For previous blog entries of our ride through NZ, Australia, South East Asia, China and Central Asia, click on the little arrows beside the dates in the Blog Archive below and use the scroll down menu.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Kyrgystan - Tashkent, Uzbekistan(via Kazakhstan)

Route: (Kyrgystan) - Irkeshtam - Osh - Jalal Abad - Toktogul - Bishkek - (Kazakhstan) - Taraz - Shymkent - Tashkent(Uzbekistan)

Distance cycled: 20,400 kms

The first few days in a new county is always unnerving for us and infact it takes about 10 days to get into the swing of it. Our first 12 kms out of the checkpoint were on a beautiful bit of tarmac. We coasted along feeling free as birds. That feeling ended abruptly when the tarmac stopped and turned into this.............

"Photo,photo, take,take" cried these young soldiers as they thrust two machine guns into our arms less than an hour after cycling into Kyrgystan.
We soon found out that it is quite normal in this part of Kyrgystan for flawless tarmaced sections to be followed by stretches of barely cyclable boulders or mud, not even worthy of classification as a road. Our first big climb was a 20 km or so steep, uphill climb over massive boulders. It was hellish and we became instantly pessimistic about our ride through the Stans, fearing that the roads would stay like this. After a few kms or so we decided it was time to camp. We spent an idyllic but very windy night in the tent, enjoying the spectaular view.

The road may have been a huge disappointment but the scenery almost made up for it. Kyrgystan is a very small, beautiful and mountainous country nestled in the heart of Central Asia. Once a transit point of the ancient Silk Road, it remained inaccessible to foreigners for many years when it was part of the USSR. Upon independence in 1991, Kyrgystan once again opened its doors to adventurous travellers seeking to traverse through Central Asia. Kyrgystan is an absolute dream for wild camping. You can put your tent almost anywhere and be guaranteed spectacular views of lush valleys, dramatic snow-capped mountains, rivers and alpine lakes, all in complete solitude. Kyrgystan also has unique cultural experiences and great hospitality for those who don't mind venturing off the beaten path.

In Kyrgystan we soon realised that the 3 main forms of transport are.................................................



And Lada(in no particular order).

Next morning we set off back up the hill of doom. The higher the altitude, the worse the weather and before long it was snowing and bitterly cold. We were keen to get onto the other side of the mountain and make our way down out of the bad weather. It was an epic struggle in the end and one we had not been expecting being that it was the middle of April. However, the high Kyrgyz mountains can remain an unforgiving place right up until the end of May. At last, I saw the familiar signal of Ben's two hands held up in the air meaning we had reached the top. A great feeling. Whatsmore, the road suddenly turned to asphalt and we coasted downhill at 40 km/h. The further we ascended, the warmer the temperature and before long, it was feeling like spring again. The road had gone from unbearable to absolutely perfect and we wondered why they couldn't just finish the job and tarmac the whole lot.

The end is nigh ......... me at the summit.

We were hungry but knew the town of Sari Tash was only 20 kms away so pushed on with empty bellies. As we rolled into town, we suddenly realised that we had been in China too long. The town we had expected would have streets, traffic lights, a hospital, schools etc. Sari Tash however was more like a hamlet, a small collection of rustic homes with no services other than a couple of small shops and restaurants operating from the front room of someone's home. We suddenly realised where we were. A little hole in the wall served as a supermarket and we stocked up on biscuits, pasta, tinned sardines and snickers bars. There wasn't much else on offer. We then found a one table restaurant doubling up as another 'magazin” where the friendly owners served us samsas and tea. We were hungry and put away 3 of the huge pasties each after polishing off all the biscuits we'd bought from the shop. It was a comical little place covered in garishly coloured posters of fruit bowls, waterfalls and tigers and blaring out the 80's hit “Brother Louie” on repeat.

Fellow cyclist, Sari Tash

Seeing as you've worked so hard, have some tarmac

The Spar, Sari Tash

Sari Tash

We cycled off as night was falling feeling like we'd had our first Kyrgyz experience. We camped a few kms out of town on a hilltop, again able to put our tent just about anywhere. That night, the snow came in and we woke up to a complete whiteout. We resigned ourselves to being trapped in the tent all day but towards lunchtime the weather started to clear up and the snow began to melt. A horses head appeared from nowhere framed in the door of our tent soon followed by that of his owner, a nomadic Kyrgyz horseman. The man sat in our porch for some time watching us pack up our belongings. We get the impression that this type of Kyrgyz people as nomads respect our nomadic lifestyle albeit by choice on our part. Where the Kyrgyz people have a yurt we have a Vango tent. Where they have a horse, we have a bike. Maybe we're not so different. When his curiosity had been satified, he rode off into the distance looking very cool indeed without having to try.

The next part of the ride was again hellish. We had another steep pass to climb and the snow was coming in fast. Towards the top, the road turned into 2 foot of mud and that's without any exaggeration. It was at that point we realised just how bad the roads here could be as huge lorries skidded around diggging themselves a deeper and deeper hole with every wheelspin. The weather cleared up on the descent and the road condition improved. It was a long downhill stretch most of the way to Osh from this point and at one point even turned back to asphalt. We had a tough job finding a camp spot that night. There were many houses and most land was being used for livestock or agriculture, a sure sign that people will not be too far away. We dived up a little lane and Ben found us a great little hidden spot where we were spotted by only one person. We cooked some pasta then spent a peaceful night undisturbed.

