Hi. I’m in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. It is already half past midnight, but I am not so sleepy as I have only been awake for 12 hours. Last night I rolled into bed at around 5 in the morning, reeking as only spending hours in a club full of cigarette smoke can do, stewing in dried sweat and totally exhausted after spending the wee hours of the morning dancing hard in a club full of Kyrgyz. This is uncharacteristic of me. After 7 and 1/2 months on the road, it’s nice to let off some steam, and Bishkek is the place to do it.
It is getting very cold here and I am a little nervous about winter, but there’s nothing to do for it but ride. I reunited with Cody from the Camel Krew, so I have a partner to tackle the Xing Jiang province with. But, as ever, we will start from where I left off.
The ride here from Osh was crazy fun and crazy difficult. After four days without being able to keep any food down, I was weak. The land out of Osh is flat and relatively ugly after the rugged beauty of the mountains, so the first stretch was a bit boring. The road was terrible outside of Jalalabad though, and narrow! Trucks and cars soared past us at dangerous speed and proximity, with a reckless abandon that never ceases to surprise me, a characteristic that reflects a total lack of regard for the lives of themselves, others, and the preservation of their vehicles. Frankly it is something animalistic, primitive; as if every driver was a 12 year old boy on cocaine. We saw a totalled car every day and I witnessed cars pass or attempt to pass blindly, as if they were the only vehicles on the road. Frequently there would be a close call with oncoming traffic and lots of honking. This all makes the most pacific of us very, very angry as only the hunted can be. So, when a car slowed and yelled at us to get off the road, we started yelling at him. He made as if to pull over, and I will admit I wanted nothing more than for him to get out of his car. Normally quick to evade confrontation, I was positively excited. Alas, he decided against it and drove on. Maybe it was something in our eyes.
The next day after a short climb we were riding along the coast of the expansive Toktogul reservoir and taking it easy: brunch each day after 20 kilometers, frequent stops, lots of candy and short days. We were all recovering after the harsh conditions of Tajikistan, and it was fine weather, no more shivering!
Camping in fields, eating cake, drinking a beer in the evening, never riding more than 70 kilometers, it was lovely. We left the lake and began to climb back into the mountains. Just outside the town of Toktogul, Aleix hit the 10,000 kilometer mark. He had a bottle of cognac just for the occasion, and that night we built a fire down by the river and drank that, along with a beer apiece. It seems that was the last warm night we were going to have camping for the rest of the year.
The next day we continued to climb steadily up an intriguing valley. The solid rock was stacked up like tombstones and small boulders littered the ground like naked skulls. It soon got cold. Then the fog rolled in. You couldn’t see ten meters in front of you, and aside from being eerie and interesting it also gave me a headache as I constantly strained to make out the ghostly forms that slowly and half-heartedly conjured out of the mist. It got so cold we found ourselves standing in need of a cafe, or a building of any kind, in which to warm ourselves. This came in the form of a medical outpost about 20 kilometers further up the hill. They let us in, after some strong suggestion, and let us warm ourselves by the stove. They were even kind enough to give us tea and bread, though their hospitality seemed a bit more strained than we were used to. Reluctantly, we returned to the cold and fog. Slowly, blindly we climbed, and as we reached the low end of the saddle a hole was suddenly blown through the fog and we returned to a concrete world, solid images replacing the chaotic vagueness prevailing up to that point. Snow covered crags suddenly loomed up all around us snd we realized how high we had climbed. We climbed through a few more drifts of fog, revelling in the islands of clarity before the clouds dispersed altogether. It was sort of nice climbing blind, for you have no sense of progress, no goals in sight, nothing to intimidate or inspire you, just the moment. Now we could see the top getting slowly closer, all too slowly. The last 4 kilometers of that climb were some of the most difficult of the trip, not so much because of the grade, rather that they were the last 300 meters of a 2,100 meter climb (almost 7,000 feet), our biggest day of continuous climbing thusfar (and hopefully for the rest of the trip…).
We arrived at the top at about six thirty, soaked in sweat and in a most unfriendly climate. Stefan and I were a bit ahead of Aleix and we waited in the porch of an empty building with a solid lock on the door. By the time Aleix arrived we had decided that it was necessary to make it to the next village, 20 kilometers down the hill. My hands were already freezing, and the descent scared us almost as much as spending the night up there, but we rallied and donned everything we had. Once we were ready I tore off down the hill like the devil was on my heels. Already my hands were going numb. I dropped into my lowest gear and pushed as much as I could, muttering a desperate stream of f-bombs, as I do when the idea of death is a little too intimate. Obviously I was not going to die, but my hands went numb, then my feet went numb. I was hyperventilating to keep my core temperature up and once I surpassed the speed at which pedalling was possible I backpedalled to keep circulation flowing.
We must have hit that village in about fifteen minutes, and I felt every second of it slide by with painful slowness. Screaming into town, I stopped to catch my bearings, and a man standing at the entrance to an Oshkhana beckoned to me, so I followed him right in to the stove. I stood there for a good half an hour; it took that long to thaw out my feet! My hands hurt as they warmed up and I stated adamantly that I never wanted to be that cold again in my life.
