Bicycle touring Kyrgyzstan has been magnificent so far, the round trip of the Issyk Kul was stunning and the World Nomad Games have been a great experience. Now it’s time for something a bit more tough, we-re going to climb to the highest point of our bicycle trip so far.
Song Kul is an alpine lake situated at 3000msl, in the province of Naryn. It’s used, since probably millenia, as a summer jailoo, a yurt camp where nomads bring their herds to fat. To get there we must ride our bikes over a 3,400 meters pass. Let’s see how it goes.
How we got from Issyk Kul to Song Kul
After more than two weeks bicycle touring around it, today we leave our beloved Issyk Kul.
We cross Balykchy, “pleasant” little town, once a tourist destination for Soviet proletariat, now left to itself. Truly an ugly place but somehow fascinating, at least if you like the genre. We note that there is a lot of drunk people, and it’s just 2 PM. Living here must be pretty bleak.
We wander in search of an ATM who likes our card (Maestro) but no one likes it. We move towards Kochkor, theoretically the largest town in the area where we hope ATMs are more friendly.
Passed Balykchy, a dashing wind starts to blow, obviously against us, we cycle to a maximum speed of 10km/h and I occasionally come rattling here and there. I begin to think that having a trailer like the Extrawheel* is better than the front bags.
We ride again along our dear Chui river and stop to camp in a nice small field on its shore, under a large olive tree. Too bad there’s the usual garbage left over by some asshole. Tomorrow we’ll start the climb to Song Kul lake*, we hope the wind would change direction, it would be the first time in five months.
We leave the creek behind and move towards the mountains, the road is beautiful, both scenically and from an asphalt point of view.
We arrive in Kochkor*, last “urban” place before heading to the lake. After visiting all the ATMs in the city, we can say those are not friendly neither, they have more feeling with the Visa electron circuit, a levy costs of “only” 5 euro more. A bargain.
brief point about the risk of overstaying in the Jailoo
We enter into a one of the many tourist office to ask if there are still yurts up at the lake. Given the altitude (3000msl) evening will be cold and you better have a B plan in case the tent is not enough (our tent is not really a proper winter one).
We are told that the yurts, in Kyrgyz language Boz Uy, which literally means gray house (from the color of the felt that covers them), are still there, even though the season is almost over. Most of the Kyrgyz nomad shepherds are indeed semi-nomads, living in the yurts only during summer, when they go graze their herds up in the high mountain pastures, where the grass is nourishing.
The sheep are brought on trucks while the horses go abreast, transhumance could take days, and if on the way back something goes wrong, for example a snowstorm, they can loose the work of the entire season, the animals can loose the fat or even die. So to come down at a right time is a must.
Even so, some shepards dare to risk that, staying longer in the Jailoo (the yurt camp), hoping to make some extra bucks from the tourists coming there. It’s a big gamble, but those can be good money for a Kyrgyz nomad family.
Eagles, Chinese and places to camp
We keep on following the wonderful “made in China” road, the landscape is very mountainous, large vertical walls on all sides. But still quite barren. We’re back near the river. We spot some majestic eagles and some Chinese workers who greet us with big smiles. They seem much friendlier than Kyrgyz highlanders.
The only problem is that there aren’t many places to camp, there is little space and when there is it’s stony. We arrive at 2200 meters and find a spot for the tent, not the best but until now we haven’t seen anything else. With courage we wash in the river two sweatshirts we found on the street, hands are frozen, literally. It’s like putting them in the ice. But at least we have some clean clothes now.
September 17, 2014
The road to Song Kul
Keep going, always uphill, but never too steep. We arrive at the village of Sary Bulak, turn right and within a few kilometers we reach the fork for the lake and also the last village where to make supplies. With our extreme displeasure, not to use other more vulgar expressions, we have to leave the Chinese road and take the Kyrghiz one.
The sign says Song Kul 50 kilometers. Asphalt nietu. The beginning is vertical and we must necessarily push the bikes.
Besides, the road soon bacomes a washboard. Basically, it is a dirty stony road composed of many small waves, it’s like driving a jackhammer. The bikes are suffering, we as well. We spend more time pushing the bike then trying to pedal, even when the road is flat. The consolation comes looking at the scenery, but not for long. The brain is in a shaker, wonder what kind of cocktail would come out.
We arrive at 2500 meters and a downhill begins, not even time to say “fortunately” and we realize that this is hell. Keeping our bikes straight is very difficult, much worse than the climb, as you go faster. At the end of the descent there’s a paved road leading to the village. Hooray, let’s hope the best.
There are three magazin but practically they do not sell anything. Candy and cigarettes. We buy bread and water, yesterday we bought some cheese in Kochkor and a few cans of corn. The asphalt ends just past the village and we’re in hell again. I want to say that the chick at the tourist office had told us that this was a “VERY GOOD ROAD”. We would like to really thank them with a call.
To our left is the river that runs through the valley, no lack of camping spots at least. There are houses of shepherds, who live here all year long. Houses made of mud and stray. Keep going, pushing 80% and cycling 20%. We want to go call some Chinese workers, in the space of a week there would certainly be a beautiful road here too. In a full day we were able to do only 20 km on this road. We stop to sleep along the river, at 2700 meters and tomorrow we hope to reach the lake.
Struggling and cheating the last leg of the road to Song Kul
The night goes quiet, we thought we could feel cold but it went well. Outside was around 0°C but our tent behaved well. When we wake up there’s a nice sunny day. At least in this we are lucky. But the road, if possible, gets worse.