Our impression so far of the Kyrgyz was that they were a rough race of people, no surprise given their history, lifestyle and environment. We also could see that they were a people with integrity, respect and kindness. It was clear we'd have to toughen up to travel in the Stans but could see that they had so much to offer. Kyrgyz people have a reputation for being hugely welcoming and friendly so we looked forward to experiencing this first hand. Islam hasn't caught on entirely in Kyrgystan and although some Kyrgyz follow the religion devoutly others are more interested in the national pasttime of vodka drinking. Every shop here has a full wall dedicated to different types of vodka and it's all cheap as hell. Many young men in these ex-soviet countries lead hard lives and can become angry about their situation especially after a drink. Having said that, pissed or sober, everyone we had met had been kind and friendly.

The following morning we had 80 kms left to Osh. It was, for the most part, plain sailing downhill on a tarmaced road expect for a 20 km climb. We arrived in Osh and met up with our first Kyrgyz Couch Surfing host, Oibek. We had no idea what to expect from Oibek as he had just joined CS and had very little info on his profile. However, when we arrived, he explained that he had a “spare” flat which we could have to ourselves for as many days as we liked. It was the last thing we had expected and we were obviously delighted.

Welcome to Osh
Oibek turned out to be amazing. As soon as this young, enthusiastic, professional, English speaking guy with an ice cream cone in his hand came to greet us, we knew our CS gamble had paid off. He works for the charity MSF(medecins sans frontieres). We followed him in a taxi to the flat which was in the Kyrgyz equivalent to a council estate back home. After getting to know each other a little, Oibek left us a key and told us to make ourselves at home. The flat was great with hot running water, a bed and cooker and a bathtub, everything we needed. We felt right at home as we lay on the bed, listening to the birds and the hustle and bustle as the sun poured in on us through the open window.

However Osh is not a normal city and it is important to tell you about the horrific tragedy that happened here last summer. When the Soviet Union broke up, some land near Osh/Fergana Valley which used to be on the Uzbek side became part of Kyrgystan as the borders were moved. So now essentially many Uzbeks are living in what used to be Uzbekistan and is now Kyrgystan. There was much resentment over this and clashes between the two sides have broken out regularly since the USSR breakup. However, only last summer an almighty riot broke out in Osh which escalated out of control and ended up in a massacre. 2000 people were killed over 2 days on the streets of Osh not even a year ago.Oibek and his father both lost just about everything when, due to being Uzbeks, their shops were firebombed and walking around Osh you can see hundreds of burned out buildings, a daily reminder for everyone of what went on here. It is still a hugely sensitive area and unfortunately the streets are not safe to walk at night, especially for Uzbek people. During the day though, Osh is a lovely city as people go about their business. It is a huge cultural mixing pot of Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Russian, Indian, Afghan and many Pakistani medical students and to be honest we really loved it. It is an amazing place. The funny thing is as well, we presumed we would stand out like sore thumbs here. However, no one blinks an eye as we are taken for Russians.

It was amazing living in the flat, really getting to meet the people in this part of Osh. We got to be part of a real community for a few days and would certainly have had a completely different experience living in a hotel. We enjoyed meeting friendly people at the local bazaar who were always up for a chat or doing an impression of the bagpipes or just saying “Mel Gibson” when we said we were from “Schatlandia”. Osh is a city with a lot of soul that's for sure and we really hope it can get back on it's feet and move towards peaceful times.
Oibek and family
Although Oibek was busy with work and we didn't get to spend too much time with him, the time we did spend together was interesting and enjoyable and we really loved his company. His kindness allowed us to have an experience in Osh we couldn't have had otherwise and got our Kyrgyz trip off to a great start. Also, having a house to ourselves for a few days allows us to get a bit of grounding and gets rid of the homesickness so Oibek did us a huge favour. We went out for pizza together one night and the following night had the honour of being invited to Oibek's home for a traditional Uzbek meal. The table was already covered in little bowls of sweets, fancy chocolates, nuts, pastries and dried fruits for us to help ourselves to. It was an amazing spread to us but quite normal in an Uzbek house when a guest comes for dinner. More and more food was brought out to us by Oibek's wife and our tea cup was never empty. The final course was plof, Uzbekistans national dish of rice, meat and carrots. When you are a dinner guest in an Uzbek home you are given the best seats at the table and treated like a king. It was a great night rounded off by looking at Oibek's family photos. Oibek is saving up to emigrate to Australia with his wife, 3 kids, parents and grandparents as Osh just isn't a safe place for Uzbek families to live anymore. Oibek, you are a great man and deserve the best in life. Good luck.

On our way out of town, we met another 2 cycle tourists, Pip and Kim, cycling to Iran. It was a late start for us but we pulled off 70 kms. The road was fairly flat but the area was really built up and it was hard to find a camp spot. As night was falling we were still cycling but managed to duck in off the road at the last minute, camping on a public bridleway. Being so close to several farms meant we were within earshot of the incessant howling and whining of the farm dogs. Ben slept soundly but I missed my sleep window and was up until the wee small hours. After roughly 4 hours sleep, we got packed up. Sleeping in wasn't an option due to our location. The weather was really starting to heat up now and I decided that due to the relaxed opinions of the Kyrgyz re: scantily clad women I was back into my cycling shorts. Till Iran anyway!

This merry bunch were pissed as farts but gave us money, bread, spoon fed us soup and kissed us a lot.

Again, most of the ride was in fairly built up farm areas with only a few short climbs. The Kyrgyz people seemed very friendly. Everyone wanted to talk to us and most cars give us a beep or a thumbs up out the window. People here also have kind, simple manners and are extremely respectful. Even the children offer you a handshake and an “Asalam Alekom”. One teenage lad said “Welcome to Kyrgystan”, bowing with his hand on his heart as we cycled past.

