16 - 28 June 2016
This section covers the beautiful mountainous ride from the Chinese border to Osh in Southern Kyrgyzstan, including a short trip to the capital Bishkek to get a visa for Tajikistan.
Itinerary and weather
I felt free leaving China and crossing into Kyrgyzstan just as the border closed at 18 Kyrgyz time – friendly immigration and in general a much more relaxed feeling. I got 2 months without a visa making it the only easy country to travel in the region. From the Chinese border, I spent 2½ days biking the 260k via Sary-Tash to Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan – a tough ride over several mountains (highest 3,750m) and mostly into a strong headwind but absolutely stunning and a great change from the endless Gobi Desert. The day temperatures were pleasant 18-25C in the high mountains and 30-35C at lower altitude – at night around 5C and 20C, respectively. Heavy dark clouds often hung over the mountain peaks but fortunately I never got any rain.
I stayed a couple of days in Osh before I did a short trip to Bishkek to get a Tajik visa. Unfortunately, the Tajik president was visiting the Pamir region, so they closed the border for a week until 30 June, which meant some extra days of waiting in Osh. I spent almost all my time in the hostel doing practicalities and socialising with many interesting travellers, however one evening I went to the bazaar and up a small hill to enjoy a sunset. Most interesting we could feel a 6.5 earthquake with the epicentre close to Sary-Tash some hundred kilometres away – the first ever for me.
Road quality and drivers
The road quality changed a lot – some stretches were good though I always had to be vary of bumps and potholes especially after one of my front panniers flew off after hitting a big bump on a downhill (never happened before). Other stretches were quite bad, slowing me down and implying yet another broken spoke 25k before I reached Osh. And talking about Osh, it had some of the worst roads I have ever encountered in a town anywhere around the world.
The Kyrgyz drivers are unfortunately not very different from the Chinese. For unknown reasons, they often came very close when overtaking despite full view and no oncoming traffic – maybe they don’t like bicyclists? The problem increased with the denser traffic as I got closer to Osh where extensive honking also became part of the repertoire.
Unless going through Pakistan or Kazakhstan, it’s impossible to avoid Kyrgyzstan when biking to or from Europe. So it was no surprise that I finally met many international bicyclists. Not far after the Chinese border, Canadian Alex that I swapped money, sim cards and information with and in the Osh hostel many couples and individualist cyclists. A good way of getting reliable and updated information about borders, road conditions, visas, etc.
Accommodation and people
With the wide, open spaces and camping allowed everywhere, the challenge was finding privacy as a lot of people live in their Yurts (round tents) in the countryside – and since they have livestock roaming around freely, they go everywhere looking for it. Many men and children (never women) greeted me along the way and curiously approached me when I camped. They were friendly and despite the language barrier, we managed to have a bit of communication that I never experienced in China. However when camping, mornings and evenings are treasured moments where I enjoy the peacefulness before and after a long day on the road. So it was quite annoying when kids woke me up at dusk (shouting hello for 5-10 minutes until I finally replied) to see who the stranger in the tent was and afterwards carefully watching my every move eating and packing. And in the evenings when countless adults and kids stopped to watch me camp and eat sometimes for ½-1 hour. I quickly learned to be vary of the kids after a girl stole one of my tent pegs (after I had given her a bend one) and other kids kept asking to have random things. I have experienced this many places around the world, where kids ask for my things not even knowing what they are and are for, but because they belong to a foreigner.
In Osh and later Bishkek I tried couchsurfing, but it never worked out. In Osh, the guy cancelled last minute because of work, and in Bishkek the guy never sent me his address and phone number (which is the firm commitment more than just a "yes"). I think it's the culture to be polite and accommodating but it has the opposite result when you make a promise and break it - same experience as in Colombia some years ago. So in Osh, I stayed in a great hostel with nice and helpful staff and many interesting travellers. In general, Kyrgyz people are very friendly, cheerful, and curious people. In the cities, many people speak at least some English but even when they don’t, it doesn’t stop them from trying to communicate. Handshake is the formal greeting while letting foreheads touch seems to be the personal greeting. They take things as they come in life as well as smile, joke and laugh a lot even in situations that might be stressful in other cultures e.g. fixing a broken down car in the middle of nowhere.
Kyrgyzstan has so much beautiful and pristine nature, so I was (positively) surprised to learn how immature the tourist industry is. However, one thing they do have is a wide selection of cheap and good hostels. Normally I don’t like hostels as it’s more often young people partying all night and generally being quite inconsiderate (yes, I’m getting old), however in Kyrgyzstan it was all travellers here for the experience of the country, so I enjoyed being social after my time in China.
Food and water
On the road, I ate my usual food but occasionally, I experienced the traditional local food being meat and fat heavy and with many pickled vegetables. Not my preferred food but good for my weight challenged body.
Being a mountainous country water was everywhere, however because of the ever present livestock, I preferred carrying a lot of water instead of drinking water from streams.