Bishkek to Toktogul: in at the deep end

I had originally planned to leave Bishkek on 2 June, this was curtailed by my falling sick almost as soon as I’d written a post saying I was planning on heading off.  Thankfully after spending the next day in bed instead of riding towards China I was ready to depart, better late than never.  Meka was also as ready as she was going to be and with two Soviet army satchels strapped on the side of her new bike and a waterproof dive bag on top she was equipped to tour.

Meka and I began riding with good weather and headed along the flat out of Bishkek towards the west, back along the road I had originally ridden in on 5 months ago.

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The ease of the first part of the day then became a distant memory as we turned south towards the mountains and began working our way steadily upwards as well as into a headwind.  We weren’t even climbing the mountains proper yet but just easing into the foothills as we worked towards our target for the first day of Sosnovka.

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I’m not quite sure what this signified:

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When we reached the town we decided to try and find somewhere to stay as it was already getting dark and the weather was looking a bit grim for camping unless totally necessary.  Meka was able to get a boy on a bicycle to lead us to somewhere, this did involved criss crossing the town a few times as various people were asked directions before we were given ones that actually led somewhere we could stay.

In the end we found a guesthouse but unfortunately it was full.  The owners said we could camp in the garden though and as this seemed like the best option at the time so we began to do so.  Thankfully before the tent was even fully out of the bag they said that a couple of other guests who had two rooms had agreed to share so that we could have the second room.  Which was great as it was a pretty cold night and very windy.
The owners also agreed to make us dinner and let us use their banya (Russian sauna) which was all a bit better than sleeping in a wind swept tent!

The place also had a wonderful panorama for sunsets:

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The next morning the owners made us a nice breakfast and when we asked how much everything was they said that it was all a gift which was unexpectedely generous.

The only bad thing we took away was a slight nervousness about what we were undertaking as conversation over dinner had included other guests telling us that it would be freezing cold on the mountain we were to attempt the next day and that there was nothing up there and no where to stay and basically we should TURN BACK NOW or get a lift. We decided to carry on cyclng in spite of this!

The next day the weather had cleared up in a big way and it was a beautiful clear and sunny day and we headed off optimistically.

We soon reached the start of the pass proper and for most of the day we would be riding with huge mountains rising up on either side.  The road was incredibly beautiful and it really reminded me what was great about cycle touring.

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It was also a very tough day.  We were attempting to ride over the first pass between Bishkek and Osh which is at a height of around 3000m which is about three times the highest point in England.  Thankfully we’d already reached 1000m the night before so we didn’t have to climb the whole height from sea level.  This wasn’t much consolation as we slowly crawled up increasingly difficult gradients.  We both found it very tough: Meka because this was only her second day cycle touring and me because I hadn’t ridden regularly for a month and had a lot more weight in my panniers than I’d carried for a while or possibly ever.
We originally decided to camp next to a farmhouse, the owners of which were out, as some shepherds said that it would be fine and it was a bit of rare flat ground.   While there we were spotted by another couple of cycle tourists who were going the other way.  These were the first cycle tourists I’d seen on the road in central Asia as no one else had been stupid enough to be riding around in winter the last time I was here.
The two guys were from Ireland and England and had a lot of useful information on the route ahead.  After they’d carried on Meka suggested that we ride a bit further as she was feeling rested and most of the grass around the farmhouse was covered in either glass, rocks or animal dung or a heady combination of the three.  I agreed.

After a few hundred metres Meka wished she had kept her mouth shut as the road was now really steep and had begun to be a series of really tight switchbacks working the road up the side of a very steep mountain.  After only another couple of kilometres we decided to definitely call it a day and found a convenient storm culvert to camp in.

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This was a lot more comfortable a camping spot than it looks as there was a bed of thick grass fed by the run off to pitch on and it was right by a clear mountain river as well.

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I might not be looking back on it so fondly if it had rained in the night and we’d been washed out into the above pictured river…

As we set up camp that night the rigours of the day really hit Meka as she threw up.   Thankfully after a bit of food she was fine.

The next day we woke up knowing we still had about 600m to climb to get to the top.  Which doesn’t sound much but is pretty tough when a lot of the gradient is at 12% with strong mountain winds blowing against you.

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Meka was understandably finding the going very tough – she had been thrown in at the deep end as her own country is pretty much one big mountain range.  I definitely would not have wanted to be riding up a Kyrgyz mountain on my third day touring!  She was determined not to give up (or I was determined she wouldn’t give up) and managed to get to the top by pushing her bike up for most of the final 9km.

