Sunday, September 13, 2015

Kyrgyzstan: Adventure Riders Paradise or Fiction?

Kyrgyzstan, the relatively small country along the Chinese border, has been hailed as an Adventure Riders Paradise. Opinions vary as to why this would be. For some it's the seemingly endless number of gravel roads, for others the many difficult tracks available or the feeling of remoteness. We entered this legendary country not on an adventure machine but on a dual-sport and a bog standard road bike. Could it still live up to its reputation, is it a paradise even when you're not on an adventure bike? Is it as remote as it's made out to be, or are there even in this part of the world, people everywhere? Read on and find out in this first of a two-part instalment!

Leaving the orphanage, and especially the kids, behind was difficult. We had so many more questions to ask, so much more to learn about these kids and how they live. Part of us wanted to take them with us and show them the world too... which is slightly difficult on a bike. At the same time we know they have a good life with Allen and Cheryl. Yet when we rode away we thought 'we should have stayed a bit longer and make ourselves useful, help them with building or something'. I cursed the Chinese with their requirements for guides and strict visa dates, if we would have had flexibility in when to enter China then we could have stayed longer... Back to Adventure riding Paradise, let me start by saying that we are travelling, we don't pretend to be motocross riders, don't feel the need to slide through corners, pull wheelies to impress others or wish to show videos of us flying through the air. We travel, pure and simple, and we want to travel just to see and experience this beautiful world. Racing through it, either on high speed motorways or pretending to be a motocrosser would mean we see and experience it less. It would also mean we wouldn't show any respect to the people living in the areas we travel through, after all we are a guest in their country and blasting through it is not the way a guest should behave. We travel on a motorbike because it put us in the middle of the landscape and gives us much more freedom, nothing more nothing less, and we keep this blog simply to share with you what it is really like where we are.

We looked for the smaller, less travelled roads, as we have done in other countries too. In Kyrgyzstan that means automatically riding on gravel. If you don't want to ride gravel then Kyrgyzstan will be almost impossible as even the main road south has gravel sections. We entered from Charyn Canyon in Kazakhstan and immediately hit 50 km of badly broken gravel roads. But even if you enter from Almaty at Bishkek and confine yourself to bitumen roads, you'll be a disappointed as to be honest, they are rather boring. Go off the main road though and Kyrgyzstan becomes like you can see on this page.... but there is a snag though!

I'm well aware that a Triumph Bonneville is perhaps not the most logical bike to ride here. It weighs only 4 kg less than a 1200GS, has limited ground clearance, limited suspension travel and all sorts of geometric problems to properly function on narrow tracks. Heck, even the handlebars are completely wrong for this kind of work. Realistically I couldn't have expected this bike to be able to ride the tracks of an adventure riders paradise. Yet we rode plenty of them without any real problems. Sure it was hard work wrestling a heavy machine up the narrow rocky paths and yes Mike had it a lot easier on his XT which shines in these conditions, but it was possible. For our efforts we were rewarded with some amazing scenery. Views like we had not seen before and a feeling of remoteness that was almost magic. 

We free camped everywhere and pitched our tents in the most beautiful landscapes. Once in the mountains we were greeted by people living in Yurts, working with horses and donkeys like they have done for centuries, who were as surprised to see us as we were to see them. It is beautiful here, no doubt about it, and I can well understand why some call it adventure riders paradise... but before you start collecting your gear and make way for Kyrgyzstan, there are a couple of things you should know... read carefully and don't dismiss them too lightly!

For starters the roads here are a bit of a lottery. Some can be described as reasonable but most are in a pretty bad shape. Especially the connecting roads are generally quite bad. Gravel roads are fine with us but when the complete surface has disappeared and we find ourselves riding on the big sharp rocks that once formed the base layer... things become less funny. Especially when there are hundreds of kilometres like that to do. We found unfortunately quite a lot of roads like this. They are tyre shredders and batter the suspension. Unlike riding corrugations, of which there are many too, upping the speed doesn't work on roads like this. Add to that extensive damage in the form of holes, dry ruts, sand, thick layers of fine gravel etc. to contend with and upping the speed becomes a recipe for disaster. 

What I've described above is not the tracks we rode but the main roads that get you to the tracks. Don't underestimate this, especially when not on an Adventure bike. You may be the best off-road rider in the world, but when your bike and body are being systematically destroyed for hours on end and day after day then there will be consequences for both bike and rider (as you can read further on). 

