Oh, Australia! Do you know Kylie?!
We knew we were already in the right place when we were asked by the border guards if we knew Kylie Minogue. Oscar, the youngest of the guards made us green tea and let us sit and relax at their chai seat – the polar opposite to the usual Central Asian border where guards walk around proudly with big guns. We relaxed for a while, playing with a tiny puppy, watching ‘people are amazing’ videos on Oscar’s phone (before realising that it was really late) and headed off on the buttery smooth road towards Bishkek.
The Kindness of the Kyrgyz
We turned into the tiny town of Shamaldy-Say looking for a place to get money out or exchanged as we had not a penny, not Kyrgyz som. Fairly immediately we met a girl who was studying English – she wanted to help but the banks were closed. She thought she might know someone who possibly could change our money and we were lead to a door.
Apparently knocking on this door was ‘meant’, because there definitely was no money exchange here. But, what there was, was Gulzat. Gulzat had perfect English and lives for most of her days in Italy with her husband (and family) where they’re both doing PhDs in anthropology. However, she’d just had a baby named Iluna (said ‘Eye-Luna’ and means moon in both Kyrgyz and Italian). She invited us in and instead of needing to worry about money or anything at all really, we had a comfy well-furnished room to sleep in (and a whole bungalow to ourselves!) a place to wash ourselves and our clothes and of course a new family! Her mother and father were glorious, caring for us like we were their own children. Us Alleykats felt so well looked after.
We were cooked vegetarian ‘dymdulma’ (garlic vegetable stew, one of the best foods of our world tour thus far) and eventually got that money changed via Gulzat’s mum, who knew a woman, who knew a woman who dealt with Uzbeks and would swap our money. We went exploring with our new technicoloured Kyrgyz som. The market was super cool – so big for such a small town. We stayed two nights and were sad to go the next day.
We rode on and up, the roads felt like well… roads beneath our tyres and wind was beneath our wings as opposed to the usual holes and stones beneath our wheels. We wild camped next to the big, glacial river running almost parallel with the main road. It was so hot and so the sensible thing to do was to strip off and jump in. We did. For thirty seconds! It was unbelievably cold, our extremities got so chilly that they were semi frozen when we hauled ourselves out and we could feel them thawing in the sun. Ouch! So cold but, oh so good!
Karaköl took a long time to unfold itself. A large Soviet sign, replete with emblematic fist and stars greeted us early. We paused for some drinking yoghurt (yoghurt was not a good choice!) before climbing 200m in our short, sharp switchbacks. We popped briefly into the town centre to use the Internet to contact Mountain Hardwear again about our broken tent, our bike shop friend about our broken wheel and other bits and pieces that needed doing over the ether of the interweb. The only English speaker in the town was fetched for us (who also happened to have won the equivalent of Kyrgyzstan’s Got Talent, singing like a professional) named Elnur. Soon we’d used one of the town’s only two modems and were invited (or kind of self invited) to stay with Elnur and his family. At home we were greeted by his father Abdyrahman, his mother Aynura and his utterly gorgeous little sister Elizabeth. Abdyrahman is a great reader of English literature and so of course named his daughter after Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice.
Two days and two nights went by unbelievably easily. We met Elnur’s crew one evening who sang and danced and enjoyed their time together greatly – we were out until 3am! They also took us over the hill to Lake Toktogul where we swam in the luke warm water and ate soft pillowy bread. We also visited the two lakes in Karaköl (one small and one big) to swim and to play table tennis. We were very bad and they, as with the youngens in Iran, were very good!
The Bottleneck Effect
We left late in the day, and on our second trip up the pass met another cyclist. First he was our rabbit – we chased him and Kat realised just how good it was to be thinking about chasing rather than riding! We introduced ourselves as we nipped past him, Simon from Germany. At the top of the pass we met his cycling buddy Peter who had the most alarmingly bright, light crystal blue eyes and was another gentle bike-loving soul. We four decided unofficially to ride together. After lunch with cats and babes we camped at heaven on Earth, the shores Lake Toktogul.
The next day we tackled the many seemingly unnecessary ups and downs of the road towrads the town of Toktogul where we stayed in a very clean hotel with only one shower. Unfortunately Simon’s video camera was stolen along with the last week’s worth of filming. Luckily he’d backed up the footage from the Pamir Highway earlier that week!
