Published: May 31st 2012May 15th 2012
Leaving Karakol was bitter sweet. We had been there for ten days and we had grown attached to the characters, the mountains, the friendly dogs and the hot springs. But Karakol itself is a hole. How it became so famous as a "pleasant, leafy, fresh air town" is either some relic of a Soviet secret or (more likely) the work of overzealous guidebook authors with a tight schedule and no bicycle to slow down the pace. Either way, it is a pretty rough town with an increasingly bad reputation and we were happy to have minimized our days in the town itself.
We said our goodbyes to Sergei and his friendly dogs and even crazy Kolia stopped by to bid us farewell. The north of Kyrgyzstan is decidedly Russian and though we knew that things would transform in the south, we could not have been prepared for the changes to come. We covered ninety kilometers that first afternoon and camped right by the lake in a lovely location, aside from the ubiquitous broken vodka bottles that seen to form an endless carpet of litter in the otherwise pristine lands of the north. Litter is a real problem in Kyrgyzstan
and changing the mass consciousness seems like the only hope given the total lack of public waste disposal services. Most people simply burn what they can and throw the rest out onto the ground. Others simply skip the former option and go straight to the pitching. The end result is a landscape with a "good from far but far from good" aesthetic and no hope for a change in the foreseeable future. It is another one of those habits that will probably only die with a generation. For now, education of the children might be the best option but without a place to put the trash and a system of reuse, the only plausible future for the issue is up in smoke. So much for the "fresh air" in places like Karakol.
Two days later we were making good time for time for two cyclists on a leisurely pace. Our plan was to sort of mosey on down to the south without getting in a real touring mode. We knew that in less than two weeks we would be settling down again for almost a month and the emotional letdown of getting our groove on, only to
stop is one we know all too well. Touring mode is concentrated for us and we only want to settle into it when it is time to push the long mile. We were in meandering mode and meander we did; Through pine forests and over passes, down long valleys and up narrow canyons. We rolled a mellow average of 100 kilometers a day, stopping for chai and kebaps, ice cream and cold water, whenever we felt like it. In the evenings we made camp in lovely places two hours before sunset and sipped cold beer as the evening light folded up another perfect day in the saddle. At times the weather turned against us and we simply turned into a cafe for tea and noodles. The pavement stopped for a couple of days but the traffic stopped with it, giving us a pleasant reminder of those days in Mongolia, so far away now it seems. Too far at times..
When the pavement returned we were rolling easy on the national highway. We were amazed with the lack of morning traffic and the overall courtesy of drivers at large. Trucks gave us massive lanes and car after car honked in
approval of our journey. Several cafe proprietors treated us to free bread and tea and everyone we talked with seemed to not only support, but somehow understand our journey. Stoicism is something we have come to appreciate in this world, and an understanding of the "why" behind bike touring would seem like the mark of a developed mind. When someone can get past the "wows" and the "how much does it cost" stage, we know we have met someone who is actually transcultural and these people are some of the most interesting and trustworthy in every environment.
While the human element has been almost too friendly at times, the same cannot be said for the canine population. The cool attitude of Linda (the mascot of Yak Tours) was not to be found and was replaced with vigorous chasing that ran the gamut between annoying and downright vicious. People tried to call their dogs back but this has a limited effect in our case and we have had some close calls and kicked noses along this 1000 km stage. On our first day out we were advised to find a gun to deal with dogs but this would have only
resulted in a trail of blood and tears as these encounters are a daily occurrence, with clear shots aplenty. We have discussed crafting a weapon but the lethal line is a touchy one to cross and we have no desire to piss off otherwise friendly locals. We found the most effective technique was to spread out with the first rider acting as a decoy and the second acting as chase vessel. All animals have a sense of the difference between chasing and being chased and many dogs flee, yelping and kicking up dust, when a big, screaming machine comes bearing down on their tail.
The south of the country eventually opened up below us like a big green carpet at the end of the canyons. This is the Fergana valley where everything, from ethnic strife to the weather, seems to heat up in comparison to the rest of the country. Children wandering about aimlessly in the midday heat, languid workers reclined in the shade, and raw humidity mixed to make it all so reminiscent of Tanzania. Indeed it felt like another day of riding up to Mweka, minus the coffee plants. So eerie how every place we roll
into feels like a combination of all the places we have ever been. The Fergana is legendary in the old Soviet states for producing some of the worlds finest produce. We have eaten many a cherry in Siberia purchased from Uzbek stands and produce is not the only thing making the long journey to Russia for rubles. Seasonal workers crowd minivans and head to the mother country by the droves to find income in an environment that can be quite hostile to Central Asian diaspora. We watched sixteen Tajik migrants crawl out of a minivan at a rest stop only to have an old lady tell us that it seemed like a small load....She could remember counting forty two from a similarly small vehicle.
The Uzbek/Kyrgyz border was drawn around linguistic tribes with great generality and in some places the gerrymandering separated factions and isolated an Uzbek minority population within Kyrgyzstan. This mixture has not always been so smooth and widespread violence has broken out twice in the past decade, most recently in 2010 when over a thousand people died. Looking at the distinctly different psyches of the two cultures, it is easy to see how such things happen.
