The tour group woke at 4am, and left at 5 am. As I was sharing a room with their Kirgiz guide, I was privy to all the early morning departure rituals, and stayed up to update the blog and work out what fotos to upload (whenever that becomes possible – I am 4 days behind on fotos now).
As breakfast was included in my homestay fees (which were quite a lot I thought for a shared freezing room with no heating (about 10 EUR) I ate heartily in the seperate dining yurt.
I went outside to do a check of the bike. In the sunshine it was warm, in the shade it was freezing. Sary Tash was still at 3100m and contrasts at altitude are always so much greater than at more normal levels. Balancing light and shade in photographs is very difficult due to the extreme contrasts, similarly temperature can feel boiling in the sun and freezing in the shade. Ice was all over the bike, so I pushed it into the sun to thaw out while I looked it over.
A couple of things concerned me. My clutch cable adjuster had rotated since I last checked it (probably a week ago) and a number of strands of my clutch cable had snapped. I was running on no-more than 50% of the strands. The front brake pads had worn rapidly with the dirt and the mountain roads and I cant have more than a millimetre left. I have spares of both with me, but the bike is going on for a proper service and to get assorted works done to it in Almaty, where the Kazakh bikers I met passing thru Tashkent have sorted out new parts (one of them was a bike parts dealer) from Germany and a good mechanic to play with the bike.
So with front brake and clutch near the limit, and the key passes on the alternate roads in Kyrgyzstan (Kirgizia to me) still closed anyway due to recent heavy snows, I decided to nurse the bike thru Kirgizia and take mainly major roads to Almaty.
Before I began making progress, I took a side road out of Sary Tash to get closer to Mt Lenin, rising dramatically from the 3000m plain to over 7000m. As I returned to Sary Tash to refuel and head north, I saw them … Germans. You cant miss them. Big guys on big bikes with big luggage. The three germans guys had also overnighted in Sary Tash, at a different guest house. The place isnt that large so not sure how we missed each other. they didnt speak a lot of english and my normally reasonable german failed me as every time I tried to say something it came out in Russian. I think you can operate only I one secondary language at a time. I advised them on road conditions and fuel availability ahead. I still had about 10 bux worth of Tajik somoni and suggested they buy it off me or swap it for Kirgiz som. It was a reasonable thing for foreign bikers to do near a border, but the deal fell thru when one of the Germans insisted the Tajik som was 5.5 to the dollar when I know its 4.5 all over the country. They thought they were getting ripped off by a sly foreigner and I said OK, whatever boys, good luck, you can change money in Murgab and I made my way to the fuel station and topped up with US dollars. Again my fuel economy was 3.5 litres / 100km (80mpg uk language – 70mpg US gallons) . This engine just loves the altitude.
I had dressed for the cold. Not only was it around freezing when I left but the road north first rose up to a pass at 3600m before descending towards Osh. The road down from the pass was covered in fine dust and I pitied my poor chain and the whole bike was engulfed in a cloud of fine dust the whole way down to 2800 metres and the first village. In the sun here I soon begain to overheat and began unzipping the clothes. By 2000 metres I had to stop and remove my fleece. I stopped in the town of Gulcho to find the bazaar. The Kirgiz guide from last night had advised me this might be a place to change my Tajik somoni. I found two currency channge offices but they wouldnt change somoni. I needed Kirgiz som anyway so changed some Russian rubles … about 40 bux worth. I was only likely to be in the country another 48 hours, and fuel at least was dirt cheap.
I continued on to the outskirts of Osh. By now it was about 1pm and I was feeling peckish. I had been told by the guide that the road from Sary Tash to Osh was 5-6 hours. The germans said 4 hours. I had made it in 3.5, with 30 minutes faffing around changing money in Gulcho. So much for nursing the bike. I saw a guy doing shashlik by the side of the road and I stopped to indulge. Just 2 sticks and I was back on the road. I had failed to score any shashlik in Tajikistan and was happy to be back in a turkic country where shashlik is the norm.
I was concerned about the brakes and suspension … Since southern Tajikistan there had been a lot of dirt roads and mud and the bike was caked in it. I could hardly even see where the fork socks ended and the upper forks began. The front brakes were just a ball of solidified mud. This wasnt good for either the suspension or the brakes and I decided now that I was back in the land of water to give the bike a wash. I found a jet wash place, borrowed the tool for 5 minutes and went to town on my bike and luggage (and helmet).
I continued around the Uzbek part of Kirgizia (Osh – Jalalabad region) and soon after Jalalabad I stopped three times. First for fuel, then for a top up shashlik and finally I decided that since my jacket was as filthy as the bike was, to give it a jet wash too. It was now well over 30 degrees and below 700 metres. I had descended over 4000 metres in about 30 hours, from Ak-Baital pass to near Jalalabad. The locals stared on shaking their heads as this crazy foreign guy blasted his jacket with 100 psi water … I then turned the hose on myself, blasting riding trousers below the knee and my boots. I rode off wearing the sopping wet jacket. It was an ideal way to keep cool in the 30 + degree heat.
