroooozzzz.

Peri takes quite a while to clean but I don’t mind – playing with a hose on a hot day is not a bad thing. Makhsuda and I play a little and both end up a little damp. With scrubbing brush and toothbrush Peri is cleaned and then cleaned some more. Shoes and clothes are next. Tent and chair were cleaned in Osh so at least they don’t need doing again.

No guessing before and after!
She’s got her sparkle back

By mid afternoon I am done cleaning and can start dismantling and packing Peri up for her homeward journey. More full circle this evening. I am meeting Akbar, wonderful Akbar who couriered us around Tashkent in search of a stove and gas.

The evening is warm but lovely, he’s remembered I’m vegetarian and so chosen carefully our restaurant. I delight in gifting him our stove n spare fuel and a couple of other items Adrienne decided to leave behind. He is delighted too.

The food is great and there is an awful lot of it. So much we end up taking some home.

Akbar n bike lock 🙂

The farewelling of new friends makes me really feel like I am heading home. I am ready now.

Despite an after dinner walk I am still feeling overfull. As I enter my accommodation Hilola and Nargiza both say come we have a surprise for you. I am ushered into the kitchen. The other guests are there sitting around a table full of food. I’m given a plate. Then the cake comes out – my birthday cake! Though it’s exactly one month early. When I chatted earlier with Makhsuda there had obviously been confusion re my actual birthday. Anyway overfull or not – it’s such a warm generous gesture I eat cake, after being sung happy birthday. The celebrations have begun. I lay down, stomach distended, heart bursting.

The month of celebrations have began!

Today I am off to see Boris and Marianna – who we stayed with en route to Samarkand. Despite no and I mean no – shared language we have been doing what’s app video calls as we traverse Central Asia. Marianna chatters away in Russian, then throws her head back and laughs hysterically. We laugh too then she starts again. Sometimes we have a clue about what is being said and sometimes we don’t. Either way the message is clear – it is good to see you.

He is so generous with his time

But before I head off there are other friends to see. Misha the baker, who’s work has become even more impressive – working with a wood fire, placing bread on the walls – with the heat of the day and the oven it means it is not only the bread that is baking.

With charades he enquires if I want to sell my bike – he is interested. I tell him it is coming back to Australia with me but that I will be back in two years to do the Pamir. He seems satisfied with that. I am given bread straight from the oven and warm wishes. I am sure I am not imagining the shared joy of meeting again.

Even standing in front of the oven for the photo I had sweat streaming down my back.

When I’m not riding each leg of a journey is an adventure in itself. Finding transport, negotiating a price, the drive – it all takes time and or energy. Today Makhsuda has organised for me to be dropped at the shared taxi stand. After much arguing I find a ride. After about 5 minutes I think I have made a mistake.

It’s true since my accident I am a little more conscious of my own mortality but even before that I think this guys driving would’ve terrified me. We are travelling at 120 or thereabouts, we are at best 2 metres behind any vehicle in front, though never for long, at any chance we swerve out around the vehicle in front then back in again. I ask loudly if we can slow down but that just causes him to look at me and quite honestly I’d rather his eyes stayed in the road.

Texting and checking messages was the least of my problems

There were many moments when there were no hands on the wheel. On my first siting of Baxt, my destination town, I asked him to stop. I couldn’t remember exactly where Marianna and Boris lived but I knew I’d be happier walking to find out. There is a restaurant that looks familiar but I can’t seem to find the alley to their house. I keep wandering – and now I have their photos up on my phone. Showing people I pass – and asking if they know them. They first boys I pass point me down the road and to the right. The next woman is even more helpful. She has a roadside stall. She closes it. She escorts me all the way to their gate and physically hands me over. She is happy. I am happy and Marianna and Boris are overjoyed.

I’m still swearing my corset for long car trips and parties 🥳

Marianna explains to me that Boris thought I was leaving Tashkent for Australia today but she was convinced I was coming to visit. Boris shows me the message. I will leave Tashkent at 3pm – I can see why he was confused – still the greeting from them both is joyous.

We spend a delightful evening and I’m surprised at what I can understand. Tone and pitch and pace give lots of clues – along with the usual charades. I am told to shower, then to brush me hair, then to go bed. For some reason I willingly comply. Marianna cannot believe it is the first time in three months I have brushed my hair – but she has not seen all the photos.

The first sitting. In less than 24 hours there are 4 meals provided.
The delightful cheeky Boris
The effervescent Marianna
The homemade fountain – cooling the backyard

As I leave they escort me across the road and flag down a ride. Here every car is a taxi. I cannot understand any word that Marianna says and I understand everything. It is the volume, the emphasis, the gesticulations, the tone and pitch. All together it is clear “this is our friend, drive safely, do not charge her too much”.

Marianna has the same effect on the driver as she does on me – he is scared into happy compliance – on all accounts. He is a fantastic driver, he speaks English and he drops me right outside my Tashkent home!

I spend my last evening hanging out with Hilola and Makhsuda- we do mini facials, laugh a lot and then laugh some more

Today I am flying back to Australia. 100 days since I left. It has been a very rich journey. I left Australia feeling fortunate. I am returning with a much greater appreciation of life and of those people in my life – the old and the new and all they bring.

This is not the last blog – I’ll do my final reflections when I get home. Thanks so much for joining me on this journey – you’ve no idea what it’s meant to have you along for the ride 🙂

Moments…

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.

On the way up Tor Ashuu pass

3. Driving through a dark, fume filled tunnel with incredibly poor visibility and no hard shoulder.

The poor visibility had to be seen to be believed

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.

The Kara Balta
So many places to camp

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

Picnicking by the river
There is always a request for selfies!

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.

Feeling much cooler

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.

Lake Toktogul
Toktogul in the evening light

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.

