- Categorized in: June 2011
The logistical transition from China into Kyrgyzstan was a little complicated, but actually went off without any real trouble.
Bicycles are not permitted by the Chinese to ride up to the border on the Torugart Pass which meant I had to join a group going by minibus through the various checkpoints, to the handover point at the highest point of the pass – some 4,500m up in the sky. Once you pass through the gate from Chinese to Kyrgyz territory, a considerably shabbier form of transport awaits to take you down the 7km of No Man’s Land to the Kyrgyz passport control point, and then on through the military control zone a further 30km down a pretty awful road.
A few kilometres into Kyrgyzstan - still in the military control zone
As we passed from one vehicle to another, and went through the various checkpoints, all without incident, the weather outside was changing from sun to rain to sleet and back to sun with remarkable frequency. But despite the sun, the wind and the altitude made it cold.
I have to admit that the prospect of hopping on my bike just then, even amid the dramatic highland mountain peaks and rolling valleys and lakes, was not tempting.
When the moment finally came, after a few snaps, I bid a rueful farewell to my fellow travellers – a Swiss couple and the Australian sisters, Lindy and Cathy with whom I’d spent some time in Kashgar – and began creaking along on my way.
Saying goodbye to be travel companions before continuing on under my own power
It was a bit drizzly and cold, but it was at least almost entirely downhill. The surrounding landscape was a dramatic contrast from the dry deserts and mountains of Xinjiang. Instead every hillside and mountain slope was a rich green as far as I could see.
The grassland mounds rolled one after the other as the road wend its way downwards towards the north-east, passing the first of the distinctive yurts (little white sturdy tents in which the nomadic Kyrgyz live up in the highlands during the summer months), and then herds of sheep and small cattle, accompanied by ruddy-faced shepherd boys on scraggy looking ponies.
The first of these wanted to have a go on my bike, so within only minutes of setting out, here I was sitting on top of this boy’s horse while he struggled not to keel over on my bike in the mud. This was definitely not China.
The first shepherd boy I encountered - who insisted on having a go on my bike
The little meetings with mounted shepherds continued as I carried on, and ever so slowly the Russian that I know was dragged from its dusty corner and put to use with faltering introductions, and basic questions about what they were doing, where they and I was going etc.
A slightly more senior shepherd further down the valley
As the evening progressed, it developed into the most beautiful light, breaking through the clouds and slanting across the huge open pasturelands that spread out as the road came out of the highest part of the valley. In every direction were herds of cattle, flocks of sheep, and now herds of horses, many times grazing quite close to the road. The road itself was gently sloping downhill so I needed little effort to roll along, and it was so nice – so peaceful – just watching this magnificent scene continue on into the evening.
Towards sunset on the highland pastures before At-Bashi
I don’t think I’ve ever used the word “bucolic” before – but I know what it means. This was bucolic. Kyrgyzstan is a bucolic place. There should be a photo of a Kyrgyz valley next to the word “bucolic” in the dictionary. In fact, they could use one of the pictures I took of the growing shadows on the grassland hills. It would do very well.
Horses roaming freely across the Kyrgyz pastures
The whole situation felt quite surreal, so benign and pleasant was it all after the relatively hostile environment of the Taklamakan Desert. It felt like riding along in someone’s colossal back pasture, and if you like camping, you couldn’t ask for anywhere better.
All the animals seemed very untroubled and happy. I passed a couple of little dwellings by the road, and then decided to pull off to find a spot to set up my tent.
This was easily done as the sun dropped behind the hills, but just as I was finishing up, over the crest of the hill came trotting a solitary little animal. As it drew closer, it became clear that it was a lamb that had got lost from its flock. Bleating away, it was hesitatingly making its way in completely the opposite direction from all the animal herds I’d so far seen, and there were no others in view further down the valley. It was obviously lost.
