Awe-inspiring nature and warm hospitality in Kyrgyzstan
Can you cycle all the way from Holland to Singapore? Santos Riders Audrey and Eloy are giving it a go. After six months and 7000 km they have reached the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan. So they are well on their way! Read their inspiring story of heartwarming hospitality from total strangers and the breathtaking natural scenery of Kyrgyzstan.
Meat forms the basis of all dishes and this is supplemented by potatoes, onions, carrots, and bread. A meal without bread is not a meal ;). Historically, the Stan countries have much in common, yet we also notice differences. Kyrgyz people tend to be more reserved in making contact, but once they get to know you a little, they are just as enthusiastic as Uzbeks. The friendly smile is also abundant here and many older men proudly wear a Kalpak, a traditional felt hat. Eloy leaves Kyrgyzstan with no less than three hats in his panniers. In that respect, Kyrgyzstan is one of the highlights of our journey (literally and figuratively)….
"Suddenly a car stops and the drivers asks if he can take a picture. Of us, but also of himself on the bicycle.
We cross the pedestrian border from Uzbekistan. Cars are not allowed to cross the border here, but bicycles are fortunately allowed. We quickly exchange the last of our Uzbek money with one of the street traders who is shouting the loudest. On the Uzbek side, all of our panniers go through the scanner. Then we join the line on the Kyrgyz side. Suddenly, we are pulled over by one of the customs officers. We feel a little embarrassed, because we could have just waited like everyone else, but we don’t resist.
On our way to the first real village, we cycle along the border. What a change in scenery already! The mountains are already coming into view. Suddenly, a car stops along the road and the driver asks if he can take a picture. Of us, but also of himself on the bicycle. "Here we go again," we think. Is Kyrgyzstan as much of a “selfie country” as Uzbekistan? However, it turns out to be a lost Russian and he even wants to give us some “lunch money” for the photo. Later, we discover that the Kyrgyz are more reserved and rarely ask for photos. It is sometimes confusing (and dangerous) on the road, especially in the mountains. Some cars have the steering wheel on the left, others on the right.
The first few days in a new country are always a bit exciting. New language, customs, money, food, traffic rules, different culture, more mountains, weather, etc. As in Iran, it is not without its struggles. Eloy develops a fever of 40 degrees and says he is cold. Once again, it turns out to be food poisoning. We postpone our trip for a while and two days later our strength has returned. We can continue our journey into the mountains before it gets too cold. Every day, the temperature drops a few degrees. We sense that winter is on the horizon!
We set off for the Ala-Bel mountain pass, which we plan to reach in 5-6 days. It is the highest mountain pass we have cycled so far. It is still hot in the lowlands (32°C) and the slopes are tough. However, the stunning views of the mountains and the turquoise waters of the Naryn River make it all worth it! After 65 kilometers, we come across a gravel path on the last slope leading to the water where there are some trees. We decide to descend and camp there as it seems like a good spot, out of sight from the road. There is a car parked nearby without a driver. Will there be other people there? Our theory is that the car probably belongs to someone who lives across the water as we can see some lights on. We hope that no one will disturb us tonight. We take a refreshing dip in the clear water, wash our clothes and pitch the tent. Then we feast on noodles with beans and a chocolate chip cookie for dessert. It gets dark quickly around 6 p.m. Audrey captures some more pictures of the starry sky and sees a shooting star. She makes a wish and then we go to bed. Eloy secretly hopes that her wish was for no intruders as every sound puts us on edge. Fortunately, we are tired and fall asleep fairly quickly.
"In the middle of the night we are awakened by one of the guests singing in the corridor! At least we think so...
