The scenery in Kyrgyzstan changes faster than any country we’ve been in and is some of the most impressive we’ve seen. Central Kyrgyzstan is full of great campsites, great people, beautiful
drives –and tiring roads; it’s been one of my favorite sections of the trip so far.
Below are short vignettes that try to capture each of the days of the drive and a map of our route, the roads and our stops along the way
Arriving into Kochkor & a Night in the Hills
It’s a smooth afternoon towards Kochkor as the scenery from the Issyk Kul turns from wetland to arid. Halfway through we find ourselves rolling past an almost alien looking reservoir –the rocks burnt, the water strangely tumultuous— and realize everything around us has changed. Through another small pass and we’re suddenly in an agricultural valley again. It’s almost like falling asleep on a long train ride, each time waking up and looking out at different realities.
Everything goes almost without fault, except for our first (and hopefully only) run-in with the police. The Kyrgyz police are notorious for being particularly “proactive,” and we’ve been told to prepare copies of our passports and customs forms so that they can’t hold our originals ransom; when asked to show them money, we’re told to always keep it in our hands. They wave us over to the side of the road with batons and explain to us that we’ve been speeding. Apparently these five houses constitute a town, and also a 30kph drop in speed limit. There seems to be a bit of wiggle room, even when an officer takes us over to a radar gun and shows us photos of each of us going almost 10kph over the limit. Not much wiggle in that. Nobody really seems to be able to tell us what happens next as a steady stream of other cars are pulled over and manage, one after the other, to either get sent off with hearty handshakes, mysterious phone calls, or quick slips of money into the patrol car. We debate just going, but instead try to engage the officer; we did technically break the law after all. He first asks for 1000 som ($15), but we’re able to get him down to 500 after a brief back and forth. Neither officer seems too preoccupied with our presence; we almost have to force them to respond to us giving them the money. I guess there’s more than enjoy prey for this speed trap.
We arrive in Khockor a bit before dusk. It’s a sandy valley city wrapped on all sides by mountains, where multicolored Lada’s sit parked next to small fruit stands. We buy groceries from a girl with hijab and full mouth of gold teeth and look for a campsite.
Into the edge of the village and out into the surrounding hills the bikes wheeze as we push toward a flat spot halfway up, by this time our path only lit by the lamp of a distant courtyard.
The local residents are all surprisingly encouraging of our plan to camp. The scattered heat of the houses fills the nightscape as we settle in, sit down on small rocks, and eat pasta with
sausage and olives. The stars are out again and the milky way pours out from the mountains.
The morning brings with it an impressive view, young horseman riding up the hill, and two curious donkeys who keep coming close to camp and then skitting away towards a small pond in the distance. We relish in the morning heat, soaking in the unchecked freedom that only waking up in a tent can bring.
Shortcuts and hayfields: Heading Toward Song-Kul
Jie is having trouble with his eyes, so we head back into Kochkor. We manage to eat a meal of four dishes, bread, and tea for 170 som ($2.50) in a cafeteria with six tables of young men on a
lunch break and one large table of older women with children not yet young enough to be in school. Back in the grocery store, I take a long time looking at a bottle of vodka that’s only $1.50 for
a half litre. How can that even be possible?
Once Jie can see again (key to riding motorcycles), we break out of town and make our way up into the mountains surrounding Song-Kul. The sun is fading fast as we pull onto a dirt road and the impeding clouds began to fill in different shades of pink.
A bit of rain and a lot of mosquitoes make it seem like it’s going to be a rough night. We camp slightly off the road in what turns out to be freshly cut hay, the bikes sinking deep as we drop off a maybe too steep incline towards the river. The night never ends up raining, and instead is extremely pleasant. We sit on a dirt patch on the hill, filling an otherwise silent night sky with conversation half about life and half about presence of wolves and/or aliens. The water from the river tastes exactly like melted snow.
The next morning is even better. The mountains are every shade of green and there’s a nice breeze off the water. It’s hard to get the bikes back up the hill we came down from, but with a couple minutes of pushing and a couple bumps over big rocks we have them up on the main road.
The ride toward Song Kul starts the day off right, the road is unpaved as it winds up into the mountains, but it’s also riddled with alternate routes. We jump up the packed mud on the small horse paths between the main gravel road and turn back the throttle hard in low gear, whipping up between the switchbacks, whooping out into the morning because it feels so good. We’ve been with these bikes so many days we know when to push and when to pull. Like the nomads spin their horses, we’ve slowly begun to tame these machines.
Off the road the bikes come alive. They run free through an open canvas; the hard packed dirt and short grass are as forgiving as they are supportive. We cut trails between the switchbacks, pushing out as much as we can from the bikes on the uphill. The sun smothers us as we reach the top of the 3,000+ (10,000 ish ft) pass. We dodge horses, sheep and slow moving minivans, gunning straight for the mirage of an expanse that seems to be Song-Kul.
Song-Kul; Full Lake Freedom
At the lake we really get our off-road fix. The plains by the shore are flat and wide. There’s nothing in between us and the water besides a scattering of yurts and moveable herds. With a spin of the throttle and a swerve of the handlebars, the bikes fly onto the grassland. We drive as straight as we want, uninhibited by any sense of what the track should be. It’s hard to find another feeling this free.
We cruise around the grasslands for the better part of the morning, never actually making it to the waters edge –thwarted by uneven bogs and riverbeds with sharp downward angles. The ride is exhilarating nonetheless. We stop back at a local yurt to switch rides and rest for the remainder of the afternoon.
On our way out of we wrap around the south side of the lake that skirts close to the shore. Halfway through we stop by the side of the road so Jie can fix his mirror. A boy on a horse, smiling, approaches us. He’s sixteen, in grade 10, and likes football . He tells us this all while sitting on the halfway side of the saddle, always looking like he couldn’t possibly be comfortable. He asks us why where here and where we’re from. We respond and he looks at Jie.
“Jet Li?” he says. We don’t understand at first. But then he says it again, “Jet li. Karate,” he moves his hands in the universal downwards chop. It clicks.
“no, no.” We all laugh
He pauses and turns to me. His eyes light up and he points.
“Sultan Sulyeman!” He starts giggling to himself, seemingly very pleased at the connection he’s made. I personally don’t see the resemblance, but it’s the second time I’ve heard it, so they must be on to something. I try to explain that I have no relation to the Ottoman king.
He keeps chuckling as some younger kids come over on a donkey with water jugs to fill at the lake. An older woman follows behind them. We’re getting ready to leave so I pull my helmet down but he motions for me to take it back off.
“Hey guys, look, its Sultan Sulyeman!” He laughs to himself; everyone looks over at me. I smile back and we wave goodbye.
We’re not more than 50 meters off when I wipe out on the loose gravel road. I spin and the bike drops next to me. Both of us are fine but a bit unsettled.
The boy comes riding over, now carrying a younger kid in the saddle with him.
“Sultan Sulyeman are you ok? You ‘d better slow down,” he motions down toward the road with his hands.
“nieyt problem” I say, able to use one of the only phrases in my Russian arsenal. “Good,” he says “if you had a problem, I’d have a problem.” He turns the horse back around but keeps looking back at me. He flashes a quick smile and cocks his head back in the air as his heels hit the belly of the horse. With that he rides off.
I get back on, adjust my sheepskin and re-saddle my iron steed too. We ride back beaming toward the setting sun.