I approached it, and managed to catch it within a minute or two. I then wondered what to do with it. The last lamb I’d met I had eaten, but I didn’t think that was the right response just then. I started to carry it towards the only animals I could see, but as I drew closer I realised these were horses. I’d passed a little farm about two miles back but I didn’t fancy walking up there in my long underwear (and little else!) and leaving all my kit unattended where I was.
Maybe I could tie her up by the tent and take her back in the morning. But I wasn’t convinced she would actually stay there quietly, or whether she would survive the night sitting exposed outside the tent. In the end, I decided to stop the next truck that came up the road, and convince the driver to take the lamb to the farm the short distance up the road.
And this is what I did. I only had to wait a few minutes. Despite an atrocious explanation in Russian to the driver about what I wanted him to do, he seemed to catch on pretty quick. That was the last I saw of the lamb, but I can only imagine it was less hassle for him to dump the thing at the farm, rather than make off with her, or indeed have her for his supper.
I wonder what in fact did happen to her?
Anyway, the night was comfortable enough, despite rain showers fairly regularly passing overhead. This seems pretty typical of Kyrgyz weather. It’s even more changeable than the British weather, with banks of rain clouds rolling in between intervals of brilliant sunshine, creating an ever-changing range of colours and shadows falling on the mountain canvas in every direction. After each shower passes on, the birds start singing again, and everything looks lush and green, and generally bursting with a particularly amiable form of life.
More horses and mountains not far from At-Bashi
At one moment on that first morning, I happened to have stopped beside a small and placid stream beside the road, with little yellow flowers growing along its bank. I had stopped to take off my rain jacket after the clouds had moved on and the sun came out. The birds took up their song once more. As I looked about at the mountains and the distant animals, it was very hard to resist the words in my head:
The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want,
He maketh me lie down in green pastures,
He leadeth me by still waters,
He restoreth my soul.
For me, this part of Kyrgyzstan literally is the 23rd Psalm. I feel very fortunate now to have experienced not only this reality, but the actual feeling of peace and wellbeing that these words describe. And as I said before, it was such an intense feeling of being close to an absolute form of “beauty” that it was quite surreal.
Anyway, the aim that following day was to make it to the first reasonable sized town in Kyrgyzstan, a place called Naryn. It was only 100km away, but the road surface was atrocious which made it quite a lengthy ride. It was broken up by more shepherds wanting to have a go on my bike, and later a collection of middle-aged Kyrgyz men, standing around a car by the side of the road, waiting to see off their friend in a small plane which was about to fly out from a pretty rough airstrip, parallel to the road.
Plane warming up for take-off to Bishkek - but then the weather came in...
I stopped to watch the plane take off – which it never did because a storm blew in – and said hello to the group of friends. They were delighted to meet me, and before I knew it I was joining them in two (or was it three?) shots of Kyrgyz vodka, and swearing life-long friendship to these men who had names like the 7 dwarves: Alik, Borik, Danrik and who knows what? (All ending in “–ik”.) The vodka was certainly a better option than the other drink on offer – called Kemez – which is fermented mare’s milk, and one of the Kyrgyz cultural gems I could probably live without.
My new friends...
One of the men became quite attached to the idea that I must come back to the town of At-Bashi (which I’d passed earlier in the day), and stay with him and be his guest. Had he lived forwards down the road, I probably would have accepted, but I wanted to keep going, so I wouldn’t. He was quite persistent though and I felt quite bad for turning him down.
After more rainstorms and a bone-juddering riding through the mud, I eventually arrived in Naryn. This is a little town that sprawls along a small river valley for about 15km end to end, though the centre is actually quite small. This was the first proper Kyrgyz town I had experienced first-hand. Despite it being pretty run down, I enjoyed what I saw. The biggest difference from China for me was the shops. The influence of Russian culture was immediately obvious – there was proper bread, and dairy products, cheese, yoghurt, and tons of chocolate. Since this was the kind of stuff I’d been craving for ages, I was very happy.
And I was happy to be back in the ex-USSR (so to speak). It brought back memories of my 6 months in Moscow, when I worked there for a law firm five years ago, and I decided that I was very much going to enjoy my journey through Kyrgyzstan.
