Kyrgyzstan – Part 1.
Another no-man’s land, barbed wire along the road tills a new barrier, still closed. We were warned: crossing borders in Central Asia requires patience; well, we are served!
We wait along with big trucks; most of them Chinese, exporting cheap manufactured items, not a single car around. An hour later, lunch break on Kyrgyz side is over and we formalities can start. This times no Carnet de Passage, no visa to ask for in advance… Just enter in the country and, as Belgian, we receive a 15 days visa and a permit for our motorcycles (at the price of 10 euros). Our bags are almost not searched through, we are just asked us to open one or two of them. We have entered Kyrgyzstan. This seemed easy enough after the last frontiers. We just entered the country and the landscape is already sublime. Greenery, pastures boarded by chains ok snowcapped mountains. What a show!
Along the way we spot a few isolated farms, sometimes in ruins, often in poor condition. Shortly before night falls, we pass a farm a bit larger than the others, with a yurt in the backyard, around which people are gathering. As they see us approaching, (or rather heard us coming, given the noise of Donald’s and Thibault’s bikes), they make big signs for us to approach.
After the soulless Chinese hotels, we are pleased to meet with the hospitality of Central Asia. The family that lives in the farm invites us to dinner and to stay with them. We set up our tents next to the yurt before night falls and then we have dinner together. The homemade bread is delicious; we eat it with some jam and (very) fresh butter. Then came our first encounter with “Kumiss”, fermented mare’s milk. It took great courage to finish our drink, not to offend our hosts. The taste is very strong, and sour.
The next day we leave to Naryn, the region’s largest city. On the map, the city seems very nice, with many parks and aligned houses. Once there, this impression is unfortunately not confirmed, the city is made of concrete, the houses are dotted with billboards and again the streets are very wide and drawn with a ruler. The definition of a rural Soviet city. We will stop briefly to refuel live and oil and continue north.
The Kyrgyz landscape is fabulous, long plains stretch along the road and there are always mountains to oversee the vast pastures.
We make a brief stop on a small hill overlooking the vast plain, to shoot 4K scenes with our C300 Mark II, we are very excited to record such a scenery. Kyrgyzstan is a wonderful country for camping and we intend to take advantage of it. Shortly before nightfall, we spot a river and follow it a few kilometers uphill. We establish a camp, and start to cook the steaks we bought in Naryn over a wood fire. We keep the fire burning late into the night, as we can now manage our time as it please us. We are not in a hurry anymore. The stars offer a magic show and we go to bed when the wood runs out.
Donald gets up early to fix his luggage rack that suffered from the bad road conditions. A part of the structure is folded and has collapsed. He discovered that it is the root of his bike’s battery issues. The fender rubs against the wheel at every bump and the electrical cables housed therein created a short circuit because of the friction. This problem is not a priority and we solve it by simply unplugging this part of the electrical system. No more rear lights for Donald. As for the rack structure, it is more complicated. We try to straighten it, but without much success. Thibault went on the lookout to find the house of a truck driver, a little further, who wants to help us. He comes to see the bike and asked to bring it to his place to use his tools. For two hours he will torture the iron, using mass and chisel to straighten the structure. He is as strong as a bear, and finally manages to return the rack back to normal. Success! To thank him, Thibault cooks an omelet with vegetables and eggs that we brought back from Naryn. We eat it together and convers in a mixture of English, Russian and French. Then comes the time to leave, we want to get to Son Kul lake before nightfall.
After thirty kilometers, we leave the main road to take a small path leading to the lake. It is a mountain lake and we must ascend two passes before arriving. There is virtually no traffic, we have the roads for ourselves and we greatly appreciate the landscape. We spend the afternoon riding through passes and valleys.
The last pass is the most impressive. The road seems to climb up to the sky. Motorcycle Leopold misfires a lot, it loses a lot of power and gives the impression of having clutch problems. Still it is working enough to ascent the road very slowly. After a long and laborious winding road, here we are, at the top. The spectacle of the valley is amazing; on one side there is a chain of mountains on the other many green hills that look like a rough sea.
The lake is not far away, and soon we see it, in the mist, surrounded by mountains and a few yurts. A storm is coming and we find refuge with a nomadic family who run a small hotel, consisting of three yurts. It is our first night in a yurt, heated with just a tiny stove fed with dried cow dung. Nonetheless, the temperature raise quickly inside the yurt. At those altitudes, there is not enough oxygen for the trees to grow and the locals have to find alternatives.
