(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…