Bicycle Touring in Central Asia
by Bob Egan, 1995 and 1997
|In June of 1997 I bicycled from Panfilov, Kazakhstan
to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan with a friend, Dave Clopton. This was my second
trip to Central Asia. The first was in 1995 with another friend,
Kath Giel, and was also done independently on bicycles.
The 1995 route was from Tashkent to Bishkek, and a chronicle of that trip is also here, following the description of the 1997 trip. Also here, after everything, are a few incomplete and purely miscellaneous tips on travel in the region.
In addition to the two trips to Central Asia, I've completed a 1993 too-early spring tour across Ukraine, and ridden across Europe and North America in the 80's. I haven't written anything up about these trips, but if you have any questions about them, or bicycle touring in general, you may email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Second Visit, JUNE 1997: Panfilov to Bishkek
It's back to Central Asia for another bicycle tour. This time the route was east to west, from the Kazak-China border to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
Planning for the trip was done with some trepidation. Those who are familiar with my first trip, from Tashkent to Bishkek will recall that we met with some difficulties in the Tashkent subway (detained by the cops for taking photos) and then again in the fields of Kyrgyzstan (nearly robbed by thugs and a bout of intense food poisoning, all in one night). This trip, as it turned out, was different in many ways. The scenery was better and logistics were well-executed; but on the other hand we spent more money and saw fewer cultural sites. Like the last trip, the adventure started with getting visas, so let's start the story there . . .
The application forms themselves were easy enough to come by--writing the embassies in Washington and waiting several weeks did the trick. Applications for both countries asked who and where we would be visiting. We weren't visiting anyone in particular, and certainly didn't have the all-important letters of invitation, so instead we attached a copy of our airline itinerary, a copy of hotel confirmations in Almaty, and a note explaining that we would like to visit the countries on bicycle. This worked just fine for our first country, Kyrgyzstan. When we submitted the same package to Kazakhstan, though, I got a phone call from an embassy rep saying, practically in Russian, "No, no, we are sending back the passports today."
When applying for a visa to western China a few years back, our applications were repeatedly denied and we ran up a big bill with Fedex sending passports on several round trips to Washington. I saw this happening all over again with Kazakhstan. So, instead of sitting back, I quickly wrote up a letter and faxed it to the Kazak embassy, asking that they reconsider. Maybe we could communicate better in writing. I mentioned how important the trip was to us and explained why we were asking to visit cities that normal tourists would have no interest in (the staffer had said, "Nobody wants to visit these places. Chundza--why would you want to go there? And, Kegen?"). I even mentioned how much we enjoyed camping, and how we were expecting wonderful riding, with mountains on the horizon and little traffic. The next day, no Fedex package . . . a good sign. A week later, right on schedule, the passports arrived with visas, and the last barrier for our departure was lifted.
From Boise you would think it would be a difficult trip to Kazakhstan, but the logistics are actually pretty easy now. Flying time is about 20 hours. There's only two stops (in our case Chicago and Frankfurt) and you really don't mind that much time in the air when you know all the uncertainties that await. When the list of things to worry about begins with water and food, you know it's a long list.
Our bicycles posed no problem at Almaty customs, and we were soon on the shuttle to the Hyatt, where we speeded through check in and got a good night's rest. (This, in contrast to our arrival in Tashkent, where we were unwillingly taken to see the cab driver's dismal apartment and then spent several hours waiting for the help to walk across the hall to open the foreigners' check in at the hotel Russia.)
The next day, continuing to pay dearly for convenience (the Hyatt was $220/night), we hired a car from the hotel to take us to Panfilov (renamed Zharkent, but nobody in Almaty seems to know that), which is about five hours to the northeast at the Kazak-China border. At $400 this seemed like a wild extravagance. Surely a freelance driver would have taken us for half the price. But as we drove on we worried less about the price than the nondescript scenery. We weren't taking the same route we would bike, but if the scenery stayed as bland as this, it would be a very long bike trip indeed. Dave and I shared those thoughts, and kept them to ourselves. Out loud, we talked about the sedan's transmission, which kept on skipping on the uphills, and about Mr.------, who glommed onto us at breakfast that morning.
