Land of the funny hats. I am 3,000m above sea level. The air is thin and I have problems with my respiration. Since four hours I am slowly climbing up the serpentines, always trying to find grip on the gravel road. My head hurts and I feel very weak. Dust is all over my body. At the same time, the worst diarrhoea of my life is pestering me. To balance the loss of water from my body I have to drink lots of liters of rock water, which is maybe the cause of my stomach problems. Like promised, I am now cursing the German cyclist who encouraged me to take this route.
Finally I reach the mountain pass. The view is utterly fantastic and for a moment all my troubles are forgotten. Down in the valley I can spot the point where I started cycling this morning, several hours ago. Uncountable peaks shimmer in beautiful colours. But I can't admire this scenery all too long because the sun is starting to set already and I really don't want to camp atop the windy mountain. Two days ago, I met a cyclist who was spending one night at the Kolman pass. He said, he wrote goodbye-letters to his parents because he thought he wouldn't survive the night...
One week earlier in Uzbekistan. I am leaving Tashkent in a shared Taxi towards Andijan, close to the Kyrgyz border. By skipping 400km of boring Uzbekistan, I was hoping to reach the World Nomad Games 2016 at the Issyk-Kul lake in Kyrgyztan just in time. But the Uzbek government and its henchmen had other plans.
In the Fergana Valley, Uzbekistan shares four borders with Kyrgyztan. The best option for me was to leave the valley to the north, in Izboskan. I arrived at the border post in the early morning just to hear that this crossing is closed for the next two weeks. Uzbekistan is celebrating 25 years of independence from the Soviet Union, and they are afraid that Kyrgyz terrorists could disturb the party. 'Every border post is closed, except the one in the far south', the soldier told me. Another taxi took me through the whole Fergana Valley once again.
Five kilometers before the border we had to pass one of various police checkpoints (In 2005, national security forces conducted a massacre in Andijan. Still today, hundreds of police and military forces are 'securing the unstable area') Most of the time these obligatory passport controls and registrations are done by friendly officers. But this time I had to deal with some really malicious men.
After checking all my pictures on my smartphone and reading through my private messages (he didn't understand a word because he doesn't know any English) the officer told me 'Border is closed. Turn around.' I asked him if I can see for myself because this morning I got told that the border crossing is open. 'No. All borders are closed. If you want to go Kyrgyztan, go back to Tashkent and take a plane.' You've got to be kidding me! I was 100% sure that he was lying but the machine gun around his neck was making me feel helpless. I had to turn around. Once again the paranoia of a Central Asian government and the stupidity of its military had beaten me.
What should I do? The aim of this whole bicycle journey is to show the people that you can travel without polluting the environment too much. Taking a plane was out of question. Should I wait two weeks for the borders to open? Luckily, the same day I met a Canadian couple that told me that there is another option: The border between Dostyk and Osh is open for foreigners! I went there the next morning and the crossing went smooth and quick.
Back in Kyrgyzstan, on 3,063m. Going down the Kolman pass wasn't much faster than going up. Big stones and many potholes forced me to apply the brakes continuously. The Lonely Planet Guidebook described this road as probably the worst in whole Kyrgyzstan. You should avoid it with your car - crossing it with a bicycle didn't make it better.
From the beginning I was pretty sure that my bicycle won't make it through without some kind of problem. Maybe a spoke or two would break. Maybe I would have a flat tyre. For 200km I made good progress until... CRACK! Suddenly the front wheel is blocking completely which results in me flying over the handlebar. Somehow I manage to land on my feet (it must have been my spiderman-powers who did this) and overcome this incident almost without a damage. Unlike my bicycle. The front rack is broken and I am stuck in the middle of nowhere.
After one hour a truck passes by and offers me a ride. During these last weeks I had a lot of throwbacks to overcome. But now, as my journey is at halftime, after six monts of travelling and after 10,000 kilometers of cycling, I don't really get annoyed by these problems anymore (except when some stupid bastards in uniforms are lying to me). Sitting in the truck, cramped between two Kyrgyz men, I close my eyes and smile.
