We spent a couple of days in Osh and while there we stocked up on supplies, did some shopping and took our bikes to be checked up. It turned out this was a good thing for me as the bicycle mechanic we took our bikes to discovered that my rear axle was bent slightly. I think this must have happened when my bike was hit by a car as I was riding outside Bishkek. Annoyingly I had asked the mechanic in Bishkek to check this as I was worried something had happened to the rear hub or axle. He’d just spun the wheel a few times and said it was fine.
Hopefully now my bicycle is OK!
Leaving Osh we almost immediately started a gradual climb and this would be, we knew, a feature for the next few days as we had a big pass to cross to get into China. We would have to ride up and over 3615m which we were expecting to be a big challenge.
Luckily at the start the gradient was very gentle and we slowly worked our way up out of the city. As we rode we met another cycle tourist, a guy from Taiwan. He was just riding out from Dushanbe in Tajikistan having crossed the Pamirs. The Pamirs are considered to be one of the toughest cycling routes you can make as it is one of the highest altitude roads in the world, a lot of the time it is above 4000m and even in the summer can be bitterly cold. This hadn’t phased the Taiwanese cyclist who’d ridden it on a second hand bike with a single duffel bag strapped to his racks. To make extra space he had tied plastic bags to his handlebars, which must have made riding even more difficult!
Carrying on upwards we saw more yurt camps and lots of beautiful scenery.
Eventually the constant riding up took its toll and we decided to try and find somewhere to camp, I saw a school with some likely looking space for pitching and we pulled up. A man came over and Meka after some conversation in which some other guys were brought in, convinced them to allow us to camp there. It didn’t really take much convincing and they seemed very happy to let us stay there. They even offered us the use of the security guards room to sleep in – I’d already put the tent up though so we used the room for light before we slept.
One of the highlights of the day for me came when Erkin, one of the guys, asked if I wanted to ride his horse which was out to pasture on the school playing fields. After a few seconds consideration I agreed, what was the worse that could happen? Apart from a broken back.
Luckily I was fine and I got to ride a Kyrgyz horse round the school a few times.
Not particularly gracefully as this was the first time I’d ridden anything other than a camel or an old nag.
The next morning we rolled out of the school and began our upward climb once again.
Grinding inexorably upwards until we reached the first pass.
We then had to descend almost 1000m down to the town of Gulcha before starting to climb again. The descent was fun but was overshadowed by the knowledge that we would have to climb back up every metre that we descended.
Gulcha was a strange little town nestling in a valley between the peaks. We stopped for lunch there and I had some very tasty fermented horse milk in a very out of place looking fancy restaurant.
After Gulcha we were slowly but surely working our way back up into the Kyrgyz mountains. It is hard to describe how beautiful the countryside is all the time. Kyrgyzstan really is one of the most beautiful places I have visited, almost every inch of the country, outside the cities, is stunning.
Sadly this beauty comes at the cost of energy as there are very few flat bits. So after another day of hard grind where we had climbed up over 1000m in total we started looking for somewhere nice to camp again. Luckily we came upon some farms and as we rode past children came out and started shouting hello!
At one farm a lady came out with them and Meka asked her if we could camp on their land. She asked her husband who was just down the road, apparently women can’t make decisions in central Asia, and he very kindly agreed. After a while they said we were welcome to sleep in doors if we wanted. We wanted. The weather up in the mountains is unpredictable and you can never be sure when a thunderstorm will sweep in.
The family very kindly made us dinner and prepared a bed for us to sleep in.
I really love the traditional central Asian sleeping set up as they are far more comfortable than most of the beds in the region.
Whilst at the farm I got to add to my rural activities checklist as the lady tried to show me how to milk a cow. She wasn’t particularly successful.
The next day after the family kindly fed us breakfast we continued again, still going up….always going up.
During the previous day we had heard from a few different people that there was some sort of road block ahead but that cyclists and tourists were fine to get through. One car had even stopped to try and get us to ride with them as they thought that with tourists on board they would be able to get through the block. News of the block was also on national television and apparently related to some Kyrgyz politician being imprisoned – the people were blockading the road in an attempt to get him released. Meka cynically suggested they had been paid to do this.
We finally reached the block after a few kilometres of riding and luckily what we had heard was true and that cyclists were fine to get through. It looked like it would be hard for tourists in other vehicles as they would have to go round the blocked off road down onto some grass by a river. Indeed we had met a Belgian couple in a 4×4 the day before who had said it had taken them six hours to get through. They were just driving down from the Pamirs on their way back to Belgium. They had stopped to chat with us saying they were former cycle tourists themselves but were too old for it now and were driving some routes they had ridden in the past to see the difference.
