A Dustland Fairytale

Day 9 – 8th August – Song-kul lake to Naryn (164km)

The sun was already high and unforgiving when we left the camp at 9am. Even though the lake is at 3000 metres the temperature in direct sunshine is rather high, and with less atmosphere between the sun and our skin, we had got some sunburn on our noses the day before despite using sunscreen. By contrast, the nights had been very cold, and we were glad we had decided not to camp.

To leave the lake we took the south route through Moldo-Ashuu pass , which is the most popular one, as it is not as difficult as the east route through the tight hairpins of Terkey Torpok pass, and offers amazing views. The only drawback is that more traffic means more dust, and we ate a lot of it, particularly in the last part of the route, when we were already approaching the valley of the river Naryn and the road allowed for faster speeds. It was dangerous at some points, as visibilty was badly reduced and there was a lot of loose gravel outside the tire tracks that made the bike slide around.

We reached the main road sweaty, covered in dust and with our tanks practically empty, but with a smile from ear to ear. We filled up with 92 octane fuel in a decrepit petrol station and took the road along the river.

The landscape was now radically different – the high mountains had given way to an almost desert landscape not unlike the Red Waste in Game of Thrones (sorry about the geeky moment) and the road became rather monotonous.

Naryn was the biggest city we had seen so far outside Bishkek, and it would be just another bland collection of soviet-style buildings were it not for the number of tourists it attracts. It is not communist architecture nor the desert landscape that attracts people, but all the trekking routes. This is the main base for trekking, horse-riding, cycling, etc. to Song-kul, Tossor Pass, Tash Rabat and the Chinese border, Kel Suu lake, and many more. Once we had settled in the hotel and had a proper shower to remove all the dust from our bodies we went for a walk around the city and visited its main park.

There are things that you can only find in ex-soviet countries like this, like a a military base right next to the city’s main public parc. We walked up to its gates and it seemed to be abandoned.

At first we thought that the gates wer locked, but a closer looked revealed that they only had a chain laid across them.

We removed it and walked around the grounds for a while. I guess that the fact that we did not get arrested or shot confirtms that it was indeed abandoned.

Back in the main street we came across the CBT office. CBT stands for Community Based Tourism, and it is an association whose aim is to improve living conditions in remote mountain regions by developing a sustainable and wholesome ecotourism model that utilizes local natural and recreational resources. We already had a plan for the next few days – first day ride up the Tossor pass valley as far as we could go before it got complicated, as we had been told it was beautiful, and go back to Naryn for the night; second day go up to Tash Rabat and camp or get a yurt there and third day do some trekking. Nevertheless, we decided to visit the office and see what info we could get, and it was definitely the right decision! We found out two things: one – that they issued the permits to access the border area with China, which meant we could go further than Tash Rabat and ride all the way up the Torugart pass, one of the main crossing points of the ancient Silk Route and two – that the track looping back from the pass to Naryn across the mountains was a popular route and therefore accessible on our bikes. They told us that they could issue a permit in 24 hours, so we paid and changed our plans!

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The tour of Song-kul

Day 8 – Wednesday 7th August – Song-kul lake (95km)

Song-kul lake is located at 3016 meters and is accessible via dirt roads only. It’s shores ara dotted with yurt camps that belong to the nomad people who raise cattle there – horses, cows, sheep and goats – and also offer accommodation to the few tourists that visit the area. When I say few I mean compared to what a place like this would be like in Europe, for example, but here it is one of the main tourist attractions in the country. People who come up here fall mainly into three groups – hikers, cyclists and adventure bikers.

Today we spent most of the day riding around the lake and taking pictures and videos of this amazing place. On the way we met a couple from France who are riding around the world and they told me about the Wakhan valley road, which I hope to do. They said it had very bad washboard combined with sand, which is about the worst possible conditions for riding, but only for the first 80 or so kilometres, then it was fine, and they added that it was totally worth riding it for the views and its closeness to Afghanistan. I guess that if they made it riding two up with so much luggage it is worth a try.

