August 6th-8th: Bishkek to Kochkora, Kyrgyzstan
Wading through a ream of notes, I'm a little overwhelmed with the task ahead. How can I convey how I felt about this country without slipping into cliche? Knowing so little about this former Soviet state, I was instantly drawn by the hypnotic beauty of the high pastures and the warm yet reserved reception of its people. It was as much a mood as anything else; perhaps it was the nomadic heritage of its people that made me feel, travelling as I am on my bicycle, that I was connecting in some way.
We leave the city of Bishkek, passing the Sunday Tolchok Market - 'Bustling People' - and joining the 'main' road towards Lake Issykul, not unduly worried by the light traffic of horse and carts, timeworn buses, omnipresent Ladas and the odd Mercedes. One particularly rusty red Lada catches our eye. It's literally overflowing with tomatoes, so bright they're garish, filling the boot, carpeting the passenger seat, window deep, one giant tomato passenger. A crowd of laughing men are busy transferring this fresh load into crates to sell by the roadside, delighted when we stop to take their photo. 'Where have you come from?' they ask. 'Australia!' we reply. 'Hoooopa!' comes their reaction, the Kyrgyz expression of surprise, and our hands our filled with tomatoes.
Back on the road, we pass similarly laden melon and apricot-mobiles. Other alternative transport includes old style prams stacked with nan, Central Asian bread. A string of makeshift stalls ensure an uninterrupted supply of vodka to wash down any roadside picnic breaks. We stop to chat to some Chinese Muslims and hear Azans, the Islamic signature tune calling the faithful to prayer. But unlike Pakistan, the faithful here seem to be of a far more relaxed temperament, words of Allah taken with a healthy dose of salt. Elsewhere, angular sculptures dot the countryside - a contemporary depiction of a blade of wheat - remnants of the Soviet stamp. Greetings from picnicers bounce from one side of the road to the other, followed by incessant cries to pull over for vodka, looking suspiciously homemade in sizable glass beakers.
Unlike the profusion of restaurants and cafes all over China, its harder to find our staple 'lagman' here, perhaps a reflection of a tired economy. Tempted by an impromptu roadside market specialising in honey-melon, we picnic on a 3 kilo giant, washed down with another the size of a shot put - a gift from the friendly fruit seller. We find our own picnicing spot under the shade of a poplar tree, beside a golden wheat field where sprigs of marijuana sprout randomly here and there, set to a backdrop of rolling steppe.
Back on the road, its busy by Kyrgyz standards, but more for the life that lines it edges than the traffic itself. There's never a lack of advice from those we approach; the people are fascinated by maps, quick to pinpoint homes, trails and mountains, still very much in touch with their nomadic blood. 'How far can you cycle in a day?' we're asked, as if our own steeds are being evaluated against their own. On this beautiful summer's day, bare chested kids are out riding tremendous horses, watching us with quiet assurance, returning our nods with waves and smiles.
Sunset signals the end of our day and we contently pitch our tent in a nearby field. A stream of luxury traffic returning from Issykul, the summer weekend destination for Bishkekers, passes unheard in the night as I eagerly await the new dawn.
August 7th: Reaching Kochkora
Leaving the fields and the city behind, we begin our climb through 'Shoestring' gorge towards the higher plains of Issykul, following the Chuy river and passing an unusual bus stop in the shape of a Kyrgyz hat. As the name suggests, the road is narrow and winding; in the early morning, the hillside contours remind me of the ripples that pattern the desert sands. Ascending into the hills, we stop for refreshments at a stall selling the national drink of fermented mare's milk, 'kumus', manned by two round ladies throwing stones at sheep. I'm intrigued into sampling a cup of this pungent brew, but its an acquired taste; I discreetly pour it away when heads are turned, and quietly pocket the equally acerbic fizzy cheese. Little do we know, but this first brief kumus encounter is, literally, just a tiny taste of things to come.
Hunger strikes once more, and the buckets of apricots sold by the roadside look tempting, if not indulgent. For once we have a new problem in portion size. A whole bucket is just too much, but at less than 20 pence for so many, its hard to ask for just a handful. Instead, we settle on a carrier bag that brims with these tasty fruits, and relax in the shade of a mosaic bus stop to gorge ourselves. In this horse dominated environment, the bikes always magnetically pull a crowd. Rosal lends her steed to one delighted kid, who rides off into the distance to show it off to his brother. Retrieving it a few kilometres away, dripping with sweat, the boy stops me on our return to the apricots. Looking me in the eye, he pauses for effect. 'Twenty dollars!' comes the opening move of a heated bargain. I can't help but laugh, but he's quite serious. $20 US is close to three months adult wages here, and a small fortune to him.
Branching away from the main road, our road climbs yet further, as a storm throws a filtered tinge across the clear sky. A Russian minibus overtakes and out jump Craig and Lucas, the two American geologists we met in Bishkek, here to decipher the whys and wherefores that have created such stunning ranges. Onwards, marred only by a cackling line of electricity pylons, we emerge onto a flowing plain where mogul-like hills ripple towards the steppe, mimicking the waves of tufts of grass that cover them. It's as I might have imagined it, and a warming feeling seeps through my body - 'This is it! We're really getting there!' A long but gentle descent overlooks a reservoir, extending like a spill of water in every direction. Under the darkening sky of an approaching storm, the vivid neon grass carpet that surrounds it catches my eye.
It's been an inspiring day, and closing in on Kochkora, we stop for directions in a roadside village. Another eclectic group of bystanders soon gather - mainly a scraggly group of smiling kids astride donkeys and horses. An old Kyrgyz man in his felt top hat, long trenchcoat and tapering white beard, no doubt a little drunk, hurries over. With a torrent of words, he shakes my hand and plants a firm kiss on my cheek. Less enamoured by Rosal, he glowers mysteriously until an old Krygyz woman rushes over to her aid. Shouting at him, to our bewilderment and the amusement of those around, he finally concedes and gives Rosal a charmingly toothy smile.
Reaching the town, we're greeted by a typical market scene - prams of bread, Kyrgyz felt hats, tiny donkeys, curious smiles and a few drunken men propping each other up. There's always an outdoor speaker filling the air with sound and this time its playing Robbie Williams, adding a suitably surreal tinge to the both bustling and lazy scene. Before long, we've tracked down 'Shepherds Life,' an organisation that coordinates Kyrgyz families open to receiving visitors in their home. This low impact tourism seems an excellent way of supplementing local income, and showing tourists a slice of genuine Kyrgyz life, both in the villages and the summer pasture yurts.
A couple of buckets of hot water wash away the grime of riding. Dinner is served - dollops of fresh cream, blueberries, sweet apricot jam and slabs of fresh bread surround a bowl of noodles. Its our first time in a Kyrgyz home, and we fall asleep on shydaks, the incredibly comfortable, futon-like carpets that cover the floor. Handmade with felt beaten from sheep's wool, patterned with swirls of bright colour, they're soft enough for sleep to come easily.
Another perfect end to an excellent day...