Into the Pamirs.

Osh -> Sary-Tash -> Tajikistan border -> Murghab -> Alichur -> Lake Bulunkul.

Quintessential Pamirs.

The lady didn’t blink an eye when I asked for 6 kilograms of oats. She just piled them into two large shopping bags and we were left to wander the rest of the Osh bazaar to buy the last necessities for our time in the Pamirs. We had been warned that food was scarce in this high altitude dessert and being hungry cyclists we didn’t want to be caught out. Our bikes were significantly heavier but being well fed is worth the extra weight. Our plan was to hitch a ride back to Sary-Tash and from there our estimated 28 day journey along the second highest highway in the world would begin.

Our fantastic companions on the way to Sary Tash (plus the drunk local on the right).

Our fantastic companions on the way to Sary Tash (plus the drunk local on the right).

Relaxing in the warmth our homestay.

Camping was abandoned for the warmth of our homestay.

The sound of rain pounding on the tent woke us early and mud soon covered everything. Not dissuaded by this abnormal weather, we were ready by mid morning to hit the road and try the luck of the thumb. I spent the first ride sleeping in the back of a pick-up surrounded by milk pails, while Jude and Neil fretted in the front as the farmer continually fell asleep and hit himself to remain awake. The second ride was a little more favourable, despite Neil’s truck catching on fire and smoking out the cabin, Jude being proposed to again and again by our driver, and the weather getting colder and colder the higher we climbed.

A white wonderland.

A white wonderland.

The way to the toilet.

The way to the toilet.

Cattle in snow.

Cattle in snow.

Sary-Tash was hidden by cloud and a cold sleet began to fall on our arrival. Our idea of camping was quickly abandoned when we were offered a room and full board for the equivalent of $4 each. A heater as old as the ancient house was supplied to us and we were glad of its warmth as the sleet turned to snow overnight. A white wonderland captivated us in the morning and I walked around in awe at the transformation that a bit of frozen water can bring to an already stunning landscape. Dark clouds closed in and with heavy hearts we chose to spend another day in Sary-Tash. Cycling the Pamirs has been a long-term dream, and being held back when we were so close was irksome. The disappointment and cold were driven away by our attendance at the local banyan (sauna and washing house) with the ladies of the house. Tomorrow we resolved, would be the day of our departure.

Sheltering from the snow during lunch.

Sheltering from the snow during lunch.

Leaving Kyrgyzstan behind.

Leaving Kyrgyzstan behind.

Excited selfie.

Excited selfie.

No mans land.

No mans land.

Finding shelter from the wind and snow.

Finding shelter from the wind and snow.

Yes it was freezing!!!!

Yes it was freezing!!!!

Snow had fallen again during the night, but the low hanging clouds remained only on the higher mountains. The sun peaked her rays through to us and we knew it was time to go. We had a last coffee at our favourite little restaurant and were slightly delayed by making the acquaintance of many other cycle tourists. They had just come from the Pamirs the night before and were eager to share their experiences and to ask if we knew a place to get some good food. This question would be asked of us time and again by cyclists coming from the opposite direction and we were glad that we had packed all the extra food. The Tajikistan border was a days cycle away and we set off across the valley that we had first entered Kyrgyzstan along.

Delicious tea, bread and homemade Jam is far superior to my Russian language skills.

Delicious tea, bread and homemade Jam is far superior to my Russian language skills.

Looking back at the warm cosy house.

Looking back at the warm cosy house.

Having a rest on the switchbacks.

Having a rest on the switchbacks.

Reaching the top of our first 4000 plus metre pass.

Reaching the top of our first 4000 plus metre pass.

The border!! Country number 10...

The border!! Country number 10…

It was a steady ride, marked by the occasional drunken shepherd on his horse and one lying in the middle of the road. As we approached the far side of the valley, the storm clouds were blown eastward and the view of the road and surrounding 6000m peaks opened before us. It was time to climb. The ascent was gradual and as we ate lunch snow began to sporadically fall again. We crossed the Kyrgyzstan border without incident and returned to climbing through no-mans land. The Tajikistan border was still quite far away, on the other side of our first pass of 4336m, not a distance or height we would be able to reach that day. We collected water from the river we had been following and sought shelter from the constant wind behind the remnants of an old mud brick house. The snow set in as we cooked dinner and I must admit going for a pee that night was one of the coldest experiences ever.

