We spent two whole months in Kyrgyzstan. Sixty days of riding remote mountain passes, drinking horse milk in yurts, stuffing ourselves silly with the abundance of fresh fruit and veg available, hiking to glaciers, and swimming in high altitude lakes. But we have come away with mixed feelings. The Kyrgyzstan we were promised was full of hospitable people, off the beaten track adventures, and a true sense of remoteness. Sure, there was lots of times we experienced all of these. However, aspects of Kyrgyzstan left a sour taste in our mouths. Were we just finding it hard to adjust after the brutal remoteness of the Pamir? Has the development of tourism in Kyrgyzstan led to the diminishment of its hospitable culture? Or in this new country, fighting for its place on the world stage, are people just desperate to make a dollar?
Riding over the pass from Tajikistan into Kyrgyzstan we were shocked to descend into a wide green valley, with arable land as far as the eye could see. In brute contrast to the remote desolation we had just left, herds of horses roamed the hills, and sheep were cajoled from horseback by shepherds as young as five.
The barren moonscape of the Pamir was gone. Instead, Kyrgyzstan was the land of plenty, with fruit sellers lining the roadsides and alpine-esque forests covering multicolored mountains. Yurts dotted the landscape, with clusters surrounding meandering streams. Yet there was also a sense of modernity. Many a yurt had a 4×4 parked outside and an electricity cable sneaking in through the felt lining.
Kyrgysztan also had what Tajikistan had been lacking. Cities, with coffee shops, bars, decent pizzas even and craft beer! We even managed to sample a few night clubs and karaoke bars, but these were filled with underage boys and drunk older women – Not sure we will be visiting those again! We noticed Kyrgyz people seemed much more modern and liberal in comparison to their Tajik neighbours, and were granted many more opportunities. Sadly, alongside these freedoms had come the loss of traditional ways. Traditional dress, bar the Kyrgyz ‘Kalpak’ (felt hat which can still be seen everywhere), had been replaced by cheap Chinese/Russian track suits and denim jeans, shirts, and waistcoats (usually all worn at the same time). Weddings that, in the past, would have normally taken place in village ceremonies with elaborate costumes, have been replaced with motorcades of Hummer limousines and Mercedes G-Wagons, trailing their way round local beauty spots on the way to the nearest 5 star resort. It seemed to us at times, along with modernisation, that Kyrgyz people were loosing touch with their traditional ways.
Saying this, outside of the cities, traditional life continued in force. We visited a packed animal market in Karakol which showed the extent to which the Kyrgyz people still rely on their animals, especially the horse. Once famous and desired by armies worldwide for its strength, the Kyrgyz horse is a beautiful beast used for all manner of tasks from farming, and transport, and increasingly for renting to Western tourists! There are now huge numbers of agencies operating out of the major tourist hubs in Kyrgyzstan that will rent you a horse and guide for an inflated price. Keen to avoid this, we turned up at a remote town and set about bartering or way onto a three day trek with some friends. We’re not sure its the best thirty five quid Ryan has ever spent! After an enthusiastic start (no instructions given on how to ride at all), Ryan was off galloping across the open fields heading for the hills. By lunch time his enthusiasm had waned somewhat and he was complaining of severe chaffage. Swapping horses for the slow plodder that Lottie had originally been given, he ended the day with open wounds on his bum and vowing to walk instead of ride for the following two days.
Alas, being a very manly man, come day break, he mounted his horse, (as ginger as his beard) and set about a slow plod across the mountain passes. Lottie however had been waiting for her chance to get on a pony and drove the poor beast up onto high ridges and galloped over open pasture. We stopped many a time for ‘kymyz’ (fermented horse milk) from some of the few yurts still remaining on the high pastures.
Tasting somewhat like milky cider, this brew claims to give you a complete detox. Ryan drank a lot of it, and ended up with explosive diarrhea and vomiting to accompany his saddle sore. Stopping at these remote yurts we got the opportunity to experience traditional Kyrgyz life. The inside of the yurts were dark and smoky. Lined with felt, the cooking area was centred on a small stove and the family would spread their bedrolls on the floor each night. The people living in the remote hills were shy and very generous. This was in contrast to the many ‘tourist yurts’ we came across, where a plate of gretchka (Russian buckwheat) will set you back over three quid!
In our two months we had many adventures, but most notable were those adventures that failed. At Arslanbob, the world’s largest walnut forest, we planned to hike up Babash-Ata Peak at over 4000m – a four day trek. We lasted two, with Lottie succumbing to severe diarrhea in a place where water was nowhere to be found. This scenario was repeated near Karakol in the Tian-Shan range. This time, Ryan’s bowls were to blame, and again we abandoned our trek after one night. This may have been a blessing in disguise however, as the following day snowstorms left even the lakeside deep in snow.
In one brave attempt we tried to ride The Jiptik pass. An old Soviet road, again passing over 4000m. This time we were hampered by landslides. The road had not been driven in a really long time, and even after abandoning the bikes, we struggled to hike to the top of the pass over all the landslide debris.
