3 – 22 July 2016
Coming back to Osh from Tajikistan my plan was to stay only a few days before heading north towards Bishkek. However, while 4 days in Tajikistan the agent (Key2persia recommended by Caravanistan) had made no progress with my Iranian RN code application, so I had to spend a lot of time trying to get it going. 3 days later I gave up after 3-4 unanswered mails and 30-40 unanswered calls. Instead, I contacted another agent and within a couple of hours I had filled out the application form, received payment instructions and made the payment; something I didn’t manage with the first agent in 11 days. It doesn’t have to be so complicated.
Another challenge that delayed my departure was a broken charger in the phone, which meant no maps and gps. I went to the bazaar to ask around which was a challenge as nobody spoke English – countless small phone repair shops, so I spent some time looking at the people in different shops to get an idea about integrity and skills. After a couple of shops with less credible people, I found a shop and though it took 2 hours (mostly because they had to look for the part in other shops), they managed to fix it for USD 7. I stayed to ensure progress but also to observe “life” in the bazaar – again friendly and smiling people who took their time despite countless people in the line.
Itinerary and weather
I finally left on Saturday 9th on a hot morning. The first days were in the countryside through different valleys – as always very dry had it not been for extensive irrigation. The day temperature was high 30s so way up in the 40s in the sun – for once, I appreciated the headwind cooling me down. It was mostly flattish with a few very steep hills, so I got a chance to get a little back in shape before the big mountains.
Day 3 offered a beautiful and hilly ride along artificial lakes (from dams) against the backdrop of high mountains - a huge challenge with the +40 k/h headwind especially on the uphills. Next morning I rode around the huge Toktugul Reservoir – more steep hills on the southern side and climbing away from the lake late afternoon. Despite all the climbing, I hardly gained any elevation as it was equally much downhill. Both days were very hot, so I took a number of breaks in bus shelters to avoid a repetition of my near heatstroke Laos. At lower altitude evening temperatures were 25-30C, so I camped as high as possible and next to rivers when possible (always colder near water).
Day 5 and 6 were in the mountains climbing over two passes. First lessor grades up along a river but in the afternoon they increased to 6-8-10%. Gaining elevation and being overcast it was pleasantly cool, however I could have done without the thunderstorm and heavy rain that came in mid afternoon. I discovered two broken spokes and as I couldn’t fix them in the bad weather, I had to camp even though it was early - a pity since I felt really good and had found a good climbing rhythm. It was a beautiful morning, but just as I left at 9 heavy rain came in again. So I climbed the 8 steep kilometres in heavy rain and strong headwind – pretty ridiculous but at least there was hardly any traffic. A bit of sun at the top and then a mix and sun and rain during the afternoon 70k long ride down through a valley. The day ended with another steep climb up towards the second pass. First rain and then clouds so dense the visibility was down to 10-15 metres. Quite dangerous with the aggressive Kyrgyz drivers, but luckily the road was so bad, that they had to go somewhat slow (c.f. section below). After 10-12k, I biked into a storm, so I had to emergency camp on a small ledge above the road. Wet and cold, I was very happy to have extra three layers of warm and dry clothes – I had carried it from Singapore and never used it, but on a day like this all worth the extra weight. According to several elevation maps and other bicyclists, the pass is around 3,600m, so I expected a 15k climb from my camping elevation of 2,650m. However, when I reached the tunnel (pass) already after 8k my gps said only 3,200m?! Weeks later, I was told the 3,600m pass is when navigating the mountain not using the tunnel. Coming down on the other side, was an endless ride on steep switchbacks, which together with the bad road demanded constant rim-cooling breaks. When it finally levelled out, I had a nice ride through some narrow gorges along the river. Mid afternoon bad weather came in, so I camped early by a water canal. I could have pushed for Bishkek, but there was no point as it was Friday and the Kasakh embassy would be closed for the weekend before I got there. In the mountains, day temperatures were 10-20C (depending on the sun being out) and night temperatures not more than 5C which was great for sleeping. Saturday morning I rode the last 85k into Bishkek – very hot and lots of aggressive drivers on the busy bad road, so not the best finish on this leg.
In Bishkek, I stayed a week waiting for my Kasakh visa. Once again ended up at Tunduk Hostel, this time however for USD 7 per night including breakfast, which was a more fair price. Lots of interesting travellers to talk to (including bicyclists) and otherwise my time went with preparing visa applications, updating my blog and finding spare bike parts – i found all but new tires. However, in the hostel I was lucky to get a new tire from an Argentinian/French couple, who very kindly offered to sell one of their spare tires to me.
