East Nepal



Reading time: 21mins

Word Count: 4152

It’s with a heightened sense of excitement, expectation and fear that I finally leave Kathmandu.  Later than I had ‘planned’ has become the norm and I should therefore be adding on VAT (value added time) to any decisions I make.  Logistical issues surrounding finance and posting packages to the UK create tensions I don’t need and finally I’m away, heavily loaded and sure that bike and kit was never this wide or cumbersome before.

I initially follow the hectic main road out of the city complete with cars, buses, lorries and motorbikes all whizzing past, spewing fumes and (once past the city limits) chucking up clouds of yellow dust which finds its way into every pore.  I chew road grit, spit wet dust and am doubting my capacity to endure as the first climb rises up before me.  Its a baby climb but I’m out of shape and puffing and blowing all the way to the top.  

This becomes the norm for the duration of Nepal.  My previous, sickly, hazy memories of the country were of nausea, sweat, rain and humidity.  These are being overlayed with sensations of dust, fumes and an out of shape body and mind.  My worst fears of having become too used to the sedentary life are realised.  I have become lazy and want an easy life.  However cresting the hill at Dhulikhel and seeing the road wind down before me, through varying shades of green vegetation and yellow earth I remember the joys of cycling and am back in the moment, content to have the (not too smelly) local rubbish tip as the team reunion campsite.  I confess to internally wailing about the damage humanity is wreaking on the planet but I settle down to a good sleep only briefly disturbed by a truck pulling into my lay-by for their few hours sleep.

The initial route plan is swiftly reassessed as I realise I took a wrong turn the night before and am in no mind to cycle back up the hill I just started coming down.  So I press on, winding down past houses and through small villages of wood and corrugated iron homes.  Past tiny local stores selling a million different types of chewing tobacco but nothing that I might need, past the dhabas (local cafes) of varying size and apparent cleanliness.  Stopping at one I am treated to cups of tea first by a local who whoops with joy and laughter at me riding in on a bicycle and who I have no doubt will be regaling his friends and family with stories of a crazy woman who he bought tea for and second by a couple of Italian’s who have been out in the hills doing social work with one of the  specific ethnic groups located in the region.  We talk briefly about the social situation here in Nepal and they tell me about the issues particularly with alcohol abuse, domestic violence and human trafficking.  

Sitting, drinking tea, in the midst of this beautiful sunny scenery the content of the conversation seems even more harsh with the dichotomy of the moment.  Human trafficking was and still is a huge issue, specifically since the earthquake in April 2015 and the fuel blockade by India later in the same year .  Rural life for Nepali people is already tough.  Confronted with the aftermath of an environmental disaster and then the additional economic and social strain of massive fuel shortages, rural communities were preyed upon by opportunistic gangs of smugglers and human traffickers who have decimated vast numbers of communities.  People of all ages and genders sold into and enduring forced labour and/or sexual exploitation.  Families either complicit in the ‘transaction’ or ‘coerced’ into situations they don’t want to consider.  I am reminded that for all the beauty I see there is a raw edge and again I feel gratitude for the life I have.

The morning is spent on glorious down hill curves and the traffic on this more minor road has diminished from the roaring I experienced on the previous day.  Reaching the river at Dolalghat where the Indrawati and Sunkoshi rivers meet I am initially pointed across the bridge and fervent hands gesture that is the only direction go.  Checking the solar powered up map I spot the road (track) I want is before the bridge and have to make fake pack adjustments until my helpful friends have departed so I can got the way I want to go … oh why did I not listen!!

The road (track) I take is along side the river and is narrow, steep in places and deep in yellow dust.  Huge dumper trucks speed past, enveloping me in clouds of black fumes and dry dust, forcing me to keep a weather eye open and to hold my breath as they pass. The track eventually leads past several rock plants, processing the river bed for building materials and ends abruptly at a junction in the river which meanders off right and then rejoins the main flow.  The river is fast but not too much so.  The main issue is that I’m out of practise with getting the job done and a bit mentally weak.  So I set up camp, cook up some rice and veg, walk the goat track which everyone else is using to get past the evident landslide up to the village and wait for the morning.  Decision making can wait.

It’s a stunning place to camp.  River views, water rushing past, high cliff behind me and solitude.  As the light in the sky dims the apparently empty river valley spills its secret store of houses and villages.  Like watching the lights of a thousand fireflies, the terrain comes alive with lights going on and the number of people living on each side of the river staggers me.  In daylight it’s impossible to see anything, the houses blending seamlessly with the landscape. 

