Leaving Bishkek took a good long while, the traffic in the centre is thick and the roads out of town are clogged with bazaars where trucks and taxi’s stop in the road waiting for people, while the traffic backs up around them. After a couple of hours I was free though, onto some open road. A quick fuel and food stop looking up at the mountains that started a few miles ahead. I was so glad to be finally getting off the plains, 3 weeks of dead flat roads meant I was craving something twisty. The road very steadily climbed toward the mountains and up to a toll booth, a few dollars later and I was in hills! The tarmac quickly disappeared though for a little stretch of gravel around a collapsed bit of road, a taste of the unpredictability to come.
The tarmac stayed OK for a good long while though and it was amazing to be on fast flowing bends again. There was still plenty of dodgy overtaking to be wary of but I was getting used to it now. People just don’t care where they overtake, if they’re going faster than the car in front, they’ll just pull out to pass, even on the outside of a blind bend, there were a few butt-pucker moments as they broke hard and swung back just in time to miss a truck coming the other way.
The road climbed hard, up some hair pins and before I knew it I was at 3500 meters, easily the highest I’ve ever been. I stopped for a quick photo back down to the valley and a family that had stopped for lunch offered for me to join them. They really didn’t have much and I’d already eaten. I’d heard about the hospitality here and that people will often offer things they cannot afford to give, I wasn’t about to eat some of their food to be polite. The road led over the pass, through a tunnel at the top and onto some very high plains. It got chilly pretty fast and Donkey was down a little on power at this altitude, but the road wound on in great condition. As I’d hoped I made it to Toktogul but it wasn’t anything near as nice as I expected, half the town was petrol stations, the half run down market. It didn’t matter too much though, I already had food and just needed a quiet flat spot to camp on.
I ended up rolling through the town and out the other side onto the farm land by the lake. Some dirt paths forked off in several directions so I just kept choosing the least used until I got to a dead end. The road led up to a little cemetery in the hills so it wasn’t likely to be used tonight, perfect. Overlooking the lake about an hour before sunset I got the tent up, food going and playing a little guitar. Bliss. A couple of locals came along a path near mine and saw me camping, most pipped and waved some came over for a little chat and a look at Donkey. I’d usually be a bit worried if locals see me camping, if word gets out in town that there’s a foreigner with obviously expensive gear sleeping alone in the middle of nowhere it usually won’t lead to good things, but everyone was so friendly I knew it really wouldn’t be a problem. They all wanted to come over to welcome me and make sure I didn’t need anything.
As the sun was setting a huge cloud was rolling off the hills toward the valley. Weather gets weird in the mountains with the different temperatures and pressures so you can never tell what it’s going to do. This worked out perfectly though, I got to watch a huge lightning storm over the mountains and valley with barely a drop of actually making it to me. No rain in the night either meant it was an easy getaway in the morning, no mud to contend with like I feared.
Stopped off for some fuel in town and the station was out of power, they were just getting a diesel generator working for the pumps, but it cut out 3 times while I was trying to fill up, resetting the counters each time. I managed to get enough though and we agreed on a price and I shot off into the mountains again. More lovely curvy roads around the lake and climbing up toward another pass. I rode passed a little cafe and there were 4 bikes outside with guys getting geared up to leave, I gave them a pip and wave as I passed and noticed that one was a UK plate, so I spun round and went for a chat. It was only a quick 5 minutes, they were all Greek guys, just one with a UK bike, and they weren’t all that social but they had a good laugh about the guitar and were shocked I was travelling alone. The road got a bit dull from then on, out of the mountains and onto the flat ground that borders Uzbekistan. Lots of small dusty villages, there are no highways in Kyrgyzstan so the main road just runs straight through town, that means lots of traffic and lots of slow sections, and also lots of police on the side of the road, eager for something to do. Luckily it’s hard to do over the 60kph speed limit in a lot of places thanks to the trucks.
