Lake Song Köl – Toktogul … 20/06 – 27/06
‘Great, look at the sky !’ exclaims Ben getting up. As every morning… But we now know how it goes: blue sky in the morning, Then the clouds start gathering and in the afternoon, thunderstorms come our way. So far, we haven’t encountered big storms. Albane and Benoit leave ahead of us. We finish packing while they find a stream and filter some water. When the temperatures are low, we put in the tent, with us, the electronics, the filter (the ceramic can crack) and the contact lenses. We find their bikes propped up on the side of the road but they are nowhere in sight. They probably went up a bit to find clean water. There are some yurts and horses. We stretch, drink and start to worry, what happened? They finally come back. They got invited in one of the yurts, koumis and warm bread again! They waved to us but we couldn’t see them with the sun. The track is still in bad condition and starts to go up. Sometimes, there is a descent but we can’t enjoy it, there is always a big hole at the bottom. A 4x4 stops by and a Khirghize tourist gets off. Albane and Benoit explain their itinerary and he reacts strongly:
- You are going to Tadjikistan, it’s dangerous!
- Really, what’s going on?
- Oh, I don’t really know but be careful…
The usual ‘neighbour reaction’…
We carry on climbing. It is very frustrating, we feel we are going two steps forward and one backward. The bike bumps on the stones, slips in the gravel. We have sometimes to stop, get off and push. Almost at the top, the Swiss couple catches up with us. Lucky them, they slept until 9am, their driver took them to see another pass first and now they enjoy a warm car while a cold wind blows and it starts raining. We can see they take pity on us! We might see them again, they fly to Lima in September. The ascent finishes with a big hill. Ben and Benoit snatch Sylvie’s bike (she is last again) and run to the top, screaming like hell… children!
The reward is great, we get a wonderful view over the valley, red, grey, beige rocks, there is a quarry down at the bottom. We enjoy our longest descent, 45 km. Steep switchbacks take us down, at the bottom of the valley where a muddy river rumbles. From close, it doesn’t look as pretty. Black dust covers the road. We cook some noodles on the stove and carry on. Usually we enjoy going downhill but this one is tiring. The bike tosses about on the stones and rugged surface. Albane falls for the first time trying to cross a gutter full of gravel. She is nearly stationary but still gets bruises. Ben, who was going for it at full speed, suddenly decides to play it safe and push. A bit further, it’s Sylvie’s turn. She slips on the side of the road and falls. The panniers underneath the seat take the hit, she gets up unscathed. We arrive numbed at the village and accept the offer of a woman. We pitch the tent in her back garden and collapse in our sleeping bags.
We are back on a secondary road and enjoy the bits of tarmac. Chayek is a good stop for restocking on food and water. The centre is animated. Groups of men and women chat on the pavement. It’s Monday, how come they are not at work? We still wonder what kind of work people do here. It’s not like they all go to offices from 9 to 5. An old smart-looking man, suit, hat and shiny shoes asks us the usual questions while the boys are running around, oats in this shop, pasta in this one… and which one sells chocolate? We cross a ig river and … that’s it, the road turns into a track again. This one is much better, less stone, hard-packed surface. The road follows a magnificent gorge, red cliffs on each side and a raging river in the middle. We meet the Swiss again. They slept in Suusammyr (where we will be tomorrow) and are going back to Bichkek. We also see a car full of French people. One of them has been teaching French in Bichkek for the past two years and he is showing Khirghistan to his parents. We stay with Katia and her family in Kyzyl Oi, a small village between green hills. She hass hosted a lot of cyclists and shows us photos albums of all the people who stayed there. As usual the place is big, there are two houses, one for the family and one for the guests. We have a shower near the river, they fill up a tank with warm water and we wash behind some curtains, outside. Katia tells us winter has been so long and hard that a lot of the cattle died of hunger. Some of her friends are now out of work because they lost their animals.
After another 30 km along the gorges, the road emerges in the Suusammyr valley, a wide and semi-arid valley. We stop at the village of Kojkomul where apparently a 2m30 giant used to live in the 50’s. He could carry stones of 200 or 600 kg, we didn’t really understand! There are no cafés in the village. We find a woman who is willing to cook for us but the price is too high so we settle for sardines and biscuits. That’s all we could find in the shop. They don’t even have bread. We understand later that these villages are losing inhabitants. There is no work so people leave and go to the nearest city. As a result, there is less supply in the villages. There is no baker for example. We arrive early in Suusammyr. Gulmira is one of the most friendly hostesses we have ever met. She is always smiling, willing to talk and warmly welcomes us, nearly like a mother would. We celebrate Albane and Benoit first 1.000 km and our 11.000km with a beer in the garden. Gulmira gives us a hearty dinner, noodle soup with big pieces of meat. She tells us that nothing grows in the Suusammyr valley except potatoes. Every time we ask about something, she says ‘Kara-Balta!’. It is a town close to Bichkek and we imagine it looks like a big bazaar where you can find everything. In winter, the thermometer drops to -40C. The school closes for two months and everyone stays at home. And it is only 2000m here. Gulmira says she needs 4.5T of coal to keep warm. 1 ton is 3.000 soms (50 euros), we wonder how she gets by. Her husband is an accountant (‘economist’ she says) and she doesn’t seem to work except for the guesthouse. She has three sons and a daughter who all live in Bichkek. One of the sons is now in the jailoos, the pastures with their thirty sheep and three cows. ‘And during winter?’ we ask her. She keeps the animals in a stable in the yard and we understand that’s when they eat some of them. It’s hard to imagine life by -40C. Gulmira shows us a pair of high black felt boots, it’s her winter slippers! ‘And the toilets?’ asks Ben, pragmatic. No, we can’t imagine freezing in the wooden cabin at the back of the garden!
