Travelling without a bicycle seems like a new thing for me. Chasing a bus or any other cheap public transportation seems like another challenge to me. Planning to get to places that are difficult to reach without spending much money is hard, since I’m so used to have the freedom to reach to those places just by pushing the pedal of my bicycle. Good thing is, this time I’m travelling with a friend. Anselm, my friend from Germany who lived many years in Malaysia enjoying the heat of the tropical weather, now travelling with me for a few days. We had a plan to go south to Osh after visiting the beautiful lake of Songkul, but a plan is just a plan. We don’t really want to stick to it. We discovered that going to Osh takes 2 days from where we were and we don’t want to spend so much time inside a marshrutka or shared taxi. We want to spend more time breathing fresh air since Anselm only have a few days here. So we changed our plan to visit a small town in southern part of Issykul, Tamga which is only a few hours away.
We reached Tamga with a warm welcome by a guesthouse owner, an old but still smiling Kyrgyz woman and her husband. She speaks very good English and cook very good food. Her husband, Askar doesnt speak English but he looked straight into my eyes while talking to me. Studying his face and body language, this man seems very interested to talk to me, to share many things with me but we are limited by our language barrier. He seems an interesting person and I regret that I still couldnt pick up both Russian and Kyrgyz language. While having our meal, the French solo female traveller, Amber that we met earlier in Songkul came and joined us in the guesthouse from her one day trip to southern part of the country. It was good to have another companion. We then decided to travel together for a few days.
This is the second time I traveled to Issykul Lake but never been to this part of the lake. Tien Shan mountain splits into two on the eastern part of the lake… hugging the whole lake and connect again near the Chong-Kemin valley to the west. So this time, we decided to explore the beauty of the Tien Shan mountains on the southern part of Issykul lake. It was interesting, as we first went to Fairy Tale Canyon near Tosor village. Its really like in a fairy tale, where we saw some jawdropping view of landscapes made out of red clays and sandstones… except that there is no multiple rainbows since its very sunny. The shape of these stones really look like a group of animal, lizard, snake, dragon and some parts of it looks like the great wall of China! How amazing to think that these stones were carved by the natural sculptor, the blowing wind for thousands of years. The whole canyon took us about half a day to discover.
After spending half a day exploring the Fairy Tale canyon, we then went back to our hostel in Tamga for a good rest. The next day we went to Barskoon waterfall, a nice small waterfall hiding quietly inside a beautiful alpine forest. The hike was easy, only took us a few minutes to get to the beautiful waterfall but there were not much water on the fall. Summer was really dry in Kyrgyzstan this year. Since I arrived Bishkek last July, it only rained twice, about half an hour each. Rest of the days were hot, dry and dusty. The sky doesn’t really cry a lot anymore in this part of the world nowadays. The locals predict one thing, they say this coming winter, it really gonna be a bad one, which means, the winter will be really cold this time. I could do nothing when I heard it, except just blinked my eyes and swallowed my own saliva. I really need to be prepared, if I really want to dwell in the high mountains this coming winter… The dark cold winter days will come here soon and nowhere I can run. The mountainpass in the southern Pamir already been covered by snow now. And thats the only road for me towards the west, towards the sunset.
After I reached Bishkek a few months ago, I took a good break from cycling… protecting myself from the fierce sun and extreme heat of the Kyrgyz summer. Living in this world, you just can’t get everything. When you get something, you lose another. I get to sleep in a comfortable bed at home, eating proper and on time etc… but I miss being in the mountains. For some 6 weeks, I spent most of my time in front of my computer screen doing the final editing of my film but I left my bicycle in the balcony untouched… together with my panniers, backpacks, sleeping bag, tents and all my other travel equipments. Instead of pushing the pedal of my bicycle through mountains, I spent most of my time pushing the mouse button and keyboard on my computer… transferring the experience of my latest cycling journey into a series of travelogue film… so that I can share my experience… my thoughts… my ideas… to everyone. Ideas… that always come mysteriously into our mind out of nowhere.
