I did not have the strength to continue pedaling through the city (my fever seemed to have returned and the sea of fumes made me nauseous) I decided to take a local cab to the guest house, and after some bargaining I put my bike and panniers in the trunk and off we went. We soon stopped to pick up more passengers, “What is going on” I said in terrible Russian, “this is a taxi cab not a minibus”. My jaw quickly dropped and I watched in awe as I saw that the two passengers and driver stuff a full-grown, live lamb into the trunk with Gaby. Bishkek, Capital city of Kyrgyzstan yesterday afternoon.
After my epic trip to the Pamir Mountains I didn’t expect to find the rest of Kyrgyzstan to be anything as exciting…. Boy was I wrong. My last few weeks in Central Asia would push me to a new level both mentally and physically while I climbed icy, steep, snow-capped mountains, through extremely isolated remote territory, and shivered through the coldest nights of my life.
From Osh, my destination was Song Kol lake, a remote body of water located 10,000 feet above sea level in one of the coldest and most remote regions of Kyrgyzstan. Always looking for a challenge, I chose the most difficult route, traveling 400km on rough, muddy, unpaved roads following the river as it passed through desolate valleys, and tiny villages. Foreshadowing the difficulties I would experience on the journey, I departed on a cold, rainy day. The weather report had forecasted sunshine but as always in Muslim countries Inshallah “God willing”. The rain became so bad that I spent the entire second day in my tent perched on the edge of a cliff, teaching myself the Russian alphabet and patiently waiting for the storm to break. With a few zip ties and alligator clips I was able to make a small window in my tent so I could at least look at the snowy mountains I would be crossing soon. After 36 hours, half a bottle of vodka, and a few naan, the sun finally came out and I pedaled to the city of Jalal-abad where I hit the local Bazaar for supplies. Jalal-abad was a warm city with a small university. College students traveled around the busy streets on vintage Chinese bicycles and older folk lounged and drank tea in the park. A very friendly city, with plenty of resources for the traveler.
An hour and a half and $20 dollars later I had the following items stuffed into my panniers;
A pair of black sport shoes, 1 lb of raisins, ¼ lb. of kebab spice, ¼ lb. of chilli powder, 3 lbs of eggplant, 2 lbs of onions, ¼ lb of soup base, 1 lb of paprika, 3 heads of garlic, ¼ lb of fresh chilli peppers, 3 lbs. of apples, 3 large naan, 2 somsas, 1 pack of cigarettes (for public toilet use), 1 liter of gasoline, 1 liter of water, 1 liter of fermented cow milk, 2 lbs. of sugar, 1 liter of oil, 1 lb. of pasta, ½ liter of vodka.
With a Gabriella exceeding 55 kilos, I pedaled toward my first mountain pass. The summit was completely covered in snow and after 3 hours of slowly climbing switchbacks I encountered a group of drunk Kyrgyzstani’s drinking vodka and shooting a shot-gun. They quickly invited me to some bread and cold lamb and gave me a few shots of vodka because “It’s going to be so cold at the top of the mountain”. Refreshed and with a slight buzz I climbed the rest of the pass and nearly froze as I descended 6,000 feet in a shadow. Finding water is never a difficult task in Kyrgyzstan, but what is difficult is find it in an area where there is no livestock. Even at the summit there were sheep droppings and cow dung, does Giardia propagate in such cold conditions? I didn’t want to find out so even after finding a relatively clean source I boiled all water I consumed, this would be my practice throughout Kyrgyzstan, however I doubt that boiling water at +10,000 feet does much to sanitize.
The next afternoon, after pedaling hours along a brown river I stopped at a small house to ask for fresh water. The owner invited me inside and I walked past stacks of cow dung collected for combustion during the harsh winter. After filling up my water containers I was offered fresh-baked bread, kefir, and candy, I was even offered a place to sleep but decided to continue down the road to find a secluded campsite. While loading up Gaby with the new-found supplies a Land rover with a German license plate passed and pulled over. How funny it is to see western tourists in remote regions! A well-groomed couple, with clean smelling clothes got out of the car and came over to greet me. They had both gotten fed up with their desk jobs in German and decided to sell everything and hit the road, two months later they were in Kyrgyzstan. They had an extremely fancy Rover that had a tent built into the roof of the car. They talked of cooking sausages and drinking cold beer and I quickly asked them where they were going to camp that night. They seemed a bit concerned that it was getting too cold to sleep outside but I convinced them that my worn single ply tent was a lot colder. Unfortunately, after we said goodbye they drove off and I never saw them again. I could only dream of pork sausages and beer.
