Monday, August 8, 2022

Biking Kyrgyzstan, at least that's the plan. - #1

 23 July 2022

Some people go to the beach for vacation. This is sounding like a better idea as I pack and repack everything into smaller bags for my mountain bike and hoping I brought enough for 4 weeks of camping in only mild discomfort. 

Kyrgyzstan is home to the Tien Shan mountains, a massive range in central Asia with peaks over 24,000 feet tall. In the summer, nomadic herders bring their animals up to the high Meadows for the two months out of the year when they are not covered in snow. With amazing scenery, a culture known for its hospitality and kindness, some hastily learned Russian, and Kyrgyzstan being rated safer for travel than France or the United kingdom, it's time to stop dreaming about it and just go. 

With very limited space, certain things did not make the cut; shorts, trendy clothing, or deodorant. However, there are some luxuries I would not compromise on; a book, a light coffee mug, sandals, and a very small pumice stone so my feet will still resemble a human's after the trip. I've gone for a short test ride, got the horrible squeal my bike was making (hopefully?) fixed, and now a mere 22 hours of flying will bring me to Bishkek and the start of my adventure.

This is my entire kit for the trip including about 4-5 days of food. I'll need to buy a fuel canister, a lighter, and hopefully some better maps than the one I have, "Kyrgyzstan for the Businessman." 

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Unpack, Assemble, Repack, and Ride#2

 26 July 2022-

Despite my lack of faith that my bike would show up the same time I did, my box came off the plane on time and unscathed.

 I probably could have found a quieter place to assemble my bike than right outside the taxi drivers booth, but I was fast more entertaining for the drivers this way. "I have big car for big box, ok?" "You need taxi, bicycle no good" "you give me bike for my son when finish trip." It was good incentive to move quickly.

The road from airport into city was a busy 4 lanes with a shoulder full of broken glass and exit ramps with overpasses  I was feeling apprehensive about cycling on the highway until I watched several herds of cows slowly cross all four lanes. Not as hectic after all.

Massive mountains covered in snow set the back drop for the city of Bishkek but the smog from the city partly obscured the view. I managed to exchange money, find a canister for my stove, get food, and order a milkshake via charades. My attempts at Russian have been pitiful at best. 

 Instead of spending a second day in the capital in Temps over 100, tomorrow I'm speeding towards the mountains at 6 mph. Mountain Lakes and high altitude, here I come!

Saturday, August 6, 2022

Kegeti Pass- the Big Push. #3

July 29, 2022

Time change and jet lag left me taping my feet in the wee hours of the morning waiting for daybreak to start riding. 
My ride out of Bishkektook me 40 miles along the base of the range before heading up a river valley where the relentless elevation began. A quick stop to grab some pine flavored soda and mushroom flavored chips to fuel my climb.

The road was fairly smooth and the surface got better, for the most part, the higher I went. If you had momentum you could ride the road, but I had none, so I pushed. I decided to camp around 10,000' since I was wary of the weather and the elevation. That evening rain periodically pelted my saggy tent then lighting flashed and before I could even count to 1, thunder shook the mountains around me. 

The morning was clear and calm so I resumed my push. If I tried to ride, I would go for just a short bit before my lungs and legs left me gasping and draped over my handler bars. I figured a steady push was better all around. After passing several sheep carcasses, I finally made the top at 12,400'. 

Down the other side was it's own adventure. Landslides had obliterated the road leaving an ever changing track to navigate. Fearing for my life and my derailer hanger, again, I walked my bike. Fortunately after about 3/4 of a mile, the road was ridable and lovely. I followed a river valley for miles down to the villages below.

Friday, August 5, 2022

Onwards and Upwards to Son Kul - #4

 31 July 2022

Once down from Kegeti and ready for more after buying a carton of apple juice and some oats, I headed to Kyzart Pass. Sometimes my sit bones say enough is enough so I found a nice spot in-between two yurts to pitch my tent for the night.

The next morning I left the road for the "trekking route" to Son Kul lake. My full suspension mountain bike is slight overkill for most of the riding I'm doing, so I figured I might as well take it on a more sporty route. 

The riding was fantastic and I found myself riding smooth single track along very steep side hills, crossing rivers, and dropping into an isolated valley full of yurts and herds of horses and cows. 

My route took me high up to what looked like an impossible grassy headwall. Step by step and hour by hour I pushed my bike uphill. It was questionable if throwing it on my shoulders would have been easier. 

At last I pushed and lifted my bike through the final rocks on the ridge and got my first glimpse of the lake. Hours of effort were quickly forgotten as the looming storm clouds urged me down off the pass. I zoomed down hill, spooking a herd of horses which galloped beside me for a bit before veering away.  

The storm clouds caught up with me and with sideways hail driving me forward, I stopped at the first yurt I saw and asked the woman there if she had tea. She nodded and gestured for me to come inside. Soaking wet, I ditched my shoes and dove through the door. With hot tea, thick slices of bread, and slabs of gooey butter in my belly, I sat with the family and tested out my very rudimentary Russian. The family now knows that I have 2 dogs, one cat 2 brothers, a mother, and a husband (which they didn't believe). 

