Cycle Touring Kyrgyzstan. Chapter 3: Kunelek to Irkenshtam. The Pass Taldyk & Child Bandit Country

Leaving the relative comfort and security of Kunelek and our host, Kolbek, behind we continued our way south following the Gul’cha river. Mountains grew ever taller as we got our first glimpse of distant snow capped peaks. The valley floor suddenly opened up to a view of a little outcrop village sitting precariously atop canyon walls, a luscious green haven in a somewhat barren landscape. Kyrgyz boys and their fathers mounted on horseback herding their livestock down the highway as hundreds of sheep and goats mingled their way past us.

The Gul’cha River Valley

We gained altitude as the road snaked its way past Kichi Karakol. We continued to climb until we hit a plateau, the sheer magnitude of our surroundings hit us, the view, breathtaking, I just had to stop and capture the moment. Unfortunately, as awesome as the photograph was, it came at a cost as Jacob incurred the first puncture of the trip as he spun his bike around.

Cycling the Sary-Tash – Gul’cha Road

The road descended and lead us into wide green plains, yurts and temporary homes nestled in the far outreaches. Sunset was fast approaching as we stopped by a small village to top up our water supplies where we were immediately surrounded by children. Jacob had the duty of keeping them occupied while I filtered and purified water from the village spring, which was also shared by the local cattle. With Jacob’s apparent childcare experience, the local children were left with a new ‘western’ greeting of “Safe” followed by a fist pump. We were nearing the foot of another long ascent and therefore decided to camp on a grassy verge just outside of the village. That night we were surprised to be woken during the night by the majestic thud of hooves as wild horses trotted about not far from camp.

Mischievous Children of Ak Bosogo

We woke early the next morning, demolished a course of boiled eggs and naan in preparation for the endeavour that lay before us. We set off up an immediate incline, the road signs indicated an 8% gradient, but we soon became aware that in Kyrgyzstan, perhaps the road sign factory had exhausted all creativity and accuracy. In Kyrgyzstan it was evident that all gradients were classified as ‘8%‘ regardless of the physical gradient.

‘8%’ Gradients of The Pass Taldyk

The winding road coiled into a series of switchbacks that twisted their way ever upwards. We puffed and panted as the air grew thinner. After a brutal three hour ascent, aided by the last few Haribo Supermix I had saved for such an exertion, we triumphantly summited ‘The Pass Taldyk’ at 3,615 metres.

The Pass Taldyk

We rested and refueled at the pass before pedalling on, excited for the series of descents that would lead us to Sary-Tash, the gateway between Kyrgyzstan, China and Tajikistan. We crested the second mountain pass of the day, ‘The Pass 40 Let Kyrgyzstan’. As I picked up speed my bike started to make a worrying clicking sound. Concerned, I pulled on the breaks to come to a stop. Completely unaware that Jacob is head down, thundering his way through the gears to gallantly fly down the road to Sary-Tash in pursuit of the downhill time trial record, I was all of a sudden met with an almighty whack to my left rear pannier. I fought to regain control of my bike as the pannier hit the tarmac and rolled to a stop. We both pulled to the side of the road and apologised, I should have made it clear I was stopping, Jacob should have had his eyes on the road. Both in agreement that no one was at fault, we shook hands and hugged it out. Incurring only a few tears and a broken pannier clip we were relieved that we were both unscathed. We strapped the pannier to my rear rack with hose clamps and cable ties and continued on.

The road followed the valley wall, curving due South. As Sary-Tash poked its head out between the neighbouring hills we were suddenly stopped in our tracks, in awe of the distant skyline. A series of monumental peaks, majestic, snow capped summits, elegantly brushed with white sweeping clouds against the bold blue skies. The Pamir mountains of Tajikistan.

Sary-Tash and the Pamir Mountains

We were relieved to roll into Sary-Tash where we had planned to take a day of rest. Cycling east through Kyrgyzstan isn’t exactly what we would call as ‘easing ourselves in’ to the cycle tour. Rest and recuperation was needed and duly deserved. We stayed at Eliza’s Guest House just off the main road, which faced south overlooking the Pamirs. Not a bad spot to spend the next 24 hours. We were greeted by fellow cycle tourers and later joined by a team from the Mongol Rally 2018. We conversed and shares stories which brought a sense of nostalgia as I reminisced over the wondrous memories I have of the Mongol Rally back in 2010.

