Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Kyrgyzstan...biking in November?

You may ask yourself what cycling in Kyrgyzstan is like, what type of food is served, where you sleep at night and how to properly cross international borders.

Well, you could sleep in one of the abandoned rail cars along the beautiful shoreline of Lake Issyk Kul, run into an amazingly generous family in the sleepy town of Kara Talaa, have an evening in a fascinating home stay in Song Kol then ride horses over a 3000m pass to the mountainous lake Song Kol.

Continuing on, make sure you pick up plenty of food for the road ahead as it is long, rough and leads over several passes. Within a days ride of Kochkor you won't find many place and tenting may be necessary especially when the night brings freezing rain which turns to snow, -10 temps and icy roads in the morning. With another steep, icy pass ahead you will be glad that your bike weighs as much as a horse because you will no doubt be able to eat like one.

After a long, tedious day you will finally reach the city of Naryn. While there, make sure you pick up more supplies, eat dinner and get out of town as there is yet another pass and cycling it in the dark can take over two hours while temperatures plummet to below freezing. With a canyon like feel there is very little opportunity to find a flat place to sleep but if you are lucky you might be able to locate an abandoned sheep stable with your dimming headlamps.

Farther on down the road, beyond the town of At Bashy, the road becomes dirt, the views become expansive and there is no water to be found. With some luck you might be able to find another sheep stable to sleep in or better yet another family will take you in and feed you such delicacies as roasted sheep fat, fermented mares milk which is slightly alcoholic, fermented cheese balls made from sheep milk, honey, butter, jam and an unidentifiable liquid which is good for your strained digestive system.

With a stomach full of calories you will be ready to make the move to cycle over the Torugart Pass. Don't take this lightly as over 100km stands between you and the pass with challenging road conditions, temperatures below zero and no one around. In case you don't make it to the pass in one day, a road workers run down building can provide a warm evening and basic food for dinner and breakfast. From here, you will make the last push toward the pass with morning temperatures in November hovering at -20 degrees.

After only a few short hours of cycling next to old barbed wire fences at heights of 3 meters, that used to be electrified you will arrive to Kyrgyzstan border. Hopefully you have correctly calculated the last of your Kyrgyz money as the border is closed on weekends and the only place to stay is a deteriorating state run hotel. In case you have no money and some luck, there are some friendly Kyrgyz KGB border guards that may help you find a place to sleep and keep out of the teeth chattering temperatures.

Patience is needed while going through customs and in case the border guards have lost the key to the border gate again, don't worry, the numerous truck drivers around will be more than willing to take a crow bar and hammer to the old lock. Congratulations, you are on your way to the Torguart Pass, finally.

Don't underestimate the challenges of entering China from this border crossing. In case you have not done your homework, foreigners are not allowed to cross without a tour group escort. The Chinese border guards will be more than happy to show you the way back to Kyrgyzstan even if your panniers are empty of food and you have no more Kyrgyz money left. If you happen to be the lucky sort, a tour guide might just show up, escorting tourist to Kyrgyzstan, relieving you of the nightmare of heading all the way back to Naryn, over the many snow covered passes. Of course the service this tour guide will offer wont come cheap, expect to pay $100 each for the privilege to be driven 160km to Kashgar. In case you are the adventurous type and think that riding through the check post is possible, there are three more military check posts, a whole lot of military and police controlling the Kyrgyz minority areas around the pass.

Well, these are all things that could certainly fact they all happened to be the way we made it through the freezing temperatures of the high altitude areas on Kyrgyzstan making our passage back to China on route to the warmer temperatures on the Karakorum Highway in Pakistan.

Kazakhstan, the land of contrasts.

Within two days of entering Kazakhstan we had received no less than two offers of invitation to have dinner and sleep at homes of complete strangers. The kindness of the Kazakh people was evident from sharing a wonderful lunch with a man who owned a casino of sorts to being served chai and sweets by a woman who made beautiful floral arrangements. During a random stop on the side of the road, a son with his proud parents offered us a bag of treats and beautifully made prayer hats. The Kazakhstan we saw showed us kindness and hospitality.

And yet, when we talked with other travelers or Kazakh people themselves they would regale us with tales of corruption, greed and danger. During an evening dinner one mother, who had spent a decade in the States, insisted we take her mobile number and call us if we needed anything, insisting that the Kazakhstan we had seen did not exist or would not as we proceeded further west.

Cycling into Almaty could not have offered more of a stark contrast to the little we had seen of the enormous country. Almaty is a metropolis that is in the top 50 most expensive cities to live in, in the world. Designer clothing, accessories and expensive cars from Italy, Spain, France, Germany and London were on display on almost every street. Hotels that offered prices that would rival those of New York City were the norm.

Yet, outside of the second largest city in the country, the desert-like landscape offered little in vegetation but provided stunning backdrops. Small towns sold their wares in street markets where clothing, bread, vegetables and apples were amazingly inexpensive. Bread routinely sold for $.50 - $1, apples went for $.75 per kilo and several kilos of vegetables were priced to sell at $.50.

Kazakhstan, with all that we had heard about the country treated us with more respect than we gave it. Even the border guards who usually keep a stiff upper lip, smiled, waved and simply wanted to shake our hands.