Those who’ve been following my journey would know that I’ve been pestered by a recurring knee ligament injury, and it was this that stopped me from riding the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan. So Kyrgyzstan’s Osh to Bishkek highway was in many ways my mountainous compensation, and as a single road it soon became one of my most enjoyable stretches of the trip.
The Bishkek-Osh road is a sequence of diverse landscapes compressed into one stretch of tarmac. It takes the cyclist over two 3000m-plus mountain passes, through the yawning Suusamyr Valley, around the immense Toktogul Reservoir, and down the deep Naryn River gorge and into the broad Fergana Valley. It is also the only road artery connecting Kyrgyzstan, and even now it experiences the odd snowfall, avalanches and rock falls which split the country in two.
The road began in Osh, which has just about zero left of its Silk Road history, but whose chaotic bazaars had a certain charm which made it hard to leave. I spent much of my day there with two English teachers, who took me to lunch to try the famous kymys, or fermented horses’ milk. The tangy sour taste was too strong for my palate, but it really is the drink of choice here in Kyrgyzstan one that I adapted to with time…
On my first night one of the more peculiar experiences occurred while being hosted by a family in a village; the oldest son woke me in the early hours of the morning to have a good old grope of my penis! This would clearly be called sexual assault back home, but being in a country where wife kidnapping is still common practice, I wasn’t too sure how to react. Zipping my sleeping bag all the way up and dashing off before the obligatory chai in the morning seemed to do the trick!
Kyrgyzstan is a land with over 90% of mountainous terrain and with a culture very much connected to its nomadic lifestyle. The rolling grassy hillsides are just beautiful, especially when a gliding eagle spans its wings and fly’s overhead.
My most dangerous experience was being stung by a wasp when descending along Naryn River. Overnight the sting from my left cheek swelled across my neck, and by the next day my airway was threatened. After gulping a cocktail of drugs I spent a day sleeping in a park in Kara-Kol next to a medical centre, and shaving to apply insect cream…
I rode for two days with a Swedish cyclist called Daniel. It was brilliant to share the long climbs together, but Daniel is a much stronger rider than me and had to hit the miles to reach his flight in Bishkek. So after two days of riding beyond my ability my right knee ligament again became extremely painful. I had to walk the final hour to reach the next town for dinner, and was forced to have a day off in a very uninspiring township. The knee made all the ascents near impossible for a couple days, and I was incapable of riding up the steep ascents in Lake Toktogul. Luckily on one day I was able to hold on to a back of a truck to take me to an elevation of over 3km! To check out Daniel’s blog click here.
I crossed three mountain ranges, all of which have peaks of well over four kilometres above sea level. My favourite place was Suusamyr Valley, which is scattered with traditional Kyrgyz yurts and herds of horses. On one evening ascending from Ala-Bel Pass I took refuge in a family’s yurt, joining them for a dinner and plenty of drinks of kymys. I also spent much of the evening manually helping to ferment the horses’ milk! Despite being mid-June I woke to falling snow, making the community of yurts even more beautiful amongst the sloping mountains…
I had to pass through perhaps the most treacherous tunnel in the world; the Soviet-era tunnel on Too-Asuu Pass has had many casualties due to carbon monoxide poisoning, and on either side of its 2564 metres are security and medical teams waiting in anticipation of the next accident! I anxiously donned my balaclava, and coughing through the thick exhaust and whirling from side to side to avoid the deep potholes I made it out safely on the other side, enjoying my reward of a 50km descent.
This week I have stayed in the Kyrgyzstan capital of Bishkek for some R&R. During this time I’ve been able to process the Chinese and Kazakhstan visas, which is my last major bureaucratic hurdle before the more visa-friendly countries of Southeast Asia. Receiving the Chinese visa was a great relief, and by all accounts I’ll have a plethora of environmental and cultural challenges in a month’s time in Western China.
While in Bishkek I have been staying with Couchsurfing hosts, giving me a much needed social break off the bike. It’s always a fantastic experience to stay in locals homes instead of a lonely hotel room, and in one apartment I’m staying with long term travellers from around the world. Two of my hosts are also travelling with their bikes and sharing their journeys online; please take the time to check out Will’s and Laurens’ websites.
I was lucky to have a couple traveling Polish doctor’s stay at my hosts home, and I was quickly diagnosed with a parasite and prescribed a week of antibiotics. I hope the drugs will do the trick, although it meant no beer for a week.
Like myself, Laurens loves to ride bikes…
The architecture in Bishkek is really interesting. Historically it is very much a Russian city, and the communist architecture blocks are an aesthetic monstrosity which I’ve come to somehow appreciate. It is also interesting to see how this nation, created by the Soviets in the 1920’s, are now redefining themselves since the fall of communism. In the tiny city-center the statue of Lenin has been quietly relocated for the mythical figure of Manas.
To check out all my images of Kyrgyzstan follow this link!