Time passes by without me realizing it. Slowly, it gets colder in this part of the world. The wind started to blow the cold air. Leaves started to change its colours from green into yellow and red… and finally fall on earth. Every evening when I look at the sky from the balcony, I saw thousands of birds flying, probably migrating to other places, since the cold days will come here soon… the dark cold winter. The summer was really hot and dry and at one point, it started to rain here. Once the rain started, it got cold slowly at least during the night. I started to wear 2 layers of clothes at night until the rain turned into snow, then I wear the third…
A friend of mine, who is originally from Germany but living in Malaysia, came to visit me here in Kyrgyzstan, since he planned to spend some quality time in a beautiful mountainous landscape of Kyrgyzstan and breath the fresh unpolluted air here. We then travel together to a beautiful spot in Naryn Province, a high altitude lake called Song Kul, which sits above 3000m altitude. This time, I travelled without my bicycle. For now, I plan to leave the bicycle behind and travel on foot… taking all the advantage to reach places that I can never reach on a bicycle. We travelled by marshrutka, a type of van that is popular among the local people around this region. We travelled from Bishkek to Kochkor by it, then we get a shared taxi with another 3 French tourists to Song Kul lake.
It was raining while we were on the way to the lake, the sky covered by thick dark clouds which is usually not a good sign. When its raining in lowlands, usually it will snow anywhere above 3500m altitude. But when we reached the lake, the rain stopped, the dark clouds still dominating the sky but the sun managed to shine fiercely, giving a very beautiful lighting and the scenery around the lake really looked surreal. And I quickly grab my cameras and film the beautiful surroundings.
We stayed for 2 days in a Kyrgyz yurt, called Bozui in Kyrgyz language, together with the 3 French tourists. During the day, we all do our own activities, some went for horse riding… me and my German friend went hiking to the nearby mountains. It was an easy hike but we were breathing quite heavily due to the high altitude. But the view was magnificent. We could see the view of the whole lake from the mountain and the weather was good… warm and sunny.
During the night after having dinner together, I decided to stay outside the bozui in the dark, lying on the grass… waiting for the milky way to appear in the night sky. It was very cold at night even though its still autumn… probably below 0 degrees. But when the sky became dark, the milky way finally appeared… decorating the night sky beautifully and I was awed watching it, admiring this massive ring of stars. It feels magical staring at this beautiful starscape. The longer I watched it, the further my inner mind flew, totally into another realm, imagining myself flying from one star to another, from one planet to another. I imagine myself flying free in the milky way without needing to worry about getting tired or getting hungry, unlike here on earth while our soul are stucked here inside our physical body.
After spending hours in the cold admiring and filming the milky way, I went back to the bozui very quietly after the midnight, afraid that I might be disturbing others since everybody were already sleeping. The next morning, we all departed to our own ways. The French travellers went somewhere else and me and my German friend decided to travel to another lake, Issykul, the biggest lake in Kyrgyzstan. The locals in Song Kul lake told us that they will leave to the lower land soon… probably in a week time since its getting colder there soon and the path will be covered by thick snow on winter… making it very difficult to travel around this area.
I arrived Toktogul with style! There is no better way to arrive a place with thirst, hunger, without money and a puncture. Just a few kilometers before arriving Toktogul, I had another puncture while riding around the reservoir. While pumping my tyre, the pump broke! And there was nothing I could do, I can do some minor repair on my bicycle, but not my pump. And I had to ride slowly with my half flat tyre towards the nearest truck workshop to get my flat tyre fixed. While the pressure is still high on my tyre, I rode fast towards Toktogul, as the people here told me that there is a bicycle shop at the bazaar in Toktogul. Upon reaching Toktogul, I found a hotel that can take me for the night with 800 som (some 18usd). I had not much cash inside my wallet, only some 200 som that can pay me a meal. I went to the centre of Toktogul town and found out none of the ATM machines here accept my card! Some of the ATM machines here immediately rejected my card once I chose English as the chosen language! It was hillarious. It seems that the ATM machines here only speak Russian and Kyrgyz. I had little money left, I was hungry and thirsty, without food and ATM card doesn’t work around here. Great! The nearest place my card can work is in Bishkek which is some 300km ahead and I will be very slow getting there since I have to climb 2 huge mountain pass, the Ala Bel and the Tor Ashuu pass, which both sit at over 3000m altitude.
