We arrive in Bishkek when it’s already dark having left Almaty in a flurry of early-morning goodbyes and an afternoon of rolling hills. The road out is perfectly paved and this time the border goes much smoother thanks to the help of an off-duty Kyrgyz border guard who happens to speak Chinese. It probably doesn't hurt that I’ve already been here before (see the bottom half of this post for that & more border details).
Kyrgyzstan greets us with a perfect sunset and two giggling boys at the gas station and we make our way into the city under brilliant pink skies. Life across the border is decidedly much less developed, and even entering Bishkek there are almost no streetlamps, the city essentially dark as we drive in. The only things that light our way as we wind towards our hostel are the aggressive neon of local moneychangers and a second floor boxing ring called, simply, “Strong.”
In town we stay in a gorgeous hostel that’s been converted from a massive family home, complete with a pool (!), grand spiral staircase, and floor to ceiling windows. It’s definitely one of the prettiest hostels I’ve been in and the house is matched by a very homely vibe –a lot of people hanging out on the back porch at night or by the pool during the day like a house on a college campus. We get dinner at a restaurant with outdoor shashlik on low tables that feels more southeast Asian than it does central Asian and spend the night talking with Jeremy, a French long-distance motorcyclist who’s been on the road around the world for three years. I sit upstairs and doze off to the deep blue glow from the pool
Kygryz food is a mix of variations on the central Asian staples that we had in Kazakhstan with the addition of local takes on western Chinese dishes like Laghman (chaomian in China or Chow Mein in the west) or Gyanfan, rice with stir-fry on top (gaifan in China). There’s even a local version of the Xinjiang classic dapanji. In most circumstances the dishes seem more inspired by these flavors than directly copying them, and the fact that I consistently still order them –despite being very tired of a month of Chinese food— is probably a testament to that. These dishes are supported by heavier staples: delicious, fatty Shorpo, a kind of mutton soup, and Kuurdak, a hearty, almost creamy braised stew of beef and potatoes. The Kygryz flavors are rich and full, covering and almost overwhelming your mouth with each bite.
Bread here is still cooked in a central Asian nan shape, but we manage to find it much fresher and softer than anywhere we did in Kazakhstan or Xinjiang: it tears easily and melts sweet and round in your mouth. Upgraded too are the Samsas which are filled with chicken or beef, and here seem to be available in all different shapes and pasty shells. By far the winner of Kyrgyz cuisine though is its jam: black currant, apricot, blackberry –all handmade and all the perfect balance of sweet and savory, thick and spreadable. With so many Kazak grandmas trying to bring tubs of it back into the country, you know there has to be something good about it.
Also, there is beer in 2 L plastic bottles. I dont know why no other country does this but it's genius.
After a slow morning the gorgeous Bishkek backyard, we make our way down through the first of Kyrgyzstan’s mountains and toward the east. One third of Kyrgyzstan is mountains (somewhere even said 94%) and even when looking out the window in Bishkek you are already ridiculously close to the snow capped Ala-too range. The first 150kms out of the city don’t feel like the rest of the Tian Shan we’ve been in though. instead it’s more like Utah: deep red rocks and quickly rising crags. The road is surprisingly great, almost even recently re-paved; we manage to glide to the eastern corner of Issyk Kul lake with ease
There aren’t many motorcycles on the road as we drive. All of the other motorcycles we see are either foreign riders on foreign bikes, or old men on soviet Urals –some even with sidecars. They are drenched in vintage cool, but here they’re driven with no sense of antique. They’re just a means of transport left over from a time past. This rings true in a lot of Kyrgyzstan: it’s decidedly more soviet, although somehow less Russian. However, Russian is still the language of choice, something I begin to find out when everyone responds to my Kyrgyz rakmat (thank you) with a Russian pojalusta (you’re welcome). Chinese goods are also decidedly more present than in Kazakhstan too. Leftover Chinese shipping containers seem to have found their everywhere too: they’re used all over in small towns, as shop fronts or even construction bases for houses.
