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
Buy me a beer!! Thank you
This blog follows my cycle ride from Reading, Berkshire to Reading, Pennsylvania.