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11) August 17th, Kyrgyzstan - humiliations in Bishkek

My last main stop in Central Asia and it's been nice to relax in a friendly guesthouse taking things easy for a while. Kyrgyzstan has had a very different feel to the other countries in this region - the difference between countryside (the Kyrgyz nomads of the mountains) and the more Russified towns and cities, seeming much more polarised. But a frictionless mix of Slavics and Orientals... with Russian manners. You can be anonomous here, a welcome break from the role of Obvious Tourist.

However, I hadn't plan to stay the best part of two weeks in this city. Twice I packed my bike ready to leave, twice the mysterious Stomach Bug reappeared, determined to delay my plans.
Hopefully in a few more days I'll be on my way again - east past Issy Kul, a lake I must not be allowed to miss, and north for a brief sojurn through south west Kazahkstan, and soon into China.

And the beginning of Part IV of the trip, leaving Central Asia behind in a trail of dust and watermelon seeds...

2 august, Tue: There were tears last night when Dinara knew I was leaving this morning. We exchanged bears - I gave her Paddy, a small green Irish bear which has accompanied me all the way from London, and in return I received Mishka, a slightly surprized looking Russian bear. So now I have a new travelling partner strapped to my handlebars. Shakir had kindly arranged for his frail 77 year old uncle, the local imam, to see me off ("It is good luck for an older man to say farewell. The older the better...").

Typical Fergana valley scenery - monotonous but pleasant enough, but the first 50km to Uzgon came very close to knocking Tajikistan off the Number 1 spot for Shittiest- Road-in-Central-Asia. Big feckin rocks, sand, holes... terrible, absolutely terrible. I was doing 8kph on the flat. Oh I was mad, raving bloody mad. After Uzgon, asphalt, but my body was too battered to appreciate any nice scenery I may have passed. Eventually arrived in Jalal-Abad with a bruised arse (yes, really) and fuming even more after having taken a wrong turn (and a 30km detour..). A rough day. Oh yes.
Stayed at the local "Intourist" hotel. A very pleasant surprise - clean room, working bathroom, balcony and friendly staff! Happy to pay the $5.
Distance: 132km. Overnight in Jahal-Abad (Kyrgzstan).

3 august, Wed - Arse Recovery Day: Not yet ready for my Brookes saddle so soon after yesterday's rough rood, I choose to stay a day in town. Parks, lots of outdoor cafes, thriving bazaar - I liked it. In the evening a rather nice university student, Chika, helped me with my dinner order (helping me to avoid eating the same meal three-times in a row) and offered to meet up with me afterwards "to show me around".
After a surprizingly swift dinner, and a brisk walk (okay, sprint) back to the hotel, as arranged I waited for her outside the hotel. And she turned up a few minutes later. With chaperone ...

4 august, Thu: Fairly decent progress today, passing a slew of towns: Bazar Korgon, Suzak, Massy, Kochtor Ata... scenery unchanged, though later in the day a large range of mountains could be seen in the distance. My mountains. Gulp... Had a nap in a roadside cafe on one of the "tapchan" (the rectangular cushioned platforms), falling asleep to George Michael's "Careless Whisper". Set off again in the afternoon, and the asphalt was soon replaced by gravel. I ran into a Belgian couple cycling home from New Zealand (www.katrienenebroindeknel.be)!
Soldiered on, my backside complaining. Passed one promising teahouse - but still only 6pm and I wanted to get through as much as this gravel as possible before setting up camp. Very pleasant cycling at this time of day, cooler, long shadows, a soft orange glow on the distant mountains... eventually stopped at a simple teahouse ran by a kindly old man. The number of people gathered around me as I put up my tent and cooked my dinner varied between four and twelve. Late into the night, a constant stream of aged gentlemen dropped by for a chat with the owner, and say hello to me.

Through the night saw lightening over towards the mountains. This is where I'm going ..
Distance: 112km. Overnight near Tash Komur (Kyrgzstan).

5 august, Fri: Absolutely exhausted by the end of today. First an unpaved road for 25km through hard rocky mountains, the azure blue water of the reservoir and dammed river down to the left. Then the road to Kara-Kul. On the map this looked straighforward. But in reality it was up/down/up/down, 12% grades all the way. Slept for an hour at a chay-hana. Today's tea-shop song: Aplhaville's "Big in Japan". Arriving in Kara-kul I was dismayed to discover that the main town was over another big pass. Limped into the local "Intourist" about 7pm. Washed two days of unpaved road and sand out of my clothes - I was suffering some painful chafing in a particular tender area - cooked my dinner on the balcony and slept.

