Kyrgyzstan (Part 1)

Osh is Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city and therefore has a number of modern conveniences that I’d been missing over the last few weeks. Several cyclists I’d met in the Pamirs joined me here and we made several trips to the Western cafes and restaurants in the city, enjoying pancakes for breakfast and pizza for dinner.

There were a number of chores I needed to get done, including repairing my handlebar bag and replacing the zip on my frame bag. After a few days I was ready to leave. Adam, Tom, Ross and Pax (with whom I’d cycled in Tajikistan) were going the same way so we decided to ride together. Ignace and David, with whom we’d been spending time in Osh, were going a different route and heading to Pakistan. After lunch at one of the Western cafes, we said goodbye to Ignace and David and made our way out of the city.

Left to right: me, Adam, Tom, Ross, Ignace, David

For the next couple of days we were riding along tarmac roads that, while not extremely busy, nonetheless had more traffic than we were used to after Tajikistan. The drivers were aggressive and irritating with their constant honking and close overtaking. At one point a police car pulled up alongside Tom, who was in the front at the time, then started steering sideways to try and force him off the road. The next day, a car drove so close to Pax that the wing mirror hit her hand on the handlebars.

With these drivers and uninspiring scenery these first couple of days didn’t make for particularly great cycling. The camping however was great fun. The five of us tended to stop fairly early and spend hours chatting, throwing a ball around or playing cards. The weather was hot and on the first night I opted not to set up my tent, simply using it as a groundsheet and placing my sleeping mat atop it and sleeping under the stairs. The others followed suit.

The next night we did the same but were woken up by a very small amount of rain. The rain was so light that I decided I would climb inside my tent but not set it up – using it as a bivvy bag, or a waterproof sleeping bag. This worked well and I started sleeping this way whenever we weren’t surrounded by mosquitoes.

The tarmac ended on our third day out of Osh. After beginning a climb we passed through a village. Past the village the road turned to gravel.

Adam and Tom having a quick nap before starting the climb

The gravel road climbed upwards as it followed the side of a river valley. Shortly after taking a break at a spring (which provided much needed relief from the heat) we caught up to another cyclist. Roberto, from Spain, has been cycling for about three years. After getting a stomach bug in India he flew home to recover and only resumed cycling a week or so ago. He joined us and we rode on to a lovely patch of grass next to a river. We were joined by an older Belgian couple making for a total of eight cyclists camping together. Ross built a campfire which we sat around chatting until it got dark, at which point we all went to sleep.

Thanks to Ross for this photo of Adam, Tom and me asleep in the morning!

The next morning the climb began in earnest. It was a slow start though as we met first a New Zealander and then two Polish cyclists. The first ten kilometres took me almost an hour and brought me to a small restaurant where I bought some bread. After a while the others caught up and we decided to stop for lunch. We were joined by a couple of Spanish backpackers which gave Roberto a chance to talk in his own language with Ross and I contributing occasionally. I’d missed speaking in Spanish!

We agreed to meet in another ten kilometres at a water spring. When I got there, I went to get out my tablet so that I could read while I waited. My tablet is stored in my frame bag… But it wasn’t there. There isn’t really anywhere else it would fit so I concluded I’d left it back at the restaurant. I took my bags off my bike and turned around to go back for it. Luckily, I’d only backtracked about 3km when I ran into Ross who told me that Roberto had picked it up. Phew!

We continued to meet cyclists throughout the day. We leapfrogged a German couple several times as we continued up toward the pass. Shortly before the summit I met a man called Gary who had a setup almost as lightweight as my own. We chatted for quite a while.

We reached the pass at an elevation of just under 3000 metres and stopped for a break just past the pass. ‘We’ was Adam, Tom, Ross and Pax; Roberto was nowhere to be seen. We waited for an hour or so before the others decided to continue on. I backtracked to the top of the pass but still couldn’t see him. I descended back the way we’d come and thankfully found him after only a kilometre or so. Having just restarted his tour he was struggling with the heat and the altitude. I told him we planned to camp at the base of the descent then rode back to meet the others. On the way I chatted briefly to another two cyclists, a Russian and a Canadian. I later realised the Canadian was Jeff Kruys, a highly experienced cycle tourist whose tour journal of the Americas was very useful while I was there.

