I'm writing this sitting beside the reservoir to the south of Toktogul. We have nicknamed it 'Lake Marijuana' as the plant (Cannabis sativa) which is native to Asia, is growing everywhere! It has been fun watching the cattle and horses grazing beside the lake. They seem to be enjoying life that bit more than the other animals we have come across! To say we've enjoyed cycling through Kyrgyzstan would be an understatement. It's a mind-blowingly gorgeous country with miles and miles of unspoilt landscapes. Inevitably, this beauty comes at a price...mountains!! Whilst they are wondrous to admire from afar, when you realise that you have to pedal up them on a bicycle, it's inevitable that one's fondness for them temporarily dwindles! After three very tiring days of cycling up and across mountains, we decided to spend a day relaxing in this very peaceful location, to watch 'stoned' horses frolicking in the water and allow our legs to slightly recover before pushing on towards Uzbekistan and our extended stop in the capital, Tashkent.
So, let's rewind a little bit: we caught the 8.20pm flight from Istanbul to Bishkek on Sunday 16th June. Pegasus airlines were more than happy to take our bikes (we didn't even have to package them!) at a cost of €40 per bike. We packed one pannier to the maximum hand luggage allowance of 8kg, which left us both slightly over the 20kg allowance for our checked luggage (we use giant laundry bags to accommodate all our remaining panniers and their contents and then had them shrink-wrapped for extra support!), we weren't charged for our excess luggage and the whole process was delightfully stress-free!
On arriving in Bishkek, we met another touring cyclist at the airport, unfortunately for him, his bike (despite being packaged in a cardboard bike box) had received some damage and he was carrying out emergency repairs before the front wheel could be attached. Perhaps, with bikes, less packaging is the better option? The one negative with the flight was that it arrived in Bishkek at 4.20am (5 hour flight plus 3 hour time difference), and the cycle from the airport to the city centre was coupled with hunger and sleep deprivation! The grey skies, cool temperatures and rain didn't provide the warm welcome we'd have wished for!
We checked into our hotel and ventured back into the city to stock up on provisions. On noticing at the price of vodka and cigarettes, I couldn't help but wonder whether the Gallagher brothers were reminiscing about a trip to Kyrgyzstan when they wrote the lyrics to "Cigarettes and Alcohol": you can buy 1 litre of vodka and a pack of cigarettes and still get change from £2! Food is also very cheap here, but not all that exciting, certainly once you venture out into the countryside: Kymys is the national drink and takes a bit of getting used to! It is fermented mare's milk and served at...well, whatever temperature the day happens to bring! Kurut are very popular snacks: they are dried balls of very tart and salty yoghurt! Eating them can't be described as a pleasant experience, but when they are being sold at every roadside stall, they at least provide a readily available source of protein! Our meals are pretty bland and uninspiring at the moment: breakfast is oatmeal softened with boiling water (or cold, if we can't be bothered to get the stove out) and sweetened with chocolate sauce, lunch is slightly stale bread with a few kurut (a very indigestible combination), dinner is rice with beans...the tinned beans that we bought in a bazaar in Toktogul are only two years past their best before date!! Fresh fruit and veg isn't always easy to source, but we do have biscuits and nuts to snack on throughout the day! Simply viewing food as essential fuel helps to reduce the cravings for something more tasty!
So, back to the cycling: The route out of Bishkek was flat and relatively easy. We left in rush hour which was manic but entertaining! Driving standards are not high, but it does give everyone an excuse to honk their horn at other drivers or little old ladies hauling big bags of onions across the roads! Bishkek is at 800m above sea level and by the end of day two we had climbed to 3,200m (including one constant uphill stretch for four and a half hours at gradients ranging from 5-12%) where we were told that we wouldn't be allowed to cycle through the 2.6km tunnel due to the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning! Fortunately, they were due to close the tunnel for maintenance and, after a short wait we were allowed to cycle through the eerily quiet darkness! On the other side, we were greeted by a sea of bemused faces of drivers waiting frustratedly for the tunnel to reopen. I wondered if they thought the tunnel had been closed especially for us! After absorbing the wonderful panoramic views, we enjoyed a cooling descent back to 2,100m where we camped in a valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Overnight temperatures were sub-zero and it has been a long time since the contents of our water bottles has been frozen in the mornings! The following day we had to climb once again to reach a pass at 3,200m and whilst it didn't represent as much of a climb as the previous day, my aching legs, dodgy tummy (after a very fatty, but delicious, meal in a yurt of ambiguous meat: either lamb, mutton, goat or horse?!) and general tiredness made the going tough. The final few hundred metres were as much of a mental challenge as a physical one and I'm not ashamed to say that I shed a few tears (of relief, exhaustion and pride) when we reached the summit! Before this trip, The largest ascent that Ashley and I had tested ourselves with was a 400m climb to Haytor, Dartmoor. Bulgaria and Turkey were hilly, but the mountains that we are faced with in this part of the world represent an entirely different challenge! The altitude, restricted diet and climate all have a part to play too!
The people of Kyrgyzstan have been incredibly hospitable and friendly. We have, once again been on the receiving end of gifts of bread and fruit and been invited to join families enjoying picnic lunches where we have feasted on smoked fish, cheese, fruit and a variety of cakes and sweets! We have enjoyed stopping at the roadside yurts to sample local produce where we have discovered a little bit about the traditional nomadic farming methods: Summer months are spent in the mountains where the temperatures are cooler, rivers are full with cool, clean water from the snow and glacier melt, and the grass is lush and tasty for the herds of cows, sheep, goats and horses. There are no permanent villages, just temporary yurt communes that will be packed away once winter arrives and the farmers have returned to their winter homes down in the valleys.
The landscapes here are incredible. I hope that my photos do some justice to the awesome sights that we have seen. I have to keep reminding myself that we are actually here, witnessing this in the flesh. Aside from the occasional sound of car horns, it is such a peaceful country to cycle through and I feel very lucky to be spending time in a place that has such vast spaces of completely unspoilt countryside. We can literally camp anywhere as there seems to be very little (if any) land ownership in the mountains. It has certainly been the most liberating section of our cycle trip so far and possibly (despite the food) the most enjoyable!
Love and hugs. X