Overland in Kyrgyzstan
“Have you ever been offroad before?” Patrik asked, sizing me up as I considered a route through Kyrgyzstan. I considered the two extremes, either projecting false confidence versus prostrating myself as a complete beginner. Too nervous, I thought, and he would refuse to rent me the motorcycle; too confident, and maybe I’d be in over my head without realizing it.
“No, not really.” (Such eloquence after all my worrying!)
“In that case, I suggest you skip Kochkor Pass; it is demanding.” My first reaction was of hurt pride: What, you don’t think I can do it? I tried to build the smallest, whitest lie to augment my statement, hoping for an endorsement for Kochkor Pass — never mind I had no idea where or what that was — but in the end I accepted the safer bet. I was set to ride for six days across Kyrgyzstan and I didn’t need more unknowns.
Patrik directed me to a shed full of gear to borrow; this mismatched equipment would be the only thing between me and certain death in case of an unexpected dismount. Less dramatically, it would be my protection against the elements, and though it was currently over 90 degrees and humid in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, over the next week my journey would start at 3,000 feet and rise to over 10,000 feet above sea level. Everything was oversized; I stumbled out, walking like a squire under unfamiliar armor, feeling burdened but emboldened. Patrik seemed unconcerned with the odd fit and gave me the thumbs up.
As I loaded up the saddle bags and strapped the rest of my possessions to the seat, it felt like I shouldn’t be ready. Long voyages are supposed to involve months of preparation, careful research, or at least traveler’s insurance. Okay, so this was a mere six-day journey, but all I had my paper map of Kyrgyzstan, the GPS on my phone, and an optimistic naïveté. Still, I tried to come up with some last minute questions, in the hope that I’d feel more prepared. “So, do you have any advice for riding offroad?”
Without missing a beat, Patrik responded, “Don’t do anything stupid and you’ll be fine.”
I’m not sure what I expected.
Kyrgyzstan is a land-locked country in the Tian Shan mountains, nestled between Kazakhstan, China, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Owing to its topography, it’s not well-connected; narrow roads switchback for miles to traverse mountain ranges, and many high-altitude passes are inaccessible in the winter. There is one major expressway that connects Bishkek, the capital, and Osh; many of the other roads that crisscross Kyrgyzstan are narrow asphalt or packed dirt. But it was precisely these switchbacks and remote places that were the purpose of the trip.
I left Osh the same afternoon, with the buildings and traffic quickly melting away into the splendor of the Fergana Valley. I was headed for Jalal-Abad, a small city north of Osh. The distance between the cities is small, but the direct route is impassible, at least on my American passport; a section of Uzbekistan cuts directly between the two. This type of irregularity is common across the Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan border; following the end of the Soviet Union, the formation of independent states across Central Asia cut off roads and tracks that were built without modern border controls in mind. Furthermore, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks have historically lived on both sides of the border, which even today complicates territorial claims between the two countries. For my part, I welcomed the additional mileage on the first day of my journey. It would be the last time I saw paved roads for many days, and I needed all the practice I could get.
Upon arriving in Jalal-Abad, I stopped at the local Community Based Tourism branch to find a place to sleep. A phone call and a brief wait later, a woman arrived to show me the way to her home in Jalal-Abad. I was struck by her beauty — raven-haired with clear, dark eyes —and though she looked several years younger than I, she was already running a household with two children. I relaxed in the garden with a pot of tea, studying the route for my next day. In the evening, she brought a menu for dinner, with prices set by the CBT organization; a reminder of the transactional nature of this arrangement. I had hoped to eat with the family, possibly mime our way through the niceties of a meal, but instead ate in the garden alone, with the family opting to sit on the far end of the courtyard. My location, clearly superior in comfort, reminded me awkwardly of my privilege. Unsure if the separation was by choice or misunderstanding, and without the tools to differentiate the two, I finished my meal quickly and turned in for the night.
I woke up early the next morning, knowing that the day’s road would be difficult: the map showed it as an errant scribble, impossibly snaked over Tosor Pass. As I departed the urban center of Jalal-Abad and headed east out of the Fergana Valley, the challenging road conditions also made for breathtaking backdrops. The mountains piled up in sky as I worked my way higher over each switchback, stacked seemingly endlessly across the horizon. As I climbed, the warm summer afternoon gave way to overcast skies and icy wind as I made my way up the pass; pausing for a picture at the top, I felt sure that my bike would get knocked over and I would be stuck waiting for help for hours. Could I right the bike myself? Better not to think about it too much.
