I was up early, eager to get into yet another brand new country I’d previously only vaguely heard of in fairytales and implicated in the Borat bridal kidnapping scene: Kyrgyzstan.
However, it would be slightly more difficult than I imagined to enter…
I arrived at the border with only one car in front of me, whizzed through customs and was soon standing in front of the nice Kazakh Immigration Officer/ Arsenal fan at the immigration counter.
“Uh oh! We have a problem….” he said.
“Sorry?” I quizzed, trying to sound as innocent as possible. You see, I knew what the problem was, and thought it was going to cause me some problems; I hadn’t bothered to register in Almaty, as is required of all tourists within 5 days.
The nice Officer called the Immigration Police in Kegen for me on his mobile, and then told me I had to go back and register with them. Oh well, it was only 30 minutes away, so I jumped on my bike and whizzed back down the long, straight road to get this minor problem sorted.
When I arrived back in Kegen, it seemed no-one knew where the Immigration Police lived, and I ended up bouncing around back and forth as people sent me in different directions. I even once ended up at the local prison, where I hoped I wouldn’t be staying.
Eventually I ended up where I had started and found the Immigration Police sitting at a counter processing lots of immigrants in a Town Hall type building.
Our meeting didn’t go too well, as after a quick conflab between themselves, the ‘boss’ told me I must ride all the way back to Almaty to register, 3 hours away!
I tried to protest, in the nicest possible way, and ask if ‘anything else could be done?’, but they gave me a stiff ignoring.
Uh-oh indeed, I thought, and cursed myself for not paying more attention to visa requirements. I’d only discovered a couple of days before that I needed to register, and by then I was outside the 5 day time limit, and I knew the fine was 100 US dollars. I thought I might be able to blag it at the border, but obviously not. Oh well – another lesson learned!
I hung around for a while and refused to give up. Then I typed out the following phrase on my iPhone ‘Google Translate’ App, as the police couldn’t speak or understand much English:
“I cannot go back to Almaty because my motorcycle has broken” (kind of the truth, clutch-wise). “Can I pay you some money instead as a fine?”
The Immigration Officer in charge looked at it carefully and laughed. Yes, he’d seen the flaw in my statement – how was I expecting to ride into the middle of nowhere (Kyrgyzstan) if I couldn’t ride 3 hours back to Almaty? I laughed back, and then he laughed again. Then we both laughed.
“100 US dollars” he said.
“Great” I said, and 10 minutes later the 100 US dollars was in his pocket, and I put it down to experience. I haven’t paid many ‘bribes’ over the past 22 months, and to me paying 100 US dollars (60 quid) was worth not losing a whole day and 6 hours traveling over (plus fuel, food and accommodation for the extra day), and I probably would have had to pay 100 US dollars fine anyway in Almaty.
Back at the border I think the Immigration Officer was a little surprised to see me.
“Did you have any problems?” he asked.
“No problems!” I said.
Once I had escaped Kazakhstan, it was a breeze entering Kyrgyzstan. Many nationalities don’t need a visa to enter Kyrgyzstan, including British, and there is absolutely no paperwork to complete for the motorbike.
This far eastern border crossing led through the picturesque Karkara valley and then to the tourist town of Karakol at the eastern end of Kyrgystan’s large, popular tourist lake Issyk Kul (Kul meaning lake).
Karakol is popular amongst hikers as a base for setting off on numerous trails leading to pretty lakes in the surrounding mountains, and also amongst skiers and snowboarders from the former USSR for its ski resort in the winter.
When I arrived late morning in July, it was very busy with Tourists and I got harassed by a drunken Russian who couldn’t understand that I couldn’t understand him! He did the usual thing and started again saying the same things, just louder and slower. I quickly got fed up with him and left him in a cloud of wheel-spin dust. Why do most drunks always seem to pick on me to ask for booze? Do I look like one?
For a small town the traffic was bad, and I squeezed myself into a parking space when I saw a row of chickens turning slowly on a roasting spit. I bought a whole one and whisked it away a few miles down the road for a romantic lunch on the lake shore; little did it know, it was the lunch!
Issyk Kul used to be used by the Soviet military as a testing site for torpedo propulsion and guidance systems, but now it serves as a place for people to come to swim, play watersports, and drink vodka; lots of vodka. It is the second largest saline lake in the world (182 km long, 60 km wide and 668 m deep) after the Caspian Sea, and never freezes despite being at an altitude of 1,607 metres (5,272 ft), hence its local name ‘hot lake’.
