Mother Russia and Soakin’ Siberia

After travelling through so many ex-Soviet countries from Georgia to Kazakhstan, it was crazy to finally get to the mother of it all–Mother Russia.  I don’t have too much time to write, but I wanted to share some photos. This series is called:

“You know you’re in Mother Russia when…”

1) …when shortly after the border, friendly police officers give you a HUGE CHUNK OF SMOKED PORK FAT (called sala)…

Last winter I went hiking in the White Mountains with a group of Russians and they had introduced me to sala, so I knew what it was. Thank you Russian friends back home for preparing me well!

Also the police officers were so nice they invited me for tea in their little van, printed maps for me, let me use their internet, and even gave me toilet paper. So helpful!

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2) …when the houses and villages are just so darn cute!

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3)…when you find on the side of the road things such as rubber face masks.

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4) …when you see large eerie concrete buildings

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5)…when you hide from the cold, wet weather by having a hot bowl of borsch in a roadside stolovaya

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From Oskemen heading north, everything just got more and more Russian until I entered the country itself in Siberia. At the border, the officer asked me “Ni holodna? Not cold?” “No, I have warm clothes and sleeping bag” “Znayesh, zdes Siber. You know, this is Siberia”. I guess we’ll see how I fair!

I didn’t really know what type of landscape to expect, but it turned out Siberia largely lives up to its reputation of large open spaces that are cold and wet. The landscape was mostly just agricultural fields; it rained everyday and some days I woke up to frost covered fields. Most people would find such a place depressing, but there was a calm, serene atmosphere about it. And really, the villages are too cute–with little wooden houses of bright colors, duckies and farm animals roaming about in the streets, and gardens filled with beautiful flowers. Also sometimes for clouds would clear for an hour or so to reveal blue sky and sunshine that feels brighter than ever!

Out of Kazakhstan on the way to Russia (Oskemen -> Shemonaikha -> border):

P1030270P1030275P1030279P1030281P1030282P1030285P1030294P1030295many sunflower farms P1030300

After crossing into Russia:

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P1030310Breakfast of Champions: cookies, butter, instant coffee (loaded with extra sugar), honey, and hard-boiled eggs. Most of these things I would never eat for breakfast at home, but bike traveling is a different life. And in biking life, this is what I call a DELICIOUS breakfast!

P1030311Zmeinogorsk town (where there were many helpful people!)

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P1030324P1030325waking up to a frosty sunrise  P1030328P1030330eating potato chips is a great way to kill time when the road is flat, asphalt is smooth, and there’s not much to see on the road

P1030333also eating chocolate. Kazakh chocolate is famous in Russia.

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Entering Barnaul city:

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When I was deciding which route to take through Russia, I ultimately chose a longer, more roundabout route on the main road through the city of Barnaul. I had messaged several couchsurfers, and one of them responded “I love Americans and my parents love Asians, so you would be the perfect guest!” With such a warm invitation, how could I refuse? But it would mean I would have to hitch a ride or take a bus for part of the way to Mongolia. Russian visa expires Sep26 which means 800km in 5 days. I’m a superwoman, but not super enough to average 160km a day!

When I arrived in Barnaul, I didn’t have a map of the city, so I stopped to ask for directions. That’s how I met Alena. She worked as a journalist in a nearby office building, and she was so wonderful that she took me back to her office to look at the map on the computer. In the meantime she gave me hot tea and pirishchki since it was wet, cold, and rainy outside.

Eventually I made it to the home of my Couchsurfing host, Alex, where his parents greeted me warmly. In the end I stayed in Barnaul for 3 days because Alena, Alex, and Alex’s friends and family treated me so well (and also because figuring out tourist registration in Russia was an adventure). It’s so hard to leave warm, cozy places with friendly people!

P1030346a bliny cafe

P1030344Olga (also couchsurfer who lives in Barnaul) and Alena (the journalist)

P1030345blinies!

P1030347my hosts Alena, Olga, and Alex take me to “Anticafe”, a hangout place with coffee, tea, and boardgames. Instead of paying for food and drinks like a normal cafe, you pay for the time you spend there and you can eat and drink as much as you want and play boardgames or foosball or just lounge on the couches.

