As those who are experienced in the art will know, cycle touring can be an extremely rewarding, yet arduous adventure. This is largely dependent upon your desired route and the countries of which you have an appetite to visit. When planning to cycle through such unforgiving countries, Kyrgyzstan, China, Pakistan, India and Nepal, Jacob and I were fully aware of what this entailed. Despite the formidable mountain passes and decreasing oxygen levels and with only a feeble amount of cycle touring experience between the two of us, we were confident that we had the minerals necessary to take on such a challenge.
We were both in high spirits as we set off from Osh. Cycling down the E007, the road to Sary-Tash. The traffic was sparse, the roads were in good condition and the air was cool with a gentle morning breeze. We cycled for four hours and made good headway. By 11:00 the heat was already becoming intense. Not yet acclimatised to the late summer extremes of central Asia, we hunkered down at a sheltered bus stop where we encountered our first fellow cycle tourers who were midway through a round-the-world tour. After a brief introduction and a quick exchange of information of the routes ahead they continued their way westwards to Osh. I was envious of their loose, cool Turkish cotton shirts to keep the sun off their skin. That being said, I made note to unpack my one and only long sleeved shirt to don the following morning.
The scenery soon changed from streets lined with houses and industrial buildings to rolling hills, baron and parched from the scorching sun. As the road met and ran parallel with the Mashrapsay-suu River the endless rolling hills started to tower above us, the valley floor deepened. As the road turned south the landscape transformed to shades of green as our view turned to the north facing slopes, which are sheltered for much of the day from the direct heat. As we cycled through small villages the children would run out waving “Hello!” and high five us as we cycled past, seemingly not surprised to see our overloaded bicycles, they must be accustomed to cycle tourists passing by.
Slightly anxious of spending our first night under the stars we kept our eyes open for a safe and suitable camping spot. We soon saw a flat opening just off the highway, close to the river and out of site of any wanderers. Satisfied with our progress and first day in the saddle, we made ourselves comfortable, set up the stove and cooked a delicious dish of onion, carrot, garlic, rice and red lentils with mixed spice and seasoning, a hearty dish fit for a king which became the first entry of our “Recipes On The Road.” A few inquisitive locals came and went, some said “Hello”, introduced themselves by communicating with elaborate hand signals. They simply watched questioningly as an odd, head-dressed duo made camp and settled down for the night.
Adjusting to sleeping out under canvas often takes a few days, even in the security of Snowdonia or the Lakes in the United Kingdom. Camping in Kyrgyzstan was no exception as I tossed and turned throughout the night. The morning greeted us with the pitter-patter of rain, so we held off packing up and brewed a fresh coffee. A short time later with blue skies on the horizon, we started to dismantle camp to the chorus of “Who will buy?” from the theater production “Oliver!” It is odd; the songs that get stuck in your head whilst cycle touring and this was only the morning of day two. Needless to say, this became the theme tune of the day. As we continued to gain altitude undulating green valleys opened up as small communities of Kyrgyz people who living in yurts herded their livestock. We passed more cycle tourers, most of whom had arrived in Kyrgyzstan after having cycled the Pamir Highway, Tajikistan, a spectacular and popular cycle touring route.
We were elated to ride over the Chirchik Pass at 2,389 metres our first of many mountain passes. The cruise down was joyous, after crunching through gears to reach the top, the ride down is literally a fresh of breath air. The view over the distant mountains was magnificent. As my bike picked up speed I couldn’t hold back my beaming grin as I called out to myself, “This is what life is all about!” About twenty seconds later I was met with a mighty whack to my left cheek by a huge flying insect. Lesson learned, I slowed to a stop and donned my sunglasses to protect my eyes from another near-fatal collision. We resupplied at Gul’cha, found some shade, made porridge, boiled eggs and brewed a pot of green tea which we duly inhaled while listening to the churning torrents of the Gul’cha River and settled into the cycle touring lifestyle.
We rode on into the afternoon, the walls of the valley grew taller and more imposing, the sky turned a looming shade of grey, thunder started to crack and lightning crashed down over the distant mountains peaks. As we expected, the heavens opened and we were forced to stop and shelter from the rain. It soon passed and we continued on. Shortly after, we were warned by a couple on motorbikes travelling in the opposite direction that “The road ahead is closed, there has been a flood, I would camp up if I were you, it’s a mess!” The skies opened up once again and we took cover under a bus stop shelter just outside of a village, Kunelek.
It was running late into the afternoon as we contemplated our next plan of action, was it too great a risk to carry on cycling or should we camp out on the flat plateau beneath us and withstand the gusts that blew with the storm? We were then surprised to be approached by two local twenty-somthings. After introductions, an exchange of names in broken English and more extensive hand signals, Kolbek kindly offered us a place to shelter from the adverse weather conditions. We gladly accepted his offer and followed him into to village. Kolbek and his family own two houses, one was occupied by his family, the other was vacant. He lead us through the front gate and into the building that consisted of two rooms. Immediately we felt secure. Kolbek went out of his way to ensure our brief stay in Kunelek was as comfortable as possible. He brought us water to wash and his mother had baked some fresh bread that was willingly shared out. We felt blessed by his altruistic generosity. We spent time together and learned that Kolbek was studying English in Bishkek. We exchanged stories of our families and lives in the United Kingdom. Using a translation application to communicate, Kolbek offered “You can stay here for a long while, everything is possible” As the night grew dark, he left us to settle down and get some rest, we planned to leave at 07:00, Kolbek insisted that he would come over in the morning to see us off.
We were grateful for a night of rest with a roof over our heads. We woke to the morning chorus of the cockerel, feeling refreshed and rejuvenated with a sense of benevolent contentment that warmed our souls. On time and as promised, Kolbek knocked on just before 07:00 as we charged ourselves with caffeine. Miraculously, the morning greeted us with a blanket of perfect blue sky.
We spent the next thirty minutes talking about our future plans, he was excited to learn that he would of course have a place to stay if he visited England in the future. As the time approached for us to depart, he requested if he could accompany us to the main road where we first met. We again gladly accepted his offer, pushed our bikes through the village and said our goodbyes. He passed his phone to us with a final translation “I will miss you.”
From this moment on ‘Kolbek‘ became an analogy throughout our cycle tour. Throughout Kyrgyzstan whenever we felt uncomfortable or were confronted by unfriendly individuals we would confide between ourselves “Where is Kolbek when you need him?” Kolbek’s kindness sincerely touched us. We reluctantly cycled away but with beaming smiles, knowing that there are strangers in this world, who can be trusted implicitly, who are compassionate and have a shared value of humanitarianism.