Lost for words in Kyrgyzstan

This is the route we took through the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Mad terrain!

This is the route we took through the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Mad terrain!

I’m a bit stuck on where to start describing the 8 days of cycling from Osh to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan. One thing is clear: I’ve just passed through the most stunning scenery of the trip by a country mile. Absolutely beautiful. No. That doesn’t cut it. There just aren’t words to describe the beauty of the mountains here.

James heading into the mountains. Those were small compared to what we'd  go over shortly

James heading into the mountains. Those were small compared to what we’d go over shortly

With that in mind, I’ll let the pictures do the talking and give a rundown of the week that had everything. If you wanted to sum up bicycle touring in a one week stint, this was it. We had every type of weather, every type of hill, broken bikes, broken stomachs, camping, cheap hotels, random acts of kindness from strangers, dodgy cops and everything in between.

No description required

No description required

We left Osh heading North towards Jalal Abad knowing that the roads ahead were home to some pretty intimidating hills and mountains. The Kyrgz drivers really set themselves apart from the other 19 countries I’ve visited as the ABSOLUTE worst. They do the whole beeping thing more than anyone else, but they use the horn to communicate everything, and they communicate a LOT. The other thing is their driving style is just plain dangerous. No, detrimental to the touring cyclist’s health. No, life. Feckin’ hell. They’re bad. The leaderboard for worst drivers so far is: 1 – Kyrgyzstan, 2 – Azerbaijan, 3 – Georgia.

I suspect this is a common occurrence in Kyrgyzstan. They are just awful drivers, and I suspect drunk much of the time.

I suspect this is a common occurrence in Kyrgyzstan. They are just awful drivers, and I suspect drunk much of the time.

Anyway, day one was non-eventful aside from a friendly shop keeper giving us a big block of sugar and some lemonade, rain, a beautiful rainbow and a poor camp spot beside the road. On day two we plodded on and once again got caught out by the rain. We spotted a hotel on the map and pulled up 5km short for the day, happy to dry out and were still on schedule. That day a car deliberately sped towards us and passed within inches, flying by at about 80kph. We saw him up ahead and he got out of his car and just glared at us. Weird. When we arrived in the town with the hotel another car did the same thing except skidded to a stop within inches of us again. We’re not sure why they were doing this. It certainly wasn’t friendly, and given what happened with the police in Osh, I’m sorry to say I wasn’t loving Kyrgyzstan. For the first time in five months, I felt unsafe.

The first of the many rain storms in Kyrgyzstan gave us a beautiful rainbow

The first of the many rain storms in Kyrgyzstan gave us a beautiful rainbow

Our first night camping wasn't in a great spot, very visible from the road, but we got out of the rain quickly.

Our first night camping wasn’t in a great spot, very visible from the road, but we got out of the rain quickly.

We met this Japanese guy on a recumbent bicycle. Tough going on the hills

We met this Japanese guy on a recumbent bicycle. Tough going on the hills

Soviet Schwag in Kyrgyzstan. We saw this near Kara Kol

Soviet Styling in Kyrgyzstan. We saw this near Kara Kol

The third day brought us within meters of the Uzbekistan border and the hills commenced. Thankfully the traffic thinned out giving our ears a much needed break from the relentless beeping, heinous overtaking, and ass clenching to prevent us sh*tting ourselves at every corner. As we entered the hills the scenery became simply breathtaking. The pace slowed dramatically as we took countless photos, finally having a reason to recommend Kyrgyzstan. Read this: The road from Osh to Bishkek is absolutely beautiful. Beautiful. The valley raised a problem for camping though as the road was covered in rocks that had fallen from the cliffs above, meaning a sleeping spot would need to be clear of anywhere we could be crushed by the falling boulders. Nothing came along and after 105km in the hills we settled on a spot on some gravel with no chance of putting the tents up. One of the benefits of having company means stealth camping is less essential, and we fell asleep under the stars, fairly visible from the road but had no problems. Except….the rain! It started bucketing down at 5am and we were out in the open in our sleeping bags! Balls! We simply pulled our tents over ourselves and slept for two more hours, then hit the road packing up the wet gear.

The beautiful turquoise Naryn river in Kyrgyzstan

The beautiful turquoise Naryn river in Kyrgyzstan

The beautiful road in Kyrgyzstan. Following the river through the valley was breathtaking.

