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I felt their eyes on me.
„No, my husband is right behind me,” I answered knowing that they will find out that my husband either wears an invisibility cloak or does not exist if they stay at the road for a while.
I didn’t expect so many people on the road to Chon-Ashuu pass. They all saw me cycling in the last rays of the sun. It was obvious I was going to camp in the mountains alone, as there were no guesthouses or yurt camps. That thought was disturbing.
The day has been tough. Headache and dehydration didn’t make the long climb in the scorching heat easy. I should’ve thought about the consequences of emptying another glass of wine the evening before I left Karakol.
It felt good, though, to be on the road again. With all my belongings in two panniers, with a simple schedule. Cycle, eat, cycle, eat, cycle, pitch a camp, eat, sleep. Like migrating animal. Only, instead of travelling in search of warmth and safety, I left warmth and safety behind searching for something else. But there was this instinct, telling me to move.
Why was I going to Chon Ashuu pass again?
„I’ve got nothing to prove. Neither to myself nor others,” I’ve been claiming.
Hogwash. I was looking for a challenge, for confirmation that I can go faster, higher, further. I knew it was childish, but I still liked those numbers to brag about. Visiting Chon Ashuu by car wasn’t enough. I had to come back and face the 3822-meter high pass by bike, using the power of my muscles. So, there I was, thanks to my ludicrous ambitions.
I set up my tent, trying to hide it behind a rock, and dived in to arrange my bedroom for the night. I was looking for my camping stove when I heard a horse clip-clopping along the road. It was closer and closer.
„No dinner, then,” I sighed. I’d rather avoid a tête-à-tête with a stranger snooping around my camp. Maybe I was paranoid, but after some of the previous Kyrgyz encounters, I decided to abandon my usual blithe faith in people and be lightly overcautious while on my own. I stayed inside and munched on some bread with cheese and a Snickers. Nutritious as hell.
After the dusk, the noises petered out. I opened the tent and breathed in the void. Brushing my teeth I watched the vague mountain silhouettes in the dim starlight. The air tasted like cold humid rocks and change.
In the morning, accompanied by the whistling of the marmots and the sough of the wind, I battled with myself and the bumpy road. Ominous clouds hung above Sary-Jaz valley. The place looked and felt nothing like the one I visited two days earlier. Funny how the weather changes the perception. The weather, the mood of the day, the people around. Visiting a place just once is never enough to know it. That’s why I always liked coming back. In the summer, in the winter, on a sunny day, on a foggy day, during the storm, at sunset, at sunrise. This time Sary-Jaz valley showed me its gloomy face. Everything was monochromatic. Brown rocks under the stormy sky looked like a low contrast sepia picture.
I was short of breath, even though I had left the panniers behind the rock at my campsite and my bike was 20 kg lighter than usual. The thin air was giving me a hard time. Drops of sweat mixed with rain dripped from my forehead. Finally, I passed a rock with the familiar chalk drawing of a smiling alien and relieved reached the pass. The old buildings by the road looked depressing in the rain. Two dogs came barking. A rusty red Passat stood in front of the house, but the family we met there two days earlier wasn’t there. Disappointing.
„Oh, that’s you again, you cycled up here? Maladiec devushka, well done!”, a quick chat like that would be a reward for that hellish climb. But the only prize had to be a Snickers, eaten in two bites. I started to shiver, so I put my skiing gloves and a wind-stopper jacket on and hurried down the road.
In the valley, an old man stood on the side of the road and contemplated the nothingness. He looked like an ancient Chinese sage. Gold teeth flashed when he gave me a faint smile and gurgled some words in Kyrgyz. They sounded like a magic spell or words of wisdom, but more likely it was just a small talk attempt. Now I’m not sure anymore if he existed at all. It happens to me sometimes when I travel solo. After a while, memories blend with dreams and I can’t ask anyone if that really happened. Maybe there was no ancient wise man? Maybe he’s just a product of my fantasy?
As the day was coming to an end, I faced a crisis: bunch of blokes wolf-whistling at me, sore legs, terrible road to Jyrgalan, and a cherry on top: a flat tire. I just took a look at it and started pushing my bike. It was getting dark already, and I did not feel like changing the tire for the last four kilometres. I felt weary and powerless and four kilometres lasted forever.
From the road, I noticed a tent by the river. Great, maybe I won’t have to camp alone tonight!
A young couple just finished the ice-cold bath in Jyrgalan River.
„Hey! Would you mind if I camped next to you?”
