THe turquoise Naryn river

The turquoise Naryn river

Well it has been a great week crossing Kyrgyzstan. Within two days Kyrgyzstan had knocked Armenia off the “Best Scenery” top spot of my trip, I’ve also tackled the two highest passes of my trip so far at 3,175m and 3,180m as well as cycling through the “Tunnel of Doom” which has reached fabled status amongst cyclists.

I’ve been getting on great with my new cycling partner Stephen Cunningham and we are now planning our fast race through China due to a change in Chinese visa laws which have shortened our time in the country from 80 to 55 days in which time I need to cycle 5078km, a big challenge.

Thanks to the beauty of Kyrgyzstan this is the most picture heavy post I have ever done so I will keep the text short and sweet where possible.

We packed up and headed out of Osh after another round of Kyrgyz Mante which differ from their Uzbek counterparts by replacing the sour cream with a slightly spicy sauce with vegetables, hinting a bit towards the food we will find in China…

Mante Dumplings in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.

Mante Dumplings in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.

The first two and a half days were fairly uneventful riding up and down over undulating hills on fairly busy roads but we spotted our first signs of rural Kyrgyzstan…

Cowboys on the road in Kyrgyzstan.

Cowboys on the road in Kyrgyzstan.

Our first campsite tucked just away from the road turned out great when a short bit of rain passed over and gave us a rainbow…

Our first camp in Kyrgyzstan.

Our first camp in Kyrgyzstan.

Earlier that day a man running a shop we stopped at gifted us a huge block of crystallised sugar after explaining he had been a soldier in Germany for two years. We were both confused for a while as to why a Kyrgyz soldier would be stationed in Germany until it clicked that he was involved in the Soviet Unions occupation of East Germany. The block of sugar was really pretty so I made sure to get a shot of it before we smashed it into powder…

Crystallised Sugar that we were gifted.

Crystallised Sugar that we were gifted.

Dotted around the country there are still monuments to the countries Soviet Union past…

Hammer & Sickles can still be found in Kyrgyzstan.

Hammer & Sickles can still be found in Kyrgyzstan.

We spotted a weird looking bike coming the other way and quickly met a man cycling from Japan to Europe on a recumbent bike, I didn’t catch his name but his bike really caught my eye. He explained that this type of bike is great on the flat and into the wind but terrible on hills and he’d been having a very tough time in Kyrgyzstan. It would take him 11 days to ride the route that ended up taking us 7 and a half…

Japanese guy (Didn't catch his name) on a recumbent in Kyrgyzstan.

Japanese guy (Didn’t catch his name) on a recumbent in Kyrgyzstan.

After a heavy rain shower we decided to get a hotel in Kochkar-Ata as we’d gotten soaked through and in a local shop I found something I’ve been craving… Gin & Tonic!

My first almost convincing G&T in months.

My first almost convincing G&T in months.

Not the most convincing product, with London and not Manchester being far more famous for Gin, but it was close enough to make me happy. We rode on the next morning and a few km’s west of Kochkor-Ata the road suddenly got very quiet and the tarmac dramatically improved to perfect fresh tarmac. You could happily ride from Kochkor-Ata to 50km west of Bihskek on a skinny tyred racing bike, something that would make an excellent “Grand Départ” for the Tour de France one year.

We detoured into the town of Tashkomur to re-supply before heading up into the Naryn river valley and fuelled ourselves up with some Pelmeni (Russian style) dumplings in broth…

Pelmeni dumplings, Tashkomur, Kyrgyzstan.

Pelmeni dumplings, Tashkomur, Kyrgyzstan.

I’ll reuse the photo from the start of this post to put it in context. This shot is from just south of Tashkomur towards the town and is the best shot I have of the incredible turquoise colour of the Naryn River. I’m guessing this is caused by some sort of mineral deposit but the colour is so vivid I’ve heard of people being nervous of drinking it!

The turquoise Naryn river

The turquoise Naryn river

On our way out of the town we spotted another Soviet relic…

Stylised Hammer & Sickle, Tashkomur, Kyrgyzstan.

Stylised Hammer & Sickle, Tashkomur, Kyrgyzstan.

We couldn’t wipe the smiles from our faces as we began to reach the narrower parts of the valley with the vivid river running along side us and stopped to grab a group photo…

Me and Stephen at the start of the Naryn River Valley, Kyrgyzstan.

Me and Stephen at the start of the Naryn River Valley, Kyrgyzstan.

