A Travellerspoint blog

October 2012

The wild, wild east

37 °C

One-horse village en route to Ak Tash

One-horse village en route to Ak Tash

This being my first visit to Central Asia, I was not really sure what to expect on landing in Kyrgyzstan. Emerging from the plane in the dark I was reassured to find that I wasn’t immediately cloaked in the usual humid fug, which I’ve experienced in so many Asian airports. Instead I looked up to be greeted with a beautiful view of the Milky Way: a small element of familiarity, in what would be an otherwise unfamiliar world. I had thought that I would find a few more signs of being in Asia than I initially recognised: where was the chaotic traffic, street vendors, and odd jumbled buildings? Who had rounded up the meandering animals from the middle of the road and marshaled the locals down from the roofs of the buses? Where were the half-finished houses, and half-crumbling government buildings? Instead, Bishkek’s grand, austere architecture and large solid-looking concrete edifices served to remind me that until the 31st August 1991 Kyrgyzstan was under the rule of the Soviet Union, only gaining independence following its collapse. Wandering around Bishkek, I got a sense that this was a place where North meets South and East meets West. Once we had cycled into the mountains (90% of Kyrgyzstan is above 1,500m in elevation) I revised my judgement to just "East meets the Wild West".

Soviet architecture dominates the view in an isolated spot on our first days's cycling

Soviet architecture dominates the view in an isolated spot on our first days's cycling

A rare example of cattle on the loose...in a deserted part of town

A rare example of cattle on the loose...in a deserted part of town

An electricity junction box is a small reminder that the basics were established under Soviet rule

An electricity junction box is a small reminder that the basics were established under Soviet rule

In GDP terms, Kyrgyzstan is ranked just 143rd out of 228 countries, and surprisingly, even smaller than countries such as Rwanda, and Laos. Kyrgyzstan has visibly suffered since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90's and the political turmoil of 2010 in Osh and Jalal-Abad which left nearly 2000 dead, and lead thousands more to flee to Uzbekistan. In the rural mountain areas we traveled to, there was little evidence of political upheaval, but it was clear that wealth was difficult to come by, and subsistence the norm. The obvious signs of wealth that I did see, in the form of cars, trucks, and interior decoration tended to herald a previous era (mainly the 1980's), with the odd exception.

They say "necessity is the mother of invention", and cycling along the dirt roads through sparsely populated towns and villages, there were constant examples of imaginative recycling: oil tankers converted into cafes and basic accommodation; ex-Soviet railway carriages forming a row of terraces. In one particularly remote area on the North side of Son Kul Lake, we found a family that had adopted a railway carriage, rather than the traditional yurt as their summer residence. It looked as though someone had dropped it from the sky, and appeared so utterly incongruous with its surroundings that I failed to notice a goat being castrated about two metres away. It did rather beg the question as to how it actually got there, and why only the one carriage....?

Nothing goes to waste, especially not an old oil tanker

Nothing goes to waste, especially not an old oil tanker

Ex-Soviet railway carriages make for modern terracing

Ex-Soviet railway carriages make for modern terracing

A yurt-alternative, seemingly dropped from the skies,  at the remote Son Kul Lake

A yurt-alternative, seemingly dropped from the skies, at the remote Son Kul Lake

The other striking observation from cycling the back roads of this mountainous country, was the abundance of only two types of vehicle: clapped out Ladas, and Audi-80s hailing from the late 1980’s / early 90’s. As they shuddered or bombed past us on the barely surfaced roads, this confirmed Kyrgyzstan as one of those places (together with Morocco, Nepal and India) where the locals have an exceptional ability to adopt relics of a bygone era and maintain them to a standard of “barely functional” for decades to come.

The town of Kyzyl Jyldyz: a clapped-out Lada zone

The town of Kyzyl Jyldyz: a clapped-out Lada zone

An odd, but common juxtaposition at Son Kul Lake

An odd, but common juxtaposition at Son Kul Lake

Plenty of examples in the “no longer functional” category were also to be found in odd places. Fortunately the same principle didn’t seem to apply to the traditional mode of transport in these parts: horseback. The horses we encountered appeared well looked after and were vigorously ridden. It was quite common for us to be overtaken by galloping Kyrgyz children, teenagers and adults alike, clearly getting a thrill from riding bareback at speed, and surprising unsuspecting foreigners. When they turned and galloped off again in a cloud of dust, or I awoke to the vibration of cantering hooves on the remote ground near our campsite, it was these times that I felt I was truly in the wild, wild east.

