Bye bye Bishkek, Farewell Central Asia

Tomorrow morning we fly to India. Here’s a final mini-blog for Bishkek.

At the AtHouse

Where we’ve been so wonderfully put up, and put up with. And met so many other travellers.

Between the snowfalls

With today’s and yesterday’s snow

That’s 16th and 17th November, for posterity.

By Bus Around Lake Issy Kul

Sight seeing is fairly limited in Bishkek: a few statues, the tourist shop, the square, the goose step guards who are currently ‘off’ due to the building being under repair, and the bazaar. We’d done the lot, with many visits to the bazaar and needed another diversion.  Ysyk-Kol Lake did the trick: not too far away, public transport so it’s cheap, a nature reserve and local holiday spot.  Angie, our hostess at the AtHouse, sorted out our first nights accommodation; a second outing for Nathan’s old rucksack and we we’re off.

Tamara, our hostess at Tamga, booked her ‘cowboy’; we were all set for a morning’s horse ride. 10 she said and the deed was done.  At 10 we we’re ready: togged up, breakfasted up, camera sorted or so we thought. 10 came and went. Tamar’s cowboy couldn’t find his horses.  Once he arrived it was easy to see why as they must have been deeply submerged in a briar patch. Both manes and tails were matted to a lump with burs.  The ubiquitous padded sleeping mats came in handy again as they we’re draped over the saddles for our comfort and under the wooden runners to protect the horse.  Plaited string reins were given, together with the usual instructions: left, right, stop & fast ahead with the use of a birch twig whip, and we were off. The first hiccup occurred as our horses headed off the track, down a small bank into a stream for a drink. Eider, our guide, already had the measure of our riding skills coming quickly across to chivvy the horses back on track. My horse was keen to be the leader of the pack. It frequently broke into a trot and occasionally a canter, much to my alarm,  to make sure it’s nose was ahead. Gid was less fortunate and had the opposite problem, it wouldn’t budge. Eider soon sorted the problem. Along we went; down steep banks, across mountain streams, along mountain side sheep trails, all of which I would have baulked at on foot, until we reached an open meadow where Eider eagerly suggested we could canter. I firmly declined the offer. I’d grown quite fond of my saddle and didn’t wish to part with it.
It was a superb day, not a cloud in the sky, and a light dusting of snow visible on the sharp-edged mountains behind the foothills we climb. The dusty track rose straight from the village, up the valley. It wiggled and dipped through scrubby, hilly, grassland and a few streams. About ten times we saw a vehicle lurch up the bigger track up the valley. We greeted a couple of farmers. The two dogs were annoying; otherwise, outside the village it was just us.
We ambled back down, once I’d managed to convince my horse we weren’t going to canter for home the whole way. That was until a rare occasion when we’d dropped behind and watched three dogs aggressively worrying the two horses ahead; one hanging off the tail of Eider’s horse. It didn’t seem such a bad idea when my beast took flight and delivered me some 30 metres up the track to the front of our group again, with Eider brandishing his whip at the dogs as I flew by.

Fairytale Canyon

Barskoon Valley Waterfall

Around Tamga

Moving on from Tamga was entertaining in itself. Tamara had warned us that the bus timetable was approximate, not deterring an ambitious driver from speeding away early despite the bus having a schedule. True enough, 15 mins early we were chased up the road by the bus that did a quick flit round and was off again.
Being already full didn’t deter a further four of us piling on. I  was given a seat as usual, with Kyrgyz politeness showing deference to age. On this occasion it may have been the short straw. Gid clung to the single roof rail in a throng of people who surged forward when someone want to depart, until one burst out, whereupon, a ripple of people retreated in a backwash. I was perched on an upturned metal, bottle crate; one leg slowly going numb. My face was approximately at arse height as I sat amongst the throng. One pair of legs squeezed mine in a pincer gripe as I tried to casually glance away. Gradually, as we passed through the villages, space became available. I moved to a comfy seat to admire my former perch and truly admire the view.  My admiration sank as a man near us repeatedly rasped up a mouthful of spit ready to gob. Inhibited, perhaps, by the enclosed space the final deed was unfinished, much to our relief.