The night is rough, outside, the wind blows hard and it rains heavily. In the morning, the bikes are lying on the side and the engine oil has drained out. If our bikes are old and robust, they need oil to run; otherwise the motor overheats quickly and explodes. Since we have exhausted our oil reserves yesterday, we had to find a solution. Fortunately, a family who was on vacation in our small hotel go back to Bishkek and kindly takes Leopold to the nearest city, 120kms away, where it is possible to buy oil. This will take the whole day, as the road to the city is in very bad condition it takes five hours to get there. Once the oil bought, Léopold hitchhiked his way back. This was a very interesting experience, taking about eight different cars for the way back. Kyrgyz seems always happy to help and to talk with foreigners. Meanwhile, Thibault and Donald took the opportunity to meet with nomads around the lake and try trout fishing, without much success. Finally, late in the day we were able to fill our oil and motorcycles and repair our clutches, which suffered on the way to the lake.
The next day we hit the road heading to Lake Issyk Kul, the largest altitude lake in the world, at 1606 meters. We came from the south road; we will leave by the north road. The road is much easier, one can easily avoid the stones and the descent is exhilarating. The road is slightly sloping and in relatively good condition. We descend quickly around the light turns that we take “sportingly”. What a pleasure! But the highlight of the descent was the fried fish tasted in a small village along the main road. The trip to Issyk Kul was easy and we arrive in the early evening at the lake. It is huge; we do not see the end or the opposite shore.
We stop in the first village to look for accommodation for the night. As we just arrives in the main street, we go to a small group of men and ask, by signs, if it is possible to stay somewhere for the night. Immediately, a man invites us to his home next door. With a warm welcome, he prepares us a room ‘Kyrgyz style’, that is to say some thick blankets spread on the floor. By superimposing several layers, it creates a comfortable bed within minutes. We are very touched by his sense of hospitality; he offers us a delicious meal, proposes to do our laundry and to take a “local” shower, namely something similar to a sauna, with a bucket of water heated on a stove. The goal is to mix the boiling water with cold water in a third bucket and use it to splash yourself. The stove makes the atmosphere really special and the room very hot. The experience is very pleasant.
In the evening, we have great discussions with our host, we sing, we dance and drink vodka. We share our stories and experiences in a mixture of signs, English and Russian. The next day we go together for a swim in the Issyk Kul, there is no sand but grass and many locals are out to enjoy the sun. The village has several orchards; in the narrow alleys, huge semi-trailers are waiting to be loaded with plums, pears, … which are then exported to Russia. We share a last lunch with our host before leaving to Karakol, at the eastern end of the lake. As we start our bikes, Leopold notice that he must change his inner tube, a large piece of glass punctured it. With the help of our host, the problem is solved much faster than for our first puncture.
We ride along the lake, with snow-capped mountains on each side. We see in the distance the mountains of the opposite shore and on our right, those on the southern shore, majestic. We cross many small villages and old, disused Soviet hotels, probably erected to reward the most ‘Stakhanovistic’ workers of the time. pebbly beaches alternate with sandy ones and we stop in a small seaside town for the night. It is not easy to find cheap accommodation in this town considered as a resort. After some research we cast our sights on a yurt, often the cheapest accommodation in small hotels. To gain time on the next day, Thibault tries to fix his “tappets rod” at night, but something get stuck and it do not look good. We will keep the reparation for the next day.
We spend the next day trying to fix the issue, first by accessing through a small hatch before fully opening the cylinder head to access from above. The piece is folded but we have the spare, fortunately! Finally, or 30 kgs of spare parts are used for something! During the day we meet other residents of the small hotel, Kazakhs who vacation on the shores of Issyk Kul. They are very friendly and cook for us a great “plov”, a typical dish from Central Asia with rice, vegetables and spices.
Finally, in mid-afternoon Thibault bike is repaired and we set off to Karakol. The road is still as beautiful. After a hundred kilometers, as Leopold overtake a car, another car appears from behind and struck his bike on the side, knocking him and his motorcycle down. The shock is violent, but fortunately we are well equipped and it is the Sidi boots that accuse the hit. The crash bar in the front and Kappa boxes on the rear are also protecting us. Fortunately, Leopold is not injured, just a little bit groggy. The car stopped a little further. It is a young father with six children in his old red car, coming and shouting at us. Fortunately, it is a busy intersection and many witnesses stopped at the place to enjoy the scenery. They come to help Léopold, trying to translate what the driver is saying. He thinks his right and asks for repairs for his car, but soon, by reconstructing the accident, he realizes that he is completely wrong and was over speeding. He is poor, has no insurance and is unable to pay any compensation for the damage he caused to the bike and the equipment. The bike is scratched and the front lamp totally broken, but the worst is that Léopold’s computer and phone are broken. Once again, there is nothing to do, since he has no money…
It is with a bitter taste that we continue our road to Karakol. The accident has made us lose time and we arrive at night, with no lights for Leopold, at the hostel of Teskey, a former mountain guide who has a very developed sense of hospitality. His warm welcome and good humor made us forget the accident a little bit. After the accident, some of our routines will have to change; Leopold is left without computer to write the blog or telephone. That should make the trip much more offline for him.
