Archive for the ‘Kyrgyzstan’ Category

Heading south to our rendez-vous

Friday, August 27th, 2010

(James) We kept an eye on the ever changing weather in Balykcy and used our time wisely picking up some food as our intention was, weather permitting, to head south and camp at Song Kol. When we deemed that the incoming clouds were as good as they were going to get we crossed our fingers and headed off. The combination of wind, dark clouds and our gaining altitude made for pretty chilly riding and this, combined with the time lost while sheltering from the rain, meant that an excursion to Song Kol was starting to look increasingly unlikely. We had a shock rounding one corner when we came across a herd of wild camels – not the single-humped desert variety (dromedary?) that we had encountered before, but big hairy double-humped (bactrian?) beasts. They were right in the middle of the road, drinking from the puddles on the tarmac, and seemed fairly unperturbed by us! While I took a few photos, Emily braved the elements and took her trousers and boots off in the middle of the road in order to add her thermal layer and the decision was made that we would quit while we were ahead and hole up for the night in Kochkor as the weather was showing signs of closing in again. (There was no way we wanted to attempt Song Kol in bad weather and darkness – it would mean 50 extra kilometres on washed out dirt roads.)

Within half an hour, we were riding into the small town of Kochkor where we quickly located the CBT office in the spitting rain. I should probably explain what exactly CBT is – it stands for Community Based Tourism and is a brilliant scheme in which a central office in a village or town acts as an agent for local people who have rooms to spare. This allows travellers to find cheap accommodation and experience authentic local culture, hospitality and food whilst providing a source of income that local people would otherwise be denied. We were given directions to our ‘homestay’ and rode down some dirt tracks until we found the house. The facilities at homestays vary depending on whether it’s a small village, large town, rural home or apartment block and this evening our host was an old lady called Goku who treated us like her own children (literally; she’d come in, give us a kiss and say ‘Ah, my son’!) We had a small room between us, no shower and the loo was a drop toilet in the garden (it was freezing and the smell was gag inducing!) But we were well fed and watered, the highlight for Em being Goku’s home-made jam. We went to bed praying that the weather would improve in the morning (Em: I was very anxious that the dirt roads around the town would turn into a quagmire in heavy rain…)

The weather gods were clearly with us as we woke to crystal clear blue skies. This was bonus for us as it gave us two options; either head to Song Kol but risk being caught there if the weather deteriorated (at over 9000ft/3000m it’s not somewhere you want to be stuck in a storm) or make the most of the sunshine and head south for the Dolon Pass (also over 3000m) and Naryn, bringing us comfortably close to our rendez-vous point of Tash Rabat. By the time we passed the first turning off to Song Kol (predictably a dirt road), the weather to the west was showing signs of turning so we ploughed on towards the Dolon Pass and a good decision it turned out to be; the road soon became broken tarmac followed by rocky dirt tracks slowing us down to mostly first and second gear as all the while we gained altitude. Despite the hard going, we were absolutely loving the days riding; as we climbed, we were able to enjoy amazing views, passing dozens of isolated yurts (indigenous Kyrgyz homes) and their magnificent horses. We couldn’t help but feel that considering this was the warmest month of the year and they were already dressed up in thick coats and hats, theirs was an incredibly tough existence. When we eventually arrived at the peak of the Dolon Pass – at 3033m the highest either of us had ever done – we stopped to take some photographs and were approached by a couple of Kyrgyz children who, as ever, were interested in the bikes. They only took their eyes off the motorcycles when they spotted a bag of apples and plums (a random gift from a market seller in Kochkor) – any fruit or vegetables are clearly a luxury up here as nothing can grow at this altitude (we were well above the tree line). We happily gave them some which they wolfed down in seconds!

10 or 15km after descending the other side of the pass, we were rewarded with the ‘luxury’ of broken tarmac once more and although this surface didn’t last long, our slow progress didn’t matter too much as we were only about 40km from the town of Naryn. Having arrived in Naryn, we eventually found the CBT office having ridden 14 dusty km along it’s only street (the town is very long, but only about 200m wide as it sits in a gorge). Emily was adamant that we get accommodation with a shower (Emily: I wasn’t being a princess, honest, I just knew we’d have several night’s camping coming up and we already hadn’t washed for two nights!) so we were allocated a flat rather than a village house. Our apartment, it turned out, was all ours (the family lived next door)! Having washed and done some laundry, we wandered into town to find some food and flagged down a passing Fabian who we advised to join us in the spare room in our apartment. With two nights until our meeting date of Thursday 26th, we had been umming and ahhing about whether to stay both nights in Naryn or go a day early to our rendez-vous in Tash Rabat. Our hours spent in Naryn made our decision easy… it was a dive!

