In Nomads' Land

Posted on 2019-09-08

On our first day in Kyrgyzstan, we encountered by far the most cyclists in a day. We arrived at the Tajik border post together with three cyclists that we had met two days earlier in Karakul. As we were leaving the border post, we met three other cyclists, including a Belgian couple who were unloading their bicycles from a jeep - they were on a short 3-week trip and had taken a ride up there in order to maximise their time in the Pamirs. Right at the top of the Kyzyl-Art pass, just a short distance from the Tajik border post, we met another two solo cyclists, and on the way down, in the ~20km of no man's land between the pass and the Kyrgyz border post, we met another Austrian solo cyclist and a Swiss-Chinese couple.

The road just after the Kyzyl-Art pass. The road improves slightly after the lone house, but remains unpaved for the whole 20km of no man's land until the Kyrgyz border post.

The road just after the Kyzyl-Art pass. The road improves slightly after the lone house, but remains unpaved for the whole 20km of no man's land until the Kyrgyz border post.

The long stretch of no man's land between the border posts appears to be unmaintained by either country, the worst part being close to the top of the pass on the Kyrgyz side, where the road is basically compacted red soil that reportedly turns into mud when it rains. Thankfully, it had dried up from the previous evening's rain by the time we were there. It clearly rains a lot more on the Kyrgyz side, as the landscape was immediately strikingly greener than anything we had seen on the Pamir plateau.

Enjoying the lush green grass after spending so much time in the high-altitude desert of the high Pamirs

Enjoying the lush green grass after spending so much time in the high-altitude desert of the high Pamirs

After crossing the Kyrgyz border post, we entered a wide plateau that gently slopes down to the village of Sary Tash. The locals use the wide plateau as a large summer pasture ("jailoo"), and there were many yurts and horses roaming around. Unfortunately, the terror kids were also out in force along this stretch of road, and we had read some reports of them surrounding cyclists and grabbing whatever loose items they can off their bicycles. Thankfully, as we were going downhill, we could largely avoid them by going at full speed.

Yurts on the wide jailoo (summer pasture) on the way to Sary Tash

Yurts on the wide jailoo (summer pasture) on the way to Sary Tash

Arriving in Sary Tash, we did some guesthouse "shopping" to find one that was within our budget. For a small, remote village (albeit on the tourist trail), we were surprised by the relatively high cost of accommodation, though we have since noticed that accommodation in Kyrgyzstan is generally more expensive than in the previous few countries.  Nevertheless, after two weeks in the high Pamirs with basic living conditions, we were happy to have electricity (for hot, well-pressurised showers!) and running water (for flushing toilets!) again. 

Sary Tash village, with the Trans-Alay mountain range in the background

Sary Tash village, with the Trans-Alay mountain range in the background

The next morning, we ran into the three cyclists (that we first met in Karakul) again, although we were staying in different guesthouses, and left the village together. They were faster than us on the climb up to the Taldyk pass, where we caught up with them again as they were taking a long break. With stormclouds approaching from behind, we didn't waste any time at the top and quickly made our way down the impressive serpentine road down from the pass. We leapfrogged the other three cyclists several times as we raced towards Gul'cha, trying to stay ahead of the storm that was trailing just behind us down the lush, green valley. On the way, we were attacked by another group of terror kids, the worst we have ever met, who shouted, threw stones, and made obscene hand gestures at us. We genuinely wondered where they learn such behaviour from, as our hope for humanity continues to be chipped away. We also saw so many other cyclists that we didn't even stop to talk to all of them anymore. We initially planned to camp that night, but with the impending storm, we all (us, the other three cyclists, and another cyclist they picked up on the way) ended up staying in the same guesthouse in Gul'cha.