Out of Toktogul was a lot of up – 75 kilometres to the pass. We weren’t in any hurry and did want to adhere to Kat’s physio’s advice for 50kms at most in a day, so stopped half way up the pass. All of us four camped at a yurt with a family who has come from Bishkek and Toktogul to stay with their grandparents. This is a farily common pratice among Kyrgyz people during the two hottest summer months which coincide with the summer school holidays. There we met a young cowboy (horse wrangler) who shared some kumis (fermented horse milk, yuck!) with us and his life story and plans with Peter who is a good listener.
Next day we summited and rode down to the plains where we accidentally had a restaurant lunch with other bike tourers from Germany heading the opposite direction (including one horrid chap who grunted at the wait staff and made everyone feel very ashamed of him, and uncomfortable in their Germanic heritage). We rode on glad to be rid of them.
That night we wild camped behind a shop near some more cowboys and their families before the next day where we headed towards the next 3500 metre pass. Unlucky Kat had stomach knots and pain so jumped in a mashutka (little bus driven like it is a sports car which is most definitely isn’t and nor is the driver a race car driver!) with all the bags and zoomed up the top to wait an hour for Alex to arrive. We repacked and rode through an incredibly claustrophobic tunnel with unhealthily high levels of carbon monoxide inside and popped out the other end.
Eighty kilometres of down hill greeting us, smiling wanly all the way down with its switchbacks. We met two cyclists on their way up – a bloke wearing canvas sneakers from Estonia and fresh-faced Paul from England who was riding home from South Korea and unfortunately had already used up three quarters of his budget by Kyrgyzstan (which is definitely not quite half way!). He gave us lots of tips for Bishkek and recommended the Nomad’s Home guesthouse which funnily enough was our goal anyway.
We stopped with about forty kilometres to go at a restaurant and waited for Simon and Peter who weren’t more than an hour behind. Together we rode to the turn off, celebrated inside an enormous supermarket and bought cold yoghurt, cheese and lots of vegetables for the evening.
Our almost-there foursome camped at the end of a long bumpy road. On our way out in the morning we noticed what would be the first of many thousands of marijuana plants, literally growing as weeds at the side of the road (there was a donkey having a very chilled out breakfast too, another common sight).
We rode the sixty kilometres into Bishkek very fast, the towns flew by as though they too were in flight (we paused for breakfast and at another fruitful little supermarket) but made it in about two hours. Our first stop in Bishkek was the Hyatt Regency, where Simon and Peter had two and a half nights booked as a reward for their previous five weeks worth of efforts. What an excellent idea.
We were latched onto by Maximilian, a British ex-Pat who told us what was what and where was where and who was who – he spoke with authority although didn’t say much at all – a lot of pomp yes, but a lot of kindness at the same time.
We headed off to find the very unmarked, very unsigned Nomad’s Home and were greeted by no fewer than twenty five bicycles (probably more) owned by the thousands of bike tourers staying at the hostel. We were greeted by the tall beardy-at-the-time Pete of McNeils on Wheels who was very excited about our tandem riding and made us feel really rather welcome and part of something much bigger than ourselves.
We were introduced to some bike crew and had soon been adopted by most of the travelly-type people. Jori (a very blonde Dutch adventurer with gear weighing more than himself), Mauf and Lauf (two Dutch brothers of BirthdaySuit fame, whose names are actually Maurice and Laurence respectively and there’s a cute story that walks hand in hand with their permanent name change. They started their journey without anything (literally nude and fancy-free) and have been developing their charity for newborns worldwide as well as enjoying the world and all it has to offer. Kat was given an enormous eagle feather by Lauf in exchange for her peacock one that she sewed to his hat.
There were also Mattieu & Mathilde, two very French and very excitable bike tourers who’s joie de vivre was catching, Irish Pete, a doctor and intrepid explorer and gentleman of the first order, Italian Francesco who was enjoying no longer having to be vegetarian to save money, French Pol who was a total champion, quietly spoken and brave as brave can be (he continued cycling despite getting smashed into by a mashutka and buggering up his hand). There was actually an enormous cohort of French bike tourers including JP (whom we’d met in Trabzon many months before, click HERE to read about it) and his girlfriend Justine – they’d both been walking in the mountains with their donkey Bob Dylan who didn’t enjoy walking nearly as much as they! There were Anne and Benjamin and Guillame and about five other French folk. German Thomas, Slovenian Boris and Englishman Rob together seemed to have all the information about riding in every place in the world, despite never been to lots of the places they talked about. There were so many bike riders afloat that it is impossible to do them justice here – apologies to all concerned but not named!
Nomad’s Home was essentially a whole collection of travellers who could pitch their tent for $5 per night in the back garden of a Kyrgyz family’s home. What with the tents, the yurt and the free wifi we were astounded at our good fortune at being in the right place at the right time.
