The ‘Stans Yaks and Yurts

Article by João Pedro Fernandes

Surrounded on nearly all sides by almost impenetrable mountains and as far from the sea as possible, Kyrgyzstan has maintained its culture and unspoiled wilderness unlike anywhere I’ve ever visited. As much as the Soviets tried to urbanise them, the Kyrgyz at heart remained nomadic farmers. With the breakup of the Union, many have returned to their yurts, packing them onto the Lada roof come summer time and moving the livestock to the higher pastures. With the exception of a few Chinese-funded tarmac highways, this unique culture and wilderness is criss-cross with gravel tracks linking mountain passes to open meadows and alpine lakes making it an adventure riders paradise.

The landscape changed when crossing the border from Tajikistan and descending towards Sari Tash and onwards to Osh, Kyrgyzstan; the vegetation, rolling pastures of late summer gold and green grasses, colourful mountains and yurt scattered valleys emerged. Add to that one of the easiest and most straightforward border crossings ever! I knew straight away I was going to like this country.

In Osh I caught up with Daniel and his Kawasaki, whom I met in Tajikistan. He was at MuzToo, part workshop part bike graveyard kept perpetually busy by the surrounding mountain roads, repairing his bike. Needing to do a few things to the bike I took a ride there. Changing a fuel filter, oil and generally bullshitting among guys trying to rebuild their pride and joy felt a little like I was rubbing salt into the wounds. When I proclaimed in ear shot of everyone “a place like this makes me realise I brought the right bike”, it was nearly mid afternoon before anyone spoke to me again and nightfall before we were out for beers celebrating that both bikes would live to see another ride.

Riding out of Osh together a few days later, Daniel and me turned east along the gravel roads towards Kazzerman and up the alpine climb to Son-Kul. In the valleys it was harvest time, the men reaping the crops by hand and we ducking for cover from gigantic mobile haystacks chugging and rattling along the dusty roads.

Arriving at (lake) Son-Kul, nestled at 3016m and enclosed by peaks, the surrounding jailoos were alive with herds of cattle and droves of horses masterfully kept in check by all ages on horseback. It was amazing to see man and horse acting as one. Born onto horseback, children ride before they walk, I’m certain of it.

North of the lake the pastures pinch away as hills meet ice-cold water, forming a series of small bays. In one of these bays we pitched the tent, in definitely top camp spot of the trip so far. Just before sunset, from the yurt round the headland, came a man, his sons and their dog on the evening fuel finding mission, looking for suitably dry shit to heat the yurt fire, and also inspect the evenings visitors and their bikes. The father didn’t hang around but the lads were fascinated. The next hour was a game of moto charades, them pointing at part of the bikes, we trying to explain its purpose. The gear lever, the ignition, the radiator, the indicators, the petcock. Looking like the game may go on all night and the yurt would never get its fuel, a ride up the nearest hill, them on the back, seemed to fulfil the fascination and they went back to inspecting the suitability of every cow pat within sight.

While I’m slightly dubious of the odometer, on the Kyzert pass climbing north from the lake the bike told me we’d passed the 25,000th km of the trip, I didn’t feel it marked anything overly significant, but in that moment I felt a long way from home and decided to have a beer that night in Bishkek to celebrate. Bishkek, like the other Central Asian cities I’ve visited is neither beautiful nor memorable for any of the right reasons. There’s nothing particularly historical, which made me wonder if architects were picked on their lack of imagination, or if, in fact, the same person is responsible for the whole swathe of dreariness.

1East of Bishkek and IssyKul we had one destination in mind: AltynAreshan and its hot springs. After the failed attempt to find or reach the hot springs near Murgab, Tajikistan, I was determined. That the Lonely Planet described it as the worst road in the world only added to the challenge. It’s only 12 km from tarmac to the ‘resort’, but what a 12 km it is. An alpine track of dirt and mud soon gives way to football-sized cobbles on boulder-strewn ledges hewn into the rocky riverside. Messing up one particularly rocky section the bike went down and later slid into a dusty rut passing a horse and rider, watching them both emerge from my dust cloud and nonchalantly continue upwards, a horse seemed like a much more sensible choice. Reaching the top we were both exhausted and ready for the hot springs. They weren’t quite what we had in mind, but the surrounding valley and journey to them was the real highlight.

In fear of breaking down on a remote mountain pass or doing damage which would mean a round trip back to Osh and missing my deadline to reach the Chinese border, the final few days in Kyrgyzstan were easy riding. Joining in mountainside Kyrgyz family fun, riding Western IssyKul with Daniel, walking in the marmot valleys of Kegeti and a quick ride to Almaty, in Kazakhstan, to renew my Kyrgyz visa, before dropping my bike off in Bishkek.

These final few days also marked the end of my three months in Central Asia, a most amazing place with the broadest spectrum of scenery. Come for the landscape, people, culture and riding and you won’t fail to be amazed, but make sure you bring sandwiches.