P1030348 P1030349Alex and his parents host me in their apartment. Alex’s mom makes piroshkis!

One Giant Steppe for Woman

*** Friends, thank you for all the birthday wishes! What a wonderful gift to make it this far in my journey! But above all, the best gift was to ride along the big Kazakh steppe knowing that I have the most amazing friends and family in the world supporting me.

P1030204Giving you all a BIG HUG. BIG, like the size of Kazakhstan!

Love from Oskemen, Kazakhstan
MinWah

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I didn’t land on the moon and I didn’t make any giant leaps for mankind. But the vast Kazakh steppe inspires big dreams.

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From Almaty, I was headed north towards Russia to the city of Oskemen, 1100km across the giant steppe that makes up most of Kazakhstan–the steppe that Marco Polo and Ghengis Khan once traversed. Steppe, grasslands, or prairie, whatever you want to call it, it is a place of large open spaces with not much. Most people say it’s really boring, but for me, it was a place that brought to life the romance of far away lands and a place that makes you believe that anything is possible. (Are you dreaming big yet?)

Highlights of steppe:

– waking up to sunrise and cooking at sunset everyday
– staring at the stars by night
– singing Christmas songs because there are clearly no reindeer
– watching the cloud formations always changing , floating across the big blue sky. Think: Big Sky Country Montana
– feeling a bit like I’m in a Wild West movie

Non-highlights of steppe:

– food is expensive in Kazakhstan. In Kyrgyzstan, a plate of laghman was less than $2. In Kazakhstan, the same costs $5.
– strong headwinds sometimes
– lost iPhone on birthday
– attacked by several aggresive bees who randomly started following me

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P1030031To Oskemen

P1030032Boy, I’m going to miss those melons from Central Asia.

P1030034Qapshagay city–big screen TVs and spiffy casinos? not very Central Asian at all.

P1030037Qapshagay solar farm with solar trackers and fixed-tilt panels

P1030048P1030055this is what the Midwest must’ve looked like when it was just prairielands

P1030102Mir Mama sent me off with her homemade concoction of raisins, nuts, and honey–apparently it makes you strong!

P1030053P1030190cool mauseleums

P1030103P1030054car accident memorials (I think). destroyed cars displayed on concrete. maybe to remind drives to be careful.

P1030056met Nicolas, French motorcyclist whose trip seemed to be nothing but major problems–two broken legs, a broken wrist, malaria (maybe), multiple major motorbike breakdowns, etc. He should really write a book. I hope he finds better luck on his journey ahead! I found his spirit to continue onwards rather incredible–I would’ve gone home after the first broken leg. I asked him how he keeps going; he explained that he keeps going because he has sacrificed too much to go on this trip. In France, companies don’t understand people who travel. He felt he sacrificed his career for the traveling life.

P1030057P1030058sunsets

P1030061a friendly fruit stand lady gave me 2 pirishkis (fried dough stuffed with potatoes and onions). Also, apples galore…makes me think of apple picking at home!

P1030062Taldykorgan

P1030063cool brick making ovens

P1030066smooth paved road with lines makes me giddy!!!!!!!!!!!! the smooth road only lasted several kms though.

P1030075massive earthen warehouses that looked like airplane hangers made from dirt. don’t know what they store there but it seems very austere…

P1030076more indulging in American products. Pringles and Snickers makes a great lunch in the middle of nowhere Kazakhstan.

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P1030083P1030163statues like these remind me that I’m in Kazakhstan and not in American prairielands

P1030092Kazakhstan has tree huggers too

P1030090strange village that looks too eerily like American suburbia

P1030096P1030125this is more of what I expect in Kazakhstan

P1030105this restaurant lady in Sarqan gave me a free lunch!

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P1030128looking back at the Tian Shan Mountains bordering China

P1030129horses

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P1030132“highway patrol” aka road police gave me a huge jar of local honey! mmm…although, this might have been why i got attacked by bees the next day.

P1030134P1030162looks like the WildWest

P1030187P1030230Trains!!

P1030138P1030137shared a wonderful lunch these gas station workers near Usharal

P1030148rocketship (of water). filled up 10 liters.

P1030166P1030169P1030173P1030170also what reminds me I’m in Kazakhstan and not American Wild West–Soviet style buildings. Desert town Ayagoz.

