Kegen – Karakol … 05/06 – 10/06
On the village main square, a few shops are lined up. It is Friday morning and big old soviet trucks are unloading their goods. We are in Kegen, a small village 30km from the border, far from everything; still the shops are well stocked up. We have breakfast in a small restaurant on the square, we ask for tea and bread and Ben goes looking for some jam in the shop next door. We are a bit ashamed as tea and bread are usually very cheap and only come as a kind of side dish but none of us had the courage to order some noodles that early in the morning.
As we did not get the chance to take a shower the day before, we are desperate to find a banya (sauna). We find one at the other end of the village, it is a bit run down but who cares we haven’t had a shower in ages. The banya has 2 rooms, one is the sauna itself with a big tank of hot water and hot stones. The other is like the shower room where you mix the hot water from the sauna with some cold water to get your desired temperature in a basin. You then pour the water thanks to a mini plastic bucket and you get a warm shower! What a feeling to be clean again. We celebrate our shower by going to the same little restaurant, where we this time order loads of different dishes.
We spend the afternoon washing our very very dirty clothes and relaxing while Albane and Benoit go around the village. Around five o’clock somebody bangs at our door. Albane and the owner are there, a little bit stressed and out of breath: “ Ben come and translate, the police is there!’. Oups we had managed until now to avoid them as recommended by the lonely planet. They usually ask for your passport and pretend there is a problem with the visa and ask you for money. We always keep a copy of the passport just in case. When we get downstairs there are 4 bigs cars and 6 or 7 men all in black with sun glasses, like in the movies. It’s supposed to be intimidating. Lovely! One of them speaks a bit of English which actually puts us in a better position. Ben talks to them and is being very relaxed and friendly, we show them our passport (the original ones) and finally everybody relaxes, they all go back to their big black cars and leave in a cloud of dust. The owner is reassured; the poor lady was so worried; you never know what is going to happen to you if you have illegal foreigners in your hotel. In these countries people are afraid of the police mainly because they act more as a mafia than police.
The next day we leave for Kyrgyzstan, finally! A bit before the border the road turns into a dirt road. We jolt on big stones until Benoit discovers a track on the side, it’s a hard-packed surface, much better, we can now ride 15 km/h. Far away, a little white spot shines in the sun, the border post!
The kazakh customs officer doesn’t seem to like our ‘airport’ visas but he finally lets us go. He asks us if we have a knife but we say we don’t, no way we will give our knives! A few meters further, we get our Khirghize stamp. The customs post are just a few meters apart, in the middle of a big plain. It would have been so easy to just cross the border a few hundreds meters from here, horses do it all the day…
We have lunch in the middle of the steppe, on a soft mattress of grass, this is a paradise for the horses! They are galloping on the grass, on each side of the track, the look so happy. 15 km further, we get to the first village. The streets are muddy and the houses don’t stand very straight but we find bottled water. At the end of the day, a stream of animals passes by us: herds of horses, cows, sheep, goats walk on the track in a cacophony of sounds. A few men on horseback manage to steer the animals while the dogs watch. It’s spring time and there are a lot of babies, so cute. A young goat looks at the scene from a saddle pannier. In the evening, we ask two boys who play football on the track. They agree we pitch our tents next to their house and their mother insists that we put the tents quite close. Khirghistan isn’t risky as such but it’s better not to tempt people with our gear. We have just setup camp that one of the boys comes with his saddled horse. We saw them riding bareback, they equipped the horse just for us! While the younger one shows Sylvie around (and that Ben finishes with the tent!), the older one makes signs to Benoit that he would like to try his bicycle. We take turns on the horse while the two boys cycle like mad on Albane and Benoit’s bikes. It’s Saturday, holiday for them. During the week, they study in the city.
In the middle of night, car lights wake us up. A truck is parked a bit below and stays there about 15 min. We don’t know what they are doing but we stay still, it’s better they don’t notice us. The family is asleep as well as Benoit and Albane. An hour later, only Sylvie wakes up. This time, it’s a man, close to the house, who swears and hits something. We understand the next morning when we see a saddled horse tied up next to the door. The father came home a bit drunk. Before we leave, Albane and Benoît try milking the cow, fresh milk mmmm.
The track in the mountains finishes soon after and turns into a dusty road. A massive French campervan overtakes us. What, they don’t even stop for cyclists? Let alone, French cyclists! So when we see a second one, we spread across the road and they have to stop. They just entered Khirghistan but they don’t seem to really like it, everyone is asking them for money, the downside of driving in an expensive vehicle. It’s not that bad being on a bike after all. Further on we meet an old Russian guy who tells us: ‘Khirghistan is my country!’. He has beehives so Benoit and him start comparing honey production! In the afternoon, a big thunderstorm arrives in less than an hour… lunch in the sun, coffee in the rain! We take shelter under a bus stop. Ben decides to get rid of the rubbish bag and gives it to a girl in a patrol station nearby. Before he can say anything, she has thrown it in the field! A while later, she joins us at the bus stop and we ask her how far Karakol, the city where we stop for the night, is. ‘Sto km’ she says. 100 km… we try hard not to laugh, our map says between 10 and 15 km! People never estimate accurately distances but this is a good one!
We find a great guesthouse in Karakol. Jamilya, the owner speaks good English and Zina, her daughter-in-law, is fluent in French. The rooms are a bit kitsch, ours is apple green and Albane and Benoit go for the purple one. We spend three days in Karakol, relaxing, shopping at the bazaar, catching up on emails. The city has nothing special, big concrete blocks and small houses, but the atmosphere is great. It is always pleasant to stay a few days in a city after having spent a week without seeing many people. We visit Jeti Oguz, some red sandstones cliffs. The legend says the seven big rocks are bulls turned into stones. We walked an hour in the mountains. Some yurts are already setup and we see a few trekkers. We see two French couples in 4x4, more retired people who are enjoying life!
Back in Karakol, we look for contact lenses product, without success. Optical shops are just a small room with a dozen or so pairs of glasses on dusty shelves. Benoit and Albane look for spare screws and bolts in the bazaar, no success either. In these kind of countries, you really need to know where to look for things! While checking the bikes, Ben notices his crankset moves. Maybe it took a hit in the plane. So we won’t be able to cycle the road in the mountains to Naryn and instead we will have to go to Bishkek to find a new bearing.