On my way down from the pass, I pulled over to chat with a Swiss couple biking up the opposite way; they wanted to know how much further it was to the top, and gave me a recommendation for a place to stay in Kazarman. It was a home with a wing added on for guest accommodation, run by a local teacher. As I pulled into her yard, the host gave me a quizzical smile. “Are you Kyrgyz?” I shook my head and replied that I was American. “My daughter says you look Kyrgyz.” Her daughter peeked shyly out of the house. We chatted for just a little bit; the conversation was a welcome change from the previous night’s solitary meal, but after more than six hours and 150 kilometers on dirt roads for the day, I was frankly more interested in the shower in the garden. The construction was impressive; it had the feel of a wooden sauna, clean and smelling of timber, with a spigot in the ceiling to allow solar-heated water to pour in. If I could continue to find hot food and hot showers, this trip wouldn’t be so hard after all.
In the evening, it started to rain, so the host invited me and the other guests into the main house for dinner. As I walked through the house, I noticed their own bathroom with sparkling glass and porcelain; I laughed imagining tourists smug with their “authentic” experience in the outdoor toilet and shower.
After two days on the road, I started to get a sense for the backroads of Kyrgyzstan. The roads are punctuated by settlements, and even the smallest show hints of activity. In the mornings, boys and girls in immaculate jackets and skirts pushed and hollered on their way to school. In the afternoons, these children, no longer in their school uniforms, raced out of their houses to wave at me as I rode by. (A few times I had a boy pretend to throw a rock at me, and in a particularly egregious case I got a double middle-finger from the back of a pickup truck.) Between towns, traffic jams comprised livestock and their herders in lieu of motor vehicles. This was all part of my new daily routine: breathless climbs over treacherous mountain passes; a wave and a nod to the few other drivers coming down the road; and disbelieving laughter at yet another gorgeous vista.
The next day I was headed east out of Kazarman, then north to Lake Song-Kul. I was worried about muddy conditions on the road from the previous night’s rain, but I made it to the lake without trouble. Patrik noted that I would be able to find yurt accommodation along the lake, but there weren’t any specific signs, so I pulled into one of the larger sets of tents along the shore. I caught this particular settlement on their last week at the lake; at the lake’s elevation (just shy of 10,000 feet), the temperature rapidly turns freezing towards winter, and tourist season was just about over.
A couple cyclists I had met on the road late in the day were staying in the same accommodations for the evening. I had picked up a small flask of vodka earlier, mostly because it appeared to have some sort of poem on the front, written in Cyrillic; we shared it that night, with a toast to, as it was roughly translated from the bottle, “ease problems with your woman”.
In the morning, while my new friends did some horseback riding around the lake, I quickly dressed and packed my bag; I had my longest day of riding ahead, and needed to get started early. Out of Lake Song-Kul, down into Naryn for lunch and gas, and out a wide, rugged detour before arriving in Kochkor for the evening. It would be a little over 350 kilometers, covered in about ten hours. In the afternoon, I had a brief stretch of fresh asphalt on the way to Naryn, and felt the freedom of an open throttle after days of painstaking navigation across dirt roads. After a quick lunch and gas stop, I rode east out of Naryn, going through what would be the most varied stretch of riding: dry grasslands turning into forested mountain passes; rivers ranging from powder blue to a deep lapis lazuli; elevation changes affecting the hue of the sunlight, the taste of the wind. The only constant was a feeling of complete solitude, with just the occasional horse or engine-powered passerby.
The aches from consecutive days of riding started to set in: stiff, tender wrists; thighs chafed from the edges of the saddle. At some point, with the sun low in the sky, I had to decide that no matter how beautiful the scenery, I could not get off to take pictures; I could imagine no worse scenario than trying to navigate the potholes and rocky terrain in complete darkness. I arrived in Kochkor at dusk, found a hotel, and had just enough energy for a quick meal before passing out.