In the morning I walk the goat track again, walk the first part of the river crossing and assess the probable depth of the second from the waves at the crossing.  Decision made.  River crossing – Go.  Goat track – No.  Its far too steep and precarious to carry a bike over so I hike the bags up and start the river crossing with Tilly.  

I have wildly underestimated the second part of the journey and as I wade, knee deep, across slippery stones I realise carrying the bike will not be easy.  I have also been spotted by men working on the river bank.  As I get part way across the river and wobble one of them does the full body, evident at 50 paces, equivalent of rolling his eyes; drops the rock he is moving and splashes over, yanking the bike off me.  As we both reach the other side he hands it back,  laughs and runs off to get dry clothes (probably).  His crew are in fits of good natured laughter which follows me as I head up the track to collect the bags and head on towards Lubughat.  

The track bumps and winds alongside the river giving me lovely views of the water and the agriculture that it feeds.  It’s December and I can see grain being sifted in the fields, which frankly upsets my inner concepts of time and season.  After a night camping outside a shop and a dinner of delicious millet and greens being consumed I do ‘the comedy side swipe’, randomly and abruptly changing direction to face up hill.  Its a big hill!

The day is foggy and thankfully I cannot see the breadth of the mission I have just set out on.  As I make my way up the rocky, dusty ‘road’ I can hear women walking down a footpath not far from me.  Disembodied voices which laugh and chat, passing relatively close and then going down, beyond me.  Further up the mist starts to clear and what was a wall of grey nothing is revealed as a village, then a large school.  Bells start ringing, dogs bark and the ethos carry across the valley to the other side of the Sun Koshi.  When I set off in the morning I had not anticipated 2 days of pushing, sweating and swearing the bike up such steep tracks.  Lorries and scooters pass me occasionally and the passengers are always craning their necks to get a better view of the under powered idiot with the large baggage.  

The rocks get bigger and the track steeper so at Cauld Wel village I stop.  Meeting a giggling group of maybe 11year old girls who shout at me and tell me I’m lazy I temporarily loose my temper and tell them they are rude.  I hate this part of me.  Being called lazy or being laughed at are like red rags to the Taurean in me.  Ashamed, I push Tilly up the next bit and follow them to their school as requested and throw the place into chaos.  Children hanging out of windows, round door frames, teachers herding  students as if they were cats.  One of the teachers, very sweetly, tells me to go and camp by the shop (and potentially let them get on with their classes).  I do so, ending the day with dhal/rice thali and watch various villagers get wrecked on home made raksi, a situation I am to become very familiar with.

Alcoholism and the consumption of homemade raksi is an ever increasing problem in the rural areas of Nepal and India.  In local shops I have seen people start on their ‘daily dose’ at 8am, opening time, and continue from there.  I’m rarely in the same place long enough to see the aftermath but on occasion see what it potentially looks like.  Women with black eyes.  Truck rolled over in road.  All possibly raksi related.  I’m often offered, sometimes pressured and always decline.  It’s not something I want or can physically/mentally/socially cope with.  Its another of the coping strategies which the Italian’s I met previously are starting community dialogues about in their rural projects.

Night falls and the stars come out.  The Nepali night sky is vast and incredible.  No light pollution and I can see galaxies ranged around me.  Everyone in the village is worrying about the cold and I haven’t managed to convey that it’s closer to English autumn rather than winter for me and is therefore not a problem.

When I leave the village in the morning it’s to the sounds of Nepali pop/folk songs playing on a roof-top loud speaker across the valley and the local dogs are lending their voices in accompaniment.  The road continues to be difficult and I’m still pushing rather than riding up.  After passing a local Buddhist ceremony in one village and stopping for tea and biscuits in the next I finally reached the top of the hill.  Its a glorious sight (not just because I am convinced its down hill from now on) and I can see the river sinuously winding down through the valley from where I came and past me to where I am heading. 

I was wrong … it wasn’t the top of where I was going but for a moment it felt good!

For the next 30mins I actually manage to ride my bike.  Its bliss and I’m smiling broadly at nothing and no one before I reach the next village.  Its a hot day and the pushing was tough so I stop at one shop then another before I find the possibility of a yellow water container to fill my water bottles from.  A salty snack later and I’m back up the track searching for a spot to rest in the shade  My spot emerges in the form of an unoccupied house with shady porch just off the road.  As I sit eating the remainder of my snack I see a young boy of about 9 or 10 walking up the road and past me carrying the same yellow water canister, in the commonly used head/back rope/sling set up, as I have just emptied in the shop back down the road.  I’m totally mortified.  He passes me 2 more times before I meet him further down the road at the local spring.  His water trek is about 20mins walk each way and I have no idea how many times each day he does this multi trip chore.  A chore which I have just added to. It reminds me of the impact I have often unknowingly and unintentionally.

