We arrived at At-Bashy in a light rain. Away from A365, the road deteriorated quickly and was pockmarked with muddy potholes. I stopped at the first official-looking building we saw and asked about a hotel. A man inside explained that he worked for the Kyrgyz Forestry Service and drew a map to a place called Hotel Tash Rabat. Perfect! At the Hotel Tash Rabat a little man came out and frowned at our muddy bikes and shoes. He seemed uninterested in our business. Fortunately, a friendly local man introduced himself and in perfect English asked us, "Do you require some assistance?" We told him we wanted a room at the hotel and he set out to find the owner. The little man emerged again and gestured for me to come inside and made sure I wiped my feet on the doormat. He showed me a simple room with three small beds, a television, and a dresser which would cost us 450 som (about $7 USD) per person per night. All around the hotel there were signs in Kyrgyz with numerous exclamation points -- probably reminders to wipe your feet.
The rain continued into the next day and we decided to spend another night at the Hotel Tash Rabat so as not to start our bicycle journey completely waterlogged. In our room we dried out our tent and clothes and cooked meals on our camp stove, a little worried that the little bossy man might burst in and yell at us for violating one of his exclamation-marked rules.
After drying out at the Hotel Tash Rabat we got back on A365 and began climbing toward the 2600 m (8,530 ft) pass to Naryn.
In Naryn we got in touch with Kubat Tours who offered us a "homestay" for 500 som/night (about $8 USD). I thought that would mean that we would have a room in a local family's home. But we learned that in the Kyrgyz tourism trade, a homestay refers to an empty apartment, furnished with a basic kitchen, bathroom, and a couple beds, which travelers may rent on a nightly basis.
We told Kubat Tours that we were interested in visiting Song Kol, an alpine lake on a treeless plateau at 3000 m (9,842 ft), so they paired us up with a couple of Dutch travelers who had already hired a car to go there. The driver showed up in a 90's era Audi which danced up the road to Song Kol like a mountain goat.
After winding our way up numerous switch-backs, we emerged on a broad, treeless plateau with rolling green hills. The gravel road became mere tire tracks in the grass. At the crest of a small hill, Song Kol lake spread out before us, reflecting the cloud-speckled sky and snowy mountains in the distance. Our car rambled along the grass until we arrived at the jailoo (summer yurt camp) where we would spend the night.
After checking in with the matriarch of the yurt camp, she presented us with some traditional Kyrgyz clothing and encouraged us to try it on.
Once we finished playing dress-up we wandered down to the lakeside. I brought along the pinhole camera I made while we were waiting for our bikes to arrive in Kashgar. A pinhole camera (aka camera obscura) is the simplest kind of camera. Instead of glass lenses it uses a very tiny pinhole to focus light onto a film or viewing screen. I made mine out of some black matte board and epoxy glue. It uses 120-sized film which I wind from one spool to another using my Swiss army knife.
We walked along the shore of the lake for a while but as it got later the sky grew cloudy and the temperature dropped quickly.
A cold rain began to fall as we walked back to the yurt camp. Fortunately a wisp of smoke coming from the stove pipe of the kitchen yurt told us that dinner would soon be ready. Our hosts served us a delicious meal of omoro, a steamed pie stuffed with vegetables, which tasted a bit like lasagna, and a mutton soup with pasta and potatoes. After dinner our hosts lit the stove in our yurt with dried cow dung. Although it was cold and raining outside, we were warm and dry inside the yurt that night.
The next morning we awoke to a brilliant blue sky and a bright warm sun. We had planned to hitchhike back to Naryn but since it did not look like there was much traffic around the lake, we accepted our host's offer of a ride down to the main road in his old 4x4.
Down at the main road in the Naryn river valley our host dropped us off at a bus stop where, we were told, a marshrutka would take us back to the town of Naryn. A marshrutka is essentially a bus, usually a Mercedes minivan here in Kyrgyzstan, which follows a set route but will generally pick up and drop off passengers anywhere along its course. Across the street, perhaps the only street in this quiet valley town, techno music thumped from a Lada and young men in blue and green fatigues exchanged handshakes and cigarettes. The marshrutka arrived in a cloud of dust after about 30 minutes of waiting. We got on board and the driver stomped on the gas pedal before I could finish pulling my wallet from my pocket to pay for our seats.
Back in Naryn we bought some supplies to get ready to climb the 3025 m (9,924 ft) Dollon pass to Kochkor. The owner of our homestay urged us to stay at a yurt camp along the way because another man traveling by bicycle had been robbed while camping on that road.
We set out early the next day to find that we had been spoiled by the smooth paved road from Tash Rabat to At-Bashy. As A365 stretched north from Naryn its condition went from bad to worse. The potholed and bumpy pavement soon deteriorated to loose gravel and then to dry, dusty dirt roads.
We passed numerous road construction crews and spotted a few signs which indicated that the construction of the new Torugart-Bishkek road was a joint venture between Kyrgyzstan and China. We even overheard some surveyors speaking Chinese to each other through walkie-talkies.
After pedaling through clouds of dust kicked up by passing cars and trucks on the bumpy, rutted road all morning, we found a small village by a river where we could stop to eat the pasta salad we made the previous night for lunch. Not long after we stopped, a few curious kids came around check out the new visitors in town. We shared some of our Chinese candies with them and, once word of that spread, we were surrounded.
As we packed up to leave, the kids' mothers came over to say hi and presented us with some kurut, hard, dry cheese balls with a taste like extremely concentrated parmesan cheese. The taste made our eyes water but we grinned and chewed on the salty, pungent rocks while the mothers smiled approvingly. They filled our water bottles from their well and we got back on the road.
The road north of the small village where we stopped for lunch improved a bit but we were tired from battling the dust and trucks of the dirt road all day. We began searching for camping spots but remembered the warning from the woman in Naryn not to camp on our own. Almost immediately after we decided we would begin looking for campsites, a smiley guy at a roadside shop waved us over. He asked where we were headed and when I responded "Kochkor" he said that it was still very far and that we would not make it there today. He was right. It was almost five and there was still the 3025 m (9,924 ft) Dollon pass between us and Kochkor. He pointed up to the narrow, verdant gorge behind his shop and put his hands together under his head like a pillow. I nodded in understanding and put my hands together like a tent. He nodded back and moved one hand horizontally, palm facing the ground, indicating nice flat land for pitching a tent. Erica and I nodded in agreement and followed up a path which ran alongside a rushing stream.
The smiley guy led us to a nice flat, grassy spot by the stream and copied my hand signal for tent from before. I gave him a thumbs up and he stepped back to watch us set up the tent. That's when we experienced the first equipment failure of the trip.
One of the tent poles of my L.L. Bean Mountain Light 2 tent broke right where it joins a 3-way junction in such a way that it was impossible to use the include metal tent pole sleeve to repair it. So I made a splint using a spare ground stake and a length of p-cord. Fortunately, the splint held together as we tried again to pitch the tent but I knew it wasn't going to last long. The sky looked a little cloudy and we were once again up around 2,000 m (6,561 ft) where the weather can change quickly. So we strung up a tarp to cook under and to shelter our bikes and bags in case of rain.
Luckily the rain held off and we cooked our risotto with tomato sauce in the fresh mountain air. After dinner the smiley guy came back and took us on a tour of the gorge. We followed the rushing stream up through the gorge past fragrant pine trees and fields of scree spiked with wild flowers. Later we sat by the stream and had a simple conversation through exaggerated hand gestures.
Distance pedaled in this post: 84.72 km (52.64 mi)
Total distance pedaled to date: 158.15 km (98.27 mi)