Karakol – Bichkek… 10/06 – 15/06
We ride under an overcast sky and finally what we feared happens. In less than five minutes, a heavy rain whips our back... or rather our face. We find shelter in a small café, so small we have to ask. We put our bikes in one of the rooms and guess what warms up our bellies... laghman ! We ride all afternoon in the cold and the rain with a headwind. Suddenly, the road through the mountains with a 3900 m pass doesn’t look that appealing anymore. We arrive dripping in Tamga, a small village at the top of a hill. Jamily recommended us to stay with Askar and Tamara but if the prices are the same, the service is not. We meet Ingrid, a French girl who is in Khirghistan for a month. She has already done 10 days on horse back in the mountains. And she confirms what we thought, some passes at 3500m were closed. We are disappointed and relieved at the same time. The road is supposed to be beautiful but also very tough and we always fear Sylvie will hurt her knees again. Albane and Benoit who were wondering about the road decide to come to Bishkek and check the situation about Pakistan.
We start late the next day. Tamara and Askar take us to visit a yurt factory. Bad luck, the builders are here but they are not working. They show us around: they have to shape the sticks that will hold the ring, at the top of the yurt. Flexible wooden panels make the walls. They also have to clean the wool and then turn it into felt. Big felt panels cover the walls to insulate from the wind and the cold. Now they also sometimes put a plastic sheet. On the ground, they throw shyrdaks, coloured felt carpets. Women make carpets with different colours which they cut and assemble. Another technique is to draw directly on a felt carpet but the result is not as good. Today, the road follows the lake and the weather is good. We have picnic on a small beach, on the other side we see snow-capped mountains, the same we saw in Almaty but now we are on the other side. We sleep in Bokonbayev, at the top of another hill, in a lovely guesthouse. While Albane and Benoit go to the CBT (tourist info), we talk to a few people. A man with light brown eyes and a high white felt hat asks more questions than the ususal ‘At kouda?’ (Where are you from?). How many km, how many kg, how many months… someone who is really interested! The owner of the guesthouse warms up the banya, it is so nice to wash in an over-heated room! We have dinner and then the boys go for a massive ice-cream… big but tasteless! We fail to find still water again. What is it in Central Asia? All we can find is sparkling water!
We leave after a big breakfast: fried eggs, cucumbers, tomatoes, bread, jam, butter. The road leaves the lake and goes through the mountains. At the top of a 12 km ascent, it starts raining. Just in time, we find a yurt that sells tea and kumis (fermented mare milk). The mother also gives us some pirouchkas, greasy potato donuts. They keep the koumis in a giant goatskin, 150L! That’s why it’s got this smoked taste then… We leave invigorated and rush in a long descent. As usual, the sign says 12%. Whatever the gradient, as soon as the slope is a bit sleep, it says 12%! We also sometimes see an ascent indicated by a 12% descent! We enjoy the descent, we can be first while Albane and Benoit are faster going uphill (less weight!). The village where we planned to eat has actually no cafés and its only shop just sells bread and meat sausage which turns out to be a goat sausage! We end up eating biscuits and the dried fruits we bought in Almaty. When we leave, the wind is blowing strongly and of course, it’s a headwind. The last 30 km to Balykchy are tiring but not as much as for Albane and Benoit. They struggle at 9 km/h while we enjoy an easy 13 km/h! We see the city from far but the road keeps on turning, when are we going to get there? When we arrive, the quest for a hotel begins. The guidebook doesn’t say anything about this city on the north shore of lake Issik Kul and few of the inhabitants know about the hotels. After a few trials, ranging from the posh hotel at 80 euros the night and the run-down one where the guard suggests we put our bikes on the pavement, we finally find some rented flats, guided by a babushka. The flats could do with a lick of paint but we have a bed for the night! Tonight we carry on with the Russian gastronomy: beef stroganoff and grechka, boiled buckwheat.
The next morning, we pile all the bikes and the luggage in a minibus and go to Bishkek. Told this way, it looks easy. We actually had to first find the bus station, notice that the bikes would probably arrive in pieces if we put them in the baggage hold of the regular bus, bargain with a driver, with a second one… and then find a way to fit the bikes between the seats, the sixteen panniers and the four cyclists. In Bishkek, we spend two hours looking for a guesthouse someone recommended us… but of course, they said behind the east bus station and the driver dropped us off at other one. No wonder some of us feel tired when we finally find a haven. We have also dropped in altitude, it is very warm so we just chill out. It’s Sunday, everything is closed, cool. Ben has a rest while we all go for dinner. We have fresh salads in a peaceful shaded yard. A man at the table next to us starts chatting to us. We are missing our Russian interpreter, Ben! He mimes eating something then ‘ouïe, ouïe, ouïe’ and he slaps his stomach, laughing. We understand at last he is saying we eat oysters alive in France! When we get back, Ben is feeling much better, he is reading comics on the computer.
Albane and Benoît go the Pakistan embassy while we go to Oleg, a guy who is famous for having rescued a lot of cyclists. Funnily enough, he leaves just on the other side of the Pakistan embassy. His workshop looks like a mini cycling shop, a paradise for cyclists far from everything! He’s got two bearings but the best quality one is too short and we end up buying a Chinese bearing. ‘You will do 6.000 km or maybe 5.999km with it’ says Oleg laughing. We celebrate our 11.000 km in a western restaurant. We appreciate having carbonara pasta after a month of laghman and pirmeny. Sylvie finishes with a banoffee pie, bliss! A cyclist passes closeby. Kyle, a young American guy, left from Indonesia and cycled through Thailand, Lao, China… He is going to Europe but won’t be able to cross Iran. As an American, he would have to pay 150 euros/day, a real shame! We give him the address of our guesthouse, cyclists are usually interested in cheap beds and warm showers! We cycle around the town centre, more pleasant than Almaty. Avenues are lined up with trees, the monuments are gathered in a pedestrian area: we see the ‘White House’ (which doesn’t look like the one in Washington!), a statue of Lenin, fountains everywhere… The cleanliness of the area contrasts with all the dirt roads that we will ride in the following days! Back at the guesthouse, we find Kyle who looks like a new man after a shower and with clean clothes on! We might see him again, he too is going south, to Tadjikistan.