Great heights in Kyrgyzstan
Friday morning, June 17, the sun is shining brightly, it promises to be a beautiful day. After breakfast we pack our things and leave via the south side of Lake Issyk as the start of a lap around the lake. They are working hard on the road, it seems like they want to have good roads around the entire lake. Perhaps to promote tourism even more? After about 20 km we turn off to the south, into the back roads and also into the unpaved roads. The road climbs a little, but not much, although the landscape changes. We are used to off road driving and the narrow road with many stones is easy to handle.
Somewhere a point on the route is apparently not quite right on the path, because a small piece is plodding through the sandy paths next to the farm fields. This does give us the opportunity to take pictures of a farmer who is still working the land with a horse and plough behind him. His son is allowed to drive the horse and he wants to be photographed standing on the horse. Further on the road becomes wider again and a little later the road bends to the north again and we drive through a beautiful canyon back to the lake.
Via the main road along the lake we drive in the direction of Barskoon, where we make a quick visit to the beach to enjoy the sun and the peace and quiet at the water's edge. We know that near Barskoon the old silk road runs through the mountains to China and decide to explore it. The road is well traveled and continuously maintained, probably because of the transports to and from the gold mine located at the top of the mountains. Many heavy trucks pass by on this road, all of them Mack brand and probably all for the gold mine. For a long time the road runs fairly low to 2500 meters in altitude between the mountains. We also see a Yurt camp here, which we want to visit on the way back for a place to sleep. After a while the road starts to climb strongly, first a steep part up to 3400 meters and after a short connection up again to over 3800 meters. Wow, the views of the surrounding mountains are amazing! The road then runs through a plateau at about 3800 meters and we stare our eyes out, snowy peaks in all directions, beautiful views. Fortunately the sun is shining, this ensures that we do not feel the actual cold at this altitude. In the distance we see a road disappearing between the high peaks and we decide to follow it, hoping to get above 4000 meters as indicated for the Suek pass. We manage to get above 3900 meters, after that the road is too badly damaged by melting snow and rain that we don't want to take the risk of getting wet or falling. A jeep with a man and woman in it with a calf between them does try. They manage to get through the first section of the road, but the next obstacle awaits them. We don't wait to see if they will succeed because we are slowly getting cold and we feel lighter in the head because of the altitude. On the way back we made several movies and photos of the great views and snowy mountain lakes, a pity that a photo does not show the view as beautiful as it really is. It's time for 3D photography with smartphones to capture these views and look back.
Since the sun is already a bit lower and behind the mountains and it is now 5 pm, it is starting to get really cold. We drive the route back to the yurt camp, but get zero on request there. All glamping tents are unfortunately occupied. We can still sleep in an unheated yurt, but we decline that offer, some luxury is welcome. Then we drove on to Barskoon and searched and found a place to sleep via Booking.com, 10 km away. The description talks about private beach and private bathroom. Kind of weird for a hostel that is 1 km inland, but we decide to check it out anyway. On the spot, the first sight is already not good and also inside it is totally not what we expect from a place to sleep. The private bathroom has to be shared with the whole house and it offers no privacy at all. We decide not to take this one and look for another option on the street.
Macedon Guesthouse in Barskoon looks good and in good spirits we drive there. On the spot it turns out to be a good choice. The rooms are clean and large, the facilities are good and the motorcycles can be parked in the enclosed courtyard under a roof. The hostess prepares a warm meal for us with baked potatoes, meat and bread, tasty but too much, as is often the custom in Kyrgyzstan.
Tomorrow we will continue the big road around the lake via Karakol to the far east of the lake. There we have chosen some smaller roads, curious to see how they will turn out.
Saturday morning, June 18, we enjoyed a delicious breakfast at Macedon Guesthouse. After breakfast we put our gear on the bike and lubricated the chain. Meanwhile it started to rain a little, but in the direction we are going it looks better. It's only raining a few drops and we decide to just leave. That works out well, because soon it is dry and we are riding in a nice sunshine. The first stop is in Karakol, where we have to search for the wooden church. We can park the bikes in front of the gate and visit the church, finally a beautiful building in Kyrgyzstan, you don't see many of those. We take a look inside the church, but don't take pictures because there is a service going on.
