If Only They Could All Be Arabel: Living and Riding in Central Asia

We arrived in the Kyrgyz city of Karakol in what has become a familiar state after a stretch in the wilderness… tired, hungry, desperate for a shower, and in need of clean clothes. It’s true that civilization never feels better than when you’ve been away from it for a handful of days, and for us, the timing was perfect to reset and not think about the bike or riding for at least a moment.

While we had previously been the recipient of the notoriously warm hospitality of the Kyrgyz people while we were camping in the wild on a number of occasions, we never expected the welcome we would receive here.

Sitting on the edge of a hot and dusty street on the edge of town, we waited hours for the owner of a hotel we had booked for the night to show up. Maybe they were out in the mountains and never saw our reservation? The likelihood of them returning seemed to dwindle as the sun dropped toward the horizon. Just as we were tossing around the idea of leaving to find another place to sleep for the night, a car pulls up to the house next door. A young girl gets out of the back, sees us sitting there (probably looking quite pathetic by this point, and undoubtedly radiating a countless number of questionable odors), and approaches with a smile. Speaking English, she introduces herself as Fatima and asks the usual questions of our origins, why we’ve decided to come to her home country, and why we travel with bicycles.

After finding out that we were waiting for her neighbor to arrive, she quickly disappeared into her house. Moments later she emerged again and with the aid of Google translate said: “Come, you will stay with us and rest”, motioning us toward her home. With many shower-less riding days under our belt leading up to this moment, Chrissa and I didn’t feel right about imposing our current state of filth upon their home, but with some persuading and considering of our options, we eventually joined.

After more food than we could handle and plenty of technology-assisted conversation, we had our first Kyrgyz “banya” experience. For those who don’t know (I certainly didn’t), it’s something like a mix between a sauna and a shower. You enter a small room that is super-heated by fire and bathe using a mix of water from large hot and cold buckets. After so long in the mountains, this was more satisfying than you could imagine! I can highly recommend seeking one of these out if you’re ever in this part of the world!

Fatima’s family prepared a guest room for us and over the few days that we stayed in Karakol, they even took us for a tour around the local bazaar (market) where the family has a small stand that Fatima’s parents run. To say that the hospitality of the Kyrgyz people is merely “warm” would be a massive understatement. This family took us from the street and treated us as if we were a part of their own for days, without even batting an eye or looking for anything in return.

Despite Karakol putting forth its best effort to keep us in its clutches for “just a couple more days”, the mountains were calling our names, so we set out to skirt around the shore of Issyk-Kul, the second-largest alpine lake in the world, and head back up toward the glaciated peaks of the Tian Shan mountains once again.

Twisting around between big valley walls along the smooth dirt road to Barskoon pass was unlike just about every other road we’d ridden in Kyrgyzstan to this point. A Canadian gold mining company works up in these mountains, so it’s maintained to perfection despite not carrying a ton of traffic. Active mining roads are always questionable, as there’s always the chance that you’ll end up getting dusted by trucks endlessly, but this one was pretty chill, and the views were undoubtedly spectacular.

Still, we were excited to get off of the big road and onto one of the glorious 2-track trails that we had grown accustomed to riding in these mountains, and the road through Arabel valley was exactly what we were looking for. All-day with no cars to concern ourselves with, and a small track that gradually undulates its way down into the valley for about 200 kilometers in a way that feels like you’re on a never-ending descent. Floating over grassy fields and drinking from some of the clearest rivers I’ve ever seen. Often these downhills go by in a brake-burning blink of an eye after an eternity or two of climbing, but this one lingered on and on in the best way possible.

“If only they could all be like this,” I thought to myself, wondering if I’d ever thoroughly enjoyed riding in a place as much as I was feeling this moment. After so much time in the bicycle-travel wonderlands of Peru and Bolivia, I was starting to think that maybe I’d seen the best you could see on 2-wheels and that nothing else could ever quite live up to it. Thankfully, Kyrgyzstan is swiftly putting those concerns to rest.

See my route at Ride With GPS.