After an extremely frustrating 10,000 foot climb, (switchback after switchback with what seemed like no end in sight) I descended into a huge valley, flanked by tall snowy mountains. At an elevation of 5,000 feet the valley floor offered a warmer campsite, and after talking with a few locals I learned that Song Kol lake was completely covered in snow and that the road was closed.
It had taken me close to 5 days of hard riding to get out here and at this point I was not about to turn back. With the thought of sleeping in the snow at an elevation of 10,000 feet I went from door to door in the local village looking for extra clothes. I quickly found a thick wool jacket and along with some vegetables, pasta, bread and vodka pedaled the final pass to Song Kol Lake. The last 2 km were covered in snow and ice, requiring excessive patience while pushing sockless in the cold snow. From the summit I looked down at the Song Kol and realized that I was about to descend into a large crater, similar to that of Crater Lake in Oregon. A real winter wonderland in mid-October, everything was white with fresh snow and only the turquoise color of the lake broke the repetition of color. Somewhere, past the lake was a small road that would take on to the Capital city where I would connect with my flight to Japan.
I pushed on from the summit and slowly made my way toward the lake. The snow had a muted effect on the sound as the crater was completely silent. Once in a while the wind would pick up and a small howl could be heard but other than that, the area was devoid of life. The sun set as I arrived at the muddy banks of Song Kol Lake, tired and freezing I set up camp for what would be one of the coldest nights of my life. The ground was too icy to push my tent stakes into the soil but my tent quickly froze to the ground, and required no extra help to keep stationary. Within minutes of the sunset all my water began to freeze. A thin layer of water would freeze instantly in a pan or on the ground, and my thermos of hot tea froze inside my tent! I slept with all my layers of dry clothes and my new wool jacket but had trouble moving about in my sleeping bag because my body became so large with all the excess fabric. My pattern of sleep for the night was the following; 2 hours of sleep, 1 hour of shivering, and so on until the sun rose. By that time everything was covered in a layer of ice, and all my water was completely frozen.
It was too cold to stay another night; I packed up and headed in the direction of Bishkek. Again the road was covered in snow and required hours of pushing before I finally dropped down to a temperate altitude. I made up my mind to head to warmer conditions and leave the mountains behind but a few days later I met a Japanese couple, Keiichiro and Yuki, who inspired me to return to Song Kul. Keiichiro had been traveling by bicycle for over three years but moved very slowly, as it took him close to 3 years to pedal across China (Shanghai to Kashgar) . His partner Yuki, was an intensive Care nurse who after working several years decided to give up a career for the open road. They had been pedaling together for three months and were now headed for Uzbekistan. After a night of vodka and Chinese Hot Pot (Kei carried over 2 kilos of condiments including many hard to find Chinese soy and Chili sauces), I decided to join them the next day and travel the difficult road back to Song Kol Lake.
I should have paid a litter more attention when Kei said it took him close to 3 years to cycle across China, because this Japanese couple was super slow!! The first 30 km approach to the pass took them all day, and the next day when we climbed the pass I had travel back down to push Kei’s bike up through the snow. They were such a sweet and carrying couple though and even though it was a few hours from dark didn’t seem to be pressured by the quick onset of below zero temperatures. Kei even wanted to stop and help a ground of 5 men push a car through the snow but I convinced him otherwise.
We camped by the lake for 2 days and I quickly learned that Kei and Yuki could speak some Chinese. We had many funny conversations and told stories of our travels in China. In the two days we spent together, I also had the opportunity to learn what random items Kei carried in his bulging six panniers. (His rear rack was stacked so high that he could lean back while pedaling). He was the type of guy who could not throw anything or give anything away so he carried many items that he had never used. For example he had a 20 foot roll of X-mas lights he had gotten in China, a full color printer and scanner, 4 I-phones, a Mac computer, two tablets, two sets of speakers, two solar panels and a movie projector! When he set up camp it was like a DJ preparing for his set, Kei had wires and electronics everywhere! Both of them really liked Japan Pop so in the silent serene atmosphere of Song Kol I listened to sappy Asian love songs. Kei also had a special tempura cooking set, and two fishing rods but we couldn’t catch anything in the lake. At night I joined Kei and Yuki in their handmade Gor- Tex tent for movie night, Kei had close to 5 GB of bootlegged films, but we watched the 90’s classic Cool Running’s instead.