We pressed on to our 100km target for the day and quickly realised we were in a bad area to camp with very little flat space away from the road due to the mountains. We found a small gravel area maybe 20 feet from the road set about sleeping under the stars as our tent pegs won’t work in the gravel. The sky was clear so we kept our fingers crossed for a dry night…

A not ideal campspot by the road through the Naryn River valley 30km south of Karakol, Kyrgyzstan.

A not ideal campspot by the road through the Naryn River valley 30km south of Karakol, Kyrgyzstan.

We’d also spotted these little curiosities in a store, individual plastic cups of vodka…

Plastic pots of vodka nightcaps, Kyrgyzstan.

Plastic pots of vodka nightcaps, Kyrgyzstan.

Our nightcaps sent us off to sleep but not until we’d enjoyed spotting about 6 satellites fly across the clear night-sky as well a shooting star. I also got a fantastic view of the Big-Dipper constellation as well as the Magellanic Clouds (the view from Earth of the rest of the Milky Way), it’s a shame I don’t have the gear or know-how to do decent night photography.

We did end up getting rained on in the night and we both just pulled our tents over us as a semi-waterproof duvet. This actually worked surprisingly well and proved a great experiment as we both realised we’d both be happy camping with just Bivi bags (a waterproof sack you put your sleeping bag in with no tent).

In the morning we pressed on and within the next 4km we passed maybe a dozen great camping spots on flat grass, typical! The next 30km from our camp to the town of Karakol are the most spectacular riding of my life. I’ve got 50 photos of this section but few manage to capture it well and I don’t want to flood you readers with all of them. I finally settled on these two which really capture what this road is like…

Naryn River Valley, Kyrgyzstan.

Naryn River Valley, Kyrgyzstan.

Naryn River Valley, Kyrgyzstan.

Naryn River Valley, Kyrgyzstan.

Towards the end of this day we climbed away from the Naryn river up towards a small pass. Along the way we saw many of these ornate graveyards, this one really stood out from the crowd appearing almost like a little town…

Ornate graveyard, Kyrgyzstan.

Ornate graveyard, Kyrgyzstan.

We pulled off into a bus-stop to miss the worst of the days heat and to dry out our damp gear…

Drying our damp gear in a bus stop, Kyrgyzstan.

Drying our damp gear in a bus stop, Kyrgyzstan.

We were annoyed by this big climb as we hadn’t expected it as our elevation profiles of this section are dominated by the two huge mountains we’d be climbing over in the next few days. We got rained on as we crawled up to the top but the clouds cleared just as we hit the top and got an incredible view back down the valley…

Great view just before the decent to the Toktugal reservoir east of Karakol, Kyrgyzstan

Great view just before the descent to the Toktugal reservoir east of Karakol, Kyrgyzstan

The descent from this pass to the Toktugal reservoir was incredible. Straight perfect tarmac with a few smooth switchbacks. We smashed it down the mountain hitting speeds of 60kmph overtaking trucks as we went…

Switchbacks on the decent to the Toktugal reservoir, Kyrgyzstan.

Switchbacks on the decent to the Toktugal reservoir, Kyrgyzstan.

We pressed on along the southern edge of the reservoir and once we hit our 100km target found ourselves in an agricultural area with no spots to camp. A large water pipe running along one side of the road which we could not get the bikes over limited our options further. We spotted a small house with some good land next to it and asked the guy living their to camp. His name was Krason (sp?) and he was super cheerful and invited us to stay in his house.

We had to wheel our heavy bikes along the top of the water pipe to make it to his yard which was a challenge and we begun to repay his kindness by cooking up some pasta with fish for the three of us. He laid down some extra bed rolls for us to sleep in and seemed to really enjoy the meal. Stephen offered him some of our vodka which he politely declined but after enough pressure joined us for a couple of shots. Over dinner we found out he was 58, a dairy farmer and that he has a son and daughter who live in a town nearby. I wrote our names down for him in Cyrillic and Stephen also gifted him a little Ireland patch.

Krason never stopped smiling and I got this great shot of him and his dog in the morning as we made our way back to the road along the pipe…

The kind man who hosted us on the east end of the Toktugal reservoir, Kyrgyzstan.

The kind man who hosted us on the east end of the Toktugal reservoir, Kyrgyzstan.

We pressed on 4km down the road before stopping to make instant noodles for breakfast in a foul smelling bus stop. Whilst Stephen cooked I washed our socks in a small stream across the road I had one of those moments where I realised how low our standards were. At least the bus stop had a great view, and for those of you with a keener eye the answer is yes… every plant in this photo is a Cannabis plant…

The view from our breakfast bus stop, Kyrgyzstan.

The view from our breakfast bus stop, Kyrgyzstan.