Statue of Lenin - Naryn town
The hotel was run-down and awful, but my needs are pretty frugal – hot water for a shower and somewhere to lie down is all I really need, and that was all I got.
The next day the sun was shining, and the little town looked very pleasant with people going about their business up and down the main high street. I didn’t do much other than sort out the miracle of the iPhone, through which I am now fully connected by every medium conceivable with the rest of the world. I’m a bit nervous how reliant I’ve become on this magic device – no doubt a very modern form of paranoia.
On the descent into the town of Kochkor
The next couple of days I rode through more outstanding landscapes as the green pastures and dramatic mountains continued; over a moderate sized pass standing 3,000m above sea level on another gorgeous afternoon, stopping to say hello to the pastoral families that live right up at the valley-head of the pass. Down and down into the little mountain town of Kochkor, and then the following afternoon the shorter distance to the big lake of Issyk Kul which lies in the eastern part of the country.
Family I met at the top of the pass over to Kochkor
Issyk Kul is one of the defining geographical features of Kyrgyzstan and is probably 200km long, by 20km across at its widest point. It seemed to have its own weather system, being far more mild in temperature and seeing less rain showers. Along its shores are dotted various towns which have served as holiday resorts for the Slavic and Soviet world during the 20th century, and this continues today with Russians and Ukrainians arriving in their droves to eat well and bathe in the lake during the hottest summer months.
Arrival at the lakeside town of Cholpon-Ata
I spent a couple of days in the small town of Cholpon-Ata, described in the Lonely Planet as a kind of Russified Blackpool, which I thought was an appalling slander. It really wasn’t that bad. It was filled with quiet guesthouses and little cafes and restaurants, but in fact was a fairly simple sort of a place.
I took advantage of the opportunity to take a dip in the lake – my first swim since leaving Hong Kong last year. The water was cool, but clean and still. It was a great moment to get up early before the rest of the world and wander to the lakeshore to learn a bit of Russian vocab (being an incurable student) and then have a dip as the dawn light sparkled on the lake’s surface.
From Cholpon-Ata, I had to head back to the western end of the lake and then north for Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. It was 250km and during that day I managed to get within 100km of the capital. Issyk Kul is still pretty high, so a lot of the road again took me down through mountain valleys, following the course of the fast flowing river Chuy, that eventually takes up its position on the right hand side of the road (the north side), which defines the frontier between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.
On the road to Bishkek
It was a beautiful evening and I could easily have found somewhere to camp, but I have to confess I prefer getting to a place and finding a roof for the night, meeting new people and communicating with them in Russian – which was improving dramatically every day.
So I pushed on through the pleasant landscape, occasionally held up by roadworks as a digger cleared construction rubble ahead and chatting with the other drivers. One car I noticed appeared to be having a vodka party in the back seat. The guy sitting in the back opened the door, presumably to gasp for some fresh air, before he lit up another cigarette and was then passed the vodka bottle to fill up his little plastic cup. I said hello, and he offered me some vodka, and I accepted a shot. I asked him if he and his friends were on holiday, to which he replied no, no – they were working. Of course they were. Oh, I do love the Russian world!
Anyway, I finally drew up into the town of Kemin and started asking people if there were any guesthouses there. The answer was no, but one restaurant-owner said I could come home with her, once I’d offered to pay for a spare bed. She was a middle-aged lady with dark hair, and the beginning of the onset of the waddling gait which is characteristic of the older Kyrgyz women. She also had a few gold teeth, so commonly seen in Kyrgyzstan. (Gold is one natural resource that Kyrgyzstan does possess, which may explain why one is often greeted with a glittering grin of two full rows of lustrous gnashers at quite unexpected moments.)
