Between exiting Tajikistan and entering Kyrgyzstan one encounters a barren sweeping mystical no-man's-land where trucks crouch sadly in abandoned resignation and nature snickers mockingly over the generally accepted definition of the word "road".
It appears that a huge landslide has done its thing in a place unaccustomed to human intervention, a.k.a., road clearance. What used to be a road is now a bed of boulders over which Dave determinedly starts to ride the bike. Moments later, here's the road
and here's the bike.
Brushing a off few rocks and some pebbles of wounded pride, it's up and off to the Kyrgyz border post. The officers are terse and insist that an entry stamp in our passports isn't their job: stamps are to be obtained at the Osh airport. But aren't you supposed to get a border stamp at the border? No amount of logic or wheedling produces a stamp. Looks like we'll be paying a visit to the airport soon.
From the heights of the Pamirs, the road leads down into a broad golden plain. Looking back the eye is met with chains of massive snow-capped mountains for hundreds of miles to either side. Though high in elevation (around 15,000 feet) the ride in Tajikistan revealed more arid peaks and plains than snowy hilltops. But then again it was just the beginning of September. We wonder what the frigid winter will hold for the few hardy residents of the Pamirs where even in summer it seems impossible for anything to grow.
We stop for gas out of cannisters from a small store in Sary Tash and are surprised to see a wealth of supplies on the shelf: chocolate bars, cans of tuna, and lots of alcohol. It's really just a few dozen items but after subsistence rations of bread and tea in the Tajik mountains it's like being at K-Mart. The original plan was to stay in Sary Tash but it's early in the day and there isn't much going on here except for the 3 guys sitting at a small table swigging vodka. We decide to continue on to Osh, of stamp-the-passport-at-the-airport fame, maybe 4 hours away.
Hills are tinted with the last grass of summer. Beyond this area, there will be few signs of the inviting pastureland where herders bring their flocks to feast in the warmer months. Rather, the pastureland will have given up the green to the less warmly aesthetic browns of autumn. The seasons shape one's impressions of a place in obvious ways: perhaps the verdant fields and flowering orchards of Bosnia or Georgia are now also brown and dry; if we'd come to Kyrgyzstan in summer a lusher palate would have left a different tint on our minds' canvas.
If we'd run over that big nail, the bike had developed problems and stomachs had developed more problems in a different country, those experiences wouldn't be connected with Kyrgyzstan either. The scenery beyond Sary Tash takes a dramatic turn as red-tinted canyons reminiscent of the American Southwest appear.
Men on horses herd huge thick flocks of sheep across the road as cars and motorcycles wait patiently. One "cowboy" wants his photo taken. He indicates that he wants a copy of the photo as we speed through as fast as one can speed through huge thick flocks of sheep.
Shortly after passing through a small town, the bike swerves. Flat tire. First bike problem of the trip: actually not bad for over 5 months of travel. Dave brings out the tools, confident that in an hour we'll be on our way. An hour later the tire's changed. But it's not holding air. Tire comes off again; inner tube's got a leak. Out comes the patch kit; in goes the tube; back on goes the tire. STILL not holding air. At this point it's starting to get dark. #@#$$!!, says Dave, as he gets creative by trying the spare front tire tube in the back tire. Back on goes the tire as the stars come out. This doesn't work either. Oddly, no one has stopped during all this time to see if we are okay except a carload of teenage boys who want some candy. They come back 20 minutes later to try again when they don't get any the first time. Not helpful.
Almost 10PM and no one has stopped. Looks like a chilly night on the bikecover under the stars. Finally a police van pulls up. Turns out they're The Narcotics Police. The guys pile out and under order of the pudgy commander try to lift the bike into the van. Whoooooa, it's too heavy and doesn't fit in the back anyway. The commander's next step is to comandeer a passing truck to take the bike into town. You imagine the hapless driver's brow beading with sweat as he is pulled over late at night by the narcotics police as he thinks about what he's got in the back of his truck. Maybe not. Even with 6 men, 250 kilos of bike is not going to be lifted onto the very high truckbed. Finally we get across that it would be smarter to take the wheel off and go with it to the mechanic that the pudgy guy insists will be available in town. Then it's off to town, with 3 of the guys left behind to guard the bike.
