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Kaptivating Kyrgyzstan

……is this Central Asia’s Shangri-La?

sunny 33 °C
View Road of Bones 2014 on ScottyJ's travel map.

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! 

Posted by ScottyJ 17:54 Archived in Kyrgyzstan Comments (0)

Alluring Almaty

…….the last taste of the Stans

sunny 40 °C
View Road of Bones 2014 on ScottyJ's travel map.

We left this morning for the 100km ride to the small border crossing at around 9am. It was a glorious morning, sunny, bright and more stunning scenery. The plan today was to camp at Charryn Canyon en-route to Almaty but hell, it’s Saturday night and Almaty was only 280kms away!! There is a lot more camping to be had so Alpha and I left the group at the border and headed to Almaty and a great decision it was!!

This city is so very different from everything else in the region, nestled up under stunning mountain scenery, cosmopolitan, with a European feel this is a world city! Alpha and I arrived at around 4pm located a Wi-Fi connection, hit booking.com and arrived at the hotel before the booking…………..and that is where we stayed for the next three days. Saturday night was a blast, meeting so many people from all over the world all dong a variety of different things and local people that are only too happy to show you their city……its been a long time since I was walking home with the sun coming up :-)

The group arrived the next day so later that afternoon we travelled around to check things out with all intention of hooking back up with the group but when I saw the accommodation Alpha and I just said f*** that and rebooked at out hotel, after all Almaty is the last town before Vladivostok where we can participate in some 5* camping :-) All in all Almaty was just an awesome experience and is now on the ski trip list!.....oh and yes we did run into the Czech boys again.

The bike was fixed, new steering head bearing, in Almaty and feels like a new machine. I am so happy with the way it is performing, so reliable, and so part of the movie that is this road trip!

Heading to Russia again, 2500km and 5 days camping…..that’ll test the mettle of some!! 

Posted by ScottyJ 09:35 Archived in Kazakhstan Comments (0)

Computer Glitch

......running repairs a success!!

sunny 28 °C
View Road of Bones 2014 on ScottyJ's travel map.

A mindless start to the day saw me drop my laptop :-( and a few things got bent....all straight now and should be posting again soon

Cheers from somewhere in Siberia!

Posted by ScottyJ 03:59 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

From Russia with Love….

…Krasnoyarsk, Saturday night & welcome to Siberia!

sunny 22 °C
View Road of Bones 2014 on ScottyJ's travel map.

I was tinged with sadness when leaving Almaty, the old travellers curse, “there’s too many goodbyes”. I had met so many great people and could have stayed longer but it is a group and there is an itinerary…..!! Bugger :-)

So now it is onto Russia and it is three days ride just to get to the border….Kazakhstan is a big country! We’re camping four nights and five days ride to get to the alpine town of Krasnoyarsk. Day one was a late start from Almaty again hitting 34deg and we powered on until we made camp on a slight rise with towering mountains behind us and a sunset in front of us that was quite superb. Back in the kitchen we turned out grilled steak, chicken, ratatouille and a side of pasta. It went down well with all………...or so they say. We were packed by 8am for a ride that was to be as far as we could go…….I was being a good bloke and couldn’t see Roomie do two days in the truck so gave him my bike for the day….wasn’t a bad break for me and him and Alpha powered ahead and came up with an idyllic campsite by a lake, baths all round, brilliant sunset, cold beer & chilli con carne all set the tone for a great night camping.

We woke the next morning to a slight chill in the air and a stiff and steady breeze which would stay with us the whole day. Crossing into Russia today and we’re hoping it is not like the last one! It was one of those days that started with Mick getting a flat tyre in the first hour which was quickly fixed but then we hit some of the most challenging road works……..30+ knots of wind, blindingly thick dust, the road works and oncoming traffic; it was a very wild 50k’s. We arrived at Semey ahead of the group so headed into the town and located a café for lunch. The rest of the group joined us there. Mick was agitated and we found out that the springs on the trailer had broken yet again. The whole trailer issue has become a real pain; it is clearly inadequate for the job it is to do, poor design and has been the source of many delays. Mick was stressing big time declaring that we would not make the border and would have to stay in the town that night……….yeah right! Alpha, Oscar, Echo and I decided we would push on, get into Russia and see the group at the latest in Krasnoyarsk. A quick repack and we were on our way. As we approached the border area the countryside was changing, a lot greener and more fertile and I wondered who drew up the border lines between Russia and Kazakhstan……….looks as if the Kazakh’s didn’t get the best deal however they are a warm and welcoming people……..but they do need to work on the sanitation systems in places!!

