July 22nd to 27th. 317km
This trip just stepped up a level, both in difficulty but mainly in the amazing landscapes we’ve been riding through for the last 6 days. Leaving Kochkor, we knew we’d be saying goodbye to asphalt roads for a while and heading into the mountains, so we made the most of the smooth riding for the first 35 kilometres of the day. We stopped at Sary Bulak for a last restaurant meal and to load up on food for the coming days at the shop there. 3 kilometres further up the valley we left the sealed road and started the climb up towards Song Kol on gravel.
It was a short sharp up and over, a taster of what was to come. A couple of hundred vertical metres onto a ridge giving us the first views of this central part of Kyrgyzstan. At the top we met a Dutch couple travelling in a 4×4 who kindly took a photo of the three of us (we were still riding with Nam). The downhill was as steep as the up, testing our balance and braking on the loose stones, taking us into a tiny hamlet where we were greeted by crowds of kids and picked up another cyclist. He was probably only 8 years old, but he rode with us, chatting away in Kyrgyz for about a kilometre before we persuaded him he probably should turn around and head back to his family.
It was a gentle gradient up the valley and relatively easy riding, despite the surface. Looming ahead of us were some very dark clouds and over the next hour, the wind picked up and we started to feel drops of rain. Suddenly we were smashed by a brutal headwind, blowing rain into our faces. We slowed to a crawl and pushed hard to get to a farm building, luckily not far ahead, where we sheltered for 30 minutes until the storm passed. It was getting late in the afternoon and with what looked like a short window in the rain we didn’t continue much further before pitching our tents just off the road close to the river. Just as we’d made camp and got everything sorted the rain started again, continuing more or less all night, so dinner was biscuits and chocolate in the tent. Luckily we had a cooked meal for lunch!
We stayed dry in the tent with a pretty impressive storm raging outside. By morning, the clouds were breaking up so we had a big brekkie of oatmeal and hit the road early to tackle the climb. We still had a few kilometres of easyish riding before the steep section started, which was quite muddy in places thanks to the rain. We passed herds of horses grazing in the meadows, and heard the whistles of marmots who were pretty camera shy unfortunately. Halfway along, we were stopped by a gang of kids, offering us Kurut, a Kyrgyz favourite, crunchy balls of dried horses milk. We couldn’t really say no. They weren’t quite as bad as expected, like a very old, sour parmesan, but it still left a pretty gross taste in our mouths! We offered them some chocolate wafers in exchange which they happily took. I reckon they got the better deal from this particular exchange.
Now, for the climb. We saw the road high above us on the mountainside, up to 3,500 metres, the highest we’ve been so far. It was a gruelling few hours, on a narrow dirt track. We noticed the altitude once we were over 3,000 and our stops were more frequent. We passed a few other touring cyclists coming down, giving us an excuse for longer breaks for a chat. The clouds cleared through the morning so our views of the peaks around got better and better. About three quarters of the way up, we stopped for lunch break and to top up our water at a mountain stream before the final stretch to the pass. Eventually we crested the top of the pass where, disappointingly, there wasn’t a sign for us to pose with, but our map apps told us we were a shade over 3,500m. We got our first views down to the lake and took the obligatory photos.
The rest of the afternoon was a gentle cruise down to the lake, all of us in a jubilant mood. We found a perfect camp spot, sheltered by some small cliffs next to a river flowing out from the lake. We pitched tents, cooked some dinner and then went up to the cliffs to watch the sunset with a flask of tea. It had been the toughest day of the trip so far, but probably the best. All the hard climbing was forgotten once we got up to the lake.
Nam was off early the next morning to power ahead to meet some of his friends in Osh. We had a more chilled start, having breakfast on our rocky outcrop before packing up and heading around the south side of the lake. Song Kol sits in a big circular valley, surrounded by grassy hills. The sky was impossibly blue and the green grass looked like felt covering the rolling landscape. Horses and cattle were grazing everywhere and yurts were dotted around on both sides of the road. In the distance we spotted the familiar shape of two touring bikes and we met Eric and Jen, from California. They’ve been travelling by bike since last year, starting in Myanmar and riding through SE Asia and China (www.jenericbike.wordpress.com.) We chatted for a while and rode a few short kilometres before we headed down to the lakeside for a tea break leaving them to continue onwards. The tea break turned in to a lunch break and a paddle in the lake as we were enjoying the surroundings and in no rush to get back on the bikes.
Once we did, we turned south away from Song Kol and up towards a slightly lower pass (only 3,346m!) to start the descent towards Ak-Tal. On the way up, we were passed by a car, blaring out dance music, which skidded to a stop when they saw us. Out jumped a family from Bishkek who greeted us, poured us several cups of vodka and shoved handfuls of sweets into our hands. The mini party lasted all of 5 minutes before they piled back in the car and drove off in a cloud of dust, leaving us in silence, wondering what just happened!
