We crossed the Kazakh border and entered Kyrgyzstan, a country which we were really looking forward to visiting due to its reputation for high mountains, free camping and beautiful lakes. This is in great contrast to the flat plains of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and would feature our highest climbs of the whole trip so far with passes as high up as 3600m. This is our first test at this type of altitude since our previous highest was a mere 1800m in Romania. We arrived into Bishkek with high spirits and pulled up at our accommodation. We were staying in a place called 'The AT House' which is a refuge for touring bicyclists in Bishkek. The AT House is ran by Nathan & Angie, a bicycle touring couple who open their house and garden to passing cyclists over the summer months. We camped in their garden for 10 nights whilst we waited for our Chinese visa and were joined by about ten other cyclists hailing from France, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Italy and England. Bicycle touring definitely seems a hobby dominated by western Europeans!
After collecting our Chinese visa we packed up our things, said our goodbyes and headed for Kyrgyzstan's second city, called Osh. Osh is about 600km away from Bishkek and as we left Bishkek it began snowing, pretty flakes which turn everything to ice. A sign that this is going to be a tough road. After cycling about 60km to where the highway joins the Osh mountain road we set up camp beside an old barn and by morning everything was frozen, tent poles, water, gears, brakes even a lock of fins hair! It took everything of our fingers to pack up, but once we had it was time to climb and up we went. The first pass was 3000m and it was a slow gradual climb to begin with as we followed the river, and as the hills gave way to mountains we cycled with smiles as big as the peaks around us. Kyrgyzstan was living up its reputation.
The difficulty we had was with camping at height, since their was no way to prevent everything freezing on us. So often we would stay in small cafes situation along the road. These varied in price and comfort from the home-stay where we slept on a raised platform in the lounge/kitchen to the restaurant where they had rooms with bunk beds in the back and were able to store our bikes in the meat locker! The people of the mountains are very poor but very hospitable, willing to share everything with you, even it is their last. One such occasion we stopped at a cafe for a tea break and to warm up our fingers and toes and the owner made us all tea. We found this tea quite weak but drank together and it was only when the owner asked for the tea bag back from my cup for the second round that we found we had all shared the one teabag!
Once you reach the top of the top of the first pass, you reach a tunnel and you must hitchhike through this since cycling is not permitted. We hitch hiked on an oil tanker where Finola's bike was placed right on top and as I rode in the truck behind I was sure that her bike was to fall at any moment. The tunnel is 2km long and we arrived safely on the other side, although I somehow managed to get a puncture whilst not moving on the back of the truck! Meaning we had a very cold repair job to do before we put on all our cold clothing ready for the descent!
Descending down a mountain makes the whole struggle up worth it, and the harder the struggle the more fun the downhill. There are two main passes between Bishkek and Osh, the second one being the Ala-Bel Pass which is 3125m and the downhill from here lasts for about two days and as you descend down from the mountains, watching the snow slowly melt away from the mountain tops, small villages appear and the rivers now swelling with melted snow roar past beside you. From the Ala-Bel you are descending towards lake Toktogul, following rivers and through giant valleys. This was the fantastic and as the sun was shining and we could camp wherever the view was best, made this the best cycling of the trip so far. Once we reached Toktogul we camped next the lake, were I was able to go swimming in the morning. Finola thought the water would be too cold but it was great to wash off the sweat whilst looking back up at the mountains.
The next stop along the road is Jalal-Abad, and it was cycling toward here were we met with Kazim, a former Turkish diplomat who invited to stay with him. Kazim had a large house just 10km north of Jalal-Abad, so large that whilst his family had the main house Finola and I were invited to stay in the spare house! Kazim also was a true Krgz man due to the fact that he owned two large male horses which he used for the traditional game called uluk. We were both invited to join Kazim and watch the game. Uluk is a horse game where between 200-1000 players take part on horseback. The aim of the game is to take the ball (which is sheep carcass) from the other players and take it out of the center circle. Points are scored by a adjudication panel and there is always a prize, given out by the person hosting the game. In the game in which we watching the first prize was a new Lada car, the second prize a live sheep!!
Uluk is primarily a male sport, there were no women even watching the game let alone take part and Kazim told us that Finola is the first woman to ever watch Uluk in Jalal-Abad. She was certainly getting a large amount of male stares from the players and spectators! It was such an honor to be invited to watch and it was such a spectacle, we saw about 300 riders on horseback all battling for the ball and the game went back and forth for about two hours. Sometimes we had to make way as all the horses came running full pelt towards us!