Clapped out Lada in its alpine resting place

Clapped out Lada in its alpine resting place

Our abandoned bicycles fit right in

Our abandoned bicycles fit right in

The locals call it a night

The locals call it a night

Posted by jparsons 14:19 Archived in Kyrgyzstan Tagged landscapes cycling Comments (0)

When the wanderlust strikes again…

...there is no cure

35 °C

So it turns out that four months travelling around the Himalayas and South East Asia is not a good cure for the wanderlust. No sooner had we touched down in the chilly North of England on January 16 2012, and we had already targeted our next big trip back to the Himalayas. They say "every cloud has a silver lining" and so when it emerged that Tibet would be off the cards this year, plan B swung into action, which is how come I’m writing this blog post only 24 hours after landing back in the UK from our second trip to Asia in six weeks (two for the price of one in the end. Just).

24,700 miles may not be brilliant for the old carbon footprint, but with the "roads" in Kyrgyzstan not boasting even a hint of tarmac, we more than made up for this in endurance on the bike: powered by plov, and the occasional bowl of fermented mare’s milk (yes you did read correctly). In North East Vietnam the scenery may look fairytale, but the absence of a magic carpet meant we had some pretty hefty undulations to cross: this time powered by morning glory, rice and deep-fried bees…

Not a hint of tarmac in sight!

Not a hint of tarmac in sight!

There is something deeply compelling about visiting the hard to reach corners of the globe, and then climbing on two wheels to explore them even further. When you have a passion for photography, the big landscapes of the Central Tien Shan, the street scenes of Hanoi old town, and the rural communities living in the remote mountainous regions of Asia simply capture the imagination. This, and a love of cycling in remote places is why I cannot stay away...

Kyrgyzstan paradise: Son Kul Lake...

Kyrgyzstan paradise: Son Kul Lake...

Children on the road to Meo Vac in NE Vietnam

Children on the road to Meo Vac in NE Vietnam

Both Kyrgyzstan and North East Vietnam share borders with China, and have a tourist industry that is still only embryonic, meaning that the opportunity to meet local people is still refreshingly absent of any transaction, and the welcome genuinely meant. However, this is where the similarity between the two countries ends. Kyrgyzstan is scarcely populated (5.5 million), whereas Vietnam is positively bustling (87.8 million). The Kyrgyz people are traditionally nomadic, moving their temporary yurt camps up into the mountains in summer and down to warmer climes in winter. Whereas Vietnamese life in the remote North East centres around village communities. Cycling in Kyrgyzstan was akin to being dry roasted, alive. In Vietnam, it was rather more akin to cycling in a giant steamer, and on occasions, the shower. We exchanged the vast plains and desert-scapes in August for the rice paddies and jungle last week. Kyrgyzstan was most definitely horse-based. Vietnam, buffalo-based. And yet, the experience of travelling in both countries was in some respects remarkably similar: astoundingly beautiful scenery; the priceless look on the faces of the local men, women, and children when they saw a blond-haired, blue-eyed woman on a mountain bike; the tendency for children under the age of 3 to spontaneously burst into tears, and those over 3 to race you down the road; and the enthusiasm of the local children to borrow my bicycle for a test ride in exchange for a horse ride / donkey ride / photo / a bucket of fermented mare’s milk.

Yurt camps at Son Kul Lake

Yurt camps at Son Kul Lake

Rice terraces in NE Vietnam

Rice terraces in NE Vietnam

Anyone for Kumis (fermented mare's milk - think cheesy wine...)??

Anyone for Kumis (fermented mare's milk - think cheesy wine...)??

The only thing which was saddening, in both countries, was the reality of some aspects of life in such remote areas. In NE Vietnam we cycled through the district of Bao Lac, where we ate lunch by the side of the road close to a small village. By the time we had finished our sandwiches a group of about 30 children aged between 3 and 11 had gathered around 100m from our lunch spot. Chris and I went to investigate, and like the Pied Piper, ended up leading the children back to our seats. We then pursued an enterprise in raising smiles as we captured the scene on camera. What was striking for me was the low energy level of so many of the children we met that day. In stark contrast to North West Vietnam the previous November, where we had been chased vigorously down the road, and received high-fives that left red marks on my hands, we were now met with many expressionless faces. Children who should have been curious, smiling, and playing, would stand around staring through us in the middle of the road. Either we were just too strange, or life for them was just too hard.

We were a strange sight...

We were a strange sight...

In Kyrgyzstan, the poverty surfaced in rural alcoholism. In Naryn province, we stopped for a morning water refill in the centre of a dusty village in the valley, only to quickly attract the attention of the local men. They were obviously curious to meet westerners but their intentions were hazy in their inebriated state. Our local guides were keen to make sure they stayed well out of our way, and this was not the only occasion where somebody needed to come to our rescue and physically remove the local welcoming party.