Glacial rivers and snow capped peaks will be our constant companions.

Glacial rivers and snow capped peaks will be our constant companions.

High altitude desert of fun.

High altitude desert of fun.

The change is immediate.

The change is immediate.

Riding the rough roads.

Riding the rough roads.

Collecting water from the freezing cold lakes, lucky we have a filter.

Collecting water from the freezing cold lakes, lucky we have a filter.

"Neutral" territory between China and Tajikistan, despite it being officially Tajikistan.

“Neutral” territory between China and Tajikistan, despite it being officially Tajikistan.

Ten centimetres of snow covered our tents and the landscape when we woke. We estimated that it had been approximately -8 to -10 degrees overnight and the frigid temperatures continued that morning. Our fingers and feet froze no matter what we did and getting ready that morning took us almost 3 hours. The sun provided welcome relief and we were eventually on the road warming ourselves by the energy required for cycling. At the base of some crazy looking switchbacks we came across a house where the family entertained us with tea, bread and homemade apricot jam, and I entertained them with my faltering Russian language skills. I had no idea that people were allowed to reside in no-mans land, but their house was comfortable and warm and it was a pleasure to rest there for a while.

Salt lakes and marshes are can be found throughout the region.

Salt lakes and marshes are can be found throughout the region.

Windswept landscape.

Windswept landscape.

Red marmots.

Red marmots.

Alpine hares.

Alpine hares.

12 cyclists and 4 cars seen that day, a great ratio.

12 cyclists and 4 cars seen that day, a great ratio.

The top of the switchbacks marked the top of the pass and the Kyrgyzstan/Tajikistan border. I was breathless but excited to have made it, being country number ten on our journey and the gateway to the Pamirs. We snapped the mandatory photographs and were super excited to have made it to the top of the first 4000 plus metre pass. Tajikistan’s border post was a kilometer down the other side and could easily have been mistaken for a couple of derelict buildings of insignificance. Friendly guards completed the mandatory paperwork (no computers here) and we were soon on our way to explore the wonders that awaited us. The difference between the Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan landscapes was immediate. The lush green of the Kyrgyz plains, was replaced by the barren beauty of a high altitude desert. Blue glacial rivers cut through the brownish red rocky valleys, backed by the ever-present snow capped peaks.

Cycling down to the lake.

Cycling down to the lake.

Yes it's really that blue.

Yes it’s really that blue.

Sand and lake.

Sand and lake.

The lake used to be this high at some stage.

The lake used to be this high at some stage.

Collecting the grasses that grow in the marshes.

Collecting the grasses that grow in the marshes.

Our road now undulated through valleys at approximately 4000m and the wind storms created dust towers taller than buildings. Finding shelter that night was a little difficult and the tents were tightly secured with guy-ropes and stones. This was the first night that I would experience the displeasure of altitude induced sleeplessness, my brain behaved like a crazy monkey and for two hours (from midnight until 2am) it ran riot. This phenomenon was to continue nightly until we again slept below 3800m, numerous days later.

Ghost town.

Ghost town.

Karakol mosque.

Karakol mosque.

The living is easy.

The living is easy.

If it wasn't for the mozzies I would have gone swimming.

If it wasn’t for the mozzies I would have gone swimming.

Heading away from Lake Karakol.

Heading away from Lake Karakol.

The wind continued in our favour and by mid morning we crested our second pass and were rewarded with views of the iridescent blue Lake Karakol. While waiting for the others I was offered a glimpse into rodent life with red marmots and white hares dashing about. I laughed at the antics of two marmots having a punch-on, as it reminded me of men in pubs. During our descent to the lake we came across many cyclists heading the other way – 12 in all and only 4 cars, a good ratio I believe. Karakol town was located on the far side of the lake and we cycled through sand beds that had once been the lake floor. The fence that had started from the border continued, and Jude let us know that the Chinese had built it (surprise, surprise). The area is now considered neutral territory despite officially being part of Tajikistan and entry is not permitted. I think the locals disagree as holes have been cut in the fence and many of the wooden poles have been removed for use as firewood. In 2011 China claimed 1% of Tajikistan’s land mass in that area as it’s own and I continue to be convinced that water will be the next commodity that wars will be fought over in this region due to climate change and the large amount of glacier fed rivers in the region.