I caught up to the others at the bottom of the descent. Good camping options were sparse; it seemed that yurts had taken all of the flat ground. When I reached them Adam was standing strangely. It turned out he’d tried to cross a river on a precariously balanced log. The log fell and so did Adam.

Just across the river was where they’d identified as a camping spot. The river was about 3 metres wide, knee deep and moving fairly fast. I was able to get my lightweight bike over fairly easily but the others were a different story. Tom’s almost got away until I helped it across.

After that we set up a human chain to get the remaining panniers across before turning to the bikes. We pushed one across, then carried Adam’s across to avoid submerging the bike. This worked well so we did the same for the last bike.

Ross had (for some reason) been carrying his panniers across the river in a different place, downstream of us. This worked out well as Paxton’s helmet came off her bike and floated away. Ross managed to catch it, but then we saw her hat floating away too. We shouted at Ross, who proudly showed us the helmet before noticing the hat and swiping for it, missing, and chasing it downstream. He couldn’t keep up with it so I ran along the rocks at the river’s edge before running into the water and getting the hat with a spectacular save. It had been a very exciting process of getting to today’s campsite, and one we knew we’d have to repeat tomorrow.

As we were getting ready in the morning Roberto caught up and waited for us by the road as we carried our bikes across.

A second, shallower river

We had a few climbs and descents to deal with that morning, mostly on sand and gravel. I stopped for a while to try and fix an issue I was having with my wheel, then continued on and caught up with Adam, Tom and Roberto in the next village where they were taking a break as Adam had fallen off his bike. He’d hurt his hip, after hurting the other one while falling the night before!

Ross and Pax rode ahead toward the town of Kazarman in the hope of finding a cafe where we could sit for a while and charge our electronics. Shortly before the town we were overjoyed to return to a wonderfully smooth descent. Adam overtook me going at what must have been around 60km/h on a descent, with both hands off the handlebars! It’s a wonder he’d only fallen twice in the last 24 hours.

Pax texted us the location of a cafe they’d found so we went there and hung out for a while before stocking up on supplies from the town’s various minimarkets. While we were there a guy came over to chat with us. He was young and friendly without being overbearing. After chatting for a while he went away and returned to gift us a bottle of coke and some snickers bars, before showing Adam and Tom the way to a pharmacy. It was nice to have had such a positive interaction which had this far been unfortunately lacking in Kyrgyzstan.

Another hour’s ride on the gravel road out of town bought us to a river where we camped on a nice sandy beach.

From the river the rode climbed steeply up to our next mountain pass. As we were about to begin, a bikepacker rode past. He shouted something like “haha suckers” as he passed us. Roberto recognised him and said he’d seen him in Tajikistan a year before, where he’d spent the whole time insulting people. Not a pleasent character by the sound of it.

We climbed for several hours before reaching a pass and descending into a short village, where we found Roberto. He’d got there a while ago having caught a lift with a passing truck. He directed us to the village shop (hidden away at the back of the village) so we headed over, bought a few things, and had lunch on a nearby patch of grass.

Roberto stayed here for a longer break; we didn’t see him again after that. The rest of us continued on, passing through a canyon and then a series of rolling hills. On some of these roads children came out and tried blocking the road to get us to stop. When we didn’t slow down they tended to move out of the way pretty quick! The children here in Kyrgyzstan also seemed to be somewhat more prone to begging than they had been in Tajikistan.

The next day began with yet another mountain pass!

Here comes Ross!
Here comes Pax!
Here comes Adam!
It’s me!

After this we continued on to the village of Zhany-Talap. We bought a few days worth of supplies; there were no shops marked on the map for the next few hundred kilometres.

The following day we began the climb up to Son-Kul lake. The climb began gradually as we cycled alongside a small river. There was green grass and shade-providing trees, making for pleasant riding. Where the road left the river, we stopped for a break, joining a pair of German bikepackers. I stayed behind to chat to them for a while as the others set off for the long, steep climb.