There are often small slips along the mountainside
A yurt – all packed up and on its way to its new location

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.

200m apart – dry and dusty then green

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.

The car is waiting ahead under the shade of a tree

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 natural Naryn!
Winding into another mountain tunnel

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.

Musleem post swim
Sary Chelek

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.

Best plov ever!

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.

Fairytale formations

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.

It’s unbelievably hot and I’m not sure why I climbed to see a waterfall I can’t get to!

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.

Very glad I chose not to ride. Even with the windows up the car is full of dust.

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.

Breakfast in Jalal-Abad

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.

Mosaic promoting the worker

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.

Finally – it’s melon season

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 🙂

Janine

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.

Petroglyphs

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.

Nurasma

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 love the concentration
Ferris wheel are a common site in city parks

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.

Zaidov
Yes – I do buy one

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!

There are many felt items – some more unusual than others.

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.

Same roads different wheels

Confident I am well on the road to recovery Adrienne has managed to get a ticket from Bishkek to New Zealand.

Our last night …

We spend our last evening reminiscing over photos and squeezing in a mini facial. It is a lovely and fitting end to this epic adventure we have had together. We crash for a few hours before an early rise and farewells. It is a 50hr trip and so as Adrienne is leaving she says “well the adventure is not quite over yet”!

The before..(I forgot to take an after)

She couldn’t have known just how right she was – a few hours later we were together again. Because of the multi city flights in China and the long delays – a 24 transit visa just wouldn’t cut it. So Adrienne wasn’t allowed to board and instead was sent back to the hostel. With wonderful support from home she managed to get another series of flights the next day. Homeward bound Take II. Of course it wasn’t simple – it was challenging and complicated but she managed to get a new ticket with the requisite shorter transit times albeit not without quite a bit of stress.

I leave mid afternoon – headed to Kochkor. I decide to go by mashrutka (minibus) – there is plenty of room. It’s not too bad. At first I don’t notice I am the only woman in the vehicle- here that doesn’t bother me or seem to bother anyone else. Though once we start chatting via google translate I am asked if my husband is not jealous 😁.

Nurbek and his son

As always, the warmth and generosity of people is on display. We stop and I am handed a glass of icy cold compote that someone has bought for me. Then later Ayiron and biscuits. I had t planned well for the trip so it is all very welcome. Nurbek and his son who I am sitting next too are great company and we rely almost entirely on charades to communicate. It flows better that way.

Soon enough I am back to the lovely clean Good Hostel that I had been whisked away from by ambulance – having left Adrienne in Bishkek to do the final shopping you never have time or space for on a bike. (That was the upside of being mucked around with flights. The good news was with the new flights she still arrived home at the same scheduled time.

Elmira and Elena at Good hostel

A lovely eve in Kochkor with the family and now I’ve headed to Song kul. I am winding my way up the mountain, assessing the gradient, the potholes the size of the gravel, the dust, the width of the road as oncoming traffic approaches (I have plenty of warning as a cloud of dust precedes them). None of this is really necessary- I am in a car. I have imagined for months riding up this road though – and so I want the road and I to have a more intimate connection.

The first section dry and relatively barren
The dust that both follows and precedes every car
The road to Song Kul – green winding and steep

Having recently had an experience which had made me confront my mortality- I find some of the edges a little close, the corners a little tight and the overtaking sometimes too tight and too close. Still the driver is good – it is just me and him and he drives slowly and carefully. We see the lake from a distance – it is much bigger and a little less majestic that I had imagined. There is some snow on the surrounding mountains but not much.

Song Kul – quite special really 😊

Today there is the annual horse games festival at Song Kul. Perhaps I could’ve chosen a better time to come. I am taken to the requested yurt camp and we are both fed – just a little too much.

There are people everywhere- many many tourists who at first all seem under thirty, (though later I meet others to refute this stat). There are also lots of Kyrgyz families -the men, boys and some girls on horseback, the women working to feed all the visitors.

The horses hold themselves very majestically
Lots and lots of foals about – I tell them I promise not to drink any more mares milk

After lunch the games begin – literally. A horse game a bit like polo though you don’t what to know what they use for a ball! After a very short period I decided a walk along the lake was more my cup of tea. A sprinkling of others had decided on the same idea.

Resting the horses after the games
The lake is huge – and one tiny section is blocked off and protected
There are all sorts of things hiding in the grass mounds – including this pup

There is a lull after the games, people wandering chatting, children -usually more than one at a time – galloping along on horseback – the horse four and five times bigger than them. They have an ease and confidence I cannot even imagine. And there are local games – a bit like pétanque but with stones instead of balls.

Pétanque Kyrgyz style

There is music, singing and dancing – the setting, lakeside, with snow drizzled mountains at the back – could not be more spectacular. I’m not sure how long I will stay – one or two nights, but for now I am here.

The National instrument – komus- only three strings.

Before long with everyone crowded around the bonfire the music takes a different turn – it’s now 80s ad 90s music. I slip away for an early night.

Sunset on Song Kul yurts

Song Kul is a tourist Mecca – there are more tourists congregated here than I am used to and the Festival has probably exacerbated that. There are also more cycle tourers than I have seen in one place in the whole trip. Here they are common!

One of many bikes – tent combos at Song Kul – and yes I was just a bit jealous

With tourist Mecca, comes high volume turnover and here of course power is only from generators and then use is limited. I’m not sure about how often the sheets have been washed – so am especially glad I have my silk sleeping sheet and pillow (thanks Vanessa) and pillow case with me.

The view from my yurt
At my yurt camp
My yurt

I am up early, wandering to the nearby mountains and lake and of course can’t resist wading in and getting wet.

Wandering is a joy – early every else is still sleeping – I can chat with donkeys, cows, horses and the mountains and flowers. I love this time of day.

