Sunday, November 29, 2015

Time for tea, and other things. Kyrgyzstan Part 2

It's been about two months now since I made it back to the states. That time has gone by in a whirl wind. So I apologize for the severe delay here. Enjoy the rest of my story!

Picking back up in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan.....

I bet you think I am going to start out with some harrowing story of a midnight raid or possibly we will finally encounter that wolf everyone and their mother kept warning us about. WRONG! I am going to tell you a different story. One I forgot to tell in the last post.

The story of the mid afternoon vodka party.

While my European ancestors have been drinking the fire water for hundreds of not thousands of years, hard liquor is relatively new to central Asia. As a result alcoholism is a problem, especially in the countryside. Not that it isn't a problem in Europe and the states too, because it certainly is, but here it's vodka and lots of it. Not as bad as Mongolia but it is noticeable. As a result we had a few run ins with the stuff and those who seem to enjoy it a little too much. The story I am about to write being one of the more memorable times.

While riding towards Karakol we had our usual encounters with curious locals. Most were your normal affairs, small talk in what little of each others' language we could speak, a hand shake, then on our respective ways. Until an older man on a horse decided to invite us for what was initially tea, then quickly changed to whiskey, which actually meant vodka. He didn't appear visibly drunk so we agreed and followed him, and his horse, to town. Rather than being led to a house however we went first to a store. Here a gathering of the local vodka social club quickly precipitated and a bottle was purchased along with carbonated water and lots of candy. We turned down the kumiss (the same fermented mares milk you find in Mongolia with a slightly smokier flavor somehow) and sitting in the store. We were already looking for an out but our bikes were outside and our hosts were very persistent. We went to hide by the fence with our hosts, who apparently were attempting to keep up the facade of an observant Muslims which generally means no excessive drinking, and got to it after a prayer, another irony here. It was interesting, shots were poured, as were chasers and the old guy who had waived us over wouldn't let us do anything unless we had candy in our hands. We took pictures, at their insistence, the old guy had recruited a friend, and of course we finished the bottle. You can't seem to open one without finishing it in this part of the world. Then things got weird. Our friend who had invited us on this excursion turned the corner from happy drunk to mean real quick. Everything from kill Americans, to he was going to kill us if we didn't pay him. Obviously this unarmed old drunk posed no real threat but there was no need for a fight. While we tried to reason with the guy I simply wanted to get out of there. His friend, who was slightly less drunk gave us the motion of "get out of here he's drunk and I need to put him to bed" and we happily obliged. So half drunk we rode away. Our mean drunk friend reappeared by the road, seemingly by magic, and looked to be apologizing but we didn't stop to see, we waived and rode on. Interesting things happen on the road.

Our rather pickled friends. Photo: Kyle

Kyle with the "gentlemen".

Back to our regularly scheduled program.

On the way to camp. God's hour as it has been called.

Not a bad sight.

Like I said I had settled in for a much deserved good nights sleep figuring no one would be traveling this road at night. The most we had to worry about was cows. Well I was woken up by a spot light on my tent and was immediately proven wrong. I had been sleeping for two, maybe three hours when I woke up to confusion. What I though at first was the moon turned out to be what must have been a million candle power spot light on my tent. I quickly realized the thing was much too bright and coming from the wrong direction to be the moon. "Oh goddamn it" was the first thought that came to my mind. After sticking my head out to see what was happening I was busted. The spotlighters had spotted the spotlightee. We were quickly approached by a Mitsubishi Montero, this is an important point, Montero. I was in a daze and trying to prepare for whatever shenanigans were about to happen as the offending SUV picked its way to our campsite from the road. Now what? As the offending vehicle proceeded to park right next to my tent and spotlight me in the face two guys roughly in their late 20's got out. They immediately laid in with the "where are you from?" "where are you going?", etc. chit chat and offered me kumiss, repeatedly. Just two guys looking for drinking buddies, in the middle of the night, on a secluded mountain road, sure why not. Don't worry about the being asleep part or anything. I continuously insisted I just wanted to sleep, I was very tired, I didn't have any cigarettes, and I didn't want any kumiss to little avail. This went on for about 25 minutes. One of them spoke just enough English to think he could communicate with a very pissed off American which didn't help. Finally, and only after I agreed to accept a bottle of kumiss as a parting gift, they got the point. With a cry of "MONTERO GO!?" followed by a loud "YES, MONTERO GO!" they started to pack up. Then they turned their attention to Kyle who had somehow slept through all this. They asked his name. In an attempt to get them out of there I told them, perhaps not the best idea but I just wanted to sleep. The spot light now turned on Kyle, at least it wasn't in my face, cries of "Kyle!!!, Kyle are you okay!!!!" serenaded the night. After a few minutes of this they drove off, almost over our bikes. As I watched them pick their way back to the road Kyle emerged and asked what the commotion was all about. I gave him a run down sprinkled with expletives. He thought it all amusing, I was simply pissed. I watched their spotlight light up the night as they drove away to harass other people and tried to get back to sleep.