At breakfast, Gulmira tells us about her daughter who is in a wagon at kilometer 174 on our road today. Ok, we will stop and say hello! The track goes up after the village. We finish our first break when ‘Cyclists, cyclists!’. They are Japanese, over 70 and they cycle in Khirghistan for a month. A truck follows them with all the gear but still, it’s amazing! Some of them are here for the second and even the fifth time. We would never have imagined Khirghistan as a destination of choice for Japanese cyclists. We are about to leave when another cyclist arrives. Jean-Denis is from Montréal and he is travelling across Tadjikistan and Khirghistan for two months. He tells us about his riding across the USA from San Francisco to Virginia… Mmmm, sounds very tempting! We tell him about Gulmira and he tells us about a yurt on the side of the road where we can eat and sleep tonight. At the top of the hill, on our right, a massive mountain is outlined against the sky. Switchbacks run on its side and go up, in the clouds ooooooh. But at the junction, we find the tarmac again and the sign says ‘Bishkek, right, Osh, left’. Coooool, we have never felt so relieved! And the road actually goes down! We have lunch in Paris, a small hamlet made of cafés and small shops. ‘Where are you from?’ asks a truck driver. ‘Ah, Francia… Paris hahahaha’. Thunderstorms are already raging on the summits, time to go ! Ben inspects the sky: ‘I think, it’s moving towards us, oh, no, wait, it’s going the other way…’. When it starts raining, we stop to put jacket and trouosers. Five minutes later, it’s too warm, take off everything… and it start raining again! We find Gulmira’s daughter where she told us. There is more than one blue wagon so it takes us some time to figure out which one it is. She is here on holiday with her husband and her two-year old daughter, Altenain. Her husband was ill a few years ago and the doctor recommended mare milk. So they drink a glass of milk every hour for a week! She teaches English and her husband is a policeman. While she works, her mother-in-law keeps Altenain, in Suusammyr. So they see her only once a month. But now she is pregnant again so she will stop working. We taste mare’s milk, it’s not bad, lighter than cow’s milk. Even Ben drinks some so the taste is not that strong. It’s supposed to be detoxifying and when we stop for the next break, everyone turns to each other: ‘You too are feeling the effects?’. Yes, this time it’s not just Albane and Ben… We finish the day with a strong head wind. We arrive before Albane and Benoit (recumbents, bikes for lazy people?) and find the yurt. It’s great, we just have to put our sleeping bags and the bikes also fit in the yurt. We spend the evening playing scrabble next to truck drivers. The only downside are the toilets. They are rarely clean in this country. But we found a technique, put the nose in the t-shirt!
The next morning, we get on our bikes, happy, tonight we sleep in Toktogul. It has been so long since we last saw running water and a city! In the ascent to Ala-Bel pass, we see a campervan. Cool! Albane and Benoit are far ahead but we stop anyway. It’s a Franco-Swiss family with three children. They left Switzerland in April and went through the same route as we did. They are going back the same way, they are not tempted by the Russian steppes. They offer us some chilled fruit juice, what a luxury! Ben explains them the way to Song Kul and then we have to leave. We meet Albane and Benoit, they waited for us in the cold… We thought we had done the longest descent but this one beats it all: 60 km! Sylvie does a new record: 72 km/h! The road is excellent, not too much traffic and the switchbacks are not too tight. The landscape is different on this side, greener with pine trees, we could almost think we are in Switzerland. The more we go down, the hotter it becomes. We take off hat, gloves, jacket, roll up our trousers. Yesterday we passed a lot of stalls selling koumis. Today, it is honey. People harvest the honey from the beehives on the side of the road and sell it in plastic bottles. We try some and get various reactions:
Ben, blasé : ‘Well, it tastes just the same as from the supermarket !’
Benoît, who owns three beehives in France : ‘There is a lingering taste of litchi’
The girls: ‘Come on guys, let us try !’
In the descent, as we are enjoying the sun and the smooth tarmac, a red truck comes towards us. It could do with a check-up, it blows a very thick cloud of black fumes on our side. Sylvie pulls her t-shirt on her mouth when she sees with terror a white 4x4 overtaking the truck and brushing past her. That was close! She didn’t see it coming behind the truck and the could of fumes was to thick. Ben saw it and screamed but it’s hard to hear with the wind. Sylvie checks in her mirror, ouf, Ben is safe too. They all drive crazily so accidents are bound to happen. We are glad it wasn’t our time! Maybe the candle we put in Almaty helped. We cross several times the river Chymkhan (mouse), also muddy and raging, it’s springtime.
In Toktogul, there isn’t much choice for hotels even though it is the fourth biggest city of Khirghistan with 70.000 inhabitants. Bad luck, we are told there is no water today. We soon understand it is a problem with the pressure. The hotel has been built with Western standards, two storeys, bathrooms and toilets near the rooms… but it doesn’t work! We have to carry buckets of water upstairs to take a shower and wash our clothes. Toilets are the worse. We have to use smelly disgusting communal toilets at the back! We still manage to have a rest. Toktogul is a quiet city, perfect for a short stop. In the evenings, a DJ plays some music, a lot of ‘boum boum boum’ but we recognize some songs. In the evenings we settle for a ritual. We have beer and peanuts bought at the shop, then lots of salads and we finish with an ice-cream from another shop.