On the north shore we found this building and rode to it, thinking it could be a caravanisai, the places where caravans stopped to spend the night and stock supplies, but it was in fact a the burial place of Olzhobolot uulu Andash, a hero who fought against the Kazakhs in 1847.

Before reaching the east end of the lake, where the water flows out of the lake, we found a nice beach and jumped into the water, setting a new personal record for the highest place where I have had a swim, and then rode back to camp as if were on a Dakar stage.
Back at the camp, we decided to go for a walk to the shore of the lake to stretch our legs a bit, since on a trip like this you spend a lot of hours on the bike. We set off thinking that the water we could see was about 15 minutes away, but by the time we had walked almost two kilometres we still had not reached it. This was a good lesson on how on such vast flat terrain perspective changes, and without a point of reference for scale, everything is much, much further away than it seems – our European brains are not callibrated for these distances. We turned around and headed for the camp before it got dark, the yurts now tiny in the distance.

From lake to lake

Day 7 – Tuesday 6th August – Tossor to Song-kul lake (284km)

Even though Issyk-kul lake is at about 1600m, the temperature in the area when the sun shines is quite high, that is why we turned the bikes around in the soft sand of the yurt camp the day before, once the sun was low, and after a hearty breakfast (a bit less hearty for Marc, who had been suffering from an upset stomach since Istambul) we were ready to go.

We went back to the west end of the lake and, to avoid having to ride to the main junction in Balykchy, we took a shortcut across a landscape that looked like the arid hills of Morocco, followed a potholed road along what seemed to be an abandoned irrigation canal and reached a small reservoir with a rather low water level – maybe that was the explanation for the abandoned canal system.

Shortly after, we joined the main road going south, which was in better condition, stopped in Kochkor, where we found a brand new Gazprom petrol station, and filled up the bikes praying that the road would gain altitude soon and free us from the heat. Fortunately, past Kochkor the road was the best we had seen so far, and we enjoyed ourselves a bit on the corners along the river until we reached Dolon pass, at 3030 metres. On the other side of the pass, the turn into the dirt road to Song-kul awaited.

We stopped for a moment to check the cameras and a German couple arrived on two Yamahas XT600. She told us that they had ridden the Tossor pass and the landscape was amazing. I felt a pang of regret that we had decided not to do it, but quickly went away when she said that she considered herself pretty good offoad and had found it very hard, with steep corners and big boulders on the road, and they were riding lighter bikes than us.

The next 40 kilometers up to Song-kul lake were just amazing. First, the road went gently up a low pass with no name through a green valley with horse pastures, then it went down a deep valley on the other side and followed a river for a while before arriving at the highlight of the track – the ride up Terskey Torpok pass. Have you been to the Stelvio pass? Or ridden the Transfagarasan in Romania? Now imagine something similar but narrower, off road, higher, and in the middle of a completely unspoilt landscape. I just don’t have the words to describe it. On the other side of the pass lake Song-kul occupied the middle of a vast grassy plain surrounded by mountains. We rode along the dirt road that goes around it and it wasn’t long until we found a yurt camp between the road and the shore.

We asked and they had free yurtas at a reasonable price, so we decided it was better than camping at 3000m with our summer sleeping bags. We settled down, had a cold shower (no power up here, we were lucky they had showers), and then enjoyed one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen.

Barskoon pass

Day 6 – Monday 5th August – Tossor to Barskoon pass to Tossor (140km)

The day started with uncertainty – we had been recommended a route that reached Naryn across the moutains – Barskoon pass and Arabel pass – instead of bactracking along the lake to the main road, but we had been checking whether it was passable on big bikes and had found a recent report claiming that it was no possible to cross any other way than Tossor pass. We had marked that pass down as something to attempt at the end of the trip and if we were feeling brave, since it was a hard one – anything going wrong meant spending a night close to 4000m and we did not want to risk it so early in the trip, one mistake and our holidays would be over.