The view down valley from camp. Doesn't look bad right?

The view up the valley. Will the storm miss us?

After a not so awesome night of sleep thanks to Montero guys we woke to an almost promising sky, down valley that is. Up the valley the storm was coming in. Looks like our decision to shoot for a single day up and over the pass was the right one. Nothing like being stuck in a storm at over 12,000 feet. Not so much. Now we were stuck at 11,500 but at least it was daylight. I had taken down my tent and Kyle was almost there when the storm rolled in. Call us optimistic but we were hoping it would hold off. We packed up and water proofed everything we could and dove into Kyle's tent to wait it out. We finally got back on the road at 1pm after a morning of reading and remaining as dry as possible. 

It was slow going, not as difficult as the way up but hard with multiple stream crossings and plenty of occasion to get off the bike and do some pushing. Downhill is always easier but regular on and off, especially of the shoes and occasionally pants, of the bike to cross water slows things down substantially. It was a long day but we got down out of the mountains and managed to get to a good camp. Luckily the view stayed pretty spectacular the entire time.

Glaciers, big mountains, and cold water!

Amazing riding.

We met this little gangster on the way down. 11 yrs. bad ass
and out tending the flock.


Things get a little wet. Photo: Kyle

Things get especially wet! You can't tell but I am in
thigh deep water and have no pants on. This stream
was running fast and I almost lost it a few times. Photo: Kyle

Down in the valley things were a little less pressing. The threat of weather was much less and the temperatures were reasonable. We settled in for the night and took a slightly slow morning the next day. It was a good spot and the valley was home to a good population of both people and animals. We had to chase multiple herds of cows away but that is all in a days work in central Asia. 

Down in the valley.

We cycled on still having one more pass to make it over before any kind of pavement or main road would be reached. It was a pleasant day. The road was decent and there was essentially no traffic of any variety. We also had the pleasure of meeting two other cyclists! They were a Swiss couple that had been on the road for over a year with no plans to stop. We traded stories and road beta and continued. Later I received an e-mail from them congratulating us on climbing the pass that they had descended, Tosor pass, in a single day. This confirmed its intensity and was a nice little "yeah, we did that" moment. Everyone needs an ego boost from time to time, come on! But the rest of that day went easily. We split the storm, climbed the pass, 3,400m, and made a rapid descent. Back on to washboard!!!! Couldn't get away without a little more of it. Oh how I had missed the constant vibration and extra wear on the gear! We would encounter it a few more times just to make sure we remembered all it has to offer. 

Down by the river.

On our way up the pass.

After the washboard a long speedy descent through a large gorge led us to a highway and a small town. Here we ate some food, got some gas for the stove, and rode north to the town of Kochkor. 

A view up a side canyon on our way down to the highway.

Kochkor was to be our final big resupply before we hit Bishkek. We intended to take a rest day-ish there and find as much information about the road ahead as possible. It was about 70k north and all down hill. We had hit the highway around mid day but it was an easy ride to get close to town. Camp was made about 9k short of town and we settled in. Once again rain was the order of the next morning. Waiting it out, per usual, and some easy breakfast while things dried gave us a relaxing morning and we then headed into town.

