Torsor, Kyrgyzstan. 27th July 2014.
Torsor is a village on the shores of Issyk-Kol, a large lake in the north of Kyrgyzstan. It is famous for being the second largest mountain lake in the world, after Lake Titicaca. It’s over 180kms long, 60kms wide and 670 metres deep. There are over 180 rivers and streams running into it but it has no known outlet. The Russians used it for testing their torpedo systems in Soviet times and still do, leasing the facility from the Kyrgic government, as does India. The lake is slightly saline. It is a big tourist draw, especially along its northern shore. We were on the south side where it is much quieter.
The guest house was small, with basic facilities but had the advantage of being cheap and was only 200 metres from the shore. Which meant, of course, that we had to go for a swim. It was pretty cold in there but refreshing in the hot sun so I didn’t complain. We’d all spent the morning doing some bike maintenance and I had an enlightening conversation with Hera. As mentioned, she’s a hard core cyclist and has some definite views on what works for her. She always uses a hard but correctly adjusted leather saddle. She says that gel saddles pinch the nerves in the backside, causing rather than relieving, numbness. She also says that she won’t have a bike with suspension because some of the pedal effort simply compresses the suspension rather than pushing the bike forward. Food for thought compared to conventional, and probably marketing driven, styles. Hers is a ‘travel bike’, somewhere between a mountain bike and a more conventional tourer. One piece of technology that fascinated me was her geared rear hub. If you can think back to the old Sturmey Archer three speed hub, then this one is probably twice the size of that but contains fourteen gears!! Worthy of those double exclamation marks. It is German made and is guaranteed for life provided the oil is changed regularly. It eliminates all that Derailleur gear mechanism, which can be vulnerable to damage and needs regular maintenance. But at EU900, you’d expect to be getting plenty for your money.
Parked up near the lake shore were a couple of old, Dutch registered trucks. They were clearly camping there and I just had to go and find out what these guys were up to. There were four of them, a driver and navigator for each truck, and they were on their own adventure tour, albeit rather slower and more ponderous than my own. All four were around my age and the trucks were almost as old as the drivers. The smaller of the two was a Volvo built, former Norweigan fire service rigid truck. It had a 4.75 litre, 132 BHP turbo charged engine and is from the 1960’s. He removed the fire service body and fitted another one that he just happened to have ‘lying around’ and was the right dimensions to fit the chassis. It was then converted into living accommodation using a design similar to that of a camper van. It was well organised and looked very comfortable. The other truck was a DAF articulated unit with a box trailer that had a caravan stuffed into the back as living accommodation. The rest of the space was used as storage. It was very effective. The Trailer was from 1957. The unit was from 1964 and has a 210BHP Leyland engine, showing just how far back that partnership goes.
They were on a journey that had taken them from Holland, across Eastern Europe, Russia, Mongolia, China and into Kyrgyzstan. The remainder of their tour would take them on through the other ‘Stans, Iran, Turkey and southern Europe. A five month trip in total. They’re all retired from the road haulage industry and have the blessing of their wives. Top notch touring with a difference. Well done guys.
The village we’re in seems to have several Ger Camps and guest houses that have a spiritual or alternative air to them. As I mentioned, the south shore of the lake is quieter and less developed so I can see the attraction. The Dutch guys had told us of a nearby Ger camp that had wi-fi they might let us use so Hera and I went looking for it. On the way we called in to one of the guest houses. I’d called in there while looking for Hera and Racom the night before and I remembered the people were very helpful and spoke English. We chatted with the woman there, Kareem, who was an Anthropologist and had travelled all over the world. We chatted across a wide range of subjects but her basic view was that we make life too complicated and forget the simple things. She had a view that a woman should show her love for her family by cooking for them, perhaps a concept that the western world could do with more of, she thought. She talked God a bit but in a spiritual way and it was clear that her guest house had that kind of aura to it. She started to make Hera feel a bit uncomfortable as she was telling her she should be having children, something Hera isn’t too keen on.