This nights stay was a generous hosting from a shop keeper in the town of Yangbel.  Initially asking if I can camp beside the school I am immediately pulled into the family, given chai from their abundant thermos (of course) and then mountains of rice, roti and dhal.  The food is delicious and after an evening of listening to Nepali music on their shop radio whilst numerous neighbours came over for raksi I am tucked up in a double bed, blankets smelling comfortingly of moth balls, and flicking through my photos with the young teen granddaughter of the shop keeper with whom I am sharing the nights sleep.  I’m not used to sharing a bed but sleep soundly inspite of her warming her cold feet on mine!

We are all woken before dawn with the sounds of grandfather doing his daily puja. The smell of candle grease, the sounds of the infamous Om Mani Padme Hum at high volume, grandfather padding around the corrugated structure which forms their home. It reverberates to every movement and bangs worryingly as you cross a patch in the floor.  This square iron box, divided into 4 rooms and housing at least 11 people sits directly above the grocery store, sewing establishment and barber/pharmacy/raksi seller.  The babies (Prince (20 months) and Princess (3)) are swaddled up in warm clothes and Princess runs around demanding sweets and attention from anyone staying still long enough.  Youtube videos have a lot to answer for as a song comes on the radio and she starts dancing and posing outrageously.

I often struggle internally with the adoption of seemingly ‘adult’ behaviours by young children as they mimic people they have seen or videos watched.  I also wonder if I’m just attributing a meaning and an anxious context to something which has no reality for the children themselves.  A dance is a dance.  Movement is just movement.  I can ascribe meaning to gesture as a person well developed in social context but the reality is that it’s not real not mandated.  The biggest driver for Princess’ dance is the clapping and laughing from the family which fuels her frantic dance and almost tips her over, to everyones amusement.  Just as the night before as we all huddle around a fire outside the shop everyone is smiling broadly at her antics and clapping in time with her fist pumping and hip swaying in almost time to the music!

I leave stuffed full of breakfast roti and dhal.  After a brief stop at a tiny monastery I have a morning of slow speed downhill on inches of dust over a surface of gravel.  Its hideous and not the sweeping curves on a solid surface I like.  It feels like riding unstably on ballbearings and at one point Tilly tips me off at slow speed in an embarrassing skid which thankfully no-one else witnesses.  The road is relatively busy with army personnel trucks, buses, cars and scooters kicking up the obligatory amount of dust and covering me as I make my slow way down.

I sometimes feel that cycling up is easier then down as I have greater control of the bike. My hands and wrists are quickly sore from the braking and once back down on the flat I am grateful to see the sinuous black tarmac ribbon stretch out in front of me!

The Tamil district hillside through which I have just ridden is stunningly beautiful for all its steepness.   Wildflowers everywhere.  Houses in startlingly bright yellows, acid pinks and electric blues.  At this time of year multitudes of people out on terraced areas, working the fields and stacking bundles of maize and straw or sything tall grass for their animals to feed on.  The work to feed the family is never done and people start at daybreak and don’t stop until dark. Children are included in this level of work and I saw little ones fetching and carrying for their elder siblings or the adults.  Watching these time honoured tasks in the midst of such sweeping dramatic landscapes it can be difficult not to romanticise the life but make no mistake, its tough and relentless.  Another reason why the escapism of alcohol has a draw.

The remainder of the day is following the main road alongside the Rosi Khola (Khola = river in Nepali) and I end up chatting with a man who’s impeccable English (and ability to swear in said tongue) is down to his job as a cook in the army bases in Iraq.  He sorted me out with a sensibly priced hotel and I cleaned all my kit and myself of the “too many dust” that had accumulated.  Next stop – more Sun Koshi!

After another day riding the tarmac ribbon I reach the next part of the Sun Koshi valley and find a stunning secluded campspot complete with ready made fire pit.  Its just as well because on starting up the primus stove I am treated to no fuel and no flame.  Taking it apart I notice that the tiny O ring on the connector has degraded and as I try to reseat whats left break it entirely.  Several minutes of cursing and pondering I have a plan. Problem 1 – no O ring in correct size.  Not an insurmountable problem thankfully but that has to wait for good light in the morning.  The fire pit is utilised for tea making and I’m grateful I have back up banana in the bag.  Always carry some ‘no cooking required’ food’!

