Category Archives: Kyrgyzstan

The Fergana Valley

2009/06/03: Day Off in Jalal-Abad
We were staying with a Uzbeki family on a hilltop above Jalal-Abad. The day was spent doing laundry, going to the banya which is part of Jalal-Abad’s raison d’etre, and pedalling the 5 km to town for internet. When we were in our room, Adina, our hostess, would bring periodically bring laden trays to our room, cheerfully announcing, “Cup of tea!”

Adina and baby Ayeesha

People come to Jalal- Abad to “take the waters” at a spa with a serious medical feel – tiled hallways and attendants in white uniforms. Adina and Sharif, her father-in-law, accompanied us to the banya, which is close to their house via a wooded path. After Chris and I had stripped in our respective cubicles, we got 15 minutes of soaking in our respective gigantic claw foot bathtubs. I’m not sure how much better than a regular shower or bath it was, but it was certainly an interesting cultural experience. 

2009/06/04: Osh 113 km
The next day, we pedalled to Osh. One can’t go directly, because going through a projection of Uzbekistan, the Fergana Valley, would mean yet another visa. We rode through rich farmland and bought apricots beside the road. The hills were grasslands with abundant poppies, and birds nested in the roadside banks at the crests of the hills. We like watching the birds, but we’d never make real birdwatchers because we don’t really give a hoot what they’re called.

Women working in the valley

2009/06/05 : Day Off in Osh
Here in Osh we are working on our Iranian visa applications, inquiring about road conditions to Sary Tash, and stocking up on camping food staples. The Pamir Highway begins here, and we expect to reach the Tajik border in about four days. After five months on the road, we have made it to the Pamirs! This will be our first experience at extended high elevation cycling.

Internet access will get sparse over the next few weeks. We’ll try to keep in touch with our kids using the cell phone (if possible), and we may ask Louise to make the odd post announcing that the parents are alive and have made it to location XYZ. We may even ask a dutiful offspring to update the Google map, which seems to be blocked from here – we assume because of disputed borders. We’ll catch up on the account of our journey when we can.


Drowned Rats

2009/05/31: Hilltop Camp 88 km
The first day involved looping around the Toktogul reservoir through hilly grasslands, and camping at the top of a hill, fingers crossed that the gathering clouds wouldn’t unleash anything serious. As we searched for a camping spot, a meek stray dog followed us. As we set up camp and cooked supper, she (the dog) curled up near us. We shared a little of our food. She looked almost as skinny as Chris.

Note dog curled up centre picture.

2009/06/01: Komur 70 km and ride in van
In the morning, when we stopped for a second breakfast, we were invited to join a family for tea, bread, homemade butter, and grilled local fish that was rather like salmon.

In the late afternoon we pressed on into gathering clouds and rumblings of thunder. When the torrential rain came down, it was accompanied by blasts of wind. We cowered under a tree, but were soon invited to shelter in the cab of a parked truck. The truck was waiting for replacement tires, so it could proceed to Novosobirsk, Russia, with its load of Kyrgyz tomatoes. When the van with the new tires arrived, one of the truck drivers arranged with the van driver that two sodden cyclists, their bikes and luggage be transported southward to the next gastinitska.

Kindly Akmeht drove us to Tash-Komur through the Naryn River Canyon. The rainstorm was clearly something beyond usual local weather; all ditches and rivers ran full and brown, and rocks, some a metre in diameter, had come down on the road. The hotel was a soviet relic, and two young girls made us tea.

A poppy reminds us spring is here (and heroin growing areas are close)

2009/06/02: Jalalabad 132 km
The van ride had put us within striking distance of Jalalabad, but the next day was a long one. Radic and Gulsiya in Bishkek had recommended we stay with a friend of theirs who provided lodging near the banya (Jalalabad has a hotsprings), but directions were far from clear and common language only went so far. We called the number we were given as we entered town. With the help of some local kids on bikes, we were shown where to start pedalling 5 km steeply uphill to hotsprings area above town, essentially in search of a private residence in yet another rainstorm as darkness fell. Arriving, we were greeted by Zina and her daughter-in-law, Adina, who speaks some English. We were served a wonderful meal in our cosy room.


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.




We pedalled up residential streets to the precisely placed dot on the map of the first bike mechanic, and rang the bell at the gate. “Pazhalsta, vilasipyet mikhanik?” I responded to the intercom voice. Here we met the competent and well equipped Oleg Yuganov. Our first try and last night’s chance meeting had brought us to the best bike mechanic in town.

For reference to other cyclists passing through Bishkek:
Yuganov, Oleg
Bishkek 720033
st. Serova 14A
phone: +996312670974
mobile: 0555451265

Oleg installed new chains for us, inspecting our cassettes and saying they’d last another chain. He adjusted Chris’s hub. When asked about patch kits, he offered us a new option of foam to be inserted into the tubes which (theoretically) self-heals punctures, and which has been adopted by the mountain bike types. Being conservative touring cyclists and unfamiliar with this new technology, we resisted mainly because it would add 0.25 kg to each bike, so he told us to search Alamedin Bazaar for patch kits.

With instructions from our gastinitska hosts, we took a bus to the bazaar where, after some searching, asking, and drawing of diagrams of patch kits, we found the fix-it section and bought two kits. We tested both of these on old tubes, and decided one type was OK. We also rotated our tires (front swapped with back) and drove some pins from the old chains so we had spare pins. With clothing purchases made the next day, a wrist brace for Chris, and more inner tubes, we think we are ready to roll again, and are planning on leaving for Osh on Thursday.

