Story by Ryan Heath
Images by Mick McDonald
It is fair to say that when I told people I was travelling to Kyrgyzstan the most common reaction was, “you’re going where?” I think there was an assumption that any place that ended with “stan” was not a travel destination of choice.
People seemed clueless about this nation, other than veiled references to Borat, the fictional Kazakhstan journalist. One person however googled the country and sent me a link to a story about the bride kidnapping. She at least got the right country, but again little to support my choice of destination.
Travel bookshops are not bursting with Kyrgyzstan books or city destination guides to Bishkek or Osh. However despite its non-existent reputation as a travel destination it is where Mick and I found ourselves about to lead our first 14-day motorcycle tour in Central Asia.
Formally part of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan gained its independence in 1991. It is a small landlocked nation that forms part of the Silk Road. Oh, and it is absolutely spectacular! The scenery defies description. Think 6,500mt snow capped peaks, blue alpine lakes, lush green valleys dotted with yurts, glacier fed streams, and welcoming locals.
Our starting location was Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second city, sitting amid the lush Ferghana valley. Given that a large part of the country is mountainous, this valley is the country’s breadbasket. It also boasts one of the largest bazaars in Central Asia.
In keeping with immersing ourselves in the local culture Mick and I spent our first evening in Osh at the local concert hall. However Russian or Kyrgyz music was nowhere to be found. We were instead treated to the musical delights of Mem Shannon and the Membership band, a New Orleans based blues group.
Mem and his band were staying at our hotel and invited us to hear them play. Now who could turn down New Orleans blues music in Central Asia? Clearly not us, it was a wonderful evening. The band finished their set by playing the national anthem of Kyrgyzstan on local instruments. Then to throw in a bit of the good ol’ USA they played “Johnny be Good” while throwing beads into audience. Cultures colliding!
Our first day proper of the trip saw us introducing the group to our fleet of XT600 and 660 Tenere Yamaha’s, the perfect bike for the rugged conditions to be experienced in Kyrgyzstan. With bikes fired up and the two support vehicles packed with lunch supplies we headed out from the Hotel Classic into the traffic of downtown Osh.
We travelled southeast towards the Tajikistan border and began the ascent to the 2,389mt peak of Chyyrchyk Pass. We stopped at the top and were greeted by smiling locals who seemed happy to pose for photos. We dropped down into the valley and through the town of Gulcha. Stopping beside a raging glacial fed river we enjoyed our first “Compass” lunch.
After the sedate nature of the pavement our return trip to Osh was strictly dirt. On a path Mick and Veronica had discovered 12 months earlier on the research trip, we rode alongside the Kurshab River through incredible canyons and along twisting paths. The amazing scenery slowed unfolded as we traversed the canyon and crossed narrow bridges over the raging torrent below.
Slowly the canyon widened into the fertile Ferghana valley and our return to Osh. It was a great first day!
Our first real taste of the developing world’s traffic chaos met us early the next day and we left Osh and ascended towards Jalal-Abad. After leaving the bitumen and the liberal traffic rules we hit the dirt again for an afternoon of unparalleled beauty.
We climbed the 3000mt Kaldama pass via a series of switchbacks overlooking green summer pastures surrounded by snow capped peaks. Suddenly the heat and traffic chaos was a world away.
It seemed like we were the only people in the world as we slowly snaked our way to the top of the pass. From the viewpoint of the support vehicle it was a fantastic panorama to watch 14 motorcycles twisting up the rocky path to the summit. The views from the top were breathtaking and not just because of the altitude.
A taste of Kyrgyz hospitality greeted us for the evening as we overnighted at our home stay in Kazarman. Our host, Baktygul, provided a warm bed and a fine local meal for the group. It was a rare privilege to get a glimpse at a real family and a real home, rather than a ubiquitous hotel room.
The next day continued to set the bar high for jaw dropping scenery. The support vehicle rarely got past second gear as we kept stopping for one great photo stop after another. After breakfast we climbed a 2,600mt pass and spent most of the day at 2000mt crossing another 2,800mt pass in the afternoon. It was twisties most of the day with sheer 1000mt drops into the valley below.
All day we were greeted by smiling children who lived in the yurt camps located in the summer pastures known as Jailoo’s, in the short summer months. It was a special day and I spent most of it sitting behind the wheel smiling at the scenery. It seemed to get better and better as the day unfolded.