Crystal clear Song Kul – I wish I hadn’t left my bathers in Bishkek
They are friendly and happy to interact and they don’t scare me 🙂
In each square metre there are many many varieties of tiny alpine flowers

There are still lots of people about, I think too many. I will head back to the quiet of Good Hostel in Kochkor. It takes quite a while to organise a lift. Many others drift away, and it seems I am the last one standing. Finally a car comes along and I negotiate a trip back.

Slowly things start to quieter down

The car is empty when I get in. By then time we leave, we have a goat, five children, four adults, lots of Kumys, milk and varied other supplies.

Waiting to load the car
Washing up
Everyone has a job to do

I am thankful I am sitting in the front. The drive out is as beautiful and as scary as the drive in but I focus on the view and it carries me away.

More cycle tourers in the road out
The road is often shared with cattle as well as other cars

Returning to Kochkor, feels like returning home. Elmira and Elena welcome me like a favourite aunt. I wash, rest and then wander. Elmira takes me to the local handicrafts shop – there is so many beautiful things – I am keen to buy a shyrdak but there are just too many to decide on – and of course now I know how it is done – I am more choosy, I have high expectations. There are too many to choose from, so they all stay in the shop – instead I just get one or two small things as gifts. (Travelling by bike – there is never much room for purchases but now as I approach the end – and of course not really riding – I decide I can squeeze a bit more in.)

More shyrdaks – too many to choose one

Dinner with the family is the final treat for the day. I feel I have graduated to the next level, usually guests eat first but tonight I am invited to dine with the family.

Elmira – warm and wonderful as well as efficient and a great cook
Erbol the family’s English interpreter and an absolute delight
Alia – the quiet achiever, constantly anticipating what needs doing
Alda – sweet and cheeky all at once
Elena – mischief itself.
Azamat with Elena (he has a beautiful smile but I can’t get him to smile for the photo)

Today Azazmat has headed to Issyk Kol to pick up Erbol, Alia and possibly Alda (though he is not keen to leave his grandparents – or the opportunity for daily swims in the lake!). Azamat cant find Erbol, Alia or Alda so wont be back until late in the evening.

I get to look after Elena for a little while – she no longer considers me a stranger. After 15 minutes I realise body is still a little sore – I forgot how much 10 months old weigh. Elmira Elena and I head out for dinner to the local restaurant. It is easy and relaxed – and I am pleased Elmira has agreed to having a night off.

Long before the others return I head to bed.

Today is my last day in Kochkor – I am so happy that I returned. The animal market is on today, it starts early but I do not. By the time I head in that direction there are people everywhere in the streets with a sheep or two and the odd goat just standing around while its new owners share a pot of chai or some Kumys.

And then she says….
There was a lots of chatting going on …
The Kardashian sheep – check out their rear ends!

The market is not just an animal market – you can buy anything there. The local bike shop is there, plenty of food (all meat), clothes, shoes, tools – it is all available. I slowly amble around soaking it all in, then wander home.

The local bike shop
Bit of a red thing going on 🙂
Traditional Kyrgyz hat – I now have one for Dad – gifted by my Kyrgyz family
The only food on offer at today’s market- I pass

Almost before I know it, it is mid afternoon and it is time to go – I’m happy and sad. I feel like I have a Kyrgyz family and they say they have an Australian sister. They are very special indeed.

(I do not get to farewell Alda he has stayed at the lake – summer holidays with grandparents and a lake – what could be better)

My Kyrgyz family minus Alda and with two cousins thrown in for good measure

Erbol escorts me to the mashrutka and makes sure I am offered a fair price for the ride back. It’s a relaxed three hours and then I am am back in the busy throngs of Bishkek, west bus station.

Returning to places even when you have only been away a few days feel good. The welcome is a little more friendly the smiles just that little bit bigger.

I spend the evening organising my trip to Osh , car and bike together so I can do some riding but in an easy supported way. I am so looking forward to being back on my bike. It will be two weeks since the accident.

Today I will pick up my bike, then tomorrow head south. I can hardly wait!

Luck 🍀 redefined….

I’m usually pretty up to date with posts pending of course available wifi but this one has been a little slower to write as we’ve been a little consumed.

From the hill

Tash Rabat – the mountains, luminescent green hills, close your eyes and find yourself in this valley. From the hill you can see the yurt camps, it is a beautiful if not cool morning. We wander off exploring the caravanserais and just absorbing the stunning valley we are in and the yurt camps that are surrounding us.

It’s after 10 and the day has now warmed up – T-shirt’s are more than enough for now even though we are already well over 3000m however we also know it will get cooler at we head higher up the see the beautiful Chatyr Kol. I am really itching to see an alpine lake.

Chatyr Kul – courtesy the internet – can’t wait to take my own pics

Saddling up there are six of us, two guides Samar leading Adrienne then Eva and Falco – a honeymooning Dutch couple then Nazar then me – also being lead. I wasn’t sure I wanted that at first but then it seemed fine. We had told them that neither of us had much experience- me a little more than Adrienne but still not much at all.

Saddle bags packed and ready to go

So we started slowly – through the valley, carefully crossing wide braided rivers shallow channels of crystal clear mountain water separated with channels of stone. Then more of that, then we are across the other side.

Eva and Falco have been here for a few days, albeit in another yurt camp and so have already done a couple of horse treks. They well and truly have their cowboy legs on. As we wander through the valley they try and race each other – though that only means trying g to encourage their horses into a trot rather than the slow walk we are on.

Falco

I’m much more comfortable on Peri’s saddle so for once it is not me wanting to go faster, higher….I am quite happy with a slow walk.

Nazar is regularly looking back and asking if I’m okay – which I am – though the nervousness has not subsided it is o my just a little bit worse. By the time we stop after about an hour, Adrienne has settled into the saddle well. She has quite literally sat with her intial (quite significant) apprehension and got past it.

