Greetings from Kazakhstan, again. Let me digress and mention that I have been really lackadaisical- Jesus, a cow or a horse or something just crashed through the bushes near my tent in the dark, with or without human rider, who knows… anyways- about the blog the last couple months. It is difficult to write frequently and well with good company around. My posts from Tajikistan are pretty sparse, I chanced to read through them in Bishkek, but honestly the daily distance and the elevations alone are sufficient to indicate a quality adventure. I am tired of this documentary style though. This experience is losing the distinction of an isolated adventure and fusing more into, well, my life, and I should expect this to be reflected in future posts. Not sure why I bother to mention it for my 12 subscribers (I think more of my family reads it than I am aware) but I do appreciate those of you who take an interest in my story and your support gives me a boost and incentive to keep chronicling. I just don’t know what’s interesting and what is not, so I’m going to try to pare it down a little. Alright, picking up from Bishkek:
Aside from hitting da club, where my imitation dance moves from every music video I’ve ever watched excited and intimidated the crowd, I also loaded up on gear. I bought another pair of shorts to ride in. I bought a swiss army knife, at last (I have one at home), a buff to keep my neck warm (I have a wool one at home), I bought a pair of expensive hiking pants, but I think they are the only pair in central asia that fits me, these boys are skinny! They also happen to be super stylish, comfortable, and high quality, which is good, because as I mentioned, they were expensive. I bought four stakes for my tent (have more at home) as after almost 8 months I realize I should have brought all this stuff with me. Hindsights. For the record, I started with a pair of pants, but they were old already and I destroyed them and discarded them in Greece, I think. At the lovely hostel I stayed at someone left a very nice pair of Asolo leather hiking boots that just so happened to be my size, and I have been wearing them in the cold since. They need new soles, and they are very heavy, but warm. I tore up my legs riding in them, in fact, and had to switch back to my lighter boots for three days, but now we are good! Must have been 300 dollar boots, I will probably send them home when winter is over. Things I should have bought: new sleeping pad, long johns. I figured my yoga mat would be fine after I survived the night before the tunnel (refer to previous post) but boy was I mistaken! As for the long johns, I have cycling tights, but they are just not comfortable to sleep in and I am loath to put them on if I’m not going to ride in them all day, they are like putting on a wetsuit.
Aside from that, I did almost nothing but sleep, watch videos and movies, and totally neglect my bicycle and everything else. I realized I should have been, you know, calling my family and researching China, but I simply laid around and vegetated, which was exactly what I needed. I would even go so far as to mention that I am ready for a full month of rest and relaxation. Alas, this is not the time or the place. It is too cold to linger here, and I am tired of Central Asia.
I must admit that there is no love lost between me and Kyrgyzstan, which is perhaps due in part to it being the last Central Asian country on the route save for a quick revisiting of Kazakhstan. That is not all though. I am tired of the shitty drivers and their intolerant attitude to cyclists. Here it is apparently expected that we bump into the ditch every time someone wants to pass, even if there is no oncoming traffic. They are fools on wheels, though there are fewer accidents than one would expect, and they may be more alert and aware than American drivers overall, a vital trait necessary to drive so boldly with so many madmen on these pitted, narrow roads. They are not as friendly as the Tajiks either, and greedier. I think this is because they are more affluent. The most despicable and pitious of characteristics here though, is the drinking. You can smell the vodka on a man’s breath as you ride by. It is not uncommon to see someone passed out on the street in the middle of the day. You are always in danger, at any hour- though the morning is most common- to stumble upon a group of middle aged men getting pissed in a small cafe or a convenience store. They may try to hug you, kiss you, or fill you full of liquor, but they will ALWAYS talk and talk and talk even though you don’t speak Russian or Kyrgyz and frequently a sober local will pry them off of you, roughly shoving them back inside or slipping you through their sloppy affections. The Kyrgyz men, drunk and sober, will also cut the queue at the register if they are buying something singular, like a pack of smokes or a bottle of vodka, and it is more annoying when they are drunk. Russia has crippled Central Asia with vodka, and Russia itself is probably also greatly hindered by this habit. I suspect it may not be so disgraceful to drink in the morning in the former U.S.S.R., but I cannot stand it. While I am ranting, let me just throw in that the food is also terribly boring after four months of it. They just eat meat, rice, and noodles, with hardly any adornments. They will claim Turkish descent, but sometimes all I see are Mongolian invaders, crude of custom as they were 700 years ago. Like it or not, that is my impression.
