Our Unlimited Cycling Dream: Kyrgyzstan Part 1

Definitely one of the most beautiful countries on this planet, Kyrgyzstan had a lot to offer for us. Enjoy our adventure through these amazing landscapes.

Rest days in Bishkek

Tuesday, May 24, 2016 – Tuesday, June 14, 2016

I didn’t get up to much until late in the afternoon, when my host Andrej offered to show me around to a few bike shops to get a new tire. Weaving through the mad traffic we visited both very expensive shops and very cheap ones, run out of shipping containers. All of them didn’t have decent touring tires, but a Kenda MTB tire for KGS500 (about EUR7) looked ok, a bit too low-end maybe.

Before buying it, I wanted to check out ATHouse – it was originally a warmshowers host, now turned into a guesthouse for cyclists. I read that they had some tires for sale as well and some second hand stuff. While Andrej had to head home, I went by myself and behold, they did have both, new Schwalbe tires and a large amount of second hand ones, which were free to take. Most of the second hand ones were badly worn of course, but I did see a fairly ok one. It even was a Schwalbe Marathon tire! I carefully inspected it for a long time, but couldn’t see anything wrong with it. To explain, Schwalbe tires are widely regarded as optimal for touring, being almost bulletproof to punctures, of course with a hefty price tag. I had no idea why someone abandoned such a valuable tire here that still had several thousand kilometers of life in it, but it made me a happy man.

ATHouse itself had several tourers staying there, all eventually headed south to the Pamir highway. I made friends with a friendly Bulgarian called Timo who me and Yuily might meet on the road later, as he would head to Tajikistan around the same time as we plan to. It is a very nice place and I can see myself staying there for a few nights in the future – I have a lot of time until Yuily flies in on June 10.

The rest of the days were spent pretty much doing nothing. I did manage to edit a few blog posts and videos, but that was not even 10% of my time spent idling. Which is ok. I wanted to set off to a short trip – The plan was to cross into Kazakhstan again some time and return across the border the day before Yuilys flight. Yay for visa free countries.

Unfortunately this plan came not to be. My host Andrej told me he noticed that my left eye was bloodshot ever since I got there and seemed to be getting worse. We bought some eye drops, but over the next few days it would only continue to be more red. A visit to a doctor revealed the cause to be a herpes virus – nasty enough on the skin, but in the eye it’s a really dangerous matter.

Different eye drops and anti-viral substances were prescribed and I was pretty much nailed to rest. Fortunately Andrej was very understanding, accompanied me for all this and let me stay much longer than expected.

Things seemed to be getting worse though. After a week my eye was watering like crazy, giving me a headache-type pain around it and completely red. Additionally, my eyesight started to get blurry and my pupils were different in size, the left one almost not at all reacting to light.

This sounds bad enough and the next visit to the doctor revealed an instant “Oh, shit” when he saw my eye. He was a bit puzzled as I seemed to have a much deeper bacterial infection now, but was very confident in defeating it. In fact, it was a highly motivated “Don’t worry, we’ll fix it” that was much more akin to a mechanic than to a doctor.

From now on I was given antibiotic shots, two in the arm and one into the eye, every day. I could notice the improvement after a few hours already as my eye stopped watering and the pain lessened. It gradually turned more white in a few days with each shot as the antibiotics seemed to annihilate the infection – finally.

All this downtime meant that it was now time for Yuily to arrive in Bishkek. I originally planned to pick her up by bike, but according to the doctor cycling wasn’t good for me yet, so I took the bus. Her flight didn’t go very smoothly, but thanks to the kindness of people that she got throughout Xinjiang, she managed to avoid excessive luggage fees as one of the airport staff offered to help her split it with his allowance. After a very longed for reunification we took the bus back to the city, which luckily took her boxed bike. We built the bike back up in the city and after seeing the doc again we bussed / biked to Andrejs place.

After two more days my eye was almost healed. The medical cost amounted to about EUR120, which will hopefully be covered by my insurance. If not, I probably couldn’t have gotten it cheaper.

We moved to ATHouse for the last two days in Bishkek. Here we met two other guests and had a nice, relaxing time. It was way too hot to do anything else anyway.

We also applied for Tajikistan visas, an easy process. All we needed to do was to fill out the application form, pay USD75 and pick up the passports with the visa in them the next day. The woman even let Yuily bring her photo the next day, which she forgot on the first.