Not deterred by these failures, we continued our search for adventure. Kyrgyzstan’s landscape is by no means monotonous. However, ask any traveler and they will tell you, you visit Kyrgyzstan for its lakes. These azure blue, crystal clear waters can be found everywhere, but of course, we wanted to reach those that were the most remote.
One of our favourite trips was to lake Song Kul. Determined not to follow the traditional tourist trail, we took a remote track to the north of the lake. One of the best roads we have ridden, it began in corn fields dotted with crumbling Islamic tombs harking back to the pre-soviet era, before rising into the hills, by now bleached gold by the summer sun. As the route climbed, the track descended into nothing more than some tyre tracks in the grass before ending in a bouldery summit.
The tough track was worth it. Lake Song Kul sits in a vast mountain arena. The peaks encapsulate a fertile grazing pasture, inaccessible for most of the year, but stunning green as spring arrives. Yurts lined the shore of the lake where the sun glinted off the water. But even as we stood celebrating in the sunshine, the cool winds reminded us that winter was definitely on its way. As we descended we passed many of the shepherds, cars piled high with bits of yurt, random animals and possessions, escaping the high ground before they were cut off by the first snows. We spent a glorious two days off road riding, circumnavigating the lake, winding between huge herds of horses and yaks, waving at shepherds, relishing the glorious views in every direction. Unfortunately it was FREEZING! So we descended to lower ground where we set up the hammock for two days next to a meandering stream and reminisced about our teenage years as we listened to our Indie rock album on repeat!
Travelling between lakes we realised we had not left the challenging roads behind us when we left the Pamir. If you want to (and many tourists do) you can traverse the major tourist sites and lakes of Kyrgyzstan without ever leaving tarmac. That’s not really our style. We sought out remote roads in the lesser traveled areas of the country, and what we found were incredible mountain passes to rival any world rally stage. Sandy corners, pot holed ‘u bends’, narrow canyons, views to die for and not another tourist in sight.
For our favourite and most beautiful lake visit, we headed South towards the Chinese border. Requiring a special permit, this area of Kyrgyzstan is so remote, very few shepherds even make it there. Kel Su sits at over 3500m, a strikingly brilliant turquoise, it is framed by sheer slate grey cliffs. The ‘road’ we chose was one of Ryan’s suggestions. When Ryan is excited about a road, you know it is going to be a Type 2 fun endurance event, enjoyable only after the ride is completed. Even on ‘maps.me’ (our navigation system) someone had added a not ‘DO NOT TAKE THIS ROAD TO KEL SU’. We took it. Difficult from the off, a single remaining tyre track traversed a bumpy old farm yard filled with steep potholes and broken vodka bottles before traversing a narrow stream and heading up an incredibly steep bouldery hill. At the top we were rewarded with fine mountain views but as we rode along mountain ridges, it was clear another vehicle had not passed this way for a long time. In the past trucks had carved out knee deep tyre tracks which threatened to catch you as you dodged the old strands of barbed wire and wooden stakes that littered the way. We descended sharply into a bog, by this point Lottie was convinced we would never make it out alive! Not only had the tyre tracks disappeared we were now no longer on the GPS track marked on our tablet.
Nevertheless, Ryan picked out the easiest way and we dodged bogs and huge boulders to the top of the final mountain ridge. From here we were relieved to see the ‘normal people road’ winding through the valley below us. However, between us and it was a terrifyingly steep descent over loose ground all the way down the mountainside. We felt as if we would surely go over the handlebars, such was the gradient. Lottie dropped her bike numerous times, meaning Ryan had the work-out of his life walking back up the mountain to help her lift the bike again and again. Nevertheless, half an hour later we were on the valley floor, exhausted and where glad to erect our tent in what must be one of the most beautiful places on Earth.
The following day, after a freezing night we hiked to the lake. All the exhaustion of the previous day was worth it as we came upon the crystal waters. A small smattering of snow peppered the mountain sides and the sun glinted off the water. We spent a blissful few hours at the lake and just as we prepared to leave decided it would be rude not to take a dip!
And Kyrgyzstan continued to be stunning. From mountaineering and ice-climbing in Ala-Archa national park, to trekking in the Tian-Shan, exploring the old silk road fortresses of Tash Rabat and Burnana tower and venturing to remote petroglyph sites, the variety of activities was endless. As was the beauty of the place. We sought out the roads and valleys less traveled and were rewarded with untouched beauty, remoteness beyond words and sometimes even a wallow in a hot spring!
Camping in these places we often woke to shepherds circling our tent on their horses. Usually they were merely inquisitive, its not often a couple of white people pitch up on your pastures. They would stare at us while we made coffee and porridge, asking us the usual questions about where we are from and how many litres of petrol are in our motorbikes. These were harmless, often enjoyable encounters where we strived to learn as much about them as them about us.
