Cycling on the roof of the world

In just a few months, I've gone from not being able to point to Kyrgyzstan on a map, to being completely in love with a place that is incredibly beautiful, inspiring and so full of warm and welcoming people. I've covered more than 500 miles by bike but travelled a whole lot further in my understanding of Central Asia, it's history, culture and people. And I've not just fallen in love with the country, but also with cycle touring. I'd wondered if I'd find it too slow, too dull, too much of a grind. But what an incredible way to really get under the skin of a place.  Despite the dusty potholed roads and freezing fingers, this was a new way to love riding a bike. 

I have so many stories - most of them about the people, kindness and humour we experienced - I could probably write for hours. Two pairs of gloves weren't always ideal for taking all the thousands of photos I wanted to take but I've shared some here. Lisa took a lot more, but then, she lives on a boat and doesn't really heat it so is way, way tougher than I am. During the day was generally above freezing... sometimes warm... but the nights and early mornings were cold, cold and colder. 

I tried to be sensitive and respectful about taking photos - not always easy when everything is new, funny and captivating. It was like being a kid again, where just everything is interesting. But I didn't want to stare too much. Fortunately, most people were quite simply delighted to get pictures taken and there was even one occasion where, sitting having a  wee rest at the top of a hill, some passers-by jumped out their car to ask if they could have their photos taken with the crazy cycling girls.


In most cases I think we were the oddities!


The thing that stands out most from our trip was just how friendly and welcoming people were. If I'd taken up all the invitations to have tea, dinner or accommodation for the night, we would still be there. Even on the very first day, whilst eating bread and jam outside of a shop, a woman invited us home to eat lunch with her family. This was a welcome opportunity for my feet to thaw out and to get a first taste of kyrgy cooking.  Throughout the trip, I was impressed at Lisa's ability to fake enthusiasm for eating meat. Not just any meat either. The kind that is still attached to bones and gristle and huge globules of fat. Not normally my favourite but somehow I got used to it.  We loved their bread, especially the nan-breads but also the slightly greasy and plentiful boorsok. We learnt not to put the bread upside down at the table and (possibly later in the trip than we should have done) how to signal that we'd had enough food, by making a gesture like washing your face.

Complete strangers gave us gifts. Chocolate and also some mysterious white balls. Inge (who had welcomed us to stay in Bishkek) had warned us about these. 

 
 
Dried yoghurt doesn't sound so bad but Lisa described these as more like super concentrated feta. One bite was enough.



These cheesy snacks came in handy as a gift for the man in the yurt next door that evening. He came to check out our tent and make sure we had enough blankets and water.  I think he was a bit suspicious of our thin-looking sleeping bags to keep us warm, compared with the elaborate and heavy blankets and carpets you'd have in a yurt.  After we'd assured him we were fine, he just sat companiably and quietly next to us, watching the sun sink low over Lake Issy Kul.


 

The inside of a traditional yurt...

in comparison to our somewhat more basic campsite...
 
Instant noodles in a ditch. Sometimes we outclassed ourselves.
 
 
I tried to listen hard and learn a few words of Russian each day, which really helped make the whole thing a better experience. Common question were 'where are you going?' 'where are you off to?' 'aren't you cold camping in that wee tent?' and 'where is your husband?'. Liberal use of phrase books and miming made for good conversation and a lot of laughter. We even learned a few words in the Kyrgyszy language. I think I may accidentally have given the impression at one point that I was married to the 50 year old piper on the postcard I was showing people. Not exactly what I meant but something got lost in translation and it seemed too difficult to correct. We gave people postcards as gifts. Sometimes sweets for the kids and money on one occasion. It's difficult to know whether money will offend someone who is showing you hospitality or whether in fact that's ok, normal and gratefully received.

People had heard of the Scottish independence debate. For a tiny country, we are well known. They wanted to know what kind of cows, sheep and horses we have in the UK. I showed a picture of a Highland cow and our host immediately said 'yak! 1000 American dollars.'

Animals are vitally important in Kyrgyzstan and April was a brilliant time to visit. So many beautiful new foals, lambs and tiny goat-kids. Wild, magnificent horses and fluffy-eared cows. At the animal market in Karakol, men posed proudly next to their livestock for photos and encouraged us to have a good squeeze of the impressively large backsides of their sheep. Apparently the fat sacks keep them warm in the winter.
 

Uzbek sheep are the Jennifer Lopez of these gigantic beasts. And (they say) make the best shashlik.



Too cute.

I looked on in fascinated horror as they squeezed two huge (and unwilling) sheep into the boot of a Lada. As well as six people into the car itself. There must be a joke about that.  Brightly coloured Ladas were a common sight around  the country.  The colour was appreciated and a welcome diversion on long days of cycling.  Drivers often waved or gave a friendly toot, with one driver even winding down the windows to shout 'welcome kyryzstan'.  At one point we were a bit concerned to see a van pull up just in front of us and two men in uniform get out. But it turned out they were from the postal service and just a bit bored, so stopped for a chat.  I guess two cycling girls were a bit of a novelty for them. What wasn't so much of a novelty for us was the smell of alcohol on the driver's breath. We came across that on more than one occasion. With vodka shots being sold in kwenchy-cup style containers at all shop counters for about 7p, this was unsurprising. If I heard tooting or something big coming up behind me I was always quick to get onto the hard shoulder. 