We had planned to just do a short 38km day to Toktugal and rest before tackling the huge 65km long, 2300m of ascent we would have to do the next day but decided to press on up the climb to split it in half after stuffing ourselves with Goulash…

What we got when we ordered "Goulash" in Toktugal, Kyrgyzstan.

What we got when we ordered “Goulash” in Toktugal, Kyrgyzstan.

About 20km west of Toktugal the meat of the climb began so we stopped to wash our clothes and hair in the river. We continued to grind on and spotted the result of some of the dodgy driving in this country…

The result of Kyrgyz driving on the way up to the Ala-Bel pass, Kyrgyzstan.

The result of Kyrgyz driving on the way up to the Ala-Bel pass, Kyrgyzstan.

It’s odd the little things you spot when you are travelling at the speed of a bicycle, like this little portrait of Stalin set into the wall of the valley…

Random Stalin plaque set into the wall of the valley, Kyrgyzstan.

Random Stalin plaque set into the wall of the valley, Kyrgyzstan.

We knew there were a couple of hotels on this climb but we had wanted to camp. Another heavy downpour of rain, as well as Stephen suffering from saddle sores exacerbated from us not showering for 5 days, set us scurrying into the first hotel about a third of the way up. A beer in the bar raised our spirits quickly as well as the cracking view from the room…

A room with a view, Kyrgyzstan.

A room with a view, Kyrgyzstan.

I was excited to get riding the next morning as my records showed I had 17km to ride before I hit the milestone of being 10,000km into my trip. We picked up some more individual vodka shots to celebrate with once we reached the top of this huge pass. It was a long grind of a climb but the surroundings were beautiful. Horses plodding around and locals in their yurts…

Kyrgyzstan in its element. Mountains, Yurts and Horses.

Kyrgyzstan in its element. Mountains, Yurts and Horses.

We also ran into a Korean couple, Jo and Kim, who are 13 months into a 4 year cycle around the world, their blog is here. The best thing about running into cyclists is tips from the road ahead and we got the simple warning that it was going to be cold…

Stephen with Jo and Kim, 13 months into their 4 years round the world trip.

Stephen with Jo and Kim, 13 months into their 4 years round the world trip.

More grinding and as the grass begun to disappear we noticed the air was much thinner. At this altitude there is about 30% less oxygen which can make riding a 35kg bike an unpleasant task. A snow storm started to kick in making things just that bit more fun and we both let out a cheer as we spotted the pass marker. We grabbed a quick icy photo before tucking into a Snickers bar and downing a shot of vodka each…

The longest and highest climb of the trip so far, we were super chuffed to reach the top. The Ala-Bel pass, Kyrgyzstan.

The longest and highest climb of the trip so far, we were super chuffed to reach the top. The Ala-Bel pass, Kyrgyzstan.

The storm really began to kick in and we decided we needed to descend fast. The thing is this descent only drops to 2,400m before sending you up the next pass at 3,180m meaning dropping out of the storm may not be possible.

We flew down the mountain in the snowstorm topping out at 68.8kmph (43mph), the fastest I think I’ve ever been on my bike. My fingers were beginning to freeze and I got some serious stares as I flew past cars at that speed slapping my hands against my thighs to get some blood into them.

We pulled into a tea house in Okmot 15km after the pass and ran in shivering and gasping for breath after the exertion at altitude. The lady owner was great and was quickly rushing around to make us a pot of tea and some lovely meat and potato soup. Whilst we were tucking in she came back over and said “Gostaneetsa” whilst pointing to a door in the cafe. That means guesthouse! Me and Stephen looked at each other with wide eyes of excitement as the storm was still in full force outside.

We spent an hour deciding what to do as stopping now would mean getting to Bishkek a day late which could cause a 3 day delay in getting our visas due to the approaching weekend. We relented and checked into the dorm after deciding it’s better to actually make it to Bishkek in one piece.

In the morning the storm was gone and found a horse parked up at the back of the guesthouse where we had left our bikes…

The back of our guesthouse, Okmote, Kyrgyzstan.

The back of our guesthouse, Okmote, Kyrgyzstan.

We headed off down the base of the high-altitude valley with some dramatic views along the way…

Views down the high-altitude valley in Kyrgyzstan. The bottom of the valley is at around 2,400m.

Views down the high-altitude valley in Kyrgyzstan. The bottom of the valley is at around 2,400m.

We pulled into a yurt that was sign posted as a shop and were served up some Kimiz (кымыз) which is fermented horse milk. An interesting drink, tasting a bit like milk mixed with cider and then smoked, but not one I think I’ll be ordering again…

Fermented Horse Milk (кымыз - Kymyz) in a Yurt, Kyrgyzstan.

