KYRGYZSTAN, 29th October – 3rd november 2017
Kyrgyzstan presented itself as a palette of those colours we had almost forgotten during our time in the Pamirs. I stood on top of the last 4000+ metre mountain pass, that marks the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and watched the gravel road snake its way down between mountains of red cliffs with grey-blue stripes, sprinkled with green grass (YES, green grass!) and topped with rims of white snow. Even the gravel on the road was a mix of red, blue and even green stones and above this colourful scenery was, as we had gotten so used to, a bright, blue sky. Do I need to say, that it was a fantastic place to be? I appriciated the slow, bumpy roll down the steep gravel road, as it let me stay in this amazing landscape a bit longer.
Down below the mountain pass we passed through the Kyrgyz border check point where a friendly and curious guard let us through. On the other side the valley opened up to a vast, grassy plateau that in the summer would have been dotted with yurts and flocks of horses, sheep and cows, but now it was all empty. At the other side of it we could see the little village, Sary Tash, and that was where we eagerly were heading. It bore promises of guesthouses with showers, beds and wifi – such ordinary things that we had easily lived without for almost three weeks, but now that they were within reach, they urged us on. And it was an easy ride going slightly downhill over the flat plateau so all we really had to do was sit on the bike and let gravity do its work. It was bliss. I was really tired after the challenges and the cold in the high mountains by now. The night before, when we once more were stuffed like sausages in our many clothes and sleeping bags to stay warm through another night of freezing temperatures, Chris and I had agreed that it had been an amazing time on the Pamir pleteaus, but also that we were both happy to get down to lower altitudes now.
But although my mind was set on the comfort of the guesthouse in the village ahead I did marvel over the sight behind me. As we rolled further and further away from the mountain range, it seemed to grow more snowy and massive like a gigantic wall of rocky ice rising behind us. It looked insurmountable, and yet we had just come over these moutains. It was a mystery, a discrepance between the appearance and imagination that comes before a reality, that was now again closing behind us. As if it could not have been real. But I knew it was true that two little humans on heavy loaded bikes (and one of them with a fork in great danger of collapsing), sleeping in a tiny little tent that easily disapeared of sight in the vast landscape, had now passed these mountains. I knew I had seen Chris cycling ahead of me on the roads up there, and that I had seen how small we were, and how great nature is. It was like seeing myself in the world (also because we tend to look very similar in our high-visible outfits), the loneliness and humilty of the little figure in the vastness. At the same time seeing him like that he was like a little red stock cube on wheels, a concentrated source of my happiness flavouring my experience with joy and meaning. I understood why being in a place like that all by yourself would make you wish for someone to be with.
Had we not been longing so much for a shower, a warm bed and wifi, the plain below the white wall of mountains would have been an incredible place to pitch the tent for the night. But our minds were set on a reward of comfort, so we continued cycling to Sary Tash. It was a little town of white, concrete buildings, many of them with big haystacks on the roofs and with washing hanging on lines everywhere in the last afternoon sunlight. And behind it all was still the eternal backdrop of the snowy mountain range. We easily found several guest houses in the little town, but unfortunately the one with the shower symbol on the poster was abandoned and locked, and so was the neighbouring one. After having circled around the town a few times, and during this having the first, but not last, Kyrgyz boy throwing a rock at us, we reluctantly took a room in the only open guest house in the town. It did have beds, and a little electric oven to heat the room, it did have wifi in the always crowded cafe next door, but it did not have showers. It did not even have running water or a place to wash, and our desires were only partly satisfied. At least they served us the best fried potatoes with onions we had had as a special ‘guests only’ vegetarian dinner and we played some rounds of Yatzy in our room in the evening where Chris, to everyone’s surprise, actually won one game.
Being once again connected to the wifi we got news from our friends Liz and Miranda who were still up on the high plateaus. They were struggling with altitude sickness and still had several of the high passes ahead of them, and my first reaction was sympathy being glad it wasn’t me. In my state of exhaustion I could not imagine much joy in being up there again. Then I remembered how excited I had been when it was all still ahead of me, how determined I had been when I was in the middle of it and how annoying I had found the warnings and sympathy from people that came down from the Pamirs when we were still about to head into them ourselves back in Dushanbe. I had thought, I would never be like those people who emphasized the hardships and struggle, and now I made sure to encourage the girls. The truth was it was the hardships that made it such an intense and special experience. But I suddenly understood those people whose negativity I had despised before, and realised the very different perspectives you have when being before, in the middle and after a challenge like that.
