The hard way to Osh II

Day 13 – 12th August – Kazarman to Osh (268km)

The sun and the heat woke me up before the alarm clock rang – the sun here is already up before 6am – and the first thing I noticed was that I had slept soundly all night desite my back. I turned tentatively in bed, expecting the pain to be much worse now that the painkillers and adrenaline would have worn off and my body had had time to cool dow but, surprinsingly, the pain was about the same as the night before. I found out that, while I could not lift my arm any more than about 10 degrees from its resting postion while standing, if I grabbed it with my hand and moved with my other arm I could do a full rotation without pain, which gave me some hope that it might not be a fracture, otherwise I would be in a lot more pain.

I manage to strap my bag on the bike and put on all the gear without having to ask Katja for help, even though I had a serious distraction making things difficult for me.

We left and headed for what we expected to be a hard second half of the journey to Osh. Well, at least this time we were leaving early. We knew we had about another 160 kilometres of dirt road and a mountain pass before finding tarmac on the main road from Bishkek to Osh.

I was quite comfortable riding on the bike, and most of the time my back did not hurt. The climb up the mountain pass had a few tight turns with sand that I had to take with caution, and from time to time there would be huge trucks coming down the road and kicking so much dust in the narrow road that we just stopped near the edge and let them through, but in general I was able to enjoy the views.

About 40 kilometres before the main road we got to yet another small town and found tarmac. I was not getting my hopes up, as I had learned the hard way that the main stret is tarmac in every village, but it disappears the moment the village ends. However, this time we got lucky, and after ‘only’ 120 kilometres of dirt tracks we were finally on tarmac all the way to Osh.

We got there in good time, at about 4 in the afternoon, with almost 40 degrees of heat and the mad anarchic traffic of any big city in this part of the world. You’d think that I would have gone straight for the hospital, but that was not what I did. Insted, I went to Muztoo, a workshop that caters for the needs of all the adventure riders that pass through Osh on their way to Tajikistan, China, Mongolia, India, far East Asia or travelling around the world.

The workshop was bustling with activity, lots of people toiling on their bikes to do maintenance or repairs, but soon as I explained what I needed to do with Marc’s wheel, the mechanic found me a new Mitas E-07 tire and fitted it. With that first challenge completed, I said goodbye to Katja, who was just reunited with her boyfriend, and rode off to the CBT office in Osh to see if there was any tourist transport leaving for Naryn that could take the wheel to Marc. My original intention had been to go back with the wheel myself, but after seeing the state of the road and then having the crash, there was no way I could do that.

The girl in the CBT office really went out of her way to help me, and even though there was no tourist transport doing that route in the next three days, he put me in touch with a taxi driver who said he’d give the wheel to another driver who would leave the following morning, drive all day to Bishkek and then the following day drive south to Naryn and deliver the wheel, all for 2000 som (about 26 euros). I gave him the money and the wheel, hoping that he would make good on his promise, and finally headed for my hostel.

I rode across the city centre following the directions on my GPS, but when I got to where the hostel was supposed to be, there was only a derelict factory. No worries, these usually happens in soviet countries, there are several levels of buildings off the street, so I probably just had to drive around the block and would find the hostel behind. Only there was no block to drive around, the street was neverending. I made a U-turn and tried in the other direction, but it was the same story. I went back to the factory and realised that in the gates that led into it there was a tiny sign that read ‘hostel’ with a painted arrow pointing through the gates. I rode in and indeed there was the hostel, at the end of a creepy alley at the back of the factory, past a construction site.

Exhausted again, I checked in and crashed in the bed of a tiny single room in the third floor, right under a roof that had been baking under the sun all day.

The hard way to Osh

Day 12 – 11th August – Tash Rabat to Kazarman (262km)

I got up refreshed from a great night sleep in the luxury yurt, but the same could not be said for Marc. He had got up four times over the night to visit the toilet, and things did not seem to be improving.

During breakfast the camp manager kept insisting that we tried the sauna, as he had been doing the night before, but we wanted to leave as soon as possible to do the remaining six kilometres to Tash Rabat and see the caravanserai.

A caravanserai was a sort of inn where caravans could spend the night and rest on the Silk Route. At 3200 metres, Tash Rabat was the last building before reaching the Touragart pass and the border into China and even though it dates from the 15th century as a caravanserai, some studies suggest it might have been built as early as the 10th century as a monastery. It is one of the best preserved examples of this kind of buildings, and it is amazing to think how hard it must have been to build this enormous structure with 31 chambers up here.

