Coming down from Song-Kul is nothing less than breathtaking. The southern side of the lake in and of itself is picture perfect, but the ride down into the valley is even better, if partially
because it comes as such a surprise.
Descent to Ak-tal & a Tent in a Canyon
Jie and I ride on the plateau that surrounds the lake for about and hour before we find ourselves suddenly to a high pass. A woman and her two sons are out on the ridge looking down into the valley. We park and walk over to join them. What we are greeted by is one of the most spectacular mountain views I’ve ever seen. Pink rock mountains fill the foreground, dotted with deep green pine trees and cut through by an extremely impressive 33 switchbacks. Behind them the distance fades to red, the mountainsides like curtain waves, twisting towards a far-off desert scene.
After another stop to just try and take it all in, we weave our way down the mountainside, shooting out a downhill like you do off the small lip of a waterslide. The small metaphoric pool that we land in is the hot, yellow-grass valley that runs through central Kyrgyzstan. It must be 15° C hotter and at least 50% drier. We stop to get gas across a massive river that doesn’t seem to be helping the barren climate. At the station there are two boys on a bicycle filling up an old 3 liter bottle of canola oil with gasoline; they debate for a couple minutes on who should carry it on their journey back to wherever they’re going.
From here the road goes from gravel to sand. Driving west into the setting sun things are even worse. Deep sand patches pop up unannounced and are barley visible even with sunglasses on. We spend the ending hours of the day teetering on the bikes, trying not to topple over. The sunset is a majestic purple that complements the ochre of the landscape well. We decide to camp by the next body of water we can find.
Before we get there, we drive through two small towns where the children run to greet us as if we were war heroes. Kyrgyz kids always wave and say hi to us as we go past, but here it’s as if the mayor has organized a welcome brigade. Both of us can’t stop laughing over the intercoms. Even a baby in a carriage is waves its hands, bouncing up and down as we drive by. Every hard section we just went through is suddenly perfectly ok.
We sleep in a canyon with a sandstone wall that seems like a Silk Road citadel; the entire riverbed smells like rosemary and lilac.
Golden Mountains, Gravel Roads, and High Passes; to and from Kazarman
The road out the next day is no better and no less scenic. We begin the day with a steep climb back up into the hills and over a 2800m pass. This time the view is only gold. Down on the other side we’re greeted by more dirt, gravel, and sand coupled with a bunch of interesting cave formations and a sprinkling of quaint, tin-roofed towns that seem to be in the middle of hay harvest.
The winding mountain road also seems to pass by dozens of barely marked historical sites. One we stop at turns out to be the crumbling mausoleum of an 18th century warrior. Others that
we don’t stop at look to be mosques or the remains of ancient cities. It’s one thing to be surrounded by history; it’s another to be steeped in so much of it that it just sinks into the
The road shows a slight hint of mercy after Kazarman, an extremely soviet town that can be described in no other adjective besides that and “dusty.” We do have nice a nice lunch of pelmeni though. The afternoon is a series of yellow canyons that slowly begin to rise into green hills and then culminate in a remarkable black rock mountain pass. The road seems to be under some sort of construction, but the surface is packed hard and it’s a great drive up. Maybe this will be some sort of highway someday, but for now the only semblance of human life here is the smattering of yurts and nomad herders that cling to impossible angles on the mountainside.
Descending from this final pass, we find ourselves in a valley that’s stunning in it’s own right. The canyon it’s inside is deep,
although the river looks refreshing. The small villages amongst the rocks are full of sunflowers that are apparently in season. The seeds sit in piles on the road, drying in the heat. As we drive
by a nomad outside his yurt makes an eating motion with his hand toward us: inviting travellers he hasn’t even talked to come join him for a meal. The hospitality here is often beyond
Back to the city; Osh
A day later we make it to Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second biggest city and a relaxing, very low-key urban area sunk into agricultural valleys. We spend two days here fixing up our bikes at a great garage and pick up extra parts at a vehicle bazar on the northern edge of town.
Our motorcycles might not be the best, fastest, or flashiest, but they have been extremely sturdy. In almost 20,000km the only major maintenance we’ve done is to change the tires, sidelights, and clutch cables. In Osh all we have to do is replace the oil, re-weld a broken rack of mine, and do some general re-tuning. Some screws have fallen out here or there, and our shocks are almost crying after so many bumpy roads, but the bikes have kept puttering away. In Central Asia, people always ask about the motorcycles, locals surprised just at the sight of them, foreign motorcyclists surprised at how small they are. Here in Kyrgyzstan any talk about the bikes is usually followed by a “mototsikl horosho?” (Is this bike any good?). So far, the answer is almost always, “da, horosho.”