09 September 2015

Finally--Kirgyzstan

17 AUG 2015
I'd wanted to go to Kirgyzstan for several years, but had never made it, due to various reasons.  This year I also hoped to go, but after my trip to Croatia-Bosnia, I wasn't sure I wanted to go to Kirgyzstan as well.  But then I found out that my friend Kurt was going down there about the same time that I was thinking about, so I decided that this was too good an opportunity to pass up.   A few words about Kurt--he is a much better rider than me, knows much more about motorcycles, and has been to Central Asia several times over the last several years, so knows Kirgyzstan well.  Overall, a very good guy to travel with in Kirgyzstan!

I flew from Moscow to Almaty, Kazakhstan on an overnight flight arriving at about 5:30 in the morning, which was too early to go to the shipping office to pick up my bike, so after waiting for my luggage, etc. I went to a cafe in the airport and had leisurely breakfast before catching a taxi to the shipping office.

When I got there, everything went OK, and I picked up the bike and set off for Bishkek, where I had to meet Kurt, a friend of mine.  It is only about 250km from Almaty to Bishkek, but you also have to cross the Kazakh-Kirgyz border, which would take some time.

Anyway, I think I finally left Almaty about about noon--it took a while to pack up the bike, etc.  The border scene was kind of chaotic, but nothing too crazy; I cut to the front of the line as usual but then waited in line a bit.  The document part was not particularly clear but pretty soon I was sorted out, through the border, and heading to Bishkek, which is only about 20km from the border.

I got to Bishkek at about 17:00 and had to find the Ambassador Hotel, where I was going to meet Kurt.  Unfortunately, it was very very hot, and with rush hour traffic it was miserable riding around town.  To make things worse, this hotel was not on my GPS and I had to stop several times for directions.  Finally I found the place and checked in, but Kurt wasn't there yet.  The hotel is very nice, I would definitely stay there again.

After taking a shower, I went to the rooftop bar/restaurant, which was surprisingly nice and full of Bishkek's beautiful people.  I had dinner and a few beers while waiting for Kurt, who showed up long after dark after a long day's ride.

18 AUG 2015
The next day Kurt had to do some visa stuff--he wanted to go to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan after Kirgyzstan and needed visas--so I hung out at the hotel, did a little work on the bike, relaxed, etc.

Kurt has a beautiful KTM; here is a picture of Kurt working on his bike in front of the hotel:

19 AUG 2015
Finally we set off.  We went basically SW; we didn't have any real destination, but wanted to try some of the off-road tracks provided by Walter, a friend of ours.  It was really hot, I'm talking about 40+ degrees centigrade (100+ fahrenheit) hot.  In riding gear, it is really not comfortable riding in that kind of heat.

So not far from Bishkek the road climbs into the mountains; shortly after the turn off from the main road, we were stopped by police--we were speeding.  After the customary formalities, we were back on our way.  Heading up in the mountains, it was at least cooler.  Kurt said that it was the first time he'd been in these mountains when there was no snow on the peaks, apparently it hasn't snowed down there in two years.  In general, the country was much less green, and with fewer snowy peaks, than I expected.  Here is a picture from along the way, frankly the scenery in general was less than inspiring, even going through the mountains:

We must have gotten a late start, and then had a lunch in a chaikana along the way, so by early evening we had only gone about 350 km and were in the middle of nowhere near the reservoir/lake near Torkent.  Kurt had seen some kind of resort on the south side of the lake last time he passed by, and it was near the turn-off for one of Walter's off-road routes, so we decided it would be a good place to stop.

The place was actually fairly nice, much nicer than I expected; a kind of basic hotel about 500 meters above the lake, but it had air conditioning, cold beer, and an amazing and cheap restaurant.  So we stayed there and made plans for the next day.  Here is a view of the sunset from the resort:
And Kurt relaxing with a beer:

Here is a map of the day's journey:

20 AUG 2015
We were up fairly early the next morning; there were a bunch of turkeys in the parking lot of the resort:
Here is Kurt doing more work on the KTM:
Shortly after leaving the resort, we turned off the main road towards one of Walter's off-road routes.  Kurt missed the next turn off, and we rode several kilometers down a dirt/gravel road before he turned around and we headed back in the right direction.