"Some shephers have not yet left the mountains and come to check up on us
After passing three herds of animals on the street, greeting hundreds of truck drivers, meeting a packed cyclist from Kyrgyzstan and fending off five dogs, we arrive at our destination around 6 p.m. We’re on our way. The last 5 km is grueling to the max, and the sun is already sinking behind the mountains, so it gets cold very quickly. A plateau just behind a small hill, sheltered enough from the street, is the remnant of a yurt. The nomads leave the mountains with their animals in the winter, so the yurts are torn down as well. The toilets remain, so we find a beautiful one just for us. By the way, there is no shortage of toilet cubicles in the mountains here, scattered here and there in the otherwise desolate landscape. Some shepherds have not yet left the mountains and come to check up on us. We pitch the tent in a hurry, skip the shower, make dinner with frozen hands and then dive into the tent to eat. The wind makes it freezing cold. We have no coverage with our phones, so we decide to brave the cold one more time to watch the stars and the Milky Way.
"The hostess offers us a traditional drink called kumis. It turns out to be fermented horse milk and is said to cleanse the stomach.
We bike to an old Soviet hotel where the prices are modern though. For the first time in several days, we have a shower again, do our laundry and go out for dinner. That feels like luxury! However, the restaurant turns out to be half a disco. Between the courses of the other guests, the lights go out, a DJ plays loud music and people go wild. Where have we ended up now! We are not used to this anymore. Almost deaf but entertained by the phenomenon (which later turns out to be very common in Kyrgyzstan), we return to our bunk bed.
The next day we cycle on flat roads towards Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Just before Bishkek, we stop at an orphanage run by an American couple. We had read about it on iOverlander (an app for camping sites) where they invite anyone to stop by. Upon arrival, we are greeted by some children speaking fluent English. Inside, tacos are being prepared. The American couple and their children give us a warm welcome and over dinner we share many stories. We spend the whole evening playing games, movies and talking. The children are orphans or their parents were unable to care for them due to various problems. Right now there are around 20 children of all ages.
There are also a number of people from Russia who want to move to the US through Mexico, including a whole family with young children. We meet an awful lot of Russians in Kyrgyzstan. They have fled Russia because of the recent call for Russian men to report to the front for the war with Ukraine. As we engage in conversation, we notice how much the country is controlled by false reporting and propaganda. Part of the population wants to break away from this but also knows there is no turning back.
The following days we try to figure out how to get to Southeast Asia, as China still keeps its borders closed. We plan a rough route and decide to cycle through Kazakhstan. Meanwhile, the children ask us to join them in games or just to talk. We eat together and where possible we try to lend a hand. Audrey joins the cooking crew and the kids teach her how to make delicious pizzas. We make about 20 in all. Eloy looks for bicycle tools in the garage, considering we lost them along the way. We play basketball, teach the kids the card game “Crazy Eights” and listen to the extraordinary stories of Allen, the owner of the orphanage. These were intense but beautiful days that helped us to pause and grow. After three days, we thank Allen and leave for Bishkek, accompanied by one of the young men from the orphanage. We share some more snacks, drink the best energy drink in Kyrgyzstan on his advice and then we really say goodbye. We roll on to Bishkek.
In Bishkek we stay with a family with three very energetic little boys. Upon our arrival, we are asked to join them within an hour for a niece’s birthday party, because the more the merrier! The whole family is present and one by one they give a speech for the birthday boy. We too have to attend and we get one fried dish after another. There are those days when you are really overloaded with food….
The next day, we receive the great news that a man has found the bike tools we left behind at a guesthouse in Toktogul and taken them to Bishkek. So we pick them up and take the opportunity to explore the city. Fortunately, we haven’t had any flat tires in the meantime! Bishkek has a rather short history, lots of big green parks, two giant bazaars and many buildings and statues reminding of the Soviet era. At Victory Square, we visit the monument with the “eternal flame”. The monument depicts a woman waiting for the return of her partner. She is standing under a “tynduk,” the roof of a yurt. The tynduk is also the symbol on the flag of Kyrgyzstan, an important reference to the nomadic culture.