Chris White who cycled from Devon..... on his way to meet Pip and Chris who we met in Osh!
As we cycled over the brow of a hill yet another motorist had parked up waiting to have a chat with us. This Uzbek man was so keen for us to be a guest in his home but with only 20 kms cycled that day and less than a week to get to Bishkek, we had to decline. However, a kilometre down the road he flagged us down again and led us into a hall where another 15 or so Uzbek men were having some sort of luncheon. Delicious food covered every inch of the table like a roman banquet and after an extremely hearty welcome from everyone we sat down to eat, in the best seats at the table again.

This friendly bunch of Uzbeks and Kyrgyz were some kind of congressmen and were absolute class. We spent a couple of hours with them being fed till fit to burst and were sent off with a bag full of food and sweets and 200 som! A bunch of gentlemen and no mistake. Some of the guys called up their English speaking sons and daughters to talk to us on the phone and we were invited back to the home of another one of the men.

"You put your right leg in......"

We spent the whole day waving and smiling at everyone, answering “where you from?” with “Schatlandia” umpteen times an hour. Kids cycled alongside us for as long as they could, high fiving us, whooping and cheering. Again, so many people invited us over but we had to keep going. Due to being in a built-up area, we cycled until nightfall to avoid being “rumbled” by a passer-by. We pulled in off a side road and were happy to find ourselves on some quiet moorland. It turned out to be a good campspot after all we thought to ourselves, as we sat on an embankment eating supper and watching horses frolick in the fields. We had done 90 kms that day.

In the middle of the night though we were awoken by a sound resembling a native American warcry. It was so loud and for half a minute or so we were really confused as to what could be making such a noise. As the howling got louder, we both suddenly realised it was a pack of wolves. We were in trouble.

Scottish caterpillar
We reluctantly got out of the tent to look for sticks, stones and anything else that could be used as a weapon and dived back in with our collection. The howling carried on and to be honest we were scared, really scared. The noise seemed to surround the tent and and come from near and far. Wolves would of course favour a sheep over a human but we knew that if hungry enough they wouldn't think twice about ripping us apart. Hearts pounding, we lay quietly listening for ten minutes or so. The sound a wolf makes is chilling to say the least. We had to get out of there.

We decided to pack up and go. It was only 1am, 6 hours before daybreak. My nerves couldn't handle 6 hours of this even if they didn't have a go at eating us. With the stuff packed up, we set off in the pitch black night down the hill, Ben dragging the empty but semi-erected tent behind him so we could put it up nearer the road. As soon as we set off, the howling came from right behind us and I'm not just saying that for dramatic effect. We bolted down the hill as the wolf howling got louder and more frantic. The noise was all around us. It felt like they had been waiting for us and were now closing in. On the dark moors and with our hearts racing we cycled towards the road about half a kilometre away as fast as we could. Still a fair way from the road, the tent cords got caught around Ben's wheel and he had to stop to unpick it all. I wondered what the hell he was doing and shouted for him to HTFU as the panic started to set in. Cords untangled we raced to the roadside, leaving the wolves behind. We set up the tent again at 2.20am right beside the main road where no wolf would dare to venture.

Next morning, we got up at 6.30 am due to our ridiculous campsite right at the edge of the busy road. My 2 nights of no sleep in a row had really caught up with me. We “wolfed” down some bread and cheese(Ben's joke of course) and set off cycling, me feeling like a zombie. After 12 kms we got some juice and water from a little shop and set off to look for a good place for a seriously long lunch break and siesta. We found the most perfect of places down off the road, out of sight of the cars in a beautiful forest clearing with a panoramic view across the valley. It was idyllic. We laid out the tarpaulin and slept, shaded by a tree and cooled by the breeze. We spent 6 hours there and made chilli on the stove for lunch. It was a real shame we hadn't come this far the night before, it was a beautiful campspot. We set off around 3pm, the warmest part of the day. I wasn't enjoying the heat or my leg and shoulder pain which was again slowing me down.

And Ben had a merry old time to himself with a 70p bottle of Calvados

In this hot weather, we live for our next cold drink stop and at around 40 kms pulled in at a little cabin shop with tables outside. I put my mp3 down for a second to get the drinks and noticed a couple of minutes later it was gone. There was no doubt in my mind it had been stolen and I knew it was the young boy who had served us as he was the only one around. When I questioned him, he looked guilty as hell. Before I had even put my hands up to my ears to motion earphones, he was already shaking his head in denial and turning out his pockets. I tried to speak to his parents in inadequate Russian about the situation. He disappeared and I got the parents to summon him. I asked him for it back. He was squirming but not surprisingly continued to deny having it. I was really disappointed, the first time we'd been robbed on the whole trip. It could of course have been much worse though and a crappy Chinese mp3 player costing a tenner wasn't such a great loss. I left it in the end, knowing full well he had it but having neither the patience or linguistic ability to pursue the matter. Before we left I looked him in the eye, shook my head and said “Plokha”(that's no good). Ben suggested I give him the charger to go with it as we now had no use for it. It was an interesting proposal but in the end I decided against it. I wanted him to see that he had stolen it in vain(unless he already has a load of other suitable chargers). Giving him the charger would have made a point though: a display of total certainty of his guilt on our part and an act of compassion, showing that two wrongs don't make a right. In the end though, I thought “bollocks to you” and cycled off with the charger still in my bag.