The tire shop is, unsurprisingly for Friday night at 10PM, closed. This is no deterrent to our fearless leader, who steers the driver through dark back streets where some kind of gathering is happening at some kind of community center. He manages to locate the 20 something tire guy in a crowd of young people. After Tajikistan it's a surprise to see young women wearing western clothing and sporting short head-covering-less haircuts. The tire guy isn't thrilled to be pulled out of his party by the chief of narcotics, but he hops into the van and we head back to his shop. Half an hour later he's patched the tire. Back at the bike we discover one of the freezing guards wearing Dave's motorcycle jacket. After donating the suggested price of a tank of gas to the pudgy guy, we wind up in a small room above the local restaurant, warm and grateful that everything's back on track.
Morning offers a feast of eggs, potatoes and spamlike meat product. Many more sheep and cows rule the road; shepherds must be bringing their flocks down from the summer pasture as the weather is starting to change. Waving brings little response from the taciturn herders. People seem more guarded or reserved here. Reaching Osh, we find a place to stay where the receptionist, who seems to double as travel agent, is gushingly nice until it becomes clear we're not interested in taking any of her tours. She tells us that getting a passport stamped at the airport is not possible as the airport isn't a government border post. One is not surprised. The border near Uzbekistan, she says, can provide entry stamps. One is not so sure about this as one did not enter the country through Uzbekistan.
Osh is a lively city, the second largest in the country. Like Khojand it shares the Fergana Valley and thus some of its characteristics with Uzbekistan; in fact the majority of its citizens are Uzbek. While all of this region seems pleasant and relatively comfortably off, it has had its share of political and religious conflict over the government crackdown on Islamic fundamentalism and its repercussions. Fundamentalism isn't evident in the attire of some young women whose belly-baring hip huggers reflect more of a Russian /Western sensibility. From the "tea beds" (essentially a matressless bedframe on which people sit to drink and dine) of any of the neighboring high-quality chaykhanas we can watch humanity pass by while drinking pots of tea and munching meaty skewers of shashlyk.
A travel agent confirms that the Uzbek border is unlikely to stamp our passports as we didn't enter the country from Uzbekistan. He suggests going to OVIR, the ever-present Central Asian police authority, for a conclusion to this passport runaround. A long walk across town gets us to OVIR just in time for its 12:00-2:00 lunch break. After all is said and done, it turns out that the police are aware that the Pamir Tajik border post doesn't issue entry stamps. They guarantee that there will be no problem leaving the country entry-stampless. We register with OVIR though it isn't necessary here, just to make sure there will be no problem. For once, surprisingly, there won't be. Or at least none relating to entry stamps.
A few days of walking the long bustling streets and markets of Osh and drooling over shashlyk later, we leave for the small mountain town of Arslanbob. Landscape's pretty dull on the way: overcast sky, hacked-up looking dry river valleys with drab villages strung alongside. The town itself is attractively surrounded by high mountains and groves of walnut forests. It is apparently one of the more conservative towns and people give strange looks as the motorcycle buzzes through small streets. We find the local turbaza, an abandoned Soviet holiday camp.
The aged caretaker provides potato stew for dinner and bread and tea in the morning. Erika takes a short hike behind the turbaza revealing mountains reminiscent of the valleys behind Santa Barbara (if Santa Barbara's bazillion dollar homes were stone huts). Good thing for today's leg stretch as tomorrow is Bucket O' Rain Day. What a downpour. Nothing to do but snooze til 3:30 and play gin rummy in the unheated cabin. Four extra blankets do little to block the accompanying cold.
The morning after dawns rainless, the Santa Barbara mountains' new coat of snow the only evidence of yesterday's rain. Arslanbob's charm shows up even better now. It would be fine to do some hiking to the waterfall or through the village streets but it's time to head to Bishkek. No food at the turbaza; gotta get some on the road. A small cafe only serves plov (Dave's favorite tasty rice dish--not!-- composed of one part rice and one part mutton fat). Some guys ask where we're from and engage in a rapid snickering interchange in Kyrgyz when we say "America". Compared to most of the places we've visited previously, most people here haven't seemed particularly interested in interacting, whether we're on or away from the bike. Other travellers share different experiences.