Just cruising with wings of roadside brush.

Just cruising with wings of roadside brush.

The Chinese fence in the Tajikistan desert.

The Chinese fence in the Tajikistan desert.

Heading down into the valley.

Heading down into the valley.

Collecting water is a constant job.

Collecting water is a constant job.

Don't be fooled, it's freezing.

Don’t be fooled, it’s freezing.

A nice afternoon cycle.

A nice afternoon cycle.

Riding into Karakol felt like riding into a ghost town, I could almost hear the banjos playing in the background. We wound our way through the deserted streets and white washed buildings until we reached the lakeside. We spread our goodies on the salt-crusted earth between clumps of grass and as we ate, the mosquitos noticed our arrival and we were soon covered in bites. I had hoped to spend the night camped by the beautiful water but our intruders convinced me otherwise. After a fruitless search for a magazin to replenish our biscuit and chocolate supplies we hit the road again for a few more hours of riding. Exiting a narrow valley we came across a big river and found a derelict building nearby where we set up camp for the night. Neil had collected some dead bushes on the way and Jude collected some old dung so that we could have a campfire. After the initial smoke-out we settled by the fire and enjoyed our view of the stars and the Milky Way.

Collecting scrub and poo for the campfire.

Collecting scrub and poo for the campfire.

Sheltered from the elements.

Sheltered from the elements.

Tea and shoe fixing, all in a nights work.

Tea and shoe fixing, all in a nights work.

Great pastoral land.

Great pastoral land.

The caravanserai of old.

The caravanserai of old.

Yaks!!!

Yaks!!!

The valley we followed was good pastoral land for the area and as such we saw numerous yak herds as we cycled along the riverbank. The path we followed had been an old trade route and caravanserais from centuries past still dot the landscape. Except for the section of dirt road from the switchbacks to the top of the first pass, the road conditions thus far had been reasonable – until now. The corrugations and loose gravel began, bad enough to bring back memories of our time along the Savannah Way. A chance encounter with our friend Dave provided a respite for our shaken bodies and a chance to carb load before the next climb.

The crazy corrugated roads.

The crazy corrugated roads.

More corrugations.

More corrugations.

Looking towards our next challenge.

Looking towards our next challenge.

Having a break with our mate Dave.

Having a break with our mate Dave.

The start of the Ak-Baital Pass.

The start of the Ak-Baital Pass.

Ak Baital Pass was our next challenge, the highest pass on the Pamir Highway at 4655m. It was tough going and I must admit that during the steeper sections I probably spent more time gasping for air than I did cycling. Snow capped peaks looked close enough to touch and they provided welcome distraction from the reality of pedaling a 40kg bike up a gravel road at altitude. Despite the lack of oxygen my inner lesbian had me belting out Melissa Etheridge at the top of my voice and I received a standing ovation from the Austrian motorcyclist who greeted me at the top of the pass. It was more likely for having made it rather than my singing abilities…

Flat is good at altitude.

Flat is good at altitude.

The flatter section of our big climb.

The flatter section of our big climb.

Jude continues to climb.

Jude continues to climb.

The top is further than it looks, especially breathless at altitude.

The top is further than it looks, especially breathless at altitude.

Looking back down from the pass.

Looking back down from the pass.

Neil takes a break at the summit.

Neil takes a break at the summit.

We made it!! Top of Ak-Baital Pass at 4655m.

We made it!! Top of Ak-Baital Pass at 4655m.

Now it was time to enjoy some chocolate, followed by some sweet downhill. As we freewheeled amongst orange, red and brown peaks, I dubbed the area ‘the multi-coloured pyramid valley’. Thinking that we would again be camping that night, Jude and I went for a wash in the river while the sun was still hot. An (un)fortunate German cycle tourist arrived just as we both jumped out and stated that we were the best scenery he had seen all day. Hmm. He also said that he believed the town of Murghab was only 40kilometres away and that he would be cycling there that evening. Inspired by the news, we took a vote and it was decided that we too would push on to Murghab. As the sun began to kiss the horizon, I saw a fox running along a hill and the length of the day unraveled. I was tired. 40km had turned into 55, and we had cycled almost 100kilometres that day including a 4655m pass. Luckily Erali guesthouse was a true home away from home, and after a massive vegetarian feast and many cups of tea, we fell into bed content with the world.

Coming down the mountain.

