We enjoyed much better weather for our second day of riding and we set out west around the lake, this time with Aitbek’s nephew.
He takes us to the small nursery school where there are some very cute rock animals outside a yurt brightly decorated inside with the children’s recent art work.
It’s a nice ride but by 3pm the weather starts to roll in so we start to head back to the yurt.
Song-Kol to Jalal-Abad
Day 1: 66km
The next morning we head off into very stormy, cold and wet weather. It’s not a long climb up to the pass out of the lake but the hail doesn’t stop for a good 2 hours and by the time we reach the summit we feel pretty battered.
The weather is incredibly localised and as we make our way down the other side via a spectacular switchback road the sun appears.
The scenery is the nicest we’ve seen on this ride so far – pine forests and deep green valleys.
The road gets worse as we head down with some very bumpy washboard sections. It’s impossible to get up to any reasonable speed but at least the weather holds out despite some very moody cloudscapes to our left and right.
We camp near the village of Ak Tal where we’re able to stock up on food and diesel.
Day 2: 48km
We’ve lost a lot of height so it’s much warmer the next day giving us a chance to dry out the gear. The road continues to be a bumpy gravelly track.
On the long straight stretch before the climb up to the town of Kok-Jar we notice that our back rack isn’t sitting right which is affecting the back brake system. The bolt holding the rack has sheared off. Paddy spends a long time getting the bolt out and then coming up with an alternative to the spacer we’ve lost along the road somewhere. He ends up using a number of washers and nuts.
We get going again and reach Kok-Jar by 2:30pm. We meet a nice Swiss girl cycling in the opposite direction and she tells us we have a big climb ahead.
We push onwards hoping to get to the top before calling it a day. A long, hot, steady incline leads up to the climb proper which consists of a series of steep switchbacks.
By 7pm we round the first mountain and are suddenly faced with this humdinger of a view. It’s breathtaking!
Although we have a few more switchbacks to complete we can’t resist stopping to camp in front of these amazing rock formations. We can see for miles. It’s one of those genuine ‘is this real’ moments!
We’ve a long way to go still until we reach Osh but views like this make all those bumps and climbs worthwhile.
Our next destination would be Song-Kol a 100km ride from Kochkor. The lake itself sits at 3100m so we had some climbing to do and we were aware that the paved road would end with a turning off at Sary-Bulak. From there, we’d be back to dirt track for a good 5 days.
The plan was to reach the south side of the lake by early evening of the second day.
Having contacted a number of community tourism agents and been quoted an astronomical fee for horse trekking we had decided we would sort something out ourselves once we arrived at the lake.
We had heard it would be easy to find a number of yurts offering treks and we weren’t too worried about having an English speaking guide.
The rain held off for the first day and we enjoyed the gradual climb up towards the turn off. Paddy recently downloaded the audio book of Thomas Pickerty’s Capital so we brush up on our economic and social science history during the ride.
At lunch Paddy notices that our front tire wasn’t looking too healthy… Same problem as our recent back tire which we replaced in Bishkek. We decide to change it before it bursts on the dirt road and punctures the inner tube. Lucky we brought that second spare!!
We turn off onto the dirt track – the road for this section isn’t too bad at all and we make fairly good progress.
The countryside is very beautiful and it felt good to be back in the wild mountains again.
We camp in a field near the road that evening and we finally manage to capture the ground hogs on camera.
The second day saw some pretty horrible weather roll in including some bitter hail storms at the top of the pass leading to the lake.
We sheltered in a yurt for a good 90 minutes eating our way through bread, jam and cream. The weather then cleared long enough for us to cycle around to the south side of the lake.
We meet a couple of other cycle tourers on our way round who are also sheltering from the bad weather.
We pass a number of yurt clusters and as we round the corner, the vast lake stretches out in front of us.
By 5pm we’re both starving so we make a quick stop to rustle up some cheese and cucumber sandwiches.