So we decided to go and ride to Barskoon pass to the junction where the track to the Arabel pass started, but even that was not a given, as it was a route that went close to the border area with China and visiting those areas requires a permit that is easy to obtain if you are part of an organized tour but not so much if you travel independently – you need to apply a month in advance or find an OVIR office, neither of which was an option from one day to the next. At least, the valley leading to the start of the road to the pass was said to be really beautiful, and you never know if you never try, maybe we could convince the guards at the checkpopint to let us through a bit up the pass to take some pictures.

There was nothing remarkable the first few kilometres up the valley that carries the same name as the pass (in fact, everything carries the same name there: the village at the bottom of the valley, the river, a waterfall… they were not very inspired when naming this place) but as we climbed the dusty landscape from the shores of the lake changed into a lush alpine landscape, with high peaks and pernnial snows as a background. I could compare it to one of the valleys in central Pyrenees, but this valley was at 3000m, the same as the highest peaks there. The road was unpaved but in great condition, because somewhere up the mountains and much further than we were going there was an important gold mine, and there were a lot of supply trucks going up and down.

Halfway up a valley we stopped to visit a monument to Yuri Gagarin, the first man to space. The reason this monument is here is that after he came back from space he spent some time recovering and relaxing in a sanatorium by the Issyk-kul lake, and this valley was probably the most beautiful place near the lake.

We found the checkpoint at the end of the valley, right at the foot of the winding dirt road that led up the pass. There was a car already stopped at the boom gate and its occupants were talking to the guard in the shack next to it. A weird Toyota probably imported from the Japan domestic market stopped behind us and the driver, who spoke English, told us that no permit was needed, the guard just had to write down the bikes’ registration and our passport information.

With that paperwork out of the way, we were free to start climbing the first of the 33 hairpins that led to the pass. The track was dusty, but because it sees so much traffic up the mine, there are trucks watering it down constantly to keep the dust to a minimum. After a thrilling climb, we reached the pass, at 3819m, and rode onto the breathtaking views of a vast open plain surrounded by high peaks.

We went across it until we found the junction leading to Arabel Pass and eventually meeting the road down from Tossor pass – it did not look bad here, but God knows what it was like further on. We spent a while taking pictures and rode back down, this time enjoying the views over the valley that such a high road offered.

By the time we were down to the shores of Issik-kul again we realised that we had spent so long in the valley that there was no way we could make it to our next destination in reasonable time, so we went back to the yurt camp where we had spent the night before and spent the rest of the afternoon swimming in the lake.

Issik-kul

Day 5 – Sunday 4th August – Bishkek to Tossor (338km)

We got up at 6am and the hotel was already bustling with activity – a whole party was setting of to China with Sambor, the guy from AdvFactory, others were ready to leave for Mongolia, others had just landed in Bishkek and were already dusting off their bikes, which had been sitting at the hotel for over a month, and an Italian guy was fighting with his old Africa Twin trying to convince her to stay running. We joined in the frenzy and started loading our bikes, a process which always takes much longer than expected and is never right the first time. Well, nevermind, we’d have plenty of time to perfect it over the next few days.

