Woke up all through the morning from 2am when it really got cold until 6am when I couldn’t get back to sleep any more. I stumbled out the tent for a wizz to an amazing sight, looking over the lake to a clear view of the mountains again. Most mornings when I wake up, it takes a few seconds to remember who the hell I am and where I am, because you know you’re not at home, then your brain has to do a 100 millisecond whirlwind tour of the trip until you get to the latest point; when I’m especially tired it’s like plugging into The Matrix, flashes of the last few days fly by until it all clicks into place. Riding. Trip. Rough Road. Tent. Cold. Tajikistan. Karakul Lake. OK I’m In.
We had a simple days ride ahead of us, but it included a border crossing, which is always a wild card, even for a relatively simple one like Tajikistan/Kyrgyzstan. We decamped and set off, wanting to escape the millions of mosquitoes that had popped into existence overnight, and wanting to beat the 12 person Muztoo tour so we didn’t get stuck behind them at the border. A pretty straight forward ride, broken up by a couple of river crossings, one particularly tricky one that had washed away the road entirely, and a very close call with a huge hole in the road. Me and Oki both nearly got thrown from our bikes when we missed it, bouncing from one side of the road to the other and somehow staying in the seat and up right.
The border was quite straight forward, just time consuming waiting for each stage of the process. The no-mans-land between exiting Tajikistan and entering Kyrgyzstan takes the title of “Best No Mans Land Road” though. A series of steep unpaved slippery switchbacks with incredible views over some of the highest ranges in the Pamir, thankfully it wasn’t raining, someone told us it was utterly deadly in the wet. It took around 2 hours to enter Kyrgyzstan, waiting “computer problems”, we just chatted with the other guys passing through and badgered the guards until we were eventually free to go.
We stopped in the first town after border for some food and a break before we started the long run to Osh. We were amazed when we rolled into town to an actual petrol station with working pumps, we hadn’t seen those for a while, there was even a market selling more than snickers bars and sparkling water. Amazing. The run to Osh turned out really nice, the road is all paved, smooth and follows a river descending about 2000m. I was loving it, back on smooth stuff again where I could really push and have some fun without worrying too much about a river appearing out of nowhere, or the road turning to sand.
We headed straight for TES guesthouse, since it was a familiar place and it was getting late. I was much more used to camping now and comfortable in my tent, so I camped on the grass instead of getting a bunk, there’s space to sit and work and socialise in the common areas so it’s great way to sleep for cheap; though waking up right next to people eating breakfast on the terrace is a little odd.
We had planned on having a 2 days rest then heading off to explore Kyrgyzstan, but that evening we all just gave each other a look that said “nope”. We were all still tired from the Pamir, it had taken more of a toll on us than we realised, so we stuck around for another 2 days. All 4 days sort of merged into one, mostly very lazy days, eating good food again and finding a nice place with proper coffee! The day we were going to head off into the wilds, Antonin didn’t turn up for breakfast and finally appeared at lunch looking like death awakened, not leaving today either then. Another 3 days passed of him slowly getting over a very bad virus, he was not at all well, but he had 2 surrogate parents looking after him and telling him off for not drinking enough water.
7 days is the longest time I’ve been in one place on the trip at all, but it was great, I had a load of stuff I needed to catch up on and I really needed the rest. I managed to fix the guitar with a couple of wood screws through the fret board where it had come away on the 7th fret, do not try this at home, it’s a stupid idea, but it plays great! I met another Brit at the hostel too, she’s on a round the world cycling trip but was currently stranded waiting for the return of her passport from the UK with new visas. A very weird coalesce of conditions meant I could put her in touch with one of our China Group who was flying out in a week. This gave her 2 precious extra days to obtain the visa and still get her passport back in time to not be illegal. Sometimes things work out in the weirdest ways.
Sometimes things don’t work out though, I learned that Muztoo wouldn’t be able to get my seals anymore, I’d have to figure something else out. I’d sat around for 7 days though, and now I was pretty tight on time. I should be able to get some in Bishkek, so I worked that into our little route, it’d mean seeing less of Kyrgyzstan than I’d hoped, but I really needed seals.