Once out of Bishkek, northern Kyrgyzstan is mostly rural, and even parts in between bigger towns feel caught in time: boxy tractors putter through the streets next to families sitting in bed of steady donkey carts. And maybe because, or in spite, of this Kyrgyz people are still extremely warm and friendly. Smiles abound, even towards strangers, and people greet each other on the street with close kisses and warm felt handshakes. Multiple older men have come over to us unannounced with an outstretched hand of hello. Every town we drive through children wave to us, sometimes literally running by the bikes as we drive through, and people stop to ask us why we’re here and where we’re going, listening patiently when we don’t understand or try to respond in broken Russian. Some days I feel lost in the landscape, comfortable but also so detached from everything I know. It’s at these moments that it feels especially good to feel so welcome.
The Kyrgyz-Kazak border at Korday:
I crossed the Kyrgyz-Kazak border twice. Two-thirds of the way through our time in Kazakhstan, Jie and found out that our visas —which we thought could be extended— couldn’t be extended (this applies to all travellers who come into Kazakhstan on the new visa-free agreement). That for me meant a trip down to the Kyrgyz border and back, and for Jie a 24-hour roundtrip back to China. Both times across the border were pretty straightforward, and despite a bit of waiting, were far more relaxing than getting out of China (I think literally anything could be).
There are two ways to get into Kyrgyzstan from Kazakhstan. You can go through Korday, 20 km from Bishkek, or through Karkara, a summer-only pass in a more remote valley. Most self-driving travellers take the latter and pop out in the northeast corner of Kyrgyzstan, then heading along the North shore of Issyk Kul lake, or going down to hike in Karakol. Both times I went to the Korday border instead. The first time was for convenience. There are shared cars running form the Sairam bus station in Almaty all day, which makes it faster (3.5 hours) and much cheaper (1500 Tenge) than any other option. For an in-and-out trip, it made things a lot easier. The second time, it was because of proximity. Our last dinner in Kazakhstan turned out to be the first one with (a fair amount) of vodka, so waking up early to make time for the rougher roads to Karkara unfortunately wasn’t really in the cards.
Getting out of Kazakhstan, the officers will ask you for your customs form (which you get coming in) and two (2) copies of both your passport and the motorcycle’s blue book. They will then give you a stamped piece of paper once your bike has been inspected that you take to passport control to go through customs for your person. For us, this only consisted of a border guard asking us “do you have cocaine?” On the Kyrgyz side things are relatively simple too. You drive up and park outside a small one-story building where fill in a form about your bike in duplicate. Make sure you have cash (ideally Kyrgyz Som, otherwise you’ll get a terrible exchange rate that the border guards conveniently round up) because getting the bike into the country costs 500 Som. The guard will then ask how long you’ll be in the country and will give you the customs papers for the bike accordingly. Once this is done you have walk over to the passport section where the officers in the first door on your left will give you a stamp (those with Kazak and Kyrgyz passports go through the main lines).
Getting back into Kazakhstan is a different thing all together. The first time I go, I’m on foot and don’t cross more than five
feet into Kyrgyzstan before turning around to get back in line. But turning the corner I run into a wall of people, drastically different than the 10 minutes and no lines I had coming out. There
must be hundreds of people all crammed into the border office and in the metal channels that line the path to the border. People push and shove hard, yelling in rising anger as the line comes to
a halt, and then again when it begins to surge from the back. Some on foot have managed to hustle their way into the car lane, only to argue and fight with the guards at the next section. At
multiple intervals, different people jump the fence where the line is waiting, throwing their bags across with them; others just thrust their way out of line by moving the other way. It feels
more like a war zone than a daily border crossing. The only thing that breaks the tension is an old Kyrgyz woman walking up and down the line. Taking advantage of the afternoon heat, she’s out
here selling ice cream. All-in it takes me two hours to get across.