The sky clouds over again, so we quickly drive on to the east side of Lake Yssyk. The route east of the lake is unpaved, but doable. Here are the green meadows with nice views. The local people apparently move to the mountains in large numbers at this time of year with their herds of animals, I think we had to catch up with 20 herds of sheep, cows and horses. This is clearly another poor part of Kyrgyzstan, where you see many small peasant houses that seem to come from the 19th century.
Along the way we buy some bread, water and coca cola for lunch and consume it alongside the road with a nice view of the meadows with the grazing cattle. It starts drizzling again, so we quickly drive on. When the road has turned to the west, the road surface is also slowly improving. We now come to the north side of the lake, of which we were told that this is the most touristic side. We see nothing of that during the first part, only a resort with hot spring water where you can swim. We have a drink there to determine our place to sleep for the night.
It has become Hotel Aurora+ at the lake and we have to drive another 50 km to get there. There are several hotels there, so we are curious what we are going to find. The hotel appears to be an entire resort with several houses, a beach, bars and a restaurant. The whole place is walled in and has guards at the entrances, so our bikes are safe. The room is small but has everything we need. After we have settled in we go and explore the resort. There are almost no guests in the resort yet, so the beach is quiet as well. The beach bar has only just opened this season and has no beer on tap, so we decide to share a bottle of beer of 1.5 liters. The price on the menu is not correct, the menus are from last year and everything has become much more expensive. We do not agree, they should not put the cards there. To make up for it we get a drink. They don't have warm snacks yet, only peanuts and pistachio nuts. Oh no, no peanuts either, so we get pistachio nuts. The price on the menu is 100 SOM, but they want us to pay 240 SOM. We put down 100 SOM (about € 1.25) and say that it will have to do.
There are a number of men sitting on a bench wearing those typical Kyrgyz hats. A good opportunity to take a picture of them and immediately use Google to ask what the hats mean. It turns out that everyone can choose their own drawing on the hat, but that the brim of the hat indicates the age of the person. The oldest have a hat with black brim, the slightly less elderly one with brown brim and those who are not so old a blue brim. In the picture there is also someone wearing a hat with a white brim, but we did not ask him what that meant. The western hat everybody knows of course, that will be the guide or driver.
After a nice shower, we head to the cafe cum restaurant for dinner. The prices on that menu do appear to be correct and also seem to be lower. We are well served and have a good dinner.
Back in our room we are both tired and get into our beds. Tomorrow morning we'll see what the weather is like and make a plan for the next few days.
Sunday morning, June 19, ate breakfast with fried eggs at Hotel Aurora+ on the north side of Lake Yssyk. After redoing the route with more miles of shortcut in Kyrgyzstan, we were able to leave. We decided to go to Song Köl today, a mountain lake at over 3000 meters where we can sleep in a yurt camp.
On the way along the north side of the lake, we filled up the tank in Balykchy, bought food for lunch and took out a pin. We ate our lunch at the shore of the Orto Tokoy lake, enjoying the sun and the bread with cheese and sausage. Then we drove further on the main road towards Naryn until we could take the exit Song Köl.
From the exit the road is unpaved and runs steadily up through several beautiful valleys. Eventually we arrive at the top of the lake where there are still gigantic (grass) fields around it and where several families let their herds graze. After that it's another 35 km to the yurt camp, where we choose for a more luxurious camp than indicated by SilkOffRoad.
It becomes yurt camp Ak Tai, where we can sleep, have dinner and breakfast for $40 per person. That's expensive when you compare it to a hotel, but later we learn that we chose the most luxurious yurt camp and that explains the price. Drinks like beer are extra, but still it is good to start with a beer we decide. At that moment it is sunny and you can enjoy the sun even at this altitude of almost 3100 meters in your t-shirt. When clouds come up or the sun sets later it quickly gets colder.
