Tuesday, 29 July 2014

float, float on

if I hear the word short-cut again......
Looking at the map there is a short-cut to Ak-Tal following the main river.  It would shave quite a few kilometres off the route.  First we have to climb out from the valley before doubling back down on the other side of a big hill. It takes a while to find the turn off because it's only a farm track which drops down into a valley and we begin to wonder if there really is a way through.  We ask at the only farmhouse.  The man nods and laughs.  Pointing one way he says "Ak-Tal".  Pointing back the way we came he says "London" and smiles.  Off we go. And off I go - struggling to stay on my bike on the steep gravelly sections that lead down to a ledge above the river.  Here the trail goes cold but we can see ahead where we should go.   But what happened to the track?  

is this a short-cut?
Mudslides have wiped out what was the road, but the earth is dried out and we only have to negotiate a few crevasses before finally reaching a gravel road again.  This leads around a bend in the river and takes us in the right direction until it goes off on a big detour around a series of canyons.  We opt to take a short -cut on the short-cut with Suzy blazing a trail following horses' hoof prints.  The trail ends at a cliff.  
Dino rolls his bike down the path.  "No problem!" I look down at the drop.  Sure enough, it's doable, if we walk and keep hold of the brakes on the bike and keep our fingers crossed.  And after quite a dry day we find spring water just before camping. Back in Osh a motorcyclist remarked with no trace of irony "You've got it easy you cyclists" and the phrase gets aired whenever we reflect on the riding we've done.

We get a shot of tarmac before finally beginning the slow and steady climb towards Song Kol on more dirt washboard road.  At the next camp there's a big stream for washing, shielded from the road.  We like to wash as often as we can - it makes sleeping more comfortable and you feel great afterwards - once you've braved the initial chill.  As I'm lathering up in the freezing water the soap slips out of my hand and rapidly swims away from me.  Desperately I chase after it and with a fine dive forwards into the stream bed I grasp the bar before it disappears.  Phew.  Standing and turning round I just see at the last moment the soap dish floating past.  Damn.

With fresh supplies we are tempted to have a short day and camp beside the river in a picturesque spot.  Just before we stop we find a postcard from Chris with a note to any following cyclist - it's a fortnight old.  Hannah and Damian have added a footnote.  We are just one day behind them.  After the day's rest we are feeling good when we reach the switchbacks up to the lake.  There's a pass at 3300m and then down we swoop to the lake.  

on the way up
We cycle the long way around the lake.  There are yurts dotted around and clusters of animals - horses, cows, yaks, sheep.  The lake is huge and it is encircled by mountains.  A dirt road becomes a track.  We camp in a small bay.  Next morning Suzy, Gayle and Dino take a swim in the lake.  It's warm in the sun and we've been riding up and down steep tracks that eventually lead to a gentler shoreline.  We trekked here in 2008 before the yurts arrived.   Now there's a whiff of the farmyard about the place with dung everywhere and horseflies hovering around.  But when you look across the expanse of water you are greeted with sublime views.  Little kids pass by riding donkeys - what a place to spend your school holidays.  

We meet a few cycle tourists along the way.  Dave the Dread from Penrith is the longest travelled.  Quite a few people have come here especially for three or four weeks.  A young Korean woman wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with "Love Me" camped at the lake last night.  "There was no toilet!" she exclaims in horror.  She obviously hasn't spotted any marmot holes then.

The descent from Song Kol is a long one on dirt road.  It takes us almost the whole day to make it down the valley, with a siesta and swim, descending all the time and with a tailwind until we finally hit the asphalt.  It's only then that I discover a wobble on my front wheel - Dino diagnoses a wonky rear tyre and maybe a loose hub on the front wheel, neither of which would have been noticeable on the rough roads we've been riding.  Finally, in the town of Kochkor we come across Damian and Hannah.  They have stocked up for a backroad route to Bishkek while we have opted for an easier three day ride to the capital - on tarmac.

lunchtime swim anyone?

Early Saturday morning in Balykchi we stop for water and food.  A man walks into the shop and buys some pop and then the woman behind the counter pours him a large glass of vodka, half of which he knocks back before turning towards the doorway and vomiting on his way out.  Charming.  I sometimes wonder if half the men here aren't always drunk - quite a contrast with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan which seem to have a more conservative culture.

folding chairs are essential items for the more mature cycle tourist
Somewhere along the way we reach the 20,000km marker.  It's just over two years since we set off, so this isn't too bad a total.  The ride into Bishkek is taken at a lickety-spit to avoid the afternoon headwinds.  Both Dino and Gayle lead us off at a breathtaking speed which gets us into Bishkek before lunchtime.  We head over to the AT Guesthouse as recommended by lots of friends and immediately find ourselves in a peaceful relaxing home.

Jacques puts his bike to good use

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