Into Kyrgyzstan and although the people still looked the same, there was obviously some hostility between the two neighbouring countries! The changes were most obvious on the roads – the cars changed from Russian barges, Retro Ladas and tiny Daewoos to a more modern mix of European cars – unfortunately, this also meant that the cars were going faster and the traffic was more hectic. It was quite a shock compared to the quiet road that had lead us to the border and it required a more ‘assertive’ riding style to keep safe. Once in town we checked into the Tez Guesthouse and pitched the tent in the garden next to their yurts. We stayed in Osh for the next 4 days, visiting the Bazaar, relaxing with the other travellers and most importantly preparing a plan for the final road to China!
Although a Muslim country, they are not as strict as ‘say’ Turkey; beer and pork were readily available; women roamed freely and there didn’t seem to be a Mosque. The sprawling Bazaar was a hive of activity, where the majority of daily shopping was purchased. Raw meat hung in the streets, fruit and veg sellers lined the pavements and all the men wore ‘comedy’ felt hats. There were also blacksmiths, carpet sellers – well, everything was there if you could find the right stall!
It was approximately 250km to the Chinese border and the map showed that there were three passes with a maximum height of 3550m. It was only as we cycled out of town that we remembered the border was only open on weekday mornings and it was now Tuesday. This meant that we had 36 hours to make it to the border or we would have camp and stay put for the weekend! We were desperate to get there and see if the Chinese would let us in, for despite having the visa, nothing is guaranteed, so the challenge was set. The race to China was on! The day started with a gentle gradient as we headed into the Kyrgyzstan countryside, farmers worked the land gathering hay and packs of animals (horse, cow, sheep, goat) were being herded along the main road. It was getting late as we reached the pass but at least this meant that the temperature had dropped – we were now in proper mountains. We even came face to face with our first camel grazing at the side of the road! We climbed 1400m and then headed down into the valley and camped on a side road having covered 100km, not a bad effort!
To keep to our timetable, day two was going to be a big challenge – the next pass was 100km away and 2000m higher! As we weaved our way up the valley the scenery got more and more epic but so did the climbing! After a full day of serious pedalling, we were still 30km short of the summit but with legs full of jelly, we realised that it was not going to be possible. The decision was made to set up camp early and make up the distance the following day. We found a hidden spot behind a group of trees and had spectacular views across the plateau towards tomorrows mountain. Absolutely exhausted we collapsed into the tent and fell asleep well before dark!
Day three, and because we were behind schedule it was a double pass day. We were now attempting our highest summit yet with very little water or food (sounds familiar – the same happened on Nemrut in Turkey!) For breakfast we toasted yesterday’s bread, spread the local honey we’d carried since Uzbek and drank black tea (we’ve now given up on milk powder) The slow climb up to 3615m took us all morning, In hindsight there was no way it would have been possible the previous day! We stopped at each hairpin bend to catch our breath, munch dried blueberries and devour Haribo sweets to restore energy to our legs! We made the top just after midday, admired the views, donned jumpers and freewheeled down, only to find that there was another 200m ‘bonus’ climb before finally reaching the village of Sarytash where we were able to restock on provisions and have a late picnic lunch.
With our hunger satisfied we set off with the intention of completing 70km to camp just before the border so we could cross early on Friday. The map showed that the second pass of the day was only a 3000m climb and we had a tailwind so perhaps the day wouldn’t be so much of a mission after all! However, as the altimeter climbed past the supposed summit height we knew something was wrong. Checking the GPS we found it didn’t show our route either – they had built a new road that went even higher than the original! In fading light at 19:00hrs we eventually reached the top at 3770m. It was now getting really cold and we wanted to get off the mountain to camp, so with jumpers, coats, hats gloves and lights, we descended 1000m to camp in a sheltered valley on a sandy river bed. With the big wind gusts from the side and tired arms, it was a wobbly ride down. We pitched in the dark and ate in the tent. It had been an epic three days of riding, combining big distance and even bigger altitudes, but the scenery along the way was spectacular and the realization that we were on the final road to China was an exciting feeling! We were now 15km from the final border crossing of our trip!