P1030185wind was blowing too strong so panda had to be sideways.

P1030176quaint chaixanas (teahouses)

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P1030201decorated bus stops. blue is the color of Kazakhstan. everything in the villages are painted blue and white.

P1030229P1030200also in Kazakhstan– mosques.

P1030198P1030197Big Sky Country

P1030232P1030234more abandoned Soviet blocs

P1030235Trees exist! And they’re changing color!

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P1030246colorful village cemetery

P1030249strange complex outside of Oskemen that looks like a palace

P1030255Oskemen!! quaint houses on the outskirts

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Suddenly, after so many kilometers of flat grasslands, appeared a city! The city of Oskemen. Upon arriving, it felt like I was already in Russia. Most of the people on the streets were Russian and everyone was speaking Russian. There was hardly any Central Asian thing about it!

In Oskemen, I met with Dasha, a couchsurfing host who couldn’t host me, but was really great and arranged for my stay here. She was well-connected with the couchsurfing community in Oskemen. She invited me to her goodbye party the next day where I would meet all her friends and they all spoke very good English. Dasha went to the Kazakh-American University here in Oskemen and has been to the US several times for internships. Like most people who live here, her and her friends are ethnic Russians, but they were born and raised in Kazakhstan. They explained that sometimes they feel more “Asian” than “Russian”. For one, they don’t care that much about vodka.

In the evening I met Alexey, my actual couchsurfing host. I found out he works as an operator at a new solar-cell manufacturing plant in Oskemen. The plant was only built 2 years ago, and is part of a Kazakh government initiative (with partners in France) to develop a solar manufacturing industry in Kazakhstan. The silicon manufacturing plant is in Ushtobe; then the solar cells are made in Oskemen; finally the solar panels are made in Astana (capital of Kazakhstan).

Oskemen has always been an industrial town focused on manufacturing. In the second world war, the factories were moved from other parts of Russia to Oskemen. Nowadays, the manufacturing plans produce tin and other metals. Because of all the industry, Oskemen has a particularly bad reputation for air pollution. I didn’t find the air quality that bad though. In fact, I thought the city was very beautiful and I enjoyed the parks and riverwalks.

P1030258futuristic mosque

P1030259BIG shops

P1030264P1030266Oskemen, a beautiful more-Russian-than-Kazakh city! i was particularly excited about the classical music being played in the parks.

P1030268Dasha’s goodbye party at Pizza Blues (not very good pizza and no blues) but really cool people!

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9/2 Almaty -> Qapshagay

9/3 Qapshagay -> Arkhaly Pass

9/4 Arkhaly Pass -> Balpyq Bi (camp with French motorcyclist)

9/5 Balpyq Bi -> Qyzylaghash

9/6 Qyzylaghash ->Qoylyk (km marker 432)

9/7 Qoylyk ->Qyzylashy (km marker 536)

9/8 Qyzylashy ->Karakol (km marker 655)

9/9 Karakol -> Ayagoz (km marker 779)

9/10 Ayagoz -> km marker 880

9/11 km marker 880 -> Kalbatau -> km marker 1004

9/12 km marker 1004 -> Oskemen

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Headed off to Russia tomorrow. Unfortunately, my Russia visa expires soon so I might not have time to update again until Mongolia. What–Mongolia! That’s the last country!

Almaty — Father of Apples, Mother of the World

8/30 – 9/2 Almaty

Almaty comes from the name “Alma-Ata”, or “Father of Apples” because of the abundant apple orchards in the region. But instead of a father, and instead of apples, I found a mother that embraced the world. I called her “Mir Mama” or “Mother of the World”.
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Mir Mama has 6 children of her own, but has many more children she calls “moy sin (my son)” or “moy dochka (my daughter)”. When I arrived at her home that evening, I found an apartment full of young guys and girls staying there. Two guys were her sons–Dimash and Bauzhan; two other guys worked for her (their family runs a handful of convenience stores around the city); and two girls were students at the local university. I asked Mir Mama how she met all these people, and she explained they all came to her shop. Mir Mama’s shop was next to a university, so she frequently gets student customers. If they ever need help, she helps in whatever way she can. For the two guys, they wanted part-time work while studying, so she employed them. For the two girls, they are from far away in Western Kazakhstan and don’t have family here, so Mir Mama lets them crash at her place whenever they need. I told Mir Mama she was a very kind person, and she smiled saying, “Lyublu ludi. I love people…Many foreigners have come to my shop. I have friends in Italy, France, Germany, China, Korea, Japan. Now I have a daughter in America.”      P1020981P1020989