In the late afternoon with storm clouds brewing we arrived at the comfortable Khan Tengri hotel in Naryn. Our cultural awakenings continued into the evening when our restaurant transformed into a nightclub just as they collected our empty soup bowls.
Our casually dressed bikers, mostly wearing black Compass T Shirts, were joined at dinner by bow tie wearing guys and evening gown wearing women. We should have realized something was afoot when we spotted the extravagant chandeliers hanging overhead.
As the last morsel of food was consumed the lights dropped, the strobe lightning ignited, the dance floor filled and the local version of Michael Buble belted out local ballads while sitting behind a small desk, much like a bingo caller.
So far the scenery had delivered in spades, and the next day, well, it went up another notch. We climb a 2000mt pass and are greeted by the snow-covered panorama of the Bashy Range, part of the mighty Tien Shan Range that borders China. We hit the dirt again and traveled through small towns.
We are fortunate to encounter a local vodka taster who welcomes us to his village by removing his shirt and both dancing and shadow boxing amid the midday traffic. Once his greeting dance is completed he wanders off along the roadside in search of his next tasting.
We then hit some smooth pavement, runway like, and speed into the valley to the south. Turning off onto dirt we arrive at the impossibly beautifully located yurt camp of Tash Rabat.
Before we settle in for the evening we visit the magnificent 15th Century Caravanserai used by Silk Road traders. In remarkable condition this monument sheltered a collection of traders and their animals over the ages. It sits at about 3,500mt and is half buried in the hillside.
Returning to our yurt camp we meet Yuri, our enthusiastic host for the evening. After displaying a collection of T Shirts and local crafts, Yuri introduces us to what passes as fun in a remote, high altitude yurt camp alongside the Chinese border.
We are dressed, mostly against our will and better judgment, in a collection of wigs, dresses, and caftan like ensembles. With feathers in our hair, and with the beating drum, we are encouraged to dance, yelp loudly and shuffle round in a circular motion.
It does not go without noticing by the group that just as the fancy dress ceremony commences, Mick decides to wander away from camp for some “photos”. Safe to say, dressing up, wig wearing and dancing not favorite pastimes of our tour leader.
The sunset at the camp is without comparison. The last rays of the day illuminate the “Dragon’s Teeth” that tower above the camp. We are bathed in a cascade of colours, brilliant blues, deep browns and lush greens. A photographers dream!
If we thought that the dirt roads had been amazing thus far, well, the next day showed us something else again. The 33 parrots pass! So called because the Russian word for “fear” sounds much like “parrot” in English, in any event it will linger long in our memory.
The gravel road stretched upward, the summit obscured from view as we started the ascent. The switchbacks were severe, the path turning back on itself, nearly 180 degrees, a total of, well, 33 times. I dropped the Toyota into granddaddy low gear and slowly climbed to the top.
The bikes snaked up the path ahead of me and we were all rewarded at the top with amazing views over the pass we had just conquered. We continue down from the pass and get our first view of Song Kol, a beautiful alpine lake and the second largest in the country.
It sits at an altitude of just over 3000mt and is the largest body of fresh water in Kyrgyzstan. Our yurt camp sits lakeside and we celebrate our arrival with soft cheese, hard crackers and smooth red wine. The sunset over the lake is spectacular; the sun drops behind the clouds and the lake changes colour. Wild horses run across the horizon as the sun finally dips behind the lake.
Later in the evening our hosts ignite a bonfire as we tell stories and bond over shots of Vodka and our mechanics home brew of a distillation of 27 plants! As we finally retire to our yurts for the evening we are pleased to discover the wooden stoves have been lit making our accommodation warm and inviting.
Leaving Song Kol was again traverse a pass of over 3460mt with stunning views into the valley below. We stop atop the pass where winter snow still sits roadside. Some carve messages into the snow and take photos, others; clearly less mature, engage in a snowball fight.
Leaving the mountains it is now all about the lakes. We reach the shores of Issyk Kol, the second highest Alpine Lake in the world. The name means “warm lake, so named, as even though it is surrounded by snow capped peaks, it never freezes.
As we ride alongside the lake in the afternoon we pass small beach resorts. Inflatable rings, beach umbrellas and children splashing in the water suddenly replace the yurt camps and alpine peaks of the last week.
Come and Join Compass Expeditions in Kyrgyzstan in 2018