An account of the first stage of a three part journey we, Rowena and Tim Barnes, did by bicycle in Central Asia in 1999. The journey took us from Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, over the Torugart Pass to Kashgar in Xinjiang, then on down the Karakoram Highaway to Gilgit in Pakistan. This section covers our time in Kyrgyzstan, from Bishkek to the Torugart Pass.
For practical notes on travelling in Kyrgyzstan this trip click here
Our route through Kyrgyzstan
We flew into Almaty airport, in Kazakhstan, at about two in the morning. Luckily our driver Andrei was there to meet us and after loading our bikes into his van, we set out for Bishkek, 200km to the west. It was a long drive through a very dark night. As we made our way along the pot holed road I spent a lot of the time worrying about the trip and what on earth I had been thinking of to take it on. We were were hopelessly unfit, Rowena was not long out of hospital (she has Schizophrenia) and between us we couldn't speak more than two words of Russian. It seemed impossible we could ever pull it off and reach Gilgit 1500 kilometers to the South.
We arrived in Bishkek shortly after dawn as the first rays of the sun were touching the snowcapped mountains behind the city. We were expecting some dark post-soviet city, but with wide tree lined avenues and grassy overgrown parks, Bishkek had the feel of a sleepy provincial town
Bishkek - city of trees
We stayed in the city for a couple of days getting our permits sorted out and buying maps. During that time we got to like the place. It was hot during the day, nobody seemed to rush and the beer was suprisingly good.
Cherry seller in the bazaar
There were some old department stores in Bishkek, but they were dimly lit, dusty places almost devoid of goods. The only place that seemed have a spark of enterprise was the small bazaar near our hotel.
The Silver Road
When we set off, we were advised that route finding would be easy. All we had to do was follow the "Jibek Jollu" - The Silver Road. So we did and it took us out into the rolling green countryside outside the city. It was an enjoyable pedal and that evening we camped in glade of silver birch trees, next to a slow flowing river.
The next day was a lot tougher as we pedalled into a strong hot head wind. Finding water was also a problem. We camped in a small wood beside the road. Just after we pitched our tent we were joined by a Czech cyclist Jan Vlasak. A really nice guy, he was planning to cycle round lake Issy Kul.
The next day the road climbed up into a rocky mountain gorge. As we slogged up the hill we passed by a Dutch couple driving to Peking in their camper van. Then when we stopped for lunch we were joined by two americans who worked in Bishkek. Late in the day we camped near a railway line in a wild windy valley. Around mid night the Bishkek - Almaty express went through a few yards from our tent, but Rowena didn't even stir.
Setting out for the badlands
In the morning, it was much colder. Under a grey sky and in a howling wind, we set across the "bad lands", about 40km of dry, rocky semi-desert that led to the town of Balykchy.
Balykchy itself was big disappointment. We were expecting a pretty lakeside town, but what we found was a rotting post-industrial wreck, of potholled streets and rotting tenements. We pedalled a little way out of town and camped in a dusty apricot orchard.
Next day we set out for Kochkor to the south west. For the first part of the morning we enjoyed a spectacularly miserable pedal in heavy rain and driving wind. As the road wound into the mountains the clouds cleared and for a couple of hours we pedalled along in the sunshine. Then the clouds returned as reached a huge slate grey reservoir. The wind rushed down though a gap in the mountains, it started to snow, and for the next three hours we endured one of the coldest wettest rides of our lives. But it was worth it. That night we camped beside a river in a meadow studded with wild blue irises.
En route to the Dolon Pass
In the morning we pedalled the few kilometers into Kochkor and enjoyed a huge breakfast of four fried eggs, nan bread and a bowl of noodle soup each. After Kochkor the road ran through a wide fertile valley before turning south into the mountains. As we climbed Up a long narrow valley filled with balck clouds it felt as if we were dissappearing into the back of beyond. Eventually we reach some pretty alpine pastures at the foot of Dolon Pass and camped for the night.
Rowena at the summit of the Dolon Pass 3,000m
It was drizzling next morning as we set out to climb the 3,000m Dolon Pass. As we climbed higher the drizzle turned to rain, then to sleet, then to snow and we were engulfed in a blzzard and were forced to push the bikes through the slush. It was a very long cold push to the summit of the pass. When the clouds cleared that revealed a wilderness of white, snow covered. peaks. There followed a freezing descent into a beautifully unspoilt valley lined with birch woods and our first yurt.
We met these two gentlemen halfway up the Dolon Pass
The next day we made it to Naryn, a dirty, crumbling, vaguely threatening sort of a place. But we found our way to English Guest House, an oasis of security, clean beds, hot water and great cooking, run by the Celestial Mountains Tour Company. Here we enjoyed a wonderful day of rest, washing our stuff, tinkering with the bikes and shopping for supplies.
Looking back to Naryn
Worryingly, next day, as we set out on the road toward the Torugart Pass, the locals we passed shouted "Sneeyek!" and put their hands up to their necks to show how deep the snow at the pass was. We crossed our fingers and hoped the snow would melt in the days it would take us to reach the pass.
The Tien Shan Mountains
It was a long, long climb into the mountains above Naryn, past encampments of Yurts. Then we summitted a small pass and were reward by a flying descent across a grass plain and down into a wide empty valley with beautiful views of the eerie Tien Shan mountains.
For the next two days the gravel track climbed up the valley into an ever wilder landscape and wilder weather. We climbed a small pass then descended to a remote checkpoint where the Russian guards were very amused to meet us.
A cold campsite en route to Torugart
By now we had reached the snow line. After the check point, the rough tracked skirted round the foot of some mountains at the edge of a snow covered plain. We camped in a small hollow just off the track and endured a very cold night.
A cold slog after a cold night
In the morning we set out for the border post at the foot of the Torugart Pass. Just after we took this photo a huge armoured car came over a rise and a platoon of heavily armed Russian guards bundled out. We thought we were about to be arrested, but they just wanted to take our picture.
On the track to the Torugart pass
Around mid-morning we summitted another small pass and were rewarded with beautiful views of the frozen lake Chatyr Kul and the snow covered mountain beyonds. If anyone wants to know, this is where the Ice Queen really lives.We followed the track along the shore of the frozen lake, looking out on icy wilderness.After a couple of hours and a short blizzard, we turned a corner and there was the border post, looking like a grubby moonbase.
This is the salubrious accomodation we stayed in at the border post. The owner was a nice guy though.
The next day was very fraught. As it is forbidden to cycle from Torugart to Kashgar we had arranged for a jeep that had come from Kashgar and meet us at the Chinese border post 15km across no mans land on the other side of the 3,600m pass. But as the Chinese border post worked on Beijing time (2 hours ahead), we had to arrive before 3pm when it closed. Unfortunately for us the Russian guards didn't open the Kyrgz border untill after 1.30. So we were left with a desparate dash against the clock to climb the pass and get down to the Chinese side.
At the summit of the Torugart
The climb to the pass was up a steep rough track and, feeling the effects of altitude, we made slow progress. When we finally made to the red stone arch at the summit we were exhausted and pretty certain we weren't going to get to the Chinese border post in time. Just as we were resigning ourselves to being trapped indefinitely in no mans land, a short man in a black leather jacket appeared and asked us if we were Mr and Mrs Barnes. He introduced himself as our driver and explained he'd been allowed to drive up to the pass to meet us. We piled our gear into the back of the jeep and in a few minutes we were bouncing down the track into China.