As we were doing so, a local came racing up behind me in his car and started tail-gating me on the gravel road, he obviously wanted to pass.  I learned long ago not to mess around in situations like this, and moved over to let the guy pass.  About ten minutes later, at the turn-off where Walter's route changed from a gravel road to a dirt track, I saw the guy parked on the side of the road, waving me down.   There was no sign of Kurt, which I thought was weird, I would have expected him to wait for me at the turn off...  Again, usually I ignore strange men trying to wave me down in the middle of nowhere, but this time I figured that maybe he was trying to tell me something about Kurt, so I pulled up and stopped.

He was rather agitated, and started asking me who we were, where we were from... I told him we were Americans, and he started complaining about how my friend had chipped his windshield when he was riding in front of him on the gravel road.  Of course, he thought that Kurt should pay for the damage; when I suggested that maybe he should not have been following so closely behind Kurt, he threatened to call the police if we didn't pay for the damage.  I laughed and invited him to call the police.  Ultimately I was able to calm him down a bit by taking his phone number and saying that I would talk to Kurt and get back in touch with him once I understood the facts.

I figured there was a bit more to the story than the Kirgyz guy had let on...after a couple of kilometers down the dirt trail, I found Kurt waiting on the side of the trail.  Of course he hadn't waited at the turn-off because the psycho Kirgyz guy had been running up behind him, trying to run him off the road, etc.  Kurt said that when the guy tried to pass him, he just sped up a little bit, leaving the guy in the dust (and apparently dinging the guy's windshield).  Anyway, Kurt said he had no intention of paying  for the guy's windshield, and I don't blame him...

Anyway, after the excitement, we went off to find Walter's off-road route.  We found the track, which led through some pretty desolate terrain heading towards some mountains, here is a shot:

We found what we thought was the track going up a steep loose gravel road; Kurt zipped right up, but I wiped out when I tried, my rear tire spun out.  The hill was so steep, and the gravel so loose, that I actually couldn't get the bike up the hill--Kurt had to ride it up :-((.

Not until we got to the top did we realize that the road was a dead-end!  So back down we went.  Here is a picture of the road, doesn't look  that bad from here, but...

Next, Kurt went down into a valley to see if there was a viable route that way; after about 15 minutes he came trudging back on foot...his bike had gotten stuck in a big rocky hole, so both of us had to walk back to get it out.

Meanwhile, it was north of 100 degrees and completely miserable shlepping around in moto gear (helmet, jacket, pants, boots, etc.).  By the time we'd gotten Kurt's bike out, both of us were kind of shattered, and we decided to head back to the same resort again; we got there without further incident and relaxed with some cold beers and another excellent dinner.  Didn't seem like we'd gone very far, but we'd gone about 110 km altogether.

Here's the sorry tale on a map:

21 AUG 2015
The next day we decided to skip the off-road route we couldn't find yesterday, and to head down to Osh; along the way we'd try what we hoped would be an easier off-road stretch.  So we set off along the river leading from the lake:
Kurt did a bit more work on the KTM when we stopped for lunch:
Shortly after lunch we set off on the next off-road adventure.  This one was certainly easier, but here is a shot of a big hill that we encountered.  The small black dot is Kurt walking up the hill to ensure that this one wasn't also a dead end!
Here's a shot of my bike in the same spot:
We kept going through some small towns; at one point we stopped in a town for some drinks and snacks; a truck full of workers told us we were going the wrong way, that the hotel was the other way, and that ahead of us there was absolutely nothing...so far so good! Here is a view from the town, and a pic of Kurt and his bike:

About this time the local drunk showed up and started demanding that we give him a present.  When we refused he threatened that he knew karate and was going to show us a thing or two.  It would have been comic if it wasn't so pathetic.  I told him to back off and we set off down the road.

