Sary Tash (KG) – Irkeshtam (KG) / 10157 km / 4.95 Million Turns / August 21st – September 12th, 2019
It’s funny how your mind can make preconceptions about a country, based on nothing. We heard Kyrgyzstan is a great cycling country and were really looking forward to it. However, our minds had been mainly focused on Tajikistan and we had not done much research about Kyrgyzstan. After the high Pamir, we thought that A) the roads would get a lot better and B) much of the climbing would be over, it would be more rolling hills. How wrong we were about these two!
The border crossing between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan was an interesting one. On the Tajik side we had cycled for two days through barren mountains with nothing than marmots running every everywhere when we arrived at a few half-abandoned buildings that were about to collapse: broken windows, missing doors, and many roofs were anything but waterproof. We wondered how the men working here could hold up in winter! In a barely-lit room we quickly got our exit stamp and as we wanted to move on, we were suddenly stopped by a man in his jogging outfit and baseball cap. “Hello, this is the narcotic department”, and he pointed to a sign that has been fading over time, but we indeed read a sign stating this. We think he wants us to open the bags to check, but this guy goes for the simple straightforward method: “Do you carry any narcotics? No, we don’t”, we reply. “Ok, thank you, then you can proceed”. Best check ever! We quickly move on before he thinks of changing his mind and wants us to open our all our bags after all. After the Tajik side, there is 20 km of wild and beautiful no man’s land until you come across a tiny Kyrgyz building. Two smiling men in uniform put an entry stamp in our passports without much questioning and wish us a happy journey onwards.
After the beautiful but harsh cycling at high altitude in the Pamir, we could not wait to get to Osh. We had been talking about pizza for days, as the food in all of Tajikistan (especially after Khorogh) had been quite bland. Our route planning app Komoot also showed us that – apart from a few smaller passes – it would only be a downhill all the way to Osh and we were relishing on this fact of rolling down. Coming out of the border pass we indeed rolled for a few kilometers after the Kyrgyz border post, but were then caught in extreme headwinds, forcing us to pedal like madness while descending. It was almost a straight road to the first town of Sary Tash, about 15 km away from the border post, but it were some of the longest 15km of the trip. Fortunately, we could distract our minds with the change of scenery upon entering Kyrgyzstan. The first few days in a new country are always a lot of fun: your mind seems to be most alert on changes, new things, typical things for a country etc. And, although both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have high mountains, they are totally different from each other. Whereas Tajikistan was mostly barren and rocky and we sometimes felt it was not a placed meant for human beings to be in, the mountains on this side were grassy and green, fertile, with livestock everywhere. We had herds of horses in full gallop right next to us, yaks wondering around, sheep and yurts that filled the green surrounding with white dots. As we pedaled towards Sary Tash, we couldn’t stop looking back over our shoulders too, where we saw the impressive, white mountain range we had cycled through for the last few weeks. A sight that will remain in our memories for a long time!
In a few days we cycled towards Osh. The relaxed, rolling down didn’t happen unfortunately, as the headwinds continued. But maybe it made the sense of achievement even bigger as we entered the second largest city of Kyrgyzstan. Osh meant the end of the famous Pamir Highway. We were both glad we had made it, but also felt a bit like kids who don’t want to leave a playground because they are having so much fun. We had been dreaming about The Pamir Highway for so long, and now it was over. Now the dreaming had been replaced by experiences. It was definitely one of the highlights of our trip!
Normally we first find a place to sleep when we enter a city, but not this time. This time we went straight to the first restaurant that served pizza! And we had not only pizza, but also French fries and fruit juices. We weren’t even aware of our looks and smells anymore, too focused on getting our bellies filled with something else than plain lentils, potatoes, laghman and rice. The above already sums up most of our activities in Osh: the next few days were mainly focused on eating pizza (yes, every day for four days in a row), sleeping like babies, and hanging out with many other cyclists and overlanders that were staying in the famous TES hostel.
It wasn’t until we planned our onward route through Kyrgyzstan that we noticed how mountainous Kyrgyzstan actually was. We were facing many passes, meaning climbing around 1000 to 1500 m per day. Komoot also told us it would mostly be off-road. However, our legs felt strong after the high-altitude training of the Pamir and we couldn’t wait to explore some more of Kyrgyzstan. Our plan was to cycle towards Issyk Kul Lake and from there go back to Osh and Sary Tash with public transport. From Sary Tash we would cycle eastwards to the Chinese border.
We left Osh with our expectations again high, our batteries recharged and our bags full of food. The first week was hard and we must say, we didn’t really feel the love Kyrgyzstan those first few days. Traffic was horrible, we were driven off the road more than once, cars and trucks were overtaking us with minimum distance and the gravel roads were not what our minds had made of it at all: endless washboards and dust. The fact that these gravel roads were still busy with cars and trucks meant that we were covered in countless layers of dust. It was very hot as we were still on low altitude so the dust was mixed with layers of sweat and sunscreen. And the beautiful green valleys we had seen near Sary Tash were now replaced by brown fields. We had a few annoying encounters with drunk people. And the cycling was tough, climbing over a pass per day. Although the views were spectacular on the top of the passes and we had some of the best camping spots of the trip so far, all the above factors got us a bit in doubt whether other people and we were talking about the same Kyrgyzstan when saying it’s heaven on earth for cyclists.