We cycle for another hour at which point we spot a large yurt complex just off the road so we cycle up to enquire about trekking opportunities.
We’ve stopped at a good spot but no one in the family speaks English and both our Russian and Kyrgyz barely stretch pass a few simple pleasantries. After a lot of gestures, drawing of pictures and looking up words in their dictionary we manage to fix a price for a three day trek. It was tricky as the prices for each thing seemed to fluctuate a lot but we got there in the end!
It’s A LOT cheaper than anything quoted by an agent and he confirmed we could take our tent with us meaning we wouldn’t need to pay for accommodation.
We camped next to their yurt that night and cooked up an omelette, excited about the next morning.
Up to this point, Paddy’s experience of riding stretched as far as a day trip on a Pygmy horse in Iceland – he was able to touch the ground with his feet on this trip, so mounting his fully grown horse Thor on the first morning was a bit new.
He was soon up and ready to go though…
So we set off and the weather remained dry if a little cold. We rode for about 40 minutes before stopping at a neighbours yurt. There was lots of locals and the cutomary spread was laid out in the middle of the floor.
Chai and Kumis were shared. This first spread is then taken away, a basin of warm water is passed around the circle to wash our hands, and a mutton meat course of Beshbarmak is served up – noodles topped with boiled meat accompanied by a bowl of broth. It’s all eaten with the fingers.
After eating a lot we’re invited to another yurt up the hill where a very similar spread is laid out again! By the time we leave to get back on our horses we’re both feeling very full.
As we mount up the rain starts to fall. We keep going towards the hills, eager to get back to the riding and convinced it will just be a passing shower.
An hour later it’s beating down still and after 90 minutes the storm turns into hail and snow. Our Goretex jackets are keeping us dry but our bottom half is sodden and we both have to admit defeat and decide to turn back to take refuge in another yurt.
We shelter in the yurt for a while waiting out the rain – finally blue skies brake out. Our guide Aitbek encourages us to both drink half a mug of vodka schnapps before getting back up on the horses.
We were all still very wet and we could see more bad weather rolling in across the lake. We decide its best to forgo the wild camping in the hills and instead return to the camp where we could dry off, sleep, and set off for another days ride the next morning. Our guide Aitbek seems relieved at this decision and so we all head back to the yurt.
Aitbek plods along on his docile horse but Paddy and I – no doubt fuelled by the vodka – are keen to get our horses cantering. Aitbek doesn’t seem to mind so we both dig in our heels and we’re off. Its great fun cantering off over the fields together and I’m very impressed with Paddy’s riding skills!
We race each other for a while and then turn to complete a big loop back to Aitbek.
As we near the yurts, the horses obviously recognise their home pastures and get very excited. Paddy is now addicted to cantering so he spurs his horse – who needs little encouragement – onwards.
We all watch as he races towards a large ditch… He manages to stop the horse but at the last moment loses his balance and we see him slide off the saddle. Unfortunately Paddy’s foot gets caught in the stirrup and while he’s trying to free his leg Thor gives him a hefty kick in the knee.
I watch him hobble back to the yurt and I fetch him some ibuprofen and a very cold bottle of water to act as an ice pack.
A bad bruise and a little swelling but I think the Irish horseman will survive to ride another day…
The Uzbekistan visa office in Bishkek is infamous for its scary totalitarian staff, ludicrous appointment system and administrative nightmares but it’s all very doable if you get organised.
Most EU nationalities do not require a letter of invitation (Ireland does) which can be obtained through a number of Uzbek agencies. However, a lot of travellers applying in Bishkek end up paying for an LOI anyway ($30-60 depending on the agent) as it makes the visa appointment process a lot less arduous.
Our LOIs were organised by Luxury Asia Travel in Tashkent who were really great to deal with and even filled out the online application forms for us and sent them as PDFs for us to simply print off. The LOIs took about 6 working days to get and only cost 20$ each but we also have to stay at one of the agencies associated hotels for a night during our stay in the country.