At the yurt camp there is no wifi and the cell phones have no range either. So we can't let the home front know where we are and our digital stuff is of little use to us. The altitude in the yurt camp is bothering Martin a lot; he feels like a goldfish who is constantly gasping for breath. He constantly feels like he is getting too little air and therefore feels uncomfortable.
Dinner is served in the "dining room" yurt. We get a nice soup, followed by some kind of spaghetti. All complemented by various types of bread, sweets and candies. Dinner is at 8 pm and it is already indicated that at 11 pm the power will go off, so it will be a short evening. Except for the two of us there is a German hiking party in the yurt camp, for the rest it's still empty. The woman at the yurt camp says that they will have about 500 guests in June and 600 in July, which is still far less than in 2019 before Corona. The yurt camp is set up at the end of May and taken down at the end of September, where it can still be very cold in May and the temperature is usually okay in September.
Many people from the villages also come themselves with the yurt tent to the mountains together with their cattle to live in the mountains during the months of June, July and August. The cattle has enough to graze and during these three months the children have summer vacation.
In the "dining room" all Germans leave for their own tents after dinner and we are left alone. There will be no campfire today, so there is little choice but to go to bed early ourselves. We have agreed that the stove in our yurt will be lit at 21:00, so it will be nice and warm when we go to sleep. We went to ask at 21:30 and they had indeed forgotten about us. The stove is fired up and soon it gets nice and warm, however the stove burns on for a while and it gets even warmer. Rob is gone in no time, but Martin cannot get to sleep. He keeps gasping for oxygen and apparently has eaten too many sweets so he is also a bit hyper and has stomach problems. In the end, Martin only manages to sleep for 2.5 hours this night, which will have to be made up.
Tomorrow morning the yurt will be heated again at 05:00, so we can get up nice and warm. After that we will drive the small roads to lake Toktogul.
On Monday morning, June 20, at 06:00 the stove is fired up again to make it nice and warm in the yurt. Fortunately not as warm as last night, but nice enough to get up and get dressed. It's sunny outside and we can enjoy beautiful views from the yurt camp. The lake with the vast fields around it and behind it the white tops of high mountains. We are going to miss these kinds of views. Breakfast is bread with fried eggs as requested and satisfies just fine.
Since this morning the bags on the bike were still white from the frost, we are glad that we can ride in full sun. This ensures that just warm enough not to get cold. First we go around the lake in a clockwise direction, then west through the mountains. We cross several passes of almost 3400 meters, after which we drive down towards a coal mine. From the coal mine the road is completely destroyed by the trucks and it is sometimes difficult to drive because of the deep tracks and holes in the road. The road turns north and comes out in a larger town where we can refuel.
We don't see a baker there and decide to postpone buying bread until one of the next villages. From here on the road is beautifully constructed and paved and we meander through the beautiful landscape that we can't get enough of. After a while we leave this road and turn into a small path, at that moment we think that this will be a small part after which the road will get better. However, nothing is further from the truth, this path, sometimes a bit wider and sometimes very bumpy we follow the next 150 km! There is no bakery along the road, so we have to skip lunch today.
Rob leads the way and along the way Martin spots one of Rob's saddlebags. Fortunately Martin was riding in the back at that moment, otherwise we would have had to search for the bag. All the shocks on the unpaved mountain roads have caused the stitching of the straps to give way. We have to decide whether to have them fixed or see what they charge for them when we return. Until then the bags are tied to the back of the bike with some straps. When, after 150 km, we get to better roads, we both decided that we would not drive this route again tomorrow, but that it would be better to head for Bishkek then.