The climb becomes more vertical, is an expanse of stones. We are at 3000 meters, the pass before descending to the lake it’s 3400 and we really think we won’t make it in one day. While we are in the midst of yet another shove, up a never-ending series of switchbacks, there pass a van, the guy rolls down the window and jokingly asks if I want to load the bike. But I take it seriously and with the cry pajalsta (please), he stops and we load!
Song Kul jailoo: finding a yurt to spend the night
Our idea is to go around the lake and then down from the south road.The road that leads to the Song Kul shore is again a dirt road, but a way better one, no big stones and no washboard. We see the first yurts. And the lake. The scenery is idyllic, worth the effort and the blasphemies. We arrive to the camp after 8 beautiful km, seems it’s going to rain, we’ll stop to sleep here.We go to a random yurt just before us. To sleep there they ask us 500 som per per person with breakfast. In total about 13 euro. To get a yurt with heating and some warm food I would say it’s okay. Dinner is 200 som per head.Our yurt is nice, with many colorful shirdak, there is a sort of heater powered by cow dung, just like in Kinaliq (Azerbaijan). I would say that after two days on that terrible road we deserve a little relaxation. Let’s take a walk along the lake, there is a lot of wind. On the shore there’s a boat that looks abandoned, but maybe is not.
How to build a yurt in Kyrgyzstan: anatomy of a Boz Uy
A little further on, we see that they are dismantling a yurt and go browse. In fact it is a “game” for Russian tourists who will sleep there. They need to disassemble and reassemble the yurt. There are about a dozen people, but in practice the two Kyrgyz do all the job.The assembly of a yurt starts from the small wheel-shaped roof (the one that is depicted in the flag of Kyrgystan) in which several long, curved wooden sticks are caught. All around the yurt there is a “fence” on the ground, always in wood, where those sticks are tied. This is the wall of the yurt, also made of wood, no nails of any sort, the thing is kept together by strings made of bowels. It can be folded and carried away.Than obviously there is the door. And then you put the felt to cover it all. No metal, only wood, rope and cloth. Inside the floor and walls are decorated and kept warm by colorful shirdaks.With Russian tourists there is also an Italian hitch hiker. Even backpacking here is not easy, taxis are expensive and, in fact, given the road, we understand why. They invite us for a vodka, just perfect given the chilly weather. The lady of the house is preparing dinner, there is a big pot on the fire, the recipe is typical, a whole boiled sheep… very nouvelle cuisine.
A nomad dinner and sleeping in a Yurt
Let’s go back to our yurt, the lady of ours has been playing with Daniele’s Ukulele for a while and is now going to prepare dinner. For us, vegetable soup, potatoes and various creams. Poorer but more refined. And a ton of tea.
After dinner we go happy in our yurt, we prepare the mattress and the bed, the covers are heavy and luckily the heater warms really up. And it is certainly environmentally friendly. It seems to me a method that everyone should adopt. Because, no less important, the dried dung, does not stink.
We fall asleep happy, while it’s raining outside, we feel the strong wind. Today, a Russian chick told me that there is going to be a snow storm the day after tomorrow. We hope to cross the lake tomorrow before the storm would come.
A sudden snow storm spoils our plans
Breakfast is eggs, jams, bread and tea. When we get out of the yurt we see dark clouds gathering above us, it seems that the storm is coming one day in advance. Is very cold, at least 15 degrees less than yesterday. Moreover we start feeling dizzy, maybe fever.
We tell ourselves that, not sure how the road it is, maybe is better not to venture. If we get surprised by the storm might not be fun. In addition, the dirt road in the rain, or worse, in the snow would become a muddy mess.
We have to find a ride to get down from here. The Russians they are already gone. Behind our yurt, however, is parked a truck, which was turned into a bus and brought some tourists here. We try to ask. The drivers are a boy and a girl from England and will give us a ride! Hooray!
They invite us into their yurt for lunch, which unfortunately was cooked by them. I have to say that, generally speaking, the British have no hope when it comes to food (sorry guys, there could be exceptions of course). There is a cold pasta, frozen, with whole tomatoes inside, and cucumbers, parsley and a lot of other things I don’t want to remember.
Hitchhiking a Dragoman truck*
Around noon we go. The above truck is called Dragoman*, in practice you can book online and the truck takes you around the world. Basically it’s a thing sold as adventurous which is not adventurous at all. You go in already booked hotels, have fixed schedules, eat at the appointed time.
In short, the only thing different is that it is a truck, and is cheap. The rest is a simple all-inclusive trip with everything organized. That said, still is probably the easier and cheaper way to travel in those off-the-beaten-path destinations.
But what’s important to us, is that we can load the bike and go back with them to Kochkor. Even for the truck the road is not easy. And there it comes, the snow storm, there are about 0 degrees, yesterday there were 30… the face of temperature variation.
We arrive in Kochkor around 4 PM, we feel we caught a cold and fever. So we stop to sleep in the guest house where the dragomani are. The most expensive of our trip in Kyrgyzstan I would say, 800 som per person with breakfast, more than 11 euro. But tomorrow they will give us a ride to Bishkek so we do not have many alternatives, else than ride the same way back. Let’s take a hot shower and go to sleep.
Note: the name of the lake is written in many different names because there are many way of transliterate it from Cyrillic.