At the family home, the boys are thrilled with the bubble blower we give them. A few minutes later there are suds everywhere…. At the end of the day, Nargiza, the mother of the three, gives Eloy a traditional gift: a Kalpak. It is a traditional hat for Kyrgyz men and literally means “felt hat”. It is mostly worn on special occasions, but you also see it in everyday life. It is full of symbolism. The shape recalls the country’s snowy mountains. The four sides represent the elements of air, water, fire and earth. Also, a Kalpak is often decorated with different designs representing the owner’s personality and the heritage of Kyrgyzstan. There are more than 80 different variations AND there are even bus stops shaped like a Kalpak. The Kalpak is also on the UNESCO list of intangible heritage. Just so you know!
The bike route from Bishkek is not the prettiest in the country and there is a lot of traffic on the road (this applies to all routes from capital cities, by the way). In the next larger town, Tokmok, the Soviet past is evident. Several airplanes (including one on a traffic circle) and other objects of past glory seem to have been placed randomly. Aidin, a young man just starting out as a Software Engineer and still living with his parents, welcomes us in fluent English. His three-year-old sister is shy but soon all she wants to do is play, play and play. Aidin’s parents don’t speak English but are eager to know all kinds of things anyway. On their advice, we visit the Burana Tower the next day, which is 10 km away.
The Burana Tower is an 11th-century minaret that was part of a mosque. It is one of the oldest of its kind in all of Central Asia and surrounded by the gigantic Tian-Shan Mountains. This mountain range is more than 2,500 km long, crosses several countries and many fruits originate there. Both the Burana Tower and the Tian-Shan Mountains are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. As we cycle back to Tokmok, we pass numerous strawberry fields. A truck drives by and holds out a bag to Eloy. The man smiles and drives on. Turns out he just gave us the sweetest strawberries ever!
Tonight we are cooking for Aidin’s family. And what could be more original than hotchpotch with apple sauce? Potatoes, carrots and onion are exactly the same and often the only thing here in Kyrgyzstan. Audrey gets lost in the oversized supermarket, buys something that looks like smoked sausage, but they don’t have applesauce. So we decide to make it ourselves. After about an hour she’s back outside while Eloy explains our trip to passersby. At home, Aidin’s mother helps with the slicing. She gives a funny look when she sees the sweet applesauce on the plate with the savory hotchpotch. The family agrees that it is a strange but delicious combination. The leftovers even end up as stuffing in the fried dough eaten for breakfast here!
"We see how Zohra the camel is lovingly milked and have to taste the warm milk immediately.
The next morning we leave very early, together with Aidin and a few friends, for a hike to mountain lake Köl-Tör. The route is steep and along the way we gather lumber for a campfire to prepare lunch. Our muscles are obviously only used to cycling…. The lake is beautiful, located at 2700m altitude and has unimaginable color. Along the way we encounter yurts, wild horses and beautiful views. Audrey has been looking forward to snow since the beginning of the trip and now we are getting pretty close. Fulfilled and exhausted, we return to Aidin’s house. We are incredibly grateful to him for taking us on this hike, it was unforgettable!
In the evening after dinner, the host family begins mashing, cooking and pickling a hundred (!) pounds of tomatoes with garlic, pepper, bell pepper, carrot and more. We lend a hand and Audrey gets to use Aidin’s father’s Soviet tools for mashing the tomatoes. All by hand, it’s a pleasantly busy affair in the tiny kitchen! Then Aidin’s mother starts chopping (not even cooking yet!) peppers and everyone starts coughing like crazy. Windows and doors are opened, but the sharpness lingers for a long time. Meanwhile, Russian thoughts flow into the dining room via television. Aidin indicates that he thinks his parents should not watch this channel. But they are part of the older generation, so they often think differently about this.
Outside, the tomato sauce is cooked in a giant pan on a wood fire. When it is done, it has to be tasted of course. It is so spicy that we share a bowl and thank for the second. The rest is saved for winter, when there are far fewer vegetables. We sleep peacefully on the couch in the living room, but not before being handed a parting gift. A second Kalpak for Eloy and a cloth for Audrey.