The border was 100kms away and we sailed through into Russia easily with a huge “Welcome to Russia” from the big smiling customs official, a big change from the last crossing. A short ride to the small decent sized town of Rubtsovsk………and with the help of a taxi driver we landed in at the small but friendly Hotel Kosmos just as the rain started to fall……………very basic but clean hotel that has Wi-Fi in the reception area. Whilst waiting for the others to join me to explore what we may find for dinner I noticed a continuous flurry of people coming and going, negotiating & exchanging money. The boys joined me for a beer and I mentioned that there was something different about this place…..it either doubled as a brothel or it was a sex hotel. (Common and well frequented in South America). They didn’t believe me until we queried our friendly receptionist who confirmed my thoughts with a quizzical expression on her face. Our friendly taxi driver had indeed taken us to the local sex hotel where you can rent a room by the hour or for the whole night. Simple menu, BYO or you can order in ;-). For the record we dined out that night and once my head hit the pillow I was oblivious to any further comings & goings!

Two more days to reach Krasnoyarsk…..we met at breakfast and poured over the map to work out our plan for the day. It occurred to us that there was actually no need to be camping as there were many towns en-route hence we decided to head to the town of Kemerovo, hit booking.com and we were set. NB: The camping thus far has been hit & miss and in many cases not necessarily required. It is a lot of hard work for all, tiring and the whole system needs a review. Many believed that the camping was out of necessity but in many instances this is not the case. It will be when we get to Mongolia and on the Road of Bones therefore me and a few others make our own decisions on the day whether we will camp or search out a local place. It is more fun, you meet more people and you travel quicker hence we are not meeting the group again until Krasnoyarsk.

The temperature dropped into the low 20’s today, what a relief :-) Russia is a vast country and the riding today was totally different from the last month and the ‘Stans”, much better roads, very different scenery and constantly changing landscapes. I am overawed by the level of intensive agriculture that exits; crops of all varieties stretch as far as the eye can see in places. We left early and made our way up the main highway towards Barnaul where we turned off to head through the back way to Kemerovo…a town I had never heard off but is home to over 500,000 people with mining and coal underpinning the economy of the area. We pulled up at our hotel and were pleasantly surprised by the welcome. Quickly checked in and we hadn’t even made our rooms before we met a group of Russian bikers heading to Mongolia. They were celebrating “Russian style” the birthday of one of the group and before we had even found the room we had glasses in our hand wishing Uri “Happy Birthday”…….two shots later we managed to get into the rooms!

Attached to the hotel was the excellent steak restaurant ‘Grill 42’. Tired and hungry we headed in for a feed and a couple of Cypriot reds. Now did I say tired…..well that was short lived as seated behind us was a table of eight stunning ladies and Max. Hearing us speaking English a couple of the girls decided to practise their English and started chatting. Now seems that Max is a very high profile hair stylist in Russia and these were his local staff and marketing team out celebrating the opening of a new salon. We were of course invited to join them for what was a great night of dancing and Karaoke.....but bloody horrible sparkling, yuk! We woke the next day and Oscar had been up all night vomiting so we delayed our departure for a couple of hours so that he could rest up and hopefully feel better for the ride……I’d be lying if I said the extra hours snoozing were not welcome!!

Geared up we left around 1130 for the 500+k’s to Krasnoyarsk. I like days like that, mid 20’s, good roads riding not necessarily super fast but constant. We made good time and arrived at the hotel just 15 minutes after the group. Looking forward to catching up we showered and went downstairs where they were all at the bar but the vibe was definitely subdued. They we all very tired, 4 nights 5 days & 2500kms says a lot about grabbing a hotel occasionally!! Alpha and I were the only ones that were up to heading out and exploring this town which has a reputation as a vibrant city. And what a city; after a short walk around we enjoyed an excellent meal in the “Munich Bar” with live music and attentive staff before heading to the club upstairs. Got chatting to a local Russian bloke who had just returned from the World Cup in Brazil and by the sounds of it he certainly had a great time. On departing he put his arm around my shoulder and said by the way “Welcome to Siberia”…….I hadn’t realised??! “Oh” he then said with a wave of an outstretched arm and “How do you like our women?”…………..Saratov you have competition!!

The next morning we were up for the two day, 1158km trip to Irkutsk……the mood had not improved much, this really should have been a rest day and not one person had ventured outside the hotel during the entire stay……now that is sad! Hell would freeze over before ScottyJ would ever do that!! 

Posted by ScottyJ 19:26 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

“I” time in Irkutsk

………and a Mongolian visa.

sunny 25 °C
View Road of Bones 2014 on ScottyJ's travel map.

Tonight is to be a camp stop before we arrive in Irkutsk and present at the Mongolian embassy to obtain our visas. The ride was excellent with kilometres of Siberian forest lining each side of the road and cool air laden with smells of the forest. There were many hawkers lining the road selling a variety of mushrooms that had been collected from the forest and I would have loved to taste some of those! As the day wore on the sky darkened and there was no doubt we were going to cop some rain….and we did. Heavy and cold but it actually felt good! Coming out the other side we were soon dry and back to enjoying the ride. Just as we were approaching the half way mark and looking for a camp site the clouds again rolled in but this time it was a monumental thunderstorm that just pelted down. We arrived at our fuel stop in the pouring rain and there before us was a motel…..It didn’t take Oscar and I long to decided that this is where we were going to stay. To camp in that weather would have been a total pain……..fortunately Mick could see the fruitlessness of the situation and decided that we should all stay at the motel and wasn’t everyone glad about that!

An early night saw us wake to what I imagined a Siberian morning scene to be……cool, damp and everything enveloped in a blanket of dense fog. We rode off into the abyss that was the fog with barely a 100m visibility. Up mountains and through valleys we wound our way through the forest until we broke out into a beautiful sunny day. Visually stunning. I could feel my preconceptions of what Siberia was changing rapidly. These are a proud people with a rich history and I am really enjoying this place. Oscar, Alpha and I powered ahead to arrive at the Hotel Irkutsk on the banks of the river that flows through the city and empties into Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest lake. We had two nights here and then it was stated that we had two nights camping at Lake Baikal. There was a distinct lack of information as to what the two days entailed other than a meal provided by a local farmer and a walk on day two. This is also the last maintenance stop so oil changes and tyre changes were the order of the rest day.

I readied for the ride the next day and had that gut-feel that this jaunt was just a “gap filler” until our visas were processed and I for one would have rather stayed in Irkutsk and explore this city and surrounding area. I wish I listened to that gut a little more!! For me that is all it was…..and after the rain, mud and “offs” by all on the way I left and rode back to Irkutsk and I am so glad that I did. I just don’t grasp why I should sit in the bush in a foreign country for two days with people I see daily (even though they are nice people) and miss out on the cultural exchange that is so much of what travelling is for me? I suppose each to their own. Group dynamics is an interesting phenomena and the herd mentality or tour bus culture is something that I can do without……….I guess that is the “lone ranger” in me :-)

I have had some excellent fish dishes in Irkutsk, grilled, pan fried and soups which has been a satisfying surprise. Along with aimless wanderings in the city marvelling at some of the beautiful architecture Irkutsk has been a wonderful stopover. I’m warned that as we head east tomorrow and onto Mongolia its all lamb which should not be such a bad thing for an Australian!!

Posted by ScottyJ 14:29 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

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