Eva

I haven’t managed that – and say I’m a bit terrified- though the word feels a little strong. We start off again, more river crossings, and thin goat tracks on the edge of the valley. I can’t understand how great big muscly four legged animals can fits on these tiny tracks!

I am the last in the line. Ahead the track starts going steeply up the side of the hill. Everyone else is plodding along going up with apparent ease. I make the mistake of looking down to my left and decide that is not the best strategy and instead look straight ahead.

These tracks are about 30cm wide!

My horse doesn’t seem keen on the goat track either – and pulls away just before we go up. Nazar comes around and takes the rope back, gives her a firm talking to and we head up.

We are about 3/4 of the way to be first bend where Adrienne and Samar are stopped when my horse rears. It isn’t happy. It seems to stay on hind feet for a while – wavering left to right. Both the horse and I know we are on a hillside so wavering is not the best of ideas.

Then time stops and time fast forwards. I am off the horse. Somehow my feet came out of the stirrups and I am free of the horse. Luck part one.

I’ve hit the ground with a thud, left trunk, shoulder then head. Luckily the ground slopes away and so even though I’ve hit the ground the fact that I land and roll is no doubt very good. Luck part two.

Though the ground is stony and rocky there are no big rocks underneath me. Just earth – though now a little more compacted. Luck part three.

Horse has also tumbled. We are both tumbling – it is not elegant. The horse are I are both tumbling down but we are nowhere near each other. Luck part four.

After what seems like an age and a just a moment I stop. The horse does not. Luck part five.

Samar

I am on the hill. Samar comes running down to check on me. Am I okay? It’s all happened so fast. Am I ? I pat my body down – yes, yes I think I am okay. Dazed but still very much with wits about me. Luck part six.

I right myself and take stock. Samar and Nazar have headed to the horse. I want to move – where I am feels a little precarious. I move tentatively checking myself out, but all limbs, head, back seem to be in working order. Luck part seven

It’s a scramble back up.

I clamber back up the hill to where the others are on the track. Eva reaches out a hand to help me up the last bit. We are all shocked and also elated that all is okay. We are also shaken and don’t feel like going any further.

There is no easy way back. It’s by horse or by foot. One guess what chose!

Walking back

Of course it’s been a big shock. And now the weather has cooled off and the clouds are rolling in. I’m dusty and dirty and scraped but I am not cold. But with the risk of shock, and impending rain I have on my puffer jacket and Eva’s raincoat (though Adrienne has also volunteered hers). I am warm and stay dry even when the rain starts. Luck part 8.

It’s a long slow walk back but I think it stops my body from stiffening up. Luck part 9. There are river crossings. I have the choice – walk across get wet and risk slipping over or risk getting back on a horse. I choose the horse. Three times I chose the horse (not my horse). Then I get down as soon as possible and walk.

It takes perhaps an hour and a half or maybe two before we get back. We stopped briefly to shelter from the rain but mostly we have just been slowly and steadily walking back to our respective yurt camps.

Bolot is duely concerned – having heard about the events long before we arrive. Nazar has ridden back to camp to advise the family and others.

Once we’re back I revert to my English roots knowing everything will feel better after a cup of tea.

Tea makes everything better 🙂

The drive out could be bumpy but Bolot is the best driver you could imagine- he goes slowly and carefully and the road feels much smoother than it is. Luck part 10.

We stop along the way – after a couple of hours for a break, and some food. Everyone is keen for me to get more thoroughly checked out but all I want to get back to Good hostel and rest.

Good hostel is like home. Adrienne is looking after me very well and they are doing whatever they can. They organise to take me to the hospital in the morning. Erbol will be my translator. Luck part 11.

Elmira from Good hostel
N Adrienne

Erbol’s uncle comes around to drive us to the hospital Luck part 12.

The assessment is very unusual and if laughing didn’t hurt we both would’ve been in fits of laughter. Still I get the all clear. No broken bones. Luck part 13.

Of course I need to let insurance know but I dont have the energy. Between them my darling sister Susie and Adrienne manage what is needed.

Rest is good. Of course I am stiff and sore but that is all.

Insurance want a more thorough assessment. There is a small part of me that is glad about that though mostly I am feeling fine. Luck part 14.

Despite the homesickness Adrienne has said she’s not going anywhere till she knows I am well. Luck part 15.

So despite being well enough to wander the streets, go to a cafe for dinner, shower etc – insurance decide I need to be transported by ambulance to Bishkek.

It feels completely over the top. So I lay down and chalk up my first ambulance ride. It’s a bugger not to be able to see the view but Adrienne generously does running commentary.

I am check out more thoroughly more xrays and scans and they all conclude I am made of rubber. Luck part 16. Nothing is broken. I am given more meds – which thankfully I check out with the home medical team and decide which ones to take.

They are keen for me to stay in hospital but only so I can have IV and IM meds and plenty of rest. I can also have meds as an outpatient and better rest at home. So I don’t stay in. And I rest well. And I get a corset – to ease the discomfort and tiredness – and to make sure the next slinky black dress fits well. 😁

Dr Aibek – and me in my new outfit

It’s now a week. I am feeling good. I won’t be going on any more horse rides for some time if at all. I managed a star jump yesterday 😊.

I will be having the next week or more sans bike – it’s staying here – with a lovely Warm showers host (people who offer accommodation and assistance to cycle tourers). So for now I can wander Bishkek freely without bike or much gear.

Bishkek bazaar – full of felt

I’m heading back to Kochkor and going to Song Kol. I had hoped to ride but have let that go. Instead I’ll go by car and enjoy the ride in a different way. So back here (Bishkek) next weekend and then will see what the final couple of weeks bring.