Then it started to piss down.
The skies were black as far as the eye could see, and it didn’t look to be getting any better. After a couple of hours riding along the less touristy southern route of the lake in non-stop rain, I decided to can my idea of camping along the lake shore and head to the capital, Bishkek, instead. This would also mean I could apply for my Azerbaijan visa before the weekend as it was Friday the next day.
Despite the rubbish weather, there were still some nice views of the lake against the backdrop of the rugged Tian Shan mountains.
At the western end of the lake, the road twisted over a mountain pass with lots of road-works and traffic queues (which I flew past) and continued black skies with lots of rain. As I emerged from the other side, it was like I’d passed into another world – a world of sunny skies and no rain. I liked this new world a lot better.
It was a long ride and as I eventually approached Bishkek’s outer limits, I saw more and more police speed-traps hiding in the bushes. I did my usual and ‘shadowed’ the fastest local drivers so I couldn’t be caught by a speed gun.
Bishkek seemed a big city when I arrived and I didn’t have a clue where I was staying, because I didn’t have any internet connection. I looked in the ‘Kyrgyzstan’ section of the Central Asia Lonely Planet guide book I’d downloaded onto my Kindle (which is a right PITA to navigate through – a paper book is much more user friendly, although much heavier) but there wasn’t anything in there that looked easy to find.
In the end I headed for a hostel showing on my ‘Maps with Me’ app. When I arrived it was on the outskirts of town in a dodgy looking area that looked like it had just been bombed, so I just inconspicuously rode on through.
Bishkek is like Almaty in that many city streets have signs up forbidding motorcycles. But as in Almaty, I have them all a stiff ignoring, rather than fight my way through the maze of traffic logged back streets and get lost.
A very noticeable difference here was that all traffic jumped red lights, and sped off on the red pre-empting the green light. They also drove like complete nutters on speed.
After driving around in circles for a while, I managed to find free wifi outside a shopping centre and found a cheap hostel on ‘Booking.com’. However, when I arrived it wasn’t where it should have been, and nobody had ever heard of it. By now it was 9pm and I was getting fed up, but luckily the second choice hostel I’d saved on ‘Booking’ turned out to be in the right place, and was I relieved to find it so!
I soon found myself in a dormitory with 7 other beds (my favourite), but I didn’t really care – I was just glad to have found somewhere to crash. I met the owner/managers and it was obvious it was run by 3 lads as the single toilet/shower room was absolutely disgusting (and that’s saying something for a bloke to say!)
The people in the hostel at least where friendly and helpful and showed me where the Azerbaijan Embassy was on the map, ready for my morning’s visit.
Azerbaijan Visa & Free Vodka
I rolled up outside the Azerbaijan Embassy on my bike at 10am on the dot, as soon as it opened. There was just one other guy there who happened to be a Polish guy I’d met on Anak Ranch in North Mongolia. He told me he’d been waiting 10 days for his visa – not good.
The Consul soon appeared – a smart, middle-aged man in a suit and tie – and invited me inside. I felt a bit underdressed in my shorts and flip-flops. I handed him the application form I had completed at the hostel and he told me I also had to write a covering letter.
“No problem!” I said, and rode back to the hostel to type one up.
The hostel was only a 10 minute ride away, but during the ride my clutch degraded surprisingly rapidly, and as I arrived it was slipping to the point of becoming unridable.
After typing the covering letter I took a chance (as the Embassy closed at 12 and time was getting thin) and rode the bike there again; the clutch was slipping horrendously now. The hostel’s printer hadn’t worked, but the nice Consul man printed my letter off for me and told me my visa would be ready in 5 to 10 days. With no way to ‘expedite’ the visa, he gave me his phone number and told me to call him in 5 days to see if it had arrived.
Getting my bike back to the hostel took a while, and I had to ride very slowly next to the curb to let cars pass me as I crawled along. There was no doubt about it – I needed a new clutch ASAP.
My first thought was to call Anton again – my friend in Almaty who had helped me so much with the other parts I’d needed – so I did. Ten minutes later Anton was on the case and soon called me back with an original one he’d found in the USA, which would be the quickest way of getting one to me. It would take around 5 days, which was fine, as I had to wait at least that long for my Azerbaijan Visa anyway.