I caught up with Tom after just a couple of kilometres; he had a puncture. We spent a long time trying to repair it before giving up and trying one of my spare (but punctured) tubes instead. It wasn’t the right size but we got it to work eventually and set off together. As Tom’s pump wasn’t working I stayed with him just in case he had a puncture.

The mountainsides were covered in dense forests. It looked like something out of a Slovenian national park, rather different to the Kyrgyzstan we were used to.

I rode ahead of Tom for the last kilometre before we were scheduled to meet the others. This was of course where he got a puncture and so after a little while he showed up pushing his bike. After repairing it we all had a break then set off for the rest of the climb.

A couple more hours brought us to the pass, followed by a descent through grassy fields to reach the lake. There were lots of yurts around but we found a clear space to set up camp. This was to be one of the most exciting camping appearances of my trip.

After dark a man on horseback rode over to us. He was clearly drunk and at first it seemed he didn’t have much control over the horse as he kept moving too close towards us, and almost trampling me where I’d been lying on the ground (I stood up pronto!).

It soon became clear that he was being deliberately obnoxious. He started demanding vodka, of which we had none. Then he saw Pax and decided he would take her instead.

He raised his whip threateningly and gestured for her to get onto his horse. Obviously none of us were keen on the idea of this guy abducting Pax, so she moved behind the tent and we stood between the horse and her. The man tried to get the horse to trample the tent but thankfully it seemed less aggressive than its rider.

I had my torch on and he started acting more aggressively towards me to try and get me to turn it off – he obviously didn’t want to draw attention to what was happening here. When I refused he tried forcing the horse towards me to get it to kick me, which it thankfully did not.

We were at a bit of an impasse. If he’d been on foot he would have been no threat. On horseback however it was a different story – none of us wanted to act too aggressively and risk being kicked by the horse. We decided to walk towards toward a yurt figuring that he was less likely to be this aggressive around other people. He also wouldn’t be able to bring his horse inside.

Adam stayed to watch our things while the rest of us started walking. The rider kept trying to block out path with his horse, and we kept avoiding him. After a while we met some people walking the other way. They spoke to the horseman, and we quickly walked off. Once we were away from him we turned off our lights so that he couldn’t find us. After a while he galloped away, presumably home to his yurt.

We returned to Adam at our campsite. I decided I would set up my tent rather than sleeping on the ground for the night – if the man returned it seemed less likely his horse would trample me there than if I was just lying on the ground. We were a bit tense for a while after that, though thankfully he didn’t return. It had been quite an evening!

July 20: 36km

July 21: 84km

July 22: 51km

July 23: 54km

July 24: 60km

July 25: 50km

July 26: 66km

July 27: 50km

2 thoughts on “Kyrgyzstan (Part 1)

  1. Wow that experience on the last night seemed pretty intimidating… fortunately you were a group and able to escape the situation, could’ve been serious trouble if facing that incident there solo. Actually, something similar happened to James Hayden who has in the lead of the Silk Road Mountain Race in Kyrgyzstan in August this year: some men on horses tried to rob him when he was climbing up a mountain pass. He had to escape and backtrack and eventually lost his lead in the race. For sure there are rogues in every country but these experiences are
    not the most promising. (https://www.cyclist.co.uk/news/6913/silk-road-race-leader-victim-of-attempted-horseback-robbery)

    That aside, that region boasts some of the most awe-inspiring sceneries on the planet so would really love to be there one day! You have a very vibrant and immersive style of writing with neat bits of good humor here and there, makes me really enjoy reading your posts.

    Enjoy the ride!

    Alex

    Like

    1. Hi Alex! Thanks very much for your compliments.

      Yes, it was an unfortunate experience. A friend, Karl, was robbed in Kyrgyzstan – the night before that event, in fact. Some men showed up to his tent in the wee hours, demanding his phone and wallet. I’ve heard various other similar stories. Obviously these nefarious types are an almost imperceptibly tiny fraction of a population of six million, but one does seem to hear of more such events in Kyrgyzstan than in its neighbouring countries. I do still very much recommend it though – as you say, the scenery is fantastic!

      Like

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