From then on, Mir Mama fussed over me like any mother would. She grabbed all my clothes and bags–regardless of whether it was clean or dirty, Goretex or not, black or white–and she made it her business to wash EVERYTHING through and through. She scrubbed my hat until it turned from brown to beige; she dumped my clothes into the washer with a pile of detergent; she took my sandals and scrubbed those too. I pleaded with her not to wash my jacket (afraid that the Goretex would be vulnerable) but eventually we compromised and she handwashed it gently. After I was all cleaned up, she also took the pleasure in dressing me up: first in her daughter’s wedding dress, for fun. then into clean street clothes, then into pajamas.

P1020972Fairytales do come true! Mir Mama feeling nostalgic of her daughter getting married off

The next day I went to the migration police office again, hoping by some miracle that an officer would just stamp my passport. But no luck–it was Constitution Day, a public holiday. Even the travel agencies said there was nothing I could do except try again on Saturday. So I spent the day exploring Almaty and hanging out with Mir Mama at her shop. She was very excited to talk about me to everyone that came into the shop that day.

P1020976wow, street signs! a rarity in Central AsiaP1020977and bike lanes!

P1020979what happens when you’re stuck in a city due to bureaucratic nonsense. Indulge in fried chicken!! And reminders of home.

P1020978Almaty–very modern city that almost even feels like Europe

P1020980P1020975this is how we close up shop at the end of the day–Mir Mama climbs out and bike climbs in. (Mir Mama lives in an apartment building which would be hard to get the bike in and out of, so we always leave the bike locked up in the shop)

Finally on Saturday, the migration office was open. Mir Mama did all the talking for me and helped me fill out the necessary paperwork. While we waited, Mir Mama flipped through my Russian dictionary.

–First word: “cup. cup of tea” and she indicated that the police officer looked like he needed a cup of tea. (Mir Mama has a great sense of humor)

–Second word: “cuddle” (Mir Mama gives me a little squeeze)

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With registration taken care of, I was free to go, but Mir Mama wanted me to stay an extra day so she could take me around Almaty. Though worried about getting to Russia, I eventually relented. Mir Mama was just too special.

P1020991Home Depot of Kazakhstan. Mir Mama takes me to the big Chinese bazaar on the outskirts of town.

P1020985 P1020986Riding the subway

That day at the shop, a young Chinese guy stopped by. Mir Mama said he was also “moy sin”. Dingzuolong was from Urumqi, but has been studying in Almaty for the last 4 years. He spoke fluent Russian, so he translated for me and Mir Mama. Mir Mama wanted me to have someone to talk to, so she convinced him to come tour Almaty with us. Soon after, another young Kazakh woman (Aigul) stopped at the shop and she decided to come with us too because she wanted to practice English with me. So together–I, Mir Mama, Dingzuolong, Aigul, and Ding’s friend–went to tour Almaty.

P1030008P1030004Kok Tobe–a place similar to The Peak in Hong Kong. That’s us in front of the famous apple statue.

P1030016P1030018sunset over Almaty

Kazakhstan – the Last Stan of All

“Sincerely yours, this is Stan” — Stan, Eminem

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8/27 Bishkek -> Kazakh border -> Alga

With visa in hand, I was finally headed to the last Stan of the trip–Kazakhstan. What a relief to be done with visas! I had two large pizzas and fried chicken to celebrate before heading off. After the Pamirs, the most important thing I learned was how to take better care of myself, which meant: enjoying the luxuries that are available when in the city. Luxuries like fried chicken and pizza!P1020955P1020956To the Kazakh border and Almaty. The border crossing was smooth, but there was still one piece of bureacratic business left to do– registration with the migration police. I read from other blogs that normally you can’t get the registration at the border, but there were several cases of “cute Japanese girls” getting it there. I hoped I could pass as a cute Japanese girl. Unfortunately, that was not the case. There were too many people trying to cross the border at the same time, and the border officials were far too busy. I would need to register in Almaty.
P1020957not much between Bishkek and Almaty