From Jalal-Abad we rode the 100km towards Osh, skirting the Uzbekistan border the ride flattened out and we covered this 100km in a single day. We arrived into Osh where we were greeted by the great Sulaiman-Too scared mountain and checked into the Osh guest house. A hostel close to the sprawling Osh Bazaar. We took two days off the bikes to recover and spent out time walking through the markets and climbing the mountain, on foot rather than bicycle this time. It was a great two days off and marked the best cycling we have done on our trip so far. We recommend this ride for any cycle tourists, either if you are moving through Kyrgyzstan or as a single cycle holiday. The majestic mountains watching over you at all times as you climb or descend, the lakes and the gorges, the horses and the people make this the most beautiful road we have ever traveled and we look forward to finding more roads like this as we continue our progress and head into China.
Tim & Fin
First and foremost I want to point out that is this clearly my opinion and although Finola didn't fall in love with Uzbekistan she did not hate it as much as me. I should also say that it is cycling within Uzbek that causes me the most unrest, since if you were to go on a coach tour of all the individual cities you would certainly have a great time and a fantastic collection of photos. Uzbek is made up of its capital city, Tashkent and its three feature cities ; Kviva, Bukhara and Samarkand. These three highlight the role Uzbekistan played along the famous silk road, they were indeed three of the most prominent and successful cities.
You have Kviva, the flyweight of the three and my personal favorite. Kviva is a fortified city so you have large city walls which surround the city and four gates at each compass point. It is also the least touristy of the three and people actually live inside the walls and get on with their day to day exsistance rather than trying to selling imported Chinese art prints! The middleweight city is Bukhara, a small city with a large number of hotels. If staying at one of the guesthouses you can walk around Bukhara in a few hours, and the highlight is the large minaret, best viewed at sunset in the overpriced bar opposite. The heavyweight city and the main event is Samarkand, famous for its Registan, its large numbers of mosques and cemetery and probably the one city most people outside of Uzbekistan have heard of!
Each city has its own highlights and low lights and there are better writers than me to tell you what to see. The architecture is simply stunning throughout , the blue and gold mosaics rising high out of the ground tell the story of a country and a time when the caravan trade was at its most successful and people would flock to these places to share, trade and pray.. Today it is a very different story. Each mosque you are now required to pay to get into, and once you have entered you are greeted by stall after stall of Chinese tat, each with a Uzbek style. You will see t-shirts, silk scarves, Uzbek hats, post cards, art prints, and cds. Why you have to have a cover charge and then decorate each wall with a tacky gift shop is beyond me. We did not see anyone buying any of these things and everything be found much cheaper in the bizarre if you really did need that hat!
Uzbekistan law requires each traveler to register with a hotel every third night, meaning if you wanted to spend 30 days within the country you will be required to purchase a minimum of ten hotel nights, thus becoming very expensive. Some of the distances between hotels are huge, between Kviva and Bukhara there is 400km of desert, meaning you will have to average 133km per day to satisfy their registration rules. If you miss one of these precious registration slips, then hotels will not permit you to stay, especially in Tashkent where the rules are the most strict. We were turned away from three places before we found a hostel which would accept us. We had collected seven out of the necessary nine for our 27 day stay, so were a little nervous going over the border to Kazakhstan. As an experiment I removed all my slips from my passport to see what would happen....nothing, no alarms went out, no dogs came charging, the border police just stamped my passport without so much as a question. So if you wish to follow my advice, don't worry about the registration, stay in hotels only if you want to not because you are forced to, they wont check anyway!
Usually if the country has some faults it can be saved by the food, not Uzbekistan. The food is awful-the favourite Uzbek street food is the Samsa, a small pastry usually containing a mix of meat, fat and onion. Normally left on the side of the oven for a good few hours then re-heated this is something which will always make you Ill. I was so sick in Bukhara I had to spend the evening in the bathroom. Not nice! The other speciliatlites include Manti-a dumpling type dish always re-cooked and Corba a meaty soup which is the best of the bunch. We found ourselves cooking our own food a lot in Uzbekistan since we knew we would not then get ill and there were lots of vegetables to be found even within the desert areas.
I am aware this may seem like quite a rant, and I am aware that I am very lucky to be on this two year adventure and that I should not moan about it but Uzbekistan really did get me down and I think it is the distances and oppression of the country that has done this to me. I did not really feel like I was exploring in Uzbek due to their registation rules, bleak featureless desert and countless checks and it just seemed our aims were to reach each tourist destination and take the same photo as everyone else. After speaking to lots of other bicycle tourists this seems to be a common conception of Uzbekistan. I guess I lost my cycling mojo in Uzbek and after pushing for the last 6 months just became a little tired and worn down. To restore ourselves we stayed three nights in a beautiful hostel in Tashkent called Topchan and it was great just to sit down with others and take some time off the bicycles to restore our energy levels. After our three day break we cycled the 30km to Kazakhstan again on route to Kyrgyzstan and cycled the most beautiful 30km of the whole country, rolling hills and little farming villages a plenty as we approached the border post and back into Kazakhstan. Goodbye Uzbekistan..hello again Kazakhstan.
Tim and Fin
Buy me a beer!! Thank you
This blog follows my cycle ride from Reading, Berkshire to Reading, Pennsylvania.