Luckily, the next day my family in Bishkek contacted the people in Karakul, not so far from Toktogul. And later a guy from Karakul came to my aid like an angel without wings and lended me 10000 som in advanced that I promised to pay later when I arrived Bishkek. Plus the hotel owner understood my situation and let me to stay the first day for free without paying, so nice on how I’m being treated here. I stayed 2 days in Toktogul, taking a rest from the steady climb from Tashkomur to Karakul. People in the bicycle shop in the bazaar in Toktogul surrounded my bicycle, guess they never seen such bicycle here in Toktogul. After a good rest, I then proceed towards Bishkek.
Right after I cycled out from Toktogul, the climb immediately started for me. Again, it’s a battle of lungs, heart and the mind. The battle of the body and the mind started again for me and it lasted a few days! I never stopped puffing and panting on every breath I took. The road demanded me to climb about over 2000m vertically in only about 60km, which is very tough! Toktogul only sits around 1000m and Ala Bel pass is sitting at 3200m altitude. So I cycled mostly between 7-12 km/hour, riding very slowly and taking many stop in between. And sometimes I had to stop for a long time since the headwind was slowing me down even more and I had no energy to fight it, since I spent all my energy fighting the gravity. As always during big climbs, when I’m puffing heavier and the muscles of my legs feel really painful, my body demanded to stop. But my mind always resisted, asking me to continue, to keep moving. But this time, I only managed to do about 50km a day only. It was tougher when I climbed Tibet four years ago, which took me 11 days of tough climb to get to 5000m altitude from the lowland Chengdu which sits only at 450m altitude. But I carried less back then and I was younger and more fresh.
At first I planned to ride fast to end my ride in Bishkek for this season. But looking at this climb and the surroundings, I decided to take it real slow. Its not only the mountains that are slowing me down, but the beautiful view around here as well. It was hot in Toktogul, somewhere around 40 celcius but right after I climbed into Ala Bel, temperature dropped drastically, it started to rain ice and it was very cold at night. Climbing over the Ala Bel, I arrived the beautiful plateau of Sussamyr. This plateau sits between the Pamir and the Tian Shan range. I rode slowly in Sussamyr, it has everything my soul needs, rivers, canyons, valleys, mountains, nomad yurts, fresh air and beautiful views of over 3000m altitudes. People here smiles, kids waving and chasing me, demanding to be photographed, and horsemen stopped and posed for my camera.