After finishing the visit, we had two options for our next route – the main road went back to Naryn to the northeast, and then headed west to Kazarman, our overnight stop before Osh, which was quite a detour, or there was a shortcut straight north through the mountains to meet the Naryn-Osh road in Baetov which we had been told had amazing views but could be challenging if the weather had been bad recently.

In dark red, the route that goes through Naryn. In green, the shortcut through the mountains. The marker on the left is Kazarman. From that point to where the green route joins the red route there are 160km!

Marc delayed making a decision on the routes until he had had another visit to the toilet in the yurt camp on the way down, and the decision was made for him. When he reached the yurt camp he saw that his front tire was damaged from riding witout air and then having it on and off the rim as we tried to get a tube in it, and it had deformed, letting the tube (which, miraculously was undamaged) pop out of the tire on one side.

There was nothing we could do at that point, other than try to get a new tire, but there are no big bikes in this country, so the only place where we could do that was Osh, two days away via two mountain passes.

The decision was made that Marc would leave his bike at the yurt camp and the manager would keep an eye on it, and I would take the wheel and ride to Osh with Katja to have a new tire fitted. Marc would hitch a ride down to Naryn and have at least four days to get better.

By the time we left it was already 2 o’clock in the afternoon, so we took the route across the mountains to Baetov. What a route! It was the most beautiful track I had done so far – 90 kilometres of remote mountain regions and good dirt tracks with some easy river crossings.

As we approached Baetov I undestood why we had been told this was a difficult route in bad weather. The rivers we went across were almost dry, but the riverbeds were very wide, so it must be impossible to cross them it is has been raining, and the last kilometres to Baetov look to be a mud nightmare if it is wet.

Once on the main road, I set my GPS to Kazarman and saw that we still had about 160 kilometres to go. We were optimistic that we would make it in good time before the sun set, but then we realised that all of those 160 kilimetres were off road and we had a mountain pass to cross.

We pushed on nevertheless, and when we were about 40 kilometres from our destination, disaster struck.

I turned a corner and found myself riding uphill with the setting sun directly in front of me, I was blinded for an instant, but it was enough to ride into a deep pile of gravel. The bike slid sideways to the right and before I could correct it, both wheels dug in, it flipped, threw me over and I landed on my back.

I lay on the ground for a few seconds, checking that I could move arms and legs, got up and cut power to the bike. The left side of my ribcage hurt, but it was not too bad, but when I tried to lift my left arm I felt a flash of pain at the base of the shoulderblade. I was afraid something might be broken or at least cracked in that area.

There was no way I could lift the bike in that condition, so I just removed my helmet, collected the cameras, which had both broken off their supports, sat by the side of the road and waited for Katja to realise I was no longer behind her and turn back.

We put the bike back up and checked for damage – it had landed on the upper part of the left front panel and that was scratched and cracked, the windscreen support was also bent to the left, which sucks because it is part of the fairing stay, and there were other bits and pieces of plastic broke around the indicator area. The indicator itself had miraculously survived, as had the handlebar, clutch lever, mirror, gear pedal, and all other important bits. Suspension and front brake were also intact, and at the back the chain had come off, but I could put back on rotating the wheel, so that was fine.

I got on the bike and saw that in the riding position my back did not hurt too much, so I could probably make it to Kazarman, which was the only town near.

We got there just after sunset, found a CBT homestay, I took some painkillers and fell sleep immediately.

Don’t go offroad with tubeless rims

Day 11 – 10th August – Naryn to Tash Rabat (292km)

Just don’t. Do not believe whatever marketing bull***t BMW, KTM, et al. throw at you. Your rim WILL BEND and it will stop holding the air in. Fortunately, we were aware of this possibility and we had planned accordingly, but I’m getting ahead of the story.

We met with Katja at 9am as agreed and went to collect our border area permits before leaving and, oh surprise, there had been a misunderstanding with what permits we wanted: we had applied for both the border area in this oblast to do the offroad route to Touragart pass and also for the Peak Lenin base camp, which is a visit we wanted to do in a few days, after getting to Osh, but the lady in the CBT office understood that we only wanted the first one. Monday being a holiday and us leaving on a two-day trip for Osh the following day meant that it was going to be impossible to get those permits. We were a bit disappointed, but it didn’t matter that much, we had a great day of riding ahead of us!