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8/28 Aga -> Targap

P1020959Last Stan Kazakhstan! Eminem’s “Stan” playing in my head

Over the next few days, I discovered that Chinese is a useful language to know in Kazakhstan and makes for some interesting experiences. The first example came this day:

At noon, I stopped for lunch at a local chaikhana (restaurant/ tea house). The lady manager started chatting with me and when she found out I was Chinese, she excitedly pointed to the guy next to her (one of her regular customers), expressing that he was Chinese too. The guy started speaking to me, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. I thought for a moment, trying to process whether it was Kazakh or Russian or a mix of both, when I realized, he was speaking Chinese! It was very hard to understand him–his accent was very heavy and his words had no tones (which makes a huge difference for a tonal language like Chinese). His grammar was also not like a normal person would speak. “Hua bu dong? Language don’t understand?” he asked. He left before I could find out more about him but from our brief interaction, I concluded he was probably Uighur.
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8/29 Targap -> Almaty (largest city and ex-capital of Kazakhstan)

In the morning, I stopped to buy yogurt and bread at a small shop. An elder from the village was also there and when he saw me, he started speaking in Chinese. What a surprise! Kazakhstan was the first place this happened–where people would just start speaking to me in Chinese. When I responded to the elder though, he didn’t seem to understand much of what I said. Anyways, he was very polite and helped me get what I needed from the store. His Chinese also seemed better than the guy from the day before. I supposed that he must have learned some basic Chinese from Chinese workers living nearby.

I was in a bit of a hurry to get to Almaty so that I could get registered. The next day (Friday) was a holiday (Constitution Day), and then it would be the weekend, so probably the government offices would be closed. By law, you must register within 5 days of entering the country so waiting until Monday would be too late. My little legs pedaled as fast as they could, but even so, I didn’t make it into the city center until 6pm. By the time I weaved through the maze of city traffic and found the migration police office, it was already closed. My heart sank. I walked up to the two lady police officers standing outside the door, hoping they would take pity on me. Instead, they grumpily said they were closed for the day and told me to come back Sunday.

With a sigh, I left to find the nearest shop to buy a SIM card–I had arranged to stay with a Couchsurfing host in Almaty and I needed to call her. The nearest shop was just a small stand with barely enough standing room for 2 people. The woman behind the counter helped me out, and while we were setting up the phone, she gave me a big bottle of ice tea. Then corn. Then two pieces of fried dough stuffed with potatoes. Then a sandwich. Then a piece of kinder chocolate. “Ustala, da? Tired, right?” It was nearly dark at this point and it was halfway across town to the couchsurfer’s place, so I ate to get my energy level back up.

But the more I lingered at the shop, the more Mom worried about me, and she urged me to come back home with her to wash my clothes and take a shower. When I tried to explain that my friend was waiting for me, she insisted that it was not good for me to go in the dark (which was true). She said she would take care of me that night and I could go see my friend tomorrow. I couldn’t refuse her. To make sure I understood her orders, she even called her Chinese-speaking friend and had him translate everything. Funny how you can never say “no” to your Mom, even when it’s a Mom you just met in a foreign country halfway around the world and you don’t even speak the same language.

And so, I went home with Mom.

Kyrgyzstan – Reunions and Reverie

8/11 – 8/13  Osh (the other city in Kyrgystan besides Bishkek)

Exhausted and mentally drained from the Pamirs, I was much in need of some comfort in Osh: a shower, large portions of nutritious food, and most of all–a place to vegetate. Luckily, at the beginning of my trip in Turkey, through word-of-mouth, I was added to an email list for people who were cycling the Silk Road this year. Because of this, I found out from other cyclists that I could have my own room (and bathroom) at the Stary Gorod Hotel in Osh for only 300 som ($6) per night. What a deal! Other cyclists I met paid that much just to camp. Thank you fellow cyclists for the inside scoop!

From the outside, the hotel looked half abandoned apartment building. To get there, you had to weave through a flower shop, walk across a disheveled courtyard, and squeeze between two collapsing concrete walls. Of course, in typical Central Asian style, there were no signs, not even at the front door to tell you that you were at a hotel.

