A new country, but we’d only planned one day’s ride, from the border to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital. It’s the end of our Central Asian cycling, as season and politics means we must fly to Delhi for the next big stage. We planned to stay in Bishkek a couple of weeks, to rest, receive supplies, sort India visas and bikes, with maybe a side trip into the Kyrgyzstan mountains or possibly Kazakhstan’s biggest city, Almaty.
After a long penultimate day in Kazakhstan, the border day ride was a short one. We set off in pleasant, sunny, conditions, but with an unhelpful easterly headwind. Wheat fields were down to stubble, sometimes set aflame. A few trees glowed golden yellow, but most were still in end-of-summer drab green. The border was friendly and low key, but whilst in its short queues, autumn kicked in with a vengeance. The sun pulled a thick, chilly cloud over its face. Not long after we stopped, in Kara Balta, it started drizzling, and by dusk it really was raining, dampening our exploration of the bazaar.
We woke up in the crumbling old Soviet hotel to see a few inches of snow everywhere, especially in the trees, as most still had their leaves. Slightly surprisingly none was actually in the hotel (do I mean snow or leaves? Does it matter?).
The snow quickly melted off the road, giving us a scenic, if chilly, ride into Bishkek. This western road into Bishkek is pretty horrible to ride. Traffic is pretty heavy, and the road is rough, the alleged hard shoulder even rougher. The road is wide enough for the marked 2 lanes, but not when there’s overtaking up the middle, which is frequent. I ended up swallowing my pride, and dropping to a crawl in the side gravel. Dispiriting.
Having researched a bit before, it was easy to find accommodation in Bishkek. Royal Memory Guesthouse was comfy, though water, Internet and service erratic. As we planned a long stay, we moved to Nathan and Angie’s At House, one night camping, then indoors. This fabulous institution is actually free for touring cyclists, and a fount of local advice. We started to relax, recover, and prepare for the next big stage.
Then, disaster! Rest ruined! Thinking about possible (restful) side trips, we called by the Community Based Tourism office, thinking of visiting Issy Koo lake, or a short horse trek. (Gid wouldn’t entertain a three day hunting trip, with eagles, on horse back. Something about his backside.) Unfortunately Clare mentioned “Pamir”, which we’d written off when we abandoned riding via Tajikistan on grounds of our feebleness. Although the Pamirs aren’t in Kyrgyzstan, we were promptly offered a motor tour. Oh bugger! End rest, cue – frantic preparations. Quick! Visit Bishkek’s second hand clothes street to obtain warm coats and jumpers (all 4 garments £14, later warm socks in Osh’s bazaar for £1/pair). Thanks to Nathan for that tip, and loan of a capacious rucksack.
Practicalities: One can’t rock up and rush into Tajikistan’s Pamir area. But we still had two weeks left on the Tajikistan visas. We’d got them in preparation to ride the Pamirs, via Dushanbe, but not used, and the CBT office provided the GBAO permits.
8am next morning we approached Osh bazaar (that’s the bazaar in Bishkek, not in Osh), from whence depart the shared taxis to Osh. We’re instantly spotted and herded into a reasonably serviceable looking people carrier where we remain, apart from wee breaks, for about 90 minutes as it gradually filled up. Once 7 passengers are loaded, the driver stops yelling “Osh, Osh” in the street, lights up, boards, and we’re off. 10 metres later we stop to pick up post, which, infuriatingly, takes several minutes.
The drive is interesting in itself:
- Distance: over 600km
- Time: About 11 hours
- Driving: Pedal to the metal
- Overtaking: In all cases
- Road: Winding
- Snow: Lots on north side of one pass
- Stuck: Trucks and cars in the snow – but not us.
- Music: A fuse of Kyrgyz folk and dance, interspersed with Boney M.
- Stops: Enough
- Passengers: A friendly gang, although not sure what some were drinking or sniffing.
- 19th century: Toilets
- 21st century: Showing the other passengers our house on Google Streetview, at 100kph, in the dark on a winding mountain road.
One of the passes in southern Kyrgyzstan
Unfortunately the memory of the drive is a bit marred, as one of the other passengers invited us (in sign language) to overnight at his place. But at his drop off point we’d got well out of Osh, then he had some argument with the next stage taxi driver, whereupon we realised he was pretty drunk, too. It all started to look pretty dubious, especially in the light of some other oddities. We backed out of the plan and jumped in another taxi to our originally planned Pekin Hotel.
Which was remarkably close to Osh’s bazaar:
Old military jeep in modern traffic, Osh.
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Then to the Pamirs, a separate posting.
Footnote: When we took the shared taxi back from Osh to Bishkek, it was altogether a much nicer experience. Possibly because it seemed to be partly pre-booked by three generations of ladies, or maybe they knew he was a calm driver and we were lucky to choose his Honda!