We will not endeavor to explain it all as many a text has been written to the effect, but the backward traditions of the Uzbeks, mixed with the encroaching and often aggressive nationalism of the Kyrgyz ensures that the area remains a tinderbox and few harbor any suspicions that this will change in the foreseeable future. The fact that the Fergana is the breadbasket of the Central Asian republics and mostly under the control of one of the poorest and most corrupt nation states in the region does not help and Kyrgyzstan's relations with its neighbor make LA/Owens River water issues look like a domestic argument.
We came here with a bit of a mission. We hung up our bikes in the village of Arslanbob for a few weeks to help the local CBT office get it's mountain bike program off the ground. Arslanbob is unique in that it is a truly isolated Uzbek enclave wholly within Kyrgyzstan that can trace it's roots for more than twenty five generations. Arslanbob Ata lived at the time of Mohammad, so the story goes, and is responsible for the settlement of the village. The locals in this 99% Uzbek village (there is
one Chechen, whose mother fell in love with an Uzbek man; He is always, always hammered drunk) have little relation nor concerns for nearby Uzbekistan and seem mostly to prefer the peaceful, insular feeling of their alpine oasis. We had hoped to pursue some of the obvious vertical objectives hovering above the town but were repeatedly deterred by the large amount of unstable snow that continued to fall throughout our visit. However, the trail running and scrambling on the lower slopes was superb, and the daily thunderstorms provided a stellar display of power as did the avalanches that roared from the hanging shields 2000 meters above. All in all we were happy to dawn patrol and get back in before the sky fell.
The local office of Community Based Tourism here is ran by an enigmatic dreamer named Hayat Tarikov. In our research for a worthy candidate for our labors here he was an obvious choice. If you start searching around in this part of the world, you will not have a problem stumbling upon his name again and again. CBT can really vary from office to office but here in Arslanbob, Hayat and his crew have defined the
idea of adopting a village. Programs like his ski team, environmental education for schools, trash pickup days and the general air of excitement around the office are proof that a small group can affect change in a rather large and extremely traditional population. He is like the Madonna Dunbar of Central Asia, he has the ability to dream freely and the wherewithal to push his dreams into reality. Our philosophy of helping out in the developing world revolves around identifying such individuals and getting behind them. In this case, it worked out quite well. His mission is to bring awareness to environmental issues in the adjacent 60000 hectare walnut forest (the largest and oldest on earth, well established when Alexander the Great marched through) through providing tools of discovery for tourists and locals alike. He has also created quite a few jobs for locals in a place where overgrazing is a problem (as evidenced by the heinous erosion on the only road into the village) and animals are the only obvious investment. To meet someone with such foresight in a place like this is truly amazing, but Arslanbob would slowly reveal its collective consciousness to be concurrently distinct.
has a team of local hard working types that double as his guides. While they may not be quite ready to handle technical ascents (though it is easy to imagine a future trip revolving around training for just that) they are more than ample deacons in showing off the finer attributes of the village and the surrounding environs. They have been doing so by foot for many years and Hayat woke up one day and decided that mountain biking seemed like a great addition to the mix. A local expat helped him score a couple of bikes and he was off, exploring local trails, racing intrepid travelers down dirt roads, and convincing the rest of the community that it was a good idea. We arrived with no real plan and quickly found plenty to do. His bikes were falling into a state of severe disrepair and though their mechanical aptitude runs high, his team needed some guidance to keep things running. We scored a few parts and some grease from the Osh bazaar and summized from the many rows of sub-walmart class junk hanging about there that quality parts are thousands of miles away at best. We then conducted a
series of maintenance workshops for the group who picked up the concepts quickly and were more than appreciative. We also accompanied the team, and about 20 local children, on a trash pickup at the nearby waterfalls where local tourists annually deposit hundreds of kilos of garbage all over the lovely sights they have come to witness.
In the end we were able to restore the fleet to working order and train his guides on repair and general upkeep. This will not last forever though and so we are now looking for a more long term solution. JP at James Frames (hand crafter of our fine, fine rides) is working to put together a box of parts and tools to send to the team in Arslanbob. Our buddy Jason Borges in Osh is willing to be the receiver of such goods as he has a perfect track record with postal goods and he secretly wants another reason to head up to Arslanbob and ride with Hayat more often! We are asking other members of the cycling community to pitch in as well and now we extend that request to you, our readers. In reality these guys need more bikes
in a major way. The two of us plan to shop in Kashgar, China in a week or so at a famous Giant outlet there. We could then send a bike or two to Jason in Osh on the weekly bus provided we can find one of reasonable quality that fits within our volunteer budget. Another option is to send one with members of the climbing community when they come over in the fall. Helmets, racks and panniers would also help these guys as would older (ie 7 speed) drivetrain parts, and the tools to fit them. We can certainly coalesce a collection point so if any of you would like to donate bikes, bike stuff or the funds for new rides, just email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org. We will also ship a box of our own parts over when we come home for the tons and tons of snow that will surely fall this winter!
As for us, we are packed to ride in the morning. It has been nice to get to know a very traditional community in a deeper way, to run our asses off in the hills, and get some detailed beta on this wild and
beautiful place. Now it is time to ride and we can already feel the deep rev-up involved with reconciling so many kilometers ahead. This time its for real, and the road is long, the deserts vast, and the passes high. The gentle hearts of the Uzbeks have touched us and we will probably never forget some of the deeply sincere gestures these people have made on our behalf. We can only take their kindness towards two strangers to heart as we head back out into the big world. Not surprising that yet again it is the spirit of steep, high places that gives us the fortitude to run, doggie, run.
There are more photos below