That night I found myself in the city’s expat bar – The Metro – having steak and chips; lovely jubley! I got chatting to the friendly Irish Manager whilst sitting at the bar, who introduced me to a group of regular expats. Soon I found myself in the middle of a free vodka tasting session, generously handed out by the manager, round after round. It didn’t seem long before either the bar was empty, or I went blind, and the expats all started staggering home. It was a bit of a mission finding my way back to the hostel in the dark, as someone had moved all the streets around.
The next afternoon, when I woke up with the world’s worst headache and time on my hands, the first thing I did was move into another hostel with more than 1 loo.
If you ever find yourself in Bishkek on a budget, Sakura Guesthouse is the perfect solution. Run by a Japanese man called Yoshi, it is spotlessly clean and only 4.50 pound a night in a dorm. I thought I’d splash out and treat myself to a single aircon room for a tenner, as it was really hot and sticky during the day.
For the next week I stayed at Yoshi’s hostel and had one of the most social times of my trip. Many of the guests loved it there so much, stays of a week or more were common. One guy, Brit cyclist Joe from Blackpool, had the record of 3 weeks, closely followed by another Brit cyclist, Will (who I guess was well over 6 feet 4 on the biggest bike I have ever seen). We used to call it the ‘Hotel California’ (you can check out but you can never leave…). Because of this, and a social courtyard where everyone gathered, everyone soon got to know everyone else, and it was almost like being part of one big family.
Many a night was spent playing cards (poker or ‘shithead’) around the garden table eating pizza and drinking cheap Kyrgyz beer (which wasn’t too bad surprisingly). We also ventured down to the city’s numerous bars and clubs when the occasion took us. There was one fantastic bar nearby called ‘148’ where all the staff put on spontaneous group dances for the clientele in a ‘Crazy Signs’ Club Med manner. It wasn’t long before the clientele were also dancing along with the staff, trying to copy their well-practiced routines, or making it up (like me). The trick is always to down a few vodka shots first so you don’t care what you look like (although I did look particularly great anyway).
On completion of the Crazy Signs, there is a large selection of night clubs to keep one entertained in Bishkek, such as ‘Retro Metro’ and ‘Bar Suk’, which don’t sound the most appealing, but always provided a good laugh.
One interesting feature of Bishkek nightlife is the presence of ‘Face Control’ bouncers on the door. This sounds a joke, but was in fact true. We all had a good laugh when Blackpool Joe didn’t make the grade one night and failed the ‘Face Control’, but it was nothing a small bribe couldn’t fix.
During my week at Sakura I thought I’d try and regain some of my lost fitness and started running every other day. It didn’t work, but it was a valiant effort. It did, however, allow me to see many of the leafy city’s sights, which include lots of fountains, monuments, parks and a hot air balloon.
At the end of our road were two large lakes used as open-air swimming pools by the locals. I used to jog around them on my route and loved the gorgeous backdrop of the snow-capped Kyrgyz Ala-Too mountain range, rising up to 4,855 metres (15,928 ft).
Happy Christmas! A new clutch arrives in Santa’s Sack
On the 6th day at Yoshi’s my clutch arrived together with my Azerbaijan Visa, and I was a very happy bunny.
Anton was planning to ride down to Bishkek from Almaty for a weekend, but unfortunately fell ill with a cold. Instead, he gave it to his mate, Zhenya, who was traveling to Issyk Kul for a camping trip. I jumped in a taxi and met her at the Kyrgyz/Kazakh border at 3 am (only 30 mins/30km away from Bishkek) as she was backpacking on a bus.
Later that day, in Yoshi’s garage, I set about installing the new clutch. Being my third one of the trip, I am getting quite good at fitting them. On removing the clutch cover it was easy to see that the existing friction plates had completely worn away.
A few days earlier I had also changed the coolant (again) after I had had to top it up with drinking water post overheating at Kaindy Lake. A quick Google search convinced me that I had a faulty radiator cap (what would we do without the internet nowadays?). Not relishing the idea of waiting another week in Bishkek for a new Triumph radiator cap, I took the old one down to the local car market to try and match it up, a huge container camp in the west of the city. It turns out it is the same size as the radiator cap from a Subaru (and the same pressure rating of 1.1 bar) which saved me 1 week and only cost me 2 quid.
Both the new clutch and the new radiator cap worked like a dream, and The Tiger was ready to say farewell to Bishkek and continue south on towards Tajikistan and the infamous Pamir Highway.
Ala Archa National Park
But first there were a couple more sights to see in Kyrgyzstan.
Just 30 minutes ride south of Bishkek lies Ala-Archa National Park, which would be a nice, gentle test for my newly reconditioned motorcycle.