The next day we can’t walk normally from the muscle pain, but when we’re on our bikes it’s not too bad. Stopping at traffic lights or dismounting is another story…. After several stays at families and some Soviet-style hotels, we go wild camping again! The first night is at the bottom of a mountain, with a warm campfire, because it’s cold. The weather forecast says it won’t freeze tonight, but our nose says it’s colder. In the morning, when all our water bottles are frozen and the tent has a layer of ice, we know for sure. We wait for everything to defrost and dry and then begin the climb up. At the top a family is having lunch and before we have even reached the top one of them comes up to us and invites us to join them for a bite to eat. They are from Kazakhstan and say that, like in Kyrgyzstan, they love guests. So that sounds promising. When we have told them about our trip, had a glass of cola (we have politely refused the vodka three times) and speeched at the toast, they give us water, bread and cookies. Then we roll down the mountain in search of a new camping spot. And as we do so, a wild camel has caught sight of us and we of him! We pitch our tent in record time as it gets dark even faster in the mountains. In the night we are awakened by the strong wind that has come up. We had read about how strong winds can come from nowhere. Fortunately, we are sheltered between a few trees.
After a long but incredibly beautiful drive back to civilization, we stop alongside the road to inquire about a local supermarket. Another passerby joins us and shows us the way. As we stand at the little store, which is nothing more than a counter with some goodies on it, he tells us to come to his house to be his guest. Eloy immediately receives a third Kalpak and we are also expected to spend the night. Yesterday, there was a wedding in the family and there is so much food left that we have to eat right away. Then, he asks if we want to see the garden and their animals and if we have drunk camel milk before. We walk along and there are three camels in the stable. We see how Zohra the camel is lovingly milked and have to taste the warm milk immediately. With (great) fear of the taste of fermented horse milk, Eloy takes his first sip. It tastes delicious though and resembles creamy cow’s milk. People from various villages come here to get the milk. As we start dinner we see the whole family passing by. We communicate with hand gestures and are served “Kuurdak”, which is one of the oldest dishes in Kyrgyz cuisine. It is made from mutton, fat/oil and onion. When Eloy takes a picture with the father of the family, he says the following through Google Translate:
“Our Kyrgyz habit is a Kalpak, it just suits you, you will become a good handsome man. You have to take good pictures of good things.“
Over the next few days we will drive along Issyk-Kul (or Ysyk-Köl, literally “warm lake”). There is a lot of construction work on the road so big clouds of dust from truck traffic will fly around our ears. The salt lake is the second-largest mountain lake in the world and is no less than 180 km long and 60 km wide. At first sight, it seems as if we are cycling along the sea. If the weather is clear, we can see the mountains on the other side.
We slow down and sleep in unusual places along the lake. Once, we stay in a yurt, which is heated by a fire of dried horse dung. Another time, we camp on the beach of the lake. As beautiful as the beach is, it is still exciting to camp out of sight, but what a view! At 7:30 p.m. it is already dark and cold and we lie in the tent, with no internet, just each other.
And then suddenly, we have been six months (!) on the road and have covered 7000 km on our bikes. What a bizarre adventure. When we think back on every encounter, every place and everything that happened along the way, we feel incredibly grateful. The only thing we could do without are the terribly gross "toilets," but even those we managed to survive. There is gold hidden in every day, and this motivates us to keep going.
We are on our way to the small town of Karakol in eastern Kyrgyzstan, just 150 km from the Chinese border. This is the last larger town before we cross the border into Kazakhstan. On the way, we meet a world cyclist, a Dutchman named Joris. Together, we eat sausages for lunch, with mayonnaise! An hour and a half later, we are ready to hit the road again when we come across another couple on bikes. They are from Russia and are planning to cycle all the way to India. We exchange some snacks before our paths diverge again.
