Headwinds into the Chocolate Factory

Being able to put a frustrating few weeks of red tape and non-information behind me, and heading out on my bike came as great relief. Even more so as I was able to team up with another English cyclist, Alex who was waiting for his Chinese visa to be processed via Georgia. As we rolled through the streets and into the outskirts of Bishkek in the early afternoon, all the dates, forms, letters, stamps and running around of ex-soviet bureaucracy felt happily further behind with each turn of the pedals.

First stop, as is so often the case when I start a ride, is the petrol station. This always draws bemused looks from staff and customers alike as they try to work out where the engine is on the bike. After a little explaining they were happy to sell me the ½ litre of petrol I need for my fuel burning stove and we got on our way again. Outside the city we were soon riding beside the Chuy river and endless fields of rough farmland, with the Kazakhstan border a few kilometres away on our left and the murky outlines of the Kyrgyz mountain range to our right, just visible through the hazy layer of coal fire smoke being pumped out from towering power station chimneys.

By evening we had covered around 70km, cleared the next major town of Tokmok along the road and were looking for a place to camp between the villages dotted along our route. As the last of the evening light was disappearing we dragged the bikes down and up the steep banks of a stream and basked in the intense colours of the setting sun streaking the skies to the west and turning the snow-capped peaks hazy pink to the east.

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Our route the next day continued to follow the relatively flat road along the Chuy river, passing through small towns and villages before we reached the Boom gorge. As the walls got steeper the wind began to pick up and it was happily in our favour, pushing us up the short hills and sailing us down the descents. However, after a brief stop to try some of the stalks being sold by people all along the road (which seemed to be some relative of the rhubarb family and was so tart it made us pull funny faces, much to the amusement of the woman selling it who told us it should be eaten raw with a dab of salt) our luck. The wind turned and we found ourselves battling it as it howled around the rocky corners, arcing the riverside poplar trees like a drawn archer’s bow.

It seemed perfect timing to stop for food so we took shelter in a canteen at a marshrutka rest station. Cyclist’s hunger had well and truly kicked in again and we unashamedly stuffed our faces, before having to take slightly undignified naps face down on the table, which drew a few looks from fellow diners and staff. As we came round from our food comas, we looked out the window to see the poplar trees now leaning in the opposite direction and once back on the bikes found ourselves cruising up hill in our highest gears with full wind assistance.

The day ended as we started climbing up towards a 2000m pass and we pulled in at a lonely sheep farm to ask if we could camp nearby. With a smattering of Russian and some mime the head shepherd, who sat towering above us on his horse, indicated a place we could pitch our tent. Later he came over to inspect the strange canvas orb we had erected and there was a another amusing acted out conversation about rain coming, it being cold, us throwing water at the tent to show him it was waterproof, a baffled expression on his face and then the final realisation that he was asking us how we got inside it. When we unzipped the door his eyes widened in amazement and he called his friend over to show off our crazy contraption.

We woke to the sound of several hundred head of cattle and sheep being driven out to graze, but as we were packing up to leave we heard a solitary and despairing mooing. We turned to see a new born calf, still with its umbilical cord hanging and its back hair matted with amniotic fluid, stumbling on its wobbly baby legs. Despite our efforts to direct it back towards the ranch, where we were sure its mother must be, it made a beeline for the open doors of my tent and crumpled to the ground half in, half out. Clearly having decided that life outside the womb was not so fun, and that my tent made a very good substitute the calf refused to budge and sat panting and looking very confused. Between us we carried it over to the enclosed pens and reunited with its mother.

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Food coma kicks in for Alex

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The rest of the day was spent battling a ferocious headwind. It buffeted us all the way up to the pass and didn’t let up on the downhill past the striking blue Orto-Tokoy reservoir on the other side. At one point a pack of wild horses ambled across the road ahead of me, the stallion following my every move with a watchful eye as I passed his mares with their scraggly mains flailing in the wind. At the bottom of the pass we turned up towards Kochkor, the main town in the Kyzart valley which is flanked by beautiful mountain scapes and layered rock formations. The natural beauty was hard to appreciate however as we fought the constant wind.

After lunch another food coma set in and the owners of the café took pity on us and offered the use of their beds in a room behind the kitchen for us to sleep for an hour. It was so kind of them but the noise from the kitchen and the kids and dogs running around in the yard made it impossible to actually sleep. After a brief stop in Kochkor to stock up on food we continued on our way, now with the wind hurling clouds of dust and grit at us. For two days we had enjoyed endless waves, smiles, beeping horns, thumbs up and shouts of ‘hello’ from the locals, but now a grubby looking overloaded Passat overtook us with a guy holding his middle finger up at us out of the window until the car disappeared out of view. We took it as a sign to peel off from the road and find a place to camp as ominous black clouds rolled into the valley head.

Had we known what the large round earth mound built around tractor tires was actually for we may have chosen a different place to camp (we later found out it was a goal for the national sport of Kokburu). Thunder and lightning flashed from over the mountains but we escaped the weather where we were. However, the next morning the wind picked up again during breakfast and back on the road we were reduced to a hard won 10km/h, compounded by the onset of rain and the knowledge we had 20km to push until the next pass.

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Two happy faces at the pass – the first time round.

