Kyrgyzstan is the only central Asian country that allows a 2-month visa-free tourist residency.
I had finally arrived in a place where there was no strict visa deadline and I could enjoy touring in the country and relaxing with no time pressure.
I liked Kyrgyzstan immediately. The mountains were fantastic; the meadows were full of blooming flowers; and frequently, shepherds passed by riding on their horses driving their cattle off the highway or along the slopes.
I spent the first night in a village, but after that, I went quickly into the wilderness. I could finally breathe freely and relished the landscape to the fullest. Several times, I would just sit at the roadside in bewilderment at the beauty before me.
Although I was on the main highway on the way to Bishkek, there wasn’t much traffic. Finally, I could enjoy the panorama in peace without having to be disturbed by the incessant honking of vehicles on the roadway.
I was in the mountains again and I was simply enchanted with my surroundings.
I stopped at a small café and ordered something to eat. I stayed there much longer than I had planned
when suddenly a cyclist appeared from the same direction from which I had come.
David was a Frenchman, who after 3 years was on his way home. He had decided to hang an extra loop onto his trip through Central Asia.
A really nice guy, 28, and clearly fitter than I. We continued on together and every evening we found a great place to pitch our tents. David always cooked something great-tasting to eat. During the day we ate somewhere in a small restaurant or café along the highway.
The people were generally businesslike and not especially friendly and they attempted continuously to cheat us. For that reason, it wasn’t really any fun to eat there.
It was nice to be able to share my trip with someone again – to be able to talk and share our opinions with each other, to collect new ideas and while pedaling along to simply philosophize about the world.
With David, it was easy and a lot of fun.
After a while, I realized that in doing that, I couldn’t experience many things as intensively as when I was underway alone. Instead of being forced to deal with the people who lived there, when I wanted to have contact with someone, there was already someone there to talk to.
And so, I was forced to push aside some of the experiences of the surrounding world and talk about things that were happening somewhere else on the earth. By doing that, I missed several things.
Somehow, as is often the case, there are two sides to every coin.
After a few days, we arrived at the first high pass – Ala Bel Pass. There was still snow at the top, but that was no surprise – it was only mid-May and the pass was at 3100 meters. The landscape was gorgeous, the weather was warm and sunny, and not even the nights were cold anymore.
The second pass. Too Asuu Pass had a tunnel at 3200 meters. There we experienced something very special. The traffic was stopped, but we were allowed to continue.
Not knowing what to expect, we were awed when a huge herd of sheep met us halfway through the tunnel.
It was a super encounter, probably something that will only happen once in my lifetime.
Afterwards, the road continued down the mountain in an eternal serpentine-like spiral.
Shortly before Bishkek, we met a French-Russian cyclist couple. Then later, a Swiss cycling couple appeared with whom we shared a camping spot.
Again and again it was interesting to hear what others had experienced, what equipment they had brought with them on the trip, and the route they had planned.
Bishkek is a modern, Russian-oriented city, which people travel to in order to obtain needed provisions.
In the hostel, we met several other travelers – cyclists, hikers and backpackers – who had made their way here to get a visa for the neighboring countries.
One of them especially impressed me – a Frenchman, all in a rotten mood, I lost all desire to join them.
Sometime later, I forced myself to ask someone a question but that discouraged me through the next day.
In the meantime, I went to the “famous” Miss Liu, who is responsible for Chinese visas. Unfortunately, the Chinese had changed their visa policy last September and it was very seldom to get more than a 30-days. The visa is only extendable for another 30 days, not as it used to be possible twice.
Until recently, Bishkek was one of the few places in the world where it was still easy to get a 90-day visa for China, but now that has been curtailed.
Comically, the Chinese insist on a Kyrgyz registration with the police, which is no longer required by the Kyrgyz officials themselves for foreigners in their country, so of course, I didn’t have one. I had never even heard about it.
An outlandish US$150 for a 30-day visa and a fee of 600 Som (about 9 Euros) for the registration + 200 Som penalty (or bribe) because I didn’t register within 5 days. Ridiculous, but there was nothing I could do about it.
The next day, I went as I was told to the Russian embassy at 2 p.m. and battled my way through the masses and decided then (before I had talked with anyone at all) that I didn’t feel like going through with it.
I had no desire to beg to be admitted to ANY country. It just wasn’t important enough for me. So, I made a decision – I would head directly to China.
Four days later, I had a Chinese visa in my passport and 90 days to get into the country.
After I spent a few more days in Bishkek, David, in the meantime had obtained visas for Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Usbekistan; although we knew that our route would be the same for only a few more days, he rode together with me. After only 40 kilometers, we were disappointed to learn that his frame was broken. He had to return to Bishkek.He turned down my offer to help, so I continued on alone.
Later, I learned that he found someone who could weld his steel frame
I strolled along on my bike through the landscape, enjoyed nature again and avoided the main highway. I slept in the lawn of strangers or pitched my tent somewhere with a view to beautiful landscapes. I was alone again and was able to get back to my own rhythm.