Throughout the trip, most of my fears centered around my own stupidity; say, riding off the edge of a cliff, or dropping my bike over a hill. At this point, the hardest part of the trip was over; from here, I would ride just 150 kilometers to Lake Issyk-Kul and spend one night, and then on to Bishkek the next day, all on paved roads. The bike was a well-maintained, modern Yamaha — at home I ride a 1978 Honda CX500, which I would estimate is just as likely to start as not — so I never considered mechanical failure as a risk. So, of course, on the easiest day of riding, just 80 kilometers out of Kochkor, I heard a rattling noise from my bike, and suddenly lost power. I shifted up and down through the gears, but the bike glided on, oblivious. I stopped to inspect the bike and quickly found the chain, which connects the engine power to the rear wheel, was missing. I canvased the road in the direction I came, mostly at a loss for what to do, but figured it was probably best to find all the parts the bike came with. A few hundred yards back I found the chain lying in the middle of the road, and other than being snapped open, it seemed unharmed; still, a single missing link makes any chain about zero percent useful.
I called Pratik, who originally sent me on my way; he routed me to a mechanic in Bishkek that spoke English. We settled on a plan: the mechanic would find someone to speak Kyrgyz to a family that was just up the road and ask to stash the bike and explain the situation; meanwhile, the mechanic would go to a shop first thing tomorrow and get a new chain, delivered to me via marshrutka; I’d return, chain in hand, to fix the bike and get back to Bishkek. It seemed ridiculous, considering I had no experience and only had the most basic of tools, but I had no other option. I pushed the bike up the road until I found the man who would help me with my bike; gestured apologetically to his family just briefly, and after I passed him my phone and everything seemed set, I felt surprisingly comfortable about the ridiculous situation. What else could I do? I tried to leave my worries behind with my bike; with the day already waning, I waited for a marshrutka on the road to get me to Tosor.
Someone felt bad for me somewhere; I managed to snag a front seat. The driver struck up basic English conversation. He asked me if I was Kyrgyz and was incredulous when I told him I wasn’t. I used the maps on my phone to show him where I was from; images from the internet to show what it looked like; and he wanted to know where I was prior to Kyrgyzstan, so I showed him pictures I had taken earlier on my camera. It was fun — I tried to ignore the fact that we were barreling down a two-lane highway with not a seatbelt in sight while he was scrolling two-handed through my photos, steering with his forearms — and that was the first moment after disaster struck where I got the sense that my motorcycle problems could be a good thing. I was sad to part ways when he dropped me off in Tosor.
I stayed in cabin-style lodging right up against the lake. The lake is a popular vacation destination, especially for Russians, with resorts lining the northern shore; the slightly saline water, rumored to have healing powers, keeps at a manageable 20 °C mostly year-round. I met a group of Kyrgyz men at the lodging, where they were having a reunion of sorts; Stanbek, a Kyrgyz living in Switzerland, was with his old school friends, and had brought along a friend from Basel, Kai. Kai spoke German and English, and Stanbek spoke Kyrgyz and German, so all conversation was an actual game of Telephone: I’d try to tell a funny story, with Kai translating to German, and then Stanbek translating to Kyrgyz for his friends. The suspenseful delay of appreciative laughter with this method of conversation definitely makes you feel funnier, though in hindsight, maybe it was the drinking.
And boy, did they drink. Armed with their own set of steel shot glasses, I gathered they meant business quickly. We would start with a shot of vodka, and just as I’d start a topic of conversation, they would stop me; apparently, as Kai translated apologetically, you have to follow the first shot of vodka with a quick second shot. Then, snack time: horse meat cold cuts off the bone, or some chuchuk (horse-meat sausage), and then of course another round of vodka. Before long, it was midnight, which apparently meant it was time to swim in the lake. Beers in hand, we plodded through the sand to the shore. My enthusiasm wavered as the shock of cold sand instantly numbed my feet — while I was second-guessing, Stanbek had already charged head-first into the water — so, cold and naked, it was preferable to jump in rather than look silly and alone on the shore. Once I was used to the temperature, I found there was something to the rumors of Issyk-Kul’s healing powers; buoyed by the gentle waves and vodka, watching the stars in the complete pitch blackness of the massive lake, I had several moments of restorative and possibly hypothermic bliss.
