Finally in Bishkek!

(Emily) So, our first stop in Kyrgyzstan was Bishkek, the capital. Fresh from our euphoria of finally getting into the country, we rolled into town to find accommodation. A slightly hairy ride down some gravelly back alleys got us to Sakura Guesthouse, a cheap and cheerful hostel-type place run by a Japanese/Kyrg couple with two very adorable little daughters. 800 som (about £10) per night for a double room suited us just fine… so fine in fact, we ended up staying for a week! Don’t get the wrong impression – Bishkek really doesn’t have that much to offer – but with the rest of our China group due to turn up over the next few days and neither of us feeling 100% (still) it was very easy to keep saying ‘just one more day!’ Bishkek is a typical Soviet town – gridded street plan, wide avenues, dusty. Ashamed to say, we went to an ex-pat hangout on our first night as we’d reached that ‘I just need a burger’ stage! (In fact, the ‘Metro Bar’ saw a lot of us over the next few days as it became the easiest place to meet up with everyone as they arrived in town.) However, there was also the excellent Café Faiza just down the road which was full to the brim with locals each night and saw us stuffed on laghman (a tasty noodle broth, pretty much the national dish) and manty (like mini pasties filled with minced mutton) for just $3 all in. I think we ate there three times!

During our week in Bishkek, we didn’t do a whole lot it has to be said. Eating and sleeping just about sums it up! Actually, one day we did go down to the automarket to find the reputed one and only  motorcycle place; I needed a replacement hose-clip as my coolant was leaking, and we wanted to get some specialist product to clean our air filters (I don’t really know what I’m talking about, but I sound like I do, right?!) The ‘shops’ were just rows of storage containers and sure enough, plot 29E was indeed a little haven of motorcycle parts. (Shame they didn’t have tyres – mine are starting to look a little ropey!) That little excursion led to an afternoon tinkering with the bikes, and then that evening Carl and Bene (a couple who we’d met once back in the UK, part of the China group) rocked up at our guesthouse. It was great to catch up with them and compare experiences from the last few months – they had done a detour to Morocco when they first left, and then taken a route through the Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan to get to Kyrgyzstan.

It was a relief when everyone in our China group was finally assembled together – considering we’d all met on the internet about six months before departure, it was no small achievement to have all made it to Kyrgyzstan at the agreed time! (Just to explain – to take your own transport into China costs an absolute fortune as you need to pay for a government ‘guide’ to accompany you and that means forking out for his transport, accommodation, food etc on top of all the usual bureaucratic paperwork. Months back, we’d got in touch with five other bikers on the Horizons Unlimited message board who were all looking to cross China to get to Pakistan in August and agreed to form a group to share the cost, reducing individual expenses from about $1500 to $650. Result.) With two Italians (now complete with pillions flown in from Milan), one Spaniard, a French/English couple and us all taking different routes from Europe and riding different bikes, it was always going to be a concern that not everyone would make it, yet here we were! There were a few problems ahead, however, as Donato and Stefano were experiencing difficulties obtaining their Pakistan and Chinese visas, plus Donato had had some bike trouble resulting in a spare part being flown in from Italy, due to arrive on the 20th: our planned departure date… Not to mention the fact that the road taking us through northern Pakistan, the famous KKH (Karakorum Highway) was reportedly falling apart due to landslides and flooding. Hmmm. However, with James and Carl dishing out much needed optimism and positivity, we all agreed that we had to just go for it and decided to ask the agency for our crossing to be put back a week to combat Donato’s mechanical problems. This in turn would mean a visa extension for James and me as ours were due to run out on the 20th and let’s face it, we didn’t have the best past experience with those… Never mind, it would all be fine, we assured ourselves!

And of course it was – these things always have a way of working out, don’t they?! The Kyrgs could certainly teach the Uzbeks a thing or two about visa extensions – no problem here, they were issued within a few hours much to our pleasant surprise. And Donato and Stefano got their Chinese visas, albeit after over a week of waiting. Taher, our agent for the China leg, seemed quite relieved to push the whole thing back a week to the 27th (could have something to do with the fact that a few weeks earlier Donato had inadvertently cancelled the whole thing – oops, bit of a language barrier, not surprising when it’s an Italian and a Chinese guy trying to arrange things in English – so I guess it gave him more time to get things back on track!) The delay worked out well actually as it meant James and I would get some time to explore the rest of Kyrgyzstan, something we thought we’d miss out on after the Uzbekistan debacle. The problem still remained that the Italians had no Pakistan visas – apparently it’s only possible to apply for one in your home country now, according to a new rule that the Pakistan embassy hasn’t bothered to publicise – but rumour has it that it’s possible to get them at the border so… time to risk it for a biscuit!

We were certainly lucky to have Fabian staying in the same town when we experienced problems with our website – as you see can from one of the previous posts, he saved our skins on that one! Also, we were helped out by an American expat we met at the Metro Bar. He came over to talk to the group having seen Donato’s Harley out front; turns out he was a Harley nut and had several back home in Georgia, including one in his living room!! He, James and Carl spent the evening looking at bike photos on his laptop (boys!) and before he left, he told us to meet him again the following evening to pick up some ration packs he could get hold of. This was music to our ears as we’d recently heard that Gilgit, one of the main towns on the KKH, was currently suffering food and electricity shortages… The next night, he came up trumps and even gave James a pair of spare flip-flops when his broke. What a guy!

After seven nights in Bishkek we were desperate to escape the city and explore the beautiful lakes and verdant valleys that we’d read so much about. We said goodbye to the group, the plan being to meet up the following Thursday (26th) at Tash Rabat, a former caravanserai which is now a yurt camp for climbers. It felt like the most unpredictable part of our trip so far was now beginning…

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