By 6pm I had reached Kara-Kol on the eerily green Naryn river, complete with countless dams, and decided to make it around the Toktogul reservoir and stop for the night in Toktogul town, on the north side of the lake.
Toktogul was a run down old town, drawn out along the highway, with more than its fair share of alcoholics by first appearances. I found a place to stay with secure parking for about 5 bux and headed across the road for some food. I chatted for a hour or so with the lady who ran the cafe. Most of Toktogul is geared up for the traffic between Osh and Bishkek. Its about halfway between the two and most of the restaurant business is from passing traffic. I was still only at about 950 metres and the night was warm. It made a nice change from the freezing nights in Tajikistan.
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One thing that was apparent from the warmer weather, was there was clearly a cost to not having had a shower since Dushanbe 6 days ago. Sure I had washed my face and head almost daily, and I had managed a quick cold rinse at my homestay in the Wakhan valley, but I was starting to get a little sticky.
The tough part about dressing was to make sure I was only slightly cold at the 3000 – 4000+ metre passes, but that still meant I was cooking in my clothes at low altitude. The upper body was manageable – layers relatively easy to remove, but pants were a different issue. I was riding with the fleecy lined goretex liners for the extra warmth, but my legs cooked at low altitude. If I removed them, I would have had icy legs at altitude. I noticed my legs were now very sticky, and the goretex liner had quite a whiff to it.
That was added to already long list of things to sort out in Almaty.
(1) oil change – Motul 300V
(2) clean air filter
(3) sort out funny noise
(4) sort out dodgy bolts on luggage rack
(5) replace clutch cable
(6) replace brake disk and pads
(7) replace tyres
(8) weld brackets for tool tube
(9) weld new brackets for drink bottles
(10) adjust headset bearings
(11) sort out wiring issue for GPS (intermittent power)
(12) sort out loose tail assembly
(13) wash helmet liner
(14) wash almost all of my clothes
(15) investigate chinese visa and crossing
After a lazy morning, I left Toktogul about 10am, topped up with fuel (what ever happened to my bright idea of topping up in the evenings?) and yes I am still getting about 80mpg (3.5l / 100km). I was wondering about this fuel economy and how much better it is here than earlier in the trip. Perhaps the engine just needed 15000 km to properly get run in and bedded down. Maybe its the lower air resistance at altitude (like aeroplanes). Who knows, but whatever the reason, its all good stuff!
The road begain climing immediately on leaving Toktogul, but it was the most relaxed gentle climb you can imagine. Over about 65 km, the road climbs from about 900m to almost 3200m at the Ala-Bel Pass. Its all gentle sweeping bends – noting steep, nothing sharp. In fact you can ride the whole road at 100 km/h such is the quality of the road surface. I think I will add that stretch to the favorite roads. A sportsbike would have been better for it than the X-Challenge, but I still had plenty of fun there – and the best part of all (for my clutch cable) was I didnt have to change out of fourth gear the whole way up.
It struck me last night during my conversation with Gulya the cafe lady how different all the central Asians were. The contrast in peoples between the western looking farsi people of Tajikistan and the very mongolic Kirgiz. The Kirgiz are probably the most oriental looking of all the central Asians and the Tajiks by far the least.
The Kirgiz originated in central Siberia, right above the Altai region, next door to the Tuvans (Uriankhai). Not surprisingly, they share a very similar yurt based nomadic culture with the Tuvans and Mongols. This became very apparent on entering the central plateau in Kirgizia once I had crossed the Ala-Bel pass.
The quick road from here to Issyk Kul (Kul meaning lake) would have been to drop down the mountains to Bishkek, then back up again to Issyk Kul, but I wanted to stay at altitude and travel through the mountains and the plateau. There are a couple of dirt roads across the plateau and I took the only one without a pass above 3000 metres (the old pass issue is a problem here in KG). I wanted to stop for lunch in a town called Chayek, but couldnt find any appealing food options there, so set about fotographing locals before pushing on.
Eventually I had a late lunch and refuel at Kochkor, not far from Issyk Kul. The Kirgiz guide back in Sary Tash had told me about all the hotels lining both the north and south shores of the lake, and apparently the north shore is more developed with a lot of modern new hotels for vacationing Kazakhs, while the southern shore is more authentic still with plenty of places to stay. So I took the south road … and probably regretted it.
