We went through Stantours and got a 'group visa' (we were four cyclists). There is no need to travel all together. It is like applying for a visa the four together and this way, we shared the cost of the post to Bishkek. It is a one-month visa and the entry and exit dates are fixed.
Be careful ! The border between China is closed on Saturday and Sunday so make sure your exit date (or entry date according to your route) is on a working day.
Single-entry visa: 65$ - Double-entry visa: 95$ - Post (DHL) to Bishkek: 50$ (to share between all the applicants).
Visa extension: possible in Karakol, Bishkek, Jalal Abad and Osh. We did it in Osh at the OVIR office at the junction of Golubev and Lenin, a few blocks south of the building of the municipal administration (this one is just in front of the statue of Lenin). We had to insist because of our group visa. The OVIR first sent us to the municipal administration building where they couldn't even tell us the price so we went back to the OVIR where they finally agreed to extend our visa. Cost: 1,000 soms for one month (1,500 soms for a double-entry visa).
1 euro = 60 soms
ATMs in Karakol, Bishkek, Osh.
Road & sleeping
Khirghize border - Karakol (105 km)
The first 70 to 80 km are a dirt road. We bought some bottled water in San-Tash and also got some 'tap' water that we filtered, about 15 km after the border. The track ondulates until it gets into the valley and then it is flat all the way to Karakol. Small shops and cafés in Tup.
After Karakol, the paved road goes along the lake and then goes in the mountains before meeting the lake again. 10 km after Bokonbayev, 12 km uphill not too steep followed by a 10 km descent. There isn't much for lunch between Bokonbayev and Balykchy (except if you like goat sausage!).
Minibus: 1500 soms for a whole minibus (4 bikes, 16 panniers and 4 people) Balykchy - Bichkek. 2800 soms for Bichkek - Kochkor.
Karakol: Jamilya guesthouse. Owned by a very friendly family. Jamilya speaks English and her daughter-in-law is fluent in French. 600 soms/person including breakfast. Dinner (delicious) for 250 soms. The rooms are huge, clean and colour-themed. Bathrooms and toilets on the ground floor.
Tamga: at Askar and Tamara, Issikkulskaya 4, at the top of the village, a street on the right. 600 soms/person including breakfast. Dinner 170 soms. Not as great as Jamilya's !
Bokonbayev : a guesthouse in a street at the back of the CBT. 350 soms/person with breakfast.
Balykchy: when coming from Bichkek or Karakol, take the first street on the right at the round-about (Frounze street). Apartments in a small street just after the junction Frounze/Gagarina. 250 soms/person.
Bichkek: Nomad guesthouse, number 10, a blue and white door in the street just behind the east bust station. 2 yurts (6 and 3 persons) and a small dorm that sleeps 12. 200 soms/person. 70 soms for breakfast.
Kochkor - Song Köl (100 km)
Until Sary Bulak (42 km), the road is paved and then it turns into a dirt road in a more or less good condition. Get your food in Kochkor, we didn't find anything in Sary Bulak, only a few stalls which sell sparkling water. We took some water at the pump in Telek, 10 km after Sary Bulak. 30 km of dirt road more or less flat between Sary Bulak and the ascent to the lake followed by a 10 km steep ascent (the track is not in good condition, gravel and stones) to a 3400 m pass. 12 km descent to the lake. The track is in a better condition on the north side of the lake (hard-packed surface), the rest is a rugged mix of gravel and stones. A guide advised us against going around the lake via the north side, too many rivers to cross but maybe it changes every year.
The CBT in Kochkor doesn't sell maps for the area but you can take a picture of the detailed map hung on the wall. You might be able to find this map in Bichkek at Geoid, Kiev 107.
Kochkor: Jumagul B&B on Kuttuseyit. 400 soms/pers. including breakfast. Friendly owners and comfortable rooms.
Lake Song Köl: at the bottom of the descent (coming from Sary Bulak), a stone on the ground says 'CBT yurts'. The yurts are 10 km further on the north shore (on your right). There are also Shepherd's Life yurts. 300 soms/pers to sleep in a yurt. 150 soms for dinner and 70 soms for breakfast. People let you pitch your tent next to the yurt if you have dinner. We didn't book in advance, just turned up at 8pm! We slept in yurt number 4, the hostess was very friendly. The next day, we found some yurts on the other side of the lake where we had lunch for 150 soms. Regarding water, we filtered the water of the lake or of the streams.
Song Köl - Toktogul (340 km)
We 'exited' the lake via the northern route (we went around the lake via the south), about 45 km after the CBT yurts. The track is 'flat' for about 10 km after ascending gradually for about 20 km. The condition is still quite bad but the slopes are not very steep except the last one before the pass. Then, it is a 45 km bumpy descent to the village of Bash Kaingendy. The road is then paved for 35 km, via Chayek where you can find food (the centre is about 3 km after you enter the village). Then it turns into a dirt road again. 70 km track in the beautiful red gorges via Kyzyl Oi and Suusammyr. Gradual ascent and then descent/flat to Suusammyr. There isn't much for food between Kyzyl Oi and Suusammyr, no cafés, only a few shops that sell sardines and biscuits. 16 km of gradual ascent after Suusammyr after which the road is paved again (at the junction with thr road to Bishkek). Few km descent then the road undulates before going up again to Otmok. After Otmok, a 20 km ascent takes you to the Ala Bel pass at 3200 m then you are rewarded by a 60 km descent to Toktogul. About 20-30 km after Ala Bel, you start finding cafés. The entry into Toktogul is not straightforward: after passing a small mini castle-like building with a shining green roof, take the first street on the right. This is where you will hotels and the bazaar.