Coming down the mountain.

Cycling pyramid valley.

Cycling pyramid valley.

Multi-coloured pyramid valley.

Multi-coloured pyramid valley.

The river we were busted swimming naked in.

The river we were busted swimming naked in.

Good roads, great scenery, what more could you want?

Good roads, great scenery, what more could you want?

Reminded me a bit of home.

Reminded me a bit of home.

Looking hot.

Looking hot.

A welcome sight to a tired traveller.

A welcome sight to a tired traveller.

Erali sits at the top of a hill overlooking the town. In the early morning hours I watched the town come to life. People walked or cycled to work, fresh cow’s milk was collected and then boiled in huge pots, a goat was butchered by neighbours, and dogs roamed and scuffled in packs guarding their territory. After a lazy breakfast, supplies for the next leg of our journey were bought at the local bazaar and we eventually commenced cycling at midday. A climb took us out of the valley we were in and after a couple of hours we met up with a group of other cyclists heading in the same direction. Our group of three was now a party of six – our own bike touring gang. That evening we set up camp together in a dry riverbed and as dusk turned to darkness the galaxy opened before us in a spectacular show of stars.

Murghab town.

Murghab town.

The lovely owner of Erali Guesthouse.

The lovely owner of Erali Guesthouse.

Cycling through the back streets of Murghab.

Cycling through the back streets of Murghab.

Out of Murghab.

Out of Murghab.

Back to barren.

Back to barren.

The six meet and cycle.

The six meet and cycle.

New family home group.

New family home group.

What's for dinner?

What’s for dinner?

Under the Milky Way tonight.

Under the Milky Way tonight.

Cycling the next morning took us over a handful of undulations and into a wide valley that cradled the Alichur River. Men and women used scythes to hand cut the grasses that grow in the marshes. It is collected and dried to feed their livestock in the coming winter months when this area is numerous feet under snow. Reports had reached us that a fish lunch could be had somewhere in Alichur, so we searched out the local restaurants but no fish could be found. Instead we had the usual soup, tea and bread (we later found out that the fish is found about 10km earlier at the restaurant next to the sacred blue spring). Just outside of town we spotted a beautiful patch of grass next to the river and an afternoon of fun in the sun commenced. We all splashed about in the freezing water, Didier threw in his fishing line hoping to catch us some dinner, Jude & Jeff went to town and bought some beer to share and we spent a pleasant afternoon and evening relaxing.

The valley opened up as we followed the Alichur River.

The valley opened up as we followed the Alichur River.

Men and women hand cut the grass with scythes.

Men and women hand cut the grass with scythes.

The blue spring where fish can be caught.

The blue spring where fish can be caught.

Collecting water from the local well.

Collecting water from the local well.

Splish splash...

Splish splash…

Camping site luxury, grass and all.

Camping site luxury, grass and all.

Lake Bulunkul had been suggested as a detour from the Pamir Highway and we were all keen to explore off the beaten track. Yet beaten track it was, a mixture of old 4WD paths that had us wishing for mountain bikes to explore with, as it was awesome! Sparse rocky terrain surrounded the undulating tracks, the occasional salt lake, ramshackle village and river valley added stunning diversity to the scenery. A geyser was marked on the map and it turned out to be a trickle of cold water coming out of a metal pipe in the ground. Cresting to a plateau our maps didn’t match what was in front of us so we headed straight into a gale that blew half of our group over with its strength. 3kms of windstorm and dust tested our endurance to the limit and we sought refuge at some deserted buildings not far in the distance.

Wishing we had mountain bikes to go off trail and explore.

Wishing we had mountain bikes to go off trail and explore.

Into nowhere.

Into nowhere.

Making sure we are going the right way.

Making sure we are going the right way.

Desolate villages, people actually live here.

Desolate villages, people actually live here.

4WD tracks of awesome.

4WD tracks of awesome.

Green and red breaks the rocky monotony.

Green and red breaks the rocky monotony.

Salt lakes of beauty.

Salt lakes of beauty.

Can you spot the cyclists?

Can you spot the cyclists?

Valentina dwarfed by the surrounds.

Valentina dwarfed by the surrounds.