I've noticed that the dogs here are a lot more aggressive than Uzbekistan (where they just could not be bothered enough to rise from their slumber to chase me). But I'm beginning to enjoy throwing rocks at these dogs now. Really enjoying it infact. Sometimes I get off the bike and actually chase after the poor mutt with a pile of stones in my hand. Sometimes I get them while they're still asleep.
Distance: 75km. Overnight in Kara-kul (Kyrgzstan).

6 august, Sat: A hard day again. Rose up from the town to the pass (first of many many), the invitingly blue Naryn river gushing down the side. Constant 12% ups & downs - no flats. Around the reservoir (again, up and down) and into Totokul. A nice, if strenous day - I calculated that my actual elevation gain is probably close to tomorrow's monster pass. Totokul, less Soviet, more "shanty town" feel to the place. I liked it.
Distance: 112km. Overnight in Totokul (Kyrgzstan).

7 august, Sun: Oh boy oh boy oh boy. Now I know pain. Now I know pain. A group of Czech alpinists staying at the same hotel had left a bag of food for me at the foot of the door when they left early in the morning. They obviously knew something I didn't.
The initial part of the ascent was through a steep narrow green gorge, with the river gushing down alongside. It was still early, and with the shade of the trees lining the road I was actually quite cool, otherwise it would have been perfect for a dip. Later on in the day, the gorge widened, the trees thinned out, and someone turned on the sun. I would think back to the lovely green section earlier and torture myself "imagine a dip in that cool sparking water..."

After the first few miles up the pass, the cafes disappeared. No water, no food - just an abundance of stalls selling honey. Filled up my waterbottles from the river and cooked my own lunch by the roadside (again, while a couple of locals looked on over my shoulder). But still, at 2400m, I thought "this ain't so bad". Fool. After a few hundred metres more I was really feeling it. At this altitude, the valley opened out and there were a few yurts and simple caravan-like shacks (actually rusty railway carriages) selling stuff that I really didn't want: horse's milk, rotting butter (orange coloured and packed teasingly in plastic fanta bottles)...

The final 7km to the pass were pure agony. It was cloudy and cold by now, and raining. The road was so steep and my legs had nothing left in them, so weak I was progressing 10 metres at a time. Had to dig in my bags for an out-of-date energy bar just to achieve that.
Reaching the pass - a collection of decrepid out-buildings - my sense of relief was tempered by the rain, the cold and the fact that I had another one of these buggers to do tomorrow. Descending (oh no! every metre down means another metre up tomorrow!) into a vast green soggy plain, mountains either side, with the occasional yurt. I was so cold! Invited into a yurt for "kumis" - the horse's milk drink - but managed to change it to chay instead. The yurt wasn't as cosy as I'd been led to believe: drafty, the wooden door constantly flapping open. Maybe if the stove had been lit it would be different, but I wouldn't like to sleep here.
Continued the descent and eventually came to the "village" of Otmuk - a few trailers huddled together and a deserted building. But food! I camped in the field behind the restaurant, watching the silouette of a Kyrgz horseman high up on a nearby hill-top as the light slowly faded.
Distance: 83km. Overnight in Otmuk (Kyrgzstan).

8 august, Mon : Packed up my wet tent with a heavy heart and even heavier legs and made my way towards the next pass. Dark clouds, a strong headwind and the occasional yurt dwellings on vast grass plains - beautiful, but bleak. After 40km my spirits rose when I came to a restaurant in the middle of nowhere. Energy for the pass.

Everyone's a horseman, it seems - even young kids are skillfully rounding up herds of sheep on horseback. As the final 10km to the pass approached, the road got a lot steeper, and the cold rain increased. People in cars looked at me in amazement as I wore only a T-shirt in this cold fierce rain. They didn't realise how hard I was working! I was shivering with the cold but it did keep me from stopping. And I was pissed off - all this pain and instead of stupendous views of the valley below me, all I saw was cloud and fog.

