Kyrgyz tales, part 1: Always look on the bright side

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I don’t like flying. Not because I’m scared of it. I actually feel pretty safe on a plane. And not even because I find the whole airport atmosphere very stressful and I’m always there two hours too early, which makes no sense at all because I’m just freaking out that something goes wrong and I will be late for my flight.

No. The point is that in the very moment when you leave the plane after landing, all his world you left behind on the other airport becomes very unreal, really distant. As if everything that happened before the flight, happened to someone else. No smooth transition. Puff – there it is, new reality.

Luckily there is an unfinished package of buckwheat with cyryllic inscriptions on it, that we bought our first day in a supermarket in Bishkek (buckwheat contains a lot of proteins, they say). On my feet I have those fake New Balance socks because I lost two pairs of socks and I had to get some in Karakol. There is a little hole in my hiking pants, burned by a spark from a bonfire we had in the mountains of Eki-Naryn and on the frame of my bicycle there are some new scratches after I fell down in Altan Arashan. If not for that, I would be seriously in doubt if this whole Kyrgyzstan happened to me at all. Because since I landed on Prague Airport I had the impression that all of that was a movie or that what’s in my head is just some flashbacks from another life. 

I definitely should be travelling by land. I could gradually process the changing landscape and I wouldn’t have to plan everything in advance “because I have to book plane tickets while they’re still cheap”. I am terrible at planning in advance. That’s why I pointlessly spent a lot of money for taking my bike on a plane, in the name of purchasing the tickets while they are still cheap. Plans have changed a lot since I booked the tickets in May to my return flight in September.

At 5:40 am the local time I landed at Bishkek airport. Semiconscious after an almost sleepless night I took a place in line for passport control. Short and frail officers in their big hats looked like little boys dressed up as policemen. Finally I got the stamp in my passport, picked up my luggage and could go to the hostel. I checked in and threw myself on the bed to nap, just for half an hour. When I woke up, it was already afternoon.

– Hello! – a dark-haired girl with a big smile welcomed me. Pashmina arrived three days before me from Kuala Lumpur and was supposed to be my travel buddy for the next five weeks. We only knew each other from Facebook. I knew she learned how to ride a bike already as a grown-up woman and that I probably will have to adjust my pace to her a little bit. I had no clue if we will get along. I was quite used to cycling solo and a little bit scared of spending five weeks, almost five thousand kilometers from home with a complete stranger. But I decided to follow my boss’s advice and “listen to my guts” when I was looking for a companion for that trip. And my guts said Pashmina should be ok. 

We went to the city, to get some groceries for the next days. You can say many things about Bishkek, but definitely, you wouldn’t call it a charming city. Polluted air was making my throat scratchy, the traffic on the street was really chaotic, the supermarkets looked very European. I was happy that we’re leaving the next day already.

I was less happy about the fact that our train to Balykchy (we wanted to skip a busy and rather boring road from Bishkek to Issyk-Kul Lake) leaves early in the morning. We showed up on the train station constantly yawning, bought the tickets (paying less than 2 euro each, including bicycle, for almost 200 kilometers), and through the narrow entrance, we loaded our bikes on the train.

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Except for us and Paul from Hamburg, there were no tourists. No wonder, every normal person would rather choose marshrutka that takes about 2 hours instead of 4 hours on a train. It was hot. Some babushkas were getting on a train on the stations to sell some cold beverages and snacks. Samsa with potatoes, Samsa with meat. For less than 2 euro we could experience time traveling.

– Those carriages look exactly like those ones my grandfather was working on in Eastern Germany, in the 70. – said Paul, clearly fascinated.

A crowd of taxi drivers was waiting on the station in Balykchy, trying to find some potential customers among the passengers getting off the train.

 

-Spasiba, spasiba – we repeated, trying to pass.

 

We got on our bikes and rolled slowly along the southern shore of Issyk-Kul, the world’s second-biggest mountain lake. We were at an altitude of 1600 m and in the next weeks, before crossing the border to Kazakhstan, we were not supposed to go below this altitude. On the other shore of the lake, we saw the silhouettes of majestic mountain peaks, from the opposite directions some really dark clouds were approaching. The storm was coming. We pitched our tent on a beach, to wait out the rain.

