IT’S 11am on a snowy pass in central Kyrgyzstan and even five layers can’t keep out the claws of a bitter wind. My tyres crunch over ice, snow and frozen mud as I push the last few metres to the top and there’s barely time for happy snaps before the sheer cold forces my stinging feet back onto the pedals.
I don’t know what’s worse: the fact that the temperature setting’s been cranked to “Arctic” at only 3000 metres, the fact that the road just gets higher, crapper and more remote from here or the knowledge that after 16 months of cycle touring I’ve become such a sadist that I willingly seek out these routes.
Like sane people, Scott and I could have opted for the shorter and asphalt coated M41 highway from Osh to the nation’s capital – Bishkek – but instead we’ve ventured into the abyss of this tiny, landlocked nation to unearth some pretty scary discoveries. First of all – there are roads just as crap as Tajikistan, there is cuisine as bland as the Pamir Mountains and (after the aforementioned 14 months of cycle touring) there are still epically big tantrums to be had by me when the going gets tough.
In fact the pain of the Pamirs had barely faded (along with some pretty feral stomach bugs) before we upped and left our cosy Osh guest house after a lazy eight days of eating, napping and applying for Chinese visas. We’d forked out 120 USD for what seemed like the dubious help of a rather disorganised agency and with a few haphazard instructions and a vague receipt we were waved on and told we could pick up our 30 day China visa in Bishkek.
All that was left was for us to get there.
For the first time on our trip we wove out of bustling Osh in a group of seven. It was just after lunchtime (one last burger, one last latte and one last bit of wifi) when we realised one of our group was missing (Barry had buggered off down the wrong street). 2pm had come and gone by time the ramshackle outskirts of the city came into view and 5pm was nigh when we decided to call it a day. We’d managed 40km on pretty good roads that gently dipped and rose and after a farmer agreed to let us camp in his paddock we pulled out the tarp and got ready for the evening meal. The other Aussie couple in our new group (Paul and Leiset from Melbourne) had a reputation for being great and inventive cooks so we quickly shoved the two minute noodles to the bottom of the panniers and pulled out packets of pasta and sauce to prove that we too, could put on our fancy pants food hats. In response our Aussie friends whipped up chargrilled capsicum and cheesy polenta cakes with sun dried tomatoes
We were such a mish mash of cyclists (bubbly Brits Barry and Rich; calm, kind and cheese-obsessed Frenchman Bertrand and fun and relaxed Melbournites Paul and Leiset) but it just worked and as we moved on slowly the next day into the heart of Kyrgyzstan we felt more and more like a little family. Unfortunately the good vibes took a beating thanks to the locals themselves and after pushing out just 10km we passed through yet another rustic village only to have a drunk man hurl a glass bottle at us. It was such a random act of hate and anger that our only reaction was one of shock. Had that just happened? To add to our own festering feelings the Kyrgz drivers continued to put the fear of god in us by driving us though they were rushing to meet their maker and by the third day we were rattled. After stocking up in the last big city (Jalalabad) we turned left off the main road (noticeable by the instant lack of tarmac and instant increase of chickens) and camped in a kind man’s backyard.
Our party moved on at snail pace (organising a group of cyclists is harder than herding cats) but being in such a big group was truly wonderful and lunch times turned into long, laughing feasts while dinners were big communal affairs. Apart from an (I suspect drunk) driver swerving at Scott and then jumping out to scream at him (something he re-considered when six other cyclists popped up behind him) we saw few other hostilities as we headed into the hills but one thing we had become all too aware of was the danger of Sundays.
Kyrgyzstan locals (like many of their Central Asian counterparts) enjoy more than your average drop of vodka and if you add that to the opium addiction you’ve got a recipe for drunken, destructive behaviour merely on a good day. On Sundays however… things just get worse. It’s the official day off where Kyrgyz let their hair down and the bottle consumption up and it was nothing to see poverty stricken families walk out of the village’s only shop with one packet of rice and about five bottles of vodka. Erratic driving patterns worsened, angry behaviour escalated and our “careful Kev” metres revved up as we dove off the road instantly when cars came up behind us at a roaring pace.
Our days became a pleasant routine from the moment we woke: get up, put on the kettle (Barry and Rich had literally bought a kettle to accommodate the size of our new group), cook the porridge, chit chat, pack down the tents, wash up and hit the road.
We were heading steadily into the heart of the country and for the first time in days the road worsened and the ups and downs grew steeper. By lunch time on the sixth day we’d descended to a beautiful blue river that wound its way between green meadows and ragged peaks and it seemed as good a place as any to cook up a lunch time feast (we’d long run out of breads, meats and cheeses and were now down to the less desirable noodle packets). With the sun shining and the temperature mild it was tough to pass up such a good opportunity and before we dug into our food we stripped off and washed six days of grime off in the freezing water.