On Day 102 we finally set off from the guesthouse, with everyone at decent health again. The roads are a little congested and frustrating up toward Jalal-Abad, especially when it’s so hot, keeping up the speed to keep a breeze flowing over you becomes more important than petty things like traffic laws. We stopped for a break in a town when I saw a fridge with drinks in it. While we stood chatting at the side of the road, with locals staring at us, we spotted two big bikes going in the opposite direction filtering through the traffic, we recognised them as Martin as Xenia, a Swiss couple joining me and Oki in crossing China. We shouted and screamed waving our arms like mad to get their attention, it worked somehow and they swung around and stopped for a chat. A weird place to finally meet them, but so nice after 6 months of chatting and planning online.
We joined the road to the Kazarman pass out of Jalal-Abad and set off into more remote parts, leaving the bigger towns behind. We ride pretty slowly as a group, and it was made even slower when we noticed Antonin no longer had a license plate, he doubled back to find it and was gone for maybe 30 minutes looking for it. By the time we were moving again it was getting a little late. It only took 5 minutes for us to find a decent camp spot, a small grass verge had a 2 meter drop on the other side down to a nice flat area hidden from the road. We set up camp, got some food in us and went to bed pretty early on, good job we did too, as soon as it was dark all the bugs came out. My tent has a gap between the two layers and it didn’t take long for it to fill with things while I had my light on. Huge stick insect looking things, large spiders, and one dick of a cricket who perched right next to my head and chirped out of nowhere, I nearly pooped, then punched my tent where he was, he shut up after that.
A weird start the next morning, a cow wandered through camp early on, moo-ing us all awake. Very inconsiderate. We got packed up and back on the road, starting the climb up to the pass fairly quick, nice soft ground with a few little stream crossings and switch backs up the mountain. The road was actually great, if it was in France and paved it’d be a tourist destination, long sweeping turns, tight steep hairpins and amazing scenery, cutting into little clefts, and winding along the outside edge of the hill. We stopped for a lot of photos, and then a nice long break at the top of the pass, feeling pretty happy with ourselves. The route down the other side went through a few small settlements, most of them with pretty viscous dogs who do not like big noisy machines disturbing them. Dogs are awkward enough to deal with on a good road, especially in a group, when they get so focused on chasing the first bike, they may not see the second one coming toward them, let alone the third. On an unpaved road with pot holes, deep gravel and a steep drop on one side, dodging a dog becomes quite dangerous. It also doesn’t help when bored kids resort to throwing stones at passing bikers for entertainment.
It wasn’t all that dangerous or nasty though, just a few mars on an amazing ride up and down the Kazarman pass. We stopped in Kazarman itself for some lunch, hoping for more from what we thought was a big town, we at least managed to buy bread, something for dinner and alcohol. The road out of town was flat and unpaved, with a thin layer of gravel, we could really pick up speed and cruised at 50mph, easily the fastest I’d been on this kind of road, but everything was holding together and getting pretty smooth.
Then the rear of the bike suddenly felt like treacle and I recognised the feeling from last time, a puncture. Bugger. I pulled up and we got to searching for the hole in the rubber. It was a pretty big split, luckily when my last puncture repair failed, back in Turkey, I’d gotten hold of some huge plugs, usually used on car tyres, I tried one of them and it seemed to hold OK. 10 minutes of pumping and I had enough pressure to ride on. We all geared back up to ride (in the heat you tend to strip as soon as you stop) and I jokingly said, in the tone of a mother asking “Does anyone need a wee before leave”, “Does anyone else have a puncture before we leave”, the others chuckled a little at my feeble attempt at humor. Then Oki suddenly screamed with laughter, she actually did have a puncture, her rear tyre sad and flattened. We all just stared at each other in disbelief, then started stripping again and getting the tools out. Oki’s puncture was a tiny hole letting a steady, squeaky stream of air out, I didn’t really want to widen it to fit one of the plugs in, since if it didn’t hold, we’d be screwed, at least in this state it would hold enough air to ride on for a while, then we could pump up, I’d have to stop regularly to check on my puncture anyway.
We had to ride a lot slower after that, fearing my plug getting damaged by the gravel or Oki’s puncture widening. The road was still great though, climbing up another pass, over the top and revealing one of the best vistas I have ever seen. A steep drop from the mountain looking out over miles and miles of smaller hills that looked like they’d been sculpted by hand. We stopped for a long break, just staring out over the view and topping up the air in Oki’s tyre.