Road, drivers and bike problems
The straight line between the two biggest towns in Kyrgyzstan is 300k while the road is 680k to pass all towns and villages in the region as well as navigating the mountains. I had been told the road was fairly good, which made sense since it’s the only road connecting the north and south of the country. Consequently, I had put on my “fragile” wheel to spare my trouble free Australian extra wheel. The first 55k to Uzgen were fairly decent, but after that it was mostly bad being cracked, potholed, bumpy, stony, etc. I estimate about 50% of the road to Bishkek was very bad, 25% bad while the rest was fairly good. Even newly ”stoned” roads lacked 25-50% of the pebbles so either they are incredibly incompetent or there’s much corruption (likely both) The bad roads entailed a lot of bike problems with countless broken spokes and many flat tires. Also my rear tire exploded and the spare one didn’t work, probably because it has been hanging in the sun for 6 months since I left Singapore. Two flat tires in 15k made me change to my other spare tire and my Australian puncture-free tube. No more flats but the tire felt wobbly so most likely it is also somewhat damaged. Before it seemed possible to make it to Europe but within an hour, I was suddenly short of tires.
The 50/25/25 road ratio also went for the Kyrgyz drivers (very bad/bad and decent). Like the Chinese they are selfish, intolerant and impatient but even worse they are deliberately vicious. They are obsessed with staying right and constantly honked at me as well as tried to squeeze me off the road despite lots of room to go around – cutting me off just to go back to the middle of the road as they didn’t want to ride the bad roadside themselves. This behaviour compromised my only two rules in life: not deliberately harming others and integrity (double standard that they could ride the good part of the road, but I couldn’t). Most people would have some empathy or at least feel a little sympathy with a bicyclist struggling on a horrible road but not the Kyrgyz drivers – me, me, me! And this is not just me - every bicyclist I met had this experience so they must hate bicyclists. The few locals I saw always biked against the traffic fearing (rightfully so) to turn their back to vehicles – maybe the drivers believe this is normal and that’s why they honk at us international bikers for riding in the right side? I don’t believe this myself but it’s the only excuse/explanation I can come up with for their behaviour. Well, that and maybe alcohol – alcohol can be bought at any small shop along the way which people must do as they otherwise wouldn’t sell it. And lots of empty vodka/beer bottles are scattered along the roadside – whole or smashed. Whether the many accidents are related to alcohol I don’t know; it could also be the poor driving skills and always too high speed – like a combination. In general, I feel lucky to have reached Bishkek alive/uninjured.
Many other travellers feel the Kyrgyz people are generous, but I had the opposite experience that they are ”takers”. I was never invited in, but people passing by never had problems probing in my tent/bags/bike when I camped and they always asked to get something e.g. bottles, candy, soft drinks, pegs, tarp. At the same time, I must have passed a thousand street vendors and none offered me e.g. a piece of fruit. I know they have very little but that’s what makes it strange as poor people usually share the most. The 10-15 times I was by the roadside fixing the bike, nobody stopped to ask if I was okay. If they were as nice people as my first impression (see previous section), they would never drive by a bicyclists with problems in the mountains (not that I couldn’t fix it but it’s nice to be asked). So I lost most of the respect I had for the Kyrgyz people – they like to talk but in the end they are as superficial and non-committing as many other nationalities e.g. Australians and Northern Europeans.
A lot of people shouted ”hello” at me from the roadside. It could be taken as friendliness, excitement and curiosity but most times I felt it was attention seeking. I only greet the people close to the road – occasionally waving but never shouting back at somebody far away. These people (kids and grown-ups alike) always became aggressive; shouting and whistling 10-20 times and jumping up and down to get my attention.
Camping, water and health
Certain stretches were fairly populated both in the valleys with permanent residents and in the mountains with temporary residents in their Summer yurts (everywhere with water). However, finding camping spots was fairly easy – in the warm evenings the challenge was finding a cool spot e.g. camping by water or as high as possible. Livestock is everywhere in the mountains, so I preferred bringing water from towns and villages. Up the highest mountains, I carried limited water and used purifier tablets for stream water. However, waiting only an hour before cooking was not enough to eliminate guardia (2 hours), so when my joints in knees, fingers, etc. were swollen and sore the next day, I got slightly concerned. After a couple of days later most joints were back to normal except for a few fingers still feeling sore.
The pump I got in Thailand stopped working properly (O-ring problem), so I had to take the spare in use – good thing I had anticipated the dubious quality and bought two. Besides all the spoke-problems and flat tires, I also struggled a little with the gears. Despite extensive adjustments, some gears still only worked if I shifted two down and one up. Annoying when riding but also a lot of extra wear on the gear cable, which will have to be replaced much faster than normal.
I’m disappointed with my Bontrager odometer. It’s 5 months old and have only done about 10,000k and already it’s malfunctioning. Around 250-300k it resets which it annoying when trying to keep track of distances to upcoming villages and towns.
I’m still very happy with my phone gps though both the phone and OSMand map program very often crashes. The extra phone battery I bought 5 months ago already drain very quickly (in a day when using the gps a few times). For unknown reasons, I can’t use my small external battery to charge my phone (the one I can charge from the bike), so I’m happy I also got a bigger external battery to charge the phone every evening (lasts about 1½-2 weeks on the road).