Joining the Silk Road to the Orient

I can’t quite believe it but I’m now in Kashgar, China, the 2000-year-old Silk Road oasis town.

Getting here has given me time to pause and reflect on my time in Kyrgyzstan: my 700km ride from Bishkek to Osh, known as Kyrgyzstan’s southern capital. I stayed there for two weeks, and every morning, before breakfast, walked up the sacred mountain of Suleiman-Too.

I’ve had time to reflect on my journey crossing the mountains from Osh to China at 3600m on the frozen Taldyk pass. And I’ve had time to reflect on Kyrgyzstan, with its customs and traditions, amazing hospitality, foods such as Plov, Kurdak, and Kurut, the incredibly salty-sour yoghurt cheese balls.

Their traditional games such as Kok Buru, which is essentially dead goat polo/rugby on horses (you can watch a game here ), and their now-outlawed custom of bride stealing. Impossible to forget is the tradition of eagle hunting, which is thought to be 6000 years old; a pairing between man and eagle. Originally this partnership would have helped both to survive the harsh winters, through hunting foxes, hares and even wolves, all of which are easier to spot in a snow-covered landscape. Birds are traditionally trained and used to hunt for a number of years before being released back into the wild.

The eagle hunter

Regularly on my mind was the country’s possibly precarious position as a young democratic state, aspiring to western ways of life but struggling with deeply ingrained corruption, recovering from being a part of the Soviet Union, and stuck between the massive powers of Russia, China and their dictatorial neighbours Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

With a certain amount of trepidation that surprised me considering how far I had already come, I set off from Bishkek, leaving behind the friends and memories I had made there. Something you have to do when you’re travelling if you don’t want to get stuck somewhere.

I left on a grey and rainy Thursday, cycling for 80km in the rain all day, after which I was drenched and very aware of the 2°C temperature. During that ride a car stopped in front of me, a man got out and shouted my name. Peering through the drizzle, I realised with great elation that it was Kuban from Chaldover, the man who had taken me into his home on my first night in Kyrgyzstan. I laughed out loud at this coincidence and I couldn’t forget that genuinely kind face. I felt a pang of emotion as he invited me back to his house again to have dinner with his family. I also remembered all the great experiences I had had in those three months since I was last there. Sadly I couldn’t take Kuban up on his offer as his home was 50km in the wrong direction, but I feel I’ll see him again one day.

So after being drenched I found an incredibly kind family to stay with who helped me get my clothes dry, gave me dinner, breakfast the next morning, and lunch to take with me on my way into the mountains. Thank you, Misha.

It was two days ride all uphill to the famed (unventilated) 1km long Bishkek-Osh tunnel, then a very cold icy 20km downhill to an enormous high mountain plain like a lunar landscape, barren and blanketed with snow, surrounded by mountains on every side. A day’s ride through a blizzard and I arrived at a slightly problematic traffic jam, in my ski goggles and balaclava among what appeared to be a mob of angry Kyrgyz men, baiting against the group of five policemen blocking the road with their cars, all of whom were completely distracted by my appearance standing among the crowd straddling my bike. The policemen told me I couldn’t go any further due to a large avalanche further down the road with a risk of more at any point. So I was stuck for two days in a hotel without sinks or showers but I felt very grateful to be there and not stuck in a car in the -15°C conditions (some people had been there for 5 days). This was one of the few times I felt uncomfortable on this journey with rowdy lorry drivers short on money and fuel asking me exactly where my bicycle was and inviting me into the cafe to eat but then expecting me to pay. Once I could finally leave it was a two-hour cycle uphill in the freezing cold where I started sweating yet was able to grow an ice-beard.

Then a fantastic 50km downhill ride where I crossed the avalanche that bulldozers had cut through, uncovering the road between precarious looking 15m high ice walls. As I descended, it became incredibly warm, I finished the day at a stunning wild camping spot next to lake Toktogul. After another day’s ride, I was on the other side of the lake, where I was able to go for a very chilly evening swim and cook my dinner on a campfire made from driftwood.

The next morning, I met two guys from Tajikistan by the side of the road trying to fix their lorry, it makes me cringe even now just thinking about it… they had been there for eighteen days.

The lorry guys

In the course of trying to deliver electrical goods from Russia to Tajikistan, they had rolled their lorry in Kazakhstan, bending the whole lorry to an odd shape, gouging huge chunks of metal from its side and smashing the windscreen, which they had replaced with a piece of plastic.