Caravansistan quoted around 60$ just for the LOI…
The Uzbek embassy has very recently (June 2016) changed address and it is now in a gated commune next to the right of the new Oxford International School on Manas Avenue.
If you have an LOI we would advise calling the day before to ‘arrange’ an appointment. We just turned up and were told to call between 4-5pm to make an appointment.
Everyone gets told to come at 10am and there was a fairly big group of travellers already waiting at the commune gate when we arrived at 9:50. So either arrive early and wait or don’t bother turning up until 11am. The guard on the gate speaks no English and operates an irregular 1 in 1 out system.
You need to have 1 passport photo, a copy of your application form completed online and printed off, your LOI document and photocopies of your passport page and Kyrgyz entry stamp.
The visa staff are not the friendliest but speak good English. After waiting for an hour and a half we were permitted into the embassy and handed over our paperwork.
We were told we needed to make payment at the nearest KiCB bank situated here (a 10 min cycle or fair walk away):
Here is the address if you decide to take a taxi.
The bank closes for lunch between 12-1 and annoyingly the embassy closes 1-2pm. We turned up at 12:05 but Paddy managed to charm the ladies there into letting him in, they even let him off on the transaction commission fee!!
It was all pretty straight forward after paying the bank fee and we walked away with out 30 day visa before lunch.
So we had finally completed all our visa admin and now it was time to get back on the bike.
It felt strange, almost like we were starting a completely new trip. What with us being able to closely follow the political turmoil back home, catching up with lots of friends and family over Skype and not having to pack a pannier or sleep in a tent for two weeks it definitely felt weird to be getting back on the bike.
We desperately needed to drag ourselves back to a travelling mentality again so we said our goodbyes to Andrey and set off.
We were soon back in the cycle touring headspace thanks to our back tire which burst just as we were leaving the city. A very similar thing had happened in northern Myanmar – the tire just wears away at the wheel rim… Maybe not even the ‘bomb proof’ schwalbe tires can cope with our heavily loaded back wheel.
We were extremely fortunate that this happened just outside Bishkek because although we had a foldable spare with us it was now obvious that this was turning into a continuous problem for us.
Bishkek is probably one of the few places in the whole of Central Asia where we could easily get another schwalbe spare, in fact we knew of a guy called Nathan who runs a hostel especially for cycle tourers in the city and he keeps spare schwalbes for tourers in need!
We debate for a long time about how many we should buy from Nathan. We decide it’s a good idea to stock up while we have the chance so we buy two. Nathan only has the Marathon Plus type so we fold away our spare Marathon Mondial, get a new one on the back wheel and manage to strap the second spare to the back.
While fitting the new tire we ask Nathan if he knew of any easy way of helping the tyre ‘fit’ properly around the rim. Schwalbe tires have a useful reflective strip which acts as a parallel spacer and we think one reason for the first set of tyres failing was that the first time we fitted them they weren’t parallel ending up with the rim pinching the tyre in the wrong place.
After much stretching, pumping and deflating Nathan told us to lube the edge of the tire with washing up liquid while fitting it – it really works!
Back on the road out of Bishkek we still find it a little hard to get back into the cycling… It’s hot (very hot), our muscles have lost all their strength, and our bums have relapsed back to a ‘sitting watching football, drinking beer’ state.
From the side of the road a figure runs out from the shade of the trees and hails us down. We stop and shake hands with Ed, another cycle tourer from the UK who’s heading in the same direction as us.
If you think we’re slightly cooky cycling on a tandem, our set up is nothing to Ed’s. He is 18 months into a round the world trip and he’s doing it all on a unicycle.
At the age of 19 he set off from his home in Somerset to embark on this incredible journey. Having seen out the winter in Bishkek he is now back on the road heading towards China. He hopes to complete the journey in 3 years.