So we left there and found the Ger camp that did have wi-fi. The woman running it was a bit surprised at people walking in off the street seeking to connect, but she was OK about it in the end. This camp also had a similar kind of feel to it as the guest house, so strengthening the impression I had of the area.
Next day Hera, Racom and Michael were due to leave. Hera and Racom were heading up into the hills and were going to be staying at a Ger camp at Lake Song Kol before heading further south, to Tajikistan and the Pamir Highway. We made plans to meet up there in a few days as it’s a route I can take back to Kazakhstan. Michael was heading to the city of Osh to meet some friends with whom he’d be travelling to China. He will eventually reach Australia and we agreed to meet there if we can.
My plan was to take a ride up into the hills to check out a circular route that went up quite high, over 3,000 metres. I had heard that it was a dead end because it went into a restricted area but it was a good excuse to go exploring without all the luggage on the back. It did indeed end after about 30kms but was a nice ride and I saw plenty of horse herders and the Gers they lived in. Michael had told me of other rides I could take and I was going to move back along the lake to Karakol, a town from where I could explore further into the mountains. Before the others left we had asked a Russian guy who was staying there to take some photos for us. That evening I was in the café and his wife came over to me and introduced herself. She spoke English, albeit slowly, and she was asking about my journey etc. Later on, when I was eating, she brought over some watermelon and we talked some more, her husband joining in too. Vadim and Elena live in Novosibirsk, a city I planned to visit on my way to Mongolia. They gave me their contact details and said to visit them if I can. I was very pleased about that as I love to have opportunities for social contact with people whose countries I pass through. To revisit a previous theme, it’s interesting to note that Elena only spoke to me once I was on my own.
Once in Karakol I looked out for the Turkestan Yurt Camp, which Michael had told me about. As well as Yurts (Gers) they also had rooms so I opted for one of those. Showers, flush toilets and Wi-Fi, none of which had been available at the Saadat Guest House in Torsor. Bed and breakfast, and all for not much more than the previous place. I began to feel almost civilised. The camp is laid out among Apricot trees and some people had set up their tents amongst them. In the entrance yard were parked a couple of 4×4 trekking vehicles and I discovered that some of the people staying there were going hiking or climbing. I seemed to have found the adventure centre of the area. I walked in to town to find a meal and an ATM to finish the day off nicely.
Michael had told me of a track he’d ridden which led to The Valley of Flowers. It sounded like a good practice run for the longer track I wanted to ride so I went looking for it. Easy enough to find and it wound it’s way up into the hills, asphalted at first until it reached a spa centre of some kind. After that it was a nice ride up alongside a river, which it crossed several times via plank bridges. It was clearly a popular place for visitors as I saw plenty of other vehicles up there.
The best sight was of some very spectacular red sandstone cliffs, known as the Seven Sisters. Very beautiful, especially in the clear sunlight. The track wound on up into the hills. The valley didn’t have any flowers in it, probably too late in the year for that, but was a very nice ride nonetheless, and good practice for the tougher ride I had planned for the next day.
When I went to the restaurant that evening I bumped into a Finnish girl called Saila whom I’d chatted to earlier in the day. She was getting ready to go on a hike up into the hills. We chatted over our meal and I learned that she was a UN volunteer, working in Uzbekistan. She was part of a monitoring group and used her skills to measure the effectiveness of work that was funded by the UN. It seems that the volunteers get a low salary and benefits but their main reason for doing this work is that it looks very good on their CV. It seems it is very popular. Her lonely planet guide mentioned a Chinese Mosque in the town so after dinner we went to see it. It is a strange building, Chinese in style and looking pretty good for its age. It had a minaret next to it, built from wood like the mosque, a bit dilapidated and with an angle of lean that would make the tower at Pizza jealous. I took some photos and promised Saila I’d email some to her. I later found out more about this mosque. It was built for a Chinese Muslim sect called Dungans. They struggled to practice their religion in China and some of them came to Kyrgyzstan. The mosque was built for them by a Chinese master in 1910. It is made of wood and doesn’t use a single nail in its construction.