Instead of cycling the whole day sunrise to sunset, I only cycle for some 2-3 hours daily here in Sussamyr, not rushing to get to Bishkek but rather finding a good place to pitch my tent and explore the valleys around here. Some places are best reached not by bicycle, but by walking. I explored one of the beautiful valley here on foot. 3 things lead me, which are my heart, the small path and wild horses. Using these 3 things as my compass, I went deep in the mountains. Good thing, I never get panic anymore nowadays when I’m lost in the wild. “I’m never lost”, I remind myself, always. Im not getting to point B from point A. Im going nowhere, I just wandering, so how I can I get lost. And I’m glad that I never use GPS when Im traveling. Now Im so used to find directions by looking up at the sky. And being in the wilderness without spotting any human is never dangerous and scary anymore to me. Sometimes I like it, alone, quiet, dark and mysterious…
After Im done getting myself deep inside the heart of Sussamyr, I then faced the last mountain, the hardest of all, the Tor Ashuu pass. This is almost as tough as the toughest mountain I climbed in my entire life, the Gongga Pass just outside Kangding in the Sichuan-Tibet road. It’s as hard, really reminds me of Tibetan mountains, except that I didn’t get any near death experience here. Took me over 6 hours to pull my bicycle with all my heavy luggage to the top of the mountain pass, which sits over 3600m altitude. It was really steep. At some point, while half way climbing it, I actually gave up and put my hand up, hoping that some trucks will stop to pick me up to take me to the top, but none stopped. So I climbed really slowly, I actually took a rest in between even for every 200 meters when I was almost at the top. And it didnt stop there, once I reached the top of the mountainpass, I didnt celebrate since I saw a long, dark… scary tunnel. It was about 3km tunnel cutting through the peak of the mountain. Again, I was hoping that any truck will pick me up to cross this tunnel. Im afraid of long dark tunnels, paranoid since I had a near death experience, a truck almost… probably half a meter away from hitting me when I cycled inside a dark tunnel in Northern Norway 2 years ago. I then just ride through it, had no other choice. It was scary, the road was wet and slippery, I couldnt see much but I was more afraid that cars and trucks couldnt see me. After I cycled through it, I then celebrated it, both the big climb towards the pass and the dark tunnel. It feels like I just successfully climbed Mt Everest with just wearing sandals and short pants.
Standing outside the tunnel, I see the road goes down, no more climb all the way to Bishkek. And my ride is officially over here at Tor Ashuu. I dont actually need to cycle anymore now, the gravity will push me fast, I just need to sit on my bicycle and enjoy. The gravity then pushed me fast towards Sosnovka, which is some 40km away and sits 2000 meters vertically below Tor Ashuu. I then start pedaling again easily to get to Kara Balta, which is just next to Bishkek. And the last day of my ride towards Bishkek, was the easiest. After all the climb, from Mongolia to China and Kyrgyzstan, cycling 60km on flat road to get to Bishkek was nothing. People are selling fruits along the road, the traffic was really busy, pollution in both the air and the sound. I see good roads with lights, traffic lights, zebra crossings and police everywhere. Young guys are blasting their favourite music from their Mercedez and BMW, probably driving their parent’s car, hoping that they can attract those girls with long legs wearing heels walking at the roadside. I’m now back at the civilization. The mountains are now behind me, the mountains are now history, nothing more than good memories…
The ride up north from Jalalabad was quite easy at first. It was flat, riding through villages and there were many shops at the roadside selling drinks so I don’t worry much about supplies. The road hugs the border of Uzbekistan for a few kilometers. Whenever I stopped by in a shop to get some drinks or whenever cars slow down to talk to me, the very first question they will ask is “Atkud a?”, which means where are you from in Russian. Sometimes I do get bored from this same question and I just joke with them saying that I’m from Senegal and they believed me!
The owner of the hostel that I stayed in Jalal-Abad suggested me to go to Arslanbob, a very beautiful place not so far from Kochkor Ata, north of Jalal-Abad. But when I reached Kochkor Ata, I decided to keep pressing north towards Tashkomur. I don’t feel like going to popular beautiful places anymore nowadays. But instead, everywhere I go, I will try to find the beauty in it, I will try to find the beauty inside everything that I see. Sometimes, its amazing when you get to see beauty inside ugliness, to see light inside darkness, to see the good intention within every bad action. Trying to find the real within real.
I usually wake up as early as 4 am in the morning whenever I’m the wild sleeping under the stars, get my stove to work to produce a cup of hot coffee while its still dark and prepare myself to see the birth of the sun from the distance horizon coming from the east. This is usually the time I will let my mind fly away far, travel to another realm that my physical body can’t reach, and I will let it fly deep. I spend an hour in the quiet morning, trying to see the beauty of all things, realizing that all the beauty that exist around me are all made by a microscopic particle… realizing that everything in this universe, from the super huge asteroids to the very tiny particles no larger than a grain of dust, are all made by the most fundamental unit called atom, vibrating at different frequency, manifesting themselves at different attributes, so that we humans can compare them after it reaches our 5 senses. The sky finally changes its colours, the sun finally rising, I keep watching, keep watching the world around me from a totally different perspective, a world that is built by vibrating atoms, trying to see the real within real, trying to see the ocean by diving deep inside it, not from the surface of the water anymore. The vast world around us happens within us. It has to reach our 5 senses before our brain can confirm that it is real. Living this kind of moment, I always question myself, is this really real? Is this the real real?