A new plan. After sleeping at the truck driver's house, the men helped me to 'fix' the front rack Kyrgyz-style (see picture below). This way I could manage to cycle the 50km to the next town, Naryn. Over night I came up with a new plan of how to reach the World Nomad Games in time: I would send my two front panniers to the capital Bishkek, where they would wait for me. Meanwhile I will be able to cycle to the huge Issyk-Kul lake, watch some awesome nomad sports, and afterwards pedal to Bishkek to repair my bicycle. Sounds almost too easy to be true...
World Nomad Games. The World Nomad Games are an international sport event dedicated to ethnic sports practiced in Central Asia. Their aim is to preserve and revive the cultural heritage of nomads. Athletes from 40 countries participated in the various competitions of ethnosports held in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan, from 3 - 8 of September. And I was there as a visitor. Here's what I experienced.
Probably the most exciting nomad sport is the so-called Buzkashi (goat-grabbing), where two opposing teams are trying to grab a dead goat from the ground onto their horses and throw it into a circle. Originating from Afghanistan, this is an excessively brutal sport - for both horses and men. In Kyrgyzstan however, they call it kok-boru, and - unlike in Afghanistan where everything is allowed - there are some rules.
I am at the Hippodrome, surrounded by cheering Kyrgyz men in traditional outfits. China is playing against the USA. A few weeks ago, the United States were once again leading the medal count at the Olympics. But at the Nomad Games it all looks different. The Chinese were leading 20-4. Team USA had serious problems to even lift up the goat from the ground. To my mind, this is by far the hardest part. To grab the goat (whose head got cut off and, filled with sand, now weighs up to 35kg), you have to slide down on one side of your horse, trying not to fall from it. When you finally get hold of the dead animal, the opposing team is steering their horses right into you. More than once the Americans lost their balance during this process. As a result they fell down from their horses and the visitors broke into laughter because of the clumsiness of these Western cowboys. On the big screen installed over our heads we could see some close-ups of the American players: They showed some humour and were laughing about themselves as well. They had fun.
The Chinese lead was so big that they decided to pick up the goat for their opponents and hand it to them. Now this was the big moment for Team USA. The player with the goat was galloping in full speed towards the circle, supported by thousands of cheers from the visitors and a loud 'YIIIEHAAAA' from the Kyrgyz commentator. As he approached the end-zone, he was preparing to throw the goat into the 'goal'. But suddenly he dropped the headless animal and fell from his horse, so that he himself landed in the circle. Now, there was no more holding back. The Kyrgyz commentator made another joke and I saw old people with tears in their eyes because they just couldn't stop laughing.
Next, I took the bus for 40Km to Kyrchyn Gorge, where the hunting and archery competitions took place. The whole area looks like a big music festival. Hundreds of yurts provide the visitors with food and souvenirs. It takes a while to cross this massive camp in order to see some sports. There were huge eagles hunting for foxes tied up to horsebacks and well-trained hawks nosediving for bait. Actually, there was just one well-trained hawk from a Kyrgyz guy. The other hawks in this competition didn't show any interest in the bait and one even flew far away so that its owner had to run after it.
In the evening I was going to see some nomadic wrestling in the packed Gazprom-Arena. The type of wrestling I observed, Gyulesh originating from Azerbijan, was more or less like Olympic wrestling with points for every time you throw your opponent on the back. As far as I am concerned, the only exception was that in Gyulesh you can execute a spectacular finisher move (almost like in american wrestling you see on TV) that will end the fight immediately. Of course there were different weights competing, starting from <55kg up to 90kg+. In the last category I witnessed a fight between to Mongolians, both around 150kg. They were neutralizing each other in a way that it looked like they were falling asleep, head to head. For three minutes they hardly moved and the crowd became somewhat angry. Eventually one of the Mongolians won and moved on to the next round. There, he had to fight against an athlete around 95kg. The lighter one tried to use his speed as a an advantage by running around the Mongolian. But he couldn't even get hold of his belt because the Mongolian's belly was so big. The Mongolian lifted the 95 kilo athlete from the ground and softly put him onto his back.