Mr.------ was the local advance man for a large American concern. It was 9:00 a.m. He was drunk and out to impress. Credit cards were fanned in front of us and much pride was taken in today's breakfast costing him and his colleague $100 (shots all around!). Visits to America and Europe were vaguely recalled. "Why are you here?" he said. "There is nothing to see. You are CIA." He took a chair and slumped at our table. So we left. Now, driving across the desert, we were starting to see his point.
Just short of our destination, we arrived at a road block. The militerazi were casually siphoning gas out of some cars and selling it to the others. We the foreigners weren't expected to participate, but passports were collected and taken inside, to reappear a long half hour later. We would encounter many roadblocks in our ride but never had problems. Our technique would be to wave and shout "salam!" and be gone, or better yet we would whoosh by while the guards slept.
Back to our first day in Kazakhstan. We unloaded our bikes and started to put them together. A group of Uyghur men appeared out of nowhere and respectfully watched us finish. We shook hands all around and then started on our way, south toward the mountains, free and independent at last. We had our tents, and food for a few days.
We rode about 40 miles, almost to Chudza, and camped along a small river. The next day we rode into town and waited as the market came to life. Four women were sitting in a row, in colorful scarves and hats, flat breads stacked in front, and an apartment block looming behind. Vegetable vendors were getting ready their stacks of potatoes and onions. We were handed a thin stalk that we pealed before eating. It tasted like rhubarb, but not so tart.
After a discouraging series of flats we dropped into a river valley and then started up the hill to Kegen. It was a climb of several thousand feet in about 15 miles. We camped at the top with a spectacular view of the desert to the north. The next day we dropped down a bit and entered a paradise that would take five days to traverse. For two days we biked through a brilliant high valley surrounded by mountains. A hundred miles or so of the road was dirt and gravel. There was very little traffic. Horsemen would ride here and there at great speed, showing off and ignoring us.
The exact border between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan was unclear, the boarder posts being about 20 miles apart. As we passed the Kazak post, we saluted the two guards who were laying in the sun up on a hill. The Kyrgyz post was fully functional, though, and we stopped to have our passports registered. It took a while for the staffer to decipher the English and fill out the register, but there was never a doubt that we'd be let through and no expectation of payment.
After continuing down the valley we reached Tyup, a small town at the east tip of Lake Yssyk-Kul. We replenished our food and changed some dollars at the market. We were going through about four dollars a day. There wasn't much of a selection of food available at the markets because it was early in the season. We were, however, able to buy bread, onions and cucumbers in every town, and often we could find canned tomato sauce from Iran or China. Put them all together and you can actually make a pretty tasty open face sandwich.
The next few days our route was along the north shore of Lake Yssyk-Kul, the second-largest alpine lake in the world. Just short of Cholpan-Ata we took a room at Hotel Aurora, a Soviet-era sanitarium catering to the BMW/Mercedes crowd, and us, for $40 the double, including meals. We explored the untended gardens and the beach, which had a spectacular view of snow-capped mountains stretching for hundreds of miles across the lake.
The next day we continued west along the lake and started the downhill after Balykchy. The narrow valley was beautiful, with colorful eroded formations like you'd see in Utah. Unfortunately, fierce winds coming up from the plains made this some of our most strenuous riding. Then, it started to rain. It rained all night and it was still raining when we rode out the next morning. About three hours out of Bishkek the sun came out and we were dry by the time we rode into town and finished the ride.