When the dust and wind had settled we walked to the edge of the plateau and were rewarded with views of the glittering Lake Yssykul framed by the rugged mountains of the Tajikistan National Park. Following another track we meandered along the river that joined this larger lake to the smaller Lake Bulunkul. At the lake’s edge we watched as birds skirted and dived into the water hunting for the fish that would be theirs to eat. It was here that we waved goodbye to our new friends Valentina and Didier who were continuing their journey along the Pamir Highway and therefore stopping for the night at Bulunkul town. Thanks for the awesome days together guys and we hope to see you in Switzerland. Jeff decided to join us on our detour to the Wakhan Valley and our threesome became a foursome of fun as we headed south towards the river valley that divides Tajikistan and Afghanistan. A new road and a new chapter in our journey through the Pamirs, and one that Jude will share shortly.

Having a group rest.

Having a group rest.

It's like being on another planet sometimes.

It’s like being on another planet sometimes.

Cycle touring gang on the move.

Cycle touring gang on the move.

Exploring the not so exciting geyser.

Exploring the not so exciting geyser.

Neil filming the dust and windstorm that blew him and Jeff off their bikes in front of me.

Neil filming the dust and windstorm that blew him and Jeff off their bikes in front of me.

The green fairy finds shelter from the wind.

The green fairy finds shelter from the wind.

Prepared for the dust storm.

Prepared for the dust storm.

Until next time,
All my love, Astrid.

The river that joins Yssykul and Bulunkul Lakes.

The river that joins Yssykul and Bulunkul Lakes.

Cycling down off the plateau to Bulunkul.

Cycling down off the plateau to Bulunkul.

Jude and Neil walking to Lake Bulunkul to collect water for the night.

Jude and Neil walking to Lake Bulunkul to collect water for the night.

Neil, Jeff, Jude and I about to leave Lake Bulunkul for our adventure to the Wakhan Valley.

Neil, Jeff, Jude and I about to leave Lake Bulunkul for our adventure to the Wakhan Valley.

Arriving in Paradise.

Kashgar -> Irkeshtam -> Sary-Tash -> Osh -> Bishkek.

Paradise found, Astrid looking at the stunning view. (Photo by Neil @ H2Htrip.com)

Paradise found, Astrid looking at the stunning view. (Photo by Neil @ H2Htrip.com)

The road signs were all now in Mandarin, Uighur, English and Russian.  It would be two days until we crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan, yet the excitement of a new country filled us with energy.  There are two international border posts near Kashgar, the Torugart Pass – stunning and stunningly expensive due to Chinese permit requirements, and Irkeshtam where the Chinese border checkpoint is in Ulugqat – 142 kilometres from the actual border.  As I have often said, things in China are rarely based on logic.  We chose Irkeshtam and pedalled out of Kashgar early in the morning hoping to make it to somewhere near Ulugqat.  Two days earlier as we cycled the last 20kms downhill into Kashgar, we expressed our dread at the 20km backtrack to the turnoff.  Funny how after some rest, what we thought would be a painful climb was now a quick morning cycle.  Since Google Maps last visited the area, a new road (an extension of the ‘dirty 30’) has been built – right through the centre of many small Uighur villages.  As usual the road has been fenced with barbed wire and trying to get off the road to purchase food and drinks was difficult.  So too was getting back on, therefore we cycled along the secondary road for a while and just as we found an entry ramp the skies opened up and it started hailing.  While golf ball sized pieces of ice fell from the sky, we scrambled down an embankment to sit it out in a irrigation tunnel.  Now we had experienced it all – searing heat to constant rain, dust storms to hail storms.

Cycling out of Kashgar.

Cycling out of Kashgar.

Signs in Mandarin and Uighur.

Signs in Mandarin and Uighur.

Watching the rain clouds come over.

Watching the rain clouds come over.

Our last campsite in China.

Our last campsite in China.

Neil keeps the fire stoked to cook dinner.

Neil keeps the fire stoked to cook dinner.