I finally found a nice place for lunch, just before I was about to resign myself to a packet of crisps and a chocolate bar. It was a road side stop but it looked clean and busy, which is always a good sign. As I sat down 3 guys said hello and wanted to know my story. The conversation is pretty routine at this point but they were nice guys and we chatted some more, they were all driving watermelon trucks, very common here since they’re usually sold in hundreds at the side of the road. I’d usually just try and order something I know, or choose from the menu at random, but I asked these guys for a recommendation and they chose well, some nice noodles, meat and veggies. As they were leaving they sent me a watermelon to the table through the waitress and waved as they drove passed. Nothing asked for, just genuinely nice guys who wanted to welcome me with what they had. I was stuffed and only ate 2 of about 40 slices but at least they weren’t there to know that.
I made it into Osh with some time to spare and didn’t really have a hostel lined up yet, I had internet on my phone so I was planning to just wing it. I headed for a motorcycle garage I’d heard about, pretty much the only place in town that worked on bikes, Muztoo. It’s a Swiss company that does motorcycle tours of the Pamir, which means they use big bikes, which aren’t used by people here at all. They realise us overlanders need help too and are happy to give us workshop space, oil, spare parts and advice, for a small price. All of which are almost impossible to find within hundreds of miles of here. It’s people and companies like this that make motorcycle travel so much easier. I only needed to check out my air filter and get some more oil on it, I’d not thought to bring any to top up my K&N filter, and there’s no easy substitute on the road. I was surprised to find a English guy when I arrived, George works there partly running the workshop and organising the tours and he gave me some advice for where to stay and we arranged to look at the bike the next day.
I headed off to the hostel recommendation and met a few other travellers there straight away. 2 bikers from Belgium on Africa Twins and a Swiss couple in a 30 year old Toyota Land Cruiser. We all ate dinner together chatting about our plans, it’s so easy getting on with other overlanders, you all have the same things to think about daily, even if you’re totally different people, it’s like meeting a stranger who has exactly the same job as you, you instantly have a lot in common.
The next 2 days were spent at Muztoo doing a little work on the bike, chatting with some more overlanders, chilling out not doing a lot and drinking with some guys at the hostel. I spoke to the Swiss couple in the Land Cruiser a lot, they’ve been travelling on and off for the last 10 years, through Africa and Europe in the same car, it was more there home than their place in Switzerland that they return too between trips to work and save money for the next adventure.
I set off on Day 85 for Tajikistan, I was planning to meet Oki in a hostel in Dushanbe to ride the Pamir Highway together. It was a pretty long and dull run to the border, with a quick stop for lunch in a restaurant that had bumper cars for some reason. Crossing the border was a doddle, but quite long, waiting to pay an “ecology tax” on exit of Kyrgyzstan and fighting for half an hour to get 30 days for the bike at Tajik customs instead of 15, but losing. Then I was in Tajikistan! Country number 19! It didn’t feel or look any different, but that’s to be expected with such an erratically shaped border, there’s no rhyme or reason to it. The first people I spoke to were very friendly though. I wanted some fuel and some cold liquid sugar of any flavor, but didn’t have any local currency. Tajik Somoni is quite hard to get hold of, even within the country sometimes, with bank ATMs being very unreliable. They guy at the station couldn’t take USD or Kyrgyz Som so I couldn’t get anything; I knew I’d make it to the city on the petrol I had but I don’t really like stretching it (you never know what’s down the road) and I was thirsty. The guy sensed my disappointment and grabbed a bottle of cheap cold water and handed it to me and just said “no som”. What a legend. I said my thanks in 3 languages hoping to get it across, downed my water and headed for Khujand.