When we arrived in Bishkek, it was great to meet Ian and Inge and have them show us round for the first day, letting us build bikes, shop and sleep to recover from jet lag.  Then the adventure proper started on Monday morning with a trip to the map shop. Once fully kitted out, we headed South, to avoid the busy roads, All cities are a nightmare at rush hour on a Monday morning and I don't think Bishkek was any worse than most.  In general, I thought the drivers were pretty considerate and some even stopped on roundabouts etc. to give way to us. Nevertheless, I was glad when we started to leave the city behind and head up into the mountains. 

The onset of hail and snow didn't inspire confidence in the trip.

 

It was starting to feel all a bit Scottish and maybe like I'd made the wrong decision about clothing. Even with waterproofs, my legs were feeling cold.  Although spirits were high for this being the first day, by late afternoon, I was getting seriously cold. And then we had finished the climbing and were slowly rolling downhill on a bumpy road. Guaranteed not to make you feel any warmer, I was getting worried about my ability to be this cold for two weeks. Maybe it was all a bad idea.  I started thinking about how quickly I might be able to get a flight home. 

Lisa suggested we put up a tent but I wasn't sure I'd be able to make my fingers work to do that. And nowhere was looking inviting. I suggested we could try to find a homestay and Lisa (with good cause) looked sceptical that one would exist up here, in a fairly deserted and very much non-touristy area.  By that point, I'd have knocked on the devil's own door if I thought he'd give me a cup of tea and I convinced her to ask the next person we saw if there were any rooms nearby.  With a shrug of the shoulders (and I think a quick check with the wife) a farmer indicated that it would be fine for us to stay with them.  Within seconds I had my bike parked (it had actually turned into a glacier a few hours before, and all the gears stopped working) and my sleeping bag wrapped round me, whilst still shivering uncontrollably.  We were welcomed into a room where his wife was sitting at the stove making fresh bread. Seven bowls of tea later and I was starting to feel more like a human being.  And the bread and homemade jam... fit for a king. The moral of the story is that everything feels different after tea and jam and thoughts of flying home were banished. They invited friends round and we had a wonderful evening.  Despite the stinky long drop toilet, and a rat, I have never been so grateful for a night of accommodation.


The wonderful family who rescued us... and our abode for the night....


The early morning sunshine made everything much better.  Chipping ice off the bike the next morning, the sun started to come out and that first day turned out to be the only bad weather day of the trip. We encountered lots of strong headwinds but nothing we're not used to.  Over the next few days we headed to Balikshy and then along the north shore of Lake Issy kul arriving in Karakol on the Saturday lunchtime. We stayed in a homestay (like a B&B) in both Cholpon-Ata (a popular soviet beach resort), where we had a very ladylike breakfast and savoured a warm shower. 

On other nights, we found a spot hidden from the road to pitch our tent. In more populated areas, we asked permission and we were always made to feel welcome, sometimes even being invited in for tea or dinner (and assured that we could come sleep inside if our tent proved to cold at night). 




After a rest day in Karakol, we travelled back West along the South of the lake.  We were feeling stronger and capable of longer distances as time went on.  The first couple of hours n the morning were always tough.  Temperatures fell below zero at night and it seemed to take a while to make my body heat up and start to function properly.  Some mornings both tent and bikes were coated in ice.  
An early morning coffee stop.

A second breakfast at 10.30am became customary and my favourite day involved successful communication (through miming and sound-effects) that we'd like some fried eggs. Hunger is good sauce and I'm sure I'd have eaten fried cockroaches but something about eggs fresh from the chicken that day was pretty special.
One of the most memorable evenings started when we were trying to find a sheltered spot on a beach to pitch our tent. We had started to clear some ground behind an orchard, where we thought the wind might not be so bad. The owner of the orchard came out and invited us in for a cup of tea. She wasn’t taking no for an answer and soon we were having a five course dinner, waited on by all the family, meeting all the neighbours. We ended up sleeping in her house, under luxurious blankets. By the next morning, we were already like part of the family. Helping make bread and fry eggs for breakfast. Before we left, our pannier bags were packed full of borsook for the journey.  What a welcome.

My biggest fear before the trip was wild dogs. And, whilst we did have a lot of dogs run out to bark loudly at us, most were content just to see us off the premises.  Only on one day did I see an Alsatian out the corner of my eye and realise he was a bit more serious. No sooner had I clocked him than he'd launched himself out of the gate and across the road to latch onto my pannier rack. Rather that than my leg.  I kept on pedalling. He let go. I breathed a sigh of relief and he took another mouthful. I thought he was going to topple the bike and was torn between stopping and just pedalling like fury.  I was very, very, very relieved when he eventually gave up. Lisa said his owners had started calling him. I have to say I was too busy being scared and trying to work out where my first aid kit and the nearest hospital were to notice.