"Since hardly anyone comes here, especially after dark, chills run down our spines
We take a few rest days in Karakol. When we open the curtains on the second day, it has rained for the first time in 2.5 months. In the mountains that means snow! The village has some old wooden houses, a wooden mosque, and a Russian Orthodox church. All of these buildings were constructed without the use of nails. The mosque can be taken down in less than a day. Impressive! There is also an unusual bazaar: a maze of shipping containers. And a meat market where hearts, livers, intestines, tongues and heads are displayed on tables. Audrey finds it amusing to consider how much is anatomically recognizable, while Eloy initially refuses to walk in due to the smell.
As we walk down the street, a young couple approaches us. They have just moved to Karakol and are curious as to why we are here. When they hear our story, they are surprised. Belief in the goodness of man is the most important thing according to them. They are traveling with friends to hot springs in the mountains and would like to take us for a relaxing afternoon. A little confused but surprised by the spontaneity, we go along. We get our swimsuits and they pick us up at our homestay. The thermal baths are an extraordinary experience. From burning hot to ice-cold river water. We continue to be amazed by the kindness of people we spontaneously meet.
When we set out again after four rest days, Audrey gets another flat tire after a few kilometers. Either Audrey (4 flat tires) is just driving recklessly through everything on the road or Eloy (1 flat tire) is just lucky. As a team, we patch the tire and are back on the road after a few minutes. Occasionally we have to watch out for crossing cows. The road to the border is largely unpaved, uphill and dusty. Still, we make it to the 80-km mark and are in a bit of a hurry to find a place to pitch the tent, as it gets dark quickly. There is virtually no traffic here, as very few people live in this inhospitable area. A minivan drives by and turns back a moment later and then drives by again and stays a little further away. Okay, now we are a little nervous. Audrey checks the phone, no coverage, shit! She carefully drives past the van and then one of them makes a sleeping sign and says we can follow him. Behind a hill, we see two containers and a yurt. They say that it will be too cold tonight and we can sleep in the container. To our delight, there are beds in it. There is a fire stove, there are two cooking stoves and even the Wi-Fi (?!) is turned on. They will come back tomorrow morning. A little later, when we are making macaroni and have gotten the wood stove working, we hear a car approaching. Since hardly anyone comes here, especially after dark, chills run down our spines. Eloy goes to have a look. The men are back and they have brought a big electric heater for extra heating this night! Ashamed of our scary thoughts, we thank them from the bottom of our hearts and give them a contribution for the night. We video call home and enjoy our last special night in Kyrgyzstan.
The next morning we continue towards the border. Today is another 30 km of struggling over gravel and boulders. The going is tough, especially when suddenly a strong icy headwind comes blowing in out of nowhere and wears us down mentally and physically until the end of the day. The cold stings our faces and the border is nothing more than two huts on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. So no warming up. Before we realize it, because we are mostly distracted by the cold, we are in Kazakhstan! Just after the border, a car with Americans overtakes us and the window goes down. Eloy tells the familiar story, while Audrey fears hypothermia and wants to keep going. We are invited to Kuala Lumpur and given two cans of Red Bull. To our surprise, one of them gets out and wears shorts, while we look like bloated Michelin men in our down jackets. Unfortunately, the Red Bull doesn’t give us wings, but we do go a little faster through the boulders that give way to asphalt. Because of the headwind, we are going only 7 km per hour. Eloy in front, Audrey has already given up. In Kegen we start looking for a hotel as clouds blow through the streets. The building seems uninhabitable and abandoned, but through the back we are pointed to a door. We take the stairs up where a lady is sitting answering phones. Apparently this is also a taxi-center. We plop down in our room while we hear in the background in Dutch: “Hello…. Is this a hotel?” We roar with laughter and think ‘yes, Dutch are really everywhere, even in this little hole in an old Soviet hotel. Welcome to Kazakhstan!’
Now that we have included you in our story through this beautiful and challenging country, perhaps you can understand why this was one of the highlights so far, both literally and figuratively. Beautiful people, inhospitable areas and a nature that can’t be beat.
See you in Kazakhstan!
Love, Audrey and Eloy