We're approaching Lake Toktogul when the bike swerves AGAIN. The patched tube has burst. Once again, Dave hauls out the tools and embarks on remedying the situation. Once again, the first patch doesn't hold. The second patch manages to last long enough for us to blow out in front of a dubious looking mechanic hut. The mechanic patches the tube. Halfway around the lake, as the sun is starting to set, the tube blows again. AAARGH. Dave grits his teeth and gives it one more try. We ride back to the first chaykhana we find and beg for a piece of floor to sleep on; in the morning we'll find a good tire place and get it done right. Once again, no one has stopped to help.
The chaykhana folks bring out cold fried dough and mutton fat with meat ripples; gratefully we come inside and drink tea. Our host Akin is jovial with whiskey and offers glassfuls which Dave must decline due to his ulcer. Dave can't do much justice to the greasy meal either. Though the doctor has ordered a diet low in fat, it's not so easy to come by on the road and Dave has lost about 20 pounds. Akin is proud of the poster of "Michael Jackson's mansion" on the restaurant's wall. He wants to know if we know Michael and how he is doing in the U.S.A. We sleep in every layer of clothing we have under full motorcycle gear on a tea bed under the stars.
In the morning, Akin provides a wake-up call in the form of questions for Dave about what movie stars are the best kissers. Though Erika is curious to hear Dave's answer, at 6:30 he is too groggy to do the question justice. Shortly thereafter, we pile into the host's brother-in-law's truck to head to town. It's a more leisurely trip than expected. After locating the tire place, the truck heads through town where it stops while the driver hops off for unknown reasons. Half an hour later he's back, along with another guy.
Then Akin hops off. 20 minutes later he's back with a melon which is offered all around. Next, everyone hops off and the 3 guys proceed to load a stack of treetrunks into the back of the truck. Make that 4 guys, as Dave is expected to enlist in hauling duty as well.
We are kind of getting PTTD (post traumatic tire disorder) and can't really imagine the new patch will hold, but so far it seems okay. We're happy to pull over for a chat with Ariane and Xavier, who are amazingly travelling long-term on recumbent bikes. They've been to Mongolia, which is intriguing as it's not on our route, and will be travelling for another 9 months or so. Wow, are we impressed! We're sorry not to have more time to get to know them as they're a lot of fun.
As a treat after all the troubles we stop at a ski-lodge/resort type place between Toktogul and Bishkek. It's the priciest room of the trip at $40, which at local prices is like spending over $200 on a room at home. Except for $200 at home they'd surely have hot water and heat. So much for the steaming hot shower in a warm room. The food is good though, and a short walk the next day brings us to a small valley where a yurt sits beneath trees heavy with red apples. Also, Dave gets to watch the Britney Spears special on the restaurant's TV.
A verrrry cold ride awaits over the Ala-Bel pass towards Bishkek. Hillsides get denser with snow as the road ascends. At the top is snow as far as the eye can see. But the road's good.
Descending to the dry brown jailoo (summer pasture) it's even colder; or maybe it's just that the road is straight so our speed has picked way up. We stop at a small roadside development for jugs of gas but for some reason it feels even colder when you get OFF the bike.
By the roadside, small trailers sell bottles of mare's milk, the national drink. Erika tries the pasteurized version sold in the Bishkek supermarket. It's kinda tasty in a fermented yogurt kind of way. Yurts dot the high dry pasture.
Finally we're in Bishkek where it's a little warmer at last. All the budget travellers stay at the Business School Hotel, so we head there. What do you know, the rooms are actually housed in the business school. Dave is feeling poorly again and needs to rest for the next few days. Erika walks around town, hoping to cheer him by retrieving the package of motorcycle parts his friend Dan has helpfully Fed-Ex'ed from the local office. He's glad to get the new face shields, clutch parts, speedometer cable, and other important odds and ends.
Bishkek shares characteristic wide tree-lined streets and Soviet architecture with both Tashkent and Dushanbe. It also boasts big wide empty squares housing museums, shops, and government buildings. Each square is fringed with a multitude of wanna-be photographers proudly displaying shots of families and couples stiffly posed in front of monuments. Equally abundant are the karaoke stands, where teenagers wail shamelessly off-key to pop songs, preserved on video keepsakes for future self-adoration. We buy western products in big department stores.