Fortunately, tomorrow is a new day and we are looking forward to it. Thibault spend the day in bed, he must have eaten a dish that was not that fresh. We decide to stay one more night in Karakol. Donald and Leopold take the opportunity to edit the videos and write the blog entries on the remaining computers. By late afternoon, Teskey indicates us a hill that overlook the valley and the lake, known for its breathtaking views. The sun will soon set and we hurry to this hill, 30 kms away. We miss the road to the summit and take the wrong one, one that is intended for horses. It’s a real motocross course with sand, deep furrows and almost impenetrable bushes. Arriving at the top was a struggle but the view is magnificent and well worth it.
Getting down from the hill was even more challenging, as the sun was setting down! Once back on the actual road, another problem arises, Leopold’s bike does not start anymore. After many unsuccessful attempt to kick-start it, we don’t know what to do. At this point, three young adolescents living in the farm next door come our way. They offer us to follow them home, to try to repair the bike over there since it is nighttime and we cannot see anything anymore. The whole family welcomes us and tries to help us. We test various components of the motorcycles, one after the other, starting with the spark plugs, the cables and they notice that the alternator is hot, it might have blown. We call Teskey at the hostel, to ask him to bring us a spare one that we have in our cases. He directly agrees to help us. Meanwhile, we continue to analyze the motorcycle and we discover that the joint between the carburetor and the engine is cracked, and lets out gasoline for combustion. That’s why the bike will not start! We call Teskey to tell him not to come. In minutes, with the help of some tape, the joint is repaired; it is solid enough to go to Karakol.
Thibault feels better, but Léopold is feeling sick this time. He is sleeping till lunch and we set off for the Kazakh border in the early afternoon. We leave the populated shores of the Yssik Kul for the less densely populated areas of East Kyrgyzstan. The condition of the road worsens as we leave the lake; the asphalt fades at the same pace as the holes appear. We scoot for a plain to establish the camp for one last night in Kyrgyzstan. Shortly before sunset we find the perfect spot to pitch our tents. Below the road, along the river, a small clearing seems idyllic. There are even large reserves of wood for a great fire. Donald goes fishing and we hope to have trout for dinner! Unfortunately, it will be our portions of “crushed rice” brought from India… We remain for a long time around the fire, under a myriad of stars.
If diner was not fantastic, breakfast was a treat: eggs, coffee with our espresso machine, what a joy. The day starts well; we fold our camp and are ready to go. Thibault’s bike refuses to restart. Not a sign of sparks from spark plug. A lot of kicks will change nothing. There is no network coverage, no way to contact Rana from Joga Motors to help us out. We start to disassemble the bike piece by piece, for several hours. Finally, after many tries, the engine finally starts in a roar of thunder. The engine is at maximum revs, we can not shut it down, even by removing the keys and turning the circuit breaker. By disconnecting the fuel inlet we can finally stop it. It’s a total mystery why it started and why so much noise. After full inspection we notice that the throttle cable was not properly put. It took us 45 minutes of unsuccessful attempts to reach this conclusion. Finally, the bike is repaired, it tool all day, the border is closed and we will camp for one more night on the same site. Donald went to the nearest town, 50 km away, to look for food. He comes back with a huge piece of meat and fresh vegetables. Tonight, we will feast. Thibault prepares a stew with a part of the meat while Leopold prepare enormous skewers over the fire. We dine again under the stars, warmed by the fire.
This time we test the motorcycles before breakfast, they all start! Another hearty breakfast, with coffee, a large omelet and honey that Thibault bought from a beekeeper stands a few kilometers down the road. We dismantle the camp quickly and set off to Kazakhstan. Our last kilometers in Kyrgyzstan are on a small road in poor condition but the landscape still offers a spectacular sight, with grassy mountains and small pink lakes. Maybe some salt marshes?
This is it; a panel announces that Almaty is 285 km ahead on the small road that cuts perpendicular to left. We quickly see the customs post: a small, almost deserted hangar. Crossing the border was surprisingly fast on the Kyrgyz side; we give the passports, and a small talk with friendly officers. We have our stamps, we are now out of Kyrgyzstan and the Kazakh border is just in front of us.