Kyrgyzstan: The most beautiful place you’ve never heard of

Posted by James Anderton on August 24, 2018


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Kyrgyzstan is one of my favourite cycling destinations. I admit to not having heard of it a few months before I cycled there. I still can't spell it correctly without checking online. I have however mastered the pronounciation (Keer-gihs-stan). It has everything a cycle explorer could wish for. There are rugged, unspoilt, snow capped mountains in every corner of the country. There are pristine turquoise lakes dotted all around. There is some of the best wild camping you will ever experience and for an ex Soviet state it has none of the nonsense that usually comes with being an ex Soviet state.

Having navigated the visa jungle that is the 'Stans', Kyrgyzstan came like a breath of fresh air. No letters of recommendation. No visits to foreign embassies. No passport photos. No cost. No waiting around for days in run down cities you'd never heard of 6 months ago. In Kyrgyzstan you just turn up at the border, they give you a stamp and on you go. Wonderful. This reflects the easy going attitude I found everywhere I went in Kyrgyzstan. From the nomads in the mountains to the city dwellers in Osh and Bishkek.

Kyrgyzstan Sary Tash to Osh

Long descent towards Osh

Many cycle tourers tend to bypass much of Kyrgyzstan. The only border crossing to China open to foreigners is at Sary Tash. Many cyclists arrive here on their first day in the country coming from the Pamir Highway. As many cyclists will ultimately be heading to China they head straight over the border thus missing out the vast majority of Kyrgyzstan. I had failed to get a visa for China en route so had no choice but to head to Bishkek to see if i could get one there. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I had no choice but to explore the wonders of Kyrgyzstan.

beautiful wild camping between Osh and Bishkek

Amazing camp spot by Toktogul lake

Having spent a month cycling across the stunning Pamir Highway I expected Kyrgyzstan to be a bit of a comedown. Not a bit of it. From Sary Tash I was soon cycling up a high mountain pass. I hit the top at the same time as a snowstorm. I was doing this in late October with the harsh Central Asian winter well on the way. My gloves weren't up to the task and the whole way down I was flexing my fingers and punching my thighs in order to keep the circulation moving. As soon I was off the high slopes I looked for the first yurt with steam coming out of the top and made a beeline for it. One look at me shivering in the snow and I was invited in to warm my hands against the stove. I was extremely grateful. After a cup of tea the weather cleared and I enjoyed a thrilling 2,500m descent into the valley before another climb and descent to Osh.

freeing up the Taldyk pass in Kyrgyzstan

Freezing cold up the Taldyk pass

I liked Osh. There's little of architectural note to show for 3000 years of history but the sprawling bazaar and hospitable people provide an atmosphere that is archetypically Central Asian. The road from Osh to Bishkek is one of the great roads. In fact it made my list of favourite roads. Mostly paved it is a glorious ride around dramatic lakes, over high passes and along a high altitude plateau before finally descending to Bishkek. It begins easily enough on a newly paved road through sleepy villages. The locals are friendly and welcoming. You can buy local fruit, fresh bread and incredible homemade honey. The road soon begins to wind upwards through rolling hills. Up into the sandstone mountains that surround the stunning Toktogul reservoir. An incredible place to camp. In fact the whole route is wild camping heaven. From there you begin the long climb up to Alabel Ashyusu pass. It's about 66km long but only the last few kilometres are challenging as the incline ramps up and the air thins. All of a sudden everywhere is a sea of white as the road stays high and snakes it's way through the mountains. Eventually there is a hairpin climb to the final pass before the exhilarating descent into the valley and along to Bishkek.

It is a classic route that should take between 6 and 10 days. It is not an easy cycle by any means but with only a few sections of dirt roads it is perfectly manageable. The weather can turn quickly at high altitude so ensure you have warm clothing and a warm sleeping bag. After Alabel Ashyusu pass the road stays high for another 100km so you would have at least one night sleeping at an altitude of around 3,000m.

Cycling Alabel Ashyusu pass in Kyrgyzstan

Channeling my inner ZZ Top at the Alabel Ashyusu pass

Bishkek seemed pretty drab at first but I did arrive in the middle of a monumental downpour. The place grew on me though as I spent a few days trying to sort out a visa for China which meant a visit to the legendary Ms Liu. The go to person in town for Chinese visas. She didn't sound optimistic. The notoriously changeable Chinese visa situation was currently in a 'you'll be lucky' phase. I decided to take the opportunity to pedal off into the Tien Shan mountains to the east of Bishkek. Give the Chinese visa situation a chance to swing back in my favour.

I headed off for the mythical Issyk Kul lake. The second highest mountainous lake in the world and a picture postcard if ever there was one. 450km all the way round I did a quick lap with the Aloo-Too mountain range in the background and the impressive Tien Shan in the distance. The views were breathtaking all the way round. If you are looking for guesthouses and restaurants head to the north side. If you are looking for peace head to the south. I would have liked to have headed further into the Tien Shan but it was time to return to Bishkek and see what Ms Liu had managed.

Cycling the Issyk Kul lake in Kyrgyzstan

Issyk Kul lake backed by the Tien Shan mountains

The China visa never did happen. After pedalling across 18 countries in my attempt to cycle from London to Beijing I had fallen at the final border. China would have to wait for another trip (and it was worth waiting for). The hassles with the China visa were frustrating at the time but I will forever be grateful for the opportunity it gave me to explore the cycling paradise of Kyrgyzstan.



Capital:

Bishkek. Delightfully green and full of post-Soviet anachronisms. A cultural melting pot with Russians, Uzbeks, Tatars, Chinese Muslims and many more ethnic groups alongside the ethnic Kyrgyz. All cyclists tend to head for Friends Guesthouse to play table tennis.

Roads:

The roads are surprisingly good. The road from Sary Tash all the way to Bishkek is virtually all paved. The further you explore towards the Chinese border the more the roads deteriorate but, with a bit of patience, they are rideable and a great opportunity to get away from it all.

Wild camping:

Easy and amazing. Ensure you have warm gear in spring and autumn.

Visa's:

A refreshing change compared to the rest of the Stans. Most countries get 60 days on arrival. No questions asked. If you want longer you must get a visa before you arrive.

Costs:

Can get by on next to nothing if camping all the time. There are also extremely cheap flight options to Bishkek to and from Europe.

Bicycle Shops:

You can pick up parts in the bazaars of Osh and Bishkek but quality is a bit hit and miss. There are a couple of decent bicycle shops in Bishkek. Velo Lider on Moskovskaya Street comes recommended and they will give you a bike box if you need one.

Tips:

Fermented mare’s milk is often the drink of choice. You will likely be offered it if you are a guest in a yurt. Best avoided if you ask me.

The World Nomad Games are held every 2 years in Cholpon Ata in an arena that rivals something from Gladiator. It is the Olympics for Central Asian nomad culture where they compete in 16 traditional games and sports. I didn't get to see it myself but I've been told it's a must see.

When to Go:

Winters are extremely cold. Things start to warm up in April and you can cycle until the end of October

Food

Surprisingly good. I was expecting something along the lines of Mongolia but you can expect barbecued meats, all the noodles, tons of flavor and spices, and of course, lots of dumplings. I almost put on weight!

Water:

Clean mountain water is easy to come by.

Electricity:

Side of the road:

Right.