The town really didn’t appeal when I rolled through and I gave up up on the hostel I was aiming for when I saw the road it was on was filled to the brim with a street market. Not ideal for a good nights rest. I didn’t have any internet yet, being without a local SIM but just started circling town in the busy areas looking for a hotel. I found one pretty quick at a good price with secure parking too. It wasn’t sparkly and the bed wasn’t exactly inviting but it was good for a rest. The ATM down the road let me get out some local currency thankfully, so I grabbed some nice cheap fast food and slept in my clothes on top of the sheets, the mark of a good quality hotel.
The road out of town in the morning was not what I expected, then I woke up a little more and realised the SatNav was drunk again. Taking me the “shortest” route, through back streets and onto a farm track it thought was a 60mph limit, in reality I couldn’t do more than 20mph for the gravel and pot holes. It got me out of town though and to the first petrol station. A very happy guy filled the tank and gave a big thumbs up for the bike and the trip, a good start to the day. Then it was off for a couple of hours of plains toward the mountain pass. When I stopped for a little break a big bike went blasting passed with panniers and spare tyres draped over them. I set off in pursuit and caught up 20 minutes down the road, the guy was really shifting. He was a Czech guy heading for Dushanbe too, I gave him the address of the hostel in case he fancied some company.
The road got pretty amazing after that, up into very high mountains, through some pretty long tunnels and winding up and down hair pins. There were plenty of Toll booths on the road too, but as I approached people waved various things at me and opened up routes so I could go through without paying. I’ve no idea why they couldn’t just open the barriers, but I assume it was paper work related. I did a lot of squeezing between barriers into car parks and following very close to other cars bumpers to squeeze under the barriers. Most of the guards didn’t realise I could just ride around the thing, it was higher than the panniers anyway, they got some good entertainment though.
Up in the mountains I did hit some roadworks, as I approached one of the workers sat on the side of the road jumped to his feet and waved frantically for me to slow down. I did, thinking he wanted to chat or just see the bike, then I realised why. The whole road was spread with wet tar, ready to be lain with a new surface. It’s damn slippery stuff when it’s still wet, so it’s a good job he warned me, I was still doing 50mph going down hill toward a hairpin. I dodged between the strips of wet stuff for the next 20 minutes, using the other side of the road sometimes where I could and doing my best not to go through it. At one point though it covered my whole lane and with a truck coming the other way I had no choice but to go over it. The rear wheel started to slide out to my right, all I could do was counter steer and hold on, hoping for grip before I got too close to the edge or spun too far around and fell. I was only doing about 20mph but that’s more than enough to be scary when you’re going sideways. Thankfully the splodge of tar ended and the bike flicked back to a straight line and I could take a breath again. The bike was splattered with the stuff though, all the mud guards, number plate, belly pan everywhere. Horrible stuff to remove too, the guys at the wash place in Dushanbe insisted on diesel…
I skipped lunch, half due to a lack of nice places, and half because I just wanted to get to the city and get something nice. I headed straight for the hostel and set my stuff down and went out to meet Oki. She was at the only real bike place in town chatting and fixing up a few bits, it was great meeting back up again, we last met in Georgia about 4 weeks ago, we’d both had a lot happen since then. When I pulled up I said hi to everyone and the mechanic started absentmindedly examining my bike and noticed that one of my forks was leaking quite a bit. Not ideal, since it would leak down the fork leg and onto the brake disc; it doesn’t take a genius to know that grease is not generally good for brakes. He gave it a good clean up where he could but it really needed a new seal, which they didn’t have, it’d just have to make it over the Pamir back to Kyrgyzstan where I could probably get a new one.
Back at the hostel even more people had arrived, the courtyard was full of bikes now, from all over too, NZ, Aus, Czech, Dutch and Estonia. It was weird to recognise Kinga of On Her Bike, she met up with some other friends a few weeks ago and I’d seen she was in the area, then she was in the hostel, pretty much all the other guys have blogs too, I’ll list them all at the bottom of this post. We all ended up chatting as always and most of us met up at a pub for some food and beer later on, another great night with other travellers.
The blogs of the other folks: