… as it is apparently known to some, though not previously to us: like most Brits we knew next to nowt about the place. So, Switzerland’s secret twin, famed for high quality chocolate, precision watches or immaculate tidiness? No, none of the above. Nor can it boast the invariably super-smooth tarmac we’ve enjoyed on our Swiss jaunts (though the Osh–Bishkek road was really pretty good). But what Kyrgyzstan has is beautiful mountains, with beautiful streams and lakes, and snowy peaks even in late summer.
Actually, we’d already an inkling, as Kyrgyzstan’s high valleys had been especially recommended to us by Karen and Louis-Phillipe, another couple of cyclists who stopped with us in York a while back, having crossed Central Asia and the Caucuses – with an accordion in a trailer, no less (putting our mere violin, pocket trumpet and melodica to shame). And yet still we couldn’t have expected: it’s utterly, awesomely, stunningly, gobsmackingly beautiful; brings-you-to-the-verge-of-tears-as-you-ride-along-ly beautiful [“or perhaps that’s just riding up stupidly enormous hills with ridiculously laden bikes” thinks Ginevra, but no, not those sort of tears, honestly]; a never-going-to-be-captured-by-our-phone-camera kind of beautiful, so you’ll just have to come yourselves! (Please try not to fly. Just cycle or something. It’s only a year-or-so away, and well worth it).
And yes, by the by, we’ve been gone a year, an anniversary we celebrated/commiserated – let’s just say marked – not in the glorious mountains but in Bishkek, a city thoughtfully built and maintained such as to ensure that Kyrgyz natives and foreign tourists alike have a way to avoid beauty-overload. And in case lack of architectural flair doesn’t combine effectively enough with straitened public and private economic situations, there’s the funk and haze of the automotive smog. Wondered where middle-aged cars disappear to these days? Prematurely scrapped? No, they reach the point where they splutter and cough and pump out too much horrid black stuff for developed-world regulations/sensibilities then find their way to Central Asia. Right-hand drive Honda Step Wagns from Japan and left-hand drive Audi 80s, 90s and 100s from Europe particularly abound here. We can presume the legacy of VW’s recently-uncovered crimes will still be being breathed by Bishkek’s toddlers in 20-, 30-years time.
Anyhow, back to the Uzbek–Kyrgyz border, back to the narrative, back to us on our bikes, rolling along the narrow, ever-so-quiet country lane of the little-used Shamaldy-Say crossing point. Thank goodness, no further rigmarole regarding missing Uzbek hotel-registration slips, through the gate out of Uzbekistan, a brief, friendly interaction at the two green sheds that constitute the Kyrgyz border and customs controls, stamps, and welcome to Kyrgyzstan for up to 60 days, visa free. Could it really not be that welcoming for any country, for Asian friends visiting the UK, for example?
And out we pop, from this little lane, onto the main road between Osh and Bishkek (the country’s second and first cities respectively). Blessed relief, its not crazily busy, the tarmac’s fair, there’s a decent 80cms or so of hard shoulder, the drivers don’t seem to object to our using it, and the toots appear to be of friendly welcome [rather than the now-familiar prolonged “GET OUT OF MY WAY ‘COS I’M ABOUT TO OVERTAKE LIKE A TW[insert offensive vowel of your choice]T” hoot – GH].
Then, with sunset approaching, we head down a lane towards the hope of riverside camping. The lane gets narrower and narrower and, after drifting past a fair few quizzical looks from local residents, we wind up on a ridge with a good river view, but alas, in somebody’s backyard. Then the owner appears: “Welcome, welcome” and all is good. Just as it starts to rain we get our stuff into the tent and dive into his home for tea with the family.
“Some tourists came before”, this engineering teacher with a little English tells us, and gets out the photo album. It seems some Aussies in a camper van happened down the same lane – in the mid-eighties, judging by the fashions in the photos. It adds to the feeling that we’re a bit of an event.
Next day we’re back on the road, climbing, and the farmland gives way to something increasingly wild and spectacular as the mountains edge closer to meet the watercourse we’ll be following for the next few days. We camp one night in a hidden spot by a tributary stream…
…then wind our way along a reservoir through the starkly beautiful Fergana Range (thankfully not one of the valleys suffering from radioactive pollution from a Soviet-era uranium mine) …
… making a new friend along the way …
… and find ourselves on the shores of Lake Toktogul – or rather, perched high above them, on a scenic but surprisingly arid campsite.
After following a surprisingly tough road through the hills around the lake, we turn into Toktogul town, expecting to find pleasant waterfront cafes, especially since there had been numerous restaurants along the road. But whereas money travels up and down the main road in nice cars, little seems to make it into the settlements off to the sides.
Back on the highway we climb again, away from the lake, alongside white water gushing through the narrow gorge. Who cares if you’re camped close to the road when hidden under trees with this torrent drowning out traffic noise?
Cyclists coming down – one evening a Swiss guy who’d been on the road for four years, next morning a German, that afternoon three Americans – all looked very cold and reported storms up ahead. Indeed, we’d been enjoying the lightning over the mountains for days, but hadn’t been drenched ourselves.