The road block was extremely Kyrgyz in that a large part of it appeared to be made up of yurts that had been assembled in the middle of the road. There were a fair few people about but no one looked to be protesting particularly. The largest group in evidence seemed to be a bunch of old men who probably just went where their bench did; they didn’t look like hardened political activists.
After negotiating the road block – we had to push our bikes over some piled up mud and weave through the yurts – we rode into seemingly less inhabited lands.
That said there were a lot more villages than I expected as we climbed up this mountain. On the ascent of the first mountain to the pass close to Bishkek the road had been pretty much uninhabited. Along this one there were little villages every so often, which meant we could get water easily.
There were also vivid red rocks:
At the start of the day the climbing wasn’t too bad – just gradual and almost constant. Then as the gradient increased the weather worsened and became a persistent mizzle, soaking us through. For a lot of the day we had heard great booming thunderclaps echoing off the mountains and seen ugly black clouds off in the distance, sadly they caught us up.
This was a pretty miserable section of the day as the riding was getting really tough as well. To make matters worse as cars went past they were making a sign to suggest that the pass was closed and that we wouldn’t be able to get up the mountain. We decided to carry on though as in the past I had been told I would not be able to ride somewhere and always I had found a way through.
We carried on up until we reached a building with some people and Meka was able to ask about the road. They told us it was true that the pass was blocked by a huge landslide and that there was no way we would be able to get through. After further questioning they shrugged and said maybe by bicycle.
We had already almost gotten to the top and were not going to throw that away without at least checking the landslide. I was a little nervous as it was starting to get late and I didn’t want us to get stuck somewhere before the next town and have to spend a night on a bare mountain at over 3000m. It had snowed a little bit earlier before the rain stopped so I knew it could get really cold.
I was also starting to feel a bit weird from the altitude and it wasn’t long after we had decided to at least check the landslide when I felt like pretty much all my energy had left me and I needed to get off my bike and push. I felt weak as a kitten and even gorging on snickers bars wasn’t making a difference. So I just put my head down and tried to push my bike up. Luckily Meka was feeling better than the last time she ascended a mountain by bicycle and even though she was already pushing she was dealing with the altitude a lot more successfully than I was!
After a couple of kilometres of pushing up the mountain we eventually got to the landslide. Some men told us it would be really hard to get across and was very dangerous but Meka and I agreed we needed to check how bad it was. Also there were quite a few middle aged women scrambling across in order to get in vehicles that were already on the other side. So we decided Meka would go and check as I could feel I was running out of energy and would need it to carry all our stuff over. From what people had said I was expecting it to be 500m of jagged rocks that only a fool would traverse.
When Meka came back she said it was about 25m of fairly difficult but by no means impossible rock. She also came back with a couple of guys who had agreed to help us get our stuff over, which was great as trying to get two bikes and ten bags over while making sure everything was safe was not something I had wanted to do with just the two of us. In the end with the help of the two men we managed to get everything over fine, though we had to pay them 500 som for their trouble, which was fair enough as it was quite treacherous. Also there was an excavator driving backwards and forwards trying to clear the pass.
Having gotten over this obstacle we were determined to reach the pass and then ride down from it to the town of Sary Tash and stay the night in relative comfort.
So we kept on pushing our bicycles up. I could barely manage to push it up let alone ride so I concentrated on completing a set distance before I would let myself have a rest.
In this way we managed to eventually reach the top, which was a massive relief.
And after soaking up the view and resting a little bit we started the descent down to Sary Tash. We were expecting this to be about 15km down and were thus a little nonplussed when we’d only been descending a short while when the mountain started climbing again. Thankfully it was only for a couple of kilometres. Those were very tough kilometres for me though and I had to really push myself to make it to the next peak so we could roll down easily into town.
We arrived into Sary Tash absolutely spent, I thankfully was feeling a little bit better as we had dropped down about 500m from the peak we’d reached. And fortunately there was a sign for a B&B the name of which I recognised from the Lonely Planet; on the sign it suggested they had beds, food, internet and showers so I was pretty happy. We found the place easily and were greeted by another couple of cycle tourists who were staying there as well. A Spanish guy on his way to the Pamirs and Jacques a Frenchman who had just come the way we were going from China and was in his fourth year of travelling. A journey which had included cycling round south America and sailing yachts across both the Atlantic and Pacific.
Sadly when we got inside the Eliza B&B the sign turned out to be a lie – they had uncomfortable beds and reasonable food but not much else. I wouldn’t have minded if they hadn’t got my hopes up!
It did have an incredible view of the Tian Shan mountains and watching how it changed through the day was pleasant and some consolation.
