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Open Central Asia Magazine Features Kyrgyzstan Driver

(This article about a Leap Local competition winner was published by Silk Road Media, in the autumn/winter print edition of Open Central Asia business & society magazine.)

Open Central Asia magazine - an adventure travel article about a mountain bike trip in Kyrgyzstan DRIVEN TO THE LIMIT

By Kirsten Koza

Alexey Drozdov, chauffeur, has never before had to phone his tour operator employer to say the words, “I’ve lost a tourist” until he met me.

It was the start of my three-week mountain bike trip in Kyrgyzstan, and I was missing in action somewhere above the Chong Kemin valley, near the 4770 metre-high peak of Chok-Tal. Due to lack of cell phone reception, the only thing Alexey knew was that I wasn’t at the meeting spot at Lake Issyk-Kol, a five-hour drive around the other side of the Tian Shan mountain chain from where he’d parted ways with me and my cycling guide, Elena Gromova.

 As hours passed, Alexey and my Kyrgyz cultural guide, Cholpon Soodaeva, realized we wouldn’t be having a sizzling dinner of shashlik Kyrgyzstan Celestial Mountains above Chong Kemin Valley - Adventure Travel (juice dripping skewered mutton) and celebratory vodka shots on Issyk-Kol’s salt-lake shores.  They decided to make the journey back to Chong Kemin.

I enjoy being pampered, but I don’t normally travel with an entire support crew to myself. I usually find friends to join me on my expeditions. But ever since 2010 the Canadian government has had the same high-risk travel advisory on its website, warning Canadians against “non-essential travel” to Kyrgyzstan. Nobody would join me.

Open Central Asia magazine adventure travel Kyrgyzstan - bicycle tour That night in the “Celestial Mountains”—unable to see in the dark, except when a meteor streaked past, vomiting from altitude sickness and fermented horse milk, dragging my bike over boulders, shivering in my shorts as we reached the snowline—I wished I hadn’t joined me on my own expedition. The route was impassable. So we stumbled back down the trail along the precipice.

 Alexey white-knuckled his immaculate, silver, 4x4 van across river rapids and along the bumpy track back to the yurt where his happy tourist had tried mare’s milk. No nomads had seen us. Maybe Elena and I were still on route to Issyk-Kol. Alexey hadn’t wanted Elena to take me on this ride. The night before he’d yelled at her (in English for my benefit) that I hadn’t acclimatized to the elevation and that the ride was too difficult. He now turned his van around once again and headed back to Issyk-Kol.  

High in the mountains, I could see a speck of light far below. Maybe it was Alexey. Elena and I screamed. Our voices were drowned out by the roaring rapids in the gorge. She tried her walkie-talkie and phone—nothing.

Kyrgyzstan nomad on horse carrying bicycle - photo by Kirsten Koza Back at Issyk-Kol, Alexey and Cholpon hired a nomad to go up the mountain on his horse at first light. They gave him emergency supplies. Cholpon cried because she’d lost my running shoe in the chaos. They parked at the trail exit and watched all night for two cyclists.

At midnight, on the other side of the Tian Shan, nomads made a bed for Elena and me on the ground beside their saddles and riding boots. The next morning we continued on our bikes. We crossed icy rivers, and when the rapids were too deep, passing nomads carried our bikes and us on horseback. At four PM thunder rumbled louder than my stomach, and gale force winds swept the valley.

Near Issyk-Kol the nomad horseman told Alexey and Cholpon there was a rockslide blocking the pass. So they raced back to Chong Kemin.

I saw the silver van round a bend—a knight in shining armour.  

Alexey Drozdov, Kyrgyzstan, driver, adventure travel, Leap Local competition winner A beer bottle pressed into my hand. Cholpon confessed she’d lost my running shoe and cried. I assured her it was just a shoe. We could have lost much more.