Filled with alpine valleys, forested mountains and gushing rivers, the scenery here feels a million miles away from Bishkek. Snow leopards live in the mountains above 2,500m, but few people are lucky enough to see these rare (and still hunted) animals.
In Kyrgyz, the ‘Archa’ is a bright colored juniper plant which the Kyrgyz people hold in high esteem, using smoke from its burning wood to chase away evil spirits. I think it smells so bad it would chase away anything, but what do I know?
The only trouble with this park is, there’s one road in and one road out, which meant I had to ride back into and through Bishkek traffic in order to escape the city for real.
The road from Bishkek to Osh (an old Silk-Road market town in southern Kyrgyzstan) is famously picturesque, but before I joined it, I fancied a little detour to an alpine lake called Song-Kul, nestling at over 3,016m in mid Kyrgyzstan. In actual fact, the little detour is not little by any means, and it took the rest of the afternoon and evening to get there. But it was worth it.
To get to Song-Kul I had to travel east from Bishkek back to Balykchy on the west coast of Issyk-Kul (where I’d come from a week before) and then head southwest to a town called Kochkor.
Just outside Bishkek I got stopped by the police for speeding. I was doing my usual, shadowing the fastest car to evade the frequent police speed traps hiding in the bushes, but just as I got slack looking at the scenery, I rode right into one without any top-cover.
Once again (this is getting all too familiar), the policeman showed me a lovely picture of me riding at 68 km/h in a 40 km/h limit and took my driving license. There wasn’t much I could do to contest it, so I put my hands up and asked “How much?”
The reply was written down on a scrap piece of paper – ‘3,000 som’ (about 35 quid), which instantly led me to believe he was telling porkies.
“No” I said, matter of fact.
The policeman then crossed out 3,000 and wrote ‘1,500’.
“No” I repeated, shaking my head.
The policeman offered me the pen to write down my own fine; an amiable way of doing business, but I’m not quite sure if it’s the right way to go about this kind of business.
As this business had been going on, I had been trying (very subtly) to remove all the 1,000 som notes from my wallet (which was inside my pocket) to leave only a few low value notes inside. This I achieved, albeit less subtly than I would have hoped, and then showed the policeman my wallet contents with 300 som inside.
“You can have this” I said.
The policeman did not look impressed, and pointed to the inside of my pocket, which actually had a bunch of 1,000 som notes sticking out of it. Darn!
“No! I said sharply, “I need that”.
By this time, the policeman had a queue of other unlucky speeders to extort money from, and so he took the 300 som (3.50 pounds), gave me my driving license back, and said “Goodbye!” with a wide grin.
The road south of Kochkor was beautiful, lined with red rock mountains burning like fire in the afternoon sun.
I stopped for a picnic lunch by a river and 2 local men wondered up with their kids to chin wag. I’m very used to this by now – I can’t get away with stopping anywhere without some interested locals coming up to look at the bike and ask where I’m from. At least they’re all very friendly, but it’s no good if you’re after some privacy.
Further on, I swung off the road to investigate a large salt lake. The water was very low, and I rode down onto its dry, white, salt-layered bed.
In places it was muddy and I sensibly turned around before I hit a patch that swallowed me.
I bypassed Kochkor to the south and took the first branch-off to the west, just south of an ‘end of the world’ village called Sary Bulak, where I bought a delicious fried flat fish on the side of road for a few pence (I assumed caught from either Song-Kul or Issyk-Kul).
The road had now turned to gravel and twisted through the mountains up towards to the lake. It was another glorious day and the views on this eastern pass were fantastic in the afternoon sun.
There wasn’t much traffic on this road, so I was surprised when I past a car with a tall, blonde Englishman hanging out the window shouting “Hey Chris!”
It was Will, Joe and the gang from Yoshi’s guesthouse in Bishkek. The 4 of them had left a couple of days before me to backpack/hitchhike around the lake. We took a couple of snaps, I listened to their lake tips, and soon they continued on their way back to Bishkek, to the Hotel California.
Towards the top of the pass the road got pretty steep, but then plateaued out as I started descending slowly towards the lake.
There are two tracks around the lake – a northern and a southern track. The lads had told me the northern track was lovely, and hugged the lake shore, so I took a further westerly track off the main track and rode directly for the lake’s northern route. The first thing I came to was a small stream crossing, and after that the track continued down a grassy/compacted sandy track towards the lake. The whole place reminded me very much of western Mongolia.