The following morning after a very tasty breakfast of blini (Russian pancakes) and porridge provided by our hosts and having filled the bikes and all of our jerry cans with fuel, we continued south. The journey to the turn off to Tash Rabat was only 100km but, just as the day before, it was all mountain passes, dirt roads and gravel. It’s a sign of how much we, and particularly Em, have improved as  riders as we both took it in our stride and enjoyed the day nonetheless, stopping frequently for photos, food and drink breaks (the need for water has been increasing with the altitude, with dehydration being a very real problem). I had another near miss with a huge eagle which dropped down onto the road in front of me to get a better grip of its recently caught prey before realising I was there and taking off again right in front of the bike. As it tried to gain height and speed, I drew up alongside it and got to ride for fifty yards with this things just metres away. Cue lots of expletives and exclamations! My heart rate had only just returned to normal when a passing Kyrgyz shepherd on an enormous horse decided to gallop beside for 500m for the second time on this trip. It’s these sorts of experiences that really make the trip, the only frustration being that once again I was unable to capture the moment on film.

With about 50km to go, we bumped into Fabian again and decided to ride together, particularly as it was unclear quite when and where the turning to Tash Rabat was going to appear. As we rode down the centre of a wide valley, with a ridge of mountains to each side, it looked like our luck with the weather was about to change; black clouds were gathering on the mountains and we could see isolated showers falling in several places all around us. However, for the most part the sky above the road remained clear and dry which was fine by us, excepting the vast dust clouds generated by the convoys of Chinese lorries going by which frequently engulfed us, reducing visibility to zero. A navigational debate broke out at one point when Fabian’s satnav claimed we should be turning off to the left but my map indicated we were still 30km short; several locals confirmed this to be the case (satnav nil, paper map one) so we kept going. As my odometer reached exactly 100km for the day, we saw a small wooden sign telling that Tash Rabat was off to the left. Miraculously we had avoided all of the surrounding rain and the way ahead into the valley looked absolutely beautiful. Having taken a couple of group victory photos, we headed down the rocky track to what we thought was the camp but our ‘camp’ turned out to be a Chinese roadwork crew and Tash Rabat itself was another 15km up the dirt track into the mountains. As we rode along the track, we wondered whether it would be worth this extra hassle having had two days and 250km of gravel roads and several mountain passes but we needed have worried; the track ended in a beautiful mountain valley, probably the most picturesque spot of the trip so far. There were four yurts at the end of the valley sitting by a clear mountain stream. Em and I had initially intended to camp but a look inside Fabian’s yurt quickly changed our mind and following some friendly haggling, a price was agreed for two nights with breakfast and dinner included. (Em: I was somewhat excited to be staying in a yurt – they’re awesome!!)

Tash Rabat is one of the few surviving of many hundreds of cavaranserai that were dotted along the Silk Road between Istanbul in the west and the Orient. They would serve as protected shelters for the trading caravans, providing food, accommodation and somewhere for the animals to rest. Tash Rabat was of particular significance as it was located at a major junction, linking up those travelling from Beijing and Mongolia in the east and the subcontinent to the south. One can see the stone structure that formed the original caravanserai, now long out of use, but the natural beauty of the location means that to this day Tash Rabat still serves passing travellers. The temperature dropped sharply as the sun dropped behind the mountains and we were ushered into the main yurt where the family was making fresh bread and chai on a metal dung burning stove (there were no trees up here so dung is the main source of fuel for heat!) After a few long hard days of riding, the bread and chai went down very well and as we sat down to a hearty stew by the stove, we heard the unmistakeable sound of motorbikes. We emerged to see Carl and a very cold looking Bene riding towards us! They too had made it a day early, leaving us just two bikes shy of the full complement. We spent the rest of the evening catching up and warming up before heading to our yurts at the unearthly hour of 9.30pm!

