Kyrgyzstan 2: An offroad paradise

After some back and forth we got the spare parts for Miriam’s motorcycle in Almaty and the time wasn’t as boring as we had expected, because there were quite a few cool people in the European Backpacker Hostel again.

Miri gets some pear lemonade
Miri gets some pear lemonade

So we are back in Bishkek a few days later, where we meet our Swiss friends again and do kind of a farewell “USSR memorial day”. In Bishkek you can still find various remains from the time of the Soviet Union. We notice that Andreas’ eyes always start to shine every time he remembers something from his childhood in Siberia. For example, you can find turquoise “soda machines” all over town. At least they were vending machines in earlier days. Nowdays there is always a person standing nearby and serving drinks out off the huge metal boxes. Usually you get apple or pear lemonade and water. They even have a built-in waterrinse for the glasses and are really pretty cool. The owners are often as old as the machines themselves and we have quite some glasses of lemonade while touring the city.

There are also small shops called Pivnushka. You can get delicious draft beer there. In the past, you would just walk past there, treat yourself to a few beers and then move on again – a kind of fast-drink beer pub. In addition they always offer all sorts of dried fish. These Pivnushkas are perfect for a stop every now and then, while exploring the city – a really great invention!

All over the city you can also find numerous small bakeries that make meat filled dumplings. In Andreas’ hometown these were apparently found on every street corner in the past. They also go wonderfully with beer. We spend a pretty cool last day together in Bishkek and our USSR Memorial Day is a complete success – we fall into our beds that evening and sleep like rocks.

Miri fetching drinking water
Miri fetching drinking water

The next day we set off towards Song Kul Lake. Our swiss friends stay in Bishkek, since they found a mechanic to repair their broken camper van. First we drive westwards and it takes ages before we even get out of Bishkek in the heavy traffic. Then we turn onto a pass road, where we have to pay a small toll. The little road meanders up the mountain for many kilometers and finally leads to a “carbon monoxide” tunnel at over 3000 m a.s.l. We meant no harm by it and just drive past the waiting trucks into the tunnel. Trucks have a traffic light and only one side is allowed to go at a time, because the tunnel is not wide enough. It is almost pitch black inside, the road surface is in a miserable condition and there is a hell of a noise. Halfway through we start to become a bit dizzy, as there is almost no ventilation in there. Every now and then we get overtaken by crazy drivers, who seem to be in a rush. Just before we pass out and fall off our motorcycles, we luckily see daylight again and reach the other side safely. Later we are told, that cyclists shouldn’t try to drive through and look for a lift instead. Otherwise it would be far too dangerous. So motorcycle riders should also hurry up a little bit.

After driving down the pass on the other side, we turn onto a gravel road towards Suusamyr. We buy some groceries there and pitch our tent next to a raging river. Miriam finds a skeleton of a dead cow and wants the skull as a badass figurehead for her motorcycle.

After breakfast we follow the course of the river for a few more kilometers and then turn east towards Song Kul Lake. 
We decided to drive the smallest and loneliest route to the lake. As soon as we leave the main street, we get stuck in mud and look like pigs in no time. Fortunately the dirt road gets better after a few kilometers and is no longer that muddy anymore. The road first leads us over an open steppe, then into a small canyon and finally goes up to the mountains over 3200 m a.s.l.

At the top of the pass you have a great view of Lake Song Kul and the white surrounding mountains. On the way to the lake our little road slowly disappears and it is difficult to find a track at all. So in the end we just ride like cowboys across the green meadows. In the european alps, people freak out when they spot an edelweiss. Here the whole meadow is full of it and when we arrive at the lake to prepare our camp, we have to pitch our tent on edelweiss – it just grows everywhere.

We join three English people with whom we share our beer. It is the first time for them, that they are supplied with beer in an altitude over 3000 m. In return for that and because it’s so cold, they make a cow-shit fire (there is nothing else to burn). It smolders and smokes great, but unfortunately it doesn’t give off any warmth. That’s why we go to bed early because it gets really uncomfortably cold.

Something seems strange to me when I fall asleep. After a while I realize what it is. It is dead silent – not a single sound. I stay awake for a while and try to hear something, absolutely nothing – cool. It happens to us a couple of times on our journey here in the mountains and it is really something very special, that only exists in a few places in this world.

The next morning we are woken up by many sheep and cows gathering around the tents. As everywhere in Kyrgyzstan, there are no fences and everything is allowed to jump around freely. We leave the lake over the Moldo-Ashuu Pass to the south. From the top of the pass you have another fantastic view of the pass road and the surrounding peaks. Our next destination is Naryn, where we have to organise a permit for Lake Kel Suu. This area is quite remote, so we have to prepare ourselves with all kinds of food (rice, lentils and pasta) before departure. The entire route is off-road and after a few kilometers thick rain clouds are gathering. 

We suddenly stand in the middle of a field between two thunderstorms and it starts to wind violently. A few minutes later we are already surrounded by lightening and rain. We try to park close to a power line, that we are not the highest point of the field and put on our rain gear. For any mysterious reason the thunderstorms are all around us but never really above us. So it hardly rains in our place, but a few hundred meters in each direction the world ends. We wait half an hour until the thunderstorms have passed and then continue riding in a light drizzle. There are various military check posts on this route and at one of them, we meet a few tourists who tell us, that the lake has dried out. Although that sounds quite sad we continue anyway. Nevertheless we start wondering, why they haven’t told us this important information at the tourist information before.

