Biking across the Tian Shan in Kyrgyzstan
I had seen a video of Kyle Dempster biking and climbing in Kyrgyzstan and it sparked a fascination with Kyrgyzstan in me. I began to look at images of Kyrgyzstan, its mountains especially. Even through a computer screen they were breathtakingly beautiful. My roommate Balder and I decided then, half jokingly, that we would ride our bikes in Kyrgyzstan.
2017 came around and it just sort of happened; slowly, we began to piece together the puzzles that make up trips of this kind. These puzzles are a multitude of questions, the overarching question being: How do we make this the most wonderful adventure?
In Bishkek, the capital, we met our loving host family. They took us around, and fed us until we nearly exploded. We found that they eat a lot of meat in Kyrgyzstan, and we ate horse meat for the first time. A day or two later we caught a minibus east, across the country. In the bus was an older woman, two little kids travelling alone, Balder and I, two bikes crammed in the back, and a young man, the driver. We drove fast and stopped often. At one stop, Balder and I bought loads of fruit. The two kids were too polite to let us share any with them. But when a tiredness entered the bus a few hours later, the boy didn't hesitate when I offered him a plum, and then another for his sister. At dusk we arrived at our destination: a little village on the southern shore of Issyk-Kul, the Earth's 2nd largest saline lake. We rode out of the village, towards the mountains. By now it was dark, and we had our first encounters with dogs. Passing farmhouses we could always hear them, and never know if there was a fence to hold them back. They came out of the darkness and went for our legs. They were the first of countless dogs to chase us this trip, something I never quite got used to.
From the moment we stepped off the plane in Bishkek, my body hadn't felt right. I had little appetite and just felt a bit off. Here, we rested by the river and drank ginger tea, as we made our way up the long mountain valley.
For fear of bears we slept here, and it was a smooth spot to sleep. Balder was not stoked on crossing the river.
The faint outline of the road that would take us to the top of the valley. We spent nearly all day getting up there.
Riding up this road we were a bit bummed about how rough it was to ride. Seeing it from this perspective, we were thankful that the road existed at all.
Morning. Our tent was layered in frost. Timing was such that we had camped over 3700 masl. We probably went too high too fast, and I felt like shit this morning. Balder was smiling.
We rode, but I soon stopped to lie down. My stomach was cramping and it was tremendously painful to ride. I lay there, by the side of the road, staring at the sky for two hours, hoping it would pass. It was a vast, cold plateau up here. A big gravel road ran across it, and occasionally a mining truck would pass us. Dogs howled in the distance. The pain didn't pass, so there was nothing to do but ride. It was humbling to ride with this pain. At times I could distance myself from it and just observe it from afar. Other times it would get to me and I would bite my teeth together and whimper.
Soon we crested the highest point. I could empty my stomach, the sun came out, and we looked down upon a new valley. We were reborn!
It was a pleasure floating down, down this valley that would take us to Naryn, the next big town. We had been carrying food for about a week, and were getting lighter and lighter.
At the end of this day we bumped into this little guesthouse. The old man beckoned us in, and we had horsemeat pasta together. Communication was hard, but the mood was cozy. We had just thought 'Why not?' when we saw the guesthouse, but when we heard the thunderstorm raging outside that night we felt finding this place was something serendipitous.
We were out of the mountains and in the hot, dry foothills. Here we had run out of water, and riding got pretty tough for a little bit.
Naryn. A taste of civilisation again. We slept in beds. We showered. We ditched the bikes and just walked around. We ate fresh fruit. It was a refreshing change, but made us yearn for the mountains again.
A paved road took us out of Naryn, over a hill, and into a desert. We found a rythm and cruised across the vast emptiness, not with ease, but with intent. Riding single file, we took turns eating the wind. After a while we would sit by the side of the road, drink, eat, talk, and watch the cars go by. Our skin was dry, dusty. The fresh fruit we bought in Naryn disappeared quickly. Occasionally we passed through villages. Seeing a village in the distance, a part of me always thought "Oohh no". Village means dogs. It was a transitional day: from the city to the desert to the foothills again. From the midday sun scorching our backs to the soft orange light of the evening. As the sun set, we were in the foothills again, pointed towards mountains once more.
And before we knew it we were in the thick of it again. We spent all day grinding our way up this climb. For some reason we set up our tent at the very top. That night a storm hit. Lying there, in the middle of the night on the tippytop of this mountain, I thought the tent would fly away with us in it. I remember worrying about this, noticing that Balder was asleep and not worried, closing my eyes, and waking up to a peaceful, sunny morning.
One morning, a boy came by our camp on a horse. The boy rode Balder's bike. Balder got on the horse and the horse walked were it wanted to walk. As we were leaving for the road the family called us over.
They took us in for breakfast. We shared amazing fresh bread and tea, and talked together in google translated Russian. Leaving their yurt we felt thankful and energised by their kindness. There was one more mountain left to cross!
The road was going back up to 3800 masl. I had a flat almost immediately. I fixed it and we were happy to think that this was the only mechanical problem this trip. Going up, the road got gnarlier and gnarlier. We felt weary from the past 11 days but stoked; сникерсни chocolate kept us going. The end of the climb came sooner than expected, and the path got unrideable. We pushed the bikes over the top. I felt a joy overcome me to think we made it over this last mountain, mixed with sadness, knowing this nomadic life of living with the mountains would be over soon. We pointed our bikes down the other side, into the unknown.
Before long we were back in Bishkek, with our wonderful host family. We indulged in comfort - we ate, watched movies, ate, played chess, drank coffee... It was strange, these days of sloth following life 'out there' in the mountains, that life of cold hands, nearly cooked lentils, smelly tents, sweat, being vulnerable. Sitting in a row of chairs in an air-conditioned airport again, I was left with memories, wonderful memories of a vast, nearly untouched landscape. I could close my eyes and return to the mountains, and feel overwhelmed with thankfulness for our experience in Kyrgyzstan. ■
Thanks to Rapha for clothing us.
Rest in peace Kyle Dempster.