Osh - Simhana ... 07/07 - 16/07
After two false starts, we finally manage to leave Osh. On Thursday morning, Dan and Krista meet us and we hit the road. 60 km after Osh we say goodbye to the asphalt. It’s a gentle climb, Osh is at 900 m and we’ve got several mountains to cross before arriving in Sary Tash: the first pass is at 2400m and the next one is at 3600m. We take a break in a small shop, they have an apple brioche that comes quite close to the one we find in France! We often dream about food and usually end up buying a hamburger in one of the big city. It is the closest we can get to Western food! On the road we meet two Swiss cyclists. They spent three weeks in Tadjikistan and are flying home from Osh. The next day, another two cyclists pass us on the road but we are gutted, they don’t even bother to stop. A minibus passes by and people wave frantically at us: ‘We saw your sister three days ago, they are fine!’. Cool!! It’s so nice to get a surprise message! A steep slope brings us to the 2400m pass. We put on a sweater, take a picture of the sun setting over the little village and then, it’s time to enjoy the downhill. At the guesthouse, the hostess greets us with: ‘Sylvie! Albina sistra!’. It’s a big family. Every time she had a girl, the woman tried again, in hope of having a son… A boy came at last, after four girls. We take a shower in the garden behind a wall of fabric. It’s cold but they heat some water for us.
The next day, the road carries on climbing. We pedal along a river between red cliffs. Even though we saw the same kind of scenery in Suusammyr, we are still not blasé. And we know that next week, we will be cycling in the desert… so we fill our eyes as much as we can. There is a lot of road works. A road is being built between Osh and the Chinese border. We pass a lot of bulldozers, handkerchief on our mouth, dust floating in the air, on our bikes, on our clothes, in our hair. The road is dug in the mountain so we often have to wait. The bulldozer works for half an hour then takes a ten minute break which is when all the cars (and bicycles) are allowed to move. Some cars drivers stagger outside their car, they don’t seem to be drinking tea for breakfast. We stop early that day. Dan and Krista haven’t spent much time in Khirghistan and they don’t feel like crossing too early into China. And, even though we are quite eager to move on, 10 km more won’t make much of a difference. We stay with Timur’s family. A 15-year-old boy, he waves us down when he sees us passing on the road: ‘Come and stay in my garden!’. He lives here with his parents, the wife of one of his elder brother and Eric, his nephew, the younger son of his sister. A lot of travellers have already stayed in Timur’s garden: a Japanese girl travelling on a motorbike, Claude Marthaler, a Swiss cyclist who wrote ‘The song of the wheels’. It’s amazing for such a small hamlet. Parisat, Timur’s mother puts some blankets on the grass and brings tea and jam while we set up camp. Timur is curious about everything. He grabs our things and asks the purpose. He is especially fascinated by our water filter. People boil water as a way of sterilising it. So they always drink tea or hot water, never cool water. The garden is well put to use: strawberries, potatoes, carrots… irrigation channels run everywhere. It’s great, we just have to extend an arm and we can fill up our bucket! We all go for a wash in the river nearby, except Ben, he pretends he has to straighten up the tent. We have dinner watching the snowy peaks turning pink.
The next day, Timur convinces us to stay. He wants to take us to the jailoos (pastures) when his parents come back from the city. Ben spends the day writhing in pain with severe stomach cramps. ‘Is it like in Uzbekistan?’ asks Sylvie. ‘No, it’s more like in Vietnam!’ Damn! In Vietnam (in 2005), we went to the Franco-Vietnamese hospital where Ben got a morphine injection and a whole series of tests in less than two hours. But here we are in the mountains. Osh, the nearest city, is more than 100 km away. We have nothing in the pharmacy to cut pain, Paracetamol isn’t going to do much. At last, Parisat and her husband come back. She used to be a doctor. Once she is sure it’s not appendicitis, she gives Ben a small glass of vodka. He is doubtful but why not. They clink glasses and drink! Two hours later, he is up! And he can walk without Dan and Sylvie’s help. We feel a bit ridiculous with our big box of medicines.