Around 6 p.m. we arrive in the village of Toktogul where, after some searching (first two hotels were turned down by us), we find a guesthouse for the night. Within half an hour at the guesthouse it starts raining cats and dogs. Fortunately, the motorcycles can be parked under the shelter. However, it is raining too hard to go shopping and to get drinks, so we'll see how it goes. We can enjoy dinner at the guesthouse, so we don't have to leave the house. In the guesthouse are also two French friends who have arranged a hiking vacation with a guide with van. They have a bottle of wine for dinner and let us enjoy it with them, delicious! When the bottle is finished, we decide to go with the guide and his car to get some new wine and some beer, so we can finish the evening in a pleasant way.
If it is dry tomorrow the group will go hiking in the mountains around Toktogul, they don't have an alternative program yet. We will take the paved road to Bishkek tomorrow and see from there what we will do in the coming days.
Tuesday morning, June 21, there is a full breakfast waiting for us, which we enjoy. It's still drizzling a bit, but according to the weather forecast it should be dry around 10 o'clock. Nothing is more uncertain in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan than the weather, so we wait tensely. In Bishkek it is dry and warmer (26 degrees), but heavily cloudy and a small chance of drizzle. We'll see and take it easy when we leave. Rob ties all his bags to the back of the bike, the sides are no longer suitable, and it is only for one day.
At 10 o'clock it is indeed dry, and the roads are dry when we leave. First we have to ride down the muddy path to the main road and then we have to accelerate between the mountains. Today we have 2 passes above 3000 meters, so sometimes it will be a bit colder. In the first part we get a warning from Mr. police officer that we should not drive too fast, but fortunately he was not looking through his speed camera. Steadily the road climbs up through the valley, where we finally arrive at the first pass of 3175 m. This is the highest pass of today and it is cold, in places the road is still white from the frost but fortunately it is dry. The speed goes down, so we do not get too cold.
After the first pass there are some very nice views with meadows where the local people have brought many yurts and cattle. It is still beautiful to see and we keep waving back enthusiastically when people wave at us with friendly smiles. Meanwhile it gets darker and the showers come threatening from the mountains on the sides. In the distance we already see some rain and not long after that we get a shower. Further away it looks better again, so we drive on quickly to get to the sunny part. This works out well and we enjoy the last few landscapes before we make the climb to the second pass. Just before we enter the tunnel we stop to enjoy the scenery and then Rob can warm his hands a little more. These kinds of views are now a thing of the past and we'll remember them with nostalgia.
At the top of the pass we go through the dark tunnel to the other side of the mountain. There are traffic lights for the trucks because they can hardly pass each other in the tunnel. One truck ignored the traffic lights, resulting in us being stuck in the middle of the tunnel because the trucks can't pass each other without hitting the tunnel wall. Eventually, an old truck scrapes past the tunnel wall and the other truck in between and the line can get moving again. On the other side of the tunnel it looks darker and it seems to be raining, when we come closer it appears that it is not raining but we are in the clouds. We are at about 3200 meters and in the clouds it is cold. However, we know that the road is going to descend soon and so we drive straight on. The road goes down fast, first with hairpin bends, then wider bends. A bit further down it feels more comfortable and we ride along the wildly flowing river down. In no time we descend to 1200 meters where it is nice and warm, we have descended 2000 meters in a short time!
At 1200 meters there is a lunchroom where we stop for a sandwich and a drink. It is nice and warm here in the sun and also the rest of the route seems to be only slightly cloudy.We are now driving out of the last hills to the main road in the direction of Bishkek, where we turn right on this four-lane road. The road is not as busy as a week and a half ago and we can drive on. We always use the trick to stay behind a fast car, so that we are not picked off the road but the car in front of us. One time this goes wrong and apart from the car Martin is also stopped at the side of the road. Martin is asked for his papers and very cumbersomely he starts looking for them in the saddle bags. It takes a while, but the officer doesn't seem to mind. After checking the motorcycle papers and driver's license, the officer says that they saw with the speed camera that Martin had been driving too fast. Martin says that this is not true and that the car in front of him was speeding but not him. Miraculously, he gets his papers back and can continue driving.