Somehow we made it the whole 60km in Ak-tal without the punctures getting worse or the tyres falling apart on the rough roads. We rolled into town as it was starting to get dark and we weren’t too hopeful about finding anywhere to get the tyres patched in such a small town but the first place we tried was a dedicated tyre repair shack filled with local guys playing cards. We showed him the damage and he just nodded, so I took off my wheel and gave it to him just hoping he knew what he was doing. An hour later both tyres had been patched and were back to full pressure and fitted to the bikes, all for about £5, score!
It was pretty much dark by now so we headed to the edge of town to look for somewhere to camp, I’d usually want to be much further from civilization for camp but trying to find a good spot in the dark is impossible. We spotted a wide shallow river at the edge of town and a field on the other side. Perfect, people obviously don’t cross the river very often, or there would be a road, so nobody would stumble upon us. We waded in to check the river bed, then rode across without much trouble. We set up camp and broke out the alcohol to celebrate making it through a double puncture in the middle of nowhere unscathed.
The downside of the lazy riding and double puncture was that I was now very late on my little schedule. I had to get to Bishkek to buy some fork seals, get back to Osh, fit them and change tyres, which would take about 4 days, and I only had 5, not much room for error. There is no “late” for the China crossing, either we’re all there and we cross, or non of us can cross at all. So I split from the other 2 he next morning, intending to take the fastest route to Bishkek and get there that day, while they had a slow ride around Song Kol lake. Me and Antonin said our goodbyes, he was heading further east to Mongolia so we wouldn’t see each other again. We’d got on amazingly well in the few weeks riding together, mostly because we both have the same stupid sense of humor.
I was only riding alone for 5 minutes though when I bumped into an Australian guy on a touring bike, we stopped for a chat and he was not only heading to Bishkek, he wanted to get there as fast as possible, and he lived there so he knew the route and roads. Perfect! I tagged along and rode at full throttle for a couple of hours straight, we stopped for a very quick lunch, then another few hours on great roads at full speed. It was awesome riding with a fast guy, I’ve never ridden with other people before the trip, and on the trip all the riding tends to be fairly leisurely with lots of breaks. This was not. This was almost the limit of my riding to keep up with him, especially on dirt tyres and with my forks leaking oil over one of my front brakes, very fun though, and the new Chinese built roads were absolutely perfect, they do not mess about with their roads.
We got to Bishkek and he tried to call the guy I’d been in touch with about Fork Seals, he knew a lot of the bikers in Bishkek, having lived and ridden there for 5 years. He took me to a few places in town to try and find somewhere with seals, helped me out speaking Russian to some sellers and then dropped me off at Iron Horse Nomads who should be able to help. He didn’t expect a thing, and it was just natural for him to try and help me out, he didn’t think twice about detouring around the city, offering me his garage to work on my bike, and buying me lunch. I’d only met him that morning and we only actual spoke for about 30 minutes, the rest was riding, incredibly humbling.
Now I needed a plan, in 4 days I have to leave from Osh for Sary-Tash to meet the China group, me and the bike need to be fit and ready for then. I needed to get my seals and either fit them in Bishkek with the help of Paul (Australian guy, he also owned a V-Strom so knew what he was doing) or fit them in Osh myself along with new tyres that were waiting there. It should be a 2 day ride to Osh, but maybe I could make it in one long day. I decided to leave first thing to pick up the seals from Dima at the Bazaar, then ride as long and fast as I could, to make it as close to Osh as possible, then I could work for 2 days on the bike, leaving me 1 day for things to go wrong.
In the morning I wandered, gobsmacked, around the huge Bazaar entirely dedicated to cars and made it to Dima just after he’d opened. There was nothing else for sale in this Bazaar that didn’t go on or in a car, and it was huge, it was made solely of containers but it had street names for god’s sake, I could have spent all day in there, but no time. Dima had my seals for a good price and even spent 30 minutes walking me around the Bazaar to find a new indicator bulb and change some dollars so I could buy bearings while I had the chance, which he also haggled for. He wouldn’t even keep the small change from buying the seals from him as a thank you, he just wanted a photo and to help out a traveller. My traveller Karma is getting a little full now.
I left the Bazaar in such a good mood, but had a very long day ahead. I knew getting out of Bishkek was a nightmare, having done it once. I flicked the switch in my head for “London Mode” riding, and started filtering through the traffic way more aggressively than I usual would, thank god for soft panniers that just bounce of cars instead of damaging them. It’s only a small victory getting passed one car, or slaloming through a queue to the front of the lights, but after an hour of filtering it makes a massive difference compared to just sitting in the traffic. By the time I got out of town I realised I’d already gained about 30 minutes on my previous time, a good start for the day. I shot of as fast as I dared, I knew the road wouldn’t be great, surprise pot holes and gravel patches, so I knew where to take it easy.