That evening as we sat watching the rain storms roll in over the mountains, the last of our stove fuel ran out (thanks to the petrol paranoia) and dinner was cooked on a fire that had to be constantly tended to.  Our love for China was waning and the next day it was skating on thin ice.  First there was the final flat tyre on the ‘Dirty 30’ 2 kilometres from Ulugqat; at the checkpoint we were to discover that they had banned hitching rides in trucks to the border; now we had to hire two taxis (at twenty times the price of a truck) to the border so that our three bikes would fit; the officials at the checkpoint sat us in a waiting room for over an hour for an unspecified reason; they wanted to x-ray all our gear and bikes before leaving but didn’t look at the screen (we refused to dismantle the bikes to put them through the machine); our driver displayed the usual fantastic driving skills that all Chinese seem to possess (most of our trip was spent on the wrong side of the road); when we made it to the actual border the officials were on their three hour lunch break; and after spending an hour sitting around, approximately 50 metres from the crossing, our driver raced to the border and gave us less than five minutes to unpack our bikes and gear and put them together as he had to hand in our paperwork.  By the time we had cycled the five kilometres through no-mans land we weren’t sure what to expect on the other side, but it had to be better than what we had left.  And it was!

Cycling the road to Ulugqat.

Cycling the road to Ulugqat.

Waiting for an unknown reason - better eat a peanut butter sandwich.

Waiting for an unknown reason – better eat a peanut butter sandwich.

Yep, that's two bikes in the boot of the taxi.

Yep, that’s two bikes in the boot of the taxi.

The last of the dry barren hills for a while.

The last of the dry barren hills for a while.

Waiting for the border guards to open the gate after their 3 hour lunch break.

Waiting for the border guards to open the gate after their 3 hour lunch break.

Cycling through no-mans land, hoping for things to get better.

Cycling through no-mans land, hoping for things to get better.

Kyrgyzstan is paradise.  The change is immediate.  The landscape is no longer a barren desert with brown hills, but green fields and rivers surrounded by snow capped peaks.  You can actually drink the water from the streams.  You can buy petrol without needing a permission slip from the police.  You can camp wherever you want – so we did.  After purchasing some fuel from a small village about 5 kilometres from the border, we pedalled up a hill and decided that our first camp in Kyrgyzstan should be on an open grassy plain with a view of all the mountains surrounding us.  We celebrated with cups of tea and a hearty dinner.  Basking in such beauty we couldn’t keep the smiles off our faces.

Passing the caravans that surround the Kyrgyz border post.

Passing the caravans that surround the Kyrgyz border post.

We loved Kyrgyzstan from the moment we arrived.

We loved Kyrgyzstan from the moment we arrived.

Celebrating Paradise.

Celebrating Paradise.

With views like this from our campsite, how could we not love it here...

With views like this from our campsite, how could we not love it here…

Sunrise on our first full day of cycling in Kyrgyzstan.

Sunrise on our first full day of cycling in Kyrgyzstan.

Sary-tash is the closest big village to the border and our next place to pick up food supplies. Being only 80 kilometres away we assumed we would be there by the next afternoon.  Kyrgyzstan would teach us that our perception of our cycling speed and distance would need some serious adjusting.  Xinjiang had been relatively flat and over the last month we had lost our ‘hill legs’.  This too would need some serious work which we discovered as soon as we set off in the morning.  We undulated over hills, down into valleys, just to climb back up the next hill.  The gradients were steeper than anything we had encountered since Laos, usually about 9% for all you cyclists and engineers.  Altitude was also playing its part, as we had climbed while driving the 142km to the border.  As our legs and lungs burnt, our eyes feasted on the never ending grandeur of the countryside.  The snow capped 6,000m peaks that border with Tajikistan were on our left, rocky smaller peaks to our right, a red river below us and green rolling hills between.  By lunchtime we came to the end of a climb that had been going on for a couple of hours.  From here we sailed down into a grassy valley dotted with yurts and animals.  The summer life of the nomads was in full swing as they rode their horses and donkeys, herded their livestock and milked their horses to make the country specialty – kumuz (fermented mares milk).  Greetings were exchanged with everyone we met and the kids were super excited when we passed by.

Perfect cycling road!

Perfect cycling road!

The red and blue waters of river ways combine to make a good fishing spot.

The red and blue waters of river ways combine to make a good fishing spot.

Rolling green hills surround us.

Rolling green hills surround us.

The yurts of the Kyrgz nomads.

The yurts of the Kyrgz nomads.

View to our right.

View to our right.

And the view to our left.

And the view to our left.

Jude is just about to reach the top of the long morning climb.

Jude is just about to reach the top of the long morning climb.

By mid afternoon it was decided that we were in no hurry and that a grassy patch next to the river looked particularly inviting.  I also had some bike maintenance to attend to – my chain was sounding as if it was about to snap and my rear breaks weren’t working.  The tents were pitched and we settled in to the slow life.  More cups of tea, some tinkering with the bike, some reading and writing, some staring at the scenery and more cups of tea.  Heavenly.