We packed up early the next day to begin the three days ride to Osh, that was the official end of the Pamir Highway and the first city we had been to since Dushanbe. With fantasies of showers (and pizzas, milkshakes, real coffee and a big bed in a private room that we would not need to leave for days) on our minds we began the battle with yet another mountain pass immediately after leaving Sary Tash. The road went up and up along the snowy mountainside, but the temperature was warmer than it had been for weeks, as we were now down below the 4000 metre plateaus. Sweat ran into my eyes as I pedalled up and Chris redressed to his summer outfit wearing only shorts and t-shirt.
It was a double pass with a little drop before the second pass, and despite the lack of showers, resting in the guesthouse had done us good, and we managed the climbs without too much effort. At the top of the second pass awaited another incredible view as the road twisted down the mountainside in a series of long switchbacks underneath a snowy, rugged mountain range. It was a fascinating road and it felt like riding a natural rolling coaster to fly down the curves and bends and lose all sense of direction and place.
After the steep descent we could again enjoy a gentle downhill along a river that lasted the rest of the day. For a whole month I had been cycling up and up and here was the reward. The Kyrgyz road was in much better state than the roads in the Pamirs, but also we had to share it with a lot more, fast driving traffic. We thus cycled faster than we had done for a long time, as we passed through a landscape that still impressed us with colourful cliffs and mountains in various shapes and textures, as if someone had let creativity and play free the hands of creation. There were many, little villages spread out along the main road, the remoteness of the mountains had abruptly disapeared. The houses seemed bigger and newer with high, metal roofs and there were adverts and shops along the road as well as signed pedestrian crossings and a paved footpath next to the road. In brief moments I thought I had not seen anything like it since back in Europe or Turkey, but I couldn’t really remember. But there were also still haystacks on the roofs, cows, sheep and a lot of horses, as the Kyrgyz people value their horses very much, roaming around freely along the roads, in the gardens and fields between the houses. What struck me the most in these villages was the intense attention we recieved from the kids and teenagers. Every time we entered a town one would spot us and scream ”TOURIST!!!” as a call to the others, and waves of kids would sprint towards the road. Their attitude was rather ambiguous. They seemed excited for sure, but in an odd kind of rage that felt more scary than warming to me. It seemed that their own shouting and screaming triggered them to just scream more and repeatedly, and the boldest guys would come and stand out in the road, sometimes with a hand stretched out for a high-five, but mostly just blocking our way as we passed by so we had to veer out into the middle of the road without getting in the way of the fast driving traffic. It was cheeky, daring kid’s play more than a genuine excitement to see the rare sight of a cyclists from the Western world, because this was not a rare sight at all anymore, with the thousands of tourists on bikes and other vehicles travelling this way every year. One time some boys threw a rock after Chris, but they seemed to soon regret doing so when they found themselves being hunted down by a teeth-gritting, British cyclist on a heavy tank of a bicycle.
After an unusually long day of 74 kilometres (something we’d only done once since leaving Dushanbe), we camped in a little field that was squeezed in between the road and the river with high walls of cliffs on both sides. As the temperature was now well above zero we could wash ourselves in the river for the first time in, well, too long. It was such a relief to be able to sit outside the tent and cook and enjoy the evening, not having to wrap up in the sleeping bags as fast as possible. Winter had let go of us again, for now, and in the relief I now realised how tough it had been.
Another pass awaited us the next day, it was the last climb on the official Pamir Highway, but also one of the longest ones of 900 altitude metres over 20 kilometres. With Osh (and pizza, milkshake, coffee and resting in a big, warm bed) being so close, it was kind of tormenting to have to battle such a long climb, but on the other hand it was that prospect that motivated us. ”Osh”… ”Osh”… ”Osh”… I heard from Chris behind me on every exhale as we slowly pedalled up the valleys and once again got snowy mountain peaks in view. After a long time climbing we saw the final switch backs leading to the pass and as we, a little later, watched them underneath us I felt a mix of relief, sadness and confidence. Surely I was completely knackered after our month cycling up and over these mountains and I was looking forward to a break. But at the same time I felt a new strength in my body and my mind having made it through it all and I was somehow sad to leave these incredible mountains behind.
