How Kyrgyzstan nearly broke us…

It wasn’t easy to decide which route to take through Kyrgyzstan. Whichever route we took we would first have to take the main highway north out of Osh, which weaves around the Uzbek border to Kyrgyzstan’s third major city, Jalal-abad. Our friends ahead of us told us that it looked busy and dangerous to cycle, it was very hot, and the landscape would be flat and uninteresting for the first 150km. However, after that is a stunning gorge followed by beautiful high mountain scenery, with some big climbs, but all on a good tarmac road.  A more adventurous option would be to take a gravel road north-east out of Jalal-abad and climb over several passes to the famous mountain lake, Son-kul, at 3000m. This road is only open in summer and is reported to be in very poor condition.. The area is popular with cattle herders who migrate to the lake shore in July and August and live there in temporary yurt camps. If we took this route we would finish at Issyk-kul, a big lake about 150km east of Bishkek, where we could hop on a train to avoid the worst of the heavy traffic heading to the capital.

Lured by remote, gravel roads and the thought of seeing traditional yurt-life, we finally decided to take the second option. However, we were limited by time as we had to reach Bishkek for our flight on the 10th August. This gave us about 8 days, allowing a day for sorting out kit and packing up the bikes – it was pretty tight. To give us a head start, and miss out the unpleasant first stretch of road we decided to do the unthinkable, and take a taxi to just outside Jalal-abad.

The taxi was an amusing (though at the time frustrating) experience. We thought we had explained when booking that it needed to be big enough for 4 people, 2 bikes and a tandem. An hour after our agreed departure time, a Ford Mondeo estate pulled up outside the guesthouse (and no, it didn’t have a roof rack!) Max prides himself on being able to pack almost anything into almost any car…but after an hour of attempting to fit the bikes inside we admitted defeat. All hopes of pedalling a decent distance out of Jalal-abad later that day were rapidly disappearing. The driver eventually called for another car, so we could split the load. We pointed to a place on the map where we wanted to be dropped, and he looked at us blankly (we’ve concluded that people don’t read maps in Central Asia, as this happens a lot) but we set off anyway. It was a nerve-wracking journey as two of our wheels were in the other car, and we weren’t 100% confident we would all end up in the same place..however, thankfully we did in the end. By this time it was nearly 3pm. Feeling hot and thoroughly exhausted, despite having not yet cycled anywhere, we assembled our bikes and ground out 30km uphill until we found somewhere to camp.  We vowed that would be the first and the last time we travelled by car with the bikes!

The next day we were faced with our first big hill.. the road rolled up and down for the first 30km, so we’d already done 400m of ascent before we got to the real base of the climb. Then it was a pretty continuous upward gradient all the way to the top. We were all feeling the cumulative effects of the previous month of hard riding. Paul and Johanna suggested a short day but we were concerned about time, given our flight deadline, and aware that there was a lot more climbing to come. Then they floated the idea of hitching to the top…and it was very tempting (for me at least)!! However, we resisted. We knew we would be finishing our tour in Bishkek, so this would be our final week of cycling. Max and I both felt we would regret missing out on riding this last section and we worried our motivation would disappear if we starting taking lifts. In the end, we carried on whilst the tandem pair had a ride to the top. There’s no doubt it was a tough day, with a total of 1700m of climbing on difficult roads. On the way down I had two flats which cost us a lot of time because our patches kept failing. After a split seam and a blown valve, we were now down to poor quality chinese replacements which are the only tubes available in Central Asia.  We were becoming more and more worried about running out of repairable tubes, given our worn tyres and the unforgiving terrain.

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One of many punctures!

When we met up with the tandem again, we heard that they had had a mechanical too..they were changing the back tyre when they discovered that their rear axle had snapped, and the wheel was somehow being held together with only the through bolt!! So by this time we were all feeling the creeping doubt – would our worn out bikes and our weary bodies hold out for another week??

The next day brought the prospect of another big climb. On the positive side, all tyres had remained inflated overnight and wheels were still attached! So we set off for more dusty gravel to Kazarman. The landscape was not very inspiring and the 4×4 drivers kept overtaking inconsiderately, pushing us into the deep gravel at the side of the track. The chain snapped on the tandem. Morale was not the best. We decided to investigate what Kazarman had to offer as it was nearly lunchtime. A good restaurant lunch of lagman and a pot of tea made everything seem a bit better. Paul and Johanna opted to stay in a hotel and rest but we decided to push on. We climbed steadily up another 900m onto a grassy plateau, and just as it was getting dark we found a campsite down a side track into a hay field. A quick dinner was required so we ate instant noodles in the tent, and both fell asleep before we had finished eating!

We were woken at 6am by two giggling boys on horseback driving their herd of cows directly through our campsite. Somehow we managed to escape with the bikes and tent intact and get across the message that this was not cool. Nonetheless, we were impressed with their riding skills..horses are so central to Kyrgyz culture it seems that as soon as a kid can walk they are learning to ride!