Any future dogs inspired an interval session.

Smiling kids raced us in the streets.  Whether on horseback, on bike or just hanging onto out panniers and running for as long as they had breath. One time a kid threw a stick and immediately had adults shouting and shaking fists at him. I think you could get a lot worse than that in Glasgow and cycling around for two weeks with no more dangerous or worrying incident than that is pretty good.

Kyrgyzstan's location on the  Silk Road caravan routes meant the food had elements from many countries and cultures. Indian samosas cooked in a Tandoor oven. Persian pilaff and Chinese noodles.  Lagman  (spicy Chinese style noodles with peppers and meat in broth) was a particular favourite, which Inge introduced us to in the first night and which we appeared to be able to get in veggie form (I suspect they just picked the meat out).  

Fresh baked samosas and nan breads at the roadside.
 
Some nights we ordered two dinners. At only £1 a dish, and with the hunger of cycling, it wasn't too difficult a decision. We learnt how to ask for something 'without meat' but took a while to realise that 'non-meat' didn't include chicken dishes or fish dishes. Like  in Scotland, deep fried foods are a staple. I never thought I would inhale deep fried cabbage pasties or huge hunks of fat as quickly or with as much relish as I did.  And entire loaves of bread at a time. Cycling makes you hungry.
 

Towards end of lake was when hills started.  After a night in Kochkor, we climbed steadily upwards for several hours until we reached a 3000m summit.  After the obligatory photos (which we had to take twice as we mistakenly thought we reached the summit about an hour prior to the real summit),  we were rewarded with fantastic views and then a freewheel downhill for 25km.

To give you an idea, we travelled around 90km on this day. It was one of our longest days and, whilst this was about 7.5hr of actual cycling, we were out for over 9hr. This is painfully slow in comparison to a 'normal bike ride' at home but the poor road surface, possibly the altitude and most of  all, the fact that bike, panniers, food and water combined to a weight that was more than three times that of my road bid, meant that slow progress was just the way it had to be.  Most days we covered between 60 and 100km. 
Very beautiful (see the yurt?) but very much not the summit. Still a long way to go.

Approaching the town of Naryn through a dramatic gap in the mountains was like something out of Indian Jones.

The final cycling day of our trip was when I truly felt like I was cycling on the roof of the world. With high mountains on all sides and frozen plains, I loved this day. Naryn is 15km long, with just one main street (called Lenin- complete with obligatory Lenin statue halfway along). This is where I spent the last couple of days of the trip, hanging out at American corner, chatting to students who were super keen to practice their English. Then it was a private taxi ride back to Bishkek (350km at a cost of all of £20), saying goodbye to Lisa on the way, who still has three weeks more of travelling. Then dinner with Ian and Inge back in Bishkek, bike packing and a 4am trip to the airport, the Russian hip hop blaring out of the radio only adding to the surreal feeling of the trip. We didn't see many other tourists the entire time and I felt really lucky to be treated so well, with such warmth, as we travelled across the country.  I've come back wanting to read more about this part of the world, the great game and the odd borders, boundaries and conflicts. I'd like to travel to some of the surrounding countries too, especially Tajikistan with the Pamir Highway.  And I definitely want to do more cycle touring. 

Boring factual stuff:
For anyone planning their own trip to Kyrgy, April was a fine time to go, even if the CBT office didn't think so. Buds were starting to flower on the fruit trees and it felt like the world was coming alive. Maybe it was a bit cold but it never got too bad.  I just had to wrap my feet in my down jacket and hat at night.  The CBT helped us find homestays in Karakol, Kochkor and Naryn.  There were lots of shops with water and bread and m&ms. I didn't get sick.  I didn't use my compass, first aid kit or bike spares. But wouldn't have been without them. I could have lived without my flip flops or a towel (this doesn't mean I didn't wash, just that they provided towels anytime we stayed in a homestay!). The kindle was a great idea (thank you Jo) for whiling away some hours in the tent, though we still ended up asleep by 8.30pm most nights, all the way through till 7am, when I'd try to get completely ready without getting out of the cosy sleeping bag. It was great and everything worked well for us, even the Russian airlines.

And now for some more photos....

 The Graveyards were like palaces, set against the stunning background of the mountains. 


 

 



 

Lots and lots and lots of clothes on.

 

 Naryn
 

 
 
 Is it a bird? Is it a bus stop? I have no idea actually, totally in the middle of nowhere, random crazy statue.
 

 

Crowded animal market - the place to be at 7am on a Sunday!


 

Chinese temple in Karakol

 





 

 

 

 We asked them to take our photo. They wanted their photo taken too!  Wherever you are lovely ladies, here is a beautiful photo and thank you.
 

 

 Gratuitous horse shots. Such beautiful animals.



 
Snow leopard statues outside of Naryn

The mosque in Naryn.


 

Comments

Laura Tyler said…
Thanks for sharing this Elizabeth. I loved the blog and the photos. It's not something I would ever think to do (I'm not very adventurous or fit!) but I loved reading about it. An amazing experience.

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