I remember gazing at my map before the lights went out every night, planning and thinking if a cycling or bicycle touring trip to Central Asia thrust right in the middle of nowhere seemed foolish. After all countries like Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan may seem wild to a lot of people, these are no backwaters, but rather known notoriously for its poor human rights record, freedom of expression in matters of faith, and where patriarchy runs deep in the valleys.
Beyond that, it was the mystery of the Silk Road, a famous route that opened up gateways from the East to the West, one that can be traced back two millennia ago that intrigued me. The trail-like arteries carried more than items for trade: it was a superhighway of sorts carrying along goods, people, ideas and a variety of languages. It was this flow of life that I wanted to be part of where I get to be among nomadic people who wandered the inhospitable voids dotted across vast mountains.
Few months ago, a pop-up appeared on a Facebook group for ‘Bicycle Travelling for Women'. Joanna who hailed from Poland was interested in doing a month-long adventure in Central Asia covering Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan and was looking for people to join her. She was very well-versed with solo bicycle tours having done a solo tour in Bosnia and chronicling all about it on her blog. However, it was her first time coming to Asia and she did not want to camp alone, and thought a flexible bike partner would be perfect for a trip like this. I thought about it, crunched the numbers, looked at the cheapest ticket, asked around if my bicycle could me modified to a bicycle touring bike and two months later booked my ticket.
Come 31st of July, I made my way to Bishkek a week before Joanna’s arrival just to get my bearings in place, figure out the rhythm of Kyrgyzstan, buy some supplies and meet some other bicycle tourers who may have some ideas on what routes to take.
Staying in this plush and newly-opened hostel in Kyrgyzstan was really quite something, I met couple of bicycle tourers who had just completed the Pamir Highway, some on a 3 year tour all tanned and wrinkly but with years of smiles, laughter and stories and living their life at some extreme temperatures.
I was enamoured by their outlook on life and loved how decked up their bikes were with stickers, flags and mud to show that they had gone through extremes and survived them. I was slightly embarrassed by mine: it did not have all these mud stains and gravel tyres and it looked spankin’ new the moment I peeled the box open. Two Brazillians, Felippe and Marianna from @pedalispelomundo went like “woahhhh this is so clean!” I just took it in my own stride and figured there’ll be a time and moment before it collects dirt. Marianna thought I was so brave for going on this trip with a complete stranger I met online. She mentioned she went on a bicycle tour around the world simply because her boyfriend sold her this idea and it was not something she would readily decide on her own.
The nerves were starting to creep in but meeting other cyclists who were so open-minded and at ease with everything made me feel like I could definitely do this.
Taking the old Soviet train from Bishkek to Balykchy
We woke up obscenely early like 5.00am to get started and travel on an old rickety soviet train that was 4x slower to reach the Western end of Issyk-Kul lake. Most people opt to take the faster route via a marshutka since the roads are paved making way for drivers to speed their way through and reach the destination in the fastest possible way.
We didn’t want to cycle on the crazy roads in Bishkek and found that the best way to pick a less common route was to take the train. The train departed at 6.40am and for less than 2 USD, the train took us along the course of the road parallel to the villages and mountains in Kyrgyzstan. Getting our bikes on the train was a pain in the butt; we had to drag it along narrow lanes without our bags which took a long time, and we quickly made a dash to the platform to quickly pick up our bags and make it to the end in record time.
Large families were seen in the train smiling with us with the conductor taking a special interests in our journey. The only foreigner we met was Paul, a mountaineer from Hamburg, Germany. He relayed to us about why he wanted to experience a train ride in one of these soviet trains and how his father was working in Eastern Germany on something like this. Joanna eventually sold him an in-depth map of the Tien Shan mountain ranges in Kyrgyzstan since he will be completely off-the-grid.
We continued our journey playing staring games with the families and was transported in time wondering how people hitched a ride on these carriages with rock hard beds, a stuffy environment and limited ventilation.
