World By Bike 24: Central Asia - Part 2
Leaving Bishkek felt a lot like leaving home, or leaving Xi'an in China. It was different to leaving other cities after rest days as the next stretch was rather unknown and rural, which wasn't new, but it was the first time in a while that'd I'd been properly at the mercy of the elements, heading up over 3000m. Every time I leave a city, or a town, the next stage is relatively unknown, but this was another level of ignorance what lay beyond. For most places, I could just head out of town relatively safe in the knowledge that there would be a town or city soon enough where I could find food, water, shelter and people to help me if I needed. Even in places when I knew it was sparse, I knew what to expect weather-wise, and what I'd likely find when I did come across a town, village or petrol station. For example, when heading into some of the deserts in the US, I knew there was likely a gas station within 100km where I'd find water, coke and confectionary items. I'd know there was certainly a McDonald's with free wifi within 200km. However, here, leaving Bishkek, I didn't know what I'd find, and with the added complication of fast-changing weather at the top of the mountain passes, I was nervous. It's the kind of place where you could seriously hurt yourself, or get seriously sick if you were caught out at 3000m in a snow storm in little bike shorts and no shelter. I know I don't know everything there is to know about mountain survival or how to spot a potential storm, so I was a little nervous, much like I was when I left home. The lack of knowing, and operating on the edge of your competence is half the fun though, I guess.
With the idea of snowy mountain passes firmly impressed on my mind, I set off from the sweaty, dusty capital of Bishkek, already dripping with sweat within the first few miles. I was overheating so much in fact that I stopped for ice cream and a drink just on the outskirts of the city, with snow-dusted peaks looming in the distance. Over the course of the morning however, as I made the way to the foot of the pass Kara-Balta Pass, I was encouraged by the fact I saw three other European tourers coming the other way. One, a Dutch tourer who'd left home the same time as me but headed east towards Beijing, and a heavily-laden Italian couple riding the Pamir Highway after cycling overland from their home in Italy. They were coming down the pass in long-bike trousers, neck-buffs and jackets, whilst I was going the other way in a short-sleeved jersey, shorts and beads of sweat cascading from my forehead.
Knowing I'd was heading for 10,500ft / 3200m, and with rain forecast for the evening, and for the weather to worsen the next day, I started on the biggest climb of my life so far, and what should be the longest climb of the whole trip. After three hours, and climbing just 1000m slowly into a blustering wind, I'd managed the first 25 miles of the climb. It was getting colder, and the sky was looking progressively more threatening. When I reached 7000ft, or 2100m, the road began a series of long switchbacks as the gentle valley became a mountain face. I set about tapping away at the pedals in my lowest gear, just concentrating on reaching the next 1000ft marker on my watch. It was a strange climb. There was a genuine feeling of nervousness about the clouds breaking and a freezing rain descending as my clothes were saturated in sweat, and bad weather would have resulted in me become cold incredibly quickly. There wasn't a shelter or building for 30mi/50km down the valley, and I couldn't be sure when the next shelter would be on the other side of the pass, as the mapping data is limited. With such a long climb, part of you wants to narrow your focus, on just making the next turn, or making the next significant altitude milestone (meter stone?), but if you do that, then you may miss a sign of the downturn in the weather, or may not avoid an upcoming pothole, or not see a speeding truck trying to overtake a slower minibus coming down the pass - you'd have though these trucks were practicing for a mountain rally at the World Nomad Games. Yes, the World Nomad Games are actually a thing. What I'm trying to say is that it was mentally fatiguing to keep narrowing and expanding what you're focusing on. That's before you try and appreciate the epic scenery.
The climb wound its way up the mountain face, and I was encouraged by the number of cars and trucks that had previously overtaken me that were now at the side of the road, with steaming engines and burning clutches. At least they were not struggling more than me - I was still moving. It was when I reached 9000ft that things got worse. I felt a big dip in energy and in blood sugar, so I pulled the bottle of Coke from my bag at the side of the road. Having stopped, I immediately got cold and realised a sudden and pressing need to find a bathroom. I'd taken an extra day to rest in Bishkek due to stomach issues and now I was realising I hadn't recovered as much as I'd hoped (I'd say stomach issues were rearing their ugly head, but that feels far too graphic, so I won't). Desperately scrabbling around for some privacy on an open mountain-side, I found a large enough to shelter behind and make my deposit into nature's mineral bank. The problem with biking attire is that you to have to almost completely strip down to do your business as the shorts are supported with straps over your shoulders. This didn't help with the cold.