Well, the Oshkhana had no osh, of course. The man did say we could sleep there before we even asked, for 200 som a piece, which is less than three dollars. Okay, problem solved. There was lachman cooking on the stove, but we were told they only had eggs and bread. Okay, bring us the eggs and bread. “Oo vas yest maslow?” (Do you have butter) “Da.” Bring it on, with some chai. We feasted on the eggs and tea and bread and butter and sugar. Aleix was a little pissed about the lachman cooking on the stove, but I was just glad to be inside.
It was a bit of a strange scene in there. The whole family is in this one room, husband, wife, and three kids, who look to be ages 1, 2, and 3 (These folks are wasting no time). Shrek movies are playing on one tv, Asian pop music on the other, both with volume. There are two asian style tables on platforms, we at one catty corner from the family’s turf. I watch the televisions in a daze. Stefan and Aleix sip vodka. The neighbors come over and we watch the lot of them devour two huge steaming bowls of lachman (which is noodles with meat and veggies, by the way) as we watch not a little enviously. I was hoping there would be leftovers, but this wish never manifested. Oh well, I drop right where I was sitting and see about getting some shut-eye. I am exhausted, but even so the lights and the tv are a bit distracting. After a while the lights and one tv go off. I watch some Shrek dubbed in Russian out of the corner of my eye. We are offered no blankets or pillows, which is customary, but it is toasty and I still have my cycling tights on. Around midnight the family tucks in for the night, right there at the other table. This is not unusual. But those little kids were raising hell for another hour or two! Talking loudly, running around, asking their parents questions at a most indecent hour, for a while it seemed one of the kids was throwing something off the platform, loudly jumping down and running to get it, and repeating, ad infinitum. It was a bit maddening. At some point we all fell asleep, at last, on our parts reminding ourselves to never have children, and if we do, not to tolerate these shenanigans…
In the morning we woke up well before our host. We were patient, expecting some tea, but it never came, so we paid and left feeling a bit strange about the whole evening. We went next door to a little cafe and wrangled some caffeine before setting off. We rode about 40 kilometers, well aware that our legs were pretty well destroyed from the day before. We stopped at a decent looking cafeteria/mosque and hopped in line, buffet style: grab a tray (unwashed) pick your food, pay and eat. Well, here we are in the middle of nowhere and we have osh (or plov, pilaf, all the same thing), lachman, a few types of salad, samsas, hotdogs, and HAMBURGERS. I pick the latter and it is absolutely delicious. A few hairs in it, but what can you do? We sit around discussing the thousand meter climb we have ahead of us in 10 kilometers. The subjects of this discussion were the condition of our legs, our fear of the cold and the likelihood of getting caught at the top near evening once again, the infamous tunnel at the top, purportedly as fulminous as the Ansalp tunnel before Dushanbe, and our desire for a rest in Bishkek. Well, we waste about an hour talking about it before carrying on.
I walk outside ahead of the others and see a group of fellows looking at our bikes. As I reach them, one fit looking young man proceeds to pull Stefan’s bike upright as if to test it out. “Whoa whoa whoa, niet,” I say. In Russian, he asks why not, he wants to try it. I say, in terrible Russian, that it is not my bike and you can’t ride it. “Okay, which one is yours?” I point to my bike and explain to him that he cannot try it either.
Sometimes I let people ride the bike, but very rarely. The last guy who did fell over, which was hilarious, but a bit worrisome. This guy obviously had no respect for the bikes and was probably going to drop one. Frankly, I just didn’t like his attitude, and honestly wasn’t much impressed with the people of Kyrgyzstan thus far as a whole and was feeling a bit discriminatory. So, he proceeds to hop on Aleix’s bike, even swinging a leg over, as I yell “Niet! Niet!” I grab the handlebars and hold the brakes. He tries to give me his car keys, thinking I was afraid he’d steal it. “Niet.” I explain by pantomime that he will drop it, which he denies, and then I begin to describe it as Aleix’s wife. This all happens very quickly, culminating in a standoff between us, eye to eye over the handlebars. He decided to get off the bike. Aleix and Stefan emerged from the cafe and we all took off, yours truly in a black mood.
We rode past a few hotels that were closed for the season, and ended up camping at the foot of the climb. While the sun was out, the weather was lovely and we had a great spot in the middle of a field, yet hidden from the road. Then the sun went down. We shivered as we frantically finished our dinner and darted into the tents. The night wasn’t so bad, but our water was frozen solid in the morning, so it was evidently plenty cold in the night.
We set off fresh and devoured the sinuous climb as a very light snow fell. At the tunnel we were informed that no bicycles are permitted in the tunnel. There is a kiosk where we bought some hot coffee and some potato filled pastries, and I was feeling grand. My wool shirt and jacket had soaked through, so much sweat coming off my forearms, of all things, that it was dripping through my Arcteryx midlayer. Gross, I know. I changed into a new shirt and jacket and felt warm and dry as we munched and slurped contentedly before the tunnel mouth. Trucks would queue up to go through the tunnel and after a few inquiries we found a chap with an empty trailer. The lip of the trailer ledge was tall, and the driver helped us as we eased our heavy laden bikes up and in. Then we piled into the cab and zipped through the tunnel. On the other side the driver again helped us unload and saw us off. We thanked him profusely, he had to put in some work to execute his generosity! We bundled up and smashed a fantastic descent into the valley, hit the sprawl that one must inevitably traverse outside of big cities and camped in a field before making Bishkek proper the next morning, stinky and road weary, more than ready for a few days’ rest.