The days had become extremely long. There was ample time so it was possible to stop and enjoy the vistas. I rode significantly shorter distances than usual because I had become enamored with the endless landscape and it would have been a shame to just pedal quickly through it.
The weather, however, became more and more unpredictable. Often, I would experience 3 seasons on the same day – storms, rain, sunshine, hail and 5 minutes later, 30 degrees Celsius again.
There was one thing in Kyrgyzstan that totally fascinated me – the extremely unusual cemeteries, which were often situated in lofty places on the steep mountainsides high above the villages.
The graves were especially decorative and, because of that, the dead here had an exclusive place overlooking the expansive landscape. It was really quite impressive.
One evening on the way from Kochkor to Karakol Ashuu, a pass along the Kara Moynok mountain range, I asked at a house in Ak Talaa if I could pitch my tent on a large meadow in the village.
The people, radiant with joy, greeted me and told me I could stay. Shortly afterwards, a lady came to me and brought me tea, bread and rancid butter as well as the obligatory candy.
We both sat there on the meadow that was covered with sheep droppings and picnicked together. Such moments are simply marvelous and it is such times that make all the discomfort and stress of the bike trip well worth the effort.
The sky darkened and the lady invited me into her home. She had plenty of room. At around 10 p.m.,
everyone in the house spooned a large portion of fried potatoes and onions from a large plate into their own to eat. As always, there was tea, which was prepared with milk here. A canister of milk and a pot of tea stood ready.
First, the milk was poured into the cup, and then a bit of black tea, lastly the boiling water was added. Yum. Those who wanted to do so added a touch of cream to the tea and, of course, sugar. The milk had a rather bland taste and looked more like water than anything else.
The next morning, we were served basically the same thing for breakfast – bread and cream, rancid butter, fruit jelly, delicious yogurt and, as always, tea – all homemade.
The lady packed a lunch for me and I pedaled further toward the pass. As I rode through the last village, the people and shepherds warned me that there was still a lot of snow on the pass. But I had heard from the tourist office in Kochkor that it was possible to go over the pass with a bicycle even if the cars couldn’t make it, so I continued upward. I had misgivings; I figured, if a shepherd warns me,
there must be something to it, but I remained stubborn and curious, so I continued. The landscape was decorated with a beautiful river valley where the families in Yurten were looking after their herds on the mountain meadows. Horses, sheep and cattle were kept here.
It is a magnificent view to see the black dots of animals running along the hillsides of the unending expanses of the mountain landscape.
At around 2700 meters, I pitched my tent between two trees off to the side of the highway to be protected from the permanent wind. There were no wooded areas in sight.
The next day was again so impressive that I allowed myself ample time before I headed up to the pass.
But the closer I got, the more snow I found on the road. The beginning was easy, but the trail became more and more difficult. Once I reached 3300 meters I had to carry my things one pack at a time
over the old snow fields.
Twice for the panniers, once for the bike – so for each passage, I had to walk back and forth 3 times. It was strenuous, but luckily, the snow was solid but not icy, so I was able to walk on it and it wasn’t really dangerous to slide back down the slope.
The sky was getting gradually darker, the little Yurts I had left behind me long ago and I felt a bit lost in the mountain landscape, especially because it began to snow and the first flashes of lightning bolted through the sky and it began to thunder. Soon it was no longer any fun to continue.
With the hope to make it past the last field of old snow, and because I could see the pass marker in the distance, I realized why the shepherds had warned me.
I saw a 3-meter wall of snow ahead of me that was blocking my way to the pass.
If someone had been with me, I probably could have made it, but alone, it was impossible to drag all my panniers over this giant mountain of snow without sliding backwards down the steep slope.
The storm worried me, so gritting my teeth, I turned back. Unfortunately, that meant I had to cross each old snowfield 3 times again and then bike the whole way back. But, I had no choice.
Luckily, going back was much easier, but I had reached my limit. The snow changed to rain and fell in torrents. I still had to cross a few streams before I could get back to the Yurts and pitch my tent somewhere on the large meadow.
I was soaked and, in the meantime, it had gotten ice cold and I was freezing. But it is always astounding how quickly it gets warm inside my tent. I made a hot tea and some porridge with delicious dried fruits which one can purchase nearly everywhere here.
It was already dark when the horses came to visit me and I hoped that they would see my tent in the night and not stumble over it by mistake. What made me even more nervous was the storm around me.
There is hardly anything more frightening than to sit in a tent at 3000 meters and to know that the only metal anywhere near was my bicycle which lay in the grass only 6 feet away.
The thunder became louder and the lightning flashes lit the entire tent. The wind was so powerful that I thought it might shred my tent. The flapping of the tent walls and the pounding rain were so loud with that I could barely hear myself talk. In such situations, you would like to have someone next to you to share the fear.
But, luckily, the storm eventually moved on and, totally exhausted, I fell into a deep sleep.