At her home, I met her husband and two of her three grown up sons, one of whom was already married with a tiny baby girl – the apple of every family member’s eye. For the moment, this oldest of the brothers lived there with his wife and child, but they would be moving to Bishkek within a couple of months for him to start work. (Later in the evening when I talked to them separately, I gathered this would be a great relief for his wife!) So I spent a pleasant evening having supper with this family, watching the grandfather dawdling the baby girl on his knee, slurping down a bowl of borsh, and later meeting the woman’s brother who dropped in, and told me about a few of the woes and strengths of Kyrgyzstan. The economy, corruption and frequent revolutions on the one hand, gold and “the finest water in the world” on the other. (Though this latter was apparently running out as the glaciers recede more each year.)
The house itself was situated right on the edge of town next to a field of hay, and the father kept a few poultry – chickens and turkeys – and some sheep which he took out each day up the hill. Within the walls was a kitchen garden and the animals were kept in pens out the front.
When it came time for bed, they set me up on the landing of an annex against the main house, piling up several blankets and giving me a huge pillow to fall asleep on. Very comfortable. I fell asleep pretty quickly, happy that the next day I would make Bishkek after this pleasant interlude.
During the night I began to have strange dreams, and in a state of drowsiness kept reaching back behind my neck to scratch at some distracting itch. Eventually I became conscious enough to realise that the cause of this itchiness was in fact something that was crawling on my skin, and I woke up with a start. As I pulled back the covers, I discovered perhaps 7 or 8 ticks crawling all over my body.
I was revolted. I leapt up immediately my skin crawling and brushed them all off me. One of them was already feasting on my arm and its head broke off under my skin. The others I killed with some implement or other lying to hand. Several burst in a stain of blood that was obviously my own.
My first thought was that they were in the blankets so I checked all of these to try to find the source. But in fact they seemed to be coming from under the carpet in the corner of the landing. As I looked closer, I noticed a crack in the floor under the carpet, where the annex was not quite sealed against the wall of the main house. Despite killing all the ticks I found, more kept crawling up the crack.
Of course, by now sleep – at least on that bed – was impossible, being within inches of an apparently endless train of these little parasites drawn by the (delicious!) smell of my body and my blood.
So I got out my camping mattress and sleeping bag and moved to the far side of the landing to try to get a couple of hours more sleep. I did manage to do this despite seeing crawling bodies and legs and pincers in my imagination as soon as I closed my eyes and for some time.
At around 5.30am I was awoken again by the sensation of crawling skin, and once more several of the little “bar stewards” had found their way onto me.
That was it. I got up and started packing up to leave.
When the father was up and about on this brilliant June morning, I showed him the body of the biggest and bloodiest of these vile creatures that I had crushed. After I’d shown him the crack in the floor, he thought for a moment or two and then said it must be the turkeys below.
Following him down and round the front of the house, he showed me the turkey stall where he kept them, directly below the landing. You could see up one side of the wall the underside of the crack that led through to my bed, so that was apparently where the ticks had come from.
The man was almost apologetic, but he was obviously as surprised as me by the discovery. Anyway, not wanting to linger as the sensation of these little beasts on my skin remained, I was soon ready to get going, and be on my way once more for Bishkek.
Glorious Gazprom - and the price of petrol for anyone interested
The 100km or so to Bishkek was actually straightforward and enjoyable. It was a beautiful day and a lovely temperature for riding. Not too hot, and the trees that line the road most of the way make the route shady and more attractive. Through each village, I would pass the little wooden huts that line the side of the road, completely characteristic of Kyrgyzstan (and its Russian influence), in which groceries, alcohol, drinks, mobile phone credit and all sorts of other everyday items could be found.
Inside a typical Kyrgyz roadside shop
Even as the traffic grew heavier as I drew into the capital, everywhere continued to be green. The boughs of thick and healthy looking trees hung over the lanes of traffic, and at every junction one could see tree-lined avenues stretching off one way and the other.
After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing I found the place I was staying in Bishkek and settled in. This was the start of a very relaxed few days in the Kyrgyz capital during which time I did little except catch up on some writing and get frustrated with uploading photos over a slow internet connection.
