May 29-30

Departing Uzbekistan, Transiting Kazakhstan, Arriving in Bishkek Kyrgyzstan and Lake Issyk-Kul Kyrgyzstan

We left early in the morning on the 29th, crossed three borders, and traveled 400 miles. It was a tedious day. Exiting Uzbekistan took four hours; officials searched our duffle bags and panniers. In the United States, the government searches people coming in, not going out. I'm not sure what they had in mind, but they weren't searching other vehicles. Perhaps we looked like a suspicious lot. At the border of Kazakhstan there was a small incident – a money changer short-changed two of our riders by about half. A fight broke out and four people were on the floor wrestling. In the end, some money broke out of a bag and those involved dove for it and got most of their money back. Things are getting rougher as we head further east. The ride through Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan was a little bit like traveling fast through several parts of the United States. The beginning was like Vermont with bright green rolling hills, washed with rain. Later it turned into a Montana landscape, but with more green. Finally it resembled Colorado, with high mountains to the south and to the north. We rode between the mountains on the Great Plains between Chicago and Colorado.

Kazakhstan, I believe, is the sixth largest country in Central Asia and intensely beautiful. The people are beginning to look Mongol, with olive eyes and round faces and darker skin. They are a little more reserved, but very friendly once the ice is broken. We entered Kyrgyzstan through a simple, uncomplicated border crossing. Kyrgyzstan is also very mountainous, but quite green as well. We arrived in Bishkek exhausted at 10:30 at night after having left at 6:30 in the morning. Much of the riding was at night, Braille Style – the oncoming lights were blinding. We were unable to see the potholes, and occasionally did not spot a pedestrian until he was at your handlebars. It was not a pleasant experience. We met Alex, the manager of the Hyatt Hotel at Bishkek, earlier in the trip and he offered to take us the back way to Lake Issyk-Kul, an old but exclusive Russian Lake Resort with sandy beaches. We rode with him in a convoy. On the way we ran into the first true aggressive behavior of the trip in one of the small mountain villages. Four tough guys in a black Mercedes with tinted windshields (the mark of the Petro Oligarchs in Russia) grabbed two of our riders, tried to pull them off their bikes and would not let them pass. Eventually, other cars came along and they let everyone pass. There was also a rock-throwing incident in the same village. We drove into an alpine scene with two tiny hydro-electric plants where a bunch of school children were hiking. On the way back we pooled together and one of the groups ran into the same car with the tough guys, but there were too many of us for them to take on. It's interesting that this is not a place to go alone or frankly, even with two or three people. It's better to go in a group that has some strength behind it.

Driving through Kyrgyzstan we saw every type of landscape imaginable – desert, a small canyon cut by mountain streams, beautiful alpine meadows, high snow-capped mountains, rich bottom land. In a moderately small country it's an enormous mix of topography.

Road Conditions

The road conditions have been varied and changes occur abruptly. At one point there was a beautiful macadam road that enables speeds to reach 100 miles per hour. It eroded into potholes that seemed to be as much as two feet deep; and there was no way to avoid them. At one point I bottomed out so hard that my motor stopped running. Vince, one of our more experienced riders immediately identified the problem. The connector between the fuel pump and the ignition had come loose – a common problem with my type of bike.

There are also "near asphalt road" conditions. These are asphalt roads built during the Soviet period and covered by gravel later. These roads require riders to take the corners slower, and to anticipate sliding on the gravel between your tires and the macadam. The roads are approximately three lanes wide, but without lane designation. There is a lot of passing in the center, which is sort of a no man's land. It is fairly common to pass on corners, which means that you must be prepared to move off onto the shoulder if you find two cars coming toward you together.

Animals on the Road

So far we have an excellent safety record. Two dogs, one sheep, one rat and two birds – and not all killed. Both dogs limped away howling. The sheep looked in pretty bad shape. He had jumped over a barrier into Jack's path and was nailed hard at full speed and ended up tearing off Jack's front fender. Jack skillfully stayed upright on the road. In the evening, the animals are often herded down the center of these roads and they can come up anytime. We had to slow down at least 20 times for animals on or near the road. There was an experience two years ago on this same ride of a man hitting a cow – something that could be fatal at the wrong speed.

Police and Tickets

There's been no concern over speeding or tickets. The speeds in some cases have been over 100 miles per hour, far over the posted speed limits. No one has been stopped (perhaps because they can't be caught). When Marge was traveling between Bishkek and Lake Issyk-Kul her driver got three tickets. The process for paying a ticket is very simple – the policeman tells you how much you owe, the driver pays it, no receipt is given, the transaction is complete – quite a bit easier than our system.

Hotel

The Aurora Hotel at Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan is an old Soviet conference resort that was dropped flat in 1991. It shows the old grandeur of the Soviet system and the style in which the Soviet dictators entertained themselves. Murals display the power of individuals, the elevators make an enormous racket, the rooms are postage stamp size, but there are beautiful rolling gardens and grounds. The service is classic Soviet – the internet doesn't work, there's no wake up call, the desk attendant leaves at nine, no one knows who can change dollars, there's no laundry service, the dinner is chicken but it should be called Soviet Racing Chicken – it tastes more like rubber bands in chicken stock!

The Central Asian republics have one commonality - ghastly service and a lack of understanding of what a tourist may want. Perhaps it is because none of them make enough money to be tourists, so they've never seen it from the other side. But, it may just be the lax "who gives a damn" attitude that oppressed workers had under the Soviet system.

That's all for now.

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