I'm watched as I attempt to wash the dust off

I'm watched as I attempt to wash the dust off

By far the best encounters were those where I got off my bike, put it on its stand and waited. Within a couple of minutes, I would either be surrounded by kids, horses or donkeys, or all three. The offer of a turn on my bike, testing of sunglasses, or helmet would be reciprocated with the offer of a free horse or donkey ride. And while I'd like to say I made good use of these offers, my questionable horse riding skills meant I more often than not made a beeline for the donkey in a bid to relieve my saddle soreness for a few minutes with a warm comfortable seat. In Vietnam, the only real alternative mode of transport to a bike or bicycle was a buffalo, and this wasn't something I considered a fair exchange (have you tried riding one?). But I was simply happy to offer the bike to those who wanted to test out Western wheels in exchange for the odd photo instead. Conversation was usually limited to “hello, I’m Jen from Manchester, UK, England”, but the smiles were wide, and the curiosity mutual.

Local Kyrgyz children with my bicycle

Local Kyrgyz children with my bicycle

Vietnam is buffalo country

Vietnam is buffalo country

My inspiration for writing this most recent blog post was actually to acknowledge the brilliant team leading our trip through NE Vietnam over the last two weeks. But my train of thought has in the meantime taken me off down a minor a rabbit hole from which I shall attempt to recover...When Chris and I were considering destinations for our Tibet “plan B”, Vietnam was not first on our list. The North West is industrialising at an impressive rate, and the scenery we encountered there not as beautiful as we experienced in neighbouring Laos. However, we were easily persuaded to join a group of friends for some cycling and photography, with the selling point being a guaranteed good time: we knew the score, because we were returning with our tour leaders and friends David and Phong from our previous tour to Vietnam and Laos. Only since then David has set up Painted Roads, and this was his inaugural tour, the first of its kind through this region of Vietnam.

Fairytale landscapes abound in NE Vietnam

Fairytale landscapes abound in NE Vietnam

Beautiful tarmac as well!

Beautiful tarmac as well!

North East Vietnam is a stunning place to visit, astonishingly beautiful, and with some of the best cycling I’ve encountered anywhere in the world. The itinerary was faultless: quiet roads, spectacular scenery and culturally fascinating. Despite the region’s remoteness, and the absence of tourist infrastructure, the roads were relatively good (there was tarmac, and potholes no bigger than Stockport’s) and the hospitality we received was excellent. David and Phong were also reassuringly on form. David was still peddling as though surgically attached to his bike from birth, and Phong had taken up hills in the intervening months, which destroyed our infallible undulation predictor: the bike coming out of the van was no longer a useful forecast for downhills. Some new developments also emerged on this trip. David’s recital of Monty Python put downs in his banter with Phong kept us endlessly amused…”your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries...”, and the daily entertaining of crowds of children with “Nieeeeyeps” in a bid to capture their smiles on camera is undoubtedly responsible for some of our best photos.

The Nieeeeyeps are a success with the kids

The Nieeeeyeps are a success with the kids

David Walker shares his photos with the locals

David Walker shares his photos with the locals

Phong Nguyen

Phong Nguyen

We didn’t get quite as sunburnt as last time but made up for this in spades with our squiffyness. Picking up neatly where we left off in Laos, we quickly accustomed ourselves (and the others) to finishing the ride with a few pints of Beer Hanoi, and rounding off the evening with the local fire water. Not quite as hangover free as I recall from last time, but I may have accidentally upped the quantities somewhat! We also made new friends, as we were joined by Priyen, Claire, Jim and Ros. This brought some interesting dietary challenges to the tour with the need for gluten, wheat and meat free dishes to be found in a country that wouldn’t baulk at eating your cat. It also brought good banter, some interesting Karaoke, an extremely bad Freddy Mercury impression, and many, many more good times.

If you’re interested in travel and photography, David’s blog is a great place to start, with some inspirational photographs, and entertaining stories: The Painted Roads Blog. In the meantime I'll leave you with some final photos...

Children gather to watch us from a safe distance

Children gather to watch us from a safe distance

A typical scene in NE Vietnam

A typical scene in NE Vietnam

A girl clearly finds us funny, near Yen Minh, NE Vietnam

A girl clearly finds us funny, near Yen Minh, NE Vietnam

I meet a younger cyclist on the road to Bac Ha, NE Vietnam

I meet a younger cyclist on the road to Bac Ha, NE Vietnam

Kyrgyz children approach us near our campsite

Kyrgyz children approach us near our campsite

Posted by jparsons 15:08 Archived in Kyrgyzstan Tagged vietnam cycling kyrgyzstan Comments (4)

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