We did ignore the Nomad team for the first few nights in preference of spending the last few nights with our German riding buddies. We ate dinner with Peter and Simon those three nights: Italian (yay, red wine!) then Indian (yay, palak paneer!) and Western style (yay salad and wine and deliciousness!). The dinners slowly cost us more and more: $20 for just Alleykat the first night, $30 the second and $40 the third… all worth it for the company and the awesomeness of actual food; not-meaty-bits-in-broth food.
On the third and last day of Peter and Simon’s time in Bishkek, as it was again about 35 or 40 degrees, we broke the Hyatt laws and swam illegally in their pool until we were noticed and made to sign a sheet saying whether we were guests or blow-ins. We decided to rather obviously get the hell out of there and eat dinner together and drink alcohol instead.
Early on in our Bishkek stay, we were contacted by and met Norm, a fellow Aussie traveller of seventy nine years on this earth, who had just been in Afghanistan donating his time to students learning maths and English. He has a story and a half, lots of travelling, teaching and learning. He usually lives in Warragul, is neighbours with Tim Cope (cycle touring royalty) and is an all round good ‘occa’ bloke.
Back at Nomad’s our tent was well and truly dead (well before the Bishkek point actually!) and we spent a few day trying to sort this out – with varying success (we bought and returned a Salewa tent twice – for the story read HERE) and ended up being saved by Mountain Hardwear who agreed to send us a replacement tent to Nomad’s Home.
Not so much bike touring, but bike relaxing
While tent sorting-outing was happening, there were plans afoot to go leisure-cycle-touring around Lake Issyk-Kul, so upon receiving confirmation about our tent, we joined with the team and headed up to the western-most point of Lake Issyk-Kul, reaching the town called Balykchy on a train heavily laden with our five bikes and a lot of panniers. It was a grand rush on the morning we left – the 6:30am train we were told waits for no one and thus taking a wrong turn in the eleventh hour was a bad move meaning the crew did some serious bike lifting and rushed teamwork but we made it, evidently.
Balykchy was littered with small stands all selling fish herringboned, opened and splayed for our smelling displeasure all along the main street. We turned off towards the south shore after stocking up on the essentials (garlic, chocolate, a legit $1 bottle of vodka, four kilograms of apricots and other foodstuffs). A little way in we felt we’d probably already done enough cycling for the day as we were meant to be on holidays, damnit! We camped in a field in the shade of a massive tree, the only one for kilometres in the lumpy bumpy grass plains and pastures.
Time from here on in was well and truly taken gently and awesomely around the south side – we camped in dry river beds and watched hundreds of chalk-dust shooting stars draw lines on the blackboard-dark sky. We moved slowly along, gracing the beachfront with our presence (and getting shooed away by the thousands of ants attacking our every footstep). We headed up into the hills (where we were rained on with oceans instead of raindrops) and spent a few hours inside a kindly family’s home who allowed us to shelter from the storm and fed us endless milky chai (thank you, Lady Cow out the back) and freshly baked bread with homemade jam. We continued up the hills to Jilu Suu, a natural hot spring (recommended to us by Will and Selina) and luxuriated in the steaming hot water having a good wash in the small cordoned off section while everyone silently soaked away any last stress they may have been holding on to.
More free camping on the way down had us a couple of nights at a yurt village (negotiated as usual by the linguistically talented multilingual Matthieu) where a puppy was given to us – and we gave back – and we learned a little about the family and their clever studying-to-be-doctor daughters.
We camped with another family and were invited to stay ‘five nights! ten nights!’ before being asked for money the next morning and so the one night was as long as we stayed, missing out on the apricot festival to be held there three days later. Despite missing the festival with its promise of pies, jams, relishes and savouries, we six ate very well – chapatis, pancakes, vegetarian mince mash, creamy tomatoey pasta dishes, rice dishes and everything in between possible to cook on a camp stove (which, quite surprisingly, is a lot!)
We made it to Karakol, the larger town at the South East point of the lake where we said goodbye to Matthieu and Mathilde who needed to get back to Bishkek as their long awaited Chinese and Kazakh visas had been processed and were expecting their return. We and the McNeilsOnWheels stayed almost a week at Turkistan (a yurt camp in the same pop-your-own-tent camping vein as Nomad’s home) where Alice and Pete camped and we splashed out an extra $2 per night and stayed in a yurt. There was much more relaxing and talking and drinking of coffee and using of the Internet in Karakol Cafe and watching of movies at night with beers and chocolate and all the good things one is allowed to do on holidays. After five days with the cats and kittens of Turkistan Yurt Camp, the McNeils had also to return to Bishkek on impending visa reception (India this time) and we bid them ‘see you soons’.