The next day began with bright sunshine and I dried my wet clothes – especially my shoes – in the wind. Then I rode back down the mountain along the gravel road. A few shepherds asked me about the conditions on the pass and, using sign language, I explained the situation to them.
When I arrived in the little village of Ak-Talaa, I knocked on the door of the family I had met before and they took me in radiant with joy.
A man came to visit the family, and together, they drank a lot of vodka. The visitor tried at least 20 times to get me to drink and was unfortunately a really uncomfortable, loud individual.
Everyone kept burping and the atmosphere had a – well – let’s say, a combination of Russia and China.
For supper, we were served the Kyrgyz Plov (rice, carrots, chicken) and again, a large plate was placed in the middle of the low table.
Only this time everyone got their own plate. Here, everyone still sits on the floor, but no tablecloth is spread onto the floor, as everywhere before Kyrgyzstan. Someone there fished the biggest piece of chicken out of the mountain of rice for me and shoveled it onto my plate, but I gave half of it back again.
The longer we ate, the more the visitor mixed his way into what I was eating. Although I told him I had had enough, he shoveled more rice onto my plate and then fiddled around in the rice with his oily “mechanic” fingers to find more chicken and then threw them onto my plate.
You can’t be too picky here. They chewed chicken bones and kept changing hands. Eventually, everyone had chewed on the same chicken bone. On top of that, one of the children did nothing but cause problems.
Either he threw the food around the room or he would hit someone in the group in the face or on the back. Not only that, her father thought it was funny.
That entire night it rained again and I was glad to be in a house. The next morning, all of the mountain peaks around the village were covered with new snow. I was just too early in the year on the road there and was beginning to wonder about all the plans I had for that country.
They offered me the opportunity to wash myself and, of course, I gladly accepted. I went into a kind of sauna. First, they brought fresh water with their donkey from who knows where and then filled a kind of water oven, which they fired up with fresh cow dung. The water boiled and the steam saturated the small room which was sealed from the outside. It was quite warm.
Next to it, there was a container with cold water and a scoop spoon and a bucket. The hot water was mixed with the cold as desired and then you had to scoop the water over yourself.
After that, the lady of the house sewed the tears in my clothing; she was a tailor and completed the task very quickly. Super!
This time, I received an entire liter of yogurt to take with me and said goodbye with some sadness from the only people that I knew, at least to some degree, in this country.
With a strong headwind I headed along the A367 in the direction of Song Kul, a lake in the middle of the mountains. Shortly before the next rain showers, a cyclist from Vienna met me, but he barely had any time to talk to make use of the wind at his back. After that, I met two travelers on motorcycles
who were on their way to Hong Kong.
They told me that the Pamir Highway was closed on the Tajikistan side. I felt badly for David who would not be able to travel through Tajikistan and Afghanistan as he had planned.
Many other cyclists were on their way to Tajikistan and would have to wait in front of closed borders and have problems with their visas. We remained there for a long time, and when it began to rain hard, we all headed our separate ways.
Eventually, not far from the Kizart Ashuu Pass, soaked to the bone and nearly tattered from the wind, I arrived at a small farm where I asked if I could stay the night.
I was allowed to stay in an ice-cold construction van and, since it rained the whole night, I was happy to have a dry place to stay. A cat lay on the sofa seat and I wondered if there might be mice there.
Several times, I heard squeaking noises that I could hardly attribute to the cat. The next morning, I saw that the cat had birthed 4 kittens and I finally understood where the strange noises had come from.
With water-soaked clothing and shoes I continued into the headwind. It was cold – really cold – but the landscape was magnificent. The meadows were so intensively green because of the rains that the colors were glowing and rich.
After the pass, the road continued only downward – past the Yurts, with whom I was invited to drink some kumys – a strange national beverage made of fermented stud milk. Somehow, that was not my thing.
I met a couple of French cyclists and we talked for a long time. Somehow, Kyrgyzstan appears to be a strong magnet for cyclists.
I met more cyclists here in 3 weeks than during the entire previous year, but, regardless, I always enjoy such encounters.
In Chaek, I took a break for two days, simply because the weather was wet and cold.
I stayed in a small guest house as the only guest. I have to mention here that as soon as the people here have anything to do with tourism, they often become unfriendly and seem only to be able to smell money.
In the villages, where hardly any tourists go, or where the shepherds live in the mountains, the people are incredibly friendly – although they are somewhat shy of strangers. But I must say that I prefer the stranger shyness much more than the continuous inquisitiveness which I experienced in Iran.
Here, in Kyrgyzstan it is possible to sit in front of a shop, peacefully eat something and study a roadmap without having to answer dozens of questions. It takes a long time before someone talks with you. I find that very relaxing.
From Chaek, I continued in the direction of Song Kul, a lake which lies at 3000 meters of altitude,
and is surrounded with snow-covered mountain peaks. The road there followed a river valley, which had been littered with mine fields.
Please be patient. There is more to come about this fascinating country.