Plenty of public art here including this amazing snow leopard.

There’s a lot of kilometres to cover and not much time so there’ll be more car, bus and train than usual but however it goes I’ve no doubt it will continue to be amazing!

Heartfelt or not …

The generosity and warmth of the people of this region has been overwhelming – mostly that has been good, but something not good has happened, we have come to expect it!

In the midst of being really appreciative, of not believing just how lucky we are, of continually being amazed at the breadth and depth of hospitality, we have made the mistake of thinking it would happen everywhere …. and being horrified when it didnt.

It’s hard to know why the usual hospitality wasnt forthcoming- perhaps it was because we chose not to stay in the house and instead camp outside but at Altyn Oimo – we felt like the paying clients we were rather than wrapped in the bosom of the family as we have so often felt. Still we were there to learn felting and felting we did.

Boiling the polyn

Ala Kiyiz (Ala Keez) is a method of making felt. A recognisable plant (polyn/ermn – that we don’t know the English name of) is boiled in water – and eventually poured on the prepared wool – acting as a repellent against moths and mould extending the life of the final felt.

Laying on the patterns – the third layer

There are many stages – two base layers of wool – with the fibre of the second layer running across the first layer. The final layer then has a pattern – mostly using traditional plant and animal motifs. I try to get in to the creative spirit but at first it feels a bit like putting in insulation! Pulling bits of wool and filling in small gaps to make everything even. Once the third layer is in – the boiling water with said repellent is then poured over the wool layer. It’s a family affair, mother, father and son are all involved in teaching us.

The sheep horn motif.
Filling in the gaps.
A very big sushi mat
Pouring it on as it is rolled

Then the sushi mat appears – but it is much much bigger than usual! The wool mats are tightly rolled, then wrapped then more boiled water (and repellent) poured over then tied up then stomped on.

Mould and moth protection
Three seconds of 30 minutes

The stomping goes on for quite a while – we think this part really needs music but all we can come up with is an Army call – One Two Three Four Stomp it now and Stomp it more, Five Six Seven Eight, Stomp it Hard and Use your Weight. This goes on for fifteen to thirty minutes until we are sick of it and they are sick of our “music”.

The final wash

Then it’s washing, compressing, washing, compressing and eventually the finished felts are hung up to dry. Despite my initial hesitation I have enjoyed the process and learnt much.

The final pressing
Ala Kiyiz – hung out to dry

Then Stage two of the learning process begins. Shyrdak (sheerduck) – joining pieces of felt that is then used in lining and decorating the yurts. The designs are again primarily plant and animal based. Zhangyl who runs the NGO Altyn Oimo draws on a motif then cuts out the same design on two pieces of felt, our pieces with be a mirror image of each other, blue on white and white on blue.

Each quarter folded to print the chalk on the next quarter
Cutting out the designs
Blue on white and white on blue

At first my frustration levels are high – this doesnt feel creative, this feels hard and repetitive, I seem to have forgotten that repetition can be a clear road to mastery. It takes some time before I remember that and even then it is only after Zhangyl (Jungil) has got me past the very initial hurdles. Adrienne, weaver, knitter, spinner is travelling along nicely and helps me identify and learn some of the finer components of success.

Making smooth progress

Well before Day one is finished I actually feel like i am getting this. Having managed to work out how to join two thick pieces of felt and cover the join with two separate threads of wool without it looking like my Grade 3 sewing assignment – I start Day 2 perhaps just a little too confident. It seems my greatest challenge is threading the needle – as I spend so much time unpicking I am constantly having to rethread the needle.

Even the back looks okay 😁

Two bits of felt and two threads was hard enough I am struggling seriously with two bits of felt and three threads. I do persevere but eventually Zhangyl realises without her intervention I may not get to the final stage – so she completes the border. It is challenging and even Adrienne requires some assistance with the border. I sew late into the night committed to finishing the piece before we leave tomorrow. Despite myself I get it done and go to bed feeling very pleased with myself.

Bedtime now

The next morning it seems the whole family is happy with our work. We do show and tell and requisite photos then head off winding our way slowly back to the lake.

The finished products – student and teacher
The whole family proud!
More samples of Zhangyl’s work
Zhangyl again 🙂 – she has won UNESCO awards for her work training young Kyrgyz women in the art of Shyrdak
Zhangyl- master of shyrdak

Bokonbeavo is another old town with gingerbread houses and set at the foot of snow capped mountains. Like many of its counterparts around the country and structural remnants of its Soviet past are never far away.

A Soviet memorial from WWII

The setting of Bokonbaevo is stunning – right at the foot of the mountains. Though with the roads we are riding and the land we are seeing, it’s hard to not take the view from the lounge room window for granted.

The view from the Lounge
The library at Bokonbaevo

It’s a slow hot climb out of Bokonbaevo where Altyn Oimo is located but the lure of Issyk Kol helps us up the hills. The view once we get to the top also makes it worthwhile.

There are always little cemeteries often in a state of decay along the roadside

In the middle of nowhere there is a cafe – we are not overly tired or overly starving but we stop anyway and get out of the heat. It’s a tasty and leisurely stop and we feel re-energised when we head off again – up a small hill again. Finally we have wound our way back to the shores of Issyk Kol and the glistening waters beckoning us in.

It’s a family beach – so we change discretely (though it’s hard removing sweaty bike shorts with no fuss). We notice people are fairly modest or at least trying to be.

So refreshing
Modesty of sorts

Once we have cooled off we head off again – keen to camp somewhere close to Issyk Kol just one more time. As I stop at the yurt shaped bus stop – the turn off to our preferred wild camping spot (there’s an app iOverlander that tells us where we ca camp for free) there is a group of men erecting a yurt.