At some point that day we got to Osh after 320 km, no more pix.  Osh is nothing special, a pretty quiet town.  Kurt knew a bike-friendly place there, so we stayed there.  Kurt also had some stuff to do in Osh, I forget what, so we ended up spending a second night there as well.  Not much of note in Osh, other than the Uigher food place that we went into--Kurt loves Uigher food--that only had the normal Russian dishes.  Oh well, we left and went to the outdoor shashlik and beer place down the street.

Here's the route:

22 AUG 2015
Another exciting day/night in Osh, nothing to report.

23 AUG 2015
Today we would ride to Kazarman, a town in a valley in the mountains--the distance looked to be about 240 km, but through the mountains, so it could take a while.  We would try to follow some more of Walter's off-road, or at least small road, routes.

After leaving Osh we had to ride for awhile through a valley with several towns/villages.  While riding through one of the larger towns, just after a car passed me the guy in the car's passenger seat pulled out a tire iron and started brandishing it out of the window as the car pulled up towards Kurt--it looked like the guy was teeing up to wack Kurt with the tire iron!  I tried to honk to warn Kurt, but my horn didn't work...  Moments later the car pulled up to Kurt and the guy waved the tire iron in Kurt's face, then the car pulled away.  Kurt looked back at me with a "What the hell?" type look...

Pretty soon after this incident we started climbing into the mountains again; here are some pix in the foothills of the mountains:

 We kept climbing into the mountains, into a twisty gravel road.  The mountains provided some nice views:

At some point we came across this dead horse lying in the middle of the road:
The horse still had its saddle and all that stuff on it, it was very weird.  This pass became known as "Dead Horse Pass".

Pretty soon we came to a bigger obstacle:  a landslide had wiped out the road, and a bunch of vehicles were either trying to driver over the loose dirt/mud of the landslide or waiting for the road to be fixed.  The dirt from the landslide formed a huge, steep, unstable ramp over where the road had been; if you slipped off the ramp, you'd basically fall off a cliff.  For my bike, I dismounted, and some of the Kirgyz guys helped push it up the landslide, and then Kurt rode it down the steep loose dirt to the bottom.  Kurt just rode his bike up and over.  Meanwhile, several cars drove over the ramp, some of them with great difficulty--we were sure that a couple of them were going to go over the edge as the spun their tires and slid up/down the landslide.  Those guys were nuts, but all of them made it, at least while we were there.  Here is a picture of the landslide from the backside, after we'd gone over it, the guys in the background are standing where you had to drive over the landslide:
We had to overcome several other smaller landslides before making it to the pass; Kurt rode over two of the trickier ones for me.  Pretty soon we were over the pass and riding down the other side into the valley where Kazarman is located.  It was nice, with lots of nice views:
 




Finally we were down in the valley; the sun was already almost setting, so I hoped we'd get to Kazarman before dark:

Sure enough, we pulled into Kazarman just as it was getting dark and followed the GPS to a guesthouse.  When we got there, there was already one motorcycle there, that we had seen at the guesthouse in Osh; inside the yurt where dinner was being served were several "bus tourists" and John, who'd ridden from Osh.  Here is a pic of my bike (buried under lots of unpacked gear), with John's in the background:
The bus tourists were from Europe and the US; the Americans were a couple of pretty patronizing women that seemed put off that other Americans would dare intrude on their Kirgyz idyll, we didn't really hit it off.

It turns out that today was Kurt's birthday, and we sat out till fairly late with John, drinking Scotch and smoking cigars (all of which we'd brought with us naturally).  John was a very interesting guy, former British military, since then working in various emergency medical positions around the world.  He'd actually started his trip from Europe on a bicycle, but had changed his mind and picked up the motorcycle and gear in Osh.  He was going to ride back through Kazakhstan, Russia, and then I think back to the UK.

Here's the route:

24 AUG 2015
We were going to a big lake called Son Kul today, which required going through more mountains.  John was also headed there, so we would ride together.  Here are John and Kurt getting ready at the guesthouse's gate:
Today's ride involved riding through the valley for 100+ kilometers then heading over the mountains and down to the lake.  We didn't know where we'd stay on the lake, we'd figure it out when we were closer.

