Thursday, 18 July 2013

121. To the Ferghana valley: from Bishkek to Osh

Climbing into the hills above Kara Balta, the wide open expanse of the Kazakh plains stretched northwards until they blended with the sky. We set up our new abode (an MSR Mutha Hubba) under the shade of some fruit trees in a cafe just beyond the village of Sosnovka and following our meal of laghman (noodle stew) and borsch, our hosts brought out a large bowl of raspberries, as we admired and critized our new home. The climb up to the Too-Ashuu tunnel at close to 3000 metres was a long, steep one and culminated in a series of impressive switchbacks. We finished the last 14 km of the climb on our second day out from Bishkek, having camped up in the room of a jailoo (summer farm) when the heavens opened the previous afternoon. The family ushered us into the spartan room, completely bare except for a dirty rug on the floor and the contents of a recently butchered sheep in a large cauldron. The head of the animal lay in the hallway, eyeing me vaguely. A large sheep skin was lain down and we had the place to ourselves for the rest of the day while the family built pens for the cattle, sheep and horses.

The following morning we reached the notorious Tor-Ashuu tunnel, a 3 km long Soviet-era construction that bore through the mountainside and out into the Suusamyr valley. Rain and then snow ensured we were pretty cold as we waited at the tunnel entrance for a friendly truck to bring us through to the other side. With a gentle uphill incline, cyclists are usually told not to ride through the unlit, dusty passage where with little room to spare, trucks still attempt overtaking manoeuveurs. A soldier at the checkpoint took pity on us and brought us into his heated bedroom in the barracks where we thawed out with tea and central heating and ate the few bits and pieces of bread that I scavenged from a nearby wagon.

The sun was shining onto the deep green fertile grassland on the other side as we descended from the tunnel into the Suusamyr valley. Yurts lined the roadside for kilometres, all brewing kymys (fermented mare's milk) and other diary products from the grazing animals. We asked to camp in the grounds of a small clinic that served a 100 kilometre stretch of road but instead we were shown into one of the empty patient's wards, a spartan two-bed room, and allowed to sleep in the warmth. Later that evening I chatted with the ambulance driver who was very keen to ask questions about Europe and Ireland. In his gentle manner and with no common language we covered a variety of topics from crops to wages to some politics. He was nostalgic for the Soviet Union and regretted its collapse. As a tank driver in the 80s he had been stationed for two years in Vladivostock. Now he earns $100 per month driving and repairing the antique ambulance that our bikes shared the garage with for the evening. The following morning we were invited to breakfast with the several staff on bread, butter, jam and lamb and copious cups of tea. More bread and butter for the road ahead was handed to us as we headed on up to the second pass at 3200 metres. Plied with bowls of kmymys from  a Bishkek family that summers up in the hills and more food from another yurt when we dived in to avoid a rain shower we climbed the 25 km out of the valley to the summit. Fortunately the rain cleared as we neared the top and we were rewarded with a blue sky and sunset before we descended down towards Tortogul and a peaceful camping spot by the river.

The next few days we spent in the much dryer and sun-scorched landscape that circled the Tortogul reservoir before following the dammed Naryn river down into the Ferghana valley. Old railroads and highways that used to cross the ethnic Soviet republics effortlessly in the old times were all severed after independence and we rode along the Uzbek - Kyrgyz border towards Kochkor-Ata and Jalalabad. The latter, along with Ozgen and Osh, were the scene of bitter, vicious riots in 1990 and 2010, when due to the culmination of several factors such as economic decline, Uzbekistan's policy of secularisation in an otherwise religiously conservative region, and political conflict many hundreds were killed. The Ferghana valley has been a historically important crossroads for the past couple of millienia and is still an important agricultural centre in an otherwise barren landscape. The sister river of the Amu Darya, the Syr Darya, irrigates the fields with the runoff from the Kyrgyz mountains before flowing to the ever diminishing Aral Sea.

The region is still an important crossroads today for pedallers too and we've met many cyclists in the past few days and more still in Tes Guesthouse where our tent is pitched up for the past couple of nights as we gather provisions for the Pamir highway that officially begins in Osh.

Osh, Kyrgyzstan
Pedalled: 73,675 km

Thursday, 4 July 2013

120. Into the wild - from Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan

We enjoyed our three day jaunt across Kazakhstan. The wide open spaces of the remote southeastern corner, the small towns with friendly folk. Less so the million mosquitos that gathered around us each evening and the three seasons in 24 hours - from hot sunshine on the steppe to cold rain on the climb up to Kegen and the Karkara valley and then the sleet that fell as we passed through the recently reopened Karkara valley border crossing between Kazakhstan and its mountainous southern neighbour - Kyrgyzstan. Our parting from Kazakhstan was a warm one from the friendly Kazakh customs officers who spiked our hot cups of coffee with shots of vodka. Kazakhstan is larger than western Europe and we'd only seen a snippet of the vast country that stretches all the way to the oil rich Caspian Sea. Like the other 'stans in the region - the name of the country tries to evoke a mono-ethnic idyll that belies the truth of its multiethnic population. While Kazakh and Russian groups dominate, smaller minorities also have a significant presence including Uighur, Kyrgyz, and Uzbek. Other groups such as the Poles, Germans, Tatars and Ukrainians who were often forcibly settled in the region during the early years of the Soviet Union have also made significant contributions to the country, although many of these groups have migrated west again since 1991 and the end of the USSR.