We left, and shortly after leaving Naryn on the main road to the Touragart pass (which, by the way, had great tarmac) we turned left and took a dirt road. It was in quite good condition, and soon we found a series of hairpins that took us up to a plateu above 3000m.

I thought about stopping at the top of the hairpins to take the drone out and shoot a view of the climb from above, but as soon as that idea crossed my head, I spotted a hut and a gate across the road on the plateau, not far from where we were. It was the checkpoint where we had to show our permits for the border area. Unlike the guy we met on the way up Barskoon pass, these were military and immediately pointed at our GoPro cameras and made sure they were off. They also checked my phone and deleted a video I had just taken of Marc arriving at the checkpoint. They took their time to check passports, permits, write down all our details, the bikes’ registrations, etc. and eventually one of them, AK-47 slung across his shoulder, opened the gate and let us through.

The weather was perfect, the landscape beautiful and we were having a whale of a time riding on the plateua when I heard Marc come in on the intercom: ‘my front tire is losing pressure’ he said. We went on riding for a bit, but soon we had to stop. It was down to 0.9 bar.

He said he had felt the bike hit two big potholes in succession a while back, so we checked this front wheel and, sure enough, here was the culprit:

Before starting to remove the tire to install a tube in the unforgiving sun, we got the compressor out and inflated the tire above normal pressure, around 3.0 bar, to see if that would seal it and hold until we got to the main road, as the dent was rather small. It held for a while, much longer than mine had in Kazakhstan in 2013, and we managed almost 20km before it went flat again. Reluctant to change the tire there, Marc worked out that for the remaining distance to the main road in Touragart pass we would only have to stop to inflate the tire 4 or 5 times, which sounded resonable, and it was better than installing the tube in the middle of nowhere.

We kept on riding, the air holding in quite despite some bumpy river crossings, and we must have been on our third or fourth stop to reinflate the tire, admiring the landscape to the tune of the tiny compressor when suddenly went prrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr…ghrrrank! and stopped.

I know this things are designed as an emergency resort, but it giving up after using it 4 times seems pretty unacceptable to me. Anyways, I said there was no more postponing fitting the tube, but Marc said we were less than 30 km from the main road and the compressor had managed to get some air in before giving up, so he wanted to ride out as far as it would go and then do it.

 

We went on with the tire losing air until eventually it went completely flat. We stopped, propped the bike up with a handy jack Katja had and set about removing the front wheel. First, we saw that for the rim and tire to clear the brake calipers we had to remove at last one of them. Now, you might criticise us all you want, as it seems pretty obvious from where you are sitting that you do not need to do that, it is enough to rotate a bit the suspension arms to make room to remove the wheel, but bear in mind that we were above 3000m and already quite tired, so we were not thinking that clearly.

Anyway, this would only have meant a few extra minutes of work, as you only need to remove two bolts, but when Marc tried to undo the second one, it would not budge. We did things right here, putting in the torx tool and then knocking on it with a spanner to try and get it loose, but to no avail. I used another tool as a long lever on the torx tool and when I pushed, the whole thing jumped off. I picked up the torx head had slipped out of the bolt, but then I realised it had snapped! I had managed to snap in half a torx head before that bloody bolt moved.

Marc said ‘fuck it’ and said he’d ride at idle in first gear the remaining 20-something kilometres to the main road, where we would surely be able to stop a car or a truck who had tools.

We made it to the border an hour later, only to discover that we could not get to the pass and see the border with China as we were hoping. There was a huge customs compound, surrounded by high fencing with barbed wire on top standing between us and the last few kilometres to the pass. Too worried about Marc’s tire, we were not that disappointed, so we rode around the fencing until we came out onto the main road at a petrol station.

Our hopes of finding help faded quickly. The customs building was closed, there was nobody in the line of lorries parked at the gates (I have no idea where the drivers might have gone, there was nothing else up there) and the two local guys at the petrol station had zero tools.

I figured that if we removed the axel we could still put a tube in the wheel without taking it off the bike, so long as we managed to remove the tire off a rim that was not lying flat on the ground. After a lot of sweating, swearing and bloody fingers, we had managed to remove the tire, put a tube, mount the tire back on the wheel and were ready to inflate. We plugged the compressor in and it came back to life for a while, but the tire did not seem to inflate. Marc had some CO2 bottles, so he used one, and the moment he opened the valve I saw a jet of air come out of the side of the wheel. We had pinched the tube. Ah well, it happens. We set about removing everything and installing a second tube when, with all the wriggilng, the suspension arms rotated a bit on their own and the wheel came clear off the bike. You should have seen the look on our faces. We felt like complete idiots. As I said, experienced riders, feel free to criticise.