Fermented Horse Milk (кымыз – Kymyz) in a Yurt, Kyrgyzstan.

We rolled on up to the next pass with the notorious Too Ashuu tunnel at the top feeling like pros at climbing to 3,000m. Just before the tunnel we took some cheesy photos to celebrate…

Just before the Tunnel of Death (The Too-Ashuu tunnel) Kyrgyzstan.

Just before the Tunnel of Doom (The Too-Ashuu tunnel) Kyrgyzstan.

The Too-Ashuu tunnel has a reputation for extremely poor ventilation which when combined with its 2.6km length and the 30% less Oxygen at this height makes a nasty mix. In 2001 several people died in the tunnel when a broken down car caused a tail back flooding the tunnel with Carbon Monoxide.

The ventilation has improved but many cyclists have reported being forced into a truck by the people working the tunnel. We had thought about hitching through but we knew that going from South to North the tunnel slopes downhill meaning flying through should be fairly easy.

We rolled into the tunnel riding close together with all our lights on and rode as fast as the terrible tarmac would allow us. We could see some slow moving trucks catching up on us and knew that if they caught up with us this would become a lot more dangerous.

Before we knew it we flew out the other side and I found myself feeling quite nauseous from the fumes that had built up in the tunnel despite the huge ventilation fans. I would strongly advise against cycling North to South through this tunnel as you’d be going uphill. Travelling through the tunnel slower whilst exerting yourself more doesn’t seem like the best idea!

Proud at over coming the Tunnel of Doom we were quickly rewarded on our descent with some spectacular views…

The the view just north of the Too-Ashuu Tunnel.

The the view just north of the Too-Ashuu Tunnel.

Our descent was slightly spoiled by headwinds that slowed us to 20kmph but we flew down to Kara-Balta and headed into a Soviet Relic of a hotel were we got a room for the both of us for $5 each. As I went down to lock the bikes a drunk guy barged into our rom seeming to think Stephen would have some vodka to give him. Stephen was not happy about this and quickly sent the guy on his way.

Earlier that day we also did a little air pressure experiment. This is an empty water bottle filled with air at 3,180m at the entrance to the tunnel and sealed…

The water bottle experiment part 1 at 3,180m.

The water bottle experiment part 1 at 3,180m.

And the same bottle crushed by air pressure 90 minutes later at about 1,000m…

The water bottle experiment part 2 at around 1,000m.

The water bottle experiment part 2 at around 1,000m.

The next day we smashed the 65km to Bishkek looking forward to our enforced week off whilst we get visas. We barely stopped along the way despite Stephen suffering a bad stomach from some dodgy water we’d drunk from a stream the previous day.

So now we must play the waiting game. We are in the Sakura guesthouse in Bishkek which is currently occupied by 17 cyclists all waiting on various visas, many of whom who are despondent about the fact that it seems the Pamir Highway (one of the greatest cycling routes on Earth) has been closed to tourists due to some unrest in Khorog. We’ve filed our Kazakhstan visa applications, found a great bike shop were I managed to get some spare disc break pads and we are in the process of getting a couple of British Army Bivi bags shipped out to us so we can ditch out tents.

We are trying to strip all excess weight off our bikes due to the challenge that now faces us. The old visa rule for China was a 30day tourist visa could be extended once easily and second time with some proof you are leaving the country. The new rule is one easy extension and a second only in extreme circumstances. This cuts us from an 80 day crossing to a 55 day one.

It has come down to two options. Race across China in 55 days or get as far as we can in 55 days then take a train to Hong Kong, Get a new visa which will take a week then head back to where we were. The problem with the second option is the cost and the possibility that we may get denied another visa for whatever reason.

We’ve gotten ourselves quite excited about the challenge of racing across one of the worlds largest counties with a route that takes us up to 4,250m on the edge of the Tibetan plateau so it looks likes we have a hell of a 55 day sprint ahead of us!

If you’ve enjoyed reading this then checkout my site 121degrees for more info and subscribe to this blog for more entries along the way!

I also want to divert the interest this trip generates towards helping out a charity that made a big differance to some friends of mine. Samuels Children Charity are a Lewes based charity providing support to families throughout the UK who are currently affected by childhood cancer. I hope to raise the sum of £5,000 from people who hear about this trip to help them continue their work, and to also keep me motivated throughout the challenges this trip will provide! If you’d like to see how the fundraising is going (or even better would like too donate!) then click here.

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