Hotel Dostuk was a bit more run down than last time, but it was familiar, and a room there includes breakfast at the strangely plush Restaurant Arizona. Bishkek, with its shaded streets and low-rise buildings, is a relaxing town for unwinding. The next day we brought our bikes to a contact at the university and donated them to a scholarship fund. We had a pleasant lunch there, met several students, and visited the library. The spirit of the school was one of vibrancy and optimism.
Back to Almaty, by another private car. This one had red diplomatic plates--no stopping at roadblocks (or the Kazak border, for that matter). Soon enough, we were back at the hotel and, after a day wandering around Almaty, then on a plane back to Frankfurt.
First Visit, AUGUST 1995: Tashkent to Bishkek
Central Asia is west of China and north of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The republics we visited had been part of the Soviet Union and are just now establishing their identities in the form of their own currencies, languages, and governments. Kath Giel, a friend, and I decided this would be an interesting part of the world to bicycle through, if for no other reason that itís hard to get to and into, and we had read a few interesting things about the area.
It took four months to get all the approvals . . . letters of invitations and visas. Dealing with the embassies was an adventure all unto itself, but a few confirmed hotel reservations (which we later canceled), and copies of airline tickets, and many personal calls (they would answer the phone "Hello?" and say "Yes, your passport's here on my desk") finally seemed to do the trick.
We left Boise with our bicycles on a late-August Friday and arrived in Tashkent the following Monday after 22 hours of actual flying time, mostly on Turkish Air. The airline wasnít too bad, and at $1500 roundtrip we couldnít beat the price. Tashkent is 12 hours off from Boise, putting us pretty much on the other side of the globe.
We spent the first day checking into a hotel (a five hour process) and touring the city. Tashkent is the capital of Uzbekistan, but really doesn't have much to see since it was leveled by an earthquake in 1966 and was rebuilt in Soviet style, which means the roads are wide and all the buildings look the same whether they be apartments, shops, or offices. Uzbekistan has a government much the same as before the break up, and we got a taste of this when I got hassled by the police for taking photos of the most spectacular site in Tashkent, the subway. They confiscated my film . . . we talked about California and Disneyland . . . I got my film back.
The next day we took a small plane on Uzbekistan Air (an Aeroflot spin-off) to the ancient city of Samarkand. The main site to see there is the Registan, several mosques and seminaries which were built in 1400's-1600's and restored in Lenin's time. This is the most spectacular site in central Asia. We and two other tourists were there that day.
Back to Tashkent. We unpacked our bikes and hit the road. We asked a pretty Uzbekistanian to take a Mile Zero picture, and she thought we wanted one of her. That same day we crossed the border into Kazakhstan and treated ourselves to the first of innumerable stops at roadside "Fanta" stands. All the stores were shut. So were the restaurants. We bought everything on the street and didn't go in a building except once during the eight-day ride.
The second day out we encountered our first city, Chimkent. We'd had eight flats between us, and it was very hot. We recovered in the park, and left that evening after taking this picture of some curious locals. Note the illustrations on the plastic handbags. We would see women in veils carrying these sorts of things.
Along the way we met quite a few people and communicated as best we could, mostly in Russian, but some of the people spoke Uzbek only. Here, Kath has traded a few socks for melons, and handed out a vitamin C tablet to cure a toothache. We had stronger medicines, but not the language skills to be doctoring.
The highlight of the biking part of the trip was a visit to this yurt. The food here was actually pretty good, and I had the special pleasure of sampling koumis, which is fermented mares milk and referred to as "Kazak beer." Usually we drank Fanta, and accompanied it with chunks of barbecued lamb and lard, and round flat bread called lepeshka. Once in a while we found some potato and curry soup and real Coke. We filtered water ourselves. The villages had communal faucets along the road which were quite handy.
About mid-way throughout the trip we took a rest day in Dzamboul, where we found a decent hotel, an active bazaar, and a few mausoleums to explore. The scenery in this part of the trip was pleasant and not unlike Idaho except for a few differences. We were mostly in rolling plains with spectacular mountains in the distance.