The beautiful road in Kyrgyzstan. Following the river through the valley was breathtaking. You can just see James on the left to give you an idea of the scale of this place!

Naryn River, Kyrgyzstan. No  description required.

Naryn River, Kyrgyzstan. No description required.

The mountains were just stunning. Beautiful.

The mountains were just stunning. Beautiful.

Kara Kol Kids. The pose on the lad on the right is hilarious!

Kara Kol Kids. The pose on the lad on the right is hilarious!

Drying out the kit. We got soaked in one of the many many rain storms over the 8 days and had to dry our kit out in the sun. Luckily it was very very hot!

Drying out the kit. We got soaked in one of the many many rain storms over the 8 days and had to dry our kit out in the sun. Luckily it was very very hot!

The beautiful scenery continued on day four and we dried our stuff out in the afternoon sun. The hills were absolutely brutal and I had a serious sugar crash near the top of a reasonable climb of about 1200m. Good aul reliable Snickers Super sorted me out and we had an incredible descent hitting 72kph down to the reservoir at Toktogal. The hills were relentless and really tired us out. After 105km we were looking for a camp spot but there really wasn’t anywhere decent. We stopped and asked an old man could we camp behind his house and he insisted we slept in the small house. He was so nice! Such a lovely gent, living alone in a tiny house with his dog. We cooked pasta with tuna and gave him a plate as a thank you, which he devoured and approved of. Then we shared some vodka with him and everyone was content. We slept on the floor beside him and hit the road in the morning, saying a hearty thank you as a massive thunder storm kicked off at about 10pm the night before and we would have been undoubtedly soaked without his roof over our heads.

Just look at that view! Amazing! A great place to have a sugar crash and eat a snickers :)

Just look at that view! Amazing! A great place to have a sugar crash and eat a snickers 🙂

We descended to this beautiful mountain range near Toktogal

We descended to this beautiful mountain range near Toktogal

The rain was never far away!

The rain was never far away!

This lovely guy let us sleep in his house during a storm. What a gent

This lovely guy let us sleep in his house during a storm. What a gent

Despite no common language we shared dinner and vodka. A great experiene!

Despite no common language we shared dinner and vodka. A great experiene!

This is how you plug in the stove! He looked at me as though it was so obvious that you just "connect up the wires" (Then sparks fly!)

This is how you plug in the stove! He looked at me as though it was so obvious that you just “connect up the wires” (Then sparks fly!)

On day 5 we passed through Toktogal, and started the 67km climb up to 3200m. The climb sounds quite gradual, but the long grind wears you out so we decided to do the climb over two days, and it was a good decision as once again the heavens opened, leaving us soaked and fairly tired. We saw a hotel halfway up the climb and checked into a cold, damp twin room for $20 each! Bloody pricey, but it was either that or some cold wet camping. We celebrated with a beer and a massive dinner of pasta and tuna, watching a movie to kill time. Sadly, I fell victim to a light bout of food poisoning that night, but it didn’t last long thankfully. No idea what caused it as we’d eaten identical meals, drank bottled water and been very careful, but James was fine.

Cycling Chums. Our faces disguise the pain in our legs from the endless climbing. We climbed the equivalent of Mount Everest in a week.

Cycling Chums. Our faces disguise the pain in our legs from the endless climbing. We climbed the equivalent of Mount Everest in a week.

These old trailers are all along the road selling honey and fermented horse milk.

These old trailers are all along the road selling honey and fermented horse milk.

Day 6 saw us tackle the second half of the 3200m climb after repairing a broken spoke on James’ rear wheel. As we ground our way up the beautiful valley it got cold. Above 2700m it got really cold, and to add to the grind a snow storm started! Bloody miserable! We made it to the pass in the blizzard, took quick photos and a quick toast of vodka to celebrate James passing the 10000km mark on a 3200m pass, the highest either of us had been on bikes. The descent had us zipping down at 70kph in the blizzard with zero visibility. It was that type of cold that makes your bones hurt and at the first opportunity we burst into a Chaikhana demanding two pots of chai to heat our aching limbs and some food for our empty stomachs.

Broken Spoke! We had the wheel good as new in no time.

