It wasn’t easy to leave the At-House in Bishkek. We were getting used to having a kitchen and a bathroom and were enjoying the camaraderie of our fellow cycle tourists. But we knew that once we had tuned our bikes and gotten our visas for Tajikistan, it was time to hit the road. The At-House was also getting a bit crowded. Word had spread that it is the place in Bishkek for cyclists. When we left there were 23 cyclists staying there.
We flowed through streets of Bishkek with the morning traffic, now more familiar with the erratic stop-and-go behavior of the marshrutkas and buses. At a massive concrete Soviet monument, we turned from the main road onto a small dirt path by a canal which Nathan, one of the owners of At-House, told us might be a nice exit route from Bishkek. The canal path certainly had less traffic and some nice views but it was too bumpy and rutted and we soon abandoned it for the main road out of town.
About 40 km (24.85 mi) west of Bishkek we turned south on a shortcut towards the M41, the Russian-built artery which has linked Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan's Pamir mountains since the 1930's. We cruised down a quiet, tree-lined street past vast wheat fields bathed in warm, soft afternoon light. One particular stand of trees dividing two fields looked like it might be hiding a nice campsite so pedaled down a dirt road to investigate. We soon found a farmer overseeing the last of the day’s wheat harvest with a large tractor. Kyrgyzstan may be poorer than China but it does have mechanized farm equipment — something I rarely saw in its powerful neighbor to the east.
I asked the farmer if it was harasho to put our palatka somewhere in the trees by his field. “Moshna, moshna!” he replied with a smile and a nod. He even pointed out a couple recommend spots before leaving with the tractor. We hopped over a small irrigation ditch and nestled into a small nook in the trees for the evening.
In the morning we emerged from the wheat field and found the M41 climbing into a narrow canyon alongside the rushing Kara-Balta river. It was hot and Erica wasn’t feeling great so we decided to call it a short day and find a place to camp alongside the river. We found a yurt guarding the only river access in the steep canyon. The driver in the BMW in front of us handed an old man at the gate what looked like a large sum of cash. But the old man asked us for only 15 som (about 25 cents). We parked our bikes by a flat patch of grass to pitch our tent on later and headed back to the river. While we were cooling off in the Kara-Balta, a pea-green Lada, the resilient and ubiquitous Soviet sedan, pulled up to the riverside and a man dashed out of the back seat holding a jar of small half-dead fish. He waved me over and signaled for me to put the jar in the river to get some fresh water in it. I did as he asked and gave the jar back to him. He gave me a big thumbs-up, hopped back in the Lada, and drove off up the canyon.
From there the M41 continued to follow the Kara-Balta south through the mountains. A bureaucrat in Bishkek must have decreed that every time a road crosses a river in Kyrgyzstan, the name of the river must be on a sign at the bridge. In the 35 km that the M41 follows the Kara-Balta, it crosses it about a hundred times. And every time, without fail, there is a sign reminding you that you are, in fact, crossing the Kara-Balta river. And every time, without fail, I would exclaim to Erica, “Ah! The mighty Kara-Balta!” But eventually the Kara-Balta peeled away from the road towards its mysterious source somewhere in the mountains and the M41 veered towards the east and began to climb towards a tunnel at 2,500 m (8,202 ft) up a series of impossibly steep switchbacks.
When we saw the trucks winding their way high up the canyon walls, we lost all the energy we had reserved for this monstrous climb. We also recalled what our friends at the At-House said was waiting for us at the top: a one-kilometer-long, pitch-dark, smoke-filled tunnel of death. So when I asked Erica if we should try to hitch a ride, her answer was an immediate and definitive yes. Luckily for us, the first truck we waved down stopped for us. The driver and passenger, who looked like brothers, hopped out to help strap down our bikes in the space between the cab and the trailer. Erica and I put our bags in the cab and sat down on the bottom bunk behind the two front seats and we were off again, making our way up the steep switchbacks to the infamous tunnel.
Our friends in Bishkek hadn’t exaggerated about the tunnel. Clouds of car and truck exhaust billowed out of the entrance and it was barely wide enough for two cars to pass each other. We were quite happy with our decision to hitch. Once through the tunnel, we asked the driver to let us out so we could enjoy the descent on our bikes. The truckers pulled over, unloaded our bikes, and took off again before we had a chance to offer them anything but our thanks for their help. We inspected our bikes before starting the big descent and I noticed that my back wheel was bent, most likely done inadvertently by the truckers strapping the wheel down too hard. Fortunately, I was able to true the wheel on the spot by adjusting the tension of a few spokes and we were back in business. And that business was rolling down a 15 km (9.32 mi) descent through beautiful green alpine meadows.