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In the morning we decided to head to the mountains, towards Song-Kul lake. From there we wanted to get to Karakol. There were to options: an easy one and a hard one. The easy one was to go to Naryn through Moldo-Ashuu Pass and continue on the main road along Issyk-Kul. The hard one would be a real adventure, through Tosor Pass (3893 masl) and demanding mountain roads in the heart of the wild Tien-Shan mountains. We were about to decide after we reach Song-Kul.

At first we could enjoy the smooth tarmac, minimal amount of cars and absolute void around us. A power line, some garbage here and there and deer statues next to the intersection with the road going from Bishkek to Kochkor – those were the only traces of human existence in this raw landscape. I guess, Andrzej Stasiuk was right about those animal statues in Central Asia: Monuments of animals are always better than monuments of people. You never know about the people on the monuments, if they were blockheads, sons of bitches, or on the contrary. Your guess is as good as mine. There is no such problem with fauna.*

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In Kochkor we stayed in Saikal Guesthouse, run by a lovely lady named Saikal. Modest but clean, with breakfast served in a yurt in the backyard. A couple of German cyclists in their fifties recommended us the place.

– Go to Saikal, our friend Roberto is staying there and he is crying for sure, because we left him alone after two weeks. He will be happy if you come, for sure!

So we went. Roberto turned out to be a really nice and funny guy with the bad boy look – tattoos, dark bear, ear tunnels and a dreadlock. He travelled by bike for three years already, so he had plenty of stories to tell. He has just returned from Song-Kul, so he recommended us some good camping spots there.

-When you’ll be heading towards Naryn already, stay at this spot not so far from the pass. You’ll have a landscape like in the Alps, there is no point in rushing back to civilization, when you can camp with views like those – he said.

The human need to compare every visited place to something one has already seen, something that’s familiar is fascinating. Like the Alps, like the Grand Canyon, like this, like that – as if every place couldn’t just be like itself. I am really annoyed by this desperate search for some point of reference, my father does it all the time and I can’t stand it.  But then I find myself sitting at Song-Kul, thinking: “reminds me of this little village Hov on the Lotofen Islands…”.

Big mountain walls on the right, big mountain walls on the left. We entered a village of Sarybulak right when the muezzin started to call to prayer. On the opposite side of the road, in the containers, there were some inns, where you could get deep-fried fish and other greasy snacks. After a few kilometers, we came to an intersection with a sign: Song-Kul, 56 kilometers. The tarmac was over, the washboard started. – Doo doo doo doo doo – our bikes were jumping on the bumps. The landscape around us was dry, waste and dusty. We came to the last village. There was a man lying in front of the little store and his condition indicated that his relationship with vodka is very close. Behind the village the landscape started to look more friendly, there were some green and a mountain river along the road. I wanted to set up our camp a little further from civilization, but I saw Pashmina was exhausted, so we found a cozy place at the river and decided to make it our home for the night. 

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Right after we started to pitch the tent a boy on a horse arrived. A kid, looked like he wasn’t older than 15. We tried to communicate with him, but he didn’t speak any Russian, let alone English. I offered him a cookie and came back to our evening routine. The boy watched us clearly fascinated. Eventually, we started to feel uncomfortable. We decided to ignore the kid and started to make dinner. We sat with our food by the river. The young horseman was standing next to our tent for a while and finally, he jauntily crossed the river. He stopped, whistled to get our attention and when we raised our eyes we saw our uninvited guest waving cheerfully with his penis. We were dumbfounded.

-Let’s just ignore him – whispered Pashmina – maybe he’ll just leave.

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In fact, after he didn’t get enough attention, the boy left us with our jaws dropped. We decided to move our camp somewhere else, in a less visible spot. Admittedly, the boy looked pretty harmless – he was so tiny that we probably could knock him out if needed. However, we didn’t like to find out if he has any friends or brothers, with whom he might visit us at night. Just in case we went to sleep with pepper spray and knife close at hand.

-This washboard is hopeless. I am hitching a ride – said Pashmina after a few kilometers of cycling up the hill the next morning.

So I had to face Kalmak-Ashuu pass by myself. The road wasn’t really steep, but the bumps and the heat made it hot for me. I drank six liters of water before I reached 3446 masl. There was no sign, nothing at all, the road just became flatter and then started to go down. But there was a group of British tourists and a group of Kyrgyz people who came there by minibus.

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-Jesus, we are exhausted just by coming here by bus and you are cycling here – marveled one of the British guys.