Dawn breaks and I’m up watching the waders in the shallows.  Pretty but timid birds which disappear  every time I try to get a photo.  Back to stove problem.  Carefully cutting the only other O ring I have I remove a tiny portion and then seat it in the correct place.  After a couple of adjustments and a worrying amount of fuel spraying me and the tent I have working stove again.  Not perfect but working safely!

3 days of following the valley.  It’s as stunning as the hillsides which continue to be steep sided and very much in evidence. The road is wide, traffic not to hectic and I cycle along merrily, passing some villages where I stop for samosa wrapped in musty, old, school text book pages and camping in others before a puncture halts me late evening outside one such village and I camp on the equivalent of the village green opposite and well set back from a very excited dhaba owner and his young wife.  He is intent on speaking all the english he knows as fast, as frequently and as loudly as possible.  Its a common misconception that a lack of language implies a lack of hearing!  His wife takes charge of my phone as I set up my tent and repair the puncture.  This is not the first and won’t be the last time my phone disappears into the hands of one person without my permission and knowledge and returns to me with a memory card full of selfies and videos!  There is no ‘mine’, there is no privacy in Asia! Community is all!  Tent setting, cooking, bike fixing.  All done to an audience.  As usual people want to taste my food!  It’s sadly the same ingredients and a poor comparison to what they are used to.  I have the suspicion that they think I can magic a hamburger and fries from a bag of rice, dhal and veggies!

The following morning is mostly spent with young men zooming up and down the mostly empty road on Tilly and me with my hands to my face pleading “Bistari, Bistari” (slowly, slowly) to their amusement and dismissal.  Leaving the village I have several climbs ahead and these pass, as all do, slowly and with regular stops for photos.

Eventually I reach the town of Ghurmi where the road splits and rather than heading closer to Everest I opt for what turns out to be another hard and dusty but unexpectedly short climb.  Short comes about in the form of transport. After a few hours of chatting to goat-herding grannies and wincing every time another cloud of dust envelopes me, I spy a truck stopped on the opposite side of a large hill-hugging S bend.  It turns out to be waiting for me, so 20minutes later as I draw level with them and they offer me a lift it feels rude to say no!   From the high seat of the empty cargo lorry I see the sheer cliff descents more clearly and the lack of barrier to avert disaster feels more apparent.  On one occasion we stop and the driver does a quick bodge job on the gear and throttle cables which had apparently stopped functioning. I try not to squeak in fear but one rapid spin around the outside of the curve causes me to grab the drivers mate by the arm in an involuntary response. He laughs at my fear and I’m suitably embarrassed.  Images of mini vans halo’d by a beautifully back lit cloud of dust contribute to my wish I was still on terra firm, camera in hand and still cycling. 

Finally in the midst of one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen I decide that I really must camp and not be driven down the hill to Katari … in the dark … on those bends.  Best decision because after a quick goodbye and scouting out a place to camp I have a solid nights sleep and wake before dawn to a slightly cloudy but none the less stunning view back across to the Everest region.  Later in the morning as the clouds clear I finally get my view of the peak … and then it is gone!  I turn downhill again and have another day of battling my brakes before arriving in Katari town just in time for a couple of days of public marriage ceremonies to take place.

After a day of watching Nepali women float around the town in bright saris, see horse and carriage parade up and down the main street several times and listen to Nepali pop blaring out over a set of  speakers balanced on the back of a truck with men fist pumping and gyrating along side it rather than attempting to hold it down (all whilst eating far too many samosas and drinking chai) I move out on a less hilly and more jungle orientated road.  It’s fine for cycles I’m told!  Now if there is one thing that I should have learnt by now is not to assume that people understand what it means to cycle on a bicycle with loaded panniers.  The road is not fine!  It is an atrocious mess of gravel base with thick dust topping and filled with heavy, earth moving machinery to boot!

Mostly there is dust, sometimes there is a sudden fjord of liquid mud to wade through.  There are short bursts of steep and then more down as the road undulates through what was, until recently, pristine jungle complete with beautiful villages and homes utilising every type of natural and manufactured material at their disposal.  It’s sad to see the destruction of this place but when I consider the greater ease of movement and the increase in possibilities which might make peoples lives easier I cannot be too sentimental.  Balance is key in everything and here the road is very necessary.