But I did get an impression of Bishkek and met some interesting people in the guesthouse where I was staying.
Bishkek is not a historic city in the manner of other Central Asian cities. It grew up as a trading fort on a lesser vein of the bigger Silk Roads to the north and the south in the early 19th century. As the Russian empire expanded from the north and west during the latter part of the 19th century, in 1862 a Russian force captured and wrecked the small fort. Leaving a Russian garrison behind in the remains of the fort, about 16 years later, the town of “Pishkek” was founded. This was then populated by the arrival of many Russian peasants, lured there by the promise of land grants and the fertile land of the Chuy river valley.
The view south along President's Boulevard to the peaks beyond
After the Russian civil war, the town was re-baptised in 1926 as Frunze, the name of a Bolshevik commander, and was established as the capital of the new Kyrgyz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. But this was never very popular, being a constant reminder of Russian dominance over the native Kyrgyz people. In 1991, Kyrgyzstan was the first of the Soviet Socialist Republics to declare its independence from Russia, and renamed its capital Bishkek. This name probably derives simply from its original name “Peshagakh”, which means “place by the mountains”. An appropriate if unadventurous name, given you can see snow-capped peaks from anywhere in the city if you look down a northward-running avenue.
Promenaders along Bishkek's shady avenues
Given its history and the close association of its development with Russian control, or at least influence, it isn’t surprising to find that Bishkek feels just like a Russian city. The food, the restaurants, the theatres, the parks, the big open squares, the beer, the shop frontages, the ice cream vendors and kvas barrels are all very Russian in flavour. The people too - there being far more people of Russian (or Slavic) ethnicity in this city than, for example, in Tashkent.
The statue of Victory in the Central Square, Bishkek
Despite its history as an imperial colony, one doesn’t get the impression that there is any particular resentment harboured by the Kyrgyz against their former masters. Whenever I asked anyone about relations between Russia and Kyrgyzstan, or more specifically between Russians and Kyrgyz people, the Kyrgyz response was always positive. And the view from the street is that the two people groups integrate happily and easily. One can see Russian girls walking arm in arm with Kyrgyz boys, or a burly looking Russian greeting another Kyrgyz man with a hearty word and slap of hands; or groups of teenagers skate-boarding in one of the parks, the darker tanned skin of a Kyrgyz boy chatting away to a pale Russian with short white blond hair.
"Bochka" of Kvas - the Russian drink made from fermented bread
Nevertheless, there are aspects to the city that remind you exactly where you are. The so-called Osh bazaar is a mish-mash of little stalls hawking every conceivable household good, item of clothing, piece of animal or vegetable. Old women, their hair and forehead covered up with drab-looking headscarves, sit fanning away flies from the glistening blood that slicks over freshly-cut lumps of meat, and the upturned severed heads of old sheep, their tongues lolling like Parisian gargoyles. Meanwhile Kyrgyz men lie sleeping against piles of their wares in the afternoon sun, waiting for a passer-by to rouse them from their slumber for a potential sale.
Besides these markets that are more typical of Central Asia, there is the call to prayer which echoes from loudspeakers around the city five times a day. Starting as early as five in the morning, the initial call seemed to set off a cacophony of howls from the neighbouring dogs which meant sleep was broken at least once in the night. On Friday, the entire address by the local iman is transmitted from the mosque across the local district, the flowing tones of Arabic rising and falling on the air.
There is yet another angle to the picutre that makes up Kyrgyzstan, and perhaps specifically Bishkek. As I was extracting some cash from an ATM, I couldn't help hearing behind me the nasal twang of a small collection of American men. I suppose they could have been tourists but they didn't look like that. Instead, their short haircuts and particular form of dress (and banter) made me sure that they must be servicement from the nearby US military base at Manas, relaxing on a day off in the capital. The presence of a US military force in this far away land is a strong reminder that things aren't quite as simple as they may at first seem when one encounters the straightforward semi-nomadic life of the Kyrgyz people up in the hills. The counterpoint of a Russian military base at Kant, just 20 or so kilometres to the east, confirms that the Great Game is still live and in play - here no less than in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere.