However, sometimes these encounters were frustrating. Kyrgyzstan has an alcohol problem. Vodka is cheaper than a loaf of bread in the UK and supermarkets shelves are stacked high with an incredible variety of bottles. The evidence of addiction is everywhere, broken glass litters the road sides, even on remote mountain tracks, shepherds approach you with red, watery eyes, people at the roadside wave you down flicking their necks (the Russian way of proposing a drink), and little girls, with white bobbles in their hair are sent to the shop to pick up bottles of vodka for their fathers.
It meant a lot of our encounters with locals, especially in small towns and villages were incredibly frustrating, and not enjoyable. We were never threatened, but felt very uncomfortable. We also had many negative experiences with people flagging us down as we rode past asking for money or cigarettes. On top of this small children would pick up stones and lob them at us as we drove past. We began to dread encounters with locals, which was not how we wanted to travel. We can think of a few reasons for the alcoholism; lack of employment, poverty, boredom. And one reason why we were seen as walking wallets; the increase of tourism, especially from rich Russians and Europeans.
And herein lies the conundrum. Do the positives of this country outweigh its negatives? We met many generous, warm people. Adorable kids wanting to practice their English, teenage girls who shyly approached us with ice creams, families who wanted to share meals with us. However we had more negative encounters with people than in any other country we had visited. The food is sometimes amazing, lagman (noodles in a spicy soup), shashlik, fruits and salads. However, often the food is laced with sheep fat (a delicacy in Kyrgyzstan), which made us gag. Manti (steamed dumpling) and plov (rice and meat), Kyrgyz staples, we came to avoid like the plague. The hiking, climbing, riding were spectacular, but unless you tried hard to escape them, you would always find other tourists in the beauty spots. And with the tourists came the touts, and the expenses.
Further to this, we were in Kyrgyzstan at the end of the season. Normally a rich green land, we found it parched and dusty brown. As temperatures dropped, we began to freeze in our tent. Our sleeping bags are not designed for the below zero night time temperatures. Ryan’s roll mat got a puncture, so he began to rely on our sheepskin saddle covers for warmth. Lottie was so freezing each night, Ryan had to make her hot water bottles and she went to bed wearing every item of clothing. Our gear, after seven months on the road was beginning to fall apart. The tent zips were breaking, our stove was playing up, our power bank was broken, our bowls and plates falling apart, wheel bearings on the bike were giving way and we both had mysterious ticking noises emanating from our engines. This all added to a negative impression we were slowly building about the country.
However, as snow began to fall, we headed out for our ‘final hurrah’ in Kyrgyzstan and our final difficult road of the year. The Tosor Pass is famous amongst the overlanding community for linking Lake Issyk Kul (Kyrgystan’s main tourist draw), to Narin, a remote Southern town and popular hub for people travelling on to China. The road winds through narrow river valleys and canyons before peaking at 3893m as you cross the pass. The first day was spectacular! Wide valleys and river crossings became the norm as the road slowly degraded. The weather was changeable and we often had to stop and take cover under bridges or huts as huge hailstones pelted from the sky. But after the storms came the calm, piercing rays of sunshine illuminating snow capped mountains as far as the eye could see. We camped next to a hot spring where local ladies offered us a bed in their warm house. Stupidly we refused, having already set up the tent and snuggled down for the night. It was freezing, and as the snow began to fall we regretted our decision more and more.
In the morning we woke to snow just above us, and nervously packed up our gear and headed higher. The track was tough, muddy and rocky and increasingly snow covered. We battled our way up to the pass and reaching it, elated and exhausted we munched a bar of chocolate before considering our route down. There had been a landslide a few days earlier, which was now covered by 10cm of snow. We began slipping and sliding our way down. The bikes fell often, it was impossible to know if a hole or a boulder lay under the pristine covering of snow. Ryan was suffering from man flu and exhausted himself hauling Lottie out from under her bike numerous times. We were relieved to reach the end of the snow line, but the road became sandy and tough to traverse. We could only relax when we reached the asphalt, a few hours later. But what a final hurrah it had been.
If you are looking for beautiful mountain scenery, we can recommend Kyrgyzstan. If you want to experience a night in a yurt or horseback riding in remote valleys, Kyrgyzstan is for you. If you want to drive a 4×4 to stunning lakes, you can do this in abundance in Kyrgyzstan. If you want to try strange foods, eat horse and drink vodka, Kyrgyzstan is the place to do it. But if you want to experience adventure, in a land untouched by modern tourism, this might not be the place. If you want genuine hospitality at every turn and meaningful encounters with local people, this is sometimes hard to find. But perhaps we are asking too much of this beautiful country. Perhaps we have become ungrateful and blase about our experiences. We had a fantastic time in Kyrgyzstan, but we have been shaped by the countries and cultures through which we have already passed. Undoubtedly an incredible country, it somewhat paled in comparison to the raw beauty of the Pamir and the overwhelming hospitality of Turkey and Uzbekistan. Would we have enjoyed it more if it had been our first country? Or if winter had not been knocking at the door? Waiting to cross the border into Kazakhstan we asked ourselves, would we be back? Truthfully…..yes – and perhaps that says it all.