To fix the lorry here by the side of the road they had had parts flown in from China which turned out to be the wrong parts. Never again will I complain about a problem by the side of the road, because I won’t be able to forget about these two. Even in such a desperate situation they still insisted on giving me food and water which I tried to refuse but realised I had to accept.

Following the winding undulating smooth road along the Naryn river, past cherry blossom trees populating small pastures, and before I knew it I was in Osh taking a much-needed shower after 10 days on the road. It was a good initiation back into cycling after a three-month break. I was tired and immensely hungry and feel as if I’ve done irreparable damage to the size of my stomach on this journey, because I just don’t seem to get full anymore. Maybe I have a future career in eating competitions.

After a longer than intended break in Osh, which now seems to be a habit of mine, I began my seemingly portentous ride from Osh to Kashgar. Travelling directly through the meeting point between the Pamir and Tian-Shan mountains, over the 3600m Taldyk pass and similarly high Irkeshtam pass. Crossing in early April meant it wasn’t anywhere near as difficult or dangerous as it could have been crossing in February or March, which has slightly bruised my ego missing out on that. Now the brutal cold would only hit me towards the top of the passes, and the rest of the ride was pretty plain sailing, apart from the unusually aggressive and terrifying Kyrgyz dogs. Many of them were scarred from fights and missing ears and were incredibly athletic and powerful. They were easily capable of keeping up with me and snapping at my ankles, with me shouting furiously at them, raising my hand into the air in a mock stone throwing action to try and scare them away.

The night before my ascent of the Taldyk pass, the wind and rain began before I stopped to pitch my tent. There aren’t many things that are worse than unpacking your bike in the dark and pitching your tent in the cold wind and rain for twenty minutes, battling against a tent that had a life of its own. I was surprisingly upbeat for such a miserable situation.

The next day I began my ascent of the brutal and punishing pass, endless switchbacks broken up by long steep straights. Yet I enjoyed it, you get into a rhythm, you accept that this is your job for the next 2-5 hours, after which you’re rewarded with the most incredible view. A view you feel you’ve truly earned. That’s why I’ve learnt to love travelling by bike, you feel you deserve every view and experience.

A short two hour ride from the top of the pass later and I arrived in Sary-Tash, a small village of a few thousand people living at 3000m. Its a major crossroads on the Pamir highway, with routes to Tajikistan, China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

With brutal winters to contend with, it was a bleak place to arrive at, where people must be struggling at the end of the season. Despite its bleakness, I was incredibly grateful to be able to spend the night at a guesthouse and rest after such a long day and when the clouds partially cleared above the flanks of the distant mountains they appeared to be on fire, radiating a bright orange light onto the rest of the snowy landscape.

On the morning I left, while cooking my lunch, I was able to witness the grandma of the guesthouse separating cream from fresh milk, an incredibly normal practice here but something I had never witnessed. Back in the UK we buy it in plastic cartons and never see the thousands of cows that contribute to each homogenised pasteurised drop we put in our tea.

From Sary-Tash it was a lonely but beautiful ride over the Irkeshtam pass where you really feel like you’re on the roof of the world with the icy road running along what seemed like a ridge with other high peaks just visible through the light snowfall coupled with strong winds. It was icy up there, cold enough to freeze my water, and made taking a photo painful.

I stopped 15km from the Chinese border where I pitched my tent in an evening snowstorm after discovering a fortuitously timed puncture, which meant taking the rear wheel off of my bike and bringing into my tent to repair after cooking my dinner. Food first.

The next day I awoke to azure blue skies, a short ride to the border and I had my last plate of Kurdak at a cheap cafe before crossing into western China… an experience and a place I think I shall never forget. Feeling a little like a fly on the wall in Orwell’s 1984, I feel I can say no more, a topic for another post or even another blog.

After spending some time in the initially beautiful city of Kashgar, but now a kind of dystopian theme park, I will attempt to make my way east and then north, directly through the Taklamakan desert, otherwise known as the desert of no return. I’ll travel up the new desert highway, a geo-engineering project designed to stop the second largest moving desert in the world from engulfing the blacktop by irrigating a screen of trees running up the length of the 650km road.

The Seven Bulls, a Martian landscape and a golden eagle

Before leaving Bishkek I decided that there were a few places around the lake of Issyk-Kul I really had to see.