They had a small yurt that they invited me to stay in and with nasty weather continuing to roll in, I was happy to say yes. In the evening I played soccer and did handstands with the kids. 

In the morning there was new snow on the mountain tops and it was hard to make myself get back on my bicycle. Saying goodbye to the owner of the yurt, he wrapped me into a big bear hug, gave me a kiss on the cheek, and a hearty slap on the back. 

I worked my way around the east side of the lake (the 2nd largest in Kyrgyzstan) as the sun sparked on the water and then ducked behind clouds making me scramble for my coat.

Still feeling tired legs from the day before, I decided that this is a vacation after all and stayed at one of the tourist yurt camps along the shore.

I rolled up and found myself "camping" with a group of 7 people on a guided two week cycle tour. I convinced one of them to hike up the hill behind the camp to search for petroglyphs. Success and a panoramic view of the lake. The petroglyphs are 2-3000 years old.

That night was a welcome change of pace with good conversation and a few raucous games of Uno.

I loaded up with breakfast and instant coffee, said my goodbyes, and headed south. I dropped 4,000 feet into the hot valley below.

Thursday, August 4, 2022

More Cushion, Less Pushing! #5

 4 Aug 2022

After a fantastic descent and my first shower of the trip at the perfectly named Solviet era Hotel Desperation, I felt almost ready to tackle the next climb.

 A cycle through hot valleys, past hilltop cemetery cities, and then up, up, up. The climbs are so steep, upwards of 12% on lose gravel and rocks. Just when I was thinking this was crazy, I'm was passed by a guy driving a 2 wheel drive dinky car towing a trailer with a large cow in it. If that thing could make it, so could I. 

Mels Pass was of course gorgeous and the struggles are quickly forgotten when a good view is in front of me. With storm clouds chasing me, I zoomed downhill, crossed a river, and started the next climb. With tired legs and the storm catching up, I decided to camp for the night. As soon as I set my tent up, the rain started and lightning lit the sky around me.

The next morning I climbed an 11,000' pass and on the way down I stopped to have some tea and conversation with 2 Spaniards and an Austrian. The Austrian, Dani, was getting ready to ride the Silk Road Mountain Race, a 17 day, 1900km mountain bike race through Kyrgyzstan. Because of my light set up, people have been asking if I'm racing, I must look better than I feel! Many racers are riding through the mountains right now to try and acclimatize before the race. 

The two of us rode down to Tash Rabat, a 15th century caravanasi built into the hillside of a high mountain valley. It's much bigger on the inside than it looks. With rooms and passageways leaving of the main corridor. 

After a lunch of soup and butter, we headed back to the main road where Dani headed back up the mountain pass that she had just descended and I turned east to Naryn.

 A beautiful gentle descent on pavement along the base of a glaciated range, past beehives and small towns. I rode until my sit bones became to painful to sit on anymore and called it a day.

Next morning I had a short ride on still sore sit bones into Naryn where I found a guest house, a shower, a real restaurant, and a latte! 

On the way, I took a "back road" really just a cow trail. I met a man on horseback who asked where I was going. When I told him Naryn, he asked me if I had a map. Sometimes this trip is just navigation by general direction but so far it's all worked out! 

So far I've gone about 375 miles on mostly dirt roads and trails. The next section takes me deeper into the mountains and to my highest pass yet. Time to get my bike pushing muscles ready again!

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Onwards to Arabel! #6

 9 Aug 2022

After a night in Naryn where I had a fantastic meal, a magically decorated room, and even better, real coffee! I was ready to grind my way into the mountains once more. With dark clouds coming up behind me, I decided to stop at a yurt camp for tea. 

Tea of course involves cup after cup of tea, but always you are strongly encouraged to eat bread, salad, yogurt, potatoes, gristly meat, melon, hold wiggly babies, and stay the night. With the weather clearing up I managed to extract myself and continue on my way.

With the biking relatively easy, I decided to make a detour and head up the turn off towards Tosor Pass. 6 miles up the road are the Jily-Su hot springs. After being invited in for tea, an hour and a half later I was was able to use the springs. In a little hut, the water is hotter than bearable, so instead of the nice soothing soak I was hoping for, I poured dipper after dipper full of scalding hot water over my body and emerged bright red and much better smelling.

I camped next to the springs and in the morning hiked up 3 miles to Teshuk Lake. Surrounded by high snowy peaks, it was just me and some horses to enjoy the views. Back to my camp, I packed up and cycled farther up the valley until my legs said stop.

Sometimes travel is amazing views, kind hearted locals, and experiences that make your heart sing. Other times it's being woken up in the middle of the night by wind slamming into your tent, rain driving itself through the rain fly to soak your things, finding out you've started your period two weeks early, and having diarrhea all at once. Fun night.

The morning light was gorgeous, so even with a rough night I found it hard to be grumpy. I vowed to just take it slow as I set of with gurgly stomach and a 12,600' pass to climb. Fortunately the Burkhan Valley is a pleasant gradual climb. There are many creek crossings, but most you can ride right through. At the deepest one, only about one high, a shepherd came over on his horse and made sure I made it across safely before heading off to his sheep.

