Cycling Plus #24:
Riding the High Pastures of Kyrgyzstan
The sun sinks poignantly behind a blood red cloud as we arrive in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Before us, a statue of Lenin glowers towards an awesome backdrop of crumpled mountains, more than a little disgruntled at the break dancers who twist and twirl at his feet. Times are changing in the former USSR.
Despite the appeal of this stately and tree-lined Russian city, it's the high pastures and rolling Steppes of Central Asia that I long for. Out on the country's busiest road, the light traffic of donkeys and carts, timeworn buses and omnipresent Ladas make entertaining cycling. Passing a string of Russian homes and elegant picket fences, groups of rotund women gossip cheerfully, presiding over enticing bottles of fresh blueberries and buckets of plums and apricots. Other home-made stalls specialise in vodka, the perfect compliment for roadside picnics!
We branch off this 'main' road, beginning our slow and steady climb towards the high pastures. In the market town of Kochkora, a scraggly group of bystanders gather; kids with toothy smiles, some astride tiny donkeys, others perched on majestic horses. Joined by a few old men - white felt top hat, long trenchcoat and tapering beard their uniform - we find ourselves a local home for the night and sleep on 'shyrdaks', a Kyrgyz felt futon embellished with swirls of colour.
The ascent continues as we leave the luxury of bitumen, on a track that spirals ever onwards into the distant hills. A storm throws a filtered tinge across the plains as a torrent of rain ousts the blue sky. Slipping and sliding our way forward, we stop for tea and fresh bread, de-icing our frozen fingers in a friendly home. Here, horses rule the land and our bicycles are a constant focus of attention. One young Kyrgyz rider swaps steeds with Rosal, gracefully leaping onto her bike as if it were a horse. Cresting the pass together, a local family unpile from their mud splattered Lada, and celebrate this peculiar sight by force-feeding us with tomatoes and vodka. At almost 3500m, the lake of Son-Kol shimmers before us, reflecting the sunlight like a giant mirror, enveloped by a ribbon of snow capped peaks.
A plume of smoke marks a distant yurt, the summer abode of these pastoral shepherds, our home for the night. Boiled sheep is on the menu, and as guests in this traditional land, we're proffered the finest morsels. Smiling bravely at the feast that confronts us - head, tongue and lung - we begin this culinary ordeal, washed down with 'kumus', the national drink of fermented mare's milk. Outside, temperatures drop and we huddle closer in our fur skin blankets. Horsemen gallop across the plains, silhouetted on the horizon against a dark, cloud layered sky, long coats flapping wildly in the wind.
This is the Middle Asia that I have dreamt about. More than ever, I'm aware of this moment in time; gathered around a smouldering fire, listening to the gentle strumming of a four stringed guitar, lost amongst the high pastures of Kyrgyzstan.