Currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand (06/12/2013) - 31200km cycled

30 Apr 2013

Osh to Bishkek – Kyrgyz vodka, pancakes and fruity juice sachets

Posted by Will

A rickety pancake stall ruined all chances of leaving Osh in good time. Hidden down a quiet alley in the bustling central bazaar a couple of smiling old ladies chuckled good-humouredly as Kaleb and I sat on stools wolfing down plate after plate. ‘Maybe they sell lemons here?’ – ‘they must have sugar too’ – ‘how about a coffee?’. Five minutes and a quick run round the bazaar later we’re eating the same pancakes layered with sugar and drizzled lemon juice while bemused locals slow their walk to gawp at the crazy foreigners. We suggest in mime that the babushkas add it to their menu. A snort of laughter from the now considerable crowd. And then Kaleb produced his mini espresso maker to put on the hob…

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Last week I cycled a bit over 600km to the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek. A team a two: pedalling, camping and complaining together as the hills, rain, wind and occasional Kyrgyz driver threw what they could at us. Together we managed life a lot better than I usually do on my own. I ate well by my usual standards, didn’t run myself into the ground to make a few extra kilometers, kept my spirits high and even managed to mix up a Gin and Tonic in the wilderness.

When we finally made it out of Osh we didn’t make it far. A lake on the left inticed us down a bumpy dirt track where we soon found an already-drunk group of four laying into the vodka by the side of the road. We were immediately poured sto gram (100ml – standard vodka measurement in these parts!) and after graciously rejecting a second helping were sent on our way with sickly sticks of peeled rhubarb. A preliminary for the night to come.

We found a muddy but perfectly adequate campsite beside a small river but were spotted by a group of fishermen, one of whom came over to say hello. Our new best-friend’s name was Artur. He not only gave us his entire haul of fish (most of which were still flapping around in the plastic bag) but also insisted that he call up family and friends to come down to meet us. We’d hoped to have a quiet night cooking up a big potato-bolognaise but our protests were only met with the assurance that we weren’t causing him any trouble. A few phone calls later Artur walked off promising he’d be back in an hour or two.

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We cooked up a delicious bolognaise with fried potatoes and all the right herbs and spices. A perfect camp meal. A rather macabre scene followed as Kaleb preceded cooking the fish by decapitating them one by one. ‘It’s the kindest way’, he said, but the group of still-moving mouths and unblinking eyes told a different story.

Of course, Artur returned. Accompanied by several brothers, a whole horde more fish, a big plastic pack of beer and several bottles of vodka, they set their car-headlights on the sea of mud, onion-peelings and severed fish-heads that was our home that night and got the party started. The youngest brother made a fire to grill the new fish, the oldest ate the rest of our bolognaise and the middle two smashed into the vodka, eagerly inviting us to join in. They started telling us about the various businesses they were involved in. Artur claimed to be the president of Kyrgyzstan’s largest bottled-water company, the other to have a lucrative oil contract with Russian energy company Gazprom. ‘If police make problems for you in Bishkek, call us’, one said. ‘What kind of girls do you like?’ said the other. ‘We will kill a sheep in the morning so you can have breakfast with us’, they all said. And as the vodka flowed the more Kaleb and I enjoyed their story, nodding and smiling at the increasingly absurd but nonetheless exciting offers of an alien lifestyle. Kaleb demonstrated his boxing prowess to an interested Artur who immediately offered to set up a ‘Britain vs. Kyrgyzstan’ bout in Bishkek. At this point I think I was Kaleb’s manager.

They seemed to disappear as quickly as they’d arrived. Kaleb thought it would be a good idea to wash up his expensive cooking pan in the fast-flowing river which only led to it being swept out of his hands downstream. I led the charge for recovery but after only about 20 metres fell head-first into a large bog. Sensible enough to know when I’m beaten, I collapsed into my tent, wet and muddy, to deal with the consequences the next morning.

Deal with them I did and after a slow start we were back on the road to Bishkek. Green fields laid themselves out in front of us on a 30 degree celcius day which called for regular ice cream stops. A downhill into the sunset where silouettes of horse and rider shuffled slowly along the wavy ridges of the Kyrgyz foothills was one of the finest I have ever ridden. Another wholesome camp meal and then bed in a park.

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The next days were tough for the hills, the road constantly demanding a shift from highest to lowest gear. The scenery was spectacular, perhaps a little understated for the wonders seen recently, but nonetheless stunning. Eggs, potatoes, bread, condensed milk, onions, garlic, leafy things of various shapes and sizes, dried fruits, Snickers bars and bags of flavoured beef croutons (which I’m sure have no positive impact on the body’s ability to produce energy) saw us through. We also added flavoured sachets to our water for a bit of extra buzz: melon pleasantly surprised me, orange went steady, cherry lost power and lemon never gave up.

Rain dogged us in the latter stages as the road hit higher altitude. I rigged up my barely-used tarpaulin to keep our kitchen space dry although at first I failed to understand the need to keep the canvas tight. Puddles collected, sagging occured, people got wet, cursing happened, but good humour prevailed as is always the case in good company with a full stomach. One day we climbed almost two and a half vertical kilometers which lasted 65km, first through rain and then through snow. Another beautiful moment: reaching the top of the 3100m pass at sunset with the road just a tiny grey slice in a blanket of virgin snow. It was too chilly up there though: -5 degrees with the gear cables freezing. We sped down the other side to safety.

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Another big pass to climb, through a 3km gassy tunnel in a horse trailer, and then a swooping descent to the city we’d so long looked forward to reaching. Bishkek feels like the end of hardship. The land is now flat and low-lying; summer is starting to stir. Bishkek marks a final visa hurdle – after the consulates of China and Kazakhstan I’ll be fairly free to travel. From now on the roads should be well-paved and sign-posted. I’ve held Bishkek up as the finishing line for a tough road through Central Asia.

And of course there’s another reason to get excited about Bishkek. I have a visitor from the UK coming my way.

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6 Comments already on “Osh to Bishkek – Kyrgyz vodka, pancakes and fruity juice sachets”
  1. 10:54 ampermalink
    30 Apr 2013

    k

    fish can’t blink x

  2. 4:00 pmpermalink
    30 Apr 2013

    Jackie

    Always so exciting to get an email saying that you have a new blog post. I’m loving reading all of it and glad that you seem to be having the time of your life. How far away is California now? haha xx

  3. 6:19 ampermalink
    01 May 2013

    Sarah, Guy, Toby and Edward

    Loved your latest blog as always – very funny. If you don’t get to write a book on your travels you could always write an alternative cookery book! XXXX

  4. 11:46 ampermalink
    01 May 2013

    Luke

    Yer you have a visitor coming!

  5. 1:45 pmpermalink
    01 May 2013

    Nevin

    What an incredible journey! So glad you’ll have Luke out there with you tomorrow, hope you both have the best time. Miss you Will but happy that you are doing so well xxx

  6. 1:44 pmpermalink
    08 Jun 2013

    rajesh sharma

    Dear Sir,

    I want to know about Potato vodka. I want to put a Potato vodka plant in india.
    Please let me know , If possible.

    COO
    Rajesh Sharma
    00919013451577