CLIMBING a mountain, any mountain, is a little like giving birth. You spend a hell of a lot of time in excruciating pain, using muscles in places you didn’t even know you had places, pushing like hell to reach the summit when all of a sudden, after one last big effort, it comes. Covered in sweat, shaking from the lactic acid and feeling almost too tired to soak up the astonishing view, you haphazardly try to collect yourself and smile at the achievement because a part of you knows that what you’re seeing is about as good as it gets.
But the cold, hard reality is the full reward for your hard work doesn’t penetrate until your flying back down the other side.
And so it was with me as I hurtled down the bitterly cold mountain pass en route to the town of Karzaman, wearing every layer I owned and grinning from ear to ear at what we’d done. The previous night Scott, Barry and I had camped just an hour shy of the summit while Richard and Bertrand had pushed on and as the cold rays of a mid-morning autumn sun in Kyrgyzstan shone down on us I felt the full force of what we’d achieved.
Roaring down the steep switchbacks I only stopped when a car pulled over in front to hand me a letter from Richard and Bertrand. It simply announced that there was another letter awaiting us in a bottle at the bottom of the mountain and an hour later we’d reached it. The pair had made it to an abandoned hut the following night and enjoyed cups of tea, porridge and a roaring fire and would meet us another 45km down the road in Karzaman.
We pushed on up and down steep hills though descending steadily further down until we reached the ramshackle village at 4pm. We decided to splurge and stay in a guest house which meant the usual Central Asian standard of long drop at the back of the garden, old wooden stall containing a shower and an attached 20 litre keg next to it and lumpy beds with hairy blankets.
The included dinner was a sad soup of meat in water with stale bread but even though only two of us managed a luke warm shower it was bliss to be inside.
I wanted to stay and sleep for a week in this rustic old guest house but instead we pushed on again just after lunch the following day in the insistent grey drizzle to the foot of the next pass. The roads were again incessant washboard but the scenery was jaw dropping. Perfectly rounded hills looking as though they were pieces on a chess board lined lush fields while snow capped mountains loomed beyond.
By 5pm the rain cleared and while we’d managed just 20km (we merely had hoped to set ourselves up well to conquer the pass) our camp spot was spectacular.
Again the pressure to not let the team down loomed and so Scott and I set off earlier than the others the following day and began the slow climb up to the top of the 2000 metre climb. To our surprise the going was relatively easy and the scenes beautiful and we all arrived at the top in time for lunch.
The road wound up and down through small villages and valleys and past jagged mountains where lone horsemen made a solitary figure on the horizon. By mid afternoon we found ourselves working our way up a series of switchbacks when suddenly the road turned and what seemed like the world opened up before us. A wide valley was sprawled between brown mountains with snowcapped peaks at the back and low cloud laying like silk before it.
We stood in silence for half an hour, just soaking it in while feeling more glad than we had in months at our chosen route and mode of transport.
That night we camped next to a farmer’s house while trying to gear up for the last and most nasty pass before reaching the city of Naryn. Dinner was the usual pasta, tomato and garlic affair but this time Bertrand cringed. Since bunking down with Richard in his cosy two-man MSR tent things had been a little tense owing to some excess gas and the gallant Frenchman politely declined any inflammatory ingredients to keep things civil in the boudoir. But alas, it wasn’t enough.
We’d scarcely crawled into our sleeping bags when Richard shouted: “Bertrand! That’s rancid!” The whole camp exploded into giggles and for not the first time in the pass few weeks I marvelled at how my world (mostly surrounded by a group of guys) had fast become crude jokes and fart humour.
Despite that there was a somber and tense air the following morning. Our daily averages we’d set to make it to Bishkek (in time for our Chinese visa pick up and Barry and Richard’s flight from Almaty) had fallen by the way side. To add to the strain Richard and Bertrand’s knees were giving them grief and the weather was heading steadily back towards Arctic setting.
The road stayed true to form (gravel, rocky washboard) as it headed steadily up and then all of a sudden any form of steadiness went out the window.
Gradients as steep as 20 per cent put us in our own private worlds of pain. Scott and I scarcely spoke beyond grunts as the battle of the wills (us versus the mountain) stole every ounce of physical and mental exertion we had.
By lunch time we’d made it just two thirds of the way up and while the others took heart in the knowledge there was “just” 10km to go until the top I was privately petrified.
The gradient was steep beyond belief, we were all shagged and to make matters worse the road was atrocious. The afternoon crawled by as we crawled with it. Everything burned and I began to fantasise endlessly about hailing down one of the passing trucks. I felt defeated – even the knowledge that I was cycling up passes steeper than anything I’d previously conquered, on some of the worst roads in the world, while pushing infinitely less than I had even a month ago, didn’t resonate.