Soon I found myself at the bottom of the pass. 11 switchbacks later I reached the top and was rewarded with views so spectacular it seemed like cheating to be able get there via bicycle. The Arabel plateau is massive, full of little alpine lakes, and all above 12,500'. I was called over to join a shepherd for some sweet tea and cucumbers. He needed a knife to cut the cucumbers so I pulled mine out. He was so tickled with it that I gave it to him and then he of course insisted I stay at his yurt. Saying my goodbyes I headed north to the edge of the plateau.

It does feel like you are tipping off the edge of the earth when the road starts to drop. Unfortunately my rear brake had completely stopped working (this had already made for some exciting and terrifying times) and my front brake barely functioning. Only 30 miles down to lake Issy-Kul, I figured I could walk my bike down 7'000' of switchbacks.

I made it 3500' down when a semi truck driver from the mine stopped to pick me up. He threw my bike in the back and had me wear his safety orange coat, white hard hat, and sunglasses to drive through all the check points. Once at the lake, he unloaded my bike and I pedaled the nice flat road into Tamga to find a guest house for the night. Lucky for me I found a place with an amazing garden and fantastic meals.

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

I Switch to Pokey Old Tractor Speed. #7

 15 August 

After Tamga, I feel ready to conquer the world again, very, very slowly. The road along the south shore of lake Issy-Kul, the second largest alpine lake in the world, is flat and lined with ripe apricot trees. High mountains give a dramatic backstop to the lake and grassy spots along the Lakeshore make it easy to stop for a break.

I end up cycling a short day and staying at a guesthouse above a grocery store. The owners insist I join them for dinner and so my mostly recovered intestines are treated to a meal of fried fish, apricots, and peaches. The mother knew a little English and dinner conversation kept me giggling into my tea and her son shaking his head, "I love you Elizabeth! I love you fish! I love you coffee! I love you, love you, love you cigarette!!"

The next morning I decided to add a side trip up a canyon to Jeti-Oguz to see the "Broken Heart" and "7 Bulls" rocks. The canyon was of course stunning and has a sanatorium in the town. The photos advertising the spa made it look like a terrifying experience with enemas and electroshock therapy, so I lunched alongside the river instead. 

Finally to Karakol, my final cycling goal. I found the perfect hotel complete with a dragon side entrance and started switching my mindset to hiking. First, I found a rental company in town that wanted to buy my bicycle, even with no brakes. My bike, though great for this trip, was

never going home with me. Four years ago a bike mechanic told me I should give it to a high schooler that was thinking about trying mountain biking, and it hasn't increased in value since then. The rental company was thrilled to have an American made bike and had the ability to fix it, I was thrilled to not have to deal with the logistics of getting the bike back to the capital in a passenger packed mini van, and my bike was thrilled to live out the rest of it's days in the Kyrgyz mountains.

I strapped my tent and handlebar bar bag to my little backpack and set off into the Tien Shan mountains for 4 days. The main draw is the beautiful Ak-Suu lake. So I made my way up horse filled valleys, past yurt camps, and raging rivers to the lake. Blue, green, and above 12,000', the lake is well worth a visit, though very popular with tourists and locals alike.

I had decided to make a loop hike which meant climbing the 12,900' Ak-Suu pass. I shared some chocolate and conversation about beer and politics with some wonderful Belgians at the top, and with weather closing in, I made my way down. Once at the valley floor, I asked a guest house owner if the bridge down valley was washed out. He asked me where I was going and when I told him over the mountains back to karakol, he said I should take a car back instead because I was alone, and there are bears. Now grouchy and no better informed, I went across the river where I was invited to pitch my tent, join the guesthouse guests for dinner, and yes indeed the bridge was washed out, grouchiness gone.

The next morning, I started out on a cow trail, hoping it would lead me along the river, but instead it took me up a quiet valley, to a steep pass where i was able to look across and see my route. While there wasn't a trail, there was a way over the next ridge into my intended valley. Of course I met a shepherd who asked me if I was alone. Replying yes, I asked him if he was also alone. He stopped, blinked, then threw back his head and laughed. He asked me where I was headed and I pointed up the steep mountain side. He nodded, told me to angle my way slightly then thumped his chest, pointed to me, and gave me a thumbs up and a smile. Thrilled in his confidence, I set off. The going was endless up, but I was greeted at the top of the ridge by yellow poppies swaying in the breeze and a face full of glaciers. From the ridge I could see rolling green hanging valleys all the way down to to karakol and the lake sparkling in the distance.

I just had to stay one more night up high, so I pitched my tent and spent the evening watching cows stroll past and light play on the ridges. Maybe it was because this was my last foray into the mountains, but I thought this valley was the loveliest of all of I'd been in. After a late morning spent eating the rest of my food and drinking tea, I slowly walked down the valley past karakol's biggest and best (only) ski resort. With very sore calves and a happy mindset, I wandered back to Karakol to my dragon head hotel and a much needed shower.