But leaving geo-politics aside, all in all, despite some negative expectations, mainly picked up from minor scare stories in guide books, I found Bishkek to be relaxed, friendly and basically a nice place to be. There’s lots of culture, good restaurants, attractive parkland, lively bazaars and fashionable looking young people filling the bars.
National Ballet Theatre, Bishkek
Perhaps this impression belies some underlying problems in the country. Kyrgyzstan is the most recent Central Asia country to have had a revolution. After only a few years under the rule of President Bakiev, following the Tulip Revolution in 2005 and the ousting of the previous incumbent Akaiev, discontent and disorder once again broke out after Bakiev was re-elected in July 2009. The people believed the vote was rigged and in April 2010, they took to the streets in Bishkek in protest with their grievances. What started as a protest ended as a riot and quickly accelerated into full-blown revolution, as government buildings were stormed and government officials fled. Dozens were killed and several hundred were injured in the fighting. Bakiev himself fled south, and then left the country for Belarus where he is today (together with a hefty chunk of the nation’s cash). Needless to say, his name is mud in the mind of every Kyrgyz.
In the meantime, the opposition set up an interim government headed up by Roza Otombayeva. She still presides over the country today, and as far as most people I spoke to are concerned, the jury is still out on her. With less than a year under her belt, it is too soon to tell whether she’s doing a good job, but most Kyrgyz are very cynical about their government and politicians, and their prospects of changing the country for the better. The people believe they are generally corrupt and do little to alleviate the pressures of unemployment and the relatively poor current economic situation.
Only a short time after this bloody coup, in June 2010, riots broke out in the cities of Osh and Jalalabad. Osh is located in the south of the country, and the ethnic tension there is created not between Russian and Kyrgyz, but between Kyrgyz and Uzbek. This borderland is a very sensitive area with both countries claiming territory that is rightfully theirs lies within the other’s frontier. Although it was not clear quite how the riots got started, the violence soon escalated and spread and seemed to be based along ethnic lines. At least 200 people were killed and tens of thousands displaced, with the interim government effectively losing control of the region around Osh. Despite pleas from the government for international peace-keeping intervention, this never came, and the violence petered out under its own steam. Today, the tension remains, although nothing happened on the anniversary of these riots, as some people supposed it would.
With all this in mind, I had anticipated that if anywhere on my route could be potentially hazardous, it was Kyrgyzstan. In the event, it seemed like the most docile of countries and people were continually hospitable and generous. But it is clear that this is not a rich country, and perhaps while their economic outlook remains so tough and their distrust of the government so entrenched, there will always be the potential for more civil violence to erupt.
Street gallery in Bishkek
Anyway, getting itchy feet towards the end of the week, I decided to wait until the Monday to set out to allow some bad weather to pass. Itchy feet was not all I had.
On my second night in Bishkek, again I was continually waking to the creeping sensation on my body, and in the morning I found another quite small tick, which was full of my blood. I was particularly revolted by this as it meant it had come either in my stuff or on my actual body. After I checked all my kit and found no more, I attended to my body. Without a great deal of hesitation I shaved most of my pubic hair off, though when it came to doing the same with my head, I confess my vanity overcame my drive for personal sanitation, and the hair on my head stayed put. Yet, after further warnings from a fellow traveller about the potential of catching some ghastly brain-exploding disease from tick bites, I was persuaded to go to the doctor and ask for their advice.
Needless to say, this little trip to the medical centre was a bit ridiculous, and I had to make much of the intensity of the attack, and the severity of the bites in order to justify (to myself if no one else) my seeking the doctor’s attention. At least, she was happy to verify that my body (hair and all) was a tick-free zone (before an audience of two trainee medics), which was certainly welcome news.
For future reference, apparently: black ticks bad; white ticks good (or harmless).
My little friends were white.
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