Kyrgyzstan is a land of unexpected surprises. One certainly wouldn’t know it by just looking at it on a map or by basing one’s assumptions on visits to any of the other Stans in Central Asia. Everything from the culture, people, cuisine, landscape and overall ‘feeling’ of a place has not changed much, in my humble opinion, in the last 5 months. Sure, there was more sand and better-looking camels in Uzbekistan, more green in Tajikistan and bigger people in Kazakhstan (they really are quite huge) but, by and large, the Stans have sort of amalgamated into a single, analogous region in the recesses of my mind. So it’s fair to say that as much as we were enjoying touring this unique part of the world, Chris and I were not exactly expecting to be bowled over in overawed astonishment when we crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan in early June. ‘It will all be the same’ we thought: same plov and vodka obsession, same people, same landscape, same everything. How wrong we were.
Kyrgyzstan is the most visited of all the Stans and the country’s lax visa requirements are mostly to credit. Foreign visitors from over 40 countries are allowed to stay for 2-months without a visa, whereas in all other Stans they only get 30 days, and even then, after an agonizingly painful and complicated procedure. When it comes to pain-in-the-ass logistics, however, Turkmenistan tops the cake. Not only do you have to apply with a Letter of Invitation, pay an exorbitant amount of money, wait between a week and infinity and promise your first-born son to the country’s president…but a 5-day transit visa is the only reward you will get for all your efforts. Needless to say, most people opt to skip the country if they can. Like we did.
Besides that rather major plus, Kyrgyzstan also has a healthy amount of kick-ass natural treasures within its borders. It’s home to Lake Issyk Kul, the second-largest salt-water lake in the world (after the Caspian) and the alleged source of the Black Plague which decimated Europe’s population in the 14th century. All right, I admit, that’s not exactly inspirational stuff…but there’s more! After a three-month long sojourn I can confidently say that the mountain ranges here are as spectacular as any in the entire region, the gorges dramatic, plains fertile, the roads better, the food more varied, the people friendlier, the cities more modern and the hostels about the best you’ll ever find in Central Asia.
Yes, we are in love with Kyrgyzstan, but the above-mentioned details are only complementary.
Our 2-week long Pamir Mountain crossing in Tajikistan was an arduous one. The scenery was splendid, that’s for sure, yet the elements (and the roads) were less-than-so. Riding along the famous Wakhan Corridor which borders Afghanistan, and up and over the highest passes we’ve ever attempted, took a toll both on us and our trusty steeds. The mind-boggling sandstorms of the Corridor were followed by snow and hail storms at high altitude. This, coupled with Pixie’s frustrating carburettor problems, meant we could not even speed our way through the worst parts.
We crossed the Pamirs, for a week, at a splendidly relaxing 20km/hr. It wouldn’t have been that bad, really, if it wasn’t for the fact that we left Khorog, the first point of reference on the western Pamirs, on the same day as two Canadian cyclists…and arrived in Osh, at the eastern end, at the same time. I think they’re still laughing. Oh well…
Although the going was tough, our rewards (you know, between the shitty parts) were plentiful. The Roof of the World is as outstanding as it has always been claimed.
The scenery was gorgeous, yet we had only a window of a few daytime hours to enjoy it. Once again, as in Kazakhstan, we seemed to have been just a bit too early to fully appreciate the splendours. By the time we crossed the most remote border of our entire journey, and entered Kyrgyzstan, we were well and truly knackered.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love mountains. I do. But not excessively so; at least not at anything above 4,000m where the vegetation is harsh, the weather unpredictable and Mother Nature, in general, slightly antagonistic. So it’s for this particular reason, that once I was confronted with the sensational colours and warmer temps of the valley of south-eastern Kyrgyzstan, I breathed a sigh of relief. I also experienced goose bumps at the sight, something which has not happened to me since our Caucasus crossing challenge almost 7 months ago
Many long-term travellers attest to becoming desensitized to stunning scenery given enough time, and although this may be true to some extent, I also believe that the WOW-moments, albeit less frequent, also tend to be much more intense.
Seeing the first yurt, set against the backdrop of verdant hills and snow-capped mountains, was something I will never forget.