We awoke to another beautiful morning, a relief after the threatening storms the day before (we didn’t want anything to delay the rest of our group’s arrival), and spent the morning carrying out much needed maintenance on the bikes. A discussion over the height of a nearby hill in the shadow of the mountain resulted in us deciding that the only way to prove whose guess was nearest was to climb it! Four of us set off with Carl’s satnav (this which would reveal the crucial data at the top) while Fabian elected to stay and do some washing in the stream (he has vertigo…) The hill, it turned out, was only 220m higher than our camp but the combination of heat, altitude, gradient and our low level of fitness meant that it took us a knackering, wheezing 45 minutes to climb. Having resolved the debate, Em and I decided to head back down to prepare lunch whilst Carl dragged Bene up to the next ridge (they seem to like pain!) We all enjoyed a hearty camp stove meal, using up the last of our vegetables, while we laid bets on the arrival times of the rest of the group. Em then decided that her hair was just too greasy (didn’t look it to me) and it simply had to be washed so towel, shampoo and cup in hand, we walked over to the mountain stream where, having found a suitable rock to kneel on, Em tried to dunk her head in the water. Her attempt, however, was pathetic and far short of actually having any part of her skull submerged (although I’ll happily admit, I wouldn’t have done it!) So I was ‘forced’ to assist by emptying cups of water onto her head and can confirm that the water was bloody freezing – the screams that followed echoed all down the valley!

At 3 o’clock Stefano arrived at the camp, far earlier than any of the sweepstake predictions, and confirmed that the final bike carrying Donato and Roberta was on its way. Having all experienced the ‘road’ to Tash Rabat, our hearts were with them as Donato was doing the trip on a Harley Davidson. Not exactly built for these kind of roads! Sure enough, it was several hours later when we heard the unmistakeable rumble of an approaching Harley and came out to greet an absolutely shattered, cold and jarred Donato and Roberta – the journey from Song Kol 150km away had taken them 10 hours!! We spent the evening chatting and marvelling at the fact that, having agreed to meet nine months earlier and despite each of us having had challenges and obstacles of overcome along the way, we’d all made it to our rendez-vous. As we headed back to our yurts, under a crystal clear sky full of stars, we were all excited at the prospect of a relatively straightforward (Chinese bureaucracy aside) ride across the border into China the following day…

Lake Issyk-Kol

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

(Emily) On Friday we rode from Bishkek to Karakol, on the far eastern tip of Lake Issyk Kol, the main tourist attraction in Kyrgyztsan, for visitors and nationals alike. At 400km, the journey was little further than we’d anticipated so there was a fair bit of numb bum action going on. It was a pleasant ride though, with the lake to our right and huge peaks to our left, passing through towns where people sat selling sheepskins and smoked fish by the road side, and riding open roads through apricot orchards. At one point we got caught in the middle of a herd of cattle being driven along the road to another crossing a couple of hundred metres up. I personally would have stopped and waited for the way to clear, but cars were ploughing through regardless beeping their horns, and the shepherds on their horses were happily waving us through. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the situation, especially as the herd was taking up the whole road and forcing motorists onto the gravelled edges… Things went pear-shaped when Mr Bull got a little frisky and started to mount the nearest cow. Daisy was none too keen and proceeded to career away from her amorous suitor – straight in my direction! A wobble and a swerve and I was off. Not cool! No harm done, but I think James would say I was not amused! (James: that would indeed be a fair statement!) Cow sex was not something I’d ever worried about before, but now it will be added to the list of potential hazards that run through my mind on a regular basis…

Karakol was a bit of a let down, we’d expected more as it was the main town on the lake. One of those places where you go up a road and think ‘This could lead to the centre… oh, this is the centre.’ The whole place seemed tired and dusty with nothing going on, though to be fair, I think the whole of the country is suffering from a lack of tourists after the recent troubles with Uzbekistan. However, we stayed in a cute little homestay recommended by Carl and Bene which had a beautiful alpine garden and the most delicious homemade apple jam. Not all bad! And, as we were there on a Sunday morning, it meant we could visit the animal market – quite an experience! The bus ride out there was amusing enough – 25 people stuffed into a min-bus but at 7 som each (about 10p) we weren’t complaining! The market itself was several open fields in which hundreds of shepherds were gathered with their sheep, goats, cows and horses looking for a buyer. The livestock had been transported there in any which way – truck, trailer, moped or car boot – and prospective buyers wondered around sizing up the goods. The amazing thing was that even with so many people and animals collected in one place, the atmosphere was incredibly calm. There was no shouting and touting, and the cattle were remarkably well behaved (I did think at one point that should it all kick off, we would pretty much get trampled to death…) The horses were a particular highlight (Sal and Meg, you’d have loved it); all amazingly healthy and magnificent, and no less impressive were the skills of the shepherd boys who manoeuvred them effortlessly around the marauding cows, sheep and goats. As we picked a path through the piles of dung on the way out, we were happy we’d got up early to make the trip.