Broken Spoke! We had the wheel good as new in no time.

Near the 3200m pass. A blizzard set in and we froze our balls off.

Near the 3200m pass. A blizzard set in and we froze our balls off.

Miserable at 3175m but happy to down some vodka and get to a lower altitude and some heat!

Miserable at 3175m but happy to down some vodka and get to a lower altitude and some heat!

Good aul Stalin. Sure it wouldn't be a spin through a former Soviet country without some mention of the lad.

Good aul Stalin. Sure it wouldn’t be a spin through a former Soviet country without some mention of the lad.

The blizzard persisted and the lady running the Chaikhana told us there was a room we could sleep in for $10 each and despite only covering 55km for the day we decided to pack it in and sleep out yet another storm. We were at 2600m and the temperature threatened to dip overnight in that weather. This put us a half day behind schedule, but sometimes the weather dictates these things.

The flag is flown high everywhere in Kyrgyzstan. This was in the middle of a teeeenyyy tiny town of about 100 people where we found a random bed for the night. Mad!

The flag is flown high everywhere in Kyrgyzstan. This was in the middle of a teeeenyyy tiny town of about 100 people where we found a random bed for the night. Mad!

Day 7 saw us shooting across the valley between the two 3200m passes, cycling past Kyrgyzstan in its rawest form: Yurts, horses and nomadic people living in isolation from the “real” world. We drank fermented horse milk with a type of fried bread, with the latter being delicious and the former being not so.

This is rural Kyrgyzstan. Yurts. Horses. Nomadic people.

This is rural Kyrgyzstan. Yurts. Horses. Nomadic people.

Real yurts, real Kyrgyz. (Although I saw a solar panel outside one at one point!)

Real yurts, real Kyrgyz. (Although I saw a solar panel outside one at one point!)

Yurts Yurts Yurts

Yurts Yurts Yurts

After 50km we hit the bottom of the next pass, thankfully only 14km to the top. We ascended in good time and survived the “tunnel of doom” at the top (a 2.5km horrendously dangerous tunnel where exhaust fumes choke you and actually killed several people a few years ago when there was an accident and they died from carbon monoxide poisoning while waiting for the way to be cleared). Another descent at 70kph and we were finally clear of the mountains, heading towards civilisation again.

The view from the second 3200m pass. This was the descent side. Unreal!

The view from the second 3200m pass. This was the descent side. Unreal!

After 140km for the day we decided to go to a hotel marked on the map. We’d spent the past 5 days pretty much in isolation and after the police in Osh and the odd experiences with the people in Kochkor Ata, we both felt uneasy rolling into town. Our fears were quickly realised – as we walked to the door of the extremely old soviet era hotel there were three police sitting on a bench at the door smoking. Balls. We were again hassled for our passports but somehow managed to get away from them quickly without being asked for a bribe. They were intimidating, but I think when one of them spotted 141km on my speedo they actually respected us knowing the 3200m pass was just 60km away and let us be.

Lenin, lots of statues of this guy.

Lenin, lots of statues of this guy.

We checked into the hilariously old, dirty and dingy soviet hotel for the grand sum of $5 each for the night. Whilst James was getting the last of his gear from his bike there was a knock on the door and an absolutely p*ssed local barged into the room. I blocked him from getting near our stuff and gestured for him to leave. The smell of vodka off him was awful. After offloading him into the corridor and securing the door, wired but exhausted, we celebrated with a beer and got some sleep. We were finally within reach of Bishkek, and only a half day behind despite the storms!

Our boutique hotel in Kara Balta. $5 each!

Our boutique hotel in Kara Balta. $5 each!

On day 8 we hit the road early despite me getting yet another bout of traveller’s tummy. After 65km we rocked into Bishkek, doing the dance of death with traffic and again dodging the ever present police. In the guesthouse we found 6 other bicycles and within hours there were over 20 cyclists staying there! Everyone coming or going the same way James and I had just come, getting visas and repairing broken steeds.

Kyrgyz Kittens. These two cuties appeared from a tree while I was tending to the results of my latest bout of food poisoning. We gave them some muffins.

Kyrgyz Kittens. These two cuties appeared from a tree while I was tending to the results of my latest bout of food poisoning. We gave them some muffins.