We succeded in fitting in a new tube without pinching it and inflate it just enough to be able to ride out of there. The sun was just setting, and the only place we could find accommodation in was the yurt camps in Tash Rabat, 100km down the pass (remember how great distances are here). We put on some extra clothes and, with temperatures dropping fast, headed down the road.

Fortunately, this was the main road back down to Naryn, and it was very good, but there is always an element of risk with riding in the dark in countries like this. For a moment I thought we were going to make it to the dirt road to Tash Rabat with the twilight, but it was not to be. There was another military checkpoint on the way down to leave the border area, and by the time they had finished checking all the paperwork, it was pitch dark.

The last 15 kilometres off the main road and up to Tash Rabat were a dirt track. Not a bad one, admittedly, but there is no such thing as a good dirt track in the dark, so we rode very slowly trying not to make any mistakes.

We were halfway there when I saw some lights shimmering in the distance. It was a luxury yurt camp for organised tourist trips, regular yurt camps don’t have generators, and therefore twice as expensive, but seeing our faces, the guy who ran it agreed to drop the price and include dinner, which was music to our ears. We were not willing to ride a minute longer.

The other side of the Tossor pass

Day 10 – 9th August – Naryn to Tossor pass junction on the Bolgart river to Naryn (200km)

When I got on the bike today I was not really looking forward to the ride today – the track on the GPS indicated about 90 kilometres to the point where the dirt track leading to Tossor pass started. If the road was the same as the one we had taken to Naryn on the valley, we were looking at a round trip of almost 200 kilometres on a boring road, under a scorching sun, just to get to see a junction and say ‘this is where we would have come out if we had done the Tossor pass from Issyk-kul.’

So when, barely 15 kilometres out of Naryn, the tarmac disappeared, and the road became dusty gravel, my mood did not improve – I was not looking forward to eating dust again.

But improvised plans often turn out to be the best, and soon after the road turned north and entered a narrow gorge with the Smaller Naryn River waters raging at its bottom.

From there on, my mood changed completely – the views were incredible, the road challenging enough to be interesting without being too difficult or dangerous, and the landscape changed from alpine ravine to andine plateau to high central asian pass.

This is a bulldozer that we found on the way up. It looked abandoned but it wasn’t – it bears witness to how hard it is to travel around in this country. Everywhere in our route we could see signs that there were constant rock slides that blocked the road, sudden rises in the amount of water coming down the mountains through the ravines that washed away the road. When that happens, someone must put fuel in this lump of metal, start it up and clear the road.

Absorbed as we were in so much wild beauty, before we realised we reached the turning to the Tossor pass route.

We could have tried and ridden it a bit, but it was already two o’clock and we had agreed that was the time to turn around. On top of that, some dark clouds were gathering and we could hear thunder, so we decided it was time to go – the route back was long and there some places in the gorges were rocks could easily fall onto the road in case of bad weather. No matter how beautiful this place is, it should be treated with caution.

It is still hard to adjust our brains to the vast distances here – by the time we were back in Naryn we had done 200 kilometres, 180 of which off road, which might be the longest I have ridden offroad so far.

At the CBT office, where we went to collect our permits for the border area, we met Katja, the German girl we had seen juste before going up to Song-kul lake who had told us that Tossor pass was too difficult. She was alone, having gone separate ways from her friend (boyfriend, riding buddy…? we don’t know) who she was meeting in Osh again in a few days and she also wanted to do the offroad route to Torugart pass, but she had to do it the following day, as she was on a bit of tight schedule to get her bike to a mechanic in Osh for a service. We wanted to do the short ride up to Tash Rabat tomorrow and then rest there for the rest of the day before doing the offroad route back to Naryn, as we did not know how hard it would be, but she did not want to do the route alone and tried to convince us to do the offroad route on the way up and go straight to Torugart pass and then to Tash Rabat to camp or get a yurt there.

In the end, we agreed to go up with her on the had route and postpone the hiking one day, as it did not make that much of a difference to our plans, so tomorrow we meet at 9am in the CBT office to head into the unknown!

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!

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.

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.