Summer in Kyrgystan … the land of milk and honey (part 1)


Imagine lush meadows of flowers stretching as far as the eye can see, hues as multiple as the stars in the clear night sky and fat honey bees lazily floating on the warm breezes, producing honey equally as varied in clarity, flavour and colour.  Snow topped mountains giving rise to clear streams then wider rivers.  Sunny days and blue skies. Add in herds of flighty wild horses often accompanied by their foals, wide-eyed cows with their calf’s and herds of sheep and goats which ebb and flow across the landscape in a tidal motion, strangely disconcerting if you find yourself cycling or camped in the midst of its single-minded focus as it passes.  It’s a bucolic vision and believe it or not its accurate!

But to continue where I left off in Almaty …. The initial travel from the city to the Kazakh/Kyrgyz border should have been uneventful, but as ever nothing goes as expected and during the day’s easy asphalt ride I somehow strain my right knee.  The strain gets progressively worse and at a distressing rate.  Despite stopping in the early evening and camping with a lovely family I continue with the same problem the next day.  The route becomes sections of gentle riding for 30 minutes then stopping for 10 minutes or walking and pushing the bike up the hills.  It appears that the pedal downstroke is the issue, my knee can no longer handle the pressure, but walking is no problem.  As ever my anxiety and distress about the injury dissolves into scenarios of entire trip curtailment and it takes me a lots of effort to breath through the pain in my knee, the stress i am creating and get myself to the border.  I know that the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek, is only 20km from the border and there I can rest myself and fix Tilly following the Mongolian debacle!  Crossing the last part of the plains from Almaty and traversing the last Kazakh hills, complete with wind farm, I am grateful for a downhill to the border town of Korday.  Here I get my first taste of Kyrgyz bread, a flavour I had so enjoyed back in 2015 and then forgotten until now!!

Crossing the border i have the usual anxiety about paperwork and dates, however this is magnified in Kazakhstan as a result of the uncertainty about whether I should have registered my stay in the country or not.  Whilst staying in Almaty (European Backpackers Hostel) I visited the OVIR (the immigration police) and established that registration, which I had forgotten about on entry, wasn’t necessary and that the fact of only having 1 stamp on my migration card was not an issue … but as we all know the information coming from above can take a long time to filter down to the people on the ground … and it was them I was dealing with on the border.  I duly line up and present my passport and migration card to an unsmiling official in a booth, the sign saying ‘Kazakhstan Passport Control’ and ‘good luck’ above him does not give me confidence.

As ever I am asked if I speak Russian, to which I gave my best ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’ rendition and apparently disgusted by this he hastily bangs an exit stamp in my passport and dismisses me with an abrupt wave of his hand and is looking for his next, perhaps more interesting, victim.  I breathe a sigh of relief as that was mercifully swift, collect Tilly and cycle the next 10 meters to the Kyrgyz checkpoint where I find the correct door to get my stamp and am admitted to the country for 60 days of visa free cycling fun!

I would normally be overjoyed at this prospect but my knee is so painful that all cycling does not seem to be on the cards and I slowly limp, push and coast the 20km into Bishkek, where I spend a recuperative 2 weeks in the city with an additional 1 week in Uzgen, a large town in the south.  Seeing Bishkek in the summer is a revelation and a taste of things to come.  I am shocked at the difference between seeing the city in winter (November 2015) with its cold, foggy, dreary ambience and the vibrant, colourful, alive city (as I experience it now) in the summer … it is incredible and reminds me that seeing people and places at specific times never gives one the whole story.

I am really lucky to have been able to stay AT house, Bishkek … the Warm Showers home of Angie, Liga, James and Nazim.  AT house has been a fixture on the cycle touring circuit for many seasons and Angie (a seasoned cycle tourer) and her house mates were incredibly welcoming, providing tent space in the garden, a wonderful outdoor shower and an ambience within which I was able to rest up, complete some blog writing (you have them to thank for the outpouring of words at the beginning of June!!) and generally get myself back together.  It was through Angie that I found the experience of volunteering in a school in Uzgen and I am eternally grateful to have had the opportunity to have some quite emotional conversations with Liga … It is often only when I sit still for a period of time that I become re-acquainted with my thoughts and feelings, which can provoke some explosive emotions. Discussing ‘travelling’ and the concept of ‘witnessing’ being a case in point … more on that another time!