The bus stop

They have just started. They can see we are interested and responding to our interest start handing us poles and ropes so we can assist them. I am both surprised and delighted that they so willingly involve us.

Putting the roof poles in
Soon all the poles are in and tied

We havent seen the very beginning but they are not far into it when we arrive. Well before we get to the end – they explain this is their day camp – they have a Schwarma stall next door – they ask if we would like to stay in it for the night. Why not – the structure is complete the felt goes on then later the carpet floor arrives.

Then the felt goes on around the walls
And then in the roof
Soon enough our yurt is ready

The women of the family are working in the food stall while the yurt is being erected. One is a relatively recent mother with baby number 5 in her arms who is having problems breastfeeding. She quickly latches on to the opportunity of having a very experienced midwife on tap.

Breastfeeding tips on tap 🙂
Problem solved! Local hero Adrienne 😊

With no need for a shared spoken language – Adrienne draws on her years of experience and soon has addressed a long standing issue. Samara is very appreciative. She and her sister imagine a different life riding bikes around the country.

Another life ….

As the sun goes down – everyone leaves and we clamber in to our yurt. We sleep well and deep in a cosy dark yurt – there is no waking at 5am as the sun comes up, we dont feel the heat, we sleep later than usual and it is an absolute delight!Still we are well on the road before anyone surfaces – the people of Central Asia do not seem to be early risers!

Our very own yurt
Bikes and us securely tucked away for the night 🙂

There’s a headwind, there is a continual steady incline there are no towns, no shops no water. After about 6 kms there are a few farm houses – we refill our water knowing this is the last stop before we hit Kochkor some 50+ kms down the road.

Droopy dromedary

There are camels – just by the side of the road. Even they look affected heat and suffering from the lack of water. Neither of their two humps can stand up by itself. Their wilting humps is a great reflection of how I am feeling.

Even staring at snow capped mountains doesnt cool us off
The view at the top is always worth it

Kilometres keep rolling away and eventually I roll into Kochkor. Just as I am demolishing the interim snack of biscuits and fruit and coffee before very late lunch arrives, Adrienne joins me. I have stopped at the first cafe I have seen. There are lots of tourists – I should know by now this is rarely a sign that there is good food available and certainly not good local food.

Still it is food and it gives us time to find somewhere to stay Good Hostel – the name is promising. And it is. Very good. A really delightful family, Erbol is 13 and speaks great English and keeps everything running smoothly. Despite our best efforts and those of maps.me we cant find the place – and after riding around in circles he come to find us. Good hostel is great, its clean, friendly, plenty of space for the bikes, great food. We love it.

Erbol and little brother Elda (in Adrienne’s camping chair)

We arrive and settle in. Its been a long, hot day. Adrienne has been grappling with homesickness. It’s a long time to be away from family and just lately the long time has felt too long. So we think a final little side trip together, a final hurrah together will be a great way to finish off this extraordinary shared adventure.

Tash Rabat – and the cool mountain air

So we organise a car trip to Tash Rabat – a caravanserais in the Central South east. Bolot our driver is a civil lawyer though spends much of the summer driving tourists about as the pays is much better. He is has great English, knowledge lots and is warm generous and very accommodating of our requests to stop and take photos and just have a break.

Bolot n us

Everyone says the scenery in Kyrgyzstan is spectacular but of course until you are here you don’t really know what they mean. Yes there are snow capped mountains, green expansive valleys, ragged mountains, enormous folds of earth that seem to have been formed earlier than time itself and it is all jumbled together with no order but no chaos either. Breathtaking doesn’t do it justice and we are just seeing a small corner of it.

The walls of Naryn
The road in to Tash Rabat
The afternoon light as we drove in
Dinner preparations are underway though the power keeps dropping out – adding to the challenges

We stop at Tash Rabat early evening – there are mountain sheep wandering the walls of Tash Rabat. It is set in valley of yurt camps – green hills and rocky outcrops punctuating the skyline. We are now above 3500m and the temperature has definitely dropped.

It’s a warm cosy yurt tonight

Tonight we sleep in a yurt with the stove burning. I remember to send of our GPS spot message just before i go to sleep. There are two messages to send. When I get up later to send the second message the SPOT is nowhere to be found. With Adrienne homesick and heading home early, the loss of the SPOT feels even more challenging. Sleep is fitful and i wake early. Still no SPOT. Finally after much asking around and searching it reappears – and calm once again returns.

I ran up the hill to meet Adrienne SPOT in hand😁

In addition to the sheep there are goats aplenty – one little goat has lost its mother. I am more than willing to step in – at least in a short term capacity. It’s a cold morning but the warmth of it curled in my lap melts my heart as it drifts off to sleep. I am reluctant to get up for breakfast and disturb it. Though I know we have fabulous fresh bread that Adrienne has helped make.

Me n my goat
Fresh bread in the way

The morning light is just beautiful – it would be easy to spend days and days here absorbing it all in every shade of the day.

The local family live here there the 5-6 month tourist season then return to the village.
The patriarch n us
There are three major yurt camps in this valley
Tash Rabat at first light

Though we wander early it is not until after breakfast that Tash Rabat is opened and we can see what lies beneath- it is mind boggling- it looks small but once inside the tunnels and rooms seem to spread out in every direction.

Inside
The structure means there are shafts of light everywhere
There are no lights on – just light coming in from above

Today after breakfast is a horse trek – a new adventure for us both – though I have ridden before it is long ago and my memories are not that positive.

Still despite our nervousness (I have covered mine well) we saddle up – keen to see an alpine lake in an areas our bikes just couldn’t get to. And off we trot….

The next adventure begins!

Food and Water

Reluctant arrival (as with almost every city entry) very  quickly becomes joyous immersion. Karakol is my kind of town. It’s small, old worldly presentation but modern as well – probably reflective of its increasing emergence as a place to be. Tourism is growing and buildings are rising like mushrooms in the forest. 