With those visas in hand, we were ready to go!

Bishkek to Jany-Alysh

Wednesday, June 15, 2016 – 93 km

Getting up early worked and we were stuffed with breakfast and out by 7:30. The sun was already very intense though and gave us a sweaty run out of Bishkek.

We ran along flat roads with a bit of tailwind and not too much traffic, having some hills that belong to Kazakhstan in our view. A car dropped some hitchhikers in front of us and to our surprise we knew them: They also couchsurfed at Andrej’s place and were now hitching to Issyk-Kul. What a coincidence.

Towards the evening we looked for a camping spot. We took a chance by going to a side road, but unfortunately there were farms everywhere. We decided to risk being visible and pitched next to a farming track.

After napping on the grass for a little bit, a thunderstorm rolled in and had us pitch in a hurry. It continued pouring through the night, but behold, our EUR20 Decathlon tent did its job perfectly.

Jany-Alysh to Cafe on A365

Thursday, June 16, 2016 – 34 km

We planned to get up early to beat the heat, but thick rainclouds hanging around in the morning made this unnecessary. Yuily also had her sleepiest day ever, falling asleep after breakfast for two hours and continuously napping on her bike the whole day.

We managed to cycle into the Chu river gorge where heavier rain was raging. We sought shelter at a unused roadside cafe at 2 pm, which became spending the night as the rain just didn’t stop. The family that still lived there fed us (for a price) and happily let us crash on a mattress.

Cafe on A365 to Toru Aygyr

Friday, June 17, 2016 – 72 km

We got going early and it was blue skies – now we could really enjoy the scenery of this gorge. A new, modern roadside restaurant popped into view where we had a surprisingly cheap breakfast.

Pushing on, we rolled out of the gorge and noticed a pretty mean looking raincloud following us. We tried to outrun it and, thanks to a strong tailwind, managed to get into the town of Balykchy before it hit us.

We restocked in a supermarket here and set off on our cycle around Issyk-Kul. It looked fantastic, just like an ocean. Unfortunately the road was a bit far from the shore, so we were looking for opportunities to get closer. At 70 km a suitable road appeared, leading us to a small, secluded beach.

It was wonderful. It really felt like we reached an ocean. This spot was beautiful enough that we decided to camp right there, even though it was just 4 pm. This thought was reinforced by a raincloud approaching fast.

Toru Aygyr to Cholpon-Ata

Saturday, June 18, 2016 – 66 km

We had a good night in the tent and I went for a dip in the lake in the morning. It was cold and I came back out quickly. Just a few degrees warmer and it would have been very enjoyable.

Having a leisurely breakfast, we hit the road again at 10 am. It was mostly easy riding apart from a long construction site where the road was dirt with rubble trucks all over the place. It reminded me of China.

On one occasion a car stopped in front of us with a man from Luxembourg and his Kyrgyz guide offering us a drink. A bottle of ice tea was handed to Yuily; when she took a sip, she noticed it was petrol! The men were just as surprised as us and quickly offered a bottle of Pepsi instead. Funny situation.

Choplon-Ata is the tourist town on Issyk-Kul with lots of resort hotels by the lake. The men pointed us to one where we might get permission to camp, so we rolled down there. Just next to the resort was a public beach which looked good enough. It wasn’t busy at all so we pitched right there. It went alright with only two people asking curious questions.

Choplon-Ata to Ortu-Otorku

Sunday, June 19, 2016 – 79 km

Another perfect morning waking up on a great beach – this is the life. The water was indeed a few degrees warmer than the day before, so I went for a great, refreshing swim and made liberal use of the jumping platforms on a nearby pier. The water was so clear it was just wonderful. Yuily also managed to take a dip this time.

We got gamburgers in town, a delicious fusion of Kebab and hamburger, and set off. I contacted a warmshowers host 75 km away which was our goal. Just about perfect timing as our powerbanks were completely depleted.

We met another cycle tourist on the way coming from the other direction. A German in his 60s, he was just about to complete a loop around Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and gave us useful tips for the roads ahead.

It was slow progress and Yuily started to feel the 5 days of straight cycling as we inched our way forward. Eventually we made it there by 6:30 pm.

Kuban and his family invited us in to a very local house in their small village. Since it was Ramadan and them being religious, they invited us to the feast that follows after sunset. We couldn’t get a more authentic experience of Kyrgyz life.

