After an extremely easy and pleasant border crossing from Uzbekistan we were both super excited to be in our third Stan! Kyrgyzstan had been one of the places I’d been hanging out to see the most, described by some as ‘The Switzerland of Central Asia’ I couldn’t wait to explore this mountainous beast and to see if it truly was a central Asian land of toblerones and fondue parties.
First day riding in Kyrgyzstan
Straight away it didn’t disappoint, the scenery changed within the first 40 km to amazing snow capped mountain ranges and stunning red dirt gorges, but it also started getting pretty chilly and there wasn’t a cheese covered potato in sight. We’d been trying to get to Kyrgyzstan as early as possible to avoid crossing some of the mountain passes in snow so we were trying to push on as quickly as possible to save us freezing to death in a field somewhere.
I love you Kyrgyzstan
Our first night in our newest Stan was spent in a steep rocky gorge just off a narrow mountain road. Definitely not the ideal spot to set up a tent as it was extremely uneven and steep and full of loose rocks, but it was getting dark and we didn’t want to ride the narrow mountain road at night. We managed to set up the tent before it started raining and also discovered my back tyre was barely clinging on to dear life by a few feeble shreds of rubber and my inner tube was actually exposed…good choice to stop riding for the day!
For us, setting up a tent wild camping is all about achieving the right mix of not being seen from the road while also being close enough to the road that you can get help if needed in the night. We thought we were pretty well hidden behind a massive pile of rocks and bush with huge hills either side of us, but we hadn’t counted on a farmer herding mountain goats over the ridiculously steep hillside. Luckily he didn’t seem to pay much attention to us and moved on pretty quickly with his goaty pals leaving us to curl up and slowly slip down in a ball to the end of the tent due to the silly angle we were on.
In the morning we woke up to heavy rain so decided to chill out and read in the tent waiting for it to pass. It eventually did so we sprung out of the tent pumped for a new day of riding in an exciting new country, made breakfast, fixed my tyre and got ready to go….before a large aggressive rock randomly rolled off the hill next to us and viciously attacked Kelly’s foot in an unprovoked act of brutal savagery. She wasn’t wearing shoes at the time so this was pretty bad news for her! Don’t wear thongs in a rocky gorge kids!
Valley where Kelly's foot was mauled by a rock
Kelly managed to push on for the day and we climbed high into the mountains and persevered through heavy rain as there was not really anywhere to shelter and wait it out. The scenery made up for the dreary weather though with stunning views of mountains and beautiful mirrored lakes. We had some people pull over and offer to give us a lift, but as we were already soaking wet it seemed pointless so we pushed on and eventually found a nice spot next to a river and a tiny group of three of four family houses where we asked the locals if we could sleep next to the river. The locals were super friendly and let us stay next to the river just down from their property so we had a nice night in a fairly sheltered beautiful spot.
Awesome camping spot in the mountains
Kelly’s foot was not doing too well though and it was making it pretty hard for her riding up the seemingly endless mountains. We didn’t really have much of a choice but to push on as we were pretty far away from any hotels or towns to rest up in so we had to slowly keep climbing into the mountains in the now freezing cold. We weaved in and out of herds of sheep and goats being pushed through the mountains by shepherds, passed through a couple of tiny villages and eventually set up camp in one of the coolest camping spots so far in a little sheltered plateau just off the road with kick ass views out across the valleys and lakes. Kyrgyzstan was definitely living up to the hype with beautiful turquoise lakes and endless mountain ranges in all directions…but not even a single triangle of toblerone or measly lindt ball anywhere.
That night we decided that it was not wise to continue on as Kelly’s foot was swollen and causing her pain so we bit the bullet and decided to aim for the next ‘large’ village that we hoped had a bus service to the capital Bishkek. At the time I was pretty disappointed as it would mean we were going to miss out on one of the biggest challenges of the trip, climbing some extremely steep mountain passes and crossing through one of the most dangerous tunnels in the world on the Too-Ashuu pass. It seems like a weird thing to be disappointed by looking back now, but something about the challenge of this mountain pass and the tunnel appealed to me…pretty stupid as several people have died riding through the tunnel due to carbon monoxide poisoning as it is extremely long (2.7km slightly uphill), full of potholes and very steep.
I felt like we’d achieved so much and our cycling ability had got so much better that we were up for the challenge, but in the end it was a wise decision as when we reached the top in a mini bus it was basically a blizzard with far more snow than we had expected and the tunnel was pretty terrifying even in a mini bus.
Getting our bikes on the mini bus had been an experience in itself with a crowd of local drivers surrounding us and haggling over the price to get us to throw our bikes on their roof for the drive to Bishkek. On the plus side we did find a bakery selling massive circular loaves of bread straight out of a wood fired oven so I ate about 15kg worth of hot delicious heavy bready goodness before we hopped on the bus.
We were happy to get to Bishkek and have some time off the bikes, it had been a cold and wet introduction to Kyrgyzstan and we were both a bit burnt out and Kelly needed time to let her foot heal. We managed to score a really cheap basic apartment to stay in for a few days, which we quickly transformed into a massive laundry room after cleaning all our crap and washing out the stinky tent. The next few days were basically a vodka, beer and food binge and resting our weary bones in preparation for the next leg. We were both wind burnt and weak and I was wasting away a little bit at a time so continued my eating mission by smashing back kebabs, pizza and pastries all day.