We stay another two days with this lovely family. Dan and Krista spend a day in the mountains, trying to follow Timur’s crazy pace: ‘Hey Timur, we are 30 and 37, don’t go that fast please!’. ‘Well, there are people who are over 50 and walk in the mountains every day in the summer!’. Of course, they can’t say no to a bit of koumis and warm bread. They come back with many gifts: ‘These yellow flowers are for you Ben, they are good for the stomach’. Pumice stone that makes the skin soft, seeds we forgot how to use… Timur is a true child of the mountains, he knows how to use each and every plant. Meanwhile, Parisat and her daughter-in-law show us how they make bread. The four older children of Parisat work in Russia like a lot of young people in Central Asia. The wife of one of her sons lives with her and her son comes back every two months. She also takes care of her grandchildren all year round while their parents work in Bishkek. Eric’s older brother is on holiday with his parents in Bishkek. This is rather unusual for us. In Europe, we live with our parents and spend the summer holiday with our grandparents. Cooking bread is fairly easy: flour, water, salt and yeast. Wait for a few hours. Parisat makes a ball, then flattens it, puts a bit of water on one side and then stick it to the wall of the wood oven. Fifteen minutes later, the bread comes out warm and crispy. They also have a flock of sheep that they keep in the mountains in summer. They shear the sheep themselves. Then Parisat washes the wool, spins it, dyes it and makes wonderful shyrdak, the coloured felt carpets specific to Khirghistan. She aims to replace all the cheap carpets in the rooms of her house with some shyrdaks. She didn’t work on it every day so a 3x2m shyrdak takes about three months to make. Seen from this perspective, a carpet makes much more sense than when bought from Ikea. They don’t have a vacuum cleaner and today is carpet day. Timur and his sister-in-law spend an hour beating the carpets in a cloud of dust. Parisat shows us her vegetable plots and fruit trees. Vegetables only grow for a few months. Winter meals consist mainly of meat and potatoes. Timur’s father is making a wire fence. He built the tool himself: it twists the wire onto a kind of cylinder. He then assembles the wires and, here it is, he has a fence to prevent the sheep from running away.
We leave in the rain but it soon clears out. From the top of a hill we get a spectacular view over the valley and villages below. Mountains gradually appear on the sides. We carry on while Dan and Krista stop for one of their ‘lunches’. At the next village, all we can find is sparkling water. We were hoping for a café! The children hassle us: ‘Tourist, tourist!’ and people are not exactly friendly so we carry on. Sylvie is feeling again very low in energy. We have to eat but there are yurts on the side and we prefer to be alone if we have to stop for cooking. The road goes up, kids run after us yelling and shouting, some of them throw stones, we are starving and it starts raining… not everything is rosy when cycle-touring! We are discussing in the rain about whether to setup a tarp or ask in a yurt when Dan and Krista turn up. Our moral comes back and soon we are all sitting under a tarp tied to the bicycles while the rain carries on. We fill our thermos with hot sweet tea and start THE climb. Ben has been talking about it for days. It is tough, 10 km of muddy track, and steep, but we don’t find it as difficult as the ascent to Song Koul. We have to wait about half an hour while some road workers blow up part of the mountain. They wanted to go down, before the part they are blowing. They don’t know what climbing with 40 kg on a bike means! We are getting worried, it is 4pm, the sun is already going down and we still have some distance to go before reaching Sary Tash. A big cloud of dust tells us we are free. At the top of the pass, we look down at all the switchbacks, it looks like someone has dropped some spaghettis! An hour later, here comes our reward: the Pamir mountains, a big snowy chain of mountains, heavily covered in snow, turning orange with the sunset. Going up in the mud was really worth the effort! The arrival in the village is somewhat less romantic. Strings of children run after us: ‘Tourist, tourist!’ and ask for money… not again! If we had enough energy, we would catch one of them and make an example. We are happy when we finds Farida’s home. The interpret of the OSCE people in Toktogul recommended this guesthouse to us. Albane and Benoit were here a few days ago. We spend the evening with Ainura (‘Moonbeam’), Farida’s sister. She is a Russian-English interpreter for the road project. The road should be finished in 2011. Cyclists will pedal in the dust for another few months… Most locals are Muslim but Ainura and her family became Christians after Ainura got cured from an illness. We were hoping for a banya but there is only one for this 2000 inhabitants village. Saturday is women’s day and Sunday is men’s day.