Kochkor was rather unremarkable but a nice little town none the less. We had the opportunity to stay at a home-stay/guest house that was literally someones' house. They made us food, for an extra fee, and we hung out. It was quite pleasant. We were able to share some stories with a few other travelers who trickled in and get a good nights sleep. It was also determined, after talking to every guide service in town, that no one knew about the road we wanted to take and we should just go for it with the info we got in Karakol. It was decided. The weather was the next question. 

After much contemplation it was decided that we should wait out some forecasted rain and rest. The next day however the rain never materialized and we made a break for it instead, only after a comical shopping trip in the bazaar which involved a multi store search for the right sausage and multiple encounters with traveling Europeans in large van brigades. We made some mean trail-mix after all that though! One more big pass and adventure before Bishkek and the next phase.

After 33k and an impending thunder storm we made camp in an old abandoned farm building. Made of mud brick who knows how long it had been there but it would serve as home for the night. A rather pleasant one. We decided we would set up in what we dubbed the "maids quarters" to keep our credentials right and called it a day.

Home for the night.

The "maid's quarters".

Rain on tent fly.

The pass and the climb loomed ahead of us. We rode on and into a spectacular river valley. We had to do a little creative route finding on the way but all in all not too bad.

A little farm road never hurt anyone. Photo: Kyle

Once we were in the canyon heading up the pass the scenery was spectacular the entire way. The road was good and despite some ominous looking clouds the weather held off for the climb. We managed to outrun the storm for the entirety of the climb and were rewarded with very dramatic views. It was some of the most scenic and grand landscapes we had yet seen. That is saying a lot!

Looking up from the mouth of the canyon.

Sheep! Coming our way!

Not storming yet.

The steel pony posing for a shot.

Kyle riding the long road.

The final push to the summit.

Once at the top we had a few minutes to catch our breath and a snack before the storm rolled in on top of us. 

Layer up! It's getting cold.

The storm came in quick and cold and it was a race down some extremely steep road to beat the snow.

Here it comes.

Down canyon, quickly being surrounded.

Coming in fast!

Looking back up at the pass.

Unfortunately in our haste to get down we also got our feet wet in a stream crossing. It was starting to snow so it was time to go! and go quickly. We finally made it low enough and to a pretty good campsite and called it a day. A hot dinner was in order.

Not too shabby.

The ride down from camp was also beautiful and we knew it was one of our last days on the bike so I tried to savor it. 

A small taste of the scenery.

Getting out of the mountains for what would be the last time was a little bitter sweet. This meant that the majority of the trip was over. It was a hard realization but also one that, at the time, I was ready for. The long road had beaten my body up and a rest sounded amazing. All that stood between us and Bishkek was one more campsite and a half days ride. 

We took it slow that day to savor the last day on the bikes and we were luckily greeted with a wonderful surprise. After a long lunch by the side of a river we encountered a young guy who promptly invited us to his sisters place for tea. It took us a minute to figure out that it was his sister and brother in law's home and not his and his wife's, language barrier and all. It was very pleasant. After about an hour or so of tea, bread and honey, and yogurt we said our good byes and made our way down the road. It was a wonderful final reminder of the hospitality of the people in the countryside.

Photo: Kyle

 Photo: Kyrgyz guy with Kyle's camera

Our last campsite was our only chance on the entire trip to have a fire. The joy a campfire brings when you have been traveling out for months is remarkable. I always forget just how much I like them and how entertaining and cathartic they can be. Truly caveman television. We had the opportunity to sit by the fire and reflect on everything we had seen and been through. Remarkably we hadn't killed each other and still get along. We had made it through some truly real shit and everything was drawing to a close. The next day we would be in Bishkek and in a little less than 10 days would go our separate ways. It had been one hell of an adventure. I sat up that night for a while thinking about the past, the future, and the nature of reality. Campfires and starry nights do that to me.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The road goes on. Kyrgyzstan Part 1.