Our second country in central Asia and another one of the former fifteen Soviet Republics was Kyrgyzstan. Shortly before leaving China we were able to confirm that the Karkara valley border crossing was reopen again for business having been closed after the political turmoil in Kyrgyzstan in 2010. Renowned as one of the most picturesque border crossings in central Asia, Karkara valley is home to a summer population of cowboys and yurts bringing their livestock up to graze on the knee-deep grass alongside black cranes breaking their journey from Siberia to South Africa and back. As the rain turned to sleet and a vain attempt to find some dry ground in a soggy landscape, we turned towards a ramshackle village to pitch our tent up. The village was mostly young men who were here to herd for the summer months. A couple were drunk but most stood at a discreet distance and watched inquisitively as the tent went up. A man came up and insisted on making us tea and storing our bikes in his shed. We'd perish with the cold he said. We would have to sleep inside. The dogs will bark all night at us he told us. Although very cold, we knew our gear was up to the task however and we splashed back across the wet grass to our cold abode. Eventually the enormous dogs also relaxed and their barking ceased. We woke up to snow covered hillsides and spent the day riding our way down to Tup and Issy Kul lake on a road that improved from gravel to hard dirt to tarmac.

In Tup we found lodgings in the dining room of a lady running a cafe. Evening tea was served in fine china under chandeliers and a long table. A bookcase full of dusty Russian works loomed over us. Outside in the garden, apple and apricot tree branches were getting heavier with their fruit by the day. For the next two days we rode west along the northern shore of lake Issy Kul. The second largest high-altitude lake after Lake Titicaca. Formerly a testing ground for Soviet naval weapons, the 700 metre deep lake now tries to prosper from gentler means, especially tourism. Speedo-clad Kazaks and Russians flock to the lake during the summer months. Rising up from the southern shore, the snow-topped Tian Shan stretches along the Chinese-Kyrgyz border. High in the mountains is also the site of Kumtor gold mine, a large Canadian-managed operation that was recently in the press due to protests calling for its nationalisation.

Descending from the lake to the lowlands at Kemin we rolled towards Bishkek and shortly before Tokmok a bullet sized metal pin did some damage to my rear tyre as darkness rolled in. Unable to find a quiet spot to camp we asked at a roadside shop if we could camp in the garden. It was no problem of course. In a land where the semi-nomadic traditions of its highland population are still alive and well, asking for a place to camp is rarely met with any source of concern, even amongst the settled inhabitants. More perplexing for our hosts is our lack of interest in drinking vodka after a long day in the saddle.

Village shops are awash in familiar goods - dairy products and bread - in a diet that although very heavily meat based, is still much more familiar to us than that of east Asia. The other half of the shop is dedicated to the several dozen varieties of vodka that creak the shelves. The macho culture is also a new phenonomen. Fast, reckless driving and prolific drinking along with a swagger that one would almost never see in eastern Asia is disconcerting.

With its relaxed visa regulations, Kyrgyzstan and its capital, Bishkek, was going to be a stopover on our route west. Stocking up on visas for the countries ahead, we picked up our Tajik, Uzbek and Iranian visas last week. Ellie battled the flu for a few days and my mother made the trip out from Ireland for ten days and we spent a few days exploring the city and then up to the mountains at Kochkor and Song Kol lake where yurts were erected on the summer pastures. A successful community-based tourism association offers homestays in the region and we spent a memorable night with a family by the 3070 metre high lake.

We're back on the road in the next day or two, back to the mountains, bound for southern Kyrgyzstan and the Ferghana valley before crossing into Tajikistan to ride the Pamir highway around to Dushanbe.

Into Kazakhstan

Real men drink beer for breakfast 

Baby camel and its mother by the roadside

At last we get to use our headnets...

Quiet reading time in the drainage tunnel

Approaching the Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan border post in the Karkara valley

First night in Kyrgyzstan - snow, dogs and village camping

Kyrgyz cowboys

Village shop

Approaching Issy Kul lake, near Tup

Issy kul 

Issy Kul


Descending to the lowlands and Bishkek

Camping in this family's garden

On the train

Driving up to Song Kol

More Lada promotional footage...

Kids at Song Kol


Song Kol

Home for the night

Song Kol

Dinner time

Vodka time

View The Slow Way Home - Map 2 in a larger map

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Pedalled: 72,985 km

Please note that as part of this trip I am fundraising for the Dublin-based Peter McVerry Trust who work primarily with supporting homeless youth and this year they mark their 30th anniversary. If you would like to make a donation, you can do so via my fundraising page on the website (click here). Thank you.