The 10 days I planned to stay in Uzbekistan had turned into 30 by the time I left, 12 hours before my visa ended, inching 50kg of bike through crowded and curious queues. Briefly inspired by having finished the brevet, and not keen to reach China and my planned finish line, I had decided to take the long way around. Just as winter proper arrived. Instead of 3 days through the Fergana Valley, what looked like 3 weeks up and over through Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan from Tashkent to Bishkek, before a 1000k detour around Lake Issyk-Kul, and a mountain road south to Osh, near the Chinese border.
That meant a simple 25k stroll to the border from Tashkent. There wasn’t much on the other side. Kazakhstan was huge, flat, and the start of a very long detour. Was feeling pretty good as I got the first few pieces of winter gear out of my panniers, but memories of cycling 350k in a day the week before quickly withered away.
The road to Bishkek took 5 days. The first two ended in the welcoming homes of strangers. Day one when I asked for directions to a guesthouse at a shop, and the elderly owner laughed and waved me in for dinner and a good night’s sleep. Day two when I stopped to get some cash and ended up drinking vodka in the family home of my host. “Shhhh… wife” he gestured, in a completely flawed attempt to hide the vodka under the table.
Then the shit hit the fan in Taraz, which in the words of a local resident in a kebab shop “is completely safe… 95% of the people are really friendly, but the other 5%… it’s like Mortal Kombat… do you want me to find you a place to stay…? I can find a girl for you to rest with too…” His brother drove off somewhere unexplained im a hurry while my new found friend prolonged our excruciating conversation, telling me repeatedly he needed $2k to move to America. I scarpered, albeit with sympathy for him having to grow up in this strange town.
The first few hotels all looked like brothels and were hemmed in with barbed wire. “Lat Vegas” was a more deluxe option. I tried one more, which turned out to be one of those places where you drove your car halfway into your room, marking up the hourly price on account of the available discretion, before finding a “normal” place slightly out of town. The receptionist seemed overjoyed to see a regular traveller, and a lady around my age made a swift and tearful exit from a nearby room, making the misery hanging over the town all the more real.
For the final 2 days, I made my way through rain and snow. In the middle of my rain-soaked search for a roof on the first day, I met with some travelers in a newly minted Kyrgyz version of a VW camper, on the first day of their drive back to Switzerland. We found a hotel with heating, shared a meal, and woke up to a foot of snow. The female driver was on her way home after 21 months of cycle touring, and betrayed a look of confusion and pity, when me and her boyfriend described 3500m mountains as a bit daunting. Her record was 5600m. Yikes!
The final 60k to Bishkek was very slow. Not least because I stopped for a snack and ended up sharing kebabs, three beers, and three vodkas with a group of farmers. The general rule is that you can’t have one drink you can only have three, and I think they have it about right. They were not at all rich but steadfastly refused my clumsy attempts to contribute to the bill. I rode the last 20km with a cycle tourist from Poland I met on the road, very slowly, and we eventually pulled in to a warm hostel long after it had turned dark.
I chilled out for a few days in Bishkek, fixing up my bike with wide, slow, chunky tyres for the mountains ahead, and set off for the lake, in the north-east corner of the country. It was all crisp, cold sunshine, and the scenery is super cool, with vast snowy mountains rising up on either side of the bright steppe on each side of the lake. I made it 4-500k or so to the far side, along the much less developed south shore, ending up in Karakol, and arrived in town just as almighty winds picked up, resulting in me falling off in slow motion into the ditch at the side of the road as I tried to set off from a local shop. After a few days in town, shivering along the streets and stocking up on huge portions of plov, before looking for cake, I called it and took a minibus back to Bishkek.