Kyzyl Oi: number 4, at Katia's, one of the first houses on the right side of the street. 350 soms/pers. including breakfast. 150 soms for dinner. Katia is very friendly and is used to host cyclists.
Suusammyr: follow the sign 'Tourist Information' on the main road and you will find Gulmira, possibly the most friendly hostess we have met in Khirghistan! 350 soms for a bed + dinner + breakfast. 30 soms for the banya.
Otmok: we slept in the yurt just after the junction with Talas. 300 soms for sleeping + dinner + breakfast.
Toktogul: not much choice ! We slept in the first hôtel on the left in the main street. 300 soms/pers. There was no pressure so no water on the first floor when we were there. Internet cafés in the same street, a bit further when going towards the bazaar, good connection.
Toktogul - Tash Komur (180 km)
The road veers off the reservoir on the north side. 20 km after Toktogul, steep ascent of 3 km followed by a 10 km descent. For 17 km the road undulates before going up again for 3 km. About 40 km after Toktogul, on the south shore, there is a café on the left hand side of the road. 8 km after Ketmen Topo, 8 km ascent to leave the reservoir followed by a long descent. Then the road is up and down until Tash Komur along a beautiful gorge. A few cafés on the road to have lunch.
Minibus : 4200 soms for a whole minibus (4 bikes, 16 panniers and 4 cyclists !) Tash Komur - Osh at Tash Komur bazaar. We had to bargain hard.
Ketmen Topo: on the south shore of Toktogul reservoir, 63 km after Toktogul, at the bottom of a descent, there is a small café on the right side. We had dinner there and pitched up our tent.
Karaköl: hotel Tourist about 6 km after the police checkpoint at the entrance of the city, 500 soms/pers. Triple room with bathroom and balcony.
Tash Komur: Anipa guesthouse, 2 Pervomaiskaya. After the big bridge, turn left and carry on for 4 km. Turn in the street on the left just before the AUB bank. Then, ask!
Osh: we went to the CBT who called and sent us to 39 Panfilova about 3 km in the south of the city. 500 soms/pers, massive bedroom and breakfast, big garden. Friendly family. Osh guesthouse, in the centre, is very cramped (people were sleeping on the floor!) and power is sometimes turned off for a few days so go there only if you want to meet people!
Internet cafés are very slow in Osh but we finally found a fast one on the corner between Kyrgyzstan and Zaina Betinova, on the left side when coming from the bazar (Asia Start, on the 1st floor of a spiral staircase, 40 soms/h).
Osh - Sary Tash - Irkeshtam (190 - 75 km)
The road is paved for 60 km then asphalt alternates with tracks until Sary Tash. After Sary Tash, it’s a track for another 55 km (the last 10 km are in very bad condition but it's all downhill) and then the road is paved again.
Leaving Osh, the road rises gradually for 60 km. A steep 4km climb leads to a pass at 2400 m. Gulchö is down a descent of 20 km (steep in places). There are no cafés before Gulchö, only a few small shops. After Gulchö, the trail climbs gradually for 80 km. Then, steep switchbacks for 10 km lead to a pass at 3600m. When it rains a lot, the road becomes muddy and is more difficult to climb. After the pass, the road descends for 3 km and then rises over 3 km. Sary Tash is down an 8 km descent with magnificent views over the Pamir mountains. There is a café about 65 km after Gulchö and then nothing. A few rivers on the road.
After Sary Tash, the trail climbs gradually from 45 km and then descends for about 10 km (this part is in very poor condition). Then, the road is paved and undulates for 20 km until the border. Beware of the dirt tracks on the side. For 45 km, a trail runs along the main road but on bad condition road, the tracks can lead you astray (some cyclists have lost 1 to 2 h). There are a few small shops in Sary Tash but it is better to do the shopping in Osh. No villages on the road except Nura (65 km from Sary Tash, destroyed by an earthquake in late 2008) and Irkeshtam but we did not see any stores. A few rivers, we found water by asking yurts along a creek about 35 km from Sary Tash.
We arrived at 11am, just for lunch, and had to wait 3 hours in the sun before crossing the Chinese border. If you do the route in one day, you should cross the border the same day. There's just a truck drivers relay in Irkeshtam and not many quiet places to camp. In two days, it is best to cycle until the end of the road that’s in poor condition (about 50 km from Sary Tash) and leave early the next morning to cross the border before noon. China is 2 hours ahead of Khirghistan (when it is 9am in Khirghistan, it is 11am in China).
Gulchö: two guesthouses (there is a sign at the entrance of the city). 26 Lenin Street (500 soms/pers./night, dinner and breakfast included). The second is apparently an accommodation in yurts, 2 km from Gulchö, on the way to Irkeshtam.
About 55 km from Gulchö: we saw a sign 'Irkeshtam tours'. There were several yurts in the garden so it should be possible to spend the night there.
Sary Tash: We stayed at Farida’s, very friendly family facing the Pamir. 500 soms/pers./night, dinner and breakfast included. Entering Sary Tash at the gas pump, turn left (towards Irkeshtam). Farida's house is in the last street on the right after the hospital.