We were going to Bishkek. That’s what we’d been planning to do for over a week. It’s what we told Tamara, who runs a peaceful guesthouse in Tamga where we spent two days, reading in her garden and meandering down to the water for an early summer swim.
That’s also what we said when a troop of twenty German cyclists passed us on their way to Beijing. But when we were nearly at the end of the road two French cyclists came along and changed our minds. “We’re going to Lake Song-Kol,” they said. “You can come with us.”
The decision to make the left-bearing detour into the Tian-Shan mountain range with Mathieu and Sandrine to a lake frequented by nomads and shepherds was a quick one. From Bishkek we want to fly somewhere (destination so far undecided) and we feared that if we got to the Kyrgyz capital we might not gather up the energy to do a loop around the country before leaving.
Our choice was an excellent one. The following nine days took us through some of the most stunning scenery we’ve seen yet on our trip. From the end of Lake Issyk-Kul we travelled first on asphalt to the bustling town of Kochkor, the last stop before the next stage of our journey that took us a day and a half up a dirt track. Up, up, up we climbed. Around several switchbacks, past a huge bag of potatoes that had fallen off a truck (we picked up a few extra kilograms – who can resist free potatoes?) and through the thunderstorms that seem to gather almost every afternoon.
Late on the second day after leaving Kochkor we arrived at the snowbanks marking the top. We later learned the peak was at 3,600 meters, our highest yet.
With dark clouds gathering behind us we sped downhill towards the lake, fording a small river in our bare feet to reach its north shore. We arrived without much time to appreciate the clear water and pebbled beach. The storm that had been chasing us was quickly approaching. A fierce bout of wind and rain followed, finishing an hour or so later with a rainbow and a fresh dusting of snow on the nearby mountains.
The weather improved overnight and early the next morning we carried on around part of the lake, past the first yurts of the season where nomad families invited us in for tea, bread, butter and a glass of kymys, fermented mare’s milk. It’s the national drink of Kyrgyzstan but, for tourists like us, kymys is somewhat of an aquired taste – sharp, slightly fizzy and with the occasional unidentified animal hair included. We politely finished our share but didn’t gulp it down with the enthusiasm of the toddler sitting beside us.
The remainder of our second day was spent simply sitting by the lake and enjoying its beauty. The whole area is a paradise for photographers and we filled our memory cards several times over with images of the still lake water, the mountains, the flowers, the yurts, their families and farm animals. These two days by the lake alone would have been enough to justify the detour but we still hadn’t seen the half of what Kyrgyzstan has to offer.
Relucantly on the third day – our supplies of food and gas for cooking running low – we left the lake on an old Soviet road running north. Well, technically it had been a road sometime in the past three decades but now it was more of a grassy track and we mostly pushed our bikes away from the water to a peak 3,300 meters up in the sky. A whole valley unfolded beneath us, offering a stunning view over mountain tops and grassy pastures. We averaged just over 3km an hour as we headed downhill on a rocky path.
Now on lower plains, we took an afternoon off to regain our energy and headed out the next morning for another set of mountains, the rocks this time forming the bright red walls of a canyon that ran along the Kochkor river. We were almost alone on the road and a good thing too. Its washboard surface sent us from side to side, back and forth in search of a small section that wouldn’t make us feel seasick.
The slow climb soon brought us to the main Bishkek-Osh road, where we sadly said goodbye to Mathieu and Sandrine. In a week we fast became good friends and wished we were continuing in the same direction. They turned south to Osh and we headed north, up 10km of switchbacks on the first paved road we’d seen in almost a week. Nearly three hours later we reached a tunnel at the top. Dimly lit, narrow and in a rather run-down state, we were glad it was going downhill and therefore quickly overwith.
Now came our reward for several days of hard work – 70km of steady descent from 3,200 meters all the way down to 800 meters. Even a fierce headwind blowing up the valley didn’t put much of a dent in our speed. It was over all too quickly. Back in the lowlands and the sweltering heat, we miss the mountains already but we have to turn our mind to other things: how to leave Central Asia. As much as we’ve heard wonderful things about Tajikistan, we don’t feel we have the energy to tackle it this time around. We are ready for a change of scene and since the Chinese don’t want visitors right now we’ll hunt instead for a flight to somewhere. Our mission for the next few days is to find out where exactly that might be.