snow, steppes, and noble steeds

A 2,000 metre climb, 700 km driven, one flat tyre, much Kyrgyz brandy, a wonderfully mad hitchhiker, a dismantled bicycle with a dodgy peddle (and it’s rather handsome owner), a broken violin bow, three noble steeds, two delightful Belgians, a little sunburn, and a frosty night’s sleep later, this most recent tale from the steppes of Song Kol is ready to be written!

After bumping our way down to Kochkor without a problem, and navigating a road in the middle of being dug up and re-made (not that this means it isn’t driven upon, all it really changes is how deep the potholes are and how far the ratio of tarmac-dust is skewed in dust’s favour), Chrissy, Amber, and I were counting down the 90kms up the lovely valley, climbing gradually to just over 3000m at the Kalma-Ashuu Pass.

After admiring the views for several of these kilometers we saw on the side of the road a lone bicycle, with someone stretched out beside it tinkering away.  Being the good samaratans that we are, we pulled over with every intention of helping but with no real bicycle-related skills to offer (the worst I had encountered in three years of cycling around Cambridge was snow on my saddle, and broken brakes, which I could all but ignore without too many dire consequences). As fate would have it, as we climbed out the car to peer at the strange across-the-world cyclist, a strange hissing noise could be heard coming from the tyre. Remaining mostly unraffled, after all it isn’t that difficult to change a tyre, we introduced ourselves to Richard and started lazily looking for tools and instructions.  Neither could be found.  Anywhere. Chrissy, taking his role as saviour of the day seriously, was under the car trying to work a way of forcibly separating the spare tyre from it’s bracket (a bracket that had taken on Kyrgyzstani roads for a year and won … we were skeptical), whilst Amber and I turned the car inside out looking for the elusive instruction manual and dismantling most of the inside to find the toolbox. Richard ended up wandering between our breakdown and his, trying to decide which vehicle was more likely to be repaired first and therefore get him to Song Kol.

Before long, we had to admit defeat (not before, might I add, I had been sent up the nearest mountain to seek out mobile phone signal to call someone who might know something about how to release the spare tyre), and turned to watch the road in the vague hope that another car would come along with the answer. And sure enough, over the horizon, came the wonderful Dzhun and his gang of merry-makers. In no time at all, they had rolled up their sleeves and were under the car chatting away in Kyrgyz with Amber doing all she could to understand, translate, and reply. At this point, Richard decided he had done all he could and really ought to set off again if he was to stand a chance to get to the lake before dark so we bid him farewell and turned back to our brandy-laden saviours.  Happily, not many words are needed to get conversation going and we were soon firm friends, cemented when Dzhun and his brother successfully beat the spare tyre into submission and went on to change it. Celebratory brandy was in order for Dzhun, Chrissy, and Amber, whilst myself and Dzhun’s female companions went for the chocolate and apricot option instead.  At this point, we decided to head back down the valley to Sary Bulak and find a place to repair the tyre (a rock had punctured the first one, so there was every chance it could happen again!). Success came in the form of a bit of rubber melted into the tyre’s hole by an apt and able mute octogenarian who only relieved us of 50som (80p) for his services.

So we tried again! It was back up the beautiful valley, getting a little further this time before, once again, we came across dear Richard stretched out beside his faithful bike, who, once again, had given up the ghost. An ominous sense of de ja vu set in as we pulled over to see what we could do and gingerly stepped out the car waiting for that familiar air-escaping-the-tyre hissing. When it didn’t come, the relief was palpable. After spending a few minutes standing and contemplating the bike, profoundly but ultimately uselessly, we had a quick rearrangement of luggage and bundled Richard, his gear, and the bike into the back of the car and carried on upwards.  Several kilometers later we happened across Adam, who was hitchhiking from Denmark to India (by car, truck, pick-up, crane, and even boat from Turkey to Cyrpus and around the Greek islands) and also clambered in amongst the bags and coats to join the gang.  The going became more and more dramatic as the clouds rolled in, the hairpin bends increased, and the snow-cover increased.

Before too long we found ourselves up at Song Kol, I successfully got us across the myriad of paths to the yurts, and out we all piled again.  After an hour of exploring the lake shore, Amber, Chrissy, and I happened across our favourite tyre-changing friends for more brandy with toasts to “homo sapiens!”, chocolate, and Kyrgyz-Russian-English-mime conversations. Despite language barriers, it was soon firmly established that Chrissy was roughly the same age as the brothers, and therefore obviously also a brother, I became adopted as a daughter (with the obligatory kiss on the forehead for greeting and departing), and Amber was another of the beloved wives (Dzhun and his brother were both also married).

Whilst watching life in the yurt camp, the little boy from our host family took quite a shine to Chrissy who happily obliged in playing and cuddling, giving him grapes to dribble over and suncream to play with. With his violin, and rather decrepid bow, Adam seranaded us with several songs, and let the boys of the family have a go as well. It didn’t take long for us to work out that to fix the bow, all Adam needed was some more horsehair, and here we were in the heart of horse-hearding country. Devious plans were surreptitiously concocted.

Over dinner we met a very talkative and enthusiastic couple from Belgium, heard many of Adam’s hitchhiking stories (amongst them being offered a prostitute by a truckie, and having to explain why he was turning it down, and how he successfully charmed his way out of Israel despite overstaying his visa), tales of the trying to across the Uzbek/Kyrgyz border during the fighting, and many other adventues recounted.  Temperature plumetted as soon as the sun went down, and all wrapped up in as many layers as we could get into (despite my trying to convince Amber that actually, sleeping bags work best when you’re wearing very little), we admired the starry skies and the sweep of the Milky Way, played scrabble, and chatted before climbing into beds only slightly warmed by the dried horse-dung fires.

The next morning saw Adam go for a swim in the barely-above-frozen lake whilst Richard, Amber, and I sat warm and dry on the shore and laughed, before we decided it was high time to go for a ride.  Before long Richard, Adam, and I were mounted on three noble steeds, and it was off at quite a pace across the Kyrgyz steppes. When we were far enough away from anyone, we set about executing said devious plans, and sure enough horsehair was liberated. Despite what it seems, Richard assured us that he had actually improved the poor horse’s tail, and that he would be the hippest horse on the steppes with his new layers and feathering!  Meanwhile, Amber and Chrissy spent the morning entertaining his new 1-year old friend, much to the constant laughter of the little boys mother, and admiring the views.

Several hours later saw us pack up and get ready to head back up to Bishkek, with Richard as far as Kochkor where he hoped to find someone he could cajole into fixing the pedal, and Adam all the way back to pick up his Chinese and Indian visas and embark on the next leg of his journey. Good luck boys!

Follow Richard here:

Follow Adam here:


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