We had only planned on staying one night there but it turned out the border was closed at the weekend and as we had arrived on a Friday we would have to stay there an extra night. The border was 70km away so we decided to spend Saturday in Sary Tash and ride out on Sunday and spend the night at the border so as to get through early on Monday morning. This was probably a good idea as we both needed a rest after the previous exertions.
The riding on the day we left was some of the most incredible I have experienced. The views were stunning, we were surrounded by huge peaks, some of them topping 6000 and 7000m I believe.
The road was also great and though we began by ascending again I was feeling much more acclimatised to the altitude and was able to enjoy the views.
We reached another descent which would take us down towards the border. This was initially pretty fun but as the wind picked up it got increasingly dangerous as it was coming in very hard from the side and we were being blown across the road. It was especially unnerving when we went past the concrete barriers that were protecting steep drops as the wind would suddenly drop as we came alongside these then pick up again as the barriers stopped. It was like receiving a sharp push from the side and was pretty dangerous.
We were quite lucky in that as it was a Sunday and as there were two road blocks behind us (human and natural) there was almost no traffic. This made the ride safer and much more enjoyable. We were able to appreciate it in peace. And when we stopped, if there was no wind, the only sounds we could hear were ones we made ourselves or the occasional bird.
As we went further down the weather improved until the wind had dropped and it was warm again. The landscape also seemed to warm up and we could no longer see any snow capped mountains.
We did see an interesting river confluence where two different coloured streams met.
The river flowed along two tone for a while.
Also in this section we saw some strange meerkat like animals that would make a warning noise for their friends before darting down burrows as we rode along. They were not the easiest to get a photo of.
As we got closer to the border and wanting to stop the weather of course worsened and it started to rain. Luckily we reached the last Kyrgyz village before China known as Nura. Here we pulled up to decide what to do and luckily we were spotted by some children who started waving at us. Their waving seemed to be beckoning as well. So I suggested we find out what they wanted and we started to ride up, as we approached they started walking and we couldn’t work out if they were beckoning or just waving but every time we stopped they started waving so in the end we gave up trying to work out what they wanted from a distance and rode up to them.
This turned out to be a good idea as they got their grandmother who invited us to stay at their place.
This was another example of the incredible Kyrgyz generosity as they gave us dinner and made us up a nice place to sleep inside their house. The children started off shy with us but in the end we had trouble getting them to leave so we could go to sleep.
The following day we got an early start so we could get to the border just as it had opened. This turned out to be another good idea as though this Kyrgyz border was as easy as they usually are and we passed through it easily the Chinese border was a different beast.
It started with a gate separating the two countries which we had to pass through and have our passports initially checked. Then we rode a few more kilometres to the customs post. Here we had ALL our bags checked, which took ages as we have a lot of stuff with us. Luckily we didn’t have to wait long for the process to start as clearly the road blocks in Kyrgyzstan were keeping traffic to a minimum so there were not many other people there.
Once we’d passed through customs we were told we would have to take a taxi 140km to the next town where the border control point is. We tried to get them to let us cycle but we weren’t allowed. This was annoying as the road was perfect and brand new and there was hardly any traffic. In the past I know they had made people get a lift because the road was being built and was terrible. Now it is finished it is a bit annoying. Especially as the taxi is about USD 16 each. I guess they don’t want people in China for a day without being processed through immigration, which would be the case as the distance was probably a little far for one day’s ride.
Also we had to take a normal car which could barely fit the people in, let alone five people, two bikes and all their luggage. So we had to strap the bikes on the back like this:
Making for a very nervous and not particularly safe car ride!
For me it immediately felt very different. The road was a lot better to start with, it was also a proper highway, which I hadn’t ridden on for a while. There were entries and exits and it wasn’t possible just to ride off the road when you pleased you had to take an exit. On the plus it had a nice big hard shoulder for us to ride in.
Interestingly there were what appeared to be remnants of the silk road along the side with small domed mausoleums showing how far Islam had penetrated from Mecca.
Indeed the road signs were also in both Chinese and Arabic and only occasionally in English, which shows how large Western China’s Muslim population is, some call the area East Turkestan.
As we had gotten through the border fairly quickly and were only 90km from Kashgar the first main city after the border we decided to ride for it. This meant for a pretty tough day as while there was a lot of downhill there was also a fair bit of up and some very strong headwinds.
On the plus side the wind swung round to be a tailwind by the end of the day, on the minus it brought a big thunderstorm. We ended up being blown very swiftly into town but in a somewhat wet and bedraggled state.
After some messing around we eventually found the hostel recommended to us by another cyclist and were able to have our first showers in over five days…bliss.