I wonder how does it feel like once our soul gets out of our physical body forever… when death takes us. Is it only then we realize the real real? Just like when we wake up from our dream? The world inside our dream feels so real until the moment we wake up, until the moment our soul is connected again with out physical body. Then only we find out that the world within our dream is nothing more than illusion. Slurping my hot coffee while watching the birth of the sun, I feel thankful of my existence. I exist to experience existence! I experience the taste of the hot coffee going through my mouth all the way to my digesting system. I experience the joy of watching the beautiful sunrise in the early morning. I feel glad going through the good moments and even the bad ones. I’m glad that I went through all the tough climbs and the hardship fighting the strong headwind in the steppe and deserts, so that I really can appreciate the moments when I’m relaxing outside my tent enjoying the hot coffee and the beauty of the sunrise. I’m glad that I encounter many bad people in my life on the road, so that I really appreciate and be thankful whenever I meet the good-hearted people. I’m glad that I’ve been through hunger, fatigue and sickness so that I really appreciate whenever there are food in front of me and be thankful that I’m blessed with good health and strength. I’m glad experiencing the hardship when walking in darkness, so that I can be thankful when I’m walking easily when its bright. And I’m glad of all the struggle living on the road, so that one day I will really be thankful when I’m back home…
My mind just keep flying, keep traveling deep, far away inside some mysterious realm… a realm that doesn’t exist in the prison of space and time. A realm I refer to as mysterious, simply because it’s a realm that cannot be reached within our 5 senses. A realm… that only the spirit and the mind can reach, not the physical body. And it only comes back when I’m done with my coffee, when the sun is getting higher above the horizon, when I’m done doing nothing but sitting and watching the rising sun, when I start packing all my stuffs to be on the road again. I rode slower since I’m in Kyrgyzstan, feeling more relaxed but somehow I managed to cover more kilometers in a day. I guess I’m slower because of 2 factors, I’m getting older and there are so many big climbs here in Kyrgyzstan. But I do more than 100km a day here because I started my ride very early in the morning and finished riding late in the evening, the day is long now since its summer. The climb isn’t so hard but its very long all the way to Karakul, before I flew fast downhill towards a beautiful reservoir in Toktogul.
Osh is by far the best city Ive been in Kyrgyzstan. Compared to Bishkek, people here smiles more. They are friendlier. Osh city feels more like Kashgar compared to Bishkek. The people, the food, everything. Bishkek looks more a city inside Russia compared to Osh. There was a major riot in 2010, a big fight between ethic Kyrgyz and Uzbek, hundreds of people died from it but now the life here isn’t so tense anymore. I see Kyrgyz and Uzbek are smiling to each other, greeting each other, shaking each other’s hands, living in harmony. I feel safer here too. I ended up staying 5 days here, taking a rest from cycling and continue to perform my fasting in the month of Ramadhan while Im not moving. I made some friends in the restaurant that I usually go but language is always a barrier. In this case, google translate seems like a very genius invention.
It feels like Im living in an oven here at daytime so I spent most of my time under the shade. On one fine evening I climbed Mt Sulayman, very close to the city to see the whole view of Osh from the peak. It is only a few easy steps on stairs to get to the top, a very small mountain. It was already dark when I got up there so I got to see the night view of the city and the beginning of the highway M41, which snakes all the way to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan through the Pamir mountains. On top of the mountain, there is a small room for prayer and they said Prophet Muhammad used to pray here during Isra’ Mi’raj. Now the peak of this mountain is filled with young local couples and some tourists.