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Young Kyrgyz riders at Son-kul

Despite the morning’s excitement I was feeling really worn down, and there was another 1000m pass to climb. Unfortunately this one wouldn’t even get us to Son-kul, the biggest would be yet to come. We seemed to be making really slow progress and if I’m honest it had just become a challenge – I was no longer enjoying the scenery or the riding. I knew I hadn’t eaten enough the night before and my legs started to feel wobbly so we stopped for an early lunch. But I didn’t feel any better when we got going again. Why did I feel so weary? The Pamir highway was pretty punishing on the body. The altitude, the headwinds, the bad road coupled with not really getting enough calories..all these factors combined had really taken their toll. We had taken two days’ rest in Osh, but it was hot and we traipsed around the shops and the bazaar for supplies and looking for bike repairs. (Of course we also had to go out for a few beers with our German riding friends to celebrate having survived our Tajik adventure. Not that it was a big night, I can barely manage two beers these days, and we were in bed before 11pm!) Anyway, I guess we hadn’t really allowed ourselves enough recovery.

I had been fighting back tears all morning, but by our next stop the floodgates opened. (Just for the record – this had never happened before in six months of cycletouring!) I was really doubting whether I could continue at the pace we’d set ourselves, given we still had at least another 3000m of climbing ahead.  As luck would have it, we had stopped in a really nice spot. In fact, the scenery was changing and starting to get more interesting. It was a lovely shady area under some big trees next to a river, with a perfectly flat grassy patch that had until recently been home to a yurt. It was only 1pm, but given my total meltdown we agreed to stop for the night to get a good long rest and some decent food. We worked out we could just about afford the time and still make it to Issyk-kul. I set up the tent and had a sleep. Max cooked up a feast of spaghetti and we easily managed to finish an entire 500g packet! Then a touring bike appeared and we waved it over. And so we were joined at our campsite by another German, Rupert. (We don’t like to go anywhere without one these days!) Within 15 minutes of chatting we discovered he was a fellow climber, and was impressively well acquainted with all the classic British climbing venues. He’d even visited our own local crag, Almscliff, and accurately referred to it as ‘God’s own crag’ – it’s a funny old world!

The next morning we woke to heavy rain. But our spirits were buoyed up by a good rest and good company. Luckily the weather cleared and by mid-morning we were on our way up yet another big climb. This time though, we were rewarded by an incredible view from the top of the pass. We found ourselves looking down over sharp, sandy ridges flanked by slopes of grey and orange sandstone, and a wide valley where the rivers disappeared down into deep-cut ravines. We could see all the way down to Jangy-Talap, the village we were aiming for, and the looming hills beyond where the last big climb before Son-Kul was waiting for us. Seemingly endless sweeping switchbacks led down to the valley bottom in a fast and fun descent. We met a group of three Spanish cyclists making their way up, and stopped to for a brief chat. The touring community is very friendly – we’d never pass by without saying hello and sharing information about the road condition, campspots, water sources and most importantly…where to get a cold beer! These guys reassured us that the road to Son-Kul would be no worse than this one, but we did have some serious washboard to look forward to…uh oh!  We’d had a late start because of the rain, and the road to Jangy-Talap was unpleasantly loose and stony which made it slow going. But the evening sun behind us gave everything a lovely golden glow. And we found a great little shop in the village which sold bread and eggs and cold beer! We camped in a hayfield just out of town as the sun was setting. Although it was late, we made sure we cooked a proper meal this time, to power us back up to 3300m! In fact, in a wave of creative genius, Max invented a new camp meal of spaghetti and stir fried veg with peanut butter satay sauce! (Sounds bizarre, but when we’d lived off the same ingredients for months on end, anything different was a welcome change!)

The final pass was pretty much as we had feared. It went on, and on and on… 1500m of ascent in one fell swoop. For our first biscuit break we found a perfect flat grassy spot next to a bend in the river and I had a quick dip. It was freezing snowmelt, but still bliss when our last shower was in Osh, five days ago! The road climbed steeply at first through alpine forest, and then up grassy slopes via long switchbacks. I even started to enjoy the climb as I finally believed we might actually get there, after all the doubt!

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Beautiful Son-kul was worth all the effort. The pass brought us to the edge of a vast, grassy bowl with the huge deep blue lake at the centre. Clusters of yurts were dotted all around, smoke rising lazily from their chimneys in the still evening air. Horses galloped alongside us, their foals jumping and kicking excitedly. It was an amazing sight; they were as sleek and muscular as racehorses and free to roam over miles of open grassland.

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We arrived at a yurt camp just as they were serving dinner and within minutes we were guzzling hot, tasty soup and freshly baked bread. We had a cozy night under the iconic, yurt-roof centrepiece. It felt all the more authentic when, whilst packing my panier the next morning, out scurried a tiny mouse that had been busy making a nest in my sleeping bag!

The road around the far side of the lake and up to the final pass was tiresome, corrugated washboard. For anyone not acquainted with washboard, it is formed by the action of vehicle suspension on soft road surfaces like mud or gravel. So-named by cyclists because riding on this stuff literally feels like being bumped and grated down an old fashioned washboard! We’d experienced our fair share of this in Tajikistan and hoped we’d seen the last of it, but alas..we had 60km of the stuff to endure before we eventually reached the main road after a 2000m descent. One last, unexpected but thankfully short climb finally brought us to beautiful, smooth tarmac. After our last night in the tent we rolled an easy 100km all the way down to Issyk-kul for tea and medals, barely able to believe that this was the chequered flag; we had come to the end of our journey! This was our biggest climbing week of the whole trip, having climbed over 7,500m in 8 days.  It felt like a fitting finale after 12 countries, 112 days, and more than 9,500km of cycling. Phew!

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