In the Kara-Balta canyon, bare rock dominated the landscape and gray was the primary color. But the tunnel transported us to a different world. The Suusamyr valley spread wide before us, blanketed in a gentle sea of green. Distant snowcapped peaks spiked the horizon. We raced down the winding road taking care not to become too mesmerized by the verdant scenery. Hitting one of the many potholes in the road at 40 km/hour would have had grave consequences. As the downhill grade slackened, more and more yurts appeared by the side of the road selling koumiss (fermented mare’s milk) and kurut (pungent hard cheese balls). We gave the horse milk products a pass but when we saw a container truck converted to a mobile apiary, we hit the brakes and bought some honey.
Down on the valley floor, the road leveled off and the sun began to sink behind the distant mountain peaks so we started to hunt for a campsite. In a wild, uncultivated field of long grass we spotted a line of trees which hinted at the presence of flowing water, like the land was giving us a subtle wink. We pushed our bikes off the road through a vague path in the tall grass towards the trees and soon heard the telltale rush of a stream. Hidden from the road yet in the middle of a wide open field, we felt like we had found the perfect campsite. That night the stars shone in the sky like nothing we had ever seen before.
In the morning, however, we discovered that our campsite came with a major drawback. As the sun warmed the grass around our tent, it roused awake more mosquitos than there had been stars in the previous night’s sky. They attacked us relentlessly as we struggled to take down and pack our tent. We tried desperately to defend ourselves by covering any exposed skin and putting whatever we could find on our heads to keep the winged bastards out of our scalp. We normally pack our bags very carefully, putting everything away in the same bag each time. But that morning we stuffed everything anywhere it would fit and made a mad dash to escape the mosquitocalypse without even bothering to close our panniers. The bloodsuckers pursued us through the field like we were the first meal they had had in months.
Even back on the road, the mosquitos refused to relent. We pedaled as fast as we could but still could not outrun them. We finally found salvation in a roadside cafe. The woman inside served us tea and asked in Russian what we wanted to eat. All we wanted was to catch our breath without inhaling a cloud of mosquitos. When we had finally regained our sanity, we realized that we fled from our campsite without making breakfast. So we ordered the only things on the menu that seemed to make sense to us: zoup and cutlet. The zoup was a light broth with a giant hunk of fatty mutton in it and the cutlet was a thin slice of fried meatloaf, served with rice, cereal, and a potato puree. Not a bad breakfast!
We were reluctant to venture back outside after breakfast but eventually worked up the nerve. I imagined the mosquitos waiting for us like bullies at a bus stop. But to our surprise they had mostly moved on. So we closed our panniers and rolled on, suddenly aware once again that we were in a beautiful place and the weather was perfect.
The M41 headed west and we followed it up the gentle rise of the Suusamyr valley. As we slowly gained in elevation, the trees shrank down to shrubs. Around noon we stopped at a yurt-turned-cafe for lunch. We pedaled a little further after lunch but it became quite hot under the midday sun at 2,600 m (8,530 ft). So when the road crossed a stream, we thought it would be nice to set up our Helinox Ground Chairs in the shade of the bridge and soak our feet in the cold mountain stream.
Later in the day we realized that we were in striking distance of the 3,175 m (10,416 ft) Ala-Bel pass at the eastern end of the valley. But we decided to stop short of the pass so we could enjoy the entire descent the next day. At 3,000 m, even the shrubs had retreated to a lower altitude and there was nowhere to hide our tent from the road. So we thought that the safest way to camp would be to ask one of the locals if we could pitch our tent by their yurt. The first place we asked was happy to oblige.
At first our hosts kept their distance as we unfurled our strange orange mini-yurt. But once we pitched our tent, the whole family came over in waves of successive generations. Our first visitors were a young boy and his baby brother. Then came his sisters, a couple of teenaged girls. They offered us some koumiss in Coke bottle and we each took a sip of the sour, fermented milk, to be polite. We don’t enjoy the drink but don’t find it disgusting either. We had both tried it before but this time, however, Erica experienced a quick and severe allergic reaction to it. Her lips swelled up and her throat began to close, making it impossible for her to breathe. Between gasps of air she instructed me to get her asthma inhaler and I brought it to her as quickly as I could. To our great relief, she began to breath normally again after a hit from the inhaler.