After a good rest in Osh, I then got back on my bicycle seat to continue my journey towards the north, to get to my final destination in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. It was an easy ride towards Jalal-Abad, mostly on flat roads without much climbing but the traffic was quite heavy, especially with trucks. The road is quite small and it was scary sometimes when trucks passed by me so near. I rode slowly again, not because of the headwind and big climbs, but the friendliness of the people. Kids were chasing me, shouting happily, adults were smiling and waving at me as I passed them. It was very hot here at this time of the year and it feels very hot as early as 9am. I stopped at a small shop at the roadside to get some cold drinks not so far from Jalal-Abad and to take a short 15 minutes rest. But I ended up staying there much longer since a few of them speak good English and we talked about so many things. They then invited me to take a break from the hot weather and swim in their pool. They don’t run guesthouse here but they offered me a room for the night. I wasn’t in a rush so I accepted happily. One of them, Nuraim and her mother cook very good plov for me. When her dad came home from work in Osh in the evening, they drove me to the nearby field where they planted some wheat and apricot. It was a very beautiful evening.
Talking to them, I realized that they are living a very good life here. They don’t live with debts like most of us who are living in the city. Nuraim’s dad, work in Osh for a few years after he completed his study in Moscow, didn’t earn much but managed to buy a house here in the countryside instead, since getting a house in a city is expensive. Then slowly he opened a small shop at their house selling groceries and expanding at a very slow rate from there. They’re very careful on their spendings. I then began questioning myself, many people from the countryside are moving to cities in search for a better life. But most of the time, I see that people living peacefully and happily are here in the countryside, not in a crowded city. I sensed happiness buried deep inside their heart, covered by their inexpensive simple clothes, by watching their movements, from the words that come out from their mouth, from their eyes and from the smiles that are carved on their beautiful faces. Its like diamond in the rough. The secret inside the “batin” (interior, unseen) will always show itself and can be seen at the surface in the “zahir” (exterior). Every unseen thing in the heart will manifest itself and can be seen on the exterior of a human, from their movement, facial expression and their words.
Talking about money, I don’t 100% agree when they say money can’t buy happiness. Try to live in poverty and see if we can lead a happy life. Most of the time, especially living inside the system of the world today, you need money to get things and to do things that can make you happy. You can’t directly buy happiness with money, but we definitely need money. The key is moderate and being grateful on what we have. If we want too much, much more than we need, that’s when greed starts coming into our heart and we will always struggle to fulfill our greed because human greed is infinite. The worldly things can never fulfill our human greed. Material possession is never the key to happiness. The more we posses, the more we afraid to lose it. None of these worldly materials are permanent. Everything is temporary, we are just borrowing it for a while, we are just owning it for a certain amount of time, even our own human body. We buy a luxury car today, it will start to age the moment it got out from the showroom. Slowly, the parts will become old and need to be replaced after a certain amount of time.
Moderate is the best. I learned this by living my life from the seat of my bicycle, on the road. If I have no money at all inside my pocket, I will feel worried, on how to get food and where to sleep in town. If I carry 2000 USD inside my wallet, I will feel worried that someone might try to steal this money from me. And I will always be careful whenever I walk in crowded public places such as bus stations or bazaar, and I hate that feeling. But if I don’t carry much, but enough for me to pay for my accommodation and food, then it’s perfect. It has been years Ive been living on the road, homeless, depending at the materials that I posses only that I carried on my bicycle, which is not much. I realized material possession is never the key to happiness, but freedom is! Being able to breath the fresh air is. Being able to see the beauty of sunrise and sunset is. Being able to smile when you are alone, to think about the good things, forget the bad things and able to forgive every bad things that happened in the past when you close your eyes right before you go to sleep is. Being able to feel contented is. And being able to say alhamdulillah, terima kasih, thank you, gracias, spasiba, xie xie or rahmat is….