By Craig Jackson
Tour by Compass Expeditions – www.compassexpeditions.com
I am sitting in a stone hut, 6 x 3 feet, it is steaming hot and an old bloke is stoking a fire to heat it from the small room outside.
I am at 3,200 meters elevation, and the small room has four other sweaty people in it. It is getting cold outside.
We pour water over our overheating heads and wonder at the amazing day that has led us to this place. A traditional Russian Banya (sauna) is an experience within itself, but after an amazing day of riding through remote Kyrgyzstan, it is almost surreal.
Tash Rabat is known for its 12th century “Silk Road” stone caravanserai that is still in remarkable condition for being at high elevation and subject to the deepest Kyrgyzstan winters and burning summer sun.
We have ridden from our very odd but comfortable lodgings in Naryn, about 200 km away, via a couple of spectacular mountain passes on twisting dirt roads. The rest of the route was through green valleys and river flats, finally climbing to our current elevation.
Lunch was under the shade of a future service station canopy; the spectacular view and the fact that we had shade in this epic but bare landscape made the picnic spread before us so much more appealing.
The morning ride had been great, a combination of well-maintained gravel roads and super smooth sealed main roads. We belted along the valley floor beside the spectacular, snow-capped At Bashy mountain range. China was on the other side of those mountains, but that wasn’t our destination. The afternoon’s short route was something out of this world, riding through a canyon with rocky cliffs on either side and a crystal-clear creek running briskly beside the tight and twisty track. The walls of the canyon closed in, then spread out to reveal grand and spectacular valleys, spotted with rocky outcrops on incredibly steep green slopes.
Our yurt camp was within sight of the impressive stone structure that looked half buried in a mountainside. We left a few beers to cool in the creek running beside the camp, and headed further up the valley to check out the caravanserai.
Travelers and traders on the Silk Road would stop at a caravanserai to shelter themselves and their animals from the elements as well as bandits, so they came to resemble small fortresses on some of the more remote and dangerous sections of the Silk Road.
After checking out the structure inside and out a number of our crew decided a nearby mountain top would provide a better view of the scene. Being bikers, it was obvious to them that the best way to get up there was to ride, so off they went.
The view was reportedly spectacular from the high ridge, and when we returned to our camp, the beers were cold, the banya was hot and we were in total bliss.
This was day four of fourteen on the Compass Expeditions Kyrgyzstan Explorer Tour, and each day raised the bar in terms of riding and spectacular scenery. So far, we had explored Kyrgyzstan’s second largest and oldest city, Osh, sampled Kyrg hospitality at a homestay in Kazarman and also at the mentioned comfortable, but slightly strange, compounded hotel in Naryn.
Each of these days was a series of twisting and climbing gravel roads over mountains that have to be seen to be believed; the landscapes changed constantly with each mountain pass and alpine pasture. Some ranges folded like green velvet fabric, others were bare rocky outcrops, there were brick red cliff faces, yellow rounded hills of earth and fractured escarpments.
The one thing it all had in common was that it was mind blowingly spectacular, and the smiles on our faces at the end of each day were impossible to wipe off.
The fifth day of our adventure started with the best riding yet, over three 3,000-meters-plus elevation passes and through a number of river crossings. The riding was a bit more challenging than previously, but the ever-changing landscape just kept improving. We were almost at overload when over the rise of an emerald green hill, Lake Song Kol appeared before us. Snow-capped peaks stand all around the deep blue mirror of the lake, with nomadic locals herding horses, sheep, goats, cattle and donkeys on the sloping plain that leads down to the lake’s edge. Some brave souls rode down to the lake for a quick dip in the chilly waters while others relaxed and took in the most impressive vista. Later, a traditional dinner and glorious sunset topped off another fantastic day.
Our yurt accommodations were luxuriously appointed, and the newly finished hot showers and western style toilets were most appreciated. After sunset the temperature dropped rapidly, but fires were lit in the wood heaters of each yurt and we were soon cocooned in warmth and dozing off.
Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked country; apparently there is a point somewhere in the country that is the furthest that you can get from a coast in every direction, but I can’t verify that. However, standing beside the second highest alpine lake in the world (after Lake Titicaca in Peru/Bolivia) you could be mistaken for thinking that you are at the beach.
Lake Issyk-Kul is very different from the high and remote Song Kol; it has a beach holiday atmosphere about it with people picnicking on the sand, swimsuit-clad teenagers gather in groups by the shore and vendor stalls sell bright inflatable water toys and ice-creams for the children. We ride along the northern shoreline of this huge lake towards our next stop on the journey, Karakol.
The next day was spent off the bikes and bouncing around in a couple of Russian ex-military four-wheel-drive troop carriers. We made our way high into the nearby Tien Shan mountains for an overnight stay in the staggeringly beautiful alpine valley of Altyn Arashan.