The impressive serpentine road down from the Taldyk pass (3615m) towards Gul'cha

The impressive serpentine road down from the Taldyk pass (3615m) towards Gul'cha

Rainbow in the mountains on the way to Gul'cha

Rainbow in the mountains on the way to Gul'cha

The next day, the other cyclists were again faster than us on the climb up to the Chyiyrchyk pass, where we caught up with them for one last time just as they were leaving. From there on, it was downhill to Osh, the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan, where we had planned a long break to rest and catch up on planning and maintenance tasks after the Pamirs. We stayed in an Airbnb apartment in one of the tallest buildings in the city, with a view of Sulaiman Too, the UNESCO-listed sacred mountain that rises abruptly from the surrounding plains in the middle of the city. We spent a bit of time exploring the main sights: Sulaiman Too and its caves, where local pilgrims go to seek fertility help from the holy mountain; Jayma Bazaar, one of Central Asia's largest and oldest markets, having been in existence at the same location for over 2000 years; and the statue of Lenin, the largest still standing in Central Asia. However, most of our eight days in the city were actually spent in the apartment, updating this website, planning the rest of our route through Kyrgyzstan, and applying for our Chinese visas - by far the most complicated and expensive visa on our trip. As most Chinese embassies only accept applications in one's country of residence, we had to post our passports back to Germany, together with our applications, including a full day-to-day itinerary with flight and hotel bookings (we made fully refundable "fake" bookings). The whole task of planning a fake 90-day trip, completing the forms, printing the documents, and finally posting them took us a good two days (but all worth it now, as we got 90-day visas!!).

Panorama of Osh from our Airbnb apartment, with the iconic Sulaiman Too mountain rising up in the middle of the city

Panorama of Osh from our Airbnb apartment, with the iconic Sulaiman Too mountain rising up in the middle of the city

Climbing through one of the cave-wombs on the Sulaiman Too mountain in Osh, where pilgrims seek fertility help from the holy mountain

Climbing through one of the cave-wombs on the Sulaiman Too mountain in Osh, where pilgrims seek fertility help from the holy mountain

Theoretically, from Osh, we could have taken a shortcut through the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan to reach the main road to Bishkek again. However, without passports, we had to stay in Kyrgyzstan, and take the main road skirting around the edge of the Fergana Valley, via Uzgen and Jalal-Abad. We found this section quite uninteresting (even the archaeological site at Uzgen was quite meh), and though there were no more terror kids (probably because the main road is too busy and dangerous) there were now terror drivers to deal with. Kyrgyz drivers are some of the most aggressive and inconsiderate we have encountered on this trip (only the Georgians come to mind as more dangerous, because drunk driving is more popular there). They all drive way too fast, aggressively overtake each other (even where they cannot see the oncoming traffic, or in second row), cut curves extremely tightly, and often pass us extremely closely. All of this often left us barely enough space to cycle. In addition, there are the car horns - less so than in Iran or Uzbekistan, but still quite insane. Some seemed to horn to greet us (more of the horn-and-stare type than the horn-and-wave type), some to warn us (often exactly when they are passing, making us deaf while that not giving us any time to react), and some make so much noise starting from far away, as if to say "Get out of my way!". It's hard enough to cycle exactly in a straight line, especially when going uphill, but at our slightest deviation, drivers would sound their horns in panic, as they had no intention of slowing down or leaving more space. Heiko became very upset by the most outrageous of these manoeuvres and noise, though Hannah was mostly fine with the traffic and was instead more annoyed and alarmed by Heiko's outbursts. 

The border between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan runs right next to the road for a few kms on the way to Shamaldy-Say, at the edge of the Fergana Valley

The border between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan runs right next to the road for a few kms on the way to Shamaldy-Say, at the edge of the Fergana Valley

Once we left the Fergana Valley and turned north into the mountains, the landscape became more interesting again. The road follows the shockingly blue Naryn river, which, dammed at regular intervals by hydroelectric power stations, seems more like a series of long, calm lakes. We followed the river all the way up to Toktogul, a large reservoir also formed by a hydroelectric dam. We ended up staying in Toktogul town for four nights as we waited for stormy weather on the Ala-Bel pass to pass. 

The mountainous landscape along the Naryn river between Tash-Komur and Kara-Kul

The mountainous landscape along the Naryn river between Tash-Komur and Kara-Kul

Toktogul lake at sunset

Toktogul lake at sunset

After Toktogul, the roads widened, the traffic reduced, and Heiko became a lot less stressed. It was a long climb up to the Ala-Bel pass, which, at 3175m, would be the highest altitude we would cycle to in Kyrgyzstan. We made good progress on the first day, climbing a total of 1400m, a new record for us. At the start, the valley was lush and green, with many shaded picnic areas next to the Chychkan river, but as we ascended above the tree line, yurts started appearing again. We had read that some yurts already start packing up at the end of August, as summer is ending and the high pastures are becoming drier, and indeed we saw some yurts being packed, and even some empty yurt "footprints". However, many yurts were still up when we passed.