We learned that this part of Central Asia is one of the world's great marijuana-producing regions. Frequently it was offered to us, we saw it planted several times, and we encountered lots of consumers. Once we had to move our camping spot after being bothered by some youthful potheads, which was a real hassle because that night I had digestive problems after eating at a second yurt. We had suspected the meat in the soup wasn't cooked right (the oozing marrow from the bone alerted us) but by then we had gotten pretty flexible about what we ate.
Our trip was west to east, the intent being to take advantage of prevailing winds. As it turns out, the wind blows mostly in the other direction, and we paid the price by missing our 70-mile-a-day target by about 15 miles each day. Flexibility in such cases is quite handy, and so we ended our trip in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, and hired a car to transport us 125 miles to Almaty, where our flight departed. Both Bishkek and Almaty are capital cities (Almaty is capital of Kazakhstan), and in each we toured a few museums. In Almaty we spent a day in the mountains, but admittedly we were a bit worn out, and our minds were already on Turkey.
We had packaged our bikes in Bishkek, using a creative combination of biscuit boxes, duct tape, and twine. The last trick was to get them to the airport, through customs, and on to home after stops in Istanbul and New York. I suggest traveling without bikes.
Almost everyone on Turkish air transfers in Istanbul; we took advantage of the situation and spent four days there. We visited the Aya Sofia, a Christian structure built in 537 that was immense then, and still is. The interior space is third to St. Paul's and St. Peter's. The dome is 181 feet high. The minarets were added when it was converted to a mosque. Now, its purely a museum. A large mosque, the Blue Mosque, was built nearby in 1619.
No trip to Istanbul would be complete without a visit to the harem in Topkapi Palace. You will have to go yourself to learn the complete story, but to whet your curiosity, know that it involves 800 girls, black eunuchs, imprisoned younger brothers, and children being bundled with rocks and thrown in the sea.
Miscellaneous Travel Information
You'll enjoy your visit more if you take things as they come and enjoy opportunities as they arise. On bikes, you'll find your days are a pleasant juxtaposition of the familiar feel of riding across the countryside and the unfamiliar feel of cultural sights and experiences.
Getting Around. One of the real advantages to traveling on bike is you avoid the waits and discomfort of public transportation. When you carry camping equipment you always have a clean and comfortable place to sleep, and you can breeze through the towns that have no appeal.
Maps. Maps are hard to find once you are there, so buy them in advance. The U.S. ONC defense maps are good for terrain information and are available by special order from full-service map and travel stores. Similar British and Russian maps are also available. Maps in English are fine for your own use, but are not readily understood by others. We obtained some in Russia from East View Cartographic at 612-550-0961.
Equipment. Plan in advance and bring everything you'll need. A mountain bike with smooth tires is a good choice. There are many thorns everywhere and you'll go mad with flats if you're not ready for that. Slime tubes worked well for us. We carried about 30 pounds of gear, food, and water.
Health and Safety. In Central Asia, you're probably no more likely to get hurt or robbed than anywhere else, but given the poor medical facilities and spotty police protection, the consequences are much more sever than elsewhere. Don't do anything stupid, and hope for the best. Remember that getting hit by a car is the main danger everywhere. We carried a full medical kit, including syringes and IV shunts. Most drivers were courteous. Expect to get honked at a lot . . . it's not meant to be rude. Avoid groups of drunk and/or high young men.
Fluids. Coca Cola is now widely available. Tea is; coffee is not. Bring your own powdered drinks and snack bars if you like those while biking. We drank water from the faucets without treatment and filtered the rest. Most of the small towns have public faucets along the road.
Language. English is not very useful. We spoke a little Russian and a few Kyrgyz and Kazak phrases pulled from the guidebooks. Russian is not widely spoken outside the capital cities, but most people knew the same words we did. If you learn a few polite phrases and are good with gestures and smiles, you shouldn't have any problem.