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I heard the slow rumble of a tractor approaching behind me and as it passed I ducked in behind and relaxed in the windbreak it provided. Further on ahead we over took Alex and he joined me in the relatively free ride. The tractor driver didn’t seem so amused though, glaring back at us periodically and showing no reaction tour thumbs up of thanks. After a couple of kilometres he pulled in to pick up a friend and we thought about waiting for him to set off again, but ahead of us was a small rise in the road and we realised we would probably lose touch with him on the climb. We set off on a sprint to reach the top of the hill before he passed us and as he came chugging past again Alex was able to crest the hill and tuck back in behind him. Despite my best efforts I just didn’t have the power or the speed to catch up in time and I watched in despair as the distance grew and my chance for some rest bite accelerated off into the distance. Alex waved at me to catch up or for the driver to slow down, but I couldn’t and he wouldn’t. It was nothing less than heart breaking.

When we caught up the driver had pulled off, the rain set in and we decided to have a strategy meeting in a ditch behind a tree. Our intention had been to meet a friend coming from Bishkek at a village 30km or so ahead and then leave the bikes to spend a couple of days hiking up to the famous beauty spot of Song Kul lake. But with the weather as it was it seemed unlikely this would be possible (with a pass to cross at over 3000m) and after a couple of phone calls and weather checks we made the decision to turn around and retrace our route to another hiking route, back in the Boom canyon. The disappointment of back tracking was somewhat compensated by the total change in riding. We were now freewheeling along at 30+km/h, the wind that had blighted us for the last 48hours now powering us along.

It even pushed us part of the way back up over the pass, but the final few kms up was hard fought, even more so when I missed the chance to grab onto a slow passing coal truck as it passed. This time as I saw Alex being pulled up the hill beside it I was just plain angry. With the burst of speed I had put into try and get in line with the back of it, I had nothing left in the tank to try and get the second truck behind it and once again I watched it inch away from my outstretched hand, with no more than half a meter between me and the metal ledge on the last truck. Struggling for breath and brimming with rage I unashamedly stopped by the road and had a little paddy, swearing and slamming my front wheel down.

The family trying to fix their broken down car at the roadside stared at me wide eyed and I walked off pushing the bike grumpily on towards the pass. Still fuming when I reached it I very unsportingly just shouted at Alex (resting at the pass) that I would see him at the bottom. We were both laughing about my missed tractors and trucks by the end of the day as we told the story of our journey so far to Isa, who had joined us from Bishkek to hike for a few days. But when I put my tent up and discovered a big rip in it and my stove refused to work I wondered where my luck was going. With thunder and lightning rolling in all around us and drops of rain hinting at the downpour to come we made a hurried repair with some medical tape and a poncho.

The repair held up perfectly against the rain, but each tie the lightning lit up the tent, the shape of the poncho draped over it cast a terrifying silhouette resembling something between Darth Vader and Batman. In the morning the weather was clear and we had train set-like view of the small farm and station houses we had camped above. We followed the path of a stream up through an increasingly narrow gorge, clambering up over waterfalls and through rivulets of chocolate coloured mud until we emerged into a spectacular canyon landscape. It was an incredible amphitheater of red and brown hued rock formations and columns. The mud unleashed by the previous night’s downpour was now drying in the afternoon sun and looked so chocolatey it looked truly delicious. In fact we nicknamed the whole place the Chocolate Factory!

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The scenery and isolated location were breath-taking and we spent the day exploring, taking photos and relaxing in the sun. Several hours were taken up searching for a water source, as despite all the rain it was difficult to find a source that wouldn’t clog up my water filter in minutes. Eventually we fashioned a small irrigation system from some water seeping down a rock and managed to devise a way of collecting it from a steady drip. The night was spent round a camp fire, over which we cooked rice pudding and then breakfast in the morning. Even my stupidity (I left my phone on the of hill whilst trying to take photos) and a pesky tick (which I woke up to see sinking its head into my hand in the morning) couldn’t spoil the beauty of the location (both survived – I found retrieve the phone in the morning and pulled the tick out without any trouble) and we were all reluctant to trek, slide and squish our way back down the gorge to the main road and hitch hike back to the city.

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Ideal place to leave your phone over night!

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We were back in Bishkek in time for May 9th is Victory Day in Kyrgyzstan, a national across all of the former Soviet Union states marking the end of fighting in World War II and I had expected a military parade or something similar. It transpired that there was the choice between some kind of rally and the national sport of kokburu at the city’s hippodrome. Having heard so much about this sport previously, I opted for the latter. After a quick bite of Shashlik (kebab) to eat at the street stalls outside the stadium, we squeezed our way onto the packed steps in the stands and tried to figure out the seething mass of horses, riders, mud and dead goat that is kokburu.

Basically two teams are trying to get the beheaded body of a pretty heavy looking goat into concave mounds at each end of the pitch to score. It starts off as a game of cat and mouse as one rider tries to position his horse beside the goat in order to be able to haul it up off the ground. As soon as the goat leaves the ground the opposition player tries to intervene by trying to grab the goat, knock the opponent off, ram the horse or seemingly any means possible. There is a mad scramble as the rider accelerates off in the direction of the goal and then another flurry of horses and riders charging, shoving and wrestling each other. The horsemanship is something to marvel at, as is the unflinching commitment and obedience shown by the horses themselves, but this is definitely not a spectator sport for the faint hearted or weak stomached.

Back at home I had a long repair list of broken kit after our little adventure. In 6 days I had managed to:

  • Rip my tent
  • Break my stove
  • Block my water filter and split the supply pouch
  • Rip my water proof trousers
  • Crack my water bottle
  • Torn part of the soles off my boots

So there was plenty of fixing to do, it was good to have been back on the road and to have laughed so much again. And I was ready to go again before I went to pick up my Kygyz visa the next morning.

For more of Alex’s cycling adventures (and his version of events!) check out his blog here: http://banana-spokes.travellerspoint.com

For more mouthwatering photos from the chocolate factory check out Isa’s Flickr photos here: https://flic.kr/s/aHskAvScDp

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