Surrounded on nearly all sides by almost impenetrable mountains and further from the sea than any other individual country, Kyrgyzstan has maintained it culture and unspoiled wilderness unlike anywhere I’ve ever visited. As much as the Soviets tried to urbanise them the Kyrgyz at heart remained nomadic farmers, with the breakup of the union many have returned to their yurts, packing them onto the Lada roof come summer time and moving the livestock to the higher pastures. With the exception of a few Chinese funded tarmac highways this unique culture and wilderness is criss-cross with gravel tracks linking mountain passes to open meadows and alpine lakes making it an adventure riders paradise.
Crossing the boarder from Tajikistan and descending towards Sari Tash and on wards to Osh, Kyrgyzstan the first things which struck me was the change in landscape, the reemergence of vegetation, rolling pastures of late summer gold and green grasses, colourful mountains and yurt scattered valleys. Add to that one of the easiest and most straight forward border crossings. I knew straight away I was going to like this country.
In Osh I caught up with Walter and his Royal Enfield, remember him from Uzbekistan. He was at MuzToo, part workshop part bike graveyard kept perpetually busy by the surrounding mountain roads, repairing a hole in his engine case. Needing to do a few things to the bike I took a ride there, with Walter was Mike an English guy whose rear shock had exploded somewhere in Tajikistan bending the mounting brackets in the process. Changing a fuel filter, a spark plug and generally bullshitting among guys trying to rebuild their pride and joy felt a little like I was rubbing salt into the wounds. When I proclaimed in ear shot of everyone “a place like this makes me realise I brought the right bike”, it was nearly mid afternoon before anyone spoke to me again and nightfall before we were out for beers celebrating that both bikes would live to see another ride.
Riding out of Osh together a few days later, Walter took the main Northern road towards Bishkek, I turned East along the gravel roads towards Kazzerman and up the alpine climb to Son-Kul. In the valleys it was harvest time, the men reaping the crops by hand and me ducking for cover from gigantic mobile haystacks chugging and rattling along the dusty roads.
Arriving at (lake) Son-Kul, nestled at 3016m and enclosed by peaks, the surrounding jailoos were alive with herds of cattle and droves of horses masterfully kept in check by all ages on horse back. Sitting by the lake watching them work, man and horse acting as one, was amazing to see. Born onto horseback, children ride before they walk, I’m certain of it.
North of the lake the pastures pinch away as hills meet ice cold water, forming a series of small bays. In one of these bays I pitched the tent, in definitely top camp spot of the trip so far. Just before sunset, from the yurt round the headland, came a man, his son and their dog on the evening fuel finding mission, looking for suitably dry shit to heat the yurt fire, and also inspect the evenings visitor and his bike. The father didn’t hang around but the lad was fascinated, the next 15 minutes were a game of moto charades, him pointing at part of the bike, me trying to explain it’s purpose. The gear lever, the ignition, the radiator, the indicators, the petcock. Looking like the game may go on all night and the yurt would never get it’s fuel, a ride up the nearest hill, him on the back, seemed to fulfill the fascination and he went back to inspecting the suitability of every cow pat withing sight.
While I’m slightly dubious of the odometer, on the Kyzert pass climbing north from the lake the bike told me we’d passed the 10,000th mile of the trip, I didn’t feel it marked anything overly significant, but in that moment I felt a long way from home and decided to have a beer that night in Bishkek to celebrate. Bishkek, like the other Central Asian cities I’ve visited is neither beautiful or remember-able for any of the right reasons. There’s nothing particularly historical with most buildings cut into the bland uniform soviet mould, making me wounder if architects were picked on their lack of imagination, or in fact the same person is responsible for the whole swathe of dreariness.
East of Bishkek and Issy Kul I had one destination in mind, Altyn Areshan and it’s hot springs, after the failed attempt to find or reach the hotsprings near Murgab, Tajikistan I was determined this time, Lonely Planet describing it as the worst road in the world only added to the challenge. It’s only 12 miles from tarmac to the ‘resort’, but what a 12 miles it is. An alpine track of dirt and mud soon gives way to football sized cobbles on boulders strewn ledges hewn into the rocky riverside. Messing up one particularly rocky section the bike went down and later slid into a dusty rut passing a horse and rider, watching them both emerge from my dust cloud and nonchalantly continue upwards, a horse seemed like a much more sensible choice. Reaching the top I was exhausted and ready for the hot springs, they weren’t quite what I had in mind, the surrounding valley and journey to them being the real highlight. Only on the journey down was there chance to get photos.
In fear of breaking down on a remote mountain pass or doing damage which would mean a round trip back to Osh and missing my deadline to meet 5 other bikers near the Chinese border, the final few days in Kyrgyzstan were easy riding. Yurt stay to yurt stay, joining in Kyrgyz lakeside family fun, riding Eastern Son-Kul with Ralph an Austrian also on a DRZ400 and walking in the yak and marmot valleys of Tien-Shan.
These final few days also marked the end of my two months in Central Asia, a most amazing place with the broadest spectrum of scenery and the narrowest of dreadful food. Come for the landscape, people, culture and riding and you wont fail to be amazed, but make sure you bring sandwiches.