Vodka for Breakfast

2009/05/28: Beekeeper’s Camp 103 km
It was almost sad to leave Gulsiya and fellow guests after a four day stay in Bishkek. Gulsiya looked up a word in her electronic dictionary and showed me that she felt “habituated” to me. I think this meant she liked me, and I certainly liked her.

Leaving Bishkek (730 m), we were on the main drag to Tashkent for the morning – not lovely. In Kara-Balty, after a successful quest for a bank machine, we were led to a cafe by a helpful bus driver (we think) for meaty dumplings and salad. He really wanted to chat to us, despite no language in common. He was mainly bemoaning the local state of affairs (we think – there was a lot of guesswork) and made it quite clear he thought the current group in power were fascistas. Gulsiya had told us there’ll be an election in July, and she feels it’s time for the current president to be turfed, too.

We turned towards Sosnovka, and kept climbing into the evening, to take advantage of the cooler hours and to knock a bit off the next day’s climb, which we knew would be the biggest we’d ever done. Darkness approached as we rode up the Kara-Balty River gorge. I asked a beekeeper if we could camp in the steep side gorge behind his trailer and hives. The old man not only agreed, but showed us to the perfect spot beside the plunging stream. To get there, we took our bags off and scrambled up the rocky path. When we returned for our bikes, the beekeeper helped us lift our bikes into his trailer, rather than manoeuvre them up the rocky trail too. He seemed genuinely pleased to be able to help us, and we slept well that night feeling that we were under his protective wing. For the most part, we have stealthily disappeared into the landscape to camp as night falls, but being near a welcoming local is probably a better option.

2009/05/29: Suusmayr Valley Camp 59 km (Tuz-Ashu Pass 3,586 m)
When we reappeared at his trailer in the morning, we were invited for chai. The old man, who introduced himself as Vasyli, set out a small table with bread and tomatoes was well as tea. When he found out that we spoke Anglesky, he disappeared into his trailer and reverently brought out a weathered hardback copy of what we think is a Russian translation of a book by Robert Louis Stephenson, likely The Black Arrow.

We climbed 1,800 m in the next 37 km to the tunnel that is the road summit just below Tuz-Ashu Pass (3,586 m). It was hot and steep, and we took breaks. The actual pedalling time was over 5 hours. At the top, the tunnel engineers invited us into their control room to get out of the wind as we munched. This gave us a preview of the tunnel on TV screens. We decked ourselves with blinking lights and rode through: 2.5 km, poor road surface, bad lighting, and eerily whining ventilation. It was a relief to emerge on the other side.

Part way down the descent to the Suusamayr Valley, we stopped to take photos and were generously invited to a picnic. We were plied with hunks of lamb, bread, tomato, cucumber, onions and – of course – vodka. There were many toasts to Kyrgyzstan and to Canada. Our hosts inisiting on giving us food for the road as we left, too.

We always worry about accepting the gracious hospitality we are often offered in countries where many still struggle for basics. There was a feeling of ease in this group that assuaged our fears, and when we learned that one of our hosts was a doctor and the other a veterinarian, we relaxed. Often it is people who have little themselves who give us so much. In some situations we offer to pay, but often our offer is firmly refused. There is a strong tradition of hospitality, and so much kindness here. Down in the grasslands again, we could see dark clouds heading our way. There were a few hills near us, and and empty plain ahead, so we camped early and prepared for bad weather to come our way. It didn’t, but we got an early night.

Celebration picture at 3,050 m (10,000 ft)

2009/05/30: Chichlan River Hotel 105 km (Alabel Pass 3,184 m)
The next morning we had trouble getting going. We were stiff and tired from the previous day’s climb, and stopped for a second breakfast after a few kilometres. Cafes and magazins are getting scarce, so we are flexible about mealtimes. I pointed to what the truckers were eating and ordered dva eta – two this. It’s very basic but it works. One of the truckers enjoyed our Russian phrasebook, and the other ordered Chris a large shot of vodka (and another for himself) that he insisted be downed before we left. It was only 9 a.m.!

The Suusmayr Valley is dry grassland; yurts and horses are everywhere, and bottles of something white is sold at roadside stands outside each yurt. There are also hard white salty cheese balls at the stands, which we’d started to see in Kazakhstan. At a midday tea stop, our hostess offered a bowl of something white. I said that malako – cow’s milk – made Chris’s stomach hurt (it does), but she insisted it wasn’t malako. I neighed, and she confirmed that it was mare’s milk – koumys – the fermented kind. We each tasted a teaspoonful, but that was enough. We’ll have to try again before leaving Kyrgyzstan.

Interesting lawn furniture. Yurt to right.

We wonder if we’re good for business when we became the local attraction. Two lads wanted their photos taken astride our bikes and wearing our helmets, while many more watched. The climb to Alabel Pass (3,184 m) was much less steep than to Tuz-Ashu (3,586 m). It began to hail and we donned full rain gear. The descent was into a much greener valley, with more honey sellers. We were pleased to find a stand with a small enough container for us to buy; we’d finished our Kazakh honey. The weather was chilly and threatening, and we were pleased to find a small hotel as per the notes we are following.


2 responses to “Vodka for Breakfast

  1. The book is Russian translation of “The Black Arrow”.

  2. “bottles of something white is sold at roadside stands”-
    it must be a kumis – fermented dairy product traditionally made from mare's milk.

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