The ride along the valley was OK, nothing special; here are some pix:

Here we just crossed a bridge and are about to head back up into the mountains:
 Here are some pix as we climb into the mountains:



Here's a picture of John:

Here we are at the pass for the first set of mountains:


After this pass, there was an amazing view of the valley below:



 

The road down from this pass was pretty twisty, but not too bad.  Kurt stayed behind to take some pictures, and later I found out that on the way down he had had an accident when he had to swerve to avoid a bicyclist (a Polish girl) riding uphill right in his lane.  No major damage, but Kurt banged up his knee and maybe his shoulder--he limped for the rest of the trip.

The ride through this valley was pretty rough--washboard gravel road.  Nothing technically difficult, but rather unpleasant and you could take a spill if you weren't paying attention.

Then we started climbing to the next set of mountains, which were between the valley and the lake.  Here are some pix:








At the pass we discussed where to stay down by the lake; we could go counterclockwise around the lake, or clockwise.  Our main concerns were whether there would be a place to stay, if it would be a total dump or not, and road conditions (ie, was there a road?).  Going counter-clockwise sounded a bit iffy, because we weren't sure if there were places to stay, or about road conditions; ultimately we decided to go to a big tourist camp on the north side of the lake, thought it might be fun to meet more people.

The ride down from the pass to the lake was very nice, with decent, fun roads.  While it was easy finding our way around the lake, it was kind of confusing how to ride down to the camp; John and I got separated from Kurt and probably spent about 30 minutes trying to find the road to the camp (this is with GPS).   We finally got there at dusk after riding about 250 km that day.

The camp and the lake were pretty cool, here are some pix:







 The lake and the surrounding area look just like Mongolia. It turns out that there were a couple of other bikers staying at the camp, a Brit and an Austrian, so we had dinner with them and stayed up chatting with some more whiskey.  One topic of discussion was the route/destination for the following day.  Most people wanted to ride over the mountains surrounding the lake to the north, then some people wanted to ride over another very high mountain back towards Bishkek. Personally, I wanted to head over towards lake Issyk Kul, the biggest lake in Kirgyzstan and supposedly a very beautiful spot.

The Brit also said that he had stayed at the same guesthouse as us in Kazarman a day or two before, and that in the courtyard there he had seen the smashed wreckage of a motorcycle.  When he pressed the guesthouse owner for information, she said that an American motorcyclist had run head-on into a truck on the mountain road coming down the way we had come.  After further pressing, she said that the rider had been killed, but that the accident had been his fault...  Kurt then mentioned that one of his friends in Osh had rented the motorcycle to the moto-tourist and was shaken by the fatal accident.  Grim stuff; later I tried to google the accident but found nothing at all, very strange...

Some of the guys had been to all these various places, so we had some info about the routes.  The mountains around the lake were supposedly very steep on the back side, and the high mountain near Bishkek had some pretty desolate spots but also a lot of construction.

Here's the route:

25 AUG 2015
This morning everyone decided to ride over the mountains near the lake together, and then we'd split up--Kurt and I to Lake Issyk-Kul, John and the Austrian would ride the mountain to Bishkek.  The Brit had to go off towards the Chinese border, where he was meeting a group to ride through China.

I was more than a little apprehensive about the morning's ride, it sounded a bit hairy, but figured it would be OK.  The ride from the camp along the lake was really fun--well-packed dirt tracks with lots of dips and bumps.  Finally, we got to where we could see the pass heading into the mountains, but once again we had a hard time finding the right path.  Finally we found it, and up we went.  The path up the mountains was pretty easy and short, if a bit rutted.  Here is a picture from part way up the mountain looking back at the lake, looking down the valley that we rode up through:
At the top, we met up with a group of French tourists who were hiking to the lake, along with their Russian guide.  We chatted with them for awhile before heading down the mountain.  From the top, it was hard to tell what was in store, there was a sharp turn shortly after leaving the top, and after that nothing was visible; here is the view from the top:
 Here is the road that we had to take down:
 The ride down was every bit as hairy as I feared, probably one of the scariest things I've done in a while.  The track was steep, narrow, rutted, covered in loose gravel, and with nothing like a guard rail to keep one from plunging over the cliff.  I rode really slowly and gradually got down to a normal dirt road in the mountains, then a dirt road in the valley, and then we finally reached a paved road here:
Here we split up.  John decided to come with Kurt and I to the lake, and the Austrian went to the mountain.  After another hour or two we stopped for lunch near the lake, and John told us that he'd decided to go to Bishkek instead of coming to the lake.  But we all agreed to meet the next day in Bishkek at the rooftop bar of our hotel (we were staying in the Ambassador again).