All sadness had vanished from my mind when we made our way into Osh the next day. The traffic was intense and chaotic, and we were soon pushing our bikes along the busy footpaths, up and down little ramps and zig-zagging slowly between people, shops and boxes of fruit for sale. There was so much fruit, I had not seen such amounts for a long time. We ended up searching for the guesthouse we had booked in a maze of un-numbered apartment blocks. People gazed at our odd appearance, but no one indicated a desire to help us and when we sought advice, the man did not know of the address we were looking for. Chris was about to lose his good spirits over this situation, we were so close to our goal and yet, not knowing how to get there. Then I spotted our salvation: a restaurant that served pizza and had wifi. It was a shiny, fancy place and our wash in the river two nights before had not nearly made our appearance suitable for such a place. Our clothes were so filthy, so were our faces, hands and hair, but we did not care. In the clean, neat sofas we sat and ordered pizza, milkshake and coffee, as well as the wifi code so we could locate the guesthouse. An immense calm grew inside me, we had finally made it. To celebrate this we ordered another round of pizza and drinks, for once ignoring our ascetic ‘travelling on a shoestring’-lifestyle.
We settled into a nice, cheap room in Osh Guesthouse and soon forgot our initial plan to only stay three nights. Not only was the bed, the showers, the free coffee, the table tennis and the European-like Brio Coffee all that we had been longing for. We also got busy planning the future. The challenge of the Pamirs had filled my mind completely the last months and more, but now that it was successfully over we could begin looking into that semi-final chapter, we had been aiming for since our departure from Edinburgh seven months back. Mori was within reach, and I knew it occupied Chris’s mind every day. Unfortunately for me, Mori was actually not within reach at all, as I did not have a Chinese visa and the only way to get it would be to fly back home to Denmark to apply there. As we didn’t plan to cycle further in China than to Mori, I thought it was too much hassle to go through, and so I had accepted that Mori would stay a mythical place in my imagination, and instead I began to plan a cycle trip around Nepal that I would do while Chris undertook the final leg of his circumnavigation around the world using only bikes and boats. After having reached Mori he would again be allowed to use other transports and so he would fly to Kathmandu and meet me there for Christmas. It was a plan that had several exciting aspects for both of us: Mori obviously for Chris, getting to cycle solo was something we both appreciated regardless of how much we enjoyed cycling together, a cute little glass house in Kathmandu could be our home for a few weeks, and the thought of new countries and cultures and climates and cuisines were thrilling as always.
First step was for Chris to book his flight from Urumqi in China to Kathmandu, and I think it was a very strange task to engage in for this man who had not been in an airplane for so many years. But it was not lack of experience that caused the lack of success when every website again and again cancelled the purchasing process or refused to accept the paying credit cards. Chris tried over and over again for a whole day without success. The next day he called his bank to assure that the cards were open and working, and they were. Then he tried again, and still there was no result. It began to seem strangely impossible for him to book that first flight of his in so many years, and so it suddenly slipped from his lips: ”Maybe I’m not supposed to fly…”
It was just a thought, or a feeling. Rationally it made no sense that something was keeping him from flying, but both his and my intuition tickled at that thought. After having cycled the whole way, except from one kilometre, the last four years and more, it seemed a bit extreme to head straight for an airplane as soon as his challenge was accomplished. We had both appreciated the fact that we had cycled the whole distance from Edinburgh to Osh, not using any other transport unlike so many other cyclists we had met along the way. It was a strange, satisfying feeling to watch the unbroken line of our journey on a map, and it was only due to political and economical circumstances that we did now plan to break it by flying to Kathmandu instead of cycling there through Pakistan, Tibet or Myanmar. All of these options were more or less impossible due to travel restrictions, so flying seemed to be our only way onwards.
Unless… we again began playing with maps and dreams (and www.cruisetimetable.com)…
Sary Tash – Gulcha – Osh