Resigned to having to talk to each other all day instead of losing ourselves in music, we put the mishap behind us and carried on cycling. We pulled into a restaurant to fill our water bottles. I went in to the kitchen to do the honours and came out to find Ben drinking beer with a bunch of local Kyrgyz lads. They filled our glasses with beer and gave us a plate of kebab meat. They were extremely friendly but also extremely drunk. As soon as our glasses were empty, someone would fill them up again almost putting the glass to our lips to encourage us to drink. I seriously wasn't in the mood. Ben wisely bought a couple of beers to share out so we could then leave after drinking them without causing too much offence. In Central Asia, if you get involved in a drinking session it can be hard too get out of it and trying to get already drunk men to take no for an answer can be tricky. These guys were nice though but it was good to leave when we did.

Another animal traffic jam

We cycled a few more kms down the road and found a fairly decent campspot, near the road but hidden behind some rocks in the mountain foothills. I needed a good sleep and as I shut my eyes, hoping they would not open again till at least 8am the next morning.

It's always a nice feeling to wake up to the sound of birdsong and the first glimmers of sunlight hitting the tent walls. This means you have indeed slept the whole night through undisturbed. After a continental breakfast of a bowl of plain rice, we got on our merry way. We had left the populated areas and were heading into the mountains. The scenery became beautiful and we rode most of the day with the green blue waters of Lake Karakol on our left, reflecting like a mirror the mountains surrounding it. The riding was reasonably tough, constantly up and down the whole day like a roller coaster but we managed to keep a good speed going and power up the climbs. We stopped at Karakol for some snacks at 63 kms and had the same conversation over and over again with several people as we tried to relax. We carried on climbing and descending and called it a day at 90 kms pulling in off the road by a river hidden by the forest. We bathed and washed our socks and undies and Ben made carrot and coriander soup but forgot to put in the coriander. Tomorrow we're having beans and toast with no beans. Can't wait. Our campspot was nice but we were discovered by a young boy and a car that spotted us from a bit of banking further upstream. Ben couldn't care less but I don't like being spotted before we camp for the night. The less people aware of your presence, the better.

Next morning the same young lad came back to see us bringing with him a pal and a huge dog on a rope. We gave them a few dates each and they were made up. We carried on roller coastering up and down the hills reaching a nice muslim run restaurant after 23 kms. The friendly owner said “Welcome” in English, shaking our hands. His dog also came over to welcome us almost wetting herself with excitement at our arrival. However, dogs here are not usually that friendly where us and our bikes are concerned. Every day we are chased by dogs here, sometimes one at a time , sometimes a group of them. Most are just following their natural instinct to chase a moving object but others look ready to take a chunk out of your calf muscle if they catch you up. We deal with it by either speeding up if we know we can outcycle them, kicking them when they get too close to our ankles or stopping, picking up stones, throwing the stones and screaming in their faces. To be honest just stopping the bike usually brings the pursuit to an end. The dogs are always more scared of us and when you square up to them they usually retreat, tails between legs. The worry for us is though is that they will cause us an accident by running in front of our bikes unexpectedly at high speed. We've already had a few near misses.

This was our first real meal in a Kyrgyz restaurant and we really didn't even know what was on offer. We had heard “Pinmen” mentioned before and ordered two of these with bread and a huge pot of black tea. It turned out to be sort of mutton dumplings in a watery broth, not too appetising but not so bad either. As we set off, the owner pointed to our bikes and said “Michael Schumacher” with a smile.

We got our first view of the much wider section of Lake Karakol and it was breathtaking. At 48 kms and after a stunning ride and as much driver support as usual,we arrived at the village of Uch Terek where we bought our daily carton of fruit juice plus bottle of fizzy water as mixer. We looped round the end of the lake and carried on up the road on the other side. It wasn't quite so bonny on the other side but we had been treated to magnificent views all day. We hit a fairly big climb and Ben sped off ahead of me. I tried to grab on to a slow moving HGV to get a free lift to the top. I got hold of the handle, realised my bike and body were both in the completely wrong position and let go instantly, crashing onto the hard tarmac below. I instantly curled into the foetal position knowing that a car was approaching me from behind. Thankfully for me though the car was moving slowly due to the gradient and managed to stop in plenty time. I was pretty battered and bruised but came off better than my poor bike. I asked a passing driver to tell Ben at the top of the hill to come back for me. He got to work bodge fixing my snapped front rack with some of his trusty wire. My fantastic dynamo light was a gonner though. We made it to the top of the hill, through the friendly town of Torkent and then carried on as night was falling, trying to find a good camp spot. With only a few minutes of light remaining we pulled in off the road and camped on the moors, near the road but miles from anywhere or any potential passers-by. That night an almighty thunder storm raged around us the whole night with the most dramatic lightning we'd ever seen. We felt secure in the tent but just to be on the safe side Ben moved the bikes up the hill a bit away from us. Hopefully then if lightning did strike it would find the bikes before us.

Didn't realise their were giraffes in Central Asia

Itš alright muggins here will fix it.

Et voila!

Friendly locals, Toktogul

Top of the morning to you

We cycled 10 kms into another friendly town, Toktogul stopping at the local shop for provisions . We also stopped for some breakfast where the owner made us delicious goulash. From here we headed North into the really high mountains. We had some serious climbing ahead of us. The climbing started fairly gradual at around 7% but got tougher as we continued. The weather was rainy, cold and overcast and it was hard for us to keep our spirits up. A gang of dogs went for us as we cycled through one village. We threw stones at them and screamed “f**k off”in their faces, turning to the onlooking villagers to smile so they didn't think we were crazy. We lost our tempers with each other and Ben was in a right strop so he called it a day at 40 kms, pulling in by a riverbank. It rained the whole night in the tent and we hoped for a better day in the morning. I was in bad shape with my leg, now experiencing sharp, stabbing pains in it even off the bike and needed to get to Bishkek asap. We were 240 kms away with two 4000 metre passes stil to tackle.