Our yurt accommodation was basic but spectacularly located and the hot springs bath house beside a rushing snow melt river soothed away all of the bruising. Some nasty local wine made the evening very social.
A cool and misty morning was picturesque, but we were glad to get down out of the hills and back to the warmth of the lower regions the next day.
Back in Karakol, we were treated to a fascinating walking tour of this very Soviet-looking city. Our young and professional guides from an organisation called “Destination Karakol” were full of interesting information about the city, it’s buildings, history and population. I felt like I learned more about the region in a couple of hours than I had in a week of touring. The walking tour concluded with a bowl of delicious spicy soup and noodles that is the local specialty. Served cold with extremely tasty potato filled bread, it was refreshing and captured perfectly the blend of Chinese, Mongol and Soviet influences on this corner of the world.
From Karakol we headed along the southern shore of Issyk-Kul towards the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek. We had a couple of days to explore this modern and well laid out city. Another city walking tour showed us through the green parklands and wide avenues of the city centre that are filled with massive Soviet-style buildings and imposing monuments. Kyrgyzstan has an interesting, turbulent and sometimes violent history and it was good to see that the current generation are keen to preserve it all, the good and the bad, for future Kygis to learn from and progress.
In Bishkek we ran into another group of Compass Expeditions riders who were half way through their epic 105-day motorcycle adventure from London to Magadan, in far eastern Siberia.
The two groups totalled 38 people and took over a couple of adjacent hotels. It was great to share stories with like-minded travellers and hear about the amazing, sometimes gruelling “Road of Bones” expedition. It was a big night of celebration that evening at a local German-themed beer garden.
Our Kyrgyzstan adventure was drawing to a close, but we still had a couple of stops left on our return to Osh for the finale.
Over another pass at more than 3,500 meters, we made our way through Chychkan Canyon for an overnight stay at another basic but beautifully situated hotel literally hanging over a glacial melt river this time, and then into the Uzbek-populated part of the country. Doing an Uzbek family homestay gave us another insight into the varied cultures that make up modern Kyrgyzstan. A tour of the local area took us to the busy local market, a waterfall that was alive with a carnival atmosphere and the world’s largest ancient walnut grove.
Our group’s final evening back in the city of Osh was marked with a feast of local flavours, excellent vodka and for some, partaking in the traditional shisha, with a non-tobacco apple flavoured smoke that added nicely to the atmosphere.
We reminisced and made plans to meet each other again in far flung parts of the world. It is safe to say that the experiences that we shared riding around this somewhat forgotten corner of Central Asia has formed friendships that will last the rest of our lives.
We can highly recommend, to the adventurous traveller, a ride around this beautiful and fascinating country before the tourist hordes descend and it is changed forever.
Compass Expeditions is taking bookings now for the Kyrgyzstan Explorer Tour in July 2020
Visit www.compassexpeditions.com/tours/kyrgyzstan-explorer/ for more information.
We were riding our choice of either Yamaha XT660Z Teneres or Yamaha XT600s and both models were perfectly suited for the terrain and style of riding you encounter in Kyrgyzstan.
If you are riding with a pillion the Tenere is definitely the more comfortable choice for your passenger as well as having a bit more power for the high pass climbs.
The XT600 was appreciated by the shorter and more petite riders in the group, as the lower seat height made it more manageable and confidence-inspiring in the rougher dirt sections of the ride. Andre, our local mechanic who travelled with us, was able to lower the suspension on a couple of the bikes so that the seat height came down to under 80cm.
For one novice young lady rider, who only had limited off-road riding experience when she convinced her father to join her for the Kyrgyzstan Explorer, it made the difference between an awkward stressful ride to a comfortable and fun blast each day.
The elevations at some of the higher passes meant a drop of power was to be expected as we climbed, but the spectacular nature of the ride meant that keeping the pace down on the winding dirt tracks was probably for the best. Overshooting a corner up there could give you a very fast and terminal short-cut to the bottom.
On a couple of the off-road days, dust was an issue. Andre was kept busy over the lunch breaks and each evening, cleaning air filters and making sure that the bikes ran their best.
Starting in 2019 Compass Expeditions will have a different fleet of bikes, including BMW F700 GS, F800 GS as well as the two Yamaha options to choose from. Being BMW Travel Partners, Compass tries to use BMWs wherever possible on their tours worldwide.
The 2020 tour departs again in June, and prices range from US $5,750 depending on your choice of bike and whether you prefer single or twin share accommodation.
For more information visit the Compass Expeditions website:(www.compassexpeditions.com) and look for the Kyrgyzstan Explorer tour in the Asian tour page.