Death on the roads does not a careful driver make
Alleykat donned their cycling hats and began the long ride back along the north coast – 120km the first day and 135km the next, more than doubling the distance of our efforts along the south coast in much less than a third of the time. Nice.
Our second day on the north side was marred by rainstorms and a mashutka crash (along with a horrible scene of people dying in the van with blood spattered around) but this did NOT stop people speeding, driving like maniacs and generally being idiots while driving in the rain. Unfortunately Issyk-Kul is known for its horrendous drivers, schweinehund who honk at cyclists, routinely attempt (and succeed at) hitting them and generally make us feel unwelcome. Far from our usual ‘one dickhead a day’ rule in most of Central Asia; there were hundreds in mere hours all the way around this lake. Unfortunate.
We were surprised when we were stopped and sheltered from the rain – pleasantly so when we were given chocolate by a Kyrgyz gentleman who was soon to be travelling New Zealand way and was very excited to help us and take our card. Soon, an English teacher from Songkul invited us to stay with her if we were up that way. There were lovelies among the crazies.
We reached the station in time for the train and decided not to ride into the strong headwinds buffeted by the blows of terrible drivers and jumped aboard.
The next few nights were sad as we had to say good bye a thousand times to our new friends who were now part of the fabric of our beautiful bike touring outfits.
We did make new friends though, in the form of climbers Max, Calum and Theo from the UK summiting-for-the-first-time (and thus claiming and naming) mountains in Tajikistan and touring around the world en route. Very cool and lovely fellows.
China says ‘No’
It was around this time that China decided to firmly close her doors to travellers trying to abscond over her borders. That put a massive stopper in the bottleneck that is Kyrgyzstan with people from all over the place realising quite suddenly that they were severely limited in the choice of where to go next by land. Kazakstan yes, but then where? Getting a Russian visa is about as difficult as performing surgery on yourself and heading backwards isn’t a great option either. There were a great number of passports being sent home from Bishkek during these few weeks – some successful and others disappointing. According to Aussies and New Zealanders attempting to do this, we gathered that we actually had to make the application in person. So, short of flying home to hand our visas to the Chinese Embassy to have them sent back to China (just around the corner from where we currently were), we decided to do the only real thing available to us: fly. We couldn’t get the Indian visas long enough to make it worth the flight so we listened as South Korea whistled to us seductively. We booked flights and that was that.
We decided to head out of Bishkek and into the mountains as we were going a bit stir crazy being in the hostel all the time. We rode up to Ala Archa National Park and wild camped for four nights. On our way riding up we heard a gentle huffing and puffing from behind us – a cyclist, and not only that, but a Kyrgyz man fluent in English, working in sociology and tourism, his name was Nurlan. He rode with us for a while, during his weekend constitutional and we had a good old chat about Kyrgyzstan and ourselves and of course, swapped emails.
In the park, with another thousand metres climbed, we met Petr from Czech Republic who was on his way to do some hiking. He’d climbed all around Central Asia and China and had some serious stories to share and some less serious ideas for discussion. We cooked together and shared the same stupendous view of the mountains, the night sky and the valley stretching out beside us in our secret river-crossed camp site. In the morning, Petr set out with just bread and chocolate in his massive hiking pack (only a slight exaggeration) and we had to head back across the rivers and back down the hill to Bishkek because of the entirely empty or otherwise closed shops at the mouth of the national park.
Friends to Stay
Back down we decided to stay out of the hostel and instead hooked up with our new friend Begimjan. We’d met her a week or so earlier when Alex needed to buy some jeans. Of course a highly educated, curious and friendly linguist polyglot sold us jeans, thanks Bishkek. We met at her family shop as they were closing up and headed out into Bishkek’s ever-expanding suburbs. One of her five brothers wanted to ride TanNayNay with Alex so we stripped her of panniers and watched them saddle up. The brother didn’t speak any English except for ‘stop’, but that didn’t force them into complacency or slothdom; no they hurtled off, weaving though the traffic, ahead of us in the people-mover for almost half way along our route. We picked up Begimjan’s best friend Diana (a half Kyrgyz, half Russian girl – this nationality is defined as Metuska). Dinner was a loud, large, lovely affair; dymdulma had been pre-ordered on our behalf and the spread that lay before us sixteen diners was deliciously unctuous.
We stayed two nights and spent one of the days with Diana at her cosmopolitan apartment with her cat, Ninoche. We slept soundly on the amazingly comfortable layers of colourful mattress and then moved on in the morning as there were many more family members coming to stay.