The Jeti-Ögüz gorge with the seven bulls red rock formation, the fairy tale canyon and Bokonbayevo eagle village. I managed to tick them all off the list.

 

An update from Bishkek

If you’d been wondering whether I had turned into a human icicle in my tent since my last post, there’s no need to worry. I’ve been living in Bishkek; the rough, relaxed, simple, and charming capital of Kyrgyzstan for the past two months. I plan to be here for three more weeks until the last week of February.

I had a few reasons for staying here for so long. Firstly my rear wheel had a crack in it which I discovered the night before my birthday in Kazakhstan so I had to get a new wheel sent out! Secondly, I decided to stay here for a chunk of the winter so that once I get into China it will be early spring and the weather will gradually warm up as I make my way across that utterly vast country. With more daylight each day I will be able to cycle for longer, explore more and maybe relax outside my tent rather than being huddled in my sleeping bag reading my kindle. Thirdly I realised I had maybe gone too fast for the first chapter of my travels from London to Bishkek (although thankfully I did as it was -30 in Kazakhstan two weeks ago). My journey isn’t a world record breaking trip and I want to absorb more of the places I go through. My fourth but not final reason is that I’ve met some truly fantastic people here in Bishkek and so I wanted to stay to get to know them better, I think I’ve made some potentially lifelong friends here that I can visit at any time in the future.

The mountains rising up to meet me

After leaving Shymkent in Kazakhstan I made my way towards Bishkek, having already found someone special to stay with from the Warmshowers app. The mountains rose up to meet me in spectacular style as I approached the border with Kyrgyzstan and things got very cold. On the morning of the day I crossed the border, the snow began, lightly at first but soon the road was covered and my bike, including the sprockets, wheels and their spokes, steadily gained a thick coating of ice. I never thought I would intentionally urinate on my bike but it’s a very effective de-icer!

After crossing the border, a shopkeeper took me into his home, and gave me dinner and a bed in a small outhouse with a clay oven inside for heat. After two breakfasts I set off for the 90km ride to Bishkek.

I can’t describe to you the joy of arriving and being able to have a truly in-depth conversation with someone after three months of travelling through countries where you can’t speak the language and the admirable people who can speak English aren’t quite proficient enough to understand everything you say. There’s a small but thriving kaleidoscopic expat community here with people from Germany, Switzerland, America, Afghanistan, Spain, France, Georgia, Korea, India, Scotland, Morocco and many others. A real melting pot of incredibly unusual, interesting, strange, hilarious, kind, open, warm, inspiring people. Everyone here has an interesting story to tell you, all you have to do is ask a few questions and listen.

Bishkek is a strange place, a safe and slightly ugly city, but speckled with beauty and charisma that seems to trap the people who come here like insects in honey. Everyone who arrives seems to stay longer than intended, me included, first it was two weeks, then six weeks, now three months. It’s surrounded by hundreds of square kilometres of high mountains and stunning scenery to explore, lakes pockmark the country, the wildlife is abundant and I can only imagine what it must be like to hike here in summer with just a tent and a camp stove. I’m already making rough plans to return one summer and head off into the mountains with their green and luscious river cut valleys, soaring peaks and high open plains infested with flowers and feeding bees that make officially the best honey in the world.

Since I’ve been here, I’ve spent one week being ill, a weekend skiing and riding horses near a town called Karakol, 400km from Bishkek at the northern end of lake Issyk-Kul, and two more weekends hiking in Ala-Arche National Park which lies 40km from Bishkek. On one of those weekends, I managed to reach a 4500m peak called Uchitel, which means teacher in Russian.

I managed to get a job as an English teacher, thanks to a Spanish cyclist who arrived here before me and found a busy but relaxed English language school with 7:40am to 8:20pm days. I then went to a week-long winter activity camp for 80 kids from the school, next to the shores of lake Issyk-Kul. I was the only English teacher there, teaching two lessons a day. If I’m honest It was a hectic and not entirely enjoyable – but incredibly valuable -experience. Working out how to entertain a group of 30 kids aged 7-16 with English levels from beginner to advanced for an hour with no resources, was, to put it mildly, a challenging experience.

Kyrgyzstan is a very easy country to travel in if you have an internet connection, a little bit of knowledge about marshrutkas (the mini buses that transport people around like sardines in a tin), a reasonable amount of patience, and some tolerance for discomfort. None of that’s any different to any worthwhile travel experience. I’m looking forward to sharing some of my experiences with you in more detail over the next few weeks.