What’s most impressive is his average speed and distance covered each day which, are not too far off our own and because he only has one gear he’s much faster than us up the hills. We sped past him on the downs though. 🙂
Ed is a bit of a celebrity in the cycle touring world so it was great to meet him in person; plus watching him take off and speed down the road after a break never gets old.
Ed is a very chilled and unassuming guy and it was great spending time with him.
We made some good camps with him and naturally the three of us were a slightly farcical sight while riding along. There can’t be many times you see three people cycling passed with only three wheels between them.
It’s very funny watching people’s reactions when they spot Ed speeding along on his single wheeled machine!
The three of us worked our way east towards Issyk Kul lake. At Kok-Moynok Bir we parted ways, Paddy and I turning south towards Kochkor while Ed carried east to Karakol where he’ll stop before heading towards the Kazakh border.
The cycle to Kochkor was on a good road but involved a hard climb through some very changeable weather, first baking sunshine and then hailing thunder storms. Near the top, I suddenly come over really feverish. My whole body aches and I can’t stop shaking, it’s a bit weird but we manage to reach the summit and Paddy helps me into my thermals before we freewheel down towards a suitable lunch stop overlooking Orto-Tokoy reservoir.
I collapse into a chair with a terrible headache and wait for the paracetamol and ibuprofen to kick in.
Once I’ve eaten and the drugs have worked some of their magic I feel a bit better and we manage to complete the last 20km to Kochkor where we check-in to the first hostel we find. I sleep for a good 13 hours and by morning feel ok again. Even so, we decide to take a rest day in Kochkor where normally there isn’t much to see, but by chance it was a Saturday which gave us the opportunity to wonder down to the weekly animal market.
It was well worth the visit and it was fun watching the women and men dragging their new purchases across the yard towards their cars.
We met the biggest sheep we’ve ever seen – a woolly grey beast weighing 36kg who towered over the other sheep and liked carrying seven year old children on its back.
On our way out we spotted a group of guys loading three grown, albeit normal sized, sheep into the boot of their Lada car… Here they are closing it up.
I managed to walk away carrying a little creature too, this one was unintentional and even more unwelcome however.
It’s never nice to find a tick clinging tightly onto your right earlobe…
When we get back to the hostel Paddy expertly removes it with tweezers and I watch it crawl around on top of our lunchbox lid for a while before stabbing it. I spend a long time merticulously combing my hair – an activity I haven’t done in about 4 months – and checking my body for any more.
Lucky we decided to have that tick borne encephalitis jab before we left!!
Even if you don’t plan to stay in a shared hostel dormitory or busy campsite there are times when wild camping that you will be glad you brought ear plugs – mainly because of dogs howling and barking in echoey valleys.
Universal sink plug
Most hostels, hotels and campsites don’t have plugs and you will be doing a lot of your own dishes and clothes washing.
Toilet roll dry bag
Doing your business while cycling; we all have to go at some point. We ensure that our toilet roll is kept completely dry in our 2l dry bag (Alpkit) which we clip on the back of our Ortlieb rack bag for easy access during the day. We also keep hand sanitiser in the bag too.
Wing Mirror – Essential for any cycle tour. Buy and fit one before you go.
Thermal Base Layers
If you plan on going anywhere mountainous or even remotely ‘cold’ you won’t regret taking a set of high quality thermals with you. They are light, pack down easily and act like a second skin. We both have a pair of Helly Hansen (HH Warm) leggings and matching top.
For those going to any country with Internet censorship you will need to download a VPN. We also use ours to access BBC iplayer while abroad.
Really useful for when you are not on the bike.
Bungee Cord / bag net
A lot of tourers who have the Ortlieb or Vaude pannier-rack bag combo don’t bother bringing a bungee chord. We have to use one to fasten our ortlieb bag to our rack but it’s also really handy to have somewhere quick you can store stuff during the day. It may be a jumper, a couple of extra water bottles or wet clothes but it saves you getting off your bike and opening your panniers up.
