……is this Central Asia’s Shangri-La?
10.07.2014 - 19.07.2014 33 °C
With no time pressures we left Fergana for the border crossing into Kyrgyzstan at around 9am for the 100km ride to the border. Once we arrived we were told to wait; 45 minutes in the blazing sun until the gate was opened and we could proceed to customs and immigration. All in all close to three hours to get out of Uzbekistan…..the officialdom is a negative here, and 15 minutes to get into Kyrgyzstan, go figure? The town of Osh, a major trading town on the Silk Road with an original market operating, is only 7km from the border. We were at our hotel in no time and into the beautifully kept swimming pool, and this is where we met the Czech boys………….four blokes from the Czech republic who are just about at the end of their trip and were returning from Tajikistan. These giant Czech’s, Martin, Jan, George & Pavel, all built like tanks, had been doing some hard core riding and were heading to Mongolia but were having so much fun they had run out of time! They are heading to Almaty and putting their bikes on the train back to the Czech Republic………….benefits of living on the European/Asian land mass?? It wasn’t long before we were sharing stories and shouting beers which eventually led to dinner, more beers and a great night.
The plan was to leave Osh at around 0800 and head up the M41 towards Bishkek over the next two days, a 720km ride. It is recorded to be a spectacular ride and Oscar and I were up and ready to go……however Alpha who had stayed up a little later with the Czech boys had also taken the opportunity to befriend a local; last reported to be giving English lessons well into the early hours of the morning. A text confirmed that he required a little more rest and were we happy to go at around 0930 …..of course we would! (the purple patch continues) ;-)
Kyrgyzstan is defined by its topography, soaring peaks and rugged ranges cover this small nation of 5.2million. 94% of the country is mountainous with the average elevation being 2750km with 40% over 3000m and three-quarters of that under permanent snow and glaciers. This road runs right through the best cross section of it all and I was positively excited about this ride!! The mountains divide the country between north and south both ethnically, climatically and to some extent religiously however Kyrgyzstan is the most liberal of all the Stans…..and you can feel it in the everyday life. 80 ethnic groups make up the population with the south being predominantly Kyrgyz and Uzbek and the north having a much stronger Russian influence, the original settlers purported to be nomadic tribes from Siberia looking to escape the marauding Mongolians. Hence the diversity in the population is amazing with some stunningly beautiful people in all walks of life.
We set off at 10am but it was not the easiest task to find the exit road that lead us onto the M41 however that could have also been a result of Alpha’s escapades the previous evening and not having his mind on the job…..he was leading for the day! We eventually got onto the road and again the temperature was hovering around 36deg but the topography was changing rapidly and I could see the mountains up ahead. The M41 is a sequence of superlatives taking you through the broad Fergana Valley up and through the deep Narryn river gorge, around the immense Toktogul reservoir, over two 3000 metre passes through the yawning Suusamyr Valley and then onto the capital of Bishkek. How would I describe the ride……………..awesome…….the landscapes really are as beautiful and as stunning as I had read. You can see experience all four seasons during the ride, a bit like a good day in Tasmania! We snaked along green mountains, sparkling reservoirs, red canyons, corn fields, wheat fields, cotton fields, green pasture land, high steppe plateau and shared the road with roaming goats, wild horses, flocks of sheep and mad-ass drivers. Due to our late departure we arrived at our destination of Torkent at around 7pm and it was still 33deg and not a happening town. Checking our plans we found that only 22km’s away there was some accommodation options, tired and worn out by the heat we rode on and aren’t we glad we did. Nestled at 1600m in a beautiful cool 22deg was the Ak Ilbirs (Snow Leopard) Hotel.} It was an oasis for us after all the heat and we sat down to a feed of fresh pan fried trout and a very early night!
The next morning the plan was to be ready by 0830……Alpha and I were still fast asleep at that time! Anyway we finally got on the road for the 255km ride to Bishkek but in the next three hours we only managed 95km as we continued to be overawed by the landscapes and encounters with the locals. Two memorable happenings; whilst stopping yet another time to gaze upon the view we heard a loud “Welcome to Kyrgyzstan”. We glanced across the road and a young shepherd and his wife were beckoning us over to take close-up photos of their horses. We were introduced to the extended family and got to experience one of the 5x/day milking of the mares. He continued to tell us about the benefits of mare’s milk and its place in their diet. I glanced around and said to the others “here comes the cup” and sure enough milk was squirted straight from the mare into the cup and offered to me; you can’t say no and it was great!! Next, some km’s further we stopped to top up with water and a people mover van turned up with some local Kyrg’s in traditional headwear who asked to have photos with us. In appreciation they beckoned us over to the van and pulled out a bottle of “white stuff”. After some protest saying we had tried mares milk we succumbed and took a huge swig of “kumis” the fermented variety of mare’s milk……..the photos tell the story!!
We pushed on to Bishkek and our accommodation which had been changed from the itinerary, a little annoying but it was clean and comfortable and there we met up with the group again. Compass dinner tonight was in a very nice restaurant but again as often with a group the food is great but the service is totally disorganised. A few of us went off to check out the nightlife but Sunday night is like Sunday night everywhere and whilst we had a good time it was pretty quiet. In fact Bishkek whilst quite modern in places it is not known for much else but is a good centre to explore many other facets of the country. We’ve got three nights here and everyone is looking forward to the break.
We left Bishkek for Karakol at the foothills of the mighty Tien Shen Mountains. Our ride took us around the southern edge of Lake Issyk-Kol a massive expanse of water with great riding and stunning views. The northern side is apparently less so but is home to many beaches, resorts and tourists from all parts of the Stans and Russia. Day two saw us piling into huge ex- Soviet 4WD truck for the 14km, 3 hour drive to Altyn Arashan Valley at 2500m and a view to the Chinese border. Very picturesque and we spent the afternoon walking in between rain and snow showers and hanging out in the hot mineral springs by the river…10 minutes in the steaming tub and then full immersion in the fast flowing glacial river for as long as you could bear it before seeking relief in the mineral bath again. Divine it was and as we wandered back to receive our dinner of soup and bread I knew I was going to sleep well that night. I was surprised by the reaction of many in the group to sleeping “massenlager” style, with many choosing to sleep in the tents?? They can have that as it was 4deg outside when I got up! Breakfast consisted of something that I have not encountered before; it was a type of barley porridge I think served with a pancake and pan fried cheese balls. It was unexpectedly good and in discussion with a Russian trekker I found that it is a favourite of Russians these days as it was difficult to get in Soviet times. After brekkie I was energised and having found doing regular exercise difficult I said to the group that I’m going to run back and just pick me up in the truck when you catch up…..bloody hell they were slow!! I ran from 2500m to 1900m and 13km before they came by!! They were taking bets that I wouldn’t reach the road but 1km short wasn’t a bad effort and I climbed into the truck to cheers and applause but best of all it felt good to blow the cobwebs out!! Back in Kara-kol I ran into the Czech boys who had just ridden through central Kyrgyzstan and were totally knackered by the experience. They were staying further up the road for a few days break and if it works out then we might see them again in Almaty.
First birthday of the trip today and we are catching up for drinks and cake before we head off back to Kazakhstan and Almaty. Wi-Fi is getting harder and unless I am lucky enough to find a decent connection it will be nearly a week before I can get online
So Kyrgyzstan has made our Central Asian ski trip list, the one Alpha and I are compiling, we’re not sure it will eventuate but the planning is fun and it would be a hell of a trip!