My favourite fight however was taking part in the category of 90kg or less. It was the final and the Kyrgyz athlete entered the arena while the crowed was going crazy. He looked a bit chubby but I thought, who knows, maybe he has some good techniques. Let's see who he is fighting against. Then his opponent, an Iranian, was entering the stage. He ripped his shirt of his body and for one moment I lost my breath. He was a monster! Never before in my life have I seen so many muscles on a human. His body was shaped like a funnel. How can this guy weigh less than 90kg? It was unbelievable.
Nevertheless, the Kyrgyz crowd were still cheering for their fighter. The referee blew the whistle and the final round started. During the first moments both athletes were carefully touching each other, waiting for a reaction. Then, the Iranian got hold of his opponent, lifted him over his soulder easily and smashed him with full force onto the ground. It was brutal. The whole arena went completely silent and the final was over after only 18 seconds.
I put a lot of effort into visiting the World Nomad Games 2016 and I didn't get disappointed. The whole atmosphere of the event was very pleasant. People from all over the world came to this small Central Asian country to witness some nomad culture and the Kyrgyz people were more than interested in these foreigners. I've seen old men on the bus happy about having met people from Canada, Spain and Germany.
It is impossible to compare this event to the Olympic Games. The Organisation is terrible. On the one hand, I think it's what make the Nomad Games so charming. On the other hand, it can be very annoying if you want to watch some kok-boru, but as you arrive at the arena you realize that the Afghan team went home for some reason and the match between Turkey and Russia got re-scheduled for tomorrow for another reason nobody can tell you. Even the Turkish camera team didn't get this information. The program they hand out for the games is riddled with mistakes and there is no central information center that can help you out.
Russian athletes are clearly using doping because there are no controls and the Kyrgyz referees in wrestling are very biased. With their traditional hats on they more than once decided a fight in favour of the local athlete. Like that one time, when the Kazakh wrestler was leading in points and the Kyrgyz managed to throw him one last time on the back. The only problem was that the 5 minute time limit was already over. Or actually no problem, because the referees just set the clock back to 4:59. It was really obvious and the Kazakh coach was fuming but you couldn't hear his complaints because the cheering of the crowd was too loud.
A dream comes true. The stunning Alay Valley in Kyrgyzstan with its ever-snowy mountains lays above 3,000m. Its highest summit is Peak Lenin with 7,134m above sea level. To the right, you can find Tajikistan and the Pamirs. To the left, the valley crosses the border into China. Four years ago, when I first started to plan my route, I saw pictures of these white Alay Mountains. Since then I was looking forward to cycle the valley. Now it feels like a dream come true.
To enter the high plateau starting from Osh, I had to cycle continuously uphill for three consecutive days. As the last big mountain pass started, I witnessed just another horrible car accident. Actually the accident must have happened the day before because the wrecked truck was empty. All that was left was a broken windshield, red blood spilled over the white front and the creepy notion that the driver probably died. Some men were about to tow away the vehicle. Soon another gravestone will decorate Kyrgyzstan's streets. It makes me sad and angry at the same time because in so many countries reckless drivers overestimate themselves until they lose control over their vehicles. I just need to be once at the wrong place at the wrong time and this journey will be over.
After two hours of serpentines I reached the Taldy pass and got the first glimpse of the Alay Valley. I was happy. In Sary-Tash, a tiny village at the crossroads between Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China, I stayed for two days waiting for the Chinese border to open again (it was closed for one week due to Chinese mid-autumn festivities). The settlement had one small shop that was closed most of the time and when it was open you couldn't really find anything decent to eat. So during the three days I spent in the valley, I literally had to eat dog-farts as my grandmother would put it. Well, not literally. You can't really eat dog-farts, can you? I don't think so.
On Sunday I was finally making my way to the Chinese border post. My dream almost turned into a nightmare since there was a heavy headwind blowing for the whole day. Even though at this point I was surprisingly well accustomed to the altitude, it was still hard work to pedal the 75km. The road was perfectly paved and I had to share it only with one car per hour. And with Hiroshi from Tokyo, who was joining me on his bicycle for two days.
Crossing the border into China took a whole day. Custom controls, an obligatory 150km long taxi drive through no man's land, more custom controls, a two-and-a-half hour lunch break on the Chinese side, and finally I could cycle into Kashgar. China is different. China is crazy. But Xinjang province is still more Arabic than Chinese. I will go more into detail on my next blog entry...