Bishkek – Lake Song Köl … 16/06 – 20/06
We leave Bishkek after a morning spent looking for spare screws and tent pegs for Albane and Benoit… we told you, looking for a specific item is never easy here! The previous day, we spent a few hours looking for Sylvie’s contact lenses product. We finally find the screws but not the pegs. We then go through the painful minibus experience again. The journey is more expensive as we go up in altitude and we leave a big town for Kochkor, a small town (don’t ask why!). A young American who has been living here for a year helps us negotiate the price. He lives in a small village in the mountains and is here for the Peace Corps. Volunteers get posted for two years everywhere around the world in sometimes remote places. He lives in an adobe house like we have seen in the mountains. In winter, the thermometer drops to -40C! In Kochkor, we find a great guesthouse: the grand-mother is very friendly and her grand-daughter literally jumps so happy she is that we are staying with them! We nearly regret not having come here after a very tiring week of cycling, it would give us a good reason for staying! As Ben says: ‘Maybe it will rain tomorrow…’. It’s hard to move everyday but our one-month visa is rushing us, we cannot extend it in many cities. Once again, we enjoy the banya. Sylvie has added it to her list of criteria for her house: a wooden sauna in the garden.
Before going to Song Köl, we do some shopping: pasta, oats… While Benoit sends an email to tell our families we won’t be reachable for two weeks, Albane and Ben browse through the small shops that line the main streets and Sylvie keeps the bikes. An American accent distracts her from her book… another Peace Corp! He is a bit older than the guy in Bishkek and has been here only for two months. He finished a khirghize class in Bishkek (that’s why the other one was fluent!) and just arrived in Kochkor. He is here to help the women of the cooperative that makes the shyrdaks improve their business processes, i.e. be able to fulfill big orders. Funny, so the concern for efficiency also exists in Khirghistan then! Let’s just hope it doesn’t affect too much the traditional ways of making carpets. 40 km after Kochkor, we arrive in Sary Bulak, a small village where we can fill our water bottles. All we can find is sparkling water! Bizarrely, it is much more difficult to find still water than sparkling in Central Asia. Luckily we haven’t had to try fizzy pasta yet. And now, the dirt road starts and will last for a few days. A steep ascent takes us at the top of a hill from where we can see the valley that we will cycle tomorrow. A river runs in the middle and all around, it is snow-capped mountains. We rush down and arrive in Telek, the last bit of civilization for a while. The pass and the track give us the feeling of having entered a secret valley, a hidden place. Strangely, this village which is on the main route to Song Kol, one of the main attractions of Khirghistan, isn’t developed at all. A few houses are lined up along the track, some men chat on the ‘main square’ and kids on horseback watch us cycle by. One of the men shows us the water pump and then it is the usual ‘At kuda?’ followed by our explications about our trip and a glance at the computer to check the total distance. Every month, the list of the countries we crossed grows and Ben needs to learn the new distance in Russian. We camp a few km further next to a farm in front of mountains still covered in snow.
The next morning, we have barely done 10 km that Albane calls us back: ‘Hey guys, do you fancy some chai?’. We never say no to such an offer! We enter a group of houses and stables built around a kind of courtyard. Three families live here, several generations together: energetic babouchkas, young women and men, an old man and children from babies to a 13-year old boy. One of the old women brings us some warm bread fresh out of the pan, some rich yellow butter and… koumis! We empty the first bowl politely and expect some tea but, but… they bring a second bowl of koumis! Luckily it is not too strong and anyway, Benoit loves it. They show us a letter French people sent them with pictures of the families. So that’s why they wanted us to come! And to think usually we have to ask if we can take pictures of the people. We get to the bottom of THE hill at noon. Thanks to other travelers website, we know there is a 10 km ascent to 3400 m (about 1500 m up in altitude) before going down again to the lake. 10 km, it sounds easy after all the long hills (25 km) we climbed in Lao. But here, the slopes are steeper and the road condition is dreadful. Gravel, sand, big stones, small stones, rugged surface, you name it! The rear wheel spins in the gravel, the front one bumps on a stone and sometimes, we get stuck. In some places, the road is wet from the snow melting. Even though it is mid-June, the road only opened five days ago, we are lucky we can go through. Everybody goes up rather easily except Sylvie who didn’t sleep well last night. She went to bed with frozen feet and her bad blood circulation meant she didn’t warm up even though she has a good sleeping bag. We stop for lunch on the side of the road after an hour, we have only done 3 km! A freezing wind blows from the top of the mountains. A few cars overtake us, tourists going to the lake. We meet six French tourists who can’t believe we have come all this way by bicycle. We suddenly feel much better! Some old trucks overtakes, rattling like they will fall apart. At the back, women and children and dismantled yurts. In the meantime, the men are bringing the cattle up the road to the lake. A bit further, a minibus stops and an Asian man gets off, ‘I am from South Korea!’. ‘Ayonganaseyo !’ answers Ben quick as a flash. The man is delighted and asks Ben for a picture with him. The door opens and his wife gets off with a baby in her arms. An old woman, a young one and some children stay inside while the wife takes a picture of her husband with Ben, then her baby with Ben… All the while, Albane and Sylvie take the chance to have some rest. Benoit is ahead and starts wondering why all the delay. We carry on while marmots frolic about on the grass. Sylvie stops to take a picture but a truck rounds off the corner and honks. She hears a high-pitched whistle and all the small furry balls jump in the hole. Grr, missed! Towards the end, Sylvie is really struggling. Ben is easily out of breath, it’s the altitude, neither of us have been above 3000m in all our life! The road turns and Sylvie tries once again to trick her mind: ‘Look, this is the last bend, after it’s the pass’. But Ben ruins her hopes. Thinking it will help her: ‘Look there is one more switchback and then we are at the pass’. But it’s one too many for Sylvie: ‘Nooooooo, I thought we were at the paaaaaaaass!’. Sympathetic, Ben pushes his bike for 200m, runs back and pushes Sylvie’s bike while she is still coming to terms with her disappointment. The last 800 m are less steep but seem much harder that all the rest. We arrive sweating at the passé where Albane and Benoit are waiting for us snugly wrapped up. A freezing wind is blowing, probably the same than at lunch time and we put on jacket, hat and gloves before enjoying the descent. Quick picture to celebrate our first 3400 by bike (and by foot!). The lake Song Köl appears before us, a turquoise mirror surrounded by snow-capped mountains, what a reward! On the shore some yurts are already setup. We cross a stream on a thin plank of wood and in the distance we see a village of yurt like Asterix’s. Albane and Benoit have enough energy to pitch their tent but we just get a yurt. There is something mythical about sleeping in a yurt at 3000m! Ok and we don’t feel like getting all the gear out. We all have dinner in another yurt, heated with a wooden stove, this is really nice as it is freezing outside as soon as the sun has set.