It was still pouring with rain next morning. All our kit was soaked and we were freezing cold. We packed up our sodden tent and made our way onto the road. Neither of us could face cycling higher into the mountains in this weather which showed no signs of improving and I was worried about causing further damage to my gammy leg. We decided to hitch a lift the last 200 kms to Bishkek. After only 20 mins a minivan withalready 7 passengers in tow stopped to offer us a lift. At first we refused thinking it was unfeasible to try and squeeze us and our kit into the already jam-packed vehicle. However, the driver convinced us in the end that it was entirely possible and we started to strip down the bikes. Bikes on the roof, luggage squeezed into the back and us squashed in the back seat with an old Kyrgyz couple, we were off and felt happy not to be standing by the roadside in the pouring rain anymore. At the top of the first pass, it was like winter again. Most people up here were living in snow covered yurt camps herding animals on the alpine pastures, an unimaginably tough life in Winter. The yurt has been the traditional dwelling of the nomadic Kyrgyz for centuries and we were disappointed we didn't get invited in to one to spend the night. Before long we were over the second pass and making good time on the asphalt road. After dropping off the other passengers, our driver took us right at the door of our Couch Surfing host Amadeus.

Amadeus and another couple of CSers from Sweden

In usual Couch Surfing style, Amadeus gave us a warm welcome and after having known us for only 10 mins entrusted us with his house telling us to make ourselves at home as he went out for a few hours. As we lay soaking in a steaming hot bath with a cup of tea, we pondered on the huge ups and downs of this trip, finding it incredible how our circumstances had changed from the previous day.

Bishkek. Fountain mad.

Canadian Amadeus and his Russian wife Masha are teachers in Bishkek and are having a baby in October. We had arrived on the Friday of a holiday weekend so couldn't get the Uzbek/Kazakh visa application started till the following Tuesday. Russians are one of the main minority groups(12%) here so we blended in well again. It was hard to get a feel for Bishkek but we were having a great time at Amadeus's. We enjoyed the multiculural feel of the many different ethnicities here and would just have to give it a few more days to get into it I guessed. Despite all it's problems, we found Osh by far the nicer of the two cities.
Ben as a Kyrgyz man
On Tuesday Masha made us an appointment for the Uzbek embassy. You need to put your name on a list 1 or 2 days in advance to even get in the building. The same day we also relocated to a new Couch Surfing host. Our new hosts were the lovely Joanna and Jika a British/Kyrgyz couple living right in the centre of town. Jika works for a gay and lesbian rights network, an admirable job in a country like Kyrgyzstan which is completely intolerant of homosexuality. The girls have only a small apartment and invited us to sleep on the fold down bed in the kitchen. Not wanting to get in the way though we opted for sleeping on the balcony in our tent, which was good fun. The girls plan to move to London where Joanna is from to tie the knot in a civil partnership and settle down.
Joanna and Jika
After a few days, we were starting to get a feel for Bishkek. The first thing we noticed was how vain many of the Kyrgyz and Russian women here were as they tottered down the street in high heels and mini-skirts, plastered in make-up and admiring themselves in any reflective shop window. It's not exactly what we'd imagined a Central Asian city to be like. Osh is far more traditionally Kyrgyz but you'd be hard pushed to find any traditional elements of Kyrgyz life in Bishkek city centre. We didn't find Bishkek a terribly friendly place at first and people seemed to keep themselves to themselves. It is a very green leafy city though which makes it a pleasant place to stroll around. Almost every street is a tree lined boulevard and a grassy park is never far away.

Beastie on Aikerim` s curtain
Bishkek CS host number 3 was the wonderful Aikerim. We packed up at Joanna and Jika's and cycled back out of town about half a kilometre from Amadeus's house. Aikerim was new to CS so we didn't know what to expect. As soon as she opened the door she said “We're having a party tonight, do you want a glass of wine?”. Parties? Wine? Yes please. 21 year old Aikerim lives with her parents who were away for the night.

Daniel and Aikerim
French Pierre was also Couch Surfing there and Couch Surfing host Daniel was cooking up a storm in the kitchen for dinner. Before long, Aikerim's workmates turned up and we went on a booze run to the shop returning with Baltika beer, cheap Moldovan red wine and vodka. What a great night. Before long I had introduced everyone to the cereal box game and there was much dancing and joviality. I was rough the next morning, my first proper hangover since playing and being incredibly lucky at “Toss the Boss” in the Daly Waters pub in the Australian outback.

Aikerim's family were unbelievable. Both her mother and father are English-speaking doctors and were kind, intelligent and extremely relaxed people. I felt slightly ashamed to be so hungover in their company. I managed to come across as a normal human being however and we got on great, spending a fun evening together. Their hospitality was exceptional and Aikerim was constantly cooking for us and making us tea. We also tasted the most delicious plof courtesy of Gypar, Aikerim's Mum.


As soon as Gypar heard about my leg problems, she mentioned she was a qualified acupuncturist and was so keen to help me with the problem. The next day I had a treatment, my first ever. It was an interesting experience, completely different to shiatsu but I had faith in it's effectiveness. We did a follow-up treatment before we left and I gave Gypar a shiatsu in return. It undoubtedly helped. The Oskonbaeva family truly were our family for a few days and the time we spent with them will always have a special place in our hearts. Even after we left their house to go to Bishkek Couch Surfer number 4 , Daniel, we were still invited round like old friends even staying the night again after a late dinner.