Rest day in Ortu-Otorku

Monday, June 20, 2016

Yuily was a bit knackered from 5 days of cycling so we called for a rest day. Thankfully Kuban was fine with it. After a relaxing morning we cycled together to his farm and had a nice walk through his apple and pear trees and see his livestock.

In the evening we joined a bigger, communal Ramadan dinner in another village. This one had segregated seating, so me and Yuily sat in different parts, not being able to communicate to the other people on our tables properly. It was still good fun and delicious. Later the organizer of the dinner gave me a surprising, big hug. Kuban told me that he is a big investor around Issyk-Kul and that he likes me.

Ortu-Otorku to Karakol

Tuesday, June 21, 2016 – 81 km

After a good breakfast we were off. Our rested state made for quick progress in the first few hours. We saw another cyclist having lunch at the roadside. He was from Poland on a short trip to Kyrgyzstan, looping around Issyk-Kul. Two cyclists in two days – this country had us meet many more of our kind than in China!

We reached the eastern edge of the lake soon and closed in on Karakol. The weather seemed nice so we had a nap on the grass. As we got into the city however it was closed in by mean looking thunderstorm clouds. They hit with hail as soon as we were sightseeing in the local Dungan mosque. Good luck!

This mosque was unique because it was made and designed by ethnically Chinese Muslims, known in Chinese as Hui people, who fled China during prosecution in the 19th century. It has hints of Chinese architecture, but overall not too impressive.

After waiting out the rain and stocking up on food, we went out of town to camp. There were lots of good spots before Karakol, but now everything was farmland. After 5 km we were satisfied with a patch of trees next to a side road.

Karakol to Tamga

Wednesday, June 22, 2016 – 87 km

We rejoined the main road and its mad traffic. Soon after we saw two cyclists on the other side. A Dutch couple this time, also on a trip through Kyrgyzstan. This country has certainly attracted many cyclists by its visa-free policy!

Another road encounter later was with the host of our Ramadan dinner two nights before! He called Kuban to translate and invited us to another dinner in Tamga, a place where we considered to stay anyway. Just as we agreed, he drove off – I guessed we would find him there then.

When we made it there, we had no idea how to locate the dinner place. I tried to call Kuban, but his phone was dead. We showed pictures of the man to the locals, but no one knew him. After over 2 hours of waiting and trying, we decided to camp, but just then Kuban called and told us where to go. Relief!

It was a bit out of town and another big gathering. I was in luck as a man just sitting across me could speak English, easing communication. After the dinner the host and organizer who invited us talked to the other guests to find us a place to sleep. A young man offered a holiday apartment in town and drove us there. We thanked both of them a lot and were driven there to sleep. Great Kyrgyz hospitality.

Tamga to Bakanbayev

Thursday, June 23, 2016 – 60 km

Our host showed us to a bus we can take back to the dinner place where we left our bikes the night before. Said and done, after eating the dinner leftovers we were off again.

We were now on a part where the road closely follows the lake shore which was full of nice, deserted beaches. On one of them I just had to stop and go for a swim. It was great, warmer than on the north side and very clear.

As I finished we saw two other cyclists on the road. We waved and they noticed us and stopped, waiting for me to get dressed and go up to them. Petra and Matthias, also Germans, just came from the mountain road, a 3900 m pass which was wet and cold, and were now headed in our direction.

We let them go ahead as we recovered our bikes from the beach and repaired a puncture that Yuilys bike annoyingly picked up there. On the way we met yet more awesome people: A couple in a Unimog waved us over – they are driving it in a loop around Eurasia (yes!), to China, South East Asia and back via India. Amazing, although the paperwork for the car must be a nightmare.

We caught up with Petra and Matthias as they just finished a beer at a shop and cycled together for a bit. They were heading east, riding most of the way from Germany, but uncertain how to get visas for China now.

The road left the lake after just 10 more kilometers and the Germans wanted to camp there. We kept going though, as there was lots of daylight left and we feared that too much time idling here might come to bite us later in the form of an expiring visa for Yuily.

20 km further the road turned to construction and had us looking for a campspot. We found a nice place overlooking a river gorge. What a nice finish to an awesome day.

Bakanbayev to Kochkor

Friday, June 24, 2016 – 111 km

We had big ambitions, making our first century of Kyrgyzstan. There were logistical reasons: We couldn’t be sure if we could charge our electronics and restock food anywhere after Kochkor for a while, so we had to stay there for a night.