Amateur fisherman Bertrand also decided he’d drop a line in and the rest of the boys followed but after a couple of hours our Rex Hunt wannabes had lured little more than weeds. We knew we had to keep going, the winter clock was ticking and our food supplies had dwindled dangerously (with 120km of unknown terrain to the next village) but this riverside haven was too good to pass up.
After a day of pitiful distances we pitched up (promising ourselves a better effort tomorrow) and scoffed down lentils before snuggling into our sleeping bags. And then the heavens opened. Rain beat down all night and into the morning and we packed up soggy tents, strapping them to the outsides of our panniers, before pushing on in the miserable grey rain.
The dirt roads had turned into muddy slip n’ slides and just a few kilometres later we were drenched and miserable.
It was then that Bertrand realised his tent was no longer strapped to the back of his pannier and after a spectacular tantrum he and Scott backtracked the previous four kilometres to try and find it. Waiting in the freezing rain was too much and so the rest of us left the road after spying an abandoned shepherd’s hut and quickly lit a fire and made a brew while waiting.
Almost two hours later the wet and tent-less duo reappeared having drawn the conclusion that a car must have picked up the tent and buggered off with it. To make matters worse Scott had put his back out after slipping in the mud and was in a world of pain. The one room hut seemed dry and vacant so we lay Scott down and drew the only conclusion we could: Someone was about to have a hell of a lot less room in their tent thanks to the now homeless Frenchman and after just four kilometres, this would be our smallest day cycling yet.
With seven of us sleeping in the one room hut there was little room to even fart (although we managed) and the following morning the sun shone brilliantly out over the soggy landscape revealing magnificent snow capped mountains and valleys.
After much agonising Paul and Leiset had decided to turn back (Leiset had been feeling steadily worse) and with at least two mountain passes ahead they regretfully packed up to move back towards the last town and take a taxi to Bishkek. I’d loved our little group and was more than a little bit sad to see them go – not just because they were seriously sensational cooks but because they’d become great friends. To see us through to the next town they dug deep into their panniers and parted with all their emergency food, confident they’d make it back to the next town within a day.
It was 11am before we hit the road and ambitiously, we’d given ourselves a 3000 metre pass to get up and over before sunset. The road was rocky, muddy washboard and we had over a 1000 metres to climb as we began pushing up from the river. Switchbacks seemed to rise endlessly into the guts of the great snowy mountains and at just 1pm we were brought to a stop after Barry’s increasingly weak chain snapped. It was as good a lunch spot as any and we scoffed down foul tasting noodles before preparing to move on. Minutes later a lone cycle tourer pedalled towards us and revealed himself to be a quiet 50 year old Swedish man rugged up in full mountain snow gear. He looked shocked to see anyone out in this wilderness and when we asked him about the road ahead he simply said it was “really tough”.
I was feeling the pressure of being one of the slowest in the group and an hour later Bertrand and Richard where out of sight as they pushed up the switchbacks. It was the three amigos at the back, laughing, grunting and swearing but by 4pm there was little to laugh about. A turn in the road had revealed just how far we had to go and the reality sunk in.
We’d make it to the top but there was still two hours of pedalling to go which meant a dangerous descent in the dark as the Swedish cyclist had warned there were was nowhere to camp until the bottom (some 30km away). He had, however, told us of a last ditch option before the summit where an abandoned shepherd’s hut sat and at 4.45pm it came into view. And so we called time of death. Phone reception’s as fictional as Star Wars in this area of the world and there was little to do but rely on the well tried Kyrgyz messaging system to let Bertrand and Richard know our plans.
We scribbled a note on a piece of paper and hailed down the next truck to appear and after a comical game of charades (which involved us mimicking cycling and pointing up to the pass) he took the letter and chugged on. The sun was fast sinking below the mountains and snow patches covered the ground next to the extremely decrepit hut. We pitched in record speed and put on every layer we owned while feeling rather smug that most of the food lay in our panniers (well the good stuff anyway). Rugged up like eskimos we feasted on vegetables and pasta and dove into our sleeping bags at record speed.
The push to the top seemed infinitely easier in the morning sunshine and after an hour we’d done it – all 3052 metres of it. Cycling up tough gradients means you quickly forget just how cold it is but the minute we stopped at the top, next to deep snow, the cold set in.
And so there we were, sitting at the top of our coldest pass ever wondering why the bloody hell we put ourselves through this but feeling quietly confident we’d made it.
Looking back over the past 14 months was a blur of challenges and triumphs but we knew without a doubt that what wasn’t killing us, was making us stronger.