Whilst in Bishkek I got in touch with Louise Parker, a physiotherapist in Queenstown, NZ who agreed to do a consultation with me via Skype regarding my leg and shoulder problems. I got settled in a wi-fi cafe near Daniel` s and waited for the call. Louise rang right on time and with a good Skype connection I got to explaining about the pain and numbness in my left leg and big toe, the inability to relax my left shoulder on the bike and my general lack of power. After taking a note of all my symptoms, Louise asked me to do a number of exercises. The first one was the slump test where I had to lean forward in a slump position on my chair and lift my leg up till it was straightened in front of me with the foot flexed. After doing this a few times I reported that this caused me pain in the calf muscle. After the slump test Louise got me to stand up and do 10 back extensions, resting my hands on my backside and leaning back as far as I could in standing position. She then got me to do the slump test again and I reported that after the back extensions, I felt much less pain. She concluded that it was certainly the sciatic nerve causing my problems. The test had been conclusive.

She then advised me on a few other exercises. As well as continuing with the slump exercise and back extensions she also advised the cobra yoga stretch and a piriformis stretch for the hip area. I needed to get some power back into my weak leg so she also suggested pedalling with one leg at a time for 20 or so pedal strokes. She also advised a tilting downwards of the saddle and a 7 day course of anti-inflammatories to reduce the swelling of the nerve. At last I felt I had some answers. Louise was so thorough and knowledgeable in her diagnosis of my problem and got to the source of the problem straight away through asking the right questions. It was clear she was a true profesional with years of experience. She asked me to get in touch soon to let her know how my riding had been after taking the anti-swelling drugs and carrying out the exercises. I was extremely grateful and felt hopeful that I could get over this problem that was jeopardising the completion of our trip. Her advice worked a treat and as soon as I set of from Daniel` s I felt a renewed power that I hadn't felt in so long. Thanks to Louise I also managed my longest day of the trip so far. Louise gave me all this help via a Skype call so imagine what she can do in person. Anyone in the Queenstown area in need of massage, pilates or physiotherapy can find her at:

The Studio, pilates and physiotherapy
A: Unit 13, Gorge Road Retail Centre, Queenstown
T: (03) 409 0078

Louise Parker is a:

DMA qualified Pilates Instructor
Physiotherapy Acupuncturist
Breast Cancer Physiotherapist

We got settled at Daniel's with another 2 polish Couch Surfers who would be spending the night with us in Daniel's tiny but very homely bedsit. Jakub and Natalia left the next day after the 5 of us spent the night like a bunch of immigrant workers in the small space. We got our Uzbek visas, a surprisingly stress-free process and could now apply for our Kazakh visas. As we waited in a sort of queue outside the Kazakh embassy, I heard the familiar dulcet tones of a fellow Scot behind me. “Excuse me, do you work as a teacher in Glasgow?”. I couldn't believe my ears.

It was Talshyn, a Kyrgyz girl I had taught in Glasgow some years ago. The Kazakh embassy in Kyrgyzstan is not exactly the place you would expect to meet someone from back home.

Bishkek girls
The following day we met up with Talshyn, Tolkyn and Donald for a coffee before saying our goodbyes, still amazed at this most unlikely of encounters.

The Kazakh visa process was a total breeze and took only 1 day to process. On our second last night in Bishkek I got all our Couch Surfing hosts past and present together for a night out which ended in a visit to Bishkek's premier gay nightclub. “When you say premier I presume you mean only” I joked with Joanna. It turns out though that there's actually 3, amazing for a city full of homophobes. Ben entertained us but mainly himself poledancing on the stage and doing pull ups off a strut across the ceiling and we sauntered back to Daniel's at 5am as the sun was coming up. We couldn't face cycling the next day after our late night and spent the day chilling with Daniel and eating cheesy beans on baked potatoes. Daniel is such great company and we felt right at home with him. We spent our last few days together tittering over purile jokes that only we found funny, bursting into bouts of laughter and singing sporadically. Yet another new friend who we'd be sorry not to see again.

Danny boy and Pierre
We got up at 6am the following morning and set off with 2000 Kazakh tenge in our pockets courtesy of Daniel. It was an easy 30 kms to the border and we arrived before 9am. The crossing was simple and we were through the border and into Kazakhstan within half an hour without even having our bags searched. The officials were polite and friendly.

Happy to be over the border

Even though we were in country number 11, it didn't feel much different to country number 10 but crossing a border is always a good feeling. The only reason we had ended up in Kazakhstan was that it was the quickest route between Bishkek and Tashkent, Uzbekistan. This part of Kazakhstan is completely flat and we managed 110 kms the first day. We camped in some really long grass up a side road which didn't do Ben's hayfever much good. Whatsmore we camped on a massive lump which made for a bad nights sleep for us both. The following day we carried along the flat road and managed 90 kms finding a campspot in some long grass again. That same day, a car stopped in front of us, a guy got a very drunk/drugged guy out of the passenger seat whilst another guy got out of the drivers side looking really pissed off with a gun in his hand. We both clocked it at the same time and Ben instructed me to hurry up. Bear in mind this was in broad daylight on a busy road. As night was falling we felt a little far from home and in need of something or someone safe and familiar. It was soon forgotten the next day though as we continued to meet one friendly person after another.