So we got up early and fortunately the roadworks were not long. After a climb we got to a superb roadside cafe where we almost got too lazy. Some further downhills brought us back to the lake for a final stretch where two Canadian cyclists stopped us for a chat and we went for a final photo at the beach. We will miss Issyk-Kul. It’s very pleasant and we constantly referred to it as “the ocean” because that’s definitely how it feels like.

We took a turn off the lakeshore and immediately the traffic died down to just a few cars per hour. It soon connected to a busier, but much smoother road coming from Bishkek, that had us zooming fast towards Kochkor, but not before meeting two more cyclists from France. We are very happy to see so many like-minded travelers.

We cycled to a hostel I found online and they let us camp for a cheap price while letting us use all facilities. We then found an awesome, cheap restaurant for dinner with a waitress fluent in English. Life is good.

Kochkor to Sary-Bulak

Saturday, June 25, 2016 – 31 km

We already decided to have half a rest day here, so the morning was spent relaxing with the Wi-Fi. In the afternoon we went to get supplies for the long run to Song-Kul, a huge high mountain lake on which there are no shops.

With that done, we got out of town by 4 pm, cycling along the smooth road through a river gorge for 30 km before making camp just before the village of Sary-Bulak.

Sary-Bulak to Wild Camp

Sunday, June 26, 2016 – 41 km

In the village we found a surprising amount of cafes and shops and stocked up some more. Soon after we reached the turn-off to Song-Kul. We knew this road was gravel all the way – together with the stretch after the lake to Jalal-Abad it would be the start of a week of riding on gravel. Fun?

Relentless up and downs had us grinding slowly along a river valley. We met more cyclists – four Frenchies on mountain bikes tackling rough trails of Kyrgyzstan for two weeks. Soon after I noticed a dog following us. I was thinking he belonged to one of the houses nearby, but after a few kilometers it seemed that he took a liking to us and didn’t leave us alone.

We reached a point where the road started doing switchbacks to the 3500 m pass. It was 4:30 already, and we decided to camp here and tackle the pass the next day – it would be bad to camp up there if we didn’t make it over in time.

A group of kids from a nearby house decided to have fun with us. It started out nicely with them enjoying photo taking and letting Yuily ride a donkey, but later became really annoying when they kept wrestling us, jumping through our tent and touching all of our bikes and gear. We tried multiple times to nicely tell them that it’s enough and we need to rest, but they weren’t having any of it. Finally, I resorted to screaming “NYET, STOP!” with a really angry face – which worked and they left.

They did return later, but were much more respectful this time. We shared some of our dinner with them and said good night.

Wild Camp to Song-Kul

Monday, June 27, 2016 – 43 km

The dog was sleeping close to our tent the whole time. It really seemed like she grew some loyalty to us. We headed off for the climb before the children could get up and slow us down again.

It was hard work on the gravel. The road lacked side ditches, so quite often rivers made deep trenches in the road which were bumpy to cross. Near the top another German greeted me from a shared taxi, cheering me up.

As soon as we were on the top, I saw a big raincloud heading towards us. Just as we put our waterproofs on, it began pouring as we headed downhill. The dog was constantly following us, all the way up and over the pass and now had trouble keeping up, but impressively came sprinting after us as fast as she could. It was slightly worrying as we were joking on her following us to Tajikistan, providing food and having her do 100 km days is not a good life for a dog – we hoped we could find some owner for her.

A boy on a horse soon came talking to me (Yuily was a bit ahead) and asked about the dog in sign language. I mentioned I don’t know where he is from, and he asked if he could take her. I said ok, a life as a shepherd dog would surely be better for her than following cyclists and their food scraps. He took her on a leash and we were invited one tent further for tea.

The boys sister could speak some English and explained some things about Kyrgyzstan to us. Due to further downpours we spent much longer in their yurts than anticipated and left a small token for the food and tea we were served.

Finally around 3 pm the rain subsided and we continued around the lake. We took the southeast route as the northwest one was reported to be really bad. On the way we saw an American cyclist coming the other way, who looked very much forward to asphalt after 5 days of gravel roads so far – looked like there was some misery ahead of us. We were constantly chased by thunderstorms and rainclouds and were hoping to camp at the very south, where the road is closest to the lake.

It didn’t happen and we had to camp around 10 km short of there. We rolled into the grass and pitched, hoping to admire the scenery in the morning as it was now all obstructed by rain.

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