We were lucky it was Sunday, as the traffic was much, much calmer than on the previous days, so getting out of Bishkek was a lot easier than I feared but that did not free us from going through the rite of passage this kind of travel inevitably entails – getting stopped by the police to try and extort a fine out of you. There were police cars stopping drivers every few kilometres outside the city, I don’t know if it is a regular thing or it was because it was Sunday and possibly the first weekend of holidays for many people and we were travelling on a road to a popular tourist destination. Be as it may, we went past many of them without problems, riding at the same speed as the rest of the traffic, until one signalled us to stop. Marc was riding first, so he stopped a bit further down the road and I stopped closer to the police car. The guy came to me making gestures that seemed to mean that it was not me he wanted to stop, it was Marc, but when he got to me I got off the bike, shook his hand respectfully and introduced myself. He asked me where I was from and when I said Barcelona he inmediately started talking about football and by the time Marc had reached us he was explaining that he had a team with his police friends and they called themselves Barça. When he saw Marc he explained that he had been doing 51km/h through some roadworks and the limit there was 40. He said up to 50 was OK, but above, he mimicked writing a fine with his hands. That was total bullshit, as we were all going at the same speed, so we kept smiling and talking about football. He asked to see Mark’s license, had a quick look at it and let us go with a friendly shake and a reminder not to go more than 10km/h above the limit.

From there on, the route was rather monotonous, it was a main road in relatively good condition, the only entertainment provided by the occasional sucidal overtaking, until we turned off to visit Burana Tower.

This tower is the only thing that remains of an ancient city calle Balasagun, and it was used as a watchtower from which fire was lit to send a message to warn about danger or invaders. We had barely parked the bikes at the entrance when we were surrounded by curious people, all asking questions about the bike and wanting to have their pictures taken with us. We had a quick look at the tower, and went on towards our destination for the day: a yurt camp by lake Issyk-kul, the largest lake in the country, measuring 182 kilometers long by 60 kilometres wide.

We had been travelling at relatively low speed, so our fuel consumption was really low and we were not too worrid about finding a petrol station as the road around the lake was a main route, but after passing village after village with abandoned stations as our fuel was running low, we began to worry. We had not filled our jerrycans because we did not want to carry too much weight, and as we were starting to realise it was a mistake, we turned a corner and saw small petrol station and lots of cars queueing for it. We had to wait for a while, but we got enough fuel to have peace of mind for the following days, which was nice. What was not so nice was how 10 extra kilos felt perched high at the very far back of the bike…

We reached Tossor and stopped to buy some supplies and ask for directions to the yurt camp. We were pointed down a side street that turned into a sandy track before reaching the camp, which our heavy bikes did not like one bit. Marc made it through without problems, but I almost fell over. Luckily, I reached the camp without incident and we immediately went for a swim in the lake.

Change of plans

Day 4 – Saturday 3rd August – Bishkek (0km)

By mid morning it had become clear that there was not much that could be done about Marc’s visa situation – he had contacted the closest Spanish embassy, which was in Astana, Kazakhstan, a whopping 1640km from Bishkek. He was willing to get a flight there and back provided they could issue him a passport in time, but the guy on the other end of the line just lectured him for leaving Spain without checking the expiry date on the passport and told him that a new passport would have to be issued in Spain and sent there, which would take at the very least 12 days and that only immediate thing they did was issue a letter of safe passage in case of emergency but he made it clear that a) this was not an emergency and b) that document was only valid to allow a journey back to Spain.

With all the (legal) options studied, we decided that the only thing to do was to modify the route so that we could spend as much time as possible riding together in Kyrgyzstan and then I would go to the Pamir Highway on my own. The original plan was to see part of Kyrgyzstan first, then ride the Pamir mountains in Tajikistan, go to Uzbekistan to see Samarcand and Bukhara, go back to Tajikistan to do a different route on the Pamir Mountains and visit the rest of Kyrgyzstan.

Instead of that, we would do all of Kyrgyzstan first and then go separate ways – I would go into Tajikistan and, starting from the Karakul lake, ride the Wakhan Valley on the border with Afghanistan heading south, then go north on the Bartang Valley back to Karakul lake and then south again on the proper Pamir Highway, the M41 road. After that , I would ride to Uzbekistan and meet Marc in Samarkand, as it was possible to enter visa-free into Uzbekistan. From there, we would ride back to Kyrgyzstan via the Fergana valley in the north of the country.