The next morning, we wake up under a big blue sky, the sun is shining without burning, the air we breathe feels so pure. We have a substantial breakfast in the company of a Swiss couple who arrived last night: fish from the lake (we thought it was forbidden to fish for a few years?), bread, jam and tea. We finally decide to stay for the day and set camp a bit further, on the shore. It’s hard to leave when everything calls for a rest day: the good weather, the peaceful atmosphere, the oh so green grass, the beautiful scenery. The girls do some washing, Ben polishes the bikes and Benoit writes about the trip. Albane has a swim in the lake watched by Ben, horrified: ‘why would you go in freezing cold water?’. Sylvie then decides to wash too and ends up in the lake, it’s not that cold after all. But she cannot make Ben change his mind: ‘The wet wipes are enough to keep me clean!’. We were looking for a peaceful day… and here come some children running to us. The boys and Albane play football with them while Sylvie reads but they are soon short of breath, of course we are at 3000 m here! Two of the children beg Benoit to adjust the saddles and soon they are cycling in circles around us… children are all the same. We are surrounded by so much space and still they have to stay close to us! We filter some water straight from the lake and cook lunch. Then we remember the flour we bought in Kochkor… Soon a big thick pancake is cooking with chocolate melting on it ohohoho… who was worried about us? During the day, the light changes, clouds come and go and it’s a pleasure to take pictures. The herds of cows, horses and sheep move, come close to the mountains, then the lake. Early evening, we pitch the tent, ‘close to the lake so we can hear the water’ request the girls. We are having dinner while a car comes to a screeching halt next to us. It is a family from Bishkek who is on holiday at the lake for a week. They bring us a big thermos full of hot water (for tea!), a bowl of plov, cucumbers and tomatoes, it is very nice of them! When they leave we have to promise to visit them at their tent for breakfast the next day. The two young boys from this morning come back and beg Benoit and Ben to have one last go with the bikes. But they are locked and under the tarp already. They offer us some fish. Tomorrow they are leaving at 6am to gather the cattle. They seem so desperate to have one last go that Benoit kindly undo the bikes and suddenly it feels like Christmas. The smile on the face of the boys while they are circling around us!
The next day, we leave regretfully. The family from Bishkek invites us for breakfast, ow we seem to be doubling all the meals these days. The father shows us a small nest with three tiny eggs on the ground. We wonder how it won’t get crushed by the feet of the animals. We go around the lake via the south. On the way, we see herds of yaks, the first ones we have ever seen! They are stockier than cows and definitely more hairy. Some families are setting up some yurts, that’s it, summer is here. It is a bit of a shame, the track doesn’t follow the shore of the lake but goes inland instead. We pedal all morning on a hard-packed track amongst green meadows. Then the road turns and we see the lake again but the road deteriorates: gravel, stones, rugged surface, here we are again. The bicycles jump, us too, just as well we have suspensions! Every day Ben checks the screws and keep on putting tape and old inner tube patches on the luggage racks. Albane and Benoit suffer the most, they have no suspension so they take all the hits in the arms and the wrists. A head wind sets off and thunderstorms start raging on the summits around us, better speed up. With head wind we go faster than upright bicycle. When Benoit and Albane arrive, we have already negotiated the lunch and we can all warm up inside a big yurt. When we leave, we meet four Swiss people who just come back from a ride on horseback. Two of them came all the way by train and they carry on to China. They then go to Mongolia for more horse riding before going back to Europe by cargo ship. It is a tempting option but an expensive one: 120 euros/day and the journey lasts 25 days… Their guide tells us that usually there is no snow left at this time of the year. Some shepherds are still waiting to cross the mountains with their sheep. We battle against the wind for another hour before arriving at another group of yurts. There we meet the Swiss couple we met yesterday and their friendly guide who is also very knowledgeable about the roads in Khirghistan (very useful for us!). A big dinner comforts us after all the wind: plov, soup, salad, sweets, bread, jam, tea… it’s just as well we have another pass to climb tomorrow!