We wouldn’t mind staying a day at Farida’s. Her door faces the Pamir mountains, the sun is so warm after yesterday evening when we arrived in an icy cold wind. Farida takes us to the shop… well, ‘shop’. We find skipping ropes, 5L bottles of fruit juice, plastic cylinders, potatoes, cigarettes, vinegar… all useful stuff for those who wish to travel light. We buy a few packets of noodles and some biscuits. We take off quite late in the morning. Soldiers stop us at a checkpoint at the exit of Sary Tash and then the track is ours. We cycle along the Pamir all day. We are starting to regret no cycling Tadjikistan this time. We follow a small track that runs along the road, that way we avoid some of the dust. There is an endless line of trucks loaded with soil. We stop for lunch at Ainura’s camp. It looks like a walled camp with containers (offices) arranged in a rectangle. Coloured flags flap in the wind. Ainura brings us some dishes from the canteen. The chef is Chinese, it’s a welcome change from the heavy cuisine from Central Asia. Most of the rivers on the way are dry. We finally find some water near some yurts. We camp behind a fold, like a small hill. We thought we were alone but a horse rider soon comes. The next morning we discover yurts a bit away from the road. Bitten by the cold, we hurry up for dinner and dive in our sleeping bags. Dan and Krista are still cooking… It’s the world upside down! We are French and cook basic meals, they are English and cook like they are at home.
Dan and Krista leave before us, they want to try and cross the border in the morning, their visa expires tomorrow. The road is appalling, just like Kyle said, but at least it goes down. We zigzag between the sharp stones. Sylvie falls four times. Twice when going uphill, she goes so slowly she loses her balance. And twice when going downhill, in a muddy puddle. At the bottom, our heart stops. No, it can’t be… yes, it is our friend, Tarmac!!! A little further, at the bottom of a slope we see an aggregation of containers, like at Ainura’s camp. This is not a road workers camp, it’s Nura, a small village that was nearly all destroyed by an earthquake late last year. That probably explains why the road is new. A little further on is Irkeshtam, the border post. A doctor in a small cabin asks us if he we feel fine and waves us away, that was the health check! The customs officer have us jump the queue before all the truck drivers. A soldier then gives us a bag of food, cool, thank you! Oh no, it’s not for us, it’s for his colleagues, 2km further. We are at the Chinese border at 11am, too late, they have already closed for lunch! Who do we see coming… Dan and Krista! They got lost in the small tracks instead of following the roads. They saw us from the top of a hill but we couldn’t hear them. We wait three hours under a scorching sun. When they open at last, we think it is a joke. Two customs officers stand behind a small wooden table on the side of the road. With their hand in a white glove, they wave towards the ground. We have to throw our passport on the ground, step back, they pick it up, check it and throw it on the ground again! Then: ‘open your bags!’. Ben starts slowly, shows inside, all his things carefully packed in different plastic bags. That’s enough for the soldier who can’t be bothered. All four cyclists we go without being checked! In Simhana we meet three French guys. They are on motorcycles doing a documentary about water in Asia for a French TV channel. They are trying to get to Khirghistan but the Chinese won’t let them go… They tell us the government has cut internet and international phone calls in Xinjiang after the riots in Urumqi. We were so eager to consult our emails! We celebrate our entry into China with Dan and Krista in a small restaurant. They realised when crossing this was the last day they could enter China!