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Kyrgyzstan - part 3

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We thought it would be a good plan to explore Kyrgyzstan by bike. But, as it turned out, just renting a bike is already quite a tough duty in Kyrgyzstan. We started our query in Karakol. The mere process of informing was already pretty difficult, since we had forgotten our Communication Kit © and therefore had to draw everything. Of course Kyrgyz know very well what bikes are, but drawing luggage carriers and gear wheels in an identifiable way is more complicated. Besides, people didn't seem to see the necessity of these parts. After hours of negotiating, and, finally, enthusiastic nodding, eventually two bikes showed up. They did have a luggage carrier and gear wheels. But since they were of Chinese making, they weren't much larger than a children's bike in Europe. 

In Bishkek, we were luckier. We still were stared at with some astonishment - a good thing to get used to - but eventually we set off, equipped with two nice and firm mountain bikes, for a 9-day tour through Kyrgyzstan. We had sketched our plans only roughly on the map, and had little idea of what we would encounter.

Day one wasn't too pleasant. The first 70 km went through an extremely dull, crowded road full of diesel damps, and we had our first flat tire even before we had left the city of Bishkek. I was pretty exhausted fairly soon - to be honest, I never ride on my bike for more than an hour at home - and had quite a lot of pain in my back due to an old backbone fracture. After a lot of tedious cycling, we arrived in an incredibly miserable village, where everything that had been industry under the Soviet regime was now rusting and stinking away. But eventually, we managed to reach a village farther, where we were welcomed heartily by a kind family; we had soon forgotten about our nasty first day.

The second day was a very sporty one - although Wouter and I still don't agree on exactly how sporty. In any case, in line with Kyrgyzstan's mountainous image, we had to get over a pass of over 3500 metres - a height difference of more than 2500 metres. Although Wouter had an excellent time, and so had the many surprised car drivers who drove along, my back and I were somewhat less enthusiastic, so after 1500 metres of climbing, we in a kind of compromise threw our bikes on a truck and had a lift for the last part to the pass.

Once we were up there, we came upon breathtaking scenery: an enormous plateau, with behind it the next mountain range, grazing horses and cows, and occasionally a yurt, all lighted by a deeply red sunset. Wasn't the Shangri La somewhere near here... Looking at this panorama, we sat by our tent and ate our pasta with help of tent props - and felt like kings.

The days that followed led us over gravel roads through most stunning landscapes: grassy, prairie-like plateaus, desolate hills with from time to time a wild west village, and wild canyons. And everywhere those friendly people - way before you've seen them, they have already seen you, and crowds of children come running towards you, run beside you - sometimes on their horses or donkeys - or try to catch up with you on their tricycles (in which they quite often succeed). Everywhere people waved, smiled (or laughed?) at us, or at least nodded friendly. And everywhere we were heartily welcomed and treated with watermelon, tea, or the delicious kumys...

Although with the many small conversations and visits to people our Russian had improved in high speed (unfortunately, we had mostly forgotten all those (mainly 8-syllable) words in a minute, so it also declined in high speed), we couldn't manage to get used to kumys. For this time disregarding all cultural correctness: it really tastes incredibly awful. As far as kumys is concerned, an unrepairable gap is leaping between the Kyrgyz and us.

People who live in yurts on a deserted plane are quite happy with al bit of contact, so we nearly always were invited in for tea when we cycled by. Tea is quite good in Kyrgyzstan: they add a sort of thick cluttered milk, so it tastes nice and creamy. There is also always a small bowl of salt for adding to your tea (don't mistake it for sugar, like I did, after which I went through one of the unhappiest moments in my life, since the resolute hostess kept shifting the tea bowl towards me ("DRINK it!")). Besides tea, there is some flat bread, which you can take and tear into pieces, and to which you can add some sort of jumbled cream or butter wit a spoon. Of course, you can also just stick the serving spoon in your mouth right away; Kyrgyz people don't care much about that.

But then. You think: what a nice tea. And then. They suddenly put a large bowl of kumys in front of you. And they do that with such ceremonial exultancy, that you can't utter any word of protest. Which you then vigorously regret a few moments afterwards. Since kumys really can't be put away. Not even if you really try. Not even when you're really tough. Wouter somehow managed to get it under his tongue towards his throat. I didn't. So you stay there hooked up with that enormous bowl of Kyrgyzstan's national pride. If you change your sitting position, they shift the bowl along and call out: "Drink!" (intonation: "Knock it back!"). We then eventually cowardly said something like: "Nyet kumys, stomak!", thereby regretfully patting our stomachs, while the hostess looked at us in astonishment. Maybe we should go and tell them one time. About the kumys. That they'd better make cheese of it.

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