Ups and Downs in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan was a mix of beauty and dirtiness. We saw alpine mountains with trashed trenches right beside them. On some days, we enjoyed delicious home-cooked food while, on other days, it gave us diarrhea. Some accommodations stood up to European standards, others did not even have running water. We saw a land full of nomads and yet empty. It was this emptiness that the Kyrgyz people made us feel welcome in.

We arrived in Bishkek (the capital) on our first day as it’s located quite near the Kazakh border. We immediately noticed that there was something peculiar going on in the city. Sometimes, the worship at the mosque opposite of our hostel would last for hours instead of just for half an hour. On one occasion, the street was blocked due to the sheer amount of people trying to park their cars and also due to the bulk of passengers heading towards the main entrance. We found out very soon why: Ramadan.

Our goal was to cycle through Kyrgyzstan and to cross the Kyrgyz-Chinese border at Irkeshtam, deep in the mountains and far away from civilization. We decided to take the main route M41, also known as Pamir Highway. With this name we associated really high mountains, and they turned out to be our first challenge. Just two days out of Bishkek we faced the Töö Ashuu pass.

Going up Töö Ashuu pass (3180m)

The Töö Ashuu pass is “only” 3180m high (that’s very little for Kyrgyzstan). Although we caught a rainy day, we still decided to continue. We knew that we would have to hitchhike through the tunnel at the top as it does not have any ventilation so that the air inside is toxic for cyclists. Still, we did not want to be driven all the way to the top. At some point, however, we were so grumpy and tired that we decided to show our thumbs.

On the way to the top of Töö Ashuu

At first, nobody wanted to take us, but after half an hour a truck with three locals took as on board. The scenery on the way up the serpentine road was beyond beautiful.

beyond beautiful

When we reached the peak of the pass we saw why going by car was the best decision we could have made: The tunnel through the mountain was extremely narrow so that just two vehicles almost weren’t able to pass by each other. There was no light, and the road was so terrible that it didn’t deserve the name (it should simply be called “rough ground”). After another hour of driving, our rescuers dropped us in the city of Toktogul.

Gratsi cycling up a mountain after Toktogul

In Toktogul, we met a young Kyrgyz man who had studied in Germany at a military university and who was staying for vacation at the same hotel that our drivers had chosen for us. He invited us to meet up with him again in his home town of Uzgen which happened to lie on our route to Osh. A French motorcyclist was also residing in the hotel, and we exchanged travel stories and information. He had just arrived from the Tadjik Pamir and taken the route via Sary-Tash – again, our direction. It felt so good to talk to a Westerner and, moreover, to a Westerner who was up-to-date on road conditions, hotels etc.

Toktogul Lake

A couple of days later, we had just descended another mountain pass when suddenly a dog burst out of the bushes along the road and started chasing us. He was tall, heavy, and fast. Gratsi passed by too quickly for him to catch up with her, so he decided to go after Jan. He looked quite aggressive, and Jan wasn’t sure whether or not the dog had rabies, so keeping distance was crucial. The beast came from the right, and Jan cycled to the left across the lanes until he couldn’t go any further. A branch that was hanging over from the left side of the road got hooked on Jan’s steering so that he got knocked off the bike at about 25km/h. As soon as Jan lay on the ground, bleeding and with holes in his clothes, the stupid dog simply turned around and walked away. Jan’s leg was so badly hurt that he couldn’t ride on. Luckily, the first truck that came by took us on board and dropped us at the next hotel.

View from our hotel where the truckers dropped us

As promised, our Kyrgyz friend met us in Uzgen. Moreover, he invited us to his house for dinner. He also gave us a place to sleep, and, before we left, he handed us a traditional Kyrgyz hat. All of this was still taking place during Ramadan, which meant that he wasn’t allowed to eat before the nightly prayer. So, we waited for him in the car while he was praying at the mosque. When we later sat at the dinner table (on the ground, as is common in central Asia) his wife brought all the dishes, and cleaned up after we had finished eating. He told us that we were not allowed to help her because it was her duty as a good Kyrgyz house-wife. He went on to tell us that in Kyrgyzstan the husband takes care of the money while the wife takes care of cooking, cleaning, and the children. This image resembled very much what we had experienced in Azerbaijan.

Visiting the Minaret of Uzgen with our friend

A week later, after having left Osh (the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan) we were on our way into the mountains bordering China and Tadjikistan. Three passes awaited us there: Chirchik pass, Taldyk pass, and Irkeshtam pass. Just like it had been raining when we were cycling up Töö Ashuu, it was heavily raining when we cycled up Chirchik pass (2389m). Even worse, the rain kept following us while we pushed up the road towards Taldyk pass (3615m) the next day. Soaked and tired we decided to hitchhike across, and, as always, the first truck stopped and took us to the remote village of Sary-Tash (3170m).

Sary-Tash – turn left for China, turn right for Tadjikistan
Sary-Tash: the road to Tadjikistan
Fresh cheese being made by the owners of our guesthouse

We spent three very relaxing days in Sary-Tash. Every morning we stepped outside and were surrounded by snow-covered mountains of 5000m. We could even look at them through the window of the outhouse toilet. The food was superb: fresh eggs, fresh cheese, fresh meat. One of the things we also immensely enjoyed was going to a banya (Russian bath / sauna) which we hadn’t gone to since our trip to Siberia in August 2017. Our hotel didn’t have a shower, and going to the banya was more a thing for the local village people, but since we speak Russian, we were able to ask our way through. After all, we hadn’t taken a shower in three days.

On the way to Irkeshtam

Refreshed and motivated to finally cross the Chinese border, we rode up Irkeshtam pass (3760m) and down into the small container village of Irkeshtam. Everything from convenience stores to restaurants is accommodated in containers so as to be able to withstand the low temperatures in the winter which otherwise wouldn’t be possible at an altitude of 3000m. We got to sleep in one of the non-occupied containers where they had set up two beds, a small stove, and some furniture. The toilet was wherever we wanted it to be, the lady who rented the container told us, pointing at some hidden spots between neighbouring containers.

Our home for one night
Inside our container: bedroom
Inside our container: kitchen and bar

We slept well that night, and got up early to be among the first to cross the border. Emigration went smoothly, and soon we were cycling through the 3km of no man’s land towards a fence that was decorated with hundreds and hundreds of small red flags. We had finally arrived in the People’s Republic of China.

On top of the world: Irkeshtam pass (3760m)

Go look for the beauty in this world! (for example, in Kyrgyzstan)

Jan & Gratsi

P.S.: Check out our route map to see where we are!


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