Of course I didn’t know. I had never thought to think or learn about the rich culture, the hospitality, the beauty of Central Asia. I’m sure that anyone that has been though this region on a bicycle would tell you the story of the kindness of Central Asian people and their generosity. But to experience if first hand – is just out of this world magnificent.
Kyrgyzstan especially is a cycling paradise. Mountains, goat tracks everywhere, fresh running water and unexplored landscape. We arrived to Kyrgyzstan with the intent to spend just a few days. However after arriving in Osh at our hosts – we felt so immediately at home we stayed there nearly a week!
Toma and Gulya, our first hosts are confident young women and talented gigglers, it was great after months of straight-faced work to just laugh. As they tried to learn English and we Kyrgyz – our communications sparked many, many shared laughs and remain fond memories.
Sad to leave such wonderful company, but finally we cycled on to Jala Abad where we met the BioCotton project, Shaznova and her team.
Inspirational. From a handful of skeptical farmers there are now thousands of farmers growing organic fairtrade cotton – with improved livelihoods, income, pride, land and environment wellbeing. This is a fantastic project and for people who care about were their cotton comes from – good news, there is still 60tones of mountain-water fed organic cotton available from the communities of south Kyrgyzstan. This project was supported by , Helvetas, a solution focused NGO based in Switzerland. Another project started in Kyrgyzstan by Helveta is Community Based Tourism. Here are their values:
Great idea to keep tourism local and green, eh! We cycled from Jala Abad up river to Arslanbob, a pilgrimage to a gorgeous holy lake. Here we met Hyatt and we are so glad we did. We asked Hyatt if we could cycle across to Toktukul Lake instead of heading back down to the road and he said it was possible … but it had never been done before and we would require horses and guides to get across.
Horses? Yep. Crossing over 3,000 meters over a The Three Rock pass – at one point climbing an elevation of 1,500 meters in 4km!
We, of course, agreed immediately and met with our mountain men Fazil and Rusil who would take the 3 day journey with us. Both mountain men – courageous and kind – became dear friends by the end.
Hyatt’s dream is to develop mountain bike tourism, and with a few tours from New Zealand, a few mountain bikes arriving from contributors and a trusty band of mountain men – he is set up for success. The biggest draw of course is the wealth of trails to be explored! Wow. Walnut forests, single track, access gravel roads through virgin mountains = mountain bike bliss.
Oh. right, wait a moment. I’m sure some of our readers will be wondering why we decided to take a route where we could only manage 20 – 30 kilometers a day when going for the woman’s world record – fastest female circumnavigation. Short answer is we are no longer going for the record. The time spent making miles on tarmac paled significantly in our excitement to spend time with the people and communities we continue to meet and the joy in taking off road and unplanned adventures. There is more to it then that though. There is this incredible race going on called The World Cycle Race, and 10 men competed to contend Alan Bate’s record of 127 cycled days. Mike Hall managed (crazily) to complete the 30,000km course in a total 108 days (total days ridden were 91). This sparked the Guinness World Record committee to reevaluate what was possible.
Originally the guidelines were to start and end in the same place, travel a total of 30,000km in one direction passing through two antipodal points with no more then 2 weeks off at a time. The record was based on time spent on the road cycling not on total days – there was also no time limitation. As there was no woman’s record to date, I was pretty stoked to go for it, I love competition, but at the same time did not feel the risk in stopping for a few days here and there as they did not count against my attempt. Spending time with people and checking out the local festivities.
What changed was this: records can now only be achieved by counting total days and the maximum day count became 150 days. Okay, so given how much time we had spent getting to Central Asia, when I got this news I realised we would never be able to complete the new expectations. Unless I abandoned our education project and blazed off on my own without Nic and all our gear. Not very feasible. So, thats it for this record for me this year. On to the next adventure! If your still keen to follow the race – tracked by Trackleaders all the men have finished but there is one determined young woman who is sure to make it. Go Juliana!
So, with most of our luggage in bags on our horses with Fazil and Rusil we began climbing out of Arslanbob. The riding was incredible! Simply, absolutely, some of the best three days of our expedition were ahead.
It was great to get off the main road and city tracks and be in the country – no shops or roads, only cattle, wild horses, goats and herders.We washed our clothes and skin in the fresh running rivers – so fresh!
We stopped for lunch and dinner to cook, we usually cooked pasta on our camp stove while Fazil and Rusil would prepare chai tea then eat a cold meal of bread with sausage or canned fish.