Sometime while Erica and I sat and made sure she was OK, the girls had retreated back to the yurt. They were soon replaced by their older brothers, or cousins, a group of older guys in their 20’s and 30's from another town who had come to the yurt to celebrate the birthday of one of their friends. We looked up to see a group of six or seven guys, mostly dressed in non-matching blue Adidas track suits sauntering over to us with big plastic bottles of beer in hand. They introduced themselves and shook our hands with big grins. Then they sat down by our tent and patted the grass beside them. Due to the ordeal Erica had just been through, we weren’t really in the mood to socialize but we didn’t want to be rude to our hosts either. So we sat down with them and began to try to answer their eager questions about who we were and what we were doing. They uncapped the beer and passed around the bottles. Anytime someone took a drink, they made sure I had the other bottle so I could drink with them. “Peter! Dreeft!” they would say. They offered beer to Erica too but she politely declined. The leader of the group asked to try on my sunglasses. He put them on and struck a serious pose. Another guy pointed to him and said, “Peter! Wesley Snipes, da?” “Da!” I replied, “Like Blade!” And they all erupted with laughter.
After we finished a couple bottles of beer and Erica and I had sung the birthday song to the birthday boy, they told us it was time to eat. Erica didn’t feel like eating so she stayed in the tent to rest and I joined the birthday boys at their picnic blanket by their minivan. Their wives, who had been preparing dinner inside the yurt, brought out two large metal bowls but they did not sit with us. Inside the bowls was a dish called beshbarmak, a pile of boiled mutton on a bed of wide flat noodles. Beshbarmak means "five fingers" because the dish is traditionally eaten by hand. One of my new Kyrgyz friends showed me how to properly eat with my hands in the traditional Kyrgyz fashion. As dinner drew to a close, one guy produced a plastic bag and placed in it a meaty leg of lamb. “For Erica,” he said as he handed it to me. I thanked them all for dinner, politely declined their invitations to go to the “Disco! Disco!” (was there really a disco somewhere out there in the steppe?), and went back to the tent to check on Erica. She was sleeping soundly and so I joined her to rest up for our roller coaster descent the next day.
That morning, the bedraggled birthday boys were still up drinking beer as we took down the tent. They bid us goodbye as we wheeled our bikes back to the road. We pedaled up the last 10 km towards the Ala-Bel pass past numerous yurts and grazing animals. Near one yurt, a pack of dogs emerged and began to chase and bark at us. We knew we couldn’t outrun them going uphill so we chose instead to disrupt the predator-prey relationship. Instead of fleeing, we stopped suddenly, stared straight at the dogs, and shouted, “NO!” The charging dogs skidded to a halt and turned away as if too embarrassed to make eye contact with us.
At the Ala-Bel pass we paused briefly to rest and have a snack. We then rolled down the other side to enjoy 60 km (37 mi) of uninterrupted downhill bliss. We sailed past green mountains and snowcapped peaks, past horseback riders and slowly descending trucks. It's hard to convey the pleasure of such a long descent with words so I'll let the video below do the talking.
In just two hours we descended over 2,000 meters (6,561 ft) and passed through three distinct ecosystems. Up by the pass there was alpine grassland. About 500 meters down, trees began to return to the landscape. As we continued our descent, the grassland vanished and the trees grew larger. Soon we were riding through knotty pines and gnarled oaks. We passed numerous roadside stands selling honey and raspberries. It felt good to be back in a familiar landscape but it did not last long. We descended through the temperate forest quickly and emerged in a hot, dry scrubby landscape. The land was brown save for a slash of green desperately clinging to the river. We followed the river into a small town and bought some vegetables and an iced tea at little shop. We then made our way down to a bridge to look for a campsite and a place to swim near the river.
It turned out that the residents of Bala-Chychkan all had the same idea as us. When we got down to the bridge there were already a lot of other people swimming in the water and having picnics along the riverbank. I spotted a good campsite on an island between the river and a canal branching off from it. We carried the bikes and bags across the canal’s sluice gate and walked down to a secluded spot where we set up camp and went for a swim in the nice cold water.
The next day started out hot and only got hotter. By noon it was already 40°C (104°F). We pedaled around lake Toktogul, hoping to find a place where we could go for a swim. But the lake remained far from the road and when it got closer it looked brown and muddy. I stopped at a roadside truck stop to have a look and a little boy and his sister came out to say hi. I was about to leave when the little boy started frantically waving me toward his home. Erica was already riding ahead so I tried to explain to him that I had to go. I had just gotten back on my bike when I saw him come running out of his house with his bicycle. At first I thought he just wanted to show me his bike. So I took a photo of him with it. Then he showed me its flat tire and I finally understood. He wanted me to fix his tire. So I put my bike back down and used my bike pump for the first time this trip. I pumped some air into the tire and, seeing that it didn’t leak, continued inflating it until it was full. The boy threw his arms around me, kissed me on the cheek, and took off on his bike. I took off too to catch up with Erica.