First night camping at Ottuk along Issyk-Kul Lake
With few obvious signs of life and less vehicles, we arrived at the sleepy town of Balykchy and got on our bikes with jelly-like legs and began our way along the Silk Road route that eventually connects to the alpine ranges of Naryn Province in central Kyrgyzstan to the Chinese border at Torugart Pass. It would be a long time before we think of getting there, and with our plans up in the air, we knew changes are bound to happen regardless.
Balykchy was once the center of the lake's fishing fleet, but has suffered a major decline since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is now only on the path to the tourist sites of the lake, but largely overlooked.
At an elevation of 1,900m, the landscape was still rugged and we passed cemeteries that almost looked like cities of the dead. Interestingly, ornate domes and minarets, tightly clustered behind stone walls seemed at odds with the desolate mountain region. This was marked during a relatively wealthy period during the Soviet period - now the majority of the graves are marked by simple headstones.
We continued along and stopped for water in this incredible heat. It was peak summer time and my throat was parched, begging for some cool relief. We stopped to find a pump by the side of the road. The areas with vegetation were fed by springs that brought water from distant mountain ranges, so you can imagine the wonderful taste of this water after cycling for many hours!
A family group stopped to take a picture with us. A young 16 year old girl named Aziza spoke perfect English and was so excited by my trip that she said goodbye and ended it with a bizarre act of love “You’re cute!”
It took us all day to arrive and being the first day, I was partially exhausted but the lake was stunning. It was about to rain and we saw horses grazing along swathes of green pasture. With that, we knew we had finally arrived in Kyrgyzstan!
In Kochkor, the largest village in Naryn region
It was now in the afternoon heat and some hours since we had seen people or even vehicles, and the sense of penetrating the very heart of Kyrgyzstan’s barren desert was palpable. We had cycled on fairly flat terrain studded with vast empty lands, shrubs and brown mountains that shone in the mid afternoon sunshine.
The economy of the province is mostly dominated by animal husbandry such as horse, sheep and yak hence it was unsurprising to find animal statues almost signalling a welcome sign to the nomadic kingdom.
As our wheels rattled and glided through the road, a piece of slimy rattlesnake snaked through but other than that, there was nothing to signal if there was any life apart from one or two occasional Lada cars blaring their honks. Out of nowhere, we saw two German cyclists in their 50s trudging from the opposite direction having done the Pamirs and the Naryn region. They shared that they have been on the road for 4 months cycling through the Stans in the peak of summer. They regaled us with a colourful account of their journeys, especially when they cycled in insane 50 degree searing heat temperatures in Uzbekistan and the wonderful people of Tajikistan.
I had the utmost respect for them — here I was trying to maintain my sanity is these life-sapping August temperatures in Kyrgyzstan and I could hardly imagine what it was like in May!
“You must go to Saikal Guest House in Kockhor. There’s a Spanish cyclist Roberto and he is crying because he is alone and would love some company!” And off we went!
We met Roberto and found him to be a gem of a person! He had cycled along the world for 3 years and shares his stories on his Facebook page ‘Trans Mis Pasos’ highlighting his journey and philosophical way of life when he reached the peak of his cycling adventures. He was down to earth and shared how he had stayed in Malaysia and had the best fruits like Durian, Duku, Mangosteen and Rambutan and shared his views of his time spent in India and the Himalayas. A couple of days rest was in order for us before we continued with our journey.
When the tough gets going: Cycling 56km towards Keng-Suu Village
I was excited in what today would bring. We were meant to be heading towards remote villages at the crossroads between Song-Kul lake and Naryn region. We were not particularly fast but the tempo was relentless.
I tried to take my mind off the monotony of the motion with some positive thinking. How pleasant it was, I told myself, to have left behind the sprawling villages and busyness of life. I had seen a lot of Russian containers turned into eateries, a mosque, golden brown mountains, smooth asphalt roads and deep fried fish, something which I felt queasy about eating but ate anyway due to the hunger pangs.