Mountain men are a different breed to other people. In the evening of our second night, the temperature dropped to +2c. I was wearing everything I owned and cuddled in a sleeping bag with Nic in a tent. The men? They slept under the stars in the same clothes they rode in with a light blanket and plastic sheet to stop the chill!
Climbing into the southern mountains is definitely suited for very keen off roaders and mountain bike enthusiasts – a little too technical for me. Narrow winding goat trails on steep mountain sides with rocky, loose sands. The mountain men saw I was struggling so Rusil took my bike in hand and put me on the horse – named horse! Here Rusil sits while his horse grazes in the background.
It was even too steep for the horse and he took a spill – but luckily I jumped off in time. Nic was doing much better hauling his bike up.
On the way down again the path was too treacherous – so this time Rusil walked the horses while Fazil tried to ride my Moots, Nic rode his and I ran! I could not figure out how Rusil’s walking – his steady consistent step was faster then my scrambling run. Mountain men, are just that strong. Every footfall is easy.
When we arrived at the point we could carry on alone and had to say goodbye, it was like saying goodbye to dear friends. The nights over the campfire and days spent getting over the mountains were so intense and connecting. Even though communication was difficult there was enough basic language to understand each other. As we stopped for lunch a goat herder and his son passed by – so naturally Fazil and Rusil invited them to the tea they had started. I watched as they shared their bread and few items left with these strangers, knowing that they had two days ahead of them to get home and no shops along the way.
This is the generous nature of the people in Central Asia, they will share all they have with anyone. In Kyrgyzstan this is a note of pride and many strangers along the rest of our journey continued to offer us their tea and food, or pay for ours.
We continued cycling to Toktukul lake
and arrived 70km later to the coast where some small shops sold fried fish and there was a small beach to camp. Entering the highway again was a real shock to the senses. Definitely made me realize that we will plan much more of our routes to be off the road. The following day we thought it would be an easy 40km around the lake to the town, it ended up being 90km and hilly! We had very little local currency or food left but with some homemade coffee, local watermelon we made it!
Upon arriving we realised the town is actually not on the lake and there were no decent camps or food – knowing that we had to get to Bishkek for a number of education meetings we decided after meeting some young locals to take a lift to arrive in Bishkek in time. It’s funny how things turn out, as because of that lift we had one of our best meals ever with homemade locally picked blackberry jam. Our young driver took us to a small restaurant in the forest that his friend started – and it was amazing. We could definitely return to stay there and continue to explore the mountains on our bicycles!
In Bishkek we met with Umut, a lovely young women and stayed with Suiunbek, all our fabulous connections and opportunities are because of our amazing education designer, Rakhat.
Because of her months of preparation and networking we connected to the Agh Khan school and a fantastic NGO youth organisation in Osh, the BioCotton project in Jala Abad and an incredible amount of contacts in Biskek. With Umut as our guide we visited and presented at two local universities, below at BHU,
met with the entire staff of the Central Asia University, and with our contact, Dushion there met with Helvetas, USAID, IREX, and Aga Khan institute. It was an intensely packed four days with meetings stacked upon one another. Another incredible organisation Rakhat connected us with is Tumar Art.
This hip outfit is breaking ground at design fairs around the world. Their designs incorporate traditional symbols with a modern approach. They are passionate about keeping tradition and also about keeping young talent home. Through fashion shows, internships and support they encourage young designers to stay in Bishkek and become entrepreneurs instead of heading off to Europe. Azat was really helpful and took us through the factory to show us all the steps in how their products are made.
It is so cool! I never knew how felt was made! It is wool that is stretched, cleaned, and then pounded to become dense. It was fasinating to see that a pair of slippers start at least 10times their size and then are pounded into a foot size. These are done by hand and are hard work, I know I tried!
We were sad to leave Kyrgyzstan, but know that this will be a place we will be back. There is so much more to explore, so much more to learn. We found out just enough to get excited for more and made some great friends!
More pictures from our time in Kyrgyzstan and the expedition are on Flickr – check them out!
Currently the expedition is on hold – while we drum up the required funds and support educator engagement in our online classroom and materials. We will be back on the road November in Mongolia!
Until then, I hope to send out country updates and facts from all the exciting places we have been and people we have met up until this point in the expedition – it has been over 10,000 km, 16 countries and 5 months!
Now back to wedding planning … that’s right, Nic and I are saying our ‘dos’ next weekend! Exciting, and we are happy to be sharing it all with you! Until soon, xK