Eliza Guest House, Sary-Tash

The following day we refueled our tiresome legs, resupplied our stores and planned the route ahead. Knowing that the border between Kyrgyzstan and China is closed during weekends, we had to make the 71 kilometres in one day in order to cross through on Friday 17th August. As the day grew to an end I found myself sat on the steps of the guest house over a steaming pot of fresh vegetable stew, a delicacy while living a life on the road. I gazed across to the Pamir mountains and smiled to myself as I contemplated the greatness of the prior eight days, it almost felt like we had been away for a whole month. Unfortunately, these dreamy thoughts were followed by a sharp headache that I, in true English fashion, attempted to douse with a copious dose of tea.

Up at the break of dawn the next day, we loaded up our bikes and were on the road just after 07:00. With an enduring ride ahead of us, I wasn’t pleased when the headache was also accompanied by flu like symptoms and a sore throat. We rolled out of Sary-Tash and turned east as we cycled into the morning sunrise. What was initially an easy start to the day soon became a battle against a relentless headwind and a 30 kilometre climb. We had to take turns to penetrate the full force of the wind while the other could draft behind in the slip stream. Despite the arduous conditions we were in our element, to the south, the mighty Pamir mountains, a mystical backdrop behind the morning haze. To the north, razor sharp, Jurassic ridges that spanned across the horizon. These were intersected by a perfectly straight road, that stretched out as far as the eye could see. This vast open plain however, also meant that there was no chance of the unforgiving headwind letting up.

The Endless Road to Irkenshtam

As we started to climb we passed a few settlements that lay back away from the highway, a few shadows were spotted occupying the road up ahead. As we grew closer we made out that it was just two Kyrgyz boys, one mounted upon a donkey and one on foot with his dog. Deciding this was a convenient time to clear my increasingly bunged up nose I covered my left nostril and blew hard, the strong winds carried a string of phlegm that hit my sunglasses. I shouted to Jacob to hold back though he was unable to hear me due to the headwind. He rode on when surprisingly, they tried to block his path and the one boy foot attempted to hold onto his bike. Quickly learning of the poor turning circle of a donkey, Jacob gave a quick dummy to the right then a swift change of tact to take them on down the left flank. I rushed desperately to catch up in support. Observing Jacob out maneuver the renegades, I picked up speed and rushed through after him. Rather shocked by this outlandish encounter we powered on and chuckled to ourselves. Shortly after, we were met by another pair who attempted to stop us in our tracks, this time one was on a bicycle. The other screamed at us as we skirted around them. Then yet another pair of children, waited for us to cycle past, up a steep incline and then decided to follow us until we put enough distance between them. And again as the green plateau phased to a dusty, orange-brown landscape, somewhat resembling the Wild West, in a small town, Nura, a group of children ran at us. Some riding bikes and others with dogs in tow. By this time we considered ourselves experienced feral children evaders, we cycled towards them, full force, they parted and reluctantly let us pass. Slightly shaken up but at the same time amused by this experience, we duly named this ‘Child Bandit Country.

Child Bandit Country

Despite the numerous encounters with the Kyrgyz desperados, the ride from Sary-Tash to the boarder town, Irkenshtam, was phenomenal and worth every ounce of effort. We cycled continuously for six hours and thirty minutes into the headwind, passing the peak of the route at 3,748 metres until we found shade to rest from the midday sun. Irkenshtam wasn’t much to shout about, a dusty, broken glass ridden trailer park. The local hotel was atrocious. Fortunately, a gracious woman, originally from Yugoslavia housed us in a disused railway wagon, catering to our every need and ensuring we had an extremely comfortable stay. Feeling rather depleted from the days antics, we ate in abundance and settled down for the night with a mix of emotions, sad to leave Kyrgyzstan behind, yet anxiously excited of what China and it’s problematic cycling and wild camping laws, has to offer.


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