Traveling north from Arslanbob to Bishkek, the country's capital, the landscape on display is a sequence of superlatives. From the broad Fergana valley, the road first descends down deep to the Naryn River gorge and emerges back up to stunning views of the Toktogul reservoir that appears bluer than blue among the surrounding pale landscape.
Beyond Toktogul, the route takes you over the Ala-Bel pass, the first of two 3000+ meter passes on this road. It then hurtles straight through the Susamyr valley, past classic Kyrgyzstan mountain landscape with vast open lands dotted with yurts and grazing horses. It crosses the entire Suusamyr Basin until it is stopped in its tracks by the Altau range which it confronts through a series of switchbacks until it gets to the high Tor Ashuu Pass (3586m). At this point you can look back to a panoramic view of the entire Syusamyr Basin, a grand scene indeed! One's senses are saturated by all this magical scenery that the otherwise pretty final stretch from Kara-Balta to Bishkek seems ordinary by comparison.
When we arrived in Bishkek, we realized that our guesthouse was actually a 7th floor apartment in a large Soviet style residential building with a non-functional elevator and only partially functioning corridor lights. The regular residents seemed totally unconcerned with this and seem to take it in their stride, hauling up grocery bags and children's tricycles. What made it worth staying there was its location, its proximity to the city center, bus stop, restaurants and the ultimate of modern luxuries, WiFi in the room!
We looked up the register to find contact information for Mohr and Ofer, whose diary (in Hebrew) we were carrying from Arslanbob. Since they had indicated that they had stayed here previously, we were confident that we would at least find their email address, contact them and be able to mail the diary to them. But for some reason there was no record of their stay there. So we contemplated other means of tracking them down in the future.
Our first order of business on the following day was to visit the Kazakh embassy to pick up our visas which we had applied for in Dushanbe. When we arrived at the embassy gates at opening time, there were a large number of people already waiting. They were mostly milling around the door and It took a little while to figure out that there was a paper list on which you need to put your name. Despite the apparent list system, chaos prevailed when the embassy opened for business and some people just elbowed their way in. We eventually made our way to counter but to our dismay the official refused to hear anything about our Dushanbe application. "You are here now, just fill out a new application" he said. So we filled out the exact same application for a second time and submitted it. After some quick verification, he indicated that we should make the payment for the visa at a designated bank elsewhere in the city and come back with the receipt before noon.
Enterprising taxis wait outside the embassy just to take advantage of this kind of business and with less than an hour before noon, we struck a deal with one of them for a two-way ride. This turned out to be fortuitous since the driver knew exactly where we needed to go and got us there without much ado. Not only that, he accompanied us into the bank, showed us which counter would help us and even seemed to be familiar with the teller! Back at the embassy, we submitted our passport and applications in the nick of time and were asked to return at 6:30 p.m. on the same day to collect our passports with the visa. So despite having to re-apply, we would not lose additional days after all.
We had read reports of police harassment of foreigners in the big city and with that in mind requested that the Kazakh embassy official stamp photocopies of our passport in the event we were requested for it. The official pooh-poohed our request and insisted that since the passports would be returned on the same day, there was no need for any attested copies. We had no option but to accept his explanation and trooped out intending to return later in that evening. We took a bus back to the city center and had barely walked a couple of blocks when we were stopped by a pair of uniformed policemen requesting to see our passports and visa. We produced photocopies, but they insisted that since they were not notarized, these were not acceptable. Our explanation that the passports were in the Kazakh embassy which would be returned to us in a few hours did not seem to cut any ice. They were clearly fishing for a bribe and one of them went so far as to say that we should accompany them to the police station and pay a fine for the infringement. We had heard about this happening to others and shook our heads saying we were not about to do anything like that and that if they wanted to see our passports they should accompany us back to the Kazakh embassy and we could show it to them. In the midst of all this back and forth, V pulled out a trump-card! He told them that he would like to call the US embassy and get their help to sort this out. That worked like magic! After a quick private discussion, the two policemen backed down and decided to 'forgive' us this time and advised us that we should always carry notarized photocopies in the future. So we got off this whole affair a little rattled but proud of our performance. We were certainly happy to have the virtual presence of Uncle Sam, protecting us from corrupt Soviet style exploitation masquerading as law enforcement.
