From Kyrgyzstan to Pebblestan

09 – 20 August, 2015 – 200m later around the corner we reached the top. No sign indicated that we were at over 3,400m. We took a few photos, enjoyed the view, put on a few more clothes and then cycled downhill. Finally! We passed a few yurt camps before we decided to stop at a smaller camp with lake view, pitched the tent together with three handy children and joined the family for Chai (tea), bread and kumys, which is fermented mare milk and a beloved national drink in spring and summer. It has a little alcohol and tastes very sour with a slightly prickly feeling on the tongue. It is drinkable but not really our taste, especially as there are all kinds of other indefinable things swimming in it.

Leaving the highest point to date
Leaving the highest point to date
After the children helped with pitching the tent they also wanted to explore the inside
After the children helped with pitching the tent they also wanted to explore the inside
Our little yurt behind its big brothers
Our little yurt behind its big brothers
The inside of a sleeping yurt: mattresses, blankets and pillows are neatly folded and stored along the felt walls during the day. There are always enough blankets to host a few more guests.
The inside of a sleeping yurt: mattresses, blankets and pillows are neatly folded and stored along the felt walls during the day. There are always enough blankets to host a few guests.
The inside of a dining yurt: for dinner we had soup with vegetables and mutton meat served with bread and washed down with enormous amounts of chai
The inside of a dining yurt: for dinner we had soup with vegetables and mutton meat served with bread and washed down with enormous amounts of chai
Milking the mare
Milking the mare…
Leather storage bottle for fermented mare milk
…for the fermented mare milk stored in leather bottles

Communication turned out to be quite difficult as my Russian is very limited as well as their English. Now was the time to make use of our handy Russian-German dictionary with useful phrases as we were trying to find out at what time we could get dinner. The closest we could find was the sentence “Will there be warm food?” Later on it would prove to be even less useful when checking for a hostel room with sentences like “Do you have a room with sea view?” Going back to sign language or our pictionary still proves to be the best option.

At slightly over 3,000m the Song Köl area is only accessible between early June and late August. During this time, herders build their camps and move up their cattle. At the same time it is school holiday, so the farmers can take their children with them. We were amazed about their way of living and about how they bring up their children. They are used to work, older children take care of their younger siblings, girls are helping with the cooking, getting water from the nearby river, boys are herding the cows, sheep or horses. Everybody is busy all day long, but on the other hand it still felt very peaceful and relaxed to us. The adults would get up when it gets light while the children continued sleeping all next to each other in the sleeping Yurt. We all would have an extended breakfast with greasy noodles fried with onions and the mandatory Chai before heading off around the lake.

A coffee break and curious herders
A coffee break and curious herders
Riding with the cowboys
Riding with the cowboys
Hotels Kyrgyz-style
Hotels Kyrgyz-style
Enjoying Kyrgyz hospitality: invited by a family on vacation at Song Köl
Enjoying Kyrgyz hospitality: invited by a family on vacation at Song Köl
3 old women having lunch
Three old women having lunch

The lake is ringed by a saw-toothed horizon of peaks, fronted by lush summer pastures. Herders’ yurts dot the shore side meadows every kilometer or so. We felt like cycling through a Hollywood setting for a Western movie with cowboys on horses near and far. We could hardly get enough of this beautiful scenery, all the pain to get there was forgotten.

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A perfect camp spot
Another perfect camp spot
Our
Our new furry friend: we gave him some stale bread and he wouldn’t leave our tent anymore – all night he watched over our tent and couldn’t wait for us to emerge from it the next morning to greet us with his wagging tale.

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Over another pass and down via 33 switchbacks we left the area and now descended with more stunning views over the valley and high snow-capped mountains we knew we had to cross soon as well.

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I can fly, I can fly...
I can fly, I can fly…
At the top of yet another pass
At the top of yet another pass

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Pass after pass after pass we climbed on still unbelievably bad roads and we made slow progress towards Osh. One day we had to stop early as I was unwell. Soon I started vomiting and it became clear we wouldn’t be able to traverse the last pass before Kazarman. A few days later Johan spent most of the rest day in bed respectively on the toilet as he now suffered from diarrhoea. We nonetheless continued the following day as I had to finish a job and we knew there was another 3,000m pass to overcome. It’s been a tough day with weak bodies, endless undulating roads, pebbles, rocks, dust and the sun burning relentlessly. Temperatures in their high 30s and speeding Audi 100 – 50 % of the local population is driving this make, the other 50% drives in Japanese cars with the steering wheel on right – didn’t make the journey more pleasant. But we endured and pitched our tent at the foot of the pass next to a river where we could wash and cook and relax our bodies.