After a couple of weeks in central Bishkek, during which time I did zero sightseeing, I cycle out of the city past the statue of Manas (who to my mind is the Kyrgyz equivalent of King Arthur) and into the open countryside … this was what I came to Kyrgyzstan for!! Kyrgyzstan is over 90% mountain but my initial route took me (over the course of a few days) from the capital city to the most famous Kyrgyz lake, Issy Kul.  After spending a night with a lovely family in Balikchy and having my first banya (russian sauna/bath/shower) I was joined by Angie and a couple of young Kyrgys students she knew from the city.  As often happens the reality of cycling with other people is vastly different from my imagination and I found it very difficult to cycle and camp with the 16-year-old guys based on Angie’s view that ‘they are only kids’ and therefore to be let off cooking, cleaning or tent pitching/packing duties. After a couple of days, and out of my desire to camp at Issy kul lake proper we parted company and I spent a glorious evening on the beach, listening to the sounds of the water on the shore, the fire crackling and watching the stars come out one by one in the sky, inky black save for the low sliver of a new moon which produced a sinuous path across the lake to the other side.   Out in the lake, all alone, watching the sky reflected in the water was an unforgetable experience.   The following day the horizontal asphalt became vertical sand, gravel and rock with unbelievable speed …

The Tosor Pass and the routes to and from it, were tough but evolved into major highlights of my time in Kyrgyzstan.  From Issy Kul the route goes up through a very rocky valley, impossible to ride for most of the time on a fully loaded Tilly, and therefore involved a lot of pushing and swearing on my part.  By about 5pm on the first day after camping at Issy Kul I was shattered and uncomfortably aware that the sunshine of the earlier part of the day had turned into large grey clouds, which were getting darker by the minute.  After checking out a nearby house, which was currently empty but obviously very recently inhabited, I decided to pitch the tent on the next flat piece of ground … it is at about the point of spying such a piece of ground that the thunder starts. To be clear, at this point I am at about 2400m.  The Tosor Pass is at about 3400m.  The thunder claps that I hear are not above me, they are all around me … at this height I am in the storm.

This is not the first time I have experienced this and as ever the desire to throw myself onto the ground and bury my head is as surprising as it is strong.  With the tent up just in time I settle in for a 2 hour battering of wind, rain and thunder.  I spend the time watching the rain bead up and slide down the newly recoated tent flysheet!  After the storm subsides I am no mood to head on and so remain there over night, drying a load of kit in the morning before continuing on my way.

After the morning’s brief sunshine and as I get higher, the day becomes foggy and drizzly and the rocky track meanders its way up to the pass, bike pushing being the most frequent option for me, weaving around small knots of yurts with groups of children on donkeys coming out to shout ‘hello’ through the gloom.  I pass one group on the bottom part of a switch back only to meet them again on the top stretch!! They had come back bearing a bottle of kefir (yogurt) and news that snow is on the way … I had heard this yesterday and so decided to push on, hearing the same news at the next cluster of yurts. The fog pushes in and then recedes for a time in a strangely sickening motion, I can’t see the edge of the track clearly and can’t work out my position on the mountain since visibility has dropped to less than 10 meters ahead of me.  As the afternoon progresses and becomes early evening I become more concerned that I really have to get over the pass before night but that I cannot see the route ahead of me to gauge where the Pass actually is.

The route has abruptly become very much rockier, steeper with insistent rain which as I continue to climb turns to snow.  To add insult to injury I can see nothing of the natural wonder of the rock amphitheatre that is up near the Pass and then cannot see the curling switchbacks on the descent down the other side.

The latter part of the journey passed in an emotional haze.  I was at the point of slowly putting one foot in front of the other, not always successfully as I had fallen over on the rocks a couple of times, and was wet through and cold and exhausted,  I started to doubt that I was on the correct route and was considering putting the tent up and getting into my sleeping bag to warm up … but just as this seemed like the most sensible option a Kyrgyz herder on horseback rode out of the driving snow and hail and fog to help me push Tilly up and over the last km of the Pass and then invited me to stay with his family in their yurt nearby.  The image of him coming out of the fog was a cinematic classic, bettered only by my voice squeaking out “Naryn?” with a very wobbly countenance! Together we climb over the pass alternately pushing Tilly and towing the horse along.