While there are lots of new buildings going up – it is the old that grab our attention

It is easy to be here – Jalil and Aizada who run the hostel could not be more helpful. The recurring joy of a shower and clean clothes is never lost on me. It’s been a very dusty few days – I know the dust has found a way into every crevice. I stay in the shower longer than usual, scrub a little harder than usual – I am committed to keeping my white bath towel white. I wash hair and self thoroughly, twice. I fail. Despite my best efforts as I dry myself I see the white towel now has a new pattern of brown blotches as my dirt comes off on the towel.

Aizada
Jalil n Adrienne

There is plenty to do but we are only interested in being clean, having clean clothes and sorting out wifi and SIM cards. When that is all completed we feel our days work is done. 

Gingerbread houses – which they are starting to do up – having recognised Tourists are interested in the past.

But of course there is also time to wander into town, to get our bearings, see the signposts of Karakol’s soviet past – little white gingerbread houses with blue or green shutters – mostly in various stages of decay. And also another wooden Russian Orthodox Church – not as big as the last but equally spectacular.

And in the park hidden away are small sculptures- like ones we have seen used as burial stones – though it would seem odd if that’s what they are – here in the edges of a public park with no obvious markings.

I liked his hairdo

We have arrived just 11 days after the hostel has opened. There is a celebratory party planned – family on both sides, key people from the village – just a small party 40 of the closest – we are invited.

In our wandering we also manage to try Ashlan Fu – the local dish – a cold very tasty noodle soup. We order nervously then vacuum up the delicious soup that arrives. I add it to my growing list of tasty Kyrgyz food.

Ashlan Fu – salad, Piroshki Yum!

We also visit a felting workshop – though there is not much underway – here they make a lot of the felt for yurts. It’s an impressive outcome for the limited equipment.

The steam iron which seemed to be used to press two pieces of felt together – but we didn’t have any language so I remain ignorant.

There is much to be done at the hostel – we help, excited to be learning traditional Kyrgyz food. While I am doing the blog Adrienne and a team if women make bucketloads of chuchvara (small meat dumplings for soup) it takes hours and a huge team effort.

Three and bit generations on the production team – grandmother, mother, sister and New Zealand ring-in.
Aizada n me – she is a powerhouse – her focus on everyone’s else’s needs as well as her immense list of tasks is absolutely unbelievable.

Around midnight the shift changes. Almost everyone goes to bed except Aizada, Adrienne and me. We make what seems like hundreds of sweet bread rolls learning how to knot them, twist them, turn them inside out – excited we were learning some traditional methods. As we finish around 2am we ask Aizada if her mother had taught her how to make this bread – no she informed us proudly – she had learnt all this from the internet. We all laugh and we go to bed happy we have learnt something new but with no idea of the originating country. We also go to bed full of Kyrgyz paklava – yes like baklava only better 😁

Lots of different ways of making sweet knitted bread rolls
Paklava – mmmm

We are excited Anna and Pau are also on their way to Karakol and will also stay at Snow Leopard- they are also keen to do the Ala Kol walk – a 3 day walk up into the mountains and over a snowy pass. They arrive the night before the party. By the time the party arrives we are feeling a little caged in – a couple of days indoors and just wandering has us itching to be in the great outdoors. We have been invited to the party – but we still have time to head up to Jeti Orguz – to find an old Russian Sanitorium, amazing red hills and a beautiful river and waterfall.

I walked up a muddy slope to find the afternoon light
I was saved from a muddy slide down – instead being offered a ride down – squashed in the back with everyone else

Meanwhile Adrienne explores the sanitorium and the river…and we both tried the spring water – guaranteed to cure all ills. Not sure if it cured anything or not but it didn’t give us anything either so we were happy.

Cows seems to be reaping the health benefits of the sanitorium these days

We arrive back to the party in full swing – two sheep have be slaughtered and cooked. – it was a deliberate goal to miss that bit of the preparations!

It’s a feast of epic proportions
The village elder – who spoke congratulating Aizada and Jalil on their hostel
Aiana n me
Christopher Flynn – an old friend of Jalils – the most English Australian you could possibly find.
Elina – the youngest daughter.

It’s an honour to be at the party – we arrive mid way through not wanting to be in the way – but as soon as we do we are made to feel very welcome – given seats, passed food and even watched over as we drank the almost mandatory nip of vodka to celebrate (we usually manage to refuse but for once I was happy to partake).

A nip of vodka washed down by fruit compote

In addition to being present the other treat is chatting with Amelia – heading more about village life – though not surprisingly some of the gender issues are very familiar.

Amelia – a French woman studying village life

Shoe shopping wasn’t high on the list of Kyrgyz activities but neither was hiking over an icy pass with sandals. Shoe options were pretty limited and the weather was coming in. It was a very tough call but feeling a little underprepared- especially for bad weather we decided not to go and instead wished Anna and Pau well waving them off with just a tiny bit of FOMO. Then jumped on our bikes and headed west once again.

Anna and Pau heading off for Ala Kol

So we head off with no plans just a blue sky and soon enough an even bluer lake. The roads here are okay but definitely not smooth and even out of the mountains there’s gentle up and downs so the going is slower than other countries but the scenery rewards you for moving slowly.

Before long we see other cycle tourers stocking up on fuel – we recognise it well, fruit, jam, bread, biscuits, yoghurt, tea and this is just a mid morning snack. They have come from where we are heading though have mountain bikes and have gone off road much more. Still there is good intel to share, including a grassy campsite for the evening and water spot to top up our perpetually emptying water bottles. It’s stunning cycling though I could say that almost every day.