Alexey thumbed through my itinerary. “Nope. Nope, too dangerous. ” He explained that because of the recent heavy rains all mountain crossings could offer the same scenario. He refused to separate from us gain and instead drove his van to its limits, keeping his cyclists in walkie-talkie distance, unless he was rushing ahead to a picnic spot. Each morning of my new ad-libbed trip started with Alexey’s coffee and his asking, “How far would you like to bike today?” and evenings ended with vodka toasts, a view, and shashlik at every opportunity.

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To read tourist reviews or contact Alexey Drozdov, Cholpon, Elena, or other guides, guesthouses and hotels in Kyrgyzstan: http://www.leaplocal.org/locals/country/Kyrgyzstan/

Open Central Asia is a quarterly magazine, published in the UK, which connects and highlights the links between Europe and Central Asia. It promotes the cultures, politics, events and communities of both regions and opens a discussion and exchange of ideas between them to promote both business co-operation and tourist relations. Vision: To be the first magazine published (in a number of languages), with a readership in excess of 50,000, that will highlight and enhance the connections between Europe and Central Asia for both business, academic and tourists alike. Subscriptions are available through Discovery Bookshop and Amazon.uk.

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Alexey Drozdov, Kyrgyzstan Driver, Guide and Interpreter, Wins International Tourism Competition

by Kirsten Koza

Alexey Drozdov is a driver based in Bishkek. He was entered into Leap Local’s international tourism competition when travellers vouched for his skills by highly recommending him on Leap Local’s website.

www.leaplocal.org is described by the Guardian.UK as “a smaller, more socially conscious alternative to TripAdvisor, with a focus on the developing world.” Leap Local facilitates the connections between travellers and local tourism professionals who offer adventure travel, eco trips, and cultural experiences in the exotic destinations that they call home.

Alexey Drozdov, driver, chauffeur, Kyrgyzstan, adventure travel, Silk Road tours This past year’s competition winners were chosen by an expert panel of judges: Vicky Baker (the Guardian newspaper’s local travel expert), Peter Sibbald (photojournalist: TIME magazine, Fortune, Canadian Geographic), Richard Hammond (National Geographic, Rough Guide) and Dr W.B. Hafford (University of Pennsylvania Museum, Archaeology magazine).

During the live, online Skype debate, all the judges recognized the importance of having a great driver on a journey, but agreed that having one who can also act as a translator is an added bonus. It was because of Alexey’s attributes and extra care he pays to clients that a new category for drivers was added to the competition.

Vladimir Lenin, golden statue, Kyrgyzstan, photo by Kirsten Koza from her adventure travel bike tour Alexey Drozdov grew up Soviet but his rebellious parents spoke to him only in English. He figures he was the only Soviet-born kid who spoke English as a first language. He said it made it difficult for him in school. Now he supports international clients on cycling, trekking and camping expeditions, or takes them on city tours or cultural trips across Kyrgyzstan.  

What impressed the judges about Alexey (besides his skills and knowledge) is that he is greeted warmly by his countrymen from far and wide. A guide’s rapport with other locals says a lot about them.

A reviewer named Jost raved about Drozdov’s mechanical skills, after travelling with Alexey from Osh to Bishkek via Jalal Abad, Toktogul, Song Kul, Kochkor and Karakol.

The other champion tour guides, drivers and homestays this past year were from Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala, Indonesia and Cuba. In 2010 Kyrgyzstan’s Sergery Gluhoverov was a winner, and Cholpon Soodaeva, a Kyrgyz cultural guide was a runner-up.

Winners of the competition receive publicity, a constant website profile, features in the website magazine and in mailings to members, as well as on social networking sites, plus support from the Leap Local team, certificates, and other prizes.

Leap Local has three annual competitions for both travellers and locals in tourism: New this year is the $1000 Splits Competition (which awards $500 to the traveller who makes the best new recommendation on the website and $500 to the local in tourism who they recommend). Plus there’s the Travel Story Competition (which has a $500 first prize and two $150 runners-up prizes) and there’s the Tour Guides & Services Competition (which Alexey Drozdov won in 2011).

To find out about the competition guidelines, annual closing dates, judging panel and last year’s winners go to Leap Local’s online magazine: What on Earth?