Like Tajikistan, there were few route options in Kyrgyzstan – take the main road to Bishkek and around Issykul lake or stay on gravel roads in the mountainous interior of the country. Given that we knew we would already be making a stop in Almaty- Kazakhstan, we decided we didn’t need, or want, a second city stop and so went for the latter, more gravelly option.
We plotted a route from Osh via Songkul and then Issykul, crossing the country diagonally to the north east. Although our route was plotted between lakes, it evolved that the highlights of our trip were the mountainous regions in-between, making the lakes little more than navigational way points.
A few days after cycling away from Osh we began to realise that we had quite a challenge ahead of us. Somehow, having crossed the Pamir highway and reached Osh, we had thought that the most difficult stretch of cycling was behind us but we were slowly but surely being proved wrong.
Although the altitude wasn’t as high, there was still plenty of climbing to be done (1.5x the height of the Everest in fact!). The condition of the roads was as bad, if not worse; the shops were as sparse, if not harder to find and with even emptier shelves; and the roads were definitely far more remote.
Despite the fact that it was still only September, we discovered that winter had already arrived. After a grim day cycling through grey clouds full of rain which eventually turned to sleet, we called it an early night and had the tent pitched by 16h. The sleet continued through the night, although when we woke up we discovered the sleet had turned to snow.
We were surrounded and covered by a blanket of white. Thankfully we could still see our muddy gravelly track weaving a murky brown line through the whiteness, but nevertheless decided to hibernate until the sun came out. We wouldn’t be running out of water at least. During the morning, several shepherds came by, checking up on us to make sure we were warm enough whilst texting on their phones.
Eventually the skies cleared, we rapidly packed up and set off on one of our favorite days of cycling yet. The dusting of snow on top of the peaks made the scenery even more beautiful. We realized that even though we had loved cycling the Pamir, a bit of snow does wonders for dramatuc scenery. We saw more shepherds on horseback than cars that day, which is definitely our preferred ratio.
We found we oscillated between good days and bad days. From days where the dirt road was a joy to cycle on and the views jaw dropping, to days where the gravel was deep and covered with bone shaking washboard and we could barely cover 40km in a day keeping our eyes straight ahead at all times. But generally, even on the bad days, all would be forgiven by the time we made camp, as Kyrgyzstan never ever failed to disappoint when it came to wild camping.
The roads we were taking were minor routes, but major enough by Kyrgyz standards that they would still be relatively well used by cars and vans making the washboard even washboardier. It was a great revelation to us, when a local suggested we take a shortcut. Getting us off the headache-inducing-washboard and on to what was more of a goat track than a road or even a 4wd track.
It was bliss as for most of the day we saw no one : no cars, no people, not even sheep, just their poo. It inspired us to change our route further on our path through Kyrgyzstan. The more remote and the harder for cars to follow, the better it would be for us.
The final stretch up to Songkul was hard going, but beautiful. As we crept up the endless switchbacks, our legs getting weaker from the exertion and from the increasing altitude, the views got better and better. We both love it when you get to the top of a climb and you can look back down at the wiggles we’ve pedalled up.
The lake itself was beautiful… but somehow the journey up to Songkul was more stunning… The lake was much bigger than we had anticipated, and in combination with the washboard track, it took us all morning to cycle around. This wouldn’t have been a problem, except that more snow was coming and we wanted to get down to as low a altitude as we could rather than being snowed in again.
As we circumnavigated the lake we pedaled past countless yurts with their herds of sheep and horses. Many were packing up for winter and would soon be moving to lower ground. We asked one shepherd how they get the animals down and he said – walking. Apparently it would take 2 days!
As we froze while cycling down the other side of the pass, we questioned our sense. The nomadic people that lived in these grasslands, and who presumably knew them so well, were moving down to lower altitudes, so should we do the same?!
We had the option to cycle down a direct paved route to Issykul at a toasty 1000m elevation, or to stay in the mountains and pedal the remote Arabiel valley with multiple passes over 3000m for another 250km.
Obviously, we chose to cycle the remote valley…
The first afternoon of our new adventure it started to snow and a passing shepherd vocalised what we were thinking, by pointing at the clouds and suggesting that we were crazy.
Yes, we got snow and yes in parts it was cold. But cycling the Arabiel valley soon became the favourite of our entire trip so far.
As we went further along the valley the road turned from tarmac, to compact earth, to gravel, to 4wd tracks which were barely visible in the grass. As the road became less and less of a road, the villages turned to groups of houses to isolated yurts to patches of ground where yurts had been but which had now gone down for winter. The horses were omnipresent though. Even after we saw no more shepherds, there were still horses – making us wonder how many were kept, wild, or simply escapees.
Despite the large numbers of rivers we had to cross, our style in doing so did not improve as we progressed up the valley. When a crossing wasn’t cycleable, Pedro would try to carefully balance on stones to keep his feet dry, often resulting in the bike getting horribly stuck in a collection of boulders. I on the other hand decided that just one wrong move would result in wet feet, so I needn’t bother trying to keep them dry and would march through the river up to my ankles. Much less effort, and Pedro got his feet wet eventually anyways!
As we followed the track further and further up the valley, we started to wonder where it came out. With 5km left before we knew we should reach the pass, ahead of us we were surrounded by mountains with no obvious route out… Until we saw a faint zigzag heading vertically up a mountain side to our left.
The last 2km took us over an hour. Some stretches were so steep and so deep in shards of gravel that having the two of us push the bikes one at a time was the only way we could get them up. Exhausted, but happy to reach the top, it started to snow. All chances of enjoying the views were obliterated as we wrapped ourselves up and tried to get to a lower elevation as quickly as we could.
Rejoining a bigger road, we descended 2000km over 40km. Which is crazy when you think that the highest mountain in the UK is 1345m or in mainland Portugal 1993m (if you don’t count the 7m tower they built in top of the peak). Basically over 49km we descended a height higher than in either of those countries.
We wooshed down through crazy switchbacks with scenery that looked like something out of Mordor, down through beautiful alpine landcapes which brought back memories of cycling the Alps last year, and finally down to the edge of Issykul and civilisation.
To say that it was a shock to the system, was an understatement. Not only had the temperature increased by about 20°, but the road was full of honking cars and trucks, we couldn’t just pitch the tent anywhere we pleased, there was trash and school children, tarmac and shops. Needless to say we pulled off the main road and found ourselves some much quieter dirt roads wiggling through the villages instead.
Our relationship with dirt roads remained love-hate though. We were certainly looking forward to the prospect of cycling on some smoother, less bone-shaking road surfaces in Kazakhstan and China, but the peace and landscapes that generally comes with an unpaved road is surely unbeatable.