Remember Nurlan, the sociologist researcher who we met riding up to Ala Archa? He organised a house for us to stay at through a friend of a friend of a friend. We rode, bags fully loaded to the outer outskirts of Bishkek – through potholed streets, roadwork and avenues so new they were definitely not marked on our maps – until we reached the street we though we we meant to be on. We didn’t have a house number, just an approximation of its location so upon knocking on a random door, Alex wrangled the use of a phone to call our new hosts on. He gathered through lots of repetition (given then useless nature of using body and sign language on the phone) we were just a few houses away.
Bek came to the door carrying Atai, his grandson. Soon we’d met the whole family including the friend of a friend of a friend: Erlan, his wife Munara, his sister JoJo (who’s name is also Munara but the family use her nickname) and his father and mother. We were treated like family, like the royal family at times too! We were cooked for and provided with exceptionally comfortable beds and were allowed space and time and enjoyed ourselves immensely; yet again experiencing the kindness of strangers. In the few days (three nights) we spent with them, their English had improved tenfold just through practise, feeling more confident and they could talk with us easily. We left with the idea of returning a day or two before we needed to leave Bishkek.
Our third host was found via Nathan and Ange (a Canadian and a Bulgarian bike riding, world travelling couple) – their first couchsurfing host in Bishkek, Max. We rolled up and were warmly greeted. What we came ‘home’ to was the best Internet we’d experienced in months, a curvaceous Russian Blue cat called Simone von Pompadour (also known as Sima) and Max himself: chilled out, relaxed, generous and easy going. We continue our lucky streak with couchsurfing hosts!!
The new bike tourers – popping the cherry
It was suddenly, after what felt like a rather long wait, time to return to Nomad’s Home and await the arrival of our soon-to-be bike touring pals, Will and Selina. But before this event eventuated, we happened upon Kat and Steve who also ride a tandem! We spent some truly wonderful time chatting with them, and with other Nomad friends, new and old like Rich and Dave who we’d only heard rumours of through other friend’s magical meetings, who were just as excellent in person as they’d been described to us. We also cast words into the sky around us with Canadian Nick, the beautiful Prune (Dave’s girlfriend), Dutch Frederich and Italian Francesco. It was a comforting environment once again, a few days here would not go awry. We learned lots from fellow travellers Morgan and Chris who are writing about getting them selves into (and out of) trouble all around the globe by bike.
Despite expecting their arrival, it was still a happy shock to see Will and Selina. They fit in, as bike tourers have a knack of doing at Nomad’s Home. We stayed only a few days to acclimatise and we were off on the bikes, heading back up to Ala Archa National Park for their first bike touring experience. There were many a wheel spun, many a photo taken, many a tent pole snapped together, many a laugh had and many a dish cooked. We spent only four days together, surrounded by breathtaking mountain views, sky high and domineering of the landscape – but we kept our breath surely in our lungs by taking it slowly. Unfortunately, Alleykat had to get back to Bishkek to do some serious bike packing and get on out of there.
Fly away Korea
Our crew was waiting for us, the lovely (if sometimes stern) family who ran the show continued to donate their space and time to us without extra charge. Over twenty four hours TanNayNay was dismantled and secreted into a box much smaller than her sizeable arse. We tetris-ed our belongings into small amounts of space and shucked our disposable items – like a 700g bucket of chocolate spread and broken tent poles (they make excellent dog whacking sticks, as Will and Selina might find out!). Hugs all round and we were in a car – thirty kilometres was all it took and we were loading ourselves and our lives onto a trolley and wheeling through countless security gates.
All went smoothly, we’d pre-checked TanNayNay in (thanks to Morgan and Chris’s sound advice) and it was as easy as that to breeze through customs and check in. Now we simply had a four hour stop over in Almaty ahead of us and we’d be in South Korea well within twelve hours.
Or so we thought…
Make sure you catch our film about Kyrgyzstan!
[vimeo id=”74924632″ width=”600″ height=”350″]
Read all of our Central Asian Series!
⇒ Track 1: Western Turkey
⇒ Track 2: Turkey
⇒ Track 3: Black Sea Turkey
⇒ Track 4: Georgia
⇒ Track 5: Azerbaijan
⇒ Track 6: Caspian Iran
⇒ Track 7: Ancient Iran
⇒ Track 8: Iran’s Other Side
⇒ Track 9: Turkmenistan
⇒ Track 10: Uzbekistan
⇒ Track 11: Kyrgyzstan
⇒ Check out our European series HERE
⇒ Try out our Asian series HERE