„No problem, join us!”
They turned out to be Polish as well. We had a nice, simple dinner before they went to bed early, as they had to catch the first marshrutka to Karakolin the morning. When I woke up, they were long gone.
Like Snufkin or another vagabond, I spent half of the day lazily sitting by the river, making music and watching the streams at their daily wanderings. Three cups of coffee, four cups of tea, and one patched inner tube later, I moved to the town and checked-in in a slightly overpriced yet cosy guesthouse run by an energetic young woman named Aziza.
„So, you think 600 som for a dorm bed is a lot?”, she asked.
„Well, in Karakol you can easily find a hostel for half the price.”
„But you don’t have Aziza in Karakol!”
I couldn’t argue with that. Aziza was special. Her eyes were full of light, her moves vigorous and strong. She seemed to be someone who does what she wants. She would straight from the shoulder ask her guests about their beliefs or love life and laughed a lot chatting with them over a cup of tea.
Sitting on my dorm bed, I tried to figure out the route to my next destination – Charyn Canyon, known as Kazakhstan’s Grand Canyon.
„Camping there would be alright. There will be plenty of tourists there so I wouldn’t be alone”, I thought.
It was 120 km away, mostly dirt road, mostly terrible. Would I be able to make it in one day? It was doable, but would it be any fun? Debatable. Splitting that in two days and camping near the border on my own was not tempting either. I always have this strange feeling about border areas, their aura is sort of fishy.
„Screw it, I’m going back to Bishkek!”, I decided.
Giving up cycling felt a little wrong, but that was what my guts told me to do. In hindsight listening to my guts always led me to something good. Not that my guts have some great wisdom about the world and life, but it always worked out well in the past. Maybe it will work out well this time as well, I assumed.
I woke up early for the first marshrutka to Karakol. Aziza’s mother, a lively old lady, walked me to the gate and gave me a warm goodbye. As the marshrutka arrived, the driver put my bike in the boot. It was a good idea to come half an hour before the departure and make sure there will be room for my bicycle, as a bit later the whole bus was stuffed with people and their belongings. Backpackers with huge backpacks and babushkas with polyester bags filled with whatever they could sell at the bazaar in the city. It seemed like not a single person more could fit in, but miraculously when a driver stopped at least five times for babushkas waiting next to the road, there was still space for them. Magic.
I bought some snacks at the bazaar in Karakol and among hundreds of identical white marshrutkas, I found one going to the capital.
A teenage girl on the seat next to mine cast a glance at me. I took the headphones off and introduced myself.
„My name is Olga”, she answered. „How old are you?”
„Do you have a husband and children?”
„No, I don’t.”
„Why?” she gave me a shocked look.
We drove along the north shore of Issyk Kul Lake. A snippet of refreshing breeze came through the open window when we passed the Soviet resorts of Cholponata and Grigoryevka. Somewhere near Kemin, the driver ordered a 20 minutes stop at a dingy diner by the highway. I was sticking to the seat already so I was happy to leave the car at least for a moment to stretch my legs and catch some air.
The marshrutka arrived in Bishkek at rush hours.
I put my bike back together and headed towards Tunduk Hostel. The air was scratching my throat when I cycled through the crowded chess-board streets of Bishkek. After 10 kilometres, my T-shirt was soaked with sweat.
At Tunduk, Sem welcomed me with exactly one question I needed to hear.
„Are you hungry?”
As we finished the dinner he asked another one.
„So, do you want to join me for my road trip tomorrow?”
We sat by the pool with a map titled „Kyrgyzstan. Map for tourists and businessmen”. While we sketched our route, I could not get out of my head the picture of a fat Russian businessman in a tawdry suit, bent over the same map and mumbling:
„Jalalabad… Let’s make some business there…”
The next morning, feeling like a traitor, I left my bicycle at Tunduk and got into Sem’s car. Our first stop was Ala-Archa National Park, just an hour’s drive from the city, but completely different world. Fresh air, tranquillity, and grand mountains. Among them Peak Uchitel, known as perfect for those who want to climb their first four-thousander. We settled for admiring the big mountains from below and took a hike to Ak-Sai Waterfall.
After camping at Ala-Archa river we headed towards Too Ashuu pass, which means a mountain pass. Someone clearly ran out of creativity while naming all the mountain passes in the area. The road went through an almost 3-kilometres long tunnel at 3180 meters, a few hundred meters below the pass itself. The tunnel was stifling and stinky, and I was happy not to be cycling through it. That would be a traumatic experience, with all those cars exhaling the malodourous fumes and the Kyrgyz drivers and their rather liberal approach to traffic rules and safety on the roads.