Bishkek was a big soviet looking grey mass of concrete, but there was definitely some cool places in there too and we enjoyed our few days on our legs and off the bikes. The night before we were setting off it decided to snow pretty heavily so we were a little apprehensive about taking off again, but knew we had to push on as it was only going to get colder and more snowy the longer we stayed and I would probably destroy my liver on cheap vodka if we lingered too long.
Cows and Car. Kyrgyzstan was awesome!
We hit the road and made it to the snowy Kazakhstan border where everyone seemed extremely confused about how exactly two foolish shivering cyclists should cross into the country; one border guard sent us to the car queue, the next border guard sent us to the pedestrian queue and eventually we were ushered to some kind of VIP gate where we were thoroughly searched and deeply sniffed in our intimate areas by German shepherds before rolling into another Stan!
Borat is probably the first thing that pops into most people’s head when they think of Kazakhstan…the first thing that pops into my head now is ‘fucking freezing’! Our lack of warm clothes and cheap thin sleeping bags was definitely regretted once we entered this cold beauty and we spent our first night shivering in a valley under some trees surrounded by some extremely friendly cows. We were slightly concerned about being trampled in the night, but to be honest would have probably benefitted from a nice warm bovine hug. Cooking dinner I lost feeling in my fingertips and couldn’t actually get my fingers to function and zip up my jacket, which was a bit worrying, but we survived to ride another day!
Good Morning Mr Friendly Cow
Frosty morning and cold asses
The frosty times continued on our way to the capital Almaty with us waking up everyday to frost covered tents and bikes and frozen water bottles accidently left in bottle cages. We spent a night in a field with stunning mountain ranges in the distance, another night in a thick dense forest behind some farmland and a night hidden in some rolling hills off a highway. We had to resort to using emergency heat reflecting silver blankets we’d grabbed as an after thought before we left France and I’m pretty sure we would have been in some serious trouble without these guys! I had also stupidly left a dirty pot to soak over night…not the brightest move, it was frozen solid in the morning and made making our standard breakfast of hot oats a rather time consuming process.
Our emergency blankets also doubled up as fashion accesories.
Almaty was a nice change for us and extremely modern with fancy restaurants and supermarkets everywhere…it was like being back in Europe! It was kind of nice to be able to feel ‘normal’ and go into a shopping mall as sad as that sounds. We hit up a cheap but amazing buffet two days in a row and absolutely destroyed it! Pretty proud of our efforts fitting in about 20 plates each into our hungry bodies. We stayed in a cool hostel and met some other travellers, enjoyed the luxuries of a hot shower and clean clothes, did some basic maintenance on the bikes and registered ourselves with the government as it’s compulsory to do so or they hunt you down and sell your organs as sausage meat.
By this stage of the trip we were both getting pretty tired and missing our ‘normal lives’ but were now so close to China we could nearly taste the wantons! 6 months and 13 countries on a pair of cheap bikes we bought with around 6 weeks of planning for a huge trip and no training or previous experience; we were burnt out but proud.
Leaving Almaty the cold continued, but we had some amazing camping spots in the desert and fields that kind of resembled the surface of mars. The bikes were starting to struggle a little with Kelly’s wheel nearly coming off at one point and many flat tyres crushing our spirits a little and making the days feel very long when combined with strong headwinds and freezing days.
Cold mornings with awesome views
We were now within about 30km of the Chinese border but it was getting dark and decided to cross over in the morning so we hunted for a camping spot….ended up being possibly the dodgiest/grossest spot of the trip. Pushed our bikes into a dried out river bed that had now become a bit of a local dumping ground with rubbish strewn everywhere and even a lovely mountain of used nappies. It was dark and late and becoming more built up the closer we got to the border so we didn’t really have much choice so followed the river bed down as far as we could to get away from the rubbish and to avoid the chance of having people stumble across our tent in the night while dumping there crap. In the end it was an ok spot, but not really somewhere I would like to revisit any time soon, and I know Kelly felt pretty uncomfortable about our night there, but sometimes you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do!
The last few kilometres to the Chinese border felt truly surreal, we couldn’t believe we were actually reaching China after nearly 9000km and 6 months riding. When we set off we had it in our heads that if we could make it from France out of Europe on bikes that would be a great achievement for us considering we had zero bike knowledge, experience or preparation and the closer we could get to China in the time we had then the bigger the achievement. We were both feeling overwhelmed and almost high at the thought of actually crossing into China, our final destination for this trip!
On the way to the border we saw village after village harvesting massive mountains of corn on huge sheets at the side of the road surrounded by green hills and pastures and for some reason the scenery just didn’t look like we could be so close to China!
Corn harvesting near China!
We crossed through the Kazak side and could see the Chinese border post! Just to tease us that little bit more, it was a good 2 km cycle through a barbwire fenced maze to actually reach the border crossing.
Holy shit it’s China!!
NI HAO CHINA!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Holy crap we made it to China!!!!! Keep your eyes peeled on ballsouttraveller.com for the next and final installment of this tediously long and now well overdue series of blogs when I finally wrap this baby up roughly a year and a bit after we actually finished the trip!!! BALLS OUT!!!