Eventually Dave feels well enough to sample the local international cuisine. He's most excited to discover actual pancakes at an establishment called Fatboys. We make an unsuccessful foray to check on visas at the India Embassy but it will take longer than we'll be in town. Thinking of extending the Kyrgyzstan visas in case of bad weather or other problems crossing into China entails another unsuccessful foray to the OVIR office. Unhelpfully they pass on the information that no extensions are being issued for the next 10 days because they have no stamp. No STAMP.? We are sent to the Foreign Embassy but have been given the wrong address. At the right address throngs of people are waiting chaotically en masse. Forget the visa extension thing. We NEVER have bad weather or other problems. Best relax in a park where locals don't have to spend money on the daily newspaper as it's spread out under glass for all to read.
The battery on the bike has been losing its charge every morning, so Dave takes it to a mechanic to see what's going on. Erika isn't too impressed with the horde of guys hanging out at the shop who totally ignore her and offer no place to sit for the next four hours. There don't seem to be any chairs in this part of the world as most people are quite at ease just crouching. Dave is somehow blessed with this useful skill but Erika just topples over on her butt. The mechanic diagnoses a broken wire in the alternator. To fix this, along with an oil change, costs $65. Sounds like more than a local would pay but oh well, the bike seems to work.
Next morning the battery isn't holding a charge. No comment. One more push-start and we're off to Lake Issyk-Kul. The scenery near the lake is invigorating: autumn-tinted poplar trees line the road; broad fields are backed by snow-capped mountains. There is a small homestay with a lovely Russian hostess in the town of Chopon-Ata. The little apartment is meant to be rented by 3 sets of guests, but we're the only ones there so it feels pretty grand. Issyk-kul is quite popular in the summer but the passing of the season has left it just a small sleepy town.
Petroglyphs allegedly decorate the surrounding hills, but following our minimalistic map to the general area reveals no sign of them. Some nice rocks though.
Erika walks some more in town later and discovers a beautiful road arbored in golden birches.
Tomorrow she'll drag Dave back there and we'll meet five young guys celebrating a birthday with a pint of vodka beneath the trees. There seems to be more drinking here than in other Central Asian countries we've visited. Perhaps there's just more out-in-the-open drinking. The splendid scenery is certainly a good excuse to celebrate.
Karakol sits further down the lake. Its architecture and atmosphere are pretty different as it was settled by Russians years ago. Small cottages with blue cut-out-stencilled shutters sit by sidewalks dappled with gold poplar leaves. Some larger buildings are still rustic but more ornate.
We take a walk and find an unusual Chinese mosque where worshippers are just arriving for prayer.
Interesting architecture dots the streets. Another atypical building is the green-onion-domed Holy Trinity Cathedral.
The next great homestay awaits in the form of a whole apartment beneath that of its helpful landlady Liliana. Dave thinks the battery problem might be messed up electrical wires resulting from too many bumpy roads' prolonged earthquakes. Liliana locates a soldering iron so he can upgrade the wires. We walk to the soggy Sunday Bazaar to find soldering metal. Despite post-rain mud puddles and cold grey skies, shoppers abound. Of course this is just a spring day compared to the upcoming winter weather.
We find a good Russian restaurant which serves many mayonnaise-y salads along with a large variety of traditional soups, meats, and blintzes. The sun has set during dinner. It's unnerving to discover that the good-sized town has no streetlights in the neighborhoods. Eventually we find our way back to the home-sweet-home apartment block.
The apartment is so comfortable that we're tempted to stay a third night, but despite this and despite the fact that Dave has worked all afternoon sautering and taping all the wires and the battery STILL isn't holding a charge, it's time to go. Another push start gets us going along the south side of Lake Issyk-Kul. It would be great to have more time to explore the small towns and snow-capped mountains and see the autumn color. We stop to visit the astonishing graveyards with their large tombstones bearing photoetchings or faded landscape paintings. It is moving to see the care put into these memorials and imagine the lives of those who spent their lifetimes in this remote area.