Karakol Valley – Walk up to the Ski Resort

Karakol Museum

Karakol Animal Market

The animal market, Angie from the AtHouse in Bishkek had said, was quite a spectacle. The biggest in the region the Lonely Planet guide claims.  For once we were in the right place at the right time. I woke at 5:50 my internal alarm well tuned in and was instantly absorbed by thoughts of the animal market. Early in the morning, all over by 10 were phrases ringing in my head.

I got a groan or two out of Gid, who mentioned something about 01:30 bed time;  6am wasn’t going to happen for him.  I lay there trying to content myself with thoughts such as; we’d seen animals at Kumtepa Bazaar in Margilon so presumably it would be similar but bigger.  We’d also seen herds of animals spilling out onto the dual carriageway way-back-when so I had conjured up something in the middle: loads of wild fowl, loads of herds and maybe a pen or two like our now discontinued sheep fair, in Sussex. But my thoughts were running wild.  I’m here, I’m awake, my only chance.

I bounded out of bed and shortly after was ready to leave. Our windowless room gave no hint of the pitch black outside. Gid, now awake, agreed to come and let me out.  Through one locked door, on to the next, but the final door was locked and we couldn’t find the key. Our efforts had woken the receptionist who came to investigate.  By now Gid was fully sort of awake and agreed to join me.  The receptionist phoned a taxi, a whole 70 som, to save us the 30min walk.

I became apprehensive sitting in the taxi waiting for Gid. I’d dragged him out and it was still pitch black.  What on earth would we be able to see?  Nearing the venue the roads were becoming more and more  blocked by lorries whose loads were nowhere to be seen.

Spilling out of the taxi into the dark, we followed the throng; many people had torches but ours were tucked up in bags at the hostel.  Most people were leading small flocks of sheep, the odd single one or cows, through copious amounts of ‘mud’.  All were either lining the edge of the road together with the vehicles or squeezing along it.  We went with the flow bearing left into a large opening stuffed full of cows and horses.  As there was barely anywhere to stand we tried to tuck in at the edge, finding a couple of rocks raised us up to get a better view.  Traffic passed backwards and forwards; all squeezing through.  The occasional beast refusing to budge. The huge area was absolutely filled.  As the sun rose the spectacle opened out before us; deals started to take place, animals were inspected and some exchanged hands.

Cholpon-Ata

Petroglyph park dated 8th century BC – 5th century AD

From the bus on the homeward journey

I shall miss the ‘Stans’ as we move on into India. I have grown quite fond of the vast plains dotted with numerous herds of horses, cows, sheep & goats as they mooch across from one side to the other in search of a mouthful to eat. Especially here where the plains span right across to the foothills of the snow capped mountains. Herdsmen, frequently on horseback grace the scene. Their former nomadic lifestyle is evident with ‘sheep’s people’ high up on the mountains together with the occasional sight of a yurt.
Passing along the lakeside highway idly admiring the view, with vast expanses of golden ‘fields’ has been delightful. Hay stacks piled high in gardens nestling between fruit trees, on roof tops or jammed up beside the house. The houses, no frills, working machinery sits amid the ancient relics,  museum piece tractors splutter along with over filled trailers, donkeys dwarfed as they trudge along with the last of the seasons crops. All add to the atmosphere that for me captures rural Kyrgyzstan.

 

Pamirs Take Two – Gideon’s Pictures

As explained in the previous post, we took too many pictures on our Pamir trip to fit in one post. So the previous post has the Pamir text and Clare’s pictures. This post separates out Gideon’s pictures.

Best Shots

Phone Snaps

This little collection shows some of the character of the trip, but doesn’t quite measure up to the quality standards we’d like to set. There’s a limit to time when shooting from a moving car, especially on bumpy roads. But thanks to both drivers for keeping the windows clean!

Road Trip

Mountain Textures

Landscape

Around Town

The Pamirs by Toyota Land Cruiser

The Pamirs, a highway across the ‘roof tops’ of the world, a dream destination for well ‘ard cyclists that had been on my wish list since Gid gave me a 501 must do trips book for Christmas 2013 and there, together with the Karakorum Highway, it was. Then he gave me the Adventure Cycle Touring Handbook for Christmas 2014 – was there a plot?

We took far too many pictures! The area is both photogenic and varied, and, we had loads of time for photography. Even half of our pics is blog-bursting, slow to edit and view. So all the pictures below are Clare’s. Gid will make a separate posting for his photos.