I would spend 9 or 10 days without Marc, but that did not necessarily mean that I would be riding alone – we had met a British guy in the hotel who was going to do same kind of spiral route in Tajikistan I was planning to do, but he needed a few more days of rest to recover from a foot injury, which meant that we could possibly meet in Sary-Tash near the Tajik border and ride together from there, which was excellent news.

The problems begin

Day 3 – Friday 2nd August – Istambul to Bishkek (3740km – by plane)

I did not get a wink of sleep in the 5-hour plus overnight flight to the Kyrgyz capital – we were crammed together in a 737 with barely any more room than a low-cost flight and as I stepped down the flight stairs into the scorching heat everything had a dream-like quality. The airport was small, it looked more like a regional airfield than the international airport it was, consisting of only one runway we had to backtaxi on and a single terminal building without any fingers. On the tarmac, a couple 737s from Eastern airlines, a cargo 747 and an Ilyushin Il-76.

We got our passpaports stamped without hassle – the country offers visa-free entry to EU citizens, changed some money and met the guy the hotel had sent to pick us up. There was one thing we needed to do before, though – go to the Tajik embassy to sort our visas for that country. We could have done that online from home, but the e-visa is only single-entry and we wanted to try and get a double-entry one at the embassy so that we could reenter the country after going to Uzbekistan without having to worry for a second online application to be accepted while on the road. Unfortunately, the guy there told us that they only issued double-entry visas for business, so we applied for a regular tourist one. We would have to apply for a second one online while in the country. It was Friday morning and the guy told us that they were closing for holidays on that very same day, but as a special favour he would process the visas and have them ready by that same afternoon.

There are some places scattered around the globe that are little havens for the few crazy ones of us that decide to see the world from a motorbike, and the hotel was one of them. This was the point where AdvFactory sent the motorbikes to from all over Europe and there was an atmosphere of excitement about the coming trips in the air. The courtyard was packed full of motorbikes, some ready to go, others still half assembled, others proudly wearing a layer of dirt waiting to be shipped back home, and there was talk everywhere about places to see. Some people giving advice about the routes they had just completed, others talking excitedly about their destination – Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, China, India, Mongolia, with sunburnt faces, and grease under their fingernails. We found our bikes and our luggage, unpacked, had a well-deserved shower and then went out for a meal.

In the afternoon, after a nap to make up for the sleepless night in the plane, we took a cab back to the Tajik embassy to collect or visas. The ride there was an adventure in itself – the car was a crumpling old Lada with an engine that had a habit of cutting off while in the middle of crazy traffic and the driver did not speak a word of English and did not seem sure about where we wanted to go but it did not matter, it was all part of the adventure. The real problems started when we got to the embassy. The guy there told me that there was a problem with my passport, that I had less than six months before its expiry date. I felt the blood drain from my face.

‘That’s not possible’ I told him. ‘It’s November 2020!’. I handed him the passport again and pointed at the date. ‘Ah, yes, yes, sorry, it’s the other one’ he said. We looked at Mark’s passport and sure enough, it expired in less than six months. It was only by a few days, but it was enough for the visa to be denied, even though he had had no problem obtaining an online visa to Turkey or entering Kyrgyzstan, and there was nothing we could do about it there.

We went back to the hotel crestfallen and started evaluating our options. There were a lot of suggestions by the people there – contact a Spanish embassy to renew it, apply for a visa online, doctor the expiry date on the passport, a British guy even offered to photoshop his own e-visa with Marc’s details. Mark had his wife start pulling strings from Spain regarding the Spanish embassy and we tried to apply for an online visa with a different expiry date. The problem was that the system asked for a picture of the passport as well, so if someone checked the picture in person, they would see that the dates did not match. Someone suggested sending a photoshopped version of the passport with a different date, but the first picture had already gone into the system. We tried to cancel the application, but the system is very poorly designed, and it was now stuck awaiting a payment we did not make. There was not a lot more we could to about it, so we went out for dinner with the guys from AdvFactory and got drunk on unfiltered Kyrguiz beer.