At dusk about 20km outside of Jal-al-abad we’ve stopped on the side of road when a brilliant baby blue Soyuz motorcycle drives past us with a sidecar full of hay. The driver waves to us as he goes by and we jump on our bikes to catch him; there are barely any motorcycles in Kyrgyzstan, let alone ones this cool that run so well. I come up next to him and we motion for him to pull over. He obliges with a smile.
His name is Ibrahim: he’s 26 and lives here in Oktyabrskoe. We ask about the bike and try to explain how impressed we are. For him, the bike is more of what he could get his hands on rather than what he wants; it’s useful, he says, it can carry a lot of things. Conversation doesn’t flow naturally, but his smile is so sincere that we keep talking for a while. He asks us where we’re headed tonight. At this point the sun is low so we answer truthfully: we’re not sure, we’ll probably find a place to stay somewhere around here. Before we can finish trying to explain, he invites us to his home in true Kyrgyz fashion. We double check if that’s ok. “Of course,” he says, “I just have to finish this delivery so my brother will take you there.”
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.
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
Janabai is 30, has four kids, 46 horses, and a ton of sheep. He’s wearing an unzipped sweater and a worn Yankees hat. His bottom teeth are perfectly straight; two are capped in gold. When we pull up to the side of his yurt, he welcomes us like family.
“Sit here so the sheep won’t run out,” he tells Jie immediately after shaking hands. Janabai and his father, whose entire mouth is gold teeth, are busy trying to get the herd into a chicken-wire pen on the edge of a small waterway. Jie sits down, but when the sheep keep coming out and not in, he tries to get up to move the flock with his arms. From across the riverbed Janabai motions with his hands: sit back down. We may be part of the family, but we still have a lot to learn about our chores.
Central Asia is the birthplace of eagle hunting. As old as two millennia, hunting with eagles is not only fundamental in nomadic Kyrgyz and Kazak culture, but in the past was essential to the acquisition of food and furs in the winter. I’ve been captivated by eagle hunting every since being directed to a video about it (below) five years ago. The balance between a hunters training and an eagle’s intellect, the raw power of its wings and grace of its talons, make the hunt feel like a dance between the symbiosis of man and nature —a primal friendship forced in the bitter winter of the steppe.
Issyk kul is the eye of the Tian Shan range: a massive expanse of clear, inviting water sunk right between the mountains. In the morning haze the surrounding peaks blend and blur into the edge of the lake, sharpening and separating in the afternoon glow. Issyk Kul is second largest alpine lake in the world, but the road around it is an easy and enjoyable ride, a series of stunning views on welcoming roads. It’s a cruise made interesting by the decidedly different feel of each side of Issyk kul. The north is more of a beachside vacation; the east, an abundance of tall mountains and the perfect base for long treks; and the south a less-developed myriad of changing landscapes and shorelines. We take three days to loop the 440 KM around but it could easily be done in half that.
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.”
photos, words and illustrations
©Nathaniel Brown and Jieming Sun, 2015