The other side was russet and dry. We camped on an arid, windy slope where the only mark of human presence was a power line looming on the horizon.
In the morning we took a little road leading nowhere. In this case, nowhere was called Ming-Kush, which in Kyrgyz means Thousand Birds.
In the 50s, Ming-Kush with one of the biggest Soviet uranium mines wasn’t even on the maps. Top secret. Only the ones with a special permit could get there. In the times of its greatness, 20 000 people lived among the majestic mountains that were full of precious ores. Thanks to the mine, Ming-Kush had a special economical status. The stores in town were stocked with luxury goods that were not available even in the capital. The mine shut down in 1968 and a felt tip pen factory opened instead. Eventually, together with the collapse of the Soviet empire, the factory ended its existence and the golden era of Ming-Kush passed away. Most of the population emigrated, as there was nothing more to do in this distant valley.
The warm light of the morning sun brought out the blue colour of the peeling painting on the wooden houses. They were delipidated, but in a way pretty. Most of the windows were just holes covered with plastic sheets. Only a few upstairs had white curtains, old posters of some local pop stars, or other signs of inhabitants.
The town was a car cemetery. Rusted, wheel-less vehicles of all kind rested in peace on the squares and in backyards. A white cat was enjoying the warm, lazy Sunday morning on the hood of one of them.
We entered a big store to get something for breakfast. The selection of the food was way better than what I’ve seen in most of the shops in the countryside. Was that an echo of Ming-Kush’s special status? The tired woman behind the counter weighed the tomatoes on the old scale weight, summed up the prices on the abacus, and gave us some candies to go.
An old men’s trio sat on a bench and waved as we drove further up. We stopped at the entrance to the mines. The landscape was moonlike – dry, dusty, and grey.
The old pen factory was enormous. A slim chimney towered over the vestiges of the buildings. We stepped over a pile of blue pen refills. Hypnotized, we wandered through the corridors and rooms in the state of disrepair. One of them turned into a restroom for the cows pastured on the hills over Ming-Kush. It has been almost 30 years since the last worker took everything from his locker and left. Since then, day by day, the factory was falling apart. Brick by brick, revealing the reinforcement bars. It was hard to imagine this dead place filled with the chatter of the workers and humming of the machines. There was some life there, though. Fragile, slim aspens were growing here against all odds, and their green leaves contrasted beautifully with the bleak azure painting that was still on the walls.
A little mountain road passing by a coal mine led us to the southern shore of Son-Kul.
Looking for refreshment after the journey, I dipped in the rough waters of the lake. The cold wind roisted through the plateau, so I needed to put almost all my clothes on when I got out of the water.
We sat at the shore with a plastic bottle of beer bought in one of the yurts when a rider on a white horse showed up. A grey mongrel came running behind him.
„Can I bum a smoke?”, he asked.
Sem handed him a pack. The stranger lighted a cigarette and offered Sem a horse ride. His steed was stunningly beautiful. It stepped with composure and grace and looked around with its blue, sad husky eyes.
After the sunset, the wind calmed down. The acres of the plateau filled with stillness. Every particle of the air was so quiet, that it caused a strange vibration in the body. It was the silence of an enormous empty temple, with no roof or walls. The immense space of the steppe played games with my brain. The water looming on the horizon seemed to be very close. I thought we were camping right at the shore of the lake, but when I went for a walk in the morning, it took 40 minutes to get there.
Tight switchbacks took us to Naryn. For the first time since I abandoned my bicycle in Bishkek, I really missed it. Cycling down this road would be magical. The hills around looked like suede covered. I’ve never seen anything like this before. The plasticity of the landscape was astonishing. It looked like a gigantic model with smooth shapes and pastel colours. There was not a single human being in sight, nor a trace of it, for kilometres.
Naryn, Tash Rabat and the road to China
Naryn was a strange town surrounded by unspoiled mountains, probably the world’s smallest town with a trolleybus line. Just one, along the main street.
After a couple of days of camping, I enjoyed having the comforts of civilization. I took a shower, sprawled on a bed and watched local music hits on TV. Men with tacky suits and loads of brilliantine in their hair were singing passionately about love, girls, and Kyrgyzstan, as far as I could catch the meaning from the music videos.
We went to the bazaar, as there was not much more to do or see in the town itself. The bazaar wasn’t very special either: just a typical mixture of food, plastic crap from China, and rip-off Adidas.