However, now much lighter and less anxious, I crawled the final 1000ft to the top of the pass, with a chilling wind cutting into the sweat-dampened clothes that tightly hugged by body. There was a huge line of trucks at the top, all waiting to pass through the tunnel that reduces the pass height from 3500 to 3180m. The tunnel is notorious for problems with carbon monoxide poisoning and is narrow, so I was pulled into a police station at the top of the pass to await further instruction. I sat, now shaking with cold after having stopped riding, but unable to change out of sweaty cycling gear, waiting for the police to find me a way through the tunnel. After 10minutes I was ushered outside and a farmer pulled his truck alongside me, and gestured for me to throw my 30kg touring set up into the back with his sheep. Unable, and unwilling to throw it, he got out of the cab and came to help. I'm glad I got the ride through the 3km long tunnel because even in the truck I felt as though I was losing years off my life breathing in fumes. I felt awful for the sheep in the back.
Mountain passes always astound me with how different each side can be. The other side was still with no wind, static clouds and a vast expanse. After trying to explain to the truck driver that I wanted to get out and ride down the mountain, he looked confused and tried to explain that he was taking me to a hotel. From the top of the pass you can see for the next 50 kilometres across the valley, and I was not seeing a hotel. I did however find a series of nomadic people lined up along the road selling milk and small, incredibly sour balls of cheese. I did mime that I was looking for somewhere to sleep but, being nomads, they just pointed to a patch of grass next to their yurt and mimed tent. However, with rain still threatening, and temperatures being just above freezing at this altitude, I pushed on in hope of finding a more permanent structure to shelter in. I found what appeared to be a rural hotel next to a restaurant in a trailer, and was quickly shown to a half-built room. After just settling down on the edge of the bed after a tough, and mentally draining day (it's rather energy sapping staring into the grey, darkening clouds, slowly inching towards them), when I was promptly shown out of the room as two police officers had arrived and they had to have the one room with a bed in it. I was put on the floor in the next room with the two builders who were finishing off the other half of the hotel.
The next day was hampered as yesterday's looming weather descended, hurling a freezing rain over the valley. I waited it out for a few hours, guessing my way through a weather radar app and oddly strong 3G signal, before making a dash up the valley before more rain came thundering down. I pulled into a lonesome collection of three yurts and a trailer, in the hope they'd be so inquisitive about a tourist on a bike they'd let me shelter until the rain passed. Fortunately, they did let me inside their main dining yurt, where they keep their horse milk for travelling motorists - I suppose Kyrgz nomads here are like WHS Smiths at the UK service stations. They let me shelter whilst the youngest member of their small family played with my bike helmet and stared at me quizzically. They even gave me bread and told me I didn't need to pay which, when you see how they're living, was incredibly touching. They have no electricity, phone signal, no permanent building to live in, no running water, and yet they don't want to charge the tourist money for food and for using their property to shelter from the inclement weather. I did give them some money, but they appeared happy to help me without compensation. It is amusing though, to see people living in those types of situations become progressively commercialised and westernised. The main money-taker of the group, who appeared to be the daughter of the family, was in her late twenties and despite what would appear to be a very humble living from western standards, was selling her horse milk dressed in Adidas tracksuit bottoms and a Ralph Lauren baseball cap. Quite peculiar giving the fact she slept on the floor of a semi-permanent tent in the middle of nowhere.
I made it a few more miles that day before calling it a day and having tea with an Australian couple I'd met who were touring central Asia for a few months. She's an occupational therapist who was at the end of a fixed contract, and he was a self-employed dive instructor based in Cairns, and they'd decided to have an adventure and go somewhere obscure with their bikes and so booked a flight to Uzbekistan, slowly making their way to China.
I tackled the remainder of the climb up the valley in the morning, and the weather was much clearer and the roads were empty. The road slowly snaked up to over 10,000ft, at 3175m above sea level, the highest I'd ever been on a bike, at the top of the Ala-Bel pass. It was a humungous descent down the other side, right down to 2000ft. Strangely, a family waved me down whilst I flew down the two hour descent, inviting me to join them in a roadside picnic. They pulled out some plov (rice and vegetables), relatively fresh bread and local sweets / candies. Their eldest daughter, who spoke a little English didn't seem to be impressed at her sudden employment as translator during the lunch stop in their long, two day drive between Bishkek and Osh, but it was interesting to have lunch with them. I was worried when the father hopped on my bike and started riding around on it before putting it on the ground, chain-side down. Bad move, sir.