Astrid loving it here.

Astrid loving it here.

The road is shared by bikes, donkeys, herd animals and the occasional car.

The road is shared by bikes, donkeys, herd animals and the occasional car.

Nomad's yurt and livestock.

Nomad’s yurt and livestock.

Friendly locals and Russian tourists.

Friendly locals and Russian tourists.

Many children request to have their photo taken.

Many children request to have their photo taken.

Time to stop for the day and enjoy the scenery.

Time to stop for the day and enjoy the scenery.

Our homes.

Our homes.

Morning life in Sary-tash was just kicking off as we rode in.  Needing supplies we stopped at the first magazin (what they call the local shops here) and squealed with delight at all the produce we could buy.  Cheese, they actually had cheese!!!  Now I knew we were in paradise.  It would be another few days until we reached Osh and we didn’t know about the availability of food along the road, so we stocked up on all the staples and a few extra treats – yes cheese and chocolate are back on the menu.  Then it was time to find second breakfast.  A little restaurant on the village outskirts was the only place open and fortunately the ladies cooking was excellent.  We had been warned prior to coming that the meals in Kyrgyzstan were meat heavy and they weren’t wrong.  Stew of mutton, dumplings with mutton or plov (rice with mutton).  My inner vegetarian wasn’t sure what to do.

Cycling into Sary-Tash.

Cycling into Sary-Tash.

Everyone has their own cycling gear and style.

Everyone has their own cycling gear and style.

Paradise found - CHEESE and SALAMI!!!

Paradise found – CHEESE and SALAMI!!!

Two passes awaited us as we pedalled out of Sary-tash, the first at 3550m and the second at 3615m.  A dog from the restaurant had decided to join us and he enjoyed himself padding along side our bikes and then chasing birds and critters in the fields next to us.  Watching him run with unadulterated joy and abandon, it reminded me of how I feel cycling.  By the time we had reached the first pass we were over 15km from Sary-tash and the dog was still showing no signs of going home.  Luckily, as we sped down the hill we were able to wave goodbye to our four legged friend who couldn’t keep up.  The next climb was easier and 200 metres from the top a truck waved me down and offered us a lift first to Osh and then to Bishkek.  I was hesitant initially but when the others arrived we made a group decision to catch a ride to save ourselves riding the same route twice (we will return this way to cycle through Tajikistan).

Jude's excited to reach the top of the first pass.

Jude’s excited to reach the top of the first pass.

A mare being milked so 'kumuz' can be made.

A mare being milked so ‘kumuz’ can be made.

Our four legged friend taking a rest at the top of the pass.

Our four legged friend taking a rest at the top of the pass.

The truck that pulled over and offered us a lift to Bishkek (almost).

The truck that pulled over and offered us a lift to Bishkek (almost).

Mohamed helped us to load our bikes in the back and we jumped into the most deluxe truck cabin I have ever seen.  I must admit that if it wasn’t so luxurious I would have been more upset about the fantastic downhill we were missing.  When Mohamed stopped for prayer time we had a wash in the river next to the mosque, an hour later he pulled over and made fresh Brazilian coffee for us, we abused the police when they pulled him over just to collect a bribe (police corruption is huge here), and an hour out of Osh he out manouvered us by buying a melon and Snickers for us when we wanted to get him a watermelon to eat that night when his fasting ended (due to Ramadan).  Unfortunately Mohamed was heading to Bishkek, just not for a few days. So we had him drop us off at the turn-off just before Osh and after Jude turned down his second marriage proposal (don’t tell people in Central Asia you’re not married), we pedalled into town to enjoy some R&R city style.

In the luxurious comfort of Mohamed's cabin.

In the luxurious comfort of Mohamed’s cabin.

Cycling into Osh - yes Jude is swerving to avoid being hit by a car despite having right of way..

Cycling into Osh – yes Jude is swerving to avoid being hit by a car despite having right of way..

Relaxing in the local park.

Relaxing in the local park.

Osh bazaar where you can buy anything from a shipping container.

Osh bazaar where you can buy anything from a shipping container.

Relaxing with other travellers at our favourite outdoor restaurant.