The people at the camp confirmed that the track I wanted to ride led to a restricted area after 140kms, even though the map showed it joined up with the track I’d ridden a couple of days ago, but I decided that was good enough for a day out. This track also went up into some high country so was likely to be a challenge. I set off, following a route I’d worked out from the map on display in the Yurt camp. On the way I passed through a town where there was a police speed trap, the first such activity I’d seen in this country. Their honesty wasn’t tested though as I’d been warned of its presence by oncoming drivers. The road, still good asphalt, started to climb up into the hills giving me some stunning views.
The hills became a mountains, the asphalt became dirt, and I finally crested the pass at a heady 3,789 metres according to my GPS. Down the other side I enjoyed a rocky, twisty descent along side a busy river which kept me company all the way down. Chilly at the top of the pass, I soon warmed up as I got lower and as the track kept me working too. After 140kms, as promised, I came down into a valley which contained a mining town, mostly disused as far as I could see. I crossed a bridge, came to a barrier and turned round to enjoy the ride back, along with all the views in reverse. A very nice ride out along a sometimes challenging track made for an enjoyable way to see the scenery and get some mountain air.
At breakfast next morning I was chatting to a Czech guy and he’d discovered that the group of campers were Israeli. They weren’t very communicative, he said. Hardly surprising. Given what was happening in Gaza.
My task that day was to ride back along the lake, through Torsor again and on to the other end of the lake before turning up into the hills to find lake Song Kol where I hoped to meet Hera and Racom. While I’d been exploring the hills near Karakol they’d been riding up towards it and the plan was to meet them at a Ger camp to stay the night near the lake. If I’d worked things out right they would have had enough time to get up there and all I had to do was find them. It was a glorious day and the ride back along Issyk Kol was very nice indeed. The lake was a deep, Mediterranean blue, reflecting the cloudless blue sky above it. The sun was warm, the traffic light. A perfect day to be out on a bike.
Once I’d cleared the lake I stopped for a quick bite at a café then found the track I needed to get me up into the hills. No asphalt now, just graded dirt with some loose gravel to stop me relaxing too much. As I went higher the track going over the pass got tough, with plenty of loose stones and rocks to deal with. My first glimpse of Song Kol was a bit disappointing as it had clouded over but it still looked good, surrounded by grassland with more mountains in the distance. There were several Ger camps around so I headed across the grass to check them out for Dutch cyclists. None to be found but after heading back to the track and riding a bit further I saw another camp near the road and there they were, waving at me. Excellent! They’d booked a Ger and evening meal so I did the same and we settled down for a good chat.
Song Kol lies at just over 3,000 metres and is Kyrgyzstan’s largest fresh water lake (Issyk Kol is slightly saline). It is surrounded by distant mountains but lies pretty much in the middle of grassland, perfect for the herders and their animals.
We were called in to eat later and enjoyed chatting to the two sisters who were there with their children. It seems the women spend the summer up in the hills with the animals and their kids. They get three months summer holiday and help with looking after the animals. The men work in the towns and join them when they can. They all spend the winter in the town. This keeps the herding tradition alive in Kyrgyzstan and is a very important part of its economy.
After dinner Hera and Racom, friends who originally met at a performing arts school, sang us all a song and did it very well too. One of the boys sang the Kyrgic national anthem so I felt obliged to sing ours. Hera couldn’t believe that Britain had such an appalling dirge for our national song, all about the monarchy and God rather than our country. I felt ashamed of it although it’s hardly my fault and I hate it anyway. But we all had a laugh and it was good to be able to engage with some local people.
Next morning was frosty, unlike our goodbyes, which were anything but. There’s a chance I might meet Hera in Australia, but it’s very unlikely I’ll see Racom again. But you can never tell.
We headed off in opposite directions, me northwards to head back to Kazakhstan. I was following tracks, using my compass, and when I came to a left or straight ahead choice, I chose straight ahead. That may have been wrong because I came down off the mountain a bit further east than I wanted to be but I wasn’t too bothered as a wrong choice could have looped me back south to an area that had no route north again.