On one particularly large climb that day, we sweated out nearly all of our energy and finished all of our water. From then on our eyes scanned the landscape continuously, like a Mars rover searching for signs of water. But there were no streams or even shops selling water to be found. I let my mind wander to try to distract myself from my thirst but it settled on contemplating the four elements and their importance to cyclists.
Earth - Uphill or downhill? The first thing we do when planning a route is to look at the elevation profile or topographic map to see how much climbing there will be.
Wind - Is it with us or against us? A tailwind can double your efficiency but a strong headwind can make a downhill feel like an uphill battle.
Fire - We are fiercely hungry at the end of the day and rely on fire to cook our meals. So we always make sure our camp stove has enough fuel burn.
Water - We each drink about 3-4 liters of water every day, plus an extra liter or two for cooking. Running out of it on a hot day can make things quite difficult.
We continued to ride through the dry, parched land until we spotted a grove of tall green cypress tress by the side of the road. We knew there had to be a water source somewhere nearby so we went over to investigate. A stone fence surrounded the grove. So I approached slowly, calling out “Ho!” like the first Kyrgyz man I met. A young man appeared from behind a small mud brick hut and I asked if he could spare some voda (water). He produced a plastic bottle full of water but I knew we would need more than one liter. So I made the motion of operating a pump and he waved for me to follow him. We walked through his garden, past apricot and apple trees, and into a large field. The dry and brittle earth crunched beneath our feet as we walked past nascent watermelon, onion, and potato plants. It was so hot and dry that I couldn’t imagine water being anywhere nearby. But suddenly, there it was: a large pipe sticking out of the ground, continuously gushing out fresh, cold water. Salvation at last. I stuck my head under the water and filled our bottles.
We walked back to the cypress grove where Erica was waiting. I told her about the oasis in the field and we decided that this would be a good place to rest and wait for the midday heat to pass. So we asked the man if it would be alright if we stayed for a bit and made lunch. He said, “Harahsho,” and brought us some apricots and cucumbers from his garden. He introduced himself as Kanat and went back to his hut to take a nap.
After lunch, it was still too hot to get back on the road. So we planned to continue resting for the remainder of the day and to start again early the next morning before it got too hot. When Kanat woke up, we explained our plan to him as best as we could and he indicated that he would return to his home at 8pm but that it would be fine for us to stay there. We were a bit relieved to learn that the small mud brick hut was not his home but more like a farm shed. Kanat returned to his field to continue working and we set up our tent in the cypress grove so we could rest. It was too hot to sleep so we mostly just read and waited for the oppressively hot sun to set.
Before he went home for the day, Kanat signaled to me to follow him and we walked down to the river not far from his hut. We sat down on some rocks and tried to exchange basic information about our lives. I learned that he was 28 and had three children. He asked if Erica and I were married and I lied and said that we were. Somehow I felt that he would be unhappy with the truth. He asked if we had children and I said no. He seemed surprised and indicated that I better get busy. I am not sure which would have been the bigger problem to him: traveling together unmarried or being married and having no children.
The next morning we woke up at 4am to try to cover as much distance before the sun melted us to the road. We felt good at first but once the hills started getting bigger it became apparent that we had not fully recovered from the dehydration of the previous day. By 8am we were already feeling like it was not going to be a very productive day. We stopped to look at the map and saw that the road stretched long over some big hills without crossing any rivers or streams until the next town about 40 km away (25 mi). So we decided, once again, to hitchhike.
We stood in the shade of the only tree on the road and I stuck my thumb out to any trucks going in our direction. Within half an hour a large Mercedes van pulled over and I asked the driver if he could give us a ride to the next town. The driver immediately pulled out his cell phone and called his friend in the truck which had just passed us. He told the truck to wait there and instructed us to ride our bikes to the next bend in the road. We rode forward just one kilometer and saw the guys from the van and the truck driver rearranging the boxes in the back of the truck to fit our bikes. We put our bikes and bags in the back and joined the driver in the cab.
Our convoy stopped for breakfast at an air conditioned truck stop which felt like it could have been somewhere in middle-America. We ate blynch (flat pancakes with yogurt) and drank tea while we told them where we are from and where we are going and they told us the same. That's when they told us they were going all the way to Osh, Kyrgyzstan's southern capital and one of our destinations about 300 km (186 mi) away. I looked at Erica and she had the same "hey, why not?" look on her face as I did. So I asked if we could ride with them all the way to Osh. "OK! OK! Harasho!" they replied and we got back on the road. We felt a little guilty about hitchhiking so much but agreed that we would make up for it further south in Tajikistan's Pamir mountains.
Distance pedaled in this post: 309 km (192 mi)
Total distance pedaled to date: 678 km (421 mi)