After an interesting but strange few days in China, I felt much more relaxed as soon as we were through the final passport check and into Kyrgyzstan, via the Torugart Pass, 3,752 metres above sea level.
The scenery didn’t change much but everything else did. Gone was the vaguely threatening atmosphere. I say that, and it’s true, but we were not bothered by security forces at all in China, except for the long wait at borders. What must it be like for the locals?
All but five per cent of Kyrgyzstan is above 1,000m, making it higher than even the highest peak in England, Scafell Pike. Until our last day we didn’t drop much below 2,000m, and the light was so good and the air so clear that you couldn’t not take a decent photograph (although I did try).
Once they get their toilets sorted out, the tourists will flock to the country. While the rural areas were breathtaking, and the perfect location for filming a western, the towns were dusty old remnants of the country’s Soviet Union past. Before the Russians became involved about 100 years ago and built these towns, the population was largely nomadic, living in yurts for much of the year. Today, only one third of the 5.6million population live in towns.
Part of the country’s appeal for tourists is to offer this yurt lifestyle, which originated in central Asia. I have to admit when offered the choice between a yurt for the night or a room inside the house, it was no choice at all. Some of my friends on the Redspokes tour opted for the genuine outdoor experience for some reason I don’t understand. Good luck to them.
The cycling was fantastic — smooth Chinese-financed roads, as in Pakistan, and very little traffic.
The first day of riding saw us cover 50 miles in less than hours down a long gentle decline with huge snow-capped mountains in the distance and the most common bird being the eagle.
That was followed by a sensational 30-mile climb to the 3,030m Dolon Pass, only steep for the last three or four kilometres, followed by another long descent.
Back in Pakistan, I had a touch of altitude sickness at 3,200 metres. Or so the owner of our accommodation described it, perhaps heading off any thought that his food may have been responsible.
But once I had recovered from that, I cycled at over 4,000m with no effects at all, and went the same speed I would have done at sea level.
The Kyrgyz people were much more open than the Chinese. However, after Pakistan, where absolutely everyone waved and shouted greetings at us, some of the Kyrgyz did look at us as if we were crazy when they saw us gesticulating at them.
It won’t take long for the country to cash in on its attractions for tourists, but they do have to get one or two things sorted out first.
I’ve mentioned the toilets, and there is that little matter of the national sport, a sort of crazy polo with a goat’s head for a ball and a hole in the ground for a goal. It’s called Buzkashi. Horses are a very common site, even more so than yaks, sheep and cattle. I asked and yes, they do eat them. But, so the French and that doesn’t stop the tourists going there.
The last act of the whole tour was a memorable one. We were given taxis to the airport from our western-style hotel in the capital, Bishkek and were told it would take between 40 minutes and an hour, depending on traffic.
We left at 7am on a Sunday and the driver went straight through every single red light along the way. We must have gone through 15 stop signals and were there in 20 minutes.
Western ways are slowly coming the country, but it will take a while for them all to arrive.
Click on any of the pictures below for a slide show: Pictures by Richard Mindham, Bridget Mindham, Sharon Archer, Craig Thomas. And me.