I was chuffed when I arrived at Toktogol lake after just 3 hours, that took me the whole day last time, back on Day 81. Riding faster, with no breaks and no photo stops had gained me a ton of time. The road got better after that so I could pick up speed even more, which may have been a mistake. I rolled into another town still doing around 70mph, I let off the throttle to slow toward the 35mph limit when a policeman jumped out at me from the side of the road, waving his baton around. Balls. I pulled up just ahead of him. I took my sweet time stopping the bike, taking my gloves off, sorting out nothing in my tank bag hoping he’d just get bored and leave me. He didn’t though and kept waving me over to his buddies at the car. They spoke to me in Russian when I walked up and I let them talk at me for a few minutes before they expected some sort of response, then I just said “net Russki”, they all laughed, they thought I’d been listening. I said “English?” and they realised I was a tourist and became more interested in the gear I was wearing and the bike. After a couple of minutes laughing at my water bag and pipe they just waved me off. I almost ran to the bike, started it and shot off before they changed their mind.
I was loving the ride after that, the road got much more reliable and much more flowing. Following a big wide river means you can predict the road a lot easier, just watch where the river goes, very fun. At the end of the river road though was the towns, not very fun. Another couple of hours in hot, slow and dusty towns and I was rolling into Osh! My ass back and head ached like hell, but I got to TES again and ordered a pizza before I even booked a bed for the night, 10 hours riding with maybe 30 minutes of breaks total. Very pleased with myself to have made it, it’s nice to have a challenge in the trip that I have full control of for once, get somewhere by a certain time. I started planning the work on the bike the next day when I realised it would be Sunday. Muztoo would be closed. Doh! I’d gained myself a day by riding fast, then lost it by forgetting the days of the week.
I spent the next day resting and watching Youtube videos of how to change fork seals and how to put forks back together. Muztoo wouldn’t have a mechanic available for a few days so I was going to be doing it without any help, and if I got anything seriously wrong, I’d struggle to even get to the Chinese border, not a nice thought.
The fork change went very well though luckily Xenia and Martin were doing the same job at the same time so they could help me out. I took my time with it a lot, checking everything twice, got it all back together and even changed the oil in the other fork too, just for good measure. The next I changed the tyres and cleaned out the air filter but ran into some trouble with them that set me way back.
On day 109 we were leaving at lunch to head to Sary-Tash to meet the rest of the group ready to cross the Chinese border the next day. I had to rush back to Muztoo for one last job though, changing the oil and filter. I’ve done it myself a few times, but never in a rush and not since I’d screwed up my bash plate which now gets in the way of the drain bolt and filter. There really wasn’t room for anything to go wrong, I had about 3 hours max to get it all done and get on the road. Thankfully, Karma was still on my side, no cross-threaded bolts or awkwardness with the bash plate. I even managed to adjust my clutch that had been annoying me for a couple of days.
Me, Oki, Xenia and Martin headed for some lunch before we left Osh, saying goodbye to the comforts and culture of Central Asia. We’d been out a few times in the last few days and we were all getting on great, we travel very similarly and for similar reasons. We all agreed it felt like this was the end of a trip, getting to the Chinese border had been a goal for all of us for at least 6 months. All the planning and logistics had been to get us to here, because the China crossing is so expensive, complicated and, culturally, a huge step. One leg of our respective trips is over, and the next begins tomorrow.
We had a great fun ride back up the nice Osh to Sary-Tash road and arrived at our little guesthouse. It was at the edge of town closest to China so it really felt like the edge of Kyrgyzstan, there was nothing else between us and China but walls of bureaucracy. It was a very strange feeling arriving. 18 months ago I’d never even heard of Kyrgyzstan, let alone Sary-Tash, now the group I’d been talking to online for 6 months was all assembled for the first time in this tiny town. Two Italians Cristiano and Sabrina on a little Honda Dominator, a Swiss couple Cristoph and Stefani in a converted Iveco van, Martin and Xenia on their two Yamaha XT660s, Oki on her BMW R100 and me on Donkey. We all stood outside chatting and laughing at the craziness of where we were stood and what the hell was going to happen the next day.
02/08/2017 to 16/08/2017