This all quickly changed upon entering lake Son Kul. This time, after a long climb that took almost the entire day, we entered a beautiful open space, most traffic was gone, the green fields and yurts appeared again, and there were again countless numbers of livestock around us. We pitched our tent near the lake and took it easy the next day. Wind was an ever-present factor in Kyrgyzstan, and we used it as an excuse to have a lazy morning in the tent, watching the cows, sheep and horses graze their way pass our tent. Although the days before had been very hot, here, at 3000m altitude, it seemed winter was around the corner even though it was only beginning of September. If the sun was out, it was pleasant outside, but temperatures dropped quickly as soon as the sun had set and the wind was battering the open fields. We later learned that only a week after we were there, it was already time for the Kyrgyz people to move their yurts to lower and warmer grounds.
One of the great things about Kyrgyzstan is that with their nomadic culture, it’s totally accepted to pitch your tent anywhere. It gave us an immense feeling of freedom as we didn’t have to worry about finding a good camping spot. Most of the time we just pitched our tents in the middle of a field and within no time had horses walking around our tents sniffing curiously. Many times the shepherds would at some point come and say hello to us. Just wonderful!
Although the road quality didn’t get any better after Son Kul, the scenery did and so did the traffic. On the way towards Son Kul we met a French-Canadian couple, Fred & Lize, who were cycling the opposite direction. They had taken a different pass near Issykul Lake (where we were heading) than we had planned to do, Arabel Pass. After dropping a few sentences as: ‘one of the best places they had cycled through’, ‘totally deserted’, ‘4WD track instead of gravel’, ‘gigantic valleys’, ‘sights like in New Zealand’ we were convinced in no time and changed our route. It proved to be at least as good as they had pointed out. It’s hard to describe just how incredibly beautiful the valleys became. But the farther we cycled, the more remote it got, and it was just us and a few families in their yurts. As days passed, we saw more and more spots where there had been yurts but which had moved already due to the incoming cold. There were still enough herds of horses and yaks running around however. Apart from the shepherds it felt as if we were the only people here. It was just us down below in the valley on a 4WD track, a river in the centre of the valley and high mountains on either side. The track included many river crossings. These crossing were a lot of fun; we tried to cycle through most of them, taking a sprint before and hoping to just manage till the other side. At the end of most of these days our feet and socks were wet because we did not manage the above all the time and often got too audacious.
The last evening before the pass we pitched our tent a few hundred meters below the pass. The wind was blowing strongly. It was the day we had hit the 10.000 km (!) mark and it had started to snow lightly. We had finished almost all our food and so decided to cook a big portion of lentil curry so we could have breakfast with it too. It was our last day in this remote area, the day after we would reach Issyk Kul. The cold night had not only frozen our water, but also our breakfast, so we ate our way through chunks of frozen rice and lentils. Kyrgyzstan had saved the hardest part for last, Arabel pass was so steep and slippery that we only just managed to push our bikes up the last bit. After that it was only a 2 vertical km descent and we were back at civilization at Issyk Kul. We found a camp spot next to the lake and with a bottle of wine enjoyed one of the best sunsets of the trip. Again, a sense of achievement came over us. Kyrgyzstan, especially the second part of our loop, had made a deep impression on us and by now we certainly felt all the enthusiastic people who told us just how great cycling in Kyrgyzstan is were more than right.
The next morning was Tom’s birthday, and we celebrated with a little cake at the lake. We planned to hitch hike towards Bishkek and celebrate it a bit more there. Hitch hiking proved more of a challenge than we anticipated; we spent most of the day on the road and only just before dark did we arrive in a grey and rainy Bishkek. But in time for a lovely diner and some wines and nice cheeses (!). In Bishkek we also picked up a new outer tire for Sabine, given to us by the kind Edouard from Belgium whom we met in Tajikistan. The old one was at the point of tearing apart and posting a parcel to central Asia would take a lot of time. Edouard saved us big time here!
After a few shared taxi’s, we found ourselves back in the little town of Sary Tash, just over 3 weeks after we had entered the country. The mountain range we had looked back over on our shoulders back then, was now a lot more covered in snow. The fields had turned into a fine color of gold. The sunlight was beautiful. It was a perfect last cycling day to finish cycling in ‘heaven on Earth’ Kyrgyzstan. Exiting Kyrgyzstan also meant the end of cycling in Central Asia. We were about to enter China, a totally different story. More about that in our next blog!
Talk to you soon,
Tom & Sabine