KYRGYZSTAN #2 - THE MOUNTAINS OF HEAVEN
Riding out of Karakol I feel fresh and excited for the road ahead. Panniers loaded with bread and pasta, I ride at a relaxed pace for half a day to the shores of Lake Issyk-kul, the 10th largest lake in the world and the 2nd largest saline lake after the Caspian Sea. It is an incredible place to ride, with the vast lake to my right and the majestic Tien Shan mountains to my left. Kyrgyzstan is a wonderland for any adventurous soul. The mountains are capped with snow and wreathed with a halo of cloud, whilst Issyk-kul looks serene and stretches out to the horizon. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.
Since conceiving this trip more than a year ago I have been captivated by the idea of this place and the thought of swimming in Issyk-kul's waters. To find myself here, and to have arrived here on a bicycle, feels almost dreamlike. I pull off the road and find myself a secluded section of beach concealed by trees, quickly set up camp and strip down to dive into the water. As an alpine lake Issyk-kul is cold, but pleasantly so. The water is calm and incredibly clear. The mountains behind me are silhouetted in starlight as I light a fire and snuggle into my sleeping bag with a feeling of enormous contentment. This is my favourite campsite from the trip so far, but I smile as I think back to so many other wonderful places which have been my home for a night. It is the joy of travelling to rest your head in wild and beautiful places and to wake to the sight of a new and unknown landscape to explore. I feel very lucky to be here.
It takes me another day to reach the end of the lake, and the views are again sensational. I have to push my bike up one big hill that is too steep to ride up, stuck as I am in top gear. The roads are rough and potholed, but the people everywhere are very friendly. I stop to have lunch with an old shepherd. We do not speak much but gaze out at the landscape, each of us lost in our thoughts but enjoying the simple companionship. It is a good moment to share.
I wake just before first light the next morning to the strongest wind I have seen since New Zealand. My tent is taking a beating and I’m debating whether to get up when I hear a loud crack as both of my tent poles snap at the same time, right down the middle. Decision made for me, I hastily pack up and somehow manage to stuff away my tent before it is blown away. Naturally, the wind is against me. The rain lashes into my face as I push my bike along the road. Trying to ride against it is out of the question; the wind is so strong that even pushing is almost impossible. After two hours of slow progress I make it to a town where I while away most of the day in a cafe as the wind slowly settles. It has been one hell of a storm.
It takes me most of the next day with my head down on the carriageway to make it to Bishkek, and there is so much cloud that I am not able to see much on the way. I am soaked to the bone so I quickly check in to a hostel for a warm shower and a beer. I am glad to be out of the weather, and glad to be in Bishkek.
I spend a week in the city and get the Duchess fixed up with a replacement gear cable as well as getting a new pole for my tent. I apply for a visa for Uzbekistan and am surprised when it only takes 7 days to come through, despite many of the horror stories I had heard from other travellers. I pick up some new equipment and spend time exploring the manic Osh Bazaar. I put aside my hopes for an Iranian visa as it seems British nationals are out of flavour in Tehran and it will be too expensive for me to get one. I also decide against Turkmenistan as I learn they are only approving around 25% of all visa applications, and I would anyway have at best a 5 day transit visa to ride the 1000km through the desert to the port of Turkmenbashi and find a boat.
In the end I decide my best bet is to ride northwest through the desert in Uzbekistan and cross once again into Kazakhstan, where I can stay for 15 days without a visa, in order to get a boat from the port of Aktau. I give a short talk at the Bishkek Rotary Club, where I am advised to avoid the southern route through Osh into Uzbekistan as the passes have already been snowed over. I therefore decide to take the northern route through Kazakhstan which will take me past the end of the Tien Shan mountains to Tashkent.
Bishkek is a pleasant and laid back little city with gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains covered with snow. Riding around is made harder by the maniac local taxis - small minibuses with the dangerous habit of abruptly slamming the brakes on and veering to the side with no warning at all in order to pick up or drop off passengers. I myself narrowly avoid running over an old woman at the first zebra crossing I encounter - I am entirely used to what I would call the 'Asian' traffic laws, where people do not stop for pedestrians at crossings and therefore pedestrians simply wait for an opportunity to dash over. I am surprised to learn therefore that in Bishkek however people do actually stop at zebra crossings, something I am able to deduce after almost hitting a tiny babushka who marches straight out into the road without seeing the idiot foreigner approaching at full speed. Thankfully my brakes are up to the task, and I begin mentally switching back into 'follow the traffic laws' mode. It is a real sign of my progress - I am drawing ever closer to Europe.
Leaving Tatiana, my Couchsurfing host in Bishkek, I load up the Duchess and ride out of the city. I camp in a field near the Kazakh border and watch the sun go down over the mountains. The sky is clear and I sleep without a tent, lying on my back and gazing up for almost an hour, seeing almost half a dozen shooting stars blaze across the heavens. I wake to a crisp clear morning with my sleeping bag drenched in dew and the sun rising orange behind me. I am sorry to be leaving Kyrgyzstan. Were it not for the swiftly approaching winter I would love to spend more time here, for it is one of the most beautiful countries I have ever been to. It has wonderful people, spectacular mountains and lakes, and is just foreign enough to be exciting without ever feeling too dangerous. It is fairly cheap and is small enough that everything is accessible. Kyrgyzstan feels like a more remote and wild version of New Zealand. I absolutely love it, and I know I will be back to explore properly. For now though I am excited for the road ahead and I ride happily and full of contentment, head full of dreams of the glories of the silk road and the men and women who have gone before me; just another traveller chasing my morning shadow west; towards the horizon, towards the border, towards the sunset ,and beyond.