If you think that travel is glamorous, think again. On a bicycle, it is particularly Spartan. A few months ago I was writing, “I am where I want to be, doing what I want to be doing.” Unfortunately I now find myself weary, cold and with most of my gear, bicycle included, much the worse for wear. My back panniers are ragged husks, full of holes, broken panels. One has a severed hook and is held on by a bungee cord and a zip tie. I am missing a piece on one of my Ortliebs in the front. My whole drive train needs replaced, deep gouges in my front rings have sharpened the teeth into fangs, the jockey wheels on my derailleur are loose and likewise displaying attrition, my current chain is almost dead, which I put back on because the new one I put on in Dushanbe is dead after 2,000 kilometers on the dusty mountain roads of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. My boots are looking pretty ragged. My bloody road pump- the third one this trip- is shredded after two uses and won’t seal. I hope I don’t need it tomorrow, after that I will be riding with Cody again.
All that said, I am healthy and my bicycle has yet to give me any trouble at all. I am ready for a break though, because almost all the luster of cycle touring has worn off again. Camping is rough, riding is rough. But I must beat/brave winter, and with only 60 days at a go, China is no place to tarry either. My plan is to ride hard through the cold with Cody until my sixty days are up. After that I need to leave and come back. Where should I go? Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, India? Or maybe some warm island somewhere in Southeast asia… See what I’m getting at? Ride for two months and if winter is giving me too much trouble, I can bail out… for a while. One to three months, even. We’ll see, I am a free man.
Anyhoo, Aleix packed up his bike in Bishkek, took a bus to Almaty and caught a flight to Thailand, leaving Stefan and I… until Cody from the Camel Krew showed up! I hadn’t seen him in months! We lounged in Bishkek, sampling the food and relaxing. The highlight was th Modern Art museum, which was large and well stocked with excellent art! One of the best art museums I have been to, truly.
We stayed in Bishkek for a week, waiting out a bit of snow and rain and I am glad we did. We parted ways with Cody, who headed up to Almaty to check out the scene while Stefan and I rode out to Lake Issukul. We camped in a field the first night and it was extremely cold, another rushed dinner and a dash to the sleeping bags.
The second night we made it to the edge of the lake and the town of Balykchy, where we rooted out a reasonably priced room.
The types of places we have stayed might chill the hearts of normal people: musty, creepy abandoned houses, ruined buildings that reek of sheep, off-season shepherd huts full of dust and mice, homes with patched stoves burning cow dung, cold adjoining rooms with scarcely washed bedding. For me there is something about these places that suits me, the simplicity and sparseness of these places, the way they have been patched and held together with whatever is at hand. Few of them have running water, you either have a bucket or a hose outside, and almost never plumbing. I have been using pit toilets with a hole in the floorboards for three months and think nothing of it. This particular lodging was exquisitely suited to us: cold, crumbling rooms, burnt-out outlets, beds with sheets that had not been changed in who knows how long, the very door to our little house almost torn apart. But there was a heater.
I think I am fond of these places because we are not tourists. We are not here to spend a bunch of money and we are not trying to splash cash, this is not an indulgent vacation for us. After walking away from hotels and hostels that are unreasonably priced, frequently the proprietors refusing negotiation, it is gratifying to find a place for us vagrants. We live outside, for pete’s sake! Frequently we have four or five days of road funk on us. Stefan and I each paid $3.62 for a warm room and a bed to sleep on, with a place to charge our electronics. Wifi and a shower would have been nice, but we feel like we’re coming up in the world. There was even a little kitchen with a broken stove and some dishes- our own place! We had to share a big bed because the other room didn’t have outlets for the heaters. There was an old sticker of Leonardo Dicaprio’s face that survived on the head board among others that had been scraped off, surely the vestiges someone’s childhood impulse. We did pull out our own ratty sleeping bags though, that bedding was a bit suspect.
The next morning we were off and riding along a beautiful alpine lake before a solid wall of jagged snowy mountains. The sun was shining and the road was lovely, passing through little lakeside towns. We found a beautiful camping spot right on the lake, which is warm even this time of year and a bit salty, on rich green grass. The moon began rising as the sun set and the mountains dazzled in a ridiculously magical spectrum of light. Sunlight bathed the west end of the lake and moonlight the east, the purple dusk of twilight time here and the fiery throes of the sun’s dying light there. I would not have been surprised if a unicorn crested on of the majestic boulders along the shore’s edge. The weather was merciful too, and we enjoyed a mild night.