The water is just outside Hadjida’s place. She and her son are there him working on a car and Hadjida gardening. Before long my water is topped up and I am inside having chai and chatting. Hadjida is a teacher and keen to chat in English. I’m offered noodles which look a little bit like Ashlan fu so I say yes – ah well. Luckily I asked for only a small helping. There is no meat however it is clear it has been cooked in meat juices – the flavour is intense – I struggle through and make just enough of a dent to be polite.

Hadjida

The only trouble with chai (apart from the food) is the timing and having your touring partner whizz by while you are inside chatting. Not a problem for long – there is great signal along the lake. So we find not one but two campsites along the lake then converge in one to set up home for the night.

The campsite is dry, stony and dusty and it has the usual broken glass everywhere but it has one overwhelmingly redeeming feature, the lake. I can easily see an ocean before me – I can hardly see across it though if I squint my eyes I can just make out the snow covered peaks of the something range on the other side.

The only thing better than starting a day with a swim is ending the day with one as well. We had heard about Torso Yurt camp from a Swiss couple in Karakol- they couldn’t speak more highly – on the lake, lovely people, great food. We thought we’d give it a try. We thought we’d be there by lunch but after a late departure that didn’t quite work. The road is stunning – shadowing the edge of the lake curving around the hills and mountains.

We headed for small back roads – didn’t quite find the yurt camp but did find a gorgeous quiet lunch spot. Clear blue water one side, snowy peaks behind us.

Finding our way to the yurt camp wasn’t hard – we have maps.me a great app which tells us exactly where to go. It does not however tell us that the route it has planned for us is soft sand and will require much pushing and not much riding.

Finally we arrive – it is expensive by our standards, the greeting is not overly friendly though okay and the yurt has been set up for tourists- beds rather than quilted mats on the floor – (which are much more comfort than the beds!) it is however deliciously close to the beach. We had thought about staying two days but decide one will be quite enough. Before long we are in the water.

Not a traditional yurt set up.
The water is my happiest of happy places
It’s not cold and easy to just lay back and relax
It has crystal clear lake one way and snow capped peaks the other – just like our lunch spot only better

We head off in search or Bokonbaevo and a women’s felting cooperative – keen to both develop and expand skills. Ashlan fu arrives long before Bokonbaevo and a new plan evolves. The lake is so beautiful – especially immersion – we decide on one more night by the lake before heading in to a town.

You never know what to expect and sometimes you don’t even know what you are seeing. For kilometres I have been looking at the top of the mountain- trying to work out what was sitting atop. As we got closer it was clear it was a statue. It sat directly opposite some decaying amazing complex.

The figure on the hill
We still don’t know what this place was – if you find out let us know!

Along the road there are also apricot trees – I take my fill – though they probably need another week or two to be really enjoyed.

The beach arrives before the campsite – a Kyrgyz lakeside family holiday spot.

The family scenes are like every beach you have ever known, umbrellas, buckets and spades, floatation rings.

There are two significant differences- there are large gatherings of large women talking, laughing raucously and helping each other get changed behind sheets of cloth. Their joy and laughter is infectious. The other is the absence of the smell of sunscreen – the only obvious smell is cow pats from the cows grazing alongside us.

The afternoon wears on – the beach starts to empty and we head in search of a campsite. We know we have a small hill to start with so we are slow to leave. Soon enough we turn off the road is narrower, quieter and just a delight – it winds gently down and down. Then we arrive!

We are camping on a small Peninsula of the lake just near Bel Tam yurt camp. Spectacular doesn’t bring to describe it! The golden light of evening creates beautiful paintings across the landscape. We are also near Kol Fest – where a Kyrgyz festival was recently held – everything is still there, toilets, showers, hot water, power. We have struck gold.

It’s hard to leave every beautiful spot – especially those with water you can immerse yourself in – but we do and the ride into Bokonbaevo is short and sweet.

Here is a Chance to learn felting – at Altyn Oimok a UNESCO approved NGO. It’s expensive- I’m tempted but very unsure. We head off for lunch to give us both time o think. I think maybe I’ll just head to Song Kol and leave Adrienne to enjoy. Just as we return I change my mind – felting has been something I’m keen to learn for ages. Here is my chance – I do seize it.

Shyrdak- in two days we will have a small piece though it may not be quiet this lovely

A different world

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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.

Shynar

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.

Packed and ready to go

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.

Zuhkra, Aliyah and us

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.

Tying the bikes on – with a tiny strand of rope and about 6 ockey/stretchy straps
Shynar, Aga (1) Adrienne, me and our driver

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.

Fresh fruit, dried fruit and clay!
Aga enjoying some clay

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.

Alain Beaudouard
Roadworks just beginning in Kegen
Heading out of Kegen

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.

Final Kazakh campsite
The perfect protective pit for our stove

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.

Pushing up to the old road – this one was still being built

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.

No repair trucks out here

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.

Riding into Kyrgyzstan

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.

Fresh water
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.

Quicker and easier then expected
Tube out and fixed

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.

Our campsite
Waking up to a view of the river

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.

Just a little too friendly
But I did like his horse

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 view as we left the campsite
Parked in a field of flowers
Green hills blue skies happy hearts

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!

There is so much soft green grass it’s easy to find soMewhere for lunch

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.

Two walls and a roof almost feels cosy
Making do 🙂 and making dinner

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.

Mustafa – the first siting

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.

The evening light above Issyk Kol

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.

Omarsh – our very helpful and able assistant.

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.

We stand around hot drink in hand looking out at the amazing view
Photo by Omarsh

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.

Morning light before the storm

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.

Just a little chilly

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.

After the storm
Horses above and below

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.

Mudslide
The sheep are back in the morning
Emerging after the morning storm
Mustafa and us

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.

The back lanes 🙂

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.

Girl cyclists

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!

Demolished very quickly

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.