August 3rd-6th: Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Bishkek, like a miniature and more peaceful version of Almaty, is an easy place to whittle away a few days. Whilst the Kazacs have ferverishy wiped the slate clean of Soviet leftovers, the laid back Kyrgyz seem to adopt a more accepting attitude to their past; after all, it has created the identity of who they are today. Lenin remains on his podium, glowering towards the mountains, understandably more than a little disgruntled at the breakdancers who twist and twirl at his feet. There's less of the swish, polished feel of Almaty, but still the same stateliness of a tree lined Russian city. And an equally awesome backdrop of crumpled mountains, so close, they seem almost at the end of the street.
We soon zone in on the markets, lifelines, always thriving with my favourite eateries. King is Osh Bazar, a heaving complex of stalls and entrepreneurs, offering a taste sensation for all. Bread disks, fresh fish, buckets of fruit, a veritable banquet of food, through which ladies balancing meat pies, slices of honey melon and home-made cake weave their way through. Tsum, the government shopping centre, has the usual eclectic assortment of kitschy gifts, time-warped Russian clothes and Polish cosmetics. Elsewhere, a few stylish bars are appearing, and internet cafes seem a popular hangout with the younger locals. Just down from our concrete-box hotel, one cafe has its own quirky history: a simple spelling confusion turned what might have been deemed stylish Broadways into the far more intriguing Breadways, the name it has carried since. I love these spelling eccentricities that run riot in Asia. Portions though are distinctly nouvelle cuisine. We stare incredulously at the toy-sized fish sandwich, barely noticeable to our ravenous appetites.
Moving on, we track down 'Fatboys.' I like the name of this Khyrgyz-British cafe, and unlike so many foreign setups, it actually aims itself towards the local as well as expat clientele, which I respect. Cycling re-evaluates culinary criteria. Volume becomes as important as quality, and Fatboy's summer pudding leaves one reeling in delight, a thick slab of juicy bread, dark and heavy with fruits of the season. Owner Mike, himself half Greek, is more than happy to advise me on a little island hopping for the European summer months to come, and talks of his traditional marriage - hundreds of drunken Khyrgyz, half a dozen bemused Brits - and his love of the country.
Again, it's easy to forget the hardship that exists in the midst of these blissful blue sky days. Yet like Almaty, so many qualified lawyers, doctors and engineers are looking for work, and those who insist on completing their degrees are sure of a job that has little to do with their years of study. The minimum wage is $2 US, per month, the average just $8. Waitresses earn perhaps a couple of som - around 4 cents - an hour, or 6 cents a table. Life may be cheap here in comparison to Europe, but it's certainly not that cheap. No wonder emigration remains the dream of so many, and the internet cafes are alive with keyboard chatter as the search for work, marriage, and new life abroad goes cyber.
It would be all too easy to slip into the hypnotic ritual of strolling round town, obligatory icecream in hand and watch life go by in lazy cafes. The phials of coloured liquids dispensed from the fridge-like contraptions on every street corner are an absorbing curiosity in themselves. As are the waif-like Kyrgyz trendies, sporting razor sharp fringes to their Beatles bobs. But as pleasant as all this may be, my real appetite is for the mountains. And Rosal, a tropical girl at heart, is thirsty for the watery allures of Issykul lake.
This seems to be a wonderful time to be in Kyrgyzstan. We're fired by the wonderful feel of discovery from those we meet. An Italian tells us about the horse trekking firm he's set up that leads Brits on awesome rides across the plains. A group of enthusing American geologists tempt us to Son-Kol lake, 3,600m high, with images of vermicelli switchbacks and summer pasture yurts.
A fat wad of local contour maps in hand, we pack up the bikes, treat ourselves to a 'Full Monty' breakfast at Fatboy's. We're back on the road again, the lakes and mountains of this fascinating and inviting country our destination.