Fast facts Kyrgyzstan:
- Independent since 1991, the country had to invent itself as no such country had existed in the pre-Soviet period
- 90% of the country lies above 1,500 meters and 71% over 2,000 meters above sea level
- The beauty of the country for visitors is that is has a bit of everything: nomadic traditions, central Asian mystique, Soviet-era trappings and Silk Road sites
- Population: 5.7 million people
- Kyrgyzstan is approximately the size of Spain
- Neighboring countries: Kazakhstan (North), China (Southeast), Tajikistan (South), Uzbekistan (West)
August 3 – 10, 2015 – We landed safely in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan with a two hours delay and so did our luggage. Shattered from a sleepless flight Johan started putting the bikes together at a deserted airport. A few hours later we were once again ready – this time to begin with a short 35-kilometer ride into town on a yet deserted but still scary to me motorway in the soaring heat on bikes that were heavier than ever. We asked ourselves how we would be able to pedal our luggage of more than 35 kg each over passes higher than 4,000 meters. We would yet have to find out.
Trying to leave the motorway for no obvious reasons – there wasn’t any traffic – we got lost in the dust and found a poor farmer, who desperately wanted to offer us a melon. We weren’t able to leave without it. Later at the hostel we knew why he was so desperate, the melon must have laid in the sun for days as it was completely dried out and not edible.
Arriving at the hostel we learned that the receptionist forgot our booking and that there were no rooms available for us. Feeling sorry for us and knowing it was her fault, she arranged another place for us to stay and a few hours later we settled in and finally fell into a sound sleep in the middle of the day.
Kyrgyzstan so far surprised us with its efficiency to work out things in our way. The next day we picked up our visas for Iran, bought a SIM-card for our phone, arranged our food supplies for the coming days and were ready for our departure into the wild.
The morning of our departure we met a couple that had just returned from a cycling trip through Kyrgyzstan and scared me off with horror stories about heavy traffic and mad drivers on some of the roads we intended to take. Nonetheless we pedaled off to discover the beauty of this country.
The cyclists were right, there was heavy traffic getting out of town and on our way to lake Son Köl, but they weren’t right with their assessment of the roads and the drivers. On the new Chinese-built roads we always had a small hard shoulder and a wide enough soft shoulder to escape any dangerous situation and the older Russian-built roads were wide enough to handle a few cars next to each other as well as two lonely cyclists.
In the late afternoon of our second cycling day traffic got heavy and we stopped at a rest place where small Chinese stalls and tourist shops were selling summer gadgets and lots of Vodka– we were on the main road to the famous holiday destination Lake Issyk Köl – and were invited by one of the shop owners to sleep in one of his tents, normally used for dining purposes of transients. Later that evening, we were just preparing to go to sleep, a decent English-speaking Kyrgyz woman approached us and invited us for ice-cream at her little shop. A few conversations later she told us we could stay at her mother’s house the next day before we would head off to traverse our first big passes. Again we happily accepted, bought a huge watermelon the next day upon arrival in Kochkor as a present only to find out that we weren’t welcomed but shown to an expensive but neat guesthouse nearby. We had to eat 10kg of melon all by ourselves in just one evening as we couldn’t carry it up the mountains.
A few more kilometers of tarmac the next day and then we took a right turn into the direction of Son Köl. No more asphalt for the next few hundred kilometers, instead gravel, dust, rocks, pebbles, pot-holes and bumpy roads. The tough part had just begun. To add to this we also started our climb as we had to pedal over a 3,446-meter high pass to get to the lake. The landscape was stunning – lush green grassland, roaring rivers underneath and undulating scenery all around us. At the foot of the pass we pitched our tent next to a farmhouse, washed ourselves in the icy river, cooked and just managed to get everything into our tents before the big storm hit the valley. Our first night in the tent and we had rain, not the luckiest start.
We weren’t really organized and set as a team yet and it took us three hours the next morning before we could begin our climb. Sweating and swearing, slowly pedaling and even slower pushing, wishing we had taken less gear, we step by step moved forward, meter by meter, from rest to rest, and finally reached the top after more than five hours of hard word. But before we could celebrate our first big achievement at 3,446 meters, we had to accept a few presents ourselves. We had stopped just a few hundred meters before the summit – not knowing we were so close – to filter some more water and to refuel ourselves with our remaining food, when the first car stopped. A drunk driver and family father stepped out of the car and desperately wanted to give us something. He started off with Kymyz – more to that later – which we were able to decline. He then handed us a bag with all kinds of mixed sweets, rotten fruit and stale bread and topped this with a donation of sheep meat taken out of huge filthy plastic bag in his trunk. The meat looked disgusting to us, I think we got parts of the stomach. We happily accepted, took a few photos with the donator and his family and buried the meat nearby – hoping, the wolves would find it later. Getting ready to tackle the rest of the mountain, the next car stopped, a muslim opened his window, shouted Salam Aleikum, threw a bottle with a white drink at us and drove off again. With our mouths open we said our goodbyes and thanks while he was already snaking down the pass. We saw another car coming down and wanted to wait for it to pass when it stopped again. The guesthouse owner we stayed with two nights before and who offered us to give us a ride up the mountain stepped out of the car with two tourists to say hello! Surprised we chatted for a few minutes – the tourists were by the way two Dutch guys who shyly asked us how we found each other and if we were a couple as we weren’t of the same nationality. We would get this question more often and most often from other travelers.