So off we went, towards the lake.  Kurt and I hadn't decided where to stay, or even if to ride to the north side or the south side of the lake.  Finally we reached the turn off where we had to decide, and both of us were fairly indifferent, but we decided to ride along the south shore of the lake until we found a good spot to stay.

The lake is a big tourist area in Kirgyzstan, so we figured we'd find some kind of hotels, but we didn't know where or when.  Anyway, the road was pretty good, and we made good time.  Here are a couple of shots from along the way:

We probably rode for a couple of hours when we came to what looked like a resort on the lake; they claimed to be full, but after asking around a bit more we were able to get a little hut to ourselves.  Altogether we rode about 250 km.  Here is a picture of the resort and our hut, with the bikes in front:
 The place was OK, but there was no dinner there, so we walked into the little town for a pretty average dinner.  But we had cigars and beer out in front of our hut, so that was nice.  The next day we figured we'd keep riding around the south side of the lake and then drive towards Bishkek along the north side; it would be a long way, but the roads should be good, so no big deal.

Here's the route:

26 AUG 2015
The next morning we woke up, and the weather required a change of plans.  Clouds had rolled in, and it looked like the apocalypse was upon us.  Huge waves roiled the lake, which had been very calm the evening before.  Riding around the lake could well meaning riding several hours through a severe storm, so Kurt and I decided that discretion is the better part of valor, and that it would be smarter to simply return to Bishkek.  Here are some pics of the waves:




So we set off for Bishkek.  It was  very very windy, but the clouds dispersed a bit shortly after we left the resort.  Here we stopped on the shore near the western tip of the lake:

After we started climbing the pass through the mountains to get back to Bishkek, it also got very cold; I was stopped by some Kirgyz cops for speeding, very annoying.  We finally got back to Bishkek without further incident after about 250 km, here are some pix of the city:


We were supposed to meet John at our hotel that evening, but he didn't show up, and indeed we never heard from him again.  Weird...

27 AUG 2015
I wasn't feeling that great, and didn't fly out of Almaty until the 29th, so I stayed in Bishkek another day; didn't do much.

28 AUG 2015
I rode back to Almaty.  Just after leaving Bishkek, near the Kazakh border, I got stopped by the Kirgyz police for something or other and had to fork over more money.  Very irritating, but at least they gave me change when I told them I needed money for fuel for the bike!  At the border, some of the guys waiting in line told me to go right up to the front with my bike, so I did.  Everyone pretty friendly, although this time for some reason I had to go through some special "inspection", but there weren't any issues.

When I got to Almaty, I tried going back to the shipping agent, but my GPS couldn't find their address, nor could it find the GPS coordinates on their website, nor could it find the GPS coordinates I'd taken before I left there when I picked up the bike--very weird!  I noticed there were some Kazakh military bases in the area, I wondered if they were blocking the GPS signal somehow?  I finally found the place after driving around for an hour or so, and then went to a hotel.  I'd heard good things about Almaty, that it was a nice city, but I wasn't particular impressed and was ready to fly out of there back to Moscow on the 29th...

Here is an overview of the whole trip on the map; we rode clockwise from Bishkek, which is the dot at the top center of the loop.  Osh is at the end of the little tail at the bottom left of the loop.

This was kind of a strange trip...while generally the people were very nice, we certainly encountered some aggressive jerks once they got behind the wheel of a car.  Also, Kirgyzstan was definitely less beautiful than I'd expected--more brown and dried out.  While I'm glad I went, it is pretty far down on my list of places to revisit.