The wind is still blowing when I get out of my tent in the middle of the night, a warm summer wind which seems strange when I think that the hill where I’ve found tonight’s camping spot is at over 3000 meters. I turn off the light and while I wait for my eyes to get used to the darkness of a moonless night I can hear the blades of grass trembling in the wind.
Tonight is the last night in Kyrgystan and when I think of the road ahead I realize that it will be a while until I will hear this sound again. One by one the mountains in the distance become visible and start to see the snowy peaks of the Pamir mountains, rising like a barrier above the high grasslands around Sary-Tash. And the stars!
There are moments in photography when the camera can reveal things which are normally hidden from the human eye, and night photography is clearly one of them. It’s also one of the moments when I clearly don’t regret carrying the 2 kilogram camera after me. Sure, these moments are few and far between, but somehow looking back the effort seems more than worthwhile.
Kyrgystan has been great. Somehow it has a really good mix of wild places, stunning scenery, adventurous roads and exotic people while being at the same time “civilised”. In Bishkek and in Osh you have access to most of the comforts of modern civilization, and most larger tows and villages are well supplied. But it’s easy to take a detour and to find yourself in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by mountains, with yurts littering the landscape and with incredible skies above.
I really enjoyed the two and a half weeks spent cycling from Bishkek, probably also because I wasn’t alone. I shared the road with Spaska, trying to help with her attempt of going from zero experience in bike touring straight to crossing Kyrgystan and the Pamirs, on a two hundred dollar chinese bike bought from Bishkek. Comparing with the endless preparation most of us go through before starting a new tour it really shows that in order to try a bike adventure you really don’t need really need too much. Just a plane ticket to Bishkek (and Pegasus has really cheap flights), 200 dollars for a bike and the will to do it. As simple as that. And even if I had my doubts the bike handled quite well the corrugated dirt roads of Kyrgystan, Spaska handled the bike and the kilometers went effortlessly. Effortlessly depending on the road quality and on the elevation.
Elevation, the bane of big numbers at the end of the day seems ever present in Kyrgystan. It doesn’t matter which road you follow, sooner or later you find your self climbing towards 3000 meter passes only to descend back down to yet another valley on the other side. Rinse and repeat. And if you combine this with washboard roads it’s needles to say that we didn’t manage to cycle to many kilometers per day. I would even dare to say that if you keep off the asphalt 60 to 70 kilometers per day is a fairly good average.
One area where Kyrgystan really shines is related to how easy it is to find stunning camping places. It seems that with just a bit of efort you can find camping places which seem to be taken from the cover of bike touring magazines, usually with all the comfort you could ask for: incredible view, grass all around, some water nearby and far from the road. And I have to admit that camping in two is way more enjoyable than camping alone, albeit with the sacrifice of the time usually spent reading each evening.
The road we followed took us very close to the huge Issyk Kul lake before going southwards towards the central mountains high mountain lake of Song Kul, perched at 3000 meters and sorrounded from all sides by mountains. The area around Song Kul is definitely in my opinion on the list of things worth seeing while in Kyrgystan, even if in mid-summer it can become a bit too touristy. But the panoramic view of the lake, with clouds rolling on what seems like an infinite scenery is definitely worth seeing. From here came a long decent to the Naryn river which we followed to Kazarman, with a lot of passes, followed by yeat another 3000 meter pass and a long descent towards Jalal-Abad and Osh. Unfortunately Spaska had to abandon the plans for the Pamir for this year as she had to return to Andorra but I’m pretty sure that bothshe and the bike would have made it until Dushanbe.
Regarding tourism I have to admit that things are slowly but surely changing in Kyrgystan and generally the attitude of the local people towards foreigners isn’t as natural as in the Pamirs. In order to encounter the same kind of hospitality you have to avoid the beaten track, which fortunately isn’t very difficult to do. And while the kyrgyz seem to be a bit less friendly and less helpful then their tadjik neighbors a basic level of Russian is more than welcome in order to keep the conversation going.
And now for some practical consideration regarding cycling in Kyrgystan:
1 Road quality.
The roads can range from impeccable asphalt roads recently repaired by chinese companies to really broken gravelly and muddy roads. But probably the washboard patters which form on these roads are the most tiring as you really can’t go to fast without breaking the bike in two.
This is a place where like in every country it really depends on your encounters but generally I would say that the kyrgyz people are generally more direct and less warm then their tadjik and uzbek neighbors. When you factor in the growing tourism in the past years there are quite a few moments when you feel more like a tourist and less like a traveler (the “hotel”-yurts around Song-Kul are a good example of this).
Simply stunning, especially in June when there still is snow in the mountains but everything is incredibly green. The effect is even more impressive if you arrive from the Pamir. Coming from the barren and lifeless high desert of the Pamirs Kyrgystan seems so alive. If you factor in all the horses and the herds of sheep it makes quite a view
4. Food and prices.
Food in Kyrgystan is pretty cheap and it seemed to us that even if you wanted it would be difficult to spent a lot of money while cycling through Kyrgystan. Once you leave the big cities and the main roads the shops are few and far between and you end up cooking a lot and buying only the basic food stuff which is really cheap. On the plus side though the bread is incredibly good (like anywhere in central Asia), the Vodka is only slighly more expensive than bottled water and it seems that you can find a wide assortment almost anywhere.
And finally a short clip also made by Spaska.