I experienced the waters of Issyk-Kul in the day as well; just 5 hours later, in fact, when I was awoken by pounding on the door. Apparently I had signed up for the sunrise swim as well.
That afternoon, after nursing a hangover for several hours, I got my call from the marshrutka driver that had my chain and walked out to the main highway. Standing there, I felt immensely foolish, not knowing who to look for. Eventually a van pulled over with confidence; I must have exuded some foreignness that made me an easy marker. After receiving the new chain, I hitched a ride back to my stashed bike, hoping that the videos I watched in the morning about installing a motorcycle chain would be enough. The guardian of my bike joined me, eager to fix the bike; we wrapped the chain around the front gear, stretched it to the rear, and found it three links short. Fortunately, the chain size was the same, and after some head-scratching, we were able to use the removable “master link” from the new chain with the proper length of the old chain. After setting the link in, there was a moment of suspicion, like it was too easy, but everything seemed operational after a short test ride. We rejoiced — the farmer shook his head in disbelief as he put his fingers about a centimeter apart, as if to say “we just needed this one little piece” — and after a hug and a handshake, I rode back out to Tosor, feeling triumphant. In the evening, I ate plov with Stanbek and friends, which naturally led to vodka and a midnight swim in the lake. Everything was going to be okay.
Until it wasn’t, of course. On my ride back to Bishkek the next morning, just a few kilometers out, I felt my ride stiffen, the steering flatten. Stopping to examine the bike, I found the rear tire completely flat. Okay, another setback; a quick call to the mechanic in Bishkek, and he says that there are tons of tire repair shops, any should be able to patch the tube and get me going. Since the bike lacked a centerstand, he suggested I find a large rock to elevate the bike enough to remove the brake assembly and tire — I started to laugh, until I realized he wasn’t joking — and, again without much choice, I dragged the bike to the shade of a nearby tree and started to work.
Stanbek and his friends had left for a hike in the morning, and on their way to Bishkek, spotted me on the side of the road. After I got the tire off, they emptied out their luggage and helped me load the tire in the trunk, and a few stayed behind with the bike while the rest of us took the tire up the road about 20 kilometers to a shop. In a few hours, I had the tire fixed and replaced. I felt so fortunate that they found me, that they were able to give me a ride, and that they could translate; it was hard to feel too bitter about the multiple mechanical failures.
Until the second time my tire went flat, just a few kilometers after it had been “fixed”. The feeling of camaraderie melted into sheepishness; help me once, we all feel good about it, but again? This time, I drove on the flat to the tire shop, and they followed at my slow pace. Before long, the cumulative delay was several hours long, and they understandably had to leave to make it to Bishkek before too late; I felt relieved that I wasn’t burdening them again. While the man at the tire shop patched up the tire, I called the mechanic in Bishkek again to get some advice; he said he would send a friend of his who lives nearby to drive behind me until I was sure the new tire was safe.
So once more I attempted to leave Lake Issyk-Kul, my calm from the previous nights’ adventures shattered, my mind tunnel-visioned and looking to get to Bishkek. After several kilometers, all seemed well with the tire, so I pulled over and paid the man who had come out to follow me.
“Do you want to see an eagle?”
I was certain I had misheard him, but I followed him to the trunk of his car. Here I was, greasy and sticky from the multiple tire changes, self-pitying about my bad luck, and unreasonably annoyed with the world around me; as he first doted lovingly on his animal, really a human embrace, and then handed him (her?) over to me, it felt childish to be mad. There was magic everywhere, on this lake, in this trunk, and I had the fortune to be witness to it.
I arrived in Bishkek well after dark, after riding just about as fast as possible, stopping for no food, water, or pictures. Checking my phone in the hostel that night, it turns out that I had passed Kai and Stanbek; they tried to catch up, but kept getting pulled over by the police for speeding. I asked Kai to thank them again for all their help, and that I was so sorry about all the trouble. I was relieved to have made it without any more issues— I had a flight to Mongolia at four the next morning, so I didn’t have any more tolerance for error — but at the same time I wondered what other people I could have met, what adventures I could have encountered, had I had another mechanical issue or some wrong turn, and fell asleep mourning these myriad aborted universes.