Rags – Used for everything
Sewing Kit – Don’t leave home without one!
Dice/Cards/Pass the Pigs
A great universal ice breaker for when you find yourselves spending time with other travellers or locals who don’t speak the same language as you.
Washing Pegs and Line
You will be doing a lot of your own washing so pegs are useful both when camping and when in hostels/campsites.
Floss – Great for sewing a gash up in your tyre as well as for your dental hygiene!
Wherever you go, eggs and vegetables (especially tomatoes) are likely to feature heavily in your diet while touring. But you need a way of ensuring they don’t get squashed in your pannier.
Sometimes we boil a load of eggs before leaving a hotel but we like to have the option of frying, poaching, scrambling, omelette-ing or soft boiling too.
We have two tupperware – a smaller one for eggs and a big one for our soft vegetables. The big one can double up as a washing bowl too.
Essential for a couple on a tandem or for those of you who want to watch films together.
You will tire of opening up your pannier to find pasta and rice everywhere again. Have elastic bands handy to keep loose bags together.
Prickly Heat Powder
We got given a tin of prickly heat powder in Thailand by our friend. It’s a god send in hot humid weather and after five days of no shower it’s great to be able to rub some on to clammy unwashed skin before bed! Plus it smells nice!
Ziplock bags and Durable plastic bags
Even if you have waterproof panniers you won’t regret having some bags for life that you can use again and again.We use ziplock sandwich bags for lots of things.
Gaffa Tape and Electrical Tape
So useful!! Just make sure you never find yourself without some.
Incredibly strong, durable and easy to store – simply tape onto your frame. We have used cable ties to fix so much stuff on the bike while on the road.
If you can’t afford (or lose) your goretex waterproof gloves these are a great and cheap alternative!
This only applies if you have a handlebar bag or pannier which can be zipped shut. Our Arkel handlebar bag has a zip fastening and there have been a number of times where we have wanted to padlock the bag shut. E.g on overnight public transport rides, in locker-less hostels or when leaving your bags in left luggage to explore a city or go off on a three day hike.
Useful things to have around. Good for clipping stuff to your hiking trousers (such as our camera bag). We also have one permanently clipped to the back of our rack bag for when we can’t dispose of our rubbish bag in remote areas.
A length of good quality rope
Handy just to have to fix things when something breaks.
Maintaining your gear system and cleaning your chain is important. Throw away that toothbrush and invest in one of these. They make cleaning chain so easy.
Ladies, if you’re touring for longer than 6 weeks invest in a moon cup. Tampons are hard to come by outside Europe and you really don’t want to take up space in your panniers by bringing a huge stash of them. Yes, the cup can take a while to get used to, so make sure you buy one at least 2 months before you go away so you can get used to using one before your trip. I love mine now!
Don’t give up on the first couple of gos either, persevere, as the pros weigh out the cons significantly:
you can wear them for longer which is useful when cycling in countryside with limited toilet stops.
They are cheaper in the long run, and much better for the environment (and your rubbish bag) when camping.
You can wear them at night – again, very useful when camping.
They are very small and light – always a plus for weight obsessed tourers!
A good sports bra (or two) is also essential even for women who are a small cup size.
We ended up staying in Bishkek for 12 days in total.
Like the majority of other travellers who find themselves on an extended stay in the city we were there to apply for a number of visas.
Unlike most of the other countries in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan has a free 60 day visa which you can renew as many times as you like by simply crossing over into neighbouring Kazakhstan – an hours drive from Bishkek. So although the capital doesn’t have much to offer in terms of great sights, plenty of travellers end up here, often seeing out the bitter winter before carrying on their journeys east or west.
The only trouble with staying in a city for so long is that it can easily become expensive. Luckily we were able to organise an extended stay with a lovely guy called Andrey who lives in the southern suburbs of the city.