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At the top we were greeted by the gaping maw of a tunnel which we were informed we would have get a lift through as were not allowed to cycle in it.  After about an hour of trying to thumb down a lift we finally managed to convince a van driver to take us through.  And seeing the tunnel from the inside we were very glad!  It was extremely narrow badly lit, badly surfaced and with an uphill gradient and would probably have been lethal.

On the other side of the tunnel we were greeted by incredible views of another Kyrgyz mountain range across a valley we would have to traverse.

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From the top of the pass we reached we had our first descent of the trip down into the valley.  This side of the mountain seemed very different from the other.  It was much more rural and there didn’t seem to be much evidence of arable agriculture which could be seen around Bishkek to the north.  Instead as we descended we saw more evidence of yurts and the traditional Kyrgyz nomadic lifestyle.

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There were also herds of horses all over the place some being controlled by Kyrgyz horse herders, others just meandering around.

That night we decided to try and sleep under a roof again as we had descended onto a small plain which was quite flat and without much cover for camping.  We carried on riding towards a small village we’d heard of that is apparently known as Paris because it has electricity and looks like Paris when lit up…

In the village, whose only link to Paris was perhaps the smell, Meka was able to find a lady who was willing to let us sleep in the other half of her wagon.  It was that or stay in the local “hotel” which was more expensive and less comfortable.

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The wagon, which was, I think, a very old converted train coach would have originally looked like this:

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It had a kitchen area, a sleeping area, a dining area and a living/sleeping area.  It also had electricity and was nicer than some houses I had stayed in in the past.

While there we tried some Kymyz, which is a Kyrgyz national drink.  Kymyz is basically fermented mare’s milk and has a very interesting taste.  The stuff we tried here was quite strong and was a bit like drinking a mix between milk and fizzy bread.

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We saw another beautiful sunset while there.

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and Meka made friends with the little girl who also lived in the wagon:

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The next day we headed off across the mountain valley to take a nice easy ride to reach the other side before we would ride up and over the other side into another larger mountain valley on the other side.

The day started off very nicely and we saw lots more yurts and horses.  A lot of the yurts were by the side of the road to take advantage of the tourists and locals passing through.  They were selling Kymyz and Kyryt (solid balls of milk) amongst other local products.  Off in the distance up against the mountains it was possible to see other yurts whose purpose was clearly less geared towards selling to tourists.

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Inside a yurt:

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Yurts seemed to come in lots of different sizes (but not shapes) and had varying levels of mod cons.  Some had chimneys for stoves and solar panels for some electricity.

That night we would stay with another family further down the road.  They had a yurt and a wagon.  The wagon seemed to be for sleeping in while they used the yurt as a kitchen cum dining room cum living room.

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They had a herd of horses that they looked after and seemed to have cows and chickens as well for milk and eggs.
As you can see from the above the weather had gotten worse and was pretty grim and rainy for the last part of the day, hence sleeping in the wagon. We’d originally planned on sleeping in a guesthouse but the owner had annoyed Meka when she increased the price she had negotiated by 50% when she saw that I was a tourist.

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Riding on the next day we immediately started climbing again as we rode up and out of the valley. Luckily it wasn’t as tough as previously and we both just had to keep slogging on.

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It was incredibly beautiful though as we rode along with mountain peaks so close it felt like you could reach out and touch them.

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How mountainous Kyrgyzstan is was summed up for me when Meka (who perhaps needs new contacts) asked:
‘Hey, what’s that between those two mountains?’
‘Erm, another mountain’

We soon reached the top at 3175m, which is pretty good going for Meka’s fourth day cycle touring.

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Riding off the top soon wiped any smiles off our faces as we rode into sharp freezing rain exasperated by our speed.  The first ten kilometres were terrible until we got down a bit further and the weather improved.
While descending we met a nice French couple travelling round the world in a camper van,  they were kind enough to stop out of pity and offer us tea and some ginger sweets they had picked up in Iran.  As we sat in their warm camper, which had many modern conveniences like it’s own kitchen and toilet, I could see Meka looking around wondering if she had made the wrong decision vehicle wise.

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As we rode down the mountain the weather improved and if anything the scenery got even more beautiful.  There were many more trees on this side and it seemed more lush somehow.

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We stopped at a cafe for lunch where Meka answered the questions of curious locals about our trip.  Then when I asked an old Kyrgyz lady if I could take a photo of her she insisted on going and changing her dress which was a first.

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She apparently had family in England and was very pleased to meet me.

The rest of the trip down the mountain was uneventful but incredibly beautiful.  No photos I have taken can really do it justice.

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