A few km later we reached an intersection signalling us to turn right towards Song Kul road. It was eerily quiet and the long featureless mountains look beautiful but at the same time, I knew this was the beginning of an uphill climb. As I started my climb, I wondered how much better it was to be trekking among the dunes instead of dragging my bike up this slope. I could feel it sapping my strength. Just at that moment, the tarmac changed into washboard roads.
The afternoon was mostly uphill. I was confronted with climbs after another climb, and at that point I turned around and saw a huge storm looming. I thought to myself, what if I get struck by lightning? where can I find shelter? There are no villages here, or are there? It was a constant mental monologue. Halfway up, my legs had enough. I thought maybe I should hitchhike but obviously, there were no vehicles in sight and I am sure a Russian Lada wouldn’t be able to fit my bike in.
We finally reached Keng-Suu village — a cold, windswept valley on a traditional herder route to the jailoos on the way to Song Kul lake. It was beautiful but we saw men in a very sorry state; drinking their problems away and inching towards us like zombies, but the women were the one doing all the work — nurturing the children, taking care of the Magazin shops and the grazing animals.
We didn’t feel quite safe being here and Joanna spotted some green grounds and a running stream further up, so we continued our journey before we could find a secluded camp spot. I was exhausted and I had little energy on me to continue climbing any more.
Reaching a cool green patch, while listening to the stream and with the tall megadunes surrounding us — it was perfect, we found the ultimate camping spot! Right when we pitched our tent, cooking our meals a combination of buckwheat, pumpkin sauce and some herbs, a 15 year old kid on his horse came and visited us.
He spoke no English nor Russian and proceeded to just stare at us for a good hour. We offered him a cookie, he gladly accepted and we thought maybe he’ll go away but he continued to stare openly. We sat with our food next to the river and he decided to cross the river. He stopped and whistled to get our attention and as we looked up to meet his gaze, we saw him waving his penis at us. We were aghast and Joanna read my mind. ‘I think we should move our campsite as soon as possible.’
Although he is just 15 years old and rather harmless, and we had a Swiss knife and pepper spray in hand, we didn’t want him to return to our campsite with his friends, brothers or extended family. So like clockwork we packed up everything and headed further up with our bicycles to find a safe camp spot just before darkness falls.
Washboard roads and high-altitudes on the Kalmak-Ashu Pass
It certainly wasn’t a cycling mission when I was heading towards an altitude of 3,447 m. After cycling few km and stopping to stare at what laid ahead of me, my efforts had waned. I barely moved and the washboard roads with my slim hybrid tyres could not hold on. I felt hopeless and the altitude was playing games with my mind — somehow I didn’t feel like doing this anymore.
I told Joanna to go ahead and I’ll meet her at the Northern shore of Song Kul lake. I hitched a ride with a family on a truck who were heading to their Yurt camp. They were lovely and I was still rather disappointed with my defeat and toyed with my decision, but decided to just enjoy the moment.
We traversed the barely-there roads, with wind-spraying great trails of sand from the mountains above us until we came onto an extraordinary sight. There it was Song Kul, the ‘Jewel in the Kyrygz Crown' for natural beauty, this is a land of nomadic shepherds tending to their flocks. The afternoon was spent playing games with the little kids, kite flying, drinking fermented mare’s milk ‘kumis’ (yucks!), eating the sweetest apples and drinking chai.
It was also picturesque but really sad to see nervous cows being whipped into a frenzy. For the villagers, it was survival. Living in such high altitudes, meat was a necessary diet. But as a bystander, witnessing the cows getting whipped and thrown at was uncomfortable to watch. It was a rather helpless situation and I wondered if I dare to look into their eyes, I would know that they're suffering.
A Krygz friend who grew up in the village recently told me that he once saw cows crying when they found a freshly cut head of another cow by shaking their heads up and down and breathing heavily to show their sorrow. Cows like other animals raised for food are sentient beings who have rich emotional lives. They can feel everything from sheer joy to deep grief. It got me thinking that a lot of people do not have the luxury of making a choice about their meals and must eat what is available to them, but if you do, I guess we should try and limit what we can consume.