It wasn’t a huge climb to reach the pass, but they had a sign at the top, so we posed for another photo. On the far side, we saw another incredible view down into the next valley. The mountainside close to us was a lush green and the valley and mountains on the far side were more arid and brown. Our road was still a gravel track cut into the steep slope, zig zagging all the way down to the valley floor. On a mountainbike, or in a borrowed car, it would’ve been amazing. It was still fun on our loaded touring bikes, but it was a bumpy ride and our hands were aching from the constant braking and vibrations. Once we reached the bottom of the switchbacks, we followed a mountain stream heading out of the valley. On the way we met Eric and Jen again, who’d pulled over to chat with another cyclist, Dan who was heading up the pass. We rode on together for a few kilometres before deciding to camp beside the river in a patch of trees. We cooked dinner and made a fire which we sat around chatting into the evening.
We rode the remaining way to Ak Tal with Eric and Jen the next morning, where we stopped at a couple of magazins to load up on more food for the next few days. We shared a watermelon before parting ways, they’re taking the longer, southern route to Osh while we were taking the more direct route via Kazarman and Jalalabad. We should meet them again down in Osh, where we’ll definitely have a beer or two together. We headed immediately west out of the village, which was a mistake. I should’ve paid more attention to the guys directing us to the south, but I put faith in the map rather than local knowledge. We ended up going 5 km down a deteriorating muddy track before realising we were obviously on the wrong road. It was hot and our bikes were caked in mud, so it was a big blow to morale to have wasted over an hour and 10km.
Back on the right road again, we were faced with washboard roads and a headwind for most of the afternoon. We were struggling a bit, and were really helped when a van of guys pulled over to say hello and gave us four litres of water to refill our rapidly emptying water bottles. We had a quick break, then made a start on the next pass to shave a little bit off the next days riding. It had been a very hard afternoon both physically and mentally, but we pitched the tent with a great view back to where we’d climbed from and got some much needed sleep.
The climb started straight away the next day. It wasn’t as high as Song-Kol, but it took us a long time to get up the many switchbacks. The road was still very rough and the sun was hot. Average speed was around 8km/h for the whole day, including the down on the other side. We really took our time getting up. Once we were higher, the views down into the valley and then further south to the snowy peaks beyond were our encouragement to keep going higher. Nearing the top, we reached a big grassy meadow with a few yurts and huts close to the road. A group of kids ran over to us, offering us chai and water. Both of which sounded very appealing so we went over to their little hut on wheels to sit in the shade and have drink. The four girls were there alone, their parents were away herding animals. They gave us tea, along with bread and jam while the younger two were rolling fresh balls of Kurut. We didn’t sample any more, but we did have some Kumis, a fermented horse milk drink, another national favourite. Sour and slightly fizzy, we couldn’t get more than a couple of sips down before reverting to the tea. Much more familiar on our soft British palates.
Just past the hut we reached the pass, so another photo with the sign. Then down for 15 kilometres making slow progress dodging potholes and larger rocks. On the way down we passed a super cheerful Russian guy struggling up the hill. He had ridden from Moscow and was en route to Vladivostok, and was full of energy even with half of the pass still to climb. We wished him luck and continued. At the bottom we reached a river where we had a break in the shade under the bridge, ate some bread rolls and refilled our water bottles. A steep climb from the river took us up into another wide grassy valley where we met two Polish cyclists. They said they’d seen Nam the previous day, so he was still making good progress. They also told us that there was a clean river about 5km ahead, so we continued to there before calling it a day and pitching the tent. We only covered 42km that day, it was a tough one.
From our camp next to the river we set off the next day to reach Kazarman, for a bed, shower and rest day. Our tent was shaded in the trees so we had a slower start. We boiled water for coffee and oatmeal before hitting the road. We were riding through quite gently rolling terrain initially before hitting another climb. We saw a few large eagles soaring above us as we slowly worked our way up. It wasn’t as tough as the previous days’ ups, but any gradient on these broken up gravel roads is a challenge. Once at the top we passed a couple of small villages which we diverted into for drinks. The second stop had a fridge, so we necked bottles of ice cold Coke and Fanta and attracted a small crowd of kids who ran beside us as we cycled out of town.
We had one final short climb to get us up and over a ridge, before descending towards Kazarman via a deep rocky ravine. The road conditions improved slightly, so we were able to pick up a bit more speed but we still took our time with another break next to a mountain stream. Once we left the ravine we came down to a wide murky river from which we had amazing views back to the mountains we’d been riding through. We posed for a photo on the bridge. I set up the timer and ran over to stand next to Clare leaning against the railings, which bent backwards and nearly collapsed! Luckily I kept my balance, otherwise the photo could’ve been very different!
We had a final 15 kilometres to get to Kazarman on a wide but very bumpy road. The late afternoon sun was in our faces and we really had to push ourselves forward to get to our destination. We hit ashphalt just outisde the town and found our way to the one B & B marked on the map.
They had a room, an outdoor shower and long drop toilet. It was basic, but more than adequate for us! We settled in and had dinner in a yurt in the garden where we met a few other travellers. Rafal from Poland, travelling on a motorbike (www.maptia.com/rafalgorski), and Damian and Lauriane travelling by bike from France heading East (www.bicloustan.wordpress.com/). We’ll have a rest day here and restock on food before hitting the road for another few days in the mountians, down to Osh. Here’s our route from Kochkor to Kazarman.