Firstly, it had been so easy, too easy, especially with an unexpected but hugely appreciated visa-free entry into Kyrgyzstan, it didn't cost us a penny! But mainly, it was quite simply a surreal moment for us. Kyrgyzstan for goodness sakes, a country we had only ever talked about in the future tense and so far away that our conversation seemed merely fanciful and frivolous.
We had tumbled off the train at an indecent 0.400 hours, violently shivering as we stood in the crisp night air. Four days ago we were boarding the train in sweltering desert temperatures and now we were digging to the bottom of our panniers for winter clothing that hadn't yet seen the light of day, grateful to ourselves for lugging those extra kilos half way across the world! It was certainly a shock to the system, but also a welcome change.
We cycled 132 km's from the train station in Kazakhstan to Bishkek, the capital city of Kyrgyzstan.
The ride had been pleasant, watching the sun switch places with the moon, horses grazing in the fields and passing our first yurt. Other than the odd donkey and cart, the undulating road was traffic-free and peaceful. Kids chased us on their bicycles when we passed through the rural villages, whilst the older generation smiled warmly with more gold teeth than I have ever seen. Unfortunately, the spectacular Tien Shan mountain range that we had been looking forward to seeing was shrouded by poor visibility. The faint outline of the snow drenched peaks blended into the hazy skyline and could have easily been mistaken for bellowing clouds building in a threatening weather front.
The first went relatively smoothly, the second led to a rather bizarre experience at the Embassy of Tajikistan when the consular's assistant refused to speak any English to us, even though he had been speaking in English to all the foreign nationals that were in the queue ahead. Knowing that he could understand us perfectly well, we proceeded to ask him if it was possible to apply for the permit. And that is when the strangest thing followed.
The fully uniformed man crouched down on his haunches, his thick hands still holding onto the counter between us and he began rocking backwards and forwards whilst chanting "Ruski, Ruski" (Russian, Russian). It may sound as though the man may have been mentally ill, he wasn't, he was just being plain childish and ignorant. Eventually we got the information we needed by firing the questions and waiting for a nod or shake of the head. Basically, we were unable to acquire the permit in Bishkek and therefore, unable to enter the Pamir mountains without heading to Dushanbe in Tajikistan first.
To put you in the picture, Bishkek is nestled in the north of Kyrgyzstan, whilst the Pamir Mountain range stretches across the southern territory of Kyrgyzstan and neighbouring Tajikistan, with Afghanistan to the south. In-between, a bewildering range of mountains, peak and trough like a savage ocean, frothing white caps at the highest points, deep valleys hollowed out between and even glaciers form in the coldest parts . It is not impenetrable, in fact it's biking paradise, you just need time. Had we arrived during the warm summer months, it would be simple; tour Kyrgyzstan first, make our way to Osh near to the Uzbek and Tajik borders and meander our way down to Dushanbe (capital of Tajikistan) to prepare for our expedition across the Pamir's. Unfortunately, we were already out shopping for wooly socks and cheap fleeces, the air was cold and getting colder. Reports were floating around between other hikers and cyclists that were either preparing or recuperating from their own trek into the mountains, describing already ominous weather conditions in the high altitude regions and we had even heard of one guy trapped in his tent for 3 days whilst he sat out a heavy snow storm. We had only just hit autumn, but winter conditions were settling in.
The hostel where we were staying in Bishkek attracted many hikers, backpackers and adventurers trying to get off the beaten track in Kyrgyzstan. There were some fantastic stories to share and some epic journeys made. One guy we met, an American called Scot, had even bought himself a horse at the animal market in Kashgar, China, joined a 10 day organised horse-riding trek so that he could learn the basics of riding and left the group on the 5th day to trek by horseback through the Pamir Mountains on his own. Scot is a photographer and the objective of this expedition was to capture the lives of the nomadic people in these regions. Horses are emblematic of the culture in Kyrgyzstan and so making the journey on horseback was a pertinent way to connect with the people of the land. You should take a look at his stunning photography;
Scott is an American photographer, adventurer and blogger, attempting ambitious journeys to capture the spirit and soul of nomadic life in Central Asia.
His selection of images are simply stunning encapsulating the culture, environment, affability and resilience of the nomadic people.
Follow the endearing stories of Liliana and Daniel, you can't fail to love this pair! Their honest, humorous and descriptive portrayal of life on the road is a pleasure to read. We're super disappointed that we didn't get to ride with them, but we still feel as though they have been a huge part of journey so far.
Although Bishkek is much liked by most of the travellers catching some respite there, liked for the laid back atmosphere and under-stated city life, there are not really a great deal of sites to attract the average tourist. However, the Osh bizarre is sure to stimulate all your senses and I would be inclined to put this in the 'full on' category rather than the laid-back one. The market goes on forever and offers you so much choice that you end up not knowing what to look at, or what to buy! By far my favourite area of the market is the displays of herbs and spices, nuts and dried fruits. David often likens me to the Australian Bowerbird, drawn immediately towards the bright colours and interesting textures, so the market as a whole is right up my street. I also love cooking and nothing interests me more than checking out unusual foods, new flavours and the multitude of aromatic spices.