Towards Song Kul lake, the Jewel in the Kyrgyz Crown
From afar, Song Kul looked like a tiny dot that was about 5 minutes away, but this was deceivingly so. After few hours, Joanna came and we sat down on the grass as I congratulated her for climbing that steep mountain pass and being able to pull it off so effortlessly.
We grabbed our belongings and continued cycling on towards that large dot for about 2 hours or longer. Needless to say, the next hill was more than just a hill. It turned into a series of ridges, dirt road and some steep bumps that was hard to sometimes maintain a balance. Every time we ascended, we were met with another undulating stretch of green mountain roads.
At long last Joanna stopped and waved, she said we can finally stay at Ishen & Roza yurt, just in close proximity to the CBT Song-Kul Yurt Camp. We had been cycling for several days and I was profoundly tired and couldn’t stop caring, so I said “Yes, let’s just stay here!”
To see vast lands that looked like a Windows wallpaper, I could easily fool myself to believe that we had step foot in the navel of the universe.
The vagaries of the extreme terrains
There were options to press on and head towards more challenging terrain but a great adventure which is via Tosor Pass at an altitude of 3,893 metres or to head back down on to Issyk-Kul and onwards towards Karakol.
We figured we will head back down to Issyk-Kul and continue cycling on the main road. We decided to take a jeep back to Kochkor. Such was the inexplicable and unexpected changes in the situation when you’re on a trip like this. One minute we’re feeling it and the next minute we’re not. Our driver knew how to manhandle his steering wheel, he did not care for his screeching tyres and he zig-zagged his way down, giving me plenty of opportunity to gasp and wonder if I should totally get out of this car and free-wheeled down with my bike instead.
From Issyk-Kul, the road conditions were supposedly great with smooth asphalt. This time there were the three of us; Altan from Turkey met us in Kochkor and he decided to join us for a day or two. He had just done the insane Kegety Pass known for its spectacular scenery and insane gravel road at 3,780m.
We were cycling together and then the most unfortunate thing happened, it was a weekend and clearly there were a lot of vehicles. A speeding truck came too close resulting in an accident where I turned to the right and fell luckily on the right side and not under a truck. I was wounded and could barely feel my left leg but decided to dress up my wound with the help of Joanna and Altan, and continue on after that. Maybe, I was a bit crazy to continue on, but I didn’t want to give up at that point.
From here, it would be flat all the way. Both of them assured me. This was something to look forward to, I agreed, but first I need to get over this numbing pain that was biting me as I continued riding against this howling wind. The day was not good at all. We continued to fight crazy headwinds.
Alas, we retired at our camp site near Issyk-Kul lake with clumps of dung strewn all over the field. It was not the most idyllic setting as come night time there were a lot of mosquitoes. I was exhausted and could barely move my left leg. And to top it all, our tent poles broke. We took a good one hour trying to fix it with an endless supply of duct tape. We thanked heavens we were not in some god forsaken place where the weather gods were angry.
A broken tent, injured leg and a change in journey
While most of us was assessing our karma, it was clear that I couldn’t ride for a good while. I could barely climb over my bike so the hitchhiking journey continues and the end of my cycling saga sorta ends. I bid Joanna farewell and told her I’ll meet her in Karakol.
There was a lot of things to look forward to, I agreed, but first we need to find some semblance of civilization and a proper bed where I could stretch my legs. I was heartbroken that I couldn’t continue for a while as I still wanted to make my journey towards Kazakhstan. I had like some good 30 days or so.
In a very real sense, this trip had been an introduction to a form of extreme environment that I had not encountered before. The trials of life at high altitude pushed me outside of my comfort zone, and they were much mental as they were physical. The rest of the journey was a complete change in direction and led me to some adventurous hiking trails, old Soviet hospitals and an interesting set of people which I will continue in my upcoming posts.
Tell me in the comments below: would you consider a bicycle touring trip of this kind to Central Asia? if Yes/No, why? I’d love to hear your comments.
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