Erika comes up with idea of a book of photos of graveyards encountered on this trip called "Overland/Underground". Unfortunately she hasn't even taken enough photos to illustrate a short brochure. Maybe next trip.
After leaving the lake, we encounter a French bicyclist on a lonely stretch of road. What an impressive chilly solo ride. Later in Naryn we bump into him again and learn with shock that 5 minutes after we left, he was a victim of armed robbery as he rode over the underpass. A bicycle is certainly an easier target than a motorcycle. Most of his money and some posessions were taken. We hear later through the grapevine that he ended up having a great time in Kyrgyzstan despite this disturbing incident.
Kochkor is another poplar-studded, slightly Russified Kyrgyz town. After dinner at the chilly homestay, we are mysteriously paralyzed into immobility for over 45 minutes by the the owner's 15 year old granddaughter as she exhaustively recites her entire extended family's food preferences and inquires about our own. This is surely an excellent cultural exchange.
Granddaughter: My sister likes chocolate. Do you like chocolate?
Erika: I like chocolate.
Dave: I like chocolate.
Granddaughter: My sister does not like milk. Do you like milk?
Dave: I don't like milk.
Erika: I like milk.
Granddaughter: My brother likes toast. Do you like toast?
Erika: I like toast.
Granddaughter: David, do you like toast?
Dave: I like toast.
Granddaughter: My father likes chocolate. Do you like chocolate?
The next morning the motorcycle battery is dead again. Another push start gets it going successfully until one kilometer from Naryn, where Erika can almost hear the sound of Dave's helmet cracking from the pressure of his head beginning to explode because the bike has just gotten ANOTHER FLAT TIRE. !#$!!@%**!!! Erika is enjoying the backdrop of another fascinating cemetery but if Dave could take the rear tire and bury it deep with its own tombstone he probably would. Off comes the tire for the ump-teenth time. This time, someone actually stops. A friendly guy leaves his 16 year old brother who looks about 12 with Erika while he takes Dave and the tire to town for a new patch. An hour or so later they return with a patch that will finally hold for the distant forseeable future. It's only slightly disheartening that the guy charges Dave for a tank of gas for his 2 kilometer round trip.
Naryn is a drab place with dismal Soviet-style buildings and more litter than we've seen anywhere in Central Asia. The homestay however is a complete apartment with the first heater in months. The heater is imperative as the next day is frigid and rainy. Dave worries about the upcoming ride over the 12,400 foot Torugart Pass as the hills here down lower are already dusted with snow. Anxiety and an aversion to mutton fat make eating anything difficult. At the restaurants, most people seem to be focusing on drinking vodka which probably makes the limited greasy food go down easier.
The Big Day dawns cold, drab and gray. Dave, who purchased a very special device in Europe to keep drafts out of the bottom of his helmet, makes the shocking discovery that All This Time He Has Been Using The Breath Guard, Not The Chin Curtain!! Popping in the proper apparatus provides the slightest bit more warmth. But it doesn't keep the snow off the road. Mud turns to slush turns to ice and next thing the bike's down again.
There's a considerable distance left before the summit crossing into China, not to mention a considerable climb ahead. There could be heavier snow higher up and even if there isn't the roads may well be covered. Can we possibly keep going in these conditions? A trucker coming from China at a tiny settlement about 8 miles back says the road is fine, but trucks are bulky and solid and use tire chains. Some bikes have been known to forge across snow-covered roads but all the luggage and the weight of two people atop one large bike makes riding unstable and a bit scary. Disappointed but wanting to be safe, we head back to the little 6 house settlement and hope for better weather tomorrow.
One of the houses must be accustomed to visitors in bad conditions as its owner opens her doors to us for the night. We take a walk out onto the snowy plain, destination abandoned ruin, to fill the afternoon. Dave still isn't feeling well so he goes to bed real early while Erika strolls some more by the icy riverbed. Our hostess lights a gas lamp as the sun goes down and produces some rib-sticking potato macaroni stew. The heat from the wood-burning stove keeps things fairly cozy. In the evening small groups of locals drop by to be fed from the bottomless stew pot and hydrated by the local fire water. When one guy staggers in, too drunk already, he's directed by the hostess in no uncertain terms to leave the place. The others escort him out.