We took some pictures, I sat with them on the grass for a while but it started to get chilly. I also knew that Pashmina is surely waiting for me somewhere at the lake. As it turned out, she was hosted by the family that gave her a ride. They lived in the yurts a few kilometers before Song-Kul, there were chickens and horses running around. The people offered me some tea and something to eat, so I took my shoes off and took place at the covered table in the smaller yurt. They gave me a bowl of tea, then I was served a glass of kumis – fermented horse milk. I carefully took a little sip, wondering what this drink can do to my stomach, which clearly was not used to delicacies like that. The taste was weird so I didn’t have the courage to drink more. After a while, a teenage daughter of our hosts pointed at the glass and asked in broken English if I’m going to finish it. Embarrassed, I shook my head, so the girl moved the glass towards herself and with a smile on her face set me free from having to drink the Kyrgyz national drink. 

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We hit the bumpy trail towards the lake located on 3000 masl. Pashmina was struggling, cycling on her thin tires wasn’t easy on trails like that and when we arrived, she was clearly exhausted. It was much easier for me, on a mountain bike. It seemed that we will have to change our plan. The route through Tosor pass wasn’t even an option, the easier road to Naryn wasn’t the best plan either since one of us didn’t get any pleasure at all cycling the gravel roads through the mountains.

We passed some big touristy yurt camps and decided to stay in a smaller one, close to the shore. The space around the lake was truly impressive: square kilometers of step with grazing horses, surrounded by mountain peaks. Although it was one of the most popular destinations in the whole Kyrgyzstan, you could easily find a spot to be on your own. I quickly changed into a swimsuit and before the sun went down I took a dip in a lake. For this altitude, the water was quite warm.

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We figured out a new plan in the morning: we decided to go back to Issyk-Kul and continue cycling to Karakol on the main road. Before that I wanted to use the opportunity that we are at Song-Kul, so I left my panniers and went for a ride along the northern shore. The sun was shining, a gentle breeze was coming from the water and I was just roaming around between horses that were quite busy gnawing grass. I heard the sound of the hooves and after a while a guy on a beautiful bay horse showed up, followed by a shepherd dog. We exchanged looks and started to race. The road was going slightly downhill, which gave me an advantage but only for a while. The guy started to gallop, looked back and with a gloating look on his face rushed ahead. 

Pashmina wasn’t feeling well, so we decided to take a taxi back to Kochkor, quite adventurous and full of adrenaline trip it was. Our driver felt like a real king of the road. His tanned hands with pale spots clamped the steering wheel, while he was driving like satan, cutting all the corners and he didn’t give a damn about the squeaking sound his brakes were making.

The road to Issyk-Kul was supposed to be just fun – decent tarmac, slightly downhill all the time. Not this time. The day started badly and ended badly, and the time between the beginning and the end was filled with constant headwind and one nice and exciting episode: an encounter with camels, who were just chilling in the sun on the roadside.

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This time we were cycling the free of us, me, Pashmina and Altan from Turkey. We met him in Kochkor. He just made it through Kegeti pass – one of the most difficult roads in Kyrgystan. Rocks, landslides, fickle weather – creme de la creme of Tien-Shan. Right after we left Kochkor a truck overtook us coming very close. Pashmina fell, luckily on the right side and not under the truck. We dressed the wounds, made sure Pashmina can cycle and continued the fight against the headwind.

Finally, we arrived at the lake. We found a nice spot close to an abandoned barn and, crowded by thousands of angry mosquitos, we started to pitch our tents.

-Thwack! – my tent frame broke making a hole in the rain cover.

I cursed loudly. I was tired and angry, and the mosquitos were like crazy. I wanted to hide in the tent as soon as possible. Now I had to create a provisional construction using two herrings and a lot of duct tape. I covered the whole in the rain cover with the duct tape as well. Luckily it didn’t look like it’s going to rain at night, there was no wind, so our crooked tent should make it till the morning.

-I don’t even want to imagine what if that happened somewhere up in the mountains, in some storm – I said to Pashmina. Always look on the bright side…

We crawled into our bend shelter. Pashmina clearly struggled with it, it looked like her knee was not ok. 

-Broken tent, injured partner – great summary of the first week, definitely… – I thought, lying in my warm sleeping bag and listening to the waves of the world’s second-biggest mountain lake.

* Andrzej Stasiuk, Osiołkiem, Wydawnictwo Czarne, 2016, My translation.

 

 

 

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