Other than a stupid incident where I rode into a hidden rock and sand whilst observing a roadside monument, coming off the bike and bending a few of the chainring teeth of my shoes caught underneath the bike, the remainder of Kyrgyzstan passed without incident, but with stunning views. It's a fabulous place to ride a bike, and I stayed on the main highway!
The small pedestrian border to Uzbekistan was chaotic, but as soon as they saw that I was a tourist they let me straight through. The locals appear to require much more questioning from the border guard than a tourist, and the locals with all their goods they were bringing to market parted like the Red Sea when I arrived. The Uzbek side was more organised from a border check, governmental point of view with a more permanent building set up, and an x-ray machine to scan incoming luggage, but the people seemed less organised. There were around 30 people pushed up against the border gates shouting 'money', thrusting Uzbek currency at me, trying to change for my Kyrgyz som. I waved them off, and mounted my bike to dissuade the more persistent sellers, suddenly so aware of how many items I have hanging off my bike that could easily be removed should one be inclined. However, I did still need to exchange money, so after rounding a corner I asked a bystander if he could point me to an official currency exchange. He whistled to his friend, who made a phone call and 20 seconds later another shifty looking dude pulled up and got out of his car, asking me how much money I had. Suspicious I told kept my money hidden and told him a rough figure and asked for the exchange rate. He gave me a rate that matched what I had googled, and feeling intimated with 20 of his friends gathered around, I wound up with 1.25million Uzbek som. At this kind of money exchange I'm always struck at how weird paper money is, and how little the material paper actually means in and of itself. Being given 1.25 million of a currency you've never heard of, and no way of verifying if it's actual legal tender or if it's just cash from a local board game you've never seen.
Chaotic border dealt with, it was onto the chaotic roads. The road surface itself was immediately much worse that it Kyrgyz neighbour's, and the traffic was much more liberal with their horns. An incessant parade of friendly peeps and irritatingly pitched toots followed as we headed towards Andijan and then into the Fergana valley. Other cultural differences revealed themselves quickly. Uzbekistan has been the country in the region (except Afghanistan), that has been relatively difficult to get a tourist visa for. However, since the former Soviet leader Karimov, left office a few years back, Uzbekistan has become much easier. I'm guessing that because of previous visa difficulties, locals are much more interested when they see tourists, as it's rarer than in Uzbekistan's neighbouring countries. Many people waved me down, wanting to talk to me, take photos and ask where I'm from. It was a little frustrating to have to stop frequently, but initially I was happy to entertain the inquisitiveness.
The remainder of the three day ride to Tashkent passed with one final huge mountain pass, a big surprise to me as I thought we'd left the climbing behind in Kyrgyzstan. The road rose unexpectedly for hours, catching me out as the sun slipped below the looming mountains. The roadside restaurant generously took me in and let me sleep outside on one of their first floor balcony tables, clearly feeling sorry for me and not wanting to send me all the way over the top of the 2400m pass after dark.
The descent down the other side the next morning was gorgeous, and I manged to hit 50mph on an awesome stretch of road. In hindsight, it was probably a dumb idea to go into an aero-tuck and straight-line down the highway, overtaking trucks and slowly descending vehicles as the road tarmac can be intermittently patchy, and hitting a pot hole at 50mph would have been interesting. However, you don't get many opportunities to hit 50mph on a bike, let alone a fully laden tourer. It was good fun.
Arriving in the baking city of Tashkent filled me with trepidation about the heat that lay ahead, but it was nice to get a rest in the city with a contact of our new friends in Bishkek, courtesy of our original friends in Almaty. The city itself was a cool place to explore, but after a massive earthquake in 1966 that had its epicentre in the heart of Tashkent, most of the old architecture has been destroyed and replaced with wide Soviet roads and Soviet architecture. I did manage to find real, decent enough coffee though, in what is the largest city in Central Asia, if you discount Urumqi in China…which I suggest you do discount, lest you be banned from China for suggesting Xinjiang province is more Central Asia than the Far East.