Discounting this little incident with the police, Bishkek was actually a very pleasant city to to spend a couple of days in. Much bigger than its Tajik counterpart Dushanbe, it is more westernized and cosmopolitan. Short hem-lines and figure hugging jeans are common among the young. There is nary a head-scarf in sight even among the older generation. Cuisines from outside of Central Asia are represented and we even had dinner at a Mexican restaurant one night (close but not authentic). While there is no metro, the city has a great network of buses and marshrutkas (minivans) and you could get to any corner of the city using these. We spent a lazy afternoon walking through the city center and seeing the main sights which included historic squares and public buildings.
As we paused in front of one of the buildings to consult the map, imagine our surprise when we looked up and saw Mor and Ofer walk towards us! Just like that in the middle of a big city! They had not missed their diary yet, but were relieved that it had made its way to Bishkek and that they could pick it up in the evening from the Guesthouse. They came by later that evening for it and even presented us with some nice Israeli mementos to remember them by.
We extended our stay in Bishkek beyond our initial plans and since the guesthouse was fully booked-up we had to move another (Nomad's guesthouse) for our final day. Nomad's is Biker Central, and most cyclists passing through Central Asia seem to somehow find their way here. As in most guesthouses frequented by backpackers, the common area was abuzz with interesting conversation but this one had a special dimension in that the stories swapped were about bikers trudging their way up 3000 meter passes and their experiences on the way. Our 'room' at Nomad's was a yurt in the middle of the backyard surrounded by tents belonging to the cyclists, quite a unique type of accommodation for the night!
Among the people we met here was a Serbian cyclist who had been on the road for the past 14 months and was planning to continue for several more. She was headed towards China and was weighing her options on which border to tackle given the altitude and temperatures involved. She had previously visited Almaty and we used the opportunity to quiz her on accommodation options and any recommendations she may have. Almaty was supposed to be a very expensive city with a dearth of budget accommodation. Even the forums have little information on reasonable places to stay without busting one's budget. She indicated that a new hostel had been opened recently in Almaty but she could not remember its name. All she could remember was that it was in a high-rise residential building off one of the main streets and which had a large sign "MAG" on the top. One would have to buzz in to flat #95 and would be let into the hostel. While these directions may have been useful to a cyclist riding into the city, it did not seem particularly useful for telling a bus or taxi driver. So we resigned ourselves to further research later.
Coincidences never seemed to cease in this part of the world. Just as we were leaving we saw Frank (from the Netherlands) wheel his bicycle in. We had met him on his bike on a street intersection in Sary Tash on our taxi ride from Daroot Korgon to Osh few days ago and exchanged few words with him as he was resting after a long uphill. He had given up on his plan to cycle all the way and had used a share-taxi for getting to Bishkek so he could save his energies for other equally beautiful parts of the country.
Google Maps Link
Wow, reading your posts in the right order is certainly useful. I commented speculating that you would find Mor and Ofer eventually, but didn't bargain for you finding them in the next post itself !!
Amazed that you are not only visiting Bishkek, but even Almaty ?? Why ?? Isn't winter approaching and don't you want to be in Africa before it turns real cold ??
How come there are lots of people wanting to bike in the stans. Are they that safe ??
Your posts and wonderful and evocative,. Thanks for taking the time to write this log -however bone tired you may be. Photos are nice, but your words and nicer still I am totally captivated. From , on Sep 30, 2012 at 02:18PM
We really can't claim to understand the mental processes of these cyclists! I don't think safety is an issue but what the are taking on are very long roads with hardly any towns in between, steep elevation drops and gains, extreme temperature fluctuations between day and night and reckless driving to boot. I expect they think that the dramatic scenery all around is compensation enough. But I think you can appreciate the scenery even more when your heart is not about to explode!
As to why Almaty, it is supposed to be the most economically developed and therefore representative of a more modern Central Asian city. Besides Almaty is just across the border and not very much north into Kazakh. The temps are just perfect right now. We sure will get out of the region before it turns too cold. From , on Oct 1, 2012 at 05:11PM
Amazing, Bishkek looks still the same as 20 years ago ;-) From, on Oct 1, 2012 at 07:02PM