Relaxing with other travellers at our favourite outdoor restaurant.

After the soulless mega-cities of China, Osh was a breath of fresh air.  Old buildings stand side by side with Soviet era greyness, people swim in the river that runs through the centre of town, couples walk in the shade of tree filled parks and children play on the footpaths.  The bazaar is made from shipping containers and it’s bustling with people buying and selling everything from spices to t-shirts with the Kyrgyzstan flag, the most delicious pecans in the world to the handmade felt hats that the local men wear.  Men and women sit on day beds in outdoor restaurants drinking cold beers while shashliks are being barbequed over coals nearby.  Women sit on the side of the road with big kegs of iced tea, kvass or kefir, and locals stand around drinking it to provide relief from the heat of the day.  Mashutkas (the local minibuses) are the only things that seems to be in a hurry here and the pervasive feeling is one of relaxed calm.  We spent our days chatting with other travellers in the rose lined garden of the TES guesthouse, wandering the bazaar, swimming in the river, and drinking cold beers and eating shashliks at our favourite restaurant in the local park.  As the song goes ‘Summertime and the living is easy’.

Locals swim in the river.

Locals swim in the river.

So do we.

So do we.

Camping at the TES guesthouse.

Camping at the TES guesthouse.

Neil checking that the bikes are secure on the roof.

Neil checking that the bikes are secure on the roof.

Views from the road.

Views from the road to Bishkek.

While in Osh we made a plan for our remaining three weeks in Kyrgyzstan.  Visas needed to be applied for in Bishkek and as most of the ones for Central Asia are date specific we needed to map out the next few months too.  It was decided that we would catch a shared minivan to Bishkek to get all of the admin stuff sorted and then we could skip over to Karakol, a town on Lake Ysyk-Kol, and from there we would cycle back to Osh and then on to Tajikistan to cycle the Pamir Highway.  The following morning we squeezed into the minivan with four others and a baby, our luggage piled in the back and our bikes strapped to the roof.  Bishkek was a whole days drive away and from the backseat we would learn that the drivers here are crazier than the ones in China.  For 12 hours we sweated in the back, our legs aching from not moving, wishing we were cycling through the stunning countryside that we were passing by at breakneck speed.  But we made it and that night we pitched our tents in the backyard of Nomad’s Home guesthouse, the place we would call home for the next five days.

Camping at Nomad's Home.

Camping at Nomad’s Home.

Jude celebrates COFFEE!!

Jude celebrates COFFEE!!

Excited by the care package send by Heide - dried food for the Pamirs, chocolate and more!!

Excited by the care package send by Heidi – dried food for the Pamirs, chocolate and more!!

Rest day coffee break.

Rest day coffee break.

Bishkek is a fun, vibrant city that we cruised about exploring on our bikes.  Grey soviet buildings are hidden by the myriad of parks that dominate the city.  The errands we had to perform found us cycling through all parts of town, bouncing our bikes along the back streets in desperate need of repair, the houses reminding us of the older suburbs in Melbourne.  After spending the last 11 months in Asia it was nice to again somewhat blend in with the locals, as the population of Kyrgyzstan cities are as culturally diverse as those of home.  Being Eid al-Fitr embassy opening times were changed and luckily we still managed to procure our Tajikistan visa.  To enter the Pamir Highway requires a different permit (a GBAO) which normally corresponds with your visa dates.  Unfortunately the embassy was only issuing one week long GBAO permits at this time (later that week it was only 5 days or not at all).  The route we want to cycle will take us at least three to four weeks so we have employed an agency to help us procure a longer permit – we will only find out the length in 10 days time.  Besides running errands and catching up on all the little things (like this blog) we have spent a good amount of time just relaxing and hanging out with other travellers.  It really feels like a home away from home, another reason Kyrgyzstan continues to be paradise.

Street art.

Street art.

Cheeky beers at Steinbrau.

Cheeky beers at Steinbrau.

Chilling out with other travellers.

Chilling out with other travellers.

Mika cuts the locks off - best haircut ever (Thanks Mika!).

Mika cuts the locks off – best haircut ever (Thanks Mika!).

Tasty homemade treats.

Tasty homemade treats.

More cycling in paradise to come (yes that's Jude!). Photo from Neil @ H2Htrip.com

More cycling in paradise to come (yes that’s Jude!). Photo from Neil @ H2Htrip.com