We left Karakol and swung west to make our way back along the south side of the lake. We’d already decided we’d camp that night, so with no town or distance to aim for we adopted a leisurely pace; somewhat a luxury after all the chasing we’ve been doing in recent weeks. It was a beautiful, clear day providing great views of the snow capped mountains and producing a fantastic blue hue from the surface of the lake. This side of the lake was far less developed and the road passed much closer to the water’s edge; all along we could see families enjoying a day out at the beach. We crossed paths with Fabian a few times, and then bumped into Stefano and Marcella going the other way for a day trip from Bishkek (they were still ‘tied’ to the town, waiting for Chinese visas). At one point, a shepherd on his horse broke into a gallop and rode alongside James for a couple of kilometres, which he found very exhilarating (er, I tried to keep the hell out of the way!) It was a real highlight of the trip for James, and frustrating not to be able to capture the moment on camera – that’s where a helmet-cam would be a real bonus. By 5pm we were keeping an eye out for somewhere to camp – originally we had planned to pitch down by the lakeside, but then the road veered away from the water and into the hills and the scenery was so beautiful we couldn’t resist. Even I wasn’t to be deterred by the dirt road that had to be tackled in order to get to a good spot! One sandy track and a ride up the hillside later, and we were in the most stunning camping spot we’ve had yet.; in the shelter of rolling hills and looking across at jagged mountain peaks glowing in the setting sun. Perfecto!

On Monday we awoke to a grey haze which didn’t bode too well for our planned ride to Song Kol, a smaller, and much higher lake, that was said to be completely untouched and unspoilt, a few shepherds’ yurts being the only man-made structures to be seen. I knew already that the road was a ‘four wheel drive only’ jobbie so didn’t fancy it in bad weather. Carl and Bene had already headed that way and were going to give us updates by text (we have a local sim card at the moment) but it appeared that getting a signal was a bit of a challenge once away from the main towns. We pootled along the rest of the southern side of the lake and then just as we were coming to the western tip, the wind picked up. ‘Better stop and put our waterproof linings in, just in case,’ said James through the intercom. Wise decision! After months of riding in the heat, it was a quite a shock to actually feel cold. Looking at the map, it appeared that if we continued south towards Song Kol, there wasn’t another town for about 50km so, thinking we might soon be in some need of shelter, we went north for a few kilometres completing the loop of Issyk Kol and ending up back at Balykcy, the first town on the lake. Frustrating, but as we parked up under the shelter of a petrol station and the rain started coming down, we felt we’d made the right choice! Back where we’d come from seemed quite fair, but the hills ahead in the direction we wanted to go, well, they’d pretty much disappeared!

Finally in Bishkek!

Friday, August 20th, 2010

(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…

So long for now…

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

(James) Just a quick update to say that we’re heading off into the mountains in the morning and that we’re not entirely sure when we’re next going to have internet access as our route is going to take us down towards the Torugart Pass and China. We’ve been in Bishkek now for almost a week but haven’t really done much other than sleep, eat and give the bikes some much needed TLC! We have met some lovely people here, not least our team for the China crossing but we now want to get out and see some of the lovely scenery for which Kyrgyzstan is renowned (what do you mean you’ve never heard of it?!) For those of you that get the atlas out, the plan is to ride round Lake Issyk Kul and then perhaps squeeze in a day or so camping at Song Kul (3900m above sea level so we’re keeping our thermals near the top of our bags!) before meeting the group at a caravanserai called Tash Rabat next Thursday. That should put us in spitting distance of the Chinese border for the following morning. Assuming that we can update our blog in Kashgar (China) we’ll be able to say hello and put a Kyrgyzstan entry on. If not, you’ll have to wait for a few weeks or more as we’ll be heading into Pakistan…..

Ps. Happy Birthday Jackson for the 25th! Wammo!