Well it's been a while hasn't it. Yes, yes it has. I have reached the final stage of the travel but only the beginning of the lessons and journey to pick apart the experiences. I am in Mumbai, India. Luckily I have family here and am relaxing at my sister and brother-in-law's place. Here I have the luxury of relaxing, vegging out (as some say), and eating vegetables. Something I did very little of this summer thanks to the standard central Asian diet. I also get the opportunity to hang out and play with my young niece and nephew. While exhausting and further reenforcing the probability of me never having children, I love the little hooligans. I have found that with a cook providing daily delicious meals (who wouldn't want a cheese omelet with chillies for breakfast and fresh home cooked Indian for lunch everyday!?), and the fact that it is hotter and more humid than big foot's jock strap in July here, it is hard to motivate to move. I am not made for tropical climates. While exploring the city should be happening more, I don't feel too bad about it. After moving constantly for 3 months it's nice to be stationary and the crush of 22 million people is a little overwhelming. More about that later. For now, between the board games and movies with the kids and the constant sweat, it seems like a good time to catch up on the blog, the journal, and anything else.

The kiddos

Where did I leave off?... Kazakhstan

Well the remainder of Kazakhstan was more or less a hot and uncomfortable desert. A long flat stretch of riding, punctuated by a single river, led to a large climb to the Kyrgyz border that followed the small town of Kegen.
Quite literally the only tree on the road.

While the climb was a long and steep grind, the mountains were a welcome sight. Soon we would be back in cool temperatures, green and varied landscapes, and adventures. We met a young guy from the Czech Republic in Kegen. He was an interesting guy and very excited. He had bought a bike in Bishkek, was traveling with only a backpack, and had no sleeping pad, map, or tent. He sure had big plans though. We made friends and agreed to meet up with him the next day on the road. I would never see him again. Kyle would later run into him in Bishkek after I had departed. Turns out our Czech friend had been deported, detained, entangled in a house building project with the Kazakh Mafia, and somehow made it back to Bishkek. Not the adventure he was hoping for but an adventure none the less.

Mountain salvation lies only a border crossing away.

After being awoken by the 5am call to prayer it was only a short ride to the border. Getting out of Kazakhstan proved to be much more difficult than getting into Kyrgyzstan. The Kazakh border patrol needed to see in our bags, there were lines, and the usual border hullabaloo but the Kyrgyz border patrol was great. The guy in the passport control booth was listening to house music and the guard joked around with us and offered us cigarettes. Welcome to Kyrgyzstan!!!!! Friendly people, big and beautiful scenery, and an amazing Visa policy!!!!! 60 days free with automatic reset on reentry.

We were in the Karkara valley working our way towards Karakol and lake Issyk Kul. It was a pleasant few days of riding interspersed with great views, water aplenty, and pleasant little villages. There is an abundance of fruit in Kyrgyzstan which was a welcome change, there is also lots of honey! We passed at least a dozen small apiaries and purchased 3kg of fresh honey for about $6. This was not only amazing, it made our oatmeal significantly more interesting.

Karkara valley

A local cow coming over to say "whats up?"

Local honey! The hives were just out of this photo.

Rolling beauty

Kyrgyzstan has much more Russian and Soviet history than Mongolia. The evidence of it is everywhere. It is a much more modern country in the sense it has had more time to develop. The people, for the most part, have settled or are semi-nomadic. This is the result of a force settlement effort by the Soviets. This means that outside of the extremely rural areas villages have a much homier feel to them, and the second official language is Russian. While much of Mongolian rural life still revolves around the Ger and the flock much of Kyrgyz life seems to revolve around the village and developed agriculture and farming is much more prevalent. The cities also follow this trend, outside of Ulaanbaatar and a few others there really aren't cities to speak of in Mongolia but Kyrgyz cities have a little more history and time on their side thus are more European feeling in nature while still very central Asian. Obviously this isn't hard and fast rule but seems this way based on my experience, which certainly isn't exhaustive. Back to the road here.