Eventually saw the end of the climb in the distance - a long dark tunnel burrowing 2km through the mountain. After what seemed like another day I made it to the entrance. The tunnel guard was at first adamant that no bicycles were allowed through ("you will die, I tell you, die!"). After a while, relenting, he said okay, but it would cost me $5. In the end he settled for a chat and a cigarette. The tunnel wasn't too bad, the only scary bits were when I crossed under the giant noisy ventilators - unseen noisy jet engines...
Oh, but reaching the other side was so worth it, so worth it! Incredible massive mountains tightly enveloping the narrow valley steeply winding down. What an exhilarating descent! Hard granite walls stretching thousands of metres either side. A great road. Gushing clear stream... oh man, fanatastic! For the first 25km I was travelling at speed downhill, overtaking lorries, braking hard around corners, all the while hemmed in by these huge rocks walls. I coasted the next 45km gently downhill, out of the mountains and through open plains, the fields on either side a burnt yellow under the late afternoon sun.

Arriving at the main road to Bishkek, instead of stopping for the night I decided to carry on further towards the city, thinking I would easily find a cafe with a space to pitch my tent. Over the last few days I had been told by various locals of two French cyclists who had gone before me, stealing my thunder. First they were a day ahead, then five hours ... now, a bloke by the roadside told me they had passed by only 30 minutes ago! I was almost caught up! But it was getting late, I was tired and was now starting to worry where I was going to sleep - there were no cafes, lots of houses, and a woman I asked to camp in her yard had demanded $50 for the priviledge.
Stopping for something to eat ("sorry, no space here") I was pointed to a field, just off the main road. I set up camp there, while a Russian farmer who lived nearby prepared a campfire, some watermelon, and two bottles of cheap vodka.

One and a half bottles later he passed out in the field and was dragged off home by a couple of the local boys. I went to bed, already dreading what kind of hangover I'd have a few hours later...
Distance: 150km. Overnight in a field (Kyrgystan).

9 august, Tue: Slept (slept ?) well. Yura, the farmer, wanted me to take pictures of him & me posing with each of his goats and cows (they all had names). Then pictures of his house, his barn, his workshop. Then more pictures of his cabbage patch, flower bed, pear tree, walnut tree, melons, grapes...
When I did finally escape and make my way to the local cafe for breakfast, he turned up 15 minutes later, and I had to start a new round of photographs: the cafe (inside and outside), the staff, the garage next door...

The road to Bishkek (at last..) was busy and impersonal. I was struck by the number of Russians in this area. The miles went fast and I was in a Bishkek guesthouse by lunchtime. Nice people who run it. The young guy looking after the place has two uncles living in the garden. Each whispered to me in confiding tones that the other one was crazy.
I think I'll enjoy staying here.
Distance: 48km. Overnight Bishkek (Kyrgystan).

10 to 12 august - resting up in Bishkek: Just the break I needed. It was really nice to lounge around, chat with the other travellers and catch up with a few chores (personal hygiene, etc). I accomplished very little.

Bishkek - eastern Asian looks with Russian manners. You stand at a shop counter and are completely ignored until you have begged three times for the assistant's attention. She looks at you, a customer, with complete contempt, and with great resignation eventually moves across to the counter and snatches your money. Your European-trained reflex to say "thank you" is answered by a glare ("don't try it, you piece of shit") and a snort of derision. You leave the shop feeling humiliated, violated, but strangely wanting to go back for more...

It seems that the summer fashion this year is a pleasing mix of "tarty" with "barbie". Shorter and shorter hem-lines, tight-fitting flimsy material, high-heels,... o h m y G o o d n e s s ... it's been far, far too long Steve...

13 to 17 august - recovering in Bishkek: My stay in Bishkek unexpectedly extended by illness again, I am starting to get very impatient to move on. The last few days have been spent mainly in bed, the toilet, and a little in the garden ("oh no! I think I'm going to be ..."). Eventually paid a visit to the local doctor yesterday.
Another English-speaking patient was drafted in to translate my symptons, but when the determined-looking Soviet-era nurse came in with a long fat plunger kind of an instrument, I had a pretty good idea of where that was going.
Her orders were translated: "Pants down!", "Spread wide!", "Hold apart!" and with everyone keenly looking on, I let go an involuntary cry of "OOOOOHHHH". A brief poke, a quick twist... the procedure was completed, and the police-baton pulled out.
Results of the analysis on friday. And I definitely plan to be out of here on Saturday.

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