Next morning it's clear and some of the snow looks to have melted. One of the guys says we should wait til 10:00 to leave as the roads will be clearer then. Another says the border closes at 12:00 on Fridays. That should be enough time to make it. Everyone wants to be in a photo before we cross the Torugart Pass into China.
The photo is do-able but the crossing is not meant to be. We make it about 20 kilometers, through the first guardpost and onto broad gold and black plains, before the road starts to ice up again. The hard-packed white ground looks like buffed-up meringue glittering in the bright cold sun.
As we reach the final ascent snow completely takes over the road. Maybe we can put the bike on a truck and get it over that way. Not that truck.
We ask the family standing in front of the only home around if this is possible. They indicate that trucks have stopped coming since the border is closed. They bring us in for tea. They look at the photos of Kyrgyzstan in the Lonely Planet book. They want us to give their daughter some chocolate. They tell us to spend the weekend with them as the border's closed til Monday. That's sweet, but Dave is beyond frustrated and Erika secretly thinks she'd go bonkers sitting in the family's one room for the next two days. At least in Naryn we could get that heated apartment back. Five hours later we're back in Naryn. It's been a long day.
The good thing about being back in Naryn is meeting Peace Corps volunteers Scott and Judy. We have dinner together at a restaurant where a Kyrgyz friend of theirs is getting married to his girlfriend of four years. They confirm the story we'd heard in Tajikistan of the "kidnapping" (quotes should probably be removed) of women as a fairly routine practice even in this college town, where mates for marriage are procured by a man snatching his desired woman off the street, into his car and back to his home where she's kept until she agrees to wed. Even if the woman does not know the man and is in the middle of her advanced education she is obligated by tradition in some families to give it up and go with him to his village. Our friends guess that maybe 40% of marriages in Kyrgyzstan are set up this way. Luckily the wedding in the restaurant is a happier occasion.
Scott is close to finishing his Peace Corps stint and Judy is following shortly. Both have had positive experiences along with some challenges getting to know local people and witnessing social problems. Naryn is one of the more economically depressed towns of the country and it's admirable to see their dedication and hard work. It's a lot of fun to meet some people from back home and exchange jokes and stories.
We can't take the risk of being snowed in over the Torugart Pass again: as we didn't get extensions in Bishkek due to The No Stamp Problem, our visas expire Monday. Reluctantly but easily with Scott's help, we arrange for a truck to take us and the bike over the pass on Monday at 5:30 AM. Just one more day now. The last day is filled with a trip to the museum to see local art
and a trip to the market just for the heck of it. This looks like a good place to buy some fresh sheep skins but regretfully there isn't enough room on the bike.
Dave has just about had it with the food as he bites into some kind of pastry, the only food available at the market, and discovers that the huge chunk of potato is actually a huge chunk of fat. Only focusing on gagging keeps him from hurling the pastry at the vendor. It is probably considered a luxury around here. (not gagging, LARD.)
Finally the REAL big day dawns for SURE. Dave has loaded the bike into the van the night before. Alarm set for 4:30, everything ready to go at 5:30. 5:30 passes, then 6:00, then 6:30, then 7:00. Dave's REALLY getting pissed off now. He's tried calling the contact person to see if the driver's going to show up but his phone is off. Finally he reaches the contact who calls the driver and calls back and says the driver's overslept. Grrrr. Driver finally arrives at 7:30. The "good" news is that it turns out there's snow covering the road for at least 30 kilometers before the pass, which justifies the huge amount we had to fork over for the truck.
At the pass there are at least a mile of scrap trucks lined up to cross the border out of Kyrgyzstan. Oh no, this will take days! Our driver knows a trick though and guns the engine wildly through snowdrifts in an arc around the trucks to the front of the line. Shortly after we finish up with Kyrgyz customs and arrive at the top of the Torugart Pass. All we need to do now is wait for the driver from the China side to come get us.
While Erika has had nervous moments going over ice on the back of the bike, Dave says later that his scariest part of the trip thus far was sitting inside the ancient Russian 4-wheel-drive van while the driver fishtailed at unsuitably high speeds all over the ice. You always have less confidence, says Erika, when you're not the one in control. Of course she always has perfect confidence in Dave.
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