The track down had been good fun, not tough but I needed to use some skills to avoid rough sections and keep on course. Plenty of stony sections interspersed with a track that almost disappeared into the grass at times. Just what I enjoy. I’d drawn a map of the route I needed to follow, along with some town names, but it wasn’t much good given that most of the towns I passed through didn’t display what their name was. I happened upon a couple of truckers who confirmed I was on the right road. While I was stopped I put on my coat as it had started to rain and also topped up the tank from with my spare fuel. It wasn’t long after that I saw a very strange sight. Two Ural sidecar outfits were bouncing along the track towards me followed by a van. The outfits bore a French couple and their three children, the van contained a driver, a mechanic and a guide/interpreter. And probably enough spares to rebuild a bike. Urals aren’t renowned for their reliability. This couple owned a pair of similar outfits back in France and had, logically, decided to see some of Kyrgyzstan in like fashion. Their guide told me that the nearest fuel was another 150kms along my route but that there were plenty of roadside Yurts that would be able to sell me some. That was going to have to do as I was running a bit short. She also told me that the turn off I was aiming for was only a few kilometres away and led on to a nice asphalt road. I was pleased to hear that as I was getting a bit tired, it was wet and I was worried about fuel. Once on the main road I stopped at a likely looking place to ask about buying fuel and the guy told me he didn’t have any but there was a petrol station about 5kms down the road. Oh really? Where did that guide get her from information then? Either way, I was pleased to see it hove into view, all bright and shiny new. Despite it being very busy I got my fuel and set off to complete the journey to Talas, a town near the Kazakh border.
Hera had told me about a hotel they’d used there, supposedly very good and not too expensive. I was looking forward to reaching it as soon as I could. First though, I had a mountain to climb. Immediately after leaving the petrol station I took a right turn, signposted Talas, and couldn’t understand why Doris was so reluctant to pick up speed. I wondered if there was something wrong with the fuel but after a short while I realised I was heading up a very steep hill. She’d already been struggling with the incline on the road I’d turned off but a combination of the weight and a stiff headwind made the climb over the Otmok pass a real struggle. The weather closed in just to ice the cake – and I mean that literally. As I climbed the rain turned to sleet, the temperature dropped, my body was cold and my hands were freezing as my heated handlebar grips weren’t working. I did not enjoy that part of the ride one little bit. Fortunately the road was good and the traffic light. Things never stay bad for long and eventually I was over the pass and on the downward slope. As I got lower the sleet and rain stopped, the sun came out and I began to feel warm and human again. Kazakh road builders had deliberately put in some rough sections of road to slow traffic down as the slope was very steep. Quite a good idea, I thought. I even saw a gradient sign that didn’t say 12%. It actually said %6. Ah, there’s a rebel in the camp! Towns started to appear and eventually Talas arrived. As Hera had said, there was a big sign for the Kerben Place Hotel as I came into the town, although strangely the signs got smaller as I got nearer. But I found it and was glad to do so. By then I’d had enough.
Kyrgyzstan is a former Socialist Soviet Republic, as were most Central Asian countries. Its early history is one of fighting herder tribes, followed by unity under a strong leader. Its name means We Are Forty, a reference to the forty united tribes.
It peacefully joined the Mongol Empire and eventually, in the 18th century, became part of e various rebellions against Tsarist rule but at the same time the Russian population grew and the language was forced upon the native population.
It became a Soviet Republic under Stalin and eventually became independent after the collapse of the USSR. It is a very poor country and its economic growth has been held back by civil unrest between Kyrgyzs and Uzbeks, the other large ethnic group. Agriculture still forms a large part of its economy, mainly herding, but the country also has many valuable mineral resources. Unfortunately it has long been affected by corruption and its human rights leave much to be desired.
I very much enjoyed my brief visit there and look forward to returning when my travels take me back to Central Asia.