Visiting his yurt and family was wonderful, once I had pushed Tilly 3 kms out (and then back) across calf deep, marshy ground!  He lives with his brother, sister-in-law and their 3 children, the eldest girl appears to have some sort of physical difficulty (possibly cerebral palsey) and I am left wondering about her life and the support that the community offers. Communal sleeping in the yurt (I’m in with the children) and waking up to the sun making shadows from the poles of the roof, the red and green and blue felt motifs surrounding the half dome, the colourful children’s clothes hung all around and the sight of the bright morning mountain view streaming in through the door as it was opened and then hidden from my view again, is lovely and peaceful.  After a breakfast of bread, jam and lots of sweet tea I head back across the marsh ground and am able to see the mountains that I missed the previous night in the real and mental fog … it’s a glorious blue skied day. Birds singing, sun high, peaks rising majestically above me and the incessant whistling of a sentry marmot on patrol, panicking at my presence, follows me as I  The whistling will be a continual accompaniment of my journey through Kyrgyzstan and I cannot help but laugh at their noises as I approach and also, since its impossible not to camp in someones territory, as I unzip my tent in the morning.  I often feel a little bit like Gulliver in these moments … “the giant’s awake, run for your lives” yells sentry marmot!

The next few days are spent following the track along the rivers, Jil Suu and then Bolgart. It’s a totally stunning route and I love it in spite of the numerous river crossings (bridges are all washed away!), wet feet, occasional landslides to traverse and residual tiredness from the couple of days pushing over the pass.  In fact it’s so lovely I spend too much time each morning marvelling at the views and drinking coffee that I don’t manage the early starts I say I’m going to do.

One morning after a suitably relaxed coffee by the river I spot another cycle tourer powering up the hill behind me and make up my mind to catch up with him.  After an hour or so I do.  Brian is from Utah, USA and has toured on and off for many years.  We arrange to have lunch together later on and then cycle for the rest of the day and camp together. In the evening we are joined by a very drunk man in his late teens who is looking for a place to sleep.  After feeding him sausage and mash and coffee and being clear that he cannot use our tents he stumbles off into the night.  It’s nice to be able to offer something considering the amount of goodwill, food and tea I have received but I’m not about to give up my tent. Brian is very relaxed company and it’s really nice to have someone to ride and to admire natures wonders with.  The eagles nesting not far from our campspot being a case in point.  The following day we cycle through Echi-Naryn Gorge together, meet groups of people out picnicking together, I have a melt down and have to make food post-haste!  Buckwheat, mashed potato and fish … sounds awful, tasted amazing!!!  The track down the gorge is rough, rocky and steep and thankfully by the afternoon we are on the main road to Naryn … only things never work out the way you think they will and the skies open and threaten to utterly drench us until we are invited into the home of a kind man who spies us sheltering under his trees.

We spend a dry night being fed homemade bread, jam, the clearest most fragrant honey you can imagine and large bowls of lagman (mutton stew with homemade flat noodles in it) … along with the obligatory bowls and bowls of chai.  The man and his wife have their 3-year-old grand-daughter living with them, who provided no end of fun and amusement with the things that she brought to show me and her lovely self-assured manner.  In the morning after being asked for money for food and lodgings by the man and being given kefir as a parting gift, Brian and I cycled into the town of Naryn and parted our ways … him to a CBT (community based tourism) guesthouse and me to the crumbling old Soviet hotel, cheaper and so much more my style!!!!

After a couple of days in the hotel I finally drag myself back onto the bike and head for the next pass, which is to be found on smooth asphalt for a change!!! The ride to At-Bashi and the ruined fort site of Koshoy Korgan, dates unknown, is uneventful and beautiful. Mountains to my left and sandstone rocks to the right. In addition to the natural feature are the usual ‘cities of the dead’ on the outskirts of the towns and villages.  The brick and clay mausoleums and the short walled enclosures which I so love to look at providing me with endless opportunities for photos and to marvel at their structures in such beautiful settings. Across Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan these cities can be found in various states of decoration and repair but to me they are all beautiful .. there is something about the slow way in which they deteriorate that mirrors the gradual acceptance of their occupants into the earth and which feels to be a very natural process.

