Before laying my eyes on the Kyrgyz Mountains, I had to cross the Chinese immigration office so I could leave the country. The Chinese have a funny way of doing things and leaving didn’t go as fast as I anticipated. The immigration office is located in Uluqqat (the new town previously called Wuqia) about 140kms from the border itself. I could cycle the 90kms between Kashgar and Uluqqat and the next day all I had to do was to cycle about 5kms to the immigration office. I got at the entrance 15 minutes before the gates opened which I spent showing my gear to the friendly police officers. After 10 minutes of trying to find my way inside the building and being directed in different directions, I could sit down for the 3 hours waiting period. I was asked for my passport 5 times by 4 different officers, my bags were searched, photos on my camera were scrutinized (I was asked to delete 5 photos with army trucks on them) and an officer flicked through every pages of the 2 books I was carrying – one of them is a Central Asian phrasebook. At one point, we were asked to go outside to look at posters of officers catching drug smugglers. These same officers we waiting for us outside along with photographers taking photos of us while talking to proud officers. When the immigration procedures started, I passed 3 checkpoints; first one was simply to look at my passport, second (10 meters behind the first) was to manually enter my details onto a paper ledger of some sort –passport number, name and Chinese visa – and the third and last point where I finally got the exit stamp. Then it was towards the compulsory taxis to the Kyrgyz border, 140kms away. Why the Chinese decided to put their immigration offices 140kms from the actual border is unknown. I, two Japanese backpackers and a Kyrgyz man shared a taxi and left at 13h30 – Chinese time. Zigzagging amongst the line of merchandise trucks, we finally arrived at the border at 13h30 – Kyrgyz time is 2 hours behind – where the guards were in their lunch break. After being told the guards will be back at 14h, we decided to go eat something and comeback. The guards came out of their hideout at 14h30 and everyone wanted to cross at the same time. I was told I could cycle the no-man’s land to the Kyrgyz border; HURRAH! By 15h Kyrgyz time (17h Chinese time), I was finally riding towards Kyrgyzstan.
Arriving at the Kyrgyz border, the huge guard (about 2 meters 10, 110kg of pure muscle) blankly looked at me and said “Passport” in a neutral tone. Looking at my mugshot in my passport then looking down towards me, he goes “Welcome to Kyrgyzstan! Please, go this way for immigration office”. After 10 minutes I got my passport stamped by a friendly officer (again!) before making my way to my first pass in the Kyrgyz Mountains towards the village of Sary Tash. The scenery was spectacular; green valleys, emerald green rivers and snow caped mountains. This road was closed a few weeks before my passage because of a large quantity of snowfall. The mountains still showed a very heavy coat and the air became colder as the sun went down. By the time the rays disappeared behind the 5000 meters peaks, the air was freezing my well-covered hands and legs on my way down. With another 20kms before reaching Sary Tash, I decided to stop and ask to pitch my tent beside a family house along the road. The family invited me inside their mud-brick house for a great meal of lagman, a mountain of sheep parts, bread, tea and kumis (fermented mare’s milk). After a flicking through my photo album, I retreated to my tent and quickly fell asleep to the sound of the farts coming from the sheep’s pen 10 meters away. In the morning, I was woken up by the yell of donkeys and realized the night was pretty cold as my tent and bags were covered by frost.
I quickly managed the breathtaking road leading to Sary Tash where I took 2 hours to discuss with a Russian photographer and sip coffee while admiring the scenery. On the last pass leading to Gulcho I met Gabor, a Hungarian coming from the Pamirs along with a Polish couple. From there, I teamed up with Gabor for the stretch to Osh and eventually to the capital, Bishkek. We spent a few days in Osh to relax. After the long distances in China along the northern branch of the Silk Road and hurrying up trying not to overstay my visa, it was good to take a few days doing nothing much.
We opted to take to main road connecting Osh and Bishkek, the M41. We started to enjoy the road around Karakol when the traffic started to thin out and the mountains started to appear. We were also invited for dinner in a Mosque by a very friendly Kyrgyz man working at the Mosque. While eating the delicious shashlik, bread and the customary kumis, he offered us to spend the night on the outdoor tea place which we both really accepted without much thinking. The following morning started with the climb to the first pass. With roughly 6 kms to go, I was hit by strong chilly winds, hail and rain. Gabor was about 5 kms behind me luckily avoiding the bad weather. I had the intention of waiting for him at the top but it was pouring down and pretty cold so I went down the valley so I could enjoy the last sunrays of the day to dry my clothes. While waiting for Gabor, I was invited by a Kyrgyz man for dinner in a nearby yurt; a mountain of sheep on a large plate, bread, tea and the traditional snicker bar for dessert. Shortly after I came out of the yurt with my belly ready to explode, Gabor rolled by in shorts and sandals stiff as a stick as he slowed down and stop. I smiled and asked “How was the descent mate?”. “Fucking cold”, he replied. After exchanging our climb and descent experiences, we found a camp for the night large enough so Gabor could mount his family size tent.
The following day was awesome riding in the valley for about 45kms before the climb to the second pass which we assumed will take about 1 and a half hour. Our maps were showing the second pass standing at 2568 meters high. It was a mistake of about 1000 meters as the pass is apparently at more than 3500 meters. The road linking both passes was the highlight of my ride in Kyrgyzstan so far. The scenery was fantastic; many yurts set on velvet green grass leading to mountain tops covered in snow on each side of the road, horses freely roaming crossing crystal clear streams and rivers. We both wished this road never end but eventually we started our 4 hours slog of the second pass. It was mentally hard as we both expected a 400 meters climb but turned out to be three times more than was our maps showed. On the other side, the descent was breathtaking despite the low light conditions. We rolled in Kara-Balta in complete darkness and collapse on our bed in the guesthouse showed on Gabor’s GPS. The ride to Bishkek the next day was horrible; lots of traffic and road filled with potholes impoverished of any shoulder.
Once in town, we went straight to Nathan and Angelica’s house where we could pitch our tent in their backward. The place was filled with fellow cyclists; great atmosphere and awesome place to relax for a few days. Since many had to wait about 2 weeks for visas, a group of 7 decided to trek in the mountains for a couple of days led by Nathan who knows the region pretty well. We rode to the base of the mountain before leaving our bikes at one of the chalet there and trek to basecamp. The day after reaching basecamp, we took off in an attempt to climb Uchitel summit, 4500 meters high. The view from the summit was sensational; 360 degree view of the national park, snow-capped mountains in every directions. The way down was good fun but hard on everyone’s legs (except Nathan who is a machine). Next weekend getaway will most likely be at the hot springs without much hiking involved but fun guaranteed nonetheless.