Petrol station in a remote village
Petrol station in a remote village

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Sick on the road
Sick on the road

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Meeting other cyclists from New Zealand and Switzerland
Almost daily we meet other cyclists, here from New Zealand and Switzerland
Riverside lunch
Riverside lunch

Then came our lucky day. Cycling slowly up the last pass before Osh on another cloudless and hot day we soon met a German in her 4WD treating us with “Nimm 2” (German candy) and refilling our water bottles. A few kilometres further up another German car stopped, two guys participating in a race from London to Mongolia stepped out and refilled our water bottles once again. Later, we were just cooking a big pot of yummy spaghetti, three cars from France and Belgium stopped. And again, they treated us well, refilling our water bottles once more and giving us Swiss chocolate.

Two funny German guys treating us well
Two funny German guys treating us well

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Friendly people along the road
Friendly people along the road
A typical clean toilet
A typical clean toilet: there is also toilet paper which is as rough as sandpaper
A Kyrgyz waitress in a small cafe being very happy that she could take a picture with me
A Kyrgyz waitress in a small cafe being very happy that she could take a picture with me
Typical Kyrgyz outfit
Typical Kyrgyz outfit
Kygryz-style house
Kygryz-style house

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And another pass tackled
And another pass tackled
Happy children along the road
Happy children along the road
Shopping once again
Shopping once again

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One of the many broken bridges we and many heavy trucks are passing
One of the many broken bridges we and many heavy trucks are passing

Traversing the pass we officially entered South Kyrgyzstan. And in many ways this area felt like a different country. Hotter in terms of climate as well as human temperament and closer to the conservative Islamic culture than the industrialised, Russified Bishkek. People however are unfailingly hospitable, giving us fruit or vegetables when passing by and welcoming us in every village with their hellos, welcomes or bye-byes.

The pass marking the border between North and South Kyrgyzstan
The pass marking the border between North and South Kyrgyzstan
Filtering water
Filtering water

The landscape changed as well. From arid, rugged and mostly treeless and often yellowish dried countryside to a now still mountainous but much more fertile area with apple, walnut and plum trees lining the streets and giving us the much-needed shelter from the sun. We continued wobbling over rocks, pebbles and sand, sweat running down our faces and bodies, breathing in dust, up and down and once more up. The river roared hundreds of meters below us and we couldn’t wait to finally roll downhill and to finally meet tarmac again. After a few more hours of strenuous cycling there it was: a village and tarmac. We tried to buy lunch, but all we could find in the first shop was a drunk elderly couple savouring a glass of vodka and in the second shop two 4-packs of yoghurt, a package of crisps and another package of sweet biscuits. Hungry, we sat down under a tree and ate like starving wolves, when some children came running to watch us, going away again to pick sunflower seeds that they were currently drying on the roads. They clearly understood how hungry we were and their empathy and this nice little gesture meant a lot to us.

Village life: drying sunflower seeds on the roads
Village life: drying sunflower seeds on the roads
The enormous assortment of a typical village shop
The enormous assortment of a typical village shop: most importantly there is Vodka and cigarette

Once we hit the tarmac cycling felt like flying and we enjoyed the smooth ride despite traffic picking up again. Within a few days we reached Osh and celebrated our achievements to date: by now we had traversed six passes and gained 10.000m.  With two rest days we prepared for the real challenge – the Pamir Highway.

Entering the province of Osh with 'beautiful' Soviet architecture
Entering the province of Osh with ‘beautiful’ Soviet architecture
Typical breakfast: eggs, bread and self-made jam served with black tea and sometimes coffee
Typical breakfast: eggs, bread and self-made jam served with black tea and sometimes coffee
Our room at a hotel which took us an hour to find as they don't put up signs in Kyrgyzstan
Our room at a hotel which took us an hour to find as they don’t put up signs in Kyrgyzstan
And the filthy outside toilet at the same hotel
And the filthy outside toilet at the same hotel
In Kyrgyzstan all signs indicating the gradients of hills are at 12%
In Kyrgyzstan all signs indicating the gradients of hills are at 12%
Our favorite snacks. In the meantime we manage to eat one melon in one go!
Our favorite snacks. In the meantime we manage to eat one melon in one go!
Entering Osh
Entering Osh
Women selling kumys along the road
Women selling kumys along the road

Cycling was’t easy these past weeks. However, we are enjoying every day, our freedom, the beautiful landscapes and that we are able to do what we do.

528km (830km in total) and total altitude gain of 9517 m
528km (830km in total) and total altitude gain of 9517m

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