After camping near the ruined fort on one evening and then out on the plains the next I finally make the turn off to Tash Rabat, a 15th century caravanserai deep in the At-Bashin mountains, part of the Silk road and on the route to the Torogart Pass, which connects Kyrgyzstan to China.  Tradition has it that when passing through the caravanserai you will be unable to count the rooms .. I counted 29 and apparently there are 31!!  It’s a stunning track up to the caravanserai, initially dry, dusty and open but the high rock peaks quickly surround the route followed by mountain streams and green meadows .. but then it is summer.  In the winter it will be a different story but able to provide shelter from the bitter winds non-the-less.  I spend an afternoon chatting to groups of Kyrgyz families and picnicing with them – this meant drinking kymys, fermented mares milk, the national drink of Kyrgyzstan and eating several types of meat and borsoc, a type of small square doughnut!  After a predominantly alcohol-free 2 1/2 years I have found that 2 mugs of fermented mare’s milk sends me utterly sideways, realising as I did a little late in the proceedings, that fermented means ‘alcoholic’.   Putting the tent up in the evening after ascertaining that I could not get Tilly over the next pass to Chatyr kul (it’s a rocky river goat track suitable for wet footed scrambling not biking), I feel the sort of head swimmy drunk that I have been happy to avoid! Camping up as close as I could to the rock amphitheater entrance, full moon coming up over the mountains, I have another spectacular (if involuntarily hazy) evening to enjoy.

The following day the map is checked and plans are finalised for a route across the Arpa valley, over a 4000m pass and following the river to Osh.  I feel positive about this route, having looked at the map numerous times and yesterday having pored over it and discussed different options with the Kyrgyz family on their road trip.   I head off, back past Tash Rabat, buoyed up by their assurances of a stunning route to come.

However it was not to be … at least not the way I ‘planned’ it!

After rejoining the main highway following the Tash Rabat turning I cycle for the next 20kms on good asphalt before turning off onto dirt track which meanders its way across and up a very hot and dusty valley, past enormous herds of grazing sheep and goats, wild horses aplenty and crossing several wide, dried up, sections of river.  For some reason I feel on top of the world … I achieve previously unknown levels of touring skill, Tilly and I, fully loaded, and simply ‘flying’ up and across some of the sections of dry, rocky river bed. Maybe its a combination of reaching decisions on routes or a restful sleep, who knows but I feel strong and in control and its a great feeling.  The route continues to wind across and up this valley for a couple of hours, eventually reaching a river that is more than a trickle and I can refill my bottles.  I’m always slightly twitchy when supplies of food and/or water get low as I have been in the position of having neither in the past and they are not experiences I wish to replicate.

The route takes a turn to the left and I am quickly faced with a glorious view of the wide open Arpa Valley stretched out as far as the eye can see below me.  The next down hill section to meet the valley floor is joyful and over all too swiftly as I then find myself cycling parallel with the next rocky river, this one containing much more water than the last and explaining some of the fertility of the Arpa Valley.   There are 2 men doing something with spades at the next river crossing and they happily respond when I wave to them and then stop to watch me as I halt progress on the next rocky area to take some photos.  I often imagine people talking about the folly of tourists and having a good laugh at the things we all take photos of.  For them this area possibly doesn’t seem worthy of the level awe and amazement that I feel … familiarity breeds contempt … its something I think of as one of the gifts I give back, helping people see their world through my wide eyes.

Suddenly there are 2 children, one on a donkey, watching my progress across the river from a high bank on the other side and waving encouragement and directions.  I’ve taken my shoes off and am happily wading across in sandals so smile, wave and go my own way, checking the river regularly for the shallowest areas and merrily bumping Tilly across the rocks.  Once across I am joined by children and donkey and we make our way up the bank and I get my first full view of the Arpa Valley floor, complete with grazing herds, yurts, stormy skies, patches of rain and in the far distance the long, snow topped, peaks of the mountain range which signifies the start of the border area with China.  Its spectacular.

The children gesture for me to come to the small white hut which sits about 10meters from the river and my track and as ever I think ‘ok, let’s go and say hi to the parents’, however as I near the hut, external stove pipe and parked up estate car in evidence, I met one of the children’s father’s as he walks over complete with camouflage fatigues, gun, id/ blood type tabs and wearing socks and flip flops …

Shit … It would appear that I have inadvertently cycled into a military border zone and this man in particular is not happy to see me.