These roadside honey sellers invited us in for tea and cake.
And a few kms after leaving the honey sellers, this happened............

Second time round the clock. 20,000 kms cycled since leaving NZ 19 months ago. A happy moment for us.

The landscape here is simple yet beautiful: poppyfields, long grass swaying in the wind, wide open spaces. On days 3 and 4 in Kazakhstan however we had a ferocious headwind to battle with. It was an almighty slog and we did well to reach almost 100 kms both days. Night 3 in Kazakhstan we spent in a fantastic campsite on some remote moorland. We made it to Taraz the following day with the wind behind us. The road got busier towards Taraz and was full of potholes. It was a dangerous ride and we were glad to reach our destination.

Daniel had put us in touch with his friend Erin in Taraz and we were pleased to have a couple of nights out of the tent. After dragging our bikes up 5 flights of stairs, we got to know Erin a bit before heading out to buy some food. Erin, 23 from the States is in Kazakhstan working for the peace corps. We should have only spent one night with her as our Uzbek visa time was ticking away but her great company and amazing welcome led to us staying another 2 nights. We needed a rest anyway after 4 100 km days on the trot and in the tent. We left Erin's again amazed by how many fantastic people we meet on this trip of ours and feeling very lucky indeed. Two men passed us some bread out of their van window and another guy gave us a bottle of organic peach juice meaning we left with a good opinion of Taraz.


We didn't get set off from Erin's till 11 am on the next part of our journey which would take us to Shymkent. After a quick 40 kms we pulled into a very pleasant roadside eatery for some plof. Kazakhstan is an extremely expensive country to travel in and we were happy to only have to spend a short time there. We set off again with full bellies and before we knew it had done 100 kms. For the first time in Kazakhstan we had some hills to climb and were up and down most of the day. We bought a couple of disgusting sandwiches from a roadside stall and set off again. We were then on a slight downhill for a couple of hours and before long were at 130 kms. Even though night would be falling in just over an hour we both decided to try to make it to Shymkent, another 50 kms away, that night.

I was excited at the prospect of smashing our previous longest day record of 155 kms which was set in the Australian outback but after a few kms still felt a hell of a long way from our destination. We powered on though up and down the climbs. At around 145 kms we hit another big climb just as night was falling. We donned our hi-viz vests and put on the lights in preparation for the darkness ahead. As soon as we started to really lose the light it became clear to us just how dangerous this undertaking could be. The road was in poor condition with many potholes, our lighting inadequate since I smashed up my dynamo, the road busy and the drivers as reckless as ever. At 150 kms we were in full darkness and the road became a terrifying place. We could hardly see a thing and were relying on luck and blind faith to get us to Shymkent safely. The traffic was still heavy and the street lighting something I no longer take for granted, non-existant. Pissed Kazakhs rolled up beside us shouting “Atcuda?”(where you from?) out the window, almost running us over simultaneously. At 155 kms we rung our bells to celebrate beating our longest day.

The extent of our night vision during the last 30 kms or so into Shymkent

The last 25 kms seemed to take forever and right up until around the 170 km mark we still couldn't see the city lights of Shymkent and were still in the dark. However, after weaving our way through a dark estate we found ourselves right in the city centre. After another few kms we arrived at our destination. It was midnight and we had cycled 180 kms. We felt exhausted but exhilarated. The endorphine and adrenalin rush we had got from such a tough and downright terrifying ride left us feeling high as kites, an amazing feeling. We were also feeling happy as we had yet another Couch Surfing house to stay at. Our host Eugenette was away for the night but her friend Maral came to meet us and took us round to the house. Our apologies and embarrassment for having arrived so late were met with a reassuring smile that all was well. We were so happy at that moment. Eugenette lived only 2 flights up this time which was an improvement on the 5 flights we had to climb at Erin's in Taraz. The flat was a clean, homely and welcoming haven. After thanking her profusely and probably apologising another 10 times, Maral left us to it and went back to her own house. Eugenette left us a note telling us to help ourselves to food, drinks, the internet, washing machine and the double bed which she had made up for us. After a shower and some food we slipped into bed, thinking with a smile and a nice warm feeling inside of the unforgettable day we had had. The Couch Surfing community has changed our trip in ways we could never have imagined.

As much as we have enjoyed Central Asia so far, there are some things about Kazakh and Kyrgyz culture that we don't like. The main thing is that both countries and no doubt the other Stans can treat their women pretty badly and the practice of bride kidnapping is still popular. If a man has his eye on a woman, he and a group of friends will attempt to kidnap her and take her back to his home. Once she is over the threshhold, the women of the groom's family will attempt to convince the distraught woman that he will be a good father, look after her etc. In theory the woman has the right to refuse the man's offer of marriage but in reality she has no choice anymore as in some cases her own family won't have her back after she has been taken as they are ashamed. So most of the time the woman accepts her fate and tries her best to settle into her new life as a slave for her new family. Many women in the Stans have little freedom and their role in life is to work tirelessly for their husband and his family with little thanks and to produce children. Of course not all families agree with this practice and bride kidnapping is becoming less common especially in the cities. Some families will demand their daughter back from the other family with her best interests at heart and sometimes the practice is a harmless courtship ritual organised between the bride and groom and their families.

A cheery man enjoys a nice cold morning beer-ski
The other problem in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan as I mentioned is alcoholism. Vodka is so cheap and drunk males can be a real pain, sometimes just through unwanted over-friendliness, sometimes through violence. It's no different to our culture of binge drink related violence but I don't like it back home either. People here can also be extremely nationalistic, Uzbeks hating Kyrgyz, Kazakhs hating Uzbeks and so on. It's not just in the remote villages where people are uneducated that this kind of sentiment exists but in cities too. I've lost count of how many times an Uzbek or Kyrgyz person has asked us which of the 2 countries we prefer. Eh, I'll take the fifth amendment on that if you don't mind.