The only certainty is change and as with all things this eventually happens.  After some lovely moments shared with 2 young men walking between villages (1/2 a day walk) who help me push Tilly up a steep section, a dinner audience and a near miss with having to ‘perform’ my approximation of Nepali dancing in one village I reach the final push out of Nepal, the Mahendra Highway.  

It heads over the Koshi river at Bhardaha and the accompanying dam where fishing rather than agriculture is the main focus.  I ,of course, stop to see the flat bottomed, wooden boats in the weed tangled inlets and the mist rising off the river in the early morning.  

From here its a straight run to Kakarbhitta town at the border and whilst there is much to see on every side the jungle does not hold my attention for long and my focus does not stay more than a moment on the houses, interesting graveyards, markets and people who dot the roadside.  Even the sudden sight of a tea plantation only briefly halts me. My eyes, like those of the Kakarbitta rickshaw drivers doing the bridge border run, are now firmly fixed on my re-entry into India.   

Vicarious adventuring?!


Dare I mention the dread ‘C’ word?! Is NYE any better?!

After all, I am so far away from the socio-cultural signs that indicate this time of year to me that I have only just realised the date and am in shock that I am still getting the required amount of vitamin D!

So … if you are stuck for gift ideas then please take a look at my newly organised ‘Get Involved’ and ‘Contribute to the Cycle’ pages!!

Why not consider making a donation on behalf of your best friend via the links provided or getting that difficult second cousin a ‘beautiful handwritten postcard’ or a set of Combination Photo prints (made to your ‘desired specifications’) and sent from my current location (December 2017, Himachal Pradesh, India) to arrive just in time to send them non-denominational good wishes at the start of the coming year, 2018!!!


I am very lucky to have met some amazing people whilst cycling, a large number of which are involved in giving back to their local communities in a variety of practical ways and who have inspired me to find ways in which I might be able to do the same.

I am hoping that I will be able to to make a contribution to some charities that I believe in … And … if I can provide something that will brighten up your ‘fridge/day, make you, your loved ones, friends and/or family smile or feel part of this adventure and linked to all parts of our amazing world …

Well then … that’s just great!! ❤️

Views of Osh, Kyrgyzstan

My photographic impressions of Osh city, the largest residential area outside Bishkek (the capital) in Kyrgyzstan.

The city is situated in the south of Kyrgyzstan, in the Fergana Valley and close to borders with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.  It is home to various different ethnic groups including Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Russians, Turks, Tatars and other nationalities.  The size of these groups changed radically in 2010 as a result of ethnic violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbek ethnic groups which was precipitated by disatisfaction with the government of the time and complex economic difficulties that continued from the time of the disolution of the USSR in 1991.  In turn a massive refugee crisis in the Fergana area of Uzbekistan occured when ethnic Uzbek’s fled their homes in Kyrgyzstan for safety.

Osh was a major feature on the Silk Road trading route for 100s of years and as such continues to have an enormous, outdoor bazaar, packed with areas for anything you can imagine! Osh is also famous for it’s ‘mountain’ in the centre of the city.  Suliaman Too (a UNESCO site) is an important sacred place within the Muslim community as well as being a popular tourist attraction.  The peaks, caves and tracks surrounding the sites are thought to cure all manner of illness (unfortunately not my stomach issues!) and children are encouraged to slide up and down grooves in rocks worn smooth with the beliefs of the faithful.

Osh appears very conservative compared with Bishkek, I would guess as a result of the closeness to Uzbekistan and conforming to more conservative Muslim values regarding appropriate attire.  It has felt much more (socially) comfortable to wear trousers, t-shirt and a loose scarf around my shoulders … solidly reminding me of places I visited in central Turkey … however women throughout the city can be seen wearing varying levels of clothing coverage/ethnic dress alongside the men wearing their traditional hats and swimming in the river.  The difference in attitude towards the genders is marked.

The daily summer temperature is scorching (35+) and the nights are not much lower, sitting as the city does on the valley floor (at about 600m) … this has been tough for me and I have had various health/stomach problems I think as a result of the change in weather, heat and also location/topography … not just because I am a grubby cyclist!

During an enforced period of resting/waiting for health to improve and visa’s to be completed I have remained in the garden of TES guest house, a fantasic place to recuperate not only because I can camp for 450com/night but because this includes a wonderful breakfast in the morning … and I have been in a position to meet a lot of other cyclists, overlanders and travellers all sharing hints and tips on this part of the world.  Its a very relaxed, communal guesthouse with great facilities that make resting up a positive experience … but I’m very much done with that and am furiously hoping that I will be back on the bike in the next few days!!  Fingers firmly crossed … we shall see …!

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 ….