But stubbornness prevailed and by 4pm we’d made the top.
The reward was a glorious 40km of downhill and some of the most spectacular views we’ve seen in our lives. Kyrgyzstan seemed to lay out before us in a rugged moonscape and we hurtled quickly to the bottom, setting up camp next to a tiny shack-cum-restaurant at the bottom.
The next day, despite having slightly shagged legs, we pushed out 60km, reaching our 10,000km milestone right before setting up camp at the end of the day.
It was tough to believe we’d come this far, seen so much and conquered more than we believed we could – for the first time I truly believed anything was possible.
I felt like a female Bear Grylls who could live in the wild and put my body through extreme physical punishment and wake up and do it all again the next day … until dinner.
We’d heard of camel spiders, we’d seen photos of camel spiders but it wasn’t until I faced one on the tarp next to my lentil stew that I felt the horror.
It was an absolutely minuscule member of the species but I squealed like a five year old and danced around the tarp until it was forcibly “removed”. Another two came to the party and I decided then and there to retreat to the tent.
The next morning the cold cranked up a notch but suddenly it was bearable. We’d decided to conquer the remaining 300km to Bishkek (from Naryn) in a taxi owing to the foul weather, our ruined deadline and a few health concerns (Richard and Bertrand had damaged their knees and my stomach was starting to reminisce about Tajik Tummy).
The dirt had dwindled out and given us blissful tarmac and despite the freezing rain and almost sub zero temperatures we flew the remaining 70km to Naryn. Soggy, muddy and miserable we decided to splurge on a proper hotel and pedalled up to a big fancy establishment in the middle of town. The staff was genuinely alarmed at our appearance but granted us a room and we indulged in our best hot shower in months before eating ourselves into a coma.
It was a worthy reward and considering we’d cycled up the equivalent of three Mt Everests in height since Dushanbe I felt entitled to a proper rest.
The next day we negotiated a taxi and consented to pay the “tourist rates” as long as the driver took us to the door of our hostel in Bishkek.
Reeking of vodka he helped load our bikes and bags into the clapped out old mini van and proceeded to set off at a pace that would put a formula one driver to shame. Tearing up mountains and overtaking trucks on blind corners lead to several extreme near misses and after just 100km we were all screaming at him to slow down. He responded in true Kyrgyz fashion by simply laughing. By this point I was beginning to feel seriously ill in what seemed to be good old car sickness. But not for the first time was I woefully wrong.
We arrived near sunset in big and bustling Bishkek and when we finally reached striking distance of the hostel our esteemed driver demanded more money. The result wound up in a screaming much and names were called (my inner hulk emerged) and we took off quickly before he could call his friends around.
An hour later I felt utterly woeful and after nibbling on some pizza in the beautiful Green Hostel things went further down hill.
I vomited spectacularly and for the next two days even keeping down water would be a battle I would lose.
It seemed Giardia had come back with a vengeance and I was a weak, dehydrated mess of a person. I forced myself to join Scott and Bertrand and visit the Chinese embassy the following morning and after what can only be described as a thoughtless mob shoving each other for four hours at the doors of the building we were allowed in to finish the application with the help of the famous Miss Liu. The stern looking man behind the glass divider ruthlessly interviewed us but after sweating and swearing for what felt like several hours we were assured we could pick up our 30 day visas on Friday (in two days time).
In the meantime we were ending our time with Paul and Leiset (who had agreed to meet us in Bishkek) and Richard and Barry (who would fly to Bangkok from Almaty) and so it took little convincing to join them in another shared taxi from Bishkek to Kazakhstan (just over 180km). It was in Almaty that we would officially part ways, celebrate Scotts 31st birthday and catch up with British cyclist Jonathan and our French friend Bertrand to continue the next leg to China.
The days were restful and filled with big “family” dinners and after the four hour taxi ride to Almaty we soaked up the vibrancy and sophistication of what is hands down Central Asia’s most cosmopolitan city.
Glamorous locals strutted down wide, clean streets, artsy cafes served creamy lattes on polished oak tables and restaurants varied from Indian, to Italian and even Uzbekistan cuisine (which no one seemed keen to patron).
Nine of us packed into a quintessential Italian cantina for Scott’s birthday and munched on osso bucco, antipasti and panna cotta in what seemed world’s away from the passes of Tajikistan.
We lapped up every minute knowing the good times would come to an abrupt end the minute we hit the cold northern road to China and while I was thrilled at the thought of conquering our last Euro/Asian nation I was nervous. The going would again be tough, the weather would be even colder and a part of me felt utterly knackered at the entire thought of it. Despite that I knew things would change when our feet hit the pedals and enormous China had so much to offer.