A much-needed break
After travelling at what seemed like breakneck speed for 3 months (figuratively speaking, of course) we all needed a restful break. Both bikes needed a good overhaul, as did Chris and I. We were anxious about discovering a country we had heard nothing but great reviews about…but not just yet. First we needed to shower, eat, sleep, shower, eat, sleep etc etc. So that’s what we did, for a whole month in Osh.
This turned out to be one of two fantastic socializing stints for us. It was during this time that we met some truly inspirational and amazing people, both local and foreign. First, we met the travellers. Dreamers with stars in their eyes and adventure in their soul.
Travel to Central Asia and you will come across a myriad of overlanders, just as you would in South America or Africa. But these still relatively unknown destinations (at least in the West) attract a whole different breed of traveller. As Dimitri so eloquently put it: ‘This is where you meet all the crazy ones’. The irony is that he was referring to all the others, while secretly I was thinking they really don’t get much crazier than him.
Dimitri is a French-American explorer who is on a mission to circumnavigate the world under the power of his own steam. He cycles, walks and kayaks anywhere and everywhere. His only break, in the last few years, was due to spinal surgery after an accident. This dude went home, had some vertebrae fused and, when he recouped, got back on the road. At the moment he has his gorgeous and (I’m quite sure) long-suffering wife, Gulnara, by his side. This woman is a real sport, and is just as adventurous as her unstoppable husband, even though she did admit to being a tad envious of our motorbikes. I did tell them that motorbikes can indeed be considered human-powered, as without a twist of my wrist, nothing happens. Dimitri didn’t buy it of course, but I think he just got stuck on semantics!
Then there was Jordan and Magdalena (from the US and Switzerland respectively) who are riding Bala, their Royal Enfield, from India to Spain. When they first spluttered into our Osh guesthouse, they seemed quite demoralized. Everyone they met along the way, well aware of the inherently problematic Indian-made Royal Enfields, kept telling them they were crazy; that Bala would never make it. But they obviously weren’t counting on the never-say-die attitude of her masters. It certainly didn’t help that she was barely ridable at this stage, but all of these ventures, these missions to go here, ride there, reach someplace….they’re not about mechanics. These are about dreams and determination. With those two firmly in place…anything is possible.
Endless days later, when all the boys and local mechanics poured hours of work into Bala, they were ready to set off again, bound for the Pamirs. Jordan, Magdalena and Bala left with renewed invigoration and a dodgy welding job everyone knew would never last that long. No-one cared. The only thing that mattered was that they were on the move again.
Will they make it to Barcelona? Absobloodylutely.
In between the work on Bala, there was also group-work on Pixie. Everyone just pitched in and helped wherever they could. It brought us together, closer, in an intensely short period of time. We formed a ‘gang’ of sorts, although this was a motorbiking-kitsch-hybrid version…something between a Hells’ Angel and the Brady Bunch. We worked together, cooked together and for each other. We talked and laughed and shared visions, opinions and thoughts. Even the ones who had no real reason to stay, like Arjen from Holland (possibly the only sane one of the lot-he’s riding a new GS1200) ended up staying with us for two weeks when he needn’t have. It was the loveliest connection we’d made to date and we were all quite melancholic when we eventually had to part.
I could continue to tell you all about these inspirational encounters, these soul connections we have made here in Kyrgyzstan. I could tell you about the young German guy who walked from Germany to Bishkek with his dog, and took even less time than we did. I could tell you about Gerome, who is not only driving a Land Cruiser from Sydney to London, but is doing so whilst being confined to a wheelchair. I would then move onto to the beautiful local people we met. About the young women who dream of travel and freedom while fighting the societal pressures to marry young. About the deep and meaningful conversations shared, even with limited language compatibility. About the people who took us into their homes, and their hearts, without a second thought. About the people who cared for us and those who gave me the most precious birthday gift of all: the chance to celebrate a special day with true friends.
The stories are endless…
The beautiful thing about these experiences is that they are personal, spontaneous and unexpected. They happen to all of us, sooner or later. The parting may be painful but the memories created make them well worthwhile.
But you should also know about all the other surprises this country can reveal, because although our experiences have made it the best for us, its attributes also make it the best in Central Asia for anyone who wants to venture this far.
So consider heading here, on your next trip abroad, and don’t forget to pack an open heart and an adventurous spirit.
Here’s just a taste of what’s awaiting you. Hope you enjoy the views.