I had nurtured my dream, but Gid was more in touch with reality and had realised we wouldn’t be able to do it quite early on in our trip.   Something to do with my groaning and state of depression when faced with endless mountains.  I had kept on trying to convince myself that I would miraculously: shed half the weight on my bike, toughen up both mentally and physically, and fit large mountain bike tyres to cope with the dirt road conditions, by the time we reached Dushanbe.  Not to mention the further difficulties such as the likelihood that there would be snow and very few places to get drink, food or shelter along the way. The advice, also, was to take two to three weeks to acclimatize before attempting any strenuous exercise at high altitudes and time was running out.
As mentioned in an earlier blog, we went to visit the CBT office to see what was on offer as a possible excursion around the Bishkek area having been told that the Pamirs were off the cards – this is Kyrgyzstan, they wouldn’t be organising or promoting trips in Tajikistan.  A three day hunting trip with eagles was very attractive, well, to me at least, but nothing really hit the spot so I thought I’d drop the Pamirs into the conversation.  At that point there was no looking back. Eye wateringly expensive with just two of us in a 4×4, it could all be organised from Bishkek.  At least we already had Tajikistan visas…
A flurry of activity ended up with us in a shared taxi – 11 hrs, two snow covered passes and numerous dodgy overtaking manoeuvres later we were in Osh, the starting point for the Pamirs from the eastern end.
In Osh we met Baktir, our driver, who made us very comfortable from the start. His broken English was enough to make some conversation and he ablely informed us of the sights and some historical information 0nroute .   Equally, he readily stopped for us to visit and take photos at major sites, and whenever we asked, although we frequently snapped away as we went along.  It was only when snaking down a mountain road into the Wakhan Valley with Baktir peering out across his left shoulder that I started to panic about cliff edges.
The central plateau of the Eastern Pamirs is classified as desert due to the lack of rain. Temperatures, Baktir told us, can drop as low as -40/50C but generally it will only snow in January or February – true enough it was brown mud/rock mountains unlike the snow covered passes and mountains we’d seen earlier, especially north of Osh.  This didn’t stop the ‘sheeps people’ who live in the mountains and have permits to cross into China to access ‘pastures’ for their sheep and goats, from being there.  Together with the ‘sheeps people’ were the yak people.  Some yaks wandering freely; others were vaguely linked to a village while some, miles from anywhere, were with a herdsman. Cattle, chickens, horses and donkeys also roamed freely or at times with a herdsman. Sometimes the herdsman was on foot, sometimes on a horse, sometimes on his mobile. The prized Marco Polo wild sheep, although occasionally near the road side we were told, where nowhere to be seen.  This, to me, wasn’t surprising; despite being a listed endangered species they are still hunted in the area by wealthy tourists – and probably hungry locals.
The Pamir area is huge, but has a tiny population. Down in the deep river valleys on the Afgan border,  the climate is mild; grain, vegetables and fruit all grow, as well as keeping livestock. These areas looked more prosperous, although large numbers of working age men at the roadside testified to a significant employment problem. Up on the higher plains everything looks much worse, and indeed, Murghab is about the poorest place in Tajikistan, which is itself a very poor country. Wikipedia’s Tajikistan entry is not up to date but reported, in droughty 2015, imminent famine conditions in the Murghab area.  This would have greatly  affected the population of 4,000; probably the largest town in the eastern Pamirs.

Murghab

Our route was a bit of a whistle stop tour, Osh – Karakul, Murghab, Langar, Khorog, Murghab, Osh.

Wakhan Valley

There were many highlights along the trip.  The numerous snow covered mountains were truly breath taking but for me the sight of a caravan, all be it of horses, was truly awesome.  As always, yesterday, we were later told,  it had been 15 camels.  But, we were close enough to chat across the River Panj to the Afghan riders who were on their way down the river to sell produce at a bazaar.

Way Home

Baktir decided his Land Cruiser need a wheel bearing fixed before it moved from Khorog. But guess what – his cousin Kusbai has a Land Cruiser too.