After Karkara we headed towards Issyk Kul via the town of Karakol. Karakol is a rad little city that has a very alps-esque feel to it. It was once a popular vacation spot for the Soviet Union and has now become a hub for international and domestic travelers. It is located at the base of some spectacular mountains, home to a ski resort, and the launching spot for many treks and tours. It also offers amazing high mountain access and easy access to the lake. We were in between storms so we holed up there for a few days in one of the best hostels I have ever encountered. Hostel Nice. It was full of great people and was extremely comfortable. At a price of 150sum a night (about $2.50) for a tent spot it was just what we needed. Not to mention the owner and his son spoke perfect english and were great and interesting people.

Hostel Nice. A great little spot run by an english speaking
father and son team. It had everything, hot showers, fast internet,
a full kitchen, a stocked fridge, a great atmosphere, and tent space! 
As an added bonus there were fruit trees everywhere. All the apples,
plums, cherries, and various berries you wanted! Doubles as a ski rental
place in the winter too.

I hope to make it back to Kyrgyzstan someday to ski, do some mountaineering and climbing! We met a few peace corps volunteers in Karakol and it seems like it would be a pretty cool place to spend some significant time. You can't complain about the view, and there is an ex-pat oriented coffee shop to boot. But for us a few days would have to suffice. We loaded up on food, drank our fill of real coffee, waited out some weather, and looked to start pedaling. In process we worked hard to get some definitive road and weather beta. The route we had initial looked at was going to be impossible for both geographic and bureaucratic reasons. A "border zone" permit would be required (too close to China) and we needed either serious cash, or about a month, to get one. We had neither. There were also several extremely large rivers that would require crossing and multiple 3-4,000m passes to navigate. I'll save that one for next time. We opted for a less extreme but still very challenging route over Tosor Pass. We had a two day weather window to do it too.

We rode the south shore of the lake doing about 110k in the afternoon. It was an easy and scenic ride. Paved with moderate traffic. We even met a few other cycle tourist along the way and got an invite to visit New Zealand from two of them. Views of the lake were stunning, then the big mountains came into view. We would be crossing those the next day!

The lake and a monument to a 17th century tribal leader.

The mountains from the lake shore.

Tosor pass would prove to be a serious challenge. The pass itself is about 3,900 meters, or approximately 12,800 feet. Getting there from the lake is roughly a 7,500 foot climb over 32 k. That's a big day. Most people take a few days to do this, we decided to do it in a day to take advantage of our short weather window. It was a hell of a day. I had yet to have any leg cramps on this trip but tell you what I had them that day! This made it a long ride, push, ride, push, ride again, push again effort. Add in the elevation and the poor condition of the road and there was a lot of work involved! Much of the time, near the top of the pass especially, pushing consisted of picking up the bike to negotiate rocks, holes, and washouts. Given that my bike was fully loaded and probably weighed 80lbs at least I was basically push/carrying half my body weight up a steep hill for 8 hours. A backpack would have made things easier, those don't roll back down hill. Luckily the scenery was amazing, the weather was cool and cooperative, and a group of Dutch trekkers fed us plenty of cheese for lunch. A good, but extremely challenging day.

View from camp before climbing the pass.

That small speck in the middle of the photo is Kyle.
That shows the scale of this place.

A little donkey with a mohawk.

Up and up we go! What a place to live for the summer!

Glaciers! You can't tell but the pass is up and to the left
of the moraine in the middle of this photo, the road switch
backs up that.

The pass itself. We got here at about 6:30pm and were racing
the dark and the cold to find a camp spot soon after.

Once on top it was time for some sausage, cheese, and a snickers bar. The last rays of sun warmed us as we sat at almost 13,000 feet and congratulated ourselves on a job well done. Then it got cold. Time to get a few thousand down and set up camp. It was a good ride down to camp at about 11,500ft. 

Kyle heading down.

The view.

Gorgeous but is there a storm coming?

We set up, made some pasta and passed out. It was a surprisingly warm night with moderate cloud cover. I had settled in for what I hoped would be a refreshing and deep nights sleep. Unfortunately there were a few others on the road that night who had other ideas.

To be continued........