The next day was another beautiful ride through sprawling farmland and avenues of tall trees lining the road much of the way. Looking at the map we noticed some hotsprings and decided to investigate. For three dollars we soaked in some prime hotsprings with a view of the mountains until we were too soggy to stand anymore, it was amazing. After that we pushed a bit to some forest we saw on the map. It was our last day on the lake, and we wanted to find one more beach. Eventually we did. It was a nice spot, though much colder than the previous day. We were in a bit of a wetland area, on a stretch of grass between a forest and a bay dotted with birds. A man popped out of the bushes smoking a cigarette and confirmed that we could camp there before taking off in a little boat. It was cold! As we donned additional layers, we hear the thunder of hooves. From around a corner a herd of 70 or 80 horses prance majestically down to the shore and commence to roll in the water and drink for the night. A large black stallion kept watch on us and I smiled at the majesty of this place. Kyrgyzstan has absolutely beautiful horses. Big, muscular, beautiful creatures, and tens of thousands of them.
We were eating dinner when a different boat rolled up. Apparently night fishing is common here. The fishermen approach us, inquire about the cold camping conditions, smile at our empty half pint of cognac- for the cold- and I ask them how the fishing went. “Caught one fish!” they said (in Russian). They pointed to our half eaten dinner and beckoned us to the boat. No no, I think they want to give us the fish. We decline, but they implore us to come, so we go down to the water, presumably to see their fish. They try to give it to us. No, we can’t cook a fish! You take it. Some signing and deliberation ensues, and in the end they shoved off with their fish and we wolfed down the rest of our dinner and dove into the tents. That night boats, men, and a few vehicles would trundle in and around the bay. Once I would have been disconcerted by the activity and our vulnerability, but I was without worry and simply turned every once in a while when a motor would prompt me to surface for a moment out from the depths of a fine slumber.
The morning found us none the worse for wear and we continued on. We left the lake and angled North towards Kazakhstan. We hit a turn-off and found ourselves on one of the prettiest stretches of road of the whole trip. Trees, fields, a river, foothills on our left. I don’t rightly know why it was so lovely, but to say that it felt like a great garden. Old stately trees separated the farms and the riding was easy. We found ourselves yet another gorgeous campsite down by the river in an idyllic pasture. Conifers and some naked ash trees loomed on the far hillside, the river trilled, and the sun smiled down upon us.
We camped down in yon field by the river
We had a lovely evening, though the temperature dropped dramatically and that night was one of the coldest I’ve had this trip, colder than the Pamirs. I was cursing as I do when the cold intimidates me, and it took at least two hours before my feet warmed up. I did not sleep well that night.
The sun was shining though, and after breakfast we slowly packed up. I went to filter some water and discovered that the inlet hose was not where it was supposed to be. Dumbfounded, I mechanically searched back the way I came, looked inside my bag, and once again tried to reconcile a glaring disparity between reality and my disbelief. I must have left it, somehow, by a river South of Osh about three weeks ago. How I managed this I do not know, but I remember being in a hurry to get back to the group. I became filled with an all-too-familiar sense of self-loathing that plagues those of us unfortunate enough to be hyper-critical perfectionists even despite the perpetual human folly constantly presented, day in and day out, all around us. It just takes one moment of absent-mindedness… ah well. Just one more thing to sort out, I’ll add it to the pile.
We ride up into the snowy regions, coursing through an alpine valley to the tiny, lonely little border crossing and pass without incident. We have to ride about 12 kilometers on a muddy dirt road on the other side and our drive trains are totally mucked.
We make it into the town of Kegan and after pulling out some money (they won’t change our Kyrgyz money here, which sucks) find ourselves a hotel room very suitable to our standards, cheap. It has a shower and wifi and clean bedding though, yippee! We drain the wifi and sleep deeply. That was the first good night of sleep I had since Bishkek. In the morning we run around restocking and some drunkards piss me off, cutting me off at the till and bumping into me to sloppily purchase pastries and vodka. I am so sick of this. Off we go at last, cruising down to Charyn Canyon.