Eventually I found Mira, the friendly manager of the hotel. She spoke some English and from the moment I met her, she took care of me almost like a daughter. She lived alone in one of the hotel rooms so I think she was very happy to have me as company. The rest of her family was living and working in Russia. Despite its sketchy looks from the outside, the hotel was comfortable on the inside, with several simple, clean rooms on the second floor. Later, I learned from Mira why the rest of the building and the neighborhood looked so shotty: the buildings were set on fire during the Osh riots in 2010, and she (and her neighbors) hadn’t had time or money to repair the damages. The riots were a result of some ethnic clashes in the city. Mira said the issues have since been resolved and there was no need to worry now.

P1020803simple comforts for the weary. my own hotel room!

With such comfortable accomodation, I decided to stay a few days in Osh. While other tourists went exploring the city, I did practically nothing the entire time. Sometimes you really just need to vegetate. I bought myself a huge jar of honey and lemons from the bazaar to ease the cough and spent most of my time resting as much as I could. Simply finding lemons at the bazaar was a delight! Citrus doesn’t grow in these parts of the world, so they’re hard to find.

Compared to the Pamirs, Osh was filled with lots of goodies:

P1020809the bazaar in Osh was one of my favorites–very lively and bustling. also, there were goat heads (with eyes and everything) for sale! Sorry I don’t have a picture of them!

P1020804Uyghur laghman–noodles with yummy meat sauce. Uyghurs are from Xinjiang Province in China. One plate at a fantastic price of $1.25. Although, I had to eat two plates to fill me up for a meal.

 

P1020805Which cell phone number would you like?

P1020806Beijing Market in Osh: where there is karaoke! and Chinese restaurants! Moshii and I went to the Shanghai restaurant for dinner one day. Everyone working there was Chinese, and all the customers eating there were also Chinese (local workers). It felt so good to understand their language and order food in Chinese. The other amazing thing at the restaurant was the TV had CCTV (Chinese satellite channel that we also get in the US), and it was showing the same dating show that I watched with my parents (don’t ask…) before I left!

P1020807gulyash lunch

P1020811Turkish bakery with lots of yummy baked goods

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8/14 Osh -> Ozgen

After 4 days of proper food and rest, I was fit enough to continue cycling again. Though I still felt low in spirit (the thought of another dirt road or uphill was almost unbearable), I told myself it was all mental. Worrying and moping about in the city wasn’t going to improve things.

From Osh I decided to take the main, paved road to Bishkek. Originally, I had wanted to take an alternative route to visit the more scenic parts of Kyrgystan but that would entail many more steep uphills and bad roads, which sounded miserable at this point in time. While riding out of Osh, I felt a bit defeated for being too tired to take the scenic route, but after a day of cycling alone, I came to peace with myself. One of the best things about cycling alone is it gives you the time and space to think through things. I reasoned:

1) “The mountain will always be there”– MITOC Winter School saying that means “You can always to come back!”

2) Next time, I’ll know more Russian

3) Next time, with a fresh start, I’ll be excited about dirt roads and mountains

4) Next time, maybe you, my friends, can join me for a REVENGE trip to Kyrgyzstan, where we’ll take revenge on the places I couldn’t take on this time.

P1020812P1020819looks like the American Midwest. Corn and hay!

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8/15 Ozgen -> Kochkor-Ata camp field

In the morning while I was resting under a tree, feeling tired again, I saw a cyclist. The yellow panniers on the bike looked vaguely familiar. Was that Marko from Slovenia?! Yes it was! I had met him 3 months and 5 countries ago in Tbilisi Georgia…waaaay back when I was with Mehdi and Mahyar (remember my Iranian friends?) Seemed like a decade ago, a different trip–it was incredible to see him again! Back in Georgia, we had talked about cycling together but he was stuck in Tbilisi sorting out visa issues and became at least 2 weeks behind me. I never saw him again…until Kyrgyzstan!

Turns out, he also cycled the same difficult route as me through the Pamirs, and he said the Pamirs destroyed him to pieces too. He had to rest 2 days in Osh and eventually he even decided to go home (also because he got a job offer). After talking to him, I felt much better about feeling so weak after the Pamirs. I wasn’t crazy after all. An important lesson in self-respect!