The evenings were just as cold but did not seem as bad with company. Kei worked hard to make Yuki comfortable and throughout the freezing cold evening I could hear him boiling water to make their sleeping bags warm. This is extremely classic among cycle touring couples, where it seems that the man has to put in a lot of extra effort to make his women comfortable. Once again it’s not bad being alone.
I woke up on the third day with a bad headache and decided to depart. I wasn’t sure if I was getting the stomach flu (Kei and Yuki tended not to boil the water, but rather make it warm and I drank a few cups of coffee from them the prior evening) or if I was experiencing symptoms of altitude sickness. It took me a while to say goodbye as Kei and Yuki wanted to depart with me, meaning I had to wait close to 2 hours for them to pack up their gear and push their bicycles to the main road. Luckily enough our paths drifted apart after 3 km as they headed south, and I north. Unfortunately for me by the time I finally started pedaling my way I had come down with a fever and was experiencing chills and breathlessness as I climbed my way out of the crater. I was getting worse by the kilometer, and soon I could barely pedal. I got off and pushed but the Gaby felt like a train. “Fuck!!” I thought, “If I don’t make it to the top of this pass and out of the crater, I may not survive another night down here”. The thought of crawling in and out from under the broken zipper of my tent fly in the snow at minus 15 C, with an upset stomach, forced me to push on.
Slowly I made it down and quickly started feeling better as I got below 10,000 feet. I pedaled passed several farm-houses and eventually found a room with an English teacher in a small village. My fever was bad, I was borderline delirious and she offered me a back room near the barn. “It is cold inside but I will give you a heater” She said. Fifteen minutes later she returned with an old 1970’s Soviet Union heater with a new looking power cord. “My husband works at the power station and he fixed this, it will keep you warm”. I plugged it in and fell asleep only to be awakened a few hours later by the smell of burning plastic, I turned on my headlamp to see that the power cord had melted and was beginning to burn the rug I was sleeping on. I safely unplugged the cord, but was left with the terrible smell of burning plastic, and sheep hair from the rug, and the damp onset of frost.
I said goodbye and pedaled the rest of the way to Bishkek, I was still feeling sick but wanted to get to the capital ASAP to prepare for my coming flight. The English teacher referred me to a guest house in the city but when I arrived I was quickly overwhelmed by the terrible traffic and excessive exhaust. I have not pedaled through a capital city since Baku, Azerbaijan, and had forgotten what its like pedaling during rush hour. Bishkek is by far one of the dirtiest and most polluted cities I have visited thus far, with locals spitting in all directions and cars honking in long lines, waiting at blocked intersections. I didn’t have the strength to continue, so decided to take a local cab to the guest house. After some bargaining I put my bike in the trunk and off we went, but stopped after a few kilometers to pick up more passengers. Before I could ask what was going on I saw two men with help from the driver stuff a full-grown, live lamb into the trunk with Gaby. It was absolutely shocking sight to see a live animal treated like luggage. The four legs were tied, and the men grabbed the animal by its ears, the lamb could do little to struggle as it was stuffed in the corner next to my rear wheel and crank set.
After two hours of driving in gridlock we finally reached the guest house, I unloaded my bicycle and panniers, all my gear smelled terrible as the lamb had relieved itself several times on the journey. As I paid the driver he attempted to go back on the deal saying I owed him more. I refused and tried to leave but he grabbed my rear rack and held me back. “Haram”! (Forbidden in Arabic) I shouted. “Call the police if you want but I am leaving” I said. I pushed away and entered the guest house but was soon bombarded with him yelling outside and pressing the call button over and over. The owner told me to pay him so that he would go away, as he was yelling threats about violence, I told her that if she was scared she should call the police but that I would not give another penny to the dishonest, lying, crook of a man outside. I took a bath and could still hear him yelling outside, “I hope this doesn’t go on all night” I thought, like some sort of protest outside an embassy. I finally got in bed and went to sleep. It is now morning and I have 2 days before leaving for Japan.