The route was 670km over 7.5 days. Slow going by our normal standards, but then again, there was nothing normal about this route. I can safely say it was the most stunning stretch of road I’ve ever been on and extremely physically challenging. I’m sorry to say I haven’t warmed to the Kyrgyz people however. The police, the driving and the aggression towards us early in the route had us on edge most of the time, and that’s not enjoyable. Worse again was hearing that two cyclists had their bikes stolen while they camped two nights ago, not far from Bishkek (as I wrote this post the police called with news the bikes had been recovered, not all the cops are bent I guess). That’s really not what you want to hear. Of course we had the lovely experience with the old man who let us sleep in his house, and the guy who gave us sugar and lemonade, but overall I’m sorry to say I loved the scenery, not the people.

So here I am in Bishkek for a week getting visas. I’ve applied for my Kazakh visa to get me to the Chinese border, but we’ve hit a rather large problem regarding the Chinese visa….

The Chinese visa is notoriously difficult to get on the road. What’s more is the rules change frequently. I won’t go into the many rules and how they’ve changed, costing me an additional $30 on top of the $160 fee for the visa, but, and it’s a f*cking huge but…..

Chinese visas are limited to 30 days (you could get 90 days until December 2013). This is not a good thing for someone trying to cycle the width of the second largest country in the world. The visa can be extended though, giving you an additional 30 days, but the extension needs to be timed to start at the end of the first visa to make the most of it, so usually you get a 55 day visa effectively due to the application process.

I had originally planned for 80 days in China including a celebration in Beijing at the end, but now it’s looking like an absolute blitz across the deserts, try to make up a day or two for breaking down the bike and other logistics in Beijing and then catching a flight home. What a disaster! Talking to everyone in the guesthouse and checking the forums online it seems that there is no way to get a second extension except to get another visa requiring a flight to Hong Kong and a week there doing the same visa game. At that stage I’ll be too close to my deadline for getting home for Rhona’s wedding and it would be too costly to fly home for the wedding, get another visa, and fly back to finish the cycle.

So it looks like China is going to be a 55 day blaze of cycling through the deserts and trying to make up time. I said recently I’d cut down on the misery posts, but it looks like China is going to have plenty of saddle sores, sunburn and let’s face it, gastrointestinal related fun!

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8 Responses to Lost for words in Kyrgyzstan

  1. Irene says:

    Stephen, really enjoying following you. What courage you have. The last pictures were breath taking. Blessings Irene

  2. Philip Prendeville says:

    Really hope you make it to Beijing. Glad to read you met a cycling companion. Lucky escape with those police. The visa situation is pretty crappy here alright and there was a right shakedown of it last year which is unfortunate. However, it’s all about relationships here and the Chinese are pretty friendly and if they know of your reason for the trip you might just bump into the right person and get lucky. All that suffering you’re going through is admirable. Keep going.

  3. Michael Garvey says:

    Fair play to you, sounds like an amazing adventure. I was just looking at the map of your progress, and thinking, would it be an option to do part of the journey in Mongolia? That might solve your visa issues, though perhaps you’d spend too long in Mongolia getting the second Chinese visa, i don’t know.

  4. Jake D says:

    Cheers from over in the states!

  5. A. B. says:

    I just found your blog randomly, and wanted to say good luck, and your photos are beautiful!

  6. Joe says:

    Hi Stephen,
    I’m currently in Urumqi at the moment going the opposite way to yourself. I could only get a 30 day visa but have been able to extend it twice here quite comfortably, both times only taking one day. The first extension was in Songpan, Sichuan and the second was in Dunhuang, Gansu.
    Also if you’re coming through Xinjiang into Gansu on the 312/G30 you can get into a routine of camping at petrol stations and getting straight onto the highway in the morning. Just be ready for the wind between Urumqi-Turpan!

  7. Hey there :). Enjoying your blog. I envy you on your trip. I have in mind a similar trip for myself maybe next year. I live in Limerick but am originally from Dublin. Could I ask you something? I think I could make it to Beijing in 140 days and do it on €35 a day. Is that realistic? God speed on your travels.

  8. Stevo, Great blog as usual with stunning photos. But I’m glad you are getting out of there because it sounds like a cross between hairy and downright dangerous. Mind yourself – Dad xx.

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