Thursday, May 18, 2006

Biking Around Issyk-Kul day 5: Balykchi to Bokonbaevo

April 30, 2006

I learned today that I don't enjoy biking up mountain passes. I especially don't enjoy it when I've already been on a bike for 7.5 hours when I reach the mountain pass.

I also learned that the view upon exiting a mountain pass can make it almost worth it, and that the coast down the other side is pretty darn fun, even if I'm sunburned and exhausted.

It took me 11 hours to get from Balykchi to Bokonbaevo, the first town with a hotel. The long, empty stretch on map indicated it would take a while. So I started at 7:30, hoping to outrun the weather.

Luckily, I managed to avoid rain. But I had a long, tough trip, covering somewhere in excess of 90 kilometers with quite a bit of uphill.

In my younger days, I would have stopped somewhere short of my destination and tried to find a family to stay with in a local village. And perhaps if I'd been traveling with someone, I would have done that. But I didn't want to have to try to speak Kyrgyz or to answer 100 questions. I just wanted a quiet place where I could lay down and veg.

I'm amazed by the variety of landscapes I went through in that distance. From the barren outskirts of Balykchi, where garbage was strewn across the dry landscape and plastic bags stuck to scrub bushes, I reached the lake, which gleamed so brightly I couldn’t look at it. The beautiful mountains became even more of an attraction than the lake, as I moved through red wrinkled, brown folded and white-capped. I went past a marsh, where small, black ducks and white swans floated on water rippled by the wind, then looked out over dry golden grasses dancing in the breeze. I moved through coastal areas, through farmland, valleys, mountains, and even badland-like areas – hot, rocky, scrubby and abandoned.

Compared to the northern shore, the houses were more basic and people seemed poorer. They also seemed more kind, open and interested in visitors. I crossed paths with an entire family cheerfully herding cows, that waved me on my way. A sullen, unsmiling teenage boy on a horse remained silent when I greeted. He allowed me to pass. Then I heard the clomp of horseshoes behind me. I watched the dust rise as he rode ahead. Once he made it clear he could beat me, he’d slow down, let me pass, and then repeat the cycle. I met several young boys riding bikes or herding sheep (“there are a lot of rich people here,” a boy in a kalpak said when I praised his herd). I stopped to let these kids try out my bike and to take some photos with them.

In one village, I noticed a white statue prominently placed in front of a central building.

“Who is the man represented in that statue?” I asked a passerby, strolling with his wife. I expected to hear about a local hero I’d never heard of.

He looked at the statue and smiled. “Marx. That’s Karl Marx,” he continued with an exaggerated emphasis, in friendly recognition of Marx’s current irrelevance.

There seem to be just about as many animals as people on the southern shore. I rode along with sheep, cows, horses, donkeys, and bird, many accompanied by their young. When I emerged from the mountain pass and started downhill, I frightened four dark horses as I whizzed down. They galloped in a herd down the mountain, away from me.

Cruising down a mountain, looking out over multicolored mountains and a green valley, accompanying by galloping, unbridled horses, definitely rates as a Kyrgyzstan high.

Due to the lack of traffic, I could ride in the center of the road. The rock was like rocks stuck together with cheap tar – technically paved, but not so well. Potholes were numbers and outlined in red paint, awaiting filling. When I passed pothole #670, I wondered how high they were willing to count.

At 6:30 I arrived, exhausted, in Bokonbaevo, a run-down town at the point just before the road rejoins the lake. I found a pleasant, closet-sized room in the local Rahat hotel. For $5, I get a narrow, hard single bed, fresh, sparkly wallpaper in silver and ivory stripes, golden drapes and a shiny varnished wooden door. Best of all, I got a hot shower and the ability to lie down in quiet, where I plan to sleep for a very long time.

Bokonbaevo isn't known for its food. But I ate a whole bowl of lagman and found a great store that has such luxuries as oranges and ice cream.

This is actually my second visit to Bokonbaevo. I spent two days here last fall when I took my boyfriend falcon hunting. The falcon hunting is super cool, and makes Bokonbaevo worth a visit. But since I'd already done that, and already wandered the town, I'm using this only as a place to rest and move on.

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