On the whole route we hardly meet anyone, but shortly before our destination, we suddenly face a huge group having a gigantic lunch in the middle of nowhere. It is an Israeli travel team and they invite us for lunch. They are all self-drivers, but accompanied by a tour guide.  We are told, that they are going to a secret lake – so secret that it doesn’t even have a name. Miriam explains to them, that there is only one lake called Kel Suu, it is not that secret and the reason we had come to this area, too. The travel guide doesn’t seem to be that happy about her information – Miriam’s sensitivity probably destroyed the adventure feeling a bit. However the Isrealis would have noticed at the latest at their overnight camp, that they are not the only tour group that is guided through this area.

Fantastic panorama at Kel Suu Lake

We spend our night on a meadow just outside the yurt camps. The panorama is gigantic. Our camp is at around 3300 m a.s.l., the grassy hills around us glow golden in the evening sun and are almost as high as Mont Blanc. Behind them, you can see the big snow-capped mountains, which are all significantly higher and the moon is so bright at night, that you can hardly sleep. Early the next morning the Israelis try to drive the remaining 7 km to the lake with their 4wd cars, but get stuck in mud and have to turn around in the end without having seen the lake. They tell us, that we will never get through there with our motorcycles, so we decide to walk the route instead. The hike itself is very nice, but it turns out, that we could have easily driven the route without any problems.

As already reported before, the lake is empty. Unfortunately we couldn’t find out why and the tourist information in Naryn didn’t say a word about the empty lake. Anyway – the empty lake, surrounded by steep cliffs at 3500 m, looks very unreal and is spectacular in a different way because of that. Back at our camp a little bit later, we check our gasoline level and finally decide to ride the longer route back along the Chinese border the next day.

When we leave the valley again and want to turn south, we meet a cowboy on his horse. After a short exchange of words he wants to invite us for a cay tea and we follow him over the pastures to his hut. He has a wife and two children. We are supplied with tons of food and fermented horse milk. Every time I am happy to have emptied the glass, it gets filled to the brim again. We both have to stuff ourselves with a massive portion of deep-fried bread, probably half a kilo of butter and a liter of fermented horse milk. So in the end we are very happy to get a glass of vodka offered to say goodbye. We are shown the horses on the pasture and take some photos together. They are super nice, but even with the use of google translate, it is difficult to have a conversation. Once again it would have been great to speak some Russian.

After we have said goodbye to our nice hosts, Miriam has apparently a really bad stomach, since she just stops her bike, drops it and disappears in the nearby bushes. Some kilometers later her motorcycle simply turns off. It just doesn’t get any power at all. I was about to get to the bottom of the problem, when a car stops and the park ranger steps out. He briefly checks our documents and then looks at the motorcycle. He tabs a bit onto the head light and Miriam’s mounted cow skull and suddenly the motorcycle has power again. I actually still want to look for the cause, but the man is happily satisfied and already starts remounting everything. I have to persuade Miriam to leave her heavy cow skull behind.

A few kilometers later the motorcycle stops again. I am not wondering about that, but I just wasn’t allowed to check for the real cause before. So I disassemble the front again and after a short time I spot a loose connector. After it was fixed with some zip ties, everything works reliably again. We ride over endless steppe with snow-capped mountains on both sides. Every now and then we cross a river or drive in a river bed with pebbles and sand. At some point a border fence appears which we follow for the remaining kilometers to the border buildings of the Chinese border. There we turn back onto a paved road, drive past Chatyr Kul Lake and all the way to the junction to Baetov. Here the route becomes a bad dirt road again and we pitch our tent a few kilometers later on a pasture between countless indignant marmots. At this place we are almost completely alone again.

The next day we ride via Baetov to Kazarman and finally towards Osh. Almost the entire route is gravel road or worse and really fantastic for motorcycling. At the last pass there is again a lot of snow next to the road. Then we gradually leave the mountains and when we arrive in Osh the weather is suddenly very hot. We rest for a day and meet our British friend Robin once again. Our plan was to continue to Tajikistan together, but on the day of departure, Miriam’s fork is leaking. Robin has to go on without us and I need a day to service Miriam’s fork. The next day we drive to the border town of Sary Tash. Sary Tash is a provincial backwater and you really only get the bare essentials – gasoline and some sparse food. As we are filling up, Robin suddenly stands next to us. We decide to ride a few kilometers out of the village to find a camp on a green meadow.

After breakfast the next day we drive to the border of Tajikistan. For any reason, and this seems to be with all border roads in this area, it turns into a potholed mess the closer you come to the border. The Kyrgyz border control is already situated in the mountains. We don’t need very long and the customs is also cleared very smoothly. Afterwards it is another 17 km through no man’s land to reach the Tajik border. 

Kyrgyzstan has been one of our highlights so far. Those who like mountains will love Kyrgyzstan. The people are incredibly nice, but often you don’t meet anybody at all, because you are completely alone in the more remote mountain regions.

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