 

The Fergana valley

Ferghana is a watered, fertile and temperate valley in this dry and mountainous region. It’s been the centre of ancient empires, and fought over many times. Now it is mostly part of Uzbekistan, spilling into Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, with very complex borders that don’t match the (mostly old Soviet) road and rail networks. Until a month before, travelling from Tashkent into the Ferghana Valley meant going via Tajikistan, which involves two border crossings and significant wasted time – and for the round trip we’d needed a double entry Tajik visa and a triple entry on our Uzbek!  But only three weeks before we embarked, a new rail line was opened, which stays entirely on Uzbek territory, albeit pretty winding, and thus slow, for a significant part. The carriages were new, and by UK standards, extremely roomy and comfortable. One suspects a UK operator would put twice as many seats in the space, and charge at least double. The line was built with Chinese help, and includes a substantial tunnel. Which we never saw. Because, it’s secret! As the train approaches it, the staff draw the curtains, and then, one stands at each end of the carriage to ensure nobody peeps. Goodness knows what they keep in there – the world’s only plov mine, perhaps? Anyway, it does translate to a splendidly attentive train crew for the rest of the journey.

Margilon, being roughly in the centre of the valley, was a great place from which to explored by bus and shared taxi, with Al Cave, another travelling retired teacher from the UK.

Yodgorlik  silk factory Margilon – Clare

 Yodgorlik  silk factory Margilon – Gideon

 

Rishton ceramics museum

Where the clay is so pure that they only need to add water before putting it on the potters wheel.

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Kumtepa Bazaar, Margilon

Kokand / Qo’qon – Khan’s Palace

And, in case anyone thinks the entire Ferghana Valley is only full of old things, here’s a photo of downtown Ferghana itself:

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Kyrgyzstan and then …

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.
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:
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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!

Uzbekistan – On the Road

Uzbekistan had so much to see, do and snap, that we made a number of themed blog posts, instead of trying to tell one story.  We hope this posting will give an overview of our tour in Uzbekistan, and show of the pictures we took between the “sights”.

Our posts on Uzbekistan:

Uzbekistan’s roads were generally good to us. We were often on main roads, which were often dual carriageways. But this was rather like Turkey – there was plenty of room and not too much traffic, albeit the roads were not as smart and new as Turkey’s. It was flat. And it was sunny but not too hot. Not too much wind. Out of the desert, there were plenty of little shops and teahouses. Really nice touring conditions. The only bugbear was trying to comply with the hotel registration rules. We mostly managed this, with a few deviations into teahouses.

Uzbekistan’s people were invariably friendly and helpful. We were often flagged down, or addressed from a car crawling alongside: “atcuda, atcuda?” – Russian for “where are you from”. Strangers rushed to take pictures of themselves, or their friends and family, with us. In towns especially, young people would come up and ask to practice their English with us. We were, of course, given melons. And one lovely family invited us in, with delicious food in the local style, and the extended family all joined in too. That was an especially lovely experience, and we thank them again for their kindness.

Just before we got to Uzbekistan, on the ferry, Clare had a severe, if short, bout of food poisoning, and Gid’s tummy was a bit uneasy as well. The timing of it made us suspect a pre-ferry pasty rather than the actual ferry food. But Clare’s tummy then kept suffering from recurring problems which had us calling on pharmacies as we went along. It wasn’t desperate, but the overall effect was weakening and depressing. We took a few extra rest days in an attempt to ease the impact. With various tummy pills and a very plain diet it was sort of kept under control. We needed rest and a long break stop, but the Uzbekistan visa was only 30 days. Whereas we’d always planned a long stop in Bishkek (visa free for 60 days). Thus we altered our plans a bit:

  • Original Plan: From Samarkand, south into Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe, then loop south taking the Pamir Highway along the Afghan and China borders, then north into Kyrgyzstan, Osh, then Bishkek. A classic, but tough ride, and in the back country.
  • Plan B: From Samarkand, north to Tashkent, then east over mountains into the Ferghana valley (this road might’ve needed our Tajikistan visas. Across this valley; flat, fertile & historic (have you heard of the Bactrian empire?), to Osh in Kyrgyzstan, then north to Bishkek. Less back country, and three significant passes to cross, but easier  and shorter than A.
  • Plan C: From Samarkand, north to Tashkent, then north to Shymkent in Kazakhstan, then east to Bishkek. This route is pretty flat, and on major roads. This we took, and indeed were able to make pretty long distances most days.

Gallery

Cotton Picking

On The Road

 Generous Hospitality

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