I was determind to get a place with a normal working warm shower. The sticky legs bugged me. But all the hotel type places I passed we both (a) soviet vintage and run down and (b) closed anyway. Only one I saw was open and I saw two backpackers returning to it. That was enough to make me drive on in search of a backpacker free hotel. I drove on, and on, and on … I was almost at the end of the lake when I saw a sign to a hotel 16 km down a dirt road. I thought ‘what the hell, lets try it’ and down the dirt road I went. At the end of it I reached the ‘Marco Polo hotel’ which was still a soviet style sanatorium complex, but had at least one modernised building. It was a total rip off at $50 a night for a room with no dinner or breakfast, but it had a modern bathroom with warm shower. Thats gold in these regions folks. It being now almost dark outside and me being tired and in need of a warm shower I relented and took the deal.
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My last day in Kirgizia featured nothing in particular I wanted to see or do, save a quick visit to Sharin Canyon in Kazakhstan. The rest of it was just about covering the 400 km to Almaty and getting across the border.
First stop was the town of Karakol, where I should have gone for a hotel. I changed my remaining Kirgiz cash for USD, but kept just enough for a bowl of manti for breakfast and some fuel. Kirgizia has the cheapest fuel so far so might as well top up there. It has bowsers too, a nice change from the more ‘raw’ bucket, glass jar and funnel approach in Tajikistan. As this tank would get me all the way to Almaty, it also gave me a change to calculate my entire fuel consumption in the mountains of Tajikistan and Kirgizia … basically my entire route from Tashkent to Almaty, save 100km or so on either end. 26.0 km/l, 3.8 l/100km, 73.5 mpg (uk), 62.3 mpg (us) … really amazing stuff considering it was mainly low gear useage, hard accelleration etc. My tank range for that stretch was 575 km … but there was fuel more regularly than I had feared. I think a 300 km tank range is all you need in the Pamir, and in Kirgizia fuel is everywhere.
Soon after Karakol I came across the most bizarre stretch of highway. Road kill littered the highway, but it wasnt livestock, it was birds. The road was covered in dead crows for about 5 km. As I rode through this macabre scene, crows continued to sit on the road, their time numbered by when the next vehicle came along to mow them down. What made those stupid crows sit on that stretch of road? I saw them flying in and landing on the road, waiting for their destiny (the bumper grille of an Audi 100) to meet them. Very very strange.
Speaking of strange and Audi 100s … Kirgizia has two types of cars. The usual soviet vintage boxy lada or zhiguli for the hoi polloi, and for the upper middle class, there is the 20 year old Audi 100. At least every second car on the road is an Audi 100. its like a national obsession. I guess the critical mass now is that every mechanic in Kirgizia knows how to fix an Audi 100, so either join the club and get one, or you learn to fix your own car. There were stretches of road where I passed no fewer than 10 Audi 100s in a row! All late 80s, early 90s vintage. Every Audi 100 ever made will end up in Kyrgyzstan at some time in its life.
Enough of the wacky crows and their killers, and on to the Kazakh border. Why would a country spend money building good roads that dont go to your own towns but to the borders? Populism dictates that roads to borders dont win votes or popularity contests, and so it was with the road to the Kazakh border. It hadnt been maintained in a very long time and I punished my suspension more than I needed to.
The border itself was amazingly rapid … only 4 posts to pass through this time, one customs and one passport control on each side. And I reckon all 4 posts were done within 40 minutes and I was soon on my way in Kazakhstan.
I reached Sharin Canyon, where I was invited for lunch by a Polish tourist passing thru there. He had organised a nice shashlk barbeque down by the river. I told him I needed to find the track down into the canyon then I would probably come back and join him after that.
I spent over half an hour searching for some kind of track down, and eventually settled on an dry riverbed canyon. It wasnt the side canyon that the Motosyberia chaps had gooned around in – theirs was rocky, mine was sandy – but it was a good bit of fun anyway.
By the time I got out I figured the polish shashlik would be long gone so just headed towards Almaty, stopping for shashlik of my own at the town of Bayseyit. It was a welcoming scene for the weary, hungry biker – imagine a pretty warm afternoon riding across the wide Kazakh plains when suddenly the road ahead is lined with shady trees, and under those trees are dozens of shashlik vendors on both sides of the road and stalls selling cold drinks and ice-creams. The only thing that could have improved it would have been babes in bikinis offering shoulder massages for bikers. (my shoulders were beginning to hurt for the first time since leaving London) but that wasnt going to happen. I indulged with a couple of shashliks and an ice-cream, and felt a better man for it.
From shashlik central to Almaty was now just 100 km and I set off in time to meet some guys I had known thru work, who planned to meet me on the outskirts of town at 4:30pm. As it happens I was 15 minutes late. Traffic !!
But the guys took me in and promised to look after me for the next few days. I will need all the help I can get because there is a lot to get done in Almaty.