There were plenty of yurts advertising ‘homestays’, but I had my own food and wanted to camp next to the shore.
Enjoying a leisurely ride along the lake, I stopped by an old fort and two local horsemen rode up to me for a chat.
I thought I might be able to ride all the way around the lake and join up with the southern road, and ultimately join the main road to Osh via a town called Kazarman. However, soon it was obvious this wouldn’t be possible on my bike, as towards the northeast corner endless, muddy streams ran into the lake and my heavy bike began to get bogged down in marshland.
By now I had half a tank of fuel left and wondered if it was enough to take the long track back the way I’d come, and round to the south to civilisation. The road to the south was a little used ‘summer only’ road for 4WD vehicles, and I wondered what the conditions would be like, and where the nearest fuel station actually was. The safest way would be to go all the way back to Kochkor and fuel up there before heading to Osh. However, this was also the unadventurous, boring option, so I decided to find another way.
But first I was getting tired, so I found a secluded camping spot on the edge of the lake; at least it was quieter on this northern side.
The Road to Osh
In the morning I had a little dip in the lake and packed up the tent before it started raining; I could see some dark clouds rolling in.
I’d found a tiny track showing on my map leading from the centre north of the lake to a tiny village called Djanaryk, and then west onto Chayek and ultimately joining the main road to Osh northeast of Toktogul. That looked like the best option to me, so I took it.
The track was pretty good up to the edge of the lake basin, but then plunged steeply down a loose, rocky horse track. I turned my ABS off and pretty much stood on the back brake, sliding most of the way down. I was glad I wasn’t going up-hill because I didn’t fancy waiting for clutch number 4.
As I slid down, I saw a large boulder sticking out the cliff edge and didn’t think much of it until I heard a loud ‘Crack!’
I thought I’d sailed past it, and I had, but my left pannier had not. Now one half of it was laying in pieces on the cliff edge. It seems I’d forgotten the panniers were a now a bit wider ever since being welded onto their new frame in Almaty.
So, out came Mr Gaffa Tape, and soon we were back on our merry way, more-or-less in one piece.
For most of this long, downhill section, I switched the engine off to save fuel and coasted down in neutral. It was nice to feel the wind in my hair (both of them), and enjoy the sound of raindrops as they started falling on my head (there’s a song there, somewhere…)
Eventually the track reached some kind of civilization at Djanaryk, although it looked like a very old civilization roughly 1,000 years old. There was certainly no fuel, so I carried on west in search of the elusive benzene gold.
At least the track had improved slightly since Djanaryk, and soon it was twisting its way alongside a raging river and up another steep mountain pass. It was really beautiful, and I imagined similar to the Pamir Highway in places. It looked as though the road was being prepared for surfacing, and the only problem was frequent large trucks spitting dust and gravel in my face until I could overtake them.
After what seemed like forever, the track finally led onto the main Bishkek to Osh surfaced road. I reached the first fuel station just as I was running out of fuel, so that was well-planned (not lucky at all!)
At the fuel station I briefly chatted to another Brit biker on a Suzuki DR650 who was heading the other way to Mongolia. He told me to put on my raincoat.
With a full tank if fuel, I was saved, and with a sealed road all the way to Osh I felt as though I was almost cheating. Then the prophecy came true and it started belting down as the road twisted up into cold, snow-capped mountains, so I stopped to put on my Gortex jacket. It was the first time I’d been cold for a long time.
Over the other side of the mountain pass, the weather got warmer and the rain eventually stopped. I stopped too, for afternoon tea at a small wooden roadside cafe down by a river, and asked for hot tea (to warm me up) and any food they had fresh. I got a pot of lovely, hot tea, honey, fresh bread and a delicious, baked fresh trout – just what the doctor ordered! The only good thing about getting soaking wet and freezing cold is warming up again over a lovely, hot cup of tea.
On a sports bike, this new road to Osh really is a pleasure to ride. Skirting the long way around Toktogol Reservoir, the road is immaculate and twists and turns alongside a river from Kara-Kul to Tash-Komur with incredible views.
In the end it turned out to be a long day, and by the time I reached the outskirts of Osh, the sun was setting. I stopped to take a photo as it set over a field of sunflowers.
Luckily, this time I was prepared with a pre-booked guesthouse, as after 12 hours in the saddle I was in no mood to ride round in circles for another hour. But that was OK – I found the guesthouse quickly and settled down for a couple of beers with a group of travellers who were already there for story-swapping into the small hours. It’s a hard life! :)