It wasn't so much Alex that grabbed our attention as much as his retro single-speed road bike! The fluro-green wheels flashed by us on the other side of the tree-lined avenue and Dave shouted out to flag him down. Our introduction started something like.. "cool bike mate!" Anyway, Dave and I got chatting to Alex, of whom recommended and showed us to a bike shop nearby and I badgered him with questions on where and what to eat in Bishkek and what to do and see. With an instant and enthusiastic recommendation of a popular local restaurant not far from where we were, we decided to invite him for lunch, which luckily he obliged.
The 'Faeeza' (I am guessing the English translation based on the Russian/ English alphabet available online) restaurant served traditional dishes from Kyrgyzstan, China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and was packed full of locals. Indeed, it was a sound recommendation and our first real flavour of the region. Alex was a great guy, born in Bishkek but with descendants from Russia, Germany, Ukraine and Greece, so lets say he doesn't look like your typical Kyrgyz bloke. At the end of lunch he suggested that he could ride with us out to some natural geysers and hot springs just south of the city. We exchanged contact and a few days later Dave and I rode with Alex into the Kyrgyz mountains. For 35km's the road ascended slowly, drifting away from the noise and hustle of the city and fading away into the silent, solitary mountains. And as the track began to diminish, this is where we would find the natural hot springs we had come to see. The uphill ride had kept us warm, but within moments of stopping, the chill had an aggressive bite. We really couldn't think of anything better at this moment than submerging ourselves in the natural hot baths. It was a shame about that, because after carrying our bikes down the steep stairs to the entrance of the baths, we were soon told that they were closed for the next two days for sanitising. We were gutted!
Alex felt really bad, but he wasn't to know and for us, this ride had been a good taster of what we had to come. The descent home obviously went pretty quickly other than to stop for photos of a few yurts and to back track over a particularly rough patch of road that I had smashed over to get away from a pack of farm dogs which definitely wanted to kill me. Dave will tell you that they were harmless, but i'm telling you that these dogs are not your average cute puppies, they're looking for a fight. I had to pull over to settle my heart beat down the road and thought I best check the camera as I had ploughed over some pretty rough terrain. Unfortunately, the lens cap was missing. I hadn't closed my bar bag properly and as I hit a particularly big bump, my camera did a full somersault. Luckily I had tamed the camera and nestled it back into it's place, but I had lost the lens cap in the process. It is really not that simple to replace such remedial things here and there was no way I could risk damaging the glass of our lens. Seen as Dave thought my reaction to the dogs was pathetic and over the top, I had no choice but to be the one to go back for it. I was nothing short of shitting myself.
Liliana, Danny, Mark Wallis and another awesome Dutch girl called Ilonka that we had met, all decided to come along to the baths too. As they needed to get the massages underway, they called David and I up first, whilst the others went off to the sauna, or Banya as it is known in Russian. The massage was bliss (except when the therapist prioritised the incoming phone calls over our 1 hour massage) and we were just chilling out with our follow-up pot of complimentary tea, when the two girls fell out of the changing room doors, flushed and in fits of laughter. They had just come from the baths and sauna.
The saunas were strictly single sex and so the guys had been sent to another building to indulge in their own sauna experience. The other strict rule is no clothes. From the changing room you enter a large room with women washing themselves and bathing their naked kids in tubs set upon some counters, the various saunas are then in separate rooms. Although I had checked this part out, from here on, I am merely recounting the experience that Lili and Ilonka went through! The Kyrgyz ladies call you in to the piping hot, steamy banya's and before you know it, your receiving an absolute thrashing by the lady who's armed with a specific type of brush known as a Birch Besom (a bunch of dried birch twigs with leaves that are moistened with very hot water before the torture begins). The thrashing is so intense that the ladies grab and pull you in every which way and by the sounds of it, Lili and Ilonka got to know one another pretty intimately after copping quite an eye full from room to room! Following the infliction, one then submerges themselves into an icy cold bath and the body should finally feel totally invigorated! On recounting what had happened inside the Banya, I was actually quite up for it, the problem was this damned pain in my back and the fact that at this stage I really didn't know what the problem was. Lily and Ilonka both agreed that the rough handling would probably not be the best idea, so this Russian bathing tradition would have to wait until next time.
The week flew by, our Chinese visas were issued, though not without a glitch (Mark Wallis's visa had been issued with a critical error on the entry and exit dates. It was soon resolved with a firm talking to the agent to sort her ** out and pay a visit to the embassy no later than 'right now' which seemed to work and Mark's visa was re-issued within the day). With visas now in hand, it was finally time to make our decision.
As much as we would have loved to spend some time riding with Dani and Lili, our whole motivation for the last few months had all been in honour of making the Pamir's in good time. It would require either a flight, bus or taxi to get to Dushanbe first, but the general consensus between fellow adventurers was that we had to make it happen!
The next day we organised for a taxi to collect us and bikes directly from the hostel and take us to Tajikistan..