Marko was also headed to Bishkek and we decided to travel together. After meeting Marko, I became even happier about my decision to take the main road. Ah, how things always work out for the better! Marko and I couldn’t stop marvelling about the paved road and abundance of well-stocked shops and teahouses. Many other cyclists said the main road from Osh to Bishkek was one of the most boring roads, but I think they just couldn’t appreciate it like we did.

The next 7 days on the main road became one of the best bike touring I’ve ever had: lots of eating, barbecued meat, cold drinks, swimming, and summer-time joys!

P1020818jarma, local fermented drink of barley and yogurt. Marko says, BLEGH. I say, this just tastes like watery yogurt with barley.

P1020820Marko and I find camp on a field. Three high-school boys who lived nearby visited us at dinner. They gave us a large watermelon and jarma. We learned from chatting with them that they really liked Justin Bieber. Really? Yes.

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8/16 Kochkor-Ata  -> camp with expedition guys (Max, Theo, Calum) and Thomas

Luxury bike touring to Bishkek continues:

P1020822obligatory melon stop. Marko says: Boy, I’m going to miss those melons when I go home to Slovenia in several days!

P1020824lunch stop at teahouse. shashlik–barbecue meat. mmm….

P1020836beautiful views along the Naryn River

P1020838started seeing stretch Hummer limos as soon as I entered Kyrgyzstan. definitely one of the wealthier Central Asian countries. this one was for a wedding.

P1020840large hydroelectric dam

P1020842P1020843following the Naryn River gorge, reminiscent of the Columbia River Gorge in Washington and Oregon

In the afternoon, as we were riding through the beautiful Naryn River gorge, a car passed us and we heard lots of shouting and honking. When I looked up, I saw a familiar looking car. It was the expedition guys I shared an apartment with in Dushanbe! Incredible to see them one month later in Kyrgyzstan. And boy, did we had stories to tell! They succeeded climbing Mt. Christopher Ward (mountain named after their sponsor), of course with many adventures along the way, such as: one lost his passport when his backpack rolled off a cliff into a roaring gorge, two others ripped their pants open, and one hitchhiked through the Pamirs after their climb.

P1020844Who’s that? The expedition guys from Dushanbe! One month later, now in Kyrgyzstan, with many stories to tell–I of cycling the Pamirs, and they of climbing Mt Christopher Ward.

P1020845Camping together with the expedition guys. Max tells us about meeting a French guy who is travelling to Istanbul by horse. the French guy spent 3 years in Kyrgyzstan looking for a suitable horse; he used to be a shepherd in the Swiss alps. Also, Thomas defines “embassy pants”–the one “clean” pair of pants you have on a bike tour for going to the embassy when you apply for visas; unfortunately for Thomas, his embassy pants ripped the last time he sat in a taxi to get to the embassy. When that happens, you just have to walk with your legs together like a very proper lady.

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8/17 camp -> Lake Toktogul

Feeling free — smooth asphalt, wind in hair, lake swimming. Free at last!

P1020850some big uphills (but paved road!) in the mountains

P1020854descending to the vast Lake Toktogul. sweet downhill on sweet asphalt.

P1020860P1020858found camp on the shores of Lake Tortugol. Swimming!! And a local gave us a free watermelon! Pure bliss.

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8/18 Lake Toktogul -> Toktugul (town)

P1020863massive truck accident

P1020865sweet sweet pavement and scenic views of mountains and lake. bike touring doesn’t get better than this!

P1020870Toktogul town

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8/19 Toktugul -> camp after Ala-Bel pass

Up a HUGE pass. 2100m = 7000 ft elevation gain in one day!

P1020872breakfast of loaded honey and butter. i don’t think i’ve ever put that much butter on bread before.

P1020873Honey, fish, berries: lots of goody stands on the road. i also love how the locals can use coke bottles for almost everything.