Andrey is a Warm Showers and Couch Surfing host who only asked for 300 som a night to contribute to electricity and wifi costs. As we were staying for so long we really didn’t mind contributing this and his spacious house with its wild garden of fruit trees and raspberry bushes made a great base.
We often ended up cooking and eating together and by the end of our stay we were sad to be saying goodbye.
Between our multiple visits to the Tajik, Uzbek and Iranian embassies we managed to take in a few tourist sites.
Bishkek has a large concert hall home to the Bishkek Philharmonic so I was keen to see a concert while we were there. It proved incredibly difficult to find out what was going on however as the concert hall was closed the first day we tried to go and when we did manage to get in the building two days later there were no posters, flyers or programmes to tell us what might be happening.
Knowing a bit about the ins and outs of concert halls came in handy at this point and so I wondered round to the stage door and found myself face to face with a small crowd of people smoking outside, all with instrument cases slung on their backs. Orchestras are the same wherever you are in the world!
I managed to have a garbled conversation with a friendly flautist who told me that a concert was taking place at 5pm in the Opera and Ballet Theatre down the street.
So after lazing around in the nearby park we locked the bike up and at 4:45pm found ourselves seated in the elegant Opera House ready to enjoy a free early evening concert of we didn’t know what!!
It was very busy, although we were definitely some of the youngest there, and the audience were pretty dressed up for the occasion, many of them carrying huge bunches of flowers which slightly confused us.
As the lights went down it soon became clear that this was a special celebratory concert for Kyrgyzstan’s great lyric soprano Kaiyrgul Sartbaeva.
After playing an introductory film documenting her life, the curtains went up and there she was, dressed in a glittering white gown sitting on a red and gold throne with the orchestra seated behind.
There were MANY speeches by presidents of various societies, fellow singers and politicians from various government departments. We could tell it was quite a big deal. There was much theatrical embracing and presenting of flowers which were placed ceremoniously around her. Her assistant had to keep running on stage to make a gap so she could disentangle herself from the stems to kiss and thank the next speaker.
In between the speeches the orchestra and a guest singer would come out to perform something. The first couple of numbers were traditional Kyrgyz songs averagely sung with a microphone but as the evening progressed the singers got better and better and by the end Paddy and I had been treated to a fantastic rendition of L’amour est un oiseau from Carmen, a faultless performance of Una voce poca from The Barber of Saville (one of my favourite pieces of all time, especially when Cecilla Bartoli sings it), the love duet from Puccini’s Turandot and the mass finale from Verdi’s Aida.
All in all it was pretty special and we left feeling very lucky that we’d stumbled across it.
As well as the opera we also made time to visit Lenin…
…and enjoyed watching the football in the many beer houses.
One night, a young guy approaches Paddy, offers the customary hand shake and asks if he wants a ‘Hookah’. Shocked, Paddy declines, pointing at me to explain he is here on holiday with his girlfriend. Confused and embarrassed the guy leaves but 10 minutes later we see him carrying a shisha pipe out to the group of girls next to us….
We later discover that Hookah is the word for a kind of shisha pipe here in Kyrgyzstan!
After a week in the city Andy and Claire, another cycling couple (read their blog here) arrive into Bishkek. They have been following our blog and we theirs ever since China so it was great to meet up with them finally.
Andy and Claire have been living in Japan for the past five years teaching English and decided to cycle home to the UK before deciding what to do next.
Along with them came our South Korean friend JK who we hadn’t seen since Lithang in China!
Saturday night saw us all hit the tiles together with our friend Will who we had met earlier that day while relaxing at one of Bishkek’s many outdoor pools.
It ended up being a pretty late one and Paddy and I didn’t roll into bed until 10am!!!
It was a great couple of weeks in Bishkek despite following the political turmoil happening back home! At least Ireland and Wales did/are doing pretty well in the football!
We got all our visas and now it’s time to get back on the bike and head south east back down to Osh before heading into Tajikistan.