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Kyrgyzstan

 For the love of adventure

It’s said the bicycle is just a pretext, just an excuse to travel, that perhaps the journey is more important than the destination. While travelling, once a country has been visited we often say, “We’ve ticked that box, done this country, let’s move on.” On this trip, however, I decided to return to Kyrgyzstan which I had explored in 2019 with my friend, Richard Bord. That adventure had left its mark on us both physically and mentally; weathering the storms, literal and figurative, together. We set off on our own in the east of the country around Issyk Kul, the second largest mountain lake in the world.

After tasting the flavour of the city, Aziz, a Kyrgyz mountain guide fluent in the language of Molière, helps me trace the path that we would try to follow for the next 15 days. In the back of his old UAZ truck from the 60s, we scour the map. My guide also takes the opportunity to review the various regime reversals and revolutions that have affected Kyrgyzstan over the past 20 years, and which have, without doubt, helped to forge the character of its inhabitants.

The first part will consist of pedalling a succession of long gravel roads crisscrossing huge valleys. The “Switzerland of Central Asia” certainly deserves its nickname. The dust gives way to violent thunderstorms, fortunately very short for the most part. The shepherds I meet occasionally don’t seem impressed by these vagaries of the weather, so I pack away my doubts and push on a little further. Shortly before the final ascent to Son-Kul Lake, I shared about 40 km of flat road with countless trucks bringing coal from the depths of the valley floor. The atmosphere is drab, filled with dust and the humming of engines. Drivers can sometimes wait up to 30 days to be loaded. Black gold, almost.

Arrival on the Son Kul plateau came at night. At more than 3000m, the mercury plummeted. But the welcome from Ardak, the cook of the yurt where we will spend the next few nights, is warm, and the stove is running at full speed in our overnight camp. A day of acclimatization allows me to attend the traditional games of the nomads living on the shores of the lake. On horseback, they play a kind of local football, the ball being … a sheep’s body. Atmospheric.

I set off in my packraft to storm the opposite shore, the bike securely harnessed to the front of my raft. The advent of these inflatable whitewater canoes has been a real eye opener for me. With a weight of 2kg, they allow you to paddle class III – V water, and open up so many new perspectives. I catch cold pretty quickly, but the spectacle offered from the water is beyond compare.

The chance to descend into the sunrise, in the middle of a herd of wild horses, is beautiful the following morning. I join my hosts for breakfast before embarking on the (long) crossing that will take me to Osh, a famous southern city known for its bazaar and Uzbek influences. Without any major pitfalls, I managed to reach the city on the 30th anniversary of the country’s independence. It’s time for a big party in the town square.

Taking a well-deserved break in my long journey and immersing myself in this mix of cultures – between the farmers traditionally in the South and the “cultivated” in the North – gives me another dimension to my trip. Around the globe it is the least privileged populations who give the warmest welcomes. Kyrgyzstan is no exception to this rule.

Arrival at the gates of the base camp of Pic Lenin, on the border with Tajikistan. My final goal is not very far away. The highest point of the country at 7134 m, the peak watches benevolently over its huge reserves of water. Two days of acclimatization, scouting and rest in the first base camp, at 3500 m. The time to realize that we are changing gears. The surrounding peaks range between 6,000 and 7,000 meters above sea level. I spot several ridges which make me very desirous.

The descent from the summit in the last light of day will be astonishingly beautiful. A night return. A glass of Kumis (traditional fermented mare’s milk), and to bed.

 

Tomorrow, wake up at dawn for new adventures …

Words: Fred Horny

Images: Media Shape

Location: Kyrgyz Republic, 25 November 2021