Dave Edinger's Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan Ride

I work in aviation with an international clientele. With a passion for motorcycling I usually try to throw in the word ‘motorcycle’ when I am with colleagues or customers to see if anyone bites. It has worked in the past and resulted in rides in the Pyrenees, the Alps and Malaysia. This may well be the most interesting ride yet and will bring my total of ‘countries ridden in’ to 31.

Interestingly enough, when the elevator doors opened at my hotel in Almaty, Kazakhstan, a guy comes out wearing an ‘Iron Butt’ t-shirt. In fact, three riders emerged including the President of the Iron Butt Association, Michael Kneebone. They were on a ride from Belfast to Beijing. We had a nice chat that evening comparing trip stories.

Keith, Yeldo and I began our ride in Kazakhstan by going to Yeldos's restaurant for breakfast. After we rode for about 100 KMs, we stopped for tea and broth. Unfortunately, immediately after breakfast, Keith's left front fork started leaking. Then his rear brake failed. So Keith returned home and Yeldos and I headed east.

We reached the border between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and I appreciated having someone with me who speaks the language!

The guards sat on our bikes (without asking) and took pictures. The landscape was amazing, very high snow-capped peaks, rolling hills similar to Colorado West of the Rockies, and some desert-like areas which could be Arizona. We saw camels, which surprised me, but mostly it was sheep and cows. The herders live in yurts, which they put up and take down as the herd moves from one grassland to the next. They say two women can put one up in 30 minutes. I find that hard to believe. I tried it with some of my colleagues but it took ten of us including 3 Kazakhs.

The landscape changed a lot once in Kyrgyzstan. There are tall mountain ranges on both sides of the road. Kyrgyzstanis are mostly farmers. There is plenty of rain and the fields are green and lush.

We spent the night in the home of some locals in Karakul, on the edge of Lake Issyk-Kul, which is one of the deepest lakes in the world at 700 meters. Compare this to Crater Lake, which is only 593 meters deep and is the 10th largest in the world. The cost for accommodation at the Lake is about $25 per person including breakfast and dinner. These places are not certified or legal but the government looks the other way since the people need the money.

There were 5 members in the family we stayed with. There was also a German couple traveling through ‘The Stans’ and Iran in a large Army vehicle. And then there was a Dutch couple (currently living in Belgium). They were winging it through some of the same territory, hitch hiking, horseback riding etc. Did I mention that with the eleven people staying there (guests and family) there was only one shower and one toilet?

After breakfast and instant coffee we left to circle the lake. It was quite amazing. It was surrounded by snow-capped mountains, most with glaciers. Below the mountain range, it was dry as a desert and looked more like the Badlands N.P. in South Dakota. We rode all day to make it only 3/4 of the way around the lake. We tried to find another guesthouse, finally giving up we went back to a sign that pointed to a hotel. Five miles down the gravel road we found an amazing place on the lake with a sandy beach.

Earlier in the day, when it was time for our afternoon tea, we had stopped and asked where we could find some. We were told to go to the end of the next village. There we found a yurt on the side of the road that sells drinks and mare’s (horse) milk.

Yeldos told them I had never tasted mare’s milk, so they invited us into their home/place of business for a cup of the milk. It was strong and very ‘unique’ and it had small flakes of fat floating around in it. This was followed by hot tea and hand made bread. They asked if I had a strong stomach. I said ‘yes’, (but actually I don't) and later suffered for my lie. Good thing I brought Imodium.....

Mare’s milk is a big deal in this region. There are groups of men standing next to their cars drinking it. A car pulls up, the guy steps into the yurt, the lady pours the milk from a plastic bucket using a funnel, into a washed out, reused plastic bottle, and off he goes. The milk is kept in a large leather bag made of horse leather.

About 20 miles later the authorities were shooting radar and pulling everybody over. They said we were speeding and we denied it. Then they wanted to know if we had been drinking. We told them that we didn’t drink. They made us both blow into a breathalyzer and then let us go. I am told this is S.O.P. for any traffic stop.

One of the interesting things you see everywhere is paid hitch hiking. People hold their hand flat at a 45-degree angle. Cars stop, they negotiate a price and go. This is also not technically legal as it cuts into the taxi and bus business, but it's everywhere and done by all, young and old. Once you get out of the cities where all the expensive cars are, you see a lot of Soviet era cars still on the road along with small wagons pulled by a single small donkey.

As this region is primarily Muslim, you frequently see very ornate Muslim cemeteries. As you go through the towns they appear almost as a walled city. Not like we have come to expect from spending time in Europe where cemeteries are generally on the outskirts of cities. Kyrgyzstan cemeteries line the streets on both sides. Picture a house with a wall in front of it, a gate for the driveway, then the wall of the next house, then a gate, or a business with a wall and gate, all connected. All different but all connected.

A lot of the rest areas have two concrete ramps, which allow you to drive up, change your oil or work on the underside of your car without crawling directly on the ground. Apparently this is a Russian thing that they installed everywhere. Speaking of Russian, it is spoken in both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan as well as all of the former Republics. However, this is becoming less and less common as most of the Republics have been independent since about 1991 and are trying to re-claim their old identity. Kazakhstan has put up a satellite allowing them to control their own viewing channels on TV. Kyrgyzstan can't afford to do this and is forced to watch all Russian TV and propaganda. It is interesting watching the Ukrainian crisis as reported from the Russian propaganda point of view.

Day 3
After setting our clocks to watch the World Cup at 2:00 am and falling asleep, I was awakened by cheers from outside my window. I suspected correctly that we had miscalculated the start time. I woke up Yeldos 34 minutes into the game and we spent most of the night watching it. This made for a bit of a late start the following morning but we left about 9ish so it was going to be a short day.

Away from the desert of the west end of the lake we were back to green crops and grazing cattle. Then the pavement ended again as we headed to the border. Honestly I could have left the dirt bike gear. The total gravel, round trip, was only 150 KMs or less. We came out of the mountains after crossing the border and there was a serious storm on our tail. We out ran it, but if we hadn't, I would have rather had my Aerostitch and waterproof Sidi's than dirt bike gear.

We ended up at a hot springs resort 20 KMs from the Chinese border. Quite a nice place for this part of the world. As is typical, the place was run by former Russians. This is one of the interesting things about this trip. The Kazakhs by nature are nomads and warriors. The Russians brought infrastructure, roads and schools but they didn’t understand the Kazakh way of life. Under the Soviet rule millions died being forced into collective farming where the food went to the Soviets and the Kazakhs survived on the leftovers. Anyway, this is a ride not a history lesson so... Long story short, the Russians no longer have elite status. They are normal citizens. With the Kazakh President that has managed the changes since independence about to step down and the crisis in the Ukraine heating up, the political landscape made for an even more interesting experience.

On the final day’s ride, we went through the National Forest with trees over a million years old. There are only two like this in the world. We stopped at the National Park, which was an amazing site. It is a smaller cousin to the Grand Canyon. There we met the only other rider on the whole trip - a Brit who was travelling solo on a Triumph Tiger he had bought in Florida and was on a round the world ride.

The trip was both great and a big tease. We want more. Next August, we are planning to return and ride four ‘Stans’; Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (again), but also Uzbekistan and Tajikistan along the Pamir Hwy, which borders Afghanistan. Back for more mare’s milk!

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Revised: January 05, 2018 .