Its funny the things that make sense of a situation.  As I think about what I had seen up to that point I am aware that I had noticed that the men by the river and one of the children was wearing camouflage clothing but I have become so used to seeing this in general life (especially in Russia) that I had not attributed importance to it.  Seeing weaponry is the same … what made my stomach sink were the id/blood type tabs on his shirt!!

The next few hours pass haze as the second soldier, who is happily star fish shaped on his back on the bunk in the hut on my arrival, is unhappily woken up.  Messages are radioed across to the main Torogart Pass checkpoint. My map is scrutinised, my camera checked (thank goodness for the 40 odd shots of a bird I took earlier in the day, ‘proving’ to the boredom of the had-been-sleeping soldier that I was a tourist) and occasionally the original guard coming over to demand ‘you want Uzbekistan, you want China’ before looking disgustedly at me repeating ‘no, I want Osh!’   Eventually a decision is made, via the radio, and Tilly and I are dumped in the estate car.  The usual hilarity ensues as the stern soldier bumps himself on Tilly’s electric horn and then everyone wants a go.  I’m twitching again at this point as the stern guard’s son has the gun and no-one else seems concerned.

The route from the hut across the Arpa valley floor is strange.  Digging soldier (from the river) is in the back … under Tilly.  Stern guard is driving with a stern face, which occasionally softens when he lapses into singing some Kyrgyz pop music from the radio, or asks me questions but is generally making complaining noises about having to transport stupid tourists in his car.  It was beautiful but being figuratively and actually ‘captured’ really hampered my ability to access the beauty.

Once at the main checkpoint I am introduced to a Kyrgyz man who I initially think is the interpreter (he is wearing a grey sweater and running pants) turns out to be the boss, dragged out of home to meet me on a weekend.  He explains that there is a 200km exclusion zone all along the China border and into which the Arpa Valley snugly fits.  “But it’s not on the map” is my protest.  We continue to discuss my ‘new’ route to Osh as he says he does not want me to make any further mistakes.  His parting shot … “You dont see me, I dont see you, we are both in trouble” … is unfortunately followed by the universal sign for ‘give me money’.  Bribary and corruption are contentious issues when travelling.  Do I give him money or sit out any consequences that might follow as a result? To be honest, in this situation, I didn’t even think, I just gave him 500som.  The fear of consequences as a result of not having my passport (which was in the UK obtaining visa’s) were too much on my mind and I felt utterly vulnerable without that ‘magic’ protection.  It’s yet another way in which I have seen the level of privilige that I, as a UK citizen, have.  As I leave the checkpoint post, copy of passport safely in hand, I notice the stern soldier getting off Tilly in as nochalant a manner as possible.  I can’t help but give a wry smile that he has been having a go on her whilst I have been ‘interrogated’, he is not impressed.

Its well into the evening by this point and the rain clouds I had seen earlier in the day are coming this way, gathering ferocity, and so I speed away from the checkpoint, returning briefly to request the copy of my passport which I had already stowed in my panniers, anxiety and frustration at the sitution creating confusion, and then make every effort to outrun the storm.  I’m aided by the sense of indignation and wrongness that accompanies situations where I have gone against things I believe are right.  I’m not proud of myself for buying into (literally) the corruption and did this based on fear. Exposure and vulnerability show me that I am not always the person I hope I am and this gives me a miserable feeling.

From here on numerous instances of things going a bit wrong … low level theft, malaise, full on sickness … it seems to me that once one thing taints a situation, my perspective skews and lots of things ‘conspire’ so I feel like the travelling has ‘gone wrong’.  In this sense being a solo traveller is difficult and it takes a lot of energy to turn the ‘gloom’ around, to reverse/reroute the negative perspective.  At this point there is a need to view things with a fresh perspective, to see the ‘good’ and potentially to be around others who will help me revitalise my view both of myself and my trip.  It can be difficult not to dwell on the tough times and to leave them behind, not carry them as hair shirts to remind me of past mistakes.

But more on those things and the rest of Kyrgyzstan in the next post ….

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