There were some remarkable sights to see south from Naryn though. Among them Tash-Rabat, the most famous monument in Kyrgyzstan and likely the best-preserved Silk Road site. On our way, we stopped in at Koshoy Korgon fortress. It was presumably built by Koshkoy – a companion of Kyrgyz national hero Manas – to protect the area from the Chinese invaders. „A very historical place” and „the best place to relax” according to Google Maps’ reviews. The reality was slightly disappointing. Shreds of muddy walls were all that was left from the 12th-century citadel. The museum next to the fortress was a quirky construction. Five cuboids sticking together, and a peculiar metal slide-shaped thing, going over the roof. Inside, there was a mixture of archaeological pieces, books, and paintings showing scenes from nomadic life.
It was the 1st of September. In Kara-Suu village kids were going back from their first day at school. The girls had dark blue skirts and big white ribbons in their hairs. The boys were marching proudly in their suits. Those festive outfits didn’t quite fit in with the dusty village and its mud huts.
Tash Rabat was a caravanserai from the 15th century, at the end of a dirt road high in the mountains. The stone building used to be a place where merchants travelling the Silk Road stopped, sort of an inn or a hotel. The corridors between 30 rooms were dark, cold and narrow. In the middle, there was a domed hall with rays of light falling in through small openings in the roof. Some historians suggest Tash Rabat’s origins go back to the 10th century when the building used to be a Nestorian monastery. That would explain why there was something church-ish about it.
Instead of heading straight back to Naryn, we drove south. The highway to Kashgar was smooth and straight as an arrow. Bare slopes of Chinese Tienshan sparkled alluringly in harsh sunlight. Although I never dreamt of going to China before, I suddenly felt an irresistible urge to see what’s on the other side. Probably only because it was so close, yet out of reach. To drive through the border at Torugart Pass you need a special permit from the Chinese government and Chinese driving license. Only a few trucks were coming from that direction. Just 30 kilometres separated us from Xinjiang, a province known for advanced surveillance and control. Knowing we can’t go through the border made what’s behind mysterious and compelling. The power of the forbidden fruit.
Back in Naryn, we tasted a little bit of luxury. We entered a big, bright hall and sat down at the round table on chairs with white covers. Fake crystal chandeliers hung down from the ceiling creating an aura of stilted elegance. In my shabby shorts, I felt quite underdressed in this wedding scenery. Exploring Naryn’s vibrant nightlife together with Simon and Virgiljus, two lads we met earlier at Tash-Rabat brought us to this peculiar place. A chaotic young waitress handed us the menu with food pictures just to announce five minutes later that they only serve one dish and one kind of beer tonight. So we just ordered the only available beer and drank it in this absurdly sumptuous ambience.
„Davai, chai!”, a middle-aged man waved at us, inviting for tea to his yurt. We were just coming back from the hike through the horse-trodden paths in the green valley of Eki-Naryn.
We took the shoes off and sat on a carpet. The table was richly set as if the family was expecting guests. Freshly fried borsok, bread, raspberry jam, sweet watermelon and much more.
The head of the family talked a lot, while his wife was making sure we have enough food and tea.
„Aisha, chai?”, she filled my tea bowl every five minutes.
Eki-Naryn gorge was quiet and paradisaical, with its vivid pine trees, red sandstone cliffs and emerald river. In the evening, the only sound we heard was the crackling of the sparkles coming from the bonfire and shy chirking of birds. The black sky was full of stars, and the whole world seemed far away.
The inevitable date of my flight home was getting closer and closer, so we headed back towards Bishkek. We stopped at Burana Tower, the remainder of the ancient city Balasagun. There was a little outdoor museum with a collection of balbals, rare monuments built by ancient nomads for their ancestors. The stone faces looked peaceful and looked calmly towards the east.
Walking up the twisted, steep stairs of the old minaret made me a little dizzy. The dark staircase was claustrophobic. From Burana tower, the view stretched out over the vast meadows and the majestic peaks of Tien-Shan on the horizon. The contours of the mountains dissolved in the billows of sombre clouds that later brought refreshing rain.
I watched the drops wandering through the windscreen and felt melancholic. I wouldn’t mind roaming those roads for a while more. There were still so many places to go to. Tosor Pass. Osh. Chatyr Kul Lake. Enilchek. So many unrevealed mysteries. Reasons to come back.
We arrived in Bishkek. Everything was grey and the air was heavy.