The Radison Guest House, run by Gulsiya and her family (Her son is Radic, hence the name) has been a wonderful place to rest and recuperate. Gulsiya and her family have been friendly and helpful, with Radic walking us to the right bus stop to get the bazaar, and Farit driving us to the local banya last night, which was a relaxing treat. They are a Tatar family, proud of their ethnicity. I understand that Gulsiya’s parents walked to resettle here from Western China in 1950. We were the only guests on the first night, but we have been joined since then by a variety of other travellers with whom we’ve shared conversations, guidebooks, travel tips and such.


Murphy Comes to Call

Murphy’s Law: Anything that CAN go wrong, WILL go wrong – and likely do so at the WORST possible time.

2009/05/21: River Camp 87 km
As we packed to leave Karakol, we realized we were missing our roll-up bag containing some tools and a myriad of carefully selected spare parts. We had spent countless hours discussing what spares and tools to bring, and the assemblage of bits was a source of security. “We are well-equipped” we thought. Now we were stunned at our stupidity. This would be no way to set out on the Pamir Highway, and we had doubts about starting along the shore of Issyk Kul.. The basic glue and patches were gone, and a standard patch kit is unobtainable in Karakol. No rubber cement anywhere, except a partial tube closely guarded by the lady in the bike section of the large department store. For in-store use only, she gestured firmly when I offered to buy it from her. We did manage to buy a new inner tube.

We set off along the South side of Issyk Kul, piecing together a growing list of our losses and discussing options for their replacement. Our preoccupation with the loss meant we hadn’t even bought bread for lunch as we left Karakol, so we stopped at a cafe. Two young boys who spoke better-than-average English chatted with us. After lunch, we met Jonathan, a Peace Corps TEFL volunteer who was there to teach both kids and teachers. Jonathan and Chris chatted while I showed the kids pictures of family and home. One boy wanted to invite us to his house. We understand there is a strong Kyrgyz tradition of hospitality, but our heads were still swimming with recent losses, and we had started late, so we declined his kind offer. Jonathan, who has a degree in international development, told us that one of the Peace Corps’ tasks in Kyrgyzstan was to support it’s weak education system, and that local school authorities could take the initiative to request a TEFL volunteer. He remarked that his Russian language skills were probably stronger after six months than the  Russian of the local Russian teachers, whose first language is Kyrgyz.

We headed on. Our statistics to date for flats had been roughly six in 8,000 km, so one per 1,500 km on average. Now, with no patches and only two good spare inner tubes, we had a flat. Well, of course. Now we had only one spare inner tube. In the evening we scrambled to find a campsite as we raced a thunderstorm and ducked hailstones. We found a good spot by a river, and luckily the storm abated.

2009/05/22: Irrigation Channel Camp 100 km
On the second day, the lake views were stunning. Issyk Kul is a somewhat salty lake, having no outflows. It’s a stunning blue and surrounded strange desert hills with snow-capped mountains behind. From behind, I noticed a problem with Chris’s rear hub. It was oozing a bit of grease … and when we checked it was a bit looser than it should have been. This was our first hub problem. Did we have cone wrenches? No … they were gone with the lost gear, of course. Chris cranked his quick release skewer quite tight to make things temporarily better. We guessed we could always hitch hike if anything else went wrong. We called Vancouver friends with hopes of care packages if parts and tools were unobtainable in Bishkek. Waiting for a courier parcel of replacements isn’t as simple as it sounds with fixed visa dates for this country and the next two.

These three pictures do not do justice to this lake, but the water was too cold for swimming.

As we paused to make phone calls, Chris inspected his chain. One link appeared to be drifting apart and had a bent pin. We wondered if the chain would last to the end of the lake, and it was certainly not in any condition to set out into the Pamirs. We still had a chain tool, but our spare links and chain pins were gone. This new brewing disaster confirmed that we really needed to go to Bishkek rather than head south to Naryn as planned. We felt the failing link might have been due to the mechanic in Lanzhou re-using an old chain pin rather than installing a new one. We had been learning that, while we could easily buy a new bicycle here, certain basics such as inner tube patches and chain pins are worryingly scarce.

House building with mud and straw

It was a rare moment that the phone was on, and Chris’s sister called from England. Excellent timing Carolyn! Your familiar voice was needed and welcome. Thank you. We stopped to buy camping food and a litre of gas in a plastic bottle for our stove, which is how it’s sold in smaller villages. We found a camp site which involved passing first bags and then bikes over a raised irrigation channel.

2009/05/23: Balykchy 57 km (West end of Issyk Kul) and bus to Bishkek
The next morning we rode to Balykchy, and got an official licensed mini-van (i.e. not an extortionist) to take us and our bikes the 200 km to Bishkek, where we had the best chance of sorting out our gear problems. We bought a city map and found the guest house that Carsten had stayed at. As we stood near the local internet cafe we noticed a Giant Bike Shop sign, and stopped to record the telephone number. A man who spoke excellent English asked if we needed help, so I inquired about bike mechanics, who are an item separate from bike shops in these parts. Bike shops here sell bikes, but cannot repair or adjust anything. Not only did the gentleman know of TWO recommended mechanics, but he could also pinpoint their exact locations on our map, and provide precise instructions to get there. Things were looking up!

Cute – yes – but this hides a reality. Nearly every village gets its water this way. In Kazakhstan I (C) saw expensive Mercedes filling cans at these pumps; I wonder what John Kenneth Galbraith would have to say about that?