The last part to the hotel is a bit busier and we are around half past four at the hotel . We didn't make a reservation and they tell us that today there is only a single room available and for the next two nights there will be a double room. However, the price is higher than at booking.com and when Martin shows it, the price goes down to just below the booking.com level. For the first night a bed is added to the single room, so it all works out. The bikes are again behind the locked gate, so that is also settled. We sit by the pool, which has been filled up in the last two weeks, then take a shower and have dinner at the same restaurant that we visited earlier. Again, very good food here. Back at the hotel another beer to end the evening and then into bed. Hopefully Rob can sleep well on the sunbed.
Tomorrow around 11 we will return the bikes. A day earlier than planned, but we've pretty much seen it all and can then enjoy an extra day of rest. Let's see if we get our money back for that day and what they will say about the broken saddle bag.
Wednesday morning, June 22, we start the motorcycles for the last time in Kyrgyzstan. We agreed to turn them in at Nikita of SilkOffRoad in Bishkek at 11:00. Fortunately we got the coordinates where we can set the navigation to, on address you can't find anything here in Kyrgyzstan. On the one hand because it's a maze of streets that don't always have street signs. On the other hand, all streets have been renamed from Russian to Kyrgyz after Kyrgyz independence, but the people themselves only know the Russian street names.
When we arrive at Nikita's place, he opens the gate and we can ride our bikes under the gigantic roof. Nikita is not a motorcyclist, he only has the depot for SilkOffRoad, he himself rents out Toyota's Squoia V8 4WD to tourists for $80 a day. He has been given the checklist by Matas to look over and from it finds no defects for which we need to appeal the deposit. The saddlebags are not on the checklist, so are not counted :-) . Also the repaired block is not noticed and remained well closed the rest of the trip. I disconnected the cables from the navigation, after which a cab was called to take us to the hotel. The suitcase has arrived at Nikita's place and we take it with us for the journey back to Tblisi. We agreed with the cab driver that he would be at the hotel on Friday morning at 8:30 to take us to the airport.
We are finished around noon and for the rest of the day nothing is planned. We decide that both of us could use a haircut and walk to the barbershop we saw near the hotel. A haircut and a shave for Martin so that we look neat again. Then bought a sandwich with some drinks for lunch, which we ate nicely in the park.
Then went back to the hotel and washed the motorcycle clothes in the bathtub. Given the amount of sand left in the bathtub, this was much needed and so the people at the airport don't have any vicarious embarrassment when they connect behind our motorcycle jackets. We hung the motorcycle gear outside on the clothesline to dry and also the motorcycle boots/shoes are hanging there.
Furthermore, this afternoon we laze around on the beach chairs by the pool and take a nap in the shade. Lovely to doze off with 30 degrees. Late in the afternoon some Uzbeks arrive to pick up goods from China and sell them again in Uzbekistan. We had a chat and together we tried to install the Yandex Taxi app on Martin's phone. This app is a counterpart of Uber for these countries and is widely used. Unfortunately, we cannot install it because our Apple profile indicates that we live in the Netherlands. Both the Yandex Taxi and the Uber app do not work for us here. We get the tip to go to Dordoi Plaza to eat, there seem to be good restaurants there.
Around 8 pm we walk to Dordoi Plaza which is about 1 km away. It is a modern shopping center that would not be out of place in the most modern cities. What a difference with the poor villages when you see this and walk around here. You imagine yourself in the modern western world instead of Kyrgyzstan. On the higher floors there are several restaurants and we choose Burger House today to eat a nice burger with fries. After dinner we walk back in the direction of the hotel and let Google Maps lead us to the Steinbräu Brauhaus that is hidden in the greenery only a few hundred meters from our hotel. A German beer garden where we enjoy some tasty German half-liters for less than €2 each. At 22:00 we are notified that the place is going to close and we can order one last drink. Then we walked back to the hotel and went to bed.
Tomorrow we want to do some sightseeing in Bishkek in the morning, some things to see are within walking distance, and then chill out on the beach chair by the pool.