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.

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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.