P1020876some of the most beautiful horses i’ve ever seen

P1020874Kyrgyz country

P1020879P1020884Raspberries were being sold by the side of the road, but the problem was they were only being sold by the bucket. Since the buckets were huge and too much for us to consume, Marko and I kept riding to see if other stands would have smaller portions. Finally, one stand offered to scoop out some raspberries into a small plastic container. Little did we know, Marko and I would devour the small container within seconds. So then we decided: what the hell, GO BIG OR GO HOME. With that, we bought the rest of the bucket. 500 som ($10) for a whole bucket of raspberries–worth of gold! After we couldn’t finish it all, we filled our water bottles and pots with the rest of the raspberries.

P1020886P1020889lots of Kyrgyz yurts/containers on the way up.

P1020887a curious little Kyrgyz onlooker. too cute!

P1020890P1020894lunch in a Kyrgyz yurt on the way. more barbecue meat (shashlik)!

P1020896local yurts drying kurut–tart, dried yogurt pieces

P1020900P1020901the climb just went on…and on…and on…forever. beautiful countryside of Kyrgyz yurts, horses, herders and their animals

P1020902finally, reached the top at sunset! greeted by this boy who wanted me to take a photo of him. that happens a lot in Kyrgyzstan.

P1020909camp in the mountains, shortly after pass.

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8/20 camp -> quarry camp after Too-Ashuu tunnel
P1020911weee….downhill!
P1020912statue–Kyrgyz style
P1020916P1020920local yurts selling dairy products such as: kymyz (fermented mare’s milk and national drink of Kazakhstan); kuurdak (pieces of offal); kurut (tart dried yogurt pieces); kaymak (creamy butter)

P1020922the WALL between me and Bishkek–how I dream of pizzas and burgers and non-Central Asian food
P1020923P1020924more interesting converted containers. Panda says: how many photos can I take to procrastinate from climbing THE WALL? Marko says: Nothing to it, but to do it!
P1020925

P1020927a very dark, very dusty, very scary tunnel: last obstacle before Bishkek. I had heard from other cyclists that you weren’t allowed to bike this tunnel, but apparently it’s possible now. In the past, the tunnel had several incidents of people dying from carbon monoxide poisoning because of improper ventilation (if a car broke down and you were in the middle somewhere, you were screwed). Now there is a police officer who limits the number of cars that can go in at a time. Inside the road was filled with large potholes, unfinished asphalt, and other obstructions. But according to Marko, this was a “good” tunnel for Central Asia. Marko went through several tunnels in Tajikistan that were even worse (the Chinese had started building the tunnels there, but the projects ran out of money so the tunnels were left unfinished. Basically, those tunnels had a hole through the mountain, but not much else).
P1020930it’s all downhill from here!
P1020931last night of camping before Marko goes home to Slovenia. don’t get all sentimental now…

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8/21 quarry camp -> Bishkek
P1020933P1020934massive Chinese-built gas and power plant
P1020937Final push to Bishkek! With of course, ice cream and watermelon in between.

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8/22 – 8/27 Bishkek (capital of Kyrgyzstan)

Arriving in Bishkek at the hostel, I was greeted by a whole stack of bikes in the courtyard. Apparently this was the hostel where all the bike tourists were. Many cyclists were stranded in Bishkek because almost everyone was headed to China but the Chinese embassy stopped giving out visas here. Now they were all trying to make alternative plans. Lucky for me, I got my Chinese visa at home (good unexpected planning!)

My goal in Bishkek was to get a Kazakh visa. The paperwork was fairly easy, but I had to spend 5 days waiting for the visa. In the meantime, I met a lot of travelers at the hostel. One German guy (who was born in Kyrgyzstan) worked for a solar company also (for 8 years!) He was the only other solar person I’ve met on the trip.
P1020943many cyclists at the hostel in Bishkek (Nomad’s Home)
P1020944Kyrgyz plov
P1020945All along, I spoke Russian with random words because I just had a dictionary. At the hostel, Rob (English cyclist) gave me a Russian grammar book! Now I can actualy make sentences–so excited! (Except after 3 days of reading the book, I realized that Russian grammar doesn’t make a lot of sense)
P1020946Dungan (Chinese Muslim) cuisine–ashlanfu–cold spicy noodle soup, very YUM
P1020947Dungan cuisine–ganfan–rice with meat and veggies, also very YUM
P1020952strolling around Bishkek…
P1020953…with bubble tea!