Another thing which I find quite disturbing here is how the workings of Central Asia are basically founded on bribery and corruption. University exams are passed when the right amount of money is handed over to the professor and yes, that is also the case for medical students. A diploma or degree here is for the most part a meaningless piece of paper. Doctors and other professionals can therefore not really be trusted unless they are older people who were trained under the Soviets. Thank God Ben got his teeth out in China. Councillors, teachers and lawyers can all be bribed. It's also possible to buy your way out of many police charges rendering the justice system almost meaningless and the police themselves take bribes from passing motorists every day in a completely matter of fact way. Saying that, the police seem to be much better behaved nowadays than they were in the past so things are looking up.If you are in with the right people in Central Asia you can pretty much get away with anything it seems If you don't know the right people, you're screwed. This applies much more to people living in the country. Foreigners have more freedom.

Car wash, Kazakh style

Having said all this and not wanting to paint an unfairly negative picture of the Stans, the people are the friendliest you could meet and we have hardly seen anyone in Central Asia behave badly. On the contrary, people in Central Asia, like the rest of Asia have a respectful way of behaving and conducting themselves that sets them apart from Western countries.The men have always been extremely kind and friendly to us and will do anything to help us. Every day people make us feel welcome in their country and it's a really nice feeling. I just wouldn't want to be a woman living here that`s for sure and I feel so lucky to have the life I have, considering all the freedom and opportunities I enjoy that most Kazakh women could only dream about. Asia is still, in my opinion, a much safer, more relaxed continent to live on than ours although I do appreciate what we have back home. In Bishkek, a man asked us what was wrong with our country that Elton John was allowed to bring his husband to the Royal Wedding. I laughed when he said this and told him 'Yes it's great isn't it!” much to his disapproval suddenly realising how many things there are to admire about my own country. Before we left I also enjoyed telling him that we were staying at the house of a lesbian couple in his very own city.

The next day, Eugenette came into our lives. We spent a fun-filled day of wine, music, good food and hilarious conversation together getting to know a bit more about Quebecois(French canadian) culture. Eugenette is a real salt of the earth type woman with a heart of gold. She spoiled us rotten the whole day and cooked us lasagne for dinner. We felt like we were just getting to know her and almost stayed another day, which would have meant another day less in Uzbekistan. However, the following morning, we forced ourselves to get packed up and go sad at leaving Eugenette after only one day.

I was feeling slow on the bike as we set off for the Uzbek border 90 kms away and after a couple of hours it became obvious we wouldn't make it through the checkpoint in time and would have to camp out. We really wanted to get through the border that night so stopped after 30 kms to hitch a lift. The first vehicle which passed us pulled in. A couple of extremely friendly twin lads got out the van and shook our hands with an Asalam Alekom. They opened the back of their 7.5 ton truck to reveal it half filled with huge bags of sugar. We could easily lay our bikes on top of the sugar mountain. We took our panniers off and passed them and the bikes up to the guys. They then explained that only one of us could sit in the front so I opted for the cargo option. The guys locked me in with a smile and I said 'Dasvidania'. The back of the van was pretty dark and completely separated from the drivers carriage. I soon found out however that it would be an extremely comfortable ride as I sprawled out on top of the bags and fell fast asleep. An hour later the van stopped and the doors were opened. To my delight, the guys had gone out of their way to take us right to the border. We thanked them warmly, reassembled the bikes and trundled over to what we thought was our border crossing. It turned out however that despite their best attempts to help us, we had been dropped off at a crossing which was only for Kazakh and Uzbek nationals. We got back on the bikes to set off for the correct border point 20 kms away.

At around 7pm we arrived at the crossing at Chinevka and were a bit worried that it would be too late to get through. We were also feeling generally uneasy about this crossing finding it hard to dismiss the countless stories we had heard about bribery, corruption and unfriendly policeman. On the Kazakh side a security guard who spoke pretty much no English half-heartedly asked us for some money. We played it cool, looking confused and amused by his proposal as though it was some kind of hilarious joke. After 3 attempts he gave up and waved us on. We then had to get stamped out of immigration which was a painless process. Again, everyone was polite to us. So we had got out of Kazakhstan with no hassles. Would getting into Uzbekistan be this easy?

We counted all our money. $1240 and 23000 Uzbek sum. We had to declare it all on a form before we entered the country. The reason we were carrying such a princely sum of cash with us was because there were no ATMš until TURKEY so we had to withdraw enough money in Bishkek to last us through Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran.However the form was in Russian with no English alternative and no-one in the building spoke our language. Thankfully a very kind Russian man stood with us patiently helping to transate our forms which had to then be written in duplicate. We stripped down the bikes and passed all our luggage through an x-ray machine. A slightly menacing guard said “Glasgow Rangers” to us but thankfully didn't ask us for a bribe. Infact no-one did and just like that we were told we were free to go. Was that it? Apparently so. The guards weren't the friendliest guys in the world but they did their job and gave us no trouble. We got our bikes together and cycled off into country number 12, Uzbekistan, waving, smiling and ringing our bells at everyone we passed.

And finally dear friends, have a look at this video someone shot in Yangon, Myanmar(Burma) of how passengers board the train there. Maybe Scotrail should consider this to make up time when the trains are running late.