And luck held. The gorge finally opened out into wide green valleys, complete with yurts and the horses and cows and sheep their occupants herded high up the hillsides.
As we got our tent up, in just a few spots of rain, our new neighbour came by and, once again, we went off for tea, this time in a yurt, about half a km away. And never again will a tourist-yurt–camp experience suffice (see Uzbekistan entry). And nor will Devon clotted cream, let alone supermarket Pasteurised butter. As the solar-charged battery on the family’s electric light failed we ate by oil lamp with a wood stove burning for heat up there at around 3000m. Two bowls contained, we think: 1) butter so creamy we weren’t sure it wasn’t cream; and 2) cream so thick we weren’t sure it wasn’t more creamy butter. The father and elder son popped out, returning half an hour later with full buckets and we drank of the contents. After exchanging various animal noises, we established which variety of beast’s milk it was: the guy’s horse whinny was the best we’d ever heard, more convincing than most horses’ I’d wager. And while we supped, the mother and younger son churned the next day’s butter – a nightly, hour-long ritual.
In the morning our teeny-tiny first chain rings continue to be the only option as we complete this most glorious 75 km climb to the Ala-Bel Pass.
And then clunk-clunk, it’s up onto the big rings and down into a broad high plateau, where every other yurt is pitched close to the road and serves as a cafe selling the city-dwellers their authentic slice of traditional Kyrgyz cultural heritage dunked, of course, in tea and the very richest dairy products.
We and the road climb hard but duck several hundred meters under the Töö-Arbuu Pass through a horribly ill-ventilated tunnel. Emerging, our lives having surely been measurably shortened by the fumes, we’re hit by yet another spectacular vista. This time it’s bleak, steep, jagged crags of dark purply-brown rock for several hours of descent that leave us very happy to have traveled the road south to north – slowly-slowly up through the generous lush greens, hurtling down the more stark and barren side.
And then a night in a little hotel, and a minibus to avoid a day-long drenching that never did hit us up on the heights, and we arrive in Bishkek for a couple of weeks waiting for Chinese visas, squeezing in a bit of proofreading work and giving our brains some time to process all that spectacularness.
To our great relief we also find our brand new MSR stove has successfully run the gauntlet of international post. Many thanks to Helen and her folks at Ellis Brigham for sending that out! Very pleased though we are with it, it’s also sad to say farewell to the Coleman petrol stove that’s served so well for many years. It may well serve for many more, but was beyond us to adequately service on the road, so is now in the hands of the kind of handy tinkerer that deserves such prolonged service – Alex, who with partner Ksenia runs the hostel we were stopping in.
Then visas arrive and, after a last blast of kitchen cooking (thanks to our new Belgian friends for the photos below and some genuine Belgian chocolate for the road)…
… it’s time for our legs to remember their raison d’être and propel us east. East to Ysyk-Köl, the world’s second-largest alpine lake, then to Kazakhstan which is so wide it arches right over from the Caspian and’ll bookend the whole phase from that ferry crossing to China.
In Kyrgyzstan, as in so many other countries, we’ve seen curious attempts to cement – sometimes literally make concrete – a national identity. Happily the most extreme example we happened upon was defunct: some sort of nationalist holiday camp on the lakeside, complete with concrete yurts and high mural-covered walls, and overlooking its colossal gold-painted ironwork gates a huge painting of some national progress myth depicting a traditional caravansarai on one side and the national airport, with some heavily symbolic Kyrgyz hat-wearers in the middle, bloodied and struggling in the coils of a giant golden dragon. Make of that what you will.
But, of course, transnational traits are at least as strongly evident. Tiles gave way to tin rooves, often ornately trimmed, as soon as we crossed into former Soviet territories back in Georgia. But we’ve only just seen such metalwork appear to merge so completely with another common factor, the mosques of Turkic cultures that’ve been in nearly every town since landing in Thrace (North-Eastern Greece), Georgia excepted.
And also just appearing, rather lovely ornate wooden gable-balconies.
Then, for symmetry either side of Bishkek, there’s nature’s beauty and good eating. Our first woodland camp since the middle of Azerbaijan proved to be a forager’s delight…
..while the next evening provided spectacular camping under looming sandstone cliffs:
And finally, to the lake shores:
And for asymmetry, there were some roads so eyeball-joltingly bumpy it was hard to admire the scenery until stopped. But also these:
For a final pause in Kyrgyzstan we stop in Karakol, having already slowed our progress knowing that the Chinese border will be closed from 1 to 7 October for Golden Week – a succession of national holidays. But then we hear the Kazakh border might close on 1 October for winter. Aaargh!
Change of plan – dash for Kazakhstan and then slow down again.
Heading for the border, the snowline draws closer:
A chilly camp just below the snowline…
…calls for brandy coffee with chocolate for breakfast!
And on up to the snowline:
So, as we entered Kyrgyzstan, we leave – on a tiny country lane …
… and as with Switzerland–Italy a year ago, with one swift descent winter turns back to autumn again.