A family packing up their yurt along the road from Toktogul up to the Ala-Bel pass, as summer is ending and the high pastures have become drier. The man is holding up the "tunduk", or crown of the yurt, a symbol of family and unity of the Kyrgyz people, and also the symbol in the middle of the Kyrgyz flag.

A family packing up their yurt along the road from Toktogul up to the Ala-Bel pass, as summer is ending and the high pastures have become drier. The man is holding up the "tunduk", or crown of the yurt, a symbol of family and unity of the Kyrgyz people, and also the symbol in the middle of the Kyrgyz flag.

We found a place to camp next to the Chychkan river, and continued the next day up the rest of the 800m climb to the pass. This part was unexpectedly steep and took much longer than expected, but once we finally reached the top, it was a nice, long downhill into the Suusamyr valley, fed by the Suusamyr river. Wider and gentler than the valley we came up from, the Suusamyr valley was full of yurts and horses. In fact, along some stretches, there were so many yurts along the road (all selling the same things - kymys, kurut, etc.) that it felt like quite the busy town up there. We can only imagine that things would be quite different at the end of summer once all the yurts have packed up and left, as there are almost no permanent houses up there.

Yurts in the Suusamyr valley, a wide, gentle valley along the Suusamyr river between the Ala-Bel and Too-Ashuu passes on the main Osh-Bishkek road, used by many Kyrgyz nomads as a high summer pasture

Yurts in the Suusamyr valley, a wide, gentle valley along the Suusamyr river between the Ala-Bel and Too-Ashuu passes on the main Osh-Bishkek road, used by many Kyrgyz nomads as a high summer pasture

We found another nice place to camp along a small tributary to the Suusamyr river, and continued the next day down the rest of the valley. At the end of the valley, the main road climbs steeply up to the Too-Ashuu pass and then down to Bishkek, but we turned off onto a secondary road just as the climb started. This road continues downhill first to the town of Suusamyr, and then through a narrow valley along the Kokomeren river all the way to Aral. We had read online that this entire stretch of road was unpaved, but we also heard from two cyclists we met that this road was good asphalt, so we had our hopes up that maybe they had just recently paved it. Unfortunately, our online research proved to be true, and we had 85km of corrugated dirt road to deal with (thank goodness we were going downhill). The landscape was beautiful though, with steep, red mountains flanking the raging river, and there was also very little traffic. We initially planned to reach the village of Kyzyl-Oi that day, where there is a Community Based Tourism (CBT) office and several homestays, but the bad road slowed us down and we camped again next to the river.

The mountainous landscape along the Kokomeren river between Suusamyr and Aral

The mountainous landscape along the Kokomeren river between Suusamyr and Aral

Red, colourfully-streaked mountains along the Kokomeren river between Suusamyr and Aral

Red, colourfully-streaked mountains along the Kokomeren river between Suusamyr and Aral

The next day, we continued downhill to Aral, where we wanted to shop for some food, but terror kids were aiming their bows and arrows at us, so we had to make a quick escape. From Aral, it is a long, gentle climb to the Kyzart pass. The first part was perfectly paved road, much appreciated after the bad road we just left, but we soon ran into road construction - they were rebuilding and widening the road in sections, and there were long stretches that were completely unpaved. Nevertheless, it was surprisingly easy riding, with good tailwind and shade from the tree-lined road. On the way, we passed by more cemeteries than villages, many of which looked like miniature villages themselves, as the graves were often marked by small mausoleums. In two days, we arrived at the village of Kyzart, the closest village to the alpine lake of Song-Kul.

One of the many cemeteries along the road from Aral to Kyzart. With many of the graves marked by elaborate structures and mausoleums, from a distance, these cemeteries often looked like miniature villages themselves.

One of the many cemeteries along the road from Aral to Kyzart. With many of the graves marked by elaborate structures and mausoleums, from a distance, these cemeteries often looked like miniature villages themselves.