We woke the next morning to an absolute cacophony of birdsong. In the space of minutes we had seen or heard collared doves, wood pigeons, gulls, cuckoos, woodpeckers, sparrows, ducks, geese, warblers, choughs and, of course various, ever-present birds of prey circling high above. Central Asia features on a lot of birds’ migratory routes, and it’s spring for the local residents, so I guess that’s why all the excitement. The whole way we’ve also noticed significantly greater numbers of beetles, bugs and butterflies than we’re used to – also great for the birds (but maybe less so for the windscreen…).
We headed around the lake to Karakol with a plan to do a bit of shopping and get some information about local mountain biking, but only once we’d stopped at the Fat Cat Cafe – home to proper coffee, a variety of excellent cakes and, miraculously, a book on mountain biking in Kyrgyzstan! This had resulted from a joint effort by USAID and Destination Karakol, the fantastically helpful community based tourism venture, and explained why we’d found bike routes on Trailforks.
Buoyed up with cheesecake and some route ideas we drove along a terrible track and up into the hills past the ski area where we put the bikes together to the sound of distant thunder. We’d found a pretty short but high and steep ride which promised views to the Tien Shan and back down to the lake. I think we probably cycled the first kilometre and a few stretches in the middle, but snowmelt and animal traffic had combined to turn the track into a quagmire. We carried on regardless, pushing the bikes and their increasing cargo of mud and sitting out a brief hailstorm under the shelter of some fir trees. The scenery was stunning in spite of the conditions – steep snow capped mountains, forested hillsides and alpine meadows in full spring flower (where they hadn’t been churned to mush). After 2 hours of essentially taking the bikes for a walk we reached the top, breathing hard and wondering if we were going to have to walk the whole way down as well… luckily not! Super steep, ridiculously slippy and definitely not pretty the descent was well worth the effort. The climb had taken us over two and a half hours but we were back at Giles grinning ear to ear and head to toe filthy within 30 minutes.
Herein lies a slight drawback of combining overlanding with mountain biking: we were filthy, our bikes were filthy, our water supply is limited and access to washing and drying facilities is random at best. After hosing the worst of it off we headed back to town to find a hostel. Luckily for us, there’s a regular overlanders’ haunt in Karakol who are used to requests of all sorts and rapidly furnished us with a pressure washer for the bikes and hot showers for ourselves.
We continued west along the lake the next day, looping back up into the hills from a town called Bokonbaevo to reach a jailoo (high mountain pasture) where we started a bike vs truck game of cat and mouse, switching halfway down for fairness though equally delighted to be doing either (apart from a slightly hair-raising moment where a couple of angry dogs decided to join the chase and very nearly caught the mouse).
Arriving back at the shore of the lake we found a quiet shingle beach complete with a stack of firewood to make our camp for the night. We’d just got the chairs out and popped the tent when a grinning cyclist pulled up. ‘This is soooooooo nice!!!’ he said, before jumping into the lake. Valentin had cycled there from Europe and been on the road for 8 months, sometimes with companions and sometimes solo (but always, I suspect, smiling). He joined us for dinner and a beer and even a song around the fire (he’s carrying a guitalele the whole way…) and we chatted life on the road.