The other thing to consider is the Kyrgyzstan people. Most of them are undoubtedly lovely people... but there are, I'm sad to say, also quite a lot of them who are not. On the roads this manifests itself in dangerously overtaking, cutting you off and generally speaking a dilligaf mentality (dilligaf is probably Australian and means Does It Look Like I Give a F@$k). Having been through 40-odd countries I think it's fair to say we've seen quite a bit, but we found Kyrgyzstan behaviour still pretty poor. It is for instance the first place in the world where we've witnessed being cut-off in a petrol station by someone speeding (yes speeding in a petrol station...) past the queue trying to cut in front of us while we were already at the bowser. Or how about flying out of a petrol station, almost causing a head-on collision with a taxi, before coming back into the petrol station from the other end with squealing tyres, just to try and beat someone else to the bowser... and then causing an almighty scene when he still didn't make it...! They have no patience whatsoever either and jump on the horn if there is just the slightest thing they don't like. 

On gravel roads this dilligaf behaviour results in massive white dust clouds and not slowing down at all for oncoming vehicles, meaning you can't see a thing and yet have to keep going or you'll be run over by cars behind you. At the same time people still overtake trucks, even through impenetrable dust clouds, and thus come towards you on the wrong side of the road while you can't see them coming from the dust... The trucks smoke so badly that breathing becomes truly difficult, especially when at the higher altitudes as in most parts of Kyrgyzstan.

Once you are at the more remote trails though, things calm down quite a bit, but you still have to ride hundreds of kilometres to get there in the conditions described above. Of course, the way you might experience the Kyrgyzstan trails also varies depending on which bike you ride. Compared to Mike's XT it is damn hard work to wrestle a heavy road bike up the steep rocky paths which is continuously trying to throw me off balance. While Mike is comfortably riding up, my front wheel is continuously bouncing all over the place as the limited suspension looses contact with the 'road'. Add to that a considerable heavier machine to push up and my rear tyre is struggling for grip too, both going up and down, while the front bounces over rocks and thus veers off course continuously. Yet the strange thing is that the narrow winding tracks climbing up into the mountains were not a problem. Sure it was hard work as the Bonnie isn't the most easy machine to do it with, but it did miracles! Along the way I was thinking 'How good is this? Here is a classic Triumph Bonneville climbing the tracks described as adventure riders paradise in far away Kyrgyzstan... Hats off that it made it!

It's fair to say that I did found the limits of the bike and had to return at one stage, when we found a 4 m wide river crossing of almost a metre deep fast flowing water. The Bonnie's air intake would have been under water and manually pushing the heavy fully loaded up bike through the river was not an option. The XT could have possibly made it, but even if we had managed to do it somehow, then an almost vertical exit at the other end of 3 metres high would have stopped any progress anyway. 

So what is the best bike to do this with? Honest answer? No idea! On the tracks no doubt a motocross or enduro bike, but that wouldn't be the most logical choice of bike to get to Kyrgyzstan. A big adventure machine wouldn't be my choice either as weight is a killer of enjoyment. Mike's XT is an amazing bike here and quite good on the road as well. I guess the answer will thus be a lightweight dual sport of some sort, like the XT or a KLR for example. 

I wrote earlier that there were consequences of riding the 'roads' in Kyrgyzstan. The situation for me is quite simple. My neck, spine and shoulders hurt so much having ridden thousands of kilometres on seriously bad roads that I simply had to stop doing it. I've been riding for days with so much pain that I've had tears in my eyes and have come to the point where I fear the damage might be permanent if I continue. Only yesterday another jolt shot a knife sharp pain through my neck just below the skull and this morning my neck felt like it had been hit with a hammer. Once again this is not the result of riding tracks but the through-roads in Kyrgyzstan. Had I been on a dual sport things would have been different, but I'm on the same bike which has taken me 130,000 km all over the world, including gravel roads, without any medical problems like this, emphasising how bad the roads here are. 

While there is a feeling of remoteness in some parts of Kyrgyzstan, in most you will find yurts everywhere you look. Trying to camp here inconspicuously and being left alone is all but impossible. There are hardly any trees to shelter under, so we were quite visible at all times and thus had visits from locals every night. In Kazakhstan people were interested in what we were doing, here they were simply trying to get cigarettes from us... Having been pestered about cigarettes for the umpteenth time, it becomes pretty boring. Some of them are quite persistent too, as if cigarettes are a life necessity.  

One other thing to remember is diarrhoea... yes I know it's maybe not the thing you want to read about but having had ejecta-shit for two weeks now and having been told this is quite common amongst visitors, I feel it's only fair to share the info... if only to remind you to have plenty of toilet paper with you at all times! What causes it we don't know. I wish we did! But having had this issue now for so long it does become quite tiring as it will result in limited sleep too. After all diarrhoea is 24/7, not just during the day! We tried the usual things to stop it but so far nothing really seems to work. 

In the next post we'll show you some more of the more remote rides we had! We will also answer the question if it